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Edward O Wilson

Book Review with Commentary

Readable, accessible, dramatic, and profound, Wilson is at once a first-rank scientist and storyteller. He wrote a book we could not put down until we finished it. And then we felt like reading it again. We grew up believing that nothing could be more complex than Einstein's theory of gravity. We were wrong. The human brain is far more complex and difficult to predict than a mere apple falling from a tree! As Wilson patiently explains, human behaviors arise from the brain and are in fact multiples more complex than physical laws known to date. Furthermore, Wilson convincingly argues, human behavior (psychology and sociology) is a consilient branch of science, at least so far. He is not an absolutist. The only real axe he grinds is consilience itself, and his axe is finely honed. For example, he explains nicely how evolution itself gives rise to our humanistic as well as existential belief systems. Each is an epigenetic expression of our genes.

Scientists have long known that physics is the base from which chemistry springs and chemistry gives life to biology. That knowledge base is so vast that each discipline has specialized into many sub- and sub-sub disciplines. Scientists are also aware that unity of knowledge is the very glue that holds the branches of science together. In that sense, consilience is like universal gravity which holds our local and perhaps even the entire universe together.

To date, the complex human behaviors inferred on this web site have seemed beyond the realm of pure logic. Wilson explains why that seems so, then promptly moves on to show why it isn't so. All laws of nature are consilient as far as we can tell. By showing how consilience throughout biology arrives naturally at our inferences in a more sophisitcated and beautiful style. Kudos and more to this great man.

Wilson's work is in fact consilient with the conclusions of:
Adorno et al, Milgram, Zimbardo, Altemeyer, Stout, Hare, Frank, Burger, and even Lakoff!

As Wilson explains, "How can it be otherwise?"

Wilson considers consilience to be a natural law. His ground seems firm on two points: 1) No exceptions are known and 2) consilience is the best theory going to explain the commonality of behaviors among mammals and many other species. Wilson is first to say that the generalization of consilience needs to be confirmed by continued experiments and extended gene mapping.

No other book we have reviewed comes close to this one in predicting what our future can look like. Wilson does not pretend to know. He is just confident that the laws of nature will be obeyed, that humanity has the ability to modify its behavior. He does not say that we will change our behavior any time soon. We agree. This book belongs on the bookshelf of every thinking person.

Note added 30- Apr 2013

From comes a work entirely consilient with Wilsonís monumental conclusion; this case being peer pressure in food selection. Erica van de Waal of the University of St Andrews, Scotland and others studied 109 vervet monkeys in the wild in South Africa. Because the monkeys were in the wild, experimental control was not what they might have been. The study addressed the question of how monkeys pass on food preferences to the next generation. To give pure results, the groups had to remain separate, but in fact ten males were travelling men and migrated to the other group. Nine of the travelers instantly switched their food preference of the new group. The hold out who did not was the alpha male of the group.

While this specific study needs replication, the evidence is consilient with a large and growing body of evidence that behaviors are inherited. According to lead author Erica van de Waal, "We're not as unique as we would like to think, We can find many of the roots of our behaviors in animals."


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