"Consilience," how big a threat to the humanities?

The crisis facing the humanities can be boiled down to a single word: consilience.

A little history: Philosopher of science William Whewell introduced the word in 1840 to refer to instances of the same induction emerging in two or more different "classes of facts."  Over time it began to be applied more generally to any two or more fields of knowledge turning out to have, or being given, the same basis.

Fast forward to 1998. The term burst into public attention with publication of "Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge" by the biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson's premise was that a common body of principles forms the basis of the entire human endeavor. With great passion he identified these principles with Darwinism.

Another biologist with a complementary mission is David Sloan Wilson. His "Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives" shows how we can observe  the principles of Darwinism in all kinds of situation. On his website he outlines his mission:

"The Ivory Tower would be more aptly named the Ivory Archipelago. It consists of hundreds of isolated subjects, each divided into smaller subjects in an almost infinite progression....psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, history, art, literature, philosophy, gender studies, ethnic studies....

"Unity of knowledge has always been the ideal of a liberal arts education and efforts to foster integration across disciplines. Unfortunately, these commonly held goals cannot be realized in the absence of a common language that can be spoken across disciplines. Evolutionary theory provides a common language—a single explanatory framework that can be used to organize knowledge across a diversity of subject areas. This integration took place in the biological sciences over the course of the 20th century–but only now is taking place for most human-related subjects."

To achieve that "integration for most human-related subjects" Coffin created The Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Consortium-- slogan: Advancing the teaching of evolution in higher education. From the EvoS website:

The Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Consortium is designed to facilitate the development and implementation of Evolutionary Studies Programs at colleges and universities across the United States. An Evolutionary Studies Program introduces students from all majors to evolutionary theory early in their academic careers, emphasizes human-related subjects in addition to biological, promotes the continuation of evolutionary training throughout the undergraduate education, and promotes faculty training and collaborative research related to evolution.

36 colleges and universities are already members of the consortium. So the program to draw all the humanities into a consilience based on Darwinism is well advanced.

Obviously, making evolution the basis of the humanities is also the mission of this website. Except, I'd like to see the process initiated by the humanities. And I'd like to see it based on principles drawn from some other evolutionary theory than Darwinism.

I've three misgivings about basing the consilience on the sciences. First, as I point out elsewhere on this site, the evidence for Darwinism being the primary mechanism driving evolution is insufficient to justify making it the basis of all human endeavor. Second, Darwinism as currently advocated by its supporters, with its emphasis on competition and reproductive strategies, could be a very baleful influence on the culture at large. Third, scientists seem to assume the point of the humanities is the same as for the sciences, explaining and accounting for things, rather than enhancing the self and enriching conscious experience.

Here are some illustrations:

First, from "Evolution & Human Behavior," journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, a major channel for communicating Darwinian evolutionary thinking in the US, have are the titles of articles in the current issue as I write this, Volume 31, Issue 6, (November 2010). Note the focus on issues to do with reproduction:

Universal sex differences in online advertisers age preferences: comparing data from 14 cultures and 2 religious groups. 

Fertility and race perception predict voter preference for Barack Obama. 

Fertility in the cycle predicts women's interest in sexual opportunism. 

Men's facial masculinity predicts changes in their female partners' sexual interests across the ovulatory cycle, whereas men's intelligence does not. 

The effect of school performance upon marriage and long-term reproductive success in 10,000 Swedish males and females born 1915–1929. 

Facial symmetry in young girls and boys from a slum and a control area of Ankara, Turkey. 

Changes in pornography-seeking behaviors following political elections: an examination of the challenge hypothesis. 

The effect of paternal investment on female fertility intention in South Korea. 

Receptivity to sexual invitations from strangers of the opposite gender.

Natural selection can be expected to result in creatures concerned with overcoming competition, reproduction, and the favoring of one's own children. The above list of titles is almost a travesty of even that characterization, concentrating so much on reproduction. Are the humanities being invited to adopt such a focus?

