Belief in the jungle of ideas

(review of Edward O Wilson's Consilience)
A S Byatt

This article originally appeared in the London Guardian, 29 August 1998

Why are we all reading science books? Ask a novelist, or a painter, or a civil servant what he or she is reading, and the chances are that it will be a book of popular science, explaining the selfish gene, or the flashing of neurons in the convolutions of the brain. I think we are partly doing this because we no longer have a simple popular image of the scientist as the mad, manipulative engineer. We are mostly doing it because the science is fascinating and in some sort accessible. But I think we are also doing it because we have experienced a trahison des clercs. The big belief-systems of the recent past - Marxism, Freudianism - are no longer believed, even if they live on. The strenuous refusals of order and meaning of Foucault and his school are exhausting and circular. And beyond that we have local belief-systems, good ones - anti-racism, feminism - based on moral passion but given also to closed circularities of argument.

Part of Edward Wilson's project is to fight for ideas he feels have been abandoned since the project of the Enlightenment - ideas of order, objectivity, impartiality, durable knowledge. He speaks of 'the growing dissolution and irrelevance of the intelligentsia, which is indeed alarming. He has coined the word 'consilience' for a modern project of the unification of all knowledge - upon a base of our understanding of ourselves as evolved animals, with both genetic and 'epigenetic' inheritances. Epigenetic rules govern behaviours and responses to the environment, from the reflex reactions of infants, the construction of grammar and, according to Wilson, the recurring formations in diverse human cultures. In pursuit of his project he analyses various other hard and soft sciences - anthropology, economics, sociology, philosophy - discussing their belief systems and modes of operation. He moves on to art, ethics and religion. It is a courageous endeavour, and line after line of his reasonable exposition strikes this reader as just, sensible, even wise. So why in the end is the book disappointing?

It is partly at least, quite simply, because the need for the project is not proven. Consilience is only one among many books which cross and recross the borders between what used to be rigorously distinguished disciplines. Matt Ridley's work on altruism is an exemplary study which unites economics, anthropology, game theory, history, politics and sociology to help us to rethink the sources and nature of our moral behaviour. Richard Dawkins has been working in this field for some time. Their books are bestsellers. There is a hunger for new knowledge and new explanations. Much of the evidence Wilson quotes in his examples is already familiar from previous reading at various levels of popular science.

This is a minor quibble. More seriously, I believe that Wilson is creating a kind of unnecessary meta-discourse which is turning those things he believes in into the fetishes and unquestioned assumptions of a belief-system. The exciting Darwin seminars at the LSE are enthusiastically attended, and full of informed discussion, but there is also a tendency to turn Darwinism into a belief system of the kind science should surely try to resist (I don't mean the old Social Darwinism, but an analogous new structure).

Wilson the naturalist observes both the social insects - especially and wonderfully the ants - and, as an extension of this interest, other social animals, including human beings. His belief that social behaviour can be biologically studied is surely tenable and worth serious study, but its statement has given rise to considerable hostility. One of his early observations about human societies was that apparently all of them have forms of religion and myth. This is interesting, and requires the attention and thought of all intellectuals, including strict Darwinians, who have a tendency to scoff, or set up simple straw figures and shoot them down.

Wilson the biologist believes in an empirical ethics, drawn from observation of the genetic and historical sources of our attitudes and behaviours. Wilson the man has clearly a visionary and even mystical temperament, which leads to considerable beauty and imaginative force in his descriptions of our planet and its inhabitants. He begins Consilience with a visionary sentence. 'I remember very well the time when I was captured by the dream of unified learning.' Much later he compares this vision to the sense of the unity of things he had as a born-again Baptist in the American South. It is in this way that 'consilience' is in danger of becoming a belief-system, analogous to those belief systems he tenderly and respectfully rejects.

I think the readers of popular science have, at least some of them, a desire to believe in knowledge and order from a position of clerkly scepticism. This comes less easily to most people than an adherence to a belief system per se, and can speak with the voice of the admirable and resolutely prickly Lewis Wolpert, who maintains that science does not come naturally to human beings, that most people have no understanding at all of what most scientists are doing, and that it is not for scientists, as scientists, to make ethical pronouncements, though they may presumably do so as citizens. I have been to several Sci-art events where the scientists showed us wonders - precise and intricate events in the world, beautiful forms, order and disorder - while the 'artists' (not all, but most) fell back on comfort words, 'intuition, expressing my personal vision, human values ...' Wilson is on the side of the angels, and he is a true scientist, and shows us marvels. He does us good by showing us the undreamed of minute particulars of the lives of hives and the foraging bivouacs of army ants. Yet he is in danger of straying into a vague general language, which is like smoke and syrup.

At the end of Consilience, Wilson the citizen does the other thing he does better than anyone - making a visionary, human plea for the consideration of bio-diversity before it is too late. He describes the (exciting, not nasty) artificial world we live in, with what he calls the 'prostheses' of electronics, modem transport, household goods and communications, and makes the case for preserving the rest of the inhabitants of the planet (not only glamorous tigers but unknown mites and leeches) with passion, intelligence and conviction. He knows he speaks to inherited human nature as well as to developed modern interests. He is a great man. This is not his best book.

Copyright: A S Byatt