What does it mean to read the Bible in an age of extinction?
The question itself might seem improper. On the one hand, species extinctions are a natural part of evolutionary life. Thus one could ask whether the Bible has ever been read in a time when extinctions were not taking place. On the other hand, the Bible knows nothing about the evolution and extinction of species in a Darwinian sense. Pre-Darwinian readers who tried to correlate the fossil remains of extinct animals with their interpretations of the Bible inevitably ran into difficulties. When confronted with ancient bones and teeth that clearly came from creatures much larger than those known to him, the New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663–1728) concluded “that they provided scientific confirmation for the accounts of antediluvian human giants found in the Bible” (cf. Gen. 6:4).1 Similarly misguided attempts to reconcile evidence of extinct creatures with the Bible are scattered across history, going as far back as Augustine (354–430 CE).2 Given this history of interpretations, it would not be surprising if biblical scholars responded to questions about animal extinction with little more than a reminder about the dangers of anachronism.
To ask about biblical interpretation and extinction in dialogue with animal studies, however, is not to deny the disjunction between assumptions held by the writers of biblical texts and assumptions held by post-Darwinian readers. It is rather to explore what it means to read the Bible at a time when we are increasingly aware, or should be aware, that we are contributing to what is now often called “the sixth mass extinction.” The possibility of such an extinction event, or series of events, is more widely known today than it was even a few years ago, thanks in part to journalists who cover science and ecology.3 I return below to further consideration of it. My interests here, however, are not primarily scientific but, rather, hermeneutical and ethical.
As with so many issues related to animals and the environment, the relationship of the Bible and biblical interpretation to anthropogenic species extinctions is ambiguous and contradictory. Influential ways of reading certain texts that I have mentioned already, such as the overemphasis on human dominion or rule over other creatures in Genesis 1:28, can foster a human exceptionalism that often leads to a lack of concern about our negative effects on endangered animals. Yet multiple passages from the Hebrew Bible can also be read as supporting, not simply kindness toward individual animals, but the flourishing of diverse types of animals living in a range of places. The environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston III even referred once to the story of Noah and the ark as “the first Endangered Species Project.” Although this particular phrase may have been intended partly as humorous, Rolston took seriously the ways in which this “quaint” “parable” and other biblical texts could be read in support of species diversity.4
This tension between interpretations of the Bible that foster attention to species diversity and extinctions, and other interpretations that undermine such attention, shapes my concluding chapter. It will send me, as it sent Rolston, back to the story of Noah and several other texts below. First, however, I turn to contemporary discussions of animal extinctions. Many such discussions are technical and scientific, and I will touch upon them briefly. I am more interested, however, in the ways in which scholars shaped by or engaged with other disciplines help us think about reading in a time of extinction. In addition to Derrida’s emphasis on the “heterogeneous multiplicity of the living,” and Haraway’s emphasis on multispecies entanglement, I want to highlight here Thom van Dooren’s attention to story and place as crucial frames for the interpretation of, and responses to, animal extinctions.
Of Mass Extinctions and the Anthropocene
Scientists tell us that, over the history of life on earth, there have been at least five occasions when, according to fossil evidence, extinctions of species took place across the planet in a relatively short period, geologically speaking, and at a rate far exceeding that associated with normal evolutionary processes. Although less dramatic extinction events have also taken place, the most recent mass event is the disappearance of dinosaurs and many other species sixty-six million years ago, in what is usually called the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) or Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) event. The end of the Cretaceous period is marked geologically by a thin layer of rock, called the K-Pg boundary, which separates assemblages of fossils and other sediments below the boundary from very different assemblages above it. This dramatic shift in forms of life is now often attributed, in part or in whole, to the impact of a large asteroid and the environmental consequences that followed.
Many scientists believe that we are now also entering or already living through another mass extinction event.5 This time, however, the primary causes for extinctions follow from actions that humans have taken as both our numbers and the scale of our exploitation of the earth’s resources have increased. Anthropogenic contributions to extinctions are diverse, and include habitat destruction, deforestation, modification and depletion of water systems, the introduction of so-called invasive species, overhunting and overfishing, various types of pollution, and, now, climate change. But the cumulative effect is disturbing: We have become the asteroid.
