A plea for the humanities to go scientific
Reviewed in the United States on October 16, 2017
The author, a well-known and respected naturalist, evolutionary biologist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and former Harvard professor, after noting that science has come to greatly exceed the humanities in popular interest and funding, argues that the two disciplines should be combined. That, he argues, would extend the reach of science and correct the alleged myopia of the humanities.
The book is skillfully written and Wilson is obviously well qualified to discuss both fields of study. And while the conclusion he reaches is enticing, the path he takes to get there reflects, I believe, one of the defining fallacies of modern scientific inquiry.
Dr. Wilson notes that science and philosophy co-existed on relatively equal footing during the Renaissance. Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687, includes the words mathematics and philosophy in its title and set the stage for the emerging science of physics.
During the modern scientific era, however, the author notes, the two fields suffered a theoretical and practical split. I’m not sure that science ultimately rejected the legitimacy of philosophy isn’t a more accurate characterization, however. It is a subtle but important distinction, I think, because Wilson does not appear to be arguing for a merger of equals. It strikes me as more of a plea for humanities to finally come into the scientific tent, accepting the modern scientific definition of knowledge and study.
He notes, for example, “To summarize, the humanities suffer from the following weaknesses: they are rootless in their explanations of causation and they exist within a bubble of sensory experience.” Regarding the former, the humanities are preoccupied with the human condition and ignore both causation and the rest of nature. And humans are audiovisual-centric, which, as a biologist, Wilson says puts us in a minority within the broad spectrum of existing species.
Fair enough, but this is an introductory argument. He further states: “Regardless how subtle, fleeting, and personalized human thought may be, all of it has a physical basis ultimately explainable by the scientific method.” This, in the end, is the foundational premise of the scientific era in which we live. All intelligent reason, we’ve been taught to believe, is ultimately scientific.
To this he then offers the foundational premise of modern evolutionary biology: “Nothing in science and the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution.” As the “…grand master of evolution,” moreover, Wilson argues, “It is becoming increasingly clear that natural selection has programmed every bit of human biology…”
While I personally accept evolution as the reality I’m not convinced we’ve figured it all out or that evolution is so superlatively all-inclusive. The study of evolution, and much of science, for that matter, is a search for patterns. Patterns, in turn, beget patterns. And patterns, it seems to me, are a human convention, not unlike language, of which there are 6,500 in the world. Patterns exist, of course, but fall short of “truth,” I think, because they can seldom be shown to be all-inclusive in explaining complex issues like, say, the meaning of life. This pre-occupation with pattern, I believe, is the fundamental reason so much scientific discovery is ultimately shown to be false or, at least, insufficient—patterns empower precognitive conclusion.
Despite my hesitation to endorse the underlying theme and purpose of this book, I have nonetheless given it a four star rating. It is masterfully composed and the topic is worthy of both our highest praise and guarded skepticism.
If you accept the underlying premises, you will consider this book to be a masterpiece and a must-read. The rest of us should read it simply because it will make you think. And that is always the grand prize of spending time with books.
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