Insight from Perelandra
An ecology of the Garden and a parallel (I would assume) ecology of the New Earth is to be developed. This might only prove useful for myself to be more thoroughly steeped in anticipation, though I hope it can be used to help inform how we think about and take dominion of creatures here and now. It may hopefully encourage Christians in the fields of ecology and conservation biology as well. I would love your comments!
This first post regards the categories for living things that were ordained in the garden. I am interested in this question because of the implications for what an Edenic ecology would look like.
A friend recently posed to me the problem of how death could be avoided in the garden if nephesh life were to include invertebrates.
Genesis gives us two primary categories for what we call living organisms today: nephesh and non-nephesh. Plants were eaten and were given to be eaten from week one. They are alive according to our definition of living things: made of cells containing DNA, metabolizing, able to sense and respond to internal and external stimuli, etc. They are not animate or living according to Genesis however, however. They do not have nephesh life. The word animate best makes the distinction between these two categories, which is why for most of man’s study of natural history, living things were placed into two kingdoms, plants and animals.
Nephesh has many meanings including living, soul, that which breathes, that which has blood, and more. It is used to describe the creatures in the creation account which includes creeping things (Genesis 1:20, 1:21, 1:24, 1:30). Thoughtful folks disagree whether or not nephesh should include invertebrates. They creep but do they meet the qualifications for nephesh life? If invertebrates are determined to not have the breath of life, then the original question: How do you not kill your invertebrate neighbors? is moot, because they are not living according to this definition.
This post assumes these spineless little guys are nephesh for the biblical and scientific reasons that are very well summed up in this article which is the most thoughtful popular article I have read to date. The quote below from the Creation Research Society gives a concise summary of the position I am operating under:
“By putting together God’s instructions about living creatures we can summarise that they are creatures with breath and blood. Invertebrates breathe and have blood, i.e. fluid carrying dissolved gases, nutrients and waste products, body defence cells (white blood cells) and proteins that are actively pumped around the body. They are therefore ‘living creatures’ or creatures with nephesh. This means that in the original very good world man, animals or birds did not eat invertebrates or kill them…” – from pg. 6-7 of Evidence News
Assuming beetles, millipedes, and other members of the litter layer of the forest floor and their kin were “alive,” means that either, one: death preceded the fall of man, or two: they were somehow not killed by the myriad terrestrial beasts that towered over them in the garden.
Since accepting the former means rejecting God’s history and plan for salvation, let’s move on to assumption two. How could a silverfish not be killed by an elephant? How could a stroll through the garden not end the lives of thousands of ground-dwelling invertebrates. This is the conundrum of religious Hindus, is it not, living with the knowledge that they are killing entire villages of tiny organisms with every step they take? We know that predation was not occuring in the garden, but how was the collateral damage of megafauna simply walking around avoided?
Surely God did not mean the garden and does not mean the New Earth to be governed under a rule of fear-based stewardship and death? Certainly, not. And so let us proceed to take a quick look at how our current ecology works.
Ecosystems post-fall function through the death and decay of organic life. Predators eat prey leaving scraps and defecating the remains. Predators also die. The creatures that transform physical energy into chemical energy for all living things (plants and a few others) also die or are eaten. All of these leftovers are fuel for decomposers (bacteria, varied protists, fungi) and scavengers to recycle all of this into usable organic matter. The Creation is remarkably good at death-based ecology. So much so and so beautiful in its fruit that it has been near impossible for me to imagine an ecology otherwise.
And so I should have known that an imaginative soul could provide a bit of insight and inspiration into how the Lord may have preserved his littlest nephesh life. In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, 2nd of the Space Triology, (I have not read the third book, That Hideous Strength, so no spoilers please!) when Ransom, now Elwin, descends the slopes through the “ripple trees” he observed bumblebee sized mountain mice. When he saw them he asked the very question Adam may have asked, “How can I avoid treading on thousands of these?” It may have been the very question the pre-Fall alligator and theropod dinosaurs may have asked. “How can I get anywhere without causing death in my wake?” We should all probably ask ourselves that question – that discussion for another time.
So how did God design his pre-Fall megafauna to not cause mayhem before their time? A few possibilities and a bit more ecology to make some distinctions. First a list of the types of relationships we know about in Nature today and how they may have been occurring in the garden.
- We are told that predation did not exist. Brown bears stuck to berries, which they still do in large part and we stuck to fruit and leaves, which we still do in large part. So no predator/prey.
- Decomposition was occurring as plants were being eaten, digestive systems working, wastes defecated, and dead plants decaying.
- Symbiosis: three types: commensalism, mutualism, and parasitism – these all describe relationships between organisms that are not predator/prey. These are interspecific relationships, between two different species.
- The advent of parasitism most certainly would have been post-fall as this relationship is an agent of disease and death for animals. Some plants parasitize each other (like mistletoe) and many fungi parasitize plants as well, so these organisms maybe already functioned in this capacity in the garden, though I think it unlikely.
- Commensalism is the relationship between two organisms where one benefits and one seems not to be injured at all. The mossy rose gall (and dozens of other galls) is my favorite example. This relationship really perplexed Darwin. It is possible that this type of relationship existed pre-fall
- Mutualism. This is what most people think of when they hear symbiosis. The clownfish and the anemone (thought it still is a bit mysterious regarding how the fish benefits the anemone). I suspect that symbiosis was the overarching relationship between species in the Garden. Instead of benefitting each other indirectly, species very well may have provided direct benefits to one another, chemically, behaviorally, but how? More importantly this finally gets to a proposed solution for the initial question: Creature communication.
How did the mountain mice know to “move away to the left?” We now know that plants, animals, fungus, larvaceans, slime molds, archaebacteria, all communicate with each other. This was presumed in our definition of living things: all life can sense and respond to changes in environmental stimuli. In other words, environmental stimuli of various kinds are accessible to all creatures, some of which can be interpreted and responded to with chemical changes or more sophisticated behavioral responses. Think of the vibration your body makes on the earth and through the wet sedge meadow as you silently stalk the frog. Why does he often stop croaking before you have spied him? He has heard, seen, and felt you.
Could it simply be that the very movement of large creatures and the subsequent understanding and response of the little nephesh underfoot was choreographed? Yes.
This very simple solution would require complex sensory mechanisms, which we do know in fact, exist. Terrestrial arthropods (insects, arachnids) are known to stop audible communication, drop to the ground, and burrow in response to the vibrations of predators. The garden’s populations of little nephesh most certainly would have been capable of responding similarly. And so like Lewis’s mountain mice, given the appropriately signal, they have simply moved out of the way.
To close, for those who may be thinking, that non-sentient brainless little bugs could not have possibly participated in this rich dance of life (and not death) in the garden, recent research indicates that invertebrates may often be acting not simply responding. That’s right, making decisions. Food for thought. Until next time, watch your step.