“Similarly, just as we go about our daily lives completely unconcerned about the lives of ants, the biosphere is wholly indifferent to our existence.” Those are my words, but also a fitting way to begin a post concerning an eminent biologist whose road to fame was partially paved by his diligent study of ants. As you might guess, I am referring to the much revered E. O. Wilson.
One of the things E.O. Wilson is noted for is his coining of the term biophilia. In Jon Turney’s review of Wilson’s The Future of Life — published in the New York Times Book Review (“Of Mites and Men” Feb. 17, 2002) — Turney quotes Wilson as describing biophilia as “the innate tendency to focus upon life and lifelike forms, and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally.” Turney further adds that biophilia “also means that we need contact with other creatures, and views of pleasing landscapes, for our mental health. And we need the idea of true wilderness for spiritual nourishment.” I like that explanation of the term; and I quite agree.
But what I wanted to talk about today is an interview Wilson did with New Scientist, back in January of this year (Penny Sarchet, “E.O.Wilson: Religious faith is dragging us down”). It’s unfortunate that such an important interview is so hard to obtain. I read online that even Richard Dawkins was having trouble gaining access to it. Similarly, Jerry Coyne — his review of Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, was published in the Times Literary Supplement — had a hard time getting it. But that is a result of today’s business model, wherein no matter how important material is to disseminate, it still gets hidden away behind a paywall.
Writing about the interview on his blog (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com), Coyne states: “Wilson continues his critique of religion, which I think is great since he’s so widely admired. People have to sit up a bit when such a famous (and affable) scientist” is presenting his views. But how can people sit up and pay attention, when they can’t even read the interview? Anyway, that’s one of the beefs I have about paywalls. I wish certain exceptions could be made, in some instances, like for this interview, so that they could reach as wide an audience as possible.
One of the things I need to caution you about, concerning E.O.Wilson, is that he’s an optimist. And therefore, I doubt he has as realistic a grasp of just how dire the situation is, as someone who is on the mission he is on, needs to have. I have a general rule of thumb: when it comes to saving the planet, never place your trust (place too much faith) in an optimist. I’m sorry, but I find that to be the case. And I’m someone who tends to shun both labels by the way. I don’t characterize myself as an optimist, or a pessimist.
To clarify, there are two distinctly different definitions concerning optimism. Nearly everyone hopes for a positive outcome. Nearly everyone wants to see that “and they lived happily ever after” ending. That’s not what I’m talking about. “Tendency to hope for the best” is indeed one definition. But another definition is “tendency to expect a favorable outcome.” That is what I am referring to here when I say never trust an optimist, when it comes to saving the planet (e.g. regarding who most to throw your backing behind). I’ve seen an interview transcript of when Wilson was interviewed by Jeffrey Brown for PBS’s Newshour show (Apr. 28, 2016) where he states that achieving his Half Earth objective (preserving half the earth’s surface, to fend off the mass die-off of earth’s remaining species) is “easier to do than most people think” — even though, in the same interview, for example, it states “Wilson acknowledges that the world’s population will continue to grow … to 11 billion.” In another interview (Claudia Dreifus, “A Conversation With E.O. Wilson / A Plea, While There’s Still Time” New York Times, Mar. 1, 2016), Wilson states:
I’ve made so bold a step as to offer this maxim: Do no further harm to the rest of life. If we can agree on that, everything else will follow. It’s actually going to be a lot easier than people think.
One of the things I’m pretty sure you’re never going to hear me say, is that saving the planet is going to be easy. And yet I hear that kind of talk all the time. It’s scary.
But getting back to the New Scientist interview, Wilson mentions that a major theme of the book he is currently working on, is “we are destroying Earth in a way that people haven’t appreciated enough …” Wilson states that he wants “to examine the new ideology of the anthropocene — namely those who believe that the fight for biodiversity is pretty much lost and we should just go on humanizing Earth until it is peopled from pole to pole; a planet by, of and for humanity. It sounds good, but it’s suicidal.” I agree it would be suicidal, but I don’t see how peopling the earth from pole to pole “sounds good.” It sounds reminiscent of “The Mark of Gideon” (1969) episode of Star Trek, from long ago.
Wilson points out in the interview that the biosphere is “razor thin” and that “if you look at it from the side, from orbit, you can’t even see it with unaided vision.” Indeed, I sometimes ask people who don’t believe mankind can have an impact on the climate of this planet, this simple question: “How high up do you think the main part of the atmosphere we are in, goes?” Usually, they say “I have no idea,” and then refuse to even guess. It’s funny, they have no trouble expressing their firm opinion that it’s arrogant to think man can affect the climate; but have “no idea” how big that atmosphere actually is. In point of fact, it’s rather astoundingly small. The Troposphere only goes up less than ten miles (and half that, in some places).
