Wilson, E.O. 2006. The Creation. London. W.W. Norton
& Company Ltd. 175 p.
A Review by Tom Baugh, Green Institute Fellow
OK, I’ll admit it! I have heroes and among those very few heroes is biologist/naturalist E.O. Wilson. In fact, he’s right at the top these days and has been for quite some while. I had recently read his book ‘The Future of Life’ (2002) and reread ‘The Diversity of Life’ (1992) in preparation to teach a short course in biodiversity and another in conservation biology. I had also spent the last decade of my life working at the intersection of my two fields, biology/ecology and religion/theology, in an emerging area called ecotheology (ecological theology). So, when I heard that Professor Wilson had opened his book, ‘The Creation,’ with the salutation ‘Dear Pastor,’ my interest was piqued, to say the least. Professor Wilson writes as if he is addressing a letter to a Southern Baptist pastor. In the ‘letter’ he asks for help in saving life on Earth.
I have to admit that had the book said nothing else I would have been impressed. Several years back I took one of those week long courses called ‘intensives.’ There were three instructors in the course and one of them took strong and pointed exception, umbrage is the term, I believe, when I suggested that the religions would have to become involved if we had any hope of saving at least part of what we call habitat and biodiversity. Not two years later my one time biology professor, thesis committee chair and long time friend Jim Deacon invited me to speak to his ecology class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where I encountered the same resistance, from one of Jim’s teaching colleagues, to my suggestion that religion would have to become involved or continued ecocide and possibly ecocaust (2003) was inevitable. And now, here was one of my heroes saying the very same thing, only doing it better, much better than I ever did.
Professor Wilson begins by gently, and with the humility of the truly mature, contrasting the respective positions of the pastor, a literalist interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture, with Wilson who describes himself as a secular humanist. Regardless of where the respective metaphysics falls out, Professor Wilson admits “Pastor, we need your help”…”because religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today.” He openly wonders at the ultraconservative Christian’s widespread conviction that the Second Coming is imminent and along with it the destruction not only of humanity but ten million other life forms. He finds this to be a gospel of “cruelty and despair” and suggests instead a gospel of hope and compassion in which people everywhere have a decent standard of living “while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.” It is my guess that it is right about this point, and this is only page six, where Professor Wilson begins to lose his ultraconservative readers, if he had any to begin with. You see, while science would be the first to admit how little it knows, and Wilson makes this point, it would be a rare ultraconservative Christian leader who would make the same claim of humility. These are, mostly men, who Michael Ruse refers to as perpetrators of an “evangelical Puritanism, that is a blight on the country.” They rarely admit that they are wrong.
Throughout this short, 175 page book, Professor Wilson uses many experiences from his own life as a biologist to portray a Nature seriously threatened by unthinking humanity destroying habitat, spewing pesticides, and belching carbon and methane into the atmosphere. There is nothing new about this story. Things are getting bad and they are going to get much, much worse before they get any better, if they do get better. Anyone who can read has encountered the challenge of thinking about extinction, deforestation, and global warming. Even if you can read, however, many ultraconservative Christians encountering these tales of environmental and biological disaster don’t accept them, and that would include 47 percent of the population in the North Carolina county in which I live who do not accept the inconvenient but very real truth of global warming. These are the same people who are among the flocks pastored by the same ministers addressed by Professor Wilson in his salutation.
In the end, I’m afraid that Wilson’s book ‘The Creation’ is simply more of Ed Wilson’s wonder at the wonder of life and his terrible anxiety at its extirpation. His message will not reach the ultraconservative literalist preacher he says he is addressing. You see, these are primarily men less motivated by the spirituality and sacredness he attributes to them because of his boyhood among them; they are rather the perpetrators of a cult of intentional ignorance manipulating subcultures also of intentional ignorance, subcultures that include millions and millions and yet more millions of Americans. The odd thing is that these same ultraconservative Christians have absolutely no trouble accepting the horror of the prediction of the end of times but find the environmental impacts of global warming an incomprehensible plot by liberals.
Professor Wilson will make some progress with conservative Christians such as Jim Ball of ‘what would Jesus drive’ fame, and those in the National Evangelical Association who have somewhat belatedly realized that humanity does have something to do with environmental crisis and must now do something about the catastrophes of environmental Armageddon. But his target audience, the ultraconservatives, simply do not understand that Earth and all that it is and all that it holds is not facing a rapture but rather a rupture of those intricate balances that make the quantity and quality of life possible. It is not the end of times that is coming but rather a possibly very long interim, might I suggest a Purgatory, of any hope of times of peace and safety. The people that Professor Wilson sets out to address are the very people who will willingly help bring about that tragic interim.
(Personal Note: Ed, you keep writing ‘em and I’ll keep reading ‘em, but don’t get your hopes up. You are not talking to the same stern but kind pastors of your boyhood. Things have changed.)
Wilson, E.O. 2002. the future of life. New York. Vintage Books.
Wilson, E.O. 1992. The diversity of life. London. W.W. Norton Company. Ltd.
Budz, M. 2003. Clade. New York. Bantan Books.
Ruse, M. 2007. The god wars. Science & Spirit 18(1):51-53.