Is an Environmental Ethic Compatible with Biological Science?

In 2005 the discovery of an Ivory-bill Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) caused a national celebration. Donald Kennedy (2005), the editor of Science magazine, spoke for millions of others when he testified in an editorial to “the personal excitement and pleasure this discovery has brought me.” Kennedy acknowledged that “Some will say, ‘It’s only a bird.’” Why is the survival of this bird or any species – especially a species with no economic use -- important? The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a product of evolution, that is, random mutation and natural selection. It exists as a result of accident and not of design or purpose. Why does it cast a spell over us?

Scientists had declared the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct. A prominent ecologist had written 5 years earlier, “Its presence today in the sterile, industrial forestlands of the South, however wonderful a thought, would be as out of place as a buckskin-clad settler with a musket in the streets of modern-day Atlanta" (Wilcove 2000: 18). When the woodpecker reappeared, the same ecologist wrote that “those not under the spell of this charismatic species might well wonder what all the fuss is about” (Wilcove 2005: 1422).

What is all the fuss about? If evolution proceeds without purpose, meaning, design, or direction -- if the existence of this or any species is simply an accident that just as well might not have occurred -- why should we care about this bird or about any wild creature except insofar as we can find a use for it? If the woodpecker serves no purpose – both the economy and the Big Woods survived in its apparent absence – why does the reappearance of the bird call for national celebration?


The Lurking Inconsistency

As Herman Daly (1999: 693) has observed, biologists who “on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays” propound the purposeless mechanism of natural selection to their students “devote their Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays to pleading with the U.S. Congress and the public to enact policies to save this or that species.” These biologists believe with equal intensity and conviction that the evolution of a species such as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a pointless, unintended accident and that we have a duty to preserve it. According to Daly, these biologists “are in the grip of an inconsistency.”

Daly points, in fact, to two different inconsistencies, one metaphysical, the other normative. The metaphysical inconsistency raises the venerable problem of how “free will” or “purpose” could appear except inside of shudder quotes -- to indicate that they are merely apparent – in a world of universal causal determinism. According to Daly, if one accepts the neo-Darwinian mechanistic explanation of the origin of the human mind, what we experience as purpose “must, in the view of mechanism, be an ‘epiphenomenon’ – an illusion which itself was selected for because of the reproductive advantage it helped to confer on those under its influence.” Indeed, one can point to prominent evolutionary biologists, such as E. O. Wilson (1998: 131), who have written that free will is an illusion, albeit a useful illusion, because the belief “in free will is biologically adaptive.”

Daly argues that if biological science denies the metaphysical possibility of moral freedom and thus human purpose, conservation biologists cannot consistently advocate policies that are plainly purposive. If, for example, choice, free-will, and self-determination are illusory, as Daly believes the neo-Darwinian mechanistic framework presents them, what can it mean to say that humanity can or ought to choose sustainable policies or make any choices in a moral sense? “The purposeful nature of environmental policy is in total contradiction with the purposeless nature of biological science, at least the current neodarwinian orthodoxy” (Daly 2002: 193).

The normative inconsistency is more vexing. Let us suppose that people can have purposes even if human beings (like other creatures) do not exist as a result of purpose. Let us suppose that because of accidents or contingencies consistent with natural selection, human beings acquired capabilities “that were almost certainly not selected for” but which allowed them “to frame ‘purposes’ – to do things for reasons or to act with ‘free will’ – in ways other animals have not” (Matter & McPherson 2000: 204). Let us assume for the sake of argument, in other words, that unlike everything else in nature (as far as we know) human beings mutated in some wondrous way that gave them free will and the power to choose and pursue ends. That humanity chooses and pursues ends, indeed, is evident. The Guinness Book of Records describes many projects human beings have freely chosen and successfully undertaken, for example, to pack into a telephone booth as many of themselves as possible and to build the world’s largest ice-cream cone.

Even if we assume from a metaphysical standpoint that human beings choose and pursue “purposes,” however, what could possibly justify from a normative standpoint the particular goal of preserving a species like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? The bird, like any other species, represents a mere accident of random mutation and natural selection, that is, a contingent path-dependent event that as well might not have happened. How is saving all sorts of species in order to conserve biodiversity any more justified or obligatory than, say, saving bits of thread to roll the world’s largest ball of string, if that is what people choose to do? If nature has no purpose, is it more obligatory or more justified to conserve species than matchbook covers or cabbage-patch dolls?

