On people

This post is going to be about people. I will take the opportunity to plug an article that just appeared in the journal Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith on Imago Dei. In that piece, (which can also be found in the I zine God and Nature):

http://godandnature.asa3.org/essay-evolution-and-imago-dei.html

I present my views on the nature of human beings. The modern view that humans are basically worthless, or even an evil side show in a mostly bacterial world, and that there is nothing special about us, is a fairly new concept among atheists. In fact the humanist creed, the belief that human beings are quite special, was shared by most of the atheists I knew growing up. It is now out of fashion.

Starting in the 1960s counter culture, and blooming with the new atheist work of Dennet and Dawkins, humans are no longer considered to be important or special in any way. Love, humor, art, music, science, creativity, and all other uniquely human attributes are denigrated as being “merely” artifacts of natural selection. (I am not clear why the idea that we evolved should be used as an argument against the point that our transcendent qualities have real importance). Even human consciousness has been explained away as an illusion. We have been told that bacteria are the true masters of the Earth, and that we thinking hominids are just a useless after thought of an otherwise glorious ecosystem.

I find that philosophical view much more disturbing than atheism. In fact when I was an atheist, I always believed in the transcendent nature of humanity as something special in the universe. I guess I have always really liked human beings. They can smile in a way that bacteria never seem to match. I have seen poetry that elevates the writer to a level far above that of most gorillas. And even the cleverest group of chimps have not yet managed to communicate via a blog covering at least three continents.

But there is an even more disturbing aspect of the denial of Imago Dei among a large section of the population, which also has its roots in the 1960s, and that is the view that humans are actually evil, and have wrought great destruction on the planet, and continue to do so. A month or so ago, I mentioned on Biologos that this view, along with a good deal of current environmentalist dogma, includes a great deal of what I called magical thinking, for which I was interrogated by a number of commenters. I was reluctant to engage in that discussion, since I felt it was a distraction from the main topics of the post, and I didn’t want to bring the discussion here for similar reasons.

But because of the connection with my thoughts on Imago Dei, I will mention here some part of what I think about this (a complete set of my views is found in my book Where We Stand).

We are not bad for the planet. The planet is fine. The ecosystem cannot be destroyed by us. Even human-made ecological disasters, like oil spills etc., are not bad for the planet, they are bad FOR US. Species extinction is not bad for the planet (happens all the time) but it is bad for us. Global warming is not bad for the planet, its bad for us.  Loss of habitats, poisoning of water, pollution, you name it makes no difference to the planet or the biosphere, but they are all BAD FOR US. Is a garbage dump worse than a pristine mountain? Worse for whom? Actually for many species, (Seagulls, rats, all kinds of bacteria,) maybe a garbage dump is better. But not for us.

Should we care about the state of the planet? Yes we should.  We need to take care of the planet, not for the bacteria or the seagulls or the polar bears, but because it is OUR HOME, and we are important. The bacteria, seagulls and polar bears don’t care at all. If you are a theist, you could say that God cares, but if you an atheist, you don’t even have that option. For atheists, the only reason to care for the planet is because if we don’t it will be bad for human beings. If one truly thinks that people are a blight on the face of the Earth, the solution is simple, forget about worrying about pollution or war or the future, and just do whatever it takes to commit mass suicide and lets all go extinct.

I hope the irony of the situation is apparent. We thrill at movies and depictions of global apocalypse, all of which were made by, seen by, acted in by, produced by, critiqued by and eventually forgotten by humans. And only humans. Even the Planet of the Apes, turns out to have been a fiction not made by actual apes, or even dolphins or ravens or dogs, but by, yes, once again the only self hating species on the planet, human beings.

Our atheists insist that we are “bad” while denying any source of moral judgment outside of us, ourselves. I trust that the total inconsistency of this view is obvious. I would be quite happy if the militant anti theists would at least have the decency to admit that human beings are actually pretty special. That would not only give their creed a slight degree of internal coherence, but would also go a long way toward allowing some acknowledgment of the basic truth of the concept of Imago Dei.

Sy Garte

About Sy Garte

Dr Sy Garte earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the City University of New York, where he also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. In addition to publishing more than 200 scientific publications in genetics, epidemiology, the environment and other areas, Dr. Garte is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (Amacom) and Genetic Susceptibility to Environmental Carcinogenesis (Kluwer) and is co-editor of Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases (Wiley).
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40 Responses to On people

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    One man’s rant might be another man’s education. (To use that phrase that you have used of yourself before.) Not that you were ranting here … This is a good topic to explore; and not that this was educational for me to read because I almost could have written this as is –and found myself nodding all along the way. One should enjoy a good piece of affirmation reading occasionally; it helps the other roughage go down.

