Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis in East and West

- Jayapaul Azariah, Ph.D.,
Head of Department of Zoology, University of Madras - Guindy Campus, Madras 600 025, India.

- Darryl Macer, Ph.D.,
Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba Science City 305, Japan.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 125-128.

This paper discusses whether the roots of our ecological crisis and materialistic world views are derived from the Biblical view of the role of human beings in nature or whether these are derived from English language translations of Genesis 1:28 and Western philosophy. We suggest that the Hebrew word RADAH no longer be translated as dominion over nature, rather take over (as a partner with God) is a better interpretation. Eastern and Western views of nature are discussed.

1. Introduction

According to the publication of Lynn White's article on the "Historical roots of our ecological crisis", Christianity bears a heavy burden of guilt for the disastrous consequences of technological advance in the past 100 years (White, 1967). Such an accusation of Christianity was endorsed by sociologists like Means (1967) and by post-modernists of the environmental lobby. In this paper we want to discuss whether Christianity favoured easy exploitation of nature.

Schaeffer (1970) held the view " the implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would emerge more easily in the Western atmosphere" than from the Eastern form of Christianity. Although a number of Christian writers have projected a Christian view of nature (Spring and Spring 1974, Santimire, 1985, Elsdon, 1989, Nash, 1991, Berry, 1995), there are still some issues to be faced from White's accusation. Therefore, an attempt has been made to re-examine critically the attack on Christianity from a trans-cultural premise.

One of the basic issues is whether the roots are in traditional political Christianity as formulated by the interpretations of Biblical scholars who lived during the centuries, or are they directly derived from the Book of Genesis 1:28? This verse has been translated to mean that human beings (Man) shall have dominion (domination) over the rest of God's creation (See White 1967, Azariah, 1995).

2. Ecosystem and Environmental Degradation

The management of the household of nature is the central theme of the science of ecology. The Greek word OIKOS , from which the English word ecology is derived, means the 'house' or dwelling place. The biosphere, the larger unit, consists of smaller biomes and ecosystems as subunits (Odum, 1971). The ecosystem is robustly built with its own natural self regulatory checks and controls. The system is able to cope with external stress to a point where the relationships between the components do not break (Azariah, 1991). The natural property of self-regulation, self-maintenance and self-purification maintain almost an endless cycle of sustainable ecological balance (Azariah, 1991, 1994a), though it is under the control of God. Despite the robustness of the biosphere it is moving towards the path of degradation and destruction.

Human beings occupy an unique position in nature. Endowed with intelligence and with morphological frame of body to make and use tools, we can bend nature to our advantage. Often such developmental activities are not environmentally friendly and have led to serious breaches in ecobalance: Why do human being behave in such a destructive way as to push the system to the brink of extinction? The answer lies in our world views.

3. World views of East and West and the Environment

Human actions are determined by our ideas and beliefs. A world view is a set of presumptions (or assumptions) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously) about the basic makeup of our world (Sire, 1977) and hence they condition our attitude and behavior towards our environment. A scientific paradigm, in Thomas Kuhn's sense, is the change in belief and behavior due to scientific revolution. An episteme is a set of common assumptions about nature and limits of knowledge. "It is roughly synonymous with the paradigm that includes a picture of what counts as good science... Thus a scientific episteme is not just a view within science, about the nature of living organisms and their development. It is also a second - order philosophical view about science that defines the nature, limits, metaphysics and epistemology of 'good' science" (Moreland, 1989). Therefore, good science generates belief that results in altered but desired change in behavior. Hence, solutions to human problems relating to ecology and environment are tied to belief and convictions which are rooted in our correct teaching on the components of nature as well as our correct understanding of human origins (Macer, 1990; Azariah, 1994b).

The birth place of culture and civilization and of the major world religions is in Asia, what we can call the East. Cultural practices recorded in the Bible (Old and New Testament) are still to be seen in some eastern countries like India. The West subscribed to the teachings of Christ more readily than the East (NOTE: in A.D.52, the disciple of Jesus Christ, St. Thomas visited India as a missionary). With the national status accorded to Christianity, it spread more quickly in Western civilization than in the East. Modern science was born during 1543 with the published works of Copernicus and Vesalius. And today, all significant science is Western in its thinking, methods of research and emphasis. The East developed its own cosmic science and emphasized a way of life that would coexist with nature (Horne, 1978, Azariah 1991).

