An Affirmation of Life (Linda Thompson)
Books discussed here:
- MacLeod, Norman. The Great Extinctions: What Causes Them & How They Shape Life. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2015.
- Kluger, Jeffrey. The Animal Mind How: They Think, How They Feel. How to Understand Them. Time Inc.: Special Edition, Summer 2017.
- Nerburn, Kent and Louise Mengelkock, compilers. Native American Wisdom. The Classic Wisdom Collection. San Rafael, Calif.: New World Library, 1991.
AN AFFIRMATION OF LIFE
Readings for this piece encompass a broad array of life-related theses, ranging from the end of living to the beginning of survival to the adaptation of species to the birth of complex, advanced genera. I will give cursory mention to a few of the non-technical themes that most interested me and perhaps you, also.
Norman MacLeod, Keeper of Paleontology of the London Natural History Museum, in his book The Great Extinctions, analyzes eight extinction events beginning with the Precambrian Eon and working toward the near past, covering some 600 million years of geological history. Five of these extinctions are characterized as massive. MacLeod lists proximate and inferred ultimate causes for each in a nearby chart.
The end-Permian/Triassic period lasting some 80 million years is characterized as the most devastating of all the extinctions, with the destruction of 93% - 97% of all species, both land and marine. It produced a world without forests and oceans without reefs. Vast swathes of the world were left devoid of life. Eco-systems collapsed. Over 80% of all marine genera, 96% of all corals, 77% of all land animals were extinguished. These figures according to MacLeod apply only to species likely to leave a fossil record. When taken together with other unlisted species, paleontologists estimate that over 90% of all Late-Permian species had vanished by the end of that era. (MacLeod, p. 94)
Despite the catastrophic loss of species and the tremendous setback for life on earth, MacLeod contends that there is little evidence that Life itself was ever in any danger of going extinct. (p.98) The earliest unquestionable fossils date from 3.5 billion years ago and have the form of thin organic mats, similar to mats of blue-green bacteria found along some marine coastlines today. (p.65) MacLeod’s assumption of the continuity of life is based on the theory that life evolved originally from simple bacterial beginnings, under conditions much harsher than those prevailing at later times.. Hence, even in the direst of circumstances, life can re-evolve and re-establish itself. (p.98) I find this optimism less than uplifting, especially when filtered through MacLeod’s original contention that “each specie’s inevitable fate is to become extinct.” (p. 8) Perhaps so. The fossil record indicates that “the proportion of currently living species is less than 1% of all species that have ever lived during the 3.4 billion years of Earth’s geological history.” (p.17)
Perhaps, however, we should garner hope from MacLeod’s analysis. It is hopeful that life carries on. It is hopeful that other, more adaptable species are evolving, even as the older orders (unable to cope with events foreign to their own evolution) are dying. It is hopeful that many of today’s generation will not accept extinction as an inevitable fate.
Massive extinctions occur when a set of causal factors (perhaps innocuous in themselves) become aligned in time. As shown by the nearby chart, catastrophic causes include volcanism, sea-level change, alteration of ocean oxidation, changes in ocean-atmosphere circulation, solar radiation, and bolide impact. (pp. 49-69) MacLeod attributes species’ extinction to the elimination of entire categories of habitat, to climate change of the planet, to the sudden disruption in species ability to reproduce themselves in their current environment, and the inability of species to adapt rapidly to changing environments. (pp. 180, 191)
Perhaps one of the most thought provoking of MacLeod’s theses is that extinction is a fundamental part of evolution. In fact, without extinction, evolution would grind to a halt. (p.187) Each extinction and recovery phase saw the appearance of new, more adaptable, more advanced species replacing the old. Death is an inextricable part of life. Life carries on.
