The conflict between conservation and Darwinian natural selection



It is worth drawing attention to an often-unstated conflict that exists between the naturalists’ desire for conservation, and their belief in Darwinian natural selection. Most simply, the conflict arises between the belief that nature should not change over time, and a belief that nature does change over time. Certainly, it is good to preserve and protect nature, balancing this with the needs of the human community, but how can a belief in conservation arise out of evolutionary change through the struggle for survival?

Which are better: native plant species or imported ones?

This conflict was highlighted recently in a couple of news stories. Firstly, a BBC gardening presenter, James Wong, asked whether gardening in the UK is racist. In a Twitter feed (12 December 2020) Wong commented that:

“ … gardening culture has racism baked into its DNA. It’s so integral that when you point out it’s [sic] existence, people assume you are against gardening, not racism. Epitomised, for example, by the fetishisation (and wild misuse) of words like ‘heritage’ and ‘native’.”

Wong was objecting to the horticultural community’s preference for so-called native plant species over imported ones. He was pointing out the inherent misguided thinking over what plants are really native, noting that many species considered native are actually not. However, he also stated on Twitter (on the same day) that this is “ … predicated on often unconscious ideas of what and who does and does not ‘belong’ in the UK,” implying that this also belies a deeper antagonism towards non-native people—that is, people perceived to be from different ‘races’.1

But at a deeper level it reveals a struggle between conserving the present, and a belief that nature should be allowed to change. The evolutionist wants nature to take its course through survival of the fittest, which is natural selection and may lead to species reduction or extinction (see Isn’t it obvious? Natural selection can eliminate, but never create!). But when that involves human beings making the selective choice (Homo sapiens being a product of evolution according to naturalism), then that activity must be reined in. They are trying to ‘have their cake and eat it.’

Red or grey squirrels?

The same conflict over conservation arises in other cases where it is feared that various imported species may out-compete with native species, and so change the balance of the ecosystem. A classic example in Britain relates to efforts to protect the native red squirrel against the imported grey squirrel. The latter species was imported from North America in the 19th century. Because these squirrels are slightly larger, more powerful, and are better adapted to cold winters, they displaced the smaller red squirrel by out-competing them for food, and also introduced disease.

Grey squirrels are also accused of damaging young trees, and so it is believed this mitigates against attempts to tackle global warming through the desire for forest growth. Squirrels are also noted for planting acorns in the ground as a winter food store, but often these germinate in the spring if forgotten. It was reported in January 2021 that the UK government now backs birth control measures for grey squirrels to reduce their numbers.2

Credit: Tom Friedel, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Licence (left) and Peter Trimming, Wiki Commons (right)squirrels
Eastern grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis (left) and red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris (right).

Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith, on behalf of the UK governmental department DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), outlined plans to largely eradicate grey squirrels from Britain. Lord Goldsmith hopes to render grey squirrels infertile by introducing oral contraception through a feeding programme. He believes numbers can be reduced by 90 percent.

Prince Charles supports these measures, as he finds the red squirrels delightful: “These charming and intelligent creatures never fail to delight.”2 It may be pointed out that many people also find grey squirrels delightful. DEFRA told BBC News: “We hope advances in science can safely help our nature to thrive, including through the humane control of invasive species.”2

Another example of an environmental conservation cull, was the recent eradication of several thousand reindeer on South Georgia between 2011 and 2017. They had been introduced by Scandinavian Whalers in the early twentieth century.3

The conflict in popular televised nature programmes

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of individual cases in managing the ecosystem, for naturalists this raises a serious intellectual dilemma—epitomised in Sir David Attenborough’s many television nature programmes—although it is never addressed publicly (see also, Nature programmes, science and God). There are effectively two conflicting narratives running through his dialogue.

The first is that all life has evolved through competition and natural selection over countless millennia, given a changing natural environment. This is considered good, and according to Attenborough, mankind is also a product of such evolution. The video footage frequently does not spare the viewer from gory death scenes to illustrate the struggle for survival and drive the point home: for example, lions tearing antelopes to pieces, or polar bears preying on seals. This is considered prime-time entertainment, but also with an educational motive in support of evolution.

Polar bears are a popular emblem of anthropogenic global warming.

