Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2007

by Edward O. Wilson (Vintage 1999, copyright 1998)

This book has been on my “to read” list for several years. Written by the famous biologist who said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos,” it is about the search for the unity of all knowledge (the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, ethics and religion…). It’s pretty dense going; I am aware as I read that I am missing a lot. It seems related to Robert Pirsig’s ideas about classicism and romanticism in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Both Pirsig and Wilson strive to stress the connectedness of human experience.

Chapter 6, on the mind and its relation to the brain is very interesting. Wilson contrasts art and science: “Science explains feeling, while art transmits it…. Art is the means by which people of similar cognition reach out to others in order to transmit feeling.” (pp. 127-128) Then, considering the self, he writes, “The self is not an ineffable being living apart within the brain…. The self and body are…inseparably fused: the self, despite the illusion of its independence…, cannot exist apart from the body, and the body cannot survive for long without the self.” (p. 130) About scientists, he says, “In their ethos it is better to have begun a great journey than to have finished it, better to make a seminal discovery than to put the final touches on a theory.” (pp. 132-133)

…I finished Consilience yesterday. Although not an easy read, I can say it is a very interesting one. Chapters 9-11 explore how the social sciences, the humanities, and ethics and religion can take their place in the unity of knowledge Wilson is seeking. Chapter 12, “To What End?” talks about climate change and environmental devastation. Wilson writes, “In ecology, as in medicine, a false positive diagnosis is an inconvenience, but a false negative diagnosis can be catastrophic” (p 314). This is the same argument made by in this video. In the same chapter, Wilson discusses the Rwandan catastrophe of 1997, calling Rwanda “a microcosm of the world.” When a country (or a planet) becomes overcrowded and its resources are exhausted, its citizens will fight for survival. They don’t care who else is hurt. The way humans are reproducing now ensures a global disaster like that which took place in Rwanda.

I hope it is not too late, but I am afraid it is. How many people in a position to make changes will read Consilience or The Ravaging Tide?


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