How Evolution Undermines Environmentalism

It was morning, and a silver fog was melting away on the bay below. A fresh, brisk Wellington wind galloped over the mountainside. I was crouched down on the soil with my cohort of volunteers. As we continued planting seedlings, our hearts filled with hope for the degraded forest around us. I paused often to drink in the lovely New Zealand landscape. My teammate noticed and struck up a conversation.

            “It’s amazing,” he said, “isn’t it?”

            I smiled. “It really is. I’ll never get tired of this.”

            “And isn’t it amazing to think this is all here by accident?” he continued.

We went on working in silence, but that short exchange struck a chord deep in my mind. The conversation we had that morning was a seed, and only now has a fuller understanding germinated. Only after years of pondering the philosophical implications of environmentalism am I now able to share some preliminary thoughts about why his question bothered me so deeply…

          Isn’t it amazing to think this is all here by accident?

…Yes, it is amazing to think this is all here by accident, amazing and terrible, because it removes the very reasons we have for protecting a forest in the first place. Evolutionary naturalism challenges humanity’s role as environmental steward by removing our responsibility in three key ways. First, evolutionary naturalism evokes ‘survival of the fittest’ whereby the strong persist and the weak die off. Yet environmental stewardship seeks to protect and value the weak. Second, evolutionary naturalism operates through natural selection whereby random changes shape the world. Yet environmental stewardship necessitates deliberate management. Third, evolutionary naturalism presents the human race as merely one of many animal species. Yet, for environmental stewardship to be logical, we must concede that humans are distinct from other organisms. This article seeks to demonstrate how the Christian worldview presents a coherent case for environmental stewardship whereas evolutionary naturalism undermines it.

In the ensuing discussion, ‘naturalism’ refers to the philosophical view that reality is exhausted by nature and contains nothing supernatural; therefore, this view assumes scientism meaning the scientific method should be employed to examine all facets of reality.[1] ‘Evolution’ refers to the process by which all existing life has been developed from earlier forms through the unguided process of natural selection.[2] Thus it should be noted for the sake of this paper that naturalism is a philosophical view of reality while evolution refers to the physical process producing that reality.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST           

‘Survival of the fittest’ refers to the survival of organisms best adapted to their environment.[3] In this view, the strong persist while the weak perish. Michael Soulé, one of the forefathers of conservation biology, explains why extinction is considered good through the lens of survival of the fittest; Soulé writes, “Extinction is…good because it is part of the process of replacing less well-adapted gene pools with better adapted ones.”[4] As a conservation biologist I am forced to ask: Why does my entire field go directly against the principle of extinction? In the natural order, the weak die off while the strong survive. Yet in conservation biology, the weak are targeted for protection and assisted at great lengths. In fact, New Zealand’s department of conservation spends millions of dollars each year on conservation projects to protect vulnerable species. The money spent on conservation initiatives increase each year, with the 2018 budget providing a $182 million increase.[5] In many countries, millions of government dollars are mingling with the blood sweat and tears of conservationists, all poured out in an effort to counteract extinction. If survival of the fittest is the natural order of things, why are we working against it by protecting the vulnerable?

In many countries, millions of government dollars are mingling with the blood sweat and tears of conservationists, all poured out in an effort to counteract extinction. If survival of the fittest is the natural order of things, why are we working against it by protecting the vulnerable?

According to the Christian understanding, all of creation, even the weak, has intrinsic value because all of it is valued by God. For instance, God calls His creation ‘good’ before humans are ever on the scene. He makes His value judgment about the natural world before we do (Genesis 1v31). This means that God is the source of creation’s value; each element of God’s creation gets its objective value from Him and not from humanity. Many passages describe the intrinsic value of creation outside the context of human life (Psalm 104). This Christian view of nature’s intrinsic value stands in stark contrast to naturalistic thinkers like Soulé who writes, “The mechanisms by which such value judgments arise in consciousness are unknown…We could speculate about the subconscious roots of the norm, ‘diversity is good.’ In general, humans enjoy variety. We can never know with certainty whether this is based on avoiding tedium and boredom or something else, but it may be as close to a universal norm as we can come…Perhaps there is a genetic basis in humans for the appeal of biotic diversity.”[6] From a naturalistic perspective, there is simply no basis for protecting the weak. In fact, we can’t even be sure where any of our value judgments come from; they are entirely arbitrary. Yet in the Christian view, our desires and perspectives are gradually conformed to see the world in the way God sees it. Thus, our value judgments become His value judgments as we grow in spiritual maturity. We are made in the image of a God who protects and defends the weak, epitomized by Christ Himself becoming the weakest of all in order to rescue humanity from spiritual extinction.[7]

…in the Christian view, our desires and perspectives are gradually conformed to see the world in the way God sees it.

