The Ant Man

Hofstadter’s metaphor for the brain / mind as a colony of ants makes only one reference to E O Wilson, as author of “The Insect Societies”. Been meaning to add E O Wilson to my reading list.

One quick google throws up this exchange, something I’ve alluded to many times about a number of physicists. Stephen Hawking recently said that the human race won’t last this millennium unless we start to colonize space. Do you agree ? E. O Wilson ” I admire Hawking but I think he’s completely wrong. All of the evidence shows that we can turn Earth into our permanent, safe home.” [via Salon] Interestingly, the photo of Wilson in this article has him with a large model of an ant, very like Escher’s Mobius Strip. Just noticed I was reading these Hofstadter passages whilst sat in the “Little Creatures” brewery in Freo.

Wow, didn’t realise Consilience was so recent (1998). “Insect Societies” pre-dates Hofstadter (obviously, he quotes it) but Wilson also published Pullitzer prize-winning “Ants” in 1991. The word “consilience” (meaning little more than convergence, of ideas across diverse domains) was apparently coined by William Whewell, in The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 1840 [Wikipedia]. The word is listed in the 1913 Websters [OneLook]

The biologist (sickle-cell) S.J. Singer apparently said : “I link, therefore I am.” (Quoted from Consilience)

As a 1998 book, I can see why Consilience was a reactionary undertaking. For example Bjorn Lomborg is an interest of mine (not because I agree with him, I’ve not read him, you understand, but) because of the intense debate he caused, and the questions he raised about motives for doom & gloom arguments. E O Wilson’s review of Lomborg is wholly negative, and bemoans the scientific resources expended countering his suggestions. Interestingly in this article, neither Lomborg, nor his inspiration Julian Simon, is quoted as saying anything controversial, quite the opposite. “primary research on the environment, generally appears to be professionally competent and well balanced.” There is no question that, in the process of creating a political movement and seeking the scientific evidence to support it, environmentalists have sometimes made both factual and strategic errors — who hasn’t? But environmentalists are not devious puppeteers controlling the heartstrings of the hoi polloi and the purse strings of politicians. The skeptical environmentalist is jousting at windmills, whereas the people he denounces are fighting real battles. If the words of Lomborg’s nemesis-turned-idol Julian Simon come true — if “the material conditions of life continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time” — it will be with the help of, not in spite of, the environmental movement. [Kathryn Shulz in Grist]

The point for me … Lomborg’s error is in implying a “conspiracy theory” angle to erroneous (spurious, secondary) bandwagon-jumping motives on eco-arguments. No amount of objective scientific debate can sustain or refute that. Only something like common sense. A bit like the quote made against Dawkins – “the atheist who has done more than any other for the cause of religion”; scientists arguing objectively against Lomborg, and using mainstream media to do it, are digging their own graves, spreading the meme “with 3,000 footnotes.” (Me too, BTW)

Interestingly Dawkins mocks “the great convergence”. Interesting too that induction (the basis of the original Whewell definition of consilience, induction from two directions to the same conclusion) is much undermined anyway since Popper.

4 thoughts on “The Ant Man”

  1. I read it last year (consilience)

    I remember in my bio 101 class the explanation of how populations increase exponentially. It makes sense to me that if we keep going the way we’re going there’s going to be trouble one day.

  2. I’m impressed. I really will have to read it now 😉

    (The list of books I’m embarassed not to have read is growing daily. The last person to embarass me over “Consilience” was a Canadian journalist in an ex-pat bar in Taipei.)

    Populations (of algae, bacteria and lemmings) explode and collapse all over the place, but that doesn’t “destroy” the earth or humanity. The problem is humans, and the power and control we hold, not to mention the moral dilemma we’d have choosing to let half the population wipe itself out .. to make things practically easier for the rest of us.

    My point is, the problem is not the basic implications of a few facts, but how you decide what to do about it, and then how you make it happen. That’s much more than science and logic.

    If we turn it into a debate between alternative scientific and statistical arguments about what is or isn’t happening to numbers (populations, temperatures, sea-levels, ozone and co2 levels, etc) we’ll take our eye off the most important ball

    …. what should “we” do ?

  3. we need to develop a more realistic approach to life.
    One thing we could do is get rid of all the mormons and catholics (god’s brood mares). You friend dawkins suggests longer times between generations. that seems to be happening in the states.And then there is the ridiculous amount of resources spent keeping people alive well past their ability to enjoy and participate in life just because we can. I’m also all for letting marginal infants meet their maker. But of course all of this would have to be done voluntarily. So it needs to be accomplished through a change in the attitudes of the population…which brings me back to the mormons and the catholics.

  4. Spot on Alice … sorry I only just spotted this comment.

    It’s about changing attitudes – to what makes a good or bad decision – so that good decisions become the norm, rather than some “intelligentsia” gaining political power and forcing it on a resistant world.

    That’s a pretty good summary of where I’m coming from actually.

    Science and theism both have their drawbacks as the tools for the job. What we need is “quality”.

    There is some conundrum in there though … about how an intelligent few have always done the quality forward-thinking for the many. Can there be any better alternative than just spreading the knowledge and understanding ? (Education I think it’s called.)

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