Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selectionby Lisa H. Sideris

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection by Lisa H. SiderisReview by: Frederick FerrSoundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 86, No. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2003), pp. 469-477Published by: Penn State University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41179121 .Accessed: 25/06/2014 02:04

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

    .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.


    Penn State University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Soundings:An Interdisciplinary Journal.


    This content downloaded from on Wed, 25 Jun 2014 02:04:30 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • Readings for St. Brevis 469

    lective bliss? Why not see the flourishing of the self under capitalism as a good start, as something that will achieve greater richness and value under socialism, when individualism might no longer entail hostility among human beings? Why not, in other words, follow a Marxist such as Terry Eagleton, whose friendli- ness toward the human subject is far more marked, instead of longing for a prehistoric intimacy that we cannot even conceive of? A Singular Modernity never raises such questions; that Jameson considers them settled is all too clear. We may be waiting, like Benjamin, for the messianic time in which all will be redeemed, but Jameson gives us little in the way of instructions to help it along - only a statement of faith whose tenets, to many, look increasingly undesirable.

    Thomas F. Haddox The University of Tennessee

    Lisa H. Sideris Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection New York: Columbia University Press, 2003

    This book will come as a cold bath to a number of my friends in the environmental ethics industry. Sideris is tough, well-in- formed, and relentless in her critique of fluffy evasions and feel- good phrases, whatever their provenance. She has taken to heart Darwin's lesson about the painful struggle that underlies mecha- nisms of natural selection. She has done her homework on the state of current evolutionary theory (which, she concludes, has not revised Darwin significantly on this matter) . And she remains unmoved by rhetoric - secular or religious - touting "intercon- nections," "communities," or "ecological balances," as the com- fortable way out of ethical traps.

    Sideris is currently on the faculty at McGill University, Mon- treal, with responsibilities both in Religious Studies and in the McGill School of Environment. In this book, which began as part

    This content downloaded from on Wed, 25 Jun 2014 02:04:30 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • 470 SOUNDINGS Haddox, Ferr, Trinale

    of a doctoral dissertation in religious studies at Indiana Univer- sity, she brings both sides of her dual appointment into sizzling contact. She means the book to be explosive, I believe, and she succeeds. It will have to be noticed and carefully answered by a wide array of prominent thinkers, including Sallie McFague, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Charles Birch, John Cobb, Jrgen Moltmann, Michael Northcott, Larry Rasmussen, Peter Singer, and Tom Regan, who are weighed and variously found wanting, primarily (at bottom) for inadequate attention to the rigors of evolutionary science. Conversely, the roster of thinkers who in- spire Sideris's praise include Aldo Leopold, Baird Callicott, Mary Midgley, James Gustafson, and, above all, Holmes Rolston, III. The main difference between these two groups of thinkers is that the latter tend to pay more heed to the well-being of species, in keeping with hard-nosed evolutionary perspective, and less to the sufferings and satisfactions of individual organisms. Sideris labels the former group, in various ways, too "anthropocentric," in senses I shall explain; the latter is described as scientifically "bi- ocentric," or, in the case of Gustafson, "theocentric," with a dis- tinctly non-anthropocentric flavor.

    The book is well structured. After her Introduction - which provides a useful overview of the whole volume - the author offers a chapter, "This View of Life," establishing her compe- tence in handling current evolutionary literature, describing the lines of tension and overlap between evolutionary biology and ecology (pre- and post-Darwinian), and offering a mini-introduc- tion to environmental ethics, broadly defined as denoting "ethi- cal arguments regarding sentient beings - both wild and nonwild animals - as well as the ethics for nonsentient nature such as 'land ethics'" (14).

    The next chapter, provocatively titled "The Best of All Possible Worlds," launches her sharp attack against the ecofeminist theo- logians exemplified by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sallie McFague, both of whom appeal to nature's "holism" and "inter- relatedness" as the model for establishing a "community" ethics toward the environment and other humans. Sideris demurs:

    The interpretation of nature as normative for human relationships involves a much greater emphasis on themes of ecology than evolu- tion, as I delineated these concepts in the previous chapter; often the ecological data invoked is outdated or contains misrepresenta- tions. As such, both Ruether and McFague present arguments that

    This content downloaded from on Wed, 25 Jun 2014 02:04:30 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • Readings for St. Brevis 4 71

    are incompatible with current scientific understandings and both exhibit serious shortcomings as ethics that could realistically be applied to nature. (45)

    What is missing in both cases is adequate acknowledgment of "ev- olutionary processes involving conflict, prdation, and competi- tion" (46). Ruether romanticizes the intimate "web" of production, consumption, and decomposition into a scenario where only man is vile. That is, only patriarchal oppression dis- turbs the feminist idyl. "Competition only appears to be competi- tion; it is really cooperation, symbiosis, and interdependence" (51).

    Similarly, McFague views nature through the metaphors of Christian love and, consequently, overlooks or suppresses the facts of prdation, competition, and cruelty on which evolution runs. Even taken modestly, as an experiment with using mental models for reorienting attitudes, "this experiment is on the whole unhelpful" (71), Sideris declares, since the models do not rise from nature as it is. Instead, they are imposed by wishful thinking (or religious hope) on a domain that is not adequately captured by them. Further, treating all "others" in nature as equally "subjects" for Christian love would create impossible di- lemmas in choosing between competing interests unless an im- plicit hierarchy of "subjecthood" is smuggled in, on which those more "like us" have more value and stronger claims. Here we see the "anthropocentrism" that haunts all who would make distinc- tions based on qualities in which humans excel.

