Book Review: Consilience – The Unity of Knowledge (E.O. Wilson)

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Such, I believe, is the source of the Ionian Enchantment: Preferring a search for objective reality over revelations is another way of satisfying religious hunger. It is an endeavor almost as old as civilization and intertwined with traditional religion, but it follows a very different course – a stoic’s creed, an acquired taste, a guidebook to adventure plotted across rough terrain.’

– E.O. Wilson, Consilience – The Unity of Knowledge – Chapter One: The Ionian Enchantment


Introduction to this review: Stray Thoughts Regarding Craftsmanship via – E.O. Wilson’s – Consilience

The Review

Consilience is about consilience, how consilient. That’s the trouble with the word. It’s a bit of a tautology. One of those classifications that point to such a broad phenomenon that it has almost no meaning. It’s like ‘emergent properties.’ Almost everything has or is an emergent property.

I do think these are useful and indispensable concepts. So why do I begin a review by casting aspersions at them?

Well, what’s a review without a bit of taunting and teasing? A touch of play, that’s how you actually keep those austere leather-bound volumes open, rather than having the staid darlings nobly accrue dust on some high shelf.

It is of vast importance to not respect something so much that you never touch it.

For E.O. Wilson the history of humanity, the history of its philosophical, and scientific pursuits has a common thread. Consilience comes from Latin and means something akin to a jumping together. So it is that all knowledge all ken seems to jump together according to a certain logic. It is at such points of convergence that we can become confident in the reality of a given phenomenon and proceed to form a conceptual framework on the basis of this evidence. A conceptual framework which can then be used as a compass to navigate the world of knowledge and make valid predictions. This order this logic is a sort of ‘Ariadne’s thread.’ Allowing us to trace a path through the mysterious labyrinth called cosmos.

Logic itself is a testament to an inherent order that though far more chaotic than the straightforward of ‘fire hot don’t touch,’ is non-the-less intelligible to creatures accustomed to such essential syllogisms.

It is that quest for inherent order for unifying principle that defines the ‘consilience’ concept and serves as the focus of this book.

If one reads the leaflet of the Knopf hardcover edition he discovers a highlighting of this theme:

‘our explosive rise in intellectual mastery’ … ‘has its roots in the ancient Greek concept of an intrinsic orderliness’ …. ‘ a vision that found its apogee in the Age of Enlightenment’

Greece is the focus of the first chapter, in which E.O. Wilson recounts his youthful fascination with the natural beauty of his Alabama home. A fascination that would develop into a sense of mission, the poetically dubbed ‘Ionian Enchantment.’

‘The enchantment’ is a reference to the philosophical outlook of Thales of Miletus, the idea that the universe is intelligible and can be understood once the proper principles are isolated.

One of the great strengths of this book is that Wilson does not let his aesthetic sensibilities cloud his analysis. He readily assents to the difficulty of bottom up analysis, of the synthesis which is at the heart of consilience. Accurately portraying it as a task far more challenging than the more familiar reductionist strategies that have seen much success in the physical sciences.

In Ariadne’s Thread (another Greek allusion) Wilson points out that it is ‘easy’ to go from conceptual complexity to basic physical units. It is an altogether different thing to go from basic physical properties to conceptual complexity.

The myth of Theseus unravelling the ball of Ariadne’s thread in the minotaur’s maze, serves as an apt analogy for humanity’s attempt to make sense of its surroundings. We always find retracing our steps to be easier than finding valid routes through a labyrinth that ultimately has no center.

All we know is that there is something that allows us to navigate, something dear and precious, the yarn of a beautiful maiden that I’m going to take the liberty of identifying with ‘wisdom’ (sic) for the sake of conceptual convenience. This wisdom, this sense of the maze being navigable, is what will eventually allow us something like mastery of that puzzling terrain. Though as Wilson cautions, mastery of such a thing, may not be possible to fully realize.

I’d argue that such an impossibility is actually bliss. It means that the universe is intelligible to just the right degree. So that we may never know enough and grow weary and bored. That greatest joy of exploration will never be yanked from our species.
In fact the more we discover the more the avenues of mystery expand. The future as Wilson points out in the last chapter of his book belongs to synthesizers. People with a sense for consilience who can incorporate information into valid novel coherencies. The universe is thus a vast garden that intelligent creatures like ourselves can eternally cultivate.

This is what makes this book such a worthy read. The rekindling of the classical fire. That flame which was ‘lost’ in recent decades due to the intense specialization that became somewhat inevitable as knowledge and complexity increased.

It is a timely response to the relativism and ‘post modernism’ (sic) of the present age. Which far from providing the fecundity that they seemingly promise have served up something much more akin to stagnation.

I found this book to be a worthy read as a review of the history of science and philosophy through a biologist’s lens. You will encounter in-depth coverage of such perennial issues as nature vs. nurture, the role of genetics in culture, the physical functioning of the brain as it relates to the nature of consciousness, and much more.

The early chapters accounting of the development of the sciences and their underlying methodology has a historian’s flair, that is a timely remedy for the atomization of the knowledge of a ‘common core’ mind.

I’d urge anyone wishing to enrich both their passion and their knowledge to pick up this excellent book.

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