    The ‘save the planet’ bumper stickers have always seemed pointless to me for … well… all the reasons you already gave. But I usually take it in the spirit it is probably intended: (translated “take care of the place so our grandchildren can enjoy it too”).

    If Lou is reading, he may share some insight as to why [some? most?] atheists are drifting in this direction. First, is the assessment even accurate? And how would one know?

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, Sy.

    • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

      Thanks Merv.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Sy also says “Our atheists insist that we are “bad” …” On the contrary, most atheist/environmentalists know that many of the people destroying the planet are doing it out of necessity. Some of the people burning the rain forest are my friends. I am well aware of the larger forces at work here, and would never think that my friends are “bad” because of what they do.

        Religion is sometimes among those larger forces destroying the planet, by the way. Here Catholicism is common, with its insane emphasis on unlimited reproduction rates. On the other hand, some religions help save the planet. Much wildlife remains in India, in spite of poverty and high population density, due mainly to the Hindu perspective on animals.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Sy is prone to overstatement in this piece, just as he was in his BioLogos piece, which was criticized from many different sides.

      “Love, humor, art, music, science, creativity, and all other uniquely human attributes are denigrated as being “merely” artifacts of natural selection.” That’s nonsense. Evolution tells us something about how those attributes arose, and suggests that some of those attributes might therefore be shared by other species. But recognizing that the attribute had a history does not diminish the attribute in the least. The beauty of a piece of art is not diminished by finding other pieces of art that were not so beautiful.

      In fact, knowing something about the history of our attributes makes them all the more impressive. Maybe there are some atheists who actually denigrate human abilities, but if so, I have not met them. My atheist friends and I appreciate a smile or a work of art or a deep math theorem or a brilliant scientific theory just as much as, or perhaps even more than, most Christians. It is far more awesome to realize that an evolving naked ape could figure out the general theory of relativity than it is to buy into the mythical explanation that a god just wired our brains (directly or indirectly) so we could do that. I think it is Sy’s view that diminishes human achievement and ability.

      Sy then denies that humans “…have wrought great destruction on the planet, and continue to do so.” I confess I can’t understand why he would have such an obtuse view. Humans do destroy the planet. It is the dry season here in the western Amazon, the burning season. My sky is hazy from a million human-lit fires which busily reduce the rain forest to ash. What is that if not destruction? I accept (and agree with) Sy’s argument that the planet should not be personified. But presumably Sy would not object to saying that a fire destroyed a library or museum, and if the fire was deliberately set by someone, then the actions of that person destroyed it. Why object to this kind of statement when applied to a rain forest (which is undeniably part of this planet)?

      Then, for much of the remainder of his comment, he seems to lump atheists and environmentalists, but these groups are quite different. Many American environmentalists, in my experience, are “New Age” people who often believe in auras, crystal healing, homeopathy, etc, much to the consternation of their atheist companions. I’ll here speak just for the atheist/biologist environmentalists.

      In sharp contrast to the Christian worldview, the atheist biologist recognizes that many of our differences with other animals are not differences in kind but in degree. This is not something that denigrates us but something that raises the intrinsic value of the other species. So I think most atheist conservationists tend to be less anthropocentric than the average conservative Christian conservationist. Sy, for example, argues for a strictly human-centered conservation ethic, derived from Judeo-Christian beliefs, in which no animals have intrinsic value. Many atheists have more empathy for other species, particularly those that exhibit intelligence and emotions, such as our close primate relatives.

      • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

        Lou

        Im not sure which article you are commenting on. First of all, what Biologos piece are you referring to that was criticized from many sides? I don’t pretend that all atheists have the same views, and I am glad to hear that you don’t agree with Dennet, Coyne, and Harris about the lack of worthiness of human characteristics. I am sure you’re right that some of our differences with animals are a matter of degree, and others are a matter of kind.

        As a matter of fact, my human centered environmental ethic is not at all Christian, and other Christians have criticized me for it. The Christian view is much more sympathetic to animals than my own, and it is part of Christianity that I am still struggling with.

        I don’t know why you don’t see my point about the destruction of the planet. You surely are aware of the natural history of the planet, and you are aware that there have been at least 5 mass extinctions, two snowball Earths, major biological and physical catastrophes, and so on, and yet the planet and the biosphere goes on. It changes, it transforms, but it is not destroyed. We couldn’t destroy this planet or its entire biosphere if we wanted to.

