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Review - The Creation - E. O. Wilson

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It's rare to find a successful popular science book that could be considered a polemic - but this book from double Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor E. O. Wilson comes closer than most, and almost pulls it off.

The moment you pick the book up, it's obvious that you are dealing with something different. It's a slim volume - 168 small pages excluding notes - with paper that has that rough-edged look and feel of the handcrafted. The illustrations, mostly line drawings and slightly sepia photographs, range from the exquisite to the downright useless (a map of "thirty four of the most critical biodiversity hotspots" without a single discernable point on it).

The chief vehicle (dare I say conceit?) the book is hung upon is the idea of it being a letter to a fictional Southern Baptist pastor. E. O. Wilson wants us to realize just how serious a threat we pose to the future of the biological world, and how we need to forge unnatural alliances to fight that threat. The alliance he suggests is between biologists and the powerful fundamentalist Christian grouping (particularly in the US). Not usually comfortable bedfellows (just try mentioning evolution to the latter, or intelligent design to the former), Wilson reckons rightly that both sides have common ground in the stewardship of the creation - though he rather undermines his efforts by repeatedly dropping in sly little attacks on the beliefs of those he is apparently trying to woo.

There is no doubt that the book gives us a strong picture of what is wrong with the world, thanks to human input. What is less effective is Wilson's prescription to provide a cure. Part of this is education in biology - few scientists would disagree that most people are woefully under-educated in the sciences, but for those not working in the biological sciences, it's not enough to teach people the biological side of the creation. Another part is a sort of mega-catalogue of nature, but this seems in direct contradiction of other parts of the book where he makes it clear how much there is still out there we don't know about, and won't before it's too late if we carry on the way we are.

All in all there is a feeling of a very worthy effort, for a very good cause, but one that isn't going to have the desired effect.

Only in hardback

Reviewed by Jo Reed

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Last update 05 June 2007