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Consilience In Modern Science

The consilience of inductions figures high in modern science. Its broad explanatory power was the main reason that so many geologists were so quickly converted to the theory of plate tectonics. Supposing that the continents move explains so much—the shape of the continents, the position of earthquakes and volcanoes, the trenches in the middle of oceans, the magnetic lines, and much more. In recent years the idea has been extended into philosophy and to thinking about science and knowledge generally. The Harvard student of the ants and of social behavior (sociobiology), Edward O. Wilson, argues that all of human knowledge is heading toward a consilience—a consilience where evolution will be the all-powerful joining and explaining idea. We have a kind of gene-culture coevolution, where culture tries to impose its ways and norms on human behavior and thought, but where the genes always constrain the flights of fancy and make sure that human nature never strays too far from the basic biological.

Wilson argues that morality for instance cannot exist as a disembodied ethereal enterprise, but must be rooted firmly in our evolutionary background—morality exists because and only because it was and is of use to us as creatures struggling to survive and reproduce. Those humans who worked together did better than those who did not. Likewise, religion serves to bind humans together in well-functioning units. It has no correspondence to reality but serves as an adaptation toward the greater success of Homo sapiens. Wilson argues that we must strive to achieve ever-greater consiliences between disparate parts of human knowledge until all is bound together in one big super-picture. Only then will we humans recognize the extent to which we are part of this big picture—a picture that includes all of natural diversity. Only then will we humans be truly motivated to the preservation of the living world around us, something from which we emerged and something without which we can never hope to survive. Consilience has therefore moved from the epistemological norm of William Whewell to the moral imperative of Edward O. Wilson.


Ruse, Michael. The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Originally published in 1979.

Whewell, William The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. 2 vols. London: Parker, 1840.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Michael Ruse

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConsilience - Consilience In Modern Science