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GERALD L. SCHROEDER
Edward O. Wilson, in his book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge, tries to make the case that morality is simply a product of evolution, a more developed version of a survival instinct that originated in our animal ancestors. Wilson fails, however, to convince us that every mental process can be explained in material terms.
I offer the following recollection strictly in a spirit of modesty. Four decades before I first encountered the word in the title of Edward O. Wilson's new book, I had discovered consilience — or, anyway, noticed it at work. Professor Wilson of Harvard — famed biologist, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and author of the acclaimed book The Ants chose the word for his title because “its rarity has preserved its precision.” Using the nineteenth-century philosopher William Whewell as his source, Wilson defines consilience as “a jumping together of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” He seeks consilience of knowledge. The consilience I had noticed was in nature. _____________________________________________________________
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
As a child I tended our family orchard. A tree moves through time as a helix, the seasons sweeping it with cyclical regularity, each season affecting the tree in its own fashion: in the autumn its leaves fall, in the spring they return, and so on and on. Yet simultaneously the tree grows and ages, as all living things do, in a one-way linear movement through time. The straight line defining growth and age, combined with the helix pattern of the endlessly repeating seasons, forms the harmony of a tree's life. That harmony hinted to me of a transcendent unity underlying all life. Hence, consilience: observing the natural leads inevitably to an appreciation of that which transcends nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.” (Psalm 19:6)
Wilson's Consilience is a plea to mankind to search out the intrinsic unity that binds all knowledge. If the search is to be pursued, Wilson tells us, the academic community must take the gift of twentieth-century science, the diverse and detailed body of knowledge describing the physical world, and apply it to the humanities. The merging of science and the humanities is “the greatest enterprise of the mind” he can imagine. According to Wilson, it may well be crucial to humanity's ultimate survival.
Although one can only applaud the aim of unifying all knowledge, any scientifically informed reader, as he works his way through this book, will feel too creatively underwhelmed. In particular when Wilson is describing threats to life on earth, the science he presents is sophomoric, something like a mix of newspaper science articles with a smattering of Scientific American. Anyone who reads the popular press will have heard time and again that 65 million years ago a meteor abruptly ended the age of the dinosaurs, that tropical rain forests are disappearing, that a population explosion in the Third World endangers civilization, etc., etc. One hardly needs Professor Wilson to recount all this for us.
He has some slightly fresher things to say about the origins of morality and concepts of ethical behavior. “Ethics is everything.” Wilson informs us, and who will argue with him? If we can understand where our ethical notions come from, he contends, the human race will be in a better position to direct its destiny. The need to do so is urgent. Western philosophy, steeped in moral relativism has “left modern culture bankrupt of meaning while theology is “still encumbered by precepts based on Iron Age folk knowledge.” This state of affairs, we learn, has come about “because people resist biological explanations of their higher cortical functions.”
For Wilson, an ardent materialist, unifying the humanities and the natural sciences will inevitably lead to “the biology of exploration of the moral sentiments,” confirming the “hypothesis that every moral process has a physical grounding, and is consistent with natural sciences.” He believes that morality is simply a product of evolution, a more developed version of a survival instinct that originated in our animal ancestors. If social scientists would only use the hard-earned knowledge that biologists and geneticists have gleaned over the past several decades to describe in greater detail the biological roots of morality, Wilson feels we would then understand the causes of, and could discover the remedies for society's ills.
To illustrate what he means, Wilson argues that in the genome of many animals, human beings included, there must be genes for altruism. This trait becomes dominant in a population if altruistic behavior increases the odds of the population's physical survival.
There are two problems here. One is that, if Wilson is right in his thinking about morality, widespread understanding of its biological origins will hardly stem the rise of moral chaos which he fears. Ethical ideals are not made more compelling by the belief that those ideals lack a transcendent basis — that they come not from God but from the genome. The other problem is that Wilson fails to convince us that every mental process can be explained in material terms.
