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New Environmental Stories to Heed Biological Evolution

sustainablephilosopher's picture

Tim Richards
Friday, May 15, 2009
Evolit Final Paper

New Environmental Stories to Heed Biological Evolution

Stories can conflict not just with one another, but also with the very biological processes that gave rise to them. Normally, in studying the theory or story of evolution, we focus on how it conflicts with other dominant cultural stories, especially with Christianity and its insistence that God created the world. This conflict is generally controversial enough to occupy the intellectual content of a course discussing the social aspects of the theory of evolution.

However, I think a far more interesting, more provocative, and more important question is how our cultural stories, particularly that of Christianity, conflict with the biological processes that gave rise both to us as organic beings and the stories that we tell as a result of these biological evolutionary processes. Why is it that the stories we tell and the worldviews we buy into currently conflict with the biological processes that created us and the ecological processes that sustain us? It is one thing to tell stories that seek to deny our biological heredity, but it is quite another to tell stories that actively work against the ecological entities of which we are a part and on which we are dependent to sustain our lives. In my view, the Judeo-Christian worldview and resulting narratives enacts both of these counterproductive roles and in large part led to our current environmental situation.

I do not understand how it has come to be that cultural stories to not only conflict with but also undermine the biological processes that gave rise to them. Living things are a subset of inanimate things just as cultural things are a subset of biological things. Each set of entities is nested within the other, not existing independently in separate realms. In fact, it is impossible to have the animate without the inanimate, just as it is impossible to have the cultural without the biological. Thus, it is completely illogical that the cultural should conflict with the biological/ ecological. And yet, that is precisely the circumstance that we currently find ourselves in.

What negative consequences do stories have? In some ways, this question links back to my very first forum post, in which I questioned what negative impacts the story of evolution could have on society. I wrote,

“If a narrative such as Darwin's evolutionary one is indeed somewhat close to being "true" which is to say it nearly matches the state of affairs in nature (a representationalist definition), what does this fact accomplish for our species? Can Darwin's story inspire lives of dedication, service, and altruism such as those inspired by the various religious narratives worldwide? Or are Darwin's and other     scientific narratives tricking themselves into believing they have found 'truth,' which is to say a less-than inspiring story about human life and natural affairs that tends to promote smug, self-satisfied beings who think they have conquered mystery and can engineer their own destiny and the destiny of life writ large at the helm of the world?” i

However, I never quite extended the negative impacts of stories onto the biological sphere itself, though I pointed to representational science as grounds for the possibility of a species capable of dominating its environment. Stories can conflict with biological processes that gave rise to them, not just with one another and the culture of which they are a part. As it turns out, our stories hitherto have resulted in significant human degradation of the environment.

This seems to challenge what Lisa B. said in a forum post on 4/25 - "It seems that literary evolution is insignificant compared to biological evolution..." ii Biological evolution is incomparably vaster than cultural and literary evolution, but the latter two may be unfathomably more powerful, given the scope of their impact compared to the contracted time scale of their existence. Conservationist Aldo Leopold drew a contrast between evolutionary or "natural" changes, which typically occur slowly and locally, with human-induced changes that are "of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope" and have "effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen" (AE p. 287-288). We have become a most formidable force of nature. The question remains to be seen whether we have control over our own unfathomably vast scales.

As 1600 Senior Scientists wrote in a 1992 World Scientists Warning to Humanity, "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course . . . No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished." iii Science will indeed be a part of the solution to our environmental crises; after all, how would we know the world is warming and the climate is changing, much less how to begin to address these problems, without scientific data? Yet, science alone, itself also being one of the perpetrators behind our global environmental status quo, will not suffice in addressing our manifold environmental problems - we will need new stories that reframe the human relation to and conceptions of the environment. It will take a hell of a good story to turn this environmental status quo around.

As an environmentalist, this realization is key to me. Evolving to have different stories as a culture can have positive impacts on biological evolution as well, for we can become stewards of the environment. In order to do so, we must evolve our noosphere to be mindful of the biosphere.  But before delving into the content of a new environmental story, we need to look more closely at the old stories and ask questions about some of the parameters that will be required of a new story.

