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Book Forum: HISTORY   |    
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1796-1797.
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

by Edward O. Wilson. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, 334 pp., $26.00.

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An intellectual pleasure in practicing psychiatry lies in the way we may bring the range of human learning to bear upon our daily clinical work. We agree that all is united in the patient. And yet, for all that we integrate, we proceed with a sense of theoretical strain, disconnection, and incompleteness. The less and less medical psychoanalytic movement courts humanists; drug companies market psychoactive drugs to generalist nontherapist physicians; cookbook psychopharmacology dreams of a neuraxis free of human contexts; and anthropology is given little attention. Our field was never so in need of E.O. Wilson’s call for "consilience," or the interlocking of causal explanation across disciplines, a term first used by William Whewell in 1840. The book is a one-volume guide to all disciplines from a noted Harvard entomologist, unmatched student of the ants, and author of sociobiology. It is forward looking in that it critically examines each branch of knowledge in regard to its distance from consilient science, and yet it is conservative, or conservationist, in its scholarly brief for the preservation of the natural world, including ancient human nature, into the far scientific future. This summing up makes for another millennium book, but a welcome compendium because Wilson has gathered such a cornucopia of knowledge to be linked up, and even his plea for consilience is itself consilient.His motivation, which Wilson calls his Ionian enchantment, goes back to the Ionian Thales, who believed in the unity of science—and that all matter consists of water—and Ernst May, who synthesized Darwinism and modern genetics in the 1940s. Wilson traces the history of enlightened science (which has doubled in practitioners, discoveries, and journals every 15 years from 1700 to 1970) and transcendental antiscience through the ages down to the postmodernist "posture" of "subversion." To Foucault he would say, if he could, "It’s not so bad" (p. 43). He damns the postmodernists, "today’s celebrants of corybantic Romanticism" (p. 44), with faint praise: "Their ideas are like sparks from firework explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light on unexpected subjects" (p. 44).Wilson distinguishes the simpler feat of consilience by reduction or dissection into elements from the formidable task of consilience by predictive synthesis: from physics to end points such as biology and the arts is unimaginably more complex. He gives a marvelous example from his own work, his reductive discovery of ant alarm pheromones, and then the task of predictive synthesis of the specifications of their molecular identity and use by a certain species prior to the experiments that end in the environment and social life of the ants. After tracing an American Indian shaman’s dream to its molecular psychotropic stimulation, he discusses the Freud versus Hobson theories of dreaming in a most intelligent and consilient way. He raises the possibility that both theories can be "made more concrete and verifiable by neurobiology" (p. 78) and the possibility that "the brain is genetically predisposed to fabricate some images more than others" (p. 78)."Most biologists favor middle-level models in their theory of cell integration-neither primarily mathematical nor purely descriptive but instead front-loaded with large amounts of empirical information and conceived as genetic networks" (p. 92). Cognitive neurosciences and recurrent neural networks are the cutting edge of the juncture of biology and psychology in the new attempts to describe the mind. Consciousness requires an astronomically large population of cells, limiting the short-term memory (as opposed to the almost unlimited long-term memory). But computer scientists will simulate hundreds of millions of years of evolution in the next 50 years and, Wilson cogently argues, must also model artificial emotions. Another theme Wilson emphasizes is the conservation of our ancient biological nature, which is not always easy to know. For example, evidences of behavior of our 100,000-year-old brain, such as language origins, rarely fossilize. Epigenetic rules are centrally determinative of such things as our gestural paralanguage, our vocabulary for color, and the Westermarck effect on the avoidance of sexuality with people associated with our intimate rearing before 30 months of age. Wilson believes that "the Westermarck effect rocks other boats as well" (p. 179), notably suggesting that moral concepts are derived from innate emotions. To demonstrate heredity-based epigenetic rules, Wilson, ever the bug maven, composes a delightful state-of-the-colony speech for a fantasized evolved supertermite leader.Moving to the more difficult area of the social sciences, which he finds snarled by disunity and failure of vision and lacking the consilience and success of the medical sciences, Wilson critiques what he calls the "upside down" (and now