In this ambitious book, Edward O. Wilson argues for what he calls consilience; the goal of the unification of knowledge from the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. He draws from disciplines as diverse as philosophy, psychology, physics, chemistry, biology, and economics to tackle fundamentally important topics such as human nature, the workings of the mind, culture, art, religion, and morality. All of these phenomena can be better understood, Wilson argues persuasively, by tracing their common evolutionary origin.
The chapters I found most interesting were chapters seven through ten. Here, Wilson discusses culture, human nature, the social sciences and the (interpretation of) art. In these chapters the phenomenon called "gene-culture coevolution" looms large. I wish that these chapters would be read by everybody, or at least all academics. While I might not agree with every individual claim made here, the general approach is certainly the right one, and very importantly so. Even those who in the end will contest the relevance of scientific (and particularly evolutionary) perspectives in the social sciences and humanities ought to at least be aware of the existence of these perspectives and hear them out properly. In this area there is an enormous blind spot among many intellectuals and this book is a good starting point to remedy it.
I should point out that Wilson is not saying that the natural sciences are primary or more important than the social sciences and the humanities. Rather, they are all involved in a common pursuit for knowledge. Wilson laments the extreme specialisation is today's academia where an expert in one field can fail to know even the basics of a neighbouring discipline. I can only agree.
The chapters that comes closest to topics commonly discussed by philosophers such as the mind (chapter 6) and especially ethics and religion (chapter 11) were not as satisfying as I would have hoped. In chapter 11, Wilson imagines a debate between an empiricist (his own position) and a "transcendentalist". In this debate the otherwise very humble stance taken by Wilson is somewhat reduced. After he rightly points out that the "transcendentalist" does not need to be a theist, he goes on to assume that she is one after all. Wilson himself confesses to be a deist (but offer no reason whatsoever for why deism would be preferable over atheism). I think that chapter 11, entitled "ethics and religion", would have benefited considerably from being divided into two separate chapters: one on ethics and another on religion. The question of the foundations of morals is much too important to be collapsed into a discussion over god and religion.
He rightly notes that John Rawls and Robert Nozick - two of the most central contemporary political philosophers - both start out with unfounded assumptions about rights. Wilson's own empiricist ethical theory presented in chapter 11 is, on the other hand, underdeveloped and somewhat naive. He does however, at various other places in the book, make a very strong case for the "social contract" approach to morals. He says for example that:
"Contractual agreement so thoroughly pervades human social behaviour, virtually like the air we breathe, that it attracts no special notice - until it goes bad. Yet it deserves focused scientific research for the following reason. All mammals, including humans, form societies based on a conjunction of selfish interests. Unlike the worker castes of ants and other social insects, they resist committing their bodies and services to the common good. Rather, they devote their energies to their own welfare and that of close kin. For mammals, social life is a contrivance to enhance personal survival and reproductive success. As a consequence, societies of nonhuman mammalian species are far less organized than the insect societies. They depend on a combination of dominance hierarchies, rapidly shifting alliances, and blood ties. Human beings have loosened this constraint and improved social organization by extending kinshiplike ties to others through long-term contracts. Contract formation is more than a cultural universal. It is a human trait as characteristic of our species as language and abstract thought, having been constructed from both instinct and high intelligence."
He also says that detection of cheaters, which is a central theme in contractarian philosophy
... stands out in acuity from mere error detection and the assessment of altruistic intent on part of others. It is furthermore triggered as a computation procedure only when the cost and benefits of a social contract are specified. More than error, more than good deeds, and more even than the margin of profit, the possibility of cheating by others attracts more attention. It excites emotion and serves as the principal source of hostile gossip and moralistic aggression by which the integrity of the political economy is maintained.
He even mentions game theory and the Prisoner's Dilemma, but somewhat strangely, Thomas Hobbes - the forefather of contractarianism - is not mentioned anywhere in the book (even if John Locke and David Hume are) and neither does Wilson seem to be familiar with contemporary contractarian thinkers such as David Gauthier and Jan Narveson. Instead, he claims Aristotle and Hume to be the predecessors of his empiricist ethical view.
In the final chapter, Wilson reflects on environmental issues and discusses the risks of overpopulation, climate change and decreasing biodiversity. In my view, he paints a too pessimistic picture that occasionally verges on alarmist. He admits, however, (at least partly) that
new technology and the rising tide of the free-market economy can solve the problem [by the means of] more land, fertilizer, and higher-yield crops [...] And of course encourage more education, technology transfer, and free trade [and] discourage ethnic strife and political corruption.
But he thinks that this will not be enough. He talks about a "carrying capacity" of the earth and natural resources running low. While there might well be such a thing as a carrying capacity of the earth at any given moment in time and state of technology (even if it would be extraordinary hard to calculate), it surely changes significantly with technological progress. I think that Wilson is actually well aware of this and among his many environmental alarm reports, he provides some interesting practical examples of how we can solve these problems. I guess, the optimist in him could not refuse.
Overall, this is a very inspirational book written by one of the few people today who are well read in many different fields of intellectual inquiry. Recommended reading!