December 18, 2018

Nature Red In Tooth and Claw?

Nature Red In Tooth and Claw?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope…

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

From In Memoriam, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Canto 55 and 56, 1849

• • •

In the comment discussion of the post from November 8th, “Did Birds Get Their Colorful, Speckled Eggs From Dinosaurs?” commenter Robert F offered the following observation:

I agree with the sentiment about dinosaurs and birds being creatures. I also believe, and have since I was a child, the biological evolution is the way that all living things have developed. But I don’t find it “intellectually satisfying that God preserved these animals through the creative process of evolving them….”. Don’t misunderstand me: I accept intellectually that this is the way these animals developed, but I don’t find any satisfaction in it. It makes me wonder why God, long before humans came on the scene, would create a world with processes in which the strong and fit, those few with adaptive characteristics, were selected to survive and thrive in all their multiplicity and beauty, while the weak, broken, and maladapted perished in prodigious numbers far outstripping the few surviving forms. What kind of a God, what kind of character, does he have? He seems more like a God born out of Social Darwinists theory than the loving and self-giving God revealed in the crucified Jesus Christ, who chose the weak and the poor, the losers and powerless, as his followers, friends, and even his form. It just doesn’t add up to me; no bridge seems to exist between the scientific reality and the theological inheritance. I can’t be satisfied with that, much as I have to accept it, as the state of the matter.

In counterpoint, I offered the view that recent research has tended to overturn the Darwinian/Spencer paradigm of “survival of the fittest” and that vicious competition for resources is not the main driver of evolution.  Instead, as the article puts it, “This research points out the importance of avoidance of competition, biological history, endogenosymbiosis (endo-geno-symbiosis describes the capacity of endogenous ‘gene carriers’ to share parts of their genome in a symbiotic relationship with their hosts, after the idea of ‘endosymbiosis.’)  The idea is not new, as shown by this Stephen Jay Gould essay from 1997, which indicates the idea dates back at least to 1902 and Petr Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, published in response to T.H. Huxley’s “gladiatorial” view of natural selection propounded in a series of famous essays about ethics.

Elizabet Sahtouris

Elizabet Sahtouris, is an American evolutionary biologist who is well known for questioning some of Darwin´s most basic assumptions about the evolution of life. Sahtouris says that “Darwin was right about species competing for resources but he never saw beyond it as just one stage in the maturation cycle. Evolution proceeded when crises created by species forced them to go beyond “survival of the fittest” and find cooperative strategies for survival.”

The survival of the fittest competition, then, is but one stage of a larger evolutionary cycle. Sahtouris mentions the example of how the very first bacteria that began life over 4 billion years ago spent billions of years in the competitive stage of their evolution. This competitive drive allowed them to colonize large areas of the earth and advance life itself, but had they continued with their purely selfish and competitive drive, they would have eventually died out.  Her description of microbial communities likens them to complex and cooperative cityscapes that rival Manhattan.  She believes the evolutionary process is “God-directed” to mature to a more cooperative and sustainable level and that humans learning to cooperate, reject Social Darwinism, and develop sustainable lifestyles are on this maturing evolutionary path.

Her viewpoint, which she lectures and teaches on, is interesting (if not a little New-Agey) and I think she probably puts the best face on the issue as can be done.  This is the theodicy issue, again, with respect to natural evil, or as Chaplain Mike calls it surd evil .  Christians who tend to identify with conservative evangelicalism attribute natural evil as a result of Adam’s literal fall.  If they are Young Earth Creationists, then all of the “nature red in tooth and claw” did not occur until after the fall occurred.  Predation, parasitism, even death itself was not present on the entire Earth, much less in Eden.  This certainly tidies up the theological problems, but has the disadvantage of not comporting with reality.

It is manifestly obvious death and predation has been around for a looooong time before man showed up on this planet, despite YEC contortions to devise some alternate interpretations of the fossil record.  Here’s Ken Ham’s explanation:

Genesis chapter 1 tells us that, originally, people and animals were created vegetarian. God gave them the plants to eat. This means that T. rex would have been snacking on fruit and plants.

But what about those huge teeth?

Just because something has big teeth doesn’t mean it eats meat. We see that today: fruit bats and monkeys eat grass.

It wasn’t until after sin that many animals ate meat.

I get the sentiment.  Looking strictly at Genesis 9:3 – “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” – would seem to imply there was no meat eating before even Noah.  This isn’t a post refuting YEC, and YEC, although theologically tempting to solve the problem, just doesn’t hold up to reality.

Sahtouris’ idea that the evolutionary process is “God-directed” to mature to a more cooperative and sustainable level and that humans learning to cooperate, reject Social Darwinism, and develop sustainable lifestyles are on this maturing evolutionary path, is probably the best scientifically defendable answer to the theodicy.  But it is not entirely satisfactory.  As frequent commenter Stephen noted:

Which is why the folks who say that evolution is merely the way God chose to create life on earth really haven’t thought it through. Evolutionary cooperation is fine but the history of life is nevertheless a bloodbath. Life is that thing which survives by consuming itself. Death and suffering are not the result of some primordial tragedy (certainly not OUR fault) but are inherent in the process. In many ways an appalling vision. The sensitive soul recoils from this vision and attempts by various and sundry means to accommodate itself to this reality. (Including that classic strategy – denial.)  There are no easy answers, but why should there be?

Commenter Dana Ames, in attempting to answer the question quoted N.T. Wright:

“Reality as we know it is the result of a creator god bringing into being a world that is other than himself, and yet which is full of his glory.  It was always the intention of this god that creation should one day be flooded with his own life, in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning.  As part of the means to this end, the creator brought into being a creature which, by bearing the creator’s image, would bring his wise and loving care to bear upon this creation.  By a tragic irony, the creature in question rebelled against this intention.  But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate way, and as a result is now moving the creation once more toward its originally intended goal.  The implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god within his human creatures and ultimately within the whole creation, transforming it into that for which it was made in the beginning.” N.T. Wright, “The New Testament and the People of God” 97-98.

Considering the long, long history of the interplay between competition and cooperation in the development of life on this planet, it seems there is a strong emotional component to this issue.  After all, it’s considerably harder to feel sorry for bacteria and algae than it is for a cute fawn having its throat ripped out by a leopard.  Yet it is in essence the same process.  How does that play into the purposes of God as reflected in the life of Jesus?  I think we have to have that eschatological hope that, in Jesus, death does not have the final word.  Tennyson, despite the despair in the early stanzas of In Memoriam, maintained his childlike faith in a loving Father.  Let’s let him have the last words:

If e’er when faith had fallen asleep,
I hear a voice ‘believe no more’
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the Godless deep;

A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason’s colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer’d ‘I have felt.’

No, like a child in doubt and fear:
But that blind clamour made me wise;
Then was I as a child that cries,
But, crying knows his father near;