In my search for good, living books on biology for my high schooler to read this year, I was pointed to The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life ion Earth by E. O. Wilson. This is not a book I am going to have him read this year, but I myself have just finished reading it and it is has given me a lot to think about and a lot to be aggravated about.
Wilson’s book was recommended by someone I really like and though I knew that we differed on some points theologically, I was optimistic when I picked the book up. After reading the first pages, I nearly put it down never to touch it again. I didn’t think I would be able to bring myself to get through it. Of course, if I never read things I disagreed with, I wouldn’t have much to blog no would I?
Wilson is a professor of biology at Harvard University (a name which doesn’t impress me overly much; I spent 10 years there as a grad student myself, though in a different field). He styles his book as an open letter to a Southern Baptist pastor on the topic of environmentalism, particularly of saving the earth and its creatures from their immanent destruction. This is not a letter to one particular person whom he knows, but rather a straw figure who seems to be drawn from his own religious past. Wilson makes his own views clear in the first few paragraphs:
“I am a secular humanist. I think existence is what we make of it as individuals. There is no guarantee of life after death, and heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet. There is no other home. Humanity originated here by evolution from lower forms over millions of years. And yes, I will speak plain, our ancestors were apelike animals.” (pp. 3-4)
Now while I don’t personally agree with most of what Wilson himself believes (see this long series of posts on creation/evolution for more on that), the biggest problem I have with his book really comes from the next few sentences. They read:
“Ethics is a code of behavior we share on the basis of reason, law, honor, and an inborn sense of decency, even as some ascribe it to God’s will.” (p. 4)
In a nutshell, the biggest problem I have with this book is that Wilson’s own position seems so contradictory. He does not believe in God, he sees all earth’s life as the product of merely scientific processes, and yet he speaks of morality and even of the spiritual throughout the book. What is the spiritual if we are only the result biological and chemical processes? Where does morality come from if there is nothing higher? And with regard to the particular argument of this book, why should we work to preserve one particular environment and set of creatures on earth when Wilson himself admits that they have been constantly changing throughout earth’s history?
I will come back to these questions in a minute, but I do want to acknowledge up front that not everything in this book is worthless. While I find Wilson’s own position frustrating and contradictory, he actually raises some really good points when it comes to his opponent’s position and I think he can give us Christians much to consider when it comes to our own approach to the environment. He at times caricaturizes his opponent and even seems to mock Christian positions, which I don’t think helps his argument at all since his stated goal is to win Christians over in the first against environmental change, but if we can see through all this, he has a few good points that are worth considering.
I suspect that all that I have to say will take multiple posts. I would like to begin in this one with the parts that irritated me the most, namely Wilson’s own position.
As I said above, Wilson appeals to morality a lot. I just cannot see where this morality comes from if there is no higher power. In the quote above, he spoke of “reason” and “an inborn sense of decency.” Later on the same page he says, “You and I and every other human being strive for the same imperatives of security, freedom of choice, personal dignity, and a cause to believe in that is larger than ourselves” (p. 4). There is a lot here to unpack and I hardly know where to begin. To begin with, I dispute the argument that all of humanity shares these same values. These seem like very western values to me. If recent history has shown us anything, it should be that not all people’s strive for and claim freedom like we Americans do. Many of our international troubles seem to stem from our mistaken belief that other people groups want the same kind of freedom we have. When given the opportunity to vote, they often surprise us by picking what we would call repressive regimes. Similarly, I am not sure that personal dignity is a world-wide value. The US more than anywhere else perhaps is about the individual, but other cultures are much more focused on the community and care much less about the individual person.
With regard to the cause larger than ourselves, we may ask if it matters at all what this cause is? Or is it enough to have a cause and yours is equally as valid as mine? Wilson makes it clear that his cause is preservation of the environment as it now stands and this book is his impassioned appeal on its behalf. But where do these causes come from? If we are the product of only impersonal processes, how do we develop the traits Wilson ascribes to us, the need for freedom, dignity, and something to believe in, among others? If I start from purely evolutionary presuppositions, I can see how some “values” might develop. The need for security, for instance, seems obvious. To pass on his or her genes, an individual must have some sense of self-preservation. And I could see that values which benefit the community might also be selected for. But where do we get “freedom of choice” and that larger cause bit? In the earlier quote, Wilson had mentioned reason, but how and why should we trust our reason if it too is only the product of numerous chemical reactions over the course of millenia? If I am a perfectly normal, reasonable person but you are a raving lunatic, why is my logic and better than yours? Who’s to say the future will not be owned by the raving lunatics? They are more likely to kill the rest of us off after all.
