Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Score one for the mixed breeds

September 14th, 2010 No comments

Mixed, even at the species level.

But because species hybrids create new combinations of genes, it is possible that some combinations might enable hybrids to adapt to conditions in which neither parent may fare as well. Several such examples are now known from nature. Furthermore, DNA analysis is now allowing biologists to better decipher the histories of species and to detect past hybridization events that have contributed new genes and capabilities to various kinds of organisms including, it now appears, ourselves.

and here’s a nice turn of phrase …

Various kinds of evidence indicate that modern humans migrated out of Africa and reached the Middle East more than 100,000 years ago and Europe by about 45,000 years ago, and would have or could have encountered Neanderthals for some time in each locale. The crucial question for paleontology, archaeology, and paleogenetics has been what transpired between the two species. To put it a little more crudely, did we date them or kill them, or perhaps both?

That just gives a whole new level to the notion of  “fear and self-loathing” doesn’t it?  ;->

And finally  …

The discovery of hybrid species and the detection of past hybridizations are forcing biologists to reshape their picture of species as independent units. The barriers between species are not necessarily vast, unbridgeable chasms; sometimes they get crossed with marvelous results.

George MacDonald on animals and God

September 9th, 2010 No comments

George MacDonald was a minister and theologian in the mid-late 1800’s.  His wiki entry claims influenced C.S. Lewis and perhaps even Mark Twain.  That’s quite a combination.  I have my share of Twain’s, Letters from the Earth days.  I definitely have a lot of C.S. Lewis, “Problem of Pain” days.  If you’re interested in C.S. Lewis I recommend the article, in which Andrew Linzey does an excellent exposition of Lewis’ theology of animals, available online here.

Lately though, I find myself resonating with much of what MacDonald has written in The Hope of the Universe.  It looks like he could have been speaking into the vivisection debate at that time, though I’m not sure from this text.  I’ve been reading this for awhile now and have had a difficult time deciding which part to excerpt.  It’s all good. But here are my favorites pieces of his interaction with Romans 8.

To believe that God made many of the lower creatures merely for prey, or to be the slaves of a slave, and writhe under the tyrannies of a cruel master who will not serve his own master; that he created and is creating an endless succession of them to reap little or no good of life but its cessation–a doctrine held by some, and practically accepted by multitudes–is to believe in a God who, so far as one portion at least of his creation is concerned, is a demon. But a creative demon is an absurdity; and were such a creator possible, he would not be God, but must one day be found and destroyed by the real God. Not the less the fact remains, that miserable suffering abounds among them, and that, even supposing God did not foresee how creation would turn out for them, the thing lies at his door. He has besides made them so far dumb that they cannot move the hearts of the oppressors into whose hands he has given them, telling how hard they find the world, how sore their life in it. The apostle takes up their case, and gives us material for an answer to such as blame God for their sad condition.

MacDonald, like both Twain and Lewis, recognizes predation and animal suffering to be a serious theological issue. He takes Paul to have actually already provided the answer.   I’ve read quite a bit of natural evil/animal suffering theodicy.  It seems odd that we would read the bible in a way that requires post-hoc animal suffering theodicies.  If we weren’t reading it with selfishly anthropocentric lenses to begin with we wouldn’t have to defend it from the God-diminishing conclusions of reading it anthropocentrically.  On the other hand, if we weren’t reading it anthropocentrically, it would make claims on our behavior to non-human animals.  And we certainly can’t have the bible making claims on us that we don’t like.

What many men call their beliefs, are but the prejudices they happen to have picked up: why should such believers waste a thought as to how their paltry fellow-inhabitants of the planet fare? Many indeed have all their lives been too busy making their human fellows groan and sweat for their own fancied well-being, to spare a thought for the fate of the yet more helpless. But there are not a few, who would be indignant at having their belief in God questioned, who yet seem greatly to fear imagining him better than he is: whether is it he or themselves they dread injuring by expecting too much of him?

Believing that God cares about animals is certainly an insult the human ego.  Not only do we want confirmation of our own special-ness, we tend to want that to entail an added dimension of therefore-more-special-than (fill in the blank) because of (fill in the justification).

