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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 4 July 2016

"Consilience" by Edward O Wilson

This far-ranging and brilliantly written book pleads the cause that science should be united with the social sciences, and the humanities, and the arts, and even ethics and religion, on the basis of the scientific method. The thesis is that biology, which accepts that is is linked to chemistry and physics, is the basis for psychology through the evolution by natural selection within the human brain of epigenetic rules, and that scientific psychology is (or should be) the basis for sociology, anthropology and economics. Wilson is predominantly a socio-biologist and presents compelling evidence for his point of view. This book thus complements, supports and is supported by Steven Pinker's brilliant book The Blank Slate.

He starts by celebrating the power of science:  "The idea of the unity of science ... has been tested in acid baths of experiment and logic and enjoyed repeated vindication. It has suffered no decisive defeats. At least not yet." (p 3). To those who fear the 'mad scientist', variously mythologised as Frankenstein, the forbidden apple from the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden, and Icarus, the ultimate in hubris, Wilson responds: "Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings." (p 5)

He believes that the romantics led the reaction against the Enlightenment ideal of consilience, the unit of knowledge, when  Rousseau "invented the deadly abstraction of the 'general will' ... the rule of justice agreed upon by assemblies of free people whose interest is only to serve the welfare of the society and of each person in it ... Those who do not conform to the general will ... are deviants subject to necessary force by the assembly. There is no other way to achieve a truly egalitarian democracy." (p 14) but he points out that  "The Enlightenment ... was less a determined swift river than a lacework of deltaic streams working their way along twisted channels" (p 21) and reminds us that "What counts most in the long haul of history is seminality, not sentiment." (p 22) "Reductionism, given its unbroken strong of successes ... may seem today the obvious best way to have constructed knowledge of the physical world." (p 31) "The cutting edge of science is reductionism ... It is the research strategy employed to find points of entry into otherwise impenetrably complex systems." (p 58) The present situation is one in which the "natural sciences have expanded to reach the borders of the social sciences and humanities" (p 71)

Wilson is at one with Dennett is his claims that "Mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experience. It is at root the coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imaginations of sensory impressions." (p 119) and that "Consciousness consists of the parallel processing of" networks of neurons. These "create scenarios that flow back and forth through time. The scenarios are a virtual reality." (p 120) He thus denies the Cartesian theatre: "Who or what within the brain monitors all this activity? No one. Nothing. The scenarios are not seen by some other part of the brain. They just are. ... There is no single stream of consciousness in which all information is brought together by an executive ego. There are instead multiple streams of activity, some of which contribute momentarily to conscious thought and then phase out. ... The mind is a self-organizing republic of scenarios that individually germinate, grow, evolve, disappear, and occasionally linger to spawn additional thought and physical activity." (p 120)

I think therefore I am? Wilson questions the identity of the Self, seeing it as an actor improvising: "The self, an actor in a perpetually changing drama, lacks full command of its actions." (p 131) Free will is an illusion: "We make decisions for reasons we can sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully. Ignorance of this kind is conceived by the conscious mind as uncertainty to be resolved; hence freedom of choice is ensured. An omniscient mind with total commitment to pure reason and fixed goals would lack free will." (p 131): this implies that an omniscient God could not have free will; this is a fascinating theological restriction on God that I need to think about.

He revisits the nature-nurture debate, accepting that culture affects us but claiming that culture is an amalgam of the evolution of epigenetic rules which are prescribed by genes. "We know that virtually all of human behaviour is transmitted by culture. We also know that biology has an important effect on the origin of culture and its transmission. The question remaining is how biology and culture interact." (p 138) "Culture is reconstructed each generation collectively in the minds of individuals ... culture can grow indefinitely large ... But the fundamental biasing influence of the epigenetic rules, being genetic and ineradicable, stays constant." (p 139). This creates an unchangeable human nature. He has a great example showing how nature and nurture interact in the arrowleaf plant which has arrowhead leaves on land, lily-pad leaves in shallow water, grass-like ribbon leaves in deep water. Similarly, humans genetically predisposed to be fat can be thin with a significant dieting regime and "Later-borns, who identify least with the roles and beliefs of their parents, tend to become more innovative and accepting of political and scientific revolutions than do first-borns. As a result they have, on average, contributed more than first-borns have to cultural change throughout history." (p 152)

Culture itself evolves and Wilson suggests that this is because cultural evolution can facilitate survival faster than genetic evolution, thus enabling faster adaptation to environmental change and potentially explaining the success of our species. "The more successful epigenetic rules have spread through the population along with the genes that prescribe the rules. As a consequence the human species has evolved genetically by natural selection in behaviour. ... Certain cultural norms also survive and reproduce better than competing norms ... Culture allows a rapid adjustment to changes in the environment through finely tuned adaptations." (p 140) Culture exists in other species: "Wild chimps regularly invent and use tools. And the particular kinds of artifacts they invent, just as in human culture, are often limited to local populations." (p 145). 

