Sunday, February 22, 2009

Evolution, Creation, and Conservation

In honor of Darwin’s two hundredth birthday, why not call a truce in the ongoing war between evolution and creationism? Indeed, in light of the continuing decline in biodiversity, perhaps it is time for science and religion to unite in conservation efforts.

It is unfortunate that there is more hostility than humor involved here. I recall watching a television interview with anthropologist Richard Leakey, many years ago, in which he pronounced the word as “EVIL-u-shun.” No wonder some people are mortified by the term. Both biologists and theologians do have reason to fear the power wielded by their “opponent,” but this may be due in part to insufficient faith in God, or lack of confidence in the scientific method.

Science has come a long way in providing a tangible explanation for the history of life on Earth. Since so much time, energy, and expense has been invested in coming to those conclusions, any attempt to question what is now considered factual, basic knowledge is met with bristling defense. This runs counter to the qualities that make an outstanding scientist: unending curiosity and an open mind. In fact, the scientific method encourages a full investigation of all possibilities, and requires ceaseless repetition of studies before a conclusion can be reached. Arriving at a particular theory is thus a Herculean effort for science, while creationism requires no proof, only faith in God and Biblical chronology. This may hardly seem fair to the blood-sweating scientist.

Those in the religious community may fear the motives behind scientific research, but, ironically, both camps are anthropocentric in their perspectives. Once science had developed an explanation for a natural phenomenon, the next step is usually an attempt to manage the resources involved for the benefit of humanity. All too often this results in mismanagement, exploitation, and waste. Maybe mankind was better off when more “primitive” cultures gave thanks to the gods responsible for rain, the salmon runs, and a successful hunt. Still, science rightly criticizes western religion for encouraging the idea that God intended for man to dominate nature.

It is only natural (we are, after all, animals, too) that we put our own interests above the welfare of other species, but wildlife conservation remains a very popular cause. Why, then, is it an effort championed almost exclusively by scientists? If each species was created by the hand of God, why aren’t creationists in an uproar over man-induced extinctions? Why have there been so few, if any, high-profile demonstrations by creationists in support of, say, saving whales? Ok, so one did swallow Jonah. Well, no one is building another ark, either, but such a publicity stunt would underscore the need to protect our dwindling wildlife populations.

There is, of course, no guarantee that scientists, in their frequent arrogance and vanity, would welcome their traditional antagonists with open arms, but it might be in their best interests to do so. Not having all the answers may be a weakness in science, but it is the source of strength for spiritual faith. It follows that meditation, prayer, and hands-on fieldwork are actions that complement each other.

The real enemy is not a theory of how species came into being, but the forces driving these organisms to extinction. The Earth should be considered the ultimate temple, not to be desecrated in the name of science or religion. A demonstration of humility and cooperation should be the order of the day. Once a balance has been restored, we can go about the pleasant task of arguing over who should take credit for the new Garden of Eden.


  1. I've always admired your writing but I thought this essay was exceptionally powerful and thought-provoking. I've taken the liberty of forwarding a link to a number of my friends because this kind of thinking and writing deserves a wide audience.

  2. Thanks, Kenn, for alerting your FB friends to this essay. I've been thinking a lot about manifest destiny and the many sins we commit in its name. Intertwined with it, at least in the "conservative" political view, seems to be a "get it while it's there, and before anyone else does" view of natural resources--drill, baby, drill!. Killing the goose that lays the golden egg, in effect. And a faith that God is somehow going to take care of us and get us out of the mess we've made when nothing is left to exploit. That bumper sticker that reads, "The Earth is Your Mother" is resonating better all the time. Ours is the power to destroy, but also to protect. I will be watching closely, in this new political climate, for signs that the conservative right is beginning to "get it," and not just as a political ploy, but as a necessity.

    Love your bug book,delighted to know about your blogs (thanks, Kenn!) I plugged it on an NPR Christmas book wish list before it came out. If you haven't seen my essay on the brown hooded cockroach, check it out:
    It's a love letter to the bug guide.

  3. Julie! I love your commentaries on NPR. I am honored to have you visiting, and flattered to have your endorsement on the guide. Kenn is the one who made it look so nice, and reined-in my text:-) Take care, keep up the great work.