The final chapter of The Great Extinctions deals with “lessons learned” from the historical record. Humans are now collectively a factor of environmental change fully as significant as large scale volcanism and/or bolide impact. “Since the Industrial revolution, and certainly over the last 50 - 70 years, our technological skill and sheer numbers have reached the point where our species is posing a credible threat to the biota of entire continents and to the seas themselves.” There is reason for hope, however. Public and governmental awareness in human-cause extinction and the collective need for species biodiversity is becoming a moral imperative. Reducing the rate of species loss due to our influence will require difficult decisions, but the human family is beginning to recognize our responsibility not just for the preservation of our own species but also for the continuance of all species with which we share the planet. The effects of habitat destruction, invasive species, hunting, disease, and industrial carelessness are now widely known. The future will be decided by our ethical selves, by what we value, by what we disdain, by what we are prepared to sacrifice, by what we choose to live. (pp. 193-194)
The Animal Mind by Jeffrey Kluger explores scientific and anecdotal evidence supportive of MacLeod’s advocacy for an ethical sharing of the planet. Research illustrating animals’ capacities for problem solving, communication, friendship, mental illness, grief – for humanlike sentience– argues for a reassessment of our attitude and relationship to the animal world. Perhaps most poignant are Kluger’s accounts detailing an animal’s capacity for grief and consequent mourning, some of it ritualistic. He tells of chimp mothers that refuse to surrender a baby that has died, holding the baby for days or weeks after the body has grown cold and begun to decompose. He tells of elephants that linger by the body of a dead herdmate, caressing the body, especially attentive to the head and tusks of the fallen. He tells of dolphin mothers who push the dead body of their young ahead of them, of crows who form lifelong bonds and appear stunned by the death of their mate. (p. 51)
Along these same lines, I remember Gloria McCullough telling our Sunday School department of a scene witnessed many years ago, while camping at Canyon Lake. Standing on the bank, she and others sighted a flock of ducks flying overhead, migrating in perfect formation. Suddenly from somewhere a gun shot sounded and a lone bird fell to the water. The flock picked up speed, trying to outreach the hunters. Then slowly, almost unbelievably, a duck aborted the flight, and making a wide circle, retraced its path and settled in the water, next to its dead mate. Gloria did not tell us the end of the story. Likely, there were tears.
It is hard to dispute Kluger’s sentiments that kinship exists among all living creatures, particularly between humanity and the animal kingdom. While true “that humans have a far greater capacity for love and joy and wisdom than any other creature on the planet ... that doesn’t mean they (animals) don’t have those capabilities to one degree or another. And it doesn’t mean they’re not capable of feeling fear and pain and dread too.....Such complex and aware organisms deserve our care and, yes, even respect.” (p. 82)
The wisdom writings of the Native Americans expressed these thoughts early in our history. Chief Luther Standing Bear (Teton Sioux, living 1868-1939) is quoted by Nerburn/Mengelkock in their collection of Native American Wisdom:
From Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things – the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals – and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all these were kindred, and were brought together by the Great Mystery. Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle. In the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them. And so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue.
The animals had rights – the right of man’s protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, and the right to man’s indebtedness. (pp. 43-44)
Equally thought provoking is Jeremy England’s nearby article, in which England (an MIT professor of physics and adherent of the Hebrew faith), debunks the use of his research to disprove the existence of God. My interest centers around the “burning bush” conversation between God and Moses. God directs Moses to speak on behalf of his people and Moses (a fugitive from Egypt, fearful to return, doubting his capabilities, and perhaps doubting the authenticity of the Voice) demurs and asks God to identify Himself. According to England’s transcription of the Hebrew text, God responds: “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” According to the King James transcription, God responds: “I AM WHO I AM.’ (Ex. 4:14)
The difference of interpretations is striking. Both am and will be are derived from the Hebrew verb to be. Each form connotes a different meaning and a different understanding of God, in my opinion. AM describes a resolute, determined, unchanging God; while WILL BE suggests an adaptable, thoughtful, evolving God. I am not certain which (if either) is the correct translation, but for the purposes of this paper, I believe that WILL BE more aptly describes the Spirit Who created a changing, ever evolving world. Perhaps the image of the burning bush, soon to be ashes, supports the idea of an evolving God. England says that God “is addressing the uncertainty the future brings for all....Humans will always face a choice about how to react to the unknowable future.” (WSJ, 10-13-17) That seems right to me. The only certainties are change and God’s promise to be present in the unknowable. God’s choice is how to react to our choices. Our choice is how to react to His. Life changes, but Life carries on. I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.
Linda Thompson is an outstanding member of the First Baptist Church of Austin, TX., Green Team. She and her husband, Bob, maintain an educational display for the entire congregation year-round, manage a year-round, small item recycling facility, support numerous conservation initiatives, and more. Read Linda's compelling piece, Life Abundant or Diminished, It's Our Choice.