The place(s) where green religion meets green science is the test-bed of natural theology. If there is a God who is creator and sustainer of the material world, one whom we worship because of his works both past and present, then there is a reasonable expectation that we might expect to detect him or her in these works. If we find no traces of such a God, it might mean that we are using the wrong tests, but more seriously that he (or she) does not exist. Green science is obviously an important enterprise for a natural theologian. St Paul, on his only recorded address to pagans, rather surprisingly did not preach Jesus as Lord or proclaim the significance of the resurrection, but used the regularity of nature as evidence for God’s work (‘[God] has not left himself without some clue to his nature, in the benefits he bestows: he sends you rain from heaven and the crops in their seasons, and gives you food in plenty, and keeps you in good heart’ Acts 14.17). This does not appear particularly convincing to us. Can we do better? Can we find God in nature, and if not, what do we conclude?
We have seen (p. 6) that the recognition that the world is old and that it has changed through time destroys the naive assumption of a world created by a benevolent being who assigned a place and function to everything. But the traditional belief involved more than the mechanical assembly we associate with Paley’s divine watchmaker; it included the idea of self-regulation, often using the analogy of a living body as a microcosm of the world.
The Balance of Nature
Commonly associated with the notion of self-regulation is that of an equilibrium or ‘balance’ in nature. This is a favourite of politicians, who profess themselves upset about disturbing this balance and urge the need to return to it, as if there were some ideal state, presumably akin to the biblical Paradise. In her Royal Society address in 1988, which testified her acknowledgement that the environment could not be left wholly to ‘market forces’, Margaret Thatcher spoke of ‘the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere’ (Thatcher, 1989).
But such balances and equilibria almost certainly do not exist; they owe more to obsolete theology than to scientific understanding. Clarence Glacken (1967:230) cites Aquinas as teaching a concept of balance and harmony in nature. This led Glacken to conclude: ‘modern ecological theory, so important in our attitudes towards nature and man’s interference with it, owes its origin to the design argument: the wisdom of the Creator is self-evident, everything in the creation is inter-related, no living thing is useless, and all are related one to the other’ (p. 423).
The reality is less mechanistic and, if we want to invoke religious faith, owes more to sustaining providence than deistic regulation. The world and its processes are so vast that it is difficult to shift them, but we should not confuse inertia with intrinsic stability. Egerton (1973) identified three ideas which have led to the myth of a balance in nature:
- a commonly applied parallel between the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the living world;
- the scala naturae or chain of being, linking all organisms together (p. 6);
- a divinely ordered balance, derived from Stoic ideas of the creator’s wisdom and benevolence.
All these recognise some sort of relationship of interactions in the natural world, and this, of course, is the science of ecology. To understand natural processes it is necessary to delve somewhat into the content and history of the science.
The name ‘ecology’ was proposed by the German biologist Haeckel (1866); he introduced the word so as to free ‘biology’ to be used in its modern sense (i.e. as the study of morphology or anatomy, plus physiology or function). Natural history is centuries old but ‘the first sketch of a science of ecology’, is attributed by Egerton (1973) to an essay on Oeconomia naturae by Carl Linnaeus (1749), little more than a hundred years before Haeckel. In it, Linnaeus used reproduction, cooperation and mortality as the key elements in the ‘economy’ of an organism. This well describes the British pursuit of ecology, which is sometimes described as ‘scientific natural history’ particularly when contrasted to the more physiological German and North American traditions. This is not a claim that ecology sprang from—or worse, is synonymous with—European Romanticism, the transcendental naturalism of Ralph Emerson or Henry Thoreau, or the preservationist movement represented by John Muir and John Burroughs, although there is a proper sense in which ecology has what Donald Worster (1985) calls ‘Arcadian roots’ of awe and respect in the writings of people like John Ray (The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation ), William Derham (Physico-Theology ), and even John Wesley (Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation ).
In its modern guise, ecology surfaced at the same time as genetics, around the turn of the century. The British Ecological Society was founded in 1913 as a direct descendant of the Central Committee for the Survey and Study of British Vegetation, a group of botanists who came together to use their passion for collecting wild flowers and swapping rarities as a means of determining the distribution and characteristics of different species and hence their limits and preferences; the Ecological Society of America was founded two years later.
The British Ecological Society received an enormous impetus from the fashionable collecting and recording habits of the Victorian era (Allen, 1976; Barber, 1980). For most it was a hobby, but there were certainly some who saw it as a specifically religious quest (Armstrong, 2000). Indeed, natural history (in its wide sense) can be regarded as an expression of a search for order and purpose in the world paralleling the speculations of philosophy through diverse times and cultures: Herodotus on predators, St Basil on forest succession, José de Acosta on the biogeographical problems raised by the animals and plants of the New World, Benjamin Franklin on the control of insect pests by birds.
