Wilson, E. O. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.
The premise of the book is that it is a letter to a Southern Baptist pastor. Interlaced with the letter are pictures of nature, including rainforests, butterflies, bacteria, birds, fish, diagrams of insects, and maps to show biodiversity. Wilson is trying to appeal to the Southern Baptist pastor through scientific facts. The pictures and diagrams are to support Wilson’s argument that biodiversity is disappearing and to illustrate that we are the cause.
The author, E. O. Wilson, was raised as a Southern Baptist in Birmingham, Alabama. His biography in the back of the book says he “was lastingly influenced by the lyrical and spiritual power of evangelical Christianity,” (174). Alongside of his religious influences he has extensively studied evolutionary biology and describes himself as being informed by Scientific Humanism. Throughout his career he has been focused on scientific research and teaching. He has been significantly shaped by both science and religion.
To start the letter Wilson locates both himself and the pastor he is addressing. He draws on their similarities by highlighting that he himself had grown up in the Christian faith. He explains that he had, “…answered the altar call…” and “…went under the water…,” (3). He also highlights that they are both American and southerners. Wilson then goes on to explain their differences in worldviews. He describes the pastor as a, “…literalist interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture,” (3) and himself as a secular humanist. Wilson describes himself as one who thinks existence is what individuals make of it for themselves. He believes there is no guarantee of life after death and that heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves on this planet. He says, “There is not other home,” (4). He continues to describe the pastor as one who rejects the conclusions of science that people originated from evolution, believes the person’s soul is immortal, and sees this planet as a way station to a second eternal life (3).
Wilson’s main appeal for the book is to set aside these differences in order to save the Creation. He appeals to pastor by saying, “Pastor, we need your help. The creation-living nature-is in deep trouble,” (4). The main idea for the book/letter is that human activities are having a destructive effect on the planet. The plant and animal species are disappearing. He wants to unite religion and science because they are what he describes as, “…the two most powerful forces in the world today, including especially the United States,” (5). He poses that if these two forces were united in biological conservation, then the problem would soon be solved. His purpose in writing the letter to the Southern Baptist pastor is to argue the scientific side of why they should unite.
He argues against a human centered rapture theology because it leaves out all other species of life along with the ideas of hope and compassion. He offers another ethic with the goal of raising people everywhere to a decent standard of living while also preserving as much of the rest of life as possible (6).
Wilson begins his argument with a brief history of nature. He makes a comparison of nature, as it was before humanity, to Eden. With this comparison he points out that our original sin is the destruction of nature. He asserts that, “Civilization was purchased by the betrayal of Nature,” (11). He goes on to explain that it is dangerous for humans to continue this destruction of Earth because it is the only environment in which we are suited to survive (11) and that as humanity we have spiritual roots in the natural world (12).
The book is still divided into chapters although overall it is written in letter form. The third chapter takes on the task of defining the term Nature. It begins with Nature being defined as, “…that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact. Nature is all on planet Earth that has no need of us and can stand alone,” (15). Wilson points out that a major problem with this definition is that there is not much left on Earth that remains untouched by humans. Humanity has altered the planet (17). He points out that some wilderness remains in the tropical forest of the Amazon Basin, Congolian Basin, and New Guinea but they are not much in comparison to what used to be here. On the other hand though, he points out that micro-wildernesses of insects and bacteria are all around, even in the most trampled of places. He describes that when these micro-wildernesses are given space and opportunity, they are able to pave the way for wilderness to return.
Another piece of Wilson’s argument for saving Creation is because it is in humanity’s best self-interest. He explains that,
Earth provides a self-regulation bubble that sustains us indefinitely without any thought or contrivance on our own. This protective shield is the biosphere, the totality of all life, creator of all air, cleanser of all water, manager of all soil. But itself a fragile membrane that barely clings to the face of the planet. Upon its delicate health we depend for every moment of our lives ( 27).
Humanity is completely dependent on Earth. It is our own best interest that we protect the planet because we are suited to live here and not anywhere else. We need the planet to be healthy for ourselves to be healthy.
Wilson goes on to explain the importance of bio-diversity and why it is a large problem that so many species are being lost. One explanation highlights that a loss of species equals a loss of sources for scientific information and sources for biological wealth. These include undiscovered medicines, crops, timbers, fibers, petroleum substitutes, and other important amenities (30). To further illustrate his point he some examples of species leading to medical treatments. For example, Rosy Periwinkle, a weed from Madagascar, provides a cure for some cases of Hodgkin’s disease by using its alkaloids (31). Also saliva from leeches has led to a solvent that prevents blood clots from forming before and after surgery (31).