        I agree that the burning of the rain forest is destructive and “bad”. But who is it bad for? What in nature is bad? Are sharks bad? Are cute bunnies good? Is species extinction “bad” where do we get these moral judgements about nature? Read my essay again. All I am saying is YES they are BAD, but only because we humans exist, and we are the only species that make moral judgements about things that happen. I knew this even when I was an atheist, (although I didn’t know where we got that moral judgment at that time).

        Was the Cretacious extinction a bad thing? Not for mammals it wasn’t. Try to see what I am actually saying without interjecting your own moral views on nature. I know its hard, (because nobody seems to get this) but try.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Sy, thanks for responding. You seem to suggest I misread you, but I was responding to your exact words:

          “But there is an even more disturbing aspect of the denial of Imago Dei among a large section of the population, which also has its roots in the 1960s, and that is the view that humans are actually evil, and have wrought great destruction on the planet, and continue to do so….”

          I claimed that people HAVE wrought great destruction of the planet (Note that I did not discuss the “evil” part).

          You now defend your objection by mentioning past catastrophes, and by pointing out that the destruction is not complete. Both of these defenses are irrelevant to the claim that people are destroying the planet. The great extinction events of the past don’t alter the fact that we are now causing another great extinction. And just because the destruction is not total does not mean that everything is fine. Sheesh!

          You end your comment with “What in nature is bad? Are sharks bad? ….Try to see what I am actually saying without interjecting your own moral views on nature…” That’s an ironic comment, because I did not make any value judgement in my 6:54 comment above. That was your own interjection.

          The destruction is something I want to avoid, because it can lead to social collapse and misery, not just for humans but for other species, some of whom suffer just like us. I also think the loss of species diminishes the beauty of the universe, not just in our eyes but in the eyes of any sufficiently intelligent being, here or elsewhere. If earth had been hit by a meteor big enough to kill all vertebrates, the universe would have been poorer for it. Maybe there are so many inhabited planets that it wouldn’t matter much, but certainly in our own neighborhood planets like earth are rare and precious.

          By the way, apparently the earth has about 4 to 7 billion years left. We are not even half-way through evolution’s course here. Even if there were a god, and even if he aimed for intelligent life on earth, we are unlikely to be “it”. We will certainly become extinct either by transformation into something else, or by elimination, and dramatically different intelligent creatures will eventually take our place. I wonder if the more egocentric of them will claim to be made in the image of god…

        • Lou Jost says:

          To add perspective on human uniqueness, here is an interesting new instance of apparent tool use in crocodiles and alligators:
          http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2013/11/30/tool-use-in-crocs-and-gators/
          This is still unproven but the observations are suggestive. Of course birds, descended from reptiles, are known to use tools.

          • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

            Lou

            I refer you to the linked article. It might save us some time.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Wow, Sy, that linked article of yours is more simplistic and overstated than this one. You seem to claim that all animals except humans are slaves to their genes and never learn anything new on their own:

            “Not only the biological characteristics of each individual animal, but also individual and group behavior, are ultimately of genetic origin.”

            “From what we can tell, the chimpanzees of today live exactly as they did 4 million years ago. ”

            “Clearly, what humans do that no other living creature does is change. Humans learn and teach. Humans create and build. Humans progress and investigate. Humans use their huge and complex brains to overcome biological limitations imposed by a genome that changes very, very slowly.”

            “Yes, other animals can appear to think, reason, emote and worry. We can teach them all kinds of things. But they don’t teach each other anything new. Their phenotypes are slaves to their genes.”

            Each of these statements is known to be false. Many birds and mammals, some reptiles, and perhaps even some insects have considerable behavioral plasticity, and are curious about their environment, and invent and learn things to cope with challenges. At least some birds and primates teach their discoveries to others. This can be seen in the behavioral differences bewteen different groups within a species, based on passed-down culture. A well-known example: some chimp groups have discovered how to make and use simple tools to eat termites, and this discovery is passed down to their offspring. There are many more examples in primates, other mammals, and birds.

            You’ve written an article based on your own prejudices and presented it as fact.

            • Hanan says:

              Lou,

              My understand has always been that animals learn, but that we have yet to see an active attempt of a parent, for example, to actually teach anything.

              >Humans progress and investigate. Humans use their huge and complex brains to overcome biological limitations imposed by a genome that changes very, very slowly.”

