In chapter 11, Wilson explored the issues of ethics and religion. He wondered if ethics are innate or if they are something invented by humans. Wilson identified two ways of thinking about ethics and religion: transcendentalism and empiricism. Transcendentalists can be religious or secular, but the rationale is essentially the same. Ethics either come from God and it is our job as humans to discover those principles or they are self-evident and humans cannot help but discover them. Empiricists believe that ethics are behavior choices that were favored and selected enough times that they became a code of principals that humans live by.
Wilson then created a mock debate between transcendentalists and empiricists in which each camp gave their point of view and responded to the other side. According to Wilson, transcendentalists would say that science cannot disprove God. They would wonder where laws of nature come from if not from a power higher than the laws themselves. They would argue the point that there is no way that chance alone could account for the diversity of life.
The empiricists would say that while religion is mostly good, it has been responsible for lots of bad things as well, including many wars. They would say that religious beliefs can be dangerous because believing that there is a better life somewhere else opens the door for people to damage this earth and its people. Empiricists would say that there is no statistical proof that prayer does any good to people and that it is not a divine power but the human mind that created ethical principles and religion in general.
Wilson stated that religions are like superorganisms, complete with life cycles. They tend to start as cults and the successful ones then grow and gain popularity until they are generally accepted. At the core of religions are a creation myth, sacred places, and some kind of secret plan for the chosen people. According to Wilson it is the fear of dying and not having an immortal soul that keeps religions popular. Wilson noted that it is important that scientists find evidence to support the empiricist view and not the transcendental view or consilience will be lost forever. He said that science has a few shaky bits of evidence on its side. For instance, religious ecstasy has a neurobiological source.
Wilson also explained the admittedly shaky fit between religion and evolutionary theory. Religion requires humans to be submissive toward a higher power. Submission to more powerful members of a society is well documented in numerous animal societies. The behaviors of the submissive members of the societies are similar to the behavior of humans in religious settings.
Finally, Wilson said that it will be tough to convert transcendentalists to an empiricist point of view. One of the reasons for this is that transcendentalism just feels good. Empiricism feels decidedly rational and devoid of the emotion present in the transcendentalist view. However, the important message to take away from this chapter is that those emotional feelings do not necessarily equate to the truth.
In chapter 10, Wilson attempted to explain how the arts can link themselves to the natural sciences. The important question to be answered can be approached from a scientific perspective. That is, where do the arts come from? Wilson noted that science can also play a major role in the understanding of how humans interpret and critique art. The defining quality of the arts is that they express human nature using mood and feeling and creativity. Psychoanalysts have tried to understand the creative nature of humans, but they have failed because they refuse to explore creativity in a conciliate fashion.
In order to understand the origins of art, Wilson suggested that we look to gene-culture coevolution. What scientists know about the origins of art fits with scientific knowledge about the brain and its biological evolution. Wilson also suggested that the arts evolved after humans were endowed with high intelligence. This intelligence led to humans reflecting on their own mortality. Arts evolved to help humans understand and interpret some kind of control over their lives. The arts bestowed magic upon people and their lives. Evidence of this was found in numerous cave drawings, which tend to depict hunting as a magical experience.
Wilson also linked his concept of epigenetic rules to the arts. He said that artists tend to create art that stays within a set of epigenetic rules. He listed several archetypes that are found over and over again- for example, creation stories, the apocalypse, the hero triumphing over evil, and objects bestowed with great magical properties (such as the sorcerer’s stone or the holy grail).
Finally, Wilson explained that the biological origins of art are a working hypothesis. He suggested we test the hypothesis by looking to evolutionary theory. For example, he explained that when people are showed composites of many faces, they tend to be more attractive than any one face. However, this average face is not the most attractive face that can be found. Numerous studies (and every image one can find in an issue of Vogue) have shown that there is no upper limit to the epigenetic rule for choosing the mate with the most, be it colorful wings, high cheekbones, or size.
In chapter 9, Wilson described the social sciences and explained why they are not doing all that is possible to achieve consilience. The social sciences consist of anthropology, sociology, economics and political science. Wilson stated that people expect these sciences to help us understand our lives and to help us determine our futures. He said that they are not doing a good job of this because of their pointed refusal to link themselves to the natural sciences.
Wilson also pointed out that a large problem faced by the social sciences is that each branch has its own vocabulary that is not common across the domains, making it nearly impossible from the start to reach consilience. I would argue that the social sciences are not alone—educational psychology journals are filled with arguments over precise wording and definitions. He noted that the social sciences in general and especially anthropologists flat-out rejected biology in the 1960’s because of the concept of Social Darwinism and its commentary on racism.
