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The Ionian Enchantment

I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning. It was in the early fall of 1947, when at eighteen I came up from Mobile to Tuscaloosa to enter my sophomore year at the University of Alabama. A beginning biologist, fired by adolescent enthusiasm but short on theory and vision, I had schooled myself in natural history with field guides carried in a satchel during solitary excursions into the woodlands and along the freshwater streams of my native state. I saw science, by which I meant (and in my heart I still mean) the study of ants, frogs, and snakes, as a wonderful way to stay outdoors.

My intellectual world was framed by Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist who invented modern biological classification. The Linnaean system is deceptively easy. You start by separating specimens of plants and animals into species. Then you sort species resembling one another into groups, the genera. Examples of such groups are all the crows and all the oaks. Next you label each species with a two-part Latinized name, such as Corvus ossifragus for the fish crow, where Corvus stands for the genus--all the species of crows--and ossifragus for the fish crow in particular. Then on to higher classification, where similar genera are grouped into families, families into orders, and so on up to phyla and finally, at the very summit, the six kingdoms--plants, animals, fungi, protists, monerans, and archaea. It is like the army: men (plus women, nowadays) into squads, squads into platoons, platoons into companies, and in the final aggregate, the armed services headed by the joint chiefs of staff. It is, in other words, a conceptual world made for the mind of an eighteen-year-old.

I had reached the level of the Carolus Linnaeus of 1735 or, more accurately (since at that time I knew little of the Swedish master), the Roger Tory Peterson of 1934, when the great naturalist published the first edition of A Field Guide to the Birds. My Linnaean period was nonetheless a good start for a scientific career. The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.

Then I discovered evolution. Suddenly--that is not too strong a word--I saw the world in a wholly new way. This epiphany I owed to my mentor Ralph Chermock, an intense, chain-smoking young assistant professor newly arrived in the provinces with a Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University. After listening to me natter for a while about my lofty goal of classifying all the ants of Alabama, he handed me a copy of Ernst Mayr's 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species. Read it, he said, if you want to become a real biologist.

The thin volume in the plain blue cover was one of the New Synthesis works, uniting the nineteenth-century Darwinian theory of evolution and modern genetics. By giving a theoretical structure to natural history, it vastly expanded the Linnaean enterprise. A tumbler fell somewhere in my mind, and a door opened to a new world. I was enthralled, couldn't stop thinking about the implications evolution has for classification and for the rest of biology. And for philosophy. And for just about everything. Static pattern slid into fluid process. My thoughts, embryonically those of a modern biologist, traveled along a chain of causal events, from mutations that alter genes to evolution that multiplies species, to species that assemble into faunas and floras. Scale expanded, and turned continuous. By inwardly manipulating time and space, I found I could climb the steps in biological organization from microscopic particles in cells to the forests that clothe mountain slopes. A new enthusiasm surged through me. The animals and plants I loved so dearly reentered the stage as lead players in a grand drama. Natural history was validated as a real science.

I had experienced the Ionian Enchantment. That recently coined expression I borrow from the physicist and historian Gerald Holton. It means a belief in the unity of the sciences--a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws. Its roots go back to Thales of Miletus, in Ionia, in the sixth century b.c. The legendary philosopher was considered by Aristotle two centuries later to be the founder of the physical sciences. He is of course remembered more concretely for his belief that all matter consists ultimately of water. Although the notion is often cited as an example of how far astray early Greek speculation could wander, its real significance is the metaphysics it expressed about the material basis of the world and the unity of nature.

The Enchantment, growing steadily more sophisticated, has dominated scientific thought ever since. In modern physics its focus has been the unification of all the forces of nature--electroweak, strong, and gravitation--the hoped-for consolidation of theory so tight as to turn the science into a "perfect" system of thought, which by sheer weight of evidence and logic is made resistant to revision. But the spell of the Enchantment extends to other fields of science as well, and in the minds of a few it reaches beyond into the social sciences, and still further, as I will explain later, to touch the humanities. The idea of the unity of science is not idle. It has been tested in acid baths of experiment and logic and enjoyed repeated vindication. It has suffered no decisive defeats. At least not yet, even though at its center, by the very nature of the scientific method, it must be thought always vulnerable. On this weakness I will also expand in due course.