The second narrative is that it is bad behaviour on the part of mankind (albeit a product of the evolutionary process according to Attenborough), to exploit the natural world for the benefit of an increasing human population.4 At this point, environmentalists such as Attenborough appeal instead to the good of conservation, not to natural selection. That is, a desire to manage nature to ensure it doesn’t change over time, or even turn back to some ‘golden age’; to re-wild nature with greater control over the human population.5 In support of this thesis, we are shown, for example, pictures of polar bears struggling on melting ice, the narrative being that anthropogenic global warming is threatening their very survival by making it very hard for them to hunt seals. These and other emotive, carefully-selected images are designed to engender sympathy for animals, but not towards other people.

Environmentalists begin to sound misanthropic when they speak of the harm mankind has done to the world—that mankind, having evolved through natural selection and competition, has unfortunately become the enemy of nature, so needs to be restrained. This is a worldview failing of many environmental campaigners, that they seem unconcerned to balance the needs of human communities and nature, seemingly idolising nature and not properly valuing other human beings.

Michael Shellenberger, in Apocalypse Never, raises concerns over the negative perspective of what he calls “Green utopianism.” He writes that: “In place of love, forgiveness, kindness, and the kingdom of heaven, today’s apocalyptic environmentalism offers fear, anger, and the narrow prospects of avoiding extinction. … we might consider whether they are motivated by love for humanity or something closer to its opposite.”6

In 2013 in a Radio Times interview Attenborough said that humans were becoming a “plague on the Earth” and called for population growth to be controlled.7 In 2020, in a trailer for a Netflix documentary, A Life On Our Planet, co-produced with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Attenborough said, “Human beings have overrun the world. We’re replacing the wild with the tame”.8,9 Such emotive language effectively compares humanity to a plague of rodents. We need to be careful with our language, as it is not a huge step from this to the sort of intervention characterised by the dreadful twentieth century eugenics programmes (see Eugenics … death of the defenceless and Margaret Sanger Darwinian eugenicist).

Of course, at other times Attenborough defends his position by claiming that it is only rational for mankind to look after our planet (which he has referred to as A Perfect Planet4 (see The Perfect Planet: testifying to biblical creation). In an interview with The Guardian he says, “We have to recognise that the Earth and its oceans are finite … We have to recognise that in the past we have destroyed whole fisheries, herring, cod, just destroyed them. We need a plan … We need to show restraint. … We have to know we aren’t always in competition with one another.”10 But this only opens up questions regarding the origin of conservation (cooperating with nature) as against competition.11

T.H. Huxley recognised the conflict, but was “sorry for logic”

So, within naturalism, there is a conflict between the laudable desire for conservation, and the belief that evolutionary progress occurs through struggle and competition. Darwin’s contemporary Thomas H. Huxley recognised this, denoting it as a conflict between a cosmic process and a horticultural process. But he failed to square the circle. Rather, he simply asserted the case for both coherence and antagonism, saying he was sorry for logic. Huxley said the following in his essay: Evolution and Ethics:

“No doubt, it may be properly urged that the operation of human energy and intelligence, which has brought into existence and maintains the garden, by what I have called “the horticultural process,” [which includes conservation] is, strictly speaking, part and parcel of the cosmic process [i.e. naturalistic evolution]. And no one could more readily agree to that proposition than I. In fact, I do not know that any one has taken more pains than I have, during the last thirty years, to insist upon the doctrine, so much reviled in the early part of that period, that man, physical, intellectual, and moral, is as much a part of nature, as purely a product of the cosmic process, as the humblest weed.
But if, following up this admission, it is urged that, such being the case, the cosmic process cannot be in antagonism with that horticultural process which is part of itself—I can only reply, that if the conclusion that the two are antagonistic is logically absurd, I am sorry for logic, because, as we have seen, the fact is so.”12

One of naturalism’s most notable proponents could only say he was sorry for logic. I would suggest that philosophical naturalism (essentially atheism), is foundationally incoherent. It has no logical answer to the question of ethics (Huxley, morality and the Bible), nor can it logically create a desire to care for the ecosystem. To put it slightly differently, naturalism offers no rational basis upon which people may be urged to care for the environment (itself the product of an unconscious cosmic process according to evolution), other than the subjective sentiment of sympathy. As even David Hume asked, how can we get ought from is? This is the naturalistic fallacy.13 Philosophical naturalism is logically amoral, so it can give no objective basis for right and wrong.

The Christian approach

There are of course important considerations about managing the environment from a Christian stewardship perspective, and the importance of valuing humanity and social well-being. But the philosophy of naturalism cannot answer these on its own terms. Worryingly, the way in which some naturalistic thinkers speak of controlling where particular animals and plants should live, has echoes of twentieth century eugenics programmes that were enacted against certain human communities. Environmentalists also speak of the need for greater social control over human communities to limit growth; in some cases, it seems to be because nature has become an idol to them.