Economic, instrumental, or prudential arguments are not relevant to this question, which goes to ethical obligation not economic utility (Ehrenfeld 1988). The economy did just as well when the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was thought to be extinct; the joy which appropriately greeted its reappearance cannot be explained in economic terms. For the sake of argument, however, let us stipulate (as the lawyers say) that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker does not harbor any cancer-curing drug and is not a keystone species supporting the stability of an ecosystem. This stipulation would make no difference at all to those who celebrate the rediscovery of the bird and recognize both a moral opportunity and responsibility for its preservation. Its value – obvious and compelling – has nothing to do with any use it may serve.

Daly asserts that the goals of conservation are inconsistent with the assumptions of neo-Darwinian biology for both metaphysical and normative reasons. He argues that neo-Darwinians “assert (a) that choice is an illusion, and (b) that even if it were not illusory, the criteria by which one chooses are arbitrary” (Daly 2002: 190). He argues that biological science offers conservationists a means but neither a reason nor a justification to protect biodiversity. A justification for all the fuss about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker must come from elsewhere, but, as Daly (2002: 193) suggests, “neodarwinists do not accept ‘elsewhere.’” How can we reconcile, then, neo-Darwinism and conservation?

I shall argue here that easy answers to this question – for example, the idea that God created nature but used the mechanisms of evolution to do so (Trombulak 2000) – are completely unsatisfactory. Neo-Darwinians believe species result from accident and contingency and not from design or purpose (however the purpose is achieved). Does value entail or imply purpose? If it does, then neo-Darwinism, by denying purpose in nature, would seem to exclude value (other than economic use) in the natural world.


The Two Magisteria

To respond to these questions, many scientists follow philosopher David Hume in drawing a sharp division between facts and values. In 1972 the National Academy of Sciences adopted this position. It resolved that “religion and science are . . . separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief” (Press 1984: 6).

According to this approach, the world of fact, which science studies, excludes discussion of values beyond adherence to those virtues, such as intellectual honesty and willingness to believe one can be wrong, that are essential to inquiry. Biologists who take this position believe they investigate the way the world is but abjure as biologists any claim about the way the world ought to be. As Michael Rosenzweig has written, moral convictions about the value of biodiversity arise outside of biological science. “The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ constitute value judgements and so lie beyond the bounds of science. . . . Were exotic species to reduce diversity by 30%, no ecologist could test whether that loss of species would be a bad thing” (Rosenzweig 2001: 361).

Gould (1997) defends the idea of a wall between science and religion and thus between fact and value. He recognizes, however, that a two-nation or two-magisteria solution, as he calls it, is as problematic as a policy framework for the environment as it is as a peace strategy for the Middle East. “This resolution might remain all neat and clean,” he states, “if the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border . . .”

To see the “joint border” Gould describes, consider the defense of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). After victories in the 1994 election, Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, in their “Contract with America,” introduced into Congress a bill intended to eviscerate the ESA by requiring that it could not be used to protect habitat unless compensation for lost development rights were paid to affected landowners. To the defense of the ESA sprang the Christian Environmental Council of the Evangelical Environmental Network, which issued an "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation." They sent out "environmental starter kits" to 1200 churches and lobbied those in Congress who dew support from Christian voters (Barcott 2001). By arguing that every species belongs to God’s plan, the religious community kept the ESA intact.

How would the strategy of the two magisteria apply in this case? One might argue that from the perspective of religion, nature constitutes a Chain of Being in which every species embodies God’s plan. From the perspective of science, species come and go without design or purpose. Which perspective is correct? Biologists oppose the evangelical Christians who wish to teach intelligent design in the public schools. Should they endorse the same groups when – in support of the ESA -- they teach the same lesson in Congress? Should conservation biologists have strictured Congress that species like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker are merely accidents, the results of blind chance, and are not part of any divine purpose or plan? Should they have said the nation has no obligation to preserve biodiversity but should simply satisfy efficiently the arbitrary interests and preferences of individuals? If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker represents the glory of God, one understands why the editor of Science felt so much pleasure and excitement at its rediscovery. Why all the fuss, however, if all the bird represents is a pointless accident of natural history?


