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The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
by Edward O. Wilson
W. W. Norton, 2006
(173 pages, $21.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Written as a letter to a Southern Baptist pastor, Harvard biologist Edward Wilson’s newest book invites Evangelicals to put aside their differences with Darwinians and join them in the common cause of saving life on earth, but he does not stop at offering a pragmatic association with Evangelicals. He yokes their sacred words— Creation, Eden, stewardship, truth, mystery, human nature, miracle, meaning of existence, and heaven—to pull the cart of his naturalism.
In The Creation, the word Creation does not refer to God’s Word calling Nature into existence, nor is Eden the garden from which our first parents were expelled for sin. Rather, both Creation and Eden are defined as autonomous Nature, free of God and man.
We were not, Wilson says, driven “from this Eden. Instead, we destroyed most of it in order to improve our lives and generate more people. Billions of more people, to the peril of Creation.” He blames even the “Paleolithic hunters,” for driving giant mammals to extinction, adding that extinctions are now “100X higher than before the arrival of modern Homo sapiens about 150,000 years ago.”
So we sinned from the start, but for Wilson, original sin consisted in our multiplying, filling the earth, and claiming dominion over other creatures. Our species made the initial error of trying “to ascend from Nature instead of to Nature.”
He faults the Bible for not explaining this point clearly: It is a “larger truth not adequately expressed in Holy Scripture.” Well, it is “adequately expressed in Holy Scripture,” but it is called idolatry and roundly condemned.
Wilson’s interpretation of the Fall of Man as a Fall from Nature is not a new one. The first systematic atheist, the seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza, had the same idea, as seen in the Appendix to his Ethic (1678), where Nature is constantly deified by the phrase “Deus sive Natura,” “God or Nature.”
Wilson also strips the words heaven, paradise, and Ark of their biblical meaning and makes them serve his agenda. With fewer human beings, he says, Nature would be “heaven on Earth” and “paradise.” The wolverine is one of the “jewels in the crown of the Creation,” but man is a destructive “meteorite” causing mass extinction.
He hopes for a huge reduction in our numbers before the century is over, and makes this hope a kind of eschatological fulfillment: “With the smaller population that can be reached within a century,” this world “can be paradise. But only if we also take the rest of life with us.” That would make earth the “planetary Ark.”
When we first evolved, Wilson says, we had to invent religion “to explain man’s place in the universe,” but since we imagined our destiny was “not of this world,” we then “subdued Nature.” Luckily, by the seventeenth century, scientists had constructed “an alternative worldview” and they have ever since found in Nature a “vast and autonomous creative force.”
In our times biology is the “paramount science,” which aims to “explain the nature of mind and reality and the meaning of life.” Neuroscience and evolutionary biology are linking up with psychology to address (and solve) “the meaning of sex, the basis of human nature, the origin and evolution of life, why we must die, the origins of religion and ethics, the causes of aesthetic response, the role of environment in human genetic and cultural evolution, and more.”
All this is surely expansionist, empire-building scientism, not science.
Wilson assures us that our “self-image” has been lifted much “higher on the wings of science” than it has by religion. Yet in his previous book Consilience (1998), he declared that science had proven free will to be an “illusion”—though the self “can go on passionately believing in its own free will,” since this belief is “biologically adaptive.” Is this a higher self-image?
In Consilience, too, Wilson explained that the great divide in the Culture Wars was not between believers and secularists, but between those who upheld natural law and those who saw morality as a human invention. He spoke there of a “struggle for men’s souls” involving the use of sacred words: “Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift towards science-based material analysis.”
In his new book Creation, he seems to have changed his mind. Now he is adopting just such idioms of theology and philosophy—to put scientism in the place of religion. He’s stealing our song.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.