    Yet another type of "anthropocentrism" lurks, Sideris com- plains, in Michael Northcott's theological vision of the cosmos as longing to be transformed into what (for humans) would be an ideal state of "peace, harmony, and justice in the natural realm" (88). The needs of predators - if lions are really required to lie down with, and not devour, lambs - would have to be frustrated, on this view, which therefore constitutes "a human agenda im- posed on nature as much as (if not more than) Ruether's efforts to understand nature through the lens of women's oppression" (88).

    In the following chapter, "The Ecological Model and the Rean- imation of Nature," Sideris continues using the same sharp scythe to mow down the environmental proposals of theologians Jrgen Moltmann, John Cobb, and Charles Birch. Their posi-

    This content downloaded from on Wed, 25 Jun 2014 02:04:30 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • 472 SOUNDINGS Haddox, Ferr, Trindle

    tions, she argues, are either factually mistaken about how nature works or objectionably anthropocentric, or both. Against Moltmann, she points to a grave omission in his treatment of evolution, with which he ostensibly attempts to ally his hopeful theistic worldview. His goal of linking religion and evolution is laudable, but "Moltmann has in fact tailored certain scientific statements about nature to make them fit the account of creation and redemption central to his theology" (96) . His theological fil- ter profoundly distorts his account of reality. "Despite Moltmann's express desire to bring together a theology of crea- tion with a modern evolutionary account of nature, his theology selects only those aspects of nature that complement a belief in harmony and community" (97). As she summarizes:

    Processes of evolution such as competition, prdation, and extinc- tion are virtually nonexistent in this account, aside from some vague references to suffering and struggle, which are themselves assumed to be only temporary conditions that will ultimately be banished. (102)

    This leads to a deep incoherence. If everything in nature is so rosy, where did the suffering come from that needs to be re- moved or redeemed? "As we saw with ecofeminists' arguments, their descriptions of nature leave out the presence of suffering and strife, even while their ethic aims largely at the removal of it" (103).

    Moltmann offers no answer, but process theology, exemplified by Cobb and Birch, has a better stance on the matter. For process thinkers, Sideris acknowledges, "discord is an inherent feature of all life" (104). Struggle, loss, and ugliness constitute, as it were, creativity's dark shadow. Unlike Moltmann, process thinkers res- olutely offer no eschatological guarantees of a happy ending. They are much more in tune with genuine evolutionary science than the others previously considered. But Sideris is not at all content with Birch and Cobb for two primary reasons. First, in an inversion of the incoherence noted in Moltmann, Birch and Cobb oddly urge an environmental ethic aimed, they say, at "lib- erating life" from suffering, even while they admit that suffering is an inherent feature of life. Here they drift away from their alli- ance with Darwin. Second, they make too much of suffering itself as a primary "evil." Their reason for doing this is their under- standing of all intrinsic value as rooted in subjective experience.

    This content downloaded from on Wed, 25 Jun 2014 02:04:30 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • Readings for St. Brevis 4 73

    If it feels good, to that extent it is intrinsically good. If it feels bad, it is intrinsically bad. All other sorts of value are merely de- rivative. This seems, to Sideris, to miss a great deal of other sorts of intrinsic value. But, worse, they also set great store by a hierar- chy in the richness and intensity of subjectivity found in nature, a hierarchy that tops out (interestingly) at just the sorts of experi- ence which are manifested exclusively, as far as we know, at peak moments in human life. Thus, Sideris concludes, process theol- ogy fails both from internal incoherence and from blatant an- thropocentrism. In my view, Sideris misses something important in process thinking, but, rather than interrupt her scythe while in such full swing, I shall defer my metaphysical quibbles to the end of this review.

    Her next chapter, "Darwinian Equality for All," goes in pursuit of two prominent secular philosophers who, she believes, deserve cutting down for many of the same reasons that are now familiar. Peter Singer and Tom Regan are not accused of distorting their visions of nature through the lens of theology, but still, Sideris holds that their views, respectively, are distorted by scientific er- ror and anthropocentric bias. Singer, whose slogan is "animal lib- eration," asks that humans extend ethical protections to everything capable of suffering, offering special solicitude toward imprisoned organisms used by humans for laboratory experi- mentation and for food. He denounces, as "speciesist," any dis- crimination against animals just because they are not human. What we would not do to a baby, we should not do to a calf in a stall or a cat in a laboratory. But, Sideris objects, by making the ground of all value the psychological capacity for feeling pain or pleasure, Singer has entirely excluded everything but individual animals from ethical consideration. A habitat is not the sort of thing that can literally feel pain, nor, of course, is a species, in contrast to its individual members. This has two profound de- fects, Sideris says: First, by departing entirely from the Darwinian emphasis on species as far more important than individuals, Singer fails to ground his ethics on good science; and, second, by pinning all his concern on subjective flourishing, something humans consider of great importance for themselves, he (like the process theologians) has fallen willy-nilly into anthropocen- tric attitudes, ignoring the possibility that other values in nature might trump individual subjective satisfactions. Further, as a utili-

    This content downloaded from on Wed, 25 Jun 2014 02:04:30 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • 474 SOUNDINGS Haddox, Ferr, Trindle

    tarian, Singer has made an expensive error. He has left wild ani- mals out of his account, concentrating on captive animals. But adding in wild animals, as he must to have a genuine environ- mental ethic, would make a "liberation" environmental ethics ab- surd and inapplicable, since no cost-benefit calculation could weigh, must less justify, the price of intervening not just into animal husbandry and scientific laboratories, in order to remove human-caused suffering in captive animals, but also into wild na- ture, where natural prdation could not be stopped without un- doing the web of life itself.

    Tom Regan, in contrast to Singer, is no utilitarian. Instead, Re- gan approaches ethics from a deontological perspective, arguing not from probable outcomes but from higher duty. Considera- tions of imp...


View more >