Wilson states in the interview that biodiversity loss is suicidal for us because as it erodes “away, the living world is almost certainly going to reach a tipping point where its equilibrium is going to decay and unravel. And when that happens, the whole thing collapses — and we collapse with it.” In fact, one theory concerning how our atmosphere formed in the first place, hypothesizes that it was as a direct result of that very long initial phase that began with those first stirrings of life on this planet. In other words (and you can read about this on the internet): The atmosphere life depends upon was created by life itself.
But the parts of the interview that I consider most important, are where he states: “What’s dragging us down is religious faith.” And where he states “I would say that for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”
I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the most important thing we could possibly do, to advance human progress, is diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths — I would emphasize more, a holistic approach — but I certainly agree that it’s one of the things we need to be doing, for sure. I’ve been saying that my whole life. And so when someone of his stature, also says that too, I’m profoundly grateful. And I will discuss this topic further in future posts, to be sure. But for now, there are a few other points worth bringing up concerning the New Scientist interview.
In fairness, so as not to misrepresent what Wilson is stating, he makes clear that some of the legitimate aspects of religion should remain — but just not under that umbrella we call religion. For example, he says we shouldn’t eliminate “the natural yearnings of our species or” asking those “great questions”: where do we come from, what are we and where are we going? These questions are at the heart of the trilogy he is in the midst of completing. His first book in this trilogy is The Social Conquest of Earth, and The Meaning of Human Existence is the second book.
In answer to the interview question concerning why it is that our species seems to ignore scientific warnings about where we are headed, Wilson states that he thinks it’s mainly because of “our tribal structure.” According to Wilson, ideologies and religions answer the big questions in their own way, and this is usually tethered by dogma, which binds the tribe together. Alluding to the “supernatural elements” which are a common feature of religions, he states that in the United States, “for example, if you’re going to succeed in politics, it’s a prerequisite to declare you have a faith, even if some of these faiths are rather bizarre.” Indeed, as I pointed out in a previous blog post, as soon as I read in a New York Times opinion piece that Mark Zuckerberg declared he is no longer an atheist, my immediate thought was that he’s planning a 2020 run for president. (I think it perhaps also hints at how little regard people who run for president tend to have for speaking the truth and being honest.)
Where I do take issue with Wilson in his talk of “tribes,” is when he states “Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god: ‘Come, my fellow atheists, let us march together and conquer those idiots who think there is a god — all those other tribes. We’re going to prevail.’ ” Wilson calls himself agnostic (because he is “a scientist,” and states “we will never be able to know,” so we should just let it go). But aren’t agnostics a tribe as well? They are, if atheists are. If he could say what he says about atheists, why couldn’t we say, basically, the same thing concerning agnostics? It might go something like this: “Agnosticism is the belief that we can’t know whether there is a god, and you declare we can’t know: ‘Come, my fellow agnostics, let us march together and conquer those idiots who are too ignorant to realize that it’s unknowable — all those other tribes. We’re going to prevail.’ ”
Personally, I think it’s awfully silly to rigidly cling to the “agnostic” label, based on the simple assertion that “we can’t know (one way or the other, whether there is a god)”; and there are countless points I can bring up to buttress that point of view. But I’ll mention just one. The same person who says they’re agnostic about believing in the existence of a benevolent god (“because one can’t know that there isn’t such a god”), would also have to be agnostic about there being a malevolent god — one who wants us to hurt and harm one another — since, after all, one equally can’t know that god doesn’t exist; but who would do that? Who would say they are agnostic about that possibility?
Finally, I would like to address an inconsistency. On a hunch, months ago, I googled to see whether there was any mentioning on his E.O.Wilson Biodiversity Foundation website (eowilsonfoundation.org) about his feelings concerning how “for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths,” and I found next to nothing. Just a sentence or two, here and there, and that was about it. He might as well be saying this: Listen up and pay careful attention to what I am about to say; but don’t pay too much attention to what I am about to say. In the New Scientist interview, he states at one point: “I think it’s time to be audacious.” So why not then be audacious? That is my challenge to Dr. Wilson. There are some twenty-six sections on his foundation’s website. Why not make it twenty-seven and have one specifically dealing with that one particular topic? It’s not enough to just express those sentiments in an interview that virtually no one has read.
Again, it was a noteworthy interview; and I highly recommend that everyone read it.