Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 31 Number 1
Fall 2008

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Lisa Sideris
Lisa Sideris
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Photo by Clint Spencer from

Nature Lessons

by Lauren J. Bryant

Think of a thunderstorm. The huge towering kind that suddenly darkens a summer day, shatters the sky with lightning, sets your nerves and teeth rattling with its deep, rumbling booms. Lisa Sideris is drawn to such storms, as lived experience and as a metaphor for her work.

"I've always loved violent weather,"says Sideris, who grew up in Warsaw, Ind., in America's "Tornado Alley.""It's amazing to be close to such a natural phenomenon that's happening all on its own."Now an assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington, Sideris studies the relationship between religion and the natural environment. And although killer storms and the tornadoes they spawn are often likened to the "finger of God,"Sideris sees those storms, and the natural world as a whole, differently.

"What we feel about the natural world shouldn't ultimately reflect back to God as its source," she says. In other words, God and nature are not one. In Sideris's view, a violent thunderstorm's majestic power is, well, natural. Sideris's specialty is religious environmental ethics--that is, exploring our moral and ethical responsibilities toward nature and how our religious and spiritual worldviews shape those responsibilities. In short, the question at the center of her work is this: Just what is the nature of the human-nature relationship?

Eating and being eaten

Since the 1960s, religious environmental ethics, and much of environmental ethics generally, has come to be dominated by an "ecological model," Sideris explains. This way of thinking stresses that nature is an Eden-like world, defined by harmony, interdependence, and cooperation for the common good. Religious environmentalists, especially those connected to Christianity, see this model as both scientifically grounded (ecology) and closely linked with ethical obligations to "love thy neighbor as thyself"and "care for the least of these."It's an "enchanted" vision of nature as a benevolent realm.

The problem is, it gets nature all wrong.

"The best supported theory we have about how nature actually works is Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory of natural selection,"Sideris says. Natural selection, or "survival of the fittest,"involves competition, conflict, disease, and predation. Scientifically speaking, Darwin's theory is about "relationships of eating and being eaten,"Sideris says. "It's anything but harmony."

Ethically speaking, the suffering ("eat or be eaten") inherent in natural selection presents a serious dilemma. Much of religious environmental ethics rests on the conviction that "nature is the way it is--characterized by suffering and strife--because it is 'fallen' from some more perfect, original state,"Sideris says. "So the goal, essentially, is to restore 'Eden' by eliminating the evil of suffering."

But suffering is always present in the natural world--it is inseparable from survival as species adapt and evolve. As Sideris writes in an article for the journal Worldviews, "Nature's strands of interdependence are also strands of conflict and strife."

In short, Darwinism doesn't pass the "ecological litmus test," Sideris says. "Darwinism is at odds with the 'ecological model' because Darwinism is competitive, not benign."As a result, most contemporary ethical approaches to the environment gloss over, or outright reject, the science of natural selection. This makes these ethical approaches not only unrealistic and less credible, it also means they may disturb the very environments they seek to care for. As Sideris puts it, "there is a disconnect between the natural world and the ethics proposed for its preservation and protection."Sideris cites an example of goats and bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park developing pinkeye infections. "If [wildlife managers] can determine that the infections are caused naturally as opposed to something gotten from domesticated animals--that is, caused by human culture--they let it run its course. If they intervene, then the 'unfit' animals who have the genes susceptible to these infections survive, and that becomes a danger. Human interventions further imperil the species and its gene pool, even while they may save certain individuals."

We may intervene with good intentions, on behalf of harmony and cooperation, but nature's processes "don't necessarily conform to human moral preferences and expectations,"Sideris writes in her 2003 book Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection.

In other words, the ecological model of environmental ethics is about humans, not nature. And our human "love" for nature, Sideris notes, "appears to have gotten us nowhere"in preserving the planet.

So how do we do right by the natural world? By taking science seriously, especially Darwin.

Enchanting Darwin

Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection have long been defined as the polar opposite of enchanted nature. As many read Darwin, the natural world is a brutish, savage realm in which humans and nature are reduced to the workings of just so many parts of a machine. It's a decidedly disenchanted view.

Sideris, who has been hooked on evolutionary science since reading Stephen Jay Gould as a teenager, interprets Darwin very differently. Evolutionary biology and the knowledge of natural processes it provides, she says, give us a starting point for an environmental ethics that really is about nature.

According to Sideris, the biggest ethical lesson of Darwin's evolutionary theory is about insignificance. But in Darwin's view, insignificance is not about meaninglessness. On the contrary, Sideris says, it's an inspiring viewpoint that helps humans see ourselves as one species among many amid the diversity and complexity of nature. And that view is precisely what we need to develop an ethical response to the natural world.

Think again of those thunderstorms. In all its uncontrollable, awe-inspiring power, nature teaches us something about humility and restraint, Sideris says--that is, "a central ethic of limiting ourselves."

In other words, it's not about us. "So much goes on in the world around us that has nothing to do with us and is unaffected by us," Sideris continues. "Nature has its own kind of moral significance, its own normative force. Nature tells us something about who we are and what we should do, including giving us cues about how we should be treating nature itself."

She explains that Darwin argued for a distinction between nature and human nature. Humans are a part of nature, but we are also apart from it, having evolved into complex combinations of instinct and reason. "The message about human nature from Darwin is that we're lots of natures,"she says. "What that means ethically is that we have to sort through our differing impulses to decide what is possible and what is too much. It's about reflection and deliberation, about not letting ourselves follow our worst instincts."

Sideris points to global warming as an example. Although some may argue that climate change is a natural outcome of human evolution and our efforts to compete, adapt, and survive, Sideris calls global climate change unnatural--that is, a human-created problem.

"Humans have always changed and polluted their environment, but climate change is quantitatively