Morning name: consilience

A set of morning names from a long time back: consilience, Jay Gould, and Vespa. I will get to them, eventually, one by one. Today it’s consilience, with an entertaining etymology and an interesting two-part history.

From Wikipedia, the initial discussion:

In science and history, consilience (also convergence of evidence or concordance of evidence) is the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” on strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence is significantly so on its own. Most established scientific knowledge is supported by a convergence of evidence: if not, the evidence is comparatively weak, and there will not likely be a strong scientific consensus.

The principle is based on the unity of knowledge; measuring the same result by several different methods should lead to the same answer. For example, it should not matter whether one measures the distance between the Giza pyramid complex by laser rangefinding, by satellite imaging, or with a meter stick – in all three cases, the answer should be approximately the same.

The rest of the story:

… The word consilience was originally coined as the phrase “consilience of inductions” by William Whewell (consilience refers to a “jumping together” of knowledge). The word comes from Latin com– “together” and –siliens “jumping” (as in resilience). [Whewell (1794-1866) “was an English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science.” (Wikipedia)]

… Although the concept of consilience in Whewell’s sense was widely discussed by philosophers of science, the term was unfamiliar to the broader public until the end of the 20th century, when it was revived in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, a 1998 book by the author and biologist E.O. Wilson, as an attempt to bridge the culture gap between the sciences and the humanities that was the subject of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959).


Cover of the 1st ed.

Wilson held that with the rise of the modern sciences, the sense of unity gradually was lost in the increasing fragmentation and specialization of knowledge in the last two centuries. He asserted that the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give a purpose to understanding the details, to lend to all inquirers “a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.” An important point made by Wilson is that hereditary human nature and evolution itself profoundly effect the evolution of culture, in essence a sociobiological concept. Wilson’s concept is a much broader notion of consilience than that of Whewell, who was merely pointing out that generalizations invented to account for one set of phenomena often account for others as well.

One Response to “Morning name: consilience”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    Whewill is known to me as the source, in “An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics” (p.44) of the following bit of found poetry

    “Hence no force, however great,
    can stretch a cord, however fine,
    into a horizontal line
    which is accurately straight:”

    A bit of doggerel with the phrases reordered and changed a little and with an abab rhyme scheme was very well known. I’m pretty sure I learned this in one of Martin Gardner’s books, where he also reported that Whewill really disliked that this was discovered in his prose. Also, thanks to access to a very fine library, at one time I had a photocopy of this page of his treatise, but it has long been lost.

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