From the beetles to the stars

Learning from life’s transient, mysterious eco-system

Beloved by Francis: a violet ground beetle. illustration: michael viney Beloved by Francis: a violet ground beetle. illustration: michael viney

Beloved by Francis: a violet ground beetle. illustration: michael viney Beloved by Francis: a violet ground beetle. illustration: michael viney


Who suggested that God seems to have had “an inordinate fondness for beetles”? One might think it was Charles Darwin – the huge variety of beetles was, after all, an early passion of his. But the credit for what Stephen Jay Gould called “the most widely-quoted one liner in evolutionary biology” actually goes to JBS Haldane (1892-1964) the revered British geneticist, Marxist and wit. A theologian had asked him what could be inferred about the mind of God from the works of His creation. Haldane was pleased with his answer and employed it several times in his writing.

As he spoke, the beetles numbered more than 400,000 known species (compared with some 8,000 mammals) and no doubt a few more thousand have been discovered since. Along with some 9,000 birds there are the millions of bacteria and viruses to which have now been added the archaea, microcopic life forms often inhabiting the planet’s most extreme environments.

Knowledge of the natural world’s variety grows greater every day, along with human threats to it. In his recent inaugural homily the new Pope Francis urged: “Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” Even his choice of name evokes, not only special empathy with the poor but of feeling for the animal kingdom. St Francis, as a Franciscan website describes, “would find himself in an ecstasy of prayer with eyes raised to heaven while holding a waterfowl in his hands”.

Yes, but what should be expected of the new pope and his church in today’s fraught interplay of religion and science? In an editorial last month, the international journal Nature looked forward to hearing from Pope Francis on scientific issues. “Contrary to widespread belief,” it asserted, “the modern Catholic Church is science-friendly . . . The Church’s strong support for Darwinian evolution, for example, contrasts sharply with the backwards, unscientific belief in creationism of many US evangelicals and lawmakers – a concept that Pope Benedict XVI rightly criticised in 2007 as ‘absurd’.”

That evangelical creationism is also alive and well on this island was confirmed in recent news about the opening of the new visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim. Alongside the centre’s mainstream geological history of the basalt’s volcanic origins, one audio guide explains that “some people around the world and specifically in Northern Ireland” prefer to seek its origins in the Book of Genesis. Indeed, the British Centre for Science Education, a counter-creationist group, has called the North the “European capital of creationism.”

The editorial in Nature , however, was perhaps over-eager in welcoming Pope Benedict’s view of evolution. What he actually found an “absurdity” was to argue that accepting the scientific proofs in favour of evolution and believing in a role for God were necessarily mutually exclusive. Evolution, Benedict went on, “does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?’”

Ireland has its own priestly enthusiast for science in Father Sean McDonagh, the Columban missionary who has spent 30 years promoting ecological awareness and in criticism of his Church’s delayed and weakly-framed support for it. Last month, on the eve of change in the papacy, he wrote in the US National Catholic Reporter about the Vatican’s failure to address climate change with urgency and, despite an “increased sprinkling of ecological language and concerns”, to make proper use of scientific data. Papal teaching on ecology, McDonagh chided, has been “almost exclusively homocentric”, focused on human benefit and supremacy. “It is important theologically to remember,” he wrote, “that God has a history with nature that is independent of God’s relationship with humanity.”

This connects with ideas strongly current since the Deep Ecology movement gained momentum, especially in the US, in the late 20th century. The term was coined in 1973 by Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher who argued that the value of non-human life and its ecosystems is independent of its usefulness to human beings – the rainforests and their species have a prior right to exist regardless of whether they hold medicines for human welfare. A seeking for affinity with the rest of nature was his ideal of human fulfilment.

Since then, the benefits of “ecosystem services” to humans has come to dominate the reason for conserving other species. On the other hand, Prof James Lovelock’s theory of Gaia – the Earth as an intricately self-sustaining system – has encouraged deep ecologists to see that the planet could do very well without us. Their aspirations have meshed better with other, mainly eastern, spiritualities than with those of Rome.

Amiable atheists like me, meanwhile, randomly adrift on an accidental planet, are left to relish our place in a multitude of life-forms, all coined by chance and polished or casually extinguished by natural selection. The whole thing is a transient but enchanting mystery. And one can always lift one’s eyes from the beetles to the stars – for which, as Haldane added, God also showed inordinate appetite.