The Enlightenment Paradox

These questions are not new. They were familiar before Darwin, for example, in the writings of materialists, atomists, and mechanists from Lucretius to Hobbes. The scientific advances of the Enlightenment, particularly the physics of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, suggested that the universal causal determinism of nature is not consistent with the possibility of freedom, value, and purpose. According to Boyle, the universe functions like a mechanism, with all causality internal to it, so that one must refer to one natural fact to explain another. “The whole universe (the soul of man excepted) [is] but a great Automaton, or self-moving engine . . . So that the world being but, as it were, a great piece of clockwork, the naturalist, as such, is but a mechanician” (Mayr 1986: 56).

As this statement suggests, one way to provide a place for value or purpose in a world of causal fact is to make human beings exceptional by asserting they possess souls. The idea of human exceptionalism – the belief that the soul anchors free will in a world of universal causal determinism – provides a metaphysical framework for the “two magisteria” Gould advocates. According to Gould (1997), “The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.”

This division does not make the problem go away. If human beings belong to nature – if the laws of nature apply to us as to everything – we are not free. Nature is all one. There would be no soul, free will, or second magisterium. Questions of meaning and value could not arise because they presuppose a free will – an ability to act independently of causal determinism, that is, outside of nature. One can act responsibly only if one can act freely; if one is caught in the toils of universal determinism and causality, one has no more freedom or choice than a clock or a falling leaf. On the other hand, if human beings have souls and are capable of free will and purpose, why just us? Value, purpose, and meaning may suffuse all nature. “If we are part of nature, then so is purpose,” Daly writes; “if purpose is not part of nature then neither, in large part, are we.”

The two-magisteria strategy – like the Enlightenment doctrine of human exceptionalism – fails because it requires us to think in a different way about ourselves than the way we think about the rest of the world. From the perspective of natural science, this seems entirely arbitrary. Why say that some special power invested freedom in human beings but that meaningless processes produced the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Maybe the bird is closer to God than we. It looks to be. It is impossible without a leap of faith – or without begging the question -- to divide the world into different kinds of substance, as the two-magisteria approach implies, so that some things in the universe are endowed with freedom, purpose, meaning, and intrinsic value while others are not.

Darwin did not change the contours of the problem; he only made them more salient. Not only are human beings, as Hobbes and Locke understood, implicated in the causal web that orders all things, but as Darwin showed there is no dividing or divining point in history at which humanity entered nature. “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind,” George Gaylord Simpson (1967, 344-45) explained. Indeed, a purposeless and natural process has nothing in mind. How, then, can nature be normative, that is, worthy of respect and protection?

To account for the normative in evolutionary terms – for example, by telling a just-so story to attribute morality to an evolutionary advantage – is not to explain moral freedom but to explain it away. It is to reduce the feeling or the belief that we are free to a sort of an adaptive deception; it is to suggest that those who are fooled into thinking they are moral beings enjoyed greater reproductive success than those who were free of any such illusion. The belief that morality was adaptive a million years ago, however, does not justify morality today when competing groups of humans – or gene pools – have access to weapons of mass destruction. In a world where nice guys finish last – evolutionists such as Thomas Huxley saw natural selection that way – perhaps the gene pools with big bombs can get an evolutionary advantage over those with big hearts. If understood or explained as an adaptation, morality functions at best a vestigial trait, like the appendix or coccyx, we must get rid of (as Nietzsche thought) in order to be really free.


The Fundamental Mistake of Natural Theology

The lurking inconsistency – the problem of thinking of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as a meaningless accident in a pointless series of historical contingencies and as a spiritual icon of immense ethical and aesthetic importance – results from a error characteristic of natural theology and from which biologists may not have completely shaken themselves. The mistake is to assume that what is at issue – what we disagree about – concerns God’s causal connection to the natural world. Once one mistakenly regards the controversy as centered on causality, one has to conclude that, if the religious folks are correct, divine intention directs nature’s way. Scientists, in contrast, must argue that miracles do not occur, that God does not intervene in the course of events, and therefore his presence is not felt. Once one poses the value question in terms of God’s causal role in nature, if one then denies that role, it is hard to imagine how one could consistently find nature to have value – other than economic use – and thus why one would care about preserving many species.

