Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge


Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is a 1998 book by biologist E. O. Wilson, in which the author discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences and might in the future unite them with the humanities. Wilson uses the term consilience to describe the synthesis of knowledge from different specialized fields of human endeavor.

Definition of consilience

"Literally a 'jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation." (page 7)

Examples of consilience discussed by Wilson

Chapter 1

  • The "New Synthesis". Unification of Darwin's theory of evolution with genetics.
  • Gerald Holton's "Ionian Enchantment". The conviction that the world has a unified order and can be explained by natural laws.
  • Theory that water is fundamental. Thales of Miletus proposed that water is the unifying basis for all material things. Often cited as the first materialistic theory of a unified view of nature.
  • Unification of forces in modern physics.
  • Einstein's work. For example, unification of Brownian motion with atomic theory.
  • Unity of purpose for science and religion. To explain the universe and understand our role in the universe.

Chapter 2

  • Environmental protection. The need to link together knowledge from government regulators, ethics, social science, biology, and physical sciences like chemistry.
  • Unity of purpose for philosophy and science. Philosophers and scientists can work together at the borders between biology, social science and the humanities.
  • Liberal arts education. Recognition of the unity of knowledge as a way to revitalize education.
  • Government policy. The need to assemble unified knowledge from across specialized disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.

Chapter 3

  • The Enlightenment. In the context of scientific knowledge applied to human rights and social progress.
  • Marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet's systematic application of mathematics in the social sciences.
  • Francis Bacon. Early advocate of data collection and its analysis as the basis of sound knowledge (Baconian method) in fields that include social science and the humanities.
  • René Descartes. Believed that the universe is rational and united and that interconnected truths run from physics to biology to moral reasoning. Descartes unified geometry and algebra (see: Cartesian coordinate system).
  • Isaac Newton. Unified the laws of falling bodies with the laws of planetary motion (see: law of universal gravitation).
  • Origin of social science. The roles of Adolphe Quetelet and Auguste Comte in developing the idea of studying behavior with scientific methods.
  • Unity of purpose for Postmodernism and Science. Wilson argues that humanity is driven forward by the tension between those who upon viewing order create disorder and those who upon viewing disorder create order.

Chapter 4

  • The Greek Atomists. Greeks such as Leucippus and Democritus are credited with the reductionistic idea that matter has fundamental components. Scientific investigation of this idea has resulted in unification across the natural sciences. Example: the molecular structure of DNA accounts for genetic storage in living cells.
  • Experimental Epistemology. A modern attempt to unify neuroscience and epistemology. Discussed as a method for clarifying the Evolutionary basis of mismatches between physical reality and our mental models of reality.
  • Positivism. A method for comparing and unifying knowledge from different disciplines; gives priority to facts which are generated by experiment and objective observation rather than subjective speculations.
  • Pragmatism. A method for comparing and unifying knowledge from different disciplines; gives priority to methods and techniques that can be demonstrated to work and have pragmatic value.

Chapter 5

  • Reduction vs. synthesis. Many examples comparing consilience by reduction (dissect a phenomenon into its components) and consilience by synthesis (predicting higher-order phenomena from more basic physical principles). One specific example is Wilson's own work on the chemical signals that regulate insect social behavior.
  • Magician to Atom. An example of consilience by reduction in which Wilson tries to account for the prevalence of serpent symbols in human cultures. Incorporates the "activation-synthesis model" of dreaming.
  • Consilience between biology disciplines. Discussion of successes (cells explained in terms of their chemical components, embryo development in terms of interactions between the cells of an embryo) but also points to the remaining problem of dealing with complex systems as in neuroscience and ecology.
  • Statistical mechanics. A classical example in which the behavior of volumes of gas is explained in terms of the molecules of the gas (kinetic theory).
  • Quantum chemistry. Prediction of chemical properties by quantum mechanical calculations.

Chapter 6

  • Explaining consciousness and emotion in terms of brain activity. Wilson describes the neurobiological approach to accounting for consciousness and emotion in terms of brain physiology and how this effort is guided by collaboration between biologists, psychologists and philosophers.
  • Neurobiology of aesthetics. Wilson proposes that it will be possible to construct a neurobiological understanding of subjective experiences that are shared and explored by art. Common neural patterns of activity will be found to correspond to fundamental aesthetic experiences.
  • Artificial emotion. Wilson proposes that human-like artificial intelligence will require the engineering of a computational apparatus for processing an array of rich sensory inputs and the capacity to learn from those inputs in the way that children can learn. Requires consilience between biology, psychology and computer science.

Chapter 7

  • The relationship between genes and culture. Wilson posits that the basic element of culture is the meme. When a meme exists in a brain it has the form of a neuronal network that allows the meme to function within semantic memory. The link from genes to culture is that our genes shape our brains (in cooperation with the environment) and our brains allow us to work with memes as the basic units of culture.
See also
  • Philosophy of science
  • The Two Cultures
  • The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox by Stephen Jay Gould
  • Wendell Berry wrote a comprehensive critique of Consilience in his essay collection Life is a Miracle.


  • Eldredge, Niles and Stephen Jay Gould, "Biology Rules", Stephen Jay Gould Archive.
  • Fodor, Jerry. "Look!", London Review of Books, Vol. 20, No. 21, 29 October 1998.
  • Gillispie, Charles C. "E. O. Wilson's Consilience: A Noble, Unifying Vision, Grandly Expressed", American Scientist, May–June 1998.
  • Henriques, G. (in press). The problem of psychology and the integration of human knowledge: Contrasting Wilson’s Consilience with the Tree of Knowledge System. Final draft
  • Jamieson, Dale. "Consilience", Issues in Science and Technology, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall 1998.
  • McGuire, Ron. Review, CNN, April 15, 1998.
  • Orr, H. Allen. "The Big Picture", Boston Review, October/November 1998.

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