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At the Intersection of Art and Science: Revisiting EO Wilson’s ‘Consilience’

I first read EO Wilson’s Consilience in the late 1990s when I was a student in a contemporary literary theory class. The class was taught by a poet, Gerald Locklin, who assigned it as a counterpoint to the postmodern theorists we’d be reading that semester. Wilson makes the case for the unification of knowledge—in the convergence of diverse disciplines such as the sciences and the arts, he says, there is an important story to tell, “about where we came from and why we are here: Neither science nor the arts can be complete without combining their separate strengths. Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.” As someone who writes poetry, novels, and short stories, I have often drawn inspiration from science and its “fresh blood.” When I teach creative writing classes, I tell my students that aspiring writers not only need to read novels if they want to be a novelist, or poems if they want to be a poet, they need to read a bit of everything to get a fuller sense of the world: history, philosophy, and especially, science.

Within the language of science, a whole world opens up for a writer. I read books about physics not only for their science, but for their poetry, even though I don’t always understand the math. I read books about biology and evolutionary psychology to gain a deeper understanding about what it means to be human, just as I might listen to a Leonard Cohen album, or contemplate a Van Gogh painting, or read a Ralph Ellison novel. I dig for understanding, language, and metaphor within the context of the sciences. I gain a better understanding of the world and I broaden my capacity for astonishment at the universe. In this way, science performs a similar function to the best art—it alters my perceptions, offers a new perspective, and reveals real world knowledge that I can use inside the lab of my imagination.

Artists and scientists have a reductionist’s idea of one another and perceive the other as a threat. Of the mutual suspicion that exists between the two, Wilson writes: “Scholars in the humanities should lift the anathema placed on reductionism. Scientists are not conquistadors out to melt the Inca gold. Science is free and the arts are free…” Nevertheless, that mutual suspicion has always served to divide science and religion, and in the late 20th century, a new suspicion of science emerged from postmodern theorists within the humanities. Many postmodernists rejected the notion of “universals” and saw science as a master narrative with no specific claim to truth—a “kind of discourse,” as Jean François Lyotard argues in his book The Postmodern Condition.

In a chapter entitled, “The Arts and Their Interpretation,” Wilson laments the fall of the text-based New Critical approach to literary theory in favor of the postmodern one, which seeks to deconstruct, to conceive, and to analyze what is left out of a work of art—an interpretation that allows for “personalized commentary,” which often means adding political ideology to the mix and regarding say, the Western canon, as merely reaffirming “the worldview of ruling groups”—Western white males. At the same time, he is charitable towards what he calls “the postmodern hypothesis,” which he defines (albeit somewhat reductively) as an ideology in which “each person creates his own inner world by acceptance or rejection of endlessly shifting linguistic signs. There is no privileged point, no lodestar, to guide literary intelligence.”

Biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson at Yale University in 2007, where he was awarded the Addison Emery Verrill Medal from the Peabody Museum of Natural History (wikicommons)

Postmodernism’s popularity, he argues, may be explained by the possibility that its “love of chaos” is part of a universal human nature. He sees postmodernism as possessing “a surge of ‘revolutionary spirit’ generated by the real—not deconstructed—fact that large segments of the population… have been neglected for centuries and are only now beginning to find full expression within mainstream culture.” But instead of it having “exploded human nature into little pieces…” he sees its rise as an opportunity to “set the stage for a fuller explanation of the universal traits that unite humanity.” In the sciences, he sees consilience as a necessity in order to gain full insight into human behavior: “Works of art that prove enduring are intensely humanistic. Born in the imagination of individuals, they nevertheless touch upon what was universally endowed by human evolution.” For the scientist, the desire to know the real world, to answer the “how” and “what,” is paramount, while for the artist, it is a desire to take that real world and expose it to imagination, intuition, and experience.

Yet, both draw upon a similar curiosity. The creative spirit remains the same even if the goals and methods are radically different: “Can the opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, cool reason against passionate abandonment, which drive the mood swings of the arts and criticism be reconciled?” Wilson asks. If they can, then there is much to be gained. It is at this intersection between the real and the imagined that truth converges. To have only one, is to have a worldview that is extreme, imbalanced, and ultimately unfulfilling, if not tragic. (Such a tragic imbalance has been explored in plays like Euripides’s The Bacchae and Peter Shaffer’s Equus.)

