Antonio R. Damasio, Anne Harrington, Jerome Kagan, Bruce S. McEwen, Henry Moss and Rashid Shaikh (ed.)
Unity of Knowledge: The Convergence of Natural and Human Science
New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 2001, 301 pp., $??, ISBN 1-57331-311-4 (pbk)
This volume represents the proceedings of a conference convened in June 2000 by the New York Academy of Sciences in order to ‘underscore an ambitious, positive view about trends in science and the long-range prospects for unifying knowledge’ (Rodney Nichols, p. ix). As Nichols goes on to explain, the emphasis on the ‘positive’ was an attempt by the Academy to reverse the trend of a meeting held five years previously, ‘a rather combative conference in which we defended science against ... attacks by critics labeled postmodernist or deconstructionist’. This situates the conference as an episode in the continuing culture war between ‘natural’ and ‘human’ science—a conflict which, judging from this book, is nowhere near resolution.
The ‘ambitious’ aspect of the conference is set forth by keynote speaker Edward O. Wilson under the rubric of consilience, with the subtitle of Wilson's 1998 book serving as title and theme. His strategy for ending the culture war is essentially to declare victory for ‘natural science’ and invite the losers to join the winning side—the losers being the social sciences, which are scattered and stuck in the mud because they perversely refuse to adopt the reductionism which has already unified the natural sciences from biology on down. Social scientists tend to see this program as a call to surrender, to be absorbed in biology and thus declared redundant. That reaction is perhaps understandable at a conference where the social scientists were clearly outnumbered and outgunned. Their main spokesman, ‘cultural psychologist’ Richard Shweder, takes a resolutely defensive stance, proudly flaunting his ignorance of biology while flailing away at a caricature of Wilson's ‘gospel’.
To be fair, Wilson's rhetoric often lends itself to caricature when he is preaching to social scientists that ‘reductionism’ can save them from their own incoherence. It is easy to miss the relative modesty of his working definitions, as when he says (p. 13) that the natural sciences ‘are now almost fully consilient’ because the ‘principles at each level of organization (subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, et seq.) are rendered coherent at adjacent levels above and below it’ (emphasis mine). This would entail no demand that sociology surrender to biology, because they are not adjacent levels (psychology at least would intervene between them), and because lower-level principles are not claimed here to be more cogent than higher-level principles. In the heat of debate, though, this claim often appears to be the heart of ‘reductionism’.
However futile these debates may be in the abstract, the view does become more positive when we turn to the specific research programs reported here. This is especially true of the section on cognitive neuroscience, one of four ‘borderlands’ specified by Wilson as hot venues of consilience. In the longest and perhaps best example, ‘Language/Culture/Mind/Brain: Progress at the Margins between Disciplines’, Patricia Kuhl and colleagues present some recent research into children's acquisition of language that could have a significant impact on our understanding of human mentality. A range of disciplines from cultural anthropology to computer science are working together here, despite the authors' caution that ‘a consilient view cannot yet be offered’. Non-specialists be warned, though: the jargon is formidable.
Somewhat more accessible is Antonio Damasio's brief article on ‘Emotion and the Human Brain’ (reprinted from a 1998 issue of Brain Research Reviews). It shows how recent work by Damasio, Ledoux and others has rescued emotion from long-standing neglect to make it an integral part of the brain sciences. This development is well worth celebrating, but in five pages Damasio can do little more than point to it. Richard Davidson of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience fills in some of the details in his contribution, ‘Towards a Biology of Personality and Emotion.’ John Allman et al. zoom in even tighter, on the anterior cingulate cortex as ‘an interface between emotion and cognition.’
Other highlights include a summary by neuroscientists Eric Kandel and Larry Squire of the historical development of their field, a ‘Behavioral Analysis of the Immune System’ by Shlomo Breznitz, and Bruce McEwen's account of relationships between social and biological aspects of stress. Michael J. Meaney explains why the old nature-vs-nurture debate is meaningless in biology: ‘life emerges only from the interaction between the two’ (p. 51). This is not news to those with any grasp of biology, but the panel discussion included here suggests that the spectre of ‘genetic determinism’ still needs to be banished: even though the founder of sociobiology explicitly disavows it (p. 253), it is easily confused with Wilson's dictum that ‘epigenetic rules’ define human nature (p. 14). Stuart Kauffman contributes a ‘slightly modified version’ of the first chapter of his book Investigations, but there is no discernible interaction between his musings about ‘a general biology’ and the rest of the proceedings. The final short section on ‘Science in the Liberal Arts Curriculum’ also seems only loosely connected to the rest. As a whole, this book demonstrates the old saw that nature has no departments; the unanswered question is whether ‘consilience’ offers anything more than a new name for this insight.
In short, the news about ‘consilience’ seems most positive when we take it as a mild prescription for dialogue across disciplines rather than a reductionist manifesto. When they learn from and inspire each other, scientists become both more ‘natural’ and more ‘human’—and they are better prepared to have a cogent and beneficial influence on public policy, which (as Joshua Lederberg points out, p. 37) is where the academic rubber meets the pragmatic road. The drawback is that the more all-embracing the central theme, the more miscellaneous the collection gathered around it becomes. So it is with Unity of Knowledge, a slice of academic life that reflects both the order and the chaos of the sciences in America at the turn of the millennium.
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