Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review of The Creation by E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson’s book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth was published by W.W. Norton & Company four years ago. It is a thin book, nothing like the author’s previous tomes about ants or Sociobiology. Nonetheless, this little book is important. It is Wilson’s attempt (as one of the most respected scientists alive today) to discuss with organized religion the loss of earth‘s biodiversity and to see what can be done about it. It is even an appeal for religion to join hands with science in this important undertaking (certainly no pun intended).

The book is a respectful gesture and an important one considering Wilson’s reputation and distinguished scientific career. It is nice to see an influential scientist acknowledging the need to work with the religious community. Wilson is from the South and his immediate audience is a Baptist Pastor. This, however, should not keep those of other faiths from reading the book. The issues are relevant to many religious groups; and Wilson, no doubt, would welcome all to the table.

Unfortunately, many of Wilson’s arguments will not set well with his intended audience. Not that life on earth isn’t religiously important - it is. The difficulty with Wilson’s approach is that it is too condescending. Even with his best intentions in mind - and it seems that they are genuine - he assumes a privileged position, even a moral high ground that can only distance his audience.

This, of course, is nothing new. It has always been the raw issue in so many disagreements between science and religion. Even so, I don’t mean to diminish Wilson’s contribution. If his book can start serious religious discussions about the importance of saving earth’s rich organic diversity, he will have done us a great favor.

Christian Interest in Natural History

There is a very real need to motivate religious people to take a larger interest in natural history, and Wilson has persuasively listed (in The Creation, The Diversity of Life, and elsewhere) many of the reasons why we should be motivated to do so. These include: economic reasons, medical discoveries, education, pleasure (including Biophilia) etc. There is one motivation, however, that he has missed. It is also the one motivation that is most important if we ever hope to bring about a renewal in religious natural history. This motivation is a desire to learn more about the Creator, by studying the Creation.

I say renewal because there is historical precedent for a Christian fascination with the natural world. (Perhaps other faiths have similar examples that I am not aware of.) Victorian England was so taken by the study of nature that it has come to be recognized as the Heyday of Natural History.

Lynn Barber describes the period thus: “Every Victorian lady, it seemed, could reel off the names of twenty different kinds of fern or fungus, and every Victorian clergyman nurtured a secret ambition to publish a natural history of his parish in imitation of Gilbert White. By the middle of the Century, there was hardly a middle-class drawing room in the country that did not contain an aquarium, a fern case, a butterfly cabinet, a seaweed album, a shell collection, or some other evidence of a taste for natural history…”

One reads about this time with wonderment at how many people were amateur naturalists - and the inescapable question becomes: could we ever regain that level of interest and enthusiasm? Sadly, I think, the answer is no, at least if we are restricted to Wilson’s list of motivations. The Victorian passion for nature was fueled by a combination of pleasure and education - two motivations acknowledged by Wilson. But even more important was the belief that one could understand things about God by studying the Creation. This passion was fueled by the belief that one could fulfill one’s religious duty and have fun at the same time. This combination of factors was strong enough to keep the English canvassing the countryside for natural curiosities for decades.

The reasons for the demise of this “heyday” aren’t all that clear. Part of the reason seems to be that natural history became too complicated for the amateur as more and more discoveries were made. Part of the reason also seems to be that, after Darwin, one could study nature without acknowledging the Creator. And, in fact, many scientists insisted on doing just that. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the inevitable changes of time.

Today the sciences of natural history are much more complicated than they were 150 years ago, and the divide separating science and religion is as great as it ever has been. Economic arguments to save species are laughably futile when it is so much easier to make money by tearing down a forest than to preserve it. Arguments from medicine fare no better. The hopes of decades past of harvesting complex biologically active molecules from nature have proven scarcely practicable. It’s much cheaper to make these molecules in an industrial reactor. Continuing advances in natural-products chemistry will ensure that this continues to be the case.

