55 pages 1 hour read

Edward O. Wilson


Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Consilience is the bringing together of facts and theories from many fields of study to create a coherent, unified system of knowledge. Consilience, published in 1998 by Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson, argues that the grand quest to unite all human thought, begun during the post-Renaissance Enlightenment era, should continue today, centered on the intellectual power of the scientific method. Professor Wilson believes that science is the foremost method of organized thought ever developed, a system that can enhance intellectual work in any field, including the humanities. A consilience of efforts between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities would greatly expand the power and reach of human knowledge.

Chapter 1, “The Ionian Enchantment,” introduces Wilson as a young man trekking through the fields and woods of his native Alabama, exploring the wildlife and learning how to categorize creatures scientifically. He falls in love with science's unified system of thought and its power to understand nature and the universe. In Chapter 2, “The Great Branches of Learning,” Wilson argues for a coming together of science and the humanities so that the techniques and discoveries of science can contribute to new breakthroughs in philosophy, the arts, ethics, and politics. “The Enlightenment,” Chapter 3, is a review of the great minds of the Enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers who believed that the universe can be figured out, its basic laws known, and this knowledge used for the betterment of humanity. Beginning with the Romantic Revolution of the 1800s, however, science and the humanities began to split apart, and today’s Postmodernists argue that science is little more than an arbitrary system of thought promulgated by a privileged social elite.

How science is done, and how it differs from other modes of thought, are the subjects of Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4, “The Natural Sciences,” proposes that science is not an arbitrary cultural construct but a system for determining the objective truth about the natural world, one whose results are available freely to all. Science is so successful that some have tried to enlarge it into a general system of thought, but creativity is still hard to pin down. Chapter 5, “Ariadne’s Thread,” tells the story of Theseus’ descent into the Minotaur’s maze, which becomes a symbol of the movement of science from first principles into the complex details of the various fields of study. It’s relatively easy to get lost in the minutiae of nature but harder to find the way back out to the general theories of science.

Chapters 6 through 8 describe the scientific discoveries already gleaned about the human nervous system and how it interacts with culture. Chapter 6, “The Mind,” focuses on the nature of the brain and consciousness, what scientists have learned about the neural underpinnings of thought and perception, and whether it might someday be possible to create an artificial human mind. Chapter 7, “From Genes to Culture,” shows how the built-in tendencies of human behavior lead directly to the universals of human culture. From the way infants communicate with their mothers to the ways people respond to color, genetic predispositions have a direct effect on how cultures evolve. Cultures, in turn, develop specific approaches to human social problems that put evolutionary pressure on the humans in those societies. “The Fitness of Human Nature,” Chapter 8, demonstrates how the demands of human reproductive fitness channel human behavior into distinct patterns. High status gives greater access to mating opportunities; courtship strategies reflect the differing needs of men and women; and cultural taboos against incest reflect and augment an evolved human aversion to mating within the family.


Chapters 9 through 11 look at how the social sciences can improve their productivity by incorporating the findings and techniques of the natural sciences into their own fields. Within these chapters, Wilson presents a searing critique of anti-science snobbery in the humanities. Chapter 9, “The Social Sciences,” explains that these fields are too complex to have yet discovered their first scientific laws, but they can achieve much more with a rigorous application of the scientific method. Currently, the social sciences are largely descriptive, their theories based on political beliefs and folklore. Chapter 10, “The Arts and Their Interpretation,” holds that artists, armed with knowledge of the workings of the human mind discovered by science, can aim their creations more precisely at the heart of what makes people respond to aesthetics and artistic expression. “Ethics and Religion,” Chapter 11, asserts that moral beliefs spring, not from some outside directive, but from the inherent social preferences of humans. In Chapter 12, “To What End?”, the author makes an ardent plea for humanity to heed the warnings of environmental scientists and work together to save the Earth from runaway degradation.

Professor Wilson, widely regarded as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, holds more than a dozen awards for teaching and writing, including two Pulitzer Prizes. For many decades, Wilson taught classes in biology as part of the core curriculum at Harvard University. Consilience is his introduction to the general reader on the progress science has made in unraveling the mysteries of human life, and how that knowledge and the methods of science can enrich the humanities.