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Unity of Knowledge

November 10th, 2010 by Jessika

Edward O. Wilson on Oct. 16, 2007. (Photo by ragesoss via Flickr)

I recently finished reading Consilience by biologist Edward O. Wilson. This book took me to places I had never been to or thought of much before – from tropical rainforests to the taiga to 18th Century France. It explored the arts, economics, psychology and biology, among many other topics. Wilson used this array of places and subjects to argue in favor of the idea of consilience.

Consilience, as defined by Wilson, is the unification “of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” In other words, the only way we can truly understand the world is to apply theories from multiple disciplines to it. For example, the creative arts can be explained through spirituality. Early humans recreated animals in their art and depicted the animals being killed in the hopes of being able to defeat the animals in real life.

Wilson suggests two ways to achieve consilience: one can go backward (reduction) or one can go forward (synthesis). Though, going backward from an endpoint, such as a species of frog, and following that endpoint to the laws of physics, for example, is much easier than going in the opposite direction. Reduction, Wilson argues, can even be applied to all branches of learning and organization. That is, you can take a frog and look at it in the broader picture from a number of different disciplinary theories.

When I first plucked this book off the Barnes and Noble shelf, I admit I was a little skeptical about it. How could we unify all knowledge? After reading this, though, I came to realize that Wilson wasn’t talking about finding a theory of everything. Rather, he was arguing that experts across all disciplines should learn from and incorporate the knowledge of other disciplines.

Over the years, academic disciplines have become increasingly compartmentalized. New specialties seem to pop up virtually overnight. (Okay that may be a bit of an exaggeration. But you get the point.) At the University of Southern California, in the biology department alone you can specialize in marine environmental, molecular and computational, integrative and evolutionary, and neurobiology. That doesn’t even count microbiology, molecular microbiology or immunology. This specialization Wilson argues has led to fewer collaborative efforts. Researchers are more and more concerned with their specific areas of specialty than solving the bigger picture. While this may lead to discoveries down the road, it does not help us get an overall sense of understanding of the subject. Wilson does say that many biological fields, like medical science, do incorporate information from different fields for analysis, such as the foundations of cell and molecular biology. But that information usually doesn’t come from outside the natural sciences. Some theories, like evolution, and structures, like DNA, do provide a framework all of the natural sciences can pull from.

On the other hand, social scientists don’t apply any form of unifying, or foundational theories. “Social sciences by and large spurn the idea of the hierarchical ordering of knowledge that unites and drives the natural sciences,” wrote Wilson. He is particularly critical of economics for its failure to incorporate the environoment. Instead, the field often predicts the need for countries to economically expand to keep up with increases in wealth and living standards. These predictions mention nothing about the environmental consequences. This makes perfect sense. Countries won’t have a place to expand if they continue to run their resources dry. In high school, I took an economics class that I all but blocked out of my mind. The subject, or at least the way it is presented, is so boring. If my class would have looked at the Gross Domestic Product in terms of how certain sectors impacted the environment, I would have been much more interested. Alas, though, my economics teacher must have not known much about consilience.

Wilson’s biggest argument for unity and cooperation across disciplines comes near the end of the book. He paints a frightening picture of the human population bottleneck, where human’s reach the point in numbers the earth cannot sustain them. In 1997 (the year before this book was published) the human population reached 5.8 billion. Thirteen years later it has reached 6.9 billion. We are running out of food, water and many other natural resources. How many more people can the earth take? More importantly, though, how can we save the earth and ourselves from extinction?

“Somehow humanity must squeeze through the bottleneck without destroying  environments on which the rest of life depends,” wrote Wilson. The only way to figure that out is through a multidisciplinary approach. Wilson said that a unified and organized system of knowledge would give us a clearer way to identify what needs to be done.

I wonder what Wilson would say about our current progress. Are we any closer to finding solutions to our looming problems? My guess would be no. But we definitely are closer to running through our resources.  Some schools have begun hiring multidisciplinary teams of academics to look at bigger picture items, and programs have popped up with a multidisciplinary approach. Yet, to my knowledge, many of these teams and programs are still in their infancy, and it may be years before they produce any results (if that was ever their intention).

On the whole, I did enjoy Wilson’s book. The sheer breadth of his knowledge astounded me. He touched on nearly everything from French philosophers to incest to Greek myths. No subject was spared. At times, though, I did feel a bit lost in Wilson’s prose, which often included long sentences and weird constructions. The shifting from topic to topic also left me a bit overwhelmed. But I did take away one important message.

We are still in denial about our fate, ignoring the fact that we won’t last much longer at this rate. The climate continues to increase, melting icebergs and raising sea levels. We continue to use up our sources of freshwater. Fisheries have largely been tapped out. Fertile land has been used up. So, what will it take for us to do something? Anything? Maybe it’s already too late, and as Wilson wrote, “we will become nothing.”

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