However, some anthropologists have begun to break from the cultural anthropologists, who see culture as being free of the genetic history of humans. These biological anthropologists look at culture as being linked to biological evolution. Sociology, which was described by Wilson as the study of humans living in complex societies such as our own, has steered completely clear of biology.
Wilson made the interesting point that the social sciences resemble the natural sciences in their beginning stages. They lack causal explanation and are making lateral instead of vertical analyses. Wilson noted that if the natural sciences had stopped where the social sciences have insisted upon stopping, modern medicine would be non-existent and we would not have made most of the advances that science has made today.
According to Wilson, the efforts made to link the natural sciences to the social sciences have all been made on the part of the natural sciences. For instance, cognitive neuroscience now takes elements of cognitive psychology into account. As another example, evolutionary biology looks at social factors and attempts to explain them using evolutionary theory.
Finally, Wilson discussed economics, which he claims are the closest social science domain to achieving consilience. The field already has a strong background by using mathematical models, but it still lacks a true theory. Economists have poor predictive power when it comes to applying their models to the real world. Wilson insisted that all they have to do is start considering biological and psychological principles and true advances will begin to be made.
In chapter 8, Wilson further explored his epigenetic rules. He stated that human nature is neither genes nor culture, but those epigenetic rules that determine mental development across cultures. Epigenetic rules are not well understood at this time, but they are a good example of the genetic origins of human nature because of the myriad examples such as fear of snakes, phoneme construction and mother-infant bonding.
The search for human nature can be conducted by examining the history of epigenetic rules. For example, color vision is a primate trait that has been in place for tens of millions of years while language is a strictly human trait and has only been around for a few hundred thousand years. By examining the introduction of these epigenetic rules, we can begin to understand the origins of human nature. Cultural evolution is a product of the epigenetic rules. While cultural evolution has greatly taken off from biological evolution, those epigenetic rules are still in place to guide our cultural evolution. Wilson was careful to point out at this point that he is not talking about genetic determinism- we are not slaves to our genes.
Next, Wilson described the efforts of sociobiology (which Wilson notes may also be called evolutionary psychology) to understand human nature. He listed some evolutionary principles that are key to the sociobiological understanding: kin selection, parental investment, mating strategy, status, territorial expansion and defense and contractual agreement. These principles led to the Genetic fitness hypothesis, which states that widely distributed traits confer Darwinian fitness on the individuals who posses them.
Wilson pointed out that a major weakness of this theory is the lack of data surrounding it. He noted that the best test currently available is incest avoidance. Is incest avoidance a genetic trait or is it a social construction? According to many, it is a genetic trait that can be summed up by the Westermarck effect. Children raised together from an early age tend to not have sexual attraction to each other and feel averse to the idea of engaging in sexual activity with those people. The effect is seen even in primates. Strong support is found in the primate world because primates show the Westermarck effect and also most species of primates leave their family groups before reaching adulthood, thus increasing the odds against incest. However, Freud had a different theory. He believed that humans have a deep-seeded lust for their family members but we have invented the social taboo against it to avoid birth defects. Evidence has shown that Westermarck is probably correct and Freud is probably wrong.
Wilson ended the chapter by noting that the social taboo against incest probably arose from the genetic aversion to incest. Those who were repulsed by the idea felt that anyone who engaged in such activities should be punished. The social construction of the incest taboo is an example of humans using rational choice, which Wilson described as "the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satistfy the strongest epigenetic rules," (p. 196).
In chapter 6, Wilson turned his attention to the brain and more specifically, the mind. According to Wilson, it is important to think about the mind because the mind is what produces understanding of everything we know. He noted that thinking about the mind is not entirely a philosophical issue as philosophy can only take ideas so far. We need to also think about the physical processes that give rise to the mind.
The brain is extraordinarily complex. Its structure is determined by 3,195 genes—far more than any other organ. The human brain evolved over a period of 3 million years to increase in volume by 4 times, especially in the area of the neocortex. The neocortex is the area of the brain responsible for higher level thought and language, which brought about human culture by allowing humans to think symbolically.
While early philosophers placed the mind in various parts of the body, scientists now know that the brain is the seat of consciousness. We know this in part because of accidents and illnesses that happened to people in the past. For instance, Phineas Gage lost a chunk of his prefrontal lobe and experienced marked personality change. Later, Karen Ann Quinlan suffered damage to her thalamus and went into what Wilson described as “mind death.” These case studies and experimental brain surgery have made great advances in mapping out the functions of various areas of the brain.
Next, Wilson laid out the physical processes that produce the mind. The three structures are the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. The brain stem is responsible for regulating life-sustaining processes as well as basic reflexes and perception. The limbic system controls emotions and some memory and the cerebral cortex is responsible for rational thought.