fading) standard social science model that "human minds do not produce culture but are the product of culture" (p. 188). We could also take this critique to apply to a purely adaptational neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory that developed at mid-century in a spirit of universal social and therapeutic potentiality. Wilson sees progress in the fundamental theory of the family compiled by S.T. Emlen at Cornell, in which data about conflict and cooperation between parents and grown offspring were drawn from the instinctive behavior of birds and mammals. Despite "the massive intervention of cultural change…the hard instincts of animals are translatable into the epigenetic rules of humans" (p. 195). Wilson advises theory making in the social sciences, especially mathematical models, to look for parsimony, consilience, and predictiveness, and he regards population genetics as the most respected discipline in evolutionary biology. The process of reasoning itself, understood psychobiologically, will impact future social theory as it is realized that people do not simply maximize utility. Herbert Simon’s term "satisficing" combines "satisfying" and "sufficing" and means "taking the first satisfactory choice encountered out of those perceived and reasonably available in the short term, as opposed to visualizing the optimum choice in advance and searching until it is found.…People act upon simple cues and heuristics that work most of the time" (p. 206). Philosophers, questioning the consilience from biology to culture, "point to the nonlinearity of the viable equations, to second- and third-order interactions of factors, to stochasticity" (p. 208), but Wilson rejects as he mentions their tidings of hopelessness.Turning to the arts, and continuing to inveigh against deconstructionism, Wilson does "not read the welcome triumph of feminism, social, economic, and creative, as a brief for postmodernism.…Instead it has set the stage for a fuller exploration of the universal traits that unite humanity" (p. 215). Psychoanalysis as well as "postmortem solipsism" have "fared badly" because they have been "guided largely by unaided intuition about how the brain works" (p. 216), whereas "innovation is a concrete biological process founded upon an intricacy of nerve circuitry and neurotransmitter release" (p. 216). What Wilson calls universals emerged in the evolution of culture, and his list of them is a stimulating and provocative attempt to find biological regularity in art, myth, and anthropology. They include beginning (origin) myths, tribal emigration and confrontation with evil forces, the hero, apocalypse, sources of power, the nurturing woman, the seer, the Virgin, female sexual awakening, the Trickster, and the monster that threatens humanity. Wilson’s list risks critiques leveled at Jung for his arbitrariness and for blurring anthropological domains. He finds that the dominating influence in the arts "was the need to impose order on the confusion caused by intelligence" (p. 125), but the interesting question is "why processes of mental development direct attention so consistently toward certain images and narratives" (p. 229). Wilson feels that genetic history will potentially answer this question. The arts "make special" certain human features, and we know from studies of the attractiveness of faces that there are "supernormal stimuli" (p. 231) that are genetically favored almost without an upper limit to their exaggeration. Embracing "all conceivable worlds innately interesting and congenial to the nervous system," the arts are, "in the uniquely human sense, true" (p. 268).This book is ultimately a religious book in that Wilson presents his empiricist view in contrast to the transcendental Christianity of his childhood rearing. Theology has "done badly…encumbered by precepts based on Iron Age folk knowledge" (p. 269). "At least one form of brain disease [presumably temporal lobe epilepsy] is based upon hyperreligiosity" (p. 258). In his section on ethics and religion, he argues that if transcendentalism were upheld and empiricism disproved, it would be "quite simply the most consequential discovery in human history,…universal consilience fails and the division between science and the humanities will remain permanent all the way to their foundations" (p. 258). He sees a consilient, "material origin of ethics" (p. 241) and presents his sociobiological, genetically favored theory of altruism.Wilson’s final section, To What End?, urges us to conserve our habitat and our ancient roots as "Old World, catarrhine primates, brilliant emergent animals" or, overreliant on prosthetic devices, eliminating other species, and surrendering "our genetic nature to machine-aided ratiocination," risk that "we will become nothing" (p. 298). This seems too pessimistic, although, in view of the surging developments in these fields, the reader may feel, as I did, that we are fast embracing whatever this "nothing" will be as our fate.In sum, Wilson’s consilience is a reasoned theory, in a more general frame of reference, of the biopsychosocial, medical basis of psychiatry, and it is difficult to see how we are not in the same boat with it.




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