Re: Can You Live Forever? Esquire article

J. R. Molloy (
Thu, 13 May 1999 10:05:13 -0700

From: Billy Brown <>
>Arguing about the "ends" of an entire civilization is one of the most
>useless exercises I can imagine. Civilizations don't have goals, purposes,
>desires or ends - those are attributes of individuals.

Right, but individuals (except for sociopaths) seek to maintain the continuance of civilization. Collectively, we can refer to the effort to sustain the prosperity of economic populations as "civilization" which is the sense in which I think some writers mean it.

>> Read the book, then decide..
>If the author seriously believes that resource depletion and ecological
>catastrophe are urgent survival issues for mankind, he is so far out of
>touch with reality that I'm not particularly interested in his opinions.
>his book happens to be devoted to proving that we should actually be
>concerned about these things (using hard evidence, not anecdotes and
>hysteria), I might give it a look just to make sure there isn't some new
>evidence I've missed. If, however, he takes these things as given, then
>there is no reason for me to waste my time.

I take it back. Don't read _Consilience_. You have more important things to do than to try to understand a new idea.

>Playing word games does nothing to support your position. There is no
>scientific basis for the belief that current or anticipated levels of
>ecological damage pose any danger whatsoever to mankind's survival. If you
>(or Wilson) think otherwise, let's see some evidence.

Oh no, that would entail referring to the actual book, which we've decided we don't want to do.

>The Antarctic isn't worth bothering with (although we could cover it with
>indoor farms and/or hydroponics facilities if we really wanted to).
>Irrigating and fertilizing the Sahara would require a few trillion dollars
>worth of nuclear power plants, chemical plants and heavy equipment, but it
>is perfectly doable.

Yes, indeed. Of course after withdrawing a few trillion from our bank account, we'd have just enough left for some beer and chips.

>Of course, this is totally irrelevant to my point, which was that we can
>easily survive the destruction of virtually every species of life on the
>planet. All we need for survival is a few hundred species of domestic
>animals, a few thousand species of plants, and the various insects and
>microorganisms that will naturally survive in any environment where these
>species are preserved.

We can virtually survive the virtual destruction of virtually every species, right. But actuality remains virtually unimpressed.

>Even the most extreme eco-destruction scenario won't make things as bad as
>that. Relatively modest preservation efforts are enough to ensure that a
>large majority of the ecology survives even after an area becomes heavily
>populated. The species that don't make it are not important to our

I think young people need to worry about eco-destruction more than old folks do. Since I've already passed that stage, it surprises me that I even worry about this. Let the kids handle it.

>Now, as I said before, I don't think that means we should just let
>everything die. It simply means that we must be honest enough to argue for
>preservation on moral grounds instead of making up bogus threats.

That sounds very generous of you. Virtual morality has its own charm, I suppose.

Some readers of _Consilience_ have commented:

Reading this book helped me put different kinds of knowledge together to form a unified vision of life. As a member of humankind, we should not imprison ourslves in a cave of practical skills and forget that well-rounded knowledge is also good for our soul apart from its practical use. Another book I am reading is as great for the same purpose. It uses adventure stories in Virtual Reality to convey ideas about the nature of reality and society, and convinces me that we humans together could be much more creative and intelletually more powerful than we usually think. If you enjoy reading this book, you might as well enjoy reading that one. Title: "Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality."

The biologist Edward O. Wilson is a rare scientist: having over a long career made signal contributions to population genetics, evolutionary biology, entomology, and ethology, he has also steeped himself in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences. The result of his lifelong, wide-ranging investigations is Consilience (the word means "a jumping together," in this case of the many branches of human knowledge), a wonderfully broad study that encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn [yeah, it can be slow reading in places. --J. R. ] between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws." In making his synthetic argument, Wilson examines the ways (rightly and wrongly) in which science is done, puzzles over the postmodernist debates now sweeping academia, and proposes thought-provoking ideas about religion and human nature. He turns to the great evolutionary biologists and the scholars of the Enlightenment for case studies of science properly conducted, considers the life cycles of ants and mountain lions, and presses, again and again, for rigor and vigor to be brought to bear on our search for meaning. The time is right, he suggests, for us to understand more fully that quest for knowledge, for "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." Wilson's wisdom, eloquently expressed in the pages of this grand and lively summing-up, will be of much help in that search.

A brilliant, and insightful argument for the unity of all knowledge and the need to search for consilience—the proof that everything in our world is organized in terms of a small number of basic laws of physics that comprise the principles underlying every branch of learning. Wilson argues that there is, intrinsically, only one class of explanation that unites the facts of all disciplines by consilience—the perception of a seamless web of cause and effect. This book shines forth with groundbreaking concepts; it is 'big bang' thinking at its best. It will appeal to all those who enjoy stretching and challenging their mind, and are seeking to think on the cutting-edge, Reviewed by Gerry Stern, founder InfoCenter, author of Stern's Sourcefinder-The Master Directory to HR and Business Management Information & Resources and Stern's CyberSpace SourceFinder.

It is rare that an accomplished scientist is able to muster the philosophical acumen, the interdisciplinary prescience, and the literary music to put together such a tour-de-force as this. On top of it all, he retains enough of the piquancy of the modern idiom to make it click. This book may take its place among Wealth of Nations, Democracy in America, and other mind-changing dissertations as forks in the intellectual road of our planet. C. P. Snow's Two Cultures advanced this hypothesis -- that science and the humanities are diminished as long as they are insulated from each other -- but the latter's sound and common-sense presentation was just a lieder in the face of Wilson's symphony. "Literature" is what the critics of the next century make it; I predict they will be raving about this one.

