Photo: Jim Harrison
In 1967, E.O. Wilson coauthored the book that founded island biogeography, a new field of scientific study. He could have retired then with a distinguished record.
Instead, in the ensuing four decades, he’s gone on to discover hundreds of new species, generate major advances in entomology, win the National Medal of Science and two Pulitzers, found yet another field of scientific study (sociobiology), and build bridges both between sciences and out of science to the humanities, with popular books like Biophilia (about innate love of nature) and Consilience (about the unity of knowledge). He’s also won a number of teaching awards over his more than 40 years at Harvard.
When I met him in the lobby of his hotel in Seattle, the 76-year-old Wilson had just come from two straight hours of speaking and answering questions before another group. Mere mortals might have pled exhaustion or begged off for a few minutes rest, but a few sips of coffee later, he was holding forth with characteristic wit, energy, and erudition. He is so gentlemanly and avuncular that the intern who transcribed this interview returned it with the note, “I want him to be my grandfather.”
In his latest book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, he turns that gentle, respectful attention to a Southern Baptist pastor, pleading for help in the fight to preserve what’s left of living nature.
What prompted you to write a letter to a pastor?
I was raised a Southern Baptist and rooted in that culture. I drifted away, but I understood it, and I enjoyed returning to it. It felt natural. The people are wonderful.
The main reason was that the reality finally dawned on me that the conservation movement in this country was being pressed by a rather small minority of people, most of whom are secular or liberal-religious. The vast majority of Americans are Judeo-Christian, many of those evangelical, [and they] are unconnected to the problems of conservation, especially global conservation, the loss of ecosystems and species which we have so well documented. It’s too remote to them. It’s not like global climate change — they understand that now, they care about it. It’s not like pollution — that’s obvious.
Here is a problem of great magnitude, and the losses caused by it are not reversible. I realized that it’s only when you can engage a larger part of the population that we’ll ever get any action on global conservation, as opposed to local in the United States. It further dawned on me that calling upon the great religious and primarily Judeo-Christian population of America, using the evangelicals apostrophically (that is, as a group to address) might get the kind of support most needed to start the process going, just through sheer numbers and moral energy and intensity.
That was the reason. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner, why others haven’t done it first. To offer a hand of friendship out of science, and out of the secular scientist community, in a tone of respect and caring. This is the only way to proceed, I think.
It’s interesting for me to hear you say that global climate change is a more tangible issue than species loss and habitat loss.
What’s hard for the average American to grip is why it matters to him and his family. You could tell him that 30 species of freshwater fish, millions of years old, could go extinct in the next 10 years. He’d say gee, that’s too bad, but it’s not threatening to me. My hope is that even if the connection is hard to see — it does take a little knowledge and thinking ahead — the ethical side is clear-cut.
Many people see it as purely altruistic.
I think I can show why it’s not just altruistic. Nonetheless, if strongly religious people are marked by any trait, it’s passion concerning personal beliefs.
What’s wrong with altruism?
You’ve been described variously as an atheist, an agnostic, and a deist. What’s your own history with religion?
We’re never going to learn to talk straight with one another until we stop being shy about stating our beliefs. I am not an atheist, because I don’t know if there’s a god or not. I’m not an agnostic; I don’t think it’s unknowable. I’m fairly sure that there’s not what I call a biological god, that is, one that is guiding the origin of life on earth or our personal affairs. There’s not a personal god. There’s not a shred of evidence.
But there could be a cosmological god; there could be something beyond our comprehension that started the universe. There are physicists who would say that’s a naive statement, but I can’t personally throw out the idea of a god.
So I come down to being what I call a provisional deist. That is, I’m willing to have you label me a deist, in the sense that there’s the possibility of a god who started it, but don’t call me a theist, which is a person who believes in a personal god. I’ve never seen any evidence of [a god] influencing any human being or the fate of humanity.
The book is an elegant description of the depth and variety of the living world, and warning it’s being lost and destroyed. But I wasn’t clear what about it was supposed to appeal to a religious sensibility.
There are three books in that short volume. The first is a description of the present status of biology, and the direction I think it’s going to be taking. Book two is a manual for how to teach and promote biology, and how to raise your child as a naturalist. That’s based on 41 years of experience as a professor at Harvard. The part about raising a naturalist — citizen science — was meant to point to something broader: how to get people back to natural history, to the living world. To show that the mapping of biodiversity and ecology is, like astronomy, something citizens can do — actually add to the corpus of scientific knowledge.
The third book is the one to the religious community. By addressing them specifically it says that we need help, that the small group of people who have that knowledge [of biodiversity], who are devoted to saving the creation, badly need help. They’re a very small percentage of the population. It seems to me the huge religious community might consider giving of themselves, and joining in a common effort that puts aside differences in worldview, postponing whatever culture war develops out of those, because religion and science are the two most powerful social forces in the world. That was why I addressed the Southern Baptist pastor: to get their attention, and in a very sincere, respectful way, ask for their help.
