Edward O. Wilson, Bridging Science and Religion

Biologist and Writer Edward O. Wilson talks about his new book The Creation. Wilson's appeal to preserve biodiversity is written in the form of letters to a Southern Baptist minister.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

For the rest of the hour: science, religion and finding common ground. Is caring for the environment a matter of being a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, a Christian or a non believer? Can preserving biodiversity or finding global warming be something that all of us can work toward together?

My next guest thinks so - he certainly does, or more accurately he says we must work together. While admitting that he is a non believer, he's written a book - a really a long letter to a Southern Baptist minister posing and answering that very question: Can caring for the environment cut across the chasm that divides science and religion?

Edward O. Wilson - we know as him as E. O. Wilson - is a Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard. He's the author of many books, including Sociobiology, The Diversity of Life. His latest book is called The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. He is here with in our New York studios. Thank you for coming in today, Dr. Wilson

Dr. EDWARD WILSON (Professor of Science, Harvard University): Thanks for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: This is a very powerful book. I mean it's a cry for help almost, Dr. Wilson.

Dr. WILSON: It's not unusual that the cry should be in that direction out of science. I think the usual approach of secular science is to marginalize religion or even disapprove of it publicly and not expect anything from religious believers or at least religious thinkers.

But I've taken precisely the opposite approach and that is to recognize that there is a powerful moral energy and purpose among religious believers - well, as there is among dedicated secular humans as well.

But also that numbers count, too; they cannot be ignored even if you are on the secular side and wish to not pay attention to their particular metaphysical belief.

So what I've done that I think is new is to extend - and I am so presumptuous as to do it on behalf of science and secular science, secular based science -is to extend the hand of friendship and to say, may we forget for a while our metaphysical differences and the culture war, put them aside, and meet on this common ground of saving the creation - that is saving biodiversity which is in such peril worldwide.

FLATOW: Have you gotten any response so far from the theological side?

Dr. WILSON: Even though the book was officially released only last week, the response has already been remarkable and very encouraging. A lot of it coming from evangelicals to whom this is apostrophically(ph) that is, you know, representational directed. And most of them favorable they've been directed to me personally. Some of them are enthusiastic.

FLATOW: Well, we've heard recently at sort of a turning of the tide among evangelicals saying, the Old Testament says we have to be, you know, protectors of the earth.

Dr. WILSON: I think that's always been the dominant interpretation, that it's to take possession of the earth, to be in dominion over it, which is in the Old Testament. And it does not mean I think as one major evangelical leader put it - does not mean to trash it.

So there is this strong sense of Judeo-Christian duty, but now it's taking a new - it's gaining new strength and it's taking a new turn. So my book comes out with a call for an alliance of science and religion in this area. It Comes out at a time where the wave is just beginning to develop - a new wave from all across the Judeo-Christian denominational stretch of beliefs and is becoming more conspicuous.

FLATOW: And if I might coin a phrase - just in time. Because you lay out the future of bleak, bleak - making your case eloquently here - a bleak, bleak future of the earth. And just the - one of the beginning - you know, we always talk about first sentences of great chapters. One of your chapters begins: The human hammer having fallen, the sixth mast extinction has begun.

Dr. WILSON: We've had five before it that humanity had nothing to do with, which stretched out over the last 450 million years roughly at intervals, although its not periodic, of 100 million years. And each one of those has dropped biodiversity to a level that took somewhere between five and ten million years for evolution to restore.

We're not that far along yet, but we are definitely in the early stages of it.

FLATOW: You say that humanity must make a decision and make it now, right now. Conserve earth's natural heritage or let future generations adjust to a biologically impoverished world.

Dr. WILSON: Yeah, one that I would propose to call the arimozoic(ph). Now we're in the Cenozoic, you know, which followed now - which followed the Mesozoic, the age of reptiles or dinosaurs. And the age of mammals, sometimes called the Cenozoic - if we wipe out, as many serious projections have it without abatement of the current human activities that are removing ecosystems and extinguishing species, if we continue to the end of the century, we could have lost or have right on the edge of losing about half of the known species of plants and animals.

FLATOW: Very interesting. You seem to believe, based on what you write in this book, that everyone needs to spend time with nature. You write many people seem content to live entirely in the synthetic ecosystems. This, in my mind, is a perversion. It's not the nature of human beings to be cattle in glorified feedlots.

Dr. WILSON: Right. It's not enough to look at the animals that we raise in feedlots and take note that they seem to be contented. They're not complaining very much.

But the animals that are being raised in feedlots are very far from the full animal. They are not behaving. They are not working out their life cycle in the manners programmed into their brains and into the course of their developing physiology.

