CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - It's hard to picture, if you know him only by his scientific reputation, but E.O. Wilson confesses it freely: He loves watching preachers on television.
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Wilson is an internationally renowned biologist who has based his extraordinarily productive five-decade career at that great bastion of secular humanism, Harvard University. At 77, his work and his worldview are so thoroughly entwined with Darwinian theory that they're impossible to imagine without it. His reverence is for the wondrous creatures and intricate interconnections of the natural world, not for any supreme being.
So what's he doing tuning in those evangelical sermons from the megachurches?
"I listen to them the way an Italian listens to opera," Wilson confesses with a lopsided grin. "I may be thinking of the texts as fiction, but I can't resist the old-time rhythm, the music and the superlative performances."
These rhythmic exhortations are the stuff of Wilson's childhood. He may have put aside the Southern Baptist faith into which he was born - and, as a teenager, born again - but he has retained his emotional ties to the culture surrounding it. All of which helps explain the herculean task he recently assigned himself:
He's trying to bridge the gap between science and religion in the hope of saving life on Earth.
The vehicle is his new book, "The Creation." Wilson chose the title because he knew it would resonate with evangelical Christians, a community so vast and influential that without its support, he believes, reaching the goal will be next to impossible. And he chose to present his argument in the form of a letter to a fictional Southern Baptist minister.
If you called it a sermon, he wouldn't object.
"Pastor, we need your help," Wilson writes. "The Creation - living Nature - is in deep trouble." At the present rate of destructive human activity, "half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century."
This looming catastrophe isn't news; Wilson and many others have sounded alarms about it for years. What's new is his personal outreach program. Since "The Creation" was published this month, Wilson has been taking opportunity to extend the hand of friendship across that yawning science-religion divide. To him, science and religion are "the two most powerful forces in the world today" - and they need each other.
He's saying: Let's put our differences aside. "We've got a job to get done."
Go looking for Ed Wilson in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and you're likely to be told, "He's in the Ant Room."
He's happy to show you around.
"One of the marks of a great university," he says, "is that it's full of treasures nobody ever sees." Sure enough, hidden in rows of steel cabinets, housed in a space no bigger than a tract mansion's master bedroom, are ... a million dead ants. Lovingly labeled and impaled on pins, they form the largest collection in the world.
With Wilson, everything starts with ants.
Oh, he's moved way beyond them, in a career noted for its repeated attempts at cosmic syntheses. But if he'd published nothing at all beyond his work on ants, he'd still be in the top ranks of modern biology. To take just one example, Wilson figured out how ants communicate through taste and smell - how they "talk" to each other by means of pheromones. A remarkable discovery.
By the 1970s, he knew that species and habitat loss was becoming an urgent problem but thought scientists should keep out of the political arena. "Boy, was I ever wrong," he says now. "I realized that, like these fictional scientists who discover a meteorite headed toward Earth, the scientists better speak up."
In "The Creation," he lays out the grim scenario.
Precise measurement is difficult, but the extinction rate is vastly higher - somewhere between 50 and 500 times as high - than it was before Homo sapiens showed up, and it's rising fast.