On the Bookshelf, Fall 2006

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
By E.O. Wilson
W.W. Norton & Company, 2006

Once in a great while a work comes along that speaks for itself. The Creation is E.O. Wilson’s cri de coeur, and for this issue we’ve decided to share with you an excerpt from the first chapter. If indeed “religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today,” here is an extraordinary plea for a shared sense of purpose to save life on Earth.
—The Editors

Letter to a Southern Baptist Minister

Dear Pastor:

We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. As a boy I too answered the altar call; I went under the water. Although I no longer belong to that faith, I am confident that if we met and spoke privately of our deepest beliefs, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and good will. I know we share many precepts of moral behavior. Perhaps it also matters that we are both Americans and, insofar as it might still affect civility and good manners, we are both Southerners.

I write to you now for your counsel and help. Of course, in doing so, I see no way to avoid the fundamental differences in our respective worldviews. You are a literalist interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture. You reject the conclusion of science that mankind evolved from lower forms. You believe that each person’s soul is immortal, making this planet a way station to a second, eternal life. Salvation is assured those who are redeemed in Christ.

I am a secular humanist. I think existence is what we make of it as individuals. There is no guarantee of life after death, and heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet. There is no other home. Humanity originated here by evolution from lower forms over millions of years. And yes, I will speak plain, our ancestors were apelike animals. The human species has adapted physically and mentally to life on Earth and no place else. Ethics is the code of behavior we share on the basis of reason, law, honor, and an inborn sense of decency, even as some ascribe it to God’s will.

For you, the glory of an unseen divinity; for me, the glory of the universe revealed at last. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You have found your final truth; I am still searching. I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right.

Does this difference in worldview separate us in all things? It does not. You and I and every other human being strive for the same imperatives of security, freedom of choice, personal dignity, and a cause to believe in that is larger than ourselves.

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. I put it this way because you have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living Nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity.

Pastor, we need your help. The Creation—living Nature—is in deep trouble. Scientists estimate that if habitat conversion and other destructive human activities continue at their present rates, half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century. A full quarter will drop to this level during the next half century as a result of climate change alone. The ongoing extinction rate is calculated in the most conservative estimates to be about a hundred times above that prevailing before humans appeared on Earth, and it is expected to rise to at least a thousand times greater or more in the next few decades. If this rise continues unabated, the cost to humanity, in wealth, environmental security, and quality of life, will be catastrophic.

Surely we can agree that each species, however inconspicuous and humble it may seem to us at this moment, is a masterpiece of biology, and well worth saving. Each species possesses a unique combination of genetic traits that fits it more or less precisely to a particular part of the environment. Prudence alone dictates that we act quickly to prevent the extinction of species and, with it, the pauperization of Earth’s ecosystems—hence of the Creation.

You may well ask at this point, Why me? Because religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today, including especially the United States. If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved. If there is any moral precept shared by people of all beliefs, it is that we owe ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthful environment.

I am puzzled that so many religious leaders, who spiritually represent a large majority of people around the world, have hesitated to make protection of the Creation an important part of their magisterium. Do they believe that human-centered ethics and preparation for the afterlife are the only things that matter? Even more perplexing is the widespread conviction among Christians that the Second Coming is imminent, and that therefore the condition of the planet is of little consequence. Sixty percent of Americans, according to a 2004 poll, believe that the prophecies of the book of Revelation are accurate. Many of these, numbering in the millions, think the End of Time will occur within the life span of those now living. Jesus will return to Earth, and those redeemed by Christian faith will be transported bodily to heaven, while those left behind will struggle through severe hard times and, when they die, suffer eternal damnation. The condemned will remain in hell, like those already consigned in the generations before them, for a trillion trillion years, enough for the universe to expand to its own, entropic death, time enough for countless universes like it afterward to be born, expand, and likewise die away. And that is just the beginning of how long condemned souls will suffer in hell—all for a mistake they made in choice of religion during the infinitesimally small time they inhabited Earth.

For those who believe this form of Christianity, the fate of ten million other life forms indeed does not matter. This and other similar doctrines are not gospels of hope and compassion. They are gospels of cruelty and despair. They were not born of the heart of Christianity. Pastor, tell me I am wrong!

However you will respond, let me here venture an alternative ethic. The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible. Science has provided this part of the argument for the ethic: the more we learn about the biosphere, the more complex and beautiful it turns out to be. Knowledge of it is a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more there is to draw. Earth, and especially the razor-thin film of life enveloping it, is our home, our wellspring, our physical and much of our spiritual sustenance.