White (1967) also differentiated the Western form of Christianity which identified itself with the Western form of science from the Eastern form of Christianity, which merged its lifestyle with the Eastern way of thinking. In the West, the dawn of naturalism was initiated in 1859 through the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection which started the process of eliminating the reality of God from the much of Western thought (Azariah 1994b). Something which may also be seen in contemporary Japan (Macer & Boyle 1995). Darwinism and positivism exerted a real influence on the scientific world to the extent of separating theology from biology. The Western culture, tradition and science can be traced to the Greek, Jewish, Christian and Muslim foundations of thought. All these cultures have considered that Man is a special species in creation. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle considered that Man is unique among the animals because he is rational.

The Christian world view of humankind as a special creation of God with dominion over his creation is based on the English (European) translation of the Hebrew word RADAH. The word "dominion" is only one of the meanings. As a result, the current view which Christianity may hold may not and need not reflect the basic teachings of the Genesis account of Man and world.

4. Evolution of Western Christian world-views

A change in the Christian world view could be considered in three stages: (1) characterized by the influence of Greek thought 400 B.C. to 1200 A.D.; (2) from 1200 to 1700/1800 A.D. Thomistic thought and the neo-Christian influences of Thomas Aquinas; and (3) Darwinian (1860) and Neo-Darwinian thought. Of course there have been other important stages, such as the Protestant Reformation which pushed the idea of private property, and different sects and orders, but we will limit the discussion in this paper.

The Greeks "were a restless people, curious, voluble, intelligent, argumentative and, at times, irreverent."(Asimov, 1964 p.2). The characteristic features of the Greek Golden Age are: (i) a period which was "free of toil and grief" and " the earth spontaneously bore them abundant fruit without stint" (Guthrie, 1965), (ii) there was social stability (iii) plentiful food and fruit all year around and (iv) they had a mind to seek an answer for the cosmic questions such as " what was the substance of which the whole universe was made?" (Lindsay, 1959). The answers to such questions were found satisfying and hence they devoted much time to the study of nature and developed their own philosophy of nature and life and the universe.

Thales (640?-546? B.C.), as an Ionian Greek philosopher, developed the thought that all the processes of the universe followed fixed and unchangeable natural laws (cause and effect). He had an interest in natural history and laid a foundation for natural science and the philosophy of "rationalism" -the belief that the workings of the universe could be understood through reason rather than revelation - (Asimov, 1964). The birth of rationalism in science opened up a wide door for other philosophers of natural science to speculate further on the irrelevance of God in the Universe.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) had a love for nature. He found some of the thoughts of Greek philosophers were similar to his own views of man and synthesized the two views into one and made it to be the teaching of the then traditional Christian doctrine of man and nature. For instance, when Aristotle considered Man as the unique creature among animals because of his rational behavior, Aquinas recognized that Man's rationality is his divine element which God has put in him. Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas went one more step further and treated animals as non rational and unintellectual creatures and preached that such "other creatures are for the sake of the intellectual creatures" and hence animals have " no moral status at all". Such a doctrine relieved man of his duty to animals. To Thomas, human life was supreme and hence the only reason he gave for not being cruel to animals was that if one is not cruel to animals then that will prevent someone from being cruel to his own species.

In the years to come, philosophers like Kant advocated these two principles. Kant wrote, during the seventeenth century "humanity, in virtue of its rational nature, is 'an end in itself', never to be used as a mere means. 'But so far as animals are concerned, he says 'we have no direct duties. Animals... are there merely as means to an end. That end is Man'" (Rachels 1986). He also added that "he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men". According to this view, it is evident, therefore, that animals by themselves have no inherent value that demands human love and concern. It is because humans will be cruel to other humans that Man should not be cruel to animals. Man's moral responsibility to animals was removed with the Thomistic-Kantian natural philosophy where human reason and knowledge played a key role in kindling the dangerous and the deadly desire to be the master of nature.

Thomas and Kant recognized a distinction between human life and animal life. This should not be misconstrued to sanction cruelty of other living creatures. There is no justification for ecological malpractice or selfish and destructive exploitation of nature. The idea of unlimited progress has led to such manipulative practices; the fault lies not with Christianity but with the so called enlightenment.

In tracing these roots, back in history, it is essential to note that during the first 1000 years after Christ there was no recorded conflict in Christian theological writings between Man's position in nature and Mans' responsibility to animals and nature. The turning point came with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) who reemphasized the writings of Aristotle and paved the way for corruption of the biblical view of Man in Creation. The personal views of Aquinas on the teaching of the Bible were rather radical. For example, he did not agree with the details recorded in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. Also when St.Paul in the Epistle to the Romans details that "the reality of the Creator is immediately known to everyone from the natural order without argument - only people will not acknowledge what they know", Aquinas claimed that the " world could not conceivably be as it is without a First Cause, which is God and thus God's existence can be proved to thinking people" (Keeley, 1982).

