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Christians look at creation and see the handiwork of the Lord. Nonreligious environmentalists marvel at what natural selection has produced. Despite their differences, the two can agree we have a moral responsibility to care for our earth. Such is the truce E.O. Wilson calls for in his new book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save the Earth . “Does this difference in worldview separate us in all things? It does not,” says Wilson. “Let us see, then, if we can, and you are willing, to meet on the near side of metaphysics in order to deal with the real world we share.”

Or are we meeting on the far side of metaphysics? Stephen Barr’s review of the book will appear in the next issue of First Things . Meanwhile, reviewing Wilson in the New York Times , the evangelical conservationist Matthew Scully, author of the interesting book Dominion , asks about origins of Wilson’s green ethic.

In his own defense, however, the pastor might reasonably wonder just how Wilson managed to wring all of these praiseworthy moral sentiments from evolutionary biology. The “universal values,” sense of “honor” and “inborn sense of decency” to which Wilson appeals are of no traceable origin in the blindly amoral operations of natural selection. And grandiose attempts to explain conscience and reason in purely biological and material terms still leave us with little in the way of moral guidance¯without a firm obligation to care for the earth and for our fellow creatures. It may be, the good pastor could reply, that Judeo-Christian thought itself is a kind of moral biosphere from which this and all good causes continue to draw, with or without acknowledgment, and that more deference is due from scientists on that account alone.

“Acknowledgement” is what we’re after. Wilson, after all, has previously declared, “The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling” to humankind than Copernicus’, because “it showed that humanity is not the center of creation, and not its purpose either.”

Wilson’s environmentalism owes more to religion than he would have us believe. Throughout Creation , he reiterates that “each species [of life] is a masterpiece of evolution.” In exactly what sense does he think evolution makes species “masterpieces,” if not as a metaphysical appraisal of eco-complexity or fitness? How does evolution imply progress? For that matter, isn’t it discriminatory of Wilson to prize living things over rocks and gases?

Not to be confused with these assumptions is Wilson’s utilitarian argument that preserving nature’s variety increases our chances of future survival. But what if the relationship were inverted? In other words, would Wilson continue to regard eco-systems as better for supporting more species, diversity, and life if it came at the cost of human survivability? Any answer requires a moral justification. Whether he likes it or not, humanity stands at the center of Wilson’s science.

Similarly, co-atheist Richard Dawkins so enjoys science that, for him, it makes life worth living, it gives life meaning. The title for Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder refers to Newton’s discovery of how rainbows are made, information that, in Dawkins’ opinion, need not diminish the beauty of rainbows. “Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved,” he writes. “Quite the contrary: the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle . . . ” This from a man who stated in River Out of Eden , “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Why, then, the “appetite for wonder” that gets Dawkins out of bed in the morning?

And, of course, if scientific “mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved,” that leaves unsolved the mystery of the poetry and the beauty of the solution. For Wilson, Dawkins & Co., nature’s beauty and goodness are at once reducible to and more than the sum of their parts and causes. As one musical conductor, corresponding in the Times , put it, “Awareness that I’m participating in [an evolutionary] chain of capabilities in no way deprives music of its wonder; it enhances it.” But either creation’s beauty and goodness do not exist¯and clearly, Wilson and Dawkins thinks they do¯or they exist transcendentally. What they categorically cannot be, and empirically are not, are “natural phenomena.”

Perhaps Christians won’t lose much by agreeing to Wilson’s truce, but the real meeting ground is on the far side, not the near side, of metaphysics.

John Rose is an assistant editor of First Things .

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