Einstein, the architect of grand unification in physics, was Ionian to the core. That vision was perhaps his greatest strength. In an early letter to his friend Marcel Grossmann he said, "It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the unity of a complex of phenomena that to direct observation appear to be quite separate things." He was referring to his successful alignment of the microscopic physics of capillaries with the macroscopic, universe-wide physics of gravity. In later life he aimed to weld everything else into a single parsimonious system, space with time and motion, gravity with electromagnetism and cosmology. He approached but never captured that grail. All scientists, Einstein not excepted, are children of Tantalus, frustrated by the failure to grasp that which seems within reach. They are typified by those thermodynamicists who for decades have drawn ever closer to the temperature of absolute zero, when atoms cease all motion. In 1995, pushing down to within a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero, they created a Bose-Einstein condensate, a fundamental form of matter beyond the familiar gases, liquids, and solids, in which many atoms act as a single atom in one quantum
state. As temperature drops and pressure is increased, a gas condenses into a liquid, then a solid; then appears the Bose-Einstein condensate. But absolute, entirely absolute zero, a temperature that exists in imagination, has still not been attained.

On a far more modest scale, I found it a wonderful feeling not just to taste the unification metaphysics but also to be released from the confinement of fundamentalist religion. I had been raised a Southern Baptist, laid backward under the water on the sturdy arm of a pastor, been born again. I knew the healing power of redemption. Faith, hope, and charity were in my bones, and with millions of others I knew that my savior Jesus Christ would grant me eternal life. More pious than the average teenager, I read the Bible cover to cover, twice. But now at college, steroid-driven into moods of adolescent rebellion, I chose to doubt. I found it hard to accept that our deepest beliefs were set in stone by agricultural societies of the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago. I suffered cognitive dissonance between the cheerfully reported genocidal wars of these people and Christian civilization in 1940s Alabama. It seemed to me that the Book of Revelation might be black magic hallucinated by an ancient primitive. And I thought, surely a loving personal God, if He is paying attention, will not abandon those who reject the literal interpretation of the biblical cosmology. It is only fair to award points for intellectual courage. Better damned with Plato and Bacon, Shelley said, than go to heaven with Paley and Malthus. But most of all, Baptist theology made no provision for evolution. The biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be that they were not really privy to the thoughts of God? Might the pastors of my childhood, good and loving men though they were, be mistaken? It was all too much, and freedom was ever so sweet. I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist no more.

Still, I had no desire to purge religious feelings. They were bred in me; they suffused the wellsprings of my creative life. I also retained a small measure of common sense. To wit, people must belong to a tribe; they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. Could Holy Writ be just the first literate attempt to explain the universe and make ourselves significant within it? Perhaps science is a continuation on new and better-tested ground to attain the same end. If so, then in that sense science is religion liberated and writ large.

Such, I believe, is the source of the Ionian Enchantment: Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger. It is an endeavor almost as old as civilization and intertwined with traditional religion, but it follows a very different course--a stoic's creed, an acquired taste, a guidebook to adventure plotted across rough terrain. It aims to save the spirit, not by surrender but by liberation of the human mind. Its central tenet, as Einstein knew, is the unification of knowledge. When we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here.

If those committed to the quest fail, they will be forgiven. When lost, they will find another way. The moral imperative of humanism is the endeavor alone, whether successful or not, provided the effort is honorable and failure memorable. The ancient Greeks expressed the idea in a myth of vaulting ambition. Daedalus escapes from Crete with his son Icarus on wings he has fashioned from feathers and wax. Ignoring the warnings of his father, Icarus flies toward the sun, whereupon his wings come apart and he falls into the sea. That is the end of Icarus in the myth. But we are left to wonder: Was he just a foolish boy? Did he pay the price for hubris, for pride in sight of the gods? I like to think that on the contrary his daring represents a saving human grace. And so the great astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar could pay tribute to the spirit of his mentor, Sir Arthur Eddington, by saying: Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings.

Revue de presse

"An original work of synthesis...a program of unrivalled ambition: to unify all the major branches of knowledge--sociology, economics, the arts and religion--under the banner of science." --The New York Times

"As elegant in its prose as it is rich in its ideas...a book of immense importance." --Atlanta Journal & Constitution

"Edward O. Wilson is a hero. . . he has made landmark scientific discoveries and has a writing style to die for. . . . A complex and nuanced argument." --Boston Globe

"One of the clearest and most dedicated popularizers of science since T. H. Huxley ...Mr. Wilson can do the science and the prose." --Time

"An excellent book. Wilson provides superb overviews of Western intellectual history and the current state of understanding in many academic disciplines." Slate

"The Renaissance scholar still lives.... A sensitive, wide-ranging mind discoursing beautifully.... Wilson's buoyant intellectual courage is bracing." --Seattle Weekly


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225 internautes sur 240 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A million years ahead of its time or impossible? 21 octobre 2004
Par Dennis Littrell - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
In this ambitious work, Edward O. Wilson, one of the most distinguished scientists of our times, and a man I greatly admire, goes perhaps a bit beyond his area of expertise as he envisions a project that is perhaps beyond even the dreams of science fiction. "...[A]ll tangible phenomena," he writes on page 266, "from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics."

