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.

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