Tag Archives: Myths

Reconciling With Darwin

Stephen Jay Gould took on biological determinism, racism, scientific objectivity, scientific progress, science and religion and much more in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History. The primary thrust of this book was to help us come to terms with Darwin and the implications of his ideas for our understanding of ourselves and our world.

The Western world has yet to make its peace with Darwin and the implications of evolutionary theory. The hippocampus debate merely illustrates, in light relief, the greatest impediment to this reconciliation–our unwillingness to accept continuity between ourselves and nature, our ardent search for a criterion to assert our uniqueness. (50)

I believe that though there has been progress, this continues to be the case in 2011. This book is primarily about science and conversations within science about Darwinian theory, but it touches on religious beliefs and views in a number of surprising ways. I’ve had an interesting ongoing conversation with a good friend of mine about the relationship and nature of both science and religion. I think this is one of the most important conversations that we need to have, particularly as we are facing the crises of climate change and stretching our natural systems beyond the breaking point. Gould believes that the answer lies in Darwin’s theory itself.

I suggest that the true Darwinian spirit might salvage our depleted world by denying a favorite theme of Western arrogance–that we are meant to have control and dominion over the earth and its life because we are the loftiest product of a preordained process. (13)

This is true for both religious and scientific-minded people, as well as capitalists, economists, Marxists, atheists and almost everyone, but the indigenous peoples of the world. It is a mind set which drives our experiment with civilization, agriculture and technology. Gould claims that this is why Darwin waited so long before publishing The Origin of Species. In that first book he only hints at the implications of his theory and waits until Descent of Man to begin to unpack what this means for our way of thinking about ourselves in relationship to nature. The real scandal of Darwin’s evolution was not that it dethroned the idea of creation. Other evolutionists of the time allowed room for God to simply use evolution instead of creation, as many continue to today.

The real scandal was that Darwin’s explanation of the mechanism by which evolution took place, random variation and natural selection, did away, not only with the need for a Creator, but with the special, exalted place of human beings in the great pyramid of creation. While Darwin does away with a particular notion of God, and I believe rightly so, I don’t see his concept of the human beings creatureliness in contradiction with how I read the Genesis story. Indeed, later on in the book Gould also states,

I return, then, to Linnaeus’s compromise–we are both ordinary and special. The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brains. (257)

I have basically stated the same view at other times. We are no more than creatures, but we are certainly unique among creatures. Gould points out that Darwin intentionally refrained from using “higher” or “lower” terminology to describe lifeforms. Instead, it is clear that prokaryotic organisms are perfectly adapted to their own environment and we would not survive in their place because we are terribly suited to their environment. In another passage Gould puts it this way,

What we criticize in ourselves, we attribute to our animal past…What we prize and strive for, we consider as a unique overlay, conceived by our rationality and imposed upon an unwilling body…Little more than ancient prejudice supports this common belief…It has roots in an attitude that I attack in several of these essays: our desire to view the history of life as progressive and to place ourselves on top of the heap (with all the prerogatives of domination). We seek a criterion for our uniqueness, settle (naturally) upon our minds, and define the noble results of human consciousness as something intrinsically apart from biology. (261)

I have made this same argument many times, not from a scientific perspective, but a religious one, though thoroughly informed by what I know about ecology and agriculture. Now, Gould is an avowed atheist and arrives at his understanding about the world from his knowledge as a scientist. Yet, he refrains from the militant anti-religious zealotry of others by rigorously applying sound principles on both scientific theories and history. He even points out that religious people who held beliefs about the world, which we laugh at now, were sometimes dedicated scientists in their time applying what they knew of science. In his chapter called “The Reverend Thomas’ Dirty Little Planet” he describes the fantastic theories of Thomas Burnet which tried to explain the events described in the Bible, such as Noah’s flood, in rational scientific terms. Writing in 1681 “Burnet’s tale may be fanciful, but his actors are the ordinary physical forces of desiccation, evaporation, precipitation and combustion” (144).
The point here is to remember that our perspective on scientific truth and progress, particularly when reading history, is colored by our current beliefs. This doesn’t mean science has no basis. The reason Gould uses this example is precisely because this religious explanation insisted on rational explanation and was persecuted by the “dogmatists and antirationalists” of his time, not the theists.

