International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

by Edward Osborne Wilson

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Edward O. Wilson, one of the greatest of evolutionists – the leading authority on the ants and of social behavior generally (“sociobiology”) – is deeply committed to the idea that the inquiring human’s aim should be to connect across boundaries, showing the essential integration (“consilience”) of different branches of human understanding. This book shows both how this is to be done, and the ultimate implications. It is written in an easily accessible style and ranges broadly across history and the sciences as we know them today. It also goes beyond to the arts and to philosophy and religion, and it is this that makes it particularly pertinent for the science-religion debate and an appropriate addition to the Library.

Given the model and influence of Newtonian science, it is the Enlightenment that is Wilson’s heroic time – a time whose importance Wilson fears has become muddied and murky in the two centuries since. But again we are unifying, and naturally Wilson sees his own scientific contributions as part of this process. From ants he moved through the animal kingdom right up to our own species, Homo sapiens, and through his writings (especially his On Human Nature) he has striven to show that understanding ourselves as social beings – today a labor that belongs in the realm of the social sciences – can only be achieved successfully inasmuch as ideas and theories are integrated into (perhaps even derived from) ideas and theories of the biological sciences. Sociology, psychology and more must be part of biology, combined in one grand synthesis.

Ethics and religion also must fall beneath the spell of the empirical sciences, shown to be natural phenomena and part of the overall physical scheme of things – for Wilson, a deeply committed evolutionist, part of the overall developmental scheme of things. Moral behavior must be seen as part of our biological imperatives. Humans that behave morally survive and reproduce. Those that transgress are fated to biological extinction. Religion likewise is a natural thing, in some sense an important part of the group experience of human nature – indeed, Wilson argues that religion so binds people together that it is appropriate to talk of human societies as “superorganisms.”

Wilson is at one with the so-called “New Atheists,” believing that there is no more to life than that experienced here and now. Indeed, he believes that since religion can be given a natural explanation, something of biological significance because of its socially integrating and morality-supporting functions, this shows that there can be no deeper significance or meaning. In other respects, Wilson is far from the New Atheists, thinking that religion can be a very good thing and that human nature is such that religion can never be eliminated, only channeled and directed for the good.

Those working from viewpoints sympathetic to religion will find themselves at deep odds with the message of Consilience. However, they should regard this as a challenge and an opportunity to sharpen their own thinking. Wilson is never ambiguous and in his frank espousal of a naturalistic, science-based view of all things, including religious belief, he offers a clear statement of the non-believer’s world view, showing in many respects it is as much a moral world view as can be found in any faith-based alternative picture.