Reflections on "Consilience"

Arthur Warmoth
Sonoma State University
Comments on reviews of E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998).

The idea of the unity of knowledge seems to me to be a will-o-the-wisp that has periodically led Western philosophy into the dangerous night bogs of hubris. Nevertheless, I find many useful and important ideas in E. O. Wilson’s discussion of "consilience." Since Wilson’s disciplinary credentials as a natural scientist are an important foundation for his authority in these matters, perhaps I should begin by defining my own intellectual home base. I am approaching this discussion from the perspective of personality theory and cognitive psychology, fields that owe much to what our cousins in philosophy call phenomenology and epistemology.

To go directly to the point where I believe Wilson goes astray, it is in his assumption that there is only one basic meaning of "meaning." I can warmly endorse the definitions of "consilience" that stress the importance of pursuing the "coherence" and "interconnectedness" of various fields of knowledge. However, "coherence of knowledge" is not, in my view, the same thing as the "unity of knowledge."

It is certainly true that induction, deduction, abstraction, and the exploration of causal relationships have permitted natural science in the Greco-Christian West to conquer territories beyond the reach of the scientific efforts of any other culture. The natural sciences have been uniquely successful in understanding nature. However, there are other meanings of "meaning" that have proven important in human intellectual life across many cultures. It is useful, and it fits into the paradigm of contemporary cognitive science, to see these different types of meaning as different types of patterns of abstraction that can be used to order sensory data. I will discuss three of these, which I will call stochastic, aesthetic, and existential.

In addition to the abstract patterns of cause and effect relationships that are so important to physics and chemistry, there is a substantial body of stochastic or statistical patterns that are important to scientists studying living systems, particularly in areas such as genetics, evolution, and neuroscience in biology and demographics in the social sciences. These are the patterns of behavior of aggregates of individuals that make the insurance industry&emdash;except for freakish events such as AIDS and the World Trade Center&emdash;consistently profitable.

Furthermore, there are patterns that can only be perceived through the lens of conscious human reflection. One such set of patterns can be called "aesthetic" in a very broad and general sense of the term. By "aesthetic" I do not necessarily mean "beautiful." But I do mean patterns of order that can only be adequately understood or interpreted by recourse to our capacity for intuition, imagination, and feeling, as well as our capacity for logic and reason. It is the significance of these patterns in human affairs that has led the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset to assert that "Man [. . .] has no nature. What he has is . . . history." (1957, p. 217, original italics. Please excuse the dated sexist reference to "humanity.") These patterns include cultural belief systems, such as ideologies and religions, as well as the patterns of political, social, and economic institutions. They range from patterned ideas about self, friendship, and love to our ideas about democracy, God, and human nature. These are the patterns of cultural, social and political forms and institutions that are the principal subject matter of history and other social science disciplines.

As I shall argue below, human history, in Ortega's sense, is constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry and by the principles of evolutionary biology. However, history is not determined by these laws because it is the drama of human choice as played out in a social and evolutionary contexts. The fact that it is not determined does not mean that it cannot be understood. The task of the historian (and of social scientists and humanists) is to explore the narrative and imaginal patterns embodied in these choices using the tools of intuition and empathy, as well as reason and logic, partly in order to help us make wiser choices in the future.

Finally, there are important patterns of historically unique, one might say "existential," events. These can be events as unique as falling in love or the birth of a child. But they can also be events on a larger scale, such as an era in the history of Sonoma State University, or on the broadest historical canvas, events such as the Renaissance or the Great Depression. (I am drawn to these last two examples because I believe that our current postmodern moment combines elements of both intellectual renaissance and economic depression.)

These existential events can always be understood as expressions of all three types of patterns--cause and effect, stochastic, and aesthetic--acting in a historically unique combination. But they are also played out in terms of the unique conscious experience of the participants. Grappling with this dialectic dance between pattern and existential solitude is the special mission of the arts and humanities. (This, incidentally, is the reason that I believe it is, if not tragic, at least pathetic, that academic culture often requires humanists to act more like scientists than they really want to.)

Hopefully, the foregoing is sufficient to stake a preliminary claim for epistemological pluralism. I would supplement this with the claim that each quantum leap forward in the evolution of systems has evolved new system properties that cannot be explained by reduction to the system properties of the system out of which it evolved. In other words, I am coming down on the side of what Wilson calls "emergence." Biological systems cannot be explained by physics and chemistry. And cultural systems cannot be explained by physics, chemistry, and biology. (There are some interesting speculations about ways in which these loops could be closed by the perspectives growing our of quantum physicals in the work, for example, of Henry Stapp and Fritjof Capra. However, at the moment the discontinuity hypothesis seems most useful.)

It is at this point that my appreciation for the usefulness of Wilson's observations begins. That is, I want to endorse his emphasis on the importance of substantive communication between natural scientists and the practitioners of the social sciences and the arts and humanities. Although the discontinuity hypothesis (or emergence) argues that more highly evolved systems cannot be reduced to the laws of more basic systems, it does not deny that advanced systems are constrained by the laws of those more basic systems. Physics, chemistry, and biology provides a context for cultural evolution, and we would therefore do well to have a thorough understanding of the content and history of the natural sciences.

Living systems cannot disobey the laws of physics and chemistry, and human systems cannot disobey the laws of biological systems, including the laws of evolution. It is for this reason that I agree with Wilson's assertion that "every college student, public intellectual, and political leader, should be able to answer the question, 'What is the relationship between science and the humanities, and how important is it to human welfare?'" (Wilson quoted in Miele, 1998, p. 80). (That is not to say that I expect them all to come up with the same answer.)

Ignorance of the theories and history of the natural sciences can lead to bad social sciences and irrelevant art and literature. Conversely, however, while natural scientists can productively kibitz the professional work of social scientists and humanists, they cannot tell us how to do our job.

That said, Wilson and his commentators are raising profoundly important questions about the nature of human social or cultural evolution. In that context, his ideas deserve to be taken very seriously. Without attempting an exhaustive review of their relevance, I would like to highlight a few points that seem especially important

The fact that evolutionary emergence does not invalidate the relevance of evolutionary context leads me to agree with both Wilson and Ortega. The capacity for culture is clearly an achievement of biological evolution, and the epigenetic rules or patterns explored by sociobiology or evolutionary psychology clearly constrains the creative options of the human intellect. evolutionary history of that quantum leap forward is an important subject for scientific and historical investigation. It is useful to know that:

Gene-culture evolution was very likely a runaway process. Reaching the threshold to trigger that process must be very difficult because, obviously, out of millions of species that have existed throughout geologic time, only one crossed it. There have been innumerable hypotheses about why that one species crossed the threshold--bipedalism, the challenge of a drying environment, and so on. (Wilson in Miele, 1998, p. 83.)

However, Brian Siano poses the other side of the issue, which is the need to understand the uniqueness of human cultural evolution:

The human brain, shaped by close to 3,200 genes, is "the most complex object known in the universe--known , that is to itself." Just how the lumbering method of natural selection has created the brain is a profound question, i.e. "how to account for the calculus and Mozart," and all the other stuff we didn't need or couldn't use in the Olduvai Gorge. (Siano, 1998, p. 86; quotes from Wilson)

If, as Wilson and others (including the anthropologist Clifford Geertz) contend. the human gene pool has not changed very much in the last 10,000 years, the evolution of "the calculus and Mozart" suggest that something other than biological evolution in the prehuman sense is going on. As Siano puts it, "We already have decommissioned natural selection" (p. 91). Human culture still evolves by a process of variation and environmental selection. However, the process of variation is driven by our conscious creativity. And culturally created systems and artifacts have become a dominant force in the dynamics of selection and survival. In other words, tradition, ethics, science, and politics have become intrinsic factors in the process of evolution. It behooves us, therefore, to know a very great deal about human history. This is particularly true if, as Siano contends, cultural evolution is proceeding at an exponential rate. I am not sure what the exponent should be, but it seems clear to me that in terms of technological change and political turmoil, I have experienced a great deal more history than my great grandparents who came to California by sailing ship and covered wagon. And I suspect that we could be willing my great grandchildren an even more tumultuous future.

One of the most important issues Wilson raises is the question of the natural limits of human dominance of the evolutionary process. According to Siano,

Wilson sees two competing human self-images in regard to the environment. The first, which he terms "naturalistic," sees humans as existing within a narrow range of natural possibilities. We've adapted to what this world was before we started messing with it, and our future will be a matter of preserving as much of our natural environment as possible. The second, which Wilson sees as the guiding theme of Western Civilization, is a sort of technological hubris. He characterizes it as "exemptionalist," in the sense that humans see themselves as exempt from nature, and are thus fit to exert dominion over it. Yes, it's regrettable that we might lose a few rain forests, but the stars beckon us ever forward, and that's the price of progress. (1998, p. 93.)

Both Siano and myself find it "wonderful . . . that Wilson, naturalist that he is, comes down solidly on the side of the preservationists.

However, the alternative cannot be summarily dismisses. The potential impact of genetic engineering raises the stakes and takes us into realms of science fiction speculation that are hard to evaluate in terms of plausible scenarios for the future. It is conceivable that we could create a bionically enhanced mutant capable of carrying human consciousness forward into an environment totally designed by second rate urban planners or Hollywood set decorators and populated by unimaginable levels of carcinogens. That is not the future I want for my descendants. But its possibility gives me a sense of urgency about the need for sophisticated ethical debate as a prelude to challenging political choices.