              Do you disagree with this? This almost sounds exactly what Dawkins says that humans are the only species to be able to tear ourselves from the forces of evolution and make our own decisions.

            • Hanan says:

              For example, on this site, it says:
              “These behaviours, passed from one generation to the next through observational learning, can be regarded as examples of chimp culture.”

              Nothing about teaching the next generation.

              http://www.janegoodall.ca/about-chimp-behaviour-tool-use.php

            • Lou Jost says:

              Hanan, note that even passive teaching-by-example falsifies Sy’s claims. There are, however, some rare instances of active teaching. Some female felids have been observed to modify their prey-catching behavior in the presence of their young, and also appear to adjust their behavior to the young’s skill level (though this latter is not as well-documented as the former). In chimps, an example of active teaching is Washoe the chimp’s teaching another chimp sign language, including by molding the other chimp’s hand into the correct sign:
              faculty.uncfsu.edu/tvancantfort/reprints/Loulis/Infant%20Loulis%202.pdf
              though in this case Washoe may have been imitating her own human teacher’s teaching methods. There are also a few observations of wild chimps in Tai seeming to teach the correct grip and nut orientation to young trying to use a stone hammer and anvil to crack a nut.

              Though active teaching is rare, discovery of new behaviors by animals is well-documented, and these are often passed on to the next generation, even if only by imitation. Sometimes novel behaviors spread very rapidly through a population, as in the famous Blue Tits learning to open milk bottles in the UK.

              A balanced (though old) review article on chimp culture, with scientists’ comments and references, is
              http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Abstracts/Boesch_Tomasello_98.html
              Again, no one claims that animal culture is anywhere near comparable to present-day human culture. But Sy’s absolutist statements claiming a clean break between human and non-human behavioral plasticity are incorrect.

              • Hanan says:

                Reading just a little bit more on that particular chimp, it seems she was also aware of herself when given a mirror test.

              • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

                Lou

                Your claim that my statements are “incorrect” is an example of your own bias. Chimps use sticks to hunt for termites. Yes they do. When did they discover this idea? Last year? A thousand years ago. Are you claiming that some really smart chimp made this discovery at some time in the recent past (maybe from watching humans) and passed it on to his friends on Chimpbook?
                I am really tired of your distortions of my words and thoughts. I am not wrong on any of the statements I made, your understanding of them is wrong.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Sy, neither of us is infallible. You should not be offended if someone points out errors in your linked Imago Dei article. I don’t believe I have distorted your words:
                “Clearly, what humans do that no other living creature does is change. Humans learn and teach. Humans create and build. Humans progress and investigate. Humans use their huge and complex brains to overcome biological limitations imposed by a genome that changes very, very slowly. ”

                This statement is not correct. Not only primates but even birds make useful discoveries, and these discoveries can spread rapidly through a population. You denied this can happen in that article, and you again deny it in your response. How am I distorting your words?

                Here are some entry points to the literature on this subject:
                http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/362/1480/603.full
                This links to one of many articles in a special issue on the subject. The article mentions a literature search revealing “445 reports of social learning, 533 reports of innovation and 607 reports of tool use, concerning 116 species of primate.” Birds are also good at innovations, but they aren’t as good at social learning: “While there were 1796 observations of innovation, only 72 cases of social learning were recorded.”

                Again, no one argues that these are equivalent to human cultures. They are not. Nor does anyone argue that genes are not involved. They are, in animals and also in humans. But innovation, discovery, and cultural transmission does occur in animals as well as in people. The absolute distinctions you make in your article are false.

                Here is a recent popular article describing what appear to be cultural differences between different chimp groups:
                http://animal.discovery.com/animal-facts/animal-culture-info3.htm
                As with all popular articles, this needs to be read with caution, but it gives some more entry points to the subject.

            • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

              When you say that those statements are known to be false, I must ask known by whom? So the characteristics of animals are NOT determined by their genes?

              And how exactly has chimp culture changed in the past 4 million years?

              I can also say that what you claim to be true is known to be false. I don’t now, and never have published a false statement, and I deeply resent your comment.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    I wouldn’t want to press Sy’s article into being a blanket condemnation of current atheism. His point is as valid even if this misanthropic trend were limited to only a few: it is certainly new, and has certainly grown more prevalent.

    It’s not even limited to atheists – if I recall correctly, Sy got some stick from believers on the BioLogos thread: even Christians can be seduced into a view of man as a created blight, rather than a fallen king.