And I think there is abundant evidence that human beings need nature. They need wild environments. They need at least pastoral environments duplicating the early habitats of human beings in order to develop fully as people.

FLATOW: You say that even here in New York City, if you go to someone's apartment who can afford it, they're overlooking Central Park as they might be out in the wild.

Dr. WILSON: They're willing to pay top dollar for that view of a little bit of nature, and not just any nature. But what studies have shown are the three main properties of the ideal habitat as seen across cultures, namely where you live most ideally sought is at a height looking out over park land with a body of water. And Central Park, as Olmsted marvelously intuited it, is constructed that way.

FLATOW: Talking with E.O. Wilson, author of The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

You also talk about an interesting - and it's so wonderful to read your perspective on all kinds of topics. And in this book in particular, it goes in lots of different directions and addresses education, science education, and the shortcomings of it and how you believe that science should be taught to students from the top down.

Describe what you mean and why that should be done.

Dr. WILSON: Yeah, well that's based on personal experience, 41 years of teaching at Harvard. And during that entire time, almost every year, I taught beginning courses. And I made it by choice for non scientists. I felt that the greatest effect an educator could have at a place like Harvard would be to be passing biology over to our future legislators, our future writers, business leaders, and not the least, talk show hosts.

And so in taking that series of taking that approach, I learned a few things about teaching. One of them was to teach top down. And that means to select topics that really matter to people and to which students already have some familiarity, such as why must we die at all. Why do we die of old age? What is the purpose of sex? I can always count on their dropping the Harvard crimson and starting to take notes again when I did that. And so on.

And that's what I meant by top down. You said - you can say then to them, let's take this question apart and let's look at it from the view of modern science and in particular biology. And you have their attention.

And so that's one principle of teaching that I proposed. But certainly another one was to come at biology with a heavy emphasis on biological diversity: what's out there, how much we know about it, how little we know about it, and how it got there and what's happening to it.

FLATOW: How do you get people to come to class, to, you know - people are afraid of science. They just shy away from it. You talk about mathematics in particular in your book that math-phobes(ph) and…

Dr. WILSON: Yeah, I do discuss math phobia. Part of the problem of coming into science by way of physics and chemistry is you certainly attract and give and propel the students who have natural talent and interest in mathematics because those are the subjects in which skills there are effective, particularly in getting started.

But as I like to point out to my students, another broad high - and to educators, generally. That's one reason I wrote the book was this book is for educators, college and high school educators. That one broad avenue into understanding science but also careers in science is through the study of higher-level biology. That is the great ranges of diversity, how organisms adapt.

And this route then takes the student to a place where they now wish to cut more deeply into the mechanisms of physiology and brain action and so forth that underlie the phenomena of adaptation and biodiversity.

But then you've got them set up; you've set them up for learning mathematics. And you can actually teach them, as I did countless mathophobes(ph) at Harvard, enough probability theory, a little statistics, and you can actually get them, as I made sure I did every year, doing something like deriving the binomial equation in order to solve the distribution of frequencies of genes in a population. So they became population geneticists, every one of them.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. WILSON: And we could do it. We managed it. So I hope they dropped a little bit of the math phobia that way.

FLATOW: I'm sure they did with you teaching them. Talking with E.O. Wilson, who is author of the new book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. We're gong to take a short break and come back, talk lots more with Dr. Wilson and take your questions. So don't go away. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow with my guests E.O. Wilson, who is, well, he's written all kinds of books, you know, Sociobiology, The Diversity of Life. His latest is called The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. It's a terrific book, as all his books are, and very eloquently written, highly recommend it.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. One thing that you write that I've always found to be true is that people care about the environment, but you write but they don't know they care about the environment. They don't know it.

Dr. WILSON: Yeah, it's natural I think to human beings to care about it. Now we tend, particularly in this country, to put caring about the environment in terms of the simple process of reducing toxic pollution and making sure that we don't get melanoma from too much sunlight.

And now climate warming, we understand that's a big problem. But we really haven't gotten our minds much around the rest of life and the existence of natural ecosystems around the world that are disappearing rapidly.

I like always to try to get people's attention by pointing out that estimates by biologists and economists together - the last one made in 1997 but I don't think it's changed an awful lot - of the value of the services that ecosystems give us. That is, you know, the assemblages of natural living plants, animals, and microorganisms, and in service - the services are those that include purification of water, the management of water reserves and the way it's passed to us, pollination, and the renewal of the soil and the very air we breathe, purification of the air we breathe.

Those services amount very, very roughly to the gross world product - that is all the combined national products, domestic, national domestic products of the world. And that's in the vicinity of $30 trillion.

