Consilience Revisited

Consilience Revisited


Laura Dassow Walls reconsiders Consilience and finds E. O. Wilson to be more Christian in outlook than the Reverend William Whewell, who originated the term, ‘consilience’

Edward O. Wilson is the founder of Sociobiology and is widely regarded to be the world’s most famous living scientist. Recently, Wilson seized the word “consilience” from deep within the history of science and reintroduced it into our language by emblazoning it across the cover of his latest best-seller, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In this book, Wilson offers to unify the “two cultures” of literature and science for once and forever, as “the way to renew the crumbling structure of the liberal arts” (12). It is an offer many of my colleagues find attractive, for Wilson carries enormous authority both as a natural scientist and as an eloquent speaker for the environmentally appealing concepts of “biophilia” and “biodiversity.” He has well-nigh captured the Thoreau Society: for example, in June 1998 he joined Bill and Hillary Clinton as a featured guest at the opening of the Thoreau Institute, delivering a brief address which has been reprinted as the Preface to the Thoreau Society’s collection of Thoreau’s writings on science, which I edited and entitled Material Faith.

Yet despite this apparent convergence, Wilson’s is an offer which I must refuse. First, I believe that far from healing the breach between the two cultures, Wilson opens it all the wider: “Works of art,” he writes, “communicate feeling directly from mind to mind, with no intent to explain why the impact occurs. In this defining quality, the arts are the antithesis of science” (218). Science, on the other hand, gathers knowledge in an ordered and systematized way and condenses it “into testable laws and principles” (53). Wilson thus reconstructs the old Victorian opposition between “feeling” and “fact,” with a modern twist: art now is reducible to “biologically evolved epigenetic rules” (213). Art is, in short, not a form of knowing but of expressing, and what it expresses are the emotions engendered by our biology and explained, along with all else, by the knowing scientist. Few artists or literary scholars will find this analysis persuasive. Wilson may hope to have unified the two cultures, but while he is speaking, too many of his literary colleagues have left the room, convinced that scientists are as arrogant and illiterate as ever they were in Snowdonia.

Second, and more disappointing still, is Wilson’s programmatic dismissal of history. In what I take to be a glancing aside to his vocal opponent, Stephen Jay Gould, Wilson asserts, “It is not enough to say that human action is historical, and that history is an unfolding of unique events. Nothing fundamental separates the course of human history from the course of physical history, whether in the stars or in organic diversity.” (Gould, by contrast, suggests that organic diversity is precisely “an unfolding of unique events,” every bit as contingent as human history.) For Wilson, human history ultimately folds into evolutionary history, and fails being a science only because of limitations on its subject matter: could historiography study “ten thousand humanoid histories” on “ten thousand Earthlike planets,” history too would be a natural science (11). However, since we are limited to a single planet, history must seek its “abstract principles and evidentiary proof” in its parent disciplines of science. This correlates with Wilson’s view of literature: both literature and history are part of culture, which is epiphenomenal to - or growing out of - natural law.

Having dismissed “the unfolding of unique events” which is history, Wilson does not find it useful to consider the life and work of the Victorian polymath, William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, our first historian of science and the originator of the term “consilience.” Wilson’s entire explication of his intellectual ancestor consists of a single sentence followed by a two-sentence quotation.

William Whewell, in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was the first to speak of consilience, literally a “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. He said, “The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.” (8)

Wilson adds that consilience is not, after all, a science but “a metaphysical world view” whose strongest appeal lies in the “intellectual adventure” it offers (9). Here, at least, I am compelled to agree: I too responded to the sense of adventure offered by the concept when I used the word “consilience” in the title of my 1992 Ph.D. dissertation, in which I argued that the works of a literary author, Henry David Thoreau, demonstrated the “consilience” of science and literature. Yet unlike Wilson I pursued my own metaphysical adventure into history. As I put it in the published version, Seeing New Worlds, I went about combining literary history and analysis with the history of science so as to suggest that Thoreau’s

act of consilience seeks to give voice to all the participating agents, not by blending them together but by giving each a distinct hearing in a medium of sustained attention. In consiliating literature and science, Thoreau tried to enable and enact both, as real knowledge situated in, not beyond, the world. (11-12)

I followed Whewell’s own use of the word, as a process enacted in history by historically-embedded minds. Perhaps, then, one way to respond to Wilson would be to turn to history, where one might find a very different vision of the unity of the two cultures.

