The Theory of Everything

Reading between the lines.
April 1 1998 3:30 AM

The Theory of Everything

E.O. Wilson explains how all knowledge fits together.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
By Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf; 332 pages; $26

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Even readers who share Wilson's worldview will find much to provoke them. I felt Wilson was sometimes too complacent in seeing human foibles (such as irrational spiritual beliefs) as evolutionarily adaptive. I was not persuaded that moral statements can be reduced to psychology, as if the disapproval of murder were just another human taste like the preference for sweet over bitter foods. (Even a die-hard Ionian might think that our moral sense evolved to grasp a logic of morality that is outside our minds in the same sense that our number sense evolved to grasp mathematical truths that are outside our minds.) I was unconvinced that a case for preserving species diversity can rest on our innate love of a species-rich, savanna-like ancestral environment. I fear that, if it meant avoiding widespread economic dislocations, most people would be happy to consummate their desire to commune with plants and animals with a visit to a golf course stocked with a few pandas and eagles. For this reason, the concluding chapter, which urges urgent intervention to stop environmental degradation, felt out of place--though it is the most thoughtful and persuasive such argument I have seen.

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Consilience is, in any case, an excellent book. Wilson provides superb overviews of Western intellectual history and of the current state of understanding in many academic disciplines. Though he forcefully presses his case toward a conclusion many will find radical, the tone is calm and respectful and the writing style gentle and inviting.

If you missed the links within this review, click 1) to how E.O. Wilson uses his knowledge of insects to explain human culture and 2) for excerpts from and information about Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. You can also read Pinker's dialogue on "Evolution and the Brain" with sociologist Alan Wolfe in Slate, his debate with biologist Steven Rose in Edge, or a.

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct.

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