Review: The Creation, by E.O. Wilson

October 13, 2009

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

E.O. Wilson, one of America's foremost scientists and secular humanists, has penned a moving appeal for religionist and scientist alike to set aside their differences and focus together on preserving Earth's biological diversity for the benefit of today's and future generations (which, in the case of many bacteria and insects, will also begin and end today). In a beautiful prose reminiscent – no doubt intentionally – of Aldo Leopold, Wilson moves directly to share his sense of awe in the face of nature, and the plain facts about what science has discovered about the state of our planet's biodiversity. He also writes of what we do not yet know: of the countless species yet identified, the relationships amongst them yet unrecognized, and the increasing need for citizen and scientist alike to pursue this knowledge.

As one long convinced of the scientific facts of humanity's destructiveness, and of the terrible tragedy this represents, I did not need Wilson's persuading. But I am convinced that he has taken the right approach, the right tone. He proceeds with respect. He does not water down, but does write in a language far simpler than many intellectual popular science books (such as his own difficult-to-read Consilience). He mixes fact with anecdote to keep the reader engaged.

If this formula does not succeed in engaging the drive to dialogue for both parties, then the biophillic may have lost one of their last hopes for a grand compromise. Of course they can always take the inside route – go religious, work that angle as apparently Bishop Spong does.

One of the unstated currents of The Creation is the sense of nearly-mystical ecstasy that can be found in the presence of nature. This is also a hallmark of Leopold's writing, and of the aforementioned Bishop Spong's. Set aside the "rational" arguments for cooperation between science and religion, and think on this description of the "charismatic experience" of religion, from Moojan Momen's The Phenomenon of Religion (p94):

"This experience makes those involved feel that a gift has been bestowed upon them. This gift may include a feeling of being in a 'wider life than that of this world's selfish interests,' a sense of being in continuity with the powers of the universe, and a sense of elation and joy as the sense of self and attachment to this world is abandoned. There is an inner equilibrium and calm. It has been described as the experience of saintliness."

This is the ecstasy, or going out of self, that so many religious writers emphasize. Working in a garden, hiking through the less-tamed natural areas, or gazing into a microscope at the diverse fauna of our own saliva, we can step out of our human shell, detached from our human games and "worldly" desires for a moment, feeling a sense of reverence, awe, and oneness in the presence of such diverse forms of life. Anecdote shows this; research proves it: people experiencing greater biodiversity are happier, are better able to overcome life's vicissitudes.

Wilson's common ground is thus not built solely on the unifying element of respect for and stewardship of the natural environment. There is also the commonality, at least in their morally highest representations, of religion and science both working to improve the livelihoods and the satisfaction of living beings, both working to ease our suffering and uplift our joy. Yes, much of "religion" is about the ease of suffering via a satisfying after-life, but every world religion also contains the strong call to compassion and charity in the here-and-know.

Science, as reviewed by Wilson, increasingly is showing a link between achievement of these aims and human exposure to diverse elements and forms of life. Thus if we wish to improve the common weal, we must preserve the biodiversity remaining on Earth, and even work to reverse the destruction we have already caused. And the time is now – we cannot afford to wait while we solve one or many of the Earth's and humanity's  many challenges. This too Wilson makes abundantly clear. We are on the edge of a precipice, and it will take our combined efforts to push us back into stability.

This is one of the most profound secular works I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it more highly. Some critics have labeled it condescending; I saw it as frank and straight-forward. If you have the means, please read The Creation, and then find ways to strengthen your commitment to the well-being of your fellow creatures on this God-given Earth.