Over the past month, I've been working through Elizabeth Kolbert's history of extinction on planet earth, entitled "The Sixth Extinction." It has been a challenging (intellectually, I'm not a biologist or even a scientist per se), thought-provoking (philosophically, and the reason for this post), and (honestly) discouraging read. The thesis is that we are currently living in the midst of what is dubiously named "the sixth" of a series of mass extinctions suffered by different sets of creatures on earth. Unlike other extinctions, Kolbert writes, the sixth one is principally being caused by humans as opposed to asteroids or other such cataclysms. For the sake of this article, I'm not going to debate with the author's (or my readers') short-earth or long-earth geological chronologies. Clearly, this book is built upon the prevailing scientific viewpoint that the history of earth is in the billions of years, not thousands. Furthermore, I am not going to recount the details of her thesis, how she goes about discussing it, or even the flow of the book -- I encourage you to read it yourself.
Instead, I want to make some observations, and then riff a bit on themes that emerge in my mind from them. As I read, I found myself surprised at how many times the author sounded in tone like ancient near-eastern poets, or even apocalyptic mystics from the time of Christ's death. More than once, she rattled off conclusions, judgments, or observations about life, culture, and the nature of humanity - all based on her scientific viewpoint - that sounded incredibly similar to judgment's I've read in the scriptures for years that come from a decidedly different rationale. When evolutionary biologists begin sounding like the ages-old writers of spiritual tomes, my ears perk up.
Without further ado, some ideas that the author of "The Sixth Extinction" suggests:
1. That humans have NEVER lived in harmony with the land/planet.
Over the course of her retelling of the history of homo sapiens, Kolbert repeatedly highlights ways in which people have affected the planet and other species on it. She writes extensively, for example, about a disease spreading amongst and wiping out bats across the planet. This, ostensibly, has been caused by human influence. She writes about the isolated ecosystem of Guam, and how invading species brought by people has led to the extinction of several animals. The case studies from past and present, go on and on in the book. Humans fundamentally change all other species around them seemingly without exception.
"People change the world," she writes, without qualification. And this dynamic began far before the era of modernity. Kolbert goes on, "This is indistinguishable with what make us human in the first place." She suggests, without much judgment or fanfare, that intrinsic somehow to our humanity as expressed in the world today, is the capacity, drive, inclination to destroy other species. In other words, unlike other species, humans cause destruction wherever they go. They've brought death into the world in unique ways.
You can see where I'm going. The oft-quoted account in Genesis about "the fall of man" and sin entering the world carries with it similar weight and implications. For generations, religious people have read Genesis and come to the conclusion, as the Apostle Paul explains in the letter to the Roman church, that through the sins of the first people, sin entered the whole world. That because of their decisions, the trajectory of the entire planet had shifted. That rather than a harmonious relationship, the first humans set the stage for a contentious one between homo sapiens and all other species. Later, theologians have discussed how this sin is indwelling in humanity from generation to generation, functionally intrinsic to our being.
In the broadest and most uncharitable of brush strokes, it can be said that liberal theologians or Christian practitioners tend to minimize the reach of sin in practical life. We who are more progressive don't like to emphasize the fallen state of humanity, but instead seek to affirm the intrinsic value, beauty, and goodness in people. This is a good thing overall in my opinion, emphasizing the fallenness of humanity over the intrinsic goodness has its negative consequences. However, when scientists begin saying essentially the same thing as inspired poets from thousands of years ago, it makes me take notice. Perhaps the observations we make of our world verify the wisdom that has now been passed down for thousands of years.
2. That Shopping malls and consumerism is bad for us.
Early in the book, Kolbert discusses the impact of consumerism on the planet - how entire ecosystems being converted into parking-spots, and others transformed into mines or fields to make the things sold to people who park in those spots has ravaged many species. She implicitly suggests that the rampant and vapid consumption humanity exhibits across the planet is not ideal, creates more harm than good, and should be eschewed in favor of a more simple life.
I hear the voice of Jesus seeping through her words like rays of light peeking through afternoon blinds. "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear..." Focus on bigger things he implies, calling, joy, fellow humans, your work. 'Live simply' this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount seems to call out. Our basic needs will be attended to. If we seek out and worry about all our whims being fulfilled, nothing good will follow.
For generations, a life of simplicity has been idealized by people of many faiths - Christianity notwithstanding. Jesus, the one who didn't even have a home, "a place to lay his head," is the prime example of this kind of life. Of course we have perverted this vision over the years. The Joel Osteens of the world have baptized conspicuous consumption, pointing us forward to a different world, a better world, one those who are saved will escape to. However, a spiritual death occurs when we slip into the rat-race of consumerism. Again, for generations, many of those who follow Jesus have pointed out the value and spiritual blessing of living a simple life, having fewer things, giving away more, eating less, and effectively having a smaller footprint.
Yet again, we find postmodern scientists sharing wisdom that sounds a lot like old things I, as a theologian and pastor, have read for many years. Live a simple life. It is better for the planet - and it is better for our souls.
3. That "the end of the world" is inevitable.
Implicit in the title of the book, and underlying the thesis of Kolbert's book, is the message: "the end is coming."
I remember the first time I preached a Seventh-day Adventist style evangelistic sermon based on the book of Daniel, Chapter 2. For many, if not most Adventist Christians, the theme of this particular sermon is familiar. Often preached on the first or second night of 19th century camp-meeting style big-tent evangelism events, Adventist pastors have been using these texts to invite people to read their Bibles seriously for over a century. The basic message is almost the same as Kolbert's: Daniel 2 tracks through history past, identifying kingdoms and events in the ancient-near east, before it points forward to the future...the second coming of Jesus. The first time I preached one of these Daniel 2 sermons was in Zambia, Africa. I can recall fervently asking the audience of hundreds, "are you ready? Jesus is coming. We are almost at the end. We are almost there. Time is about to close." etc.
Read through any of the apocalyptic letters and stories in the Bible and you'll get a similar vibe: "the end is just around the corner. Change your ways or it will be too late. The die has been cast, but you still have good choices you can make." John the Revelator writes in his famous book "Revelation of Jesus Christ", "Behold I am coming quickly" with a reward in hand. The end is coming. The end is coming.
And so one final time, a well-educated, intelligent, and highly informed scientist, makes observations of the physical world that sound incredibly similar to those many Christians have made from the scriptures for millennia.
When I hear the same thing coming from different sources, especially from different sources typically envisioned as coming from vastly divergent points of view, I take notice. Truth is there. As a progressive pastor, I can have the tendency to dismiss what sometimes sounds like shrill warnings or judgments from my more conservative brethren. And those brethren can also have the tendency to dismiss liberal, educated, atheistic/agnostic (I've no idea of Kolbert's theological worldview in this case) academics. When everyone is saying the same thing, we all ought to take note. Perhaps there is a reason our studies bring us to similar conclusions...they are true.