Author:Edward O. Wilson

I didn't get to finish this book because I moved from one town to another, and I had to return it to the library, and it was overdue anyway. But I'm reading another book now that deals with some similar themes, and I wanted to get this down before I start to lose it. I promise to go back and read the last thirty pages.

Consilience is the more or less personal manifesto of Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, who believes that all the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities should be united in one great chain of human endeavor. As a scientist, he holds science-centric views - he's especially unkind to the social sciences, which he considers a castle built on sand - but he does make some interesting points about how much the different fields of knowledge have to learn from one another. After all, the social sciences and humanities are basically elaborations on human nature, and what is human nature but a product of genes and environment?

The unifying thread here is epigenetic characteristics, the inherited traits that influence human learning and behavior. They are not rote instincts, like the bees' dances that do not change over generations, but exist on the boundary between genes and culture. The language-learning instinct, for instance, is an epigenetic characteristic, but the particular language that each individual learns is dependent on their cultural environment. Other examples that Wilson provides are the incest taboo (in spite of Freud, he says, this is not purely cultural) and fear of snakes. The point is that while human beings are diverse, the diversity is not limitless, and exists within boundaries that are more or less prescribed by our biology.

The great challenge, then, is to use the varied tools of neuroscience, anthropology, criticism, art, and philosophy to explore the boundary regions. Rather than being taboo areas that academics shy away from, they should be (Wilson says) the most active areas of study. Furthermore, as a natural scientist, he holds that all of these researchers should take their cues from empirical evidence of how the mind/brain works.

As a linguist, I find this idea appealing (and more or less inevitable). Linguistics is just such an interdisciplinary field as what Wilson is proposing. After all, language is a key component (perhaps the defining component) of human nature, and its students include cognitive neuroscientists, anthropologists, literary theorists, philosophers, and everyone in between.

Wilson himself is an interesting figure these days. With the likes of Richard Dawkins having such a loud voice in the science vs. religion debate, Wilson recalls his upbringing as a born-again evangelical and subsequent scientific training and "conversion" to humanistic deism. While he himself is not a science-bashing religious freak (he does take specific objection to the Intelligent Design movement), he does have respect and understanding for people of faith. As he outlines in his chapter on the relationship between epigenetics and ethics, he sees some benefit in scientists' and theologians' listening to one another. (This perspective has got him on the cover of this month's Seed Magazine.)

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