In the early years of professional ecology, most ecologists took it for granted that communities of animals and plants existed as natural, repeated, internally organised units with a considerable degree of integration. Such a community was commonly called a super-organism or quasi-organism. The American botanist Frederic Clements (1874–1945) used to stress the existence of ecological succession to argue for an inevitable development towards an end point or climax community (Clements, 1936). His ideas were developed philosophically by the Edinburgh-born botanist John Phillips, who sought to show that ‘in accordance with the holistic concept [of Jan Christian Smuts, 1870–1950] the biotic community is something more than the mere sum of its parts; it possesses a special identity—it is indeed a mass-entity with a destiny peculiar to itself’ (Phillips, 1931:20). However, this was too great an extrapolation for the leading British ecologist of the period, Arthur Tansley (1871–1955), and he responded with a trenchant criticism of Phillips’s views including coining a new word ‘ecosystem’, defined as:
the whole system (in the sense of physics) including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment of the biome—the habitat factors in the widest sense. It is the systems so formed which, from the point of view of the ecologist, are the basic units of nature on the face of the earth. [They] are of the most various kinds and sizes. They form one category of the multitudinous physical systems of the universe, which range from the universe as a whole down to the atom. (Tansley, 1935:299)
Patterns in Nature
Sadly, ecosystems, which Tansley introduced as a descriptive generality, have spawned a whole sub-discipline with ascribed properties of resilience, persistence, resistance and variability. Ecosystems are said to have health and needs and to suffer damage, designations properly attributed to organisms. This is hyperbole; more realistically, ecosystems are ‘self-organising systems in which random disturbance and colonisation events create a heterogeneous landscape of diverse species, which then become knitted together through nutrient fluxes and other forms of interaction… some simply having to do with chance and geography…’ (Levine, 1999:38, 80).
In fairness to scientists within ecology, there has been a long-continued and unresolved debate between the advocates of structured communities and those more impressed with contingency and adventitious opportunism in nature (McIntosh, 1995). This is not the place to rehearse details of internal ecological debates, but it is relevant to note that ecology suffers from the same problems of lack of cohesion experienced by evolutionary biology before the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s, and by implication needs its own synthesis. Ecologists have, of course, attempted to find key principles in their science. In a widely used textbook, Allee et al. (1949) indexed twenty-five such principles, whilst Odum (1953) had more than thirty. Watt (1971) listed only fifteen, but increased this two years later to thirty-eight (Watt, 1973). Notwithstanding, the picture is still terrifyingly like that painted by Charles Elton (1949) who wrote of his experience at ecological meetings that ‘the dominant impression retained is of the extreme range and fragmentation of ecological knowledge… I think the ocean of ecological facts has reached a dangerous tide level, [needing] a raft to float on.’
Half a century on, the situation is still unresolved (Berry, 1989). Elton himself, one of the founders of animal ecology, was instinctively suspicious of tidy models for the complexity of nature. He wrote: ‘The “balance of nature” does not exist, and perhaps never has existed. The numbers of wild animals are constantly varying to a greater or less extent, and the variations are usually irregular in period and always irregular in amplitude’ (Elton, 1930); although twenty years later he was more circumspect, accepting that: ‘A general equilibrium in nature… does exist, even though it is subject to recurring fluctuations of all sorts, and even complete breakdowns of the ecosystem such as the poisoning of lake faunas by outbreaks of blue-green algae and the desolation of vegetation by field mice, locusts and caterpillars’ (Elton, 1949).
This equivocation is perhaps a true representation of reality. It is almost trivial to state that patterns of species and individuals exist in natural situations: recognisable successions recur in time and space; although population numbers vary, they tend to be within understandable limits; there are density-dependent interactions which damp extreme variations; and so on. The challenge and problem of these perceptions of pattern is that they depend on the scale by which they are observed.
For example, tropical forests are almost the epitome of a stable, multi-species system but detailed studies of tree death and replacement convinced Connell (1979) that ‘they represent an open, locally non-equilibrium system that may or may not be in regional equilibrium’1
(i.e. large-scale or short-term surveys may give an illusory impression of uniformity and therefore of equilibrium). His repeated sampling of the same patches of coral reef showed likewise that ‘the relationship between disturbance and species richness is similar in coral reefs to that in tropical forests’ (Connell, 1978). These processes are highlighted and magnified by the biota of oceanic islands which strongly reflect the apparently chance sequence of colonisation and subsequent change rather than any deterministic progress towards an ‘ideal’ community (Williamson, 1981; Grant, 1998). This does not detract from the undeniable existence of predictable successions or of well-defined associations; what it does is to shift the appropriate questions from descriptive statics to dynamic processes, with the focus on the ordering mechanisms rather than the results of that process.2
Detailed knowledge of the interactions controlling community structure (the word ‘ecosystem’ is often used synonymously) is surprisingly weak (Law and Watkinson, 1989). For example, the comprehensive descriptions of food webs routinely illustrated in elementary textbooks are ‘caricatures of nature’ (Pimm, 1982). Most food-chains (i.e. A eats B, B eats C, etc.) are very short, involving only three or four stages. Some links are specific to particular species (e.g. certain hosts and parasites), but the majority are largely non-specific, depending on such factors as size and abundance (Lawton, 1989).
