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Admirable, but addresses the wrong people
on 24 November 2006
This is an interesting book, as all of Wilson's books are interesting. I like the story about the fire ants that plagued the islands in the Caribbean some centuries ago and the paleoforensics employed to figure out what happened; in fact I like all of Wilson's stories about ants. Ants are fascinating, and ants will be here long after we are gone.
I also like the idea of trying to preserve as much biodiversity as possible. Save the rain forests, by all means. Save the tigers and the gorillas, the elephants and the snow leopard.
But it's not going to happen. Wilson is in prayerful mode. You can tell that by the very fact that he addresses this plea to a protestant clergyman as an author's conceit (partly in remembrance of his Baptist childhood). His tone, try as he might, will be taken by some as condescending, which it unavoidably is. Wilson is sensitive to the criticism he has gotten over the years, especially from those who think his sociobiology is a blueprint for a return to eugenics. So he is overly polite, overly indulgent with all the references to the Bible, to what he and the clergyman have in common. He is bending over backwards.
But it will never work. Biodiversity means little to the average clergyman. Saving the planet and its resources may mean a little more since even though evangelical Christians are certain that the rapture is coming, they are uncertain as to when. It could be tomorrow; it could be a few years away. So let's not dirty up the waters too much, let's not kill all the honeybees, let's scrub the coal smokestacks; in short let's not allow an environmental holocaust, at least not yet.
This is a short book, the kind of book that eminent persons are allowed to write and see published near the end of their lives, the kind of book that speaks of public service, that adds some further meaning to the author's existence. In a way this is similar to Consilience (1998) in which Wilson called for a meeting of the minds between the hard sciences and the soft ones, between those in the humanities and those in the labs, for reductionism to embrace poetry or vice-versa. The same idea applies here: people of faith should join people of science and work together to preserve the biosphere.
However, instead of addressing clergymen I think it would have been better and more natural for Wilson to address heads of state and chief executive officers of giant corporations since they are the ones most directly responsible for the ecological disaster staring us in the face, and they are the ones who can do something about it. Wilson writes, "Humanity doesn't need a moon base or a manned trip to Mars. We need an expedition to planet Earth...." Clearly such a statement would be better aimed at the Congress of the United States than at its clergymen. Wilson indicates in this book that he is not much for genetic engineering or for saving humanity by moving into outer space. He writes, "...human biology and emotions will stay the same far into the future, because our immensely complicated cerebral cortex can tolerate little tinkering..." (p. 28)
I also think it is unfortunate and even obsequious that Wilson calls what he wants saved "The Creation" when it is obvious that he does not consider life on earth a creation at all and in fact states directly that life on earth evolved from nonliving matter and energy. This sop to the creationists and Intelligent Designers is somewhat offset by his argument against Intelligent Design in the last chapter.
This book could also have been addressed to young students and teachers of biology, which in fact is what he effectively does in chapters 12-15 which are titled, "The Fundamental Laws of Biology," "Exploration of a Little-Known Planet," "How to Learn Biology and How to Teach It," and "How to Raise a Naturalist."
Putting aside the artificial spin that Wilson employs, this book is really about "three problems that affect everyone: the decline of the living environment, the inadequacy of scientific education, and the moral confusions caused by the exponential growth of biology." (p. 165) Wilson addresses the Christian clergy because "In order to solve these problems...it will be necessary to find common ground on which the powerful forces of religion and science can be joined." (p. 165)
More in keeping with the Wilson I know and greatly admire, typified in his book On Human Nature (1978) which won the Pulitzer Prize, is this from page 28: "There are still some thinkers around the world...who wish to base moral law on the sacred scripture of Iron Age desert kingdoms while using technology to conduct tribal wars--of course with the presumed blessing of their respective tribal gods."
I think the average clergyman, here and elsewhere, is still in the thrall of his tribal god, and not likely to listen to Professor Wilson, regardless of how politely and diplomatically he presents his case. Too bad.
This is clearly not one of Wilson's better books. I might even say that he has lost his intellectual compass. I hope he finds it.