Edward O. Wilson's Consilience

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson believes that a major reason why the social sciences have made so little progress is that its practitioners have ignored the biological basis of human behavior. He is not impressed with arguments that purport that the complexities of human behavior cannot be reduced to more elemental physical principles as embodied in modern neuroscience and biochemistry. Wilson recognizes that his view on the unification of the sciences carriers forward the logical positivist ideal of the Unity of Science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge he writes:

Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works.

The canonical definition of objective scientific knowledge avidly sought by the logical positivists is not a philosophical problem nor can it be attained, as they hoped, by logical and semantic analysis. It is an empirical question that can be answered only by a continuing probe of the physical basis of the thought process itself.

Wilson is basically saying that logical positivism was not empiricist enough, a view that was anticipated by the logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge.

On the tension between religious and scientific  perspectives of the world he writes:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.

Remnants of such supernatural thinking are still with us today when we exempt humans from physical reality and attribute agency and free will to them.

Wilson is sensitive to the scenario that defective or disadvantageous genes increase and persist in modern human life but he believes that such a course of events will be relatively short-lived as humanity will master and embrace human genetic engineering. On the use of such technologies he writes:

I predict that future generations will be genetically conservative. Other than the repair of disabling defects, they will resist hereditary change. They will do so in order to save the emotions and epigenetic rules of mental development, because these elements compose the physical soul of the species. The reasoning is as follows. Alter the emotions and epigenetic rules enough, and people might in some sense be “better,” but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?

His reconciliation of human enhancement and cultural incrementalism is reminiscent of the “conservative transhumanism” of the biologist Alexis Carrel.

Experiment made on the mummy

As documented in David M. Friedman’s The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever, Lindbergh and Carrel considered the human body a living machine made of replaceable parts. A major reason why Carrel was interested in developing and refining equipment to perfuse isolated organs is because he believed that this would allow damaged tissue to be repaired outside of the body and ultimately substitute new organs for diseased organs. His ultimate objective was to conquer death itself.

In The Immortalists, Friedman writes about one experiment that should leave no doubts about Carrel’s personal commitment to the scientific conquest of death. When Lindbergh supervised the packing of Carrel’s property after his death they found:

..a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy the surgeon had tried to revivify  in 1925. (“A small hole was made in the abdomen of the mummy about 3 cm. from the right iliac spine. The skin was hardened and very tough,” Carrel wrote of his failed experiment.)

Without seeing the complete notes of these experiments, it is not possible to say what Carrel’s  specific intentions were. Although our knowledge about the ultrastructural effects of different preservation techniques has greatly improved since Carrel lived, it is hard to imagine that a  brilliant scientist like Carrel seriously believed in resuscitation of the 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Perhaps his objective was more modest and involved recovery of material for cell and tissue experiments, an objective that would not have been unrealistic considering the recent reported findings of clonable DNA in an Egyptian mummy.

Carrel’s notes of this experiment, called “Experiment Made on the Mummy,” are included with his papers which remain at Georgetown University’s library in Washington DC.

The black operating room of Alexis Carrel


From David M. Friedman’s The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever:

The initial stages of these studies were performed in Carrel’s operating suite, which the two men now entered. Lindbergh had never been in an operating room before, and this one defied his expectations. The floor, walls, and ceiling were painted black. The only source of illumination was a large skylight situated directly above the operating table, which was black as well, as were all the storage cases and cabinets in the room.

“Too much light inhibits the activity of the brain,” Carrel said, anticipating Lindbergh’s question. “Surely you’ve noticed that the world’s great civilizations have formed far above the equator, where there is much less direct sunlight than in tropical regions.”

Carrel told Lindbergh that black walls cut down on glare–no small worry when one is operating on tiny blood vessels. He also said that black surgical gowns were better than traditional white ones at illuminating dust, the elimination of which was an obsession for Carrel, who insisted on the highest standards of sterility and cleanliness in his operating rooms.

 

Lindbergh and Carrel's quest to live forever

It’s difficult to follow up a best-selling book about the cultural history of the penis, but David M. Friedman has a knack for engaging readers in topics that others find difficult to broach. This time he tackles the touchy subject of death by relating the intertwined biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carrel in his new book, “The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.”

Like most people, I had only heard of Charles Lindbergh as an aviator and in the context of his first child having been kidnapped and murdered. Imagine my surprise, then, when I happened upon a passage in Cardiopulmonary Bypass: Principles and Practice outlining Lindbergh’s contributions to Alexis Carrel’s isolated organ perfusion research in the 1930s – contributions which, for the first time, “permitted sterile, pulsatile perfusion at variable ‘pulse rates’ and variable perfusion pressures.”

Wait a moment. How did the world’s most famous aviator become involved in organ perfusion? Although much information about Lindbergh and Carrel’s work exists online, Friedman’s book provides a much more personal history of these two accomplished men.

