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.

Philosophers and social scientists aren't going to be too happy with your assessment of them in this book.

I expect a lot of opposition. If I don't get it then I've failed; I'm trying to shift the domain of discourse. What I'm suggesting to the social scientists is that the time is long overdue for them to start looking for a foundational discipline, in the manner that has fueled the spectacular success of the natural sciences. I ask, "What are you waiting for?" The obvious foundational disciplines at this point are being explored mostly by the biological sciences: neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral genetics, and environmental science. It's there that the social scientists could gain both depth and perhaps the beginnings of much greater predictive power than they've enjoyed to date. They also have a great deal to contribute.

I don't disrespect individual philosophers; they include some of the most brilliant minds alive today. But I see philosophy itself as being in a twilight, with the philosophers themselves metamorphosing in their activities and joining disciplines other than what used to be called classical philosophy. When you look at the work of the most active philosophers today, you find that they divide roughly into three classes. Some philosophers -- Daniel Dennett and Patricia and Paul Churchland, for example -- are theoretical neuroscientists. I don't believe they would be offended by that title. That's what they have become. They're called neurophilosophers sometimes, but they're really theoretical neuroscientists. A second category comprises the intellectual historians. A great many of the people who call themselves philosophers are actually intellectual historians -- and they are very good at it. The third class comprises what you might call critics or public philosophers, which includes ethicists. They take what we know from science and case histories and attempt to arrive at wise judgments about public policy and social behavior.

Philosophy's principal occupation has always been to wonder about what we don't know and to frame the discourse of inquiry. It's true, of course, that there is a vast amount we don't know, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that the best way to learn about the unknown is by the methods of the natural sciences. So, not surprisingly, some of the more creative minds in philosophy are gravitating toward science itself as the principal mode of intellectual activity.

We may soon have gene maps and human clones. We're beginning to understand how to alter the earth's climate. We're learning how to manipulate memory, emotions, even the aging process. Surely all that will give philosophers plenty to do.

There's plenty of room, but to the extent that philosophers succeed in these various activities, I think people will be less inclined to call them philosophers. We will call them something else -- something just as honorable as what they have been called for many centuries.

You worry repeatedly in Consilience about scientific literacy in this country.

Yes, I do. In spite of the scientific revolution, and in spite of the fact that a good deal of the triumph of the industrialized countries is based on science and technological spin-offs of science, the public as a whole remains largely scientifically illiterate. This is widely recognized as a key problem in American education.

What is the best way to overcome it? It takes inspired teachers to start. A really good teacher can bring students into science by example, by providing experience -- out in the field, in a lab -- that gets students to like science. But another way of teaching science, which I adopted during forty years of teaching at Harvard, is to instruct from the top down, and make the subjects relevant.

By that I mean that you don't start with elements like calculus or analytic geometry. These have to be taught, but you don't say to students that they have to understand the elements before they can grasp science. You start from the top, particularly in the beginning courses, with the big topics that mean something immediate and important to people. For example: What is life? What's the meaning of life? What is the meaning of sex? Why do we have to die? What is the meaning of the aging process? And so on. When you've got the attention of the audience, then you break the big questions down into subsidiary questions that involve scientific subjects.

I found at Harvard that I could take mathophobes and students who had very little interest in science, and by examining a subject like the meaning of sex and breaking it down I could soon have the whole class deriving a basic equation from first principles in population genetics and pondering at considerable length the chemical basis of the genetic code. If I'd started the other way, from the bottom up, I think I would have lost half the class in the first couple of weeks. So that's one way to increase interest in science: make it immediate, personal, and interesting by proceeding from the top down with questions that students really care about and understand intuitively from the start.

At the end of Consilience you come up with a designation for what you hope we don't become -- Homo proteus, or "shapechanger man." Can you indulge your imagination for a bit and describe what you think we'll be like a few centuries from now? Will we have evolved into something different?

No, I don't think so. That's what I meant by "existential conservatism" at the close of the book. I think that for as far ahead as you and I are capable of imagining -- many generations, centuries -- humanity will settle down. I don't mean it will stagnate, but it will settle down. People will recognize that human nature is our essence, with "human nature" being the ensemble of inborn epigenetic rules that govern our behavior. I think we'll come to realize that we've got such an extraordinarily rich and precious inheritance that for a long, long time to come we will not want to change it. We will hold to the core of our humanity.