I know that science and environmentalism are linked in the minds of many with evolution, Darwin, and secularism. Let me postpone disentangling all this (I will come back to it later) and stress again: to protect the beauty of Earth and of its prodigious variety of life forms should be a common goal, regardless of differences in our metaphysical beliefs.

To make the point in good gospel manner, let me tell the story of a young man, newly trained for the ministry, and so fixed in his Christian faith that he referred all questions of morality to readings from the Bible. When he visited the cathedral-like Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, he saw the manifest hand of God and in his notebook wrote, “It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.”

That was Charles Darwin in 1832, early into the voyage of HMS Beagle, before he had given any thought to evolution.

And here is Darwin, concluding On the Origin of Species in 1859, having first abandoned Christian dogma and then, with his newfound intellectual freedom, formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin’s reverence for life remained the same as he crossed the seismic divide that divided his spiritual life. And so it can be for the divide that today separates scientific humanism from mainstream religion. And separates you and me.

You are well prepared to present the theological and moral arguments for saving the Creation. I am heartened by the movement growing within Christian denominations to support global conservation. The stream of thought has arisen from many sources, from evangelical to unitarian. Today it is but a rivulet. Tomorrow it will be a flood.

I already know much of the religious argument on behalf of the Creation, and would like to learn more. I will now lay before you and others who may wish to hear it the scientific argument. You will not agree with all that I say about the origins of life—science and religion do not easily mix in such matters—but I like to think that in this one life-and-death issue we have a common purpose.

Reprinted from The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by E.O. Wilson ©2006 by Edward O. Wilson. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Sensuous Seas: Tales of a Marine Biologist
By Eugene H. Kaplan
Princeton University Press, 2006
Reviewed by Margaret Pizer

A sea cucumber spews its guts at predators and breathes through its anus. As longtime professor of marine biology Eugene Kaplan knows, such details can wake up a distracted, hormone-addled undergrad. In Sensuous Seas he emphasizes some of the flashier stories that have held the attention of his students at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Although this collection of essays presents a smorgasbord of marine sex and violence, the sensational subject matter serves the higher purpose of delving into the diversity of marine critters and revealing a teacher’s tricks for getting the uninitiated hooked on sea life. Kaplan’s educational philosophy is one of experiential learning—he wants his charges to get their hands wet. What he offers in Sensuous Seas is perhaps the next best thing: exciting and vibrantly written explorations of the weird and wonderful aspects of marine zoology.

Underwater to Get Out of the Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea
By Trevor Norton
Da Capo Press, 2006
Reviewed by Margaret Pizer

Trevor Norton is another professor who can evoke the romance of the ocean. Recalling a nighttime dive in a sea of bioluminescent bacteria, he says his “whole body became a green spectre,” and during a rainstorm he imagines that someone is “throwing gleaming pearls into the water.” Underwater to Get Out of the Rain is both a memoir recounting his far-flung career as a marine biologist and an early history of the discipline. Norton traces his unlikely journey from the frigid coast of Northumberland to the distant shores of Egypt, the Philippines, and Southern California. Along the way, he takes readers on adventures researching algal biology and the ecology of marine invasive species, with engaging detours into such topics as the seventeenth-century origins of European beach tourism and the effects of ship noise on marine mammals.

Sippewissett: Or, Life on a Salt Marsh
By Tim Traver
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006
Reviewed by Margaret Pizer

Tim Traver has felt the pull of the tides, too—back to his family’s place on a Cape Cod marsh. Ecology, he informs readers, is the science of home—originating from the Greek root oikos, meaning “household.” In Sippewissett, he returns home to dig quahogs, fly-fish for striped bass, and conjure the ghost of Rachel Carson. The result is an eclectic narrative that combines tales from Traver’s childhood with accounts of the history of ecological research in nearby Woods Hole. Structuring the book loosely along the timeline of a summer spent at his family’s vacation house, Traver alternates scientific investigations of the marsh (nutrient cycling, for example) with descriptions of the larger community, including droll portraits of neighborhood politics. Miraculously, the whole thing hangs together, perhaps because Traver is lucky enough to have grown up in a place where ocean and land, scientists and socialites all converge. Sippewissett, he writes, is “a place of biochemical alchemy and wonder—as vast as a splendiferous green sea.” Traver works his own literary alchemy in this lyrical story about the importance of marshes to coastal ecosystems and to the human experience.