In my initial post about the Pope’s environmental encyclical, Laudato si’, I highlighted its positive aspects: its affirmation of human uniqueness, its rejection of biocentrism and its firm insistence that each species of living creature was designed by God to play its own special part in the order of Nature. In today’s post, I’d like to focus on the issue of human dominion over Nature. The question I want to examine is: do we have the right to kill off an entire species of living creatures? The Pope says we don’t; I would argue that we do.
To some of my readers, it may seem pretty impertinent that a mere layman like myself should publicly oppose Pope Francis. The only reason why I’m doing so is that I think he’s “manifestly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11), and because nobody else is stepping up to the plate on this issue. I do not want to see the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (to which I belong) embrace an absurd doctrine. And yes, I do think it’s utterly absurd to say that we may never eradicate another living species. I’ll explain why below.
1. Slaying the myth of the Sixth Great Extinction
Before I address that issue, however, I’d like to puncture a widely accepted myth which is seldom questioned by science journalists: the myth of the Sixth Great Extinction, which (as we’ll see below) is one of the greatest whoppers ever invented in the history of science. Mankind, we are told, is currently causing species of living creatures to go extinct at an alarming rate (which is variously estimated at anywhere between 500 and 50,000 species a year). As a result, anywhere up to half of the ten-million-odd species of living things inhabiting the Earth are in danger of becoming extinct within the next one hundred years. A loss of this magnitude would be comparable to the “five great extinctions” that have taken place in geological history, in which 75% of the Earth’s species died out. Judging from his remarks, Pope Francis subscribes to this myth, too, for he writes in his encyclical: “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever” (para. 33).
How the myth got started
Although French geneticist Michael Soule and American ecologist and demographer Paul Ehrlich had previously voiced similar concerns, it was Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson who first claimed that because of a reduction in species’ habitats caused by human activities, we are now in the “sixth great wave of extinctions”, comparable in size to the five previous great waves of extinctions in geological time (The Diversity of Life, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992). In his book, Wilson also asserted that even using what he called “maximally optimistic” species/area calculations, the 1% annual area loss of forest habitat worldwide will have catastrophic consequences: “The number of species doomed [to eventual extinction] each year is 27,000. Each day it is 74, and each hour 3″ (Wilson, 1992). He also wrote: “Some groups, like the larger birds and mammals, are more susceptible to extinction than most.”
Wilson is not alone. Biologists frequently claim that habitat reduction can be used to predict the number of species that will go extinct in the future. For instance, a study in Nature [Thomas 2004] stated that 37% of all species might soon go extinct because of habitat reduction due to global warming, and studies by Parmesan and Yohe (Parmesan 2003) and Root et al. (Root 2003) made similar predictions of future mass extinctions.
More recently, Anthony D. Barnosky et al. warned that another mass extinction may be imminent, in an article published in the journal Nature (Volume 471, pp. 51–57, 3 March 2011, DOI: doi:10.1038/nature09678, published online 02 March 2011), entitled, Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? The authors concluded in the abstract of their paper that most of the world’s creatures are in danger of becoming extinct:
Palaeontologists characterize mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval, as has happened only five times in the past 540 million years or so. Biologists now suggest that a sixth mass extinction may be under way, given the known species losses over the past few centuries and millennia. Here we review how differences between fossil and modern data and the addition of recently available palaeontological information influence our understanding of the current extinction crisis. Our results confirm that current extinction rates are higher than would be expected from the fossil record, highlighting the need for effective conservation measures.
The myth that refuses to die
Photograph of a female Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in captivity from the year 1898.
The passenger pigeon became extinct in 1914. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, J.G. Hubbard and the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Studies propagating the myth of the Sixth Great Extinction continues to be breathlessly repeated in the media. Just last week, a Live Science report by Laura Geggel, titled, Here’s More Proof Earth Is in Its 6th Mass Extinction, was posted on Yahoo. The report trumpeted the findings of a new study purporting to clinch the case and silence the doubters once and for all:
Diverse animals across the globe are slipping away and dying as Earth enters its sixth mass extinction, a new study finds.
Over the last century, species of vertebrates are dying out up to 114 times faster than they would have without human activity, said the researchers, who used the most conservative estimates to assess extinction rates. That means the number of species that went extinct in the past 100 years would have taken 11,400 years to go extinct under natural extinction rates, the researchers said…
“Our activities are causing a massive loss of species that has no precedent in the history of humanity and few precedents in the history of life on Earth,” said lead researcher Gerardo Ceballos, a professor of conservation ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a visiting professor at Stanford University…
“[The study] shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” study researcher Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies in biology at Stanford University, said in a statement.
