In retrospect I studied zoology at a time when one of biology’s disciplines was on the cusp of change. In the sixth form we looked at ecology as a branch of biology (a rather boring one compared to all those interesting animals, I thought at the time). By the time I was doing medicine at Cambridge it had become a branch of sociology, to do with how “the ecology” gets polluted by us. By and large, the latter approach has predominated in the public eye, with most of us being more concerned about global warming messing things up than by how they work in the first place.
There’s a good series on BBC 4 at the moment, called Nature’s Microworlds, in which particular ecosystems are examined in detail, revealing their wonder, rather than concentrating on individual animal stories. For some of us, the lack of mood music and grieving elephants is refreshing.
In the first one I saw, for example, a mountain habitat was shown in which in one way or another, most processes tended to wash biomass and nutrients downstream. The key feature in replenishing them, it seems, is the migration of vast numbers of salmon, whose spawning and death keep the whole system in a state of plenty and equilibrium. How often has one seen films showing the salmon story as wasteful and vaguely tragic (that pitiless evolution again)? Why would God create a fish where so many millions of eggs are wasted and exhausted adults die en masse? Part of the answer, it turns out, is that he’s a systems thinker.
Last night’s film was about Yellowstone Park, where some years ago wolves were reintroduced, after being hunted out to protect livestock seventy years before. The idea, clearly, was simply to restore the original wild nature to a National Park. The unexpected effect was that river flow quickly improved in the park, numbers of small mammals and birds increased, the decline of a rare antelope was reversed, grizzly bears prospered and several other beneficial effects.
The immediate cause turned out to be that beaver activity had increased, and though the coincidence in time seemed significant, it wasn’t obvious why introducing wolves would benefit beavers. By tracing “false leads” in this story, the film managed a good overview of the key parts of the ecosystem, and the subtle influence the wolves had had on it.
One key point, for example, was that wolves both hunted and competed with coyotes, taking pressure off the small mmamals the latter favour. Additionally, coyotes can take out the young of rare pronghorn antelope, which were in decline. Wolves, however, can’t usually catch the adult antelope, and ignore the young as too small to feed a pack.
The “answer” to the beaver story was that in the absence of top predators elk have increased and over-browsed the riverside vegetation. Wolves can take elk as prey, with the effect that the latter have resumed their former wariness and peripatetic behaviour. Result: more trees, more beavers, more dams, better river flow, better habitats, more abundance. What a wonderful world we live in! They’re reintroducing beavers in a few places here in the UK, amidst controversy. Maybe it will ameliorate some of the flooding we’ve been experiencing here in recent decades.
Two general lessons occur to me from learning these things. The first is that the standard Neo-Darwinian synthesis is a pretty poor explanation for the development of such finely tuned ecosystems. Most people studying evolution seem seldom to think in terms of ecology. There seems no intrinsic reason why an evolutionary process tuned to give short-term survival advantage to an individual species (or gene, if you’re a Dawkins fan!) should fortuitously produce the abundance of “endless forms most beautiful”, so closely co-dependent, that typify our world. It’s the same kind of problem as why the adaptations selected to allow Homo to survive on the East African plains should simultaneously enable quantum physics and Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
There is no reason why organisms should not regularly evolve an advantage that would devastate an ecosystem. After all, we have seen what crown of thorns starfish can do to a barrier reef. The whole sociological aspect of ecology is predicated on our ability to do irreversible damage accidentally. The Greeks deforested their country in the 2nd millennium BC to build ships, and it never recovered. It may be true that the Sahara’s desertification was, as now seems to be thought, the result of astronomical factors rather than human over-grazing, but there is no doubt that most of its extension in the last century has been due to human activity, as was the reduction of the American midwest to a dustbowl in the 1930s .
Systems do not just happen, or systems designers would simply employ people with disparate skills, assemble a few computers and a factory unit and let them get on with it. Systems analysis cannot be a reductionist science – so why should biology be assumed to be different?
My second point is regarding theistic evolutionists’ attitudes to the systems approach. BioLogos poster Beaglelady recently challenged me on how a loving God could have designed the poliovirus. She is not a scientist, but exactly the same challenge was made to me by Darrel Falk last year. Neither believes Satan created viruses – the assumption seems to be the unforeseen or sadly inevitable side effects of “free” evolution result in a flawed creation. Many TEs will put the red-in-tooth-and-claw, built-on-bodies appearance of nature down to the same thing: if God is responsible, it is only indirectly and raises all kinds of problems of theodicy.
But as soon as one takes an ecological systems approach, one begins to see that this God-is-not-responsible attitude must apply to the whole of nature if at all. The fecundity of our world, as Nature’s Microworlds shows, is the result of beautifully designed and balanced systems, of which carnivores and probably polioviruses too are an integral part. And if God did not create what makes a place like Yellowstone so awe-inspiring, then what exactly did he create?
This is a particularly acute issue as the biblical concept of creation, described in Genesis 1, is fundamentally orientated towards ecology in its scientific sense. God is not so much the Creator-of-things-and-stuff as the Creator-of-how-things-work-smoothly, as John Walton has shown exhaustively. The content of the first three days of creation are, in order; seasons, weather and fertility. The second three days are about the functionaries that inhabit those realms. God is, in biblical terms, a systems engineer. His sabbath rest is no more or less than his sovereign management of earth’s ecology for the benefit of its inhabitants – and it shows in any ecological system one cares to examine closely.
Given the scientific evidence for the fine-tuning of our ecology, it is a very grave theological move indeed to seek to minimise God’s role in creating and maintaining it.