Re: Recent Readings of List Members

Damien Broderick (
Wed, 30 Dec 1998 10:18:41 +0000

Well, since you ask... :)

Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge
By Edward O. Wilson, Little, Brown, 374pp, $A24.95 Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder By Richard Dawkins, Allen Lane, 337pp, $A39.95 Darwinism Today chapbooks
By sundry authors, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 50-70pp, $A12.95 each

The Enlightenment, that wonderfully hopeful, doomed European age of critical and encyclopaedic reason, perished 200 years ago with the French Revolution and the rise of egocentric Romanticism. Our own century of science, for good and ill, has been a sardonic re-run of the first Enlightenment. Impressive scholars like Richard Dawkins and Edward Wilson now wish to prevent its second fall, arguing with a certain desperation that we still might get it right this time around.

Wilson is a world authority on insects, and more controversially the founder of sociobiology, the Darwinian doctrine that genes, bodies, minds and cultures evolve together. Dawkins is the superb explainer of science who coined that celebrated and much misunderstood term, `the selfish gene'
- and another important concept, the `meme'. That's his proposed unit of
culture which propagates from brain to brain like a virus or indeed a useful computer program.

The allure and embattled significance of this renewed Enlightenment seems pitched against two foes, themselves enemies: a redemptive environmental holism with roots in sublime mystery, and the ruinous cupidity which gladly rapes the planet's future in the name of no creed beyond the short-term bottom line.

Wilson is an ardent reductionist - that is, he holds that our explanations of nature and humanity will be reduced ultimately to the austere laws of physics and mathematics. He deplores the woolly and ill-informed thinking of New Agers, but is (no doubt to their astonishment) a prophet of `biophilia', reverence for global biological diversity. And Dawkins, for all his steely atheism and even more devoted reductionism, urges union between science's relentless curiosity and the expressive, searing power of the arts. This hoped-for synthesis is aptly caught in Wilson's term `consilience' - the unity of knowledge, a conjectured coherence in diverse realms of understanding, especially a deep consistency between testable sciences and artistic domains of feeling.

The first Enlightenment considered the mind an open slate made afresh with each generation, so humankind might be perfected by purified thought. It failed because its dream of clarified reason ran into the wilful passions of stubborn humans. It's even arguable, as Wilson admits, that it had a `dark-angelic flaw', its noble idealism leading directly to this century's totalitarian nightmares. The Darwinian variant is more open-eyed. Wilson and colleagues claim we are shaped by `epigenetic rules', which are our standard brain pathways and regularities in mental development, the tool-kit `by which the individual mind assembles itself'. But the linkage between genes and culture is flexible. We weave our own patterns, but on a loom built by evolution: in a word, human nature.

That loom endures because its cloth is suited to the world we live in. Wilson's deepest assumption, unprovable and perhaps absurdly ambitious, is that our brains and bodies echo fundamental motifs in the cosmos. The world is always already unified, even if we are not smart or sensitive enough to learn its grammar. So Wilson is an admitted reductionist. `I plead guilty, guilty, guilty. Now let us move on...' While his grasp of theory in the humanities is insecure, out of date, even naive, I find that ambition admirable.

Dawkins, too, is besotted by diverse yet unifiable knowledge and its continuing promise. The tragedy of our time is the shattering of that Enlightenment link between science, law and poetry. When Newton teased white light into a spectrum by passing it through a prism, the poet John Keats deplored the `unweaving' of the rainbow. For Keats, it reduced the rainbow's glory to nothing more than a lab experiment. Yet that assessment is itself a vulgar and unimaginative error.

In his customary clear and, yes, poetic voice, Dawkins leads us into a world hugely grander than anything known to the Romantics - much of it opened to us in this splendid unweaving. The Enlightenment impulse does not break down and unweave in drunken revelry, for the sake of harm. It re-weaves, builds up secular cathedrals - the entire vast, ancient cosmos itself - for the admiration of our hearts and minds. Its goal is consilience. Its enemy is not appropriate scrutiny, but gullible or arrogant mystification. While Dawkins is scathing about the usual suspects
- astrology, the New Age, superstition - more valuable in both Dawkins and
Wilson is their humane search for communal cooperation in a world built from the blind scurrying of selfish genes.

Is the tide turning back toward a recovered Enlightenment? One indication that it is, at least among the hungrily reading public, is a series of small stocking-stuffers based on talks given for the Darwin@LSE program at the London School of Economics. These briskly apply evolutionary theory to diverse and often hair-raisingly controversial topics. Still, compare these gift-sized volumes with another new marketing venture, individual books from the Bible (prefaced by such unlikely explicators as literary bad boy Will Self) selling for a third the price. Those ancient prophets still hold the pulling power.

Kingsley Browne, in Divided Labours, suggests that, as a gene-shaped group, women really do, after all, have different work skills and priorities from those of men. Colin Tudge's Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers whips through the traumatic founding of agriculture. Shaping Life, by John Maynard Smith, shows that simple chemical diffusion guides genes in building our bodies. In The Truth About Cinderella, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson summarise their scary case, based on evidence and theory, for a special Darwinian bond between parents and their genetic children (you're about 100 times as likely to be abused or killed by a step-parent). These claims, and the theories behind them, remain immensely contentious. The old Enlightenment philosophers would have been aghast, but might have knuckled down to the hard task of adjudicating the evidence. Perhaps we shall have the courage to do the same.

Damien Broderick