Curious about the study, I dug up the abstract. I immediately recognized two of the names: Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and Anthony Barnosky, who (as we’ve seen) has suggested previously that Earth’s sixth great extinction may be already underway. The abstract of the study, which is titled, Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction (Science Advances 19 Jun 2015: Vol. 1, no. 5, e1400253) and is co-authored by Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle and Todd M. Palmer, reads as follows:
The oft-repeated claim that Earth’s biota is entering a sixth “mass extinction” depends on clearly demonstrating that current extinction rates are far above the “background” rates prevailing in the five previous mass extinctions. Earlier estimates of extinction rates have been criticized for using assumptions that might overestimate the severity of the extinction crisis. We assess, using extremely conservative assumptions, whether human activities are causing a mass extinction. First, we use a recent estimate of a background rate of 2 mammal extinctions per 10,000 species per 100 years (that is, 2 E/MSY), which is twice as high as widely used previous estimates. We then compare this rate with the current rate of mammal and vertebrate extinctions. The latter is conservatively low because listing a species as extinct requires meeting stringent criteria. Even under our assumptions, which would tend to minimize evidence of an incipient mass extinction, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 114 times higher than the background rate. Under the 2 E/MSY background rate, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear. These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way. Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.
The full text of the study is available here. However, as soon as I read the abstract, I could see immediately that there were some major flaws in the study’s reasoning.
Flaws in the 2015 study by Ceballos et al.
The dodo, a flightless bird from the island of Mauritius, became extinct during the mid-late seventeenth century after humans destroyed the forests where the birds made their homes and introduced mammals that ate their eggs. This is one of the most famous and often-copied paintings of a Dodo specimen, as painted by Roelant Savery in the late 1620s. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
FLAW #1: The study fails to mention that scientific estimates of the current rate of species extinctions are wildly divergent, varying by a factor of 100
The first point I’d like to make is that scientists have a very poor idea how rapidly species are actually dying out as a result of human activity. Ronald Bailey, a science correspondent for Reason magazine, has pointed out that many estimates of the rate at which species are becoming extinct are highly inflated, in a carefully documented article titled, Predictions of a Man-Made Sixth Mass Extinction May Be Exaggerated (Reason, August 1, 2014). For instance, a recent study by Rodolfo Dirzo et al. (Science 345, pp. 401-406, 2014) claimed that the world is “likely losing 11,000 to 58,000 species annually.” At the higher rate, something like 40 percent of all animal species will be gone by 2050. However, according to the most recent and authoritative estimate by Stuart Pimm et al. (Science 30 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6187), the current extinction rate of species is actually 100 out of every million species, per year – which means that if there are five to ten million species on Earth, about 500 to 1,000 species are going extinct every year. That’s about 20 to 100 times lower than Dirzo’s extravagant estimate. What’s more, very few (if any) of these extinctions can be linked to global warming.
Note the high level of variation here: Pimm estimates that the number of species going extinct each year may be as low as 500, while Dirzo claims it may be as high as 58,000. That’s a ridiculous level of scientific uncertainty.
Greenpeace co-founder and ecologist Dr. Patrick Moore has sharply criticized biologist Edward O. Wilson for claiming that a sixth extinction event has already begun. Back in 2000, when Wilson estimated that up to 50,000 species go extinct every year based on computer models of the number of potential but as yet undiscovered species in the world, Moore commented: “There’s no scientific basis for saying that 50,000 species are going extinct. The only place you can find them is in Edward O. Wilson’s computer at Harvard University. They’re actually electrons on a hard drive. I want a list of Latin names of actual species.”
Nowhere in the text of the 2015 study by Ceballos et al. is there the slightest acknowledgement of the massive levels of scientific uncertainty regarding the rate at which species are going extinct. Instead, we are told that there is “broad agreement among environmental scientists” that the official figures underestimate number of species going extinct as a result of man-made activities. And that’s it. Not a hint here of a 100-fold divergence among the scientific estimates of the number of species going extinct each year as a result of human activities.
However, the authors of the 2015 study by Ceballos et al. have claimed that they were being very conservative, by adopting the lowest possible estimates of the rate of extinctions caused by man-made activities. But as we’ll see, they weren’t: the estimates they used were 20 times higher than they should have been.
FLAW #2: If we exclude one-off extinctions occurring on islands between 1500 and 1980, the rate of extinctions caused by human activities drops to only about 5 times higher than the background rate, not 114 times as claimed by Ceballos et al.