Do you believe in immortality for yourself? I would ask any reader who is not in sympathy with my hope for the animals. If not, I have no argument with you. But if you do, why not believe in it for them? Verily, were immortality no greater a thing for the animals than it seems for men to some who yet profess to expect it, I should scarce care to insist upon their share in it. But if the thought be anywise precious to you, is it essential to your enjoyment in it, that nothing less than yourself should share its realization? Are you the lowest kind of creature that could be permitted to live? Had God been of like heart with you, would he have given life and immortality to creatures so much less than himself as we?  … If his presence be no good to the sparrow, are you very sure what good it will be to you when your hour comes? Believe it is not by a little only that the heart of the universe is tenderer, more loving, more just and fair, than yours or mine.

This.  This.  This.

Had the Lord cared no more for what of his father’s was lower than himself, than you do for what of your father’s is lower than you, you would not now be looking for any sort of redemption.

And this.  Isn’t this the point of “not one sparrow?”  MacDonald gets to that here …

If the Lord said very little about animals, could he have done more for them than tell men that his father cared for them? He has thereby wakened and is wakening in the hearts of men a seed his father planted. It grows but slowly, yet has already borne a little precious fruit. His loving friend St Francis has helped him, and many others have tried, and are now trying to help him: whoever sows the seed of that seed the Father planted is helping the Son. Our behaviour to the animals, our words concerning them, are seed, either good or bad, in the hearts of our children. No one can tell to what the animals might not grow, even here on the old earth under the old heaven, if they were but dealt with according to their true position in regard to us. They are, in sense very real and divine, our kindred. If I call them our poor relations, it is to suggest that poor relations are often ill used. Relatives, poor or rich, may be such ill behaved, self-assertive, disagreeable persons, that we cannot treat them as we gladly would; but our endeavour should be to develop every true relation. He who is prejudiced against a relative because he is poor, is himself an ill-bred relative …

Moving into his discussion of vivisection … I wonder what he would have thought about modern day slaughterhouses and factory farms?   Compare this to contemporary apologists who claim it’s ok to “work on” animals.

Torture can be inflicted only by the superior. The divine idea of a superior, is one who requires duty, and protects, helps, delivers: our relation to the animals is that of their superiors in the family, who require labour, it may be, but are just, helpful, protective. Can they know anything of the Father who neither love nor rule their inferiors, but use them as a child his insensate toys, pulling them to pieces to know what is inside them? Such men, so-called of science–let them have the dignity to the fullness of its worth–lust to know as if a man’s life lay in knowing, as if it were a vile thing to be ignorant–so vile that, for the sake of his secret hoard of facts, they do right in breaking with torture into the house of the innocent! Surely they shall not thus find the way of understanding! Surely there is a maniac thirst for knowledge, as a maniac thirst for wine or for blood! He who loves knowledge the most genuinely, will with the most patience wait for it until it can be had righteously.  … Force thy violent way, and gain knowledge, to miss truth. Thou mayest wound the heart of God, but thou canst not rend it asunder to find the Truth that sits there enthroned.

He ends with

To those who expect a world to come, I say then, Let us take heed how we carry ourselves to the creation which is to occupy with us the world to come.


Theodicy, Animal Pain, and Pathetic Cyclopsian Hordes

March 9th, 2010 No comments


Here’s a page with a couple of good entries on the problems for theodicy presented by animal pain and suffering, from the online journal of philosophy and animals Between the Species.  The two articles I found most interesting are :

Theodicy and Animals, by Joseph Lynch.  This is a good short summary of the problems animals pose for traditional theodicies as well as some of the general attempts by theists to address those issues. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, by Michael Murray would be a similar treatment in book length.

Darwin’s Doubts and the Problem of Animal Pain, by Eric Kraemer.  This one touches on a few points of interest, Plantinga’s use of ‘Darwin’s doubts’ and whether evolution is in fact reconcilable with the propositions of traditional theism.  I appreciated the example of the Cyclopsian Hordes in response to framing the significance of animal suffering in terms of human character building … honestly … could there be anything more selfish than explaining someone else’s suffering in terms of yourself?

