Did you know that there have been five major mass extinction events in earth’s history? Did you also know that there is a mass extinction underway right now in 2015? It is thought that this extinction event, called the Holocene extinction, will end up being the sixth major mass extinction event on earth. With an estimated 140000 species being snuffed out per year, the full extent of the losses are not yet know.
The proposed causes of the first five mass extinctions have been various: volcanoes, oceanic overturn, geomagnetic reversals, climate change, asteroid or meteorite strikes. But the sixth extinction, we are told, is being driven by something different than those that came before: Mankind.
A book by Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”, purports to chronicle how humans have been the active agent in the extinction of our present time. But it’s not the content of the book that is of particular interest; rather, it’s the title. Notice the adjective she uses to qualify history – “An Unnatural History”. The first five extinctions were perfectly natural. What argument could be made to say that volcanoes or asteroid strikes are unnatural? These are but the material world following its course, laid out by the physical laws. But to claim that this sixth extinction is unnatural is to say that Mankind is capable of doing something which is against the flow of the material world. And if he has this capacity, then it follows that man is not subsumed by nature: Man is, in some sense, distinct from nature.
To the environmentalist, this is good news! Environmentalism requires mankind to be, in some way, a distinct entity within nature. When man pollutes, kills, and destroys, it is not the same as when a volcano pollutes, kills, and destroys. When a volcano does so, it is doing that which accords with what a volcano is. But when man pollutes, kills, and destroys, he is not living in accordance with what man is. This is the basis for environmentalism. Mankind exists within nature, but he is, in some sense, distinct from it. While nature only ever acts in accord with itself, mankind can act both in accord and against what man is, and actions that do not accord with what man is, such as environmental destruction, can be fought against and made right.
But in a naturalist’s worldview, how can this even be possible? What mechanism exists such that man can distinguish himself from the nature out of which he arose? As we shall see, the problem for the naturalist is that there is no means by which to say man is distinct from nature. And if naturalism fails to show man is distinct from nature, then it follows that a naturalist has no basis for fighting against that which is destructive, either in nature or within man himself.
Naturalism cannot account for Man’s distinction from the world
Our first task is to show that naturalism does not give a significant reason to say that mankind is distinct from nature. We shall do so this by considering the set of metrics that man could use to show himself distinct from nature. There are thousands upon thousands of properties that man has that he could try to use to show that he is distinct from the rest of the material world. Man fails to find himself unique in a vast, vast majority of them. Man fails to be the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the slowest, the most long-lived, the shortest lived. Perhaps, though, it could be argued that there are some things at which mankind in general seems to excel : his high consciousness, the advanced use of language and tools, and the formation of complex culture. These are commonly referenced as the source of man’s distinction from nature, but it should be noted that even these three qualities are disputed by naturalist themselves as to whether they set man apart from nature (See the Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness, for example). But even if mankind in general does excel in these metrics, there are major problems with being able to say that these or any property can show that mankind as a whole is distinct from the world:
The problem of Development: Although mankind, at certain stages of development, excels at X in comparison to all things, how do we predicate to mankind as a whole a true distinction from the world when mankind includes those who have not yet developed X, or have developed X and subsequently lost it?
The problem of Variation: Although most of mankind excels at X in comparison to all things, how do we predicate to mankind as a whole a true distinction from the world if some of mankind is deficient in X
The problem of Threshold: Although mankind excels at X in comparison to all things, how can we know that mankind has enough X in order to be truly distinct from the world?
The problem of Ignorance: Although mankind excels at X in comparison to all things known, why would we think that mankind still excels at X in comparison to all things that actually are?
The problem of Significance: Although mankind excels at X in comparison to all things, why would we think that X is significant?
All proposed metrics that have been sifted through the problems listed above have left man’s unity with the world intact. There is simply nothing unique about man in comparison to the rest of nature. As an example, consider the argument of the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer, who argues that man cannot extract himself from his unity with the rest of the animal kingdom:
If we seek some characteristic that [mankind as a whole] possess, then this characteristic must be a kind of lowest common denominator, pitched so low that no human being lacks it. The catch is that any such characteristic that is possessed by all human beings will not be possessed only by human beings. For example, all human beings, but not only human beings, are capable of feeling pain; and while only human beings are capable of solving complex mathematical problems, not all humans can do this. So it turns out that in the only sense in which we can truly say, as an assertion of fact, that all humans are equal, at least some members of other species are also “equal” – equal, that is, to some humans.
– Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, p. 265
In naturalism, the search for man’s unique status within the material world is fruitless – and this is not just the critique of an outsider; this is the conclusion of those who hold the naturalist’s worldview. Prominent naturalists have admitted that there is nothing that can serve to distinguish mankind from nature, and have even embraced their unity with nature.
Only those who prefer religious faith to beliefs based on reasoning and evidence can still maintain that the human species is the special darling of the entire universe.
– Peter Singer, Animal Liberation , p. 215.
The word ‘apes’ usually means chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans, gibbons and siamangs. We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes. […] There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans but excludes humans.
– Richard Dawkins, Gaps in the Mind, an essay in “The Great Ape Project”, p. 82
Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process.