Too often advocates of a snuggle for existence as producing an adaptively organised community have been driven to postulating competition in the past if it cannot be demonstrated in the present, a tendency described by Connell as invoking the ‘ghost of competition past’. Cornell and Lawton (1992) have argued that local communities are controlled by local or biogeographical characteristics, so that ‘the key to community structure may lie in extrinsic biogeography rather than in intrinsic local processes, making community ecology a more historical science’. Put another way, this means that contingency plays a major part in ecology just as in evolution. Commenting on ways of linking species and ecosystems, Lawton and Jones agree that
ecology text books summarise the important interactions between organisms as intra—and inter specific competition, predation, parasitism and mutualism; [but] conspicuously lacking from this list is the role that many organisms play in the creation, modification and maintenance of habitats, although particular examples have been extensively studied. (1995:142)
In fact Jones and Lawton are rather unfair here, because ecological geneticists have devoted a great deal of time and energy to studying organism-environment interactions, and developing a body of knowledge (albeit frequently involving considerable speculation) about the ‘fit’ or coevolution of interacting species. The problem has been that the approaches of ecologists and evolutionists (geneticists) have tended to run in parallel rather than converge (Berry and Bradshaw, 1992). Do evolutionists have information which shows that biotic communities can be regarded as super-organisms?
The answer is no. To understand this, it is necessary to explore evolutionary mechanisms. The practical problem here is to detect reciprocal change in real situations. It is much easier to recognise genetical changes in a single population in response to an environmental challenge which may or not involve an interacting species, than it is to detect mutually dependent change in two species in the same place. The hard evidence for coevolution is surprisingly small.
- Pollination. Pollination is almost a touchstone example of coevolution. Yet, if the common assumption is right, the early stages of the evolution of pollination went as follows: selection against beetle damage in dowering plants led to the formation of carpels for protection; this was followed by feeding on reproductive shoots by animals whose movements coincidentally brought about pollination. In other words, pollinating mechanisms in all their variety arose originally as a straightforward protective response by plants against animals.
- Parasitism. There is no doubt that hosts and parasites adjust to each other in a rapid and precise manner. What is less generally appreciated is that parasitism is an adventitious relationship, and that the idea of a perfect parasite harmless to its host is a myth. May and Anderson (1983) have shown that the effect of a parasite on a host follows no fixed path, but depends on the virulence and transmissibility of the parasite, and the cost to the host of evolving resistance. They quote the large amount of data on the virus which causes myxomatosis in rabbits which has apparently stabilised in both Britain and Australia at an intermediate level of virulence after beginning at a very high level.
The point that parasitism does not represent some ideal state of harmonious benevolence is underlined by Rothschild and Clay’s (1952) conclusion from an extensive survey: ‘Parasitism can develop gradually or suddenly. It can be the outcome of complicated interactions or the result of isolated accidents which occurred a million years ago or only this morning… There is only one vital factor in the genesis of a parasitic relationship, and that is opportunity.’
- Mimicry. Much ink has been wasted over definitions of mimicry and its distinction from straightforward concealment (Berry, 1981). In practice, both are simply devices to deceive. Batesian mimicry involves one (or more) species coming to resemble another, otherwise protected form: there is no advantage to the latter. In contrast, Mullerian mimics gain by resembling one another, and there is selection for similarly confusable patterns in Mullerian situations. However, and this is the point I wish to emphasise, similar selection pressures may result in resemblance to some non-living feature in the environment, such as a stone; and this may involve (as in industrial melanism) selection following an environmental change resulting from non-biological causes. In other words, selection (and adaptation) is a possible consequence of any factor in the environment, biotic or abiotic; there seems no reason to single out any particular element,
although coevolution sensu stricto can, of course, be produced only by biotic components in the environment of a population.
An often forgotten—and very important—factor about adaptive genetic change is that it is opportunistic and pragmatic, not optimising and perfecting. This, of course, introduces another degree of indeterminancy into the understanding of coevolution, particularly understanding based on analytical models.
