Uncommon Ground

There may be no more basic lesson in persuasive writing than the futility of creating a straw man: Sketch a loose summary of an opponent’s argument in order to dismiss it with ease. In The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, E.O. Wilson does the opposite. Instead of creating an opponent he can knock down with a puff of his breath, Wilson creates a straw man that he can easily persuade. But the result is still unsatisfactory.

An internationally known biologist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, Wilson offers his new book as a defense of Earth’s biodiversity, which is being perilously reduced by human activity around the world. Climate change, pollution, human overpopulation, overharvesting, and the impact of industrial development all come at the expense of a balanced ecosystem that sustains myriad forms of life. Some scientists, Wilson tells us, estimate that climate change could be responsible for the loss of 25 percent of plant and animal species on land by mid-century. More than 100 species have gone extinct in the United States since the passage in 1973 of the Endangered Species Act. This is no longer news, of course, and even the naysayers may soon become an extinct species.

The flaw of Wilson’s treatise is not in its information but in its framework. The Creation is intended to move a particular audience: Christians who understand the Bible literally. In order to reach and persuade them, he constructs a fictional evangelical pastor, a “literalist interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture,” as he describes the character, to whom he makes his argument.

“Pastor, we need your help,” Wilson pleads. “The Creation—living Nature—is in deep trouble. Scientists estimate that if habitat conversion and other destructive human activities continue at their present rate, half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century. … If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved.”

Presumptuousness is at the heart of Wilson’s effort. He presumes, first, that he comprehends evangelicals, or perhaps fundamentalist Christians, but his imaginary conversation partner is one-dimensional. Wilson presumes his pastor’s theology represents a swath of U.S. Christianity. Yet on the one hand he defines his partner as a biblical literalist and on the other he appeals to him on the basis of shared respect for creation. Does his co-conversationalist have a steward’s view of creation or a dominator’s? U.S. evangelical Christianity is complex, but few Christians display both views.

Finally, Wilson seems to presume that his own religious upbringing grants him the credibility to engage this discussion on religious terms. Although it is unfair to say that science is Wilson’s faith, he clearly believes that modern science has intellectually neutered faith. In his eyes, religious belief lost the ability to provide a sense of meaning and profound self-understanding to contemporary humanity after the Enlightenment and the advances unleashed by the development of science and the scientific method. Even Christians who consider mostly benign the benefits and knowledge of science will bristle at Wilson’s dismissal of the power of religious faith.

The media have been filled in recent years with reports of religionists rendering themselves foolish by portraying scriptural explanations for the physical world as credible scientific theory. But less criticized have been the sometimes amusing efforts of a surprising number of scientists striding confidently down that same road, from the opposite direction. Together, they’re just about all the evidence needed to demonstrate that hubris truly is humanity’s original sin.

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is an editor and writer in Long Beach, California.

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