2006-03-25: Consilience


The Unity of Knowledge (1998)

by Edward O. Wilson (1929-)

Wilson has revived the word consilience in his attempt to promote greater cross-reinforcement among disparate areas of study. He illustrates the concept in terms of the most physical of sciences, from physics through evolutionary psychology. Then he undertakes the greater challenge: to convince the anthropologists, sociologists, humanists, politicians, economists, and artists that they need to participate with other areas of study if they are to generate results that matter.

His tone is a bit arrogant and it seems doubtful that many current practitioners will listen to him. He is really hoping that the newer generations of scholars and artists will receive his message. I doubt they’ll get it directly from this book.

There are many interesting things mentioned along the way, and they cover a lot of ground. Here are the ones I marked during my reading.

Wilson describes his early years as a student. He was already a naturalist, but had just learned about evolution – an epiphany, as he puts it. “I had experienced the Ionian Enchantment. … It means a belief in the unity of sciences – a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.”

“If the world really works in a way so as to encourage the consilience of knowledge, I believe the enterprises of culture will eventually fall out into science, by which I mean the natural sciences, and the humanities, particularly the creative arts. These domains will be the two great branches of learning in the twenty-first century. The social sciences will continue to split within each of its disciplines, a process already rancorously begun, with one part folding into or becoming continuous with biology, the other fusing with the humanities. Its disciplines will continue to exist but in radically altered form. In the process the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.”

“Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Every public intellectual and political leader should be able to answer that question as well.”

“A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through a pursuit of the consilience among them. Such unification will come hard. But I think it is inevitable. Intellectually it rings true, and it gratifies impulses that rise from the admirable side of human nature. To the extent that the gaps between the great branches of learning can be narrowed, diversity and depth of knowledge will increase. They will do so because of, not despite, the underlying cohesion achieved. The enterprise is important for yet another reason: It gives ultimate purpose to intellect. It promises that order, not chaos, lies beyond the horizon. I think it inevitable that we will accept the adventure, go there, and find out.

Wilson quotes George Scialabba writing of Michel Foucalt:

Foucalt was grappling with the deepest, most intractable dilemmas of modern identity. … For those who believe that neither God nor natural law nor transcendent Reason exists, and who recognize the varied and subtle ways in which material interest – power – has corrupted, even constituted, every previous morality, how is one to live, to what values can one hold fast?

Wilson then says: “How and what indeed? To solve these disturbing problems, let us begin by simply walking away from Foucalt, and existentialist despair. Consider this rule of thumb: To the extent that philosophical positions both confuse and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong.

To Foucalt I would say … it’s not so bad. Once we get over the shock of discovering that the universe was not made with us in mind, all the meaning the brain can master, and all the emotions it can bear, and all the shared adventure we might wish to enjoy, can be found by deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time and stamped it with the residues of deep history. Reason will be advanced to new levels, and emotions played in potentially infinite patterns. The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand one another very well, the more quickly because we are all of the same species and possess biologically similar brains.”


“Science, to put its warrant as concisely as possible, is the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles. The diagnostic features of science that distinguish it from pseudoscience are first, repeatability: The same phenomenon is sought again, preferably by independent investigation, and the interpretation given it is confirmed or discarded by means of novel analysis and experimentation. Second, economy: Scientists attempt to abstract the information into the form that is both simplest and aesthetically most pleasing – the combination called elegance – while yielding the largest amount of information with the least amount of effort. Third, mensuration: If something can be properly measured, using universally accepted scales, generalizations about it are rendered unambiguous. Fourth, heuristics: The best science stimulates further discovery, often in unpredictable new directions; and the new knowledge provides an additional test of the original principles that led to its discovery. Fifth and finally, consilience: The explanations of different phenomena most likely to survive are those that can be connected and proved consistent with one another.”

“Here is how reductionism works most of the time, as it might appear in a user’s manual: Let your mind travel around the system. Pose an interesting question about it. Break the question down and visualize the elements and questions it implies. Think out alternative conceivable answers. Phrase them so that a reasonable amount of evidence makes a clear-cut choice possible. If too many conceptual difficulties are encountered, back off. Search for another question. When you finally hit a soft spot, search for the model system – say a controlled emission in particle physics or a fast-breeding organism in genetics – on which decisive experiments can be most easily conducted. Become thoroughly familiar – no, better, become obsessed – with the system. Love the details, the feel of all of them, for their own sake. Design the experiment so that no matter what the result, the answer to the questions will be convincing. Use the result to press on to new questions, new systems. Depending on how far others have already gone in this sequence (and always keep in mind, you must give them complete credit), you may enter it at any point along the way.

