After four decades of teaching, Edward O. Wilson retired from Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology last year. Fortunately, he has not retired from writing. He has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for the beautifully written On Human Nature and for The Ants, and has received the Crafoord Prize, created by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, to recognize achievement in fields the Nobel overlooks. His book Naturalist is one of the most charming and revealing autobiographies of recent years.
Many of his colleagues in the sciences and humanities consider Wilson the most important biologist since Charles Darwin, and one of the most important scientists of any kind in the 20th century. His new book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, is further justification for these accolades. Wilson writes simply but elegantly. He appreciates words, and he uses them precisely. He titled one of his books Biophilia, a term he coined and defined as "the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes." He didn't coin "sociobiology" or "biodiversity," but he made them household words.
Nor did he coin the old word that forms the title of his new book, but he dusted off "consilience" and breathed new life into it. "I prefer this word over 'coherence,'" Wilson writes, "because its rarity has preserved its precision. . . . William Whewell, in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was the first to speak of consilience, literally a 'jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation."
With the daring and energy that enliven all his books, Wilson begins Consilience with a look at how the Enlightenment thinkers, with their emphasis on "a lawful material world, the intrinsic unity of knowledge, and the potential of indefinite human progress," got it right. From there he goes on to explore how many varied human endeavors illuminate each other genetics, the very way the brain works, the problems of the social sciences, the great unifying revelations of evolutionary biology, the intuitive assumptions of the arts and religions. Not surprisingly, he speculates on where human culture and evolution may be heading. The result is challenging, controversial, surprisingly entertaining, and always accessible, ranging from front-page headlines to the opening sentence of Lolita. Wilson makes no bones about the goals and side effects of his Enlightenment-style transcendent thinking. He speculates that science is in a sense "religion liberated and writ large," and insists that "preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger."
It is safe to assume that Edward O. Wilson is familiar with the words of the medieval sage Paracelsus, who lived half a millennium ago: "Although there are many names, the arts are not separated, and one kind of knowledge is not severed from another; for one is in all."