But the actual relationship between religion and science is far more complex and varied. Often, religion has actively encouraged science. If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism. (141)

The book is full of interesting stories from the history of scientific thought and development that expound on this theme. Another example was the rationality of beliefs about geologic formation prior to the modern understanding of continental drift. Given the evidence at the time, continental drift was more fantastic than other beliefs held at the time which seem ridiculous now. This leads to one of my favorite lines of the book, that describes the stance that I think both religion and science should take.

Common sense is a very poor guide to scientific insight for it represents cultural prejudice more often than it reflects the native honesty of a small boy before the naked emperor. (109)

I have said often, though perhaps not on the blog, that I don’t believe in common sense. I don’t know what it is or where it comes from. Common sense is a nonsensical appeal to non-existent wisdom. Standing before the emperor and being willing to speak aloud the fact that he is naked is no small task for religion or science, because as social creatures we are bent towards conformity. However, we have reached a place where as a species we face the fate of lemmings if we do not speak up.

Throughout the book Gould makes claims about the world and evolutionary theory based on what science can tell us right now (or at least in 1977). Yet the last sentence of the book reveals the kind of stance he takes as a scientist, always willing to be swayed by evidence and never wishing to become an irrational dogmatist.

I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers. (271)

This, I believe, is the humble stance of the human being that is both “ordinary and special”, unique among creatures, but not apart or above in any way. This is the kind of thinking our world needs for its own salvation. Perhaps part of the reconciling work of Christ in our time (for the church) is redeeming Darwin by accepting his ideas as they are and then recognizing them in our own tradition, choosing to reject the ways of thinking and acting in our religions, societies and nations that have led and still lead to domination and violence in all its multiplicity.

The New World Religion

When considering a metaphor for describing a reality that is inherently difficult to grasp, it can be easy to lose your grip on the thing to which the metaphor points. The authors’ of Affluenza follow their metaphor closely and it works for the most part. The best part of their metaphor is that it makes the book more fun to read, gives it a hook and is actually helpful in understanding the reality of what the metaphor describes. I think the metaphor of consumerism as a disease remains helpful and describes an aspect of the reality that we might lose if we dismissed it completely.

As a theologian (aren’t we all), however, I am also interested in the idea that consumerism is a religious enterprise (that’s a simile, not a metaphor). William Cavanaugh has pointed out how notoriously difficult it is to define religion. He criticizes the work of many scholars of religion, pointing out that they often don’t abide by their own definitions. They are usually too broad or too narrow to be helpful either excluding examples most people consider religions like Buddhism or including things that most people would not consider religions like football (either American or soccer, both would fit).

The way I am thinking about religion is more on the broad side. Nevertheless, I feel the danger of being too broad and it becoming useless both as a definition and as a metaphor. There are difficulties here because there are other words used to describe similar phenomena. Ideology, culture and worldview attempt to describe some network of underlying beliefs or assumptions that animate, motivate or dictate someone or a community’s way of responding to the world. Ideology is similar to religious belief in that in its mature form it is something freely chosen and adopted as one’s own. Culture can also be similar to religious belief in that it arises in a social or communal context and involves the influence of the community. Some aspect of both are at play in consumerism. Worldview is perhaps the most similar, but attempts to encompass aspects outside of religion like culture that are at work in the way we perceive, interpret and respond to the world. Tomes have been written with various theories about all these words and what they mean.

In considering whether religion is an appropriate way of talking about consumerism, I am primarily concerned with the way that religion functions, particularly religions that claim a universal mission, such as Christianity, Islam or Mormonism. I could easily write a book in the vein of Affluenza, naming the high priests, describing the rites and rituals, basically making a comparison between something called religion and something else called consumerism. What I am more interested in is in what ways consumerism actually is a kind of religion. This is a more ambitious and difficult task, which is probably why I have only thrown out references to the idea without exploring it in depth yet.

