Biologist's Knowledge Theory Sparks Debate

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 30, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Biologist's Knowledge Theory Sparks Debate

Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Leading American biologist Edward O. Wilson is seeking to revive the abandoned quest of the Enlightenment - to unite all knowledge of the material world.

And as often attends the scientific visions of the Harvard expert on insects and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, the cheers and protests are many.

Those who support Mr. Wilson's "sociobiology" - the view that genetics and the evolution of the brain are central to human behavior - are calling his new quest for a "unity of knowledge" noble and futuristic.

Critics such as the leftward New York Review of Books decry Mr. Wilson's scholarship as an argument resembling social Darwinism, the century-old view that evolution's "survival of the fittest" explains social and economic inequality.

And religious critics say Mr. Wilson has just another "theory of everything" that excludes God.

But at a Smithsonian Institution symposium this week, hosted by the Wilson International Center for Scholars, the amiable Mr. Wilson's case was tested against philosophers who ask why knowledge needs to be unified?

The occasion was Mr. Wilson's new book, "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge," and his chief respondent at the symposium was pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty - often called a leading postmodern thinker. Mr. Wilson said that in the past 20 years, advances in genetic understanding of the brain and human behavior is allowing science to to explain humanities such as art and social behavior.

"Now we are in a position to examine the original premise of the Enlightenment," Mr. Wilson told a packed audience Monday at the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. "The key to all of this is an operational definition of human nature."

Then he gave a definition of human nature, a nature that Mr. Rorty doubts exists.

"Human nature is not the genes [nor] the cultural universals such as the incest taboo," Mr. Wilson said. "Human nature is the epigenetic rules, those hereditary regularities of mental development."

Epigenetic rules, he argues, are biologically based patterns in all humans:

* All human brains see the same color spectrum, so all human languages name no more than 11 colors. In primate language, black, white and red always come first.

* Every culture opposes incest because, as studies show, siblings reared together for the first 30 months do not develop a sexual attraction. Added to this, generations have learned that interfamily breeding produces retardation.

* The maximum arousal of the brain, as measured by alpha waves, involves 15 levels. Because 15 is a material pattern in the brain, 15 appears as a pattern in Chinese ideographs, Mayan symbols, frieze work and the art of Mondrian.

"These are among the epigenetic rules," Mr. Wilson said in his talk. "I suggest we are just beginning to turn them up."

Mr. Rorty agreed with Mr. Wilson that modern thinking presumes that matter is the only reality and therefore "mental activity is material in nature."

But he turned to the example of computer hardware and software to show why such a statement was not relevant to how people live.

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