Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

An Ecological Perspective on the Role of Death in Creation

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

An Ecological Perspective on the Role of Death in Creation

Article excerpt

"The large fish eat the small fish; the small fish eat the water insects; the water insects eat plants and mud." Chinese Proverb (1)


"The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God." Psalm104:21 (ESV) (2)

"Life ma'ers. Death ma'ers. Both rely on one another." Sco' Peck (3)

"... the final word of evoluonary biology always seems to come to this: death is the engine of nature." Paul Santmire (4)

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." John 12:24 (EVS) (5)

Death is pervasive in ecological relationships. Living systems are animated at every level by mortality, cessation, and endings. Nothing in ecology makes sense apart from death. Through long and often personal association, it is difficult for us to see death as anything but evil. If death is present, then something must be wrong. Yet this primarily moral and emotional judgment does not adequately represent our understanding of the ecological role of death in biotic systems. Death animates living systems at every level so that without death there is no community, no ecosystem, no biosphere as we know them. Recent theoretical and empirical work, particularly in aquatic ecology, has focused on the role of programmed cell death (PCD) in regulating population and community structure. Ecologists are now linking the smallest cellular events, genetic and physiological, with planetary biogeochemical processes. Researchers tracking the origin of predation have taken a turn into deep time and the symbiotic origin of cell organelles, asking if they are seeing the roots of multicellularity in death. This understanding of life will continue challenging conventional views of Genesis linking sin and the Fall to bodily death and complex ecological processes.

Opening to Death

Life dominates planet Earth, shaping its form and processes at every scale. Singlecelled organisms link the rocks and the oceans together, with atmospheric processes providing the means for renewing and sustaining life in the biosphere. A living fabric drapes the geological bones of every landscape, even to the depths of the oceans. And it is not just multicellular plants, but wherever there is free water much of this living tissue is in the form of biofilms. We are learning that these complex associations form a thin film over all but the driest or most dynamic exposed surfaces. (6) Biogeochemical cycles supply the chemical building blocks for life. These complex elemental and molecular exchanges are mediated by a myriad of microbial species. Singlecelled organisms are so pervasive that the fingerprint of living processes is virtually everywhere. There is evidence for a biogenic graphite signature in rocks dating back 3.7 billion years. (7) And with new remote sensing tools we can identify the light backscatter from photosynthetic microbes on Earth. This is also a promising way to search for a biosignature in deep space. (8) In the ecological sciences, a newly integrated view of life is linking the smallest organisms to planetary ecological processes. Yet, surprisingly, this emerging new view of life is based squarely upon death and dying. Death is a pervasive phenomenon in ecological relationships. The ecological services of living systems are animated at every level by mortality, cessation, and bodily or physical endings. (9) Our challenge is to find a comprehensive theory of death to encompass these observations.

It is surprisingly difficult to find the word "death" in the index of ecology or conservation biology books. It is seldom listed separately, perhaps because the effects of death are pervasive, present in nearly every other subject. One finds detailed coverage of physical disturbances and other mortality mechanisms (e.g., predation, trophic cascades, and population regulation). But there is little coverage of any attendant definitional issues for death. …

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