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.