E.O. Wilson Hopes Christians Will Join in Preserving All God’s Creation
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. It’s hard to picture, if you know him only by his scientific reputation, but E.O. Wilson confesses it freely: He loves watching preachers on television.
Wilson is an internationally renowned biologist who has based his extraordinarily productive five-decade career at that great bastion of secular humanism, Harvard University. At 77, his work and his worldview are so thoroughly entwined with Darwinian theory that they’re impossible to imagine without it. His reverence is for the wondrous creatures and intricate interconnections of the natural world, not for any supreme being.
So what’s he doing tuning in those evangelical sermons from the megachurches?
“I listen to them the way an Italian listens to opera,” Wilson confesses with a lopsided grin. “I may be thinking of the texts as fiction, but I can’t resist the old-time rhythm, the music and the superlative performances.”
These rhythmic exhortations are the stuff of Wilson’s childhood. He may have put aside the Southern Baptist faith into which he was born — and, as a teenager, born again — but he has retained his emotional ties to the culture surrounding it. All of which helps explain the herculean task he recently assigned himself:
He’s trying to bridge the gap between science and religion in the hope of saving life on Earth.
The vehicle is his new book, “The Creation.” Wilson chose the title because he knew it would resonate with evangelical Christians, a community so vast and influential that without its support, he believes, reaching the goal will be next to impossible. And he chose to present his argument in the form of a letter to a fictional Southern Baptist minister.
If you called it a sermon, he wouldn’t object.
“Pastor, we need your help,” Wilson writes. “The Creation — living Nature — is in deep trouble.” At the present rate of destructive human activity, “half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century.”
It’s not that this looming catastrophe is news; Wilson and many others have sounded alarms about it for years. What’s new is his personal outreach program. Since “The Creation” was published this month, Wilson has been taking every chance he gets to extend the hand of friendship across that yawning science-religion divide. Tonight at 7:30, he’s scheduled to address the subject at Washington National Cathedral.
Why? Because to him, science and religion are “the two most powerful forces in the world today” — and they need each other.
Don’t get him wrong. He’s not trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.
He’s saying: Let’s put our differences aside. “We’ve got a job to get done.”
‘A Normal Boy, Within Reason’
Go looking for Ed Wilson in the slightly shabby maze that is Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and you’re likely to be told: “He’s in the Ant Room.”
He’s happy to show you around.
“One of the marks of a great university,” he says, “is that it’s full of treasures nobody ever sees.” Sure enough, hidden in rows of steel cabinets, housed in a space no bigger than a tract mansion’s master bedroom, are . . . a million dead ants. Lovingly labeled and impaled on pins, they form the largest collection in the world; they’re one of the reasons Wilson chose to stay at Harvard, decades ago, when Stanford tried to lure him away.
With Wilson, everything starts with ants.
Oh, he’s moved way beyond them, in a career noted for its repeated attempts at cosmic syntheses. But if he’d published nothing at all beyond his work on ants, he’d still be in the top ranks of modern biology. To take just one example, Wilson figured out how ants communicate through taste and smell — how they “talk” to each other by means of pheromones.
A remarkable discovery. But it’s a bit less surprising if you consider that at the age of 9, he was keeping harvester ants in a sand-filled jar under his bed so he could observe their excavations. That at 13, he made the first recorded observation of the fire ant Solenopsis invicta in the United States. And that as a 19-year-old student at the University of Alabama, he was hired by the Alabama Department of Conservation to evaluate the impact of fire ants on the state’s agriculture.
“I was a normal boy, within reason,” Wilson writes in his autobiography, “Naturalist.” True enough, if by normal you mean a boy whose parents divorced at a time and place where this was still a rarity; a boy whose father’s job changes put him in 14 schools in 11 years; a boy who compensated for the lack of long-term friendships by immersing himself in the natural world.
It wasn’t just ants. He plunged into any natural habitat within bicycle reach: streambeds, woodlands and swamps replete with such exotica as pileated woodpeckers, orchids, alligators, bats and skinks — all the while dreaming “of being a real explorer.”
For a long time he was obsessed with snakes. “Don’t ever handle a live one!” warned a field guide of the deadly cottonmouth moccasin, yet Wilson did so frequently, “with the fifteen-year-old’s naive confidence that I would never make a mistake.”
Squeamish readers of “Naturalist” might want to avoid Chapter 6, in which he describes a foolhardy attempt to hold on to a wildly struggling five-foot cottonmouth “with a body as thick as my arm and a head the size of my fist.”
The snake almost won.
