Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson (Emeritus, Evolutionary Biology/Harvard Univ.; Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, 2016, etc.) offers a philosophical examination into “the mystery of why there are universal creative arts.”
The author’s answer exemplifies an alliance between science and the humanities that he champions throughout the book. Such a blending, he maintains, could “reinvigorate philosophy and begin a new, more endurable Enlightenment.” Wilson identifies five fields of research where this blending can be especially fertile: paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. These fields may allow “the full meaning of the humanities” to emerge by helping the humanities overcome their shortcomings: “they are rootless in their explanations of causation and they exist within a bubble of sensory experience.” The big five fields are united by a “common thread” of belief in the crucial importance of natural selection. “Nothing in science and the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Wilson quotes a geneticist, including the existence of creativity. The author sees language as “the greatest evolutionary advance,” setting Homo sapiens apart from other species: “Without the invention of language we would have remained animals. Without metaphors we would still be savages.” Early Homo sapiens had a larger brain than their ancestors, providing “larger memory, leading to the construction of internal storytelling” and “true language,” which in turn gave rise to “our unprecedented creativity and culture.” That rapid transformation “was driven by a unique mode of evolution, called gene-culture coevolution,” in which cultural innovation and genes favoring intelligence and cooperation occurred “in reciprocity.” Wilson’s writing is at its most luminous when describing the “chitinous armor” and glistening bodies of ants—“one of the most beautiful animals in the world”—to which he has devoted much of his career. His more abstract analysis, though sometimes repetitious, is nevertheless salient.
A concise, thoughtful exploration of how human understanding will be enhanced by “a humanistic science and a scientific humanities.”