If you want to become famous overnight, just say something controversial and foolish on a big enough stage. Not that I disliked everything about Dr. Alex Pyron’s recent piece in the Washington Post entitled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution.” – he managed to avoid the thinly-veiled contempt of human life that is, unfortunately, multiplying in the scientific community. However, in avoiding an error on one side of the boat, he jumped headlong off the other.
I have a couple things in common with Dr. Pyron – I’m a scientist, and more importantly, I’m also a herpetologist: a rare breed of biologist that will put 50,000 miles on their car in a year to see a handful of rare species only to decry corporate carbon emissions. As far as I can tell from this piece, though, that’s where the similarities cease. Dr. Pyron begins with an account of a rare species of frog in the genus Atelopus and states: “…they will go extinct one day, and the world will be none the poorer for it.” In a piece full of unscientific value assertions about biodiversity, his thesis is plainly stated: “The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings.” Put another way: we don’t need biodiversity – we like it and should save what we can (if it doesn’t inconvenience us). But let’s be honest: we need to be looking out for number one.
The piece ends with the gem-of-a-question “How will we live in the meantime?” Evidently selfishly, unambitiously and with a defeatist depression.
As a Christian, I couldn’t disagree more.
Now, of course, admitting I’m a Christian brings up a recent history of failures. We followers of Christ certainly don’t have a great reputation for being defenders of the Earth in the 21st century… But if my readers could look a little deeper into history, they would see the likes of St. Francis of Assisi or King Solomon the Wise – who could speak of plants, animals, birds, reptiles and fish with great wisdom (1 Kings 4:33). Look even farther and you might find a man who was tasked with naming every living animal – the first taxonomist (Genesis 2).
But, in the long run, I can’t answer for any of my brethren’s failures (or success): I can only speak from my own point of view. I’m an ecologist and a Christian. My work on Burmese Pythons was the first canary in the coal mine that they were having negative effects of mammal populations in the Florida Everglades. Later, in grad school, my research examined the effects of fish on reptile and amphibian diversity – work that has been used by the state of Florida to advise fish stocking practices. Before I began to teach at Montreat College nestled in western North Carolina (the salamander diversity capitol of the world, if you care), I worked training missionaries in sustainable, no-till agriculture practices – ones that are worlds better for biodiversity than traditional methods. Conservation (or “creation care,” as we Christians often call it) is of great importance to me.
As a scientist, I applaud many of the responses (summarized at Living Alongside Wildlife,) that extol the intrinsic value of biodiversity, as well as the unforeseen consequences of apathy toward it. Other authors have pointed out that if we do continue on our current path, known as the Anthropocene Extinction, the Earth’s biodiversity may one day return: but that day will not be in this Age of the Earth. My science-based reasons to reject Pyron’s argument (amorphous though his argument may be) are similar to the ones made by these authors. But more important are my reasons as a theist generally, and a Christian specifically.
Dr. Pyron’s view is unapologetically anthropocentric. And though the Bible is from the point-of-view of man’s interaction with God, its viewpoint is not the same as Dr. Pyron’s. Christianity is a religion built on giving yourself, primarily, to things which are outside of yourself. Of course, Christ tells us that the two main objects of this giving are: 1.) God, and 2.) other people. But even then, we often show love to these two entities by proxy. One of the ways we love God by caring for creation. In fact, I can think of at least three reasons why any Christian (indeed, any person) should care about biodiversity:
Firstly, animal life does have intrinsic value. Especially for a Christian. The Christian faith allows for interpretations ranging ‘Young Earth Creationism’ to ‘Theistic Evolution,’ but all of these views acknowledge that it was God who did the creating, and that creation was out of His goodness. This was by either special creation or an orchestral procession of billions of years – resulting in plants and animals about which it says, “God saw that it was good,” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21 & 25).
Secondly, to a Christian, wonder and awe are an end to themselves, and few places exude this wonder and awe like the natural world. In the end of the book of Job, God takes several chapters (38-41) to extol the wonders of His creation: speaking of mountain goats, deer, wild asses, oxen, and many other animals. Who knows: had Job known what they were perhaps God would’ve spoken of one or another ornate species of Atelopus. Jesus himself struck many a botanical note in His teaching. In one instance He tells us: “Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.” Not even the wisest of kings was clothed like they: truly awesome.
Finally, it is mankind’s duty to care for the diversity of Earthly life. Dr. Pyron evidently disagrees with this sentiment, stating that “…conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.” To a Christian, though, the care and ordering of creation is one of our primary directives. In the creation poem, we are given the place of rulers of the creation on Earth – Kings and Queens of the animals and plants. This idea has been at times (our own time especially) misinterpreted to mean we can abuse creation. Nothing could be further from the truth: we have a word for a King who destroys and abuses his kingdom and people: a tyrant. God did not create us to be tyrants over creation, but kings and queens – good like Himself.
My points are from a theistic perspective, but many non-theistic scientists intrinsically believe these things too – that is, whether or not scientists believe in God, the majority would say we have an obligation to care for the Earth. We wouldn’t have conservation biologists if it were otherwise. The motivation, of course is different: for a non-theistic conservationist the impetus is this: we screwed it up, it’s our obligation to do something about it (never mind where that obligation came from…) The biblical word for this sort of thinking is repentance. To repent is to turn back around and get going in the right direction.
Dr. Pyron argues that we should temper our expectations and be satisfied with the fact that, eventually, biodiversity will rebound: “There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct.” Perhaps he should take some advice from any Christian who has ever fought to abstain from some-or-another sin: you don’t get anywhere by setting low expectations. Set them high, so that even if you fail to meet them, you’ll still be better than when you started. I argue that we, whether we be theists or not, need to repent and start working back on all the destruction we’ve wreaked with all the chutzpa we can muster.
But in the end, we Christians share Pyron’s optimism, but not for the same event. He looks past the Anthropocene bottleneck to the bumper crop of new species that may come thereafter. We Christians look to the restoration of all things: a New Heaven and a New Earth. But that doesn’t mean we should stop working now. For a Christian to give up on his or her job to be a good steward and ruler would be akin to ‘giving up’ up on our job to abstain from any other sin. We believe our bodies will be renewed one day, but still find it our duty to take care of them now.
At one point, Dr. Pyron mentions the fact that beavers may be detrimental to certain riverine-specialist fish – subtly making the point that it’s not just us that cause habitat degradation and extinction. But, that’s the point: we are men (I mean this in the sexually nonspecific sense, of course) not beavers. We know our actions, we can see their ramifications, and we can repent. And we can change our ways and do better. The creation is worth saving – even the least of these that have been crafted by the hand of God – no matter how insurmountable the odds.
Dept. of Natural Sciences
Montreat College, Montreat NC
Authors note: From a purely-scientific point-of-view, I found Dr. Pyron’s argument of Florida’s exotic reptiles being positive for biodiversity altogether unconvincing. My work with Pythons and small mammal populations points to the likelihood that Pythons may, regionally, persecute some species excessively, perhaps driving extinctions in imperiled populations such as the Key Largo woodrat or the marsh rabbit.
 I say that my viewpoints are theist as well as Christian, because I know that many other theists will agree with my reasoning – in fact, where I cite scripture here, I’ve used mostly quotes from the Hebrew Bible to appeal to my Jewish friends.