Extinction

14 mins read

I have been asked to reflect upon extinction.  First, perhaps because I write during a terrifying global pandemic, my thoughts turn to the massive explosions triggered as comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up and slammed into Jupiter in 1994.  Jupiter is but a speck in space…but so massive 1300 Earths would fit inside.  The spectacular collisions made palpable the extraordinarily slim but shockingly real chance life on Earth might be suddenly, unexpectedly extinguished.  By 1998 Hollywood had released Deep Impact and Armageddon and NASA had initiated a Near Earth Object Search program.

Considering creation’s ferocious impulse to life—in acidic hot springs at Yellowstone, in deep ocean vents, in acid baths—and two trillion galaxies, I expect life flourishes throughout the cosmos.  So, even if life on Earth is obliterated by a massive comet or a nuclear winter, we are probably not talking about the end of all life in the cosmos.   Moreover, myriad building blocks of life would likely survive most earthly cataclysms.  So, we are probably talking “only” about the extinction of our iteration of life on Earth, not of all life on Earth, nor even the end of Earth teeming with as dazzling an array of creatures as our own iteration, for there is ample time for whole new iterations to evolve.

Yesterday, a news story featuring gorgeous pictures of stars and nebulae urged us to take comfort in the beauty of the universe.  Stars and nebulae are stunning, but entities like these do not appreciate beauty.  For beauty to exist the sorts of beings that can see things as beautiful must exist.  You and I “see” in a profoundly different sense than the Hubble telescope “sees.”  Ontologically, beauty really is in the eye of some beholder.

It is conceivable, if unlikely, that Mars once teemed with life, but some awful conflagration consumed all life and over the eons every trace of life was erased.  If so, then Mars was once seen as beautiful (by creatures on Mars), then Mars was beautiful to none, and then we evolved and beheld, and Mars was beautiful again.

Significantly, all living creatures, even one-celled beings, possess the neurotransmitters and receptors associated with emotions (plants have analogous structures).[i]  Thirst, satisfaction, fear, happiness, appreciation of beauty and so forth are “beheld” in analogous ways by all living creatures.  Of course, a tree, for instance, does not conceptualize thirst, but there is commonality in our primordial/pre-cognitive, bodily thirsting.  

Aesthetic desire and delight are indexed to personal pleasure/self-interest (eros).  For mainstream modern Western anglophone philosophy this, combined with description of causal relationships within the world (science), exhausts the parameters of reality—this names all reality for “materialists” or “metaphysical naturalists.”  Now, eros is real and rightly celebrated, and science is invaluable because it allows us to understand and contend with nature’s causal flow.  But eros and science do not exhaust the full scope of reality, for they exclude the reality of freely willing, innovative, self-creating beings like us and—even more devastating insofar as materialism predominates among global elites—eros and science exclude moral reality.

Utilitarian theory was nineteenth century philosophy’s best stab at locating moral reality within a naturalistic worldview.  Utilitarians defined good in terms of pleasurable/healthy/preferred and defined evil in terms of painful/harmful/unwanted.  As frustrated philosophers quickly realized, however, this reduces good and evil to what is good or evil for one or another “me.”  This reduces ethics to eros, for it can name no other reason any “me” may be concerned over what is good or evil for anyone else.

Naturalism’s conceptual distortion is poignantly manifest when it subverts Arne Naess’s explanation of his exquisite moral sensitivity to a flea—note how modern naturalistic blinders force even Naess, the originator of Deep Ecology, to explain that what is morally basic is the way he sees himself in the flea:

A flea jumped from a lemming strolling along the table and landed in the middle of the acid chemicals.  To save it was impossible.  It took many minutes for the flea to die.  Its movements were dreadfully expressive.  What I felt was, naturally, a painful compassion and empathy.  But the empathy was notbasic.  What was basic was the process of identification, that “I see myself in the flea.”  If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing intuitively anything resembling myself, the death struggle would have left me indifferent.  So there must be identification in order for there to be compassion and, among humans, solidarity.[ii]

Most all morally awakened souls have had like experiences with creatures of all kinds, from humans to horses, squirrels to spiders, cats to cardinals.  To allow the strictures of naturalism to force us to say that the heart of all such moral dynamics is an identification/concern/encounter with myself is a devastating distortion.