This thesis is sometimes conflated with another, more controversial, one: that we have now moved or are moving from an epoch known as the Holocene to another epoch sometimes referred to as the Anthropocene. On the extensive timescales of geological eons, eras, periods, and epochs, the Holocene emerged much more recently than the K-Pg boundary. It includes the emergence and growth of human civilizations, though not of our hominid species. The beginning of the Holocene, a little less than twelve thousand years ago, is defined primarily on the basis of geological criteria and related changes in climate, sea levels, and so forth. Its emergence, however, is also associated with extinctions. The transition from the preceding Pleistocene epoch corresponds with the decline and disappearance of numerous species, including such large mammals as mammoths and mastodons, woolly rhinoceroses, giant sloths and beavers, various species of large cats and ungulates, and many others. But if the end of the Pleistocene marks the beginning of the Holocene, what would mark the end of the Holocene? According to some scientists, the impact that humans have had already or are having now on the earth’s climate, geochemical processes, water cycles, species distributions and extinctions, and so forth “are strong evidence that humankind, our own species, has become so large and active that it now rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.” Thus they propose the term “Anthropocene” to suggest “that the Earth is now moving out of its current geological epoch” and that “humankind has become a global geological force in its own right.”6
From the beginning, proposals for an Anthropocene have generated controversy. One set of disagreements involves “the birth of the Anthropocene.”7 When, and on what basis, should one say the Anthropocene epoch started? Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize winner credited with coining the term, suggested that it began in the late eighteenth century, on the basis of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane trapped in polar ice during that era.8 Alternatively, one can focus on broad processes that go back to the origins of agriculture and its associated manipulation of the environment, or on narrower processes of geologic stratigraphy.9 Such distinctions are not altogether irrelevant for biblical interpretation, since a decision to associate the beginning of the Anthropocene with the emergence of agriculture would include the world that produced the Bible within the Anthropocene, whereas alternative dates would not. It is striking, in fact, that the ecological theorist Timothy Morton appeals rhetorically to the account of Creation in Genesis 2–3, with its association between the origins of agriculture and God’s curse on the ground (3:17–19), to buttress his suggestion that our current ecological crises are grounded in an “agrilogistics” that is continuous with the emergence of Mesopotamian agriculture.10 But however one understands the origins of the Anthropocene, our contemporary reading of the Bible takes place within it.
If this first set of disagreements about the Anthropocene takes place in rather technical, scientific terms, a second set of controversies involves philosophical and political questions. Nearly all scholars participating in conversations about the Anthropocene acknowledge that we have entered an era when human impacts on the environment, including species extinctions, have reached unprecedented and devastating proportions. To the extent, however, that the term “Anthropocene” implies that the entire human race as such—“Anthropos”—contributes equally to these impacts, it obscures significant differences of geography, historical context, nation, class, race, gender, and so forth that have structured the modern industrial processes that exacerbate ecological destruction. Thus some scholars use the term “Capitalocene” to indicate that current ecological crises were produced less by humanity as such than by the specific processes set in motion by Western industrial capitalism and colonialism.11
Not everyone is convinced that this is sufficient reason to dismiss the notion of an Anthropocene. Dipesh Chakrabarty has suggested that, even though capitalism and colonialism played primary roles in getting us into our current ecological crisis, we are now in a species-wide situation of “shared catastrophe” that “cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism”:
While there is no denying that climate change has profoundly to do with the history of capital, a critique that is only a critique of capital is not sufficient for addressing questions relating to human history once the crisis of climate change has been acknowledged and the Anthropocene has begun to loom on the horizon of our present. The geologic now of the Anthropocene has become entangled with the now of human history.12
Unfortunately, our conventional ways of narrating history make it difficult for us to grapple with these realities, as Chakrabarty notes. Haraway, on the other hand, points out that a focus on the Anthropocene continues to privilege human exceptionalism, while ignoring the ways in which all of our activities and their consequences are “multispecies” events.13
In comparison with discussions about the Anthropocene, there is much less controversy over the reality of anthropogenic species extinctions. There are, to be sure, disagreements about periodization, since extinctions caused in whole or in part by humans may date as far back as the disappearance of Pleistocene megafauna.14 The word “extinction,” too, raises some difficulties: Should we apply the term to the moment when the last surviving individual of a species dies? Or can we only grasp the problem of extinction by noting how many species are in serious decline around the world, with some surviving only in numbers small enough that their continued existence is no longer likely without significant changes in human activity or even direct human intervention?15 Notwithstanding such disagreements, nearly all researchers agree that animal species as well as plant species are threatened with extinction today on an unusually massive scale. And in nearly every case, such threats are being caused or exacerbated by humans.
Animal Studies, Species Extinctions, and the Importance of Story and Place
But how might animal studies help us read the Bible in the context of species extinctions? Surprisingly, species extinctions do not always receive much attention from scholars associated with animal studies. Framed as a crisis of biodiversity, species extinctions have traditionally been associated more closely with ecology and environmentalism. Although there is clearly some overlap between environmentalism and animal ethics, several tensions have historically separated them as well.16 On one hand, environmentalists tend to focus on larger ecological systems and species rather than individual animals. On the other hand, thinkers associated with animal ethics sometimes adopt what Clare Palmer calls a “laissez-faire intuition,” which she describes as “the idea that, while we have obligations to assist and care for domesticated animals, we have no such obligations toward animals in the wild.”17 Such an approach wishes no harm on wild animals, but it may take the view that the best thing we can do for them is, in the words of the animal rights theorist Tom Regan, “let them be!”18 Regan acknowledges that many wild species face the threat of extinction, but that threat plays little role in his approach to animals. And although many thinkers associated with animal studies argue against the assumptions undergirding Regan’s “rights” approach to animals, they sometimes seem equally content to leave the problem of extinctions alone.