Regarding population, as a general rule growth rates fall as prosperity increases. There are large parts of the world where cities have expanded since the nineteenth century as people have left the land, thus reducing the rural population. There is still a lot of wilderness in the world, as well as land used for agriculture. For the Christian, the first Commission given to Adam and his offspring states: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28)—see Creation, preservation and dominion. At the very least, this would suggest God’s desire is to see the world full of people. This is in stark contrast to the naturalistic worldview that wishes to reduce the human population and re-wild the land. The Christian heritage offers a vision of the world that is hopeful, loving and coherent, and markedly different from the incoherence and pessimism of naturalism, which sees human beings as a problem.

For Christians, death arose through Adam’s Fall, and it is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is not part of the creative process as the theory of evolution entails—see The carnivorous nature and suffering of animals. The mandate given to Adam’s offspring, created in the image of God, is one of stewardship towards the creation. Through prayer and faithful service, people are to aim at bringing the world into an ordered state, and to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20). Christians have a duty of care towards the ecosystem, but also a duty of care to the global human community, enabling people to thrive around the world as part of the gospel message of salvation through Christ.

Published: 11 March 2021

References and notes

  1. Within taxonomic classification, populations of animals or plants may be termed ‘races’ when they are sufficiently distinct groupings within a subspecies, which in turn are grouped into species, species into genera, and so on. More informally (and particularly historically), people would write about the ‘human race’ or the ‘canine race’. Charles Darwin used ‘races’ in the more formal sense: 1) in the subtitle of most famous book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859); and 2) in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) where he wrote, e.g. “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world” (2nd ed., John Murray, London, p. 156, 1887). Return to text.
  2. Rowlatt, J., UK government backs birth control for grey squirrels, bbc.co.uk/news, 26 January 2021; accessed 3 February 2021. Return to text.
  3. Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia Non-Native Plant Management Strategy, 2016-2020, Stanley, Falkland Islands, 2016. Return to text.
  4. This sort of idea (especially regarding alleged anthropogenic global warming) is portrayed in Attenborough’s most recent 5-part series, A Perfect Planet, first screened in January 2021 on BBC1. The fifth part is titled ‘Humans’. The BBC begins its tagline for this episode as follows: “Earth is the only living world we know of, but a new force threatens our perfect planet. That force is us”, bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08xc32c/a-perfect-planet-series-1-5-humans; accessed 13 February 2021. Return to text.
  5. To ‘rewild’ means (Dictionary.com): “1. to introduce (animals or plants) to their original habitat or to a habitat similar to their natural one: [E.g.] proposals to rewild elephants to the American plains. 2. to return (land) to a more natural state: [E.g.] rewilding an unpopulated island for use as an animal preserve.” Return to text.
  6. Shellenberger, M. Apocalypse Never: why environmental alarmism hurts us all, HarperCollins, New York, 2020. 267, 275. Return to text.
  7. As reported for example in the Independent newspaper (UK): Humans are a ‘plague on Earth’: Sir David Attenborough warns that negative effects of population growth will come home to roost, independent.co.uk , 22 January 2013; accessed February 2021. Return to text.
  8. ‘Humans have overrun the world’: David Attenborough issues stark warning ahead of new documentary, thejournal.ie., 15 January 2020; accessed 7 February 2021. Return to text.
  9. The WWF was also forced to remove a video narrated by Attenborough, which called to ‘stabilise the human population’ against images of Asian people. Carr, J. David Attenborough WWF charity video is deleted over racism fears after his voiceover talked of ‘stabilising the population’ over images of Asian people, dailymail.co.uk, 12 June 2020; accessed February 2021. Return to text.
  10. Lamont, T., David Attenborough: ‘The Earth and its oceans are finite. We need to show mutual restraint’, theguarduan.com, 12 December 2020; accessed 17 February 2021. Return to text.
  11. It may be noted here that some philosophers of science, such as Prof. John Dupré of Exeter University (UK), have argued that cooperation has shaped evolution as well as competition. Dupré, J., The Boundaries of Evolution, Darwin College Lecture Series, Cambridge University, talks.cam.ac.uk, 6 March 2009. Return to text.
  12. Huxley, T.H., Evolution and Ethics - Prolegomena, Collected Essays, IX.3, London, pp. 11–12, 1894. Return to text.
  13. Hume, D., A Treatise on Human Reason, Book III, Part 1:1, John Noon, Edinburgh, p. 335, 1739. Return to text.