Monday, January 01, 2007

A review of 'Consilience' by Edward Wilson

Edward Wilson, the founder of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, is now retired. This has given him time to absorb himself in the social sciences and arts: literature, sociology, anthropology, theology, psychology and economics. What would these be like if they were informed by the concept that individual and social behaviour is constrained by an evolutionary history, whose drivers are increasingly understood?

Wilson believes they would be a great deal different, and Consilience is his attempt to imagine the future reconceptualisation of the humanities within an overarching scientific (Darwinian) framework. Does it work? Yes, mostly, if you are scientifically trained: probably not at all if you are not.

I suspect most adherents to the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ will simply conclude that Wilson is just making endless category errors in trying to insert sociobiological constraints into the high domains of culture, ethics and theology. But sometimes you have to just come off the fence: they would be wrong in this judgement. Nevertheless, the current generation of social science academics will never accept Wilson’s approach. The eventual triumph of sociobiology (if anyone will still be using the term) will be the end-point of generations of research.

Where does Wilson fall short of his own high standards within his own paradigm? I think in a couple of areas.

1. On p. 127 the philosopher David Chalmers is quoted as distinguishing the ‘easy’ from the ‘hard’ problems of consciousness research. Everything is hard of course, but investigating how, for example, vision works is a research programme in signal processing and pattern recognition which has been producing results for more than thirty years. This is one of Chalmers ‘easy’ problems. A ‘hard’ problem is the experience of agonising pain. We think, for example, we know in principle how to make a robot which could see: there are few people who believe they could sketch out an architecture for a computer which could honestly be said to experience pain (and thus be tortured). Wilson completely fails to address this issue in his glib assertion that ‘the hard problem is conceptually easy to solve’ (p. 128). No it’s not.

2. One of the shocking consequences of an evolutionary analysis of humanity is that there is no point to any person’s life, or to humanity as a whole, other than the successful reproduction of genetic material - something we share with any bacterium. Even as we know this to be true, we instinctively shy away from it, looking for deep meaning here, there, anywhere ... . We never find it, but we ‘know’ it must be somewhere. One of the triumphs of evolutionary psychology is to identify the ‘instinct’ for deep meaning in life with the sanctification of tribal or community life, which is a powerful asset in group cohesion, and therefore strongly selected for. The dilemma is that even though we understand scientifically why we feel this way, that understanding does nothing to address the emotional need. Somehow we need a deep belief in the meaning of life (usually expressed through some kind of religion or group values) even though scientifically we know this is simply an effective adaptation for group cohesion. Wilson concurs that there is absolutely no solution to this problem, but still, mysteriously, dabbles in ‘deism’.

A key dilemma which will confront future generations, not so far away, is the power to change the human genetic code. But if there is no point to human existence, there can be no guides as to which way to change it (once obvious defects have been fixed). Wilson accepts the point but limits speculation - there is a whole book’s worth of thinking to do about this issue, but perhaps it’s too early for it to be written.

People have been kind about Wilson’s merits as a stylist. I didn’t find the book a gripping read: the writing is rather discursive and lacks bite. In this it shows its own ancestry as a compilation of articles and talks. ‘On Human Nature’ is much better, as it seems to have real emotion around it - a response to his critics - and a more polemical style.

Wilson is currently a lobbyist for conservation and against climate change. The final chapter on this topics is superb, and a welcome antidote to over-familiar ‘save the planet’ narratives driven by inaccurate science and fuzzy emotionalism.