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The failure of evolutionary orthodoxy

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Published: 20 January 2011 (GMT+10)

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A correspondent sent in a newspaper perspective by a Dr. H. Bruce Rinker entitled “An Unfortunate, Untimely Failure of Orthodoxy.”1 The basic argument of this article is that religion has fueled the anthropocentric view of nature which has led people to consume unsustainably, leading to the extinction of other species, and that it has failed to promote a good view of the environment. He argues that such “orthodoxy” must be abandoned in favor of belief systems that foster a healthier relationship with the environment.

Rinker criticizes humanity for using 32% of earth’s land-based productivity though we only represent 0.05% of the biomass. But isn’t his statement inconsistent with his evolutionary worldview? Such a worldview would make us the great winners in the “survival of the fittest” orthodoxy that underpins the evolutionary mechanism. In other words, the reason that humans claim such a disproportionate share of earth’s resources is because we are perfectly adapted and are at the top of the evolutionary tree or foodchain. He says that “we can never excuse the deliberate extinction of any species or ecosystem on Earth, no matter how diminutive or seemingly useless to human values”.

In an evolutionary view, we’re all in competition, not only inter-species, but intra-species, in an endless struggle for genetic dominance.

But this is precisely the opposite of what evolution should preach. In an evolutionary view, we’re all in competition, not only inter-species, but intra-species, in an endless struggle for genetic dominance. If our over-consumption causes the ice caps to melt and all the polar bears to die, then it should be good for us and so much the worse for them!

Really, Rinker’s article and my caricature of the other evolutionary viewpoint coincides well with G.K. Chesterton’s point about the Darwinist view of nature:

“Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals … That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.”2

But the Christian view of the environment is that humans, in an important sense, are not simply another species of animal, because we are created in the image of God. That, and the dominion mandate proclaimed by God (Genesis 1:28), gives us a place of primacy over the rest of the created order, and the right to use the creation for our benefit and enjoyment, but also responsibility to care for it as God’s stewards. See our article Fouling the nest.

Rinker’s article also endorses a view of stewardship, but unlike the creationist view, his has no basis in his own worldview. If we are simply a part of nature, only another species of animal, isn’t it actually arrogant to presume that we can have such a role in the world? Who are we to claim to be better potential stewards than marmosets or dachshunds? In short, an evolutionary worldview cannot logically provide an answer as to why one should care for other creatures or even each other. Such “morality” is derived from a Christian worldview, which comes from the Scriptures and in particular the teachings of Christ (the Creator—Colossians 1:15–17)

Rinker asks:

“Where are our priests, rabbis, pastors, and imams when old-growth forests disappear from the Pacific Northwest or Amazonia? Where are they when whales and dolphins are haplessly slaughtered in Asia or when environmental toxins bioaccumulate in loons and songbirds in New England and in Central America? Where are they when giant icebergs break off from Antarctic glaciers because of the planet’s rising temperature? Where are they when inconsiderate citizens throw their trash and cigarette butts out of car windows along our highways?”

Christians can and should be at the forefront of responsible environmental stewardship, but the difference between the Christian’s motivation and the evolutionist’s should be that the Christian cares for the environment because he worships God who created the world and put mankind in charge of it.

While I can’t answer for the clergy of other faiths, I would hope that most Christians would see human tragedies such as starvation and exploitation in third-world countries, the modern-day slave trade, and the crisis of women’s rights in Muslim countries as far more important than Antarctic glaciers or old trees. We are not saying that evolutionists or atheists can’t be moral and do “good” things, but their motivational call for other to assist those disadvantaged by the terrible Haitian earthquake was shown to be very shallow (see the quote by Michael Shermer at the bottom of our article Haiti’s horrendous earthquake disasterr).

Although some Christians may act inconsistently with their own worldview, a stewardship principle is consistent with a biblically derived worldview. Christians should regard the environment as important—a correct theology of stewardship recognizes that we will be held accountable for how we’ve utilized God’s resources—and the Bible makes it clear that all resources ultimately belong to God. So, in one sense, when Rinker accuses Christians of not being good stewards he is actually creating a straw man argument.

G.K. Chesterton continued his comment above, illustrating the proper view of nature:

“If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to the garden of Eden. For the obstinate reminder continues to recur: only the supernaturalist has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a stepmother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”

Christians can and should be at the forefront of responsible environmental stewardship, but the difference between the Christian’s motivation and the evolutionist’s should be that the Christian cares for the environment because he worships God who created the world and put mankind in charge of it. The evolutionist ultimately cares for the environment because he engages in what we could call “geolatry” (earth-worship, from gē, earth, and latreuo, to worship). As such, he is just as religious as those he bemoans. Scripture is clear about his condition too, because he “worships the creation rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).

Related Articles

References

  1. H. Bruce Rinker, “An Unfortunate, Untimely Failure of Orthodoxy,” The Roanoke Star-Sentinel 8 October 2010, p. 4. Available online at <http://fwix.com/roanoke/share/07ed486dd4/an_unfortunate_untimely_failure_of_orthodoxy>. Return to text.
  2. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, John Lane, London, pp. 204–205, 1927. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Bob C., Australia

Hi Lita, Great article. It seems to me the key is in the last paragraph. Decades ago when the ‘save the trees’ thing was rampant a northern N.S.W. politician had a couple of Political Science students doing ‘Prac.’ with him so he sent them out to do a study on these people and find out what they were on about. He remarked to me after they had submitted their report that the protesters worshipped the trees, that the trees were God’s to them. There are some very religious people who hide behind an atheist cloak.

Keep up the great work.

David G., Australia

“He says that ‘we can never excuse the deliberate extinction of any species or ecosystem on Earth, no matter how diminutive or seemingly useless to human values’.”

Now, just where does he think humans will get their values? You are right, I think; on the basis of evolution, there is no ‘morality’ outside the evolutionary impulse to succeed. If we humans were to try to ‘pick winners’ and go against nature by attempting to prevent extinctions, we may end up undoing the natural path of evolution…but we can’t know what this is as evolution is random.

Rinker is in reality adopting the benefits of a Christian world view, with an independent source of moral bases for action, but denying such a basis in more or less the same breath, by relying on evolution.

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