In this life we take many things for granted because we do
them without thinking. Talking, for instance, is something no one talks about
because we take it for granted. Talk to a philologist, however, and he may tell
you that it’s a species of magic hard to define as the words we use are
themselves magical entities, protean in nature, hard to pin down. At the end
you are probably not a great deal wiser about either the nature or the origins
of sounds that make a special sort of sense.
There’s one consolation, however. It usually sounds impressive and you don’t mind the fact that you haven’t a clue to what was said because that is the nature of high intellectual discourse. Bertrand Russell, in an essay on the pithiness of proverbs provides a hilarious example of how the great Dr Samuel Johnson may have expressed the same sentiments in his terms.
The phrase is “More haste, less speed”. The doctor, he
imagines, might have said that, “Cogitative endeavours to induce celerity of
motion not infrequently lead to retardation of propinquity to the goal
desired.” Russell’s guess was probably based on Johnson’s definition of
“network” as, “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with
But there is something special about language. It enables us to examine the world around us across dozens of generations in a way that no other species has done. The last, of course, may not be strictly true; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for instance, says dolphins are ahead of us. But language has encouraged us to examine ourselves in obsessive detail almost since we stepped out on our own.
The human condition is a subject of endless fascination and the enquiries figure in roughly three ways. First came faith, then philosophy, and finally science. Faith has been with us almost from the beginning and is still perhaps the most powerful mediator of common behaviour. We have spun a myriad simple tales of who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and who rules us. Refined descendants of these stories dominate our societies, providing the standards by which we judge ourselves.
The philosophers have wielded little temporal power compared to the shepherds of faith but their influential has been equally profound. They were the great synthesisers and systems men, at home alike in the humanities and the sciences. They laid down the rules for everything including language. Until very recently, philosophy was “queen of the sciences” and dominated the universe of systematic thought. The philosopher was the embodiment of wisdom and reason, and held in universal awe.
Today, however, all the excitement and most of the attention are focused on the third, science. It is by far the youngest, and began to make a real impact only around 400 years ago, but seems to be taking over all the universes of discourse, hiving off new disciplines that mature into new sciences at a dizzying rate. Like all youngsters, it is brash, cocky and dismissive of the two venerables. Men of science feel they hold all the keys and can find all the truths that exist without anyone’s help.
t’s a conceit that’s dismissed by both faith and philosophy as hubris. So far, it is true, no one has come up with an answer for Everything, but the night is still young. Science came into its own only with Isaac Newton’s master work but since then its protocols have invaded every sphere of knowledge including religion. Historiography, for instance, is about laying down an empirical foundation for the examination of ancient texts, especially sacred texts.
But the process has undermined faith, raising fundamental questions about “Gospel truth”. This is the reason scientists refuse to be discouraged. There are a million truths out there to be discovered and the pace of discovery quickens by the day. It’s also what makes a work like The Social Conquest of Earth riveting reading. Published in April 2012, it was named one of the 100 notable books of the year by The New York Times Book Review.
The writer, E. O. Wilson, is a charter member of the tribe that is convinced only science can answer the big questions of life and the universe. One of his earlier books, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, is an attempt to unite the sciences in the search for the big answers and discusses how the humanities too might be brought into this quest. Wilson, in fact, is one of those scientists who has persistently and patiently tried to tell a mostly deaf audience that we no longer need religion or philosophers to understand the world. It’s a view that has aroused understandable all-round hostility so it is worth looking at what he has to say about each one.
In The Social Conquest, he says, “Religion will never solve this great riddle” (the human condition). The reason is simple enough. There is a plethora of myths, many of them competing accounts, and they address particular societies. The real value of the myth, according to Wilson, is that it “is a Darwinian device for survival”.
“Tribal conflict … was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature. The truth of each myth lived in the heart not the rational mind. By itself, myth-making could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity.” The problem is one of proof and disproof, the “difference between trust in empiricism and belief in the supernatural”.
But there is a little more to this story. Today’s world acknowledges five Great Faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and Hinduism and Buddhism. In addition, there are dozens of smaller faiths that also have hundreds of thousands of fervent adherents. Many of them have their own unique deities and their own set of beliefs. The world of religion is thus a crucible of conflicting faiths, competing divinities and irreconcilable arguments. One tribe’s truth is another one’s heresy.