One can still make appeals to the beauty of the world but only a few people will listen. If there is any lesson for us hidden in the history of Victorian England, it is that we need to find convincing and meaningful lessons about life from nature if we seriously want to preserve her. Science is not able to do this. Religion can.

The Meaning of Life

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Wilson’s worldview and that of his audience is to be found on page 15, where he writes longingly for the time when nature will reveal (i.e. to a scientist) the great mystery of the meaning of human life. Statements like this can do little to solicit sympathy from Wilson’s religious audience.

Wilson is an acknowledged leader in evolutionary biology - a branch of science that is sometimes used to argue that reproductive success is the only meaning in life that there is. Wilson seems to be admitting that this is not enough. This is indeed an interesting admission but it seems naïve to me. Science has never been successful at answering questions of this kind. When it has tried, it has often led to disaster.

Many scientists decide not to go this far, deciding instead to follow the example of Wilson’s colleague at Harvard (the late Stephen Jay Gould) and restrict their research to what they can measure - the “ages of rocks,” say, and leave to religion the search for the “Rock of Ages” (Gould). Gould seems eminently wiser than Wilson on this count. Certainly religion has answered these questions so much more effectively than science has. This is, after all, their very raison d’être.

Asking a religious person to seek for the meaning of life from a scientist is like a sixth grader asking the school cook the value of taking physics - even while the physics teacher is sitting at the next table. It merges on the ridiculous. Wilson would make more friends and promote his agenda much more effectively if he would acknowledge this religious strength. The truth is that our religious faiths have rich traditions that value life, in all of its forms. Wilson’s failure to acknowledge this not only weakens his case, it reveals his lack of understanding about these traditions. He should have more faith in Faith. It has a much greater potential for saving life on earth than science does.

Human Nature

Another diplomatic mistake Wilson makes is his discussion about human nature. One would have expected a bit more sensitivity about this from the man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, On Human Nature, and who has weathered many heated battles provoked by this controversial subject. His mistake is to believe that religious traditions will gladly accept a scientific explanation about who we, as human beings, are and then disregard their own deeply held beliefs.

To Wilson (a staunch materialist) our genetic make-up limits who we are. It is our culture - including our religions - that can and need to change, in order to save our planet. Wilson should know that religion will never accommodate this presumption in the least. The laws that govern human life - manmade laws, that is - may be arbitrary at times, like changing traffic rules, or public curfews. But religion also recognizes higher laws that do not change, laws that are less changing than the genes we have inherited from our parents.

Wilson wants us to believe that our religious traditions can change. He wisely refrains from saying that our moral codes evolve, but this is what he means. He wants to persuade American Christians that they can change their beliefs to accommodate a controversial agenda. This is a significant misjudgment on his part. Christians in general - and a Southern Pastor specifically - are not about to yield their belief in higher laws to the evolutionary arguments of a scientist. In fact Americans have a long history of refusing to yield the Higher Law to anybody. Call us stubborn if you like, but we based our national existence on this argument in the Declaration of Independence when we refused to yield it to a king. Magna Carta was an instance where we wouldn’t yield it to another king or even to the Pope.

Wilson would have done better if he had done his homework and learned about this commitment and about the rich discussions that thoughtful Christians are having (and have had) about the Creation and the Fall. There is much to be found here about stewardships and basic human responsibilities for the earth. I find these arguments much more persuasive than the economic candy cane that Wilson hopes to entice us with, and which amounts to nothing more than an appeal to our selfishness. The significant effort needed to save life on earth requires a much greater commitment than this. It requires a determination from a free and a devout people committed to a higher law.


In Chapter 9 Wilson warns us about denying our responsibilities to preserve life. He reminds us of our losses, including the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet. He also minds us of those species we have almost lost: the black robin, the ivory billed woodpecker, the bison. I have examples of my own to add to the list. Several insects that I have discovered myself (species that bear my name as author) are only known from small populations and from limited areas. Many Christians, me included, are keenly aware of the sad history of our environmental neglect, and that we are losing, at an alarming rate, so much of the Creation. But Wilson and his sympathizers need to know that our commitment is different than theirs. If we want to save life we will have to be committed to doing so on our own terms. We will not be persuaded by scientific arguments that lack understanding.