Wilson wondered, now that we have an understanding of the actual processes that allow the mind to exist, what exactly is the mind? Wilson admitted that science is not really sure, but he gave this definition: the mind is the “coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions,” (p. 119). Wilson is also of the opinion that there is absolutely no executive ego in charge of consciousness. There is no one place where consciousness comes together in the brain to be viewed like a movie on a screen. Consciousness is essentially nothing more than a conglomeration of neural firings.
Complementing consciousness are the reflexes and processes of the brain stem and the emotions of the limbic system. Humans need all three processes working together to be functional people. Wilson gave the example of a person being followed on a dark street. The conscious mind hears fast footsteps coming up close behind. The brain stem quickens the heart rate and breathing and sends adrenaline into the body. The limbic system floods the body with fear and the person runs to safety. Then the conscious mind thinks about the encounter.
Next, Wilson discussed the problem of subjective experience, which he divided into two sets of questions. First, we need to know how the brain responds to stimuli and how it converts the stimuli into patterns and then the patterns into words. Once we understand how those processes work, we can focus on the larger problem: how do those processes become subjective experience? While Wilson did not have an answer to these questions, he suggested that while science can explain feelings, it is art that transmits those feelings, and helps us understand the subjective experiences of others.
Finally, Wilson wondered if, now that scientists understand the physical processes that allow consciousness to emerge, we can create a true artificial mind. Wilson thought that it was a technical possibility, but that it would never happen for two reasons. The first is a functional obstacle—the brain is just too complex of an organ to recreate. The second is an evolutionary obstacle. The human brain has the advantage of having evolved over millions of years and there is really no way for scientists to replicate that kind of complex algorithm.
In chapter 7, Wilson examined how culture and genes interact. He began by saying that the natural sciences have an explanatory network that butts up to culture. He noted that the scientific and cultural domains are very exclusive, but that in the spirit of attaining consilience, it is time to bridge the gap. Instead of seeing either domain as a territory to be defended, each area should be attempting to warrant and explain the others.
Wilson began his exploration of culture and genes by noting that amost all human behaviors are transmitted by culture, and therefore biology has an important effect on the origins of culture and its transmission. He described the gene-culture coevolution, which is the theory that as humans evolved, culture evolved in a parallel manner. To sum up Wilson's point, one could say that culture is created by the human mind. The human mind is a product of the human brain. The human brain is a product of biological evolution. Thus, biological evolution and culture are linked together.
Wilson next turned his attention to trying to determine what exactly culture is. The anthropological definition is that culture is a discrete society's way of being, the religioin, myths, social rules, the way knowledge is transmitted, etc. Culture as we know it is only possible because of our use of language. If there were any way to trace the evolution of language, we might be able to trace culture as well, but unfortunately language left no fossil record. According to Wilson, the next best way to understand culture is to reduce it to its smallest units in order to rebuild it. Wilson described the smallest unit of culture as a meme, that is, a node in semantic memory. These memes are arranged hierarchically to create the semantic memories which are then translated into culture.
To further explain how genes and culture interact, Wilson explained three ideas about genes and culture. The first is the hereditary basis of human nature. This is most easily seen in the universals of human culture which have been found. For instance, every single culture has been found to have food taboos, sports, marriage, and religion. Wilson was careful to point out that this does not mean that human beings have a specific gene for marriage or the domestication of animals. Wilson thinks instead that humans have genes which make humans more likely to learn certain behaviors.
Wilson called this phenomenon epigenetic rules of social behavior, and it was the second idea about genes and culture. There are primary epigenetic rules that govern basic sensory perception and secondary epegenetic rules that govern processes such as face recognition. He noted that most of our primary epigenetic rules help us interpret audio-visual cues.
The third idea was the genetic basis of those epigenetic rules. While it is difficult to pin these rules to precise genes, Wilson noted that it can in fact be done and it should be the focus of biologists in the future. Wilson said that genes create the epigenetic rules, which help us to acquire culture. The culture that arises then selects specific genes which then create selective epigenetic rules, thus tweaking the culutre evolution.
In chapter 5, Wilson outlined how science can help us understand the mind. He noted that it is far easier to use a top-down method of exploration than a bottom-up method when trying to understand any complex system, especially the mind. The reason is that when you start at the most complex level and work your way down to the more basic components, it's simple to stay on track. However, when you start with the basic components and try to work your way up, there can be near infinite paths to choose from and it may be impossible to arrive at the correct answer.
Wilson called prediction by the bottom-up method "consilience by synthesis" and he noted that it is extremely difficult to achieve. He noted that one pitfall of this method is that it is conceivable that scientists could construct an algorithm explaining how nature constructed a specific organism and this model might end them up at the correct outcome. However, it is nearly impossible to know if the algorithm is the same one that is found in nature. To explain this point, Wilson described a painting of a flower that is as beautiful and life-like as one found in nature. So life-like in fact that it fools the eye from a distance. However, the algorithm used to create the painting is vastly different from that found in nature. I would say that an even better example would be silk flowers, which are even more near-to-life than paintings.