For example, industrial melanism in Lepidoptera tends to be written about as an inevitable consequence of smoke pollution, but other factors are involved. In many cases species have become locally extinct in the absence of available melanics: the rosy minor moth Miana literosa was extinct for many years in the industrial Sheffield area of England, and only managed to recolonise the city in the mid 1940s through a newly arisen mutant. Even the ‘type species’ of industrial melanism, the peppered moth (Biston betularia), has shown considerable genetical change and adjustment in the century since its black carbonaria form became common and then decreased in Britain (Lees, 1981; Berry, 1990). Examples of sudden change are common in the occurrence (and loss) of inherited pesticide resistance in a wide variety of species. Variation is normally not limiting, but a population faced with a new environmental challenge may be unable to respond until an appropriate variant occurs (Berry and Bradshaw, 1992).
Dog whelks (Nucella lapillus) are extremely common on rocky shores. Most of them have white shells yet round the west coast of Britain there are many places where uniquely banded forms have persisted locally for more than a hundred years (Berry, 1983). Under conditions and in a species where genetical equilibrium would be expected to occur without hindrance, geographical heterogeneity exists on a significant scale.
Dog whelks underline the fact that adaptation does not tend towards an obviously predictable end point, although individuals experience strong selection, with populations losing up to 90 per cent of their shell shape variation on wave-exposed shores (Berry and Crothers, 1968). Selection is directed towards survival, not perfection or some theoretical optimum. Both genetics and ecology reveal contingency rather than cohesive cooperation in natural populations.
Towards an Ecological Synthesis
I have suggested already that ecology lacks the focus provided in the physical sciences by the Periodic Table and quantum theory and in most of the biological sciences by neo-Darwinism. The difficulty within ecology has been to provide a realistic theory which incorporates the massive data from natural populations with the historical and local specificities of particular situations. One obvious simplification is to concentrate on the fitness of individuals, that is their reproductive success. This is determined by the interactions of the individual with its environment, both biotic and non-biotic. Adaptation is the response of the organism towards its total environment, involving a reduction in any ‘stress’ imposed by the environment. I use the term ‘stress’ conscious of the controversy that surrounds it, and the difficulty of defining it. Notwithstanding, it clearly represents a biological reality involving a cost to an organism which can be lessened behaviourally, biochemically, physiologically or morphologically.
Southwood (1978, 1988) has traced the interactions of the factors defining the relationship between organism and habitat in both time and space, and derived a ‘reproductive success matrix’ depending on five habitat and three organism characteristics and their variances (which involve inherited components both for the organism traits, and also for those habitat traits that involve other species).
A link between this matrix and traditional genetic models is provided by Wallace’s (1975) concept of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ selection. This terminology comes from economics where ‘soft currency’ is usable only within a particular country, whereas ‘hard currency’ maintains its value in all countries. In Wallace’s sense, hard selection acts on phenotypes under all conditions (for example, lethal genes [genotypes] are invariably fatal to their carriers), whereas soft selection involves different probabilities of survival (or death) as conditions change. This means that the fitness of certain phenotypes will vary with density and population composition. Hard selection is both density and frequency independent. The key to evolutionary ecology is not simple population dynamics or gene frequency change, but a complementation of perceptible genetical processes (involving appropriate ecological variables) with an appreciation of the effects of stressful conditions on different phenotypes.
All this produces pattern in nature, which is apparent to even the most casual observer. The analysis of the pattern has spawned a dictionary of descriptive concepts: mutualism, parasitism, competition, symbiosis, commensalism, antagonism, ad nauseam. All of these are valuable in their own contexts. But when we seek the processes that make up the pattern, there is no better starting point than that given to us by Darwin (1858):
Nature may be compared to a surface on which rest ten thousand sharp wedges touching each other and driven inwards by incessant blows. Fully to realise these views much reflection is requisite. But let the external conditions of a country alter… can it be doubted from the struggle each individual has to obtain subsistence, that any minute variation in structure, habits, on instincts, adapting that individual better to the new conditions, would tell upon its vigour and health? In the struggle it would have a better chance of surviving; and those of its offspring which inherited the variation, be it ever so slight, would also have a better chance. Yearly more are bred than can survive; the smallest grain in the balance, in the long run, must tell on which death shall fall, and which shall survive.
Darwin’s great achievement was to change the focus of biologists from the ‘much reflection’ on pattern to the processes that determine the pattern. Or as Paine (1980) has put it: ‘Pattern is generated by process. The former embodies static description, the latter more subtle and dynamical events.’ In other words, we are merely confusing ourselves when we compound pattern with process: we shall do much better to begin our investigations with the consequences of variation in organisms, and see how these knit together into a pattern. The danger is that we become so involved with the details that we lose sight of the whole; somewhat literally, we fail to see the wood for the trees.
But the natural world is composed of parts which add together, with the whole probably constituting much more than the sum of the parts: to understand the pattern, we need to know the processes which constitute it; but knowing all the processes does not necessarily mean that we will fully understand the pattern. Meanwhile, it is worth emphasising that, despite all the efforts of scientific ecology and the vast amount of knowledge we have accumulated, in the end science itself needs to be truly holistic (or, in view of the overtones of the term ‘holism’ stemming from its use from Smuts’s philosophy to New Age syncretism, much less reductionist). Ecology will only come of age when it is perceived as a synthesis and not as a specialism in its own right (Berry, 1989).
