The 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale were well-presented and technically fascinating, but can hardly be said to have delivered on their promise to integrate a new creation story and our place in the universe so as to better address the global warming challenges of our day.
What was missing, it seems, was a sense of the cosmic piety that might help us combine new cosmological insights with existing religious commitments in better fitting us to planet Earth’s carrying capacity. In a continuing exploration of these questions, therefore, we may do well to begin with a critique of several existing assumptions, both scientific and religious. Some of these are ancient and hallowed, but they have obviously not sufficed to guide us safely.
For example, the concept of dark matter and its associated energy fields is so new, and so esoteric, that it can hardly be expected to inspire a lay public, especially one beset by seemingly more personal problems, like those of the economy.
Indeed science, thanks to the mechanistic positivism it imposed on us for centuries, is vaguely but widely distrusted by the general public. This is not a know-nothing’s blind spot. The inadequacies of “hard science” and its reductionism are increasingly obvious, as Stuart Kauffman, a good physicist, reminded us in a 2008 book, Reinventing the Sacred. Academic people need to be more sensitive to this dilemma. It implies the tragic fact that although scientists are at the vanguard of today’s new knowledge, they may hardly be ideal advocates for the cosmic piety we need. Belief requires trust, and professional specialism gets in the way. Again, merely as example, we confuse and distract the public when we parade the details of three million years of fossil history for the genus Homo. Those were just other hominids. What really concerns us is the much more recent history of our own very different large-brained species, even though perhaps prematurely labeled Homo sapiens.
As though this questioning were not irreverent enough, what can we ask about the many biblical dicta we lean on, directly and indirectly? For one thing, we forget that these tenets were articulated, transcribed, and translated for and by an oral society. There are usually many a slip between the tongue and the word in such transmission. When is the time for emendation at hand?
We realize now that the artful one-week creation story was designed for youthful ears.
Does this make us more open to the billions of years that geologists say were involved in the processes that gradually made Earth habitable? After all, we didn’t learn to date the rocks until the mass spectrometer was invented in the 1940s!
And although Genesis I and its emphasis on dominion has been most often quoted to us, there is an alternative account, Genesis II, that emphasized husbandry, or stewardship, as the proper human vocation. We should keep in mind that the land of Israel was and is a semi-desert, where “dominion” over scant resources would be mere boastfulness. A shift in quotation may very likely be in the province of those who do the quoting, especially if one keeps in mind all the self-serving quotes we’ve heard about Adam Smith’s “hidden hand,” when the master himself put the emphasis on “keeping the firm small” if one wants it to serve the public interest.
Similarly, one may question whether the churchly emphasis on sin and the superiority of spirit over the body, were not constrained by the agricultural existence of that day. This would hardly have occurred to me, a city boy, except for the intimacy of life in barracks
during three years of World War II military service. It then became clear as farm boys laughingly admitted that their early sexuality included considerable beastiality, simply because they grew up with farm animals. Nor were they worse off for that. We are still struggling to bridge the seemingly obvious dualism of mind and body, but success here may soon open the way to reinterpret much of our ten millennia as agriculturists-cum-urbanites.
So, perhaps what we need is not cosmology but a bit of old-fashioned natural history. Darwin pointed the way when he saw that we are all cousins. But we demurred, again probably because of our agricultural past. The young of farm animals may be cute, but we just didn’t like the idea of being kin to pigs and cows. Debasing, if not actually humiliating! Of course, as urbanites, we had long lost contact with the admirable skills and alert demeanor of our wilder evolutionary compeers. They became caricatures in a diminished vocabulary.
Shouldn’t, by now a century on, the millions of people who say they love birds, have effected the rapprochement with nature the times call for, since the crucial task is that of reducing the human footprint on the planet? But their voting record obviously did not match the proclaimed love, else the generation of neoliberalism that followed WWII leading to the fiscal debacle of 2008 might have been averted. You may say that the birdwatchers didn’t make the political connection. True enough, but the real failure was in not seeing that all the destructive land use we complained about as “habitat loss” was a failure to see that politico-economic institutions, the rules of the game, decide these issues, willy-nilly, unless we rouse ourselves sufficiently.
Were the birds we pursued simply Roger Peterson’s virtual field guide birds, each with its own field marks, rather than real birds perishing because they were enmeshed in the natural world we were destroying in the name of Progress? It is difficult to reconstruct the attitudes of such sad episodes, and perhaps even a million politically sophisticated birdwatchers could not have averted the disaster.
So, why cosmic piety? Philosophers seem agreed that this is the foundation of all our religions. It is the appreciation of, or one’s duty to the creative process. Of course, so few read philosophy that it is not common parlance. Besides, when we were all oral people, not much more than 500 years ago, we were also all pedestrians, so rather sedentary, localized, perhaps put-down as “country-bumpkins” by slightly more sophisticated city folk, even then. Such social isolation fosters dialects. Localization by trade or profession fosters jargon, really another dialect. This is why words are confusing; they have limited currency.
If you marvel at the night sky, this may be all you need to know about the cosmos beyond the planetary system which is our corner of the universe. The sun is our star, and our planet merits much more appreciation than everything else out there. At least right now, when our amateurish or heedless practices are backfiring.
