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By Edward O. Wilson, 2006
Reviewed by M. A. DuVernois, Department of Physics, University of Hawaii, Manoa
Edward O. Wilson is one of the great science writers alive today, able to bring the fire ants together with the history of the Caribbean (to choose one example) or bringing the two cultures of the humanities and the hard sciences together in the much-admired Consilience (1998). The founding scientist of sociobiology is also a great popularizer of his own work and of other scientific topics.
But what to make of this book? Like Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, this is a plea, an urgent plea, to America’s self-identified Christians to act before it’s too late. Perhaps this book is better matched to its target audience, but the author’s conceit of forming it as a letter to a hypothetical Baptist minister (echoes of Wilson’s upbringing) really does little for the book. In fact, the author seems to tire of the letter format and its presumed audience partway through and gets back to being…well, Edward O. Wilson writing an excellent popular work of science exposition.
As scientists, we will be approaching this book from a rather different place than the intended audience of those who believe in “their respective Iron Age tribal gods.” The first seven chapters detail the damages wrought upon the natural world with the perspective of an inquisitive biologist. The second section examines how self-absorbed ignorance is leading to epic levels of destruction that will define the world of our grandchildren. Then there are three chapters of arguments for saving what is left, with ideas drawn from science and theology and leading to the fourth section of the book, devoted to arguing that science provides the understanding for how to “save life on Earth.” A final chapter notes the powerful forces of science and religion. A workable solution requires, Wilson posits, the cooperation of both. He provides interesting and thought-provoking examples and gems of biological information for any reader. (Wilson’s beloved ants make a cameo appearance.)
For a biologist, and for one interested in ecology, ecosystems, and the biodiversity of the planet, these surely are perilous times filled with rampant climate change, profligate energy usage, and large-scale environmental destruction. For a science writer, the difficulty one faces preaching to the whole community and not merely to the converted inspires a new writing approach. I suspect that this attempt to reach out and convey the biologists’ concern for the loss of biodiversity will be largely unsuccessful. It’s a pity. This is a beautiful, thin book filled with the passionate knowledge of the natural world that we’ve come to expect from Wilson. But despite the nod to the “intelligent design” folks with the title of the book, Wilson is not acceptable reading for the fundamentalists of the United States. His name is mentioned in the same sentences and reviews as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett as part of the “new atheist” movement rendering him persona non grata in the very circles that he wishes to influence.
The book’s letter-to-a-biblical-literalist format is difficult to separate fully from its content, but if one can do so then one is left with a wonderfully written book in search of an audience. Ignore the random biblical bits, and any scientist could enjoy this book and feel the call to save life on Earth before it’s too late.
M. A. DuVernois
Department of Physics
University of Hawaii, Manoa