My digression into the history, content and state of scientific ecology makes it apparent that contemporary theory does not understand ‘nature’ as a massive super-organism in its own right with ourselves as small-part players, perhaps even dispensable parasites. Modern ecologists do not support the implicit assumptions of many green religionists, where reincarnation, process thought, pantheism, feminism all assume some integral and often organic connection between human brings and the wider living world. Whereas this lack of congruence between science and faith is of little importance to most green worshippers, it could be regarded as indicating a final break between reason and traditional faith, and an irrevocable end to natural theology. This fracture was referred to by the Prince of Wales in his Reith Lecture:
The idea that there is a sacred trust between mankind and our Creator under which we accept a duty of stewardship for the earth, has been an important feature of most religious and scientific thought throughout the ages. Even those whose beliefs have not included the existence of a Creator have, nevertheless, adopted a similar position on moral and ethical grounds. It is only recently that this guiding principle has become smothered by almost impenetrable layers of scientific rationalism. (Patten et al., 2000:81)
Notwithstanding, any robust relationship we have with our environment must be based on the reality of the natural world, in other words, on reason as well as moral commitment. Consequently, it is pertinent to examine Lovelock’s ‘Gaia theory’ which has been claimed as showing a functional set of interactions between ourselves and our world, and hence could more than replace the illusory interactions claimed within ecological systems.
Lovelock developed his theory following a request from NASA to devise a test for detecting life on Mars. He reasoned that the atmosphere of a lifeless planet would be in equilibrium with the physical composition of that planet, and would consist mainly of carbon dioxide, with a small amount of nitrogen and almost no oxygen. Such a planet would have a very high surface temperature due to the blanketing (or greenhouse) effect of the carbon dioxide. Any deviation away from this equilibrium situation would indicate the presence of a disturbing influence, which could be regarded as ‘life’. Lovelock’s definition of life, based on his own discipline of physical chemistry, is ‘a member of the class of phenomena which are open or continuous systems able to decrease their internal entropy at the expense of substances or free energy taken in from the environment and subsequently rejected in a degraded form…’ (Lovelock, 1979:4). Mars has an atmosphere expected from its geological structure but—and this was the point that set Lovelock thinking—the earth’s atmosphere is radically different from expectation.
Now the traditional interpretation of the origin of life on earth about 4,000 million years ago is that it was an outcome of chemical processes involving adaptation to contemporary atmospheric conditions, which were initially reducing but then became oxidising.
Lovelock turned these ideas upside down, and proposed that the atmosphere changed in response to the life developing in it. In other words, that life (or the biosphere) regulates or maintains the climate and the atmospheric composition, and thus provides an optimum for itself. If this is true, the whole geobiochemical system can be regarded as a single gigantic, self-regulating system. William Golding (the novelist and a neighbour of Lovelock) suggested the name ‘Gaia’ for this system, after the earth goddess of ancient Greece.
Lovelock’s description of the ‘recognition of Gaia’ is eerily reminiscent of Archdeacon Paley’s walking across a common and finding a watch—which, of course, meant to Paley that there must have been a watchmaker:
Picture a clean-swept sunlit beach with the tide receding; a smooth flat plain of golden glistening sand where every random grain has found due place and nothing more can happen… Now let us suppose that our otherwise immaculate beach contains one small blot on the horizon: an isolated heap of sand which at close range we recognise instantly to be the work of a living creature. There is no shadow of a doubt, it is a sand-castle. Its structure of piled truncated cones reveals the bucket technique of building.… We are programmed, so to speak, for instant recognition of a sand-castle as a human artefact, but if more proof were needed that this heap of sand is no natural phenomenon, we should point out that it does not fit with the conditions around it. The rest of the beach has been washed and brushed into a smooth carpet; the sand-castle has still to crumble; and even a child’s fortress in the sand is too intricate in the design and relationship of its parts, too clearly purpose-built, to be the chance structure of natural forces. (Lovelock, 1979:33)
Lovelock continues much as did Paley, analysing possible disturbing factors that might have produced apparent design on the beach. Gaia can be treated as a scientific or a metaphysical theory. As the former, it has been a great success whether or not it is true, because of the research it has stimulated. Lovelock (1990) has claimed five predictive successes for the theory:
- prediction of the lifeless state of Mars made in 1968, confirmed 1977;
- carbon dioxide influence on climate through the biological weathering of rock predicted in 1981, shown in 1989;
- the constant 21 per cent of oxygen in the environment for the last 200 million years could be due to fire and phosphorus cycling, for which the biological input is important;
- the transfer of elements necessary for life on land predicted in 1971 to be mediated through algae, shown 1973;
- a link between dimethyl sulphide produced by phytoplankton in the deep oceans has an effect on cloud cover.