Followed more or less along these lines, reductionism is the primary and essential activity of science. But dissection and analysis are not all that scientists do. Also crucial are synthesis and integration, tempered by philosophical reflection on significance and value. Even the most narrowly focused researchers, including those devoted to the search for elemental units, still think all the time about complexity. To make any progress they musty meditate on the networks of cause and effect across adjacent levels of organization – from subatomic particles to atoms, say, or organisms to species – and they must think on the hidden design and forces of the networks of causation. Quantum physics thus blends into chemical physics, which explains atomic bonding and chemical reactions, which forms the foundation of molecular biology, which demystifies cell biology.

Behind the mere smashing of aggregates into smaller pieces lies a deeper agenda that also takes the name of reductionism: to fold the laws and principles of each level of organization into those at more general, hence more fundamental levels. Its strong form is total consilience, which holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced. This transcendental world view is the light and way for many scientific materialists (I admit to being among them), but it could be wrong. At the least, it is surely an oversimplification. At each level of organization, especially at the living cell and above, phenomena exist that require new laws and principles, which still cannot be predicted from those at more general levels. Perhaps some of them will remain forever beyond our grasp. Perhaps prediction of the most complex systems from more general levels is impossible. That would not be all bad. I will confess with pleasure: The challenge and the crackling of thin ice are what give science its metaphysical excitement.”

Wilson quotes Herbert Simon on the complexity of concept formation: “What chiefly characterizes creative thinking from more mundane forms are (i) willingness to accept vaguely defined problem statements and gradually structure them, (ii) continuing preoccupation with problems over a considerable period of time, and (iii) extensive background knowledge in relevant and potentially relevant areas.” Wilson puts this in a nutshell: “knowledge, obsession, daring”.

In his section on the mind, he describes the organization of the brain:

The Human brain preserves the three primitive divisions found in throughout the vertebrates from fishes to mammals: hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. The first two together, referred to as the brain stem, form the swollen posthead on which the massively enlarged forebrain rests.

The hindbrain comprises in turn the pons, medulla, and cerebellum. Together they regulate breathing, heartbeat, and coordination of body movements. The midbrain controls sleep and arousal. It also partly regulates auditory reflexes and perception.

A major part of the forebrain is composed of the limbic system, the master traffic-control complex that regulates emotional response as well as the integration and transfer of sensory information. Its key centers are the amygdala (emotion), hippocampus (memory, especially short-term memory), hypothalamus (memory, temperature control, sexual drive, hunger, and thirst), and thalamus (awareness of temperature and all other senses except smell, awareness of pain, and the mediation of some processes of memory).

The forebrain also includes the cerebral cortex, which has grown and expanded during evolution to cover the rest of the brain. As the primary seat of consciousness, it stores and collates information from the senses. It also directs voluntary motor activity and integrates higher functions, including speech and motivation.

The key functions of the three successive divisions – hind- plus mid-brain, limbic system, and cerebral cortex – can be neatly summarized in this sequence: heartbeat, heartstrings, heartless.

Describing emotions, he describes the approach of Antonio Damasio, distinguishing primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are those called inborn or instinctive. They require little conscious activity beyond recognition of elementary stimuli, called “releasers” because they release wired-in responses. Examples of releasers for humans are “sexual enticement, loud noises, the sudden appearance of large shapes, the writhing movements of snakes or serpentine objects, and the particular configurations of pain associated with heart attacks or broken bones.” Secondary emotions are refinements that incorporate personal history and cultural tradition. “To meet an old friend, fall in love, win a promotion, or suffer an insult is to fire the limbic circuits of primary emotion, but only after the highest integrative processes … have been engaged. We must know who is friend or enemy, and why they are behaving a certain way. By this interpretation, the emperor’s rage and poet’s rapture are cultural elaborations retrofitted to the same machinery that drives the prehuman primates. Nature, Damasio observes, ‘with its tinkerish knack for economy, did not select independent mechanisms for expressing primary and secondary emotions. It simply allowed secondary emotions to be expressed by the same channel already prepared to convey primary emotions.’”