There is one value for which Wilson attempts to provide a scientific reason. That is what he calls “biophilia,” that is, our innate love of other species (p. 63). Wilson shows that people of all cultures, when given a choice. prefer to live on a height, near water, looking down on a lightly treed landscape. It is easy to see how evolution might have favored such people. He makes a decent case that a natural setting is a healthy habitation for human beings and that we still respond positively to natural surroundings. I feel like he drops the ball a little on connecting this back to biophilia and why we should also prefer other living creatures, but I can at least see where he is going with it all. If Wilson had left it at that, and argued that we have an inborn drive to prefer other species, that they, in their very abundance, benefit us as a species, he might have made a decent point. When he tries to refer to other “values” that he presumes we share, like honor and freedom, I think he takes the point too far and he ends up with not much to stand on since he can’t say where all these values come from or what makes one better than another.
I think Wilson also hurts his own argument when he speaks, as he does a number of times, of the spiritual. Whatever he personally believes, he writes as one who is a pure scientist, who sees no role for the divine, whatever form it may take, in the development of the earth and its creatures. And yet he seems unable to make his argument without appealing to something higher. He says that:
“The spiritual roots of Homo sapiens extend deep into the natural world through still mostly hidden channels of mental development. We will not reach our full potential without understanding the origin and hence meaning of the aesthetic and religious qualities that make us ineffably human.” (p. 12)
He goes on to speak of “our souls” (p. 13) and the “wonder that shaped the human psyche at its birth” (p. 12). What on earth do these terms, soul especially, mean when we are not more than biological organisms? Still later he speaks of “the mystery of the world” and certain creatures which he considers “jewels in the crown of Creation. Just to know they are out there alive and well is important to the spirit, to the wholeness of our lives” (p. 58).
Wilson speaks rapturously of science, seeing it as the pinnacle humanity has reached after “the long, torturous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion” (p. 105). He says that it “makes no claims beyond what can be sensed in the real world. It generates knowledge in the most productive ad unifying manner contrived in history, and it serves humanity with obeisance to any particular tribal deity” (p. 106). Despite these grand claims, the fact is that Wilson himself cannot seem to help referencing terms of a spiritual nature, things that he and his science cannot define or prove the existence of.
Wilson is clearly passionate about his discipline. This shows when he talks of the ants (his area of specialty) he has studied and when he talks of how we should introduce children to nature. I also think his goal, the stewardship of the earth (yes, he uses the word stewardship; I thought only Christians threw that term around these days), is a noble one. Where he fails is in showing me why someone coming from his point of view, someone who relies only on science and who does not (openly) acknowledge the divine in any form, should care.
Wilson makes a good case that humans have had a big impact of nature. I think it would be hard to deny this. Animals may affect their environments but they have not done so and cannot do so in anything like the way people do. We shape, mold, transform, and yes, often destroy our environments. Though we may have adapted to live in certain conditions, we also adapt the world to suit us, living in places that would otherwise be uninhabitable to us. What Wilson fails to account for is how this is even possible. Why do humans rise above the rest of the creatures? What makes us different? Wilson clearly has a sense that there is something that sets us apart. That is why he speaks as he so often does of the soul and the spirit. But without any religion, he is left foundering and contradicting himself.
If evolution is all there is, then humanity is only part of the process and we have no reason even to think that we are the culmination of it all. The fact is there have been mass extinctions in the history of the earth (Wilson addresses this on p. 73). Why is it bad if there is another? I know it takes a long time for the earth to come back after each of these but if that is the process, if it is impersonal, why should we care? I can’t help picturing in my head some sort of cartoon with dinosaurs telling each other they need to eat fewer plants (or fewer of each other) so that they will not die out — after all, we are the climax of evolution. Setting aside for a moment the catastrophic scenario, if the earth is changing, getting warmer they say, whether it is human-caused or not, won’t the animals and plants adapt? Isn’t that what they have always done? Why is today’s monkey more to be valued than tomorrow’s? To return to the problem of morality, if there is no one in charge, if creation is just impersonal forces, just physical laws and chemical reactions by the ba-zillions, why should one environment or one set of species be preferred over another? We have no basis on which to judge that this scenario is good and that one is bad. Oh, we could argue that this or that is better for the human species’ survival. Wilson comes close to that when he discusses getting rid of head lice and mosquitos (two species even he could do without; p. 35), but for the most part his argument is not that we should be so self-serving. Honestly, I would have respected that argument more. Instead he tries to appeal to our common values, as he defines them, and his argument falls flat.
I realize this has been a pretty negative post. I can’t say this is a book I would recommend because I feel it has so many weaknesses and I don’t think it achieves its stated goal which is to convince Christians to help preserve the environment. If anything, I as a Christian am frustrated by what I see as the inconsistencies in Wilson’s own position and turned off by the way he talks to Christians and at times inaccurately and mockingly portrays their positions. If one can see through all this, there are some good points Wilson makes and I do think that for Christians there are some very good reasons to take care of the earth. These I will touch on next time.