A Pulitzer Winner’s Big Book Arrives With a Big Bang

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge , by E.O. Wilson. Knopf, 332 pages, $26.

Some ungenerous souls may object that there is something just the tiniest bit passive-aggressive about choosing a word that 99.9 percent of all humans will not know as a title for a major work about the unity of all human knowledge. But the title of Edward O. Wilson’s new book turns out to be perfect–a genetic blueprint, so to speak, for what lies within. There is, first of all, “consilience” itself, which, as Latinists everywhere, to say nothing of the coconut-oiled summer throngs who have gobbled up William Whewell’s 1840 tome The Philosophy of Inductive Sciences (from which Mr. Wilson cribs this term) will know, means “a jumping together”–in this case, the linking together of all known physical and metaphysical phenomena as explained by a few basic scientific principles. Mr. Wilson, the Harvard sociobiologist, explains that he has chosen this abstruse term over some more common runners-up–”coherence,” for instance–because “its rarity preserves its precision,” never pausing to wonder whether precision may be moot where meaningfulness is absent. And if what precedes the colon in Mr. Wilson’s title smacks of a deliberate obscurantism, what follows– The Unity of Knowledge –hints at an equally typical grandiosity.

Indeed, despite the impressive breadth of Mr. Wilson’s agenda and the detailed scientific data that he marshals in its support, this work, clearly meant to be the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s Big Book, turns out to be an intellectually disappointing affair, wavering between data-bloated, often meandering and methodologically unsound arguments on the one hand, and vaporous claims that go largely unsubstantiated on the other.

Consilience is meant to describe a theory of how all branches of knowledge, from the hard sciences to the rather more unquantifiable behavioral and cultural phenomena–the impulse to artistic creativity, the incest taboo, ethics, the concept of beauty, the existence of universal themes of art–are ultimately linked, and therefore somehow explainable and even predictable, by a small set of principles rooted in the nature and operations of material things (chemicals, genes, neurons, atoms) and the scientific disciplines that account for them (chemistry, evolutionary biology, physics). Hence, Mr. Wilson believes that we can give precise and useful definitions of moral sentiments by analysis of neural and endocrine responses, or can use evolutionary biology to provide a meaningful account of the religious impulse toward communion with a higher being. This has huge implications. If there is indeed a “united system of knowledge,” humankind “will be positioned, godlike, to take control of its own ultimate fate … [to] alter not just the anatomy and intelligence of the species, but also the emotions and creative drive that compose the very core of human nature.”

Consilience falls roughly into two parts, the first concerned with science and its history (“The Enlightenment,” “The Natural Sciences,” “The Mind”), the second with the humanities (“The Arts and Their Interpretation,” “Ethics and Religion”). It would be nice to be able to say that Mr. Wilson’s errors of knowledge and method in the case of the latter are the forgivable ones of a scientist straying outside of his chosen field; but the author’s penchant for selective use of available evidence, rhetorical bet-hedging and improbable argumentative leaps of logic are detectable on his own turf as well.

In an early example of how “consilience by reduction” of complex phenomena into their tiniest material components is supposed to work, Mr. Wilson declares that he will show how “to trace a magician’s dream all the way down to an atom”–that is, to account for an allegedly widespread psychological and cultural phenomenon (dreams about snakes as religious symbols) by showing consilience between it and a material fact from the natural world (the chemistry of the human brain, with a pinch of historical anthropology thrown in). Snakes, according the author, are the “most frequently conjured” animals to appear in dreams across cultures, a claim that sounds as though it could be true, but which he nowhere bothers to substantiate. He then refers to the snake paintings that a Peruvian shaman called Pablo Amaringo produces during the dreamlike delirium induced by a drug called ayahuasca , extracted from a jungle vine. Mr. Wilson characterizes these hallucinations as “the dreams of a shaman,” which allows him to proceed to a discussion of the biochemistry of human dreams; he then shifts gears to a discussion of the anthropological origins of the widespread “innate” aversion to snakes in humans, snakes his way into a discussion of certain serpentine religious symbols and ends triumphantly with the story of how the German chemist Friedrich Kekulé gained insight into the structure of the benzene molecule, a circle (get it?) of carbon and hydrogen atoms, after dreaming of one such symbol, a snake devouring its own tail.

