Denial and Its Risks: A Secular Humanist Addresses a Thoughtful Pastor

E.O. Wilson

Dear Pastor, what I fear most is the pervasive combination of religious and secular ideology of a kind that sees little or no harm in the destruction of the Creation. The following speech might be given by the visionary who ranks biodiversity of little account and sees humanity ascending profitably away from and not to it. He says to those who wish to save wild Nature:

Brothers and sisters, do not weep, for what will soon pass from Earth. Life is change, and extinction is sometimes a good thing. Instead, celebrate humanity as a new order of life, and the “plundered” planet as the new biosphere. Let any species that blocks progress slip away. Before the coming of mankind, there was always a turnover of ecosystems and species. Even if the world is biologically impoverished in furthering the interests of humanity, our species is in no danger. When one resource is exhausted, our scientific and technological genius will find another.

Look to space, my good people. Look to the heavens! Do not think vanished faunas and floras a bitter heritage for future generations. We can keep some nature parks the way we preserve historic old buildings, to remind us of the past. Perhaps we will even create new ecosystems with advanced bioengineering and stock them with species of our own making. Who knows what wonderful creatures will be fashioned? They would be works of art, ever more aesthetically pleasing and useful in many ways. A prosthetic and superior environment will replace the old and primitive.

It is within the power of future technology, perhaps in accord with divine providence, for people to flourish as never before in a completely humanized environment, a paradise of our own making. Such is the foreordained trajectory of an advanced intelligent species. I tell you, it is our destiny! In coming generations medicines will be synthesized from chemicals off the shelf, food grown from a few dozen genetically enhanced crop species, and the atmosphere and climate controlled by computer-guided sustainable energy sources. This old Earth will go on spinning through space as it has for billions of years (or, if you prefer, six thousand years). The planet will become a literal, not just a metaphorical, spaceship. Our finest minds will be up there on the bridge of voyaging Earth, reading monitor displays, touching buttons, keeping us safe.

Such is the philosophy of exemptionalism, which supposes that the special status on Earth of humanity lifts us above the laws of Nature. Exemptionalism takes one or the other of two forms. The first, just expressed, is secular: don’t change course now, human genius will provide. The second is religious: don’t change course now, we are in the hands of God, or the gods, Earth’s karma, whatever.

A cheerful faith in human destiny dismisses the rest of life through successive denials. The first says, Why worry? Extinction is natural. Life forms have been dying out over billions of years of history without any clear harm to the biosphere. New species are constantly being born to replace them.

All this is true as far as it goes, but with a terrible twist. Except for giant meteorite strikes or other catastrophes every 100 million years or so, Earth has never experienced anything like the contemporary human juggernaut. With the global species extinction rate now exceeding the global species birthrate at least a hundredfold, and soon to increase to ten times that much, and with the birthrate falling through the loss of sites where evolution can occur, the number of species is plummeting. The original level of biodiversity is not likely to be regained in any period of time that has meaning for the human mind.

The second stage of denial takes form in a question, Why do we need so many species anyway? Why care, especially when the vast majority are bugs, weeds, and fungi? An exemptionalist religious scholar might add that an immense array of creatures discovered by science, including encytraeids, nematodes, rotifers, gnasthostomulids, oribatids, archaea, and many others, are not even mentioned in Holy Scripture. It is easy to look past these creepy-crawlers, forgetting that only a century ago, before the rise of the modern conservation movement, native birds and mammals were eliminated with equal disregard. In just four decades, the population of passenger pigeons plunged from hundreds of millions to zero. The beautiful crimson-and-green Carolina parakeet changed from an abundant orchard pest to a receding memory. The bison of North America, and its European cousin the wisent, came within a few hundred rifle shots of extinction. Only now are they recovering, and then only in part. People today understand what was lost or almost lost in these cases by the unintended consequences of human greed. In time they will come to similarly value other creatures that still fall below their notice.

People will more widely share the knowledge acquired by biologists that these often obscure life forms run Earth completely free for us. Each is a masterpiece of evolution, exquisitely well adapted to the niches of the natural environment in which it occurs. The surviving species around us are thousands to millions of years old. Their genes, having been tested each generation in the crucible of natural selection, are codes written by countless episodes of birth and death. Their careless erasure is a tragedy that will haunt human memory forever.

Even if that much is granted, the third stage of denial predictably emerges: Why rush to save all of biodiversity now? We have more important things to do. Priority is owed economic growth, jobs, military defense, democratic expansion, alleviation of poverty, medicine. Why not collect or gather live specimens of every species, and breed them in zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens, for later return to the wild? Yes, this rescue operation is available as a last resort, and has in fact saved a few plants and animals that were on the brink of extinction. . . .

Successful recoveries of critically endangered species will of necessity continue to be rare exceptions. So we come back to the Lazarus dream. The sobering truth is that all the zoos in the world can sustain breeding populations of a maximum of only two thousand mammal species, out of about five thousand known to exist. A similar limitation exists for birds. Botanical gardens and arboreta are more capacious, but would be overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of plant species needing protection. The same is true of fishes that might be saved in aquaria. A lot of good can be accomplished, but at considerable expense per species, and it can only make a dent in the problem.

And how are we even to think of such an emergency measure for the millions of species of insects and other invertebrates, most still unknown to science—and still more, the tens of millions of microorganisms?

There is no solution available, I assure you, to save Earth’s biodiversity other than the preservation of natural environments in reserves large enough to maintain wild populations sustainably. Only Nature can serve as the planetary ark.

So here, Pastor, is a homily of my own I offer to counter that of the exemptionalist:

Save the Creation, save all of it! No lesser goal is defensible. However biodiversity arose, it was not put on this planet to be erased by any one species. This is not the time, nor will there ever be a time, when circumstance justifies destroying Earth’s natural heritage. Proud though we are of our special status, and justifiably so, let us keep our world-changing capabilities in perspective. All that human beings can imagine, all the fantasies we can conjure, all our games, simulations, epics, myths, and histories, and, yes, all our science dwindle to lit
tle beside the full productions of the biosphere. We have not even discovered more than a small fraction of Earth’s life forms. We understand fully no one species among the millions that have survived our onslaught.

It is true that nonhuman life preceded us on this planet. Whether by a literal day, according to Genesis, or by more than 3.5 billion years, as the scientific evidence shows, it is still true that we are a latecomer. The biosphere into which humanity was born had its Nature-born crises, but it was overall a beautifully balanced and functioning system. It would have continued to be so in the absence of Homo sapiens. Even today a diminished wild Nature provides us ecosystem services, such as water management, pollution control, and soil enrichment, equal in economic value to all that humanity artifactually generates.

Think of it. With the smaller population that can be reached within a century, and a higher and sustainable per capita consumption spread more evenly around the world, this planet can be paradise. But only if we also take the rest of life with us.

E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson is the Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus in Entomology at Harvard University and a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. An author of many books, he has won the Pulitzer Prize on two occasions, for the books On Human Nature (Harvard, 1978) and The Ants (with Bert Holldobler, Harvard 1991). This article is excerpted from E.O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (©2006 W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.).

Dear Pastor, what I fear most is the pervasive combination of religious and secular ideology of a kind that sees little or no harm in the destruction of the Creation. The following speech might be given by the visionary who ranks biodiversity of little account and sees humanity ascending profitably away from and not to …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.