He casts a new light on rationality itself! "I suggest that rational choice is the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satisfy the strongest epigenetic rules." (p 199) But epigenetic rules ("rules of thumb that allow organisms to find rapid solutions to problems encountered in the environment") (p 213) are "typically emotion driven" (p 214) so "Rational calculation is based on surges of competing emotions." (p 227)#

He is fascinating on a wide range of topics including pre-verbal communication which is probably "our primate heritage" and includes:
  • "a male pheromone concentrated in perspiration and fresh urine. Perceived variously as musk or sandalwood, it changes sexual attraction and warmth of mood during social contacts." (p 174)
  • Touching: strangers: arms only; other parts of body for more familiar acquaintances; more familiarity with opposite sex (p 174)
  • "Dilation of the pupils": greater in women (p 174)
  • "Pushing the tongue out and spitting are aggressive displays of rejection; flicking the tongue around the lips is a social invitation, used most commonly during flirtation" (p 174)
  • Close eyes & wrinkle nose: rejection (p 174)
  • "Opening the mouth while pulling down the corners of the mouth to expose the lower teeth is to threaten with contempt." (p 175)

"The optimum sexual instinct of men ... is to be assertive and ruttish, while that of women is to be coy and selective. Men are expected to be more drawn than women to pornography and prostitution. And in courtship, men are expected to stress exclusive sexual access and guarantees of paternity, while women consistently emphasize commitment of resources and material security." (p 187)
The theory of the family: "The basic assumption is evolution by natural selection" (p 214)
"Families are basically unstable, but the least so in those controlling high-quality resources. Dynasties ... arise in territories permanently rich in resources." (p 215)
"The closer the genetic relationships of the family members .. the higher the degree of cooperation." (p 215)
"The closer the genetic relationship of the family members, the lower the frequency of sexual conflict." (p 215)
"Breeding males invest less in offspring when paternity is uncertain. If the family consists of a single conjugal pair, and one of the parents is lost, the opposite-sex offspring compete with the surviving parent for breeder status. When the father dies, for example, a still fecund mother is likely to enter into conflict with a son over the status of a mate he may newly acquire, and a son is likely to discourage his mother from establishing a new sexual relationship." (p 215)
"Stepfamilies are less stable than biologically intact families." (p 215)
"Reproduction within a family ... is increasingly shared when there is an improvement in the alternative option for subordinate members to disperse and start families of their own. Such forbearance is greatest of all when the members are genetically very close and when the cooperating individuals are siblings rather than parents and offspring." (p 215)
Economists tend to use "folk psychology" (p 223) Their "principle of rational choice" assumes "narrow self-interest" but people are also "variously altruistic, loyal, spiteful, and masochistic." (p 224)

"The arts are not solely shaped by errant genius out of historical circumstances and idiosyncratic personal experience. The roots of that inspiration date back in deep history to the genetic origins of the human brain, and are permanent." (p 242)

"Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions." (p 265) But if ethical rules "increased the survival and reproductive success of those who conformed" then epigenetic ethical rules could have evolved. (p 275)

"Rarely do you see an argument that opens with the simple statement: This is my starting point and it could be wrong." (p 268)

Pascal's wager: I might as well believe: if I am right I get eternity in heaven, if I am wrong I lose nothing. This could be turned around: "If fear and hope and reason dictate that you must accept the faith, do so, but treat this world as if there is none other." (p 274)

The naturalistic fallacy (to go from is to ought) is itself a fallacy: "To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts ... they are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates, the behavioral codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are willing to accept themselves for the common good." (p 278)
"One hunter considers breaking away from the others to look for an antelope on his own. If successful he will gain a large quantity of meat and hide ... But he knows from experience that his chances of success alone are very low ... In addition ... he will suffer animosity from the others for lessening their own prospects." (p 281) therefore those humans who cooperate have greater reproductive success and cooperation evolves. Therefore the prisoner's dilemma can be solved if "Honor does exist among thieves" (p 281)
"I found it hard to accept that our deepest beliefs were set in stone by agricultural societies of the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago." (p 4)

At then end he offers two warnings. 

First: we are destroying our environment. "At best an environmental bottleneck is coming in the twenty-first century." (p 320) "Economic miracles ... occur most often when countries consume not only their own material resources, including oil, timber, water, and agricultural produce, but those of other countries as well." (p 325) Life is becoming increasingly fragile:
"The more knowledge people acquire, the more they are able to increase their numbers and to alter the environment, whereupon the more they need new knowledge just to stay alive." (p 302)
"Greed demands an explanation." (p 302)

Secondly, we are about to become in charge of our own evolution.
"Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us. ... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become. Our childhood having ended, we will hear the true voice of Mephistopheles." (p 309)

This is an amazing book. July 2016; 333 pages 

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