As I've written on the blog before, I grew up in a Christian home. I went to church every week, Sunday school, I even went to Christian schools for middle school, high school, and college. This upbringing and education has influenced me tremendously, shaping who I am, how I think, and ultimately what I do. Through it all, though, I've been puzzled by the way many in the Christian think and act, and how much people in the church misunderstand non-church folk and vice-versa. I especially see this as a scientist, because for whatever reason there has been a long held assumption that science and faith don't mix. No part of this leaves me scratching my head in confusion more than the way many Christians, especially here in America, have come to think about the environment and sustainability.
A Pew Research survey on the subject showed that people with stronger religious beliefs were much more likely to view environmental protection as an economic and societal drain rather than a benefit. This was especially true among those categorized as "Evangelical Christians", many of whom argue that mankind is not able to impact all of creation, or, are more concerned with the heavens than they are with the earth. Or, as a post on the Answers in Genesis blog put it, "the fate of the living planet is not the most important issue facing mankind. Ultimately, this decaying system will be replaced with a new heavens and earth anyways". So, is that really what Scripture teaches, and if it is, how do I justify what I've chosen to do with my life - studying and protecting the earth's ecosystems?
First, what is meant by the image of God? When trying to get to the bottom of what we Christians believe, and why we believe it, the Beginning is a good place to start, so, that's what we'll do! The first few pages of The Bible are really important, they set the stage for the rest of the story by introducing the key players in that story, humanity and God. In Genesis 1 and 2 we see that God is complex, ultimately supreme, and creative. Curiously, though, we learn that God is also a god who delegates authority. In Genesis 1:27-28 we see God creating man and woman "in His own image" (1:27, ESV), and subsequently blessing humanity, saying "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (1:28, ESV).
These verses hold two keys to understanding common modern Christian relationships toward the environment, one, the "image of God", the other, the idea of "dominion" and "subduing" the earth. But what do these passages really mean, how might the original hearers or readers of the story have understood them?
If being created in the image of God means that we are reflections of his character and nature here on earth, what, then might the charge of dominion over nature mean? This divine edict, given in Genesis 1:28, is important to consider when thinking about how we humans should relate to the rest of creation. For some, this is evidence of humanity's supremacy over nature and justification for the idea that nature exists solely for our benefit. But for others, the charge of dominion is one of care and love. At the end of the day, we might never come to a definitive conclusion on what the author of Genesis meant in Genesis 1:28, but we can, and should do our very best.
As God's image bearers - tselem - on Earth, it is our duty to represent The Lord in Creation. Therefore, our filling and "subduing" of Creation (per Gen. 1:28) should bear this in mind. God has partnered with humanity in ruling the created order. Therefore, we should pause to consider how God Himself "subdues" or "subjugates" creation. Would He be more likely to exert His power for His own benefit, or, lovingly order things for the benefit of His creation? The character of God we see portrayed elsewhere in Scripture seems to clearly suggest the latter! God's subjugation of nature would be other focused, concerned as much with the flourishing and success of the rest of Creation, as with His own well-being. Based on this reading of Genesis 1, we should behave likewise.
We should be responsible Gardeners of Eden, ensuring that all of Creation is able to flourish just as we are. Reading Genesis 1 and 2 in this light leads to an understanding of humanity that is more concerned with the entire Created Order, rather than just herself. In other words, Creation Care! More on this in an upcoming post!
Thanks as always for the read, and I sure hope you've enjoyed it. Leave a comment below and check back in for more soon!
It has been a while since I posted on here. Far, far too long in fact. I've been doing fieldwork, counting birds all summer long, and salamanders all spring and fall. On top of that I've been digging into data, giving some presentations, and teaching some classes. To get us back into action on the blog, here is a short little post highlighting some neat work by a former lab-mate of mine when we both got our Master's degrees at The Ohio State University, and is now a post-doc here at UMass, Desiree Narango.