In their study, Ceballos et al. chose to focus on vertebrates, the best-studied group of animals, and they deliberately counted only those species of animals that were officially listed as being extinct, or that were likely to have become extinct, but not yet officially verified. Methodologically, their procedure was commendably cautious. What they overlooked, however, was that nearly all of the officially recorded extinctions during the last 500 years took place on islands (including the geographically isolated “island continent” of Australia), as a result of the introduction of alien predators and uncontrolled hunting. These extinctions are a one-off affair, however, since there are no islands left that man has not yet colonized. (Correction: A reader has alerted me to the fact that there are still many small uninhabited islands. However, as far as I have been able to ascertain, none of these islands contains any unique species of birds and mammals. What’s more, if we look at the graph of historical extinction rates for birds (grey) and mammals (black) over 17-year intervals from 1500 to 1980, we can see that the rate of extinctions peaked around 1900, and has declined precipitously since then. Figures are taken from the Red List (birds) and the CREO (mammals). For more information on this subject, I would refer the reader to Wlilis Eschenbach’s essay, Where are the corpses?.) If we leave out island extinctions, then the rate of man-made extinctions in the past 500 years drops dramatically to less than ten times the background rate.
A 2011 study by Dr. Craig Loehle and Willis Eschenbach (some four years before the publication of the 2015 paper by Ceballos et al.) documents the dramatic differences between island and continental extinctions. A helpful summary of the study’s conclusions can be found in an online article titled, Rates and causes of extinction (NCASI Canada Bulletin, Forestry News, Vol. 24, No. 01):
Craig Loehle and Willis Eschenbach are the authors of “Historical bird and terrestrial mammal extinction rates and causes” (Diversity and Distributions 18(1):84-91). They developed estimates of extinction rates for islands and continents over the past 500 years using IUCN’s Red List (www.iucnredlist.org) and records compiled and maintained by the Committee on Recently Extinct Organisms at the American Museum of Natural History (http://creo.amnh.org). Extinction rates for the past 500 years were compared with published estimates of longer-term background extinction rates derived from analyses of fossil records.
Six continental birds and three continental mammals have become extinct since 1500 compared to 123 bird species and 58 mammal species on islands. Per unit of land area, extinction rates for the past 500 years are more than 100 times higher on islands than on continents for both birds and mammals. Relative to background, island extinction rates for the past 500 years are higher by a factor on the order of 80 to 800. In contrast, continental extinction rates for the past 500 years differ from background by a factor on the order of 1 to 10. This finding conflicts with some published modeling studies that have reported recent extinction rates for continents more than 100 times higher than background.
Loehle and Eschenbach review several lines of evidence indicating that high extinction rates on islands are attributable to effects of uncontrolled hunting by humans and predation by introduced animal species. They also discuss reasons why models of extinction risk based on rates and causes of extinction on islands have limited applicability in conservation strategies for birds and mammals on continents.
For those readers who are interested, here is a brief excerpt from the study by Loehle and Eschenbach, titled, Historical bird and terrestrial mammal extinction rates and causes (Diversity and Distributions, 2011, 1-8):
Methods: We examined historical extinction rates for birds and mammals and contrasted island and continental extinctions. Australia was included as an island because of its isolation.
Results: Only six continental birds and three continental mammals were recorded in standard databases as going extinct since 1500 compared to 123 bird species and 58 mammal species on islands. Of the extinctions, 95% were on islands. On a per unit area basis, the extinction rate on islands was 177 times higher for mammals and 187 times higher for birds than on continents. The continental mammal extinction rate was between 0.89 and 7.4 times the background rate, whereas the island mammal extinction rate was between 82 and 702 times background. The continental bird extinction rate was between 0.69 and 5.9 times the background rate, whereas for islands it was between 98 and 844 times the background rate. Undocumented prehistoric extinctions, particularly on islands, amplify these trends. Island extinction rates are much higher than continental rates largely because of introductions of alien predators (including man) and diseases.
Main conclusions: Our analysis suggests that conservation strategies for birds and mammals on continents should not be based on island extinction rates and that on islands the key factor to enhance conservation is to alleviate pressures from uncontrolled hunting and predation.
Island extinctions have dominated the total record of extinctions. On all continents, only three mammals are recorded as having gone extinct in the last 500 years. The remaining global mammal extinctions (58 or 95%) occurred on islands.
