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Consilience Conference Celebrates Unity of Knowledge In Biology, Social Science, and Humanities

Post: May 4, 2012 1:55 pm
Author: David Sloan Wilson         Source: ETVOL Exclusive

In his 1998 book Consilience Edward O. Wilson transformed an obscure philosophical term into a banner for the unity of knowledge across disciplines. A recent conference held at the University of Missouri attracted an audience from around the world to learn about how biology, the social sciences, and humanities are becoming part of a single body of knowledge unified by evolutionary theory.

Wilson began the three-day event with a talk centered upon his new book The Social Conquest of Earth. He was followed by a distinguished roster of scientists and scholars who covered the length and breadth of human experience, from art and literature, to history, to economics and neuroscience. As one of the speakers, I was on hand to cover the event for EVOLUTION: THIS VIEW OF LIFE. The following podcasts provide an audio album of the conference, including interviews with Wilson and some of the other speakers.

Consilience will always be a work in progress and two controversies were on display during the conference. The first concerned the concept of consilience itself. The second concerned the validity of group selection vs. inclusive fitness theory for explaining the evolution of sociality in humans and other species.

The two mantras of EVOLUTION: THIS VIEW OF LIFE, “Anything and Everything From an Evolutionary Perspective” and “Science as a Process of Constructive Disagreement”, are very much in the spirit of consilience. We are pleased to provide this permanent record of the conference along with a vehicle for promoting consilience on a daily basis.

Listen:
I talk with Edward O. Wilson about his vision of consilience, his new book, and his uncanny ability to bring new fields of inquiry into existence.


I talk with literary scholar Joseph Carroll, one of the organizers of the conference, about his vision of consilience and his pioneering role in the study of literature from an evolutionary perspective.


I talk with anthropologist John Hawks about the humble start of his widely read blog and how it is changing the way that his branch of science is being conducted

.
I talk with evolutionist/philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who has also reported on the conference on his widely read blog, about his critique of Wilson’s concept of consilience and a related concept of congruence that is perhaps more acceptable.


I talk with evolutionist David Queller, a prominent advocate of inclusive fitness theory, about the relationship between inclusive fitness and multilevel selection, in general and in relation to his own research on the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum.


A collage of comments from people who came from far and wide to attend the conference, including Emily Newton the winner of the best poster in the social sciences.


My own presentation on the final day summarized the themes of the conference and showed how consilience (or congruence) can be used to improve the quality of life in a practical sense.

WATCH:


Comments

Post: May 5 2012 9:46 pm By: Roy Niles


Massimo Pugliucci’s comments in your interview were essentially useless.  He has no use for any theory of evolution, biological or universal, where the process of change either has or serves a purpose.  Purpose for him requires an intelligent agent, and he can’t accept that biological changes per se have intelligent causes, even thought they have intelligent results.
And he can’t see at all where biological creatures have acted as their own intelligent change agents, if that wasn’t, in his view, the initial impetus of their living status.  And he can’t accept at all that universal laws have regulatory purposes.  Etc., etc.

Post: May 6 2012 11:30 am By: James V. Kohl


What makes one question more fundamental than another to understanding proximate and ultimate functions across the levels of analysis that are required to link sensory input to evolution and behavior? Evolution of the genotype and its phenotypic expression can only be congruently addressed via the gene, cell, tissue, organ, organ system pathway. No part of this pathway lies outside the coherence of consilience.

The requirement for bottom-up organization and top-down activation clearly includes reciprocity and is met in the following example. 1) Nutrient chemicals cause receptor-mediated changes in intracellular signaling that cause stochastic gene expression – a bottom-up approach to the biology of consilience. 2) The metabolism of nutrient chemicals to pheromones allows chemicals from the social environment to cause changes in intracellular signaling and gene activation – a top-down approach to the biology of consilience.