Wilson then goes on: “What we call meaning is the linkage among the neural networks created by the spreading excitation that enlarges imagery and engages emotion. The competitive selection among scenarios is what we call decision making. The outcome, in terms of the match of the winning scenario to instinctive or learned favorable states, sets the kind and intensity of subsequent emotion. The persistent form and intensity of emotions is called mood. The ability of the brain to generate novel scenarios and settle on the most effective of tem is called creativity. The persistent production of scenarios lacking reality and survival value is called insanity.” I find his short summary rather glib, and doubt it will be useful in the form he gives.

In addressing the role of Art in the mind, he says: “Art is the means by which people of similar cognition reach out to others in order to transmit feeling. But how can we know for sure that art communicates this way with accuracy, that people really, truly feel the same in the presence of art? We know it intuitively by the sheer weight of our cumulative responses through the many media of art. We know it by detailed verbal descriptions of emotion, by critical analyses, and in fact through data from all the vast, nuanced, and interlocking armamentaria of the humanities. That vital role in the sharing of culture is what the humanities are all about.” Again, this is rather glib. He might be counting on ‘communication’ being more effective in all channels (not just the arts) than is realistic.

He directly addresses memetics: “The natural units of culture can be reasonably supposed to be hierarchically arranged components of semantic memory, encoded by discrete neural circuits awaiting identification. The notion of a culture unit, the most basic element of all, has been around for over thirty years, and has been dubbed by different authors as mnemotype, idea, idene, meme, sociogene, concept, culturgen, and culture type. The one label that has caught on the most, and for which I now vote to be winner, is meme, introduced by Richard Dawkins in his influential work The Selfish Gene in 1976.

The definition of meme I suggest is nevertheless more focused and somewhat different from that of Dawkins. It is the one posed by the theoretical biologist Charles J. Lumsden and myself in 1981, when we outlined the first full theory of gene-culture coevolution. We recommended that the unit of culture – now called meme – be the same as a node of semantic memory and its correlates in brain activity. The level of the node, whether concept (the simplest recognizable unit), proposition, or schema, determines the complexity of the idea, behavior, or artifact that it helps to sustain in the culture at large.”

The largest leap in Wilson’s work is the connection between genes and culture. His ideas seem likely to be roughly correct, but I expect he will fail, at least on the basis of this book, to convince people who don’t already accept most of his premises. Here’s one paragraph illustrates the interaction between genes and cultural environment:

Heritability has been a standard measure for decades in plant and animal breeding. It has gained recent controversial attention for its human applications though The Bell Curve, the 1994 book by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, and other popular works on the heredity of intelligence and personality. The measure has considerable merit, and in fact is the backbone of human behavioral genetics. But it contains oddities that deserve close attention with reference to the consilience between genetics and the social sciences. The first is the peculiar twist called “genotype-environment correlation,” which serves to increase human diversity beyond the ambit of its immediate biological origins. The twist works as follows. People do not merely select roles suited to their native talents and personalities. They also gravitate to environments that reward their hereditary inclinations. Their parents, who possess similar inborn traits, are also likely to create a family atmosphere nurturing development in the same direction. The genes, in other words, help to create a particular environment in which they will find greater expression than would otherwise occur. The overall result is a greater divergence of roles within societies due to the interaction of genes and environment. For example, a musically gifted child, receiving encouragement from adults, may take up an instrument early and spend long hours practicing. His classmate, innately thrill-seeking, persistently impulsive and aggressive, is drawn to fast cars. The first child grows up to be a professional musician, the second (if he stays out of trouble) a successful racing-car driver. The hereditary differences in talent and personality between the classmates may be small, but their effects have been amplified by the diverging pathways into which they were guided by the differences. To put genotype-environment correlation in a phrase, hereditability measured at the level of biology reacts with the environment to increase hereditability measured at the level of behavior.