And we get that scot-free. So that ought to be a reason for not, you know, for not disposing of that facility and trying to substitute at high expense the human contrivances that probably don't do it as well.

But there are many, many other reasons why we should start getting our minds around the need for conservation, not the least that the biodiversity of the world, the creation is disappearing so quickly.

And that is why, as a scientist feeling some sense of urgency, I then started thinking a little bit differently and a little more deeply about the role of religion. And it occurred to me that the solution really may be political solution, as well as whatever comes out of the will and the hands and the hearts of people could be best recruited if we could get people on both sides of this culture war, the religion and science differences, to collaborate.

FLATOW: Can you change people's minds, though? I mean, and let me…

Dr. WILSON: No.

FLATOW: …talk about the intelligent design issue which you address in your book. You don't seem to say you're going to change anybody's mind. You just lay out your issue and say, we can agree to disagree but it's in our both interest to do something.

Dr. WILSON: That's right. That's why I speak throughout the book - when I bring up the issues of science and religion disputes - that this is not the time, this is not the place in history, in my opinion, to fight out these differences because you're not going to solve them. The chasm cannot be closed. There's too much at stake on both sides. And we just have to evolve toward solutions in the future of a site unseen and nature unknown, but that we do have the power between us to get together and solve one of the great problems of humanity.

FLATOW: What do you say to people who say, well, look, you know - and you address this in the book a bit - it's natural, you know, for these, for species who get wiped out all the time, you know, the world has grown up over billions of years with - species come, species go, animals die off, they don't die off. What's so different about this now?

Dr. WILSON: Thank you for setting me up there, Ira, or at least setting up a very important point. Because this probably is the single most common objection I get in talking with people of all kinds and different professions and so on about conservation. They say why care about it? Don't worry, evolution - if we believe in evolution - will and always has replaced the lost diversity, and that is true. It's true that some 99 percent of species, maybe more, have disappeared in the course of history of life on earth, but that covers, mind you, hundreds of millions of years.

And the figure to keep in mind is not that 99 percent figure, but it is the rate of turnover and the rate of extinction and the rate of birth of new species. And that is, for both those figures - extinction and birth outside of the period of human activity was by fossil evidence mainly, about one species extinct per million species per year being replaced by one species being born per million species per year. That's a very slow turnover.

Now I think virtually all students who work on this whole issue of biodiversity and extinction rates and so on agree that most conservatively, that rate has increased due to our influence by an order of 100 times, and very likely 1,000 times if not yet on the order of 1,000 times, soon to be there, with the potential of going faster and faster as we wipe out more and more entire ecosystems.

So you can now put that in terms of your bank account, in which there may be a very slow turnover. You've got a very low interest rate, but then you only make a rare withdrawal to replace what you put in. Now increase your withdrawal 100 or 1,000 times while reducing your income, because we're reducing the birth-rate of species by removing their cradles.

FLATOW: You know, when I took Ecology 101 in college in the ‘60s, the professor threw out one question I have yet to actually answered myself. I'm going to ask you this question, because I've never fully answered it. And he said every animal, every plant, whatever, has a niche in the ecosystem and the environment. What is the human role in the environment? What is our niche? It seems now to be to destroy everything else.

Dr. WILSON: What happened there, I can give you my perception of this. But I would've answered - maybe I couldn't have answered it when you were in college, but I think I can give a reasonable answer now. The human niche, the thing that our brains were built for, was to live primarily on the African savannah as highly social primates, even more so than our closest cousins among the monkeys and apes, and to be vegetarian in part, but also more than other species closer related to us, including most of those monkeys and apes, to be turning to meat.

We're beginning to be good predators. We're probably also scavengers. So we're likely dealing with, oh, 10 percent or more of our calories coming in that way. So that's our niche. Open terrain, scattered trees, copses and so on, and that's where we fit in, and it was all we could do, those ancient hominids of which there probably were not more than a few hundred thousand at any given time, maybe even less in periods of time. They fit in very well and they weren't really upsetting any of the balance of anything.

But then somehow, somewhere, which is all a matter of dispute among the evolutionary biologists and the anthropologists, we began this runaway development of the cerebrum, intelligence, technology, and pretty soon without losing our appetite for meat and for breeding and producing more of ourselves and the ability to turn a large part of the natural world that was not savannah into savannah - we call it farms and yards and lawns - soon we are sweeping over the world, and we're simply trying to make the whole world our niche.

And that in a nutshell is the problem. We neglected almost all of those other species, which have been keeping things in harmony and balance for us, and we're doing it in a way that we're taking away their services, we're taking away the many opportunities at understanding these species offer us, and we are generally messing up big time.

