Maintaining Biodiversity: A Generally Good End
Whatever our assumptions, I think all of us here would agree that, in general, maintaining biodiversity is a good end. None of us would favor the willy-nilly elimination of species, subspecies, varieties, or even distinct populations of varieties of life. Yet I say that maintaining biodiversity is a good end “in general” because there are some limits to this end. Although there are others, I mention here just three.
First, I trust that no one here would shed a tear if HIV, the AIDS virus, were to become extinct, even though that would constitute some reduction of biodiversity. Presumably the same would hold true for botulism, diphtheria, polio, smallpox (which now continues to exist only in a laboratory test tube where, for some macabre reason, it is preserved—not, one hopes, for posterity), and other such viruses. But this conclusion can be held only on the assumption that there is some qualitative distinction among life forms that make some worth preserving and others not merely not worth preserving but even worth eliminating intentionally, and this in turn implies that biological hierarchicalism—the belief in varying levels of value for different forms of life—is unavoidable.
Second, sometimes there are tradeoffs in our efforts to maintain biodiversity. Protecting one species in one location might entail reducing or even eliminating another species there, whether intentionally or as an indirect effect, or might consume resources that otherwise could be used to protect a different species in a different location that, without them, will go extinct. As economists put it, there is no such thing as a free lunch; opportunity costs are inescapable. It is not self-evident what should be done in the face of such tradeoffs, but the tradeoffs are unavoidable, and clearly the biological heirarchicalism noted under the prior point must affect our choices.
Third, we cannot avoid opportunity costs of species protection that go beyond missed opportunities to protect other species. This is not to say that species should not be protected, but that we must not naively pretend that directing some resources to protecting species has no impact on the rest of our lives. A million dollars spent to preserve a local population of one bird species along the South Carolina coast cannot be spent to feed hungry children in Ethiopia, protect innocent victims in Rwanda or Bosnia, conduct research for a cure for cancer or heart disease, or engineer an efficient replacement for CFCs to protect stratospheric ozone or improve solar energy cells to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and so reduce the enhanced greenhouse effect. To say this is not to prejudge which of these ends ought to get the million dollars. Such judgments rest on moral a priorii and scientific theories and data that are distinct from the recognition of cost. But it is to insist, first, that we cannot act as if the opportunity costs did not exist, and second, that choosing among these competing claims on our spending requires not only empirical analysis but also value judgments that rest on underlying assumptions of an unavoidably religious nature. It is precisely on such underlying assumptions that I wish to focus now.
The Unavoidability and Importance of Religious Assumptions
In our secular milieu, some people insist that fundamental religious questions are either simply irrelevant or so personal and subjective as to have no legitimate bearing on public policy decisions. But such a secular view is itself a fundamentally religious perspective. The word secular derives from the Latin word sæcularis, meaning “worldly” or “temporal,” something belonging to an age. The secular world view values the world and the present age over spiritual reality and eternity, and such a value is inherently religious. If to value spiritual reality and eternity over worldly reality and the present age is religious, to embrace the opposite position is equally religious. For secularists to rule out “religion” as irrelevant or too inherently subjective for intrusion in public policy is clearly a case of special pleading. By so doing they reserve for themselves a liberty that they deny to everyone else: the liberty to bring their religious convictions to bear in public debate. It should be no surprise, then, that American courts have repeatedly found Secular Humanism to be a variety of religion—a finding quite in keeping with the claims of Secular Humanists themselves.
The case that religious assumptions are not only unavoidable but also fundamentally important to our attitudes toward ecology—including toward biodiversity—was made by the historian Lynn White Jr. in his famous article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” first published in Science in 1967 reprinted in many places since then. “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them,” White wrote. “Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destinyCthat is, by religion.”
White argued that many of our ecologic problems derive from the wedding of science and technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that these endeavors in turn were profoundly shaped by a world view inherited from medieval Christianity. For almost all Western scientists up through the early eighteenth century, science had meant “thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” and when this was wedded with technology—the application of scientific knowledge to specific methods by which to manipulate the world—it gave rise to what White called “the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature,” a creed whose “acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well.”
Particularly important to Western Christianity’s impact on ecology, White asserts, has been its anthropocentrism. In Western Christianity, according to White, “Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature.” Also important was Christianity’s denial of animism, according to which every locus in nature has its own spirit or geni. “By destroying pagan animism,” White says, “Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”
The fruit of these Christian attitudes about science, man, and nature, according to White, has been a triumphalist attitude toward nature: “We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” As a result, our wedding of science and technology has given “mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.”
Before I respond to White’s thoughts, I should point out that White was himself a Christian, and that his criticisms of Christianity’s impact on ecology were intended not to condemn Christianity but to call it to reformation. Unfortunately, many people have thought they amounted to a prescription for rejecting Christianity. On the contrary, his article hinted that other religions—including a secularist dependence on more science and technology—offered no promising solutions to the problem. Instead, White proposed substituting for what has been the dominant view of mankind’s relation to nature in Christianity another view promoted by St. Francis of Assisi, whom he proposed as “a patron saint for ecologists.”
