[17 December 2006]
However science and religion wax and wane in the minds of men, there remains the earthborn, yet transcendental, obligation we are both morally bound to share.
—E.O. Wilson, The Creation
To a true scientist, creationism is blasphemy. Not accepting evolution is a desecration of the scientific process and life itself. The so-called theory of Intelligent Design is not a hypothesis but a mockery of one (so goes the theory of Ignorant Design). The chasm between those who believe in evolution by natural selection and those who do not is wide and fierce. Nevertheless, with his latest book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, renowned biologist, naturalist, and forthright believer, E. O. Wilson admirably tries to farm some common ground—and it is with good reason.
In his words, the Creation is “living Nature” in its entirety, and it is in trouble. Life on Earth is destroying itself; or, to be more accurate, we as humans are destroying all life, including ourselves. It is estimated that if the current course of destruction does not change, the majority of species of plants and animals will be extinct in the next one hundred years. But we will not only lose “masterpieces” such as the wolverine and pitchfork ant. We are threatening our own survival by irreversibly erasing ecosystems, depleting natural resources, and spreading toxic chemicals worldwide. Wilson sternly warns that, regardless of your thoughts on its origin, we are rapidly destroying all that exists. So carrying both a sense of urgency and convincing love for biology, he makes a valiant, if at times desperate, plea to join forces to save the Creation.
Few writers attempt to unite science and religion, and fewer yet do it in such a novel way. Written as a long, personal letter to a fictionalized Southern Baptist pastor, The Creation is one scientist’s way of reaching out, providing information, and offering solutions. It is neither an act of proselytism nor conciliation. His invocation of spiritual language is deliberate and altruistic; his choice of religious figure was due to personal familiarity; and his objective is undeniable. Wilson truly believes that if “the two most powerful forces in the world” can make a practical alliance to preserve life, the Creation can be saved.
And like any good diplomat, he starts out his letter with a level of finesse. While gracefully outlining their differences in perspective (“For you, the glory of an unseen divinity; for me, the glory of the universe revealed at last”), he also bends over backwards to acknowledge some mutual fallibility (“I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right”). He admits to his “friend” that he “would like to learn more” about the religious and theological arguments for environmentalism. There is no doubt that Richard Dawkins would be disappointed in these compromising gestures, but to Wilson it is merely a means to (the prevention of) the end. And this is where his eloquent prose clearly helps his cause. Because when Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, asks if we would be “willing to suppose that part of Eden was the rest of life as it was before humanity,” it is hard not to want to read on.
As the book moves forward, through time and its argument, we are the ones who learn. Drawing from his experiences both as an inquisitive child and a Harvard-trained entomologist, he eruditely describes the decline of our current environment, what biology is, why it is important, and how to understand and teach it within our present-day context. His first-hand descriptions of observing the nature of a virgin forest off the Florida Keys and understanding the purposeful but bizarre anatomy of Thoumatomyrmex ants are enthralling. And the follow-up questions he poses are critical. Using examples from the insect world (or “the little things that run the world”), we are urged to understand the insidious costs of globalization (symbolized by the appearance of fire ants in America) and ponder our own existence (“People need insects to survive, but insects do not need us”). His ability to make biology as interesting and important to you as it is to him, at least for a moment, is what makes him such a great teacher—and it shows.
Yet, despite all the wonderful stories, the construct can’t help but seem a little forced. Each time you are reminded that you are reading a letter to a pastor, you are also reminded that you are not a pastor (unless of course you are one, and in that case, thank you for reading). And because of this, not all of The Creation will be as relevant. Even if the ultimate consilience—the unity of science and religion—happens, it is not transpiring on these pages. So in other words, if you already get it, there is less to be learned.
That does not mean The Creation is not to be enjoyed and admired. From the audacious title to his revelatory closing words, Wilson truly captures the spirit of both the scripture and Darwin, and reading such an elegant and honorable treatise on the greatest crisis to face mankind is a unique pleasure. Even if it was not addressed to you, it is an appeal for us all.