We can use Nietzsche's broad questions about the value judgments of good and evil and apply them to our stories: "What value do they themselves have? Have they inhibited or furthered human flourishing up until now? Are they a sign of distress, of impoverishment, of the degeneration of life? Or, conversely, do they betray the fullness, the power, the will of life, its courage, its confidence, its future?" (GM, p. 2-3). I would argue that our stories about the environment have encouraged human flourishing up until now, but only in a very narrow, anthropocentric sense.

In order to attempt to understand how this state of affairs came to be, I will consult historian Lynn White Jr's famous essay "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." In this essay, he posits that the Christian worldview is largely responsible for our current environmental crises: the view that should hold dominion over nature, and that man, formed in God's image, is different from and superior to all other living creatures (AE p. 405). It is not hard to imagine how we got from this narrative as a starting point to our current environmental status quo - every action by man is ultimately guided and justified by this worldview, and before we know it we find ourselves in a human-centered world with all of the non-human aspects of the environment suffering.

As White writes, "What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny-that is, by religion" (AE p. 406). In other words, our stories undergird and determine our behavior. What we believe and how we see determines how we act and what our goals are. With an exceptionalist, entitled view of ourselves as a species, we quickly begin to draw lines from everything around us, differentiating what is lower and inferior. An important caveat to keep in mind, however, is the fact that the degradation of environmental health is tantamount to degradation of human health - thus, when the environment is in bad shape, so are humans, both psychologically and physiologically. In this sense, our stories hitherto have been successful in serving human life, but not so successful in serving life broadly speaking. Recently, though, our success has been catching up with us and is beginning to bite our own collective tail.

White bases his criticism of the Christian worldview for its role in our ecological crisis on the Biblical scripture of Genesis 1:26-28, where God commands His new creation, man, to have dominion over the earth and to rule and subdue it. He writes, "Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes" (AE p. 407). Many Christians indeed work with this dominion verse in the scripture to justify what has been done to the environment and continue to perpetuate a purely utilitarian view of the environment and non-human animals.

A growing movement of Christian environmentalists, however, favors a "stewardship" interpretation of this verse, where instead of having dominion over the Earth and all its creatures, humans are stewards of the Earth and all its creatures. The stewardship model implies duties and obligations to nature over entitlements and rights; it poses a benevolent role for man as a being who, although still possibly at the top of the animal kingdom, is not a monarch or autocrat with absolute terrible powers, but rather perhaps an enlightened despot or philanthropist who benevolently benefits the less fortunate in the world. We will return to the stewardship model later when comparing the various alternatives for our environmental stories.

White goes on to claim, "from the 13th century onward, up to and including Leibnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms" (AE p. 409). Therefore, "modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of religious devotion, shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus" (AE p. 410). The science and technology that are so largely responsible for the depletion of the environment, then, ultimately trace back to the roots of the dominion Christian worldview. Because science and technology are ultimately premised on the belief that we can do whatever we want with the Earth, "more science and technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one" (AE p. 410). Another way of putting White's insight is that we need a new story, or to rethink our old ones.

For White, the new story has to do with "the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi" (AE p. 411). He explains, "The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility-not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures" (AE p. 411). St. Francis went beyond the stewardship paradigm where man is a benevolent dictator at the top of creation and proposed a radically more egalitarian model where all creatures are citizens in a kind of biotic democracy. Each creature has duties and obligations to the others, none are superior to the others, and all creatures are united by and serve the glory of God the creator. Despite what the dominion story implies and enacts, it is not our global manifest destiny to be the top species. Perhaps it would be best, as St. Francis suggests, for the arrogant primates to step back and take a look around: we share this incredible planet with many sentient, intelligent, beautiful, and interesting creatures, all of which are sacred as parts of creation.

In White's view, St. Francis was rebelling against the dominion worldview that led to the science and technology that have dominated the natural world today. Unfortunately, St. Francis failed and "no new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man" (AE p. 412). Yet, White proposes St. Francis as a patron saint for ecologists, which demonstrates that he is merely opposed to dominion Christianity and its scientific, technological descendants as a dominant cultural story, rather than Christianity and science/ technology writ large.

