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An unconventional trinity: conservation, religion, and evolution


  • Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the United States National Park Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior.
  • The NPS largely owes its existence to one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints — a clear example of how religion and conservation, belief and science, though they might seem like strange bedfellows, have led directly to earth stewardship in our time.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the United States National Park Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior. The NPS largely owes its existence to one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints — a clear example of how religion and conservation, belief and science, though they might seem like strange bedfellows, have led directly to earth stewardship in our time.

On 25 August 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act into law. The NPS was established to “promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The legislation had been introduced to the United States Congress by a California Representative and a Utah Senator. The former was William Kent, a wealthy landowner who had donated some of his property to the Federal Government for purposes of establishing the John Muir Woods National Monument in 1908. The latter was Reed Smoot, who had been a businessman in banking, mining, and real estate before his election to Congress in 1902. Smoot was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, and was forbidden from taking his seat in Congress. Rage erupted over allowing a Mormon to sit in the House of Representatives. Not until 1907, with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, was Smoot able to assume his responsibilities as a Utah Senator. In 1908, Roosevelt asked him to become a member of the National Conservation Commission, and in 1911 he was elevated to Chair of the House Committee on Public Lands. A few years later, John Muir and Kent would find themselves on opposite sides of the battle to preserve the Hetch Hetchy Valley, while Muir and Smoot were aligned.

Almost a half century after Smoot spearheaded the creation of the NPS, a co-religionist, Stewart Udall, was instrumental in shepherding the Wilderness Act of 1964 through Congress when he was the Secretary of the Interior. Udall was not a religious devotee, like Smoot, but both were raised as Mormons. And one nephew, Joseph F. Smith, of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints had urged congregants to “keep the balance of animal life adjusted to the needs of creation. Man in his wanton disregard of a sacred duty has been reckless of life. He has destroyed it with an indifference to the evil results it would entail upon the earth.”

Another religious leader also saw God’s calling as saving the planet. In May 2014, Pope Francis declared “…in destroying Creation we are saying to God: ‘I don’t like it! That is not good!’…Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us”. The Pope had grown up as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, but adopted the name of the Patron Saint of Animals and Ecology, Francis of Assisi, when he become the Pope. He is following the path of his namesake.

In June 2015, Pope Francis issued “Laudato Si”, his encyclical noting that “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the greater part of the global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases …above all because of human activity.” He was worried about how human-induced ecological changes are scarring the planet and destroying God’s creatures. His thoughts built upon those of one of his predecessors. In 1990, on the World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II noted in his annual message: “The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related greenhouse effect has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellant: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.”

Coastline north of McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California
Coastline north of McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Two years early, in July 2013, members of the U.S. Congress received a letter signed by 200 evangelical Christian scientists deploring the assault on natural resources. They wrote “All of God’s creation – humans and our environment – is groaning under the weight of our uncontrolled use of fossil fuels, bringing on a warming planet, melting ice, and rising seas.” They concluded “We call on you to pass meaningful legislation during this Congress to reduce carbon emissions and protect our environment, thereby strengthening the long-term outlook for our economy and our children.” Their plea was ignored.

In an odd twist that gives rise to our unconventional trinity, religious beliefs aimed at conservation happen to be a conjoined twin with the biological process of evolution. Although Charles Darwin is considered a Devil in some quarters, and a Deacon in others, he denied that his work had anything to do with religion, and he died before people realized that his ideas were the basis of conservation.

Francis Darwin, noting that his father was too busy to answer all of his correspondence, wrote for his father: “I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the most current description of my state of mind…The Theory of Evolution is quite compatible with the belief in God…Science has nothing to do with Christ.” And herein lies the paradox of the evolutionary biologists denying the existence of God. Since science proceeds by posing testable predications, and one can never prove the null hypothesis, then insisting on the non-existence of a Supreme Being is based on belief, not science. Science cannot either prove or disprove that God exists. Evolution may, or may not, be directed by a Supreme Being. Religion is based on belief, not testing hypotheses. Science is based on testing hypotheses, not beliefs. Evolutionary biologists pronouncing that God does not exist are not only contradicting the evolutionary framework of Darwinism, but are not following the scientific method. In the end, the conservation of biodiversity is a calling that transcends the chasm between science and creation.

