Tag Archives: Edward O. Wilson

We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom

Decorative image: Lake Maggiore from AngeraThe title of this post is a quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge‘. For example, if you search for scientific papers about “Entropy” then you will probably find more than 3.5 million. An impossible quantity for an individual to read and even when you narrow the search to those about “psychological entropy”, which is a fairly niche topic, you will still find nearly 500 papers – a challenging reading list for most people.  The analysis of the trends embedded in scientific papers has become a research activity in its own right, see for example Basurto-Flores et al 2018 on papers about entropy; however, this type of analysis seems to generate yet more information rather than wisdom.  In this context, wisdom is associated with insight based on knowledge and experience; however the quality of the experiences is important as well as the processes of self-reflection (see Nicholas Weststrate’s PhD thesis).  There are no prizes for wisdom and we appoint and promote researchers based on their publication record; hence it is unsurprising that editors of journals are swamped by thousands of manuscripts submitted for publication with more than 2 million papers published every year.  The system is out of control driven by authors building a publication list longer than their competitors for jobs, promotion and grant funding and by publishers seeking larger profits from publishing more and bigger journals.  There are so many manuscripts submitted to journals that the quality of the reviewing and editing is declining leading to both false positive and false negatives, i.e. papers being published that contain little, if any, original content or lacking sufficient evidence to support their conclusions  and highly innovative papers being rejected because they are perceived to be wrong rather than simply deviating from the current paradigm. The drop in quality and rise in quantity of papers published makes keeping up with the scientific literature both expensive and inefficient in terms of time and energy, which slows down acquisition of knowledge and leaves less time for reflection and gaining experiences that are prerequisites for wisdom. So what incentives are there for a scientist or engineer to aspire to be wise given the lack of prizes and career rewards for wisdom?  In Chinese thought wisdom is perceived as expertise in the art of living, the ability to grasp what is happening, and to adjust to the imminent future (Simandan, 2018).  All of these attributes seem to be advantageous to a career based on solving problems but you need the sagacity to realise that the rewards are indirect and often intangible.


Basurto-Flores, R., Guzmán-Vargas, L., Velasco, S., Medina, A. and Hernandez, A.C., 2018. On entropy research analysis: cross-disciplinary knowledge transfer. Scientometrics, 117(1), pp.123-139.

Simandan, D., 2018. Wisdom and foresight in Chinese thought: sensing the immediate future. Journal of Futures Studies, 22(3), pp.35-50.

Nicholas M Weststrate, The examined life: relations amoong life experience, self-reflection and wisdom, PhD Thesis, University of Toronto, 2017.

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the unity of knowledge, London, Little Brown and Company, 1998.

Try the impossible to achieve the unusual

Everyone who attends a certain type of English school is given a nickname.  Mine was Floyd Patterson. In 1956, Floyd Patterson was the youngest boxer to become the world heavyweight champion.  I was certainly not a heavyweight but perhaps I was pugnacious in defending myself against larger and older boys.  Floyd Patterson had a maxim that drove his career: ‘you try the impossible to achieve the unusual’.  I have used this approach in various leadership roles and in guiding my research students for many years by encouraging them to throw away caution in planning their PhD programmes.   I only made the connection with Floyd Patterson recently when reading Edward O. Wilson‘s book, ‘Letters to a Young Scientist‘.  Previously, I had associated it with Edmund Hillary’s biography that is titled ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, which is peculiar corruption of a quote, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin but that probably originated much earlier, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’.  I read Hillary’s book as a young student and was influenced by his statement that ‘even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve’.


Edmund Hillary, ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, The Travel Book Club, London, 1976.

Edward O. Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist, Liveright Pub. Co., NY, 2013.

More laws of biology

Four years ago I wrote a post asking whether there were any fundamental laws of biology that are sufficiently general to apply beyond the context of life on Earth [‘Laws of biology?‘ on January 16th, 2016].  I suggested Dollo’s law that diversity and complexity increases in evolutionary systems; the Hardy-Weinberg law about allele and genotype frequencies remaining constant from generation to generation; and the Michaelis-Menten law governing enzymatic reactions.  Recently, I came across a simpler statement of the laws of biology proposed by Edward O.Wilson.  He states that the first law of biology is all entities and processes of life are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and the second law is all evolution, beyond minor random perturbations due to high mutation rates and random fluctuations in the number of competing genes, is due to natural selection.  It seems likely that these simpler laws will be universally applicable; however, until we find evidence of extra-terrestrial life, they will remain untestable in a universal context unlike the laws of physics.


Edward O. Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist, Liveright Pub. Co., NY, 2013.