Edward O. Wilson’s latest book, The Origins of Creativity, is a return to the trails Wilson explored almost 20 years ago in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In both books, Wilson attempts to bridge the gulf between the sciences and the humanities which has opened over the last century or more. Wilson makes a heroic effort in The Origins of Creativity (touchingly so, given that the great scientist is nearly ninety years old and has given the book some of the touches of a final work). In the end I was unpersuaded by his exertions, but I am grateful for his return to a theme which is so meaningful for me personally. And, if Wilson’s proclamation of a coming Third Renaissance doesn’t quite convince me, I believe that Wilson still does us yeoman’s service in making an attempt to unify the humanities and the sciences.
Wilson’s starting point is uncomfortable, though obvious, for English teachers everywhere: the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have far outstripped the humanities in the public funds they receive, and STEM fields have been vastly more successful at producing lucrative jobs for college graduates. Elected officials regard the arts & humanities as luxuries whose comparatively tiny public budgets are often hard to justify.
Wilson’s diagnosis of the problem is that the humanities are stuck in the cultural cul-de-sac of present day. As Wilson puts it: “The main shortcoming of humanistic scholarship is its extreme anthropocentrism. Nothing, it seems, matters in the creative arts and critical humanistic analyses except as it can be expressed as a perspective of present-day literate cultures.”
While I do think that much of what goes on in the humanities is culturally blinkered, I’m not exactly sure how one would go about making the humanities less anthropocentric. The purpose of art is to explore what it means to be a human being–the humanities are anthropocentric by definition.
It is true that, with the exception of some artists working in the genre of science fiction, most artists and humanities scholars are not deeply educated around science. To put it another way, I think most scientists know way more about the humanities than most humanities scholars do about science. However, I’m not sure how our becoming more literate about evolutionary psychology and paleontology will make artists less anthropocentric. Art is one of the most anthropocentric activities on earth.
Would it help bridge the gulf between the arts and the humanities if the arts expressed something other than “a perspective of present-day literate cultures?” Maybe, but I don’t see it. True, we would probably gain something by being better educated about the deep, biologically-driven ways that the lives of “present-day literate cultures” are related to the lives of the Lascaux Cave painters and the sculptor of the Venus of Willendorf. It does help us to recognize (and I think most present-day literate people do recognize) that those paleolithic artists were just like us in their humanity–their emotional lives were just as rich and subtle as Margaret Atwood’s. And, I do suppose that realization helps us in humanity’s most pressing moral challenge, that of seeing all humans across time and space as part of a single family, our common fate tied to the health of the ecosystem in which we live.
But this realization will not by itself bridge the gulf between the humanities and the sciences. That gulf is there because there is simply too much information to keep tabs on in the sciences for any human being to become an expert in more than a very small number of fields. It may be that our species is gathering scientific insights so quickly now that it’s impossible for a single human to become a true expert even in a single field as broad as chemistry or biology.
I’ll be the first to argue that artists could afford to learn a lot more about STEM fields. After all, science and technology are some of the most important organizing principles of human existence today. But whatever art we produce will still be to a certain extent time-bound: we make the art we do to give our lives a some kind of shape that makes sense to us. Our art remains bound in time and place because the human condition binds us to the time and place we live in.