Organisms that cannot or do not find sufficient nutrient chemicals do not produce the required pheromones, and they do not reproduce via receptor-mediated gene activation.  Organisms genetically predisposed to behaviors that allow them to find sufficient nutrient chemicals establish their ecological niche via receptor-mediated gene activation. Their genetically predisposed nutrient dependent ecotype establishes their pheromone-dependent social niche. Nutrient dependent ecotypes and social niches are the fundamental requirements for evolution in species from microbes to man.

From insects to mammals the nutrient chemical and pheromone dependent social niche is what establishes the neurogenic niche required for evolved brain development that is appropriately calibrated by nutrients, but standardized and controlled by species specific metabolites of the nutrients, the pheromones. The fundamental question given this molecular biology, which is common to all species now becomes one of pattern recognition.

Why isn’t the molecular biology common to all species addressed as the most important of all fundamentals involved in understanding pattern recognition in evolution; its congruence, coherence, and the pattern recognition of consilience? When this pattern recognition is too technically difficult to detail, we could simply say that organisms are what they eat and their conspecifics recognize them via the pheromones they produce. When the pattern is recognized we could simply say that ultimately, olfaction and odor receptors provide a clear evolutionary trail that can be followed from unicellular organisms to insects to humans.

Post: May 6 2012 1:12 pm By: Roy Niles


“Nutrient chemicals cause receptor-mediated changes in intracellular signaling that cause stochastic gene expression – a bottom-up approach to the biology of consilience.”

Food then causes brains to think. Who knew.

Post: May 6 2012 2:32 pm By: James V. Kohl


I think what is not known is that nutrient chemicals and their metabolism to pheromones is causal to the evolution of ecotype dependent social niches responsible for the neurogenic niches that hormonally control our behavior.
Expressing that as food causes brains to think is like saying that nest building and campfires cause eusociality and/or group selection. In a similar fashion, you might think that the visual appeal of food is more important than its nutrient chemical cause and effect. That may work for explanations to some social scientists, but it is less likely to appeal to molecular biologists who are somewhat forced by existing data to look at the evolution of the gene, cell, tissue, organ, organ system pathway that links sensory input directly to human behavior. 

Post: May 6 2012 5:41 pm By: Roy Niles


Excuse me, perhaps I should have realized that food causes strategies to make brains.

Post: May 6 2012 7:52 pm By: James V. Kohl


You probably should have realized by now that you do not understand the basic principles of biology and levels of biological organization that are required to link sensory input from the environment to behavior. If you did understand, you would not misrepresent what I wrote about the role of nutrient chemicals that cause changes in receptor-mediated intracellular events responsible for stochastic gene expression. This is no more a food-caused strategy than it is a pheromone-caused strategy. Instead, the receptor-mediated events exemplify the conserved molecular biology across species from microbes to man. You start with ligand-receptor binding or you should not attempt to model cause and effect across species because there’s no other way to get to the stochastic gene expression and evolution. Is there? If not, your comments here seem essentially useless. Aren’t they?

Post: May 6 2012 8:04 pm By: Roy Niles


Explain stochastic gene expression as opposed to expression derived more directly from learned experience.  Otherwise you have shown no conception of what makes your mechanistic functions actually work, let alone evolve to work better.

Post: May 6 2012 9:31 pm By: James V. Kohl


As is typical of those who ask for an explanation of one thing opposed to another, you have again missed out on the biological fact that sensory input associated with learned experience is required for any conceptualization of what makes the mechanistic functions of intracellular signaling and stochastic gene expression work in species from microbes to man. I don’t think you understand what these presenters mean by consilience. So, as I indicated, sometimes it is best just to “...simply say that organisms are what they eat and their conspecifics recognize them via the pheromones they produce.” That’s the simplest conceptualization of how learned experience and stochastic gene expression are not opposed. But even the simplest concepts cannot be grasped by those who believe in automagical events as opposed to those that are receptor-mediated.