Most of Wilson’s childhood was spent along the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida, but when he was 10, his father moved the family briefly to Washington. This proved a paradise of a different kind. He spent countless hours prowling Rock Creek Park, but he also had access to the National Zoo and — a five-cent trolley ride away — the National Museum of Natural History.
“I would stand in the rotunda,” he recalls, “and I would look up and I knew that on the upper floors up there were the gods of my universe. They were the curators and scientists who collected beetles and watched birds and went to far off lands in South America and the South Pacific.
“And I thought, ‘What a great thing to be able to do!’ ”
‘Boy, Was I Ever Wrong’
The term “biodiversity” hadn’t been invented when Wilson arrived at Harvard in 1951 to begin work on his doctorate. He didn’t worry about saving the creation: He just wanted to explore it.
Blessed with three years of essentially unlimited funding, he soon took off for Mexico, the West Indies and then the South Pacific, reveling in the kind of Darwinesque biologizing soon to become scientifically obsolete. He was on his own, with “no high-technology instruments, only a hand lens, forceps, specimen vials, notebooks, quinine, sulfanilamide, youth, desire, and unbounded hope.”
Thus armed, he launched a career with too many high points to be easily summarized. For one thing, he’s the rare scientist who has both dug deep and theorized broadly.
“There are very few people who can do both,” says current Natural History director Cristian Samper. “One of the things I greatly admire about Ed is that even though he’s such a broad thinker and a gifted writer, he still, at the core, has his work on ants.”
Ask Wilson to name peak achievements and he mentions the observations he made, in his South Pacific work, about the way dominant groups of ants arose and spread from island to island. This led to a collaboration with “an extraordinary young ecologist, Robert MacArthur,” to produce “The Theory of Island Biogeography.”
He mentions his work on pheromones; his invention, with others, of the new discipline of population biology; and his proposal, in 1971, of “a science of sociobiology” in which “we can put together almost everything we know about social insects — ants, bees, wasps and termites — into a single discipline.”
And he recaps the firestorm he sparked when he threw a chapter into his 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” suggesting that human behavior was subject to the same kind of genetic determinants he’d been exploring in the animal kingdom.
Naively, he says, he had failed to understand how fiercely protective social scientists and academic Marxists would be of the behavioral “blank slate” theory, the idea that “the mind is completely formed by experience and by culture.”
Scholarly opponents denounced him as a racist and sexist reactionary. Radical protesters dumped ice water on him at a meeting in Washington, chanting “Wilson, you’re all wet.”
He dried off and soldiered on. In 1978’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “On Human Nature,” he says, he tried harder to incorporate social science into his thinking and to explain that he’d never believed in what he was being accused of believing: total biological determinism, the idea that humans “were just puppets.”
It’s worth remembering, while contemplating the breadth and depth of Wilson’s accomplishments, that he’s had to contend with something else at least as formidable as the angry opposition to sociobiology. He’d set out to make it as an old-fashioned biologist in the 1950s, just as James Watson and Francis Crick solved the riddle of DNA. Soon, molecular biologists — the new gods of the scientific universe — began scooping up resources and faculty appointments.
But what he calls “molecular triumphalism” came with a silver lining. “The unpopularity of organismic and evolutionary biology,” he explains, “provided me with enormous opportunities.” With fewer competitors, he felt like a prospector alone on a gold field, able to strike out in any direction he chose.
What could be better?
Except that as Wilson continued to pile up scientific achievements, their source — the natural world — was discovered to be under siege.
By the 1970s, he had traveled enough in the tropics and heard enough warnings from colleagues to know that species and habitat loss was becoming an urgent problem. At first, he thought scientists should keep out of the political arena. “Boy, was I ever wrong,” he says now. “I realized that, like these fictional scientists who discover a meteorite headed toward Earth, the scientists better speak up.”
In “The Creation,” he lays out the grim scenario.
Precise measurement is difficult, but the extinction rate is vastly higher — somewhere between 50 and 500 times as high — than it was before Homo sapiens showed up, and it’s rising fast.
By 2050, according to estimates Wilson cites, climate change alone could account for “extinction of a quarter of the species of plants and animals on the land.” And that’s without factoring in other causes of species loss: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, human overpopulation and overharvesting.
One consequence of inaction, Wilson notes, is that in less than 20 years, the decline in freshwater ecosystems could leave 40 percent of the world’s population facing chronic water scarcity. Peter Seligmann, CEO of Conservation International — on whose board Wilson sits — outlines another this way: “Loss of forest means loss of insects; loss of insects means loss of pollinators; loss of pollinators means loss of food, crops . . . ”
The good news? Much progress could be made by protecting what conservation biologists call “hot spots,” those areas — covering less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface — where endangered species are most highly concentrated.
