Consilience (book)  

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Allegory of the World (1515) from the studio of  Joachim Patinir
Allegory of the World (1515) from the studio of Joachim Patinir

"In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) E. O. Wilson claimed that it was time for a cooperation of all the sciences to explore human nature. He defined human nature as a collection of epigenetic rules: the genetic patterns of mental development. Cultural phenomena, rituals etc. are products, not part of human nature. Artworks, for example are not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. And this art appreciation, or our fear for snakes, or incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied by the methods of reductionism. Until now these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies. Wilson proposes it can be part of interdisciplinary research." --Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is a 1998 book by biologist E. O. Wilson. In this book, Wilson discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences and might in the future unite them with the humanities. Wilson prefers and uses the term consilience to describe the synthesis of knowledge from different specialized fields of human endeavor.


Definition 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." (page 7)

Examples of consilience discussed by Wilson

Chapter 1

  • The "New Synthesis". Unification of Darwin's theory of evolution with genetics.
  • Gerald Holton's "Ionian Enchantment". The conviction that the world has a unified order and can be explained by natural laws.
  • Theory that water is fundamental. Thales of Miletus proposed that water is the unifying basis for all material things. Often cited as the first materialistic theory of a unified view of nature.
  • Unity of purpose for science and religion. To explain the universe and understand our role in the universe.

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

  • The Greek Atomists. Greeks such as Leucippus and Democritus are credited with the reductionistic idea that matter has fundamental components. Scientific investigation of this idea has resulted in unification across the natural sciences. Example: the molecular structure of DNA accounts for genetic storage in living cells.
  • Experimental Epistemology. A modern attempt to unify neuroscience and epistemology. Discussed as a method for clarifying the Evolutionary basis of mismatches between physical reality and our mental models of reality.
  • Positivism. A method for comparing and unifying knowledge from different disciplines; gives priority to facts which are generated by experiment and objective observation rather than subjective speculations.
  • Pragmatism. A method for comparing and unifying knowledge from different disciplines; gives priority to methods and techniques that can be demonstrated to work and have pragmatic value.

Chapter 5

  • Reduction vs. synthesis. Many examples comparing consilience by reduction (dissect a phenomenon into its components) and consilience by synthesis (predicting higher-order phenomena from more basic physical principles). One specific example is Wilson's own work on the chemical signals that regulate insect social behavior.
  • Magician to Atom. An example of consilience by reduction in which Wilson tries to account for the prevalence of serpent symbols in human cultures. Incorporates the "activation-synthesis model" of dreaming.
  • Consilience between biology disciplines. Discussion of successes (cells explained in terms of their chemical components, embryo development in terms of interactions between the cells of an embryo) but also points to the remaining problem of dealing with complex systems as in neuroscience and ecology.
  • Statistical mechanics. A classical example in which the behavior of volumes of gas is explained in terms of the molecules of the gas (Kinetic theory).
  • Quantum chemistry. Prediction of chemical properties by quantum mechanical calculations.

Chapter 6

  • Explaining consciousness and emotion in terms of brain activity. Wilson describes the neurobiological approach to accounting for consciousness and emotion in terms of brain physiology and how this effort is guided by collaboration between biologists, psychologists and philosophers.
  • Neurobiology of aesthetics. Wilson proposes that it will be possible to construct a neurobiological understanding of subjective experiences that are shared and explored by art. Common neural patterns of activity will be found to correspond to fundamental aesthetic experiences.
  • Artificial emotion. Wilson proposes that human-like artificial intelligence will require the engineering of a computational apparatus for processing an array of rich sensory inputs and the capacity to learn from those inputs in the way that children can learn. Requires consilience between biology, psychology and computer science.

Chapter 7

  • The relationship between genes and culture. The basic element of culture is the meme. When a meme exists in a brain it has the form of a neuronal network that allows the meme to function within semantic memory. The link from genes to culture is that our genes shape our brains (in cooperation with the environment) and our brains allow us to work with memes as the basic units of culture.

See also

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