The idea that God authored the world – and that God’s existence can be proven by the intricacy or perfection of its design – is the belief William Paley popularized in Natural Theology (1802), a book Darwin studied, admired, and refuted. The central idea of God’s causal responsibility for the organization of the world is much older, of course, and was given a more persuasive and compelling statement a century earlier by John Ray in The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691). This book – far more than Paley’s – influenced American cultural and religious history. It provides a lot of the material on which Cotton Mather (1663-1728) draws in his massive tome, The Christian Philosopher (1721 [1994]), a parade of erudition Mather published in part as an exercise in vanity to show he was worthy of his membership in the Royal Society.

Mather uses the term philosopher to mean natural philosopher or scientist; we should understand his title to refer to the Christian scientist. The stated purpose of the book is to demonstrate the harmony between science and religion. Mather introduces the volume by declaring that his book “will demonstrate, that Philosophy is no Enemy, but a mighty and wondrous Incentive to Religion” by exhibiting “the Works of the Glorious GOD in the Creation of the World.” The argument proceeds by restating the established tenets and findings of science at the time – for example, Newton’s Laws of Motion – and then attributing them to divine authorship. “These are Laws of the Great GOD, who formed all things. God is ever to be seen in these Everlasting Ordinances.”

Natural theology of this kind, which proves the existence of God by assuming he is the cause of what happens in nature, encountered two devastating problems even in the eighteenth century and long before Darwin. First, if God could operate causally in nature, then one might interpret – as Puritans up through the time of Cotton Mather readily did – every tempest, shipwreck, or drought as a divine warning or retribution. If God intervened in nature, moreover, so might Satan. Cotton Mather, notably in his Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions(1689) shows how quickly the idea of divine intervention in nature leads to superstition and oppression. In The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), Mather documented the events of the Salem witch trials. Fortunately, by the time of the next generation of Puritans, including Jonathan Edwards, “witchcraft and the preternatural had almost disappeared from clerical attention.” Jonathan Edwards and his contemporaries downplayed God’s causal role in nature. They regarded as “a bit of an embarrassment” sermons that “interpreted natural events or objects as providential warnings or punishments” (Marsden 2003: 69).

Yet if God does not intervene in nature, how is his presence seen or known? How can mechanism – the great Automaton, the self-moving engine, or the clockwork Boyle described – allow for purpose? The relentless materialistic logic of the Everlasting Ordinances made it clear to Edwards as well as Newton that once nature operates under its own principles, the designer, if there was one, fades into the Deus ex Machina of the Deists, who abandons the world, or the Deus Absconditus of Luther, who hides himself from it. After God dropped off the universe, he left no forwarding address. The “Everlasting Ordinances” operate in a world without purpose. If God bound himself to these rules, there is nothing he or we can do to change their consequences or their direction.

The proposal that God may have thrown in the mechanisms of evolution before he fled may offer a sop to creationists but changes nothing. If the universe is ruled by mechanism, it is empty of meaning. We would do better, then, to alter nature for the sake of our need or convenience than to protect it for the sake of its aesthetic or spiritual significance. And we might often do better to design new species – as breeders and biotechnologists – than to preserve old ones. Why else had God placed nature under the “Eternal Ordinances” but to hand over to humanity the role of the great mechanician? Benjamin Franklin ([1782] Greenfield 1992) quipped that in America “God Almighty is a mechanic,” reducing Divinity to a metaphor used to attract immigrants to the tinkering trades.

For Jonathan Edwards as for others the question was, “What role could be left for God to play in a world that runs like clockwork?” (Zakai 2002: 34). It was clear to Edwards that the “Everlasting Ordinances” – as Cotton Mather described the laws of motion – did not explain how God could play a redemptive role in creation. The argument from design central to natural theology appears not only to be inconsistent with the findings of evolutionary biology but also to be counter-productive from the perspective of religion. By limiting the work of God to that of issuing the Eternal Ordinances or to that of setting the mechanisms of nature in initial motion, the argument from design vindicates if anything the materialism of Lucretius and Hobbes.

Evolutionary biologists today miss this crucial point. They never weary of castigating the notion of intelligent design – or the argument from design associated with natural theology – as bad science. So it is. To make intellectual progress, I would argue, the important point to understand is not that intelligent design is bad science but – far worse and far more relevant -- that it is bad theology.


