A plea for the salvation of life on earth

At this fall’s Swope Lecture, Edward O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist and oft acknowledged successor to Darwin, called on practitioners of science and faith to unite in an effort of religious intensity to save the Creation

Dear Pastor:
We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. As a boy, I too answered the altar call; I went under the water. Although I no longer belong to that faith, I am confident that if we met and spoke privately of our deepest beliefs, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and good will. I know we share many precepts of moral behavior. Perhaps it matters that we are both Americans and, insofar as it might still affect civility and good manners, we are both Southerners.

I write to you now for your counsel and help. Of course, in doing so, I see no way to avoid the fundamental differences in our respective worldviews. You are a literalist interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture. You reject the conclusion of science that mankind evolved from lower forms. You believe that each person’s soul is immortal, making this planet a way station to a second, eternal life. Salvation is assured those who are redeemed in Christ.

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. The human species has adapted physically and mentally to life on Earth and no place else. Ethics is the 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.

For you, the glory of an unseen divinity; for me, the glory of the universe revealed at last. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You have found your final truth; I am still searching. I may be wrong; you may be wrong. We may both be partly right. …

Let us see, then, if we can, and you are willing, to meet on the near side of metaphysics in order to deal with the real world we share. …

Pastor, we need your help. The Creation—living Nature—is in deep trouble.

So began E.O. Wilson on Sept. 26, reading from the first chapter of the most recent of his 21 books, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, which takes the form of a long letter to a

Baptist minister. Wilson has written previously about the convergence of physical laws and spiritual ideas, but with The Creation he homes in on the joined capacity of science and religion—“the two most powerful forces in the world today”—to compel change before it is too late.

To a packed house in the university concert hall, the man who has been a Harvard professor for 50 years made his case: The “depth and complexity of living nature still exceeds human imagination,” he said. About 1.5 million species of plants and animals are known to science. But estimates put the remaining uncataloged species—in the tropical rain forests, below the polar ice caps, deep in the earth—at 10 times that number. And that’s not even counting the 100-million-or-so species of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. Each of these evolved independently for a special purpose, helping nature achieve what he called “sustainability through complexity.” We don’t even yet know how important the interconnectivity of all life is.

But the prognosis for this wild diversity is not good. Taking the tone of a biblical narrative, Wilson said the human species has brought upon the Earth plagues of habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, human overpopulation, and overharvesting. “Think of a HIPPO,” said Wilson, who, ever the teacher, offered the acronym to help the audience remember the five plagues—the order of the letters corresponding to their rank in destructiveness.

“We are the giant meteorite of our time,” he warned. The effects of climate change alone make us “the first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force.”

When a species dies out—and, at the present pace, 50 percent of plants and animals will be extinct or nearly so by the end of the century—we lose a part of the Creation forever.

Which is a moral tragedy, of course, and something religious groups and all people should care about on ethical grounds, Wilson said, but it is also an economic and scientific tragedy, considering the undiscovered medical and agricultural knowledge that is lost forever with each vanished species. How many organisms such as the Pacific yew, the tree that is the source of the anticancer agent taxol, will be eradicated before we have the chance to find them?

The fate of the Creation is the fate of humanity, and the world needs evangelists for nature, Wilson said. There’s still hope if we act with an effort of religious intensity in several areas of concentration:

  1. Help the poor. About 5 percent of the Earth’s land is burned every year, this mostly in undeveloped countries for subsistence-farming. “The great challenge of the 21st century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living, while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible,” he said. “The natural environment can’t survive the press of land-hungry people [upwards of 1 billion of them] who don’t have anywhere else to go to survive.”

  2. Stabilize human population growth. Already there are encouraging signs. In nations where women have life-options beyond child-rearing, the birth rate is creeping downward. In some countries it is now less than 1.5 children per family. As undeveloped countries catch up in economic development, Wilson predicted, birth rates there also will decline. Worldwide human population will top out at about 9 billion and then recede.

  3. Preserve what’s left of the Creation. Contain the growth of human settlements and identify and protect biological “hot spots,” the places of greatest biodiversity. Groups such as Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund already are at work. The cost for all this would not be excessive on a global scale, a one-time outlay of about $30 billion, according to estimates. And Wilson is optimistic that some species on the brink of extinction can be rescued. He pointed to successful interventions with California condors, American bison, and others. With a wink he mentioned recent sightings of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct. “Stay tuned,” he said.

  4. Learn about the Creation. Since 2002, Wilson has been promoting the idea of building an “encyclopedia of life,” a massive online database with a peer-reviewed page for every living thing. “Only with such encyclopedic knowledge can ecology mature as a science and acquire predictive power species by species, thence ecosystem by ecosystem,” he said.

As an observer of nature who is also a gifted essayist, Wilson has been compared to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Emerson who once wrote to a friend: “Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that … no one suspects the days to be gods.” E.O. Wilson may at last be closing the void between practitioners of the spiritual and the empirical, for the good of the planet.

— Chuck Luce