A growing number of animal studies scholars, however, are giving more attention to what Deborah Bird Rose calls “the great unmaking of life” taking place today.19 As a consequence, “extinction studies” has emerged as a shared area of writing and research across disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences.20 And some of this literature, I want to suggest, offers useful hints for reframing biblical literature in an age of extinctions.
In his moving book Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Thom van Dooren predicts that “in the future—if humanity is here at all—extinction will be among the handful of themes that is understood to be central, perhaps even definitional, of our time.”21 Surprisingly, perhaps, van Dooren suggests that one important skill we need to (re)learn in this time of anthropogenic extinctions is to tell stories. The types of stories we tell, however, make a difference. Stories, after all, “are part of the world, and so they participate in its becoming. As a result, telling stories has consequences: one of which is that we will inevitably be drawn into new connections, and with them new accountabilities and obligations” (10). Storytelling is an ethical practice.
Over the course of five chapters, then, van Dooren tells stories about actual, living birds. But the types of stories he tells about these birds are significant. First, writing under the influence of Haraway, van Dooren writes stories that are “multispecies” in nature. The lives and deaths of the birds he writes about are entangled with, and impossible to understand apart from, other living creatures, including the creatures they eat and creatures that eat them. Among the creatures intertwined with the birds are humans: in every case, the birds whose stories van Dooren tells are threatened in some way by human activities. The nature of the threats, however, depends on the particular species of bird, the ways in which that species has evolved, and the specific places in which members of the species live. The threats faced by the albatrosses who unknowingly feed human garbage to their chicks is different from the threats faced by the penguins who search for old nesting grounds in places now inhabited by people, or the vultures who are poisoned by toxins introduced by humans into the dead bodies of animals (including human animals) that vultures scavenge. And the unraveling of life disclosed by van Dooren’s stories does not affect only the birds. The disappearance of vultures, for example, increases the risks of disease among humans (especially the poor) and other animals who live with a growing number of corpses that the vultures formerly consumed.
As these examples suggest, van Dooren’s stories are attentive not only to the particularities of species and companion species entanglements, but also to the particularities of place. Animals, including birds, live in specific places. This means, first of all, that they need space in which to live; and that space must meet the particular needs of the creatures living in it. This is one of the reasons why human-induced habitat loss is a much more significant component of the threats facing many species today than direct killing by humans, which played a larger role in the past. There simply is not enough livable space left for some animals to thrive in their species-specific ways. Some creatures, moreover, like the penguins in one of van Dooren’s stories, or many species of sea turtle, are characterized by “site fidelity” (71): they “are philopatric, a term that literally means ‘love of one’s home’ and in biology describes a process in which an animal returns to its place of birth or hatching to reproduce” (70). Thus van Dooren resists focusing exclusively on the notion of “habitat,” which implies that any number of spaces sharing a particular type of habitat are interchangeable. Philopatric animals rather experience particular places more like a “home” (80). The animals create the stories of those places, and the animals’ stories are created by the places in turn. Story, place, and species survival are inextricably intertwined.
Van Dooren therefore concludes with “a call for stories” (145). We need to learn “to tell different stories” (133), however, since the stories we have been telling do not always recognize that species are shared lives formed by generations of animals interacting and reproducing in particular places. We need to tell stories that take into account the suffering and loss that extinctions entail. We need to tell stories that cause us to ask about our “responsibility here and now” for addressing such suffering and loss (147; his emphasis). We need to tell stories that put aside human exceptionalism and refuse to grant too much significance to such distinctions as those between human and animal or, van Dooren notes, between science and the humanities. Van Dooren in fact advocates for new genres of storytelling in the age of anthropogenic extinctions, genres that he associates not only with animal studies but also the “environmental humanities” (147).
But what does this have to do with biblical interpretation? Here I return briefly to Haraway, who not only has influenced van Dooren but has been influenced by him in turn.22 Like van Dooren, Haraway argues that, in order to find ways of fostering a more habitable, multispecies world, we need to learn to tell better stories involving multiple species in particular places. But if van Dooren’s stories transgress the boundaries between science and the humanities and between humans and other animals (as Haraway’s stories have done for years),23 Haraway suggests that our stories need to be even more experimental: “we must change the story; the story must change” if our multispecies world is to survive and thrive.24 We need, she tells us, more “speculative fabulation.”25 In the face of challenges associated with the Anthropocene, she turns for resources, not only to stories from science and the humanities, but also to stories from science fiction, visual art, novels, and, significantly for my purposes, myths. Haraway herself is most interested in myths that she calls “great chthonic tales.” Although she makes passing references to ancient Near Eastern myths, she has little to say about biblical literature.26 But it is this turn, or return, to elements of ancient myth, which Haraway recommends as part of her strategy for addressing our contemporary multispecies crises, that brings me back to biblical interpretation.