The Affections of the Heart

Puritans, because they followed John Calvin, believed not only that God created the universe but more characteristically that God communicates himself to us in two works, the Bible and the Book of Nature. By arguing that these express religious truth Calvin sought to undermine the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. If God communicates through nature, one can do without scholastic intermediaries. Calvin wrote in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) “that in seeking God, the most direct path and the fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, . . . but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us.”

Edwards combined 1) the teaching of Calvin that God communicates to us through nature with 2) the doctrine of Locke that perception involves the agreement or correspondence of the ideas in one’s mind with their objects the world. Within the Lockean theory of ideas, Edwards reconciled the doctrine of mechanism in Newton and Boyle with the doctrine of redemption in Christianity. He drew a distinction between explanation and communication – the difference between the causal and the expressive properties of the natural world. This distinction does not depend upon theological commitments. One can as well distinguish the descriptive from the expressive qualities of a work of music or art. The aesthetic qualities of an art work, however moving, cannot be reduced to scientific formulas, derived from causal models or principles, or inferred from the conflicting “intentions” interpreters of these works ascribe to their authors.

Edwards distinguished between the faculty of understanding and the faculty of affection – in his most famous analogy, the difference between our ability to describe the physical chemistry of honey and our capacity to experience its sweetness. Within causal explanation (or “speculation” as he wrote) Edwards includes what Gould comprises in the first magisterium – the net of science covering the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why it works this way (theory). By the “sensible,” Edwards (1783) refers to emotional faculties through which we perceive the moral, affective, and aesthetic properties of the world. “Spiritual understanding consists primarily in a sense of the heart,” he wrote, distinguishing it from the kind of understanding at work in empirical science. “Perhaps this distribution of the kinds of our knowledge into Speculative and Sensible, if duly weighed, will be found to be the most important of all” (Edwards 1746).

The idea that one’s emotional faculties can function objectively – that they can afford knowledge of the normative properties of the world – is now a familiar theme among contemporary philosophers such as Iris Murdoch (1970). One uses one’s faculties of feeling appropriately to perceive and to appreciate the moral and emotional qualities of a person or an event – a tragedy of war, for example, or an act of kindness. Indeed, Murdoch and others in the Aristotelian tradition have argued that by training one’s capacity for emotional perception and judgment one increases one’s ability to act on the basis of moral knowledge and thus to act freely. The perceptual faculties involved in feeling, these philosophers suggest, when properly trained provide insight into the normative properties of the world and so offer a guide to ethical response and action. To be sure, neither aesthetic nor moral judgment is amenable to scientific proof. It is nonetheless susceptible to criticism, education, improvement, and transforming suggestion.

Edwards defended a pre-Kantian view of nature that distinguished between 1) phenomena that are properly the subject of scientific explanation and of the faculties of understanding and 2) the noumenal order which in a symbolic way presents itself to our capacity for affection. Edwards asserts that “outward creation . . . is so made to represent spiritual things” or to “shadow forth spiritual things” (Zakai 2002, 29). This affection for nature does not itself add to nor contradict biological science, mechanism, or universal causality. A universe which the faculties of understanding perceive as value-neutral and deterministic the emotional faculties may perceive as majestic and beautiful.

A principal problem for this view, of course, is that different people can experience the normative properties of the world differently; for example, each person may respond in his or her own way to the “impulse from the vernal wood” Wordsworth described. This difficulty becomes apparent in the Lockean naïve realism of Emerson (1836) who asserted a “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” and believed that “all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols.” Emerson wrote, “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.” This naïve correspondence theory of truth is worse than solipsistic because the individual disappears entirely: “I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."

Edwards could not possibly endorse this kind of antinomian subjectivity and relativism because he believed that human beings are too mired in sin – error-prone, self-deceived, and ignorant – to “know” God. Edwards recognized, even if Emerson did not, that our affective faculties are partial and impaired. He adopted a neo-Platonic position that allowed us access only to faint “images and shadows of divine things.” This sort of restraint, however, does not show that aesthetic judgment is arbitrary. It does show, however, that it is difficult and that it requires the greatest effort to keep one’s perception disinterested, that is, free of the influence of the particulars of one’s individual life.