Let me add a little perspective here. Wilson thinks that religion was useful for a while but that science has taken the torch of progress and is lighting the way to a much richer understanding of life on earth. He outlines for us in Chapter 11 what some of these illuminating scientific goals are: the creation of a tree of life, improvements in medicine, knowledge of the chemical and electrical nature of the mind, the creation of life itself in a test tube, etc.

Now some of these are noble goals, but some of them are highly presumptuous. I fail to see here anything close to what a thoughtful Christian sees in the created order: an understanding of the Creator, insight into eternal laws, perspective about human dignity. Wilson has admitted elsewhere (see Consilience) that he can get along just fine without this kind of religious understanding. Yet he also admits that most people cannot. How then does he ever expect to create an army of Christian conservationists with such condescending arguments? One tends to feel either resentment or pity at his misjudgments, hardly agreement.

Intelligent Design

At times Wilson demonstrates a willingness to cooperate with his religious counterparts. Part V begins with a recognition that science does need religion to save the Creation. This is certainly an encouraging concession. Unfortunately it is followed by perhaps the biggest miscalculation in the book: Wilson’s discounting of Intelligent Design.

No doubt Wilson has a bone to pick with Christian Fundamentalists - even with the Pastor to whom he addresses his book. And he is certainly keen to make sure he does not appear to concede anything to their camp. But he should know that, by picking up his pen to write to about the Creation to a Southern Pastor, any cooperation will be impossible unless he is willing to strike a compromise on Intelligent Design - a very sensitive subject in the South.

I don’t mean by compromise that Wilson suddenly adopt creationist tenets. Nobody would believe him if he did. But one can believe in a Darwinian process in the development of Life and still acknowledge our limited understanding about its history. One can still admit that religion represents a valid (even a critical) orientation to the world. Great scientists have recognized this for as long as science has existed. If Wilson cannot concede that Intelligent Design may have its own valuable insights into the creation he has no dialogue with his Southern friends.

This is a shame. Intelligent Design is the most promising development to come along in years for leveraging a Christian ethic of conservation. It’s too bad that Wilson has not been more careful about this. He could have been so much more convincing. We are left waiting for someone wiser to pick up the cause - very likely this someone will be a Christian.


Barber, Lynn. 1980. The Heyday of Natural History. Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1999. Rocks of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. The Ballantine Publishing Group, New York. (See page 6.)

Wilson, E.O. 1978. On Human Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wilson, E.O. 1998. Consilience, the Unity of Knowledge. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

Wilson, E.O. 2006. The Creation, an Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Butch Cassidy Did Not Die in Bolivia

My Grandfather Wells knew Butch Cassidy as a young man and worked with one of his partners. Below is his account taken from his personal history (copied with permission from my father's (Jerry D. Wells) Samuel Morgan Wells and Minnie Zoe Lisonbee. Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah 2003. pp. 13-15) that sheds light on the outlaw's final years. My grandfather was convinced that he did not die in Bolivia. You can read his account below and decide for yourself. I have no reason to doubt my grandfather who was an honorable man.

"I remember several times that Butch Cassidy and Ezra Leigh came and stopped at Alma’s place before they robbed the Castle Gate paymaster. To know them any one would never think they could rob anyone. They were very nice and polite young men. Everyone around there that knew them sure liked them. When we heard that they had robbed the Castle Gate paymaster, whose name was Carpenter, at first people wouldn’t believe it was them, they were such nice and harmless young men.

I have read several stories that was written about the robbers and how many robberies they committed and how many people they killed. Well, Robbers Roost gang weren’t out to kill people. They were out to steal from the rich and help the poor. For instance, Butch stopped at a place one day. There was just an old man and his wife. And the wife was crying. Butch wanted to know what was the matter, The woman told him that there was $500 mortgage past due on their home and the man was coming that day to take the place.

