E.O. Wilson is a true believer. An eminent Harvard entomologist and author of more than twenty books, Wilson is a naturalistic humanist for whom science is the source of all wisdom, and the best answer to humanity’s basic problems. Speaking with a fervor worthy of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, Wilson writes in his new book The Creation that science “generates knowledge in the most productive and unifying manner contrived in history, and it serves humanity without obeisance to any particular tribal deity.”
Wilson’s new book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, is a passionate and erudite plea. Written as a letter to an imaginary Southern Baptist minister Wilson ranges from detailed descriptions of the wonders of nature to guidance on how biology should be taught in the schools. “The Creation—living Nature—is in deep trouble,” Wilson writes—and he is willing to bridge the divide of worldviews to speak for its salvation.
The resulting book is both a fascinating contribution to the science-religion dialogue and a moving exposition of the beauty—and loss—of diversity in the natural world. Wilson’s Pulitzer-prize winning prose cannot but help to engage even the most resistant reader in this journey into the wonders of a creation being lost to the destructive power of Homo sapiens on the landscape. As Wilson describes the Wolverine, an animal that takes prey far larger than itself, and the Pitchfork Ant, a species with jaws designed to capture and clean a bristled millipede, one cannot help but agree that, yes, these are “magnificent animals.” And as he describes the loss of biodiversity and its consequences, it would be difficult for anyone to walk away with the peace that all is well in the world.
But it is doubtful that such an appeal would be met with complete and comfortable acceptance by a fundamentalist Christian. Wilson is so committed to his naturalistic humanism that he fails to see the ways in which many of his arguments lack the common vocabulary to speak across the divide. If Wilson is truly interested in creating “an alliance for life” then why does he make loaded claims such as “Without science there had to be religion, in order to explain man’s place in the universe”—a claim that implies that with science religion is no longer necessary?
Wilson has a tendency to reduce the world to a material and measurable reality that contains no ultimate mysteries or transcendence, and that tendency keeps him from making the most convincing appeal to a Christian in defense of the creation—that the creation is God’s handiwork and we are only its stewards. Denying the possibility of such an appeal, Wilson writes to his imaginary pastor, “God made the Creation, you say…But no, I say, respectfully. Life was self assembled by random mutation and natural selection of the codifying molecules.” Statements such as these have caused some to question whether Wilson is serious about his call to Christians—if he’s not, the letter format feels like little more than a gimmick.
In his book Life’s a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, the conservationist Wendell Berry argued against Wilson, making the case that our concern for the world should come from a sense of its wonder and holiness, from the practice of humility in the face of a creation that we can never ultimately understand, control, or comprehend. Wilson, in Berry’s view, reduces the world to an ecosystem, an organism, a machine—metaphors that put him on the side of the technological control of nature that accelerated its destruction as the science of the Enlightenment found a home in the enterprises of the industrial revolution.
It is likely that a fundamentalist Christian would find Berry’s appeals to the holiness and mystery of creation more convincing than Wilson’s rhapsodic writing on the wonders of natural selection. But that is not to say that Wilson has completely failed. It’s easy to imagine a Southern Baptist minister reading The Creation and praising God as Wilson describes the wonders of nature: however wide the gap is between the worldview of the secular naturalist and the Christian, there remains the fact that we all, as Wilson writes, “share a love of the Creation.”
The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
by Edward O. Wilson
175 pages, $21.95
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in September 2006.