Like White, I approach these issues as a Christian. Also like White, I recognize that to some extent Western Christianity has fostered an exploitative attitude toward nature. I would nuance this criticism in a couple of ways, however. First, it is much easier for us, protected as we are from the elements of nature by two centuries’ worth of technological buildup, to think of nature as a friend than it was for our ancestors to do so. The man-against-nature perspective that dominated much of Western history (and still dominates the day-to-day life of many pre-industrial peoples of the world) was rather understandable in an agrarian society dependent almost wholly on weather and in which people were extremely vulnerable to storms, earthquakes, and infectious diseases. The Baconian mindset—however mistakenly so called—has afforded us the luxury of thinking now of a truce, or better yet of an alliance, that our ancestors could hardly consider. Second, I believe the exploitative attitude toward nature is not inherently Christian but is much more deeply rooted in the growth of Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism, which progressively excluded God and divinized man, ultimately making man autonomous. It is mankind’s accountability to God that civilizes and limits us, that makes us not autonomous, self-ruled, but theonomous, God-ruled. “If you will not have God,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “—and He is a jealous God—then you must pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” Or as Dostoyevsky put it, “Without God, anything is permissible.”
Truly Biblical Christianity denies precisely what White attributed to Christianity: the view that “God planned all of [creation] explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” Indeed, rather than being “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” as White charged, Biblical Christianity is God-centered. For Biblical Christianity tells us that God created all things for His pleasure (Revelation 4:11) and that the heavens declare not the glory of man but the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). Biblical Christianity teaches that man, although created in God’s image and likeness and instructed to “rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), is accountable to God for how he exercises that rule, for God expressly told him “to cultivate and to keep” the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), and it may be argued that one aspect of man’s failure in the first sin was not protecting the Garden from the encroachment of Satan (Genesis 3:1-6). Indeed, we can go farther yet. The Bible says that God cursed the earth as a judgment on human sin (Genesis 3:17), subjecting the creation to “futility” and “slavery to corruption” (Romans 8:20-21). Yet it also says that the creation will be delivered from its “slavery to corruption” through the redeeming work of Christ and the transforming power of His resurrection working through those who believe in Him (Romans 8:18-25). Thus truly Biblical Christianity teaches that mankind has a triple responsibility toward the earth as a steward of God: to guard it against degradation, to cultivate it to increase its fruitfulness, and to restore its beauty and fruitfulness where these have been damaged by sin and the curse.
Such notions should be welcome to those who care about ecology and the maintenance of biological diversity. But they come with a price. While a steward is necessarily accountable and therefore not autonomous, he necessarily also exercises some authority over whatever it is that he stewards. Stewardship without authority is impossible. And the Bible expressly affirms, as we have already seen, that God gave man authority over everything on the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). Indeed, while Psalm 24:1, a favorite verse among Christian ecologists, tells us, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains,” Psalm 115:16 tells us, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He has given to the sons of men.” And Psalm 8:3-6 says, “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty. Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet. . . .”
To be theocentric, as Biblical Christianity is, does not imply putting all created life on the same level. I spoke earlier about “biological hierarchicalism,” an order of value and priority among life forms, as necessarily underlying our recognition that such life forms as HIV and botulism are not necessarily worth preserving. A better way of picturing things might be to say that there are concentric circles of priority, with God at the very center, man in the next circle outward, and other life forms in concentric circles radiating outward from there. In this perspective, animal life would be closer to the center than plant life, and more intelligent animals would be more central than less intelligent animals—intelligence being one of the marks (along with moral character, in humans, of course) of likeness to God.
Alternative World Views’ Attitudes toward Man and Nature
This view of man and the world stands in stark contrast to views that have become increasingly influential among ecologists and other environmentalists. Although the Christian view sees man as fallen in sin, it still sees him as bearing the image of God and therefore the highestCor most centralCof all created things. Such respect for human beings is in short supply among some leading environmentalists.
Among these are the Deep Ecologists. Often pantheists—who believe that God is everything—and sometimes explicitly embracing such Eastern religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, the Deep Ecologists are spiritual and religious in their attitudes toward environmental issues. Some actively seek to revive such pagan ways as Druidism, witchcraft, Native American religions, and—among feminists—goddess worship. Drawing from both the Eastern religions and Darwinian science, they tend to find man’s identity with the rest of nature in his ascent through the evolutionary chain of being. Thus, “One itinerant environmentalist conducts `workshops’ in which participants are urged to remember their alleged evolutionary history by rolling on the ground and imagining what their lives were like as dead leaves, slugs, and lichens.”
