REVUES FROM THE REV: “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson


Did you know that our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells — that we could be accurately described as a “bacterial ecosystem”?  I didn’t until I read this book.

E. O. Wilson is a naturalist, retired Harvard professor and a specialist in ants.  He is also a Southerner by birth, and in this eloquent book he addresses himself to a Southern Baptist Preacher in his plea for that influential believer’s help in halting the rapidly accelerating extinction of much of the Earth’s (as of yet undocumented) biodiversity.  Wilson’s affinity for his imagined Preacher is natural-born, and he aims to persuade on the basis of a shared passion for the sanctity of life under the mantle of “stewardship”.  Wilson knows his Bible, and he knows his audience.  Whether he will convince conservative Evangelicals is an open question.  If in the end he does not, it will not be for lack of grace or sincerity in his presentation.  And his presentation is quietly astounding.  I frankly had no idea that we have (at this point in our history) left such a vast swath of the living organisms on our little planet undiscovered and unstudied.  Wilson estimates that we have discovered only ten percent of the life forms on earth, and that fewer than one percent of those have been studied beyond a description and basic natural history.  Wilson’s plea, then, is made from the humility the naturalist feels when confronting the scope of The Creation combined with the student’s excitement at the yet-to-be revealed potentialities hidden in that which awaits “discovery”.

Wilson’s starting point is that we humans took a dark turn during our “Neolithic Revolution” when we began to rely on the human-imposed agriculture that made the rapid rise into our modern age possible.  Such a growth spurt has allowed us humans to become a powerful agent of extinction on the planet (and here he is careful to describe the difference between the “natural” cycle of extinction and the arrival of new species and the increased levels of extinction associated with human activity).  And yet Wilson is an optimist — being hopeful is clearly in his nature.

One surprising aspect of this book (aside from the stunning examples he gives of our current knowledge of nature set against our ignorance) is that Wilson — though speaking to a Baptist — pulls no punches on the differences between his naturalistic view of The Creation and the Creationist/Intelligent Design view.  Wilson has no appeasing bones in his body, relying instead on honesty and open-handedness to open a path to understanding between this naturalist and Evangelicals.

Wilson offers a cogent description of science and scientists that is at once true and useful.  He compares individual scientists to the worker ants he studies “…by and large…too modest to be prophets, too easily bored to be philosophers, and too trusting to be politicians.”  Concluding:

“The power of science comes not from scientists, but from its method.  The power, and the beauty too, of the scientific method is its simplicity.  It can be understood by anyone, and practiced with a modest amount of training.  Its stature arises from its cumulative nature.  It is a product of hundreds of thousands of specialists united by the one binding commonality of the scientific method.  Few scientists know more than a small fraction of available scientific knowledge, even within their own disciplines.  But no matter:  their fellow scientists are continuously testing and adding to the other parts, and the entire body of scientific knowledge is easily available.  The invention of this remarkable engine of testable learning was the one advance in recorded human history that can be called a true quantum leap.  But it attained its preeminence relatively late in the geological life span of humanity, and only after the human intellect had traveled a long, tortuous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion.”

Wilson later offers a clear explanation of why Intelligent Design cannot be treated as a valid scientific hypothesis.

There is a quiet grace to this love letter to our species as it attempts to open our eyes to our precarious grip on (and our deep connection to) the thin band of life that clings to our planet.  The truth is simple: we are inseparable from nature, and nature from us.  I found many passages in this book worthy of remembering.  I believe you will too…even if you’re not a Baptist Minister.

the not-so-reverend bob

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