First, though, a question. How often do you think about your yard? I mean really think about your yard? What kinds of little critters do you think there are in and around your home? Or better yet, how much do you think about how what you do in your yard helps or hurts the plants and animals who might co-exist with you? Because it turns out, small choices in how we design our yards, parks, and gardens can have big impacts on wildlife!
If you live almost anywhere in North America, you are probably familiar with a species of chickadee. Out west there are the mountain and chestnut-backed chickadees. Meanwhile, here in the east there are the boreal chickadee, black-capped, and Carolina chickadees.
Chickadees are omnivorous birds, eating seeds, fruits, and invertebrates. But, during the breeding season arthropods (insects and spiders especially) are essential sources of protein for reproduction and growth of chicks. Desiree and her collaborators at the University of Delaware and The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center studied Carolina chickadees and invertebrates living on native and non-native plants in yards of the urban/sub-urban areas around Washington D.C.
They found that yards with more non-native plants had fewer invertebrates, and that chickadees in yards with more non-native plants had fewer chicks survive than birds in yards with more native plants!
The graph on the left here (A) shows the abundance (number) of arthropods and percent of non-native plants. Yards with more non-native plants had fewer arthropods than yards with native plants. Graph B shows that chemical signatures in the blood of chickadees changed in yards with more non-native plants, showing a change in diet.
So, whats the big deal? Well, chickadees are common birds throughout urban and sub-urban areas in eastern North America. But, they still need native plant species to have the best chance of surviving in the high pressure world of urban ecosystems. This paper is another bit of convincing evidence that small changes in how we live can have big impacts on the diversity (number of different species) and abundance (number of individuals) of both arthropods and birds living alongside us in our yards.
What does this mean for you and me? Well, if you have a yard or garden, or even if you know someone who does, you should do your best to plant more native species because they are important habitat and food resources for birds, bees, bugs, and more!
If you want to see the full paper by Narango et. al. you can find it here.
One of the best things about being a grad student is the weekly ritual that is department seminar. We gather together in a room or auditorium, hang out, drink coffee, and eat cookies. Oh, and someone usually talks about something science related. In seminar each week I get the chance to broaden my horizons and learn something new. I hear about research in areas far outside my work. Sometimes it doesn’t really spark my interest, and that’s ok, other times I leave impressed by a colleague’s work, eager to learn more. Last Friday, just before Thanksgiving, here at UMass we had the opportunity to have Nate Morehouse from the University of Cincinnati come tell us about his amazing work on jumping spiders.
So far in this series we’ve established that the ‘Two Books’ of science and religion are distinct ways of knowing – tools we use to ask and answer questions about different aspects of the world around us. We made the claim that there is no essential conflict between the two magisterium of science and faith. From there we went on to give an overview of proper scientific explanations for the origins of life on earth – evolution by natural selection – and, what happens when scientific inquiry exceeds its bounds. Today we discuss the other side of the coin – religious perspectives on origins.
Science & Faith pt 2
The diversity of life on earth is amazing. Any trip to the zoo or aquarium, time spent watching Planet Earth, or better yet, any walk in the woods lets you experience a glimpse of the diversity here on Earth. Again and again, I find myself in awe of insects on a flower, the number of ferns in the forest. birds singing above my head, or critters under a log. If you've read my blog before, then you might have figured this out about me already (see posts on taxonomy, salamanders, and warblers). But, have you ever wondered why? Why are there so many different birds, bugs, and butterflies? For goodness sake, why do we need so many different ferns in New England alone that are so similar I can't tell them apart??
This question of life's origins and species diversity is one that men, women, and children have been trying to answer since we shared the Serengeti with secretary birds (maybe don't quote me on that). Artists, philosophers, scientists, and theologians have all pondered this question and offered their opinions, but, what kind of question is it? Whose answer should we go with? And, how do we know if we are right?
