Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Outside the System?

I recently came across this post on the BBC website, discussing the influence of human hunting activity on evolution. The basic point of the article is that humans have evolved/developed predatory abilities which are far beyond those of any other organism on the planet, and that as such we represent a major threat to the rest of the system.

Normally - so the theory goes - organisms develop, in part at least, as a consequence of an evolutionary arms race between prey and predator. So carnivores for example, become faster runners or develop sharper teeth and claws, while the herbivores they prey on become faster or larger or develop tougher skin or other defences.

The problem is that humans have an incredible ability to out-think their prey, and to develop tools or technology that can get round any or all of their defences, and they have been able to do this so quickly that evolution no longer has any chance of keeping up. The consequences of this are obvious - we have already wiped out many species and seem to be well on our way to wiping out an awful lot more!

All of this raises the question though: If evolution has been such a wonderful system up until now, then what has gone wrong? This system has worked effectively for billions of years, allegedly producing living organisms from non-organic matter and then producing the mind-blowing quantities and variety of flora and fauna that we see today. Has this system finally broken in the last couple of hundred thousand years? Has it finally unbalanced itself by producing this strange new species of super-predator which somehow seems to have the capacity to destroy the whole thing?

There is another way to read this story. It's not a scientifically precise or complete way of looking at it, but in many ways it's a lot more useful. This version of the story has been around a lot longer than modern science or evolutionary theory and can be found - yes alright, you've guessed it! - in the pages of the Bible.

This version of the story says that human beings were made, "in God's image". In ancient times, long before the advent of modern communication, if a king ruled over a large empire it was common for him to put statues of himself in the places he ruled over, to remind the inhabitants of who was in charge. In the same way, according to the Bible, God has left a living statue of himself on this planet - that is, you and me! According to the Bible then, it isn't an accident that human beings have intellectual and other capacities which are far beyond those of any other creature - we've been given these capacities by God because we are here with a job to do. We've been given control of this planet and He expects us to look after it for Him, and to show the world what He is like by our wise and careful stewardship of it.

Of course it doesn't take a genius to notice that this arrangement also seems to have gone rather wrong! But the problem is with us. We know that we have the capacity to be wise and careful stewards, but we often choose to be selfish and short-sighted instead. This again, is either a sign that evolution has gone very wrong (if you believe that version of the story), or that there are other forces beyond mere evolution which are at play.

So then, are we independent creatures with the capacity for moral choice who are meant to reflect the good God who made us, but often don't and - it seems - have become estranged from Him in some way? Or are we simply evolved beings whose existence represents the fact that the impersonal system that created us has now finally over-reached itself? Or could there - possibly - be elements of truth in both versions of this story...? What do you think...?

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