The Deep Ecologists derive their views from mysticism and intuition. Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher, is one of the chief framers of the Deep Ecology worldview and the coiner of the phrase deep ecology. He specified that his work consists not “of philosophical or logical argumentation” but is “primarily intuitions.” Just how intuitive this worldview—which Naess calls “ecosophy”—is may be illustrated by his student and translator David Rothenberg’s description of one of Naess’s lectures in Oslo: “After an hour he suddenly stops, glances quickly around the stage, and suddenly leaves the podium and approaches a potted plant to his left. He quickly pulls off a leaf, scurries back to the microphone, and gazes sincerely at the audience as he holds the leaf in the light so all can see. `You can spend a lifetime contemplating this’, he comments. `It is enough. Thank you.'”
The focus on intuition in the Deep Ecology movement explains, in part, why feminism allies itself with environmentalism, particularly with Deep Ecology and animal rights. Contemporary feminism rejects science outright—or redefines it—because science operates in a manner not sufficiently sensitive to “feminine thought patterns” because it is a fundamentally “masculine” discipline. “Science’s insistence on being tough, rigorous, rational, impersonal, and unemotional is intertwined with men’s gender identities,” says feminist theologian and animal rights theorist Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.
At Deep Ecology’s root is the insistence that “all life is fundamentally one.” From this principle flows a new vision of Self-realization—with a capital S: “a bold attempt to connect the general statement that `all life is fundamentally one’ with our individual needs and desires.” Here all distinction between God and the world collapses in the vision of the one Self that encompasses not only all of life but all of everything.
Deep Ecology explicitly rejects any distinction between man and nature. Naess complains that while “Shallow Ecology”—his term—does fight “against pollution and resource depletion,” its central objective is “the health and affluence of people. . . .” In contrast, Deep Ecology involves “Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favour of the relational, total-field image.” In other words, man’s needs and desires are not to be considered as in any sense higher than those of the rest of nature, for man is nothing more than a part of nature.
Naess sees and embraces the logical implication of his views: “Biospherical egalitarianism—in principle. . . . To the ecological field worker, the equal right to live and blossom is an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom. Its restriction to humans is an anthropocentrism with detrimental effects upon the life quality of humans themselves.” Or as Earth First! founder David Foreman puts it, “. . . man is no more important than any other species. . . . It may well take our extinction to set things straight.”
A second important element of the modern environmentalist movement is the animal rights movement. If “all life is fundamentally one,” as Naess insists—in concert with scientific naturalism and the other evolutionary religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and the contemporary New Age Movement—then no one part of life has any greater claim on life and health than any other. Consequently, as animal rights philosophers John Harris and Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch put it, “. . . there can be no rational excuse left for killing animals, be they killed for food, science or sheer personal indulgence.”
The logic is inescapable. But it is also unlivable, for without consuming life, human life cannot continue. Naess stepped back from the abyss when he proclaimed “Biospherical egalitarianismCin principle,” adding, “The `in principle’ clause is inserted because any realistic praxis [i.e., staying alive] necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression.” So Naess permits killing and eating animals.
That won’t do for the animal rights crowd. To them, such inconsistency is mere “human chauvinism,” as David Greanville puts it. The more common label is speciesism, a word coined in 1973 and made popular by philosopher Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation in 1975. What is speciesism? It is, according to Singer, “a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” For proponents of animal rights, speciesism is so self-evidently wrong that “it should be obvious that the fundamental objections to racism . . . made by Thomas Jefferson . . . apply equally to speciesism. If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purpose?” Speciesism is to animals what racism is to racial minorities, sexism to members of the opposite sex, and anti-Semitism to Jews: an unjustifiable prejudice against those unlike oneself.
Singer builds his whole argument for animal rights and against speciesism on the assumption of essential equality between human and other animal life forms, an equality as morally significant as the equality of Blacks and Whites and of men and women. If the fundamental equality of Blacks and Whites makes racism immoral, and the fundamental equality of men and women makes sexism immoral, then the fundamental equality of humans and other animals makes speciesism immoral.
There is grave danger in this line of argument. The assumption that biological equality necessitates equal treatment does not define right treatment. While Singer argues from biological equality to the conclusion that we should treat animals as we treat humans, one could as readily argue from biological equality that we should treat humans as we treat animals. Animal rights philosopher Patrick Corbett asks, “Is it not perverse to prefer the lives of mice and guinea pigs to the lives of men and women?” No, he answers, because “if we stand back from the scientific and technological rat race for a moment, we realize that, since animals are in many respects superior to ourselves, the argument collapses.” What Corbett neglects is that “animals are in many respects superior to ourselves” means the same as “people are in many respects inferior to animals,” and if that is so then there is no reason to expect people to behave differently from—or better than—animals.
Paradoxically, biological egalitarianism—the belief that all animals are equal because all are part of the evolutionary continuum—lies at the root of racism, which sees certain races as lower on the evolutionary scale than others and therefore properly to be treated more like animals than the higher races. Never forget that the full title of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Richard Hofstadter, in Social Darwinism in American Thought, showed conclusively “that Darwinism was one of the chief sources of racism and of a belligerent ideology which characterized the last half of the 19th century in Europe and America. . . .” When Adolf Hitler applied Darwinism to morality, he concluded, “There is absolutely no other revolution but a racial revolution. There is no economic, no social, no political revolution. There is only the struggle of lower races against the higher races.” Karl Marx considered Darwin’s Origin of Species a scientific basis for his theory of the class struggle and wanted to dedicate an edition of Das Kapital to Darwin. Evolutionary biology applied to ethics has led historically not to humane treatment of beasts but to beastly treatment of humans.