This in a nutshell is his dream of "consilience." It is also the statement of a determinist. My problem with such a laudable endeavor (and with determinism in general) is this: even if he is right, that the arts and the humanities will ultimately yield to reduction, how do we, limited creatures that we are, do it? It seems to me that in the so-called soft sciences like sociology, economics, and psychology, for example, and even more so in the world of the humanities and the arts, reduction is so incredibly complex that such an attempt is comparable (in reverse order) of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. It's ironic that Wilson uses almost exactly this metaphor on page 296 to explain why once the rain forests are chopped down, they're gone forever. He notes, "Collect all the species...Maintain them in zoos, gardens, and laboratory cultures...Then bring the species back together and resynthesize the community on new ground." Will this work? Wilson's answer is no. He writes, "...biologists cannot accomplish such a task, not if thousands of them came with a billion-dollar budget. They cannot even imagine how to do it." He adds, still on page 296, that even if biologists could sort and preserve cultures of all the species, "they could not then put the community back together again. Such a task...is like unscrambling an egg with a pair of spoons."

This is exactly how I feel about the consilience of human knowledge. I cannot even imagine how reductionism could help us to understand a poem. There is a dictum among poets that "nothing defines the poem but the poem itself." No amount of reduction will allow us to understand what makes the poem tick. This is because the poem is an experience, a human emotional, intellectual, sensual experience dependent upon not only the literal meaning of the words, but on their connotations, their sounds, their rhythm, their relationships to one another, their syntax, their allusions, their history, their use by other poets, etc., and also what the individual reader of the poem brings to the experience. Reduce the poem and you do not have an understanding of the poem. At best you have an essay on the poem, at worst something alien to the esthetic experience. In essence, I should say that the problem with consilience is that our experience is not reducible.

I have read a lot of what Professor Wilson has written, including On Human Nature (1978), the charming memoir, Naturalist (1994), parts of The Ants (1990) and his controversial, but ground-breaking and highly influential, Sociobiology (1975). And I have read some of his critics, most recently essayist Wendell Berry's Life Is a Miracle (2000) and Charles Jenck's piece in Alas, Poor Darwin (2000). What has struck me in these readings is the disconnection between what Wilson has written and what some critics have criticized him for writing! For example it is thought that Wilson is a strict biological determinist when it comes to human behavior. But here he writes, very clearly on page 126, "We know that virtually all of human behavior is transmitted by culture." Wilson has had to weather more than his share of unfair criticism because, as the father of sociobiology, which some mistakenly see as a furtherance of a rationale for eugenics, he has been made the target of the misinformed. Additionally, Wilson is not the lovable sort of genius we adored in Einstein, nor the heroic scientist overcoming a terrible handicap as in the case of Stephen Hawking, but a slightly nerdish genius from Alabama who spent much of his life crawling around on the ground and in trees looking at ants. Some people make it clear that such a man should not presume to tell them anything about human beings and how we should conduct our lives or how we should view ourselves. But I think they are wrong. Wilson brings unique insights into the human condition, and he has the courage of his convictions. I think he is a man we should listen to regardless of whether we agree with him or not.

