Books & Authors

A conversation with Edward O. Wilson

March 18, 1998


"Enough!" Edward O. Wilson cries out halfway through his new book, (from which The Atlantic's March cover story, "Back from Chaos," is drawn). "A century of misunderstanding, the drawn-out Verdun and Somme of Western intellectual history, has run its exhausting course, and the culture wars are an old game turned stale. It is time to call a truce and forge an alliance." That alliance, Wilson writes, must be made between the sciences and the humanities -- realms of study, he feels, that are presently not on speaking terms, despite the fact that all are asking the same questions: What are we? Where do we come from? How shall we decide where to go?

Wilson's goal in Consilience is to convince readers of the need to finish what the great thinkers of the Enlightenment began several centuries ago: the unification of all knowledge through the joining together of the great branches of learning. This is a tall order by any reckoning, but Wilson contends that not attempting to meet it -- in other words, conceding that the world in all of its various manifestations is too complex for us to know -- "is the white flag of the secular intellectual, the lazy modernist equivalent of The Will of God."
will undoubtedly be controversial, particularly in an era when the search for absolutes is so unfashionable. But as The Atlantic's March editors' column, 77 North Washington Street, reveals, Wilson himself is living proof that the sciences and the humanities can be merged, and he welcomes the controversy Consilience is likely to provoke. Controversy, after all, means debate, and debate in this case may get those working in the sciences and the humanities thinking about one another in new ways. The philosopher Richard Rorty has already made known his opposition to the premise of Consilience in an article titled "Against Unity" in the Winter, 1998, issue of The Wilson Quarterly. No doubt many others will also soon take the bait.

Wilson recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Toby Lester.

You study and write about, among other things, ants, the organization of animal societies, human nature, and the ecological stewardship of the planet. How did you end up with such a variety of interests?

E. O. Wilson

I ended up that way because since boyhood I've been a naturalist. Early on I recognized that there were two kinds of biologists. The first group comprises those who select a problem to work on and then look around for the ideal organism to solve the problem. In many cases, that's a good way to win a Nobel Prize. The other way is to select a group of organisms and devote your life to it. A great deal of what I've done -- leading up from the study of ants to the study of social behavior in animals to the study of human social behavior and then on to diversity and conservation -- has been an outcome of that second approach. I was a senior in high school when I decided I wanted to work on ants as a career. I just fell in love with them, and have never regretted it.

What do you think about the philosopher Richard Rorty's response to Consilience in the current Wilson Quarterly? Do you buy his argument that in using our minds and deciding what to do with ourselves we no more need to know how our brains work than we need to know how our computer hardware works when we use a software program?

No, I don't buy the argument. The hardware-software distinction in considering the human condition and the relationship between science and the humanities is obsolete. It is a major oversimplification and misleading in view of what we now know about neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Now we know that there is no outside agent who designed the "hardware" -- our brain -- and uses it to program desired thoughts and activities; instead the hardware itself has evolved to absorb the kind of information and to create forms of social relations that give us the maximum likelihood of survival and reproduction. Because of evolution by natural selection, the brain seeks and prefers certain programs; whether these programs succeed in turn determines, over many generations, the nature of the brain, and thus influences the programs accepted.

Rorty says that knowing what we are doesn't help us determine what to do with ourselves. You feel that it does.

Yes, profoundly so. Literally in every atom of our being. Our bodies are exquisitely designed by more than a billion years of evolution to live in a particular physical environment -- atmosphere, water conditions, PH, and so on -- and similarly our brains are designed to live within a narrow range of social environments, to react to the physical environment in adaptive ways. The various "epigenetic rules" -- that is, the hereditary predispositions in our mental development -- are coming increasingly to light. I believe they'll be a major subject of future research in both science and the humanities.

Rorty remarks that although it may well be possible at some point to explain how everything in the natural world works, "there are many things we need to do other than represent the way things really are." Do you agree? Do musicians, say, need to know anything about cell biology or quantum physics?

No. Musicians and others in the creative arts don't need science to create and perform. I think Rorty missed my point. The creative arts are a very different enterprise from science, which seeks an empirical understanding of human material existence, including why and how we're creative. The creative arts -- and the activity of conveying aesthetic and emotional experience directly from one mind to the next, by all of the sensory modalities -- are the result of individual intuition and creativity. I believe we can understand this intuition and creativity by knowing more about the material explanation of the human condition. Why we respond certain ways to beauty and creativity is owing to underlying epigenetic rules, and knowing what they are will certainly help the interpretation of the creative arts. But it's not going to produce another Picasso or Beethoven. That comes from intuitive experience and creative genius, and represents a form of communication that does not require a cause-and-effect explanation. So, in that sense I'm in agreement with Rorty. I think.

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