The last claim has been contested because dimethyl sulphide in Antarctic ice cores decreased at the end of the Pleistocene when it might have been expected to increase due to the rise in temperature. However this is exactly the sort of anomalous result that research produces and which leads to further work. In itself it should not be regarded too negatively.
More serious criticism has come from biologists because of the apparent absence of any Gaian mechanism for producing evolutionary adaptation in biological organisms. Dawkins has written:
Homeostatic adaptations in individual bodies evolve because individuals with improved homeostatic apparatuses pass on their genes more effectively than individuals with inferior homeostatic apparatuses. For the analogy [that the whole Earth is equivalent to a single living organism] to apply strictly, there would have to be a set of rival Gaias, presumably different planets. Biospheres which did not develop efficient homeostatic regulation of their planetary atmospheres tend to go extinct. The Universe would have to be full of dead planets whose homeostatic regulations had failed, with, dotted around, a handful of successful well-regulated planets of which Earth is one. (1982:236)
Lovelock has responded to this criticism by producing a computer model called Daisyworld which shows, he believes, that regulatory behaviour such as he postulates for Gaia can develop simply as a property of the complex processes which link organisms to their environment (Watson and Lovelock, 1983; Lovelock, 1989). There is certainly truth in the idea that living organisms (as defined in the normal as opposed to the Lovelockian way) modify their environment and this may lead to natural selection (Lenton, 1998). The jury remains out on the extent and rates of such effects.
However, exploring Gaia as metaphysics is to enter a world of speculation and pantheism. The physicist Fritjof Capra sees the emergence of Gaia as a sign of a universal change of attitude, the earth ‘not just functions like an organism, but actually seems to be an organism… the new paradigm is ultimately spiritual’ (Capra, 1982:308–9). Baring and Cashford (1991:304) write:
The name of Gaia is now everywhere heard. There is the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ of the physicist James Lovelock… there is ‘Gaia Consciousness’, which urges that the Earth and her creatures be considered as one whole; and there is simply the term ‘Gaia’, which expresses a reverence for the planet as a being who is alive and on whom all other life depends.
Celia Deane-Drummond (1996:106–10) identities four different Gaias: influencing or regulatory Gaia; revolutionary Gaia; homeostatic Gaia; teleological Gaia. She welcomes Gaia as a positive challenge to mechanistic science and technology and the powerlessness of humans, comparing its holism to that of Aldo Leopold (Deane-Drummond, 1993); Hugh Montefiore (1985:57) sees Gaia as a manifestation of the Anthropic Principle (p. 12) and links it to Paul’s description of the coordinated body in 1 Corinthians 12.14–26 (Montefiore, 1997:123); Michael Northcott (1996:196) finds a ‘close fit between the covenant and Torah and aspects of the land ethic, of Gaian order and the relationality of self, nature and society’. These responses are much more realistic than the sort of excited attitude expressed by Peter Russell, a one time Maharishi Mahesh Yogi disciple, who believes that continuing evolution of the human consciousness will produce a shared Gaiafield, that there are millions of Gaias in the cosmos which will all eventually network together through something like ESP and form a super-Gaia so that the whole universe will become a conscious being which he calls Brahman, with cyclical expansion and contraction and repeated reincarnation of Brahman, ‘each time being a more perfect Universal being… the ultimate goal of Universe upon Universe might be the enlightenment of Brahman—the perfect cosmos’ (Russell, 1982:218).
Lovelock himself professes surprise at the religious implications that many see in his hypothesis. He writes:
For every letter I got about the science of Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth [his 1979 book] there were two concerning religion. I think people need religion, and the notion of the Earth as a living planet is something to which they can obviously relate. At the least, Gaia may turn out to be the first religion to have a testable scientific theory embedded within it.
His long-time collaborator, Lyn Margulis is more forthright, quoted as saying, ‘The religious overtones of Gaia make me sick!’; although she later conceded: ‘Gaia is less harmful than standard religion. It can be very environmentally aware. At least it is not human-centred’ (Joseph, 1990:70–1).
Gaia as a scientific hypothesis may prove to be true or not. From the point of view of theology it is of no great import; the existence or working of God does not depend upon a scientific theory. However, it seems worth insisting on a clear distinction between Gaia as science and Gaia as metaphysics. Herbert Spencer wrought long-term damage to the proper understanding of biological evolution by his unwarranted extrapolation of so-called social Darwinism. It would be easy for both natural science and natural theology to be harmed by failing to separate Gaian science from Gaian speculation.4
The ‘New’ Physics
Another science that has been claimed for ‘green’ religion is subatomic physics, particularly Einsteinian relativity and quantum theory. Four advocates are frequently cited: Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics (1975) and The Turning Point (1982), Gary Zukav (The Dancing Wu Li Masters ), A. de Riencourt (The Eye of Shiva ); and, in rather a different category, Paul Davies, author of God and the New Physics (1983), The Mind of God (1992), and other books.