It would be helpful first to unpack what exactly I am trying to understand in religious terms. Consumerism, or the consumer economy, are related to globalization, global economy, growth economy and perhaps also the idea of development. Almost all of these terms are somewhat vague. Therefore they will need some clarification in their definitions and relationships to each other. Globalization is the overarching concept that seems to encompass the others. It is the corollary to Christianity or Islam. Consumerism is the vehicle that spreads this religion, while the consumer or growth economy (and maybe even the idea of development) are the message, or gospel, that consumerism intends to spread in order to support this overarching project of globalization.

I hope to explore this more in depth in the future, but for now here are the features that I see these aspects of globalization sharing in common with religions, primarily the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

  • Belief/Faith- As much as economists want their field to be a science it remains a field that relies on untested assumptions about how human beings behave and what is best for them and the world.
  • Universal Message- The message is for all people. Obviously not everyone agrees with the tenets of globalization and consumerism, but the belief is that everyone should.
  • Universal Mission- Because there are people who resist the message, or adhere to contradictory beliefs from other religions, there must be a mission, universal in scope, to convert people to the truth of these beliefs.
  • Evangelism- This grows out of the other three aspects, but it is important to recognize that those who believe in and practice this religion reveal it through their actions. Advertising executives, CEOs, government officials and even NGOs make statements and actions that reveal their assumptions and beliefs.

Of course this preliminary post only sets the stage and raises lots of questions. Here are some of my initial questions which come to mind:

  • Is there a distinction between those who are believers in this religion and those who participate unwittingly, a sort of cultural consumer (like cultural Christians, etc.)?
  • What are the origin stories/creation myths of globalization/consumerism?
  • What are the rites and rituals of this supposed religion? How do they function and relate to what we normally consider religions?
  • Is Global Consumer-anity in direct competition with the other religions? Is it functionally exclusive to other belief systems?
  • In what ways do we adhere to multiple belief systems simultaneously? Are there Christian, Islamic, Latin American, Russian, or indigenous versions of Global Consumer-anity? Do they compete with each other or on the level of Global Consumer-anity do they basically get along?

It’s clear that the same issues that are present in studying other religions arise when trying to understand the phenomenon of consumerism and globalization in these terms. How does this “religion” relate to other religions and across cultures? What are the different sects, denominations or cults within the religion? What are the orthodox teachings or doctrines? I hope I get to write this book someday. But if someone else beats me to it, I will just keep growing my own food and trying to need as little as possible.

Small Is Beautiful: Urban vs. Rural

I read an article from the Guardian that asked “Which is greener urban or rural living?” Treehugger also picked up the conversation, and the consensus seemed to be that urban life was clearly greener. In the city you often don’t need a car. You live in smaller housing units in tall buildings that take up less space. You have more options for consumer products that are environmentally friendly, organic or otherwise more sustainably produced. There were a few commenters that didn’t want to just throw out the benefits of rural living, but no one really seemed to think rural living could be greener.

I read the whole conversation in light of the section in E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful on development. Schumacher addressed the mentality of much development work which still continues today.

Before we can talk about giving aid, we must have something to give. We do not have thousands of poverty stricken villages in our country; so what do we know about effective methods of self-help in such circumstances? The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvellous things they could do if they were already rich. (199)

This could also be applied to this way of thinking about whether urban or rural living is greener. Environmentalism has its own unspoken creed containing dogmas that often remain unquestioned and uncritically swallowed and regurgitated. There are certain assumptions about what is “greener” that attempt to slip the premise by us. One of those is the divide between rural and urban.

Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. (203)

This dualism between urban and rural is and always has been a fiction. This was one of the most stunning thoughts for me in reading this book. It is only more relevant as the world continues to urbanize and face the same problems of Schumacher’s time (the book was first published in 1975) on an ever increasing scale.

When Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful the majority of people still lived in rural areas. Therefore, he argued, we should be putting as much, if not more, emphasis on rural development. That is not what happened. The emphasis on urban development made cities much more attractive places than the increasingly difficult life in rural areas. This drove migration to the cities and the increasing urbanization that continues today. The UN predicts that 70% of the world population will live in cities by the year 2050 and we have just recently crossed the 50% mark (I don’t have a link, but I think it was in a recent State of the World report from the UN). Urban development can’t keep up with the needs of all the rural people migrating to cities as rural economies tank. Yet, the opportunities are better in the cities. Thus we end up with the massive slums that seemed to pop up overnight around Manila, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and all the major urban centers in the “developing” world.

Yet, what is our answer for this problem of urbanization? It is to create better cities that can handle the increase in population, instead of creating rural development that makes it possible for people to stay in rural areas. What the question about whether urban or rural living is greener fails to address is the continuing, dynamic relationship between these two sectors. It’s also evident when we try defining these two terms that they are not very clear. What size community should be considered rural? At what point does a city transition from being rural to urban? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Derrick Jensen defines cities as “a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources” (from a YouTube video on his book Endgame). This definition means that our definition of “urban” will be relatively small compared to the largest cities in the world. However, it does account for what the discussion of how green urban living is neglects. While certain metrics make urban living appear greener, because of the economies of scale, it does not account for the dependence on outside resources to sustain the “greener” urban way of life.

Unless you are living off of your urban/community garden, the majority of your food, no matter how organic or sustainably produced, must come from somewhere else. Likewise for all the other products no matter how organic or sustainably produced that you consume in a city. All of the water you use is imported from elsewhere, as well as the coal, oil and/or natural gas you use to use electricity, drive your car, cook and heat your studio apartment. Another quote from Derrick Jensen undermines the kind of thinking that makes urban living seem “green”.

Rational people will go quietly meekly to the end of the world, if only you’ll allow them to believe that recycling is going to make a difference.

We choose the metrics that make our lives seem “greener” so that we can ignore the reality that we cannot help but participate in an economy based on extraction and the importation of resources to support our preferred lifestyle in communities called cities that require this arrangement. Perhaps there is a balance between urban and rural populations that could be sustainable. I’m open to that possibility, but it would look radically different from the current order.

So, instead of asking which is greener we should be asking which way of life is self-sustaining. Rural living, if it involves industrial monocropping or extractive lifestyles, is not self-sustaining either. But, I would argue that living in smaller rural communities has the potential to be self-sustaining, while cities require an arrangement that imports resources from outside its borders.

The Sacred Predator Pyramid Scheme

Another relationship in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer between Deanna, a forest service worker living in the middle of a preserve, and Eddie, a young man hunting coyotes who becomes her lover, centers on their mutual love of nature but their conflicting perspectives on predators, coyotes in particular. Eddie comes from a family of sheep ranchers out west who see predators as the enemy, while Deanna sees coyotes and other predators as keystone species that hold the ecosystem together.

“And what rule of the world says it’s a sin to kill a predator?”

“Simple math…One mosquito can make a bat happy for, what, fifteen seconds before it starts looking for another one? But one bat might eat two hundred mosquitoes in a night. Figure it out, where’s the gold standard here? Who has a bigger influence on other lives”(179)

Small and medium size ranchers and farmers across the U.S. are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Predators like coyotes account for a small percentage of livestock deaths, but they are a good scapegoat for people frustrated with their economic situation. It’s much more difficult to deal with institutions like the USDA and policies that create such slim margins for farmers and ranchers. It must be satisfying to find a coyote or wolf in the sight of a rifle and feel like you have some control over your own life and problems.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the loss of predators causes many more problems than it solves. Deanna puts it this way concerning a turkey that Eddie kills for their dinner.