FLAW #3: Even if the figures cited by Ceballos et al. were correct, it would be absurd to infer that a sixth great extinction was underway
But let’s suppose that Ceballos et al. are right after all in their estimate of the rate of man-made extinctions. They claim that it is about 100 times the natural background rate of two out of every 10,000 species per century. That would mean that 200 out of every 10,000 species, or 2% of all species on Earth, are becoming extinct every century. But at that rate, it would take more than two millennia for half of the Earth’s species to die off, in a sixth great extinction. That’s over 2,000 years.
Now, any scientist will tell you that 2,000 years is a mere eye-blink in geological terms, and that many of the previous five great extinctions took place over a considerably longer period. That may be so, but in human technological terms, 2,000 years is an eternity. (Think of how we lived 2,000 years ago: paper had only just been invented, the average lifespan was about 35 years, and our scientific knowledge was virtually nil.) My point is that even if we are killing off 2% of the Earth’s species every century, it’s highly likely that we’ll have figured out how to halt this ecological destruction by the year 2100 or 2200. After all, think of how far we’ve come in the last century: radio (1900), the airplane (1903), television (1925), the computer (1936), satellites (1957), the Internet (1969), the personal computer (1982) and the World Wide Web (1989), to name just a few inventions that have shaped our lives. What the proponents of a sixth great extinction are really saying is that 2,000 years from now, we still won’t have figured out a way to halt the environmental destruction that we are causing now. That’s absurdly pessimistic.
What follows, if the Sixth Great Extinction is a myth?
If the Sixth Great Extinction turns out to be a myth after all, and the rate at which animals become extinct is only a few times higher than the background “natural” rate, then what can we conclude?
At the very least, we may conclude that the Pope’s argument that man has already wreaked untold havoc on the Earth’s biosphere and that he therefore needs to radically change his ways, is very much weakened. The harm wrought by man, while real – think of the dodo – is limited. For the first time in history, we’ve managed to create a civilization in which most of the people now living on the planet are no longer poor, malnourished and prone to dying young. That’s a fantastic achievement.
The question we then need to examine, as dispassionately as possible, is whether human beings can ever have the right to eradicate a limited number of species in the name of progress, if there is no other alternative. It is to this question that we now turn.
2. The moral question: do we have the right to eradicate species?
The Pope makes a very powerful case in his latest encyclical that humans have no right to eradicate species of living creatures. I’d like to do justice to the Pope’s argument by presenting it in full force, and allowing my readers to be persuaded by it, before presenting what I consider to be the strongest objections to the Pope’s case.
The Pope’s argument: killing off a species is interfering with God’s design for Nature
A soil food web. According to the Pope, each species of living organism plays a vital role in the inter-connected Web of Life. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, USDA and Magnus Manske.
In his encyclical, Pope Francis declares that God designed each species – not only plant and animal species, but even species of microbes – to play a vital role in the inter-connected Web of life. Each species is part of God’s plan, and is therefore valuable in its own right. Since living things are all part of a universal communion, our attitude towards other living creatures should be one of “humble respect” (para. 89):
8. Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.
33. It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.
34. It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place…
36. Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable.…
42. … Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another…
84. Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous...
89. …[A]s part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect. Here I would reiterate that “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement”.
138. …Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings.
139. …Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.
It should now be readily apparent why someone who understands the interconnectedness of creatures in this manner would view the eradication of a spcies as an act of desecration, akin to an amputation of a limb from a living body.
Readers will note that the Pope speaks of the destruction of the biological diversity of God’s creation as a sin (para. 8) and that he declares we have no right to make species disappear (para. 33). In paragraph 34, Pope Francis makes it clear that he is talking about all species, including microbes. While the Pope does not explicitly say so, I think it would be fair to conclude that he views the destruction of a species as intrinsically wrong.
In his encyclical, the Pope also affirms that man’s rights over Nature are not absolute but limited, because the Earth belongs to God. Humans, he declares, have a responsibility towards Nature: they have a “duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” Finally, humans should never plunder the treasury of Nature: they are only entitled to take from the Earth what they need:
67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).
68. This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for “he commanded and they were created; and he established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6).
83. …The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.
Attentive readers will note that according to the Pope’s latest encyclical, human beings only have the right to take from the Earth what they need for their subsistence – which prompts me to ask: exactly which goods does he think we have a moral right to own – a house? a car? a computer? an air conditioner? Where does one draw the line, and how? And given that the planet could feed a lot more people if we all gave up eating meat, are we morally obliged to do so?