For Edwards, the expressive aspects of nature are not easily known – any more than are the expressive aspects of a difficult but profound work of art. In his journal Edwards records his Augustinian effort to separate himself from all the affairs of life – all his worries and ambitions – as he tries to sense in nature faint clues and shadows of spiritual things. Edwards avoided antinomianism by arduously excluding from his attention everything but the particular object in its natural setting. Biologists often give the same kind of disinterested yet passionate attention to the minute particulars of natural history. They must find aesthetic significance in the objects they study – or why else would they study them? The epistemic basis of the affections of the heart depends in part on the effort one makes to exclude everything else but the qualities of the object. Insofar as judgment is disinterested – free of the particular circumstances of the individual – one may plausibly believe it is to that extent not subjective but represents a kind knowledge.

In a remarkable essay on birding, Jonathan Franzen (2005) asks how he can sacrifice all of the pleasures, goods, ambitions, and responsibilities of ordinary life to concentrate on watching birds and adding them to his life list. His answer is as good as one can find: “The only way not to question what I was doing, and why I was doing it, was to do absolutely nothing else.” This affection for nature, which is religious in its character though not committed to any theological doctrine, rewards birders by giving them something to think about and to share other than their own lives. According to Franzen, to get into the study of nature was finally to get out of himself. “Only now, when nature had become the place where birds were, did I finally get what all the fuss was about.”


The Underlying Syllogism

The lurking contradiction Daly describes between biological science and a conservation ethic arises because of the following syllogism.

1. Species have no purpose.

2. Whatever has no purpose has no value.

3. Therefore, species have no value.

The assumptions of biological science secure the first premise. God did not create every species as part of a plan. Unlike a fork, which is arranged for a purpose, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a result of accident not design. That one can imagine a use for the bird – to harvest its feathers for hats, for example – is irrelevant. A conservation ethic does not assert that society should preserve natural places and native species just to the extent it is efficient to do so – and should turn them over to loggers or developers when it is not. On the contrary, a conservation ethic (as exemplified by John Muir, for example) asserts that we are obliged to appreciate, respect, and protect the intrinsic properties of nature that are magnificent in themselves and denies that their value depends (as Gifford Pinchot might have argued) only on the economic purposes they may satisfy.

The second premise is more problematic. It asserts that because species were created by accident rather than by design, because they are not part of a larger purpose or plan, they have no value other than those purposes (to make hats, for example) to which they may be put. Whatever value a species may have (according to this premise) depends on or derives from its consequences for us (i.e., for our preferences), which may be arbitrary from a normative perspective. This view rejects the tradition which runs from Edwards to Franken that regards nature as a refuge from rather than as a resource for human activity. It denies that the value of a species is “intrinsic” in any sense.

Why must the value of an object, however, depend on purpose – whether the purpose or plan a creator had in mind or the purposes of others who might make some use of it? One might posit just the reverse: to act morally, one may argue, is not to act for a purpose (that is, instrumentally) but simply on principle. The usual example is voting. People who vote in national elections generally understand that their ballot will not decide the outcome – it will have no consequences – but they take the time and trouble to go to the polling place in response to a moral principle or a sense of civic obligation.

At least from a Kantian or deontological perspective, to act ethically – to vote, keep a promise, pay for what one has ordered, or help someone in need – is to respond to principle and not simply or primarily to satisfy a preference. One could say that principled action (in this deontological sense) is purposive (because it is based on a principle one would ascribe as an imperative to anyone in the particular circumstances) but not based on a purpose (because its value does not depend on its consequences). An action would have moral value simply in relation to the principle it exemplifies rather than (as a utilitarian ethic would require) in relation to the uses or goals it may serve.

I propose that aesthetic perception – like moral obligation -- opens a gap between value and purpose. If Edwards is correct, the aesthetic value of natural objects consists in part in their power to pull us out of ourselves – to release us from our petty purposes – to put us into communication, in some sense, to a world that is utterly independent of them. (This may be a logical truth, since the “natural” is often defined in the aesthetic sense as the spontaneous or that which humanity does not create or alter.) Aesthetic value in itself, however, cannot command or justify any sort of environmental policy because it attaches to objects – or to their perceptual characteristics or symbolic significance – and not to actions. It is nevertheless plausible to argue (though beyond the scope of this paper) that we have an ethical obligation to preserve – or at least not casually to destroy – objects of great aesthetic value.

