Chimerical Humanity, Ants, and a Letter Back to E.O. Wilson

In the last week of September, I had the privilege of returning to Wyoming to […]

Lizzie Stallings / 10.16.15


In the last week of September, I had the privilege of returning to Wyoming to attend and work for the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, a weeklong Conservation Summit combined with a festival of nature documentaries. The conservation theme this year was ‘Elephants,’ and thus, I got to meet some of the leading figures in elephant advocacy, along with biologists, producers, directors, script-writers, and scientists from the U.S., Kenya, England, South Africa, Chile—the list continues.

I even had the pleasure of meeting a television host who could “hear snakes breathing” from more than five feet away, a talent revealed in a bizarre twist of fate that placed us drinking coffee together over a fence. (He pointed in the distance, asking if I could hear “it.” “Hear what?” “That animal. A snake. Breathing, over there.” Upon closer inspection, he was pointing at an isolated shrub entirely devoid of reptiles—a ghost snake, perhaps? This was inarguably one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever experienced, but I digress.)

Snake-whisperers aside, the week was both thought-provoking and challenging, but these challenges stemmed in particular from one man, the keynote speaker of the Festival: E.O. Wilson.

Some background (for those who, like me, were unaware of what an ‘entomologist’ even was; answer: a scientist of insects): E.O. Wilson is an Alabaman researcher, theorist, naturalist, biologist—specializing in myrmecology, or the study of ants—and author. He has won two Pulitzer prizes for his works, among a medley of other awards (I had to scroll twice through the list on Wikipedia!). Though a self-professed atheist, in 2006, Wilson published a book called The Creation, a 168-page letter addressed to an unnamed Baptist Preacher on the subjects of conservation, biodiversity, and the stewardship of Nature. It is to this letter that I intend to respond.


Wilson opens as follows:

Dear Pastor:

We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. Although I no longer belong to that faith, I am confident that if we met and spoke privately of our deepest beliefs, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and goodwill. [He continues] You reject the conclusion of science that mankind evolved from lower forms … I am a secular humanist … Let me stress: to protect the beauty of the Earth and of its prodigious variety of life forms should be a common goal, regardless of differences in our metaphysical beliefs.

He then further declares his position, defining mankind as a

‘chimera’, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and god-like technology … We took a wrong turn when we launched the Neolithic revolution. We have been trying ever since to ascend from Nature instead of to Nature. [However] Teacher and student alike will benefit from a recognition that living Nature has opened a broad pathway to the heart of science itself, that the breath of our life and our spirit depend upon its survival. And to grasp and discuss on common ground this principle: because we are part of it, the fate of the Creation is the fate of humanity.

It is here, in his proclamations concerning ‘fate’ and ‘ascension,’ that my beliefs and Wilson’s diverge. However, in many respects, I accept his assertions. In his speeches, his TED talks, and other writings, he mainly calls to the public to raise more young scientists. A worthy cause, I think. Otherwise, he delivers “hard-hitting facts,” statistical validity for species variation, habitat destruction, and other general biodiversity discourse. For instance, when he stated, “species extinction is the only human impact that happens to be irreversible,” I nodded my head. Yes, yes, E.O., irreversible in an earthly sense, but irreversible all the same. When he spoke of biophilia, or “the innate tendency to affiliate with life and lifelike processes,” again, I gestured in agreement. After all, we aren’t cyborgs. Mankind for centuries has reveled in the flora and fauna; individuals have been turning to the ‘wild’ for catharsis, solitude, or escape since the beginnings of time.

Take, for instance, a bed of flowers humming with bees in the afternoon. Or the light of the sun bouncing off of a tree, each leaf illuminated from a slightly different angle. Take even the fractionally sized fire ant, one of Wilson’s most beloved creatures. It is difficult not to perceive the majesty in the intricate, poetic subtlety with which these life forms exist. The poetry in wildlife is cathartic. However, where E.O. and I differ is with regards to the stakes upon which that catharsis rests. We differ in the origin of this majestic perception.

To the Pastor, Wilson writes,

A June 10, 1991 photo of Edward O. Wilson, co-author of "The Ants," which won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 1991.  (AP photo/stf)

You will count the beneficent side of Nature as God’s blessing, where I see it as the birthright of our evolutionary origin inside the biosphere … Earth is a laboratory wherein Nature (God, if you prefer, Pastor) has laid before us the results of countless experiments … Nature is heaven on Earth. Here, pastor, we surely agree … She speaks to us; now let us listen.

In response, I must pose a question: to whom, exactly, should we listen? Does Nature call to us, really? Does Nature yearn for human attention or stewardship? Both Wilson and I would answer, no, not even remotely. Why, then, do we care? To E.O. Wilson, we care because dependence on Nature has been written into our biological genome, and we should care from this point forward because the rate at which Nature is being eradicated—‘Nature’ in all its uniqueness and beauty—is threatening our existence as an evolutionary species. He condenses this concept into a term that appeals to the Christian vocabulary: Creation. However, Wilson’s “Creation” is finite, and therefore, requiring of us as custodians to preserve it, or die. His formula for motivating the “Pastor” (and all related constituents) is existentialist, yet his language is divine. This allows me, as a Christian and a proponent for conservation, not to respond to Wilson’s letter saying “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong. We don’t have to do anything. Your version of ‘Creation’ is earthbound. It’s dying anyway. No.” Rather, I can say, “You’re right, but sort of, and here’s why.”

Wilson, towards the end of the book, states, “Those living today will either win the race against extinction or lose it, the latter for all time. They will earn either everlasting honor or everlasting contempt.” Our scientist, in evoking ‘everlasting honor,’ touches on the very premise that allows us to care about the environment: grace. The majesty we perceive in nature—in flowers or fire ants or twigs, even—that majesty is not heaven on earth. We can revere the complexity of a species and wish to save it due to God’s salvation; our earthly existence is temporary, but temporary is still a lifespan, and in that lifespan, we are granted the freedom to reflect and honor and glorify God through his Creation. In rejecting humanity’s existential doom, we can offer that much more in appreciation for Wilson’s Nature, worldly nature, God’s nature. It is liberty, not obligation, that motivates us to respond.

After all, as Shakespeare once wrote, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” E.O., you and I are kin in valuing the natural domain. I respect you as a scientist, a theorist, and an activist. However, I am lucky; I have more freedom. In refusing to accept this world as The End, I can try to save it without resignation.