Oil and water, vinegar and baking soda, Buckeyes and Wolverines - some things just don't seem to get along. For many, science and religion are fit right in on this list. But, is that really the case? Is there actually a conflict between the findings of science and the tenets of religion that cannot be reconciled? Individuals on both sides of this debate, with some help from the media of course, have propped up the conflict idea, in fact, a 2015 Pew Research poll showed that nearly 40% of American adults believe there is an essential conflict between science and religion.
As a Christian who also happens to be a scientist, this is an extremely important topic to me. If there truly is an essential conflict between these two how could I continue as a Christian practicing science? As I've read, thought, discussed, and struggled through this idea over the years I have seen the need for better communication and dialogue. Scientists seem to misunderstand religious folk, and many who claim to be religious do not understand the scientists. To work toward bridging this gap in communication, I have been teaching a weekly course at my church through the month of August with the church's pastor, Bill Hodgeman. In the class we have explored science and religion, discussing what they are and how they work, we have talked about scientific and religions explanations for origins, and began to dig into some of the important questions. Even though the class was intended originally for a religious (specifically Christian) audience, my hope is that people on the Christian end will better understand scientists and vice versa.
Whats that? You missed the classes?? Well, dear reader, you are in luck! In a series of blog posts I will dig into the issues discussed in the class each week, starting now!
It has been a long time (too long) since I've written a post here. Much too long! My excuse is that I've been busy out "in the field" collecting data for my PhD research. No... not in the field like that...
Being "in the field" just means being out collecting data wherever that data may be. So, fieldwork can take a paleontologist to the Badlands of the Dakotas in search of bones, an archaeologist to the jungles of the Yucatán, or an bat biologist inside caves and caverns. My field work as taken me up and down the Pioneer Valley as I do ecological surveys of approx. 50 forested sites from the Connecticut boarder to the Vermont border. You can read more about what I am researching and why on in a write up on the research page (see, I haven't been completely silent on the website this summer). I hope to have more blog posts up here soon, but in the mean time here is a bunch of photos giving you a glimpse of what I've been doing in the woods all summer long.
America is, whether you want to admit it or not, a nation of immigrants. The country and culture that we have today was founded by immigrants, grew through immigration, and relies on the the hard work and innovation of immigrants to power our economy. My own father and brother-in-law are immigrants to this country from the Caribbean. It is fitting then, that some of our most beloved, beautiful, and brilliant birds are annual immigrants from the south. In this Creature Feature, we will explore a group of brightly colored little songbirds with a boisterous personality - the wood warblers.
I have always enjoyed observing plants and animals do what they do. Birds hopping about in tree tops foraging for insects, turtles basking, squirrels chasing each other across a lawn. This is probably why I’ve always liked keeping critters at home as pets, I could observe them and get to know them up close and personal. The more you observe something in its natural environs, the better you are able to understand it. So it is with science. If we can observe and understand science as it happens in real life we will have a better understanding of who scientists are, why they do what they do, and the value of their work. Allow me to introduce Science in Living Color, a blog series where you will be introduced to people whose work intersects with and relies on science all over the world.
To kick things off we will meet a man who is not a scientist, but a public policy officer. Nevertheless, his work is 100% dependent on critical biological and environmental science on a daily basis.
Over the past few weeks there have been two significant scientific marches here in the US, The March for Science last weekend, and the Climate March just yesterday. These have been powerful demonstrations, with literally tens of thousands of people coming together in support of science, environment, and positive change. In a climate (atmospheric and political) that is changing (in more ways than one), these were ways for supporters of science to make their thoughts and opinions known to those in power.
We should remember, though, that the best way to really change what people think is through face-to-face communication. The person who thinks funding for ecological research is a waste isn't likely to change their mind because a bunch of people wearing Patagonia and hiking boots stood on Boston Common in the rain. They might, however, see things differently after honest communication, hands on experience, and genuine interaction with science. In Boston, there was a Kids March with educational demonstrations, activities, scientists excited to talk to kids (ok, grown ups too). This is what we need more of!