Fooling Mother Nature?
In a timeless TV commercial from the 1970s, Mother Nature, a kindly looking woman, is sitting in a rocking chair in the forest, surrounded by docile woodland creatures—a black bear, a raccoon, a deer, a mountain lion. She has a ring of daisies in her hair and a beatific countenance. To the rapt attention of the animals around her, she is recounting, in dulcet tones, a familiar fable: “And Goldilocks said, ‘Who’s been eating my porridge?’”1
The black bear there next to her may have felt called upon to correct Mother Nature as to the details of that fable, but it doesn’t. It was the bears, not Goldilocks, in that fairy tale who were asking questions about the consumption of their porridge. But the storyline on the commercial goes in an even more unexpected direction. A narrator, in voiceover, interrupts and asks, “Mother Nature, was this on the porridge?”
She is handed a container of spread. She dabs at it daintily with her finger and tastes it. “Yes,” she says with a radiant smile, “lots of my delicious butter!”
The narrator corrects her, telling her that the spread she is tasting is actually Chiffon Margarine.® “Chiffon’s so delicious,” the narrator says, “it fooled even you, Mother Nature!”
Suddenly the idyllic atmosphere changes dramatically. The woman stands to her feet with a sinister smile. “Oh, it’s not nice,” she says, “to fool Mother Nature!” She thrusts her arms outward, there is thunder and lightning, and the animals cower.
But the maker of this margarine, undaunted, has the last word, closing with the lilting musical jingle: “If you think it’s butter, but it’s not, it’s Chiffon!”
This is all in good fun, of course. At the root of it, is the idea that something manmade may actually be equal to something nature-made, or natural. The personification of nature as maternal, as the “source and guiding force of creation,”2 has had a kind of comforting effect through the centuries. But there has also been the recognition that as benign as nature may be, at times it can also be cruel and capricious. This may be because if a figure is ascribed with human qualities, it can also be humanlike, that is, fallible. And in current thought, there are some who consider nature to be something to be managed and others who think nature should be left alone to manage on its own.
Consider, for example, an issue that has produced great and sometimes passionate diversity of thought and discourse: genetic modification. To what extent, if any, should science (humankind) interfere with Mother Nature’s process of propagation and the natural change that, over time, can result from it?
Without even mentioning “Monsanto,” there are numberless thousands of instances in today’s scientific world to choose from. One of these is the research of Kevin Esvelt, an associate professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Well, right there is a term that brings pause for some: “biological engineering.” Do we have any business at all trying to engineer Mother Nature? If humankind is the natural result of countless eons of evolutionary development, shouldn’t evolution be allowed to pursue its course?
Some adherents of evolutionary theory say we should get over ourselves. It is plain to them that Homo sapiens is only one of the infinite stages in the evolutionary process and that Mother Nature’s further inevitable refinements are yet to come.
But in the meantime, science soldiers on. Dr. Esvelt’s signature project of the moment is to eradicate Lyme disease, one of the most rapidly spreading diseases in the U.S. There is no vaccination. Without going into the details of the scientific process, in general, Dr. Esvelt’s research involves the altering of the genetic structure of the white-footed mouse so that it no longer would be susceptible to Lyme disease and incapable, then, of passing it to the ticks that, in turn, transmit it to humans.
Genetic engineers have discovered what they have called “selfish genes,” that is, genes that exhibit a better than 50/50 chance of reproduction. So, an altered selfish gene can ultimately spread, through successive generations, to an entire species.
All of this suggests, for Dr. Esvelt, an even more grand possibility for what is called “genetic engineering.” “A mutation that blocked the parasite responsible for malaria, for instance,” writes Michael Specter, “could be engineered into a mosquito and passed down every time the mosquito reproduced. Each generation would have more offspring with the trait, until, at some point, the entire species would have it.”3
Worldwide, malaria is reported to kill nearly three-quarters of a million people each year.4 Yet even the possibility of making this kind of impact on a deadly disease through what is called “directed evolution” creates fears in those who oppose it. “‘Tinker with Mother Nature,’” says one opponent, “‘[and] we are going to break it.’”5 Sounds a great deal like the sentiment expressed by Mother Nature in the Chiffon Margarine®commercial.
But Dr. Esvelt doesn’t agree that Mother Nature is quite so benign. “‘Natural selection,’” he says, “‘is heinously immoral.’”6 There are, of course, evolutionists who are attempting to explain the evolutionary causes for a word like immoral. But from a scientist, it’s a curious way to characterize nature nonetheless.
Though there may be clear reasons for exploring genetic engineering with the greatest caution, it must be recognized that nature in God’s creation is already broken. And to any reader of Scripture, this is the result of the Fall. After that, the brokenness of nature began immediately to be seen in pain (Gen. 3:16), “thorns and thistles” (vs. 18),7 and death (vss. 19, 21). Since that time, it could be said that Mother Nature has been in a continuous evolutionary decline.
The characterization of nature as “heinously immoral,” in fact, raises some questions of its own. In earlier decades, Darwinists inferred nature’s behavior as merely indifferent, resigning humankind and all living creatures to an existence that is “red in tooth and claw.”8
Dr. Esvelt’s view represents one of the tenets of neo-Darwinism, imposing a kind of affective interpretation of life on this earth. “The idea that nature is the ‘essence of goodness,’” he says, “is purity and truth, is so foreign to my perception of the world that I can’t even conceive of how people can think that way. . . . There is such a fantastic degree of suffering out there!”9
Though it may have begun shortly after the Fall, in fact, the evidence that nature is “heinously immoral” is frequent and graphic, even in Scripture. Consider, the 10 plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7–11). To all people of that time—Egyptians and Israelites—these plagues must have appeared to be nature run amok: pollution, infestation, infection, disease, death. To be sure, it could be noted that these were visitations of God Himself as a means of bringing about His plan for His people. But none of them was unique in quality from any other results of sin that reach back to the very beginning. There is no evidence that the word plague—or whatever it was called in the Egyptian tongue—was coined just from this time.
In the days leading up to the great plagues, Moses and Aaron were attempting to negotiate with Pharaoh in their plea to go into the wilderness to sacrifice to God. “‘Please, let us go three days’ journey into the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword’” (Gen. 5:3). Of what persuasive effect would there be in the word pestilence if there had been no such example of the effects of sin in nature before this?
After the Fall and even before the expulsion of humankind from Eden, there is immediate mention of “sorrow” and “pain” (Gen. 3:16) and the implied suffering and death of animals (vs. 21), the first scriptural inkling of nature going out of balance.
By the time of Noah, “the earth [was] filled with violence” (Gen. 6:13). Famine drove Abram into Egypt (Gen. 12:10). And famine is what brought about the return of Abram’s descendants, now the Israelites, back to Egypt (41:57). Truly, the Earth had become subject to “a fantastic degree of suffering.”
At the close of God’s creation of this Earth, He considered “everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). But since the Fall, not everything in His created nature could be described as good. “How the animals groan!” the prophet Joel exclaimed (1:18).
And so, since time immemorial, humankind has been subjected to a heinously immoral natural world—from micro to macro—that is the result of their own sin. And until the Lord comes back to “‘make all things new’” (Rev. 21:5), humankind will be faced with questions about what it means to “replenish” and “subdue” (Gen. 1:28, KJV) Mother Nature.
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