To claim that animal suffering is required for human character building, free will, etc. not only ignores the huge amount of animal suffering in nature which has no effect on humans at all.22 To avoid this last problem, suppose we try to justify animal suffering in terms of requirements involving another kind of creature, for example a very large number of idiotic giants, modeled perhaps after the Cyclops, who live on other planets but are obsessed with observing all nonhuman suffering on Earth through powerful telescopes, so no bit of animal suffering ever goes unobserved. If there are enough giants on other planets and if every bit of animal suffering goes towards improving the moral situation of these pathetic giants, the theist might claim that earthly animal suffering was counterbalanced by creating greater goods elsewhere in the universe.23 However unlikely this situation might appear to us, and even if we accept the crude Utilitarian calculations it presupposes, the Cyclopsian scenario faces a standard problem confronting most theistic attempts to explain away the existence of evil.24 This is the problem of making it plausible to believe that God, an all-powerful and all-knowing being, really had no better method available for the moral improvement of the Cyclopsian race than to permit the huge amount of animal suffering we find on Earth. Since we can, with no apparent difficulty, imagine God making video tapes of animal suffering, or showing movies of animal suffering to produce the same good extra-terrestrial effect, to think of God’s ingenuity being defeated by the mental limitations of the Cyclopsian hordes is a possibility that is hard to take seriously.

Darwin, Jesus, Nietzsche, and the Pope

August 1st, 2009 No comments

What does not kill me makes me stronger.  ~ Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.  ~ Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Nietzsche.   I can’t believe it took me so long to put my finger on what’s been bugging me but that’s it.   As someone who came to church with evolution already installed, I’m particularly interested in how Darwin and evolution get discussed in that context.  Before I go any further let me admit that I’m open to being totally wrong, I’m open to the fact that Genesis absolutely can be read in a way that precludes the evolutionary process completely.   I also admit that pre-Fall animal pain and suffering is a problem for theists.   On the other hand, post-Fall animal pain and suffering is also a problem for theists who bother to examine it closely.   When addressed fully, that’s a huge topic that I’m not yet comfortable tackling here.  This post, then, is about one aspect of the church meets evolution relationship, and basically it comes down to telos, or ultimate aim. Read more…

The Fig Tree and The Limbic Brain

July 25th, 2009 No comments

This is an interesting take on the human act of worship, it’s function, and how it is manipulated by human power structures (be it the church, or the government). It also seems like a tangential nod to Durkheim’s sociological concept of ‘collective effervescence’. The examples of “Nuremberg” and “unNuremberg” labels are interesting and seem to reflect not just worship styles but approximate the polarity between fundamentalist religion and non-fundamentalist religion … with purity,danger, and a fear-based need to either completely dominate or otherwise eliminate ‘otherness’ at one end and the ability to see that very dynamic and at work and step back from it at the other.

My favorite line is this … (in Nuremberg) “The faithful had to be made ready to do things, or acquiesce in things, with which calm and unenthusiastic people might disagree.” This gets to the very heart of what we do out of fear, when we’re in pure limbic mode, in groups … whether in the context of the politics of religion or the religion of politics. Guilt & Fear -> Blame -> Mob Frenzy directed at Marginalized Victim -> Scapegoating Violence. Hello fig tree.

The notion of “unNuremberg” worship as being that which allows us to “… stumble out of the rally, and walk away, being amazed at what it is we have been bound up in, and shocked at what we have done, or might have done as a result of where we were going” reminds me of this discussion about the ability to engage in meta-cognition and how being closer to the fundamentalist end of the spectrum seems like it might correlate with an inability or unwillingness to “stumble out of the rally” of the limbic brain. … Let me make sure I acknowledge that there are likely natural individual predispositions toward one end or the other but I think it’s primarily something that gets imposed by the framework you’re in. I think people can, to a large degree, be taught to worship one way or the other.  Therein lies the greater responsibility of leadership.  Be careful what you teach.

The Way of All Flesh

June 20th, 2009 No comments

From David S. Cunningham, “The Way of All Flesh: Rethinking the Imago Dei,” in Creaturely Theology, ed. Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough (London: SCM Press, 2009).

