Book Summary: “Convergence: The Idea at the Heart of Science” by Peter Watson

Convergence: The Idea at the Heart of Science

Title: Convergence: The Idea at the Heart of Science
Author: Peter Watson
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The physical, biological, social sciences and the study of history are gradually being unified into one body of knowledge.

Key Take-aways

  • Science is having an increased impact on the study of history and social science.
  • The following fields, in particular, offer important insights to historians and social scientists :
    • Biological theories of evolution by natural selection.
    • Laws of Conservation of Energy
    • Complexity theory
  • The work of Niels Bohr and Linus Pauling integrated physics and chemistry by founding the study of quantum chemistry.
  • The fields of genetics and molecular biology linked chemistry and biology.
  • Psychology has been integrated with biology and chemistry with the advent of psychiatric drugs, brain science and genetics.
  • Economics and Psychology are increasingly being integrated by the new field of behavioral economics.
  • Early human history has been profoundly impacted by genetics, radiocarbon dating, ethology, geology and other scientific fields.
  • In the future, the integration of history with the sciences seems possible.
  • Many fields of science already have a strong historical component, including: Cosmology, Geology, Evolutionary Biologists, Archeology, Paleontology.

Important Quotes from Book

“Convergence is a history of modern science but with a distinctive twist. The twist has been there for all to see, but so far it has not been set out as clearly as it deserves. The argument is that the various disciplines—despite their very different beginnings, and apparent areas of interest—have in fact been gradually coming together over the past 150 years. Converging and coalescing to identify one extraordinary master narrative, one overwhelming interlocking coherent story: the history of the universe. Among its achievements, the intimate connections between physics and chemistry have been discovered. The unconscious motivation that results, on a firm and familiar biological basis and, no less important, situated it in an evolutionary context. According to the Bowlby-Ainsworth theory, attachment was an instinctual response (like imprinting) with the function of binding the infant at a critical period to the mother and vice versa, and in so doing promoting the evolutionary fitness of the offspring.7

And, as part of all this, Bowlby said, the child acquires an “internal working model” of itself as either valued and reliable, or as unworthy and incompetent. This was, for Bowlby, the best way to understand the unconscious. “Internal working models” are acquired in the first year of life, well before words, and become less and less accessible to awareness as they become habitual and automatic. This is also because, in mainly dyadic patterns of relating (more or less all that are available at that age), the requirements of reciprocal expectancies are formed exceptionally strongly in such a narrow environment.8 What had begun life, before Freud, as a purely philosophical/psychological entity now had a firm biological underpinning.

“This story of the convergence of the sciences—their synthesis, symphysis, and coherence—turns out to offer one timeline of history on which all of the major discoveries that have ever been made can fit. I further argue that the order that emerges from this convergence—and the way one science supports another—gives scientific understanding an unrivaled authority as a form of knowledge and that we should therefore expect it to extend its reach in the years ahead, into fields not traditionally associated with science. In truth, it is already doing so and we should welcome that fact. The proven interlocking nature of science now helps to guide future research.”

“Not all the links and overlaps in the story are equally strong. Niels Bohr’s amalgamation of physics and chemistry was fundamental, as was the later linking of quantum chemistry to molecular biology, by Linus Pauling and others (chapter 9). In more recent decades, the linking of fundamental particles to the early history of the evolving universe (chapter 11), and the “hardening” of psychology—the links between behavior and brain chemistry, for example—are no less fundamental (chapter 16). The same too goes for the overlaps that have also been revealed between genetics and archaeology, and between genetics and archaeology and language (chapter 12).”

“But—and this is the underlying point—all the connections and overlaps, all the patterns and hierarchies that have been revealed, whether fundamental or otherwise, dovetail together conceptually. There are no exceptions, no important ones anyway. Scientific discoveries repeatedly come together, in all manner of ways, to support one another, to tell one coherent, interlocking story. In an important sense, and to use another analogy, it is as if this story has its own form of gravity as—like particles in cooling gases—the different chapters come together to form a solid narrative.”

“ The overlaps and interdependence of the sciences, the patterns and hierarchies of the discoveries in different fields, the underlying order that they are gradually uncovering, is without question one of the most enthralling aspects—perhaps the most enthralling aspect—of modern science. It is in effect a collective detective story of epic dimensions. The convergence and the emerging order—even a kind of unity—between the sciences is one of the most important and satisfying elements in scientific knowledge, and all the more convincing because nobody went looking for it in the first place.”

“Nor do I begin, as many science histories do, in ancient Greece, the so-called Ionian Enchantment, or with the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, or with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. I begin much later, in the 1850s—a crucial decade as I show—because that is when the convergence began, when the interconnections and overlaps between the various disciplines first started to show themselves in two fundamental areas and so added a whole new dimension to science, one that hadn’t been fully grasped until then.

It was in the 1850s that the idea of the conservation of energy was first aired, which brought together recent discoveries in the sciences of heat, optics, electricity, magnetism, food, and blood chemistry. Almost simultaneously, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection brought together the new sciences of deep-space astronomy, deep-time geology, paleontology, anthropology, geography, and biology. These two theories comprised the first great coming together, meaning that the 1850s was in many ways the most momentous decade in the annals of science, and possibly, as it has turned out, the years which saw the greatest intellectual breakthrough of all time: the realization of the way one science supports another, the beginning of a form of understanding like no other. This was in every way a new era intellectually.”

“there are two deeper implications of the order that convergence is producing.

The first is that alluded to earlier. Because the convergence—the emerging order—is so strong, and so coherent, science as a form of knowledge is beginning to invade other areas, other systems of knowledge traditionally different from or even opposed to science, and is starting to explain—and advance—them. Science is invading—and bringing order to—philosophy, to morality, to history, to culture in general, and even to politics ”

“It is not too much to say that the overall coherence and order revealed by the convergence of the sciences is ushering in a new phase of history. No other form of knowledge has the coherence and order that the converging sciences have brought about.”

“The second aspect of the order that is emerging relates to order itself. Order, the way even inanimate matter spontaneously organizes itself in nature (without, it should be said, any input from a supernatural power), has emerged in recent decades as one of the most important new topics. ”

“Convergence is, as Steven Weinberg says, and without exaggeration, the most fundamental story that could ever be imagined.”

“Convergence does have a narrative. In fact, it has two narratives. One is a chronological account—switching this way and that—as one breakthrough after another in the various sciences uncovered what were at first quite disparate phenomena, but then, as time went by, began to interconnect. The second narrative is the story of where these interconnections lead us: to a unified—ordered—historical account of the universe we inhabit and our own place within that totality.”

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