    My favourite quote from Blaise Pascal seems appropriate:

    It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the beasts without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the beasts or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both. (Pensées, VI 418)

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Sy

    As a matter of fact, my human centered environmental ethic is not at all Christian, and other Christians have criticized me for it. The Christian view is much more sympathetic to animals than my own, and it is part of Christianity that I am still struggling with.

    I’d suggest that a human-centred environmental ethic is pretty basically Christian, but I’m slightly surprised those you’ve met veer towards more sympathy to animals. My own impression is that, especially in the US, the Christian subculture has tended for local reasons to become human centred and non-environmental. That’s one strand of what it would be good to redress on the blog, since stewardship of God’s world, as it is, is at the heart of the doctrine of creation.

    I’m intrigued, though, by what accounts for your perceived difference of Christianity to, presumably, your former atheism. Attitudes to life vary hugely and culturally – my atheist friend Martin mentioned the Jain, who will not harm any life as it constitutes divinity within itself. Lou, as you hinted, makes a thoroughly theological point in talking of the loss of value from destroying the inhabited birth even if there is no-one to care (whereas others explain the whole development of life as the uncaring indifference of a meaningless universe).

    One of the best of our UK TV scientists, entomologist Dr George McGavin, as he crawls around in tree-stumps in the rain-forest collecting venomous bugs, clearly values them greatly for what they are, referring to them as “all God’s creatures” even though there’s no hint in his work of religious faith that I can see.

    But leaving aside any inferences from atheism, it seems to me that belief in an unguided evolution, that recycles individuals and species purely in response to alterations in environment, logically makes the value of individual species pretty minimal. What matters is the biosphere in toto, or at most the existence of prospering local environments. That’s even more the case if much of what exists currently is believed to be error and blind alley. If the environment will destroy all species every few million years, preserving the elephant or redwood for its own sake makes no sense.

    Is that the kind of thinking that gave you a lower view of animals, or some other evolutionary or non-evolutionary reasoning?

    If God planned for a world with elephants and redwoods, their destruction is a form of sacrilege, especially if, as Genesis affirms, we were put here as custodians and rational recognisers of their value to him. The older branches of Christianity lived and breathed that – some modern western strands have taken on board Baconian anthropocentrism and industrial capitalism in the face of it (none more so than the completely execrable prosperity gospel exported to the developing world by heretical televangelists in their Cadillacs).

    • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

      Jon

      Excellent questions, which are well worth my answering. I will try. As an atheist, I prized logic and consistency (which eventually led me to theism, but that’s another story). And yes, my view was that the reality of a Godless, purposeless world meant that individual lives of animals, trees, bugs etc were worth nothing. I knew that species come and go. So I thought who cares if some frog species goes extinct? Not the frogs. Not the bugs they eat. Maybe some of the snakes that eat them, but they don’t actually “care”. We might care if the frog has some medicinal compound in its skin that can save human lives. Otherwise, it means nothing.

      On the other hand, from early on, I had the very strong sense that human beings, (including myself and many people I knew) were quite special, because of our possession of consciousness, a quality that I couldn’t understand at the time, and that nobody else could (or does). Like you, I am devoted to music, and I couldn’t quite get how Beethoven (or Miles) fit into the evolutionary paradigm. I decided that the 5th symphony was all the evidence I needed to know that for whatever reason, our brains had propelled us beyond all other life forms into some emergent new kind of existence, apart from all other animals (despite the quaint discoveries that birds use “tools”).

      Richard Dawkins holds this view as well, as far as I can tell, and like him, I was still an atheist, but I held human beings in special regard.

      Now, as a Christian, I see what was behind all of these ideas. We were made in the image of God, our souls are what I used to call consciousness (or at least there might be some connection, I do know the two concepts are not equivalent). And as for non human animals, nature itself, I have come to see that environmentalism might not only be for our own selfish reasons, but actually have a value in itself, namely to fulfill God’s commandment for dominion and stewardship. But as I said above, that is not yet firmly rooted in my mind, and I continue to value my logical assessment of what it really means to “save” or “destroy” the planet.

      I do find it ironic that Lou (a professed atheist) and so many other professed atheist environmentalists suddenly find a religious (there is no other reason) interest in saving whales and trees. A strictly Godless and rational view would be that there is no inherent “value” in any life form, other than what it can do for us. But, oddly enough, I have never actually met anyone with that view.