A final major insight is contained in the statement that "Culture is created by the communal mind" (quoted by Siano, p. 87). Wilson is most concerned with the fact that the mind is embodied in a genetically engineered brain. However, I find even more useful insight in the contention that mind is communal. This is analogous to the fact that the basic unit of biological evolution is the gene pool. That is to say, intelligence is as much a property of social groups as it is of individuals. Families, communities, organizations, and societies are smarter or less smart in the ways they adapt. Groups survive and thrive on the basis of how smart they are in relation to the competition and the environmental challenges they face. (In the postmodern world, these challenges include pollution, ethnocentrism, and global economic integration, all of which are creations of the communal mind.)

So what does all this mean to a university committed to the liberal arts and sciences? It means that our graduates are likely to be about as smart as we are as a collective faculty. First of all it means that we need to preserve the quality of our majors, which is generally excellent and which initiate students into communities of discipline-based knowledge as well as the fundamental skills of reading, writing, speaking, and critical and creative thinking. But it also means that we should strive to become smarter and more effective as an institution. We need to become more effective citizens in a rapidly evolving information society, so that our students, in their turn, can lead more rewarding and productive lives as persons, as professionals, and as citizens.

To bring the matter into the here and now, I believe we need to be smart enough to come up with some creative responses to California's budget crisis. We all know that the state budget for next year promises to be a catastrophe, and most of us probably suspect that the anemic economic recovery driving it is related to underlying structural problems. In this context, our responsibility is to engage in the heavy lifting of ethical and political debate and discussion. In Wilson's case, having students and colleagues pour cold water on his head as a way of suggesting that his ideas are all wet tested the limits of academic freedom. However, tenure at Harvard--and tenure at Sonoma State--gives one the freedom, and thus the responsibility, to push ideas to their limit in search of truth, or perhaps more accurately, of insight.

Our first order of business should be to mobilize our collective intelligence to develop a strategy to preserve the integrity of our core liberal arts and sciences mission. The unpredictability of the general fund budget has been going on long enough to be predictable. Although we know that our marginal funding is vulnerable to the shifting winds of economics and politics, we also know that there is some core level of funding that we can count on under virtually any circumstances. We need do develop a core academic and fiscal planning strategy that will define and provide economic security for our essential liberal arts and sciences curriculum.

But then, we also need to mobilize our collective intelligence to develop marginal curriculum and enrollment management strategies that will respond effectively to the ongoing crisis in the economics of the commons, of which the current train wreck is just one symptom. By the "crisis in the economics of the commons," I am referring to the chronic crises in public services, including health care, education, retirement security, and public safety, as well as in environmental areas such as energy and pollution, that appear to be insoluble under the present dispensation of political and economic conventional wisdom.

In the necessary effort to preserve the integrity of our academic disciplines, we have to often tended to abdicate responsibility for thinking together about the multidisciplinary issues facing society. We have too often left policy debate to the media, which are increasingly pursuing a model of bread and circuses, to corporate élites, who are trapped in the clichés of free market fundamentalism, and to politicians, who are too preoccupied with raising money and holding onto power to have time for deep reflection.

It is appropriate for us as faculty of the CSU, a powerful institutional force in California, to admit that we have not done as well as we might in the area of one of our major fiduciary responsibilities, the education of citizens. We do very well at educating students in disciplines that are at the heart of society's store of cumulative knowledge and which provide the basis for a broad range of professional applications. However, in place of the coherent interdisciplinary perspective that is needed to engage rapidly evolving social and political issues, we have offered a disciplinary smorgasbord in the vain hope that, left to their own devices, students will somehow achieve the necessary intellectual integration. Some do, but many appear to become cynical or disillusioned, or simply to remain naïve. Many either withdraw from politics altogether or embrace the politics of fragmented interests and free market fundamentalism that, for example, supports the growth of the prison industrial complex over the expansion of educational opportunity.

It is the role of leadership, in the dicey situation given to us by California's fiscal crisis, to mobilize and where needed to coordinate, the intellectual discipline and creativity of our faculty and students. We need to think together about the challenges we are facing because we--or at least I--do not know the answers. (And we do not need leaders who try be creative or innovative for us.)

I would like to see us create a General Education Program that is equal in quality to our major programs and that decisively engages current social and environmental issues. And I would like to see us do it without cannibalizing the excellence of our established majors. It is appropriate that each of us, as citizens and members of an academic discipline, take positions on various aspects of the current crisis. It is incumbent on the faculty as a body to create the forums within which these positions can be debated in a timely fashion. To achieve this will require discipline, creativity, and a sense of solidarity, of community. I believe we can do it.


Miele, F. (1998). The Ionian instauration. Skeptic, 6 (1), 76-85.

Siano, B. (1998.). Unity, Diversity, & Evolution. Skeptic, 6 (1), 86-93.

Ortega y Gasset, J. (1957). History as a system. New York: W. W. Norton.