Plague species? Just another animal?

You may have seen a news story about the London Zoo's exhibit of eight humans (three males and five females) within a habitat normally assigned to bears. The purpose of the exhibit, according to the zoo, is to present human beings as a "plague species" and to show our place in the world's ecosystem.

"Plague species" is a phrase out of the radical environmentalist movement. It suggests that human beings provide no benefit to the world but, like parasites, survive by causing harm to their neighbor species. Environmentalists point out that Homo sapiens has destroyed 844 other species and some 800 million of its own kind, and they claim that human activity endangers the extinction of thousands of other species. In fact, the title of a 2003 book by Reg Morrison asks, Plague Species: Is it in our genes?

The name "plague" originally described Versinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague, "The Black Death" of medieval times. It looks like safety pins in the above photo of human blood. Assigning that word to humanity strongly suggests that the answer to Mr. Morrison's questions is: yes, humans are by nature a plague to other species. Years ago, Thomas Lovejoy, a tropical biologist and now president of the Heinz Center, stated, “The planet is about to break out with fever, indeed it may already have, and we [human beings] are the disease” (quoted in Trashing the Planet by Dixie Lee Ray [New York: Harper Collins, 1990], 167).

The second purpose, to put us in our place, is clarified by the reaction of the zoo's visitors. Again and again, people made remarks about how humans are just animals, that there really is no difference between us and other mammals. Some even joked that the zoo should try to develop a breeding program with their new specimens.

How strikingly different this all is from God's view of the nature of humanity as revealed in the Bible. At Adam's creation, the Godhead confers: "Let Us make man in Our image, in Our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." The inspired narrator continues, "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Gen. 1:26-27).

These two verses at the beginning of human history answer two questions prompted by the exhibit at the London Zoo: are we different from the animals, and is it our nature to destroy both them and the environment?

  1. Are human beings just the same as other animals, or are they uniquely different?

    Scripture affirms that human beings are different because of all earth’s creatures, they alone bear the image of the eternal God. This is not a physical resemblance, but a psycho-personal-spiritual one (Psalm 8:4–8; Acts 17:27-29).

    The distinction between the animals and human beings is already clear by the way the first chapter of Genesis describes their respective creation. The animals, like the inanimate objects, spring into existence in response to the verbal commands of God. God maintains a certain detachment from His creation throughout the process. But the creation of humans is different. God slows down, takes His time, and not only expresses His intention to create humanity, but looks ahead to the destiny He has in mind for them. Chapter two looks at the process in greater detail, describing how involved (not at all detached) God is. He forms the human from the dust of the ground. He breathes into his nostrils the Breath of Life. He takes a part of the first man and makes the first woman. This personal involvement is totally distinct from His creation of the plants and animals.

    We can neither ignore nor minimize the enormous chasm between us and the animals. We should not encourage human beings to suppose that no chasm exists. Whenever we think of ourselves as animals, we act worse than ever. Rather than inspiring us to do something about the environmental tragedy of pollution, resource depletion, and diminishing diversity, might such labeling actually be counter-productive? We must ask ourselves: Do we really want a "dog-eat-dog" world? Will "survival of the fittest"--the operative principle in nature--serve to solve our environmental woes?

  2. Does our genetic code program us to destroy everything around us?

    No, God has given us the mission of exercising dominion. Dominion is a not a license to rape, pillage, and plunder. It is a stewardship endowed on us by a Creator who loves His creation (see Job 38–41 and Matthew 10:29). This stewardship began in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15) and continued when God brought the Israelites into Canaan: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). Earlier in the same chapter (verses 1–7), God demands that His people allow the land to lie fallow one year out of seven. He also demands care for the wild animals as well as the livestock (Deuteronomy 22:6–7; 25:4—In these verses, God lays down principles in particular cases that have broader applications). The New Testament reaffirms principles of stewardship (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-12), looking forward to the time when creation will participate in the “liberation from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:18–25).

    An important part of exercising our God-given dominion over the earth is taking care of its plants and animals, not exploiting them or abusing them.

    It is true that human beings often have not done a great job of this God-given stewardship. Some, in fact, have been as abusive and exploitative as we can imagine in our worst nightmares. Some have even justified their actions from the Bible, with the hubris to say, "It belongs to us; we can do whatever we want with what is ours." The answer, of course, is that it certainly does NOT belong to us, but to God. We are answerable to Him for what we do with his property.

    But labeling us as a "plague species," like blurring or erasing the distinction between us and the animals, seems counter-productive to the purpose of devoting to the ecosystem the time, resources, and caring attention it deserves. The label seems so nihilistically fatalistic, as if we reasoned, "It's hopeless for us to do anything to improve the environment, because human beings can do nothing but invade, infect, and infest."

The truth is, we can do something to enrich our world rather than impoverish it, to right the wrongs it has suffered, and to prevent further damage. Improving the condition of the world on which we all depend for survival is a part of our God-given mandate as His stewards. Also a part of this responsibility is holding the abusers accountable for what they have done.

Of course, all of this is so much easier to state than to do. But surveying the complexity and the difficulties involves should not paralyze us into inaction. We can do things where we are with what we have to make a difference.

What do you think?

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