- Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities
In 2008, the University of British Columbia sponsored a workshop called "Integrating Science and the Humanities." Creating Consilience is the direct result of that workshop. This collection of essays, edited by Edward Slingerland, Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition, and Mark Collard, Canada Research Chair in Human Evolutionary Studies, brings together research from scholars [End Page 406] from a range of disciplines, including philosophy, anthropology, bioethics, English, and evolutionary studies. It also includes essays with varying viewpoints on the project of consilience itself—an extension of interdisciplinarity across the sciences/humanities divide—addressing the project's potential, feasibility, limitations, and desirability. The workshop and this edited collection arose out of a simple but ambitious goal: the "attempt to develop a new, shared framework for the sciences and humanities" (4).
Part of the collection's purpose was to establish a "second wave" of consilience, one that, like the second wave of feminism, both grew out of and included the earlier wave but also pushed forward in new directions (23). The first wave of consilience was put forward in the work of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides and E. O. Wilson, and has faced two major challenges: the first, substantive, the second, stylistic. Substantively, the workshop tried to address how "issues such as the relationship between evolved human cognitive architecture and culture, or the status of science in the chain of explanation, needed to be treated in a more sophisticated fashion" (23). Stylistically, the humanists in the workshop, who are represented in the collection's essays, tried to shift "the rhetoric of proponents of consilience (most of them coming from the science side of the science/humanities divide) [that] often tended to sound dismissive of the value of traditional humanistic work" (23). These two shifts provide the theoretical and rhetorical basis that unifies the collection, with essays respecting "emergent levels of truth" (24), "recognizing the importance of gene-culture co-evolution" (28), and arguing that "consilience is a two-way street" (30).
In their introduction to the volume, Slingerland and Collard go so far as to say that while "consilience can provide a crucially important new explanatory framework within which literary studies could operate, it does not necessarily entail radical alterations in the everyday methodology, vocabulary, or focus of interest of the average humanist. Literary scholars, for instance, do not need to stop talking about history and genre, or confine themselves only to terms and concepts drawn from evolutionary psychology" (26). On the whole, the collection succeeds in addressing these concerns, with the exception, perhaps, that any casual humanist interested in consilience will definitely feel that joining the project does require radical alterations of their methodology and vocabulary, and in this regard, they would be correct.
The collection is arranged in two parts with six subsections. Part 1 deals with Theoretical Issues, and section 1 presents essays on "Ontologies for the Human," featuring pro-consilience arguments from Steven Pinker, Edward Slingerland, and Brian Fiala, Adam Arico, [End Page 407] and Shaun Nichols, and a counterargument from Richard Shweder. The Pinker article serves as an excellent and concise introduction to some of the foundational theoretical issues that both propel the consilience movement as well as impede its progression. Section 2 of part 1 is devoted to "Consilience Through the Lens of Anthropology," and uses that discipline as a proving ground for the theoretical issues raised in section 1. In this section, Pascal Boyer and Harvey Whitehouse provide the pro-consilience essays, while Bradd Shore's "Unconsilience: Rethinking the Two-Cultures Conundrum in Anthropology" provides the collection with some of the most relevant criticism and cautions of the consilience movement, highlighting human variation and cultural evolution as two factors that make explaining high-level phenomena, like the production of art, incredibly difficult to study via reductive methodologies.
Part 2 presents case studies that reflect consilience in practice in particular fields of study: culture, religion, morality, and literature and oral traditions. While part 1 is interesting from a rhetorical...