Probably, during the coming century -- which I like to call the "century of the environment" -- we'll realize that we have to put our house in order, that we have to bring the populations in balance with the resources of the world and the physical environment of the world. We will, I hope, reduce the number of scientific and technological prostheses that we depend on from one week to the next in order to keep civilization from collapsing. As human populations decline, moving down to more sustainable levels, there will be more room for open space, wilderness, and the continued existence of the natural flora and fauna of the world -- and this will allow us to preserve the diversity of life and even let it grow back. From that diversity we will be able to draw immense amounts of knowledge and pleasure in perpetuity. And it will keep humanity's options open. Our brains, I am convinced, did not evolve to be confined to urban life and virtual reality, however ingeniously contrived.

I think we'll be moving toward more and more scientific and technological sophistication, but I doubt if we'll seriously devote much time to something like space colonization, for example. The sophistication will probably go more toward the miniaturization of our technology and the increasingly efficient use of energy systems. That is an equally challenging goal, and the one necessary for human survival.

We can't predict what political systems we will end up with, whether continuing as nation-tribes or one world. No one can predict that. But certainly the future of science and the creative arts is without limit. And I emphasize that latter part, because one of the scenarios that people fear most is human stagnation. I don't think stagnation is in the books, even if we confine ourselves for a few more centuries to this planet.

Is it even possible that humans can evolve into anything other than humans?

I think that's a question that has no answer now -- except to say that for the foreseeable future we will decide to hold on tightly to what we have and what we are. You may recall that in the last chapter of Consilience I look to the future in human evolution, and the only directional evolutionary change I envisage is the elimination of genetic disease. I think that can be accomplished in the near future. And in addition there will be a homogenization of the gene pool, a blending of races. I don't see any way out of that. I think it's desirable, in fact. That's where we're headed: homogenization along with the elimination of deleterious genes. But I want to emphasize that we are just on the verge of the systematic, physical, cause-and-effect study of human nature. Where we go from here probably depends on what and how much we learn about our own fundamental nature.

What scientific fields of study would you counsel children today to pursue?

I would look to the major unexplored areas, at least for those with professional hopes. One of my favorites -- one where I would go if I could start all over again now -- is microbiology, particularly microbial ecology: the diversity of microorganisms, their ecology, and the study of the enormous impact they have on the planet. Then there is the unstoppable field of neuroscience -- a wonderful area to go into. It's picking up steam now, and -- like molecular biology in the 1950s -- even after a great deal has been accomplished the prospect for discoveries and expansion over the next several decades is still simply enormous. I would say that work in developmental biology, explaining how more-complex organisms and the organs within them are assembled and brought through to normal development, is a major area for young people to go into now. It includes, for example, cancer research. And I would also put the finger on community ecology: the study of how ecosystems are put together and of what maintains them at particular levels of diversity and productivity. The questions to be answered include: What is a natural ecosystem? What happens to it when it's modified artificially? How does a natural ecosystem like a rainforest in New Guinea or an oligotrophic lake in Canada come into existence? How did the species invade it, which ones were able to fit together, what combinations and processes had to be incorporated into the assembly of these ecosystems to make them self-sustaining? We have vague ideas about all of this, and we know a lot about the interactions of species in twos and threes and fours, but most community ecology is simply unknown. It's a great area for the future.

It's rare to find a scientist who's as eloquent a writer as you. Has writing always come to you naturally? Have any writers -- scientific, literary, or otherwise -- had a particular influence on you?

Writing has come easily to me since grade school -- far easier than mathematics! I was most influenced during my early years by certain writers who appealed to my adolescent soul with talk of rebellion and adventure: Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and Philip Wylie. The importance of first-read authors, in my opinion, can't be overestimated.

Speaking of reading, you seem to do a lot of it. How do you keep up in so many different disciplines?

Well, I'm a workaholic and a compulsive reader. There you have it. I'm also in the process of doing a monograph on about twenty percent of the ant species of the Western Hemisphere, to keep my lifelong passion alive. I'm classifying, illustrating, and compiling everything known about approximately 650 species of ants. I've done more than 5,000 drawings. That all gives me a visceral pleasure. It's a profession that turned into an avocation. So, that is what I do -- I read and work most of the time.

And I've found that the more I think through what the relationships of the disciplines are, the more interesting are particular subjects that might otherwise have just been fragments to skim over in books and journals. When you can connect them up, they're just much more interesting. Within the past ten years, while I've been building toward this book, I've enjoyed reading articles in scholarly journals in subjects ranging from neuroscience to the history of music -- with a pleasure that I think would have escaped me before. In short, I recognize consilience as a mental habit.

If you had to be remembered for one thing in the scientific pantheon, what would it be?

That's like asking somebody to choose among their children! Another way of putting that question is, If you had to give up everything you've done except for one thing, what would you keep? I wouldn't give up any of it.