In contrast to the naturalism predominant among Western intellectual elites, I affirm a moral reality, the reality of agape, which is manifest when, whether the circumstances are joyful or horrifying, I am seized by the Faces of others.  I see smiling newlyweds, the joyful birthday girl, dogs barking and racing around the park and, apart from any decision or desire, I find myself seized by agape, smiling and joyful.  I see the weeping widow, the uncomprehending girl fleeing the flames of the battle or, like Arne Naess, I see a flea writhing in acid and, apart from any decision or desire, I find myself seized by agape for the widow, the girl, the flea, and I am rent with sorrow and moved to render aid.  Insofar as God is love, this describes surrender to having been seized by the very Face or Spirit of God.[iii]

When I joyfully commune with or mourn a single flea, cat, dog, hamster, horse or human, my having been seized is absolute and unqualified.  But we live among a host of Faces in conflicted contexts.  If the flea is carrying bubonic plague and the life of that girl or my life is at stake, I may decide to kill the flea, but even then I would see myself forced in real time to choose the better among bad options, and I would mourn the Face of the flea.[iv]

Only individuals, not abstractions such as “species” or “mountains,” behold beauty or are seized by or have Faces.  Reciprocity is not essential.  Even if the flea is only capable of rudimentary eros (pleasure or pain), I am still seized infinitely by agape for the flea.  With a conceptual sophistication unknown to the flea, I delight in its pleasure, mourn its pain, act responsively.  Roughly, the appearance of agape in the world requires response-able beings (i.e., beings which can be seized by agape); in this sense we are God’s hands and voice in the world.

Any creature that can experience pleasure or pain (eros) is a beholder and brings aesthetic value into the world.  Any creature that can be seized by the Faces of others (agape), is spiritually response-able, and enables realization of moral/spiritual value in the world.  The more plentiful, diverse and healthy the creatures, the more plentiful, diverse, and robust the aesthetic and moral value in the world.  We intuit these distinctions when we sense the contrast between the barrenness of Mars—beautiful to behold but devoid of delighting, creative, response-able creatures—and the fecundity of Earth.

Of course, just a few keystrokes separate us from stories of myriad Earth creatures lost or threatened:  passenger pigeons, golden toads, black rhinos, orangutans, gorillas, 30% of insects.  We live amidst an epochal, anthropogenic extinction event.  At its root lies unparalleled scientific advance combined with the leveling of Earth in accord with efficiencies indexed to human desires and, worse, efficiencies predominant global elites (agape be damned) index to maximum near-term economic gain.  There is time to change course.  Multi-dimensional change is essential, because for more than a century now we have been increasingly defacing and de-Facing Earth.

We are set apart from all previous generations in human history.  We are the proverbial children who have taken control of the starship with planet-destroying weaponry, for over the past three centuries our scientific understanding has grown in wild disproportion to our spiritual understanding.  We are the pivotal generation.  The fecundity and diversity of the plants, animals, river, mountains, streams and forests which will grace Earth or not for the next thousand millennia rests in our hands. “Extinction” names our stupendous challenge.  The future of this iteration of life on Earth rests in our hands.  Let us strive to ensure future generations will look back and honor our memory with rejoicing.


[i] Schoen, Allen, Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way we Live (New York: Broadway, 2002), 44–45.

[ii] Arne Naess, “Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World,” in Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings, John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess (New Society Publishers, 1988), 22, as cited in William Greenway, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering (WJK, 2016), 52.

[iii] I am inspired here by the seminal philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.

[iv] Cf. William Greenway, Agape Ethics: Moral Realism and Love for All Life (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016).


Dr. William Greenway is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is the author of For the Love of All Creatures:  The Story of Grace in Genesis (Eerdmans, 2015) and A Reasonable Belief: Why God and Faith Make Sense (WJK, 2015).

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