Retelling the Bible’s Multispecies Stories
When Rolston refers to Noah’s ark as “the first Endangered Species Project,” he also blurs the line between science and the humanities. As Rolston sees it, the “motivation to save endangered species” is not simply “pragmatic, economic, political, and scientific” but also “moral, philosophical, and religious.”27 Although Rolston wishes to improve relations between science and religion, he is not claiming that the Bible is either a scientific document or a religious authority. By recalling the “parable” or “myth” of Noah and the ark, as well as several other biblical texts, Rolston tries rather to remind his readers that the survival of diverse life forms is an ancient value, indeed, an imperative. When God tells Noah to bring into the ark every type of animal, “every living thing, all flesh,” God explicitly says this is to “keep them alive” (Gen. 6:19). The story’s recognition of the value of all these types of animals, and not simply the ones that are useful to humans, has never been more important than today, Rolston suggests, when “the ancient myth” of mass extermination of animals “has, for the first time ever, become tragic fact.” Now, more than ever, we need to remember that Noah “is commanded to save them all” (49). By retelling Noah’s story in a time of endangered species, Rolston clearly hopes to remind us of what van Dooren later calls our “responsibility here and now”: preserving species is our mandate, as it was Noah’s.
This narrative emphasis on the survival of diverse forms of animal life is not simply biblical. We know that other ancient societies told similar versions of the Flood story, which included the preservation of all types of living things on a boat.28 Rolston is not the only writer, moreover, to see in Noah’s story a kind of parable for our need to address the plight of endangered species.29 What I want to suggest here is that this way of retelling the Noah myth should become one part of a larger retelling of the Hebrew Bible’s story of animal life. Such a retelling knits together texts from several different parts of the Bible, some of which I have discussed in earlier chapters. By reading these passages alongside one another in conscious response to extinction concerns, we may find to our surprise, not simply a Bible story, but a story about the Bible, that does not entirely support the versions of human exceptionalism that lead us to believe we can do whatever we wish without regard for our impact on other species. We discover, or rediscover, an ancient tradition that underscores the value of animal life in its “heterogeneous multiplicity,” to recall Derrida’s phrase; that acknowledges the homes of animals in places that are for them, rather than for us; and that casts a negative light on human responsibility for the disappearance of animals.
In such a context, Noah’s story would be read, for example, alongside another text that Rolston also discusses: the first account of Creation in Genesis 1:1–2:4a. Among many points of contact between this account and the story of Noah, the most relevant for my purposes here is the shared emphasis on different “kinds” of plants and animals. In 1:12, the earth brings forth “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees bearing fruit with the seed in it, of every kind.” In 1:21 we find “the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures with which the waters swarm, of every kind, and all the winged birds of every kind.” In 1:25 we find “living creatures of the earth of every kind, animals of every kind and all the things that creep on the earth of every kind.” On two different days, when God looks upon this multiplicity of animals, “God saw that it was good” (1:21, 25). These multiple “kinds” of animals are the “kinds” that Noah is commanded to keep alive. The Hebrew word for “kinds,” min, is the same in both stories. The ancient writers who gave us these texts recognized the existence of diverse types of creatures, and they believed that God wanted those diverse types to be preserved.
But the writers also recognized that different types of creatures have to live in many different types of places. In Genesis 1 that recognition takes a very basic form: some creatures live in the waters, some live in the skies, and some move about on the land. This association of different types of animals with different types of spaces is taken further in both Psalm 104 and Job 38–41. There we find birds not only in the skies but in the branches (Ps. 104:12) and the trees (104:16–17). We find wild goats or ibexes in the mountains, and hyraxes among the rocks (104:18). We find wild animals in the forest at night (104:21), and Leviathan in the sea along with other living creatures (104:25–26). We find the wild ass in the plains and the mountains (Job 39:5–8) and the eagle high among the rocks (39:28). Even Behemoth has a place in the river and marsh, underneath the lotus plants (40:21–23). All of this is recognition of habitat, but it is more than that. As if anticipating van Dooren, the Psalmist notes that at least one species of bird, perhaps the stork, has its “home” or “house” in the fir trees, using the same word for “house,” bayit, that is applied to human houses throughout the Hebrew Bible (Ps. 104:17). Lions, meanwhile, have a “dwelling place,” where they lie down during the day (104:22). Many translations render this word “den,” here and elsewhere; but a related word from the same root refers multiple times to the “dwelling place” not simply of humans but also of God, as well as of jackals.30 Lions, jackals, and God all need specific dwelling places. In Job 38:40 as well, the lions are found in a “dwelling place”; while the wild ass has its “house” on the plains in 39:6. In the Bible’s story of animals, then, creatures are not only diverse but are located in a wide range of places, often where people are not. And God has given them these places. Rab Judah remarks in a Midrash on Genesis, “It is not written, ‘On the high mountains are the wild goats,’ but ‘The high mountains are for the wild goats.’ Thus, for whose sake were the high mountains created? For the sake of the wild goats.” As he goes on to note, God created the world even “for the sake of unclean things” (Bereshit Rabbah 12.9). Rab Judah’s reading of Psalm 104 seems to conclude that God did not create the world only for us, with animals in the background. God created the various spaces of the world for diverse species of the world. We have our place, but it is one place among many.
