Wilson: The Creation

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Edward O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. New York : W.W.Norton & Company, 2006. 175 pages, with "References and Notes".

This is a curious little book. It presents itself as a plea, addressed to a generic Southern Baptist Pastor, to encourage the religious to join in the view that Nature (the "Creation", in secular or religious vernacular as suits the reader) is a wondrous thing worth preserving. In a series of smallish chapters that read like interlocked essays, Wilson asks his pastor to consider the case for humankind to slow its unprecedented destruction of species from the Earth, to join him in a search for common ground about "The Creation"—whether it is God's or Nature's—and accept the proposition that regardless of its origins, the Creation is something worth preserving from destruction by humans.

Some of the reasons are familiar, but receive the Wilson touch—it doesn't hurt to hear them over again, either. The argument that we might be losing important new drugs, for instance, picks up some details that I think make it more convincingly concrete than usual:

Critics of environmentalism (whatever that overused term means—aren't we all environmentalists?) usually wave aside the small and unfamiliar, which they tend to classify into two categories: bugs and weeds. It is easy for them to overlook the fact that these creatures make up most of the organisms and species on Earth. They forget, if they ever knew, how the voracious caterpillars of an obscure moth from the American tropics saved Australia's pastureland from the overgrowth of cactus; how a Madagascar "weed," the rosy periwinkle, provided the alkaloids that cure most cases of Hodgkin's disease and acute childhood leukemia; how another substance from an obscure Norwegian fungus made possible the organ transplant industry; how a chemical from the saliva of leeches yielded a solvent that prevents blood clots during and after surgery; and so on through the pharmacopoeia that has stretched from the herbal medicines of Stone Age shamans to the magic-bullet cures of present-day biomedical science. [pp. 30—31]

Quite often Wilson digresses into more general discussions of biology, often drawing his examples from entomology—not surprising since he is a bug-scientist of great repute. The digressions, as in any good essay, round out the discussion and enhance its appeal.

Figures that he dwells on include the brisk rate at which species have started disappearing at the hand of humankind, and the number of species to be found on the Earth, once we finally get around to finding the great number that haven't yet been identified by science. Shall we destroy them before they're even found?

Wilson makes compelling the scenario that species do not exist in an eco-vacuum. Species have grown up together over great amounts of time, and the interdependencies of predators and prey--not to mention all the plants that they eat, climb, hid in, fly between, burrow into, and dive under—are too difficult to predict that we should feel confident that we can destroy a little bit here, a little bit there, and not destroy vastly more than we intend.

Along the way, Wilson also makes a case for how and what should be taught in biology classrooms, and how to raise a naturalist, both necessary to build a society of individuals that value the Creation.

In the end, I think I found most compelling his argument about how impoverished we become by destroying species, and how long the loneliness will last.

The human hammer having fallen, the sixth mass extinction has begun. This spasm of permanent loss is expected, if it is not abated, to reach the end-of-Mesozoic level by the end of the century. [i.e., the twenty-first century]. We will then enter what poets and scientists alike may choose to call the Eremozoic Era—the Age of Loneliness. We will have done it all on our own, and conscious of what was happening, God's will is not to blame.

The first five spasms took ten million years on average to repair by natural evolution. A new ten-million-year slump is unacceptable. Humanity must make a decision, and make it right now: conserve Earth's natural heritage, or let future generations adjust to a biologically impoverished world. There is no way to weasel out of this choice. I've explained why the zoo-and-garden option won't work. Knowing that, some quixotic writers have toyed with the idea of last-ditch measures. They say, Let's conserve the millions of surviving species and races by deep-freezing fertilized eggs or tissue samples for later resurrection. Or. let's record the genetic codes of all the species and try to recreate organisms from them later. Either solution would be high-risk, enormously expensive, and, in the end, futile. Even if Earth's threatened biodiversity in all its immensity could be reanimated and bred into populations awaiting return to what might in the twenty-second century pass for the "wild," the reconstruction thereby of independently viable population is beyond reach. Biologists haven't the slightest idea of how to build a complex autonomous ecosystem from scratch. By the time they find out, they may discover that conditions on the humanized planet make such a reconstruction impossible. [pp. 91—92]

Overall I think this thin volume has value far beyond its diminutive size; one is likely to get more out of it than the small investment in time it takes to read it.

-- Notes by JNS

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