Thursday, August 03, 2006

Book Review: "Nature Revealed"

Award-winning Harvard biologist Edward O. (or E.O.) Wilson is one of the most interesting and elegant writers of scientific nonfiction I've ever read - his Consilience might be my favorite work of scientific philosophy, and his memoir Naturalist is a beautiful tale of his life in science. Nature Revealed is a new collection of Wilson's writings, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

This volume basically reprints Wilson's articles in their original formats, which at times makes for tricky reading where the text has been compressed. It also skews toward the technical; this won't bother trained scientists, but for the general reader (like me) it meant that I skimmed just a few of the more detailed pieces.

Those are, however, my only quibbles with this book. It is an excellent cross-section of Wilson's career, from his longtime work with ants to his expositions of island biogeography, sociobiology and the idea of consilience, to his growing advocacy for the protection of biodiversity around the world in this age of environmental degradation.

One of the things I enjoy most about Wilson's work is that he doesn't feel compelled to stick to the laboratory; one of my favorite pieces in Nature Revealed is an article published for the first time (an earlier version appeared in Nature last year), in which Wilson has examined archival and historical documents in an attempt to determine which species of ants plagued several Caribbean islands some centuries ago. He argues (in Consilience among other recent publications) that the major academic disciplines can be "united in one skein of cause-and-effect explanations" - that the unity of explanation "is inherently natural to the human mind and accurately reflects the real world." Wilson's own work has clearly benefited from this inter-interdisciplinary approach, and I think that as educational institutions around the world seek new methods of instruction in the 21st century, consilience and its offshoots will play an important role.

For Wilson devotees, those interested in his ideas, or anyone who enjoys excellent scientific writings, Nature Revealed is well worth your time.

Coincidentally, as I was reading this book I came across an excellent web interview with Wilson, in which he discusses religion, science, sociobiology and many of his other ideas. He speaks just as well as he writes, and if you've got a spare hour, I highly recommend this exchange. Also watch for his forthcoming The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion (although I understand the title may be different now). That's due out next month.