Perhaps this explains why Earth First! activists pound spikes into trees to discourage loggers from cutting them down and sawmill operators from milling them: when the power blades hit the hidden spikes, the blades can explode, threatening serious injury or death to operators. Perhaps it explains why Sea Shepherds activists boast of sinking twelve whaling ships—at considerable risk to the ships’ crews. Perhaps it explains why one animal rights activist—a woman—was convicted for attempting to murder, with two pipe bombs filled with nails, the president of U.S. Surgical Corporation, which uses animals to teach doctors surgical procedures.
This perspective trivializes racism by putting speciesism on the same level with it. If I were a Black, I’d be worried about anyone who said that speciesism was as bad as racism.
Alas, the animal rights movement is blind to this sinister flip side of the coin of evolutionary ethics. The assumption that man’s treatment of man, not animals’ treatment of animals, should be the standard of man’s treatment of animals is at least as anthropocentric as the insistence that people have rights that animals don’t. And it is more condemnable because it is so hypocritical. At the bottom of the contents page of every issue, The Animals’ Agenda proudly asserts that it “makes every effort to ensure that products and services advertised herein are consistent with the humane ethic” (emphasis added). And on the last page of The Animal Contract, a popular book based on a controversial television series of the same title, Desmond Morris has written, “It is dishonourable to break a contract and that is what we have done with our animal friends. They are our relatives and we too are animals. To be brutal to them is to become brutalised in all our dealings, with humans as well as with other species.” Here is anthropocentric speciesism with a vengeance! Why should we favor “the humane ethic” over “the beastly ethic” if human beings are essentially equal to animals? Why decry “brutal” behavior? After all, a brute is by definition “a beast; any animal.”
The practical implication of the animal rights movement is that human beings, who alone respect anybody’s rights, must become extinct, while all other species continue feasting merrily on each other. Bidinotto draws the inference clearly:
Any intelligible theory of rights must presuppose entities capable of defining and respecting moral boundary lines. But animals are by nature incapable of this. And since they are unable to know, respect, or exercise rights, the principle of rights simply can’t be applied to, or by, animals. Rights are, by their nature, based on a homocentric (man-centered) view of the world.
Practically, the notion of animal rights entails an absurd moral double standard. It declares that animals have the “inherent right” to survive as their nature demands, but that man doesn’t. It declares that man, the only entity capable of recognizing moral boundaries, is to sacrifice his interests to entities that can’t. Ultimately, it means that only animals have rights: since nature consists entirely of animals, their food, and their habitats, to recognize “animal rights” man must logically cede to them the entire planet.
The Deep Ecologists’ and animal rights movement’s equating people with animals might actually seem mild compared with the attitudes toward humanity among some leaders in the population control movement. In 1970, Kingsley Davis wrote contemptuously, “In subsequent history the Twentieth Century may be called either the century of world wars or the century of the population plague,” an attitude that fueled his suggesting, seven years later, that population be reduced by promoting the breakdown of the family, “very high divorce rates, homosexuality, pornography, and free sexual unions” with easy access to abortion.
Davis is not alone in hating people. In an article in The Animals’ Agenda, a magazine published by the Animal Rights Network and portraying itself as moderate, Sydney Singer writes, “For an animal rights activist, it’s easy to become disgusted with humankind. Humans are exploiters and destroyers, self-appointed world autocrats around whom the universe seems to revolve.” Condemning the use of animals in medical research that has contributed to cures or effective treatments for once fatal diseases, he adds, “It is often hard to feel compassion for humans in their pain and fear as they brutalize other animals. . . . In the face of speciesist rationalizations for animal exploitation, which frame the issue in terms of animal suffering or human suffering, it’s hard not [to] take sides and fight for the animals.” And no wonder; Singer, like most other animal rights advocates, equates human beings with animals: “When the ethical issue of active euthanasia arises concerning a terminal patient who is asking to be killed, I find myself thinking about the millions of dogs and cats `euthanized’ each year in pounds.” Singer was a medical student when he wrote the article. You might pray for his patients. But Singer can hardly compete with Ingrid Newkirk, of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who was cited in The Washington Post as saying, “Six million people died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughter houses“!
If putting people on the level of animals isn’t bad enough, how about putting them on the level of trees? The West German Green Party’s Carl Amery said in 1983, “We, in the Green movement, aspire to a cultural model in which the killing of a forest will be considered more contemptible and more criminal than the sale of 6-year-old children to Asian brothels.” Michael W. Fox, one of the chief gurus of the radical environmentalist and animal rights movements, writes in his book Returning to Eden that man “is the most dangerous, destructive, selfish and unethical animal on earth.”
