Review of E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience”

Review of E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience”

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I begin this review with two snapshot reactions.

First, there was the review of Consilience in Science: this appeared early in 1998, and was written by a well-known philosopher of science who had himself written on some issues similar to those touched on by Wilson. To say that the review was negative would give negativity a bad name: it was absolutely scathing. Wilson was excoriated for his knowledge claims, for his logic, for his intentions, and for his conclusions. Consilience was truly judged to be a very bad book indeed.

Second, there is the interesting little nugget of information that I ferreted out a week or two ago when I was in a large book store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I saw there a pile of Wilson’s books, including Consilience, and out of interest checked the copyright page. I discovered to my extreme interest that the book was first published March 27th, 1998 and that the edition I held in my hand was the tenth printing of September 1998. Now I know that these days print runs are fairly small; but any book which goes through ten printings in six months has to be saying something right, to someone, somewhere down the line.

These two reactions bear out very much what I have discovered more generally. My intellectual friends, that is to say those in the academy, almost to a person condemn the book. They think that it is shabby, shoddy, loose, and lots of other things. (I am sure that Ed Wilson in his response to me is going to tell me that he has got many academic friends who think otherwise, but he knows that I mix with all sorts of wrong people, and that indeed that I rather like to slum.) However, the regular people that I talk to, for instance the folk I mix with in the group known as the “Institute on Religion in an Age of Science” – which includes some liberal theologians, some clergy, some stock brokers, some school teachers, and many others of a general intellectual but not heavy-duty type – think that Consilience is a wonderful book from a wonderful writer. They feel that Wilson has given much to their lives, and that this is a book which is the culmination of his gifts to others.

In other words, there is not much middle ground on this book. Hence, the question I want to ask first of all is: “Why?” What precisely is going on here? Why is there such a difference? And how should we react to it? And, let me start off by saying that – speaking now as a professional philosopher – I can see lots of reasons why my fellow academics, particularly my fellow philosophers, are not going to like this book, particularly a book which has the pretension (or if you prefer the audacity) to use the name of “consilience”: a term coined by a professional philosopher (William Whewell) to capture an overall embracing of knowledge. Indeed, I myself can find places where I get really rather tense. Let me pick out three such spots.

As is well known, Wilson is an eminent sociobiologist, and as is also well known Wilson has been much criticized for his excursions into sociobiology, particularly of the human kind. One of the areas which has brought the most severe criticism on Wilson has been his supposed sexism. Truly offensive in the eyes of the morally pure is Wilson’s confident assumption that there are indeed biological differences between males and females. General opinion is that the time has surely come for a retraction. Indeed, sackcloth and ashes and a self-flagellating pilgrimage to Canterbury – or to the Harvard Women’s Studies Program – would not be amiss. But let me simply say that if you are looking for some kind of retraction in Consilience, I am afraid that you are going to be disappointed. If anything, Wilson is even more mired in a swamp of political incorrectness than ever before, thanks to his unchanging views on male/female differences. Nothing has given offense quite like Wilson’s suggestion that males are big and strong and outgoing and promiscuous, whereas females are “coy” and monogamous, and more careful and that sort of thing. Wilson states these outrageous views quite bluntly once again in Consilience, and uses exactly the same language. Not one bit of retraction has occurred.

As it happens, I agree entirely with Wilson on all of this. It seems to me absolutely stupid – and hypocritical to boot – to suggest that males and females are as emotionally identical as they are physically different. Nobody who takes Darwinian evolutionary biology really seriously can possibly imagine that there are going to be no biological differences: in attitudes, in behaviour, in emotions, between males and females. And, of course, truly all but the ignorant know full well that there are differences between the sexes. Those who pretend otherwise are simply not speaking the truth. But, true ornot, the general trend – particularly in universities and particularly in faculties of arts and social science – is to pretend that all is uniformity. No wonder his writing has brought condemnation down on Wilson’s head.

