Giants at Rest
Desmond Tutu and E.O. Wilson Were Two of a Kind
I chose the two pictures above with some care. The loss of Desmond Tutu and E.O. Wilson within hours of each other on the day after Christmas hit me hard—I knew them each just a little and admired them each enormously. Both were Great People of the kind that are rarer with each passing funeral; we are, I sometimes fear, not reproducing them as quickly as we are losing them.
By the end of their lives their Greatness was so large that it overshadowed what had gotten them going in the first place: in Tutu’s case Jesus, and in Wilson’s case ants. Wilson had become perhaps the greatest advocate for the defense of all species, and Tutu for the rights of all humans; they were universal figures, but in my experience, useful universalism often begins with particulars.
So Tutu, long before he became a conscience to the world, was an Anglican theologican, preacher, and bureaucrat, and as a result constantly in touch with regular people in intimate and vulnerable moments. Among other things, while getting a masters degree at Kings College in London, he pastored small suburban parishes in the area, where (in the words of the Guardian) “initially standoffish Tories took him to their hearts.” “You enabled us through having to minister here when it was almost exclusively white, you enabled us to know that that there were quite a few white people that were not nasties,” he said many years later when he went back to celebrate the 100th anniversary of one church. “You helped to exorcise from us a hatred of white people for the things they were doing to us in South Africa, so thank you, thank you.”
And Wilson, before (and after) island biogeography and sociobiology and the other remarkable ideas that spurred his field onward, was an ant man. I spent a happy day once in his Harvard offices—he’d made me a sandwich, but it went uneaten because we kept having to make excursions to the corridors full of filing cabinets where his specimens were kept. Out in the larger world, he was guaranteed, given a few moments peace, to turn over a rock to see who might be living underneath. As parishioners taught Tutu about the world, ants instructed Wilson.
It’s true that they came at the world from different corners, even what some might consider antagonistic ones—Wilson, arch-Darwinist, said evolution explained the world we saw around us, and that it was unrigorous to imagine a God who intervened in human affairs. (Though he did remain, in his words, a “provisional deist,” unable to prove that there hadn’t been some motive behind the beginnings of the universe). Tutu was devout—I remember hearing him read the psalms at a special church service at the Copenhagen climate conference, the high pitch of his voice in this case adding solemnity, not mirth. I was reduced to tears by the beauty and solemnity of the occasion, and the sense that we were failing a very high calling.
But from those beginnings, the two men came to very similar conclusions about what needed to be one, advocating for entirely complementary things. Wilson wanted half the world set aside for the rest of creation; Tutu, as we began the fossil fuel divestment movement, was our best advocate, demanding the redeployment of this scheme that he’d used with such effect to dismantle apartheid be used once more to take down the oil industry. Perhaps, he wrote, “we cannot bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. But we can take steps to reduce its political clout, and hold those who rake in the profits accountable for cleaning up the mess.” Meanwhile Wilson, in the lead-up to the Glasgow talks in October, told Reuters reporters that it was time to stop the “continued exploration and burning of fossil fuels, which amplifies the destruction of biodiversity.”
As long as one works with care and attention and love, it seems to me that truly great minds and hearts usually converge on the same themes. You can climb a mountain from entirely opposite sides, and as long as you keep going steadily up, you will meet at the peak where you can shake hands. I’m unprovisional enough a deist to hope that perhaps they are meeting today on some distant summit, but the next world is beyond our ken; in this one they leave behind a planet far the better for their presence.