46 Has the creation been getting better or worse? (Part 1)

We may conclude our “fishing in the middle of the lake” by taking up the question of how, if the world has come about through an uninterrupted evolutionary process that has led to greater and greater complexity, we are to understand the Bible’s teaching that the world has rather “fallen” from a formerly pristine state, because of human disobedience. Has the creation been getting better and better all this time, or has it been getting worse and worse?

We should specify that what we are addressing here is a theological question, not a chronological one. We are not asking how human actions could have affected all of natural history if humans have appeared only at the very end of that history. Creationists would respond to this question by placing humans at the beginning of natural history, while biologists with methodologically-naturalistic commitments would ask a different question: Do we find evidence in the fossil record that the natural order was qualitatively different before there were people? There is no such evidence, and so the question we must ask is the theological one: Can there be any validity to the biblical notion of a “fall” if natural history tells the story of an uninterrupted increase in complexity and capability?

Our first response to this question must be to observe that those who speak of increasing complexity and those who speak of a “fall” are actually using two different definitions of “better.” These definitions differ to such an extent, in fact, that the world can have been getting both better and worse at the same time.

If we are to assign value judgments within biology (which we may perhaps allow ourselves to do from our mid-lake vantage point), we may say that increases in complexity which permit species to have greater brain capacity, sensory acuity, agility and the like result in “better” or “higher” life forms. From the biblical perspective, however, “better” does not mean more complex or capable; it means more in keeping with God’s intentions, which are for rightly-ordered relationships among all creatures. The Genesis account of creation, it will be recalled, describes “a place for everything and everything in its place.” This is God’s vision of shalom or community welfare: all things in right relationship to one another. We can see, therefore, how things could be getting both better and worse at the same time. They might be getting more complex and capable, but also into more and more disordered relationships.

In fact, this is precisely the story the subsequent stories in Genesis tell about human civilization. After its “fall” and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the human race develops into a civilization whose cultural achievements are increasingly more complex, but in which relationships become more and more disordered. These stories describe how humans pursued the arts of metallurgy, architecture and animal husbandry, how they built great cities and accumulated large flocks, how they wrote music and poetry. At the same time, these stories tell about murder and violence, of the lust for power and fame, and of the earth being so filled with wickedness that God was sorry he had made humans. Increasing cultural complexity and badly disordered relationships: Human society became both better (by one definition) and worse (by another) at the same time.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel” (1563). The book of Genesis describes the building of this tower as both an unprecedented architectural achievement and as an expression of human arrogance and the lust for fame.

But did the same process occur in the natural world? Our concern has specifically to do with the effect that humans have had on the rest of creation, since it is the consequences of human actions that are in view when we talk of the “fall.” And when we contemplate these consequences, we realize that humans have indeed been making the natural world around them both better and worse at the same time.

Selective breeding has accelerated the process of genetic variation to produce a great variety of useful and beautiful natural products. More recently, genetic engineering has achieved even more dramatic results, although the character of its ultimate effects remains to be determined. Humans have also expanded the habitat of many species through irrigation, land reclamation, greenhouses, and other measures. In some cases, humans have even saved some species from extinction and helped rebuild their populations.

At the same time, however, it must be admitted that the overall effect of human activity on the rest of creation has run counter to the process that biologists hold to have brought about the great variety of life forms on our planet. In other words, human activity as a whole has had a tendency to produce homogeneity rather than heterogeneity. The homeowner who uses chemicals ruthlessly to eliminate the biodiversity of his lawn in favor of plain grass is a fitting symbol for humanity in general. We have converted entire ecosystems into single-product cash crop farms; we have razed rain forests to create grasslands for fast-food beef; we have introduced plants such as kudzu into new environments where they have choked out the former inhabitants. If we do believe that it pleased God to cause a great variety of life forms to flourish through processes such as genetic variation, then anyone looking for the “curse” humans have brought to the ground need look no farther than our relentless tendency to eliminate biological diversity.

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