by Randall Honold
A group of us DePaul folks and friends got together recently to talk about E.O. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth. We were scientists, theologians, rhetoricians, students, philosophers, administrators, activists, and more than one identity per body. Over the course of a respectful but not dispassionate ninety minutes, conversation turned from Wilson’s debate with evolutionary theorists who continue to champion inclusive fitness (Wilson now promotes group selection), his dismissal of the relevance of religion and philosophy, and whether his call for an enlightened cosmopolitanism will lead us to a serious confrontation with the threats of climate change.
I had planned to just shut up and listen because I really wanted to hear what others were thinking. I managed this pretty well until about an hour in when I blurted out something like, “The problem with Wilson is he’s an unrepentant epistemologist!” I then blabbed on for a good minute about how object-oriented ontology offers a better framework for understanding evolution and the challenges of climate change. As soon as I stopped yakking and went back to nibbling my cookie two questions arose from the vapors in my skull: Come on, who are you to say anything at all about Wilson’s work? And, are you drunk on OOO Kool-Aid?
After the session Christine Skolnik asked if I would write up a bit more about what I meant by my outburst. It was obvious, alas, that I had made little sense.
In prepping my thoughts the first thing I wanted to do was go back to Wilson’s book to see where I could have gotten such an idea that he was committed to a theory of knowledge before anything else. And, of course, there it was, in what I always tell students to pay the most attention to in a text of ideas: the first paragraph. And in this instance, the first sentence!
“There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind than the key to understanding the human condition.” (italics mine)
Okay, so now I didn’t feel so ant-like in relation to Wilson. (His career is based on studying ants. I have more than one neuron, dammit!) He states straightaway that knowledge is his game and knowing the human condition is its object. So, what’s the problem? Hasn’t self-knowledge been, in some sense, the project of Western culture since Plato reported on the Oracle at Delphi? Isn’t coming to know ourselves once and for all an admirable goal for Homo sapiens? And why not take on climate change while we’re at it? I have some thoughts about why Wilson’s – or any other – epistemologically-oriented project can’t deliver these aims, based on my understanding of object-oriented ontology, or OOO.
Behind Wilson’s book-opening dictum is the assumption that the only reliable method by which we can know what’s what is science. Especially evolutionary biology. All other forms of knowing have been or are on the way to being reduced to this fundamental method, in his view. By explaining all of human behavior (and self-knowledge) in terms of multilevel selective pressures, Wilson lays the groundwork for what he thinks is a fool-proof method to employ as we face existential pressures, such as climate change. In doing this he ultimately prioritizes the human condition over all others, in my view. He might dispute this, given his high praise for co-evolution and advocacy for biodiversity protection. But ultimately it’s humanity that understands evolution and itself as the crowning achievement of it. It’s humanity that has caused the current spate of climate change and must deal with this if it wants to survive in some desirable fashion. I want to sidestep the question of whether or not Wilson’s is a good or bad theory of knowledge. Instead I want to focus on what happens to the force of Wilson’s arguments insofar as they rest on an epistemology. I want to suggest that his one-way street of epistemology becomes a cul-de-sac, always taking him back to the frustrating place he’s trying to escape from – the world of individual objects that resist being brought under one rational yoke.
Some humanists (well, I, at least) find it not that unusual but nevertheless still ironic that scientists such as Wilson throw their lot in with the type of science that’s all about producing unassailable truth. Science as an open-ended project of revealing the larger context of knowledge-creation gets short shrift. The former becomes a “scientism” that forgets it is composed of values, politics, history, egos, and the non/never living. Scientism plays the same role as any other “ism,” undermining all objects and reducing ontology to epistemology. The latter activity seeks to produce knowledge but with an openness to the question of “why are we looking into this rather than that?” (Bruno Latour judges these “matters of concern” more relevant to scientistic “matters of fact.”) In our world of anthropogenic climate change fact-based scientism alone isn’t cutting it. Knowledge isn’t leading to action. We can’t get fully under, on top of, or outside of climate change to conceptualize it adequately. This, despite Wilson’s “beautiful soul” aspirations found in the final chapter of the book:
“…by any conceivable standard, humanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and – who can say? – perhaps the galaxy.” (p. 288)
Break out the powdered wigs and strudel, Goethe and Hegel have time-warped to Cambridge, MA! How can we not solve the riddle of the human condition – and bonus problem of climate change – if we truly, deeply understand that this is just so? Ain’t no stopping us now (as long as we commit not only to evolutionary science but to human knowing as the sine qua non of all objects)! The scientific brain wasn’t designed to avoid all self-destruction – we see that now – but let’s double down on it going forward anyway.
What would an OOO critique of Wilson look like, then? What alternative, maybe better, understandings of evolution and climate change could OOO give us?
I’ll return in about week with some thoughts on this.