But why does Wilson need to dismiss history at all? Because, in his view, it was history that killed off the promise of the Enlightenment; Wilson’s project, then, is to retrieve the Enlightenment by killing off history. For as Wilson asserts, the great “vision of secular knowledge in the service of human rights and human progress” that was the Enlightenment (14) led instead, catastrophically, to the nightmare of the French Revolution, after which “Reason fractured, intellectuals lost faith in the leadership of science, and the prospect of the unity of knowledge sharply declined” (38). Only the “spirit” of the Enlightenment lived on, buoyed above the dreary stream of quotidian events. Intellectuals lost faith in science, “Science traveled its own way” (38), and Romantic poets like Wordsworth turned their backs on science altogether to “escape to a higher realm through art” (35). Wilson’s nineteenth century is exceedingly bleak, a startling contrast with the picture painted by historians of science, who have characterized it as “the Age of Science,” even “the second Scientific Revolution.” How might the picture change if instead of following Wilson, we retrieve the historical figure Wilson invokes, William Whewell? How do their two versions of “consilience” compare?

To begin with, what Wilson means by “consilience” comes clear when he ventures that “The cutting edge of science is reductionism, the breaking apart of nature into its natural constituents” (54). The strongest form of reductionism is “total consilience” (55); as Wilson summarizes:

The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics. (266)

If one did want to locate this statement historically, one path would lead through the assertions of the American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Emerson’s view, science is the study of the governing laws of nature, and these laws give us our moral direction, such that “The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics” (CW 1:21) - a path Wilson implicitly acknowledges when he labels his “consilience” a “transcendental world view” (55). Yet surprisingly, this is not what one finds in William Whewell. In fact, Whewell’s language is squarely the opposite of Wilson’s: where Wilson is reductive, Whewell is additive; where Wilson points downward to more “fundamental” levels, Whewell points upward to ever higher generalities (TSM 159). When Whewell visualizes the progress of scientific knowledge, his metaphor is not alchemical but alluvial: “the streams of knowledge from various classes of facts will constantly run together into a smaller and smaller number of channels” (TSM 163). As he adds in his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837), “The Table of the progress of any science would thus resemble the Map of a River, in which the waters from separate sources unite and make rivulets, which again meet with rivulets from other fountains, and thus go on forming by their junction trunks of a higher and higher order” (SW 11).

In Whewell’s image of science as a river, every stage in its development retains its separate identity: earlier truths are “taken up” and “included” in later doctrines (SW 8) and nothing “reduces” to anything else. As a stream does not “reduce” to a river, points downstream are not “reductive” but “confluent”; generalizations contain the particulars of which they are composed and will themselves, through a similar process of alliance, become components of “higher” or “larger” generalizations still farther downstream. Thus rather than a causal sequence, Whewell constructs a connective network, and leaves open the possibility of emergent properties; unlike Wilson’s reductive metaphor, Whewell’s alluvial metaphor is untroubled by the failure of simple components to predict complex behaviors.

As his word “trunk” suggests, Whewell’s “river” recalls a second embodiment of this figure, the “genealogical tree,” which “will contain all the leading truths of the science arranged in their due co-ordination and subordination” (TSM 163). Whewell’s genealogical “Tree of Science” will mutate shortly afterwards, in Darwin’s hands, into the evolutionary tree that embodies the genealogy of life itself. Darwin’s “Tree of Life” turns God’s instantaneous creation into an excruciatingly tedious historical process, in which slow increments of change form a material chain of connection growing from the ground upward into a now-godless sky. The connection here between Darwin and Whewell is not incidental: even as Darwin’s species, bereft of uplifting skyhooks, must build themselves from the ground up, so must Whewell’s scientific inductions; science, for Whewell, is primarily a historical process, a human construction built step-by-step, each step marked by the idiosyncratic stages that preceded it, and in turn marking all that follow. Thus science cannot be lifted out of its history, for here, too, there are no skyhooks - or in Whewell’s own words, “From a pictured hook we can hang only a pictured chain” (SW 12).