David Brower, of Friends of the Earth, considers “other people’s children” pollution and therefore an environmental concern. Said he, “Childbearing [should be] a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license. . . . All potential parents [should be] required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing.”
Not to be left behind in this attack on reproductive freedom, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and The Population Explosion, writes, “Several coercive [methods of birth control] deserve serious consideration, mainly because we will ultimately have to resort to them, unless current trends in birth rates are revised.” He suggests deindustrialization (since the wealth made by industries makes providing for children easier), liberalized abortion, and tax breaks for sterilized couples.
Amery, Brower, and Ehrlich are mild compared with Les Knight, founder of VHEMT (pronounced “vehement”)—the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. “The hopeful alternative to the extinction of millions of species of plants and animals,” he says, “is the voluntary extinction of one species: Homo sapiens—us. When every human makes the moral choice to live long and die out, Earth will be allowed to return to its former glory. Each time one of us decides not to add another of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom. . . . A baby condor may not be as cute as a baby human, but we must choose to forgo one if the others are to survive.”
If restraints on reproduction don’t work, we can always turn to killing people outright. Norwegian philosopher of ecology Arne Naess, founder of Deep Ecology, suggested an ideal world population of 100 million. One wonders what he would do with the other 5 billion of us! In reviewing Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, National Park Service biologist David Graber wrote,
Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the lineCat about a million years ago, maybe half thatCwe quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. . . . Until such time as Homo Sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.
Graber didn’t need to wait long. The Earth First! newsletter suggests, “If radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human populations back to sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS. It has the potential to end industrialism, which is the main force behind the environmental crises.”
No wonder population controllers choose destructive terminology to describe humanity and the growth of its population. To them we are the population bomb, the population explosion, the population boom, the population plague, a cancer, or people pollution.
But Biblical Christianity has a different view of people. Created in the image of God, who Himself is creative, we, too, should be—and can be—creative and productive, not destroying but restoring the earth. This view of mankind is borne out in the historic decline in resource scarcity demonstrated by falling money prices (the only practical measure of scarcity) and labor/capital costs for resources throughout the last few centuries, the very time during which human population has grown so rapidly. Thus, the human race is not the population explosion but the population blossom; not the population boom but the population bloom; not people pollution but the people solution; not cancer but an answer.
Let me conclude with a few comments specifically on the application of this Christian understanding of humanity and its relationship with the rest of creation to questions related to biodiversity.
First, this hierarchical, or concentric-circles, view justifies putting man’s needs ahead of the needs of other life forms. This doesn’t mean people should run rampant over other species. God has made us stewards, responsible to Him for restoring, cultivating, and guarding the earth. Biblical law includes laws specifically requiring care for non-human life. Deuteronomy 25:4, for instance, forbids muzzling an ox while it treads out grain, implying the principle that animals must be adequately cared for while they are in the service of human beings. Deuteronomy 22:6 indicates a care for the preservation of animal populations in specific places: “If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself;” but notice the motive: it is for man’s benefit, “in order that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days.” Deuteronomy 20:19 forbids a “scorched earth” policy of warfare: “When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees. . . .”
Second, Biblical ethics, which in the Ninth Commandment forbids false witness, finds no more room for false or misleading information about ecology than about anything else. Rather, it requires that we be up front and open about facts. For instance, most laymen are under the impression that when an animal or plant is put on the endangered species list, that means there is a real risk that its whole species may become extinct. They are not aware that the Endangered Species Act defines a species, for the purposes of the law, as either a species or a local or regional population of that species. Some of the “species” listed as endangered are in no danger whatever of becoming extinct; they are listed only because local populations may be threatened, even though those local populations may be genetically indistinguishable from populations found elsewhere.
Another example of the need for better truth telling in the biodiversity debate is the matter of just how rapidly species are becoming extinct. Few people realize that claims of scores, hundreds, or thousands of extinctions per year, like those found in Vice President Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, lack any basis in empirical field studies—a fact admitted repeatedly by the authors of Tropical Deforestation and Species Extinction, even though the book was written to provide empirical evidence for high extinction rates. As illustration, and as time permits, let me share with you a few representative quotations from that volume:
[Martin W. Holdgate, director-general of the IUCN, in the foreword:] The coastal forests of Brazil have been reduced in area as severely as any tropical forest type in the world. According to calculation, this should have led to considerable species loss. Yet no known species of its old, largely endemic, fauna can be regarded as extinct. Genetic erosion has undoubtedly taken place, and the reduced, remnant populations may be much more vulnerable to future change, but the study illustrates the need for very careful field documentation to compare with calculation in this and other situations.
[W. V. Reid:] . . . 60 birds and mammals are known to have become extinct between 1900 and 1950. [p. 55]
[D. Simberloff:] It is a commonplace that forests of the eastern United States were reduced over two centuries to fragments totalling 1-2% of their original extent, and that during this destruction, only three forest birds went extinct—the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis principalis), and the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Although deforestation certainly contributed to the decline of all three species, it was probably not critical for the pigeon or the parakeet (Greenway, 1967). Why, then, would one predict massive extinction from similar destruction of tropical forest? [p. 85. Yet Simberloff makes such predictions.]