Even if its central thesis is wrong, Consilience is nonetheless an exciting book, full of information and ideas, elegantly written, dense, at times brilliant, a book that cannot be ignored and should be read by anyone interested in the human condition regardless of their field of expertise.
50 internautes sur 52 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A great book by an important thinker 13 décembre 1999
Par adamojr@prodigy.net - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
As an undergraduate in the early 1980s I was profoundly influenced by the paradigm-shifting academic movement begun by Professor Wilson in his work, Sociobiology. The idea that human social behavior was the product of thousands of years of ancestral genetic competition was a refreshing rejoinder to the dogma espoused at that time in conventional Sociology and Anthropology courses. In the years after university I have watched as Wilson's thesis has gradually achieved greater acceptance. Even many feminists and psychologists who once viewed Wilson's work as an anathema have come to realize that the ideas he popularized have changed forever their fields of study.
It was with this background that I jumped into Consilience, hoping for new insight. What I discovered was a cogent argument for the need to break down the very same academic barriers that I recognized years ago as an undergraduate. In another book I read recently, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that the fallout from Darwin's work on evolutionary natural selection has completely disrupted and changed forever the intellectual landscape in which we live. Wilson makes essentially the same argument, but his book is more often prescriptive than diagnostic. He argues that the same synthesis which has been tenuously achieved in "hard" sciences such as physics, chemistry and molecular biology can be achieved in all branches of learning. He suggests roadmaps for achieving this integration in the social sciences as well as the arts and religion.
Most interesting of all is Wilson's discussion of the need for greater understanding of the biological underpinnings of morality and ethics. Wilson correctly recognizes that for all of humanity's scientific and technological achievement, if our species is to thrive well into the future we must come to terms with ourselves and recognize certain truths that our biological history has imposed on us. That recognition will necessarily entail major changes in the way we live, both at the individual and the societal level. Ultimately, however, Wilson is a conservative - not in the ideological sense, but in recognizing the need to preserve many traditions that anchor us to our cultural heritage.
This is a wonderful, well-researched, engagingly-written book by one of the most important scientists of the 20th Century. Readers looking for a peek into the future of intellectual discourse need look no further than Consilience.
43 internautes sur 45 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Procrustean argument or prophetic vision? 2 avril 2002
Par Amazon Customer - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
E.O.Wilson has come up with an arcane word for the title of his book, the meaning of which you will not find in your regular OED. I eventually read elsewhere that CONSILIENCE is the convergence, jumping, or bringing together of knowledge. The long time spent in frustrating dictionary searches has caused me to yield to temptation and toss an equally odd word at Wilson's book in this review. Is it indeed Procrustean by being a created and arbitrary standard that he demands intellectual conformity to, or is he simply ahead of his time and has a real vision of a coming "unity of knowledge"?
For persons in the humanities and social sciences this book may sting a little. Wilson is used to criticisms of his own work because of his insistence on using sociobiology as the lens through which he sees all. Long ago after having a jug of water dumped on his head and being told he "was all wet", Wilson seemingly realized that in order to be read he would have to develop a moderate, well reasoned, and mild writing style. You'll never read one of his books and come away thinking "diatribe" or "polemic". He even writes with a recognition and acknowledgement of his own biases. He says here that "ethics is everything" and for Wilson this largely means environmental ethics, and if after reading his book, critics want to say he's a reductionist, Wilson admits he's "guilty, guilty, guilty." Wilson however is quite able to give as good as he gets and the subject of his critical penmanship is the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and their "ideological committments" and lack of a "web of causal explanation." He thus sees them as weak in comparison to the natural sciences and poor templates for explaining all we see around us. Furthermore he looks back on the Enlightenment and says that those thinkers "got it mostly right" and achieved a wholeness in contrast to what we have now where divisions in academia are "artifacts of scholarship."
My background is in economics and geography and I don't have a problem with him saying there should be more rigidity and rules in those fields of study, and I agree that there should be more environmental awareness in economics. Maybe Wilson is onto something and sociobiology as a synthesis science might be a forerunner of the blended knowledge that will finally give us a clear view of the Big Picture. Who knows? His argument does tend to falter a bit though when he grasps for the humanities and discusses the laws that might be applicable in art and philosophy. It's a tenuous grip indeed as he is unconvincing in explaining how you achieve "objective truth" by "contemplation of the unknown" which he admits is was philosophy is. And please tell me what law governs the interpretation of a work of art?
It's a fascinating book and very well written. It's obvious Wilson has done a lot of research on the subject and he's a brilliant thinker and he may be mostly right. But Einstein the great unifier himself, once said that "imagination is more important than knowledge", so i'm inclined to go with that until Wilson or someone else can prove otherwise..
38 internautes sur 43 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
disappointing 5 février 2005
Par Sioran - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
If the very idea that chemical and physical or biological and social phenomena could be causally connected takes you by surprise, then I strongly recommend this book to you. If you are like me, however, spending most of your days doing science and arguing for conceptual compatibility between psychology, biology and economics, you will find very few original ideas in this book, that has very few ideas altogether anyways.

The first part of the book is historical and it is pretty readable, especially if you are anxious to get to the real stuff. But the real stuff is very slow in coming, as the shocking truth that cell biology has something to do with cell chemistry, and that mind has something to do with the brain is very gradually (it takes about 200 pages) revealed to us. Unfortunately, apart from these general truisms you will find little else. I can recall only one example that is sort of worked out down the hierarchy from social to physical - the presence of serpents in rituals of some primitive peoples in distant corners of the world, something, I dare say, of no importance to anyone but a few scientifically minded shamans and a handful of anthropologists. And this is the general nature of the examples that Wilson uses to illustrate his rare points: they are little known, inconsequential or drawn from the least vital of the classical works (e.g. Milton's "Paradise Lost").