Wilson’s mechanism linking genes and culture is the epigenetic rule: “The epigenetic rules, I believe, operate, like emotion, at two levels. Primary epigenetic rules are the automatic processes that extend from the filtering and coding of stimuli in the sense organs all the way to the perception of the stimuli by the brain. The entire sequence is influenced by previous experience only to a minor degree, if at all. Secondary epigenetic rules are regularities in the integration of large amounts of information. Drawing from selected fragments of perception, memory, and emotional coloring, secondary epigenetic rules lead the mind to predisposed decisions through the choice of certain memes and overt responses over others. The division between the two classes of epigenetic rules is subjective, made for convenience only. Intermediate levels of complexity exist, because more complex primary rules grade into simpler secondary rules.”

“At the highest levels of mental activity complex secondary epigenetic rules are followed in the process called reification: the telescoping of ideas and complex phenomena into simpler concepts, which are then compared with familiar objects and activities. … Reification is the quick and easy mental algorithm that creates order in a world otherwise overwhelming in flux and detail. One of its manifestations is the dyadic instinct, the proneness to use two-part classifications in treating socially important arrays. Societies everywhere break people into in-group versus out-group, child versus adult, kin versus nonkin, married versus single, and activities into sacred and profane, good and evil. They fortify the boundaries of each division with taboo and ritual. To change from one division to the other requires initiation ceremonies, weddings, blessings, ordinations, and other rites of passage that mark every culture.”

In discussing human nature, one important feature Wilson mentions is contractual agreement, based primarily on the ability of humans to detect cheating, which is triggered when the cost and benefits of a social contract are specified. “More than error, more than good deeds, and more even than the margin of profit, the possibility of cheating by others attracts attention. It excites emotion and serves as the principal source of hostile gossip and moralistic aggression by which the integrity of the political economy is maintained.”

In discussing social sciences: “To infuse psychology and biology into economic and other social theory, which can only be to its advantage, means teasing out and examining microscopically the delicate concepts of utility, by asking why people ultimately lean toward certain choices, and being so predisposed, why and under what circumstances they act upon them. Beyond this task lies the micro-to-macro problem, the ensemble of processes by which the mass of individual decisions are translated into social patterns. And beyond that, framed by a still wider scale of space and time, is the coevolution problem, the means by which biological evolution influences culture, and the reverse. Together these domains – human nature, micro-to-macro transition, and the coevolution of genes and culture – require the full traverse from the social sciences to psychology and thence to the brain sciences and genetics.” He then mentions a few areas where studies already contribute to this program. He points out that decisions are seldom computerlike in their calculation and rationality, rather involving heuristic shortcuts and emotional judgements. Here he follows Herbert Simon’s notion of satisficing.

Wilson has strong opinions about the arts and art criticism. “The defining quality of the arts is the expression of the human condition by mood and feeling, calling into play all the senses, evoking both order and disorder.” He believes there is no biological difference to be found between artistic masters and ordinary people. “What the masters of the Western canon, and those of other high cultures, possessed in common was a combination of exceptional knowledge, technical skill, originality, sensitivity to detail, ambition, boldness, and drive.” Of course, this catalog has its own problems, but the gist of it seems right. “Artistic inspiration common to everyone in varying degree rises from the artesian wells of human nature. Its creations are meant to be delivered directly to the sensibilities of the beholder without analytic explanation. Creativity is therefore humanistic in the fullest sense. Works of enduring value are those truest to these origins.” This view opens the possibility of understanding artistic expression on the basis of biologically determined human nature.

Wilson takes aim at deconstructionist criticism of the postmodern school, which explicitly rejects science as a privileged method of knowing the world: all points of view are valid. These “scholars search instead for contradictions and ambiguities. They conceive and analyze what is left out by the author. The missing elements allow for personalized commentary in the postmodern style. Postmodernists who add political ideology to the mix also regard the traditional literary canon as little more than a collection confirming the world view of ruling groups, and in particular that of Western white males. The postmodern hypothesis does not conform well to the evidence. It is blissfully free of existing information on how the mind works. Yet there is surely some reason for the popularity of postmodernism other than a love for chaos.” He points out its revolutionary spirit and the fact that the talents and emotional lives of large segments of the population, in particular women, have been neglected for centuries by the traditional canon.

If we are to believe the evidence from the biological and behavioral sciences gathered especially during the past quarter century, women differ genetically from men in ways other than reproductive anatomy. In aggregate, on average, with wide statistical overlap, and in many venues of social experience, they speak with a different voice. Today it is being heard loud and clear. But I do not read the welcome triumph of feminism, social, economic, and creative, as a brief for postmodernism. The advance, while opening new avenues of expression and liberating deep pools of talent, has not exploded human nature into little pieces. Instead, it has set the stage for a fuller explanation of the universal traits that unite humanity.