[V. H. Heywood and S. N. Stuart:] IUCN, together with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, has amassed large volumes of data from specialists around the world relating to species decline [worldwide], and it would seem sensible to compare these more empirical data with the global extinction estimates. In fact, these and other data indicate that the number of recorded extinctions for both plants and animals is very small. . . . [p. 93]
[Same:] Known extinction rates [worldwide] are very low. Reasonably good data exist only for mammals and birds, and the current rate of extinction is about one species per year (Reid and Miller, 1989). If other taxa were to exhibit the same liability to extinction as mammals and birds (as some authors suggest, although others would dispute this), then, if the total number of species in the world is, say, 30 million, the annual rate of extinction would be some 2300 species per year. This is a very significant and disturbing number, but it is much less than most estimates given over the last decade. [p. 94]
[Same:] . . . if we assume that today’s tropical forests occupy only about 80% of the area they did in the 1830s, it must be assumed that during this contraction, very large numbers of species have been lost in some areas. Yet surprisingly there is no clear-cut evidence for this. . . . Despite extensive enquiries we have been unable to obtain conclusive evidence to support the suggestion that massive extinctions have taken place in recent times, as Myers and others have suggested. On the contrary, work on projects such as Flora Meso-Americana has, at least in some cases, revealed an increase in abundance in many species (Blackmore, pers. comm. 1991). An exceptional and much quoted situation is described by Gentry (1986) who reports the quite dramatic level of evolution in situ in the Centinela ridge in the foothills of the Ecuadorian Andes where he found that at least 38 and probably as many as 90 species (10% of the total flora of the ridge) were endemic to the `unprepossessing ridge’. However, the last patches of forest were cleared subsequent to his last visit and `its prospective 90 new species have already passed into botanical history’, or so it was assumed. Subsequently, Dodson and Gentry (1991) modified this to say that an undetermined number of species at Centinela are apparently extinct, following brief visits to other areas such as Lita where up to 11 of the species previously considered extinct were refound, and at Poza Honda near La Mana where six were rediscovered. [p. 96]
[Same:] . . . actual extinctions [in the Mediterranean region] remain low. . . . As Greuter (1991) aptly comments, `Many endangered species appear to have either an almost miraculous capacity for survival, or a guardian angel is watching over their destiny! This means that it is not too late to attempt to protect the Mediterranean flora as a whole, while still identifying appropriate priorities with regard to the goals and means of conservation.’ [p. 102.]
[K. S. Brown and G. G. Brown:] . . . the group of zoologists could not find a single known animal species which could be properly declared as extinct [in the Brazilian tropical forest area], in spite of the massive reduction in area and fragmentation of their habitats in the past decades and centuries of intensive human activity. A second list of over 120 lesser-known animal species, some of which may later be included as threatened, show no species considered extinct; and the older Brazilian list of threatened plants, presently under revision, also indicated no species as extinct (Cavalcanti, 1981). [p. 127]
[Same:] Closer examination of the existing data on both well- and little-known groups, however, supports the affirmation that little or no species extinction has yet occurred (though some may be in very fragile persistence) in the Atlantic [Brazilian] forests. Indeed, an appreciable number of species considered extinct 20 years ago, including several birds and six butterflies, have been rediscovered more recently. [p. 128]
The authors of this volume also acknowledge the lack of sound empirical basis for estimating species extinction rates:
[Whitmore and Sayer:] Estimates of plant and invertebrate extinctions are inevitably largely a matter of speculation. Consequences for species survival of the degradation, partial clearance and fragmentation of large forest areas are simply not known though biologists have begun to think about the problem (e.g. Simberloff, chapter 4). [p. 9]
[Whitemore and Sayer:] . . . the relationship between forest loss and species loss is not arithmetic. To extrapolate upon such a relationship presents an excessively pessimistic view. [p. 11]
[Reid:] . . . How large is the loss of species [worldwide] like to be? Although the loss of species may rank among the most significant environmental problems of our time, relatively few attempts have been made to rigorously assess its likely magnitude. [p. 55]
[Heywood and Stuart:] It is impossible to estimate even approximately how many unrecorded species may have become extinct. [p. 95]
[Reid:] While better knowledge of extinction rates can clearly improve the design of public policies, it is equally apparent that estimates of global extinction rates are fraught with imprecision. We do not yet know how many species exist, even to within an order of magnitude. [p. 56]
[Reid:] The best tool available to estimate species extinction rates is the use of species-area curves. . . . This approach has formed the basis for almost all current estimates of species extinction rates. [p. 57]
[Heywood and Stuart:] There are many reasons why recorded extinctions do not match the predictions and extrapolations that are frequently published. . . . [p. 93]
The comment of the volume’s editors in the preface sums matters up rather nicely—and candidly:
Many people have asked IUCN to comment on the numerous conflicting estimates of species extinction and some would like us to come up with a firm and definitive figure for the number of species which are being lost in a given period of time. The data available would not enable this to be done with any reasonable degree of scientific credibility and we have not attempted to do so in this book. [p. xi]
These authors are not alone in these assessments of the dismal lack of solid empirical grounds for any claims of species extinction rates. Norman Myers, who has made some of the strongest claims about very high rates, now writes, “Regrettably we have no way of knowing the actual current rate of extinction in tropical forests, nor can we even make an accurate guess.” As Simon and Wildavsky put it,
One would think that this state of affairs would make anyone leery about estimating future extinctions. Nevertheless Myers continues, “But we can make substantive assessments by looking at species numbers before deforestation and then applying the analytical techniques of biogeography. . . . According to the theory of island biogeography, we can realistically reckon that when a habitat has lost 90% of its extent, it has lost half of its species” (1989, p. 43). But this is mere speculation. And Lugo finds that in Puerto Rico, the “massive forest conversion did not lead to a correspondingly massive species extinction, certainly nowhere near the 50% alluded to by Myers” (1989, p. 28).