Christianity, for instance, recognises a Holy Trinity but Islam has only one God, while Hindus cheerfully worship a multitude and many bow at every shrine they see. The first two find the third viscerally repulsive while Hindus are often surprised at the depth of dislike they encounter. The first two rest upon Revelation, while the third has evolved over time, bound together by geography, language, custom, myth and one of the most diverse, most powerful dialectical systems ever created.
The one fact about Revelation is that no believer can deny its veracity or validity. At best, they may venture to interpret, though even that is frowned upon. If the Revelation is true, then it and only it can be true. Everything outside it is false. The faithful are exalted above all others and the righteousness of their deeds cannot be questioned if they follow the tenets of faith. This is a principle of exclusion as well. The other is beyond the pale. In early Judaism, neighbouring tribes who did not pray to Jehovah were considered the enemy.
“Every creation myth, without exception, affirmed the superiority of the tribe that invented it over all other tribes … every religious believer saw himself as a chosen person.”
To a neutral observer, it would seem that there were various narratives that could not be reconciled with each other. Moreover, each contained elements that could not be verified with the best will in the world. For instance, belief in angels, archangels, djinns, rakshasas, and gandharvas is common though no one has yet found a way to confirm that they exist, either on earth or in a subtler realm. In some religions such belief is mandatory. To question it is blasphemy. In this situation a thousand different truths are perfectly possible, though all of them are parochial, none universal.
If we use science in its original meaning, “knowledge”, we could have many approaches and many sciences—Parsi science, Vedic science, Islamic science, Christian science—all ostensibly engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, but only exploring those provinces that the dogma permitted. Whether we could ever hope to produce a reliable corpus of general information is another matter but we would have the consolation of knowing that we were safe from blasphemy.
There is another point worth considering. Science concerns itself with one reality which can be measured and for which there is a finite history. It can be defined in terms of space and time. Religion claims to deal with many levels of reality, mostly arcane and occult, and the realms it traverses are not susceptible to analysis. Science is about quantity and history, religion about eternities and infinities. They are mutually exclusive worlds, so to talk of a confluence is an exercise in futility.
But the prestige that science enjoys these days is so great and its explanatory abilities so powerful that many of the Faithful have been seduced into trying to incorporate it into their sacred texts. Thus we have Creationism, a hybrid version that tries to marry the original biblical myth with elements of Darwinism in order to undermine the latter. And then there is the story of giants of ages past. Apparently they knew a great deal more than they let on to succeeding generations.
At the last Indian Science Congress, startled delegates were treated to a lecture on how Indian ancients had through a combination of science and spirituality created the facilities to manufacture flying machines capable of interplanetary travel millennia ago. It assumed a mastery of rocket technology and metallurgy underpinned by an intimate knowledge of classical physics, all mysteriously lost to us. Empirical evidence for these devices were, however, slow to come and they do not stand the test of Newton’s physics.
Wilson is equally sceptical about the success of what he calls introspection. He writes: “Unaided rational enquiry has no way to conceive its own process … Consciousness … was not designed for self-examination … It was designed for survival and reproduction… to the purpose of survival and reproduction it is wholly committed.”
To philosophy, “We look in vain for the answer to the great riddle … pure philosophy long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. It has become a Gorgon … upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze … Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind. The field of discourse is strewn with the wreckage of theories of consciousness.”
It may sound a little harsh, this indictment, but consider the proposition, “This is a blue apple”. A scientific test will first confirm the identity of the object. Having confirmed that it is an apple by referring to the appropriate table of categories it would then look at the colour and provide the answer.
A philosopher might begin with a reflection on the nature of reality and then consider whether “apple” refers to something real, examine the nature of blueness and whether the apple coincides with it and conclude perhaps that it is possibly just perception and therefore hard to be certain. But it is worth noting that the category “apple” is a modern, scientific construct defined by Linnaeus or his academic descendants. Blue too is part of a spectrum described by science. The phenomenon of colour is a complex process and all that we know of it is the result painstaking enquiry by several generations of scientists from various fields, including physics, ophthalmology and neurology.
Insofar as a philosophical enquiry considers “apple” and “blue” it is looking at scientific constructs. It is no longer possible to consider them in pure abstraction.
Maybe the best way to understand the difference would be to
remind ourselves of Sir Isaac Newton’s declaration: “I do not feign hypotheses.