NATURAL SELECTION

If survival of the fittest is the outcome, natural selection is the process leading to that outcome. Natural selection is the process by which certain genetic types are preserved within populations, subspecies, or species.[8] This process is the hand that picks a card at random from the fanned deck of gene pools spread out before it. Natural selection is understood to be the deterministic force while random genetic drift is the stochastic element.[9]

It is interesting, then, that those who love nature do not ‘let nature take its course’. Rather, hundreds of organizations have taken ownership of lands in order to manage them. This deliberate gaining of control can sometimes be unsettling to environmentalists, but it is regarded as necessary, if not a bit unnatural. Higgs puts it bluntly in his work Nature by Design: “As restorationists we are involved in the design of ecosystems and places whether we like it or not”[10]. Similarly, ecologist Bill Jordan writes: “Restoration is shameful because it involves…a measure of hegemony over the land; because it dramatizes not only our troubling dependence on the natural landscape, butequally troubling—its dependence on us.”[11]

From a naturalistic point of view, environmentalism can certainly be seen as ‘hegemony’. Yet naturalism cannot answer the question of whether or not nature belongs to us. If it does, where did we get the authority to manage it? Again, the Christian perspective offers clarity where evolutionary naturalism offers only confusion and contradiction.

In the Christian paradigm, creation belongs to God and is His property. Psalm 24v1 states that the earth and everything in it is God’s possession. Similarly, Deuteronomy 10v14 explains that the whole universe is owned by God, not by us. He is the supreme landlord, we are the tenants. Yet our Creator did not hoard His treasures for Himself, but made us keepers of His world. This theme is repeated many times throughout the Old Testament. Genesis 2v15 reads: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (emphasis mine) In his seminal work Reconciliation Ecology, Michael Rosenzweig comments, “God said ‘Of all that lives, of all flesh, take two of each to keep alive with you.’ This is the commandment of reconciliation… ‘Keep alive’ is a perfect translation of the original Hebrew. The Hebrew uses a Semitic construction called causative. Hence, ‘keep alive’ means that we are required to actively cause all those species to stay alive.”[12]   Humans have an innate desire to actively manage nature. We come by that desire honestly, though many of us have forgotten it, or we’ve burned it from our psyche by the blue light of technology and sparkling flame of industry.

Yet our Creator did not hoard His treasures for Himself, but made us keepers of His world.

To fully understand our capacity for environmentalism, we must understand our role as keepers of nature. Picturing humanity in this way has huge ethical implications because it means we are accountable to God for how we treat His possession—His natural world. The Cape Town Commitment describes proper management of the natural world as “the logical outworking of our love for God by caring for what belongs to Him.”[13] Active management is essential to environmentalism, yet from the viewpoint of evolutionary naturalism it can be nothing more than a form of hegemony which counteracts a naturally stochastic process.

HUMANITY AS ONTOLOGICALLY ANIMALISTIC

According to evolutionary naturalism, humans are an advanced species of primate and nothing more. If we apply the precepts of natural selection, we may deduce that our species has been naturally selected for. We are what Darwin would have called the “favourable variation” that is preserved.[14]  If we then apply an understanding of survival of the fittest, we will see that our species is naturally pushing other species out of the biosphere due to its own success. From a purely evolutionary perspective, there is nothing lamentable about this. If the rise and fall of species is a game of Go, the highly adapted Homo sapiens sapiens is winning due to our naturally acquired propensity to drive other species to extinction. If this ‘favourable trait’ has been naturally selected for, there is no rational reason to stop driving other species to extinction. Similarly, if we are nothing more than a product of genetics, behaviors such as polluting ecosystems, overuse of resources, and animal abuse can all be seen as naturally derived. Should we, for instance, feel guilty about making landfills that are visible from space?[15] Should we feel culpable for introducing invasive species into other areas of the earth? Or were these behavioral traits genetically selected for through evolutionary naturalism? Emma Marris investigates this question in her book Rambunctious Garden. Marris asks, “What happens to the concept of ‘invasive species’ if you fold humanity back into nature and consider us just another way species move around, along with migration and ocean currents?  Presto change-o, it disappears.”[16] To ask a more pointed question: are humans or are humans not part of nature?