Although the book as a whole is relatively well structured, particular chapters are most often just loose patchworks of independent essays that share somewhat similar themes. This makes the book extremely repetitive and hard to follow as, despite most of its assertions ringing true, it is in a great need of a solid argument. One would expect the book that purports to show advantages if not inevitability of consilience to teem with examples, yet there are very few of them, each of them then being grossly overused in turn (e.g. Westermarck effect is referred to dozens of times, almost as if this were a book on sexual development).

All those flaws culminate in the chapter on arts. There is no even mention of the possibility that arts have something to do with status, and there is virtually no mention of music, movies and literature - as far as this book goes, the arts are about cave drawings and Mondrian's personal development. On the top of it, Wilson reinforces already very entrenched and unfortunate habit of hyperhumility towards the arts and artists (which exists precisely because interest in art is associated with status), insisting many times that arts and science are complementary, that what we get from arts we can not get from science etc. This of course, and perhaps sadly, is not true, if only because 1) one of the reasons for arts (especially literature and movies) is their transmission of social knowledge 2) increasingly, there are more reliable (scientific) sources for this knowledge 3) time available to us for learning is limited.

As some sort of partial compensation for the reading for the thousandth time that human nature is relevant for social phenomena, comes the penultimate chapter on ethics. It is refreshing to see one of the major figures in sociobiology pointing out the fallacy of the so-called naturalistic "fallacy" that so many evolutionary psychologists enthusiastically embrace. Wilson puts the matter succinctly: there is no other place for ought to come from but is. This does not mean that every particular act is right, but it does mean that it is wrong only if we say so. But even this chapter is too long for this simple, if important point. Almost no ethical implications of what we actually know about human nature are worked out - the chapter proceeds as if we know nothing about gender and race differences, origin of mental illness, cognitive biases and child development again into the wordy and uninformative hodge-podge.

In several places Wilson laments over intellectual specialization that is common among contemporary inteligenzia. It seems to him that we need more synthesizers, but that is hardly as obvious as he appears to think. Distributed systems have had considerable success in many areas and it is quite possible that scientific enterprise is best served by thousands of specialists oblivious to the regularities in the greater project that they are a part of. Besides, even a relatively poorly researched book like this one depends on the work of at least several dozens specialists, and there are probably not much less synthesizers that could have written it. I therefore expect that we will soon be reading a more successful attempt at the same topic.
12 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
God's dream for Science 8 mars 2008
Par Alexander Kemestrios Ben - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
Anybody who has participated in University education can attest to its disarray. None of the disciplines communicate, and if they do it is only to hurl invective. I cannot count the number of times I have met a very bright student of history who was completely unaware of evolutionary psychology; or how many times I have talked to evolutionary psychologists who couldn't tell you what happened in 1066. The state of affairs is truely sad. We are learning more and more about less and less. We are seeing the blades of grass, but missing patterns in the fields.

E.O. Wilson's dream is to put an end to this nonsense. Consilience is the ambitious idea that all human knowledge fits together naturally- like a lego construction. There is no need to act as if humans are not a part of nature- we are.

The goal of uniting knowledge under rigorous scientific methodology and darwinian theory is laudable.

Here is a quick example of how it could work:

Let us say I wished to study love. Who de we love? Why? Etc.

From an evolutionary view, I could ask why natural selection would create a species where two members pair bonded.
From the neuroscientific view, I could explore the brain mechanisms and neurotransmitters responsible for creating this feeling.
From a Sociological view, I could look at who pairs up with whom, what effects it has on the surrounding society, and how love's expression has changed over time.
ETC.
ETC.

In the traditional view, their would be no inherent connection between the different answers reached by different disciplines. In the consilient view, they all belong together and interconnect. If the sociological view is not consilient with what is known about human biology and neuropsychology than one or both views must be wrong. From the view of consilience, the more our mutually seperate investigations fit together, the more likely our answer is a good one. Not only that, but our answer is much more satisfying.

This is consilience in a nutshell. A way to unite knowledge and provide deeply meaningful and satisfying answers to the question of what it means to be human, while not losing any scientific rigour.

My only qualm with the idea of consilience is its almost metaphysical nature. Anybody who does research and actively reads scientific journals knows just how hard true consilience would be to achieve. There are so many methodologies, units of analysis, debates, uncertainties; and there is SO MUCH information. It is hard to see how all of it can be united in a reasonable manner. I wish that more people would work toward such a goal, but academics, like the rest of us, have egos and niches to carve out.

In the end, E.O. Wilson's vision remains an ideal yet to be realized. Is it realistic? Probably not. Is it worth striving for? Like true love, it most certainly is.
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