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Interview on the Human Sciences, Part 1


E. O. Wilson

588 words

Part 1 of 4

Translated by Greg Johnson

Translator’s Note:

In 2005, Alain de Benoist gave an interview to The Occidental Quarterly, which was published as Bryan Sylvain, “European Son: An Interview with Alain de Benoist,” The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 7–21.

The interview was lengthy, however, and the decision was made to cut it. Thus Benoist’s critical discussions of Christianity and the human sciences were removed. Benoist gave me a copy of the French original, and I am translating the “lost” portions for the first volume of North American New Right.

E. O. Wilson describes neuroscience, human genetics, evolutionary biology, and conservation biology as four “frontier disciplines” of the natural sciences that today are bridging the gap between the scientific and humanistic cultures. Does the New Right support Wilson’s call for “consilience,” i.e., a unified knowledge joining together the life sciences and the human sciences?

Edward O. Wilson is certainly an excellent researcher, but I do not believe that he is a great philosopher. The theme of the “unity of knowledge” ignores the irreducible difference that exists between the exact sciences and social sciences (which Wilhelm Dilthey called the “sciences of the spirit”). Generally, it amounts to an attempt by the former to annex the domain of the latter.  The call for “consilience” is in this respect quite similar to the attempt launched in the 1930s by men like Otto Neurath or Philipp Frank to arrive at the “unification of science.” The only difference is that Neurath privileged theoretical physics as the supreme discipline, whereas Wilson stresses biology, which today has become the “queen of the sciences.”

Wilson writes, “Nature is governed by simple universal laws of physics, to which all other laws and principles can be reduced” (Consilience, 1998, p. 59). His approach is thus clearly reductionistic—undertanding everything from the point of view of physics, if one takes into account the Copenhagen interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle. To believe that the essence of politics, for example, can be reduced to “simple universal laws of physics” makes one smile. The same applies to all the values that apply to human life insofar as the human realm is a realm of evaluation, in keeping with hermeneutics and phenomenology: man seeks to give meaning to his life, and this meaning necessarily goes beyond the biological order of life. Wilson’s “scientific evangelism” reminds one of Auguste Comte’s “religion of science.” In my view, such projects are doomed to fail.

Specialists in the social sciences are too often ignorant of the findings of the life sciences. Specialists in the life sciences, for their part, tend too often to reject the findings of the social sciences as the realm of non-rigorous speculation or “philosophy,” i.e., non-knowledge. I think they are both wrong.

Both the life sciences and the social sciences should learn how to mutually illuminate one another. The social sciences make it possible to understand and study what is uniquely human, while the life sciences make it possible to better understand the foundations of this uniqueness. The social sciences tell us about what in man in changing, while the life sciences tell us about what remains the same. Instead of opposition or unity, the social sciences and the life sciences should seek complimentarity.

In 1928, Helmuth Plessner, one of the principal founders of philosophical anthropology, wrote, “No philosophy of man without philosophy of nature.” The assertion can be turned around: no the philosophy of nature without philosophy of man. One can also quote Aristote: no kind of thought is valid if it is unaware of its own limits.