Word of the Week! Consilience

Biologist E.O. WilsonThanks to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers for this one. It’s a good pick, an older word that came back into academic use after what appears to be a long absence. The term hit my radar screen in the late 90s, when an except of Biologist E.O. Wilson’s book by this title appeared. Wilson sensed that we needed more consilience in our thinking, as a culture. He examines subjects as diverse as a the Humanities, genetics, environmentalism, modern physics, and neuroscience to see how knowledge jumps together in unexpected ways.

These are good lessons for us, but how to use the term? To quote the OED entry, one achieves consilience by observing how “different groups of phenomena” jump together. In Wilson’s account, such events help us arrive at new knowledge.

Let’s consider climate science, urban planning, and ergonomic design as outcomes from understanding how consilience works. On college campuses, too often we silo our knowledge into discrete, often well-defended, boundaries governed by our academic departments. Wilson makes the case for a convergence of disciples in his book, yet consilience is a particular type of converging: it seems to arise suddenly and in unexpected ways.

How do we harness the power of consilience?  Yes, there are strong interdisciplinary efforts on my and other campuses, but there’s often not enough informal consilience that might, for instance, use the lessons of speculative literature to predict how a nation might react to a crippling cyberattack, a first contact with another intelligent species, or the development of superbugs strongly resistant to all antibiotics. Such topics come up in books such as Dies the Fire, Contact, and Earth Abides. 

If I may be so bold, Carl Sagan was a master of employing ideas that arise from moments of consilience, such as radio-carbon dating and observations by radio telescope. His popular show Cosmos was one long exercise in consilience, aimed to educate generalists.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Photo of E.O. Wilson courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.