Extinction within Creation


Great Auk—Wikipedia Commons

The year 2011 saw a number of species go into extinction. These include among others, the western black rhinoceros. Others are in danger as well. On  Friday, Oct 28, 2011 USA Today ran and article entitled, “Extinct in 20 Years?” “Tigers, Lions, Cheetahs, extinct in 20 years? In response to that prospect, the National Geographic launched its “Big Cats Initiative.” And not too long ago, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated its red list that provides an assessment of the state of various creatures.

What does extinction mean? In my reading on whooping cranes the last few years, I ran across, the following blunt assessment by Henry Beetle Hough, who in 1933 reflected on the extinction of the Heath Hen in Martha’s Vineyard.  He lamented, “There is no survivor, there is no future, there is no life to be created in this form again. We are looking upon the uttermost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light. We are in touch with the reality of extinction.” (J.J. McCoy, The Hunt for Whooping Cranes, viii).

Nothing seems more contradictory than to juxtapose the words creation and extinction. God creates life, abundantly, and lavishly. God is a God of life. In the resurrection of Christ, life triumphs over death. God infuses his breath into his creatures (Psalm 104). Extinction squeezes that breath out that for good. It extinguishes that life, at least for one entire species and all the individual creatures that comprised it. And yet, Christians seem to have come to accept the extinction of other creatures without nary a theological thought.  I myself hadn’t thought much about it either in terms of a worldview until I recently read a fascinating historical account of the history of extinction entitled, Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology, by Mark V. Barrow, Jr. (University of Chicago Press, 2009).natures-ghosts

Here’s what caught my attention. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was virtually inconceivable for any thinking person in the west, Christian or not, to conceive the possibility that a species of creatures could go extinct—especially at the hands of humans. Why was it so inconceivable? Their view of the world did not allow for it (a view that was resulted in part from a conflation of platonic and Christian thought). First, there was the providence of God. He created such a plenitude of various creatures that there was no way that humans could over harvest it much less exhaust it. In addition, God created a resilient world. He would not allow that to happen. Second, they operated with a view regarding the perfection of creation that regarded it as intrinsically stable and static. To allow for extinction, would be to allow for imperfection within the world. God created a fixed number at the beginning and it would never become less than that. In addition, people saw everything in the world as linked together by the “great chain of being” from the highest creature down to the lowest creature. Should any of those links be snapped, the entire order of the world would come crashing down. Third, human creatures simply were not powerful enough to disrupt creation and destroy an entire species of creatures.  (Barrow, 18-23)

Consider Thomas Jefferson and the Mastodon. According to to Barrow, Americans had to fend of the charges from Europeans (especially the French scientist Georges Cuvier) that the wet and cool climate of America would give rise to smaller and weaker animals as well as humans. To counter that notion, Jefferson and others engaged in archaeology and produced the fossilized teeth of a mastodon?  Here is a large and magnificent beast! Though none were found on the east coast, that did not mean they were extinct. Surely they lived somewhere on the continent. He apparently told Lewis and Clark to keep their eyes open for them on their voyage of discovery.

The incomprehensibility of extinction changed when naturalists documented that humans had caused a species to go extinct, namely, the dodo bird last seen in 1681 (Barrow, 52) and  the great auk in 1846 (Barrow, 65). Think about the enormous ramifications for one’s view of the world. Some species do go extinct. God does allow species go extinct. And humans can kill off completely an entire species of God’s creatures. This shift in thinking strikes me as nearly as seismic as that of moving from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican understandings of the solar system. And it wasn’t a consequence of Darwinism. This shift occurred prior to Darwin putting forward his theory of evolution. Yet where was the theological reflection on it?

After all, think about it. It affects our the way we view God’s relation to creation, the nature of creation (resilience and fragility), and human ability to alter creation in ways that either enhance God’s work so that all life flourishes or is diminished. In hindsight, it perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprising that humans could push an entire group of creatures into extinction. Two hundred years, later, we are talking about the age of human dominance, the anthropocene. The Christian doctrine of original sin affirms the pervasiveness of human sin and its capacity to engulf creation itself.

The awareness that humans could render an entire species extinct apparently also provide an impetus for conservation. Humans can’t cavalierly take thinking that they cause no harm. They now must take responsibility with this knowledge of their new found power. But ultimately, it will take  the restoration of human creatures to bring about the renewal of creation. The problem began with us and the restoration must begin with us. God’s human creatures need to be transformed in their thinking, attitudes, values, and actions. In the meantime, the Son of God, through whom all things were made, came to restore his entire creation, beginning with his human creatures.

One Response to “Extinction within Creation”

  1. John Babbitts Says:

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    Knowing God is still active in His creation, if a species becomes extinct does God create a new creature to fullfill the task of the one eliminated? We often “discover” new species of animals and plants that we didn’t know existed before. Also curious if Christians in the 19th century or before used proof texts to support a notion that extinction wasn’t possible? Would be interesting to know if this had some impact in the growth or Deism and Darwinism.

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