Archive for Thursday, May 5, 2005

Expand the ‘culture of life’

May 5, 2005

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On his death, Pope John Paul II was acclaimed for his values: opposition to tyranny, champion of freedom, spiritual lighthouse to millions, humble even into his casket. Most of all he was hailed for his "culture of life," whether that meant outreach to the world's people, or upholding the church's ban on contraception and abortion.

A few remembered to praise what Pope John Paul II did for science. After 350 years of the Earth orbiting the sun, he recognized Galileo. After 150 years of evolution, he recognized Darwin. In doing so, he affirmed the proclamation of his predecessor Pope Pius XII, that there "was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation." The church had come to terms with fundamental discoveries about the Earth and life on Earth -- something, by the way, the Kansas Board of Education refuses to do.

Both discoveries overturned our sense of place in the cosmos. Physically, we were no longer at the center of things. The earth, as Galileo and others showed, was not at the center of the universe or solar system. Humans, as Darwin and others showed, were not the acme of life, just one species among millions on the tree of life. Befitting John Paul's values, both discoveries were as humbling then as they are now.

We might not be at the center of things, physically, but the Earth and humans are no less special. The Earth, as far as we know, is the only planet that orbits in the zone of life and is teeming with it -- millions of species from panda bears to monarch butterflies to giant redwoods. Humans are the only species capable of making these humbling discoveries about the Earth -- what orbits what, and what life on Earth is all about.

Which brings us back to the pontiff and the culture of life. Humans are also special because we have dominion over the life of the planet and the contract to sustain it. What's at stake spiritually is the creation the church believes in and reveres. What's at stake scientifically is knowledge of Earth's richness of plants, animals and microbes -- where they live, how they got here, and how we can exploit them for food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals. What's at stake practically is the daily life of every Kansan: our economy -- keeping our soils, farms and ranches fertile for productivity; our health--keeping our waterways unpolluted for drinking, swimming and fishing; and the quality of our lives -- keeping nature around to dazzle our senses and grow our spirit.

For these reasons, I hope Pope Benedict XVI will extend the culture of life beyond humans to all of life on Earth, to the forests, grasslands, deserts, oceans and rivers that believers cite as God's creation and majesty. It's time the culture of life valued conserving these ecosystems, because they clean our air, water and soil; buffer against droughts and floods; and provide the food on our tables, the shirts on our backs, the gasoline in our cars and the antibiotics for our diseases.

The culture of life should value the thousands of mammals, birds, fish, frogs, butterflies, trees and corals that are being driven to extinction at a rate that is frightening -- half of all plants and animals on Earth will be gone in 150 years. If it were humans, we'd call this genocide. The ivory-billed woodpecker, the "Lord God bird" thought to have become extinct in 1944, is apparently barely hanging on in an Arkansas swamp. But the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon and the tall grasses flowing the prairies of Kansas were not so lucky.

Pope Benedict XVI is facing many controversial church issues. What should not be controversial for the pope or anyone else is sustaining life on Earth. His culture of life should call for the best science of our planet and the best science education for current and future school children. And it should keep the existing, hard-won peace between scriptural doctrine and scientific discovery.

Finally, the pope should send the message to all peoples that the word "dominion" in Genesis means the stewardship of nature. It doesn't mean the selfish, one-time plunder of nature. Or the fouling of our air, water and land. Or population growth that far outstrips our natural resources. Perhaps then, when we value the life of the Earth, our sense of place and purpose in this dominion will be a bit more sanctified.

-- Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University.

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