Unfortunately, the appeal of this argument is more novelistic than scientific and doesn’t make for rigorous science. It depends on, among other things, a slippery identification of hallucinations with normal dreams, but simply because Mr. Wilson calls Amaringo’s hallucinatory highs “dreams” doesn’t make them dreams. The mere fact that both hallucinations and dreams can include snakes or can be “bizarre,” as Mr. Wilson states, doesn’t mean they are constituted in similar enough ways to justify his attempt to link Pablo Amaringo’s South American highs and Friedrich Kekulé’s Mitteleuropäische naps.Eminent sleep researchers like Allan Rechtschaffen have shown that we think of dreams as being “bizarre” only as a result of selective memory–most dreams are fairly dull, and we only remember the bizarre ones. This case suggests that Mr. Wilson’s own dream of totalizing consilience seems itself to be based on selective use of evidence and theories. However genuine his occasional mea culpas (“I apologize to the slighted scientists”–i.e., those whose theories and data he says he has no space to include; “And yes–lest I forget–I may be wrong”), they aren’t enough to restore confidence in what can sometimes look like argumentative sleights of hand.

The author clearly knows that the biggest challenge to his consilience model is the connection he wants to make between the material sciences and the arts and humanities, and it is there that his book fails. He doesn’t ever grapple seriously with the objections raised in the past generation by thinkers whom he terms, with dismissive inaccuracy, “radical postmodernists”–under whose “black flag of anarchy” he carelessly lumps together deconstruction, postmodernism, Afrocentrism, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, eco-feminism, neo-Marxism, an assemblage designed to strike terror into the hearts of USA Today readers everywhere–only to brush them off by mere assertion. The “disturbing problems” raised by those isms are best solved, he declares, “by simply walking away from Foucault and existentialist despair.” Ah, well. Who needed France or 20th-century thought, anyway?

Mr. Wilson nowhere seriously addresses the objections implicit in the most interesting and intellectually legitimate of these black-flaggers–deconstruction–which, among other things, implicitly calls into question the nature and validity of all of the categories and assumptions that are the unquestioned bases for his grand thesis. Assumptions, to name just one set, about the supremacy of order over chaos, of coherence over incoherence. At least one black flag that a radical postmodernist might raise is that the very modes of classification that Mr. Wilson assumes are immanent in the natural world (the classical classification of the kingdoms, phyla, etc.) are arbitrary–not in the sense that the available data do not support them, but rather in the broader sense that our understanding of these data, and the categories that to us seem inevitable, natural and right, are products of our minds and cultures. You could–and some cultures probably do–classify animals by whether they taste good, or flowers by whether they look pretty on your Alvar Aalto coffee table or not. It’s the old Eskimos-have-20-words-for-snow thing: Cultures invent classifications because they answer culturally specific needs. But for an almost embarrassingly arrogant Mr. Wilson, Jacques Derrida’s paradoxes “await solution, though one need not feel any great sense of urgency in the matter.”

It’s not that you have to be sympathetic to the flag-wavers; this reviewer certainly is not. But even readers who applaud Mr. Wilson’s impatience with the increasing specialization and mind-numbing professionalization of academic life, and with the glossolalian excesses and anarchic relativism that is the legacy of the various “post-“s will feel uneasy embracing an argument that coasts along on grand assertions, rather than engaging with methodical argument potential objections to Mr. Wilson’s own worldview. He is the Mr. Magoo of scientific theory, genially oblivious to everything he can’t or won’t see, heedlessly crashing through the intellectual landscape and leaving a trail of destruction behind.

The real problem here lies with his materialist perspective–his desire to ground explanations of the most abstract and complex phenomena of human experience in the empirical data provided by biology, chemistry, physics. “If brain and mind are at base biological phenomena,” he writes, “it follows that the biological sciences are essential to achieving coherence among all the branches of learning, from the humanities on down to the physical sciences.” But that doesn’t follow at all–any more than it follows that you’ll be able to make sense of a sentence like “his book was a soufflé of grandiose claims and questionable methodology” simply because you know the chemical composition of the proteins found in chicken eggs. You don’t need a Ph.D. in biology (or anything else) to smell an argumentative Rattus rattus here.

Mr. Wilson begins his book with a chapter called “The Ionian Enchantment” (an allusion to the ancient Greek physicists’ dream of a theory of Everything) in which he describes, among other things, how he abandoned the born-again religion he grew up with for the more firmly grounded faith in hard science. Consilience suggests that you can take the boy out of fundamentalism, but not vice versa. Asserting rather than proving the truth of its premises, it is a work, ultimately, more of faith than of reason.

A Pulitzer Winner’s Big Book Arrives With a Big Bang