Problems with the Pope’s argument: flawed exegesis and a flawed metaphor
Flawed exegesis: man was never told by God to “tend and keep” the Earth
The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Jan Arkesteijn.
I have to point out here that the Pope’s argument rests on faulty exegesis of Genesis 2. I pointed out this error in a previous post, titled, Straight talk about global warming: an open letter to the Catholic clergy (bolding mine):
Recently, certain Catholic spokesmen have asserted that humanity is guilty of disobeying God by ignoring His original command to “tend and keep” the Garden of Eden, after He placed our first parents there. This assertion is factually wrong, on three counts.
First, human beings were only told to “tend and keep” the Garden of Eden, not the Earth (Genesis 2:15).
Second, humans were not told to “tend and keep” the Earth, but to “subdue” and “have dominion over” it (Genesis 1:28). That’s much stronger language than “tend and keep.” The term “subdue” actually denotes “subjugation to power,” according to the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges and the Hebrew term “kabash” is elsewhere translated in the Bible as “assault,” “brought them into subjection,” “forced into bondage,” “forcing,” “subdue,” “subdued,” “subjugate,” “trample,” and “tread under foot” (Strong’s Concordance, entry #3533) while the term “dominion” refers to “the dominating rule of a king” (see also here). The language of Genesis 9:2 is even more explicit: in this passage, God tells Noah and his family that “the fear and dread of you” will fall upon every living creature. The only reasonable conclusion we can draw from Scripture is that while the Earth itself belongs to God (Psalm 24:1), humans exercise lordship over it, governing in God’s place.
Third and finally, human beings were kicked out of the Garden of Eden after the Fall (Genesis 3:23-24), so the command to “tend and keep” the Garden no longer applies to them.
The evangelical Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation articulates the same conclusions that I reached, in its document, The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship: Subduing and Ruling the Earth to the Glory of God and the Benefit of Our Neighbors (2013):
11. We affirm that when God had created Adam, He placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and guard it (Genesis 2:15).
We deny that the Garden of Eden represents the whole Earth and that the instruction to “cultivate and guard” the Garden ought to be reinterpreted to mean either that man is to “serve and protect” the Garden or the Earth, or that man is to “worship and protect” the Garden or the Earth, or that man is to “worship and hear” God either directly or through the Earth or its parts.
14. We affirm that God placed minerals, plants, and animals in and on the Earth for His pleasure, to reveal His glory and elicit man’s praise, and to serve human needs through godly use (Genesis 2:5–16; 4:22; Numbers 31:21–23; Job 38–41; Psalm 19:1–6; Psalm 104).
We deny that recognizing instrumental value in the Earth and its various physical and biological components dishonors God or is idolatrous.
15. We affirm that one way of exercising godly dominion is by transforming raw materials into resources and using them to meet human needs.
We deny that leaving everything in the Earth in its natural state is proper Biblical stewardship (Matthew 25:14–30).
A flawed metaphor: man is not God’s game warden but God’s viceroy
Game Warden trying to loosen rope on the deer’s neck to prevent choking. Being unsuccessful in his attempts to loosen the rope, he finally cut it. Photo taken in November 1939. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
But the theological disagreement between the Pope’s encyclical and the Evangelical document runs deeper: it is not only a disagreement about dominion, but about man’s role in creation. Putting it simply but starkly: the Pope appears to view man as God’s game warden – the protector of the King’s deer, if you like – while the Cornwall Alliance views man as God’s viceroy.
The term “viceroy” might sound a little strange to some readers, who may be unaccustomed to seeing the term used in a Biblical context. Dr. Joshua M. Moritz, who is a lecturer of Philosophical Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, helpfully elucidates the Biblical meaning of the term in an online article titled, Chosen by God, Part 2: What the Image and Likeness of God (Imago Dei) IS:
As is well known the concept of the ‘image’ as used in Genesis has a deep ancient Near Eastern background. From a comparison of the Hebrew text with ancient Near Eastern parallels it is clear that the phrase “image of God” emerges from a common royal ideology where individual Mesopotamian, Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian kings are referred to as the image and likeness of particular gods. The Hebrew phrase, “image of God,” (selem elohîm) used in Genesis 1:26-27 is the exact counterpart of the Akkadian [removed]salam [God’s name]: “image of Enlil [Marduk, etc.]”), an expression which often appears as an epithet of Mesopotamian kings. References to the king as the image (salmu) of God abound in the Neo-Assyrian royal correspondence. One Neo-Babylonian text declares “The king of the world is the very image of Marduk,” and an ancient Assyrian text reads, “the father of the king my lord was the very image of Bel, and the king my lord is likewise the very image of Bel.” In this ancient Near Eastern conception, the king — more accurately understood as a priest-king — was seen as “the gods’ authorized deputy or viceroy on earth.” In the estimation of many scholars this “description of Near Eastern Kings as the image of a god… provides the most plausible set of parallels for interpreting the imago Dei in Genesis.” (R. Middleton, 121)
The Cornwall Alliance appears to support Dr. Moritz’s line of thinking in its 2013 document, The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship: Subduing and Ruling the Earth to the Glory of God and the Benefit of Our Neighbors:
7. We affirm that though the Earth is the LORD’s, He has also given it to men (Psalm 115:16) and mandated that they be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth, subdue it, and have dominion over everything that lives in it (Genesis 1:28).
