Books: The ant man cometh

Roy Porter objects to this haughty harangue from a scientist with imperial designs
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by Edward O Wilson

Little, Brown, pounds 18.99, 374pp

For sheer arrogance, this book takes the biscuit. The brilliant Harvard entomologist Edward Wilson, not content with having invented the new science of sociobiology and being the world's greatest authority on ants, is now minded to rescue the West from its current "chaos" by restoring intellectual "order". For this, his nostrum is the method of "consilience". Fundamentally, this proposes that knowledge is ultimately a whole; that unity lies in science, and so it must be scientists who should sit in judgment as to what is true and what is not.

Put in other terms: while it might look to you and I as if there is a plurality of realities - the truths of intuition or the unconscious, of art, poetry, faith, and even the social sciences - we are plain wrong. For beliefs are valid only if they ultimately agree with the thinking of natural science. At bottom, in other words, there are not C P Snow's Two Cultures, still less 22. There is only one: that one is science and its Platonic guardians are Professor Wilson and his chums.

The ant man is not, or course, unaware of the breathtaking presumptuousness of his claim that all must kneel before science's throne. Indeed, he says candidly that he knows he will be accused of advocating simplistic, reductionist scientism. But at least he has the courage of his convictions. "Guilty, guilty, guilty", he confesses.

With evangelical fervour, Professor Wilson seeks to rebut all of heathens and heretics, "usually leftist in orientation" - neo-Marxists, eco-feminists, Afrocentrists and Postmodernists - or rather convert them to the Gospel of the Church Scientific. He also seems to be promoting a further, hidden agenda, a snide attack on multiculturalism in its more political manifestations. Perhaps we will all have to be not just natural scientists now, but loyal Americans to boot.

Few would deny that seeing the world as a whole has its attractions, or that there is much wrong with today's proliferation of academic disciplines. Doubtless it would be comforting to return to a cognitive Garden of Eden, before knowledge "fell" and broke into fragments.

The catch is that we have to do it "Wilson's Way" - and endorse his doctrine that, one day, everything about Homo sapiens will be understood in the lingo of genetics, microbiology and neurology. Wilson seems to take pleasure in putting across such diktats in the most brash and brutal terms. For instance: "The brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive." With people like Wilson around, our inability to understand ourselves begins to sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is the cash value of this haughty harangue? In large measure Wilson's diatribe is targeted against practitioners of the social sciences and the humanities, cast as lesser mortals hopelessly bogged down in "tribal loyalties" and "ideologies". Marxists and psychoanalysts are trashed; peddlers of "carelessness and error", they are, he declares, "the pits". They should all toe the line of natural science - or quit.

Arrogance aside, the problem with Wilson's approach is that, to say the least, it represents the triumph of hope over experience. What new insights has natural science so far given us into Socrates or Shakespeare, to say nothing of society at large? It is one thing to fathom how thinking, sentient, creative beings have evolved; quite another to explain what they think, feel or create.

Wilson seems oblivious to the distinction. Or rather, by something like a knee-jerk reaction, he collapses the latter into the former. Lamenting that literary critics "have paid little attention to biology", he commends research into the "biological origin of the arts". Religion, likewise, is for him "largely a problem in astrophyics". Sometimes sounds like an essay in Swiftian self-parody.

How does Wilson justify his astounding agenda? Partly on the basis of highly selective historical references. Looking back for justification to the programme of the Enlightenment, he takes the Marquis de Condorcet as its quintessence. Condorcet it was who unfolded a vision of limitless progress grounded on the pursuit of science. But that is a contentious reading indeed, seemingly built upon Wilson's historical ignorance.

After all, Condorcet was only one figure in a highly complex movement which was no less concerned to stress the limits of science and scientific reasoning than to salute them. Just think of Voltaire's scepticism, or Diderot's mockery of the ravings of scientists in D'Alembert's Dream - to say nothing of the claims of a Vico or Goethe that life and consciousness are irreducible to the crude, billiard-ball mechanisms of the physico- chemical sciences. ("Goethe can be easily forgiven", Wilson asides with mind-boggling condescension.)

Deny Condorcet's dream is of salvation through science, "and you go back to barbarism", we are told, but we might just as easily respond that the dream itself may lead to Brave New World. Wilson is not mistaken to look to the Enlightenment. He is in error to reduce it all to black and white. Here, as elsewhere, what's wrong is that his thinking is, as he would boast, reductionist.

Anyone seeking psycho-biographical explanations for this obsession with reducing our complex, heterogeneous mind-worlds to uniformity and simplicity (though Freudianism is one brand of reductionism at which Wilson baulks) will need to look no farther than Wilson's own background. He was raised in Alabama as a Southern Baptist. His religious upbringing evidently taught him that there was one and only one truth, and that lay in the Good Book. As he notes, he gave up that form of scriptural literalism for science, but it is pretty clear that he never grew out of the need to have faith in the Truth. Biblical monotheism gave way in Wilson's mind-set to scientific fundamentalism.

suggests that Professor Wilson has privately elected himself heir to a long intellectual tradition. It was the aim of Victorian advocates of "grand theory" to come up with a unifying philosophy, or the theory to end all theories. Auguste Comte attempted that with Positivism, Herbert Spencer after him with his metaphysics of evolution. At a later date, Albert Einstein held that a unified field-theory would prove the key to the universe, while physicists still mutter about a "theory of everything" - the aspiration behind Stephen Hawking's talk of knowing the mind of God. Assuming the mantle of one of science's Grand Old Men, Wilson clearly has yearnings along these lines.

This might help explain the puff on the front cover. "There's a new Darwin," Tom Wolfe tootles. "His name is Edward O Wilson". Nothing could be farther from the truth. Darwin was a man of rare intellectual humility, deeply diffident about holding forth on anything beyond his own field of expertise. Wilson has no such inhibitions. Whereas Darwin, fully aware of the nature/nurture problem, was always chary of drawing ethic imperatives from natural selection, Wilson has done that with abandon. For example, he assures us in his earlier works such as Sociobiology that, on the basis of his insect studies, aggressive free- market capitalism is Nature's way and that gender roles are determined.

The penchant that Americans have for taking Darwin's name in vain is not the least remarkable thing about this outrageous polemic. How sad that a man who has nobly and passionately defended bio-diversity should now come out as a champion of scientific imperialism.