History records without any hesitation that the views of Aquinas prevailed over the others of his time. Broad (1959) records "it happened also that the greatest and most influential thinker of the Middle Ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas, became an enthusiastic disciple and advocate of Aristotle... St.Thomas was so much abler than his opponents, that the Aristotelian methods and concepts scored a complete triumph. Something also shared in Muslim and Jewish philosophy. Henceforth, they were accepted uncritically and handed down from one generation to another. Scientists decided all questions, not by investigating the observable facts but by appealing to the infallible authority of Aristotle..." (p 31).

Currently, the instruments of science and technology have empowered humankind with naturalistic power. The civilized Man "informed by science and the arts and in control of powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar... but rather as a Master, active with his own instruments " (Raszak, 1972). The philosopher Descartes also proclaimed "We shall become the Masters and possessors of nature" a notion which is a direct off-shoot of the Thomistic-Kantian doctrine of Man and nature. This has nothing to do with Genesis 1:28 where the Human-nature relationship is of a different order.

5. Genesis 1:28 does not mean Domination as Masters

The English translation of the original Hebrew word RADAD/RADAH as domination is incorrect (Azariah, 1995) and in Hebrew it has other meanings (Leavitt, 1995), which agree more with the overall context of Genesis 1-6. Calvin comments that this has a reference to human dignity (Calvin 1554, p 96). The prime root word RADAH has the following meanings: To tread to pieces, i.e. figuratively, to conquer or specifically to overlay:- spend, spread, subdue. The word RADAH has the following meanings: to tread down (subjugate); specifically to crumble off (come to, make to) have dominion, prevail against, reign (bear, make to rule), (rule over), take (Strong 1890).

The word rule can be annexed with 'over' (rule over) which will give the meaning of a dichotomous relationship between human beings and God. Such is not the picture that is portrayed in the first two chapters of Genesis as it includes the meaning 'to subjugate'. On the other hand, if we take the meaning "take" and use the word "over" in conjunction with 'take' then it would mean that human beings are to take over God's creation and be a partner in the creative work of God. It is a positive and not a negative term, i.e. to 'develop' and not to destroy.

It should be borne in mind that the pristine relationship of God-Human partnership recorded in the Bible was broken by the introduction of human sin (Genesis 3) which led to diminishing returns for human labor (Azariah, 1995). Secondly, the mental picture of "crumble off" or "tread to pieces" or "tread down " does not make any sense since the act of destruction does not go well with the character/nature of God. To subscribe to the meaning of "overlay" or "take over/overtake" may make good sense. This new idea that human beings can take over God's creative work may appear strange and unrealistic. However, it may be recalled that Jesus Christ exhorted his disciples " I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing, he will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12). The Greek word Mike'-zone/Meg-as means greater/more - in a very wide application - exceedingly great(est), high, large, loud, mighty (Strong, 1890). This means that human beings, as God's creation, are not to destroy the rest of the creation but to take over and continue or overtake God's work in creation. The phrase 'take over' is neither used in the sense of domination/conquer nor in the sense of 'over-seeing.' It is used in the sense of shared partnership. Such a shared partnership was marred by the human sin (Genesis 3). In any case, the idea of destruction or of exploitation in the sense of subjugation does not arise in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis.

The translation of the Hebrew word "RADAH" to mean dominion\rule is the real life picture during the time of the Bible translators when monarchy was the dominant form of government. The image of a king came into human thinking only after the events recorded in Genesis 11. To Adam and Eve the above meaning would make no sense. We cannot impute the literal meaning of a word in one culture into another culture and time where such a meaning is unknown. Therefore, to translate the Hebrew word RADAH as dominion is an unjustified translation which does not fit the real life situation of human beings in the first two chapters of Genesis.

6. Eastern and Western World-views

An extensive description of Eastern environmental ethics, in particular India, has been published by Eubios Ethics Institute (Azariah 1994a-b). There are some linguistic differences as seen in the use of the term "living things". The phrase "living things" is a self contradictory combination of words (Azariah, 1994). English Bible translators have used the phrase "living things" in the first eight chapters of the Book of Genesis (1:24,25,26,28,30; 6:7,17,19,20; 7:8,14; 8:1,17,19) and Strong (1890) does not give any corresponding code number for a corresponding word in Hebrew because it is not the rendering of any particular term in the original. The Hebrew word for living or life is CHAY (khaah'ee) which means alive, raw, fresh, life, living (derivatives: creature or thing). According to Leavitt (1994, personal communication) the Hebrew word stands by itself and there is no need to add a noun since the word is complete by itself and the phrase "living thing" makes no sense in Hebrew.