By contrast, E. O. Wilson would lift science out of history, bearing it up on the skyhook of truth that is absolute and transcendent rather than historical. That is, in his “transcendental world view,” the laws of physics become the skyhook on which not only all science, but all humanity, will be hung. In the duo of Wilson and Whewell, Whewell may have been the minister, but as an historian as well as a scientist it was, ironically, Whewell who was obliged to be skeptical about the kind of faith Wilson professes. For the historian of science must document how “truth” is built from the ground up; how (to continue with the figure of “skyhooks,” borrowed from Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) the cranes of theory are erected and made to lift the building blocks of empirical evidence into place. Take away the cranes, and truth does appear to be transcendent; the value of the history of science lies in the way it reconstructs the vanished cranes, showing how there might have been other building sites and other methods of construction - without, however, disputing the constancy of the underlying physical principles. In short, science can offer to represent the world, but it still cannot become the world, no matter how virtually persuasive.

Francis Bacon offers a figure for this, which Wilson quotes as the epigraph to Consilience: “Thus have I made as it were a small globe of the intellectual world, as truly and faithfully as I could discover.” Wilson thus lays claim to Bacon as another intellectual ancestor; interestingly, Whewell, too, saw himself as Bacon’s heir, so much so that he tried to rewrite Bacon for post-Kantian modernity. This is, in fact, why Whewell develops Bacon’s concept of induction in such detail, introducing the powerful new concept of “consilience,” or the coincidence of inductions. Yet in Whewell there is a crucial new element to this coincidence, the role of the mind:

An Induction is not the mere sum of the Facts…The Facts are not only brought together, but seen in a new point of view. A new mental Element is superinduced; and a peculiar constitution and discipline of mind are requisite in order to make this Induction (TSM 139).

Facts do not simply merge, but as he says shortly, have “jumped together” (TSM 153) - and this “leap” is a creative act of the mind, “a new conception, a principle of connexion and unity,” “a formative act exerted by the understanding” (TSM 163). Hence “consilience” is not a description of a passive occurrence but of an active process; consiliences are not found but forged.

Indeed, Whewell is most interested in how, once forged, the new fact appears so natural and obvious that the process of making it is quite forgotten: “Although in every inductive inference, an act of invention is requisite, the act soon slips out of notice.” Or as he metaphorizes, “The pearls once strung, they seem to form a chain by their nature” (TSM 143). Whewell wrote often about the necessary coming together of fact and idea, thing and thought, or nature and mind. As he said most succinctly, “Facts involve Thoughts, for we know Facts only by thinking about them” (SW 146). It is this insight that allows science to have a history, for the progress of knowledge becomes dependent on historically situated acts of interpretation; and it also explains why science is a peculiarly European phenomenon, for once science becomes a particular way of knowing, it can be seen to have a specific geographic location (namely, Europe) and a contingent narrative of progress. “And even at this day,” Whewell writes,

the tribes of uncivilized and half-civilized man over the whole face of the earth, have before their eyes a vast body of facts, of exactly the same nature as those with which Europe has built the stately fabric of her physical philosophy; but, in almost every other part of the earth, the process of the intellect by which these facts become science, is unknown. The scientific faculty does not work. The scattered stones are there, but the builder’s hand is wanting. (SW 6)

“Consilience,” the “builder’s hand,” is itself a historical phenomenon by which the human mind participates in truth, stringing pearls in chains which, when they hold together, seem then to have always been strung exactly thus.