The bad news? As a threat, biodiversity loss is much harder to explain than climate change (though the science behind biodiversity hasn’t generated as much controversy). This complexity makes it more difficult to get people’s attention.
Small wonder Wilson decided that scientists need allies wherever they can be found.
” ‘God made the Creation, you say. This truth is plainly stated in Holy Scripture.’ ”
The Rev. Richard Cizik is reading aloud from Wilson’s book.
” ‘ . . . But no, I say, respectfully: Life was self-assembled by random mutation and natural selection of the codifying molecules.’ ”
Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, is holding forth from a couch in the association’s modest Southwest Washington office. Asked about Wilson’s decision to be straightforward about the gap between the scientific and evangelical worldviews, the pastor has thumbed quickly through his bound galley of “The Creation” to find a passage that spells them out.
The point he’s making is the same as Wilson’s: We know we have differences. But that doesn’t mean we can’t share concerns.
Like Wilson, Cizik used to think political action on the environment “isn’t our fight.” Then, in 2002 — at the urging of the Rev. Jim Ball, who heads a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network — he flew to England to attend a conference on climate change. Absorbing everything he could about the threat of global warming, he “came away converted.”
Evangelicals, Cizik says, “have begun to speak out on these issues in our own voice. Which is to say not as environmentalists but as evangelical Christians who care about creation.”
Cizik is speaking in his personal voice here, not for the National Association of Evangelicals’ roughly 30 million members. Evangelicals are far from united on this topic, and since he threw himself into the climate change issue, he’s been attacked — by the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, among others — for what amounts to consorting with the enemy.
Part of the conflict is generational, Cizik says. To the older generation, which identifies “enviros” with the political left, “this is a bridge too far. After all, you could lose your faith or something! Hang out with those guys and you’ll slippery-slide your way into evolution!”
But momentum, he believes, is on the side of engagement. In February, for example, 86 influential evangelical leaders joined forces to back what they called the Evangelical Climate Initiative, through which they will work to curtail global warming.
Introduced by a mutual friend, Cizik and Wilson met over lunch at the Cosmos Club last summer. Earlier this month, they exchanged views in an “e-conversation” on the Web site of Audubon magazine. The very idea of a rapprochement between evangelicals and secular scientists, Cizik wrote, “will send lobbyists for the status quo into overtime, if not apoplexy, to stop it from happening.”
Still, he believes that an alliance is “achievable” — and that Wilson’s book could not have come at a better time.
A Man’s Work
“I will not be a wimp,” Wilson is saying.
He’s in his office, just down the hall from the Ant Room, shelves lined with copies of his many books, including a stack of “The Creation.” He’s been asked about his decision — in a text explicitly designed to elicit cooperation from evangelicals — to offer a tour through modern biology in which the “fundamental law” of evolution by natural selection seems to crop up on every other page.
Yes, he’s trying to reach out. But he won’t “betray science or the Enlightenment” in the process.
That said, he thinks he’s uniquely positioned to be heard by a group he refers to, only half-joking, as “my people.”
He’s known from childhood that the evangelical movement “is far more flexible and far more devoted to spiritual searching and open to ideas” than you’d guess from listening to a few of its star performers.
Environmentalism has been stereotyped in its turn, he notes. Emerging as it did amid the revolts of the 1960s, “it got tied in politically and ideologically with the left,” which used it as a club “to beat big business and beat the capitalist system” — creating an anti-environmental backlash on the right.
Wilson doesn’t think business and the environment have to be enemies. That’s why he flew to Bentonville, Ark., with Conservation International’s Seligman a couple of years back to talk environmental protection with the family that owns Wal-Mart.
He’ll reach out to anyone if he thinks they can help the natural world — that many-splendored universe that long ago, as he roamed fields and swamps of the Gulf Coast, replaced religion as a focus for his spiritual impulses.
He summons a favorite saying from Camus that evokes a lifetime’s quest: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
One more question. What if we turned his bridge-building exercise around? What if Wilson’s mythical man of God got to address him about what they share and don’t share, and what they can do for the creation? Does he know what the pastor would say?
“I have an idea,” he replies. “And that would be: ‘Ayed’ — that’s how you say Ed in Alabama, two syllables — ‘I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I think you’re basically right.’ ”
The scientist is smiling now. It’s a prelude to an ecumenical laugh.
” ‘And I hope, as we work together, that you’re going to come back to Jesus.’ “
Sep. 20, 2006