Bridging the creation gap
By Jeff Barnard
By Jeff Barnard
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson might normally arouse suspicion among evangelicals, given his faith in science over Scripture. But in his latest book, "The Creation, An Appeal to Save Life on Earth," the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner extends an olive branch to Christian believers in hopes of saving the Earth from the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs.
Wilson's book is the latest attempt to bridge the gap between evolutionary science and a literal interpretation of the Bible, a rift dating back to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.
"Pastor, we need your help. The Creation — living Nature — is in deep trouble," Wilson writes in this letter to an imaginary Southern Baptist pastor. "You might well ask at this point, Why me? Because religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today."
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a longtime reader of Wilson's work on sociobiology, and was initially impressed by Wilson's honesty in the book, but has since grown skeptical of Wilson's motives after not seeing any concrete contacts with evangelicals since the book came out in September — contacts Wilson says are coming.
"E.O. Wilson did not write that book to evangelicals," Mohler said from his office in Louisville, Ky. "He wrote it to his fellow naturalists as a way of encouraging them to find a public relations strategy to reach out to a broader constituency.
"I don't think humanity can bring the world to an end. The fundamental judgment we must fear is the judgment of the creator. When he comes in judgment, certain ecological sins will be among the sins for which he calls us to account. That is not in Scripture the pre-eminent issue. That is where we have to reject E.O. Wilson and his policy."
Indeed, many evangelical leaders have rejected environmental efforts, arguing that it's important to stay focused on core social issues such as stopping abortion and opposing gay marriage.
But among the evangelical wing that has become more concerned about environmental issues in recent years, the reception has been enthusiastic. Calvin DeWitt, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin and a founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, said Wilson's book would restore the term "creation" to scientific discussion.
Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 churches, gave a copy to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last September, when Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations.
"I think (Wilson) has been courageous to come forward, and we need to be equally courageous," said Cizik. Though the issue of protecting all life on Earth has been the most controversial he has faced, "We will not allow this to be ignored."
Wilson, 77, grew up in Alabama and Florida as a Southern Baptist. He is an entomologist, specializing in ants, but for many years taught a general course in biology at Harvard, where he is a professor emeritus. He has written 20 books, many of them about the diversity of life on Earth, the dangers of mass extinction from human development, the psychological need for humans to be part of nature, and the role of religion in society.
Written with pen on yellow legal pads at home and on airplanes traveling to speaking engagements, "The Creation" started as a general view of where biology was going in the 21st century, but turned, at the prodding of W.W. Norton editor Bob Weil, into an appeal to a Southern Baptist pastor.
"From my vantage point, we are going to destroy half the species of plants and animals by the end of this century unless we can abate the destructive part of that activity," Wilson said from his Lexington, Mass., home.
"In the environmental community, we've been preaching to the choir on one side, and not presenting a very friendly face to the vast American religious audience on the other side. I thought it was just supremely logical that we could get together on middle ground, neutral ground."
The book appears to have found an audience. It made Amazon.com's top-10 lists in religion and science, and Weil reports it has gone to a fourth printing.
Wilson's fears of an impending ecological disaster are no isolated view. For example, a 1998 survey of 400 scientists commissioned by New York's American Museum of Natural History found most were convinced that the sixth great extinction of plants and animals on Earth was under way. The root cause is human overpopulation, which leads to habitat loss, climate change, invasive species, pollution and over-harvesting, Wilson writes.
Wilson argues the financial sacrifice to change the equation would not be great. Studies estimate a one-time payment of $30 billion — a tenth of 1 percent of gross world product and 8 percent of the cost to date of the war in Iraq — would protect habitat for 70 percent of the world's plants and animals on land.
"I think Ed has really hit a very rich vein of thought with his book," said Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, professor of botany at Washington University in St. Louis and a science adviser to the Vatican. "The notion was very well received by theologians and others at a meeting I just attended in Chicago."
That was the conference, "Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology," held in October at the University of Chicago Divinity School — a sign of how popular environmental issues have become.
Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, noted that Roman Catholic bishops around the country will be mailing out materials on global warming to their diocese, and hundreds of synagogues will be replacing light bulbs with florescents for Hanukkah.
Wilson said the midterm elections that put Democrats in control of Congress could help bring science and religion even closer together.
"With the political right, especially expressed through the present White House, generally indifferent to the contribution of science to key issues, maybe now there will be a potential for a friendlier relationship between religious conservatives and scientists," Wilson said.