I’m reminded of one of Walt Whitman’s most famous poems, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” a work that is often interpreted as a rejection of science:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

On the surface, it’s easy to see why Whitman’s poem elicits this interpretation. After all, the speaker leaves the astronomy lecture “sick and tired” to go outside and gaze up at the stars. The poet rejects the intellectual for the contemplative, the explanation for experience. The astronomer, in that lecture room, who dissects everything with his equations and proofs and figures and charts and columns and math seems sterile and disconnected from the stars, as well as from the speaker, and therefore, from us. Like most artists, Whitman seems to privilege the subjective and visceral over the “learn’d” (clearly intended as a pejorative). Still, one has to ask, would Whitman’s speaker have looked up at the stars at all on this evening had he not first attended the lecture? Did the lecture, no matter how sanitized and unpoetic it seems, inspire the speaker to gaze into that “mystical moist night-air”?

“An alliance is overdue,” writes Wilson. I once visited the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I’d taken part in a small tour group which brought us up to the top of the volcano. At one point, near the top, but before the lack of oxygen would affect our eyes, we stopped and got out of the van to look up at the sky. The tour guide, an amateur astronomer, told us a story about a time she’d had an astrophysicist as part of her tour, and when she’d pointed to a particular star cluster (the name of which I’ve forgotten), he said, “Oh, that’s where it is. I wrote my dissertation on it.” She was shocked to learn he couldn’t locate it in the sky, but that all his research had been conducted in a laboratory. This exchange reminded me of a scene in the movie Contact based on Carl Sagan’s novel, in which Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer played by Jodie Foster, is sent through a wormhole. As she looks out of the window on her journey, she says, “They should have sent a poet.” Be that as it may, you still needed the scientists and engineers to build the vessel.

 

Clint Margrave is the author of the novel Lying Bastard (Run Amok Books, 2020) and two poetry collections, Salute the Wreckage (2016) and The Early Death of Men (2012), both published by NYQ Books. His poetry and fiction have appeared in the Threepenny Review, Rattle, dcomP, Ambit (UK), Verse Daily, and the Writer’s Almanac, among others. He lives in Los Angeles, and you can follow him on Twitter @clintmargrave.

Photo by Manouchehr Hejazi on Unsplash

Comments

  1. An interesting article. There is however, one glaring problem which the writer alludes to, but doesn’t directly state. Science pursues objective truth, engaging in a form of Zeno’s Paradox, which ultimately arrives at a destination that might as well be objective truth. Postmodernism denies objective truth exists, or least asserts it is unknowable. I just don’t see how these two opposing positions can be reconciled.

    Science and modernism, on the other hand can be reconciled, with the contribution of one, to the other, often making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I am often struck by the way Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson express a numinous wonder at the natural universe, hopefully drawing young minds into science. I also think its healthy to pursue a layman’s interest in science, if one it ever going to ever be capable of saying anything worthwhile.

    My thanks to the writer for providing a short, but intellectually diverting, train of thought.

  2. "The Theory of Critical Social Justice is particularly skeptical of, if not hostile to, science. This hostility is so profound that it isn’t entirely incorrect to say that the point of Critical Social Justice (and much of the postmodern Theory it has adapted to its purposes) exists to undermine scientific credibility without bothering to learn any science at all. Critical Social Justice sees science as just one way of knowing among many. Further, it considers it a cultural artifact of white, Western, masculinist cultures, which makes it a “way of knowing” that is inherently problematic and in need of having its hegemonic influence disrupted, dismantled, deconstructed and replaced with alternatives. Obviously, those would be critical theories, instead.

    The Theory of Critical Social Justice holds that objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. That is, Theory is radically subjectivist in orientation. It therefore sees the claim in the sciences that its tested and unfalsified statements correspond to objective truths in some way as naive and problematic, literally calling them “positivist,” which hearkens to a philosophical current from the 19th century and more specific movement beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Positivism in its strongest form asserted that only those statements that can be verified though logical proof or experimental observation can be considered knowledge. Critical Social Justice Theory tends to brand as positivist any belief that the sciences can or should attempt to make statements about objective reality. Indeed, it often just equates “the scientific method,” which it plainly doesn’t understand, to “positivism,” literally suggesting that they’re the same thing."

  3. Started reading and then was transported to a time when I read the Glass Bead Game by the execrable Herman Hesse… and then stopped reading the article. There’s a place for people like those described in this article. It used to be called “Arcosanti” and it was in the desert. And it was going to be beautiful. And I think they ended up making wind-chimes for pocket change…

  4. On the face of it, this article seems reasonable and articulate, but I wonder what Consilience Mr. Margrave has been reading? E.O. Wilson’s Consilience is not about the “intersection” of science and art, it is all about the enfolding of art into science. Indeed, as the very title implies, Consilience is about enfolding everything into science.

