Review: Consilience

My first-ever book review for and this is what I drew from the options I had. It was not assigned to me, I chose it. It looked interesting, so I dove in head first.

Some notes on this one: I received a prepublication copy of the book to review, Edward O. Wilson has a couple of Pulitzers to his name, a National Medal of Science, and this book was on the New York Times Best Seller list when it was published (helped no doubt by the write-up in Newsweek).

If you want to know how I really felt, skip to the last paragraph. If you’d like a more academic review of the book, check out H. Allen Orr’s write-up for Boston Review (a shining example of what you can accomplish with a high word limit).

One more thing – someone was kind enough (or foolish enough) to add a link to my review to the Wikipedia page for this book. I did not do it, but I thank the person who did. Now I have to scour the web for other references to me.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Consilience by Edward O. Wilson

When you were a kid, did you wander through the woods near your home, observing all the flora and fauna, all the while reviewing their respective Linnaean classifications? If so, you have the foundation for an understanding of “Consilience”. Published by Knopf, this latest work from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson is nothing short of an attempt to form a single, unified theory designed to bind together all forms of intellectual pursuit.

Wilson draws heavily on the natural sciences and philosophy to support his approach, reaching as far back as the golden age of Greece, drawing examples from work by the likes of Einstein and Freud. If you understand the meaning of the title without reaching automatically for your dictionary, you have a head start on the rest of us. In Wilson’s own words, consilience is “a jumping together of knowledge.” Wilson borrows the word from The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, written by William Whewell in 1840. Whewell spoke of a linking together of “facts and fact based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” 

And that, in a nutshell, is what Wilson aims to establish in “Consilience”. That all knowledge and understanding is bound together by some as yet unknown common theory. There is one grand scheme to explain and unite all that we know and can know. The real problem here is that Wilson himself admits it can’t be done. He states unequivocally that consilience “cannot be proved with logic from first principles or grounded in any definitive set of empirical tests.” He states further that “the strongest appeal of “Consilience” is in the prospect of intellectual adventure.” Which is an apt description of the book. It is nothing less than an intellectual journey through time and space. 

Theories dealing with everything from quantum mechanics to incest taboos are brought together, dissected and compared, all in an effort to find some common thread linking all of it together. Wilson draws on so many philosophers, from such divergent periods and places as ancient Greece and Victorian Europe, that at times one feels compelled to rush out and buy the thickest compendium of western cultural knowledge available. “Consilience” is as much a lesson in the history western philosophy as it is a treatise on ontological unification. Reading the book, I was reminded of what it felt like to be hopelessly lost in my philosophy 310 course in college. When he finally makes his point, it is clear and straightforward. But along the way it’s easy to get distracted by the references to unfamiliar figures in history and their obscure (to the casual reader) theories. 

If you are a scientist, a teacher, or a student of philosophy, you may find the book engaging and enlightening. As for the rest of us – don’t read it in bed unless you’re having trouble sleeping.