Thursday, December 16, 2010

Filling the Measure of Creation

I Just learned about a black flightless beetle that lives in a canyon west of Fresno. This canyon is the only place it lives. There are no other isolated remnants or small populations anywhere else in the world. This beetle’s existence is spent rummaging through wild grasses and fallen oak leaves looking for small insects to eat, in a small corner of the world occupying only a few square miles.

As an entomologist, this sort of discovery interests me a great deal. I get excited about finding small creatures in unexpected places. In fact I have spent over three decades doing just that. And one of the things that I have come to appreciate about life on this planet is that it is local. I don’t mean that animals and plants can’t occupy large areas. Of course they can - and they do. But when we find them in their preferred habitat it is in a specific place.

Take mountain lions, for example. They occur throughout Western North America (as well as Florida) and in parts of Central and South America. They have the widest distribution of any wild cat species in the world. Even so, how many wild mountain lions have you seen in your life? Even if you get into the mountains a lot, it is more than likely that you have never seen one. In the many years and countless ventures that I have made into cougar country I have only seen one. It was at tree line in the John Muir Wilderness and the experience was awe-inspiring. I will never forget it.

A fact I wish to consider is a simple one: the species of the Creation have geographical and ecological limits. Scientists may outline detailed distribution maps and theoretical species ranges but if you ever hope to see a specific one, you need to find the right habitat.

Years ago I traveled through most of the Western United States collecting small click beetles that live on the ground between small plants and cobbles near streams and rivers. I got to the point that I could predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which places would harbor these insects and which would not. It all depended on recognizing the type of habitat and understanding the requirements of the insects. Others thought I had a sixth sense about these things but mostly it came from a lot of experience.

The Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants indicate that living things were meant to fill the measure of their creation. What does this mean exactly? Perhaps it means that living things are meant to propagate their own kind. I think it also means that living things are meant to fill a particular niche. This may seem a bit awkward - combining Genesis with ecology. But the truth is that the created order was made with intricate and sophisticated care. And so I think that filling the measure of creation means, in part, that living things enjoy the places they were created to enjoy.

But there is more - something quite significant that we usually fail to consider: we ourselves are products of particular places. This may sound like an evolutionary argument. It is not. It is an argument much older than Darwin that considers humanity and other species to be intricately woven into the very nature of the cosmos. Just as a diamond forms when certain conditions of carbon, heat, pressure and time prevail - so we are inevitable when the proper conditions prevail. The cosmos was created (or has always existed) for us.

This was the thinking of Aristotle and of the Medieval schoolmen who saw nature as a great scale of being, where form and function were all important evidence of this cosmic design. Since Darwin this understanding has been enlarged by D’arcy Wentworth Thompson (in his On Growth and Form first published in 1942) and more recently by Michael Denton (in Nature’s Destiny).

Thompson’s volume runs to over a thousand pages filled with example after example of how growth and form conform to an inevitable nature of life. “Still, all the while, like warp and woof, mechanism and teleology are interwoven together, and we must not cleave to the one nor despise the other; for their union is rooted in the very nature of totality.”

Denton’s insights stem from his research on the formation of red blood cells which he sees as epigenetic products. What he means by this is that the sum total of the genes involved are no where near sufficient, by themselves, to create red blood cells. They do create the required proteins but these proteins are essentially left on their own to continue the cascade of interconnected parts and processes that ultimately lead to a red blood cell. Denton argues that a similar situation exists for most (if not all) of the body’s processes.

“I am now quite convinced,” writes Denton, “that the discovery that protein folds are natural forms is only the beginning of what may turn out to be a major Platonic revision of biology, and an eventual relocation of biological order away from genes and mechanism and back into nature – where it resided before the Darwinian revolution.”

This perspective understands life as a physically necessary outcome of the created order. But if this is so, how do we explain the great diversity among individuals of a given species. Why, for example, do we all look so different?

Here the answer seems to be that we have built in to our genetic make-up an ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. It is a necessary part of inter-generational survival. This is how the Eskimo have become so different from the Kalahari bushmen - even though both are very human.