Anticipating van Dooren again, the biblical texts that contribute to this story recognize that animals have stories, too. They look for food and drink (Ps. 104:11, 14, 21, 27; Job 38:39–41; 39:8, 29; 40:15, 20), avoid humans (Job 39:7), and laugh or play (Ps. 104:26; Job 39:18, 22; 40:20). They even cry out to God for food, as we see, for example, with roaring lions in Psalm 104:21 and young birds in Job 38:41. Like van Dooren’s birds, they are often busy giving birth or tending their young (Job 38:41; 39:1–3, 14, 30). These young go on to live their own lives (39:4), contributing to the continuation of their kind that is essential for the survival of species. And this is as it should be, according to the Bible’s story; for God has explicitly commanded them from the beginning to “be fruitful and multiply,” “filling” both “the waters in the seas” and “the earth” (Gen. 1:22). The ongoing proliferation of animal life, in its “heterogeneous multiplicity,” is thus mandated. It is therefore no wonder that, as we saw in chapter 6, the animals praise God (Ps. 148:7–10).
Now the story I have begun to retell, here and in the last couple of chapters, is a story about the Hebrew Bible and animal lives. It presents an alternative to more common ways of narrating the Bible’s story, which focus on human “dominion” and “the image of God” (Gen. 1:26–27) to such an extent that our right to do whatever we wish with animals, and to do whatever we want for ourselves even at the risk of extinguishing animal kinds, is implicitly or explicitly justified. In telling the story this way, I do not want to be understood as denying that other stories about the Bible exist.
On the other hand, it is worth asking whether the story of the Bible I am retelling can account for features of the texts that some readers find troubling. For example, some ecological readers of the Bible express reservations about the story of Noah because it is not simply a story about the preservation of animal kinds, but also a story of death. God does, after all, kill many more people and animals than are saved on Noah’s ark.31 And it is true, as we have seen, that many biblical texts, including this one, represent God in frightening, perhaps even beastly, ways. But the story I am retelling here is not a theodicy, an attempt to justify some version of God in the face of suffering and evil. It is rather an account of the importance of preserving species, including the human species, even in situations where individual humans and animals die.
Moreover, it is not irrelevant to my “fabulation” (to recall Haraway’s word) that mass death takes place in the story precisely because the earth has been “corrupted” and “filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Other biblical texts also associate the deaths of animals and plants with human violence. In Jeremiah 12:1, for example, the writer complains that those who act treacherously are thriving. But the impact of their misconduct does not fall only on other humans. In verse 4, the writer articulates something like a lament for the land and the life that should thrive on it. “How long,” Jeremiah asks, “will the land mourn, and the vegetation throughout the field dry up? Because of the wickedness of those who live in it, the animals and the birds are swept away.” Using a word for “wickedness” that is also applied to humans in the story of Noah (Gen. 6:5), and a word for the “land” that is identical to the “earth” “corrupted” in Genesis 6:11, the writer here understands the desolation of the earth and the disappearance of animals and birds to be consequences of human evil. He sees animals and birds being extinguished, and this is evidence that humans are acting immorally. Jeremiah 9:10, as well, articulates a lament for creation in the context of a devastation of Judah that has come about because of the transgressions of the people who live there. In addition to weeping for “mountains” and “pastures,” the verse notes that “the voice of cattle is not heard, the birds of the skies and the animals have fled and are gone.” A similar understanding appears in Hosea 4:3, where the prophet, after listing a series of human evils, exclaims, “Therefore the land [or ‘earth’] mourns, and everything that lives on it withers. Also the living creatures of the field and the birds in the skies, and even the fish in the sea are disappearing!” Such texts understand human wickedness to be responsible, ultimately, for the vanishing of animals and birds.
This understanding of the disappearance of animals can be read back into the story of Noah as well. God may be the narrative agent of destruction in the Flood and in some of these other passages, but human actions are still the cause (Gen. 6:5–7, 11–13). The cumulative effect of human activity is a massive death of animals, including humans. And in this context, God commands Noah to take action to keep animal species alive.