One of the central themes in your work, and particularly this book, is joy at the amazing complexity and specificity of life.
Its ability to surprise and delight.
But part of the appeal of the religious worldview is the simplicity it offers, the shelter from complexity and ambiguity. Will your message of complexity reach that audience?
It’ll reach part of it, because people have an innate attraction to nature. They delight in going into nature and finding surprising things, and in a healthful, calming environment. They may not have the true naturalist’s devotion to studying complexity and being surprised and delighted and proud at making discoveries — all the things that make a real obsessive naturalist like myself. But they can appreciate nature. It’s natural to them, and it’s almost universal. Relatively few are so cramped in their thinking, so closed in, that they would not appreciate that spiritual side of [nature].
In Consilience, you said that “science is religion liberated and writ large.” But many Christians don’t feel that way. They have notoriously battled science, particularly evolution. What has been lost in the translation?
That’s easy. And the answer helps explain why there are 5,000 members in the three largest humanist organizations and 30 million in the National Association of Evangelicals. What science does not give them is the ensemble of religious rites and mythologies which have been honed to perfection over millennia of cultural evolution. It does not give them what we are hard-wired to require: rites of passage, a sense of sacredness, goals larger than ourselves.
[Humanists] have those feelings in one form or another, but we cannot institutionalize them and we cannot sacralize them the way religions do. The joy, the sense of satisfaction secularists get from believing they are leading the good life in the real world has to be built up. It’s a learned response. Religious leaders can mainline all of that with one trip down to a tent at a religious revival.
A number of secular people wish there was such a thing as religion, with all the community and ritual, without the factual baggage.
Without a story of how the earth came into being, how people came into being, that is manifestly false.
It’s just too difficult. We just have not created anything that competes with the emotional power, the binding strength, provided by religion. Camille Paglia was complaining about the post-structuralists, who’d become enormously popular, and said something like, “3,000 years of Yahweh trumps a generation of Foucault.”
Do you think that aspect of secularism is a function of its being so young, relatively speaking, or is it something deeper than that?
Both. The religious rapture people feel is likely to escape the secular rationalist for all his life.
One of the main functions of religion is the binding function, the pulling together of communities into tight, uniformly believing groups. That gives survival value, over those who do not bind closely or those who prefer to be solitary. The best way to do it is to have some common mythology, a common set of rites and rituals, which are regarded as being ordained by the gods.
How is any secularist ever going to beat that?
You could look at the ’60s counterculture movement as an attempt to ritualize and sacralize secularism.
3,000 years of Yahweh trumps a decade of the Beatles.
[Laughs.] Another thing Christianity offers is reassurance that human beings are special — just below the angels, in God’s image, given dominion over the rest of the earth. It’s what gives us the power and the moral obligation to care for the rest of life. If biology shows that human beings are just animals with biochemical squirts and twinges like every other animal, do you dissolve those ethical obligations? What is your replacement?
There is no immediate alternative solution.
We have to find a way to live harmoniously. The best way to do that is to find common goals, when each sees clearly that it needs the other to achieve something. That’s what I’m suggesting. If you look at the wide array of ethical and moral precepts in our lives, particularly within a single culture, there’s a huge overlap.
In the long term, we can learn to live harmoniously, with our different beliefs and with mutual respect. This is where I differ now with my more activist secular colleagues, and with the young E.O. Wilson [laughs]. We need to seek to live harmoniously together. Through time, religion will evolve. If you look back through the history of various Christian and Judeo denominations, you find that although there’s always a group of hard-liners, there’s a trend toward relaxing the posture of superiority, the bonds of dogmatic belief. My perception is that the United States will go the way of Europe. It will become increasingly secular.
The secular humanist can offer the religious believer aesthetic appreciation of variety and diversity. Is there anything else?
The secularist view also offers a prudential argument. It’s just a prudent thing to do to keep all the pieces, for our own future psychological and — I’ll say it — spiritual welfare. We have all sorts of reasons. They include the services that the wild environment gives us: soil restoration, re-pollination, atmosphere, water, and so on. They include the vast scientific knowledge we will acquire. But there’s that aspect of spirituality.
In 2000, in reference back to your 1992 book The Diversity of Life, you said, “The facts are clearly and well laid out. … Eight years later people are still presenting in public flawed paradigms (perhaps deliberately) to excuse their gluttonous behavior, which is crushing the planetary life-support systems.” Now it’s 2006. Do you ever despair?
It was a higher mountain to climb than we estimated when we saw it on the horizon. But I’m an optimist. Life is all about struggling and overcoming. In this case it’s not an enemy to defeat; it’s a people to persuade. The goal is transcendent, and worth all the effort. I think we’ll do it.
Get Grist in your inbox