In the first stage of my argument, I want to raise some questions about the definitive distinction between human beings and other animals that seems to be presumed within many theological accounts of the created order.  … such distinctions are commonplace in the history of Christian theology; in fact, so obvious does this distinction seem to many theological commentators that they simply never bother to argue the case.  We might hypothesize that, in this line of inquiry as in so many others, the theological imagination is often easily overwhelmed by empirical data and by the cultural assumptions under which it operates.  In short, human beings are assumed to be radically different from other animals because they look different, they act different, and they are treated differently.  These same indicators are among those that have been used, over the centuries, to render poor theological judgements about the various races and ethnicities, and the divide between gay and straight people.  In all these cases, empirical and cultural judgements were used to bolster, falsely, a claim that a significant theological distinction existed between, for example, men and women. (101)

(emphasis mine)

That’s the rub isn’t it … theologies, thoughts about the eternal, transcendent God are products of a particular cultural location in time and place.  Arguments are made that new theology is “just” a product of the current culture when by that same stance traditional theology was also “just” a product of its culture.  It’s not as if the “cultural influence” switch got magically turned on after the Reformation, or, in my opinion, wasn’t on when the Biblical writers were writing (stockbreeders describing God as a stockbreeder).

Cunningham goes on to suggest that in light of Darwin, biology, and ethology there should obviously, as opposed to begrudgingly, be a rethinking of much older foundations of the divide between humans and other creatures.  I’d add more specifically that when people begin to do theology who aren’t devoted to defending (albeit perhaps unconsciously) a particular traditional behavior  – in our case meat eating – Biblical revelation will be allowed to be just that again, revealing.

His argument is that in light of what we know now, we need to take a good hard look at how scripture actually positions humanity in relation to the other creatures God made.  He suggests a re-orientation around the Biblical notion and use of  the word Flesh as opposed to the phrase Image of God.  Image of God turns out to not be terribly helpful primarily because the signified (God the Father), the archetype,  is unavailable for direct comparison, making the word Image (as a signifier) tricky indeed.   He does not deny that there is any reservation of the phrase specifically for humanity, only that it might not be as clear cut an issue as it is usually taken to be.

Cunninham goes on to note important testamental differences in the way that the phrase “Image of God” is used.  The word Flesh, however, is used in a more consistent way across both the Old and New Testaments.  In the Torah, Image of God is only used three times (Gen 1:26-27, Gen 5:1, Gen 9:6) and is used in reference to humans in general.  In the New Testament, however, the phrase is used more frequently and “its center of gravity is not on human beings in general but on Christ as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15; John 1:18, 14:8-9; 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb 1:3).”  (107)   Essentially the theme of the NT is that Christ is the new Adam.  Beginning with Christ, there is a new standard for image of God and it’s not us by default … Christ now carries it and the only way to get it back is through him. We cannot look at ourselves as the image of God unless we see Christ reflected through us.  Thus he concludes “Image of God” is not rightly a means by which Christians can presumptively contrast ourselves to other creatures, our gaze must not be merely horizontal, but in a Christological sense, must be the way by which all creatures (all flesh) are seen in light of Jesus.  Our gaze must always be lifted towards our Lord.  As a Christian I must consider myself among the subjects of Jesus’ reconciliatory work in the world, for the whole created order, and not as the sole (soul) focus of it.  (that was a freebie)

We might suggest the following analogy: relying on Aristotle’s arguments about the special place of humanity within creation would be similar to claiming that the reason that we know that God cares more for the earth than for the other planets is because everything revolves around the earth, just as Ptolemy told us.  … We can generalize the point to some degree, and make the following claim: a shift in scientific thinking need not require us to create a new argument based on new science; but it may well behoove us to stop basing our arguments on the old science.  And this may lead us to observe that we had perhaps been relying rather too heavily upon manifestly a-theological or anti-theological accounts to buttress our (supposedly) theological arguments.  … [Newer theological arguments] should force us to ask why we had been so captivated by the older forms in the first place. (103)

Evolution, Design, Killing, and Christianity

June 12th, 2009 No comments

My pastor recently did a multi-week series on the topic of the interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1.  His purpose was not to tell us how we should think but only to show that there are different faithful interpretations; broadly speaking they are metaphorical, 6 literal 24 hr. days, and something called the day age interpretation.  Shortly thereafter we had a guest speaker, the author of the book “Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Inspires Faith“.   Again, none of this was in order to standardize belief for our congregation but to allow room for discussion on a topic that is usually polarizing to the point of paralysis.