Looked at with a different perspective, postmodernism can also be viewed as one extreme in an historical oscillation in literary world view. The great American critic Edmund Wilson noted, in 1926, that Western literature seems “obliged to vibrate” in emphasis between the two poles of neoclassicism and romanticism. Conceived very broadly, the cycle can first be picked up in the Enlightenment with Pope, Racine, and other poets who drew on the scientists’ vision of an orderly world. They were replaced  in public esteem by the rebellious romantic poets of the nineteenth century, who yielded in turn to Flaubert and others returning to rational order, who gave way to a flow in the opposite direction as embodied in the modernist writings of the French Symbolists …. Because each of the extremes proved ultimately “unbearable” as a regaining fashion, Wilson said, it guaranteed reversion toward the opposite pole.

This, of course, is pretty glib and Wilson is having fun with it, rather than fully explaining it. Still, there is some truth in it.

The same mood swing can be seen in recent, post-Wilsonian literary criticism. Earlier in this century scholars stressed the personal experiences of the authors and the history of their times. In the 1950s the New Critics insisted on drawing out the full meaning of the text, without much concern for personal history of the author. They agreed with Joseph Conrad’s famous dictum that a work of art “should carry its justification in every line.” In the 1980s the New Critics quite suddenly gave way to the postmodernists, who argued the opposite approach. Search, they said, for what the text does not control, and explain the entirety as a social construction on the part of the author. Their stance has been summarized in a pointed manner by the poet and critic Frederick Turner, as follows: Artists and poets should dismiss the constraints of Nature even in a time of ecological crisis, ignore science, abandon the forms and disciplines of the arts and hence their own culture’s shamanic tradition, turn away from the idea of a universal human nature, and, having freed themselves from such stifling confinement, favor snideness and rage over hope and uplifting emotions. According to Turner, a reversal in fashion is already beginning. “The tradition of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven and Goethe is not dead. It is growing up in the cracks of the postmodern concrete.”

Later: “Can the opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, cool reason against passionate abandonment, which drive the mood swings of the arts and criticism, be reconciled? This is, I believe an empirical question. Its answer depends on the existence or nonexistence of an inborn human nature. The evidence accumulated to date leaves little room for doubt. Human nature exists, and it is both deep and highly structured.”

Wilson gives the outline of the theory of gene-culture coevolution he developed with Charles Lumsden:

  • During human evolution there was time enough for natural selection to shape the processes of innovation. For thousands of generations, sufficient for genetic changes in the brain and sensory and endocrine systems, variation among people in thought and behavior caused personal differences in survival and reproductive success.
  • The variation was to some degree heritable. Individuals differed the, as they do today, not just in what they learned from their culture but also in their hereditary propensity to learn certain things and to respond by statistical preponderance in particular ways.
  • Genetic evolution inevitably ensued. Natural selection, favoring some of the gene ensembles over others, molded the epigenetic rules, which are the inherited regularities of mental development that comprise human nature. Among the most ancient epigenetic rules I have described to this point are the Westermarck effect, which inhibits incest, and the natural aversion to snakes. Those of more recent origin, perhaps no more than a hundred thousand years ago, include the swift programmed steps by which children acquire language and, we may reasonably presume, some of the creative processes of the arts as well.
  • Universals or near-universals emerged in the evolution of culture. Because of differences in strength among the underlying epigenetic rules, certain thoughts and behavior are more effective than others in the emotional responses they cause and the frequency with which they intrude on reverie and creative thought. They bias cultural evolution toward the invention of archetypes, the widely recurring abstractions and core narraqtives that are dominant themes in the arts. Examples of archetypes I have already mentioned are Oedipean tragedy (violating the Westermarck effect) and the serpent images of myth and religion.
  • The arts are innately focused toward certain forms and themes but are otherwise freely constructed. The archetypes spawn legions of metaphors that compose not only a large part of the arts but also of ordinary communication. Metaphors, the consequence of spreading activation of the brain during learning, are the building blocks of creative thought. They connect and synergistically strengthen different spheres of memory.