So Butch went out to his horse and in a few minutes returned and gave the woman twenty-five twenty-dollar gold pieces and told the woman to make the man give all the mortgage papers before she gave him the money. Then, when she got all the papers she should burn them right away. And he cautioned her the second time to not lay the papers down but to burn them.

Then Butch left. The man came alright, with the sheriff, to take possession. The lady asked the sheriff if he had all the papers and he told her he did. Then she gave the sheriff her money and he in turn gave her the mortgage papers. Then he gave the man the money. And it was getting late in the evening but the man didn’t get home with his $500.00 in gold. A man stepped out in the road and told him to give him the twenty-five twenty-dollar gold pieces that he had and the man obeyed because the man was holding a 45 on his middle. Then the robber told him to get off his horse and turn it loose and start it home, but to let the horse get a good start ahead of him—then he could walk home.

The sheriff stayed at the ranch with the old couple until dark. He was a little suspicious of where those old people got them twenty-dollar gold pieces. But he didn’t get anywhere with them. So he started home. When he got about a mile from the ranch he met a man coming along the road. And the stranger stopped and asked him if he knew where he could find a place to stop for the night. Butch said he was a stranger in the country. The sheriff told him there was a ranch about a mile back that he was satisfied he could stay and they each went their ways.

But Butch only stopped long enough to leave a note of congratulations and five twenty dollar gold pieces on their doorstep.

Now this story about Butch and the mortgage was told to me by Matt Warner and I believe he told me the absolute truth.

I knew Matt a long time. He was with the outlaw bunch at one time. But he was a man that anyone could depend on. I never heard of him telling a lie. I was with Matt quite a lot one winter. I hauled beef from Victor to Price one winter. He bought beef from Chris Jensen at Victor. My brother Bill, and I would help Matt kill the beef. Then we would load the beef in my car. Then Matt and I would take it to the butcher shop at Price. Matt told me how he came to be an outlaw and he told me his real name. His name was Willie Christensen.

The reason Matt Warner turned to be an outlaw—he got into a fight with the cop in his home town one night and thought he had killed the cop. The cop was in the hospital for a long time but he finally got all right. But during that (time) Matt had joined with a band of outlaws that had their headquarters in Brown’s Hole, which is located on Green River on the line between Utah and Wyoming.

When Matt left, he had a wife and two children, one boy and one girl. He said it was about 1 ½ years before he dared to go see his wife and family. He said then he would have to sneak in after dark and leave before daylight. It was just a few years after that Matt’s wife died. So Matt went to the funeral. While he was there the officers didn’t molest him. But after the funeral they nabbed him and was going to put him in jail. He submitted to arrest peacefully but he made one request of the two cops that had him and that was to let him have ten minutes alone in the house with his children.

So they took his gun and told him to go in and they would stand guard at the door, but for him not to try any tricks or they would kill him. He thanked them very kindly and told them he would always remember them. So he went in the house and closed the door.

But there was one thing the cops didn’t know and that was that, when Matt came home to visit his family, he made a secret getaway by a loose board in the bed room floor and two loose rocks in the foundation by some shrubs that grew behind the house. And they didn’t know that two young men that was to the funeral was in the barn with three saddle horses ready to go. Well, when fifteen minutes rolled around, the cops went in the house and the grandmother was all they could find in the house. And they never did find where Matt got out of the house.

The two strangers that was at Matt’s wife’s funeral was none other than Butch Cassidy and Ezra Lathe. No one knew them in that country at that time.

LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, was born and raised in Grass Valley in Southern Utah. He was raised in a Mormon town and attended L. D. S. church regularly. One night when he was escorting his lady friend home from Mutual there was a bully came along and tried to take the girl away from him and they got into a battle and LeRoy knocked the fellow out cold and he supposed that he had killed him. So he left and came to the Granite Ranch, here in Wayne County. Granite Ranch is eighteen miles south of Hanksville. The Ranch was owned by a cattle man by the name of Burr and all the desert between Granite Wash and Poison Spring Wash and the Dirty Devil River is called the Burr Desert.

