Darwin, Deep Ecology and the Bible

Charles DarwinTHIS year marks the bicentenary of the birth of the naturalist Charles Darwin and the passing of Norwegian philosopher and founder of deep ecology – Arne Næss.

In his seminal work, ‘On the Origin of Species’ Darwin challenged the Judeao-Christian tradition that humans were created in the image of God: “Then God said, Let us make man in our image … in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Darwin explained that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors. This occurred through the process of natural selection whereby organisms most suited to their environment survive and reproduce and pass their advantages to their offspring.

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

Darwin’s theory of universal common descent based on evolutionary principles placed humankind as part of the tree of life rather than separate to it.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Arne NaessArne Næss’s work also challenged the Judeao-Christian tradition and the anthropocentric (human-centred) view of the planet. In the book Genesis the first words God is alleged to have make to humankind were:

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Since then nature has been used commodity to be traded to meet human needs which has resulted in our current global ecological crisis. Næss believed that humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity of nature except to meet vital needs.

He argued that every being, whether human, animal or vegetable has an equal right to live and to blossom. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes. We should not see the world from the narrow viewpoint of ourselves but should see ourselves as part of an ecospheric whole. We should move from anthropocentric to an ecocentric view of the world.

Both Darwin and Næss show we are part of the diversity of life and cannot be separated from it. If we took a more ecocentric approach to policy making then perhaps we could appreciate the inherent value in life itself rather striving for an increasingly higher standard of living.

© Gary Haq 2009

What is Human Ecology?

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden As a Human Ecology graduate I was recently surprised to hear the term “Human Ecology” being used by the media. It was used with reference to Pope Benedict XVI Christmas speech where he was explaining the need to respect human nature with regard to the order of being ‘man’ or ‘woman’:

We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and asks that this order is respected.”

He suggested there is a need to save humankind from a destructive blurring of gender roles is as important as saving the rainforests. He explained that defending God’s creation was not limited to saving the environment, but also about protecting man from self-destruction.

The Pope makes a distinction between humans and the environment. If there were no environment then we would not be around. I am not so concerned about the blurring of gender roles. I am more concerned about saving ourselves from committing ecological suicide or ecocide. If we are to stop this then a concerted effort is needed from everyone including the church. Over population and over consumption of the earth’s natural resources are the key factors which will determine the fate of humankind.

Taking a holistic human ecological perspective is the only way forward to deal with the key issues. We need to understand our interaction with our social, political, economic and physical environment. Why we behave the way we do and what we can do to change? There are many definitions of human ecology but for me it is an academic discipline that deals with the relationship between humans, human societies, and their natural, social and created environments.

I was fortunate to study Human Ecology at Huddersfield University. I was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of the course and the focus on local and global issues. Huddersfield was the first and only institute of higher education to offer this type of course in the UK. Sadly, Huddersfield abandoned the course but human ecology lives on at the Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh.

For some human ecology might seem an old term from the 1960s especially when we hear so much these days about sustainable development. However, understanding our human ecology is more relevant now than ever.

© Gary Haq 2009