Consilience - The Unity of Knowledge


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teerum brought up Wilson's name in another thread. This is a passion of mine, I did not think anyone is interested in this aspect of philosophy. Here is a start point. Teerum please join me here.


June 30, 1998
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript

David Gergen talks with Edward O. Wilson, a biology professor at Harvard University and author of "Consilience, the Unity of Knowledge."
DAVID GERGEN: Ed, consilience, what do you mean by that word "consilience?"
EDWARD O. WILSON, Author, "Consilience:" Well, it's not a new word. It's been used for 160 years by philosophers of science, and essentially it means the way the different fields, you know, like Biology and Physics and the social sciences connect up at least in terms of the laws, the basic laws that they share together. It really goes back to a very old dream of the enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century when philosophers believed that you could unite knowledge. So consilience means really the uniting of knowledge at a fundamental level.

DAVID GERGEN: But it was a dream for a long time, and what you're saying is in the natural sciences there has been enormous progress in the last twenty or thirty years.

EDWARD O. WILSON: There has, indeed. What's happened in the last two hundred years sort of put that dream aside, was that knowledge, as you well know, has been exploding and it means more and more specializations. People break subjects into smaller and smaller, people become more and more specialized on less and less, and the result has been we've lost this idea of unity. Now we can regain it because the natural sciences and Physics, that Chemistry to Biology have now become solidly united in the way they handle knowledge and the way they verify it and the way the understand from one level to the next basic laws.

So the question before us-and this was really the proposition of "Consilience," the book and the general question that's beginning to heat up in the academic community, is will this continue on and be the case how do the natural sciences and what the natural sciences can contribute to the Psychology to Anthropology, Sociology, and then, who knows, even to the arts.

DAVID GERGEN: Are you saying that if we had this community of knowledge that more and more the Biology, especially evolutionary Biology, would help to explain human nature?

EDWARD O. WILSON: Yes. Definitely. I mean, what's happening here at a real basic level is that finally we're coming to appreciate as exalted as we are and as marvelous as our minds are, as spiritual as we are, nonetheless, we are organisms. We evolved biologically. We have a very biological body and so on. So what we need really is a more scientific understanding of human nature. And that is what I think is being contributed by the way the biological sciences and the social sciences are coming together.

In fact, there are now subjects that are bridging the two in a remarkable way and they include the brain science, you know, with the mapping of conscious experiences going on, human genetics, which is telling us more and more about how the brain is organized, that originate-and evolutionary studies and so on. And what's come out of this is a new definition of human nature. It runs something like this.

DAVID GERGEN: Tell us about that.

EDWARD O. WILSON: I think people up till now tended to say well, we can't really get our hands on human nature. You know, it's not the genes. Well, I agree, it's not the genes. Genes are just a bunch of big molecules that entrain the chemical reactions that build up our bodies and our brains. Human nature is directed by the genes.

And what it is, it's a set of regular ways in which our mind develops from infancy on, the hereditary way our mind develops, how we see color, which odors we can detect, how we develop bonding with other people, how we develop language. These are becoming precisely defined now and are subject to studies in Biology right down to the basis of brain action and then outward from there into fields like Psychology and Anthropology. The more we get into that intermediate area of how the mind develops and what its heredity basis is, where it comes from, the better we understand human nature.

That's what consilience is all about. The more we become consilient, that is, connected with fundamental understanding, at the base level of human nature and organizations and societies and so on, the wiser our choices will be, and I think the more diverse, and creative will be individual activity.

DAVID GERGEN: You seem to be saying that science can more and more help us explain human nature, give us the laws of human nature, but at the end of the day people have to make ethical decisions, and it's ethics that drive where we go from here, how we select choices, and you made that particularly clear, with regard to future of the environment.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Yes, that's true. One thing we're-I think we're coming to understand is that ethics is not in our genes. That is to say, there isn't a gene that makes us decide that we want to go to church on Sunday or be a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican, not at all. Ethics and, you know, the fundamentals of social behavior are in final analysis what we agree on. It's a consensus. The more we know about our own nature, our taste, our drives, our desires, the best way we can associate and bond and cooperate, and the more enduring and solid the society will be. The ethics that rises out of that then will help us to solve enormously complex problems that we must solve and often in a very specific individual way. And those include, in my opinion, most urgently the environment.