Well, LeRoy Parker came to Granite Ranch and applied for a job as cowpuncher. Mr. Burr asked him what his handle was and he said it was Butch Cassidy. He stayed there about one year then he came to Hanksville and got a job from Charley Gibbons and worked for him quite awhile. Then he left and went on the outlaw trail and ended up in Brown’s Hole Wyoming.

The story of Matt Warner and Butch Cassidy was told to me by Matt Warner and the story of Butch Cassidy was told to me by Charley Gibbons after I came to Hanksvffle in 1935. And the story Matt and Charley told about Butch was identical so I believe they were true.

Charles Kelly of Fruita, Wayne County, Utah, wrote a book, the title of it is The Last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws, and in the story he had Butch and Ezra killed in South America. But, since I came to Hanksville, Charley Gibbons let me read a letter that Butch wrote him telling Charley that he, Butch had quit the outlaw trail and bought a ranch in Colorado, got married, and was living happy with a beautiful wife and two children. But Charley didn’t let me see what part of Colorado the letter came from."

Friday, April 2, 2010


“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” - John 3:1-4

Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. This has been understood to mean that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council of Elders. He is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John: once talking with Jesus, once defending Jesus before the Pharisees, and once helping in the burial of Jesus. In the later capacity he assisted Joseph of Arimathea, who was also a member of the Sanhedrin.

These acts of kindness to Jesus (along with possibly others) exposed both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea to the ridicule of other Jewish leaders - especially during the delicate political situation at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Christian tradition accepts that Joseph of Arimathea was an adopted father of Jesus. Joseph the Carpenter was believed to have been an older man when he took Mary to wife. When he died, Jesus was still a boy. It is claimed that Joseph of Arimathea took it upon himself to care for the fatherless family (see Tuchman). He was said to have been a tin merchant and possibly a relative of the family. It is clear that he respected Jesus a great deal.

Nicodemus obviously respected Jesus as well. Perhaps he was introduced to him by Joseph. He was impressed enough to seek an evening meeting with him. It is often suggested that he sought out Jesus at night in order to be secretive - to avoid the criticism of his colleagues. This has been the traditional view among Christian commentators even though the argument is an indirect one – based only on the general wording of John 12:42-43, where it is recorded that there were many chief rulers that believed on Jesus but would not admit it because of the Pharisees. Significantly, no names are mentioned, or necessarily implied, in this passage.

What we do know about Nicodemus’s relationship with Jesus after their first visit can hardly be understood to be evasive. Near the end of Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees had arranged for certain officers to bring Him to custody. Nicodemus, standing up for Jesus asked them, “Doth our law judge any man before it hear him and know what he doeth?” (see John 7:50-53). Then after the crucifixion, Nicodemus is recorded to have brought a great deal (about 75 pounds) of expensive myrrh and aloes (John 19:39) for the burial of Jesus. What makes this even more significant is that he helped Joseph of Arimathea with the actual preparation of the body - making both of them unclean according to Jewish law to participate in the Passover (see Numbers 19:11).

There is even a suggestion in the Book of Mormon that nighttime visits by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were not uncommon events. Nephi, after disguising himself as Laban (a Jewish leader living in Jerusalem) was greeted by Zoram (Laban’s servant) who, “spake unto [Nephi] concerning the elders of the Jews, he knowing that his master, Laban, had been out by night among them” (I Nephi 4:22.). It is possible that Nicodemus likewise met with Jesus at night in order to enjoy a more relaxed and intimate conversation with Him.

Another criticism of Nicodemus is that he lacked faith - that he relied on (and was overly proud of) his rational gifts. Chrysostom (the late 4th Century Archbishop of Constantinople) argued that his use of the word “how” (in, “How can a man be born when he is old?” – John 3:4) is evidence of this.

“For the “how” is the doubting question of those who have no strong belief, but who are yet of the earth. Therefore Sarah laughed when she said, “How?” And many others having asked this question, have fallen from the faith.”

