Some weeks ago I finished Consilience, by EO Wilson.
The book is grandly ambitious, informative, critical and didactic. And while few people would agree with everything that Wilson says, fewer still could claim that they are not better off for having read the book.
First we are given sweeping overviews of the major disciplines of knowledge; a report of the condition, progress, and challenges of each discipline. This is then placed into a broad context, like approximate positioning of pieces at the start of a jigsaw puzzle. Finally, Wilson examines the gaps between these islands of human knowledge and argues that the greatest potential now lies there, in these gaps.
Wilson, who is, by the way, a biologist with an incredible career, examines the methods by which the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities could unite. He explores the benefits of sharing knowledge, ideas, techniques, and perspectives. While this is already taking place, he says, great amount of progress is unrealized because of resistance to unification.
The scientist acknowledges the necessity for different approaches used by each discipline, and, for example, the tremendous difficulty of applying a computational model to applications much more complex than simplified problems in the natural sciences. But while acknowledging these limitations he also argues that some of them no longer exist and that the rest are destined to disappear. He challenges the reader to consider just how many of the barriers persist out of tradition, close-mindedness, or protectionism. In considering the huge chasms between areas of study, he evokes arguments like those made by CP Snow in his ‘Two Cultures’.
There were several frustrating segments that seemed over-simplified or over-generalized, containing an almost naïve criticism of the state of affairs. But in a book of a few hundred pages that contains within its scope the breadth of human knowledge, it is important to remember the scale and perspective from which the author speaks.But it was the final sections of the book that really struck me. In them, the biologist looks at what mankind’s pursuit of knowledge might soon uncover and what we might achieve through consilience. He addresses some of the greatest challenges we face today — serious daunting challenges that we have already ignored to the point of irreparable damage. Wilson eloquently reviews the facts about depletion of natural resources, climate change, genetic engineering and the rapid loss of biological diversity. These are topics not likely to be new to any of his readers, but they are powerful within the context of the rest of the book. I found them striking also because here they were, collected in one place, written half my lifetime ago — and so little done to address them.