“Oh, gosh, there’s gaggles of [turkeys] walking around this hollow. A turkey lays fourteen eggs without half thinking about it. If something gets one of her babies she might not quite notice. If a fox gets the whole nest, she’ll go bat her eyes at a tom and plunk out fourteen more eggs…But still turkeys are scarce compared to their prey. Grubs and things, there’s millions of them. It’s like a pyramid scheme…The life of a carnivore is the most expensive item in the pyramid, that’s the thing. In the case of a coyote, or a big cat, the mother spends a whole year raising her young…She’s lucky if even one of her kids makes it through. If something gets him, there goes that mama’s whole year of work down the drain…If you shoot him, Eddie, that’s what you’ve taken down. A big chunk of his mother’s whole life chance at replacing herself. And you’ve let loose an extra thousand rodents on the world that he would have eaten. It’s not just one life.” (319-20)

Usually we think negatively about pyramid schemes. They stand for something that benefits a few elite at the top and depends on the oppression of the masses at the bottom. In the case of an ecosystem, however, the pyramid scheme serves to create stability. The billions of microbes feed millions of insects which feed larger animals and on up the chain. When we reach the top of the pyramid, we find that there is a symbiotic relationship between the predators at the top and all the other species making up the pyramid. When the predator is taken out of the equation, the prey species proliferate and the balance is thrown off as the increased population competes for a dwindling amount of prey species underneath them. This is a pyramid scheme in which everyone benefits from the arrangement.

Eddie and Deanna have an interesting exchange about our cultural perception of predators over their turkey dinner. Deanna says,

“It’s a prey species. It has fallen prey to us. I can deal with that. Predation’s a sacrament, Eddie; it culls out the sick and the old, keeps populations from going through their own roofs. Predation is honorable.

“That’s not how Little Red Riding Hood tells it,” he said.

“Oh, man, don’t get me started on the subject of childhood brainwash. I hate that. Every fairy story, every Disney movie, every plot with animals in it, the bad guy is always the top carnivore. Wolf, grizzly, anaconda, Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“Don’t forget Jaws,” he said. (317)

It’s important to recognize that predators like coyotes are really in some sense our competition. We make other arguments about it, but the way we perceive and depict them has a lot to do with the fact that they are the closest thing humans have to competitors for our sources of food. In another passage Deanna argues that we should really relate more closely to these top predators because they are more like us than other animals.

So, predation is both a pyramid scheme and a sacrament. I was a vegetarian for nine years. I don’t take the killing of animals lightly at all, but those who want to argue that human beings should never eat animals have to deal with this basic reality of healthy ecosystems and our place in the ecosystem. There are lots of very good arguments for eating less meat, which have to do with methods of production, environmental costs, etc., but it cannot be argued from nature that we should not eat meat at all. In a healthy ecosystem, I think human beings would be more in touch with their environment by killing and eating some meat. I also think both meat-eaters and vegetarians should be involved in the process of killing and butchering meat at some point to understand what it really means to consume our food. Deanna describes it this way,

“Life and death always right there in your line of sight. Most people lived so far from it, they thought you could just choose, carnivore or vegetarian, without knowing that the chemicals on grain and cotton killed far more butterflies and bees and bluebirds and whippoorwills than the mortal cost of a steak or a leather jacket. Just clearing the land to grow soybeans and corn had killed about everything on half the world. Every cup of coffee equaled one dead songbird in the jungle somewhere, she’d read…”Even if you never touch meat, you’re costing something its blood,” she said. “I know that. Living takes life.” (322-23)

The sustainable food movement would benefit from recognizing this fact and refraining from becoming neo-Pharisees that tell you exactly what to eat. The reality is much more complicated and messy. No one has clean hands when it comes to eating. The more people claim to eat a pure diet, the more it seems they miss the point and are blind to the hypocrisy of the purity of their diets, vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic or fruititarian. The real revelation, in my mind, is the fact that we are but creatures and not somehow other than creatures, yet we are unique among creatures. As Deanna says, “Living takes life” and there is no way around it.