E. O. Wilson: “Consilience,” Ethics and Fate

I first became aware of the work of E. O. Wilson when he published a pair of books in the 70’s (“Sociobiology” in 1975 and “On Human Nature” in 1979) that placed him in the camp of those who, like Ardrey, insisted on the role of genetically programmed predispositions in shaping human behavior. He touches on some of the issues we’ve been discussing here in one of his more recent works, “Consilience.” In a chapter entitled “Ethics and Religion,” he takes up the two competing fundamental assumptions about ethics that, according to Wilson, “make all the difference in the way we view ourselves as a species.” These two contradictory assumptions can be stated as, “I believe in the independence of moral values,” and “I believe that moral values come from humans alone.” This formulation is somewhat imprecise, as animals other than humans act morally. However, I think the general meaning of what Wilson is saying is clear. He refers to these two schools of thought as the “transcendentalists,” and “empiricists,” respectively. He then goes on to express a sentiment with which I very heartily agree;

The time has come to turn the cards face up. Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, are not prone to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility. Rarely do you see an argument that opens with the simple statement: This is my starting point, and it could be wrong. Ethicists instead favor a fretful passage from the particular into the ambiguous, or the reverse, vagueness into hard cases. I suspect that almost all are transcendentalists at heart, but they rarely say so in simple declarative sentences. One cannot blame them very much; it is difficult to explain the ineffable, and they evidently do not wish to suffer the indignity of having their personal beliefs clearly understood. So by and large they steer around the foundation issue altogether.

Here he hits the nail on the head. It’s normal for human beings to be “transcendentalists at heart,” because that’s our nature. We’re wired to think of good and evil as having an objective existence independent of our minds. Unfortunately, that perception is not true and yet the “scholars who specialize in moral reasoning,” appear singularly untroubled by the fact. Someone needs to explain to them that we’re living in the 21st century, not the 18th, and their pronouncements that they “hold these truths to be self-evident” don’t impress us anymore. In the meantime, we’ve had a chance to peek at the man behind the curtain. If they really think one thing is good, and another evil, it’s about time they started explaining why.

Wilson declares himself an empiricist, and yet, as was also evident in his earlier works, he is not quite able to make a clean break with the transcendentalist past. I suspect he has imbibed too deeply at the well of traditional philosophy and theology. As a result, he has far more respect for the logic-free notions of today’s moralists than they deserve. I have a great deal of respect for Martin Luther as one of the greatest liberators of human thought who ever lived, and I revere Voltaire as a man who struck the shackles of obscurantism from the human mind. That doesn’t imply that I have to take Luther’s pronouncements about the Jews or Voltaire’s notions about his deist god seriously.

I once had a friend who, when questioned too persistently about something for which he had no better answer would reply, “Because there are no bones in ice cream.” The proposition that morality is an evolved human trait seems just as obvious to me as the proposition that there are no bones in ice cream. If anyone cares to dispute the matter with me, they need to begin by putting a package with bones on the table. Otherwise I will not take them seriously. The same goes for Wilson’s menagerie of philosophers and theologians. I respect them because, unlike so many others, they took the trouble to think. When it comes to ideas, however, we should respect them not because they are hoary and traditional, but because they are true. We have learned a great deal since the days of Kant and St. Augustine. We cannot ignore what we have learned in the intervening years out of respect for their greatness.

In the final chapter of his book, entitled “To What End,” Wilson discusses topics such as the relationship between environmental degradation and overpopulation, and considers the future of genetic engineering. His comments on the former are judicious enough, and it would be well if the developed countries of the world considered them carefully before continuing along the suicidal path of tolerating massive legal and illegal immigration. As for the latter, here, again, I find myself in agreement with him when he says that, “Once established as a practical technology, gene therapy will become a commercial juggernaut. Thousands of genetic defects, many fatal, are already known. More are discovered each year… It is obvious that when genetic repair becomes safe and affordable, the demand for it will grow swiftly. Some time in the next (21st) century that trend will lead into the full volitional period of evolution… Evolution, including genetic progress in human nature and human capacity, will be from (then) on increasingly the domain of science and technology tempered by ethics and political choice.”

As often happens, Wilson reveals his emotional heart of hearts to us with a bit of hyperbole in his final sentence:

And if we should surrender our genetic nature to machine-aided ratiocination, and our ethics and art and our very meaning to a habit of careless discursion in the name of progress, imagining ourselves godlike and absolved from our ancient heritage, we will become nothing.

This is a bit flamboyant, and begs the question of who or what gets to decide our “meaning.” Still, Wilson’s work is full of interesting and thought-provoking ideas, and he is well worth reading.

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