Capra can be taken as the leader of the first three. He is a strong critic of what he regards as the fragmented dualism of Western science, which he blames on Newton and Descartes. He claims to be a postmodernist in the sense of promoting holism; he finds his inspiration in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Ch’an (which developed into the Japanese version of Zen): ‘The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view—one can almost say the essence of it—is the awareness of the unity and the mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness.’ All things are seen as interdependent and inseparable parts of the cosmic whole, as ‘different manifestations of the same ultimate reality’ (Capra, 1982:142). He argues that both Eastern mysticism and modern physics are empirical and both draw their observations from realms inaccessible to the normal senses, and hence are complementary (‘Mystical experience is necessary to understand the deepest nature of things, and science is essential for modern life. We need not a synthesis but a dynamic interplay between mystical intuition and scientific analysis’ [Capra, 1983:339]), with physics supporting Eastern mysticism (Capra, 1983:126, 247).
Two ideas from science recur throughout Capra’s writing. The first is the impossibility of attaining any absolute, detached vantage point within the universe. This follows directly from Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminancy and from Relativity Theory. The second is that there is some sort of underlying connection between apparently distinct objects (‘paired polarities’ or the Bell Effect; this was first pointed out by Einstein and two of his co-workers, Podolsky and Rosen, and is sometimes called the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen, or EPR paradox). Bohm has suggested that this implies an ‘implicate’ (or enfolded) order in the universe, so that ‘everything is enfolded into everything. This contrasts with the explicate order now dominant in physics in which things are unfolded in the sense that each thing lies only in its own particular region of space (and time) and outside the regions belonging to other things’ (Bohm, 1952).
Neither of these ideas necessarily carries religious or metaphysical implications, but they do suggest the inadequacy of the mechanistic notion of the universe as a collection of separate particles. For Capra:
Relativity theory has made the cosmic web come alive, so to speak, by revealing its essentially dynamic character; by showing that its activity is the very essence of its being. In modern physics, the image of the universe as a machine has been transcended by a view of it as one indivisible dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process. At the sub-atomic level the interrelations and interactions between the parts of the whole are more fundamental than the parts themselves. There is motion but there are, ultimately, no moving objects; there is activity but there are no actors; there are no dancers, there is only the dance. (Capra, 1982:91–2)
This leads Capra to argue that since matter and energy are equivalent in the Einsteinian equation E = mc2, matter is only transient and energy is the ultimate reality, and thence that human consciousness plays a part in creating reality (because how we look at an entity—or at least, an electron—determines what we see).
In fact Capra and those who argue like him fall into two different traps. They legitimately criticise the reductionism of modern physics, but then force their own interpretations on it (‘Quantum mechanics tells us’, ‘Modern physics forces us to believe’, etc.) whilst ignoring the mass of confirmatory results obtained by physicists using traditional interpretations of experimental results. But more corrosively, they use Eastern mysticism selectively to support their case. They tend to treat all Eastern traditions as representing a single world view, although (for example) the interconnectedness of all things is alien to Advaitan Hinduism; the distinction in Buddhism between reality as it is and as it usually seems to be is not the same as that between virtual and ‘real’ particles; energy in any recognisable scientific sense is not dealt with in any classical Asian religious tradition, so there can be none of the confusion between matter and energy claimed to exist in the West (Clifton and Regehr, 1990; Lucas, 1996). Despite the popularity of Capra, Zukav and de Riencourt, it is hard to disagree with Robert Jones (1986:202) that their reasoning is based on the obvious non sequitur that ‘because science and mysticism each have difficulty with language, they are talking about the same thing’.
The approach and interpretation of Paul Davies is very different to that of Capra and his ilk. Davies
always wanted to believe that science can explain everything, at least in principle… but even if one rules out supernatural events, it is still not clear that science could in principle explain everything in the physical universe. There always remains that old problem about the end of the explanatory chain. However successful our scientific explanations may be, they always have certain starting assumptions built in… Sooner or later we all have to accept something as given, whether it is God, or logic, or a set of laws, or some other foundation for existence. Thus ‘ultimate’ questions will always lie beyond the scope of empirical science as it is usually defined. (Davies, 1992:15)
Most scientists have a deep mistrust of mysticism. This is not surprising, as mystical thought lies at the opposite extreme to rational thought, which is the basis of the scientific method. Also, mysticism tends to be confused with the occult, the paranormal, and other fringe beliefs. In fact, many of the world’s finest thinkers, including some notable scientists such as Einstein, Pauli, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Eddington and Jeans, have also espoused mysticism. My own feeling is that the scientific method should be pursued as far as it possibly can. Mysticism is no substitute for scientific inquiry and logical reasoning so long as this approach can be consistently applied. It is only in dealing with ultimate questions that science and logic may fail us. I am not saying that science and logic are likely to provide the wrong answers, but they may be incapable of addressing the sort of ‘why’ (as opposed to ‘how’) questions we want to ask. (Davies, 1992:226)
Davies wants answers to his questions: he writes, ‘Personally I feel more comfortable with a deeper explanation than the laws of physics [but] whether the use of the term “God” for that deeper level is appropriate [as is also whether] this postulated being who underpins the rationality of the world bears much relation to the personal God of religion.’