We deny that human dominion over the Earth is, in principle, sinful, and that the possibility of its abuse negates the righteousness of its proper use.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, seems to view man as the Divinely appointed guardian of the Earth, rather than God’s viceroy:
67. …Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14)…
That sounds very much like “game warden” role to me. Metaphors matter. A game warden is a very different position from a viceroy. Pope Francis exhorts us to have “humble respect” for our fellow creatures (para. 89), while the declaration of the Cornwall Alliance categorically rejects the notion that man was meant to “serve and protect” the Garden of Eden or the Earth itself (para. 11).
What the Pope overlooked: we live in a fallen world, in which Nature itself is corrupted
The Pope’s argument that species are inviolable because they are part of an interconnected Web of Life designed by God makes sense only if the Web has remained unbroken by the Fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. If creation has become corrupted by the Fall, then it is entirely possible that humans may sometimes have to remove or excise those parts of creation which have become necrotic, much as a surgeon might, while operating on a patient with an infected wound.
Our liability to death after the Fall constitutes an additional reason why humans may have to eradicate certain species, in order to protect themselves from the ravages of Nature. Ever since the Fall, deadly organisms such as mosquitoes, parasites and viruses, which would never have killed us before the Fall of Adam and Eve, are now able to kill millions of people. For this reason, humans are morally justified in waging war against these creatures and if necessary, exterminating them.
(a) The effects of the Fall on creation
In chapter 3 of the book of Genesis, God lays a solemn curse upon the ground, as a punishment for Adam’s sin:
Cursed is the ground because of you!
In toil you shall eat its yield
all the days of your life.
18 Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you,
and you shall eat the grass of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you shall eat bread,
Until you return to the ground,
from which you were taken;
For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
(Genesis 3:17-19, New American Bible, Revised Edition)
It is instructive to compare what the Cornwall Alliance says about Genesis 3:17-19 with what the Pope writes in his latest encyclical.
The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, in its document, The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship: Subduing and Ruling the Earth to the Glory of God and the Benefit of Our Neighbors (2013), declares that the Fall rendered the ground less submissive to man’s will, and at the same time, prone to decay and corruption:
19. We affirm that in response to man’s sin God cursed the ground so that it would not, as before sin, yield easily even to godly dominion/cultivation, let alone to ungodly, abusive domination (Genesis 3:17–19), and indeed subjected the whole cosmos to decay and corruption until He restores it partially in history by obedience to the dominion mandate (Genesis 1:28), whether by the unregenerate through common grace (Matthew 7:11) or by the regenerate through special grace (Romans 8:18–24), and fully in the New Heavens and New Earth of the eschaton (Revelation 21:1–3, 22–27; 22:1–5), all secured by the redeeming work of Christ (Colossians 1:14–20).
For his part, Pope Francis, in his encyclical, recognizes that the relationship between man and Nature has become conflictual ever since the Fall – a tragedy of cosmic proportions which he ascribes to human arrogance:
66. …The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).
Both statements acknowledge the conflictual relationship between man and the Earth, ever since the Fall, but the Pope’s encyclical does not state – nor does it deny – that the Earth also became prone to corruption and decay as a result of the Fall. Once we grasp this point, it is easy to see why the Pope’s metaphor of a seamless, interconnected Web of Life cannot apply to a post-Fall world. Put simply, some strands of the Web are broken, as a result of man’s sin.
But how do you repair a damaged web – especially if some of its threads are hanging loose? The only rational thing to do is to cut some of them off, to prevent further damage to the web. Applying this reasoning to the Web of life, we can see that humans may have the duty (under certain circumstances) to eradicate certain “toxic species” from our post-Fall world, in order to prevent them from wreaking further harm. In short: species are no longer sacrosanct in a fallen world. It may be necessary to get rid of some species, if they are poisoning the Earth itself.