It is amazing how few people know about the life-support systems, the continuing creation processes that make Earth uniquely habitable. Much of this naivety may be a result of Western civilization’s notion that this world was ready-made for us, and that we were competent to take over as managers. The hunter-gatherers seemed more sophisticated than that. The lapse may be a byproduct of several millennia as farmers, a life style which involves a love-hate relationship with the Earth.
Plant and animal capabilities are mostly a byproduct of our inheritances, and although Earth’s history provided most of these, the categories we recognize may not be the ones that matter most. A record of these accumulated changes is imprinted on the planet in the seven faunal regions that the geographers of life-form have mapped. It helps to know how the interactions of precipitation and temperature constrain much of this distribution.
Perhaps the most illuminating way of visualizing the life support systems that maintain all of us is ecologist Charles Elton’s three-tiered “pyramid of numbers” (see his Animal Ecology, 1927). This applies to both aquatic and terrestrial environments. It integrates almost everything.
Plants are the foundation of this pyramid of numbers because, generally, only plants can, through photosynthesis, utilize solar energy to manufacture carbohydrates that initiate an edible food supply on which animals maintain themselves. Of course, a varied collection of microscopic bacteria paved the way in exploring life’s potentialities. But without plants, again generally speaking, no animals. Also, by penetrating or being
incorporated into various sediments produced by the erosion of rocky substrates, plants make and anchor arable soil. They thus enrich the environment for themselves and others, even modifying the climate.
The advent of nutritious plant life thus made it possible for a variety of preexisting organisms to learn to specialize in plant-eating; the successful ones became herbivores. And the advent of herbivores, by providing a standing crop of flesh, enabled some herbivores to specialize in flesh-eating, thus becoming carnivores, all in good time, and all by now interdependent. As the pyramid suggests, the progression is systemic. It takes about ten pounds of grass to make a pound of mouse flesh, for example; and even more herbivores to make units of carnivores.
Humans, since they feed on both plants and animals, are omnivores. So long as we fed on natural surpluses, when our numbers were small, we were bona fide members of the planet’s biodiversity. We added diversity and enriched the process by introducing extra aesthetic elements. This is what the logic of evolution would seem to call for, and for millennia our numbers grew slowly because, since we pressed against other demands, our mortality was high. Our high reproductive rate was an evolutionary adaptation required to keep ahead of mortality factors, on average.
Brought up, actually or indirectly, on the notion of creation by fiat, and indoctrinated with the idea of our dominance and an otherworldly destination, it is no surprise that we so long neglected to study the processes that actually support existence on this planet. Not until 1929 did A. N. Whitehead show that life is a continuing, creative synthesis. We borrow from preexisting evolutionary accomplishments to maintain our short stay in the sun, add a bit of style to the process if we can, and pass it on.
It becomes exciting when someone recombines existing functions to accomplish new capabilities. This is innovation and may mark a great leap forward. Otherwise, change comes slowly, from selective pressures the environment itself imposes. Since our capabilities usually involve a range of skills, we adapt to modest demands for change. We are then said to have been preadapted.
If, however, too much change is imposed too fast, the resident populations may not adapt quickly enough. They perish instead. The accelerated human growth of the last two centuries, especially, has introduced such disruptive change. We have actually preempted living space essential to a host of other species.
In a sense, we truncate the pyramid of numbers. We do this directly, by killing top predators who otherwise compete with us, thus lowering the pyramid; and by preempting space for agriculture and urbanization, and by polluting, thus reducing the pyramid from the sides, which makes it less productive for everyone. In 1997 Peter Vitousek and colleagues showed (see Science, p. 494-9) that we were consuming nearly 30% of Earth’s basic productivity just for ourselves. Another impressive illustration of our imprint on what were once supportive natural systems is a map of the road network we have imposed on the coterminous United States (see Science, 4 May 2007, p. 736-7).
We have diffidently called this fragmentation of habitat, and habitat loss, but failed to regulate it so as to maintain the diversity of life.
This failure, viewed objectively, should suffice to disqualify us as environmental managers of the four billion-year old evolutionary systems. The threat of global warming we have set in motion is another, more proximate accusation of incompetence. Our future is now threatened because the current ruling elites know neither the language nor the science, and are thus tone-deaf to the consequences. This is Greek tragedy writ large!
Our exaggerated individualism—nourished by monotheism, notions of an implanted soul,
and the otherworldliness already mentioned---conspired to overlook that (1) we are evolutionary end-products of cooperative systems built on interdependence (not mere competition); (2) that the persistence of current populations depends on the proper functioning of all the participating systems; and (3) that a continuance of the innovation we consider progressive depends on access to the whole pool of existing accomplishments, since we cannot know, except experimentally,. what adaptations will
be successful tomorrow. We know only that current assumptions have brought us to the brink. Hence the need to acknowledge that the nearly seven billion people on the planet are perhaps five billion too many, partly because of the greedy mismanagement of some, but also because of sheer overextension beyond the supportive capacity of the planet’s systems.
The only way for all of us to prosper, perhaps to survive, is to reduce the so-called human footprint. Currently, evolution is thought to have been reduced to human cultural change. This is too narrow a base, a sort of “all our eggs in one basket” dilemma. The challenge is god-like, but the dominant minority’s “one God” has yet to intercede. Our option seems forlorn. The humility involved in cosmic piety may be a last recourse. Succinctly, this means letting Nature run the planet. It may require that we zone the planet for use and non-use. Our parks and reserves are token contributions to what is needed.