How To Raise Your Child To Be A Naturalist

By David Roberts
SEATTLE, WA--In 1967, E.O. Wilson coauthored the book that founded island biogeography, a new field of scientific study. He could have retired then with a distinguished record. (E.O. Wilson photo by Jim Harrison)

Instead, in the ensuing four decades, he’s gone on to discover hundreds of new species, generate major advances in entomology, win the National Medal of Science and two Pulitzers, found yet another field of scientific study (sociobiology), and build bridges both between sciences and out of science to the humanities, with popular books like Biophilia (about innate love of nature) and Consilience (about the unity of knowledge). He’s also won a number of teaching awards over his more than 40 years at Harvard.

When I met him in the lobby of his hotel in Seattle, the 76-year-old Wilson had just come from two straight hours of speaking and answering questions before another group. Mere mortals might have pled exhaustion or begged off for a few minutes rest, but a few sips of coffee later, he was holding forth with characteristic wit, energy, and erudition. He is so gentlemanly and avuncular that the intern who transcribed this interview returned it with the note,
“I want him to be my grandfather.”

In his latest book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, he turns that gentle, respectful attention to a Southern Baptist pastor, pleading for help in the fight to preserve what’s left of living nature. The book is an elegant description of the depth and variety of the living world, and warning it’s being lost and destroyed. But I wasn’t clear what about it was supposed to appeal to a religious sensibility.

Wilson says “there are three books in that short volume. The first is a description of the present status of biology, and the direction I think it’s going to be taking. Book two is a manual for how to teach and promote biology, and how to raise your child as a naturalist.

“That’s based on 41 years of experience as a professor at Harvard. The part about raising a naturalist–citizen science–was meant to point to something broader: how to get people back to natural history, to the living world. To show that the mapping of biodiversity and ecology is, like astronomy, something citizens can do–actually add to the corpus of scientific knowledge.

“The third book is the one to the religious community. By addressing them specifically it says that we need help, that the small group of people who have that knowledge [of biodiversity], who are devoted to saving the creation, badly need help. They’re a very small percentage of the population.

“It seems to me the huge religious community might consider giving of themselves, and joining in a common effort that puts aside differences in worldview, postponing whatever culture war develops out of those, because religion and science are the two most powerful social forces in the world. That was why I addressed the Southern Baptist pastor: to get their attention, and in a very sincere, respectful way, ask for their help.”

One of the central themes in your work, and particularly this book, is joy at the amazing complexity and specificity of life.

“Its ability to surprise and delight.”

But, part of the appeal of the religious worldview is the simplicity it offers, the shelter from complexity and ambiguity. Will your message of complexity reach that audience?

“It’ll reach part of it, because people have an innate attraction to nature. They delight in going into nature and finding surprising things, and in a healthful, calming environment. They may not have the true naturalist’s devotion to studying complexity and being surprised and delighted and proud at making discoveries–all the things that make a real obsessive naturalist like myself. But they can appreciate nature. It’s natural to them, and it’s almost universal. Relatively few are so cramped in their thinking, so closed in, that they would not appreciate that spiritual side of [nature].”

In 2000, in reference back to your 1992 book The Diversity of Life, you said, “The facts are clearly and well laid out. … Eight years later people are still presenting in public flawed paradigms (perhaps deliberately) to excuse their gluttonous behavior, which is crushing the planetary life-support systems.” Now it’s 2006. Do you ever despair?

“It was a higher mountain to climb than we estimated when we saw it on the horizon. But I’m an optimist. Life is all about struggling and overcoming. In this case it’s not an enemy to defeat; it’s a people to persuade. The goal is transcendent, and worth all the effort. I think we’ll do it.” –Grist Magazine