Wilson urges alliance to save species

6 min read

Biologist says science and religion must learn to cooperate

Edward O. Wilson sees a future in which science and religion join forces to save the natural world.

Without such an alliance, said the legendary Harvard biologist and author, an alternative future is in store for the human race: one of accelerating environmental cataclysm fueled by overpopulation, deforestation, declining fisheries, and climate change.

If nothing is done, by the end of the century one-half of all species will be gone, or nearly gone, said Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus. In the next 50 years, a quarter of those species will become extinct because of climate change alone. That’s a fast blow to Earth’s biodiversity, which took 3.5 billion years to evolve.

“The defense of nature is the universal value,” said the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner in a Feb. 8 lecture to an audience of 250 at Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Hall.

That defense naturally falls to both science and religion, “the two most powerful social influences in the world today,” said the Alabama-born Wilson, who was raised a Baptist.

His latest book – one of three written in 2006 – is “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.” It’s cast as an open letter, “a plea for help,” to a Southern Baptist pastor.

The Divinity School seemed a good place for such a plea. Wilson’s lecture was the eighth in the School’s three-year series of talks on the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation.”

Wilson – now a leading figure among American humanists – said sheer numbers underscore the logic of a plea to evangelical Christians. The three leading U.S. secular humanist societies have a total membership of 5,000, he said. But just one Christian group, the National Association of Evangelicals, has 42,000 affiliated churches and 30 million members.

“If we don’t pay attention to these numbers, we’re struthious – that is, ostrichlike, with our heads in the sand,” said Wilson. In an aside that drew a laugh, he added, “That’s the kind of language you learn as a zoologist.”

Scientists of the natural world also learn the language of numbers, which Wilson used to make his case for cooperation between science and religion. Some of the numbers are relatively hopeful, he said. For one, the rate of population growth is slowing down worldwide. By the end of the century, population will peak at 9 billion – 40 percent more people than there are today, said Wilson, but sustainable.

Now, for the unhappy numbers. The rate of species decline, for one, is steep and rapid – and due to the influence of mankind. “The human hammer having fallen,” Wilson wrote, chillingly, in his book, “the sixth mass extinction has begun.”

For millions of years, except for the catastrophic events of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic era, rates of extinction were very low: one species per million per year, said Wilson. Today that rate is as much as 1,000 times higher – akin to Earth’s earlier times of catastrophic killing, after which it took the biosphere 5 million years to recover. In the latest round of man-made extinctions, said Wilson, “We are losing Earth’s biological bank account.”

One of the tragedies is that humans know so little about exactly what is in that depleting bank account – so little of the diversity of life being lost. Wilson marshaled a few numbers to illustrate humankind’s likely state of ignorance. Only 1.8 million species of plants and animals on Earth have been described, yet there may be as many as 100 million. Fungi alone probably account for 1.5 million species, but only 60,000 are on science’s official roster, said Wilson.

Biodiversity extends far beyond Earth’s visible plants and animals – to the worms, bacteria, viruses, and other life forms that populate the largely unseen universe that underlies all ecosystems. There are an estimated 10,000 trillion ants, for one, and so many nematode worms that they make up 80 percent of the biomass of all living creatures on Earth. (By contrast, all the humans on Earth take up little physical space. Mathematically speaking, they would fit into an imaginary box one cubic mile in size.)

In his book, Wilson inserted a sentiment he repeated in the Divinity School lecture: “More respect is due the little things that run the world.”

In the face of the marvel of biodiversity, and the shock that we know so little of it, Wilson added another hopeful number: $50 billion. That relatively modest figure, as a onetime expense, would throw a protective umbrella over the 25 of the planet’s most environmentally threatened areas, along with key swaths of tropical rain forest in the Congo, the Amazon, and New Guinea.

In his book, Wilson called that outlay – along with as little as $5 billion a year to protect marine areas – “the best economic deal humanity has ever had … since the invention of agriculture.”

In the Feb. 8 lecture, he repeated that notion: “To save the rest of the world is cheap. It’s just a matter of getting moving.”

One central impediment, said Wilson, is poverty. The regions of biodiversity that need ecological protection the most are in the developing world, where at the bottom economic rung, 1 billion people live in abject poverty – and press into the wilderness to hunt, farm, and cut wood.

“Biodiversity cannot survive the press of land-hungry people,” said Wilson. “[But] this is a problem that can be solved. … The cost is not high, and the benefits are beyond calculation.”

He called protecting the natural world, for the religious and secular alike, “an enobling task for our whole species.”

The plea for cooperation between largely secular conservationists and religious evangelicals seems to be taking hold, said Wilson. Most Christians “don’t buy” the notion that the health of the Earth can be neglected, since it is just a stopping-off point on the way to Heaven, he said. During recent meetings with religious leaders, “I had a sense they were ready to make this happen,” said Wilson.

He was among the prominent supporters of a Jan. 17 covenant demanding urgent changes in public policy, lifestyles, and values in order to head off global warming.

It was signed by the National Association of Evangelicals, which only a year ago had refused to take a stand on the issue. It’s time to “declare a truce in the culture wars,” said Wilson. “Science and religion joined in an alliance can save creation.”