Whewell’s is a far more modest vision than Wilson’s, in part because Whewell is certain of the key role played by the interpreter in what is not a transcendent seeing, but a situated reading, of nature. Given this background, there is some irony in Wilson’s rejection of Whewell’s understanding as “postmodern,” the property of that “rebel crew milling beneath the black flag of anarchy” who proclaim that reality “is a state constructed by the mind, not perceived by it,” who deny objective truth and firmly-grounded ethics, and undermine scientific culture as “just another way of knowing, and, moreover, contrived mostly by European and American white males” (40-42). Wilson himself admits as much some pages later when he comments that it is because science is so difficult to master that “it took so long to get started, and then mostly in one place, which happened to be western Europe” (55). Yet what might seem an unwitting convergence is really Wilson’s point of departure: science does indeed require a particular cultural and religious setting, namely, European and Judeo-Christian. Why, Wilson asks, did China produce no Descartes or Newton? Most importantly, because they didn’t believe in God:

No rational Author of Nature existed in their universe; consequently the objects they meticulously described did not follow universal principles, but instead operated within particular rules followed by those entities in the cosmic order. In the absence of a compelling need for the notion of general laws - thoughts in the mind of God, so to speak - little or no search was made for them. (31)

Unlike the Chinese, Judeo-Christian thinkers sought universal laws authored by a single all-creative mind; therefore, the scientific culture they produced cannot be “just another way of knowing” but the way of knowing, characterizing not just Europe, but the Cosmos. The success claimed by science is not just that it is coherent, or that, pragmatically, it works, but that it is transcendentally true, a belief pegged to Judeo-Christian theology. Early in the book, Wilson speculates that “science is religion liberated and writ large,” “another way of satisfying religious hunger” (6). Despite his protestations that science is “neither a philosophy nor a belief system,” but only a method, “a combination of mental operations” (45), Wilson’s own language of “Enchantment” and the fervency of his faith in reductionism, the “transcendental world view” he names “Consilience,” give away his deep allegiance to science as a Christian faith reborn from historical superstition to the universal truth of nature, a faith that characterized a great many nineteenth-century intellectuals. In this faith, the universe is knowable to the mind of man because it was designed by the mind of God, a mind in Man’s image, and so the scientist who grasps those ultimate generative laws of the universe will finally close the circle of creation by seeing with God’s eyes - or in Stephen Hawking’s notorious speculation, a complete theory of the universe “would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would know the mind of God” (175).

Wilson writes as a scientist, imbuing every page with the sublime authority that allows him to mangle history without penalty and dismiss his opponents without argument; yet by his own criteria, his “consilience” is not the creative leap that forges an alliance between two empirical truths, an alliance tested against the resistance of the physical world; it is a leap of faith, beyond empirical verification, into a metaphysics with its own rich history. Wilson suggests that “The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science” (54). Those of us who love both science and unreduced complexity can take heart: as I hope this brief venture has shown, restoring history to language and metaphor can reconnect science with literature and humanity in a consilience that sacrifices neither complexity nor truth.

Such a move helps locate Wilson in a genealogy well worthy of attention: although Wilson’s Sociobiology descends from evolutionary history, by skyhooking the narrative out of history and the interpreter out of science, Wilson effectively returns us to the decades before Darwin, when the ancestors of today’s scientists used their positions as intellectual leaders to provide nourishment for the era’s deep religious hunger, assuring their audiences that the world was not shattered into unmeaning but shaped into one great whole, drawn together by the strength of God’s generative laws, the beneficence of His design, and the God-given power of the human mind to follow the plenitude of Creation back to its source in a single mighty Word - to fold the Many back into the One. Ironically, Darwin’s evolutionary tree is the very story/image on which Wilson relies, but by stripping it of its historical context, Wilson eliminates the key role of the story-teller. Wilson thus returns us to the realm of natural theology - to a renewal of the natural theology that, in Whewell’s day, appeared to be crumbling into the dust of the past.

works cited

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971.

Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Walls, Laura Dassow, ed. Material Faith: Thoreau on Science. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

___. Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1995.

Whewell, William. Selected Writings on the History of Science. Ed. Yehuda Elkana. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

___. Theory of Scientific Method. Ed. Robert E. Butts. 1968. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1989.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf, 1998.

This essay grew out of an extended correspondence with Lee Sterrenburg over the course of the summer 1998. My thanks to Lee for his encouragement - and for introducing me to Whewell and to “consilience” in the first place.