All supremely good and brave stuff.

Here’s my take.  My educational background is equal parts anthropology and psychology.  I’m all about evolution.  That’s not a problem.  My problem is highlighted by two of the comments/questions that were posed during the question and answer time after the author spoke.  They were something along these lines:

  1. “I heard that cooking meat is what made us have bigger brains and that’s essentially what made us the humans we are today.”  – maybe not the exact words but something about eating cooked meat makes us human.
  2. “We’re different from animals because animals don’t fear death, they will lay down and bare their throats to the blade.”  – that one’s more close to the actual wording, it was so disturbing it’s easier to remember.

Read more…

Christian Predation – Que Sera, Sera?

September 5th, 2008 No comments

I watched some of the RNC last night.  The “meet Sarah Palin” video was interesting.    She’s a go-getter, she’s devoted to her family, her church, and her country, she can slash budgets with a baby on her hip.  I love all that about her.  I really do.  However, the other thing I saw in the video was a repetition of the themes of Hunting, Oil, and Military – the holy trinity of earthly power.  I’d like to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the idea of predation being sanctioned by Christian theology, focusing specifically on sport-hunting.

Christian predation is generally defended with arguments from nature.  The similarity between the ‘we can therefore it must be what God wants’ argument and the evolutionary concept of adaptation and ‘survival of the fittest’ is to me, bizarre, to say the least;  even more so considering the force with which creationism is currently being promoted in order to counter the so called heresy of evolution.   You can’t have it both ways.  Let me show you what I’m talking about.  This is typical of content in support of creationism, this specifically was offered as a defense against the idea of Progressive Creationism (Darwinian evolution as a tool of God):

If Christ, the Creator (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16, I Corinthians 8:6, Hebrews 1:2), used millions of years of suffering and death to make the animals, how can He be all-loving and all-good?

Under the Progressive Creation scenario, Christ designed the animals to devour each other, ripping with claws and teeth. He then further allowed these innocent creatures (with no connection whatsoever to man or sin) to die by the trillions for millions of years due to every catastrophe conceivable. God allowed (or possibly even sent) a multitude of afflictions down on these animals, including diseases of all sorts, plagues, volcanoes, earthquakes, bombardments from outer space, floods, etc. As a result, animals of many types were killed to extinction.

Thus, the Progressive Creation scenario involves a process of elimination, death by fang and claw—cold and unmerciful to the weak. Could even a sadist think of a more cruel and ugly way to produce the animals over which Adam was to rule?

What a horrible thing to accuse Jesus Christ of doing! It is shocking that Progressive Creationism defends this as the process that Jesus set up and ruled till the creation of man.

Our Creator’s true nature is incompatible with this plan. God is love! He sees even the sparrow fall. Animal death came because of man. He said, “Blessed are the meek”—not blessed are the strongest and most aggressive.1

This is typical of content in support of Christian hunting:

… not only do you love hunting, you also love the Lord.  You know God loves you and blesses you.  You are assured that if you can ‘hunt with Jesus, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says or believes’.  ‘I hunt with God as my companion,’ you say to yourself, ‘knowing he will direct me and keep me safe.’  As you get dressed, you spiritually prepare yourself.  Nothing can be done right, you think to yourself, ‘unless I include God in it and that applies to hunting too’.  … While as a Christian hunter you love hunting, you also admit to an element of ‘sadness’ in being responsible for the death of another creature.  You comfort yourself with the thought that death is not an ‘end’ for the animal but a ‘glorious beginning’. 2

Besides the fact that this excerpt could just as easily be written by any so called ‘terrorist’ in preparation for any killing in the name of his or her God, let’s step back and focus on an underlying assumption justifying the idea of ‘hunting with Jesus’.

