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God Is Green

By Matthew Scully

The New York Times Book Review

September 10, 2006

 

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by Edward O. Wilson (W.W. Norton & Company)

 

In the academic habitat of evolutionary scientists, religious sympathies are weeded out over time, and the fittest survive to pass along their traits through haughty books and lectures examining the “delusion” and purely biological origins of faith. So when an eminent evolutionary biologist breaks from the pack to address religious folk in warm and respectful terms, this is what’s known in the field as “punctuated” change — a sudden and, in this case, pleasant variation.

 

There is good reason for the friendlier tone, explains Edward O. Wilson in this engaging and gracious book. A renowned entomologist and Harvard professor emeritus, Wilson has warned for years, in books like The Future of Life (2002), of global warming, mass extinction and other troubles of humanity’s own making. But these works were addressed largely to fellow environmentalists, and that approach will get you only so far.

 

More out of habit than considered judgment, Wilson believes, many religious people and especially conservative Christians tend to brush off environmental causes as liberal alarmism, vaguely subversive, and in any case no concern of theirs. Wilson’s book is a polite but firm challenge to this mind-set, seeking to ally religion and science — “the two most powerful forces in the world today” — in an ethic of “honorable” self-restraint toward the natural world.

 

In learned and congenial prose (I understand now how a book called The Ants could win a Pulitzer Prize), Wilson casts his appeal as a letter to an imaginary Baptist minister from the South. As a boy in Alabama, Wilson recalls, he too “answered the altar call,” and though today a “secular humanist” he proposes to the pastor that as gentlemen and Southerners they lay aside principled disagreements about evolution and intelligent design. We do not need to answer or agree upon every mystery of the universe to confront problems that are, by any account, serious and urgent. Some will see in the natural world a divine creation, and the Lord of Life who makes nothing in vain. Enough for others “living Nature,” every plant or animal a “masterpiece of biology,” as Wilson writes. “Does this difference in worldview separate us in all things?” he asks. “It does not. ... 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.”

 

Looking around the real world, we find “the rest of life” vanishing. Half of all species — from the glorious tigers and elephants to the lowlier “little things that run the world” — could be gone forever by the century’s end, leaving only the genetic codes that wildlife biologists have stored away. No lions left to lie down with the lamb.

 

About “5 percent of the Earth’s land surface is burned every year” to make way for cattle and crops, helping to fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases “sufficient to destabilize the climates of the entire planet.” Throw in the effects of industrial pollution, merciless hunting and commercial fishing practices, invasive species showing up everywhere, and the unyielding demands of human development, and we are “the first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force.” In case you missed the hint, “we are the giant meteorite of our time,” doing grave injury to the biosphere upon which we and all life depend. As other creatures are brushed aside or driven off, humanity could soon enter “what poets and scientists alike may choose to call the Eremozoic Era — the Age of Loneliness.”

 

For those unmoved by the thought, Wilson reminds us of the unnumbered “opportunity costs” to science, medicine and agriculture with every departed species. He proposes a sensible objective — “to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible” — and to this end would expand marine sanctuaries and protect biological “hot spots” like the Amazon and Congolese forests. In general he advises an attitude of care and humility toward the natural world, which should have a familiar ring to the pastor, and a prudent stance of “existential conservatism.”

 

An actual minister of the gospels would not care for the meteorite imagery — although when you think about it, the biblical narrative ascribes far worse habits and transgressions to humanity than anything an environmentalist can come up with. Presumption, pride, gluttony and cruelty figure prominently in the story, and it’s not such a stretch to imagine they might have something to do with our modern ecological troubles as well. For authority on this point, Wilson could have cited (though for some reason didn’t) an impressive array of contemporary Christian thinkers. For instance: “Instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.” This single sentence from Pope John Paul II, deploring “the senseless destruction of the natural environment,” could serve as a dust-jacket summary of Wilson’s book.

 

In his own defense, however, the pastor might reasonably wonder just how Wilson managed to wring all of these praiseworthy moral sentiments from evolutionary biology. The “universal values,” sense of “honor” and “inborn sense of decency” to which Wilson appeals are of no traceable origin in the blindly amoral operations of natural selection. And grandiose attempts to explain conscience and reason in purely biological and material terms still leave us with little in the way of moral guidance — without a firm obligation to care for the earth and for our fellow creatures. It may be, the good pastor could reply, that Judeo-Christian thought itself is a kind of moral biosphere from which this and all good causes continue to draw, with or without acknowledgment, and that more deference is due from scientists on that account alone.

 

Such minor quarrels aside, “The Creation” is the wise and lovely work of a truly learned man, filled with a spirit that readers of every stripe will recognize as reverence.

 

Matthew Scully, a former senior speechwriter for President Bush, is the author of “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.”

   
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