“What happens to the concept of ‘invasive species’ if you fold humanity back into nature and consider us just another way species move around, along with migration and ocean currents?  Presto change-o, it disappears.” – Emma Harris

Theologian Christopher Wright argues that we fit both categories. Christianity paints humanity as above nature since God’s creation was given to us in a different way than the other animals. We were crowned with glory and honor, and all things were put under our feet.[17] Yet we are, in a sense, creatures among the creatures. We were told to be blessed and multiply, but so were the animals, and long before humanity entered the picture.[18] Additionally, humans were created on the sixth day, but we didn’t get that whole day to ourselves. We were created “along with and after the creepy crawlies” as Wright says.[19] We were created from the dust of the ground, given breath of life, provided with food, as were the animals. This hardly marks us out as superior. Nor is it demeaning to our ontology. Rather, our paradoxical part-of-yet-other celebrates the capacity of God who brought the whole biosphere into creation.

To retain humanity’s role of responsible stewardship, humankind must be more than a random selection of traits that includes the propensity to drive other species to extinction. Evolutionary naturalism undermines humankind’s responsibility by presenting a paradigm where humans and their behaviors are merely a product of genetic drift, natural selection, mutation, recombination, and migration.[20]

To retain humanity’s role of responsible stewardship, humankind must be more than a random selection of traits that includes the propensity to drive other species to extinction.

CONCLUSION

Environmental stewardship is essential to protecting and restoring the natural world. Humanity’s innate desire to protect the vulnerable and manage environments, as well as our sense of culpability when we fail to do so, must not be diminished. Yet evolutionary naturalism, if followed to its logical conclusion, undermines environmental stewardship. Survival of the fittest removes humanity’s reason for protecting the vulnerable. The stochastic outworking of natural selection contradicts deliberate ecosystem management. The argument that we and our behaviors are simply a product of evolutionary forces removes our culpability for mistreatment of the earth. As Ken Boa puts it, “Pure naturalism corrodes by the acids of its own assumptions.”[21] As a philosophy, naturalism simply doesn’t work because it destroys its own modus operandi, making the very practice of naturalism unnatural. When applied to environmentalism, evolutionary naturalism undermines it completely.

For environmental stewardship to be logically coherent, we must have a basis for our duty. Where does our sense of obligation come from? To truly be culpable, our responsibility must have been granted to us from an external source, from an entity superior to ourselves. No one receives their duty from a subordinate. Nor does one receive duty at random. It is delegated by a higher person. Philosopher Richard Taylor explains, “A duty is something that is owed…But something can be owed only to some person or persons.  There can be no such thing as duty in isolation…Duties and obligations always arise from relationships between persons.”[22] The practice of environmental stewardship stems from the duty we were charged with. Yet evolutionary naturalism removes not only our basis for that obligation, but also the Person who has given us that duty.

Today as I stand on the mountainside and survey a forest taking root, I am still overwhelmed by beauty. But I’m also overwhelmed by the voices of conflict, and by the questions this conflict raises to the surface. Why are Christians forsaking their solemn duty to protect the earth? Why are so many in Christendom trying to drown out the voices of environmentalists? Why do so many conservationists still claim that evolutionary naturalism is the only option, especially when the Christian worldview is the strongest basis for environmental stewardship? There is an empty chair at the table of environmentalism. Christianity has much to bring to the dialogue, and it is to everyone’s loss that it has not yet taken its seat.

 

Footnotes

[1] Zalta, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[2] Hammond, Dictionary of Science page 206

[3] Ibid page 643

[4] Soule, What is Conservation Biology? page 730

[5] https://www.doc.govt.nz/news/budget-2018/docs-budget-2018-explained/

[6] Soule page 730

[7] 2 Corinthians 5v21

[8] Hammond page 427

[9] Sober, The Nature of Selection

[10] Higgs, Nature by design: people, natural process, and ecological restoration

[11] Jordan, The sunflower forest: Ecological restoration and the new communion with nature, page 50

[12] Rosenzweig, Win-win ecology: How the earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise, page 41

[13] Dowsett, The Cape Town Commitment, page 28

[14] “This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection” Darwin, Origin of Species

[15] Humes, Garbology: Our dirty love affair with trash, page 288

[16] Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving nature in a post-wild world, pages 107-108

[17] Psalm 8

[18] Genesis 1v28

[19] Wright, Goodness, Glory, and Goal of Creation)

[20] Walsh, The Trials of Life: Natural Selection and Random Drift, page 453

[21] Boa, Conformed to His Image page 3

[22] Taylor, Virtue Ethics: An introduction page 75

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