– Humanist Manifest I, Second Thesis
In naturalism, Mankind is a product of nature. Nature has given birth to her own kind. Nature has given us ants and worms, dogs and cats, cancers and parasites, and Man. Man, who pollutes, kills, and destroys. When man acts as to pollute, to kill, or to destroy, his actions are a manifestation of what is in man, as a product of nature. Human agency and the out working thereof cannot be differentiated as unnatural from the natural agency of any other animal, or from a plant, or from the physical laws. Fish swim, birds flap their wings, bears eat their still conscious prey, chimpanzees slaughter those outside their community, the sun consumes the inner planets of the solar system as it turns into a red giant, and mankind drives the sixth mass extinction on the planet. What do you call it when man forms a corporation to make widgets, and then dumps the toxic byproducts of widget-making into the river? Nature at work.
If Nature’s Way is to be our guide, it is pointless to complain of mass extinctions, or pollution. In a mechanistic universe terms like ‘pollution’ (which implies that there are preferred states, or real goals) are out of place: there is only biochemical change. […] It is ‘natural’ that gangs of dogs, for example, should pull down, kill, and disembowel their prey. Human predators are just as ‘natural’, and it is quite unclear what limits they should put upon themselves, or what would count as ‘unnatural’ greed.
– Steven R L Clark, Is Nature God’s Will?, an essay in “Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics”, p. 130
Our final conclusion is that naturalism, in failing to show that man has the capacity for doing that which is against nature, also fails to give a basis for environmentalism. Mankind is not special in any sense. He has no mandate to protect or care for the earth. He has no calling to fight against that which is destructive in both nature and himself. Both man and the world are as they are supposed to be. Environmental destruction in any form, even when that destruction is being driven by man, is just Nature taking it’s course.
The Christian answer for Man’s distinction from the world
At the centre of the Christian worldview is God, who is the self-existent, infinite and personal creator of the world, who has revealed Himself in the pages of the Bible. Because God is at the centre, our anthropology is not determined by self-examination, but is rather primarily determined by examining the testimony of God, who created man in the beginning:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” […] God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.
– God, Genesis, verses 1:26-28,31a (NASB)
In creating man, God has defined what man is. Man is a creature of God, and created in His image. This is the solution that naturalism cannot give. In these two statements, we find what we are looking for: Man’s true distinction from nature. Francis Schaeffer provides a helpful examination of the position of Man in terms of his relationship to both the Infinite-personal God, and nature, which God has created.
On the side of [God’s] infinity there is a great chasm. He creates all things, and He alone is creator. Everything else is created. Only He is infinite, and only He is the Creator; everything else is dependent. So man, the animal, the flower, and the machine, in the biblical viewpoint, are equally separated from God as is the machine. So on the side on the infinite, the chasm is between God and everything else, between the Creator and all created things.But there is another side – the personal. Here the animal, the flower, and the machine are below the chasm. On the side of God’s infinity, everything else is finite and equally separated from God; but on the side of His personality, God has created man in His own image. […] Man is separated, as personal, from nature because he is made in the image of God.
– Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, Volume 5 of “The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, p. 28.
Man can find his unity with the rest of nature in that both he and nature are creations of God. The animal and the plant are his fellow creature, and are equal to man in their origin. But man is distinct from nature in that God has created man in his own image and given him charge to be the steward over the earth. The animal and plant are to be appropriately cared for, because they have value – not a value that is in them autonomously, but rather because God has made them. That which God has created is precious, and mankind ought not treat cruelly that which God has given him charge over.
When man acts as to pollute, to kill, or to destroy, his actions are against his original charge to steward the world. It is not a manifestation of what man is as a product of nature (as is demanded in naturalism), but rather it is a manifestation of the corruption in man that he took on in his willful rebellion against God. When man fights against that which pollutes, kills, or destroys, he is rising to his original calling to be steward over the world, to maintain the earth in the state of goodness in which he was originally created. Thus, the Christian has a true basis for environmentalism. Though man lives in nature and interacts with nature, he is not subsumed in it. His actions can be evaluated in a way that a volcano or an asteroid cannot. Man is a creature of God, and created in His image.
How should we then live?
The sixth mass extinction ongoing, and more species being lost every day. Even if mankind can turn the tide on the rate of loss attributed to his works in the world, that doesn’t change the history of environmental destruction that man has wrought on God’s creation. Mankind is alienated from creation. But this is only a byproduct of being alienated from God, because of our willful dereliction of duty to be stewards over creation, and not tyrants.
But substantial healing is possible. God tells us that He is willing to forgive man for his dereliction of duty, for the evil that man commits towards Him and His creation. His forgiveness is found in Jesus, God incarnate, who entered His creation to die upon a cross as an act of divine forgiveness. He absorbed into Himself the Just penalty of all evil committed against Him, on behalf of those who repent of their evil deeds and trust Him for their right standing before Him. He has given full assurance of this by rising from the dead on the third day. It is out of this forgiveness extended by God to man as a gift, that man is made right with God, with his fellow man, and even with the rest of the created order.
To finish, I again quote Schaeffer:
So we have seen that a truly biblical Christianity has a real answer to the ecological crisis. If offers a balanced and healthy attitude to nature, arising from the truth of it’s creation by God. It offers the hope here and now of substantial healing in nature of some of the results of the Fall, arising from the truth of redemption in Jesus. In each of the alienations arising from the Fall, Christians individually and corporately, should consciously in practice be a healing redemptive factor – in the separation of man from God, of man from himself, of man from man, of man from nature, and of nature from nature.
– Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, Volume 5 of “The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, p. 47.