He continues his argument for bio-diversity by arguing that, “…the power of living Nature lies in sustainability through complexity,” (32). He explains that if it is degraded through the loss of species into a simpler state then the most complex organisms (i.e. us) are most likely to be affected. He further makes this point by illustrating that we need insects to survive, but they do not need us for their survival. We need to care for Earth’s smallest inhabitants because they are an essential piece of life.
Laying out all of these problems Wilson talks about the planet by saying, “She speaks to us; now let us listen,” (36). He is trying to explain that these problems will not solve them selves but instead require our cooperation and attention. He goes on to explain the dangers that increased globalization and international commerce have posed. They have allowed the travel of non-native species around the world. These species become invasive and push out the native species. To further illustrate this major problem he walks the reader through the case study of fire ants and how they have spread throughout the Southern United States, Mexico, Caribbean, even California. When species travel to a new ecosystem and are without predators to keep them in check they can easily wipe out other species. This is a leading cause of extinction today.
Wilson’s argument moves from bio-diversity to talk about humanity’s relationship with Nature. He asserts that, “Our relationship to Nature is primal,” (62). We are deeply connected to nature in our conscious. He explains this pull using the term biophilia. Biophilia is the “…the innate tendency to affiliate with life and life like processes,” (63). Academic disciplines such as environmental Psychology and Conservation Psychology have arisen from study on these thoughts (63). Wilson poses that as this study of Psychology and humans’ connection to nature grows that our ethic will shift as well. He believes, “…we will come full circle to cherish all of life—not just our own,” (69).
Part II of the letter goes on to explore the decline and redemption. Wilson’s focus is on how humanity is destroying the creation. He sets up this portion of the letter by stating, “Blinded by ignorance and self-absorption, humanity is destroying the creation, but there is still time to assure the stewardship of the natural world that we owe to future human generations,” (71). This portion of the letter continues to illustrate the problems humans are causing creation but also where we can go from here.
This discussion begins with a review of Earth’s history, focusing on the five major extinction periods and their causes. Wilson then proposes that humans are beginning to cause a sixth (73-74). He lays out the five main causes of the decline in Earth’s biodiversity using the acronym HIPPO. They stand for: Habitat loss, Invasive species, Pollution, human over Population, and Over harvesting. It usually only takes two of these factors for a species to go extinct (75). Wilson explains that scientists estimate that over 100 species in the United States have vanished (74). The highest rate of loss can be found within fresh water ecosystems. Wilson points out that scientists also estimate, “…that at least on land and in freshwater ecosystems, ongoing extinctions are very roughly 100x higher than before the arrival of modern Homosapiens about 150,000 years ago,” (79).
He argues against a philosophy of exemptionalism because it places humans above Nature. Wilson says that we cannot deny the loss of species nor can we think that the zoos are able to save them all. He states that, “There is no solution available, I assure you, to save Earth’s biodiversity other than the preservation of natural environments in reserves large enough to maintain wild populations sustainably. Only nature can serve as the planetary ark,” (89).
Wilson highlights the efforts of the global community as many nations have taken the beginning steps in conserving biodiversity by signing the Convention on Biodiversity. The United States is not one of those nations (93). Over all Wilson points out that when it comes to the bottom line it would be a relatively trivial cost for the market economy to work on saving Earth’s flora and fauna. It would be immensely profitable for the natural economy. (97-98).
In section III Wilson explains the complexity of the scientific disciplines. He talks about how they are interrelated and connected. One thing, he says that unites them is the scientific method (104). This is a relatively short portion of the letter, which focuses on the complexity of Biology. Wilson explains how as scientists learn more about the biological world, more disciplines become involved.
Section IV focuses on the need for better scientific education. Wilson lays out his method for science education as one that has worked for him. He wants people to be educated about science so that they too may develop a love for the natural world. He believes that understanding leads to appreciation.
Overall he is appealing to the religious world to work with the scientific world, despite their differences, to save creation. He closes the letter by saying that saving creation is an obligation we are both morally bound to share (168). Although the two sides may not agree on how life has come to be on Earth he proposes that they both are obligated to preserve and save the life that is here.