Edward Slingerland and Mark Collard (eds), Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 472pp. ISBN: 9-780-19979-569-7. £22.99/$38.95 (pbk).

Reviewed by: Martin Palecek, University of Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic.

Email: [email protected]

When renowned biologist, entomologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson published Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge in 1998, a thought-provoking volume focused on the epistemological and methodological unification of the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities, a fiery debate among natural and social scientists rapidly ensued. Some of them questioned the feasibility of the project based on both the emergent, non-reducible nature of human arts and cultures and the differences between historical and social sciences on the one hand, and “hard” sciences on the other hand. Another major point of contention was the declaration that humanistic scholarship lacked any significant cumulative progress, mostly because of a stilted detachment from natural sciences. Ultimately, Wilson’s proposal was judged as an attempt to label non-naturalistic disciplines as second-class endeavours and to impose an eliminative reductionism under the blazon of quantitative methodologies.

Nonetheless, scientific studies of human cultures grew incessantly in the following years, continually expanding, refining and redefining Wilson’s concept. Ten years after the publication of Consilience, time was ripe to discuss the legacy and impact of the consilient project. Thus, a group of different scholars from a wide range of disciplinary fields gathered for an ambitious workshop called “Integrating Science and the Humanities”, held at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2008. The result of that event has been recently published in a volume entitled Creating Consilience, edited by Edward Slingerland (Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition and Professor in Asian Studies, UBC) and Mark Collard (Canada Research Chair in Human Evolutionary Studies and Professor of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University, and Chair in Archaeology, Aberdeen University, Scotland).

A detailed introduction written by the two editors, tellingly subtitled “Toward a Second Wave” (pp. 3–40), clarifies the current state of the concept and its epistemological underpinnings. First, consilience is an entirely naturalistic approach which rejects the idea that human affairs are some kind of sui generis realm. Second, the mind is a product of brain activity, and body-mind dualism is a cognitive artifact; consequently, there is an ontological continuity between the human/mental and the non-human/material. Third, reductionism is still deemed an important feature, but it has been significantly revised and it is now presented in a much milder form based on the idea that scientific advancement is not just a matter of manufacturing strictly logico-mathematical theories, but of unifying a greater range of facts under simpler and more general principles: “Regardless of whether we are scientists or humanists, we are generally not satisfied with explanations unless they answer the ‘why’ question by means of reduction, by linking the explanandum to an explanans” (p. 15). This is what differentiates explanations from mere descriptions, or collections of stories. Moreover, quantifications, controlled experiments, and mathematical modelling are rather seen as epistemological tools and not as ontological assumptions. A remarkable innovation of the “second wave” of consilience is the idea that the nature-nurture discussion is unproductive and should be abandoned in favour of gene-culture co-evolution. While E.O. Wilson often presented culture as a phenomenon that expresses innate human psychological and genetically hardwired mechanisms, adherents to the second wave rather see culture as a semi-autonomous force with its own process of evolution (p. 29). One last important addition is the need for a mutual understanding: not only humanist scholars should become knowledgeable about the results of natural sciences but also scientists should pay more attention to what humanist scholars have achieved so far.

The rest of the book is organized into two parts (“Theoretical Issues” and “Case Studies”), in turn divided into eight subsections. The first section of the first part (entitled “Ontologies for the Human”) addresses paramount philosophical questions about the possibility of consilience itself. Steven Pinker, Edward Slingerland, and a paper written collectively by Brian Fiala, Adam Arico and Shaun Nichols, present arguments in favour of the consilient project, while Richard A. Shweder provides a cautious assessment which strongly supports the traditional separation between social and natural sciences (p. 56). The second section of the first part, “Consilience Through the Lens of Anthropology”, uses social anthropology as a middle ground between social and natural sciences. Again, a couple of contributions appear to be sympathetic and supportive (i.e. Pascal Boyer’s and Harvey Whitehouse’s chapters), while a third one (by Bradd Shore) highlights the critical issues of cultural variation.

The second part showcases a collection of exemplifying practical applications focused on culture, religion, morality, literature and oral traditions, and this is where the book truly excels. Section three of the second part revolves around the concept of culture, effectively balancing benefits and limitations. Darren E. Irwin demonstrates how we can compare the evolution of birdsongs to the evolution of (human) culture in general. This approach involves the idea of biologico-cultural co-evolution and as such undermines the still wildly spread anthropocentric idea of “culture” as something exclusively human. In the wake of Dan Sperber (who took part in the 2008 workshop) and Pascal Boyer, Olivier Morin investigates the relationship between psychological universals and cultural specificities. Peter Schauer applies quantitative techniques to the study of ancient Greek pottery in order to tentatively overcome the restraining and inevitably biased archeological record. Alex Bentley and Paul Ormerod describe human actors’ interaction as physical particles or network nodes, highlighting how the predictive/explanatory analysis of socio-behavioural patterns might substantially rely on quantitative modelling.

The following section is centred on religion. The first chapter, written by David Sloan Wilson and William Scott Green, provides a useful general introduction to the topics of evolutionary religious studies and preliminarily presents an ongoing, long-term project specifically dedicated to the evolutionary repercussions of beliefs in the afterlife via a socio-historical database (the so-called “Afterlife Project”). Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais explore the “evolutionary landscape of religion” (p. 244), underscoring the prosocial benefits of beliefs and rituals and proposing an alternate view on the evolutionary origins of religion, i.e. an original by-product later co-opted (or exapted) in human sociality for its capacity to enhance ingroup prosociality. Robert McCauley, finally, examines the structure of rituals from a cognitive standpoint.

The fourth section is dedicated to morality. Stephen Stich calls upon the interdisciplinary branch of experimental philosophy to scrutinize moral norms as “socially acquired emotion trigger[s]” (p. 286), specifically arguing that moral judgments – prone to feelings such as disgust – are “kludge”, a term which indicates “an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole” (p. 295 n. 12). Dennis L. Krebs and Herbert Gintis, in two distinct chapters, study the evolutionary underpinnings of human morality and the usefulness of game theory to discern the prosocial bases of behavioural ethics, while Daniel Buchman, Sofia Lombera, Ranga Venkatachary, Kate Tairyan and Judy Illes tackle the institutional value of neuroethics as a potential interdisciplinary bridge.

The last section is devoted to literature and oral traditions and comprises three chapters. Michelle Scalise Sugiyama and Lawrence S. Sugiyama aim to provide an evolutionary background for the persistence of certain terrifying commonplaces in foraging societies’ monster stories. The same biologico-evolutionary tools are exploited in Raymond Corbey and Angus Mol’s chapter about the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf in order to highlight the presence of costly signaling and kin altruism, and by Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschall, John A. Johnson and Daniel Kruger to interpret British novels’ central themes from the past two centuries. The final chapter by Barbara Dancygier warns about limiting Darwinian literary analysis to old-style evolutionary psychology, neglecting other equally important cognitive factors at play (such as conceptual blending).

A concluding critical contribution by Geoffrey Galt Harpham remarks the unpredictability of human cultures and creativity, and its points are carefully dealt with in the long introduction by the editors.

Creating Consilience is part of a very important movement that is bringing a dramatically increased coherence to a shared interdisciplinary view of how both science and (human) nature work at their deepest level. The book in itself represents a significant step forward with regards to Wilson’s original thesis. It is not the first attempt to canvas our understanding of the social sciences and the humanities, yet the book is distinctive in its clarity and impressive in providing the reader with a rich case-study repository.