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Thoughts on Extinctions, Evolution and Environmentalism

Dr Stephen Hayes offers his thoughts on evolution, the fact of extinction and the environment.

‘Extinction is forever' as the saying goes, and scientists tell us that we are currently experiencing ‘the sixth great mass extinction'. Campaigners argue that we should be doing more about it. But is this concern consistent with evolutionary thinking? Charles Darwin, writing in ‘The Origin of Species: or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.' was much impressed by the fact of past extinctions which he felt supported his theory. He noted that ‘Nature looks on with indifference' when a species was rendered extinct. They lose the struggle for life, they become evolutionary history, so what? was his view. Writing in ‘The Descent of Man' he took a similarly relaxed view of the possible extinction of ‘less favoured' human ‘races' which he expected to occur within a few centuries. He may have been thinking about the ‘savage' natives of Tierra del Fuego whom he described in uncomplimentary terms in ‘Voyage of the Beagle.'

Of course, Darwin assumed that extinctions and the arrival of new species balanced out, in fact if his theory was true, they would have to more than balance out. The rate of arrival of new forms of plant and animal would have to greatly exceed the number of extinctions if all life forms arose by gradual evolutionary processes from a common ancestor. But is this what we find?

The fact of past extinctions appears incontrovertible, and makes sense. We find fossil remains of animals which can no longer be found alive on earth, and regardless of occasional ‘living fossils' like coelacanth and the Wollemi pine which turn up alive after being believed extinct, nobody disputes that extinction is a reality. The dodo bird is a well documented example from recent history, and iconic creatures like the giant tortoises of the Galapagos are evidently only steps away from extinction. In modern times, the Yangtze dolphin appears to have become extinct, probably due to pollution and overfishing. Tigers are down to the last 3,000 in the wild, ironically due to the irrational belief that their body parts have medicinal benefit (they don't). Likewise, Rhinos have been hunted almost to extinction not least because wealthy Yemenis in particular prize their horns for traditional dagger handles. What a tragic commentary on human-particularly male- folly and arrogance.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List (1) claims a growing number of animals are threatened with extinction. Over a fifth of the world's plant species are said to be threatened (2) and The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's Director, Professor Stephen Hopper, says: "This study confirms what we already suspected, that plants are under threat and the main cause is human induced habitat loss....we have a clear global picture of extinction risk to the world's known plants.... Plants are the foundation of biodiversity and their significance in uncertain climatic, economic and political times has been overlooked for far too long. We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear - plants are the basis of all life on earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them and so do we."

But if extinction is an observable reality, what of the original emergence of the species in question? This is an important question, since quite clearly if species are being progressively lost, then we have a net loss of biodiversity and genetics, an downwardly entropic situation which means have fewer and fewer species. Taking a human centred, arguably selfish, view, we can understand the conservationists' fervent plea to take this problem seriously, as eventually we might lose critical numbers of species vital to our comfort or even survival. There may be a tipping point in a runaway mass extinction scenario beyond which human survival might even be threatened. This does not just apply to possible undiscovered medicinal plants in rain forests, but basic agriculture. Look at the plight of the honey bee. Einstein is said to have claimed that if bees became extinct, humans would only last another 6 years since bees' role in pollinating food plants is vital. Regardless of whether this claim is true, honey bees in Europe and America have declined alarmingly in recent years due to imported bee diseases and other factors, possibly including pesticide use. Reversing this decline in bee populations has been belatedly recognised as an emergency.

The implications of extinctions for the theory of evolution far from being supportive as Darwin claimed, are worrying. A video called Evolution Lost has been posted on YouTube (3). But if evolution is the process by which the life forms we see came into being, how come it is so weak? Why don't we see new species appearing to replace those which are being lost? Extinctions can happen very quickly, but we don't see new species appearing. Evolutionists will argue that the process is too slow to observe, but we would respond that the process of extinction is by no means slow. Evolution, if it happens at all, has to operate in the real world, where a single introduced species, like the American signal crayfish or the grey squirrel, can drive a native competitor species to extinction in less than a century-as we can see right here in England today. If extinctions and species loss with a progressive reduction in the global gene pool is the trend over observable time, why should we be expected to believe the process worked the other way around in the unobserved past? Surely this is special pleading. Evolution cannot (metaphorically speaking) say to Extinction ‘Hey! That's not fair! Not so fast, slow down and give me time to catch up with you!'. We see extinction, but we do not see new species arising, despite the misleading claims that mere varieties are new species. The latter misrepresentation has formed a central part of the evolutionists' tactics since Origin of Species was first published.