But how far can we push the story I am telling? Could human responsibility for animal life be used to reinterpret even such notions as “the image of God”? It is a tempting possibility. Although many interpretations have been offered for the biblical understanding of “the image of God,” it has managed to outfox scholars who have tried to capture it exegetically.32 But if God creates all kinds of animals and demands their preservation, it is not hard to imagine that those who narratively embody the image of that God would orient their lives around this same priority. Far from being a justification for the rampant destruction of the earth and its species for our temporary benefit, this ancient belief that humans in some way represent God might have been interpreted as a call to radical ecological stewardship.
I do not choose that term, “stewardship,” lightly. It is striking that the term “stewardship,” which has long been debated among religious advocates for environmental responsibility, has recently resurfaced outside of religion among scholars wrestling with implications of living in the Anthropocene. “Earth stewardship in the Anthropocene” has been identified as a goal by scholars from a range of disciplines who are trying to figure out how, in a world structured by diverse cultures, traditions, histories, multispecies relations, and power relations among humans, we can respond to the catastrophic effects of human disruption of the environment.33 If it is already the case that our activities are reshaping the earth and contributing to the disappearance of species, would it not be a positive step, we might ask, to own “our capacity to affect creation,”34 and redirect our actions as stewards of a world created by a God in whose image we are likewise believed to be created?
In spite of these considerations, it is not at all clear that a plot emphasizing the creation of humans “in the image of God” will ultimately go far enough in “changing the story” to the extent that Haraway believes “the story must change.” For although twenty-first century readers might understand this ancient notion of an “image of God” in many different ways, its implication of priority over other living creatures—and of God-given, ontological priority—seems likely to encourage the very human exceptionalism that has led to our extinction crises in the first place. Indeed, it is important to acknowledge that textual features celebrating the flourishing of animals and animal kinds are inextricably intertwined throughout these biblical myths with other features that, while perhaps useful in the ancient Near East, are easily exploited by the Bible’s contemporary readers to justify inattention to species extinctions. The problem is not limited to “the image of God.”
Consider, for example, the aftermath of the Flood. When the waters recede, “all the living creatures, and all the creeping things, and all the birds, everything that moves on the earth, went out by clans from the ark” (Gen. 8:19). The language here, like much biblical material we have seen, arguably destabilizes distinctions between humans and animals, since the word used for animal “clans” is used throughout the Hebrew Bible for human clans or families. And this destabilization continues in Genesis 9, where God makes a covenant not simply with humans but with “every living creature who is with you, with the birds, with the animals, and with all the living things of the earth who came with you out of the ark, every living thing of the earth” (9:10).
Between these two texts, however, another passage intrudes:
God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Increase [or ‘be fruitful’] and multiply, and fill the earth. Fear and dread of you will be on all the living creatures of the earth and on all the birds of the skies and on all that creeps on the ground and on all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that lives will be food for you. As I gave you green plants, it is all for you.” (9:1–3)
The consequences of endless repetitions of such a passage, with its emphases on human population growth and eating animals, seem troubling indeed in an age of extinctions. No wonder the animals dread us.
There are, of course, few questions as volatile as the question of human overpopulation. Many progressives who in principle support environmental and animal concerns resist suggestions that human overpopulation is an ecological problem. Such suggestions are dismissed, partly for good reasons, as insensitive to, or even complicit with, histories of eugenics or other measures taken against reproduction among the poor, nonwhites, and the colonized. The problem, it is argued, is not population growth but the Euro-American exploitation of the earth’s resources. Yet a growing number of environmentalists point out that, while uneven distribution of resources certainly needs to be addressed, the ecological consequences of having nine billion humans or more on the planet by the end of the twenty-first century are potentially devastating.35 Even if the earth’s carrying capacity makes it possible to support a larger human population, our continued growth and demands on earth’s resources, including places where other animals live, are rapidly eliminating possibilities for many species to survive into the future. Partly in response, Haraway has recently proposed the provocative slogan “Make kin, not babies,” as part of her project of telling new stories. One of her goals in coining such a slogan is “to unravel the ties of both genealogy and kin, and kin and species,” allowing for multispecies—and not simply human species—flourishing overall.36 Whether her slogan will find an audience is unclear, though it makes a good pairing with queer, feminist, and other reorganizations of kinship. But it reminds us that religious admonitions for humans to fill the earth are not helpful for telling new stories in an age of extinctions.