Confirmation of the absence of scientific evidence for rapid species extinction is implicit in the nature of the “evidence” cited by, for example, Edward O. Wilson. He says that “the extinction problem” is “absolutely undeniable.” But all he cites are “literally hundreds of anecdotal reports” (Charles C. Mann, “Extinction: Are Ecologists Crying Wolf?” Science 253 (August 16, 1991), 736-738). The very reason for the scientific method in estimating rates is that anecdotal reports are of little or no value, and often mislead the public and policymakers; that’s why expensive censuses and other data-gathering instruments are mounted.
The purpose of pointing to the lack of sound scientific evidence regarding the rate of species extinction is not to belittle or ignore what might be a significant problem but to remind ourselves that sound policy must be based on sound information. Presently there is next to none in regard to overall rates of species extinction worldwide, by continent, or even within much smaller regions and locales. Without that information, wise policy cannot be crafted.
Third, granted the principles of Biblical stewardship, which involve a free market within the moral restraints of God’s law, we should recognize that, when acting wisely, human beings can and should be viewed not as enemies but friends of endangered species. One of the most important ways to ensure that this friendship occurs is to seek ways to turn protection of species to people’s advantage. We do not, after all, worry about chickens going extinct, although we slaughter billions every year in the United States alone. Instead, we worry about rhinoceroses going extinct. If there were adequate market rewards for raising rhinos, that worry would quickly disappear. Instead, our present Endangered Species Act, by requiring harsh penalties for anyone who destroys a member of an endangered species, creates the opposite incentive for landowners: to destroy members of endangered species that they find on their lands before bureaucrats or environmentalists discover that they are there, in order to avoid the likelihood of penalties or severe restrictions on land use in the future. Thus the punitive nature of the ESA works against the ends for which the legislation was crafted. Reward landowners for protecting endangered species on their property and they will do it. Find ways to reward the preservation and cultivation of species through the market, and you will find ways to remove them from the danger of extinction.
[This article is adapted from an address to the South Carolina Division of the Society of American Foresters, annual meeting, June 1994, and reprinted from Appendix 2 of Dr. Beisner’s book Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Acton Institute, 1997).]
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By listing ozone protection and enhanced greenhouse reduction among opportunity costs, I do not mean to imply that I agree with prevailing claims about those problems. I have argued against them in my Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) and in various articles and lectures since then.
Citations below from White’s article are taken from a reprint as an appendix in Francis A. Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1970; reprint edition, Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1992), 121-44.
White, 124. White’s assertion that modern science and technology have their roots in the late Renaissance and the Enlightenment, particularly in the works of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, perpetuates a common misunderstanding of the history of science—one prompted by the secularist notion that science and (especially Christian) religion are antithetical. Bacon was by no means the originator of inductive empirical method in the sciences and was, in fact, much more wedded to deductive method than is commonly thought. Further, inductive, empirical investigation leading to technological innovations had a long and fruitful history in the Middle Ages and were, in fact, precipitated by Biblical revelation and Christian doctrines founded on it. See Morris R. Cohen, “The Myth About Bacon and the Inductive Method,” Scientific Monthly 23 (1926), 504-8, and Stanley L. Jaki, “Science and Censorship: Hélène Duhem and the Publication of the `Système du monde’,” Intercollegiate Review XXI (Winter 1985-1986), 41-9, who writes:
In volumes 6 and 7 [of the Système du monde, the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre] Duhem presents a vastly documented tudy of the work of Buridan and Oresme. These two luminaries of fourteenth-century Sorbonne arrived at such scientific breakthroughs as the formulation of what later became known as Newton’s first law of motion without which his second and third laws and the entire system of classical physics are inconceivable. . . . Most important, in those posthumous vlumes Duhem stated most emphatically that Buridan and Oresme broke with the debilitating Aristotelian physics of motion by reflecting on what was demanded by the Christian dogma of creation in time and out of nothing. . . . What Duhem unearthed among other things from long-buried manuscripts was that supernatural revelation played a crucial liberating role in putting scientific speculation on the right track. But then the claim, so pivotal for the secularist anti-Christian interpretation of Western cultural historyCthat science and religion are in irreconcilable conflictCcould only be deprived of its prima facie credibility. It is in this terrifying prospect for secular humanism, for which science is the redeemer of mankind, that lies the explanation of that grim and secretive censorship which has worked against Duhem (and his few allies) by two principal means: One is the prevention of major scholarly evidence in favor of Duhem’s perspective to appear in print or at least to be printed by “prominent” publishing houses. The other is selective indignation in scholarly societies and their journalsCallegedly devoted to universal truth regardless of race, religion, and politics. [p. 48]
Robert James Bidinotto, “Environmentalism: Freedom’s Foe for the ’90s,” The Freeman, 40:11 (November 1990), 409-420, 410; citing Lindsy Van Gelder, “It’s Not Nice to Mess with Mother Nature,” Ms. (January/February 1989), 60.