For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and
hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or
mechanical, have no place in experimental
philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction” (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica).
t the time Newton wrote it, philosophy was queen of the sciences. The story of modern science was just beginning, its potential revealed by Newton and his successors. Science today is king of everything and underwrites almost every part of our lives. Its claim to be the only way of knowing is not surprising, considering that every other protocol has shrunk in significance. Religion has begun to ape its ways after persecuting it for so long and even philosophy follows in its wake.
There is, moreover, a simple elegance to a scientific explanation that nothing can match. First, every statement must be capable of verification. If it can’t it must be discarded. Thus self-correction is built in from the beginning. The second is actually an engineering principle, the “least moving parts” rule. It is based on the understanding that the fewer moving parts in a machine the easier it is to maintain and the more reliable it is likely to be. Nowadays it isn’t strictly true but it is still a useful principle. A theory with fewer elements is easier to test and disprove than one with many and is preferable for that reason. There’s a third, equally simple rule, each part of an argument must be consistent with every other part. If it’s not the argument is flawed, perhaps fatally. A scientific proposition offers certainty or it offers nothing.
Wilson invokes a single principle for his explanation. Each part of his argument is constructed around Darwin’s theory of evolution, almost second nature, as he has spent his entire life in biology. His credentials are impeccable. He has done pioneering work in several fields, including the discovery of pheromones for communication among social insects and sociobiology, a quantitative approach to questions of behaviour, which he co-founded. Wilson is one of the living legends of biological sciences, entomology in particular, and it is appropriate that he turns to social insects and the social principle in his attempt to understand the human condition.
The phrase has literary, mystic and philosophical connotations but Wilson is not concerned with any of that. For instance, it is the title of a book by the philosopher Hannah Arendt that, according to one review, “considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified—diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions—continue to confront us today.”
His focus is entirely different, a literal enquiry into what makes us who we are. The three questions he attempts are “Where are we from, what are we, where are we going?”, questions the artist Paul Gauguin asked in his painting of that name. He begins the book with a reference to Gauguin’s last days in French Polynesia and the 12-foot-wide canvas he created there. The provocation is deliberate. Wilson turns his head away from both the metaphysics and the existential anguish it implies to ask it simply as a statement of origins and destination. From this point of view it is entirely appropriate to ask it of the physical sciences.
In Gauguin’s time a scientist would have shrugged and referred him to the local priest. The great advances in biology and the life sciences were still some decades away. The picture is much fuller today, given what we know from palaeontology and palaeobotany, archaeology, geology, the entire spectrum of genetics and new disciplines such as cognitive neuroscience. They are all evolving furiously, too, and 20 years from now may provide even more definitive answers. In that sense his answers are tentative and open to correction but no more than Einstein’s statement on general relativity.
he foundations of his thesis are empirical. He cites evidence from palaeontology for the prehistoric background of human genesis. The line from mammal to primate to early human to modern human is fairly well established, as is the last emigration from Africa around 40,000 years ago and its explosive radiation throughout the planet.
In the process African man exterminated at least three other related species, the strange, miniature “hobbits” of the Lesser Sunda archipelago in modern Indonesia, the so-called “Denisovans” of the north Asian steppe and the Neanderthals of Europe and the Levant. Hardly anything is known about the first two, but the comparison between Neanderthal and African man makes fascinating reading. The reason for the former’s extinction is lost in the mists of time but from the available evidence Wilson provides a plausible narrative.
The research shows that Neanderthals, part of a much older radiation out of Africa, lived in Europe for about one lakh years before their disappearance just about 30,000 years ago, around the arrival of the new African emigration. The findings point to almost complete Neanderthal stagnation in that period. “Neanderthals devised neither visual arts nor personal ornamentation. Oddly, throughout this static history, they had a larger brain than sapiens and they had the challenge of a vast, constantly shifting environment … they probably could speak and, if so, very likely had complex languages … Yet for thousands of generations nothing much happened in Neanderthal culture.” On the other hand, something momentous did happen in sapiens.
These changes are described in some details with reference to palaeontology, archaeology, genetics and the like. Anyone who wants to test the account can do so by consulting the available literature and, if so inclined, even provide an alternative hypothesis. In principle at least, every detail is accessible to anyone interested. That makes it possible to test the model repeatedly for weaknesses or incorrect information. The more times it passes the test, the stronger it emerges.
