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Wilson’s Consilience and Literary Study
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by Edward O. Wilson; 332 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, $26.00.

For students of the humanities, and especially of literature, E. O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge presents an extraordinary challenge. Wilson argues that the humanities are the last frontier of science, believing that “the greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities” (p. 8). Because the physical sciences and the humanities constitute polar points in the field of knowledge, and because the products of human genius constitute the most complex objects in nature, Wilson considers this linkage as the ultimate test of “consilience,” his term for the unification of all knowledge. The term is taken from the Victorian philosopher of science William Whewell, and it signifies “a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” Wilson’s own background is remote from the humanities, but he makes a heroic effort to meet the challenge he has set. He formulates a hypothesis about the evolutionary origin and function of the arts, and he draws a connection between human nature and the design of the arts. He argues that the arts serve to fill the gap between animal instinct and the “vastness of new contingent possibilities revealed by high intelligence,” and he maintains that “even the greatest works of art might be understood fundamentally with knowledge of the [End Page 393] biologically evolved epigenetic rules that guided them” (pp. 225, 213). His theory of art emphasizes the depiction of human behavior, and it thus implicitly makes fictional representation the central instance of art.

I think Wilson’s hypothesis about the evolutionary origin and function of art is basically right, and it is far superior to aesthetic theories that have been formulated by other sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. As he would himself acknowledge, his aesthetic theory is little more than a sketch or an outline. The outline needs to be corrected in some important ways, and the whole larger design must still be filled in. These challenges will be my main concern in the latter part of this commentary. Before turning to them, I shall assess Wilson’s achievement, examine his main themes, and consider a representative sampling of the critical responses that reject his larger theoretical program.

Wilson contrasts two kinds of intellectual achievement. “Discovery” is the supreme merit of scientific enterprise. “Scholarship” and “wisdom” are the hallmarks of humanistic study. The two kinds of achievement are so little complementary that “many accomplished scientists are narrow, foolish people,” and “many wise scholars” are “considered weak scientists” (pp. 56, 39, 57). The difficulty of combining these kinds of achievement gives some measure of Wilson’s intellectual magnitude, for he has won singular distinction in both kinds. He is a world-class scientist, and his specific discoveries have led him steadily onward toward ever more encompassing reflection.

Wilson’s areas of scientific expertise form a nested set that exemplify his core belief in causal explanation across diverse levels of organization. He is an entomologist, a naturalist, an ecologist, and a sociobiologist. He discovered pheromones, the chemical signaling system in ants—a discovery that opened an immense field of research for other naturalists. In collaboration with Robert MacArthur, he invented the science of island biogeography, and he thus brought ecology within the scope of the exact sciences. In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), he integrated population genetics, ethology, and evolutionary biology in such a way as to constitute a distinct new discipline, now the matrix or frame for a vast research program into the social evolution of all animals, including humans. In the final chapter of Sociobiology and in On Human Nature (1978), Wilson turned his own attention to the evolved basis of human behavior, and then, in collaboration with Charles Lumsden, he pioneered the theory of gene-culture co-evolution. [End Page 394] In the past two decades, he has become a leading authority in biodiversity and world ecology. Now, with the publication of Consilience, he has consolidated and...