The second point where Wilson will upset and offend comes in the context of his discussion of free will. This is an area where he has been criticized before, particularly by Philip Kitcher in his harsh condemnation of sociobiological theory: Vaulting Ambition, Kitcher accused Wilson of sliding over many distinctions that philosophers hold sacred, particularly between that which claims that free will and determinism are compatible (“compatibilism” or “soft determinism”) and that which claims that free will and determinism are incompatible (“incompatibilism” or “hard determinism”). Here I desert Wilson and join the critics. I really think that it would have helped had Wilson taken some of these criticisms seriously (for all that the tone of Vaulting Ambition was, like the very title, mocking and designed to give offence). Although Wilson seems to think there is a possibility of free will, given sociobiology, he gets it less from the compatibility of laws and freedom, and more from a form of indeterminacy which he sees in nature. But as philosophers have long pointed out, indeterminacy does not lead to freedom: it just leads to randomness. If my actions are entirely without cause, then I can hardly be held responsible for them. These are difficult matters I recognize, but I think that if one were to criticize Wilson at this point then one would have just complaint.

The third place where I will pick up on philosophical criticisms of Consilience is with respect to Wilson’s discussion of ethics. Wilson divides people who take ethics seriously into those who believe that there are empirical foundations for ethics and those who believe that there are idealistic, or rationalistic, foundations. Wilson criticizes philosophers for not working on this problem in sufficient detail and with proper ardor. But, quite frankly, if Wilson were to look into the literature he would find that the question of foundations, better known in the trade as “metaethics,” is indeed a very large subject and has been discussed ad nauseam right through this century. There is a huge amount of literature on the subject, starting with G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica in 1903. I am not saying that Wilson should have covered it all, or even part of it, but I think it would have been better had he looked at some of the material on this.

So if you want to go after Wilson from an academic point of view, particularly from a philosopher’s point of view, then there is certainly grist for the mill. I would not go after him in all the ways that others would, but I suspect that each and every one of us could find a place to criticize. But why then is there so much enthusiasm from others for Wilson’s work? This brings me to the other side to the equation. The answer is quite simply that Wilson is not in the business of providing formal academic philosophy. He makes his position quite clear right at the beginning: in a way that I suspect professional philosophers simply skip over and do not regard as particularly pertinent, but which I would argue is absolutely fundamental both to the man and to his work. Wilson tells us – as he has told us before – about his childhood: about being a born into a fundamentalist Christian environment, about being “born again” and immersed and giving his life to Jesus, and then in his late adolescence about going to the University of Alabama, about falling amongst the evolutionists, and about being reconverted over the philosophy of Charles Darwin.

Or rather: not to the philosophy of Charles Darwin, but to the religion. Wilson makes it very clear that, having lost Christianity, this does not mean that he wanted or was able to give up on religion entirely. Indeed, all who know Wilson will know that he is not only a deeply moral man, but a deeply religious man: as deeply religious as any fundamentalist, bible-thumping preacher. Edward O. Wilson takes very seriously the whole question of the meaning of life in some ultimate sense. Moreover, never a man to let a problem or an obstacle deter him, having lost the supports of Christianity, he is determined to find religious supports elsewhere.

Indeed he has found them elsewhere, namely in evolution – a fact which Wilson proclaims here as before in many places (notably in On Human Nature). Wilson finds evolution to be the “myth” that he needs to build his new religion. He sees evolution as a progressive move upwards: from the monad to the man, from the blob to the human, ever developing greater and greater intelligence and complexity and sociality and moral awareness. He sees a history from early beginnings – just as one has in Christianity – up to the present, with humans focused right at the centre – again paralleling Christianity – and then on to the future – a further echo of Christianity, and other great religions.

Moreover, Wilson makes it clear that, in true religious fashion, he sees this all bound up with moral issues. For the Christian, the great moral norm is the ‘Love Commandment’. One ought to treat one’s neighbour as oneself. For Wilson, the great moral commandment stems from evolution. One ought to promote evolution: one should love not only oneself and one’s fellow humans, but necessarily one should love and preserve and cherish and promote the rest of organic creation. Wilson is justly praised for his commitment to “biophilia”: the belief that humans have evolved in symbiotic relationship with the living world, and as such need the living world. For Wilson, if we lived in a world of plastic, then we would quite literally wither and die. For Wilson, therefore, the ultimate moral norms are those which demand that we take nature seriously and promote its well-being.

