The Broad Social Impacts Committee of the Smithsonian Institute is asking each of us as members to write a 500 word or less post responding to a question about the Anthropocene Epoch. The question I am addressing is:
"From your religious, philosophical or personal perspective, how do you understand the significance of the evolutionary process that has led to the global impact of Homo sapiens on planet Earth?"
I have written the draft below. It's a first pass and I'm willing to edit it significantly. I would greatly appreciate suggestions and comments from all of you. It is due before the end of November but I'd like to get it off my to-do list.
“What Are Human Beings That You Are Mindful of Them?”
Psalm 8:4, NRSV
The effort to formally designate our current age as the Anthropocene Epoch can be seen as either a paean to humanity or as an expression of self-exaltation. The latter view considers each extant species to be a successful culmination of billions of years of evolution with no species having superiority. The former view sees our species as a distinctive species worthy of praise for its accomplishments.
The psalmist looks at the grandeur of the heavens, notes the moon and the stars, and exclaims how remarkable it is that God would be mindful of human beings, by comparison hardly worthy of note. Yet the psalmist continues with amazement that God “…made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…” (Ps 8:5-6, NRSV)
The biblical perspective resonates with the Anthropocene Epoch designation in several ways. Three of those ways to be considered here are the uniqueness of humans, the human capability of understanding other species, and the responsibility given to humans for stewardship.
The biblical perspective emphasizes the uniqueness of humankind. Humans are the final act of creation and are the only species to whom God gives his own image. The Son of God became a human, signifying a special relationship between God and humans who have God-given responsibilities and are accountable to God. Scientifically, the unique evolutionary achievement of humans is manifold. Humans have an unparalleled adaptability enabling survival through significant environmental changes. Humans have an enhanced level of consciousness, communication skills, and ability for abstract reasoning. No other species comes close to human ability in these areas.
While most species interact with other species as needed for survival, only humans seem capable of studying and understanding any other species, independent of need. The biblical perspective stresses this capability in the account of Adam naming the animals. In Genesis 2:18-20 God forms animals and birds as helpers to Adam and they are brought to him for naming. The ancient practice of naming was not an arbitrary task of finding a pleasing word but an in-depth study of the characteristics of the one being named, assigning a name reflecting their nature. This is an indication that humans have evolved the ability and the mission of studying and understanding the nature of all species.
God explicitly gives humans the assignment of having dominion over the earth and all that is in it. This is a mandate for stewardship and loving care. Our scientific recognition that humans have a global impact, whether for good or for bad, shows how we cannot escape this assignment. The designation of an epoch reflecting our impact on the earth is a powerful reminder that we are responsible for sustaining all life on earth. May we all do our part to nurture and care for our world.