How does Darwin’s work fit into conservation? His opening remarks in The Origin of Species, published in November 1859, include the following: “It is, therefore, of the highest importance to gain a clear insight into the means of modification and coadaptation…who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world.” Indeed, the future success of the world’s inhabitants will depend upon their abilities to adapt to rapidly changing environments. His brilliant insights into the evolutionary process produced a framework for understanding biodiversity, evolution, and extinction.

Grand Canyon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Grand Canyon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

First, and most relevant in today’s world, was his recognition that climate change regulates species numbers and distribution. Climate change over time is not a new phenomenon; we have had a series of Ice Ages in the past. But the pace of global warming has achieved such momentum that Chicken Little’s words are nearly correct: the sky is not falling, but the atmosphere is heating up. Charles Darwin recognized the links among climatic fluctuations, geological changes, and species extinctions or changes over time. He wrote “Climate plays an important part in determining the average number of a species, and periodical seasons of extreme cold or drought seem to be the most effective of all checks.”  Unfortunately, nowadays, the pace of climate change is accelerating too rapidly for most animals to adapt. On the other hand, landscape changes and atmospheric conditions are a boom for mosquitoes carrying the malarial parasite; they are expanding their range.

Second, he realized that small populations are more likely to disappear than are large populations.  He wrote: “Owing to the high geometrical rate of increase of all organic beings, each area is already fully stocked with inhabitants; and it follows from this, that as the favoured forms increase in number, so generally, will the less favoured decease and become rare. Rarity, as geology tells us, is the precursor to extinction. We can see that any form which is represented by few individuals will run a good chance of utter extinction…” Below a critical threshold, populations cannot sustain themselves and species go extinct. We are down to fewer northern white rhinoceros than we have fingers on a hand. Maybe 600 Thornicroft’s giraffe live in Africa. Less than 2,500 Bengal tigers roam the Asian continent. The numbers are dreadful.

Third, Darwin deduced that “On the theory of natural selection, the extinction of old forms and the production of new and improved forms are intimately connected together.” He could just as easily have called his book On The Extinction of Species. Darwin’s vision of life on the planet consisted of organisms struggling for survival and reproduction in an ever-changing, dynamic environment. Species changed over time due to incremental modifications in the appearance of their descendants while adapting to new conditions of life. But if they cannot change rapidly enough to adjust to new conditions, then they go extinct, the pattern that we are witnessing today.

Redwood forest in California. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Redwood forest in California. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

One of the pioneers and giants of conservation, John Muir, had once written to a friend that she should read Charles Darwin, not only because of his key insights into biology, but because too many people were leveling unjust criticisms at him without having actually read his work. John Muir had read Charles Darwin while in a cabin in Yosemite one winter. He was also familiar with the Bible, as are many religious Christians and Jews, where Psalm 96: 11-13 is an ode to conservation:

11Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.

Although Charles Darwin laid the foundations for conservation by explaining how evolution and extinction result from ecosystems dynamics and the economy of nature, people who discount his ideas still live on the same Ark created by Mother Nature as do us evolutionary biologists.

Religion, Conservation, and Evolution might seem like strange bedfellows, but they are a Holy Trinity. Reed Smoot was raised as a Mormon. John Muir’s father was an extremely religious man who gave his son a penny for memorizing “Rock of Ages” as a boy. His father shifted from the Secession Church, an offshoot of the Church of Scotland, to the Disciples of Christ Church, while still in Scotland, to finally abandoning the Churches in Scotland and moving to America, where he could preach the gospel. Charles Darwin was baptized in the Anglican Church, went to the Unitarian Church with his mother and siblings as a boy, then returned to the Anglican Church after his mother died, when his sister Caroline insisted that he learn the Bible. Religion, Conservation, and Evolution are not in conflict when the subject is saving the planet’s biodiversity.

As we approach the Centenary of the National Park Service, perhaps religious leaders should borrow a page from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species when they proselytize to congregants. At the end of his book, he wrote: : “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Indeed, there is ‘grandeur in this view of life’ and we should cherish and preserve it for the future. Let us listen to the trees of the forest singing for joy and not crying over death and destruction.

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