Lindbergh’s overnight catapult into fame and adulation as the first man to fly across the Atlantic ultimately culminated in his loathing the press and greatly valuing privacy. A few years after his groundbreaking flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh began thinking about things other than aviation. In particular, he wondered why people should have to die. Always an ambitious person, he decided to enter the realm of biology in order to seek the solution to eternal life. Once he made his quest known, it was not long before he was introduced to Alexis Carrel.

Carrel, a French scientist working at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, had already been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1912 and was far along in his own personal quest for immortality when Lindbergh came along. Convinced that the body was little more than a machine with replaceable parts, Carrel had begun his research by culturing cells from animals and keeping them alive indefinitely after the animal had died, thus “proving” the immortality of man and inviting him to move on to the next step: culturing entire organs. So far, Carrel had been successful at keeping the organs alive outside of the body for a few hours by perfusing them with a nutrient medium, but infection invariably set in and caused the organs to fail.

Lindbergh tackled the problem of creating a better perfusion pump with gusto. Using his engineering expertise and an innate sense for biology he eventually developed a pump that kept the perfusate sterile, thus allowing organs to be kept alive for several days or even weeks. Carrel and Lindbergh published their preliminary results in Science (“The Culture of Whole Organs,” July 21, 1935) and Lindbergh described the perfusion pump in a separate article published later (“An Apparatus for the Culture of Whole Organs,” September 1935, Journal of Experimental Medicine). The entire effort was then written up for publication as a book (“The Culture of Organs”) in 1938. As a team, it was obvious that Carrel and Lindbergh were made for one another.

That was true in more ways than one. Carrel was a eugenicist through and through, and often expounded on his ideas and philosophies with Lindbergh when they weren’t in the lab. Lindbergh had long considered himself superior to the masses of people he sought to avoid (especially journalists), and Carrel’s theories provided him justification for his opinion of himself and other “great men.” Eventually, Lindbergh became so enamored with eugenics that he developed a profound respect for Nazi Germany, much to his protégé’s dismay. Eugenicist or not, Carrel (like most Frenchmen who lived through World War I) hated the Germans and cautioned Lindbergh against speaking too loudly in their favor.

But speak loudly Lindbergh did. In fact, he abandoned the laboratory altogether in order to promote his new cause: non-interventionism. Becoming the spokesman for the America First Committee, he toured the U.S. speaking against America’s involvement in World War II, arguing that we should instead allow the situation in Europe to play out on its own accord. But while he believed that America should not involve itself in foreign wars, he also said that he would be the first to defend his country if it were attacked.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh tried to make good on his promise. However, having thoroughly irritated the Roosevelt administration with his anti-war rallies, he was prevented from serving his country as anything but a civilian. To prove his patriotism Lindbergh fought in the South Pacific, providing cover for American bombers and pilots and eventually shooting down a Japanese plane himself, with the knowledge that if he were caught he would receive no aid from the U.S. and would stand alone.

Carrel, meanwhile, returned to occupied France after retirement from the Rockefeller Institute and tried to create an organization of the brightest thinkers in France to create policies to guide and govern the common people and return his country to glory. Ultimately this project failed and Carrel died ostracized and under house arrest.

When the war was over, Lindbergh visited the concentration camps in Germany and saw the horror and devastation perpetrated in the name of supposed science. He was beside himself and couldn’t believe that the “neat” and “organized” Germans that he had admired would commit such atrocities. He returned to the U.S. to examine his life – and came to the conclusion that he, too, had allowed science to dominate his perspective. He documented his monumental change in attitude in a book called “Of Flight and Life” in 1948. Friedman documents:

“…Lindbergh was urging Americans to break free from the “grip of scientific materialism,” lest it lead them, shackled and helpless, to “the end of our civilization.” The choice facing America, Lindbergh wrote, was as simple as it was stark: “If we do not control our science by a higher moral force, it will destroy us.”

This about-face led Lindbergh to an even greater revelation: that he was no longer an immortalist. After spending time in Africa and coming to appreciate the beauty of nature, Lindbergh dedicated the remaining years of his life to environmentalism. Friedman writes that “The person who once tried to save the world by saving white civilization would now try to save the world from white civilization.” Lindbergh wrote:

“When I watch wild animals on an African plain, my civilized [method] of measuring time gives way to a timeless vision in which life embraces the necessity of death.” I see individual animals as mortal manifestations of immortal life streams; and so I begin to see myself. I am not only one, I am also many, a man and his species. In death, then, is the eternal life which men have sought so blindly for centuries, not realizing they had it as a birthright.”

When faced with a cancer diagnosis in 1974, Charles Lindbergh had already made his peace with death, believing now that it was only through death that man may become immortal. With the same determination that he had done everything in his life, he planned his funeral down to the last detail. When the time came, he flew to his home in Maui and reminisced with his wife and children about his life – one of the most accomplished lives of the 20th century. Then, the man who was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, who made the “Model T” of perfusion pumps, and who became a great political activist turned environmentalist, finally abandoned science…or, as he told the doctors who wished to continue treating his cancer in its last stages, “no, science has abandoned me.