Unhelpful, too, is any religious encouragement to eat more animals. In the context of animal studies, questions about meat tend to focus on the cruelty that our modern system of animal agriculture visits on the billions of individual domesticated animals we eat, an important concern noted several times in earlier chapters. But diets that are heavy on meat are not simply cruel to the animals we raise on industrial farms. They also contribute directly to environmental destruction through such mechanisms as deforestation, habitat modification, chemical degradations of the environment, and climate change; and all of these same dynamics contribute to the extinctions of species.37
My point in raising these contemporary controversies is clearly not to resolve them here. Nor am I interested in launching an easy critique of biblical texts. The ancient writers who gave us those texts could not have imagined either our tremendous population growth or the horrors of contemporary factory farming. They were writing about the world they saw around them, not the one we inhabit. They likely never imagined it was possible for entire kinds of animals, whom they believed were created and considered good by God, to be wiped out, though they clearly recognized sinister implications in the disappearance of animals (Jer.12:1; Hos. 4:3). We, on the other hand, are increasingly aware of both the disappearance of species and the ways in which our actions are causing such disappearance. And that awareness should have an impact on our response to van Dooren’s reminder of the “responsibility here and now” associated with the stories we tell. If “telling stories has consequences,” as van Dooren argues, then it would be an evasion of responsibility to ignore the ways in which components of biblical stories lend themselves to plots that contribute to the disappearance of animal species.
Rather than emphasizing biblical texts that reaffirm human exceptionalism, we might focus instead on the interdependence of human and animal life presupposed by numerous other passages discussed throughout this book. Such passages include the scenes of devastation in the Flood story and in such books as Jeremiah and Hosea noted above, as well as multiple passages discussed in chapter 6. In these and other texts, the welfare of humans and the welfare of animals are inextricably intertwined. If our fates are linked to the fates of animals, as the Bible already recognizes, this is partly because, as Judith Butler notes, “the human animal is itself an animal. This is not an assertion concerning the type or species of animal the human is, but an avowal that animality is a precondition of the human, and there is no human who is not a human animal.”38 It might seem surprising to invoke Butler in this context, since the relevance of her influential writings for animal studies is contested.39 But even if Butler is more focused on human than nonhuman life, she offers the phrase “precarious life” partly to provide what she calls “a non-anthropocentric framework for considering what makes life valuable.”40 One of her goals in using the term “precarious” is to suggest that violence can never be overcome if we pretend that vulnerability is an accidental feature of life. All of us are necessarily situated in a series of interdependent relationships to others, without which we can’t survive. Those relationships make us who we are, but they also make us vulnerable to suffering.41 Such relationships are not limited to our intimate relationships, though these are included. We exist in webs of relations that make up our neighborhoods, our cities, our religious traditions and other associations, our nations, and even—as the example of climate change shows—our entire earth. For we depend upon “a sustained and sustainable environment.” This interdependence necessarily makes our lives precarious. And as Butler notes, “non-human life is also precarious life and . . . precariousness links human and non-human life in ethically significant ways.”42 For as Haraway’s work reminds us, what Butler calls “precarious life” is inevitably a multispecies phenomenon. In a time of extinction, then, we do well to retell the Bible’s story in ways that emphasize the interdependence of our precarious lives with those of other animals, rather than reaffirming human exceptionalism.
And in a time of extinction, it would be an evasion of responsibility to ignore the ancient demand to “keep alive” (Gen. 6:20) the diverse kinds of life that share the earth with us. Along with that demand, we need to remember biblical texts that, as we have seen, call attention with awe to striking features of various types of animal life, the specific places they use as homes, the ways in which they eat and are eaten, the ways in which they care for their young, and the sounds that they make. We may or may not any longer interpret such phenomena as evidence for a deity’s provision of food, place, offspring, and salvation to this “heterogeneous multiplicity” of creatures, as some of the biblical writers did. But by learning to retell in new ways the stories of those who heard in the lion’s roar, and the calls of young birds, a cry to God for food, we may find ourselves taking greater responsibility for ensuring that such cries do not disappear from the earth.
1. Mark V. Barrow Jr., Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 27.
2. On Augustine, see Claudine Cohen, The Fate of the Mammoth: Fossils, Myth, and History, trans. William Rodarmor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 23–26. Cf. Paul Semonin, American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creatures Became a Symbol of National Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
3. See, e.g., Sarah Kaplan, “Earth Is on Brink of a Sixth Mass Extinction, Scientists Say, and It’s Humans’ Fault,” Washington Post, June 22, 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/06/22/the-earth-is-on-the-brink-of-a-sixth-mass-extinction-scientists-say-and-its-humans-fault. For a valuable book-length account by a science journalist, see Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Holt, 2014).
4. Holmes Rolston III, “Creation: God and Endangered Species,” in Ke Chung Kim and Robert D. Weaver, eds., Biodiversity and Landscapes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 48.