DAVID GERGEN: Can you expand that in our closing moments.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Well, okay, let me just take the case of deforestation. There's a constant battle going on around the world, including the United States, between those who feel that the forests are our most precious environmental heritage and those who feel that we must go ahead with economic development at all costs, and so somehow we realize there's got to be a compromise. In order to decide what that compromise will be we need a lot of knowledge about what makes people tick, in other words, why they feel that way about forests. We need so much more knowledge about economics, what the ultimate consequences will be. We need a lot more about psychology and sociology, the effect that deforestation will have on people and so on.

Right now those are subjects that are dealt with by a specialist here, a specialist here, a specialist there, who can't talk to each other, and so we need really to deepen knowledge, and as we deepen knowledge of these subjects, find a way of connecting them up so that when you or I talk or a congressman debates those subjects, we can go around and around to these subjects and link them up in a sensible, meaningful way in order to arrive at wise judgments. Now that's a little abstract, but I think it's where we need to be going intellectually.

DAVID GERGEN: So consilience is something we urgently need.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Yes. I would suggest that we do. I would rather not see the world go on fragmenting and expanding, you know, like the stars in an expanding universe. I think in no way crimping individuality or certainly not challenging free will, we nonetheless, we've got to look for those fundamental connections in order to organize our knowledge and get into the business of making wiser and more considered decisions.

DAVID GERGEN: Eward O. Wilson, thank you very much.

EDWARD O. WILSON: Thank you so much.
This brings to mind Ancient Greece. Where one man could be a doctor, scholar, athlete, statesman, and warrior and be acknowledged as amongst the best in each field.

The thing I have a hard time grasping is that in ancient Greece there was not the volume of knowledge there is now. I guess I am having a problem taking hold of the concept that such could be the case today. That someone could be an acknowledged forefront leader in each field, with the necessary understanding and depth required today. To combine two, three, or more specialized fields, would require a long time just to absorb the background to bring one up to speed to understand present day activities in each field. Only after those can one see where there might be connections between two different fields. To see such as a scientist, politician, biologist, chemist, and a businessman set down to iron out, say the making of a law to require of using certain kinds of methods to eliminate mold in air conditioning systems, for example, nationwide for public buildings makes me shudder to think of what would come out of it today. To imagine eliminating 3 of the 5 to do the job doesn't seem to be a step forward. If it is a step forward I can only wonder at the talents these unique individuals would have to master to be effective.

...or did I miss something here?
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It is simple yet difficult to grasp. Here are some examples.

A company came up with a specific patented technology. The demand was there when they raised the money something like 750 million dollars. Within a year, another 5 technologies came out that eliminated the need for this companies technology. The stock of when the company started was at $380. Now it is trading at $6. They still do not see what is wrong because the other 5 technologies are not in the same category as thiers.

It is the discontinuities in different technologies that create major impact on the social dynamics that create a ripple effect.

Take the case of Telecom industries. They are a $700 billion dollar industry. Anything they do has a major impact on our economy and ripples out to the world economy. Those companies spent more than $200 billion dollars to ramp up for the new economy. When they started spending that kind of money, they fostered sudden economic growth, new companies sprung up like mushrooms, Cisco started building boxes, people started digging trenches to lay the fiber and so on. It was and still is a big deal.

While this was going on, some think tank declared that money is in Business-to-Business trade (B2B). So everybody jumped in to the B2B activity. Another group called dotcoms counting on the telecom activity poured money like water and got ready to go. Somebody in the process forgot the little guy who gets a pay check and goes out to spend it.

It is like the entire economy is based on horse and buggy technology and suddenly some one invented the modern car. Hoping that everybody will buy the car, the companies raised a trillion dollars to build the freeway system. After the freeway system was built, they forgot the on and off ramp. In the meantime Wal-Mart and other shoppers put up super-shops next to the freeway. Well, how can you get there?

This is happening right now in our economy. We are gearing up for a Information economy but no where to run. Businesses are concentrating on B2B but they are on hold because consumers are not spending it on Information Age products. So what will happen is we will go back to early eighties economy (that is food and basic necessity) which is not acceptable because we can not turn back the clock (we wish we could time travel...)

All these issues need a common processing system. Whether it is a think tank of several people or one person does not matter. All the knowledge need to come together to see interrelationships and hence actions and consequences. That is the only way we can solve these complex issues.

Today , we do not have a silicon intelligence (mother of all computers) to do this. So we humans have to. That is the only way.

I can give you hundreds of examples from my personal experience...that is what Mr. Wilson alluding to but people think he is talking mostly in philosophical terms and not what is needed at present...