Ecology and the Environment: The Mechanisms, Marrings, and Maintenance of Nature.
Robert James "Sam" Berry (born 1934), emeritus professor of genetics at University College, London, honored with the UK Templeton Award (1996) and the Marsh Award for Ecology (2001), is well qualified to write authoritatively on environmental issues, having authored or edited numerous books on natural history and on science and Christian faith. He has led many organizations, including the European Ecological Federation and Christians in Science. Ecology and the Environment is the ninth in the Templeton Science and Religion Series, for a general audience interested in science and the humanities, including religion and theology. It seeks to inform readers without a scientific background about ecological concepts, that they may know more about the world on which all depend, getting them to ask the crucial question of how we ought to treat this world. The eight chapters range over a variety of topics much wider than the title implies.
The opening chapter "Ecology--The Study of Place" starts with a list of twenty important ecological concepts, which would be obscure to readers without some ecological background. It then switches from ecology to review Earth's history, from the origin of life, through the formation and breakup of supercontinents Rodinia and Pangaea (incorrectly called Rodinia on p. 19), to the emergence of Homo sapiens. Ecology becomes central in the second and longest chapter, "A Green Machine," in which a cryptic discussion of the concept of an ecosystem precedes a treatment of standard ecological topics, including adaptation, industrial melanism, the Galapagos finches, niches, and food webs. The sixteen figures, mostly from the research literature, which illustrate these two chapters, show that a solid basis of data undergirds the general statements in the text; however, specialized knowledge is needed to understand the details of most figures, and some of the labels contain errors. Similarly, an account of population growth briefly introduces the exponential, logistic, and Lotka-Volterra equations, but the connection between the name and equation seems mixed up in places, and needed parentheses in some formulas are missing. Introductory texts on environmental science for undergraduates express the key ideas with simple graphs of J-curves and S-curves and avoid the differential equations, which are unlikely to be intelligible to this book's target audience. To get a clear presentation of these equations one must look elsewhere, for example, lectures 4, 5, and 19 of the third-year Biomathematics course at the University of British Columbia, http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~bio301 /Bio301.html (accessed February 2, 2012). Thus by the end of chapter two, this book has discussed nearly all of the twenty most important ecological topics previously identified.
The next three chapters bring insights from Christian faith to complement the preceding essentially scientific presentation. Chapter three, "From Deluge to Biogeography," documents the change in perception of the world from the static view of natural theology to the modern dynamic view of change governed by natural laws. Unfortunately, a key quotation from William Whewell has its sense erroneously negated by the omission of "not" before "by insulated interpositions of Divine power" (p. 74). In the early modern period, believing scientists gradually changed their interpretations of the biblical account of Noah's ark. Likewise, there has been improved understanding of the distributions of plants and animals, especially endemism in island biotas where the founder effect is significant. Chapter four, "Stewardship and Ecological Services," opens with concepts of the relationship between humans and nature in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in Islam, including a thoughtful critique of the lecture "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" by Lynn White Jr., given in 1966 (not 1956 as stated on p. 103). The contemporary advocacy of a biocentric worldview instead of a human-centered one finds expression in the deep ecology of Arne Naess and the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock. Nevertheless, ecosystem services such as primary productivity and water purification are of great value to people. In chapter five, Berry traces environmental literacy from the sixteenth century through to influential writers in the twentieth century such as Aldo Leopold and Thor Heyerdahl. However, he does not address literacy in the sense of improved understanding of environmental issues by the public and by decision-makers.
In the final chapters the focus turns to humanity and our place in God's creation. Chapter six, "The Proper Study of Mankind," first reviews human evolution from Sahelanthropus and Australopithecus to anatomically modern Homo sapiens with brains and larynxes allowing language. It then continues with a discussion of how morality originated, ending with the suggestion that at some time God brought about a transformation to a spiritually distinct "Homo divines." With our unique abilities, humans are now "The Most Dangerous Species" (chap. 7) in the world, appropriating 45% of their net primary productivity (NPP) for themselves. Some communities, such as Easter Island, have collapsed after overexploitation of resources. Berry then catalogs thirteen conferences, programs, and declarations on these issues, starting with Limits to Growth in 1972 and continuing to the present. He reports findings and recommendations of the Earth Charter (1997), the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), and the International Covenant on Environment and Development (2010), and then he turns to a discussion of theological reflections by J. Moltmann and H. Kung. In the final chapter, "God's Two Books," after affirming the scientific validity of modern evolutionary theory and genetics, Berry shows how it is also entirely logical to believe in God as Creator and Sustainer, citing Old and New Testament scriptures. The Fall of humanity recorded in Genesis three brought death in the sense of "severance of relationship with God, the source of life," physical death and suffering having existed long before the appearance of humans. Ecological damage is a consequence of disobedience by people without a proper relationship with God. The book ends with four pages of notes, suggestions for further reading, and a six-page index.
Berry keeps the interest of his readers by highlighting the contributions of great scientists and thinkers over the centuries, with many vivid quotations. However, the book lacks a sense of urgency. For example, it alludes to the problem of human population growth only indirectly, as an aspect of deep ecology or in the Earth Charter. Berry makes no suggestions of actions individuals can take to lessen the marring and improve the maintenance of nature. This book is more valuable for information on the history of ecological and evolutionary thought, and for the author's view of how science and Christian faith are integrated, than as a call to Christians for better stewardship of the environment.
Reviewed by Charles E. Chaffey, Professor Emeritus, Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3E5.
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|Author:||Chaffey, Charles E.|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2012|
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