24 Aug 2019

Evolutionary ecologist who found god via Richard Dawkins

From Saturday Morning, 9:30 am on 24 August 2019

Science alone can't save the planet, according to Oxford ethnobiologist and ordained Anglican minister Andy Gosler.

Conservation requires more connection and understanding amongst people of different beliefs and cultures, he says.

Andy Gosler and tattoo

Andy Gosler Photo: Twitter

As an ethnobiologist, Gosler studies not just nature, but the relationship between people and nature, he tells Kim Hill.

"The great environmental crisis comes out of this sense – a particularly western sense – that [humans] are separate from nature. And of course we're not, we're part of it."

Gosler, who was raised a liberal Jew and converted to Christianity as an adult, says ecologist and famous atheist Richard Dawkins played a big role in his "evangelisation by irritation".

Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene – which Gosler read as a university student in the late '70s – contains a contradiction at the end which undermines his whole message that human behaviour is controlled by our self-serving genes, he says.

"[Dawkins] builds this whole argument for genetic determinism then he says '..but it doesn't have to be like this. We can choose to deny the tyranny of our genes and be nice to one another'. At which point you think 'well, not if the rest of your book is true'... It's either one or the other."

"I've come to realise later … that Richard Dawkins was bashing my cultural heritage and telling me 'if you want to be an evolutionary biologist you've gotta ditch that'.

English biologist and author Richard Dawkins

English biologist and author Richard Dawkins Photo: JANERIK HENRIKSSON / AFP

"Actually our roots and our identity are incredibly important to us, to everyone as human beings.

"If we want to do conservation effectively, we can't just do the science of ecology, we've got to connect with people [who live] around the world in thousands of different cultures … we've got to understand their traditions and their beliefs and their mindsets and we've got to respect those things.

"The future of life on this planet is in our hands. Whether you have any religious faith or otherwise, the state of the planet depends on decisions that we – homo sapiens – make now. In a very real sense, we do have dominion."

Our experience of the 'present' has a richness beyond scientific understanding, Gosler says.

"The past doesn't exist and the future doesn't exist. So the present – where I live and move and have my being – exists as the meeting point between two nonexistent things. That gives existence itself a mystical quality."

Gosler says The Book of Genesis is the only place he's read anything convincing about a possible sense of purpose for the human species.

"We were put in the [Garden of Eden] to look after it. So we were put on the planet to look after it and we better start doing that."

Andy Gosler is a speaker at next weekend's conference 'Beyond Conflict: Evolution, Science and God' in Dunedin.
He will also be talking in Wellington on Monday 26th August.