If one adopts a utilitarian or consequentialist morality, however, then one cannot avoid the second premise. The utilitarian must base value either in the Creator’s intention (God’s interests or preferences) or in the arbitrary, externally determined and contingent preferences of individuals. The idea that humanity may be bound by a moral obligation to respect the natural world has no place in a consequentialist morality. If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker serves no purpose – either for its creator or for those who might make use of it – it can have no value from the perspective of a utilitarian ethic. The “lurking contradiction” Daly locates in conservation biology may result from his own lurking consequentialism.


Aesthetic Value

Let us suppose, then, that value does not entail purpose. If so, human beings may recognize in actions and objects normative properties that do not depend on or imply any purpose (human or divine) in the sense of a goal or an end. Whether or not our perceptual faculties once provided an evolutionary advantage, we may employ them simply for the sake of acquiring knowledge, useful or not. Similarly, our affective faculties, those related to pleasure and pain, which may have had evolutionary origins and advantages, allow us to perceive and appreciate the aesthetic qualities of objects in a disinterested way, which is to say, in themselves, for their own sakes, and not for any benefit to us.

The most familiar example may be the disinterested pleasure we take in great works of poetry, music, and art. If pleasure were the purpose – if it were the source of value -- it could be had in a million other ways much more conveniently and at a lower cost. Evolution prepared our pleasure centers for procreation not poetry. Utilitarian philosophers, notably J.S. Mill, distinguish “higher” from “lower” pleasures. Even if there are distinctions to be drawn in the “qualities” not simply in the intensities of pleasures, which I doubt, the important differences among pleasures (or pains) lies not in their qualities but in their appropriateness to their sources or objects. For example, if you take great pleasure in a horrid event, e.g., the misery of others, this pleasure no matter how “high” its quality does not make the tragedy any better. It only makes you worse.

The “personal excitement and pleasure” Kennedy took in the discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was not his purpose or goal; it was not the pleasure or excitement he felt, in other words, that made the discovery valuable for him. Rather, pleasure, excitement, and celebration constitute appropriate responses to aesthetic qualities in nature; otherwise, these feelings may lack merit or worth. We use our emotional faculties – including faculties of pleasure and pain – not to accumulate pleasure but to discern and appreciate aesthetic and normative properties in the world. It is a popular conceit, in any case, that our ability to deploy our faculties of pleasure and pain appropriately rather than just to seek pleasure is what distinguishes us from satyrs and other mythological beasts.

If conservation biologists and others enjoy studying objects in nature, the pleasure they take is not what makes these objects aesthetically valuable. Pleasure when appropriate is the means by which one perceives value. Accordingly pleasure is not the purpose – there is no purpose – in aesthetic experience. This experience is informative; by developing this capacity in ourselves, we come to know and to appreciate more than we did. This is equally true whether we employ our affective faculties to discern the beauty and power or nature or of great works of art.

Let us suppose that value does not entail purpose and that humans are able through their affective rather than cognitive faculties to discern normative and aesthetic properties in the natural world. Do these theses help resolve the lurking inconsistency? They would seem to help. Conservation biologists could affirm that as neo-Darwinian evolutionists they understand that the living world is the result of accident not design; as feeling and emotional beings they recognize compelling aesthetic qualities in nature as well as their moral responsibility and free will as human beings. No one can prove that a painting is beautiful; aesthetic value cannot be demonstrated by or reduced to scientific principles. It is no different with the aesthetic properties of nature. These exist as objects of affective judgment which may be shared but not as objects of scientific understanding. As Rosenzweig wrote, no ecologist could test whether the loss of a species is a bad thing.


Is There a Common Ground?

I have argued here for a “two faculties” rather than a “two magisteria” view of the relation between science and religion. In this argument, I have relied on a straightforward reading of the Calvinist distinction between explanation (understanding of the mechanism of nature) and communication (appreciation of aesthetic and spiritual qualities in nature). This distinction, as elaborated by Edwards in terms of the speculative and the sensible in the context of Lockean epistemology, has an impeccable theological provenance. Might it provide a common ground for uniting conservation biologists with evangelical and other religious groups to form a political constituency in support of the Endangered Species Act and other significant environmental policies?

