Paul Andersen: Fair Game
July 9, 2012
Renowned biologist and author E.O. Wilson offered a profound insight about America at the Environment Forum in Aspen two weeks ago when someone from the audience asked him why many conservative Americans are stridently set against the science of evolution.
Wilson, who was raised a Southern Baptist in Alabama, is a scientist. While he values certain ritual experiences from his religious upbringing, he fully endorses evolution. His response to the question was that “America is still a frontier country – or at least thinks it is.”
Wilson explained that, historically, as America pushed against the wilderness of the western frontier, the only real law for many pioneers was the Bible, the book they carried with them for a connection to civilization.
“Biblical literalism was the final authority on the prairie,” Wilson said. “This was, in a sense, tribalism, and it exists today.”
Since many Americans still embrace religious tribalism, Wilson said, they take the Bible literally. Evolution, despite a huge body of scientific evidence, is a challenge to their fundamentalist beliefs, so they deny science and clutch at faith.
The biblical view of man and nature is stated in the notion that nature should rightfully be dominated by man through the decree of God. The biblical entitlement of dominion, as taken from Genesis, fashions the self-serving dictates of Judeo-Christian determinism, with nature being subordinate to man.
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Nature has no rights in this tribal culture, so the Darwinian idea that man evolved from nature as a simple-to-complex organism is blasphemy. For many people today who hold to faith-based beliefs for their world view, evolution is an evil that denigrates man and brings into question the existence of God.
In his book “The Creation,” Wilson attempts to reach out to religious literalists through the literary device of a letter addressed to a Baptist pastor.
“We have not met,” Wilson wrote to the fictional pastor, “yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. We grew up in the same faith. As a boy I too answered the altar call; I went under the water.”
Wilson appeals to his religious counterpart based on the “spirit of mutual respect and good will.” Wilson, who defines himself as a “secular humanist,” differentiates himself from the pastor, whom he refers to as a “literalist interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture.”
Wilson suggests that, despite their differences, both can agree on the legitimacy and morality of saving the Creation, which Wilson says is in deep peril due to human agency. He warns of species extinctions, suggesting that each species reflects the Godly gift of life.
“If this rise (extinctions) continues unabated,” warns Wilson, “the cost to humanity, in wealth, environmental security, and quality of life, will be catastrophic.” Wilson’s appeal to religion becomes an appeal to humanism, as defined by religion. “Today, it has become a moral issue to conserve biodiversity,” points out Wilson, “to knit together life for our own survival.”
In Aspen, Wilson said that education is the key to saving the Creation. He urged that children should be exposed to nature without restrictions, set free to establish their own sense of wonder through the joys of exploration and discovery.
Science education for adults, said Wilson, is essential if we ever hope to replace the “dream of religious myth” with scientific realities. “We need synthesizers, people who can bridge the sciences with the humanities” in order to make sense of the world.
If religion and science, which Wilson calls the two more powerful influences operating in the human world today, can unite on saving biodiversity, “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.”
Wilson is a rare thinker who bridges science and the humanities. He disputes the myopia of tribalism and offers instead a holistic embrace of all of life. Wilson reveals himself as the ultimate synthesizer, calling for a deep-seated sense of humility as antidote to the historic hubris with which we subdue, conquer and dominate nature.
American may still be a “frontier country,” but thanks to E.O. Wilson our ultimate frontier has become our union with the living earth.
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