Originally published in Salvo Magazine, Issue 23: Winter 2012
I sat front row at the 2012 Consilience Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The event was inspired by E. O. Wilson’s enormously popular book of that title and was opened with the superstar of Scientism himself. Ed Wilson shuffled up to the stage, gave his keynote address, and then bolted past a throng of admirers to give his next lecture in Florida en route to Africa.
I don’t know how many backstage parties Ed Wilson has enjoyed in his lifetime, but he is a true rock star scientist. With the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, the ant-obsessed entomologist foisted what we now call “evolutionary psychology “ onto a riveted, if unwilling public. He took Darwin’s most unpopular view one step further: we are not merely the descendants of apes—our genetic inheritance still causes us to behave like apes who just shave in the morning.
Perhaps more provocatively, Wilson argued in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) that all of human knowledge may become one in the light of science: physics determine chemistry, which determines biology, which determines emotion and cognition, which determine religion, politics, literature, and art. Why divide such obviously related disciplines?
That’s what the Consilience Conference was all about.
Wilson envisions an academic world where departments don’t drink in separate bars, where truth is one and intellectual distinctions dissolve under cold reductionism. Interdisciplinary fields such as chemical physics, cognitive biology, and genetic ecology point the way to total unification. Evolutionary psychology reduces human behavior to latent instinct. Brain scans reduce the soul to neural activity.
Wilson believes that scientists will crack the code of the human condition. Shouldn’t touchy-feely theologians and humanities professors tune in to the science-as-sacred-reality wavelength?
During his address, Wilson towers over the podium and grinned at his hundred and fifty listeners. Who would have thought he‘d be so tall? His roaming eye, bird-like nose, and mussed up hair just screamed “mad scientist.“
He immediately launched into “the central questions of religion and philosophy,” taken from the Gauguin painting that adorns Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
The Real Creation Story
Wilson assured us that religion and academic philosophy will never solve these riddles, but science, which can test knowledge of the real world, might be up to the task. There is a real creation story, and only one, he told us, which is being tested in fields such as molecular genetics and neuroscience. Taking us to the edge of Eden, Wilson described a peculiar evolutionary novelty that defines humanity: the rise of eusociality.
Unlike most organisms, eusocial creatures gather in multi-generational groups, vary their own reproduction to enhance social organization, and employ an altruistic division of labor. Wherever there are doting mothers and eunuchs, soldiers and slave classes, there is eusociality.
We tend to take eusociality for granted, but Wilson told us that out of the billions of species that have existed on earth, only about two dozen ever evolved the trait: ants, termites, bees, sponge-dwelling shrimp, naked mole rats, and most importantly, human beings.
In our case, eusociality comes at the bitter price of moral struggle. Wilson believes that the key to human benevolence lies in group selection, rather than individual or kin selection. According to this view, natural selection may favor traits which benefit genetically related groups at the expense of individual gene-propagators. Despite the universal tendency of single organisms to look out for number one, eusocial humans evolved a powerful urge help out friends and family, and to destroy enemies of the tribe—even if that requires self-negation, such as giving up material goods, sexual mates, or one’s own life in battle.
Those humans who possessed this cohesive group instinct—or “virtue”—survived and dominated by sheer force of numbers. As society swelled, anti-social misfits were gradually culled from the gene pool like willful brats dashed against the stones. Wilson illustrated this with Paleolithic cave paintings we never see in textbooks: individual humans impaled by multiple spears, indicating retributive mob violence. But even after sixty thousand years of eusocial development, the human group has not been able to wipe out every selfish gene. Sociopaths survive, and saintly types with the strongest altruistic leanings still possess a demonic streak.
The Way Forward
Wilson is fine with that. Had the selfish instinct been completely eradicated, he said, we would all be “angelic robots [or] in entomological terms…ants.”
“The human condition is one of internal conflict and turmoil,” Wilson concludes. “The conflict between the individual and the group is unstable and incapable of final resolution…We have to snuffle our way along to resolutions…generation by generation.”
Wilson suggests that progress toward universal wisdom will be made when organized religions finally give up or at least “tone down” their creation stories and concede to the superior ability of science to grasp reality. He extols global information exchange and “the homogenization of the human species” through global gene exchange, which will create “even greater diversity” and “new levels of genius [and] cooperation.”
Most importantly, Wilson looks forward to the day when “the three great branches of learning “—the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities—can be “linked in a new and creative manner.“ I take this to mean the humanities will be probed and manipulated by science like rural abductees onboard a wobbling flying saucer.**
Paradise or Nightmare?
E. O. Wilson’s evolutionary perspective on the human condition provides valuable insights—particularly the human analogies to animal behavior. We share much in common with the ants and the apes, and science has certainly fleshed out crucial details of nature’s revelations. Whether or not morality is independent of biology, virtue and vice have illuminating parallels in the animal kingdom.
It is Wilson’s utopian vision of total consilience that should be disturbing. The unity of knowledge through scientific inquiry would be a scientist’s paradise and a prophet’s nightmare.
Scientists have been diligent in excommunicating spiritual reality from their sphere, condemning any departure from strict naturalism as non-scientific. It seems presumptuous, then, for any scientist to claim that the scientific method will produce a superior critique of art, history, literature, or theology. Advances in biology and cosmology can only enrich the humanities; but so long as free will and creativity endure, the human spirit will evade complete quantification.
Given the defensiveness of the scientific community, consilience sounds more like an intellectual raid than a friendly exchange.