The primary fallacy is mistaking God’s love of people with approval of their actions.  This is like using the story of the Centurion’s Servant (Matt. 8:5:13, Luke 7:1-10) to show that Jesus loves warriors therefore he supports war, killing, etc.  God also loves prostitutes but nobody would argue that he therefore loves prostitution.  One of the first lessons we learn about God in the story of the flood is that he was so disappointed in humans and animals both for becoming violent that he decided to wipe us all out and start again. God was sorry he made us because we were violent  (Gen 6:6).  “God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence through them.” (Gen. 6:13)  Noah was considered righteous because he trusted God, not because God loved everything Noah did … “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” Gen 8:21.   The fact that our relationship now with animals is described as one of ‘fear and dread’ isn’t something we should be proud of, it’s all a result of our sin.  Embracing,  and more specifically propagating conditions based on sin, especially ones which are so obviously optional, is to embrace sin itself.

In short, the gospel of ‘hunting with Jesus’ is a gospel of Predation.  Life eating life is not some unfortunate aspect of the natural world to be tolerated in the meantime between creation and consummation.  Rather, God actually wills and blesses a self-murdering system of survival.  God’s will is death. 3

Clearly Jesus the Predator4 is incompatible with Jesus of creationism, if not the entirety of the gospel we actually have.  Jesus the predator is however, fully compatible with the idea of a godless evolution.  It can, of course be said that the need to defend ourselves from deadly threats is a result of living in a fallen world, and sometimes that might justify deadly force against animals or humans.  There is much sincere, reasoned debate over what to do about that.  However, killing for sport and pleasure is not about need, it’s about greed.  Sport hunting, unnecessary meat eating, killing animals to wear or decorate with their skins – none of this has anything to do with the tragic necessities of living in a fallen world, it has everything to do with the tragedy of embracing it.


2 “The Christian Hunter’s Survival Guide”, Pastor William H. Ammon as quoted in “Animal Theology”, p 114  See also

3 Linzey, Andrew.  “Animal Theology”. 1994 p. 119

4 Ibid., p. 114

On Not Blaming or Claiming Darwin

May 5th, 2008 No comments

I’d like to point to a couple of resources for unpacking the problem of the relationship between Christianity and Darwin vis-a-vie how the human-animal relationship and animals as such are viewed.  I hope to come back and do a little summary of the first one in a few weeks when I have more time for those of you who don’t have access to academic journal subscriptions.

Of course if you’re interested in reading any of these articles that I talk about or link to all you have to do is contact a university library (in your state or not) and ask about getting a library card.  It’s probably free or at least very cheap and will give you access to academic journals online.

Darwin, Christianity, and the Great Vivisection Debate. Rod Preece

The reputation of the Christian tradition has fared poorly in the literature on the history of attitudes to nonhuman animals. This is more a consequence of secularist prejudice than objective scholarship. The idea of “dominion” and the understanding of animal souls are almost universally misrepresented. There has been no firmer conclusion than that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had a profoundly beneficial impact on the recognition of our similarities to, kinship with, and consequent moral obligations to, other species. In reality, Darwinism had no such effect. That there was an essential kinship with, and homologies between, humans and other species had been attested to for centuries. In the first major ethical issue that arose after the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man — legislation to restrict vivisection — Darwin and Huxley stood on the side of more or less unrestricted vivisection while many major explicitly Christian voices — from Cardinal Manning to Lord Chief Justice Coleridge to the Earl of Shaftesbury — demanded the most severe restrictions, in many cases abolition. The customary tale of how Christianity hindered the development of sensibilities to animals and how Darwinism occasioned a revolution in animal ethics needs to be rethought and retold.

Thoughts out of Season on the History of Animal Ethics.  Rod Preece  (online)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the earlier Western tradition did not customarily deny souls per se to nonhuman animals; when it denied immortal souls to animals, it sometimes deemed that denial a reason for giving greater consideration to animals in their earthly existence. Nor has the Western tradition uniformly deemed animals intended for human use. Further, there was considerable opposition to the Cartesian view of animals as insentient machines, and—even among those who were convinced—it was not unknown for them to deem it inappropriate to rely on that conviction in the treatment of animals. Moreover, Darwin’s (1874) theory of evolution had neither a novel nor a positive impact on the way in which animals were to be regarded and treated. The study of the history of animal ethics needs to be rethought in a far more nuanced manner.