Today's date:
Summer 2006

Religion and Science Should Join to Save the Planet

A Harvard professor for four decades, biologist Edward O. Wilson, 76, has written 20 books, won two Pulitzer prizes and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered one of the world’s greatest living scientists, Wilson is often called “the father of biodiversity.” Wilson gave the following interview to Veja’s Diogo Schelp for NPQ at his office at Harvard University.

NPQ | More than half the population of the United States does not believe in the evolution theory. Is this a typically American phenomenon?

Edward O. Wilson | For 51 percent of Americans, the human species was created by a supreme force thousands of years ago. Thirty-four percent believe that there was an evolution conducted by God. The remaining 15 percent say that scientists are right. These figures are extraordinary because they represent the exact opposite of what Europeans think. In Europe, 40 percent of the population concurs with the thesis that species evolved by natural selection. Only a minority agrees with creationists, who reject the evolution theory.

NPQ | What explains the vigor of creationism, to the point that some people are considering the idea of teaching it in some American schools, in opposition to the evolution of species theory?

Wilson | Some religious organizations are managing to introduce in the American government the theory of intelligent design. That is, that God conducted evolution. The fact that we have a president, George W. Bush, who believes that God speaks to him when he makes certain decisions or goes to war surely helps this trend. This strengthens the population’s most radical fundamentalist beliefs.

Adding to this scenario, after September 11’s attacks, the American people, feeling vulnerable, clung to the idea that the country needed to be more religion-oriented. In my next book, The Creation, I make a plea to religious people. I ask them to set aside their differences with secular people and materialist scientists like me, and join us to save the planet. Science and religion are the world’s two most powerful forces. For both of them, nature is sacred.

NPQ | You maintain that there is a direct relation between natural selection and religious feeling. What is this relation?

Wilson | Religion is always telling people to survive, and this is a basic principle of natural selection. Religion stimulates the human mind to transpose difficulties, to join other individuals and to behave in an altruistic way on behalf of the group. The purpose is group survival. This explains why religions are so tribalist.

NPQ | What is the mistake of the intelligent design theory, the idea that the complexity of living organisms is the best proof of the existence of a divine designer?

Wilson | The only argument of those who defend the concept of intelligent design is that science cannot explain all the details of evolution and of natural phenomena. For them, it is good enough to justify the belief in a supernatural force behind the unexplainable. Obviously, this is not a scientific argument. The scientists’ motivation is precisely to discover the truth about what can still not be explained. By adopting the belief that evolution is God’s invention, religion puts all its credibility and prestige at risk. If the people who defend intelligent design had evidence of the existence of supernatural forces in physical and biological processes, scientists would be the first ones to study these phenomena.

NPQ | Is it possible to accept the evolution theory and, at the same time, be religious?

Wilson | Yes, of course. Even I consider myself a spiritualist. I believe in the great force of human spirit. But I do not believe in life after death or in a soul separated from body and mind. Creativity, aesthetics, the feeling of completeness and love are essentially part of the mind’s functioning. We know that the brain behaves differently when chemical changes occur in the body or when we get hurt. This suggests that human essence depends on a complex cell system. There is no incoherence at all in believing that feelings have a physical basis and, at the same time, having a spiritual view about the human mind.

NPQ | Would you feel comforted if you knew that there is life after death?

Wilson | Think about what it means to spend the rest of eternity in heaven. We were not made for this. The human mind was built to last for a limited period of time. To exceed this limit would mean binding the person to an infernal existence. A survey with the scientific elite of the United States showed that 85 percent of the people questioned do not care whether there is life after death. I do not care.

NPQ | You once said that you consider yourself a temporary deist. What do you mean?

Wilson | First, we must define theism and deism. Theism is the belief that God intervenes in human issues, is able to perform miracles and is directly linked to human discourse. Deists, on the other hand, accept the possibility of the existence of a supreme force that established the laws responsible for the creation of the universe. Deists, however, do not believe that God is involved in the daily issues of human beings. As long as we are not able to give a better explanation for the beginning of the universe, I consider myself a temporary deist. Science is quickly evolving. Maybe physicists will soon be able to explain where we came from.

NPQ | Many critics say that science is a kind of religion and that the evolution theory requires devotion. Do you agree?

Wilson | No. There is a great difference. Religion requires faith, a faith without questioning. Science has nothing similar to this. It is based on a set of accumulated knowledge and has a way of aggregating more and more information to explain the world. It is a process of search, exploration and discovery, totally different from religion.

