Edward Osborne Wilson:
CONSILIENCE (Knopf, 1998)

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Wilson's ambitious program is to unify all disciplines of human knowledge (from religion to art) in one discipline ("consilience"), which would be, fundamentally, the study of how the human mind evolved. He believes that all other disciplines can be reduced to "consilience", and therefore what they study are but particular aspects of the evolution of the mind and, ultimately, of its genetic programming.

In particular, Wilson believes in unifying Science and Humanities. Quote: "Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What the relationship between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?" Another quote: "Most of the issues that vex humanity cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities". In his view this "integration" will replace religion and ideology as the drivers for human behavior.

Wilson starts by showing hot the Enlightenment tried to achieve that unification of knowledge (although Wilson dates it to Condorcet, a good 50 years after the Enlightenment started), and how it failed. But that movement set something in motion that could not be stopped. Wilson believes that in his time the biggest divide is not between races or religions but between scientific literary and scientific illiteracy. The events of the 2000s might prove him more right than Huntington (who famously wrote about the "Clash of Civilizations"): all regions of the world are converging towards the same political model of capitalism and democracy, and the real difference is now how much science they can use to "compete" in the globalized economy.

What is unique about humans is that the environment that shapes their evolution mostly consists of culture. Human behavior is transmitted by culture, and genes have an influence on which culture is produced because genes shape the brain. Therefore the issue is how biology and culture interact and create "human nature". Wilson's theory of gene-culture coevolution is clear in one direction: genes prescribe epigenetic rules that select the culture that the brain absorbs during development; brains then collectively reconstruct culture during their lifetimes; and the next generation absorbs that culture and reconstructs it based on the epigenetic rules and so forth. Culture evolves much faster than genes. Culture allows for rapid adjustments to changes in the environment without waiting for genes to adapt (a process that takes thousands and sometimes millions of years). In the other direction though (from culture to genes) the explanation is not as clear. Wilson argues that genes prescribe epigentic rules that guide the acquisition of culture, and then culture determines which prescribing genes survive to the next generation. New genes that are adopted by a new generation alter the epigenetic rules, and so forth. The actual mechanism by which culture detemines genes remains a bit obscure. Quote: "If the epigenetic rules are powerful enough, they cause the behaviors they affect to evolve convergently across a great many societies". When scientists use complicated language to describe a phenomenon, it's almost always a sign that their theory does not hold water.

Human nature is not in the genes which prescribe it and it is not in the culture that is produced by it: human nature is the epigenetic rules that connect genes and culture.

Genetic and cultural evolution were closely coupled for millions of years. They decoupled after the rise of civilization, when cultural evolution started accelerating.

Language was a fundamental factor. The language instinct differentiates humans from the other apes. The great apes are completely silent most of the time, whereas humans talk all the time. Human infants are skilled at imitation and love to babble: they rapidly acquire syntax and vocabulary.

The chapter "The Fitness of Human Culture" deals with the "genetic fitness" hypothesis: that the most widely distributed traits of culture confer evolutionary advantage on the genes that predispose them. Wilson takes it from granted, but it is debatable whether a brain is a mind (conscious life in a child seems to take a few years to appear) and whether wiser brains make more children (as people get more educated, they tend to make fewer children and many make none at all).

Wilson, Edward Osborne: SOCIOBIOLOGY (Belknap, 1975)
Wilson Edward Osborne: THE DIVERSITY OF LIFE (Harvard University Press, 1992)
Wilson Edward Osborne: GENES, MIND AND CULTURE (Harvard Univ Press, 1981)

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi