Hammering Out Our Differences

EarthzineFeature, In This Issue, Original, Reviews

“We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend.” So begins the letter to a Southern Baptist pastor that E.O. Wilson weaves into a riveting account of the peril posed by the extinction of life in The Creation: An Appeal To Save Planet Earth. The Creation, as Wilson calls the Earth and the splendor of all its living creatures, is in deep trouble. Wilson paints a grim picture showing the “human hammer” ringing in the commencement of the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. By using examples that span the globe, Wilson’s picture depicts a collage of species being hammered out by habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, over population and over harvesting. Wilson writes by the end of this century, “half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction.”

tree_and_earth_whole.jpg Wilson, an entomologist and a world-renowned expert in ants, describes himself as a human secularist. He contrasts his world views with that of a Southern Baptist and finds common ground in the “defense of living things as a universal value.” He makes a compelling and emotional argument to set philosophical differences aside. Then Wilson explains how we can, by working together, mitigate what he calls the “ongoing biological catastrophe” of species loss. In the section Teaching the Creation, Wilson states the importance and an approach for a widely shared knowledge of biology and calls for an “expedition to planet Earth.” The expedition’s journal would form a comprehensive and cross-referenced database of all species on Earth. Wilson envisions an “Encyclopedia of Life” that would describe in detail each species as “a universe unto itself”, the product of “an unimaginably complicated evolutionary history.”

A small disappointment comes in the closing chapter, An Alliance For Life, in which Wilson misses an opportunity to set aside differences and paint us a picture of what an allied Earth might resemble. Instead he lambastes the theory of Intelligent Design. Wilson claims that, “statured scientists…unanimously agree that the theory of Intelligent Design does not qualify as science.” Certainly, Wilson has rational and intuitive reasons for discrediting his own conception of Intelligent Design. Does he not see his life as a creative force through which beautiful work has been made with premeditated design? But scientific understanding of creativity and its role in unfolding the universal expansion is extremely limited-certainly too limited to dismiss intelligent design as a characteristic descriptor of the universe’s evolution. Other great scientists have been so mistaken; in the nineteenth century, Lord Kelvin and A.A. Michelson claimed all that remained for the physical sciences to discover was better precision.

Wilson closes The Creation by returning to his correspondence with the pastor, concluding that: “there remains the earthborn, yet transcendental, obligation we are both morally to share.” In fact, Wilson’s letter is not just to a Southern Baptist pastor, it is addressed to everyone. I highly recommend this thought-provoking read.

Paul Racette

Editor in Chief