Friday, August 12, 2011

Darwinism, Intelligent Design, and the Plight of the Polar Bear

Darwinism, Intelligent Design, and the Plight of the Polar Bear

Susan McGrath, “On Thin Ice: Not Too Late for Polar Bears.” National Geographic Vol. 220, No. 1 (July 2011), 64-75.

The beloved polar bear is one of the iconic animals of the Canadian (and Eurasian) Arctic. During a mission trip from Edmonton to native communities in the Northwest Territories, I purchased a sweet plush polar bear for our then-3-year-old daughter. She has loved that little teddy bear for five years now.

Non-plush-toy polar bears are not quite as cute and cuddly as their souvenir-store counterparts. Armed with sharp claws and teeth, polar bears are also the largest land carnivore in the world. Males routinely grow to 1000 pounds; females top out around 500 pounds. The largest polar bear ever recorded was over 2000 pounds. So clearly, polar bears are massive meat-eaters with a perch atop the Arctic food chain.

Sadly, Canada’s iconic polar bear is in a fair bit of trouble right now.

The July 2011 National Geographic article by Susan McGrath (accompanied by some stunning photographs by Florian Schulz), does a commendable job of relating the impact of changing weather patterns (climate change) upon the extent of Arctic ice and therefore upon the polar bear’s hunting grounds. The bottom line: hunting grounds are decreasing as the extent of summer sea-ice decreases; polar bears are not able to store up as much fat for the lean winter months; females are reproducing less frequently; and cubs are not surviving as regularly. The picture for the polar bear is somewhat bleak.

As a Christian who dearly loves the powerful symbolism of the polar bear, I grieve over the current predicament facing the polar bear. I want for us (collectively) to do something to do something about it – to help the polar bear survive and thrive in a changing environment, or to help reverse the changing environment so that the polar bear might survive and thrive.

As a Christian, I have the moral and theological resources to provide a foundation for my desire to “help” or “save” the polar bear. I believe that God created the polar bear – perhaps not immediately and exactly as the polar bear is today, but nonetheless that God created its type and intended for the polar bear to occupy the top of the Arctic food chain. I believe that polar bears are not the result of a long period of random mutation and natural selection; I do not believe that polar bears evolved to their current status by virtue of “survival of the fittest”. I also believe that God has commissioned human beings, as His image-bearers, to exercise stewardship over His creation, including the majestic polar bear. Consequently, I believe that we have a prima facie (i.e., all other things being equal) responsibility to seek the continued survival and flourishing of polar bears in the Arctic. If the current plight of the polar bear stems in full or partial measure from the consequences of human activity, then that prima facie responsibility is heightened.

I suspect that most naturalists (atheists/agnostics) would tend to agree with my conclusion – namely, that people ought to help the polar bear. However, I want to briefly examine how they might arrive at such a conclusion. After all, in the absence of belief in God, one certainly will not couch humanity’s responsibility to help the polar bear in such things as “God created the polar bear,” “God has commissioned human beings … to exercise stewardship over His creation.” In particular, I want to question the foundations on which a naturalist could possibly build a case for human intervention on behalf of the bear.

Under Darwinian evolution (briefly and roughly defined as the undirected descent of all living beings from a common ancestor through random mutation and natural selection; with natural selection itself briefly and roughly defined as genetic reproduction and propagation of traits and types that are conducive to biological survival and propagation in a given environmental context), the polar bear is neither created by God, nor placed under the caring stewardship of humanity. Rather, the polar bear is the product of chance and directionless, purposeless change. The polar bear emerged at the top of the Arctic food chain simply because it was the organism best-fitted for that position—rather, the polar bear evolved into that role in the Arctic.

Darwinism, in both its classical and neo-Darwinist manifestations, emphasize the survival of the fittest—those organisms best equipped for a given context will thrive and fill any ecological voids left by the demise of other organisms less-suited for the environment.

So, then, here is the crux of my question: why, on a Darwinian model, ought human beings seek the survival and health of the polar bear populations of the Canadian Arctic? Ought we not rather allow nature to follow her course? If Darwinism is true, then one of two things should follow. Either (a) the polar bear will adapt to the changing environmental conditions in the Arctic, so that it emerges unscathed and continues to reign as the food chain champion. In this scenario, perhaps the polar bear will evolve so greatly that it even becomes an entirely new type of bear, or a different species altogether. Or (b) the polar bear will continue to suffer, and eventually go extinct, because it is ill-suited for that environment. In this scenario, there is nothing “good” or “bad” about the polar bear’s extinction—this is simply evolution’s way of dealing with changing environments. Too bad for the polar bear … but no worries, we are assured by leading proponents of evolution that nature is callous and indifferent to our preferences. Besides, as the polar bear suffers, that will allow some other creatures—perhaps already-known predators, perhaps something new and unexpected—to adapt and step into the royal role heretofore reserved for the polar bear.

In either case, I cannot find a solid foundation, on purely Darwinian terms, to support human intervention on behalf of the polar bear. Rather, we should allow nature to follow her course and see what happens. In order to justify human action, I submit to you that we need to embrace some form of Intelligent Design—acknowledging that the created order has a supernatural designer, and that the designer has entrusted human beings with derivative stewardship over creation. We, in turn, are called to exercise Intelligent Design in our creation stewardship. God created the polar bear; we are called to care (in proximate terms) for the polar bear; thus, there is a responsibility to alleviate the plight of the polar bear. On the philosophical presuppositions of Darwinism, evolution is in charge: random mutation and natural selection are king, and if natural selection disfavors the polar bear, so be it.

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