This is the Darwinian process of natural selection but I believe that it is much more restricted than Darwin (or his modern acolytes have) imagined. This ability to adapt is a process of joining us to a particular place. It is not a process of generating new species.

What I wish to make clear is that we are a part of the eternal order. And we are also part of the places our forefathers lived. We are both eternally intended and locally derived.

This should all be obvious but it seems that the decades of toiling against a materialistic (Darwinian) counter culture has inured many of us to the realities of place. The religious among us have been defining our natures in heavenly terms even as we discount the fallen physical world we now inhabit. This is a mistake. Who we are has much to do with where we live - both now and in the future.

Yet there is more, I think a lot more, to filling the measure of creation. In our fallen world, for example, most living things are kept from growing in to their full potential. We see this when we notice a beautiful maple tree or dogwood in full bloom in our neighbor’s yard. With proper care these impressive trees become fuller, healthier, and much more attractive than the same kinds of trees growing wild in the forest. It is really remarkable what a capable gardener can do. Yet the sad implication is that there is potential in living things that never gets realized because there is no master gardener to bring it out.

How can anything fill the measure of its creation that fails to realize its own potential? I don’t think it can. The sad reality is that in our fallen world, very few opportunities exist for any individual of any species (humans included) to live to its potential. Consider the tangled bank of a stream (to use Darwin’s famous example) containing hundreds of plants all competing with each other for space, for limited nutrients and for light. Most of the individuals in this habitat will be small and undernourished as they get pushed aside by a few dominant individuals.

Our competitive world is much the same. And just as no exceptions are made in a tangled bank for pretty flowers, tasty herbs, or healthy crops - hardly any exceptions are made for us either. Competition and a harsh world are the main things that count - and it’s the weeds that do the best.

Occasionally a seed will land in an opportune spot and develop fully. But this is an exception. For the rest of us there is really only one way to reach our potential: get planted in a garden.

Before there was “nature red in tooth and claw” there was a garden. Before our ancestors had to deal with weeds there was a garden. Before we had to deal with all the burdens of a fallen world there was a garden.

According to sacred literature plants and animals (even humans) once lived in a place of achievable potential. Not only did they live there, but this garden was prior to the world we experience here. Prior, that is, because it represents the true state of things. The Creation, after all, was made to reach the measure of its creation.

And yet here we are - living lives that find us less than we should be - living with other species living less than they can be. And the inevitable question becomes quite simply: how can we learn to garden?

A very big clue from the natural world is that a garden respects the reality of place. The stones, streams, trees, or any number of other native elements are all used. The goal is to keep things real - and remember, a garden is real. In fact our garden is more real than its fallen counterpart. It represents our true potential.

Another important part of a garden is the gardener. But not any hired hand will do. A gardener that knows the potential of his garden is rare indeed. In fact such a person does not exist in a fallen world of limited perspective - at least we can’t see Him. A hired hand may learn useful things. He may learn how to prune roses, or that blueberries prefer pine mulches, or that impatiens want just the right amount of sun. But how does he plan for the unexpected disease, for fires, or for the vagrant rabbit let in through the open gate?

Clearly, no hired hand will do. But all is not lost. We may not live in our garden yet but we can work on it even so. We can learn to love a place and learn the needs of its living things – even discovering that some places are meant for us as a land of our inheritance. This created order was meant to be diverse and sustainable. It is also a place where it is possible for us to thrive if we can learn to live as we were meant to live. And when we get proficient at this we can start to understand ourselves a little better and the true nature of our potential. Of course we may need a little help from somebody who knows more about this than we do. But the inklings are there. And who’s to say that we can’t learn to garden with His help?

References:

Denton, Michael J. 2004. An Anti-Darwinian Intellectual Journey; in, William A. Dembski ed. Uncommon Dissent, Intellectuals who find Darwinism Unconvincing. ISI Books, Wilmington, DE. Denton’s quote is on page 174.

Denton, Michael J. 1998. Nature’s Destiny, How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. The Free Press.

Thompson, D’Arcy W. 1992. On Growth and Form. Dover Publications Inc., New York. Quotation is from page 7.

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