A non-religious way of framing the environmental story has to do with the history of American environmentalism. American environmentalism has been dominated by the debate between conservation and preservation. Conservationists such as Franklin Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot wanted to conserve natural areas, but only so that humans could continually use the 'resources' for human ends and never exhaust them. The similarity between the dominion worldview should be noted; however, conservationists tend to be careful of how they use 'natural resources' in contrast to the recklessness of dominion enterprises.

Preservationists such as Aldo Leopold, on the other hand, wanted to allow these 'resources' to continue to exist because they are valuable as ends in themselves, without regard to their function or worth for humans. Preservationists were advocates of wilderness, wherein nature is intrinsically valuable and has a right to existence on its own terms, free of human meddling. This non-instrumental apprehension of and way of existing with the environment is similar to St. Francis's approach, though less overtly religious.

Conservationists supported the creation of National Parks, but they advocated for mining and logging to take place on these public lands, where the economic activity could be carefully regulated and managed so as to continue for as long as possible without depleting the resources. Conservationists essentially operate off of the stewardship model, although they do believe that the environment is there for human use, thus the term 'natural resources.' The fact that they use the environment in a sensitive way, mindful of the future, may or may not improve their environmental rapport.     

Preservationists, on the other hand, thought that no human economic activities should occur in pristine wildernesses on public land. They have a more Franciscan ethic about them, seeking to co-exist with the environment and non-human animals in a non-exploitive way. In fact, Leopold insists, "a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it" (AE p. 278). He almost explicitly references the egalitarianism of St. Francis, in a non-religious way. Rather than being the monarch of the natural world, exploiting and controlling nature for human expediency, we can hold a more democratic relationship to nature, given that we are kin to all things natural and we are as reliant on the Earth and its processes as is the rest of life.

Our stories are products of evolution, descendant from matter. There is a way in which this evolution can prove to be a useful development not only for the human sphere, but also for the biological realm itself. As we evolve our stories and as our stories evolve to include environmental components, our ways of being and interacting with the world around us will come to value rather than disregard, help rather than harm, and improve rather than degrade, the environment. We will come to be grateful for and supportive of not only the biological processes which engendered us, the ecological processes which sustain us, but also perhaps with a stretch of the imagination and a widening of the human sphere of compassion, we can even be thankful for the cosmic evolution that originally formed this wonderful space rock of ours.

To return to a theme from earlier in the course, I do not think we need to get rid of a teleological narrative altogether, but we do need to change the ultimate direction of our teleology from that of Creationism/ the Great Chain of Being: that humans were created, distinct from other animals, to be rulers of the world as our divinely appointed destiny. We also need to move away from the humans as having dominion over the Earth approach. Such starting points will no longer do.

Perhaps we can start with the stewardship rather than the dominion model. Even better, we can move to a more egalitarian model where we are one intelligent species amongst many others that coexists with the rest of the organic world as harmoniously as possible. As Daniel Quinn suggests in his novel Ishmael, we can even help other species evolve to greater levels of self-consciousness and increased levels of complexity and intelligence, becoming a kind of helping hand to the evolutionary process ourselves.  

Teleology in itself is not a bad thing; its usefulness in stories ultimately depends on the final destination at which a story is aiming. Whatever we decide to intentionally evolve towards as the direction of cultural evolution, both our process and goal must be conducive to life, biologically and ecologically speaking. The possibilities to this end, of course, are endless and should (and will) be explored without ceasing.

Works Cited

AE = American Earth: Environmental Writing since Thoreau. Bill McKibben. New York: Library of America, 2008.

GM = Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

i From 1/26/09 at /exchange/node/3712

ii From 4/25/09 by Lisa B. at /exchange/node/4221

iii "World Scientists Warning to Humanity" issued by 1600 Senior Scientists from 71 countries, including half of all Nobel Prize winners, on November 18, 1992. See full document at


Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution and environmentalism

"Each set of entities is nested within the other, not existing independently in separate realms. In fact, it is impossible to have the animate without the inanimate, just as it is impossible to have the cultural without the biological. Thus, it is completely illogical that the cultural should conflict with the biological/ ecological."

And yet, as you say, we find ourselves there.  And so need new stories.   Maybe "conducive to life, biologically and ecologically speaking" requires stories that decline "teleology" in order to become "a kind of helping hand to the evolutionary process ourselves"?