Uniting Knowledge

June 30, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

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.