(b) The effects of the Fall on our first parents, Adam and Eve
Diagram of the immature and mature forms of HIV, a virus which scientists are trying to eradicate. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Drs. Louis E. Henderson and Larry Arthur. NIH 1994.
Another consequence of the Fall that I wish to draw readers’ attention to is that according to traditional Christian teaching, Adam’s sin brought death to the whole human race: before the Fall, human beings were divinely protected from death, whereas after the Fall, they were liable to death. In practical terms, what that means is that animals, plants and microorganisms which never would have hurt us, had the human race not fallen, are now free to make our lives miserable. The result is that we live in a world where pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles, HIV/AIDS and malnutrition kill millions of children around the world, every year. A UNICEF article titled Why are children dying? describes the various kinds of organisms responsible:
A variety of pathogens – bacteria, viruses and parasites – are responsible for the major childhood diseases. Bacteria cause tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and tuberculosis. Viruses cause polio and measles. A single-celled parasite causes malaria.
These pathogens kill our children. As a parent, I have to ask: why, in Heaven’s name, shouldn’t we kill them? Isn’t it time that we destroyed the last remaining specimens of the smallpox virus, lest they fall into the hands of terrorists in the future?
Or take the HIV/AIDS virus. Does anyone really believe that it would be a wicked thing to eliminate it, if such a thing could be accomplished? And don’t we all hope for the elimination of the polio virus, worldwide?
Or what about mosquitoes, which transmit malaria and a host of other diseases to human beings? Biologist Fuz Rana has written a thought-provoking article titled, Why would God create mosquitoes?, which makes a number of telling points. It turns out that most species of mosquitoes are harmless to human beings, and that mosquitoes do fulfill a useful ecological function, so a blanket campaign to eliminate all species of mosquitoes would not be a good idea:
As it turns out, mosquitoes do play an important role in a variety of ecosystems. For example, each year when the snow melts in the Arctic tundra, mosquitoes hatch from their eggs and make up a significant part of the biomass. Some scientists believe these insects serve as an important food source for migratory birds. Mosquitoes even impact the migratory routes of caribou. As caribou move through the Arctic, they take certain routes specifically to avoid mosquito swarms. These migratory routes then impact plant distribution, dictate the feeding behavior of wolves, etc.
In aquatic environments mosquito larvae serve as a food source for fish. In other habitats, spiders, salamanders, frogs, reptiles, and other insects consume mosquitoes. Mosquitoes themselves feed on decaying leaves, organic debris, and microbes. They serve as pollinators as well. Around 3,500 known species of mosquitoes occupy every continent and every conceivable habitat. Yet, only around 200 of these species will annoy humans and even fewer will bite.
So, it looks like mosquitoes do serve a function. As such, they can be understood as part of God’s good design…
Most scientists agree that — compared to other organisms — mosquitoes are unusually efficient at sucking blood from one individual in the population and then transferring the blood to another individual. This makes mosquitoes adept at spreading pathogenic microbes. As a consequence, if mosquitoes were eliminated, the spread of certain diseases would halt — but there is a downside to such an outcome. While the population might become healthier, its numbers would swell and overpopulation would eventually become a concern. Overpopulation then leads to the loss of health because of limited resources and, thus, leads back to suffering.
Dr. Rana’c concerns about overpopulation of animals in the wild are valid, but they cannot be applied to human beings. I can see no good argument against selectively targeting those species of mosquitoes which are principally responsible for the millions of children’s deaths that occur around the world every year as a result of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Another recent article, by Jennifer Feng, writing on the Website Cogito.org, titled, Up for debate: Should we eradicate all mosquitoes from the world (August 26, 2014), addresses the moral issues involved. Apparently, the task of eradicating mosquitoes is now technologically feasible: one researcher, Professor Andrea Cristiani of Imperial College in London, is already creating genetically modified mosquitoes that are only capable of producing male offspring. This technique would eradicate a local population of mosquitoes in just a few generations, and ultimately, it could even be used to wipe out an entire species.
As the article points out, however, we would need to be careful about which species we chose to eradicate: there are 3,500 species of mosquito, and many of them never bite humans. Of those that do, only some species can carry malaria, yellow fever and the other diseases people can get from mosquito bites. The parasitic diseases which are collectively referred to as malaria are transmitted by mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, so it would be a legitimate primary target of any eradication campaign, as would Aedes aegypti, which carries most of the viral diseases that affect humans. However, other, very similar species which don’t pose a threat to human health could be left alone. Finally, one could argue that species of mosquito which carry diseases of livestock should also be eradicated, for economic reasons.