In his last point is the germ of an important aspect of human nature: all human communication is at its root a creative process, on the part of both the sender and receiver of communication. After making his point about the biological basis for the arts, Wilson makes sure his message isn’t interpreted as mechanizing the arts:

The growing evidence of an overall structured and powerful human nature, channeling development of the mind, favors a more traditional view of the arts. The arts are not solely shaped by errant genius out of historical circumstances and idiosyncratic personal experience. The roots of their inspiration date back in deep history to the genetic origins of the human brain, and are permanent.

While biology has an important part to play in scholarly interpretation, the creative arts themselves can never be locked in by this or any other discipline of science. The reason is that the exclusive role of the arts is the transmission of the intricate details of human experience by artifice to intensify aesthetic and emotional response. Works of art communicate feeling directly from mind ot mind, with no intent to explain why the impact occurs. In this defining quality, the arts are the antithesis of science.


When addressing human behavior, science is coarse-grained and encompassing, as opposed to the arts, which are fine-grained and interstitial. That is, science aims to create principles and use them in human biology to define the diagnostic qualities of the species; the arts use fine details to flesh out and make strikingly clear by implication those same qualities. Works of art that prove enduring are intensely humanistic. Born in the imagination of individuals, they nevertheless touch upon what was universally endowed by human evolution. Even when, as part of fantasy, they imagine worlds that cannot possibly exist, they stay anchored to their human origins.  As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., master fantasist, once pointed out, the arts place humanity in the center of the universe, whether we belong there or not.

Several special powers were granted to the arts by the genetic evolution of the brain. First is the ability to generate metaphors with ease and move them fluidly from one context to another. Consider the technical language of the arts themselves. A plot first meant a physical site and building plan, then the stage director’s plot or blocking plan, then the action or story blocked out. In the sixteenth century a frontispiece was a decorated front of a building, then the title page of a book ornamented with a figure, and finally the illustrated page that precedes the title page. A stanza, which in Italian is a public room or resting place, has been appropriated in English to mean the room-like set of four or more lines separated typographically from other similar sets.

In both the arts and sciences the programmed brain seeks elegance, which is the parsimonious and evocative description of pattern to make sense out of a confusion of detail.

In addressing archetypes, which he says arise from the epigenetic rules that constrain culture, Wilson provides a list of examples:

In the beginning, the people are created by gods, or the mating of giants, or the clash of titans; in any case, they begin as special beings at the center of the world.

The tribe emigrates to a promised land (or Arcadia, or the Secret Valley, or the New World).

The Hero descends to hell, or is exiled to wilderness, or experiences an iliad in a distant land; he returns in an odyssey against all odds past fearsome obstacles along the way, to complete his destiny.

The world ends in apocalypse, by flood, fire, alien conquerors, or avenging gods; it is restored by a band of heroic survivors.

A source of great power is found in the tree of life, the river of life, philosopher’s stone, sacred incantation, forbidden ritual, secret formula.

The nurturing woman is apotheosized as the Great Goddess, the Great Mother, Holy Woman, Divine Queen, Mother Earth, Gaia.

The seer has special knowledge and powers of mind, available to those worthy to receive it; he is the wise old man or woman, the holy man, the magician, the great shaman.

The Virgin has the power of purity, is the vessel of sacred strength, must be protected at all costs, and perhaps surrendered up to propitiate the gods or demonic forces.

Female sexual awakening is bestowed by the unicorn, the gentle beast, the powerful stranger, the magical kiss.

The Trickster disturbs established order and liberates passion as the god of wine, king of the carnival, eternal youth, clown, jester, clever fool.

A monster threatens humanity, appearing as the serpent demon (Satan writhing at the bottom of hell), dragon, gorgon, golem, vampire.

Expanding on his theme:

If the arts are steered by inborn rules of mental development, they are end products not just of conventional history but also of genetic evolution. The question remains: Were the genetic guides mere byproducts – epiphenomena – of that evolution, or were they adaptations that directly improved survival and reproduction? And if adaptations, what exactly were the advantages conferred? The answers, some scholars believe, can be found in artifacts preserved from the dawn of art. They can be tested further with knowledge of the artifacts and customs of present-day hunter-gatherers.