FLATOW: Are they going to go first, or are we going to go first?

Dr. WILSON: Oh, they will go first. One of my favorite quotes is from Abba Eban, and it's appropriate I think to give it now, especially with the Middle East in turmoil. Once again, he said in the 1967 war, when all else fails, men turn to reason. So what I have in mind is if we don't come awake now, and this is why I so hope that the religious communities will strengthen the movements they already have underway. If we don't come awake now and do something about it, that we'll survive, but it'll be a far less stable world, and it'll be a much pauperized world that our descendants really will dislike us for this.

FLATOW: Now you address the Christian community in this book. What about the Muslim and the Buddhists and the other major players in the world now?

Dr. WILSON: Well, I of course, actually I address an imaginary Southern Baptist pastor because I grew up Southern Baptist. And I deserve a certain amount of legitimacy, even though I've drifted, shall we say, away. My Southern Baptist pastor is meant to represent especially the Evangelicals. I understand them. I understand, you know, the great and powerful virtues of Evangelical movement, and so they come to represent the Judeo Christian communities as a whole.

Looking over the activities of Judeo Christian societies in both the new world and the old world, they have really begun to make important strides in awareness and conservation activities. But at the present time, I have to say Islam and the peoples under the - who are practicing Eastern religions have not moved significantly in that direction. But they could, in very short time, and I'm rather hoping that they will.

FLATOW: Talking with E.O. Wilson, author of The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, heading - let's see if we can head to the phones. Let's go to Laura in San Francisco. Hi, Laura.

LAURA (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I just want to say, Dr. Wilson, this is just an incredible privilege to speak to you. I have a master's in biology, so I worship you. My question is if you would agree with Jared Diamond's arguments in his latest book, I think it's his latest book, Collapse, and if you agree, you know, with his theories about how we're all kind of self-annihilating.

Dr. WILSON: Yes I agree in large part, and I think Jared, as he usually does with quite clarity, has put his finger on an important propensity of human behavior. As we were just discussing earlier, maybe the causes of it, you know, how it unfolded it in history - he doesn't deal with much. But in selecting the examples he did and in drawing the lesson for humanity that he drew so graphically, I think he's on target.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

LAURA: Which examples would you say are the most relevant?

Dr. WILSON: I'm sorry, what?

FLATOW: Which examples were the most relevant, she says.

Dr. WILSON: Well, it's nice to have Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, because it's simple and we can understand it. That's been somewhat changed a bit by the recent proposal with some evidence behind it that what did in those endemic palm trees, and they're the false forest of Easter Island, was not so much people couldn't stop cutting the trees down, although that certainly was part of it, but it was the introduction of an invasive species, the Polynesian rat, that multiplied and destroyed the seeds and helped move it along.

But you know, the basic lesson is the same. That's what Jared and others have done in using Rapa Nui, Easter Island, as a kind of iconic case that people can immediately understand as correct.

FLATOW: Do you think that global warming has put biodiversity back on the radar screen? How do you get it on the radar screen?

Dr. WILSON: I certainly hope so.

FLATOW: You know, everything else that's going on, terrorism -

Dr. WILSON: I certainly hope so. I hate to see global warming, the evidence that it's evidently speeding up. It's not faster than we had thought, but you keep it in mind that those good folks of the IPCC, you know the Intergovernmental Program on Climate Change, who did all that hard work for over a decade and continuing now, try to be conservative. They use conservative values on their parameters so that when they said something was going to happen, then it was the more convincing. They could not be called extremists.

But now it might appear, it appears that maybe those conservative values are being exceeded. This puts an entirely new complexion on the whole problem of conservation, because if global warming - well, global climate change of all kind. Remember a lot of it has to do with increased rainfall in certain areas and draught and desertification in other areas. If that proceeds the way all models point, then we're going to have a lot of mass extinction occurring just through that alone, and that's why many conservation scientists - and conservation science, incidentally, is a rapidly growing and I think strong discipline of biology, and I hope we'll be seeing it as a future profession for more young scientists.

But anyway, we are already laying plans for designing reserves that run parallel to the climate change. For example, north-south for a temperature regime change, in what we call corridors. That is, trying to connect up reserves that now exist and add new ones to connect them so that as the change occurs, plant and animal species can grow their ranges north or south in a way that keeps them alive until humanity as a whole figures out what in the world we can do for a long-term solution.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to have to end it there. We could go on for much longer. We'll have to have you back, Dr. Wilson, to come back and talk more with us about global warming and biodiversity.

E.O. Wilson, his new book is The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. A terrific book, I highly recommend it. He's the Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard. Thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. WILSON: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: It was my honor.

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