David Rothenberg, “Introduction: Ecosophy T: from intuition to system,” in Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, trans. and rev. David Rothenberg (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 2.
Raymond F. Surburg, “The Influence of Darwinism,” in Darwin, Evolution, and Creation, ed. Paul A. Zimmerman (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 196. Furthermore, “Darwin and Nietzsche were the two philosophers studied by the National Socialists [Nazis] in working out the philosophy set forth in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this work Hitler asserted that men rose from animals by fighting. It was the contention of the Fuehrer that this struggle, where one being feeds on another and the blood of the weaker is the life of the stronger, has continued from time immemorable and must continue until the most highly advanced branch of humanity dominates the whole earth.” Surburg, 196.
Cited in David Noebel, Understanding the Times: The Story of the Marxist/Leninist, Secular Humanist, and Biblical Christian Worldviews (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Press, 1991), 831; citing George C. Roche, A World Without Heroes (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 1987), 248.
Emphasis added; cited in the Regnery Gateway Fall/Winter 1993 book catalogue, p. 2, in advertisement for Kathleen Marquardt, with Herbert M. Levine and Mark LaRochelle, Animalscam: The Beastly Abuse of Human Rights (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1993). Newkirk’s equating the killing of Jews in the Holocaust with the killing of chickens for food echoes an increasingly common—and frightening—theme in environmental literature: likening ecological problems (which typically are unintentional and do not involve intentional murder) with the Nazi Holocaust (which was intentional and murderous). See Charles T. Rubin, The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism (New York: Macmillan/Free Press, 1994), 189-90.
Cited in Dixy Lee Ray, with Lou Guzzo, Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things) (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 169.
Cited in Evan Eisenberg, “The Call of the Wild,” New Republic (April 30, 1990) p. 31. Naess apparently thinks so little of human beings that he cares little whether there are a hundred million or a billion of them, since elsewhere he suggests an ideal population of a billion; see Petr Borrelli, “The Ecophilosophers,” The Amicus Journal (Spring 1988) 32-3.
See Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, rev. ed. (original edition 1968; New York: Ballantine, 1986); Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990); Kingsley Davis, “The Climax of Population Growth,” California Medicine 113 (November 1970), 33-9; Jacqueline Kasun, The War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of Population Control (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 196; David Brower, cited in Rael Jean Isaac and Erich Isaac, The Coercive Utopians (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1985); also in Ray, Trashing the Planet, 169. For a more thorough discussion of the anti-human attitudes that dominate much of the environmentalist movement, see E. Calvin Beisner, “Imago Dei and Population Concerns,” Lecture 1 of The Staley Distinguished Christian Scholar Lectures, Covenant College, October 29–31, 1991, published as Man, Economy, and Environment in Biblical Perspective (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1994).
See Julian L. Simon and Aaron Wildavsky, “On Species Loss, the Absence of Data, and Risks to Humanity,” in The Resourceful Earth: A Response to `Global 2000′, edited by Julian L. Simon and Herman Kahn (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 171-83. Simon and Wildavsky renew the charges, after reviewing the literature since their first article, in “Species Loss Revisited,” in The State of Humanity, edited by Julian L. Simon (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).
Notice an important thing Heywood and Stuart are not saying here, as well as what they really are saying. They are not saying that the loss of some 20 percent of the tropical forests would have led us to expect “very large numbers of species [to] have been lost [entirely to the world],” but only that the deforestation would have led us to expect “very large numbers of species [to] have been lost in some areas.” And then what they are saying is that even this seemingly intuitively sensible expectation has turned out to be unconfirmed by the data: “Yet surprisingly there is no clear-cut evidence for this . . .”!
Norman Myers, “A Major Extinction Spasm: Predictable and Inevitable?” in Conservation for the Twenty-first Century, edited by David Western and Maryc C. Pearl (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
I have argued in Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988) that the Bible supports a free market economy, and have pointed out that this does not equate with a licentious market. There is no more role for false advertising or the sale, without adequate warning, of inherently unsafe products in the free market than there is for “Murder, Inc.” or “Madam Molly’s Marvelous Maids.”