This is the picture of the origin of the arts that appears to be emerging. The most distinctive qualities of the human species are extremely high intelligence, language, culture, and reliance on long-term social contracts. In combination they gave early Homo sapiens a decisive edge over all competing animal species, but they also exacted a price we continue to pay, composed of the shocking recognition of the self, of the finiteness of personal existence, and of the chaos of the environment.

These revelations, not disobedience to the gods, are what drove human-kind from paradise. Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile. All animals, while capable of some degree of specialized learning, are instinct-drive, guided by simple cues from the environment that trigger complex behavioral patterns. The great apes have the power of self-recognition, but there is no evidence that they can reflect on their own existence – the complexity of the universe means nothing to them. They and other animals are exquisitely adapted to just those parts of the environment on which their lives depend, and they pay little or no attention to the rest.

The dominating influence that spawned the arts was the need to impose order on the confusion caused by intelligence. In the era prior to mental expansion, the ancestral prehuman populations evolved like any other animal species. They lived by instinctive responses that sustained survival and reproductive success. When Homo-level intelligence was attained, it widened that advantage by processing information well beyond the releaser cues. It permitted flexibility of response and the creation of mental scenarios that reached to distant places and far into the future. The evolving brain, nevertheless, could not convert to general intelligence alone; it could not turn into an all-purpose computer. So in the course of evolution the animal instincts of survival and reproduction were transformed into the epigenetic algorithms of human nature. It was necessary to keep in place these inborn programs for the rapid acquisition of language, sexual conduct, and other processes of mental development. Had the algorithms been erased, the species would have faced extinction. The reason is that the lifetime of an individual human being is not long enough to sort out experiences by means of generalized, unchanneled learning. Yet the algorithms were jerry-built: They worked adequately but not superbly well. Because of the slowness of natural selection, which requires tens or hundreds of generations to substitute new genes for old, there was not enough time for human heredity to cope with the vastness of new contingent possibilities revealed by high intelligence. Algorithms could be built, but they weren’t numerous and precise enough to respond automatically and optimally to every possible event.

The arts filled the gap. Early humans invented them in an attempt to  express and control through magic the abundance of the environment, the power of solidarity, and other forces in their lives that mattered most to survival and reproduction. The arts were the means by which these forces could be ritualized and expressed in a new, simulated reality. They drew consistency from their faithfulness to human nature, to the emotion-guided epigenetic rules – the algorithms – of mental development. They achieved that fidelity by selecting the most evocative words, images, and rhythms, conforming to the emotional guides of the epigenetic rules, making the right moves. The arts still perform this primal function, and in much the same ancient way. Their quality is measured by their humanness, by the precision of their adherence to human nature. To an overwhelming degree that is what we mean when we speak of the true and beautiful in the arts.

I find this notion appealing, and I think there is a lot of truth in it. I don’t know that truth can be applied, except for a believer in this truth becoming a practitioner of some art, and developing works that express the truths that humans need now, and aren’t likely to absorb by analytical or rational means.

In discussing ethics, Wilson notes that the word ought is shorthand for the behaviors that society first chose (or was coerced into), and then codified for its own protection. He also points out that the empiricist approach to finding the roots of morality in epigenetic rules has revived the notion of moral sentiments as used by Enlightenment philosophers such as Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith. “By moral sentiments is now meant moral instincts as defined by the modern behavioral sciences, subject to judgment according to their consequences. The sentiments are thus derived from epigenetic rules, hereditary biases in mental development, usually conditioned by emotion, that influence concepts and decisions made from them. The primary origin of the moral instincts is the dynamic relation between cooperation and defection. The essential ingredient for the molding of the instincts during genetic evolution in any species is intelligence high enough to judge and manipulate the tension generated by the dynamism. That level of intelligence allows the building of complex mental scenarios well into the future.”

After describing the process by which moral sentiments could arise and spread in the population, he says: “The dark side to the propensity to moral behavior is xenophobia. Because personal familiarity and common interest are vital in social transactions, moral sentiments evolved to selective. And so it has ever been, and so it will ever be. People give trust to strangers with effort, and true compassion is a commodity in chronically short supply. Tribes cooperate only through carefully defined treaties and other conventions. They are quick to imagine themselves victims of conspiracies by competing groups, and they are prone to dehumanize and murder their rivals during periods of severe conflict. They cement their own group loyalties by means of sacred symbols and ceremonies. Their mythologies are filled with epic victories over menacing enemies.” These ideas can be used to explain the importance of first impressions (in convincing someone that you are part of their tribe), and the effectiveness of removing young, impressionable people from their home tribe and forcing them into a new tribe, as some cults and all armies do.

