LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay against Modern Superstition

LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay against Modern Superstition

Gregg Easterbrook

By Wendell Berry. Counterpoint. 153 pp.$21

Read Time:
3m 35sec

LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay against Modern Superstition.

By Wendell Berry. Counterpoint. 153 pp. $21

The "against" tract has a long and mostly forgotten tradition in literature. The secondcentury African church father Tertullian, for example, came to prominence by writing Latin polemics with such titles as "Against Marcion" and "Against Hermogenes" in which he argued for his vision of faith. This short book by Berry, the naturalist and poet, might be called Against Wilson, for all its pages take issue with E. O. Wilson’s Consilience (1998). And Berry, too, argues for a vision of faith—in his case, faith in the primacy of life and the irreducible mystery of why life is here.

Many critics have already taken on Consilience for, among other faults, proposing to "reconcile" science, religion, and art by letting science prevail on all counts, and for presenting Wilson’s ideas as bold iconoclasm when most are conventional wisdom. In Wilson’s defense, envy seems to have motivated some of the sniping—Consilience became a surprise bestseller, while many books of similar merit making similar points have sunk without a trace. Wilson may be defended, too, for championing the Enlightenment ideal of objective knowledge, a goal commonly scorned in today’s upper academia.

Going further than other critics, Berry develops a nuanced and thought-provoking critique of Consilience and its rationality-rules worldview. He really doesn’t like Wilson’s book, though he speaks of it respectfully. (Wilson can’t complain—reading Life Is a Miracle won’t mean much unless you also buy and read Consilience.) Berry’s accusations boil down to these: First, Wilson would make science the new religion; second, contemporary science is guilty of hubris; third, Wilson would reduce all life to gears and whorls, eliminating wonder.

"This religification and evangelizing of science," Berry writes, "is now commonplace and widely accepted," as scientists rush in to fill the we-have-all-the-answers role once performed by priests. Berry believes this leads directly to the excessive materialism of our age, since, after all, science teaches that the material is all there is.

Life Is a Miracle takes strong exception to Wilson’s boast concerning the celestial: "We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little." I cheered along with Berry as he blasted the rivets off that sentence. The scientist’s claim that we know we are alone is as dogmatic as the cleric’s claim that there must be a God: It is far too early in the human quest for knowledge to be sure of either point. When scientists treat this matter as already settled, they betray a closed-mindedness that is supposedly the bane of the scientific method. As for our existence, we surely ought to take the humble position of admitting that we owe something to some office somewhere. Either the divine created us or nature created us; in either case, gratitude and humility are called for.

Perhaps the most telling section in Life Is a Miracle is where Berry objects to Wilson’s use of the machine as a metaphor for life. Like many works of modern biology and materialist thought, Consilience stresses that life is a mechanism, just an organic machine. Wilson seems to want to persuade us that we are not miracles, merely the deterministic results of amino acids and heat exchange.

At the first level, the metaphor seems superfluous—who doesn’t think that Homo sapiens is made up of lots of complicated parts with complicated functions? But at the second level, the one that concerns Berry, the metaphor is disturbing. If we are just machines, what is the worth of our lives? Why care about individual uniqueness? (All the cars in the parking lot are different, but hey, they’re just machines.) And how will we preserve the status, to say nothing of the existence, of biological life if scientists devise electronic awareness and then teach the new life form that, in the end, people and computers are interchangeable, all just machines? Berry probes these questions in depth in this beautifully humanistic book.

—Gregg Easterbrook


More From This Issue