On the contrary, he describes a number of scientific discoveries which, as he himself admits, suggest that existence must possess a dimension beyond the merely material. Among these is the growing recognition of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. For reasons that remain elusive to scientists and philosophers alike, the correspondence of mathematical theory and experimental data in physics in particular is uncannily close.” Especially when describing developments in quantum mechanics and biology, Wilson makes as good a case for a religious understanding of the universe — with a transcendent, active Creator — as he does for a secular one.
A critique of materialism might well cite the life of Professor Wilson himself. I have the impression that his aggressively secular outlook is less the result of his genes than it is an emotional response to experiences in his youth. Raised as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, he felt “released from the confinement” of his faith when, at college, he learned about evolution. After all, he reasoned, if the Bible were really the word of the Creator, how could it leave out such a crucial fact as evolution?
But on this, let us set the record straight. Notwithstanding statements by misguided clerics, the Bible is well aware of the development (or evolution) of life. In Genesis 1:21-27, it states that simple aquatic animals were created, followed by land animals, mammals, and finally humans. This is the same sequence found in the fossil record, though of course that record offers more detail than will a few Biblical verses. The Bible makes no claims as to the forces that drove these developments. That it leaves to science to discover. As for pre-human beings — cavemen — the Talmud's commentary on Genesis, written down 1,500 years ago, is replete with descriptions of hominids having the same shape and intelligence as human beings but lacking the essence of what it means to be human: a soul.
The Bible does not contradict modern science. However, the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (random mutations retained or discarded owing to pressures of the environment) is unscientific in several respects. Doubts about that theory surfaced with the discovery of fossils indicating that life on earth appeared almost four billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled and liquid water formed. The notion that life gradually evolved over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pond could at that point no longer be sustained. How life arose so rapidly remains a mystery. Subsequent fossil discoveries revealed that an explosion of diverse life forms during the Cambrian era, some 600 million years ago, simultaneously brought into existence every basic body plan that has ever existed. (See Genesis 1:20-21.) And finally there is the absence of many key transitional fossils. It is not by chance that in his Origin of Species Darwin repeatedly (seven times, by my count) implores us, if we wish to understand the evolution of life, to disregard the fossil record. In this he is seconded by many of those who study evolutionary biology today. The evidence for an evolutionary process driven by randomness certainly is not more convincing that the indications of a divinely set telos in life's flow.
In a debate Wilson imagines between himself and a theist (one who regards God as being active in the universe), the author demonstrates how woefully narrow is his understanding of Biblical theology. His sophistication as a reader of the Bible appears to have frozen when he was a pre-college teenager. Matched against the sophisticated mind of an adult, of course the Bible of Wilson's memory seems naive.
Having rejected his Biblical roots, Wilson turned to what he refers to as the “Ionian Enchantment.” In Greek thought he learned about “the unity of nature.” If Wilson understood the Bible as well as he does Aristotle, he would know that the idea of a unity underlying all existence and hence all knowledge was described a thousand years before the Ionians got around to it. “The Lord is one” is the most important statement in the Bible, for Jews (Deut. 6:4) and Christians (Mark 12:29) alike. The point is not merely that there is only on God. Rather, that simple phrase is the closest we can come to perceiving that the infinite, eternal Whatever which we call God is an all-encompassing unity. Jewish mysticism juxtaposes the phrase “the Lord is one” with another verse in Deuteronomy: “You shall know this day, and lay it to your heart that the Lord, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else” (Deut. 4:39). In the Biblical view, everything, stars and space and life itself, is a manifestation of a single Wisdom. There is nothing else.
It took millennia for scientists to confirm that the basis of matter is energy, that matter is actually condensed energy. It may take a while longer until we discover that underlying all existence is Wisdom — or, in the words of the physicist John Archibald Wheeler, former president of the American Physical Society, an idea. When we have learned that idea and found its source, then Edward O. Wilson's dream of consilience will have come true.
Schroeder, Gerald L. “Material Guy.” National Review (May 4, 1998): 49-50.
Reprinted with permission of the National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232
Gerald L. Schroeder is the author most recently of The Science of God (Free Press).
Copyright © 1998 National Review