Chrysostom wrote at a time of great sectarian division within the church. Many of his detractors were individuals that asked probing and faithless questions and it is understandable why he would feel the way he did. But his tendentious views, projected on to Nicodemus, can hardly pass as a rule of human nature. Sadly, it seems that Chrysostom’s negative view of Nicodemus has been copied ever since by theologians and commentators alike who have not given the subject much more thought. The evidence alone from John’s gospel is certainly insufficient to argue against the faith of Nicodemus (see note by Black).

A more realistic view of Nicodemus is that he was a successful Jewish man that had risen to the leading council of his society and yet who genuinely sought to understand the message of Jesus. Perhaps he had developed a friendship with one of his colleagues (Joseph of Arimathea) who had told him about Jesus and then sought out a time to speak with Him directly. There is nothing in his conversation with Jesus to suggest that he was being unduly critical, disrespectful or doubtful. Very likely he just wanted to learn more about Jesus.

In fact John records that Nicodemus used two revealing words in this conversation that show a significant amount of respect. First, Nicodemus greets Jesus with the title rabbi. This is a title of great respect. (Of the three increasingly respectful forms of this title: rab, rabbi and rabban - rabbi is an intermediate form (See G.C. Morgan)). Jesus had not yet openly declared Himself to be the Son of God and Nicodemus had no reason to use the highest form. That he used the title rabbi at all is quite significant coming from one of the leading authorities of the law, who was used to being called by that title himself. Nicodemus was used to the company of the brightest and wisest Jews of his day. He met with them on a regular basis - sometimes daily. Jesus was not part of this group, and yet Nicodemus recognized His wisdom nonetheless.

The second revealing word Nicodemus used was teacher (or master). I say this was the second word advisedly because the word rabbi means teacher in Hebrew. Almost all versions of John’s gospel indicate that Nicodemus addressed Jesus with the title rabbi and then recognized that He was a teacher sent from God. This distinction exists even in the Vulgate and the Greek New Testament. It is likely, though, that Nicodemus used the same word twice: rabbi.

This is significant because a teacher (rabbi) among the Jews was significantly more important than a teacher as we understand the word today. It was more important even than how the Romans and the Greeks understood the word. A teacher, for example, who passed along information, was a didaskalos. A teacher who lived by and conveyed the teachings of another was a mathetes (a disciple). But someone who was a true teacher had the truth within themselves - receiving it directly from God.

This is a very important theme for John. He points it out on a number of occasions: that truth comes from above, is manifest in Jesus, and is perceived by the spirit of truth. John wants us to know up front that Jesus is a teacher of this higher form. It is also significant that Nicodemus seems to have recognized this too - at least in part.

That such a man would use direct questions is perfectly understandable. It is also clear from his subsequent behavior that he respected Jesus a great deal. A simple inference from a nighttime interview with the Master does not imply that Nicodemus was morally weak. The truth is that there are more human failings written about Peter in the gospels, then there are about Nicodemus - and yet we recognize Peter as the leader of Christ’s church and one of the greatest men that ever lived. Nicodemus, it seems to me, deserves to be more favorably remembered.

Literature Cited

Black, Matthew. 1967. An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts. Hendrickson Publishers. Black shows (page 160) that Nicodemus’s question is part of an Aramaic or Hebrew parallelism. In this light, Nicodemus’s question may be more properly viewed as a literary or rhetorical emphasis, than an implication of disrespect.

Chrysostom, John. Homilies on the Gospel of John 24:4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Hendrickson Publishers, 2004 (Vol. 14, p. 85).

Morgan, G.C. The Gospel According to John. 15th ed. Fleming and Revell Co. See page 57. See also Alma 18:13 (in The Book of Mormon) where Ammon is called Rabbanah, which is possibly a related form of rab.

The Book of Mormon. 1981. Published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version. 1979. Published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tuchman, Barbara. 1984. Apostle to the Britons: Joseph of Arimathea, in Bible and Sword (Chapter 2). Ballantine Books, New York.