The Creator’s Fondness for Beetles: Biodiversity as Sacrament

Biologist John Haldane was once asked what his studies of the natural world had taught him about God. God seems, replied Haldane, to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”1

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life – the number of different species in an ecosystem, for example, or of ecosystems in a region. When we think of biodiversity – if we think of it at all – we may imagine a rich rain forest teeming with brightly-colored birds, or a field of wildflowers. We might think of the Appalachian cove forests that cover Sewanee’s domain and represent one of the most biodiverse temperate regions in the world. We probably don’t think about the 350,000 species of beetle that now exist.

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference began this week with a goal of stopping the inexorable decline of species and ecosystems in the world. More than a million species are estimated to be threatened with extinction, and populations of major animal groups have declined by an average of 69 percent.

Why is biodiversity so important? Do we really need 350,000 species of beetle? We’ll explore this theme from different perspectives in this series of blog posts.

Scientists point out that biodiversity is crucial to our survival, and to the survival of other species and ecosystems. It is estimated that we have discovered only a quarter of the species that exist. We depend on plants and animals that we don’t even know about, let alone understand fully; clearly we ought to preserve as much of that variety as possible.

Biodiversity might also be the key to climate resilience. While scientists can’t prove conclusively that a diverse ecosystem is always a healthier or more resilient ecosystem, it stands to reason that greater variety allows for a greater number of adaptations and defenses against the rapidly-changing climate.

But there are also important spiritual and theological reasons to value biodiversity. Theologian Kevin J. O’Brien suggests we might understand it sacramentally, as a manifestation of God’s glory. In its great variety, complexity, and mystery, life on earth speaks to us of the richness and incomprehensibility of its creator2. If God is inordinately fond of beetles, that may reveal the gratuitousness of God’s love.

At the same time, there are reasons to be cautious about appeals to biodiversity. The UN Convention on Biodiversity, the subject of the current conference, understands the term to include different levels of biodiversity – within species, among species, and among ecosystems. While this makes biodiversity a broad category capable of attracting a wide range of support, it also means groups aren’t always talking about – or conserving – the same types of diversity.3

Biodiversity also tends to champion conserving untouched “intact” ecosystems, as in the UN’s goal of conserving at least 30% of the planet by 2030. This ideal of wilderness has historically been used to remove indigenous communities and their histories from the landscape, usually by force.

Finally, different arguments for biodiversity might be incompatible – for example, that undiscovered species might be useful to humans and that they have their own inherent value (or that they speak to us about God). These arguments all support protecting biodiversity, but they may entail very different ways of doing it.

Much is at stake in the UN Conference. Biodiversity is a crucial – if complicated – indicator of all that stands to be lost if we cannot find ways to cooperate to live more peacably with other species. This blog will continue to explore the value and complexity of this concept from a variety of perspectives in the coming weeks.

1 O’Brien, Kevin J. “The Sacramental Value of the Variety of Life.” In An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life, 58–76. Georgetown University Press, 2010, 58.

2 O’Brien, 64.

3 Pascual, U., Adams, W.M., Díaz, S. et al. Biodiversity and the challenge of pluralism. Nat Sustain 4, 567–572 (2021).

Published by Andrew Thompson

4 comments on “The Creator’s Fondness for Beetles: Biodiversity as Sacrament”

  1. allan strand '86 says:

    I am sorry to see that JBS Haldane (who along with Sewall Wright and RA Fisher, was one of the primary architects of human understanding the process of evolution), is not worthy of credit for his quote that serves as the hook for this post. Haldane was an honest quipster, when asked in another religious context whether he would give his life for his brother, he said “no but I would for two brothers or eight cousins”

    Not attributing the insights of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century is especially troubling when those of a priest who had to resign from his presidency of Santa Clara University for ‘inappropriate conduct with seminarians’ words _are_ attributed.

    There is much to be learned from both religious perspectives on the environment and environmental perspectives on religion. But only if both are treated with the same care and scholarship.

    1. Andrew Thompson says:

      Thanks for the careful reading, and sorry for the oversight. No disrespect intended – I was aiming for brevity. But I’ve added Haldane’s name.

      Incidentally, this is a different Kevin O’Brien – Kevin J. O’Brien, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran University.

      I appreciate the feedback!

  2. Mark McReynolds says:

    I did some research on the Haldane quote once and my understanding of his quote is that he was not actually meaning what he said (though it sounds great!). In other words, his was just a snarky reply, not actually a relishing that God cares about beetles – though I do think he does.

    1. Andrew Thompson says:

      Thanks for the feedback and additional context! I think you’re right – I don’t think he’s denying the possibility of a creator, but I think he is implying that Christians’ typical ideas about the creator don’t account for something like the ridiculous number of beetle species. You probably also discovered that the veracity of this particular quote is questioned – I probably should have added “allegedly.”

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