To illustrate another language, in Tamil the word "POrUrul" means either "things\treasure" or "meaning". Tamils have used the word "PaRamPOrUrul" to describe God, meaning The Ancient (The OTHER) Meaning. If we translate the root word as The Ancient Thing then it does not fit with the nature of God. Similarly, the Tamils also used the word "PAn-thy-a-POrUrul which meant the finishing aim in sports, the aim of obtaining the reward, the cup. This root word "Param" has the following meanings: primary, the other, the ancient and life. For example 'para-na-va-ai-u ( Sanskrit: paranan = life) is the life giving gas (oxygen). According to Swamy Vivekananda, the Sanskrit word Paradesham was also used by the Persians who passed it on to the Greek- Latin world. He sees a close relationship between the English word Para-dise (The Other Land) and the Sanskrit word "Para-low-gam/Para-desham" (heaven). A "paradashee" is a person on a journey, a citizen of paradasham. In the light of the above discussion it is not good to use the word "thing" annexed to "living", and the Hebrew word may have had a wider meaning and is amenable for translation as "meaning" as used by the Tamils. It is recommended that in the future translation the above suggestions may be considered to render a more precise translation of the Hebrew words under study (RADAH, CHAY). It may be pointed out that the word CHAY appears to be a very special word since to translate it as "living things" does not make sense in Hebrew (Leavitt, personal communication) with respect to the nature of God. Further, if translated as "living meaning" it makes no sense in Hebrew either. Therefore we suggest using "living organism / life forms".

The above example indicates how simple words may be either expressions of underlying world-views, or moulders of our expression. The tend to be more holistic in Eastern culture has been linked to polytheism, however, we also note that among followers of monotheistic religion in India or Eastern culture, for 2000 years, they have shared a different interpretation of holism than many Western followers of monotheism.

We hasten to add that we should not blindly assume that all members of one cultural group have the same world-view, whether or not that be distant from another. In the International Bioethics Survey performed in 1993 in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore and Thailand (Macer, 1994), 150 questions on bioethics were included to examine how universal bioethics are. The topics included attitudes to science; environmental concerns; genetic engineering; privacy, genetic diseases and AIDS; prenatal genetic screening; gene therapy; assisted reproductive technology; and education. Two of the most relevant questions where open questions on images of nature and life that people had, and there we generally found similar diversity of images presented, and similar ranges of comments in these countries. Further analysis of these responses is being made to investigate if there are differences in world-view between cultures, that are greater than the differences between people. Environmental education may also alter people's attitudes and behaviour, perhaps more than religion.

7. Conclusions

The image of Man as the Master of Nature grew from the seed of Thomistic thought and was shaped by the 17th Century philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz, the resultant of which is "Thomism and Neo-Thomist" thought. The early proponent of this trend of thinking was Kant who taught that animals are merely a means to an end and that end is Man.

The desire to be the Masters of nature is rooted in two historical grounds: (1) a wrong translation of Genesis 1:28. The word dominion was used since the West was used to the Monarchic rule of a king as a model in social systems; and (2) on the desire to become the Masters and possessors of nature which is a direct derivation of Thomism. These two roots spring from Greek pagan philosophy and not from the Judeo-Christian doctrine of God and Man and Nature.

Many have used Christianity as a convenient scapegoat to transfer the blame of the seamy side of modern science. Morioka (1995) pointed out that the blame may well be placed on non-religious factors such as "industrialization, modern capitalism, materialism and our ignorance of ecological complexity". The accusation was well timed when the Western world was showing increasing trend towards scientism and was non-Christian/anti Christian in its basic thinking. Unfortunately, the Christian thinkers of the West, at that time, were seriously finding a means to identify the so called "scientific truths" with the religious belief as well as with creation world view. To read Genesis 1 to 11 as mythological will miss at least a part of its message.

We urge the study of Eastern interpretations of the role of human beings, especially the ways that early religious writings such as the Bible have been used as a foundation of world-views. One of us (JA), is looking at the lessons from Genesis for observations of biodiversity and this approach may yield fruit. A biological law of nature has been proposed which states that the gene pool of plants will respond to human sin in such a way that a part of the resource will become unavailable for human use (Azariah, 1995). We would welcome comments from others in developing these ideas and in exploring the relationship between Eastern and Western views of nature, and especially how within the same religion there may be cultural and linguistic differences with resultant changes in world-view.


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