      Yesterday, I went to a talk at the National Presbyterian Church by Roy Clouser, a philosopher who claims that it is logically impossible to hole a purely materialistic view of the nature of reality. I agree with that. And I think the same is true for atheism. This is why I think its only a matter of time before Lou (and Dawkins) discover that God, the creator of everything, is the only concept that makes sense of anything, including the inherent value of all of His creatures.

      As for me, and the views expressed in my article and in my book, they are clearly not consonant with my Christian faith, and I pray for guidance as to how to reconcile them in the way I have done with so many other aspects of my previous ideas.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Jon, you are right about the difference in environmental attitude between American and European Christians. In the US the human-centeredness excludes treating anything else as if it had intrinsic worth or feelings.

      I also agree that the functioning of the ecosystem itself is more important than any one species. In this, biologists are on the opposite side of the fence from animal rights activists. We do often try to eliminate (as humanely as possible) the non-native species that threaten the functioning of ecosystems.

      But caring for ecosystems does imply caring for its components. Some are more important for functioning than others, but we rarely know enough to prioritize well. If we don’t know how something works, best not to remove any of the parts.

      My argument was not theological. The value I spoke of would be gone if there were no sentient beings in the universe.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Lou, there we have seem to have concurrence with what (in my view) the Christian teaching on creation entails, as far as your last post goes.

        Christianity’s unsentimental in many ways, in that we are stewards of “the world” in a unique way, but also given its use. So vegetarianism isn’t intrinsic (or even common), and we’d agree that controlling or eradicating pests (as in the case of invasive species) without moral qualms is appropriate.

        At the same time humaneness and individual kindness are mandatory both because of the intrinsic value and sensibilities of animals (even though neither theology nor science has final conclusions on what those constitute) but also because of the damage to our own morality of mistreating others, even when we are uncertain of their “moral status”.

        I’m interested how you react to the Baconian approach to science – it was originally justified on a dubious concept of human “mastery” that owed more to the Renaissance than to the Bible (but has become a theological millstone in some areas since). But the concept of “torturing nature to extract her secrets” (Bacon’s own expression) for our benefit came into relief on the news today, as a report on Imperial College, one of the most prestigious UK establishments doing research with animals, found grave malpractice.

        “How does nature work?” seems often quite a different project, with a different spirit, to “How do we harness nature?”

        • Lou Jost says:

          Agreed, Jon, that “harnessing nature” is very different in spirit than wondering how it works, and that the former approach is common both in conservative Christian circles and in some scientific circles. These days, the Chinese exemplify it best, with their head-over-heels embrace of extraction and control of nature with no regard for consequences to ecosystems (or even, it seems, to humans). The opposite of the Jains or Hindus.

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            Just a modifier to that, Lou: for “conservative Christian circles” read “certain localised conservative Christian circles.” I don’t recognise it on the British Evangelical scene, nor amongst the Catholic or Orthodox among my acquaintance. I’m sure that’s true in other parts of the world too, especially where most Christians are rural poor (but not yet tainted by the prosperity gospel!)

            Historically, many of the social reforms aimed at mitigating the excesses of the industrial revolution were championed by conservative believers here – amongst others, of course. William Wilberforce is famous for campaigning against slavery, but less so for helping, with other Evangelicals, to form the first animal welfare society in the world, the RSPCA.

            As for Baconian science itself, that’s more Ted Davis territory: there’s always been fine line between bettering the human lot by animal research, for example, and considering animals or habitats as mere resources to exploit … and that difference overlies obvious broad developments in society as whole. Suspicion of Faust long predates by centuries the time when anybody really thought or knew much about “the environment”.

            • aniko says:

              Regarding the differences in European and American Christianity, I think we have to be careful not to fall for facile dichotomies. There are a few versions of (self-proclaimed) Christianity that are unique to the US (until they’re exported elsewhere), and therefore they’re easily seen by outsiders as what “American Christianity” is (I certainly used to make that mistake), but of course they’re far from being the only kind of Christianity around . There’s a wide range of “Christian subcultures” in America, if we want to call them that – possibly wider than in most places in Europe – and many of them do very much emphasize environmental stewardship.

              • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

                Absolutely right Aniko – though I didn’t mean to generalise regarding the USA, it could be taken that way.

                Why, we even have some American supporters here!

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Sy

    Having read (and enjoyed) your book, I don’t think the ideas you voice are wrong, so much as just needing “baptizing.” In fact the main thrust of the book was that humans are both demonic and angelic, being the only beings to mess up God’s world but equally the only ones to get worried and clear it up. The Fall and the Image are always struggling with each other.

