“A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk Through Gorongosa National Park”
Author: Edward O. Wilson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: $30.00 (Hardcover)
Professor Moses Herzog, the protagonist of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel, is desperately concerned about the dangers of atomic warfare. Herzog compulsively writes letters to Eisenhower, Stevenson, others, stressing the importance of disarmament.
He writes because he knows “there were people who could destroy mankind and . . . they were foolish and arrogant, crazy, and must be begged not to do it. Let the enemies of life step down. Let each man now examine his heart.... Let us cry….Let life continue. We may not deserve it, but let it continue.”
For the past couple of decades, Biologist/ecologist Edward O. Wilson, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has been on a similar mission. In book after book, Wilson stresses the crucial importance of biodiversity, the need to preserve and expand natural habitat.
But the situation keeps getting worse.
At one point Wilson thought the answer might lie in appealing for a shift in fundamentalist Christian thought, from dominion to stewardship. Having learned that sixty percent of Americans take the book of Revelations, complete with Armageddon, as fact, and believe the world will end soon and there is no need to worry about saving it, Wilson, a devout evolutionist, in 2006 published “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.” Acknowledging that he is a “secular humanist” but framing the book in the form of a letter to a Southern Baptist pastor, Wilson makes his appeal to Christians and creationists on their own grounds, in their own language. He argues that creationists, believing in a literal reading of Genesis, in awe of the beauty, complexity and wonder of the Creation, have the power to save it, and should treasure and preserve the world that the deity made.
But Wilson seems to have lost faith in this approach. In his 2014 book “The Meaning of Human Existence,” he denies a grand controlling design or designer, denies predestination and higher powers, stresses group selection, a broader version of evolution, and sees tribalism, the war of faith against faith, as a major cause of violence, hate and war. The health, indeed the survival of the planet, is in our hands.
In this newest book, Wilson writes of a place of magnificent natural beauty, the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where there has actually been a mini environmental Armageddon. After Portugal abruptly left its colony Mozambique, invasions from Rhodesia and South Africa were followed by civil war. For years, soldiers killed the large animals for food, then poachers killed mainly elephants, for ivory.
Between 1972 and 2001, 80 to 90 percent of the elephants and lions were killed. Cape buffaloes decreased from 13,000 to 12; wildebeest from 6,400 to 1; zebras from 3,300 to 12. Hyenas and black and white rhinos were completely eliminated.
Megafauna species are the most vulnerable to mass killing and extinction. We are megafauna.
Here was a horrifying example of what could happen worldwide. But Gorongosa is being brought back, now protected, with eco-tourists helping the cause.
The regular cycles of life—birth, killing and eating—still go on there. Wilson is especially good, of course, at narrating insect wars. There are some wonderful tales here of the Matebele ants raiding termite mounds and of driver ants, sometimes in swarms 20 million strong, overwhelming , killing and eating anything in its path, including in one case a gigantic python, Africa’s largest serpent, which had recently eaten and was immobile while digesting.
Wilson adds that the ants “rush back and forth at an average speed of four centimeters (less than two inches) per second (slow enough for a human to step away unstung, in case you were wondering).”
Nature, as writers have been proclaiming since the nineteenth century, is indeed red in tooth and claw, but the result is “a dynamic equilibrium built from ferocity,” not extinction. The ants and termites have been fighting for millions of years, he tells us, but “Neither can completely destroy the other.”
Nor can the lions eat all the gazelles or the lions will starve.
Humans, now presumably masters of the earth, waging perpetual war against the planet and each other, do have the power to bring any species to extinction. Wilson writes, “In our case an early Armageddon is a strong possibility.” An example: “During the past one hundred years, human modification of rivers, streams, and lakes in North America alone (usually through damming and pollution) has caused the extinction of at least sixty freshwater fish species.” Before humans settled Hawaii there were 120 species of birds; now there are 24.
He asks: “Do we wish future generations to think we were insane or perhaps criminally stupid?”
But it’s not too late. We can stop. We had better.
(If Saul Bellow seems too intellectual a reference, consider this from the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”)
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.