The assumption—or perhaps better, the question—behind ‘green science’ is that there is something beyond (and perhaps even, within) conventional science that makes necessary ‘green religion’. The conventional expressions of green religion are in terms which do not encourage or attract traditional scientists to develop their thinking, but the widespread belief of both biologists and physicists that they have to expand their understanding farther than their scientific results warrant is a clear pointer. It is exactly the same conclusion as that of Peter Medawar in recognising that there are limits to science (pp. 13–14). It could, of course, be interpreted as tentative hypothesis-making in the normal practice of scientific method, but the difficulty of explaining evolutionary progress, ecological complexity and particularly what Paul Davies calls ‘the mind of God’ ought to prevent us denying ‘something’ which our ancestors would have described as ‘natural revelation’—unless like Hume, Monod, Atkins and Dawkins we have profound faith (as opposed to reason) in our denial.
This faith-denial diathesis tends to be highlighted by the rationalist scorn poured on those who claim the reality of this ‘natural revelation’ (for want of a better description). For example, Richard Dawkins (1993) has described religion as a viral disease. John Bowker (1995) castigates Dawkins’s proposal as a ‘weak theory based on analogy’, while Keith Ward (1996:97) has no doubts: ‘God is not a tentative hypothesis which one should always be seeking to test to destruction by actively seeking for counter-evidence. That is rather like saying that a good marriage is best achieved by always seeking evidence of infidelity.’
But there is another and even more sweeping attack from a philosophical attitude that rejects conventional science as inadequate because it empties the universe—and especially life—of all value and meaning. This commonly manifests as an anti-evolutionism founded on a belief in an interfering rather than an upholding creator. The most distinguished exponent of this approach is the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, but it has been popularised in a series of books by a lawyer, Phillip Johnson (Plantinga, 1991; McMullin, 1993; Pennock, 1996; q.v. Scott and Padian, 1997; a powerful response has been made by Willem Drees in Russell, Stoeger and Ayala, 1998:303–28).
Johnson and his supporters have promoted ‘Intelligent Design Theory’ as an alternative to what they regard as the atheism implicit in scientific naturalism. Their main complaint is not evolution as such, but the assumption that belief in evolution leads inexorably to atheism. Now it is true that Darwin (or, for that matter, Dawkins) showed that atheism was not inconsistent with biological science, but in no way did he show that one required or implied the other. Johnson seems to accept this, writing ‘The blind watchmaker thesis [i.e. neo-Darwinism]… does not make it obligatory to be an atheist, because one can imagine a Creator who works through natural selection’ (Johnson, 1995:77); but his emphasis is on the incompatibility of religious (or at least, Christian) belief and scientific practice: ‘Naturalists… assume that God exists only as an idea in the minds of religious believers’ (1995:7); ‘From a naturalistic standpoint… the Creator God of the Bible is every bit as unreal as the gods of Olympus’ (1995:39).
In fact Johnson misses the nub of the question that he seems to be attacking. By concentrating on two antithetical positions (that God could not be a creator, either because he does not exist or because he is impotent; and that he created everything by some unexplained mechanism), he ignores two other possibilities: the reductio ad absurdum that God could have created all things but did not; or that God could have created all things, and did so through the evolutionary mechanism (Johnson, Lamoureux et al., 1999; Miller, 1999; Pennock, 1999).
The last interpretation seems to me the only valid one to an honest believer faced with a world which has changed radically in past ages (in other words, evolution has occurred) and with a God who claims to be both creator and sustainer (i.e. a God who works in the world as immanent as well as outside the world as transcendent). Ways in which this could be envisaged are described in Chapter 2. The God of the Bible is one who works in history and experience through processes which can be perceived as divine by the eye of faith. (‘By faith we understand that the universe was formed by God’s command, so that the visible came forth from the invisible’, Hebrews 11.3). The atheism of Dawkins et al. is more credible than the anti-naturalism of Plantinga, Johnson et al., but atheism only survives intact if the indications reviewed in this chapter are wrong, in other words if we fail—wilfully or not—to search beyond science for a full explanation of the world in which we live (Berry, 2000b). There is not an explicitly green science which justifies and validates the extravagances of green religion; but there are signs within orthodox science that there is something more than naked naturalism.