Next, Wilson explained proximal and ultimate explanations. He described proximal explanations as those that examine how
something is produced in nature. Ultimate explanations are those that examine why
something evolved in an organism. For instance, Wilson discussed dreams. Scientists now have a fairly good proximal understanding of dreams. We know which chemicals and which parts of the brain are responsible for creating dreams. However, we do not know why
humans evolved to have dreams.
Another example Wilson provided was that of biologists and nerve cells. Biologists have a good understanding of how nerve cells work (proximal) but they do not know why these nerve cells work together to create a consciousness in human beings.
Wilson said that biology may be the lynch pin to consilience. Biology as a field is excellent at reductionist science. Biology may also be key in proving Complexity Theory, which Wilson defined loosely as the search for common algorithms across nature. Wilson thinks that biology can provide what is missing in this theory: empirical data.
In chapter 4, Wilson explained that the process of natural selection supplies organisms with only those adaptations that are necessary for maximal fitness. This explains why humans do not have the ability to use echolocation like bats or the ability to see the entire spectrum of light. However, Wilson pointed out that humans did evolve to be curious and creative. Developments in technology such as the microscope have allowed us to see the smallest components of organisms with our own eyes.
Wilson explained his three criteria for scientific revolutions. They are creativity and curiosity, the power to decipher and create abstract information and the universal power of mathematics in nature. These three components led to great advances in technology which allow humans to continue to discover new knowledge and reduce existing knowledge to its smaller components.
According to Wilson, reductionism is the main goal of science. He refutes critics of the practice by saying that reductionism not an obsessive and pointless practice, but instead it is a means to understanding complexity.
Wilson then went on to describe the importance of scientific theories. Without theories, the data we collect makes no sense. Scientific theories differ from other theories because they are constructed to be falsifiable. They are the product of informed imagination.
According to Wilson, scientific ideas should be repeatable- that is, replicable. They should be economical rather than overly complex. They should use proper measurement to ensure generalizability, they should be heuristic to stimulate further discovery and finally, they should be consiliant.
Next, Wilson described scientists. Wilson argued that to many people, a successful scientist is one who makes an important discovery, or better yet, many important discoveries. Wilson complained that many scientists feel that if their names have not made it into college level textbooks, they are invisible to the world. Scholars who spend their lives philosophizing, reading, learning and sharing their knowledge are looked down upon and those who do not publish, perish. He touched on the idea that as a scientific community, we focus too much on the product and not enough on the process.
Finally, Wilson explained his views that the most important job of a scientist is to search for Truth with a capital “t”. He even went so far as to suggest that it may be possible to one day reach this goal, if we use empirical investigation and continue to search.
I was especially wary of this last section. I am not comfortable with Wilson’s position that Truth is attainable. I think that a more moderate statement would have made me less uncomfortable. I might agree that it is possible that with advances in scientific tools, we might someday come closer to Truth with a capital “t” but I find his position to be too strong.
In chapter 3, Wilson traced the history of the original enlightenment, which took place in the 1700’s, mostly in France. This revolution was based on several principals: unity of knowledge, individual human rights, natural law and indefinite human progress. He outlined the progress of several key figures in history who achieved pieces of this unity of knowledge.
For instance, the Marquis de Condorcet was important in that he began to apply mathematical principles to the social sciences. According to Wilson he was one of the last great French philosophers and he believed strongly in the principle of indefinite human progress, and was ironically murdered by an angry mob made up of his former supporters.
Francis Bacon was an important figure during this time because he denounced classical learning. He was a strong supporter of the scientific method and inductive reasoning instead of learning a set curriculum deemed appropriate.
Descartes was also interested in scientific methods- he thought that systematic doubt was the most important characteristic of learning. While Descartes believed to some extent in the phenomenon of the Ghost in the Machine, he otherwise believed in a separation of mind and matter.
All of the historical figures outlined in chapter 3 were important, but they still failed- the enlightenment did not take and these ideals that we are striving towards now—such as consilience—were put on the back burner from that time until very recently.
I think that what Wilson was going for in this chapter was a kind of set up for what he's going to go into next. He summed it up pretty well with the quote at the end of the chapter (he seems to like to do that):
"We must know, we will know"
I wonder what anyone (anyone?) thinks about this idea of inevitable social progress as a main principle of the Enlightenment, especially in the context of Pinker's Blank Slate arguments.
So, here we are... I thought this would be a nice alternative to trying to get together every week, and less pressure to have the material read by a certain time. So let's get started by posting thoughts and questions about Chapters 1 and 2 by say, Wednesday, Oct. 5.