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E. O. Wilson and Consilience May 2, 1998
 
Wilson's use of the word "consilience" is not innocent. Like medieval appeals to divine right of kingship, Wilson's appeal to the Enlightenment and its association with consilience represent an effort to establish an external authority on which to pin the authority of his own ideas. And yet in choosing the Enlightenment for such authority he has fashioned a golden calf, as the world view inherent in evolutionary biology is nothing but the triumph of the flesh over reason, which view the Enlightenment (in all of its national manifestations) would have found horrifying. Wilson's coupling of consilience with the Enlightenment is a rhetorical device and nothing more.

I cannot imagine a worse foundation on which to unify the humanities and the sciences than evolutionary biology. The humanities and sciences are preeminently activities and products of the mind, and evolutionary biology has (in general) assessed the mind quite succinctly: as we typically conceive it, it doesn't exist. There is a wonderful marriage of spirit with postmodernism here, yet art, science, and religion become epiphenomenon that can have no certain meaning in this assessment, because we no longer have an "organ" with the independence to determine objective meanings. Certainly the "brain" as seen by the materialists couldn't qualify for such duty. To my mind these very dubious assessments undermine the objectivity of all thought, including evolutionary biology, but this obvious conundrum does not seem to ruffle Wilson's convictions in the slightest.

Sociobiologists have long asserted that there is no separation between biology and culture; following this notion Wilson more specifically asserts that ethics and religion are similarly biological in origin. These assertions naturally follow from the notion that the mind is a vapor of the brain. But we should look a little more carefully at this close coupling of biology and culture. A. L. Kroeber, one of the fathers of American anthropology, warned seventy years ago that the mechanics of biological evolution and culture are of wholly different orders:

"...a comparison of the acquisition of the power of flight respectively by birds in their organic development out of the ancestral reptile stem some millions of years ago, and by men as a result of cultural progress in the field of invention during the past generation, reveals at once the profound differences of process that inhere in the ambiguous concept of "evolution." The bird gave up a pair of walking legs to acquire wings. He added a new faculty by transforming part of an old one. The sum total of his parts or organs was not greater than before. The change was transmitted only to the blood descendents of the altered individuals. The reptile line went on as it had before, or if it altered, did so for causes unconnected with the evolution of birds. The aero plane, on the contrary, gave men a new faculty without impairing any of those they previously possessed. It led to no visible bodily changes, nor alterations of mental capacity. The invention has been transmitted to individuals and groups not derived by descent from the inventors; in fact, has already influenced their careers. Theoretically, it is transmissible to ancestors if they happen to still be living. In sum, it represents an accretion to the stock of existing culture rather than a transformation. [...]

"Accordingly, the designation of anthropology as a "child of Darwin" is most misleading. Darwin's essential achievement is that he imagined, and substantiated by much indirect evidence, a mechanism by which organic evolution appeared to be taking place. The whole history of man however being much more than an organic matter, a pure Darwinian anthropology would be largely misapplied biology. One might almost as justly speak of a Copernican or Newtonian anthropology.

"What has greatly influenced anthropology, mainly to its damage, has not been Darwinism, but the vague idea of evolution, to the organic aspect of which Darwin gave such substance that the whole group of evolutionistic ideas has luxuriated rankly ever since." (1)


Kroeber's view sounds quaint in today's stark atmosphere, particularly when he uses qualifiers such as "the whole history of man however being much more than an organic matter." And yet the pluralistic texture of his thought is more impervious to ideological corruption than is the monism of Wilson and consilience. His critique of the ambiguity inherent in the concept of evolution and how it is often misapplied to human culture seems as valid now as then.

One of the few efforts to chart the evolution of culture without recourse to biology has been by Karl Popper, another pluralist. Naturally enough, Popper begins with a view of the mind that is radically different from that proposed by evolutionary biology, and it attempts to explain art and science in terms of both mind and the physical world. The depth of Popper's model is in part made possible by his early admission that the problem of the mind's relation to the body (which evolutionary biology solves by eliminating the mind) is probably insoluble. But a deep, coherent model that explains many things in their proper relations, though it rests on a question mark, seems preferable to a shallow, coherent model that explains many things by defining them out of existence.

The picture of humankind inherent in evolutionary biology can do little but trivialize religion, the humanities, and the sciences. If the picture it paints is true then we must say "good riddance" to them. But I think the picture is false.

Notes:

(1) A. L. Kroeber, Anthropology, Harcourt Brace (1923)


 
   
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