Earth: space rock or living organism?

Deeply connected

Looking for something to occupy my mind while eating dinner a couple of weeks ago, I popped on Netflix and found that recommended for me was Netflix’s own (no surprise there) Our Planet, a documentary displaying the marvels of life in various regions around the globe. Sure, why not. I like the planet. It’s pretty and stuff.

The documentary did, in fact, captivate my imagination. Over the next week during dinnertime, I attentively watched zooming landscapes paired with intimate close-ups of powerful, graceful, odd, and rather interesting creatures and listened to narrator David Attenborough expound the wonders of these ecosystems. But anyone who pays even halfway attention will notice something else in Attenborough’s narration.

Yes, he warns of the damaging effects of human overinvolvement in nature — deforestation, unsustainable fishing practices, poaching to near extinction, the construction of dams, and the like — that have led to severe and damaging climate change. But such change occurs, one easily surmises, because of how closely knit all things on the planet are. Harvesting too much of one kind of fish leads to overpopulation of another kind of animal which leads to an alteration in plantlife which leads to a change in weather patterns which leads to…

You get the picture. The life cycles of plants and animals as well as the movements of rivers, temperatures of oceans, and levels of gases in the atmosphere enfold and influence one another in ways that the casual onlooker might not notice but that the careful observer can see quite plainly.

It’s no wonder, then, that some see more than a causal connection among the earth’s biology, geography, and geology. Surely, a deeper relation runs throughout the earth than a simple chain of cause-and-effect. That description simply fails to capture the complexity as well as the beauty and grandeur of the ecosystem. It is an injustice. The earth as a mere machine of cogs and pulleys and belts (more often than not exploited for economic endeavors), the not uncommon view since the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, seems to lead to harm not flourishing — at least not flourishing in any enduring sense.

The failure of this conception of the earth in light of ecological abuses and the promptings of reimagining a varied, complex, and intertwined world leave us questioning: Is there not another way to perceive our home, our planet? Can we not make better sense of the richness of earth in which all things exist in such an intimate relationship?

A living organism?

According to the common sense view (at least what is considered common sense post-Scientific Revolution), the earth basically consists of minerals, metals, dirt, water, and gases with organic life scattered about. In reality, both the organic and inorganic, the animate and the inanimate inflect upon each other. Changes to one affect the other, and the whole responds to and regulates change as if the entire earth itself were a single organism.

Such is the opinion of one New York Times writer in a recent column leading up to Earth Day. For more examples of the deep connectivity on the earth, this article is illuminating. It’s more than the fact that humans exhale carbon dioxide, which plants soak in, expelling oxygen in return for us. Even microbes, he argues, “are involved in numerous geological processes; some scientists think they played a role in forming continents.” (If such is the case, global warming brought on by humans becomes not only not far-fetched but quite believable.)

In light of such evidence, he suggests reinvigorating, with some modification, the Gaia hypothesis, the theory “that all the living and nonliving elements of Earth are ‘parts and partners of a vast being who in her entirety has the power to maintain our planet as a fit and comfortable habitat for life.’” Once criticized by the scientific community as a theory that leaned too heavily on the notion of earth as Mother Nature, he argues that science might now support such a theory.

Perhaps this Being was granted too much agency in the first formulation of the theory in the 1970s, as though “living Earth was yearning for some optimal state,” but nonetheless, as any organism, Earth harmonizes and regulates the diverse processes which would seek to upset her balance. “We and all living creatures are not just inhabitants of Earth, we are Earth — an outgrowth of its physical structure and an engine of its global cycles” (emphasis added). Humans exist not on the earth but as part of the Earth, her consciousness or mind in fact, giving us a “privileged perspective” of the course of the Earth and the responsibility to lead the charge of her restoration.

Problems with this appeal

Once the intricate relationships of earth’s systems and creatures come into view, such a position — that the earth is actually the Earth, a living being of which we are a part — becomes plausible. “Science” even agrees seemingly. The one who believes only when the research provides empirical evidence might find this appealing. And this notion gives expression to the non-physical (perhaps spiritual?) connection among all things that some people feel. The one who extols the beauty and oneness of nature or the one who encourages others to feel the energy of their surroundings — both find satisfaction here.