NPQ | Do you see progress in evolution?

Wilson | Yes, because in billions of years evolution has been producing increasingly complex species, a greater number of organisms and more sophisticated ecosystems. If we take isolated examples, however, we will see that evolution not always means progress. After all, it is the product of mutations and fortuitous genetic changes. There are cases of parasites that lost their eyes and of animals that lost their feet. If complexity means progress, then these species have regressed.

NPQ | Does the fact that human beings have evolved to the point of controlling nature like no other animal give us the right to do whatever we want with the other species?

Wilson | The human species is undoubtedly the most sacred of the planet. After all, it is the most intelligent and the only civilized one. In the early stages of our evolution, when human beings lived off hunting and in groups, the purpose was to defeat nature, because this was a matter of survival. Today, destroying nature means destroying part of what remains of life on earth. We have to know when to stop. We are ruining nature only to open a little more space for more human beings. This is not progress, neither under the moral aspect nor as an option to guarantee the future of humanity. We need nature to guarantee productivity in the biosphere. The human species has been way too successful.

NPQ | A United Nations study estimated that in 2050 the earth’s population will reach the peak of 9 billion people and will then stabilize. How can we improve the economic situation of so many people and, at the same time, prevent nature’s destruction?

Wilson | Most specialists believe that the resources existing on earth could bear this overpopulation without nature’s destruction. It is necessary to increase soil productivity and, for this, we have to use genetically modified seeds. The human species depends only on 20 types of plants to feed itself. Rice, corn and wheat are the main ones. There are, however, more than 50,000 cultivatable plants. Many can become economically viable with genetic change. If we know how to preserve what remains of nature and render it more productive, we shall be able to feed the 9 billion people foreseen for 2050.

NPQ | Why is there so much resistance to genetically modified foods?

Wilson | The first fear is that there might be environmental risks in the use of transgenic food. There are people who fear, for example, that they might unleash super bacteria, resistant to any kind of medicine. This is a Hollywood-like view. There is no evidence that this might occur. Super bacteria already exist, but they are natural. In general, they are species from other countries or continents unintentionally brought by ships or planes. In environments without the competition from other species, these bacteria spread and eventually become serious pests.

The second fear is that transgenic foods might be harmful to human health. So far, there is also no evidence of that, despite innumerous studies. In the US, 40 percent of the food consumed by the population is genetically modified. Some people say this is not natural. Nonsense. In practice, we have been doing this for 10,000 years. Since agriculture was invented, we created plants and animals by modifying their genetics and choosing the best species. This is not different from introducing new genes directly into one species. It is not the gene that matters but whether the product created with it is good.

NPQ | Why is it so urgent to preserve the planet’s biodiversity?

Wilson | A calculation made in 1997 by biologists and economists showed that species of all ecosystems contributed $30 trillion in “services,” such as water retention, soil regeneration and cleaning of the atmosphere. This value was, at that time, close to the value of the entire human production. We depend on biodiversity more than we imagine.

Another aspect is that we are beginning to understand how species that appeared 1 million years ago were extinct and replaced by others. This is important for us to understand the origin of life. We need this knowledge. Scientists have identified only 10 percent of species and organisms existing in the planet. To know the remaining 90 percent has an inestimable value.

NPQ | Some scientists say that the human species is experiencing an accelerated evolution. The theory is that humanity is starting to determine its own evolution. Do you agree?

Wilson | Yes, in my book I named this phenomenon—voluntary evolution. We are close to reaching a stage of development in which we will be able to choose the path of our evolution. We will soon be able to totally eliminate genetic diseases, such as fibroses, simply by substituting defective genes. This is one way to conduct evolution.

The question is whether we should be allowed to use genetic engineering to improve human individuals. In some cases, parents will be able to choose if their child will be a good athlete or a good musician. Should we allow this? This is an ethical question that has still not been analyzed in depth, simply because we are not yet facing the problems related to these technological possibilities. At some point, humanity will have to decide about this, and then we will have voluntary evolution. We will have to be very careful when changing nature, because it is nature that makes us humans.

NPQ | What is the limit?

Wilson | I do not know, it is beyond my reach. We need to know more about genetics, to know more about what we are, what the human nature is and what the consequences of these changes are in the organization of our current society. It is a big question. We can barely understand ourselves in today’s conditions. To try to understand how we would be if we altered ourselves genetically is a huge step.