The state of scientific information keeps changing with new discoveries and new insights into old ways, especially from emerging disciplines such as cognitive neuroscience or rapidly advancing fields such as genetics. It’s a shifting base so change or updating is inevitable. The question is thus not if he’s right or wrong but whether he is on the right track. Is his model robust enough for adjustment without being twisted out of shape?
The first question is easier to answer because Wilson’s focus is purely physical. Every part of his proofs comes from the physical sciences. Metaphysics has no place in his scheme. Similarly, the transcendental obsessions of religion do not figure here. The reasons for the omissions he gives in the prologue but there’s also the matter of necessity. Does science offer sufficient ground for a complete explanation? Is it necessary to invoke another universe of discourse?
Religion is the first attempt to explain the human condition and is even today the most influential. But science cannot by definition have anything to do with it. Science is about empirical evidence, so heaven and hell must have definite locations in space and time. Religion speaks about the Realms Beyond and the timeless nature of True Reality. To an empiricist these terms are devoid of meaning; indeed they seem to be poetic metaphor rather than sober fact. It’s full of concepts and statements that can’t be tested by any known means. The Truth of religion does not yield to measurement.
Yet, even without these pearls of timeless wisdom, science is an immensely powerful way of looking at the world around us. Its insights have enabled us to understand and manipulate the environment in ways that religion previously condemned as heretical. Scientists were among the many minorities persecuted for doctrinal impurities by the religious authorities when they were all-powerful. Times changed and science has gone its own way, to the overall benefit of humanity. The evidence so far shows that the transcendental is not necessary for scientific enquiry. In theory, the answers it provides may not be complete but all the answers are comprehensive and form the basis for the entire corpus of exact knowledge.
As for philosophers, they no longer lead the search for
understanding; they are more like referees whom no one bothers to consult even
though they laid down the rules by which every scientist works. The relatively
simple world of the 18th and 19th centuries has been replaced with something
entirely different. The last ambitious project to understand the world purely
by unaided rational thought was phenomenology. Its collapse signalled the end
of the old world of academia. Rodin’s “Penseur” is passé now.
In any case, introspection makes little sense because it runs up against the same limitations that have dogged our species all these millennia. It may not even be necessary because technological advances have given us an array of tools that provide exciting new insights into the world every hour of the day. The last few decades have seen the philosopher retreat from the edge of knowledge to safer refuge in the world of semantics, ethics, and so on. Perhaps he will return some day when science has exhausted itself but for now both the task of discovery and the task of making sense of it are best left to the men and women of science. They have made the literal world their exclusive province.
If Wilson’s account of the human condition has the air of inevitability, he warns against complacency. “Humanity is a magnificent but fragile achievement … Most of the time our ancestral populations were very small … carried a probability of early extinction … humanity veered close to extinction itself at least once and possibly many times in the past half million years. The epic might have easily ended … gone forever in a geological blink.” In other words, our species has been luckier than most. The Faithful would be inclined to say they’ve been blessed, but Wilson prefers to credit our success to evolution. He considers it the single driver of our entire history and his scheme is consistent with this.
Wilson has welded the various related fields of biological sciences, both behavioural and hard, into a unity that provides a clear path to follow. This does not guarantee that it is the only one or even that it is true because there is a great deal that still awaits an explanation. What he has produced is a sort of master blueprint that must be filled in before it becomes reality. And that will take time, years if not decades. Its greatest virtue is that it is completely falsifiable, in whole and in part.
In his own words, “Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world who has sufficient information to do so.” No scientist could do more or ask for more.
How robust is it? It’s a difficult question to answer but perhaps an example would better illustrate it. When Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1916 the world of physics was abuzz with excitement and outrage. It turned the classical world inside out, upside down. Everyone regarded it as a promethean moment but there was one problem. No part of the thesis had been empirically tested. Einstein was the archetypal armchair scientist. Since then, it has been tested countless times from countless angles as new methods of investigation, even new sciences, emerged. It passed every test and is today regarded as the founding thesis of cosmology. Among the phenomena the equations predicted were the bending of light around a massive object, the expanding universe, black holes, dark matter, dark energy and gravity waves. In retrospect, it turned out be more robust than even it originator had hoped.
Wilson’s thesis denies us the possibility of transcendence but in return we may ultimately get certainty about our place in nature. Let Wilson have the last word. “Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to pre-existing knowledge.”