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SCIENCE

The Fate of Creation
Is the Fate of Humanity

by Edward O. Wilson

We have been trying to ascend
from Nature
instead of to Nature

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Somehow and somewhere back in history humanity lost its way. We evolved in a biologically rich world over tens of thousands of generations. We destroyed most of that biological richness in order to improve our lives and generate more people. Billions more people, to the peril of the Creation. I would like to offer the following explanation of the human dilemma:

According to archaeological evidence, we strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization roughly ten thousand years ago. That quantum leap beguiled us with an illusion of freedom from the world that had given us birth. It nourished the belief that the human spirit can be moulded into something new to fit changes in the environment and culture, and as a result the timetables of history desynchronized. A wiser intelligence might now truthfully say of us at this point: here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology. The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count most for its own long-term survival.
   
There seems no better way to explain why so many smart people remain passive while the precious remnants of the natural world disappear. They are evidently unaware that ecological services provided scot-free by wild environments, by Eden, are approximately equal in dollar value to the gross world product. They choose to remain innocent of the historical principle that civilizations collapse when their environments are ruined. Most troubling of all, our leaders, including those of the great religions, have done little to protect the living world in the midst of its sharp decline. They have ignored the command of the Abrahamic God on the fourth day of the world’s birth to “let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly over the land across the vault of heaven.”
   
I hesitate to introduce a beautiful subject with an animadversion. Few will deny, however, that the human impact on the natural environment is accelerating and makes a frightening picture.
   
What are we to do? At the very least, put together an honest history, one on which people of many faiths can in principle agree. If such can be fashioned, it will serve at least as prologue to a safer future.

We can begin with the key discovery of green history: civilization was purchased by the betrayal of Nature. The Neolithic revolution, comprising the invention of agriculture and villages, fed on Nature’s bounty. The forward leap was a blessing for humanity. Yes, it was: Those who have lived among hunter-gatherers will tell you they are not at all to be envied. But the revolution encouraged the false assumption that a tiny selection of domesticated plants and animals can support human expansion indefinitely. The pauperization of Earth’s fauna and flora was an acceptable price until recent centuries, when Nature seemed all but infinite, and an enemy to explorers and pioneers. The wildernesses and the aboriginals surviving in them were there to be pushed back and eventually replaced, in the name of progress and in the name of the gods too, lest we forget.

History now teaches a different lesson, but only to those who will listen. Even if the rest of life is counted of no value beyond the satisfaction of human bodily needs, the obliteration of Nature is a dangerous strategy. For one thing, we have become a species specialized to eat the seeds of four kinds of grass—wheat, rice, corn, and millet. If these fail, from disease or climate change, we too shall fail. Some fifty thousand wild plant species (many of which face extinction) offer alternative food sources. If one insists on being thoroughly practical about the matter, allowing these and the rest of wild species to exist should be considered part of a portfolio of long-term investment.

Meanwhile, the modern techno-scientific revolution including especially the great leap forward of computer-based information technology, has betrayed Nature a second time, by fostering the belief that the cocoons of urban and suburban material life are sufficient for human fulfilment. That is an especially serious mistake. Human nature is deeper and broader than the artifactual contrivance of any existing culture. The spiritual roots of Homo sapiens extend deep into the natural world through still mostly hidden channels of mental development. We will not reach our full potential without understanding the origin and hence meaning of the aesthetic and religious qualities that make us ineffably human.

Granted, many people seem content to live entirely within the synthetic ecosystems. But so are domestic animals content, even in the grotesquely abnormal habitats in which we rear them. This in my mind is a perversion. It is not the nature of human beings to be cattle in glorified feedlots. Every person deserves the option to travel easily in and out of the complex and primal world that gave us birth. We need freedom to roam across land owned by no one but protected by all, whose unchanging horizon is the same that bounded the world of our millennial ancestors. Only in what remains of Eden, teeming with life-forms independent of us, is it possible to experience the kind of wonder that shaped the human psyche at its birth.

Scientific knowledge, humanized and well taught, is the key to achieving a lasting balance in our lives. The more biologists learn about the biosphere in its full richness, the more rewarding the image. Similarly, the more psychologists learn of the development of the human mind, the more they understand the gravitational pull of the natural world on our spirit, and on our souls.

We have a long way to go to make peace with this planet, and with each other. 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. It is not too late for us to come around, without losing the quality of life already gained, in order to receive the deeply fulfilling beneficence of humanity’s natural heritage. Surely the reach of religious belief is great enough, and its teachers generous and imaginative enough, to encompass this larger truth not adequately expressed in Holy Scripture.

Part of the dilemma is that while most people around the world care about the natural environment, they don’t know why they care or why they should feel responsible for it.  By and large they have been unable to articulate what the stewardship of Nature means to them personally. This confusion is a great problem for contemporary society as well as for future generations. It is linked to another great difficulty: the inadequacy of science education everywhere in the world. Both arise in part from the explosive growth and complexity of modern biology. Even the best scientists have trouble keeping up with more than a small part of what has emerged as the most important science for the twenty-first century.

I believe that the solution to all of the three difficulties—ignorance of the environment, inadequate science education, and the bewildering growth of biology—is to refigure them into a single problem. I hope you will agree that every educated person should know something about the core of this unified issue. 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 on 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.


♦ This article is Edward O. Wilson's contribution to Moral Ground - Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, ed. Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson.

♦  Publ. 21.3.2013

 

 

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