    But by the same token, we are the only beings in creation to have the concept of regret for destroying the order of things, be that whales or the entire ecology. And if we were allowed to destroy ourselves, no other species could judge it a wrong, and we would expect the biosphere to re-equilabrate and re-diversify in our absence. By Darwinian logic, selection would have redressed the balance by eradicating a parasite.

    To justify ecological destruction being a moral wrong, and for the present suite of life to have some kind of sacrosanct right to continue, some non-material basis needs to come into play – either self-interest (illogical, Captain – there are real intelligent species waiting to evolve to whom we should give way – and in any case, since Baconian science is intended to give us mastery of the world, why shouldn’t we break our toys if we want to? Anyway, it’ll be my descendants who suffer from my gas-guzzling, and they don’t exist) or a God with a sense of morality who would count the human diminution of the universe’s beauty as an evil in itself.

    A key part of the imago dei, as I’ve said before, is not only that we alone have the nous to manage and nurture creation, leaving aside the Fall, but that we alone have the ability to recognise its beauty (at all levels) and offer worship on its behalf. It’s our job to work for its good – a job that every decent person recognises to some degree, but that has absolutely no logic if we’re just A N Other unplanned species. In that case, destruction of the environment by man is no more or less wrong than an asteroid strike.

  5. GD GD says:

    The subject of the ecosystem and the concern for the environment is a huge one, but we may narrow our discussion by relating this to the outlook we as human beings have to each other. It is difficult to come (ab initio) to a view that we should care for the environment. We have however, experienced the impact of our own actions and realised that they can be harmful – these realisations are inevitably ‘after the fact’. Within these scant remarks, I have been impressed that the Bible should include instructions to care for a garden, to discuss the creation as glorifying the Creator, and other teachings of Moses, which equate good with life, and evil with death; almost every aspect of human life may be covered by the maxim – do unto others (for their benefit) as you wish they do unto you (for your benefit).

    It is a testament to human reason that we are able to learn from our mistakes and make effort not to repeat them, and it is also a testament to human tragedy in that many of us would prefer continue in evil, even when we understand the outcomes would harm us and others. We appear to be more concerned regarding environmental problems nowadays, but if we look back, we can find instances hundreds of years ago when people acted in a similar manner. An example a couple of centuries ago comes to mind, of the devastating impact of sulphur oxide emissions on entire villages, from plant that manufactures sulphuric acid. Some manufacturers saw the suffering they inflicted and found that building a chimney that washed these fumes out with water, alleviated the problem. Yet many would not adopt this invention, and I think it was offered to them for free. This illustrates the callous nature of human beings – and the suffering they inflicted on others (and at times on themselves). On the other hand, those who sought to solve the problem adopted these measures.

    I can understand nature, the environment, ecology and the ability of the planet to continue in its course in any circumstances we may imagine. The intent and acts of us human beings however, is never easy to understand. This discussion would take us to the implausibility of invoking natural selection as a law of nature, when human choices can so easily contradict such a notion – I will not pursue that for now.

  6. GD GD says:

    I have looked at the article dealing with signs and chimps/monkeys – one question came to mind as I read this; “Has anyone performed experiments that would (or could) examine the notion of ‘made in the image of God’?” I mean by this, can anyone point to any studies (based on any experiments) that would enable us to distinguish the attribute that we as human beings accept regarding our spiritual character and any attributes found amongst animals such as monkeys? I know of some studies that have followed brain patters during meditation. It seems to me that if anyone wishes to make statements that claim scientific support, one way or another, the data should cover both sides of the question.

    I have thought on these types of questions for some time, and it seems to me the subjective nature of such an investigation makes it an extremely difficult study. Sociological studies appear more interesting, but those I have seen indicate the data is against the naturalistic/Darwinian views (if there is a clear view from this sector).

  7. Hanan says:

    I was just reading a bit of this:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=hW1sPY90eeMC&pg=PA113#v=onepage&q&f=false

    The author of that part is quite amazed by the uniqueness of humans, but, as you keep reading it, the differences do sound more of an issue of degree. He says chimps CAN do XYZ like humans, but……., so the uniqueness according to him, is in agreement with much of what Lou says, which is that humans ARE unique, but only in degrees.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Hanan, thanks for taking the time to investigate this.