Taking an entropic view of speciation, we see a decline in numbers of species with a tendency towards a more degraded, less rich ecosystem. This trend unless halted must eventually lead to a global environment much poorer than the one our ancestors enjoyed and in which life may become miserable and indeed short. This fits a Creation and Fall pattern with degeneration towards a terrible End Time scenario better than a ‘onwards and upwards-things can only get better' progressive evolutionary scenario. Non-survival of the least fit is observable; the production of new kinds of animals and plants by evolution is not. Species can split into different varieties through natural or intelligently guided selection-as with dog or apple breeding- but this is division, not addition of the gene pool.

What should we do about environmental concerns about extinctions? Many of the measures being proposed by the environmental movement make sense and are ethical, for example reduce unnecessary travel and other forms of consumption. Probably we should eat less meat and at least seriously research alternatives to fossil fuel energy as reserves decline. Above all, there is an absolute God-given imperative to care about the needs of the poor. But ultimately, if we take a Christ centred world view, we understand that the planet is doomed and its redemption is in God's hands. This absolutely does not mean we dare to ‘trash the place' or ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die', that is the irresponsible and selfish approach of the hedonist. Christians have a duty of thankfulness to a beneficent creator, and a grateful recipient does not abuse or wreck a precious gift. Our Christian duty to care for the poor includes caring for the environment that sustains us all and of which the wealthy enjoy disproportionately higher benefits (James ch 5 vss 1-6). Remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus. (Luke ch 16 vss 19-31) But at the same time we should beware of jumping onto bandwagons without carefully checking who is steering!

If we invest all our time, will and emotional energy into trying to save what can't be saved, perhaps in a sincere attempt to be seen as ‘relevant' to legitimate contemporary concerns, we may fail the most important task of all, saving ourselves-and , if possible, others-from this wicked generation. (Acts ch 2 vs 40). But there is a strong argument for Christian engagement with environmental issues, firstly because it's the right thing to do but also to counter the propaganda that falsely blames Christianity for the worst excesses of industrialism and unjust trade.

Men and women do have spiritual natures and needs, and all but the most convinced ‘living for today' pleasure seekers have a profound sense that all is not well with the planet or with humankind. We can agree with them that the world has gone wrong, if we disagree about the cause and remedy. All people need hope and purpose- if these needs are not satisfied through the one true God revealed in Christ, they turn to the deceitful promises of human philosophy and false gods, including the revived pagan nature worship that is regrettably growing again and into which evolutionism, with its irrational and unscientific ‘Darwin of the gaps' faith in unguided progress, unwittingly feeds.

As is so often the case, there are possible errors in both directions-we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Because there is both a pagan and a materialistic tendency in the ‘save the planet' environmental movement, at least at its extreme end, there is a temptation for Christian believers to run to the opposite extreme and say its a waste of time even trying to save the planet. What if our ancestors had taken that view! We do not know the day or the hour, but anyway at the Lord's return should be found doing the right thing, stewarding resources responsibly, including that most vital non renewable resource-time. Jesus warned us that the last days before His return would be terrible, and that we should watch and pray and stand firm until the end. Christians should not panic unduly about extinctions, they have always happened and are inevitable, but we should live responsibly. He who endures to the end will be saved, and live to see the New Heaven and the New Earth. Alleluia, come Lord Jesus.

Further sources

(1) http://www.iucnredlist.org/
(2) http://www.iucnredlist.org/news/srli-plants-press-release
(3) http://www.iucnredlist.org/news/evolution-lost

This message was added on Thursday 25th November 2010

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