My second illustration is an actual proposal for how Darwinism could be applied to the humanities, in this case literary criticism. In a book edited by David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Gottschall, "The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative," in an article “Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice” Joseph Carroll writes “Next to sex and property, fidelity to kin presents itself as an urgent motivational force.” In the Afterward to “Creating Consilience” (forthcoming) Geoffrey Harpham  writes “Evolutionary literary studies now constitutes a vanguard movement , with books, articles, conferences, special issues of journals, blogs, and every other accoutrement of a dynamic scientific undertaking” (source.)

My third exhibit comes from surveys of evolutionists carried out by American Scientist. Most (79 percent) of the respondents billed themselves as metaphysical naturalists. They were strongly materialists and monists: 73 percent said organisms have only material properties. 14% said they believed humans do not have free will. Can the humanities join in a consilience with such a bias against volition?

I see joining in a consilience based on Darwinism as an embrace of barbarism. It's scary to imagine the authority of science imposing such a consilience on cultures all around the world. I hope the offer of a consilience based on Darwinism and Physicalism ends up being as short-lived and unsuccessful as the earlier offer of a consilience based on behaviorism.

If the humanities and the sciences are to join in a consilience, l suggest the humanities fashion it. Two profound mysteries resist the methods of science. One is life in general, the other is volition. I suggest the humanities apply their methods to forge a consilience connecting these two mysteries and offer it to sciences to free them from the straightjacket their denial of volition confines them to. Then Edward O. Wilson's call the unification of all knowledge would be fulfilled.

Finally, illustrations of how science sees the point of the humanities as being, like the sciences, explaining and accounting for things, taken from Wilson's  "Consilience":

Given that human action comprises events of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences?

In his 1941 classic Man on His Nature, the British neurobiology Charles Sherrington spoke of the brain as an enchanted loom.... the loom is the same for both enterprises, for sciences and for the arts, and there is a general explanation of its origins and nature and thence of the human condition, proceeding from the deep history of genetic evolution to modern culture. Consilience of causal explanation is the means by which the single mind can travel most swiftly and surely from one part of the communal mind to the other.

Natural selection, defined as the the differential survival and reproduction of different genetic forms, prepares organisms only for necessities. Biological capacity evolves until it maximizes the fitness of organisms for the niches they fill, and not a squiggle more.

Followed more or less along there lines, reductionism is the primary and essential activity of science. But... even the most narrowly focused of researchers. . . still think all the time about complexity.... Behind the mere smashing of aggregates into smaller pieces lies a deeper agenda that also takes the name of reductionism: to fold the laws and principles of each level of organization into those at more general, hence more fundamental levels. Its strong form is total consilience, which holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced.

Science, its imperfections notwithstanding, is the sword in the stone that humanity finally pulled. The question it poses, of universal and orderly materialism, is the most important that can be asked in philosophy and religion.

Belief in the intrinsic unity of knowledge... rides ultimately on the hypothesis that every mental process has a physical grounding and is consistent with the natural sciences.... All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental process in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throw a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness.

Virtually all contemporary scientists and philosopher expert on the subject agree that the mind, which comprises consciousness and national process, is the brain at work. They have rejected the mind-brain dualism of Rene Descartes.... The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to to point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbor a nonphysical mind.... For the first time the ready important questions are asked in a form that can be answered, thus: What are the cellular events that comprise the mind? Not create the mind-- too vague, that expression-- but compose the mind.

Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will. And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate. Thus in organism time and space, in every operational sense that applies to the knowable self, the mind does have free will.

What, in final analysis, joins the deep, mostly genetic history of the species as a whole to the more recent cultural histories of its far flung societies? That, in my opinion, is the nub of the relationship between the two cultures. lt can be stated as a problem to be solved, the central problem of the social sciences and the humanities, and simultaneously one of the great remaining problems of the natural sciences.

Add comment


Security code
Refresh