Readers, the point of the book is not consilience for its own sake, it's the last chapter- "To What End". I have read quite a few of Wilson's other books including On Human Nature, Sociobiology (all of it), Biophilia, Naturalist, as well as others. I give him five stars because he says what I would like to say if I had the wisdom, eloquence, and status, but this time he says it better than ever. And it's not hard reading for those accostomed to large intensive doses of scientific nonfiction. By bringing together the scientific disciplines and humanities, the hope is that we might be able to step outside of our "norms of reaction" in order to behave in ways for which we are NOT programmed. To be able to realize not only why snakes and spiders seem creepy to us, but also when and why we are treating our fellow man and the planet like shit. That way maybe we can STOP. Don't forget the Professor Wilson's lilypads in a pond: On the first day there is only one. Every day the number doubles. On day 30 the pond is full. On which day was the pond half empty ?

Wilson quite simply places into prose what we as reasonable beings should have grasped all along, that there exists a reality that is independent of human "sophistication". Are we so arrogant as to truly believe that we create reality as we go along? I cannot accpet this. The problems of our world will not be solved by the specialists, but by those individuals and groups that understand that every particle in this universe is governed by the same laws, from the basic laws of physics to the most intricate biological systems. These laws do not and cannot conflict, only compliment. Wilson just has the foresight to glimpse the future, for better or worse...

Wilson's prose is superior. Lacking the pseudo-intellectual arrogance found among many academics today, he instead humbly conveys the case for the unity of knowledge. Rather than claim he has found the complete answer, he encourages the readers to delve into their own minds and experiences to find further support for consilience. The credit given to the founders of modern thought is a fitting introduction. Wilson's plea for humanity to become more environmentally aware for our own sake is a timely conclusion.

Consilience is a work in progress, to be shaped and pushed forward by all humankind. An excellent work for the dawn of the next millenium.

A book long overdue. Follows Bateson book on "unity". We need to see the connectivity of all branches of nature and knowledge-there is so much wisdom for humanity to gather from this process-to live in peace with our environment and ourselves.

Consilience is a magnificent work, worthy of a Nobel Prize Having finished Wilson's Consilience last night, I can honestly say that no book has affected the way I think or the way I view society and science as this one has. Wilson puts it all together for us. Consilience is the center that defines the circle that is knowledge.

"Still, scientific theories are a product of imagination--informed imagination. They reach beyond their grasp to predict the existence of previously unsuspected phenomena. They generate hypotheses, disciplined guesses about unexplored topics whose parameters the theories help to define. The best theories generate the most fruitful hypotheses, which translate cleanly into questions that can be answered by observation and experiment. Theories and their progeny hypotheses compete for the available data, which comprise the limiting resource in the ecology of scientific knowledge. The survivors in this tumultous environment are the Darwinian victors, welcomed into the canon, settling in our minds, guiding us to further exploration of physical reality, more surprises. And yes, more poetry."

If you have the vocabulary to easily grasp the author's message in that paragraph, you will probably enjoy this book.

Consilience, the title word (not in the average dictionary), means, according to one review, a "jumping together," but in my old 1913 dictionary is defined as "the coming into agreement of generalizations from widely differing inductions" and thus the author's theme is that it is time for the various scientific disciplines to share with each other in those areas of mutual interest. And he points out that many of the most momentous disciplines have a great many areas of overlapping interest.

Edward O. Wilson was born in a good year, 1929, which is also the year of my birth. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and received his B.S. and M.S. from the University of Alabama, and in 1955, his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard, where he has since taught.

He is the author of two Pulitzer prize-winning books, "On Human Nature," 1978, and "The Ants," 1990. His specialty, throughout his career as a scientist, has been ants, on ! which he is probably the world's foremost expert.

But, as this book shows, he has not neglected other areas of human knowledge. Indeed, he might well be classed as a "generalist," for his wide range of interest and accumulated knowledge. Indeed, two chapters, "The Mind," and "Ethics and Religion," held me enthralled, although I am still trying to decide how to disagree with him.

He makes a seemingly air-tight case for the mind's being simply a result, mechanical necessity, if you will, of the brain's electro-chemical processes. All of which is carefully documented and researched, labeled and identified.

My problem with that is the phenomenon of awareness: self-knowledge. I know that I exist. If awareness is only a by-product of chemistry, electricity and physics, then the creation is surely greater than its creator. The brick overshadows the bricklayer.

I have similar problems with his thoughts on religion, specifically: God.

Wilson is a nominal Baptist, and calls himself a Deist, rather than a Theist. An empiricist, rather than a transcendentalist. And, he admits that he might be wrong.

But, the purpose of this review is not to argue with him. In the first place, his formal educational credentials far exceed mine, and in the second place, I would not wish to detract from his book. It is the kind of book that you find once or twice in a decade: one that holds your interest with reasoned argument, and in which the author is worthy of your complete respect. His arguments are cogent, well-reasoned and careful, and the result of a long lifetime of careful observation.

And that, alone, is refreshing in this age when every half-educated, semi-literate ignoramus eagerly exercises his right to loudly proclaim an opinion on any and every subject that crosses his mind, no matter how transiently, in seemingly inverse proportion to the amount of data he has on the subject.

Those who are blessed with a decent vocabulary and an inquiring mind will enjoy this book,! whether you find yourself in total agreement with the author, or not. Those described in the last paragraph would be better off to save their money.

But they're probably just a bunch of kooks.


--J. R.
CEE CEE Rider:
Conservative Existential Empiricist
Consilient Extropian Environmentalist
(with a pancritical rationalist predilection)