    Wilson claims that “Outside of our heads there is a freestanding objective reality.” The “holy grail” of science is to reveal this true world. Unfortunately we human beings, with all of our outdated religions and moralities, keep finding ourselves out of “alignment” with objective reality. But, not to worry, “ The proper task of the scientist is diagnose and correct the misalignment” [Italics in original].

    In Wilson’s world it is the scientists who ultimately understand reality. “The cutting edge of science is reductionism, the breaking apart of nature into its constituent elements.” Wilson notes that artists are interested in “complexity” but ultimately so are scientists. But it is the scientist, not the artist, who truly understands the constituent elements. While he may wax poetic about art and poetry he essentially sees human creativity as explainable by its evolutionary advantages. All of which can ultimately be known by science as expressed as so many “epigenic rules”.

    Shortly after the publication of Consilience, Wendell Berry published a short book entitled Life is a Miracle. Apparently so alarmed was Wendell Berry by reading Consilience that he felt compelled to reply. Life is a Miracle is wholly dedicated to debunking E.O. Wilson’s Consilience.

    Berry felt Consilience to be emblematic of a way of thinking which has an umpovershed understanding of art and religion and ultimately justified the totalitarian rule of experts. Life is a Miracle is, in my opinion, a tour de force of criticism of the current scientism of which E.O. Wilson’s Consilience is a kind of Bible. Mr Margrave might want to check it out.

  5. Like most artists, Whitman seems to privilege the subjective and visceral over the “learn’d”

    Whitman was early woke! Writing about his “lived” experiences…

  6. There is this thing called ‘engineering’ where one uses science and creativity to solve problems and come up with new technology. It is a very intuitive process, draws on all kinds of craft.

    There is also this thing called ‘art’ that includes making paintings of blue dogs with different gestures, or re purposing a bicycle seat and handlebars to represent a bulls head. If one is savvy and cool, one can market their little creations and talk rich people into giving them lots of money.

    The author lost me at

  7. Whitman was early woke! Writing about his “lived” experiences…

    Reading the excerpt, he’s just saying - quite reasonably in my opinion - that by focusing only on the science, you miss out on the beauty and wonder of it. Standard romanticism.

    The woke version would be

    When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
    When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
    and measure them,
    When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
    much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon confused I became bitter and jealous,
    Till rising and gliding out I wander’d to the diversity office
    And in a fit of righteous rage, against the racist swine,
    did file a complaint and had him fired

  8. The problem with that is what David Chalmers called “The Hard Problem”. Unless and until science can derive the colour Red from the number 700 nm subjective experience will never be consilient with objective measurement.

  9. You are correct that the essential problem is the nature of consciousness. Science, by its nature tends to understand reality by breaking it into pieces as E.O. Wilson says. But we don’t live by pieces we live by wholes, which is to say, consciousness generates meaning (qualia) and ultimately this is not a purely rational phenomenon. No one actually lives by science - though people may, and no doubt should, make use of science (and reason) to guide their lives,

    E.O. says “Everything can be reduced to physics.” But as the Buddhists might query, “Who is it that knows this?” E.O. Wilson reduced to physics ceases to be E.O Wilson. Again, we live in the world of wholes not pieces.

    I think the author of the article might do well to contemplate the similarities and differences between art and science. In my opinion, and apparantly in the opinion of some of the greatest of modern philosophers (e.g. Nietzsche, Heidegger), this is a major issue, if not the major issue of our time.

  10. I have always wondered what things such as “contemporary literary theory” might be; what makes it contemporary, what did it replace from the past, and why literature needs a theory?

    I just assume it’s something to give university professors jobs.

  11. My understanding of that paradox is that you never truly arrive. A friend of mine who is a Buddhist once said to me
    no matter where you are in your journey you’re only halfway there

  12. Not true. You never reach your destination, but each stage leaves you 50% closer.

  13. Oh I see the problem now. Halfway in an absolute sense from where you started. No that’s not what I meant. Just another halfway from where you are

  14. I don’t know about you, but I always make the full journey to the loo.

    In fact I complete journeys everday when I eave home and return again.

    When I was at university we ussed to make up nonsense sayings and then go about repeating them gnostically and seeing how often some undergraduate would earnestly repeat back the nonsense to one of us and explain what it meant. The only one I can remember is " A fish may rot from the head but it is hung by its tail’’.

  15. I believe that consilience has arrived because the sciences enable us to see how the brain works, including how we attach meanings to words. Rather than showing the power of science it shows how it is the product of observation that cannot be divorced from human interactions. I’ll be publishing a book about the matter shortly. https://howtounderstandeverything.beakbane.com/consilience/ Message me if you’d like a pre-publication copy - free.

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