Ecology: filling and subduing; listening and serving

What do you think of when you hear the word “ecology”?

The discipline of ecology may be unique among the sciences in that its name has become strongly associated with a political agenda [1]. Indeed, “ecological” has connotations of “sustainable” and “environmentally-friendly”. What we call “green” translates in many languages as “ecological”, evoking one of the dominant ethical movements of our time.

As a Christian researcher in ecology, I don’t mind this association. Like many of my colleagues, I was drawn towards the discipline partly by concern for the health of our biological environment. Also, I see ecology as one in a parade of sciences that have strong ethical dimensions because of their direct bearing on human flourishing: along with psychology, sociology, economics, political science, etc.  And indeed, surely we all have motives for working on our chosen subjects, and it’s better to let these be known than pretend to be perfectly disinterested.

So how does my faith influence my academic ecology? Well, there are some ideas I’m still developing regarding the nature of “laws” in ecology, and how to think about the interplay of biological design and environmental randomness that seems to drive species’ adaptations to their habitats: the interface of physical and biotic aspects of reality. And coming back to the normative side of ecology, I’m keen to make the most of inter-disciplinary connections and democratic processes in questions of conservation. Ecologists can make recommendations, but the balancing of different kinds of biodiversity and ecosystem services against each other and against budgets and social concerns in order to implement fair and effective policies is surely a multifaceted question beyond the remit of our science.

A big picture

But when I look for my discipline’s place in the Bible’s big story, it’s quite easy. In Genesis 1, God commanded the fish and birds to fill their respective habitats, and then commanded the first humans to fill and subdue the earth. The ways in which species adapt, proliferate and radiate to fill habitats is one key subject of ecological investigation; another is the best means for humans to manage habitats and regulate the distribution and effects of plants (e.g. agricultural ecology, forestry, invasive species’ ecology). But in Genesis 2:15 we see Adam given another pair of commands for his relationship with the Garden of Eden, which are connate with the Hebrew for “listen to” and “serve”. So, as Adam moves on to name the animals, I may think of my ecological science as a multifarious challenge of listening to, serving, managing and naming the incredible diversity of non-human creatures that surrounds me.

[1] Perhaps “organic” has a similar story to tell: the discipline of organic chemistry has long forfeited the popular connotations of its name, rather ironically, to the organic farming movement – which actually has an element of Christianity in its British roots, as shown by Philip Conford (The Origins of the Organic Movement, 2001).

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