5. See, e.g., Gerardo Ceballos et al., “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Science Advances 1/5 (2015), http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full; Kolbert, Sixth Extinction; Anthony D. Barnosky, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Stephen M. Meyer, The End of the Wild (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Chris D. Thomas et al., “Extinction Risk from Climate Change,” Nature 427 (January 2004): 145–48; Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (New York: Random House, 2002). And see too www.iucn.org and www.biologicaldiversity.org.
6. Will Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (2011), 843. See also Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36/8 (2007): 614–21.
7. Jeremy Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).
8. Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (January 2002), 23.
9. For a focus on agriculture, see Bruce D. Smith and Melinda A. Zeder, “The Onset of the Anthropocene,” Anthropocene 4 (2013): 8–13. For a focus on stratigraphy, see Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene?” GSA Today 18/2 (2008): 4–8. For additional analysis, see Davies, Birth of the Anthropocene.
10. Morton, Dark Ecology, 38–40.
11. Jason W. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016). Cf. Ashley Dawson, Extinction: A Radical History (New York: O/R Books, 2016).
12. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35/2 (2009): 218, 221, 212.
13. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159–65; id., “Staying with the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene,” in Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene?; Haraway et al., “Anthropologists Are Talking—About the Anthropocene,” Ethnos 81/3 (2016): 535–64. As I was completing this manuscript, Haraway republished these arguments in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), which I have only partly been able to take into account here.
14. For discussion see Paul L. Koch and Anthony D. Barnosky, “Late Quaternary Extinctions: State of the Debate,” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37 (2006): 215–50.
15. See Barnosky, Dodging Extinction, for helpful discussion of such issues. The most influential list of species threatened with extinction to varying degrees remains the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: www.iucn.org/resources/conservation-tools/iucn-red-list-threatened-species.
16. See the excellent discussion by Anna L. Peterson, Being Animal: Beasts and Boundaries in Nature Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). For a helpful earlier discussion, see Sideris, Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection. For a stark way of framing these issues, see Eugene C. Hargrove, ed., The Animal Rights/Environmental Ethics Debate: The Environmental Perspective (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
17. Palmer, Animal Ethics in Context, 63.
18. Regan, Case for Animal Rights, 361; his emphasis.
19. Deborah Bird Rose, “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time,” Environmental Philosophy 9/1 (2012): 128.
20. See, e.g., http://extinctionstudies.org; Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming; and now Ursula K. Heine, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
21. Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 5. Page numbers cited parenthetically in the discussion that follows refer to this source.
22. See, e.g., Haraway, “Staying with the Trouble,” 41–42.
23. In addition to When Species Meet and Companion Species Manifesto, see, e.g., Haraway’s earlier Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989) and Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).
24. Haraway, “Staying with the Trouble,” 45; her emphasis.
25. Ibid., 35–36; id., “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene,” 160.
26. Ibid., 61, n. 61.
27. Rolston, “Creation,” 48.
28. See, e.g., Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 29–31, 110–12.
29. See, e.g., Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer, Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species (New York: Knopf, 1995); Scully, Dominion, 368–75.
30. See, e.g., for God, Deut. 26:15; Jer. 25:30; Zech. 2:13 (Hebrew 2:17); Ps. 26:8; 68:5 (Hebrew 68:6); 2 Chron. 30:27; 36:15; and for jackals, Jer. 9:11 (Hebrew 9:10); 10:22; 49:33; 51:37.
31. Cf. Habel, Inconvenient Text, 11–16.
32. For a convenient discussion by a biblical scholar with ecological commitments, see Norman Habel, The Birth, the Curse and the Greening of the Earth: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 1–11 (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 35–38.
33. Laura Ogden et al., “Global Assemblages, Resilience, and Earth Stewardship in the Anthropocene,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11/7 (2013): 341–47.
34. Diane Jacobson, “Biblical Bases for Ecojustice Ethics,” in Dieter T. Hessel, ed., Theology for Earth Community: A Field Guide (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996), 48.
35. See, e.g., Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).
36. Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene,” 161.
37. Cf. Tony Weis, The Ecological Footprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock (New York: Zed Books, 2013); Barnosky, Dodging Extinction.
38. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009), 19.
39. Cf. Chloë Taylor, “The Precarious Lives of Animals: Butler, Coetzee, and Animal Ethics,” Philosophy Today 52/1 (2008): 60–72; Oliver, Animal Lessons, 42–44; James Stanescu, “Species Trouble: Judith Butler, Mourning, and the Precarious Lives of Animals,” Hypatia 27/3 (2012): 567–82; Richard Iveson, “Domestic Scenes and Species Trouble: On Judith Butler and Other Animals,” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 10/4 (2012): 20–40.
40. Pierpaolo Antonello and Roberto Farneti, “Antigone’s Claim: A Conversation with Judith Butler,” Theory and Event 12/1 (2009), https://muse-jhu-edu.cts.idm.oclc.org/article/263144.
41. See further Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004); id., Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
42. In Antonello and Farneti, “Antigone’s Claim.”