The scientific foundation, however, is flimsy at best. Yes, empirical study can demonstrate the relationship that exists between various objects and processes. Research can explain how things happen. But what a thing is — that goes beyond science. To claim that humanity is the consciousness of Earth is not a scientific claim but a philosophical one.

And a bad one at that. It confuses analogy with identity. The Earth is like an organism, and humanity is like its consciousness. Perhaps. The Earth is an organism, and we are its consciousness. Much less likely. If humans are the Earth’s mind, how can we have agency and the Earth have some kind of supra-agency if Earth is a single organism? We never speak of our own consciousness, or any part of our body, as having agency of its own. If it did, it would be a different organism altogether living in a symbiotic relationship.

Moreover, science cannot dictate which sub-organism (for such we must call what we have normally called organisms if indeed Earth is a being) has the responsibility for overseeing Earth’s care. In fact, if truly a living being, shouldn’t Earth regulate her own body? Some argue that Earth does just this. Well, then why does she need us to oversee restoration projects?

Where the scientific, materialistic arguments break down, some will follow a spiritual route instead, feeling the energy of Nature and being at one with her in spirit. It is difficult to maintain this view and not lose the distinction between Creator and creation. To hold that creatures on the earth have agency but are still one with Earth is to perceive Earth as a kind of transcendent being or at least as a supra-being, something above and beyond other organisms. But if we are one with it, then everything is lifted into transcendence. All individuality becomes lost as Earth subsumes it.

With that distinction blurred, paganism naturally arises. Created things take on an air of elevated significance bordering on the spiritual. Most cannot make the jump to paganism entirely, although New Age spiritualism has made the closest attempt. Worship of the elements existed for a more primitive time; instead, we dress up the old paganism in science-y apparel. Accessories like “studies have shown” and “scientists are agreeing” distract from the reality: such a view, in its attempt to demonstrate the connectivity of the world, monistically reduces all creatures into one, the Earth, and animates, enlivens that which is inanimate, a type of spiritual effusion, otherwise known as pantheism.

A trinitarian reflection

How then can we refrain from describing the world in purely materialistic, almost mechanical, terms while acknowledging the intimate relations that bind all things together without confessing a pantheistic-leaning dogma? The Christian has recourse to the doctrines of the Church derived from Scripture.

Herman Bavinck’s thoughts here in particular prove instructive. For Bavinck, “the Christian mind remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God” (Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2, p. 330). That goes for all of creation. Creation itself carries marks of the three-in-one Creator. God mysteriously exists as three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — in one being. His essence is not divided, transported, or transformed among the three, but for all eternity, he simultaneously lives in three modes of existence, the most profound diversity within unity.

Bavinck invokes an image to capture the sense in which creation mirrors this kind of Creator. The entire cosmos is like an organism. An organism is a whole, unified entity which precedes any of its parts, yet unique, diverse parts do exist. The eye is separate from the brain, for instance, but both ought to work harmoniously together towards a common end or purpose.

His organic metaphor runs counter to the pseudo-pagan metaphor. While this trinitarian flavor permeates the cosmos, creation cannot copy God fully. Even we who bear the image of God, cannot totally imitate God’s being. We do talk about humanity as a whole, almost as though it were one being, but nonetheless, each unique individual cannot be incorporated into the others.

The same holds for creation. Spoken into existence by a three-in-one God, it makes sense that a profound oneness characterizes all that fills the universe so that we might want to talk about earth as a single entity. But while the image of the organism might be appropriate to an extent, analogy does not equal identity. In light of the Trinity, we can and should acknowledge the deep connectivity shared by all things, and as God’s representatives on earth, the responsibility to work towards that unity in God’s grace in response to sin’s effects rests with us and should be evident in our treatment of the earth. The earth is not just a giant space rock. But remembering that earth only dimly reflects its Creators reminds us not to personify or deify our home by overstating that oneness. Only God perfectly exhibits that unity and diversity which exists on a dimension only our imagination can approach.