    • GD GD says:

      Hanan,

      It depends on what we mean by unique – humans are made of the same ‘stuff’ as all other bio-life, and many of the physiological features (eating to sustain life, how we move, etc.) can be similar to many animals. My point was to first show that we have features which are can be classified by ourselves (subjective) as unique, just as others may seek to identify features they think are may be otherwise (also subjective). So how do we create a method that may test either outlook?

      The features that most look to things such as reflection, self-as determining ones identity; in other words, we rely on the subject (human or otherwise) to state what he/she is as-self. Psychologists and sociologists are more qualified for these ‘tests’ than biologists – and their views differ (just as philosophies and religions) – I note however, all of these differing views are due to humans and not to what other animals ‘communicate?’. Some atheists may disagree – but that seems to me to confirm the point that it is humans who display such features.

      I have read the two papers on monkeys, and I note that in each case humans provide input into the situation they are examining, and yet they seem oblivious to this obvious fact. I also note that observing how monkeys crack nuts, or eat ants, may be interesting, but hardly a scientific proof of anything. One of the papers consists of 70-80% of opinion on evolution, the rest tables, and the lowest content in the paper is observation (which is not necessarily the same as fact (is this evidence?) – hardly the stuff of scientific proof regarding any thesis. I guess we will have the usual disdainful reply by some, that such work is ‘soft science’. The claims however, are hardly ‘soft claims’.

    • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

      I didn’t see anything on music. I didn’t read it that thoroughly, but is it the case that chimps don’t sing as well as humans?. When they play the violin do they tend to be flat?. I mean are humans just better musicians and composers? Maybe the best symphony ever composed by a Chimp, is more like Salieri than like Mozart? Is that what we mean by degree here?

      Sorry for the sarcasm, but I don’t know how to take this nonsense seriously.

      • aniko says:

        Yes, we’re marginally better at playing the blues and singing rounds around the campfire and composing symphonies. We’re also just a gradual step “above” the chimps when it comes to telling stories and writing poems for the one we love, and at drawing and painting and theater and growing our food and building houses and trains and spacecraft and creating new elements and coming up with mathematical equations we believe express The Laws of Nature and having philosophical discussions like this with people who are not even on the same continent as we are. And of course, we’re just a little more prone to introspection, self-irony and self-doubt; and to the so typically human obsession of worrying about other species and about our effect on the state of the planet.

        But remember, the chimps are much better than we are at fishing for termites with a stick, not to mention at swinging from trees, and no one is as good at ant eating as an anteater. And who’s to say cockroach culture is not every bit as complex and full of wondrous achievements as ours? Would we be able to perceive the beauty of their world, given our narrow anthropocentric bias? Can we even defend the use of antibiotics, as if it was an obvious fact that our children’s lives are more valuable than the lives of bacteria? Surely some humility is called for.

        • GD GD says:

          I think I understand your point, but seriously, do you think that humans (if we decide to) cannot exceed any termite-gathering, tree swinging, etc of chimps? Or that humans cannot overtake or exceed any complex and intricate achievements of any species on this planet?

          The differences in music and poetry are easier to understand, since we humans create such things (and none of these are minor differences). An even greater (enormous) difference is that we human beings can organise and create activities that would exceed (and overwhelm) anything found in nature. As individuals, if placed in a setting that is typical for chimps and other species, we each may find ourselves inadequate and unable to perform many of the tasks that chimps etc would perform. This too is a significant difference.

          And yes, I can easily justify the use of antibiotics because my (and other’s) children are not only more valuable, but also because we are able to care for them.

          The ethical aspect (another difference between humans and other species) is something we would debate – but most of us would prefer finding a way of life without illness, so that our children and bacteria can both live without harm. That is a hope that Christianity looks for. I think (perhaps stated in other ways) most human beings of good will also share such a hope – again a very human hope – not a narrow anthropocentric bias.

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            GD – Aniko was wearing his extra-strength irony generator, I think.

            But then, who ever heard of chimps emplying irony, or failing to notice when we do?

      • Lou Jost says:

        “I didn’t see anything on music”

        Well, here’s something on music for you, Sy: whales show evidence of creativity in their songs, and their songs change from year to year, and some new versions spread widely across the ocean through cultural transmission, rather like catchy human pop songs:
        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110414131444.htm
        They are hauntingly beautiful (“soulful”, dare I say).

        Some birds also show cultural elements in their song repertoire.

        Speaking of birds, search on “New Caledonian Crow tool use” to see birdbrains discovering innovative solutions to food-gathering problems in the lab and in the wild. In some tasks they out-reason chimps and 5-8 yr old human kids.

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