This approach has three advantages. First, one can ignore as jejune the argument associated with natural theology that the design of nature proves the existence of God. Differences in opinion about a God that may long ago have been an efficient cause -- the Deus ex Machina and Deus Absconditus – is not be relevant to environmental policy or possibly even to theology. Asking whether God designed nature (and what mechanisms he may have used) is like asking whether the Bard of Avon wrote the works of Shakespeare. It is a historical question of antiquarian interest. The dramas and sonnets might have been written by the proverbial million monkeys tapping randomly at keyboards; the greatness of Hamlet and Lear would not change.

Whether or not God created the world, conservation biologists and faith communities may agree that subsequent events are to be explained by natural not supernatural causes. That nature is subject to scientific principles – the Everlasting Ordinance, for example – is a proposition many religious groups accept. That nature is expressive – that one can and should approach it with aesthetic feeling not simply scientific understanding – is a thesis congenial to both evangelical Christians and conservation biologists.

Second, conservation biologists should understand that they have little to tell many Christians about the lowly and insignificant place humanity occupies in scheme of things. No tract will ever beat Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in detailing how loathsome and despicable humanity appears in God’s sight. In his theological writings Edwards is clear that God could not possibly have created the world on our behalf or for our benefit, for that would make him our servant rather than the other way round. “God cannot so properly be said to make the creature his end” (Edwards 1765, I, 3). Edwards (1765; II, 3) quotes passage after passage of Scripture to show God created the world to express his own glory and not for our sake. This Protestant theologian – and no better exists – would agree with George Gaylord Simpson that ultimately man is a result of a “process that did not have him in mind.”

Third, our laws, institutions, and habits of mind – everything on which our social order relies for justification – depend on the belief that a moral difference between right and wrong exists and that human beings are able and obliged to act on this difference. Evolutionary biology must either make room for this belief – and for the notion of free will it entails -- or lose its credibility. For example, if moral decisions and judgments were illusory, biologists would be well advised to plagiarize, falsify data, destroy evidence, and do whatever else it takes advance their careers. The virtues of scientific inquiry make no sense other than in the broader context of free will and moral obligation. Neo-Darwinians do not dissolve or dispose of moral imperatives – they only make themselves ridiculous – by spinning just-so stories that “explain” moral freedom or responsibility as a once-adaptive but now incapacitating mutation, like sickle-cell disease.

The approach suggested here offers a way to reconcile neo-Darwinism with the fact of human freedom. Biologists may pursue a deterministic and thus predictive account of human action although they may never succeed in finding it. On this side of the phenomena, in other words, scientific explanation must suffice. However, in our aesthetic experience – Kennedy and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker come to mind – we apprehend in nature normative properties that are not implicated in the causal net of science but which are objects of shared experience and discovery nonetheless.

The advances of natural science, from Newton on, show us that the natural world is amazingly well constructed for the purposes of our understanding or for what Edwards called our speculative faculties. There is no reason that this should be so – that nature should be governed so mathematically, for example – but it is so. One can also argue that nature is beautifully constructed for our aesthetic faculties or for what Edwards called the dispositions and affections of the heart. The delight both biological scientists and evangelical Christians – along with many others – have taken in the announced discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker attests to this.

It is hard to know what to make, however, of our ability, if we indeed have it, to perceive in nature aesthetic qualities or properties that appear entirely normative, to play no causal role, and (unlike epiphenomena) to resist explanation by or reduction to causes. In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche ([1886] 1996: Sec. 5, p. 52) wrote that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” Jonathan Edwards (in the pre-Kantian reading given to him here) and later Immanuel Kant thought otherwise. For them, aesthetic experience takes us to the other side of the phenomena – to what Kant called the noumena -- where the moral and the aesthetic have a common root.


The author is grateful to B. Callicott, B. G. Norton, and P. B. Thompson for many helpful comments and criticisms of an earlier draft. The author acknowledges with gratitude support from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. SES0522075) and from the National institutes of Health (Grant No. R03HG003299). The views expressed are the author’s alone. This essay is based on an article submitted for publication to (and which will appear in) Conservation Biology.

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