At one point in Consilience Wilson discusses the naturalistic fallacy, the supposed fallacious transition from statements about matters of fact to statements about matters of obligation. To the professional philosopher (to me!), this discussion will be profoundly dissatisfying. Wilson simply shoves the fallacy to one side, roughly and with contempt. But to Wilson, and to those who read him in the right way, this approach is entirely right. The naturalistic fallacy is simply irrelevant: the only way that one can get morality is from nature, an evolved nature. We are as we are because we have evolved, and this evolution was upwardly progressive thus giving us and the rest of nature its value. It is therefore our moral duty to keep evolution going, and to preserve that which we have. The philosophers simply have to be wrong, and since it is they who (mistakenly) first raised the queries, let them find the answers to their own pseudo problems.

I have argued at length with Wilson on this matter, but to me he still retains in many respects the “dispensationalism” of his youth. This is the extreme Protestant belief that Armageddon is approaching, and that there will be a great fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil: a time when we will all be tested. For Wilson here, as elsewhere (notably in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis) we have the forthcoming trials and tribulations brought on by the human population explosion and by the ever-decreasing range of biodiversity. For Wilson, we are approaching the man-made Armageddon and the challenge is that which lies before us. There is a fight to be fought between good and evil and we will all be tested. Wilson himself would deny that this is in some deep sense a religious concept, but I see this as very much part and parcel of Wilson’s religion. And of Wilson the man. A conclusion I draw in a loving and favourable manner.

What I argue, therefore, is that to read Wilson and particularly to read Consilience as a work of formal philosophy is to miss entirely the wood for the trees. If you want to go after the details, then you can criticize Wilson, without end, in almost every place. As of course is also true of Jesus and the four Gospels. If you want to go after the details, you can criticize Jesus in every detail in almost every place. In fact, there is something in Jesus’s actions to offend just about everybody. If you are an Orthodox Jew, you get mad at the way that Jesus works on the Sabbath. If you are a promoter of the family, you get mad at the way that Jesus shows indifference to his mother and his relatives. If you are a believer in strength, then you get mad at the way that Jesus promotes pacifism. And if you are in favour of total abstinence or vegetarianism, then you get mad at the miracle at Cana and at the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Jesus not only ate the flesh of living beings but multiplied them enough to feed five thousand. But to read Jesus in this way is to miss the great strength of the Gospels. Likewise to adopt such a pettifogging attitude towards Consilience is to miss exactly that which Wilson offers.

I do not mean to end on a negative fashion, but I would say that having praised Ed Wilson for his vision I do not thereby imply that all should join it. I myself respect very much his vivid and vast imagination. I respect also his deep religious sense. But respect does not in itself imply agreement. I respect Saint Augustine above all other philosophers, but I cannot subscribe to Christianity. At the bottom line, it simply does not speak to me. I just cannot accept Jesus as my Savior. I have to confess – as Wilson already knows, since he and I have wrestled over these issues many times – I have the same reaction towards the vision of Wilson: a vision which can be found back through the history of evolutionary thought, notably in the work of such people as Julian Huxley, and beginning with Herbert Spencer, Darwin’s fellow English evolutionist, and incidentally a man whom Wilson much admires.

Perhaps this is all a question of background training. I grew up as Quaker, and although (unlike many American Quakers but like all English Quakers) my faith was Christological, when it fell away, or rather slipped silently away, I felt no need or urge ever to adopt another religion, spiritual or secular. I am in nature an extremely religious person, but I find myself simply unable to respond to grand exhortations of ultimate meaning. “Big” religions, like traditional Christianity and Wilsonian evolution are alien to the personal, almost mystical sense of awe, which I have inherited from my childhood faith. I find meaning, if anywhere, in still small voices within – or from Schubert Lieder without! – not in the vast sweeps of history. Wilson came from a fundamentalist background: imprinted on his consciousness is the belief that the only religion which will satisfy is one which gives an overall picture to life, in the way that he himself has sketched.

Therefore, for myself I remain a skeptic. But I salute greatly what Wilson has done in Consilience and, even though I as a philosopher feel inclined to criticize him in details, I confess that in respects I feel slightly ashamed of myself for doing so. In respects, I am a lesser person than Wilson. I lack the grand vision and imagination which illuminates Wilson’s work and which makes what he writes so meaningful and so important to so many.