Thursday, May 08, 2008

E. O. Wilson, Wendell Berry, and the Question of Reductionism

The Bible teaches us that human beings were created by God in His image, and thus God set them above all of His other creatures. Intelligent design theory teaches us that human beings were designed by an Intelligent Designer. For many conservatives, such explanations of human origins are better than a Darwinian account of the human species as having evolved from ancestral animal species by material causes, because the Darwinian view seems to promote a reductionistic materialism that is morally degrading.

My response to this worry is to insist that a Darwinian conservatism can recognize the special capacities of the human soul as manifesting the emergent complexity of life, in which higher levels of organization produce mental abilities that cannot be found at lower levels. In contrast to the reductionism often associated with modern science, Darwinian conservatism affirms the idea of emergence. I have elaborated my reasoning on this point in my chapter on emergence in Darwinian Conservatism.

Those looking for evidence of Darwinian reductionism can easily find it in the writings of Edward O. Wilson. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), Wilson argues for unifying all knowledge--the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--by reduction to physics: "all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics" (266).

In his book Life is a Miracle (2000), Wendell Berry--a poet, novelist, and conservationist writer--challenges Wilson's reductionism by asserting that "life is a miracle," because of the mystery that comes from the unfathomable individuality of each living creature. But what I find most interesting about Berry's argument is how he counters Wilson's reductionism by appealing to the emergent complexity of biological phenomena. Against reductionism, some people argue for a dualist view that the soul or spirit of a human being is not physical, and so it cannot be explained by a reductionist physical science. But Berry rejects dualism, because he thinks the true mystery of life is the inextricable unity of mind and body.

Berry sees in Wilson a reductionistic formula for explaining mind: "mind = brain = machine." But as Berry indicates this makes no biological sense. "Is there such a thing as a mind which is merely a brain which is a machine? Would one have a mind if one had no body, or no body except for a brain (whether or not it is a machine)--if one had no sense organs, no hands, no ability to move or speak, no sensory pains or pleasures, no appetites, no bodily needs? If we grant (for the sake of argument) that such may be theoretically possible, we must conclude at the same time that it is not imaginable, and for the most literal of reasons: Such a mind could contain no image" (47).

Berry adds: "one can't be a brain without a body, or a body (for very long) without a familiar homeland. To have one mind you have got to have at least two (and undoubtedly many more) and a world. We could call this the Adam and Eve theory of the mind. The correct formula, in fact, is more like this: mind = brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community + history. 'History' here would mean not just documented events but the whole heritage of culture, language, memory, tools, and skills. Mind in this definition has become hard to locate in an organ, organism, or place. It has become an immaterial presence or possibility that is capable of being embodied and placed" (48-49).

What Berry misses, however, is how Wilson contradicts his own reductionism in recognizing the same emergent complexity of life and mind that Berry emphasizes. This contradiction runs throughout Wilson's Consilience. On the one hand, he insists on reduction of everything to the laws of physics. On the other hand, he insists that emergent phenomena at higher levels of organization cannot be predicted by the laws of physics. "Biology is almost unimaginably more complex than physics," Wilson writes, "and the arts equivalently more complex than biology" (67). "It is not even possible to predict the three-dimensional structure of a protein from a complete knowledge of its constituent atoms" (83). Biologists suffer from "physics envy," which is frustrating, because "they invariably encounter emergence, the appearance of complex phenomena not predictable from the basic elements and processes alone" (86). Although constrained by genes, culture has acquired a "life of its own," Wilson observes, so that we cannot understand human life without understanding both genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Consequently, we must reject the genetic determinism that would assume that genes dictate the specific forms of culture (163, 166).

Moreover, in his intellectual biography--Naturalist (1994)--Wilson describes his long battle in the Biology Department at Harvard against the reductionism of James Watson. Watson argued that modern biology could be a true science only insofar as it could be reduced to molecular biology. Those areas of biology that did not lend themselves to such reductionism--such as ecology, evolutionary biology, and animal behavior--were to be rejected as not truly scientific. Wilson--who studied insects--was dismissed by Watson as a "bug collector." But eventually, Wilson and his allies were able to win some respect from their colleagues in molecular biology. Now, Wilson observes, "only hard-shelled fundamentalists among them think that higher levels of biological organization, populations to ecosystems, can be explained by molecular biology" (231).

So although Wilson sometimes endorses the idea of unifying all knowledge through strong reductionism, he also sees that such unification might be achieved only through the idea of emergent complexity, by which higher levels of organization are constrained by, but not fully determined by, lower levels. The human mind and human culture belong at the highest levels of complexity that cannot be completely reduced to physics and chemistry. In this recognition of emergent complexity, Wilson and Berry agree.

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