The Pope’s false dichotomy regarding man’s dominion
In his discussion of human dominion over creation, Pope Francis considers only two options: an absolute domination which would entitle us to trample creation under foot, and a gentle dominion which protects the Earth and which humbly respects every creature to which we are connected in the Web of Life (paras. 67, 89). The Cornwall Alliance, in its document, The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship: Subduing and Ruling the Earth to the Glory of God and the Benefit of Our Neighbors (2013), rejects absolute domination, as it freely acknowledges the wrongfulness of man’s abuse of God’s creation:
17. We affirm that man is accountable to God’s judgment in all he does with the Earth…
18. We affirm that man’s fall into sin (Genesis 3) entails the possibility and indeed the historical reality of human abuse of the Earth and of fellow humans.
We deny that man’s fall into sin completely destroys the possibility of godly dominion.
However, it seems to me that the Cornwall Alliance’s understanding of dominion is more robust than the Pope’s, as shown by its citation of the Biblical passage, “The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to mankind” (Psalm 115:16), and its reaffirmation of the terms “subdue” and “have dominion”:
7. We affirm that though the Earth is the LORD’s, He has also given it to men (Psalm 115:16) and mandated that they be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth, subdue it, and have dominion over everything that lives in it (Genesis 1:28).
The Cornwall Alliance thus appears to have steered a via media between a tyrannical absolute domination and a weak-kneed, anemic dominion which would render man more of a servant than a master (see, for instance, para. 82, where the words of Jesus, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” are cited in a discussion of our proper relation to other living things). The “third alternative” proposed by the Cornwall Alliance is a dominion which respects creatures, but which puts human welfare first. Nor should we see this as selfish on our part; for if God has designed the Earth for us, then He must have designed it in such a way that we could promote our own proper ends while at the same time preserving Nature.
The Alliance’s document on stewardship is refreshingly free of any whiff of humility towards God’s creatures. Humility is perfectly appropriate, when directed towards the God Who made us. However, if we are indeed the masters of creation, it makes no sense to say that our attitude towards other creatures should be one of “humble respect” (Laudato si’, para. 89).
Finally, the Cornwall Alliance does not shrink from the language of cost/benefit analysis in its discussion of our dominion over the Earth:
22. We affirm that cost/benefit analysis (Luke 14:28) is a proper and critically important aspect of godly dominion over the Earth (Proverbs 14:4).
We deny that cost/benefit analysis is unprincipled pragmatism or indicates a lack of faith in God.
23. We affirm that, pursuant to sin and the curse, risk is inherent in every human activity (Hebrews 9:27) and therefore that it is lawful in principle to balance risk against risk.
We deny that the mere existence of risk in an activity makes it immoral in principle.
24. We affirm that proper environmental prioritization will address greater risks before lesser risks and take into account the opportunity costs of fighting various risks—i.e., that it will recognize that since resources spent to reduce one risk cannot be used to reduce another, it is wise to allocate resources where they will achieve the greatest risk reduction.
We deny that spending vast resources to reduce small risks, when those resources could be spent to reduce greater risks instead, is good environmental stewardship.
25. We affirm that environmental policies that address relatively minor risks while harming the poor — such as opposition to the use of abundant, affordable, reliable energy sources like fossil fuels in the name of fighting global warming; the suppression of the use of safe, affordable, and effective insecticides like DDT to reduce malaria in the name of protecting biodiversity; and the conversion of vast amounts of corn and other agricultural products into engine fuel in the name of ecological protection — constitutes oppression of the world’s poor.
We deny that the policies named, and many others like them, are morally justified.
How I wish that Pope Francis had written an encyclical like the Declaration of the Cornwall Alliance. And how I wish he would disband the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which has not served him well, as it has fed him utterly false information about species extinction), and replace it with a Pontifical Academy of Economics.
Comparing the language of the two documents, it seems to me that Pope Francis waxes much more poetic, while the Declaration of the Cornwall Alliance is more prgamatic. But if I had to choose between asking a poet or a pragmatist for advice, I’d ask the pragmatist, any day. The Cornwall Alliance has put together a sensible document which politicians, business leaders and ordinary people could use to guide their moral decisions on a day-to-day basis. Laudato si’ is much more eloquent, but lacking in common sense, on matters where ordinary people need it most.
What do readers think?