Consilience – Edward O. Wilson

In Consilience E.O Wilson proposes a very bold undertaking. That all knowledge, from social sciences to natural sciences, the humanities and the arts, can and should be, unified. The book’s is very adequately subtitled ‘The Unity of Knowledge’.

We’ve been experiencing more of this synergy of knowledge for quite some time now, with chemistry merging into physics, and biology into chemistry. More recently some more interesting things have happened, like the creation of the field behavioural economics, which combines economics, biology, and psychology. However, what Wilson proposes, is that it’s time already for the arts and humanities to become more involved with the other fields. We need to see chemists interested in arts and sociologists in chemistry. This interplay of knowledge, Wilson believes, will benefit the social sciences and the humanities enormously, for as they’re brought closer and closer to the natural sciences, they will be more taken into account.

From Genes to Culture

Many connections and bridges between the sciences are presented throughout the book, but in chapter 7 I found the remarkable liaison between genes and culture. Let me explain a little bit.

Culture changes more rapidly than genes. Certain behaviours are chosen over others because they make us fitter for survival. But this changes in culture are predisposed by our genes. The rules that predispose us, innately, to accept certain behaviours over others are called epigenetic rules.

Wilson says that memes are the basic elements of culture. Our genes shape our brains and then our brains act as the bridge between ourselves and the memes which are the basic unit of culture.

If we want to understand the brain, which Wilson calls “The most complex object know in the universe, that is, to itself”, we really need to start bringing genetics and the study of culture closer, because the answer lies literally, somewhere in between.


The concept of consilience might be found terrifying by hardcore reductionists, because of the fear of not being specific enough, and there’s no denying that as we pull closer and closer the different fields, many of them will start to disappear into bigger fields such as biology.

However, the upside seems grandiose. Scientists, artists, everyone, working together adding to the same pool of knowledge, definitely seems as a much better way to approach the big problems and move ourselves closer to reaching the objective truth.

We often miss many discoveries because of the rigid boundaries in which we contain ourselves, because of scientists living pathologically inside one of this buckets, categories. Innovation often comes from people who are unaware or ignore these boundaries, or from people who happen to be in between two of this categories and are able to make connections and pull them together, rearranging their elements into something new and exciting.

The question would then be, are we moving in the right direction?

There might not be one right answer, because for the holists to be able to make more cross topical connections, they need to have more specific data, which is often discovered by the reductionists.

The Unity of Knowledge in Higher Education

Our system of higher education is a direct reflection of what Wilson fears, with everyone studying deeper and deeper into one specific subject, strengthening the boundaries between the fields. We all seem to be going towards the more reductionist approach, and there are not enough people studying to bring all the fields together, seeking for the unity of knowledge. Which is a very good reason to support the importance of innovative liberal arts programs in education. People educated in this manner are the highest hope of we ever reaching a unity of knowledge.

E.O Wilson ends his book with this specific issue. This quote is from his last chapter ‘To What End?’.

“Science is not marginal. Like art, it is a universal possession of humanity . . . a vital part of our species’ repertoire . . . If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized . . . the future of the liberal arts lies, therefore, in addressing the fundamental questions of human existence head on,  . . . taking them from the top down in easily understood language, and progressively rearranging them into domains of inquiry that unite the best of science and the humanities at each level of organization”