After going over some of the issues, he says:

Little wonder, then, that ethics is the most publicly contested of all philosophical enterprises. Or that political science, which at foundation is primarily the study of applied ethics, is so frequently problematic. Neither is informed by anything that would be recognizable as authentic theory in the natural sciences. Both ethics and political science lack a foundation of verifiable knowledge of human nature sufficient to produce cause-and-effect predictions and sound judgments based on them. Surely it would be prudent to pay closer attention to the deep springs of ethical behavior. The greatest void in knowledge insucha venture is the biology of the moral sentiments. In time this subject can be understood, I believe, by paying attention to the following topics.

  • The definition of the moral sentiments: first by precise descriptions from experimental psychology, then by analysis of the underlying neural and endocrine responses.
  • The genetics of the moral sentiments: most easily approached through measurements of the heritability of the psychological and physiological processes of ethical behavior, and eventually, with difficulty, by identification of the prescribing genes.
  • The development of the moral sentiments as products of the interaction of genes and environment. The research is most effective when conducted at two levels: the histories of ethical systems as part of the emergence of different cultures, and the cognitive development of individuals living in a variety of cultures. Such investigations are already well along in anthropology and psychology. In the future they will be augmented by contributions from biology.
  • The deep history of the moral sentiments: why they exist in the first place, presumably by their contributions to survival and reproductive success during the long periods of prehistoric time in which they genetically evolved.

His last chapter is titled “To What End?”, and is a strong (and emotional) appeal to observe the importance of preserving as much as possible of the remaining ecosystems on the planet. He labels the common approach exemptionalism, meaning that its proponents feel exempt from the laws of nature. He says:

For the committed exemptionalist, Homo sapiens has in effect become a new species, which I will now provide with a new name, Homo proteus, or “shapechanger man.” In the taxonomic classification of Earth’s creatures, the diagnosis of hypothetical Homo proteus is the following:

Cultural. Indeterminately flexible, with vast potential. Wired and information-driven. Can travel almost anywhere, adapt to any environment. Restless, getting crowded. Thinking about the colonization of space. Regrets the current loss of Nature and all those vanishing species, but it’s the price of progress and has little to do with our future anyway.

Now here is the naturalistic, and I believe correct, diagnosis of old Homo sapiens, our familiar “wise man”:

Cultural. With indeterminate intellectual potential but biologically constrained. Basically a primate species in body and emotional repertory (member of the order Primates, Infraorder Catarrhini, Family Hominidae). Huge compared to other animals, parvihirsute, bipedal, porous, squishy, composed mostly of water. Runs on millions of coordinated delicate biochemical reactions. Easily shut down by trace toxins and transit of pea-sized projectiles. Short-lived, emotionally fragile. Dependent in body and mind on other earth-bound organisms. Colonization of space impossible without massive supply lines. Starting to regret deeply the loss of Nature and all those other species.

He provides an interesting summary of the Biosphere 2 experiment, and the lessons to be learned from its failure. He provides this summary of the state of the world:

The global population is precariously large, and will become much more so before peaking some time after 2050. Humanity overall is improving per capita production, health, and longevity. But it is doing so by eating up the planet’s capital, including natural resources and biological diversity millions of years old. Homo sapiens is approaching the limit of its food and water supply. Unlike any species that lived before, it is also changing the world’s atmosphere and climate, lowering and polluting water tables, shrinking forests, and spreading deserts. Most of the stress originates directly or indirectly from a handful of industrialized countries. Their proven formulas for prosperity are being eagerly adopted by the rest of the world. The emulation cannot be sustained, not with the same levels of consumption and waste. Even if the industrialization of developing countries is only partly successful, the environmental aftershock will dwarf the population explosion that preceded it.

This pessimistic assessment is disputed only by people who don’t know what they are talking about. Wilson has some advice for those who like to avoid or minimize the likely consequences of humankind’s present course, but they seem unlikely to be effective.

This book should be read by anyone who aspires to influence public policy, including voters in democratic places.


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