Post: May 6 2012 10:39 pm By: Roy Niles


Well at least it’s dawned on you that learned experience is what makes biological systems work.  Which should have led you to say that organisms are NOT simply what they eat.  But instead, you seem to have found an excuse for your prior errors regardless. 
Automagical events?  And here I thought you had moved away from stochastic gene expression.

Post: May 6 2012 11:29 pm By: James V. Kohl


Dawned on me? What are you babbling about? Makes biological systems work: how? I said that receptor-mediated intracellular events are responsible for stochastic gene expression. That’s not automagical, and apparently I can make nothing simple enough for you to understand.

Post: May 7 2012 12:06 am By: Roy Niles


Apparently you can’t.

Post: May 7 2012 9:30 am By: James V. Kohl


Sorry, I thought you were merely being antagonistic. If you are interested in learning more about the receptor-mediated events that led me to conclude “Olfaction and odor receptors provide a clear evolutionary trail that can be followed from unicellular organisms to insects to humans” perhaps my recently published work will help. It details the molecular biology that makes biological systems work in species from microbes to man. I use model organisms to help avoid some of the problematic technicalities, and the paper is 10-pages instead of the 57 page book chapter I published in 2007.

Kohl, J.V. (2012) Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 2: 17338.  http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/snp.v2i0.17338

Post: May 7 2012 3:22 pm By: Roy Niles


But I was being opposed to the assumption that evolution is at top or bottom a stochastically driven process.  Neither of the Wilsons at this conference believe that.  Massimo still does in large part, but that’s his biggest problem, and it seems to be yours as well.
I’m a follower of the newer adaptive mutation theories.  You obviously see them as magical, while yours to me are clearly unintelligent operations of the automagical.

Post: May 7 2012 4:41 pm By: James V. Kohl


I have detailed how nutrient chemicals cause changes in intracellular signaling during bottom up organization and how pheromones cause changes in intracellular signaling during top down activation. In both instances, as exemplified by the honeybee model organism and the stickleback model organism, it is the effects of changes in intracellular signaling on stochastic gene expression that causes adaptive evolution, as it is with bacteria. This is how it happens: nutrient chemicals calibrate individual survival and their metabolism to pheromones standardizes and controls reproduction. This is not magical, and it has nothing to do with adaptive mutation or random mutation theories. It has only to do with the absolute requirement for an epigenetic link from the sensory environment directly to gene expression, and that link is via intracellular signaling. I don’t care what the Wilsons or anyone else believes. The biological facts that link sensory cause to epigenetic effects on gene expression and adaptive evolution speak for themselves, as those who understand the basic principles of biology and levels of biological organization already realize. Explaining the molecular biology that is common to all species is the only problem with congruence or consilience. You exemplify the fact that no matter how clear I make the most obvious of all biological facts, you do not find them to be coherently expressed because you don’t believe what I’m telling you. You make the clearly detailed epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals and pheromones on intracellular signaling and stochastic gene expression out to be “unintelligent operations of the automagical”. Others may come here to learn, nonetheless, so perhaps they will learn from your example why so many people cannot grasp such basic concepts. They simply don’t want to change their mind about anything they think they know, even though they have never known anything about the requirements for adaptive evolution.

Post: May 7 2012 6:08 pm By: Roy Niles


Epigenetic effects are not stochastic, they are behavioral traits based on experiences that have become, at least temporarily, heritable.
Nutrient chemicals don’t” calibrate” anything, they are chosen by different organisms for different qualities, not for their ability to make intelligent choices.  You’ve written something and you want to sell it, fine.  I just can’t buy it.

Post: May 7 2012 6:45 pm By: James V. Kohl


As I indicated, it makes no difference whether or not you buy into the biological facts, which is great because you seem incapable of understanding them. Epigenetic effects on receptor-mediated intracellular signaling cause stochastic gene expression. That’s how what the queen bee eats determines her pheromone production and everything else about the interactions among members of the colony, including the neuroanatomy of the worker bee’s brains. E.O. Wilson barely missed out on the invertebrate link to adaptive evolution in vertebrates like the stickleback fish and us, because he bought into the misrepresentations of human olfactory prowess by others who are not familiar with the human ability to sniff out self / non self differences just like any other animal. We choose accordingly for individual and species survival, except when we behave like other animals, which is most of the time for some people. The coherence of congruence and consilience must therefore be put on hold until someone else recognizes the pattern of molecular biology across species from microbes to man. I’ve always been good at pattern recognition, but also know that many people don’t recognize that the development of food preferences and mate preferences is not dependent on the visual appeal of the food or the potential mate in any species. Visual appeal is, of course, associated with the effect of odors on hormones that affect behavior in all animals. But the biological facts of cause and effect/affect don’t change with anyone’s beliefs.

Post: May 7 2012 7:01 pm By: Roy Niles


“Epigenetic effects on receptor-mediated intracellular signaling cause stochastic gene expression.”
In other words, there are causal arrows leading from genes to body, but there is no causal arrow leading from body to genes.

Both sentences are perfectly understandable.  Just wrong.

Post: May 7 2012 7:21 pm By: James V. Kohl


Is it your intent to have the last word, or to pay attention to what I’ve already written? “The requirement for bottom-up organization and top-down activation clearly includes reciprocity and is met in the following example. 1) Nutrient chemicals cause receptor-mediated changes in intracellular signaling that cause stochastic gene expression – a bottom-up approach to the biology of consilience. 2) The metabolism of nutrient chemicals to pheromones allows chemicals from the social environment to cause changes in intracellular signaling and gene activation – a top-down approach to the biology of consilience.”

Genes to body is bottom-up organization; body to genes is top-down activation of pre-existing genetic variation required for adaptive evolution. Without bottom-up / top-down reciprocity, there’s no acceptable model of cause and effect—at least for biologists. I never know what social scientists or philosophers are thinking about in the context of similar models, because there are none.

Post: May 7 2012 7:46 pm By: Roy Niles


Look, you act as if you want a response.  My response has been that I don’t believe you are correct, or that you represent the present views of most evolutionary biologists.  Stating the same things over and over again as factual explains nothing, especially to those in evolutionary field who write otherwise.  You say you don’t care what the two Wilsons think?  That makes my point.
But now I’m simply repeating myself, so I’ll not write further unless you ask a question.  And probably not even then.

Post: May 7 2012 8:32 pm By: James V. Kohl


I apologize. I thought you were being antagonistic. You are correct, I do not represent the views of most evolutionary biologists. That’s because there is only one model for adaptive evolution across species, and it has been abandoned by most evolutionary biologists—almost always before the same model takes us through an explanation of adapted human brains and behaviors. 

Question: Does it make sense to you that E.O. Wilson’s work with insects somehow led him to accept the role of nutrient chemicals/food odors and pheromones for invertebrates and most if not all other vertebrates, but abandon the important role of olfaction and pheromones in the development of the human brain and behavior?

Citation:
“In contrast, human beings, along with monkeys, apes, and birds are among the rare life forms that are primarily audiovisual, and correspondingly weak in taste and smell. We are idiots compared with rattlesnakes and bloodhounds. Our poor ability to smell and taste is reflected in the small size of our chemosensory vocabularies…(Wilson, 2012, p. 269)”

This is part of the legacy he may leave to social scientists who may never develop the pattern recognition skills to make across species comparisons based on the common molecular biology. Instead, they will probably short-circuit their understanding of epigenetic cause and effect by accepting someone’s opinion because it represents the views of most evolutionary biologists, who are obviously wrong—if only because they should know better than to change models with changes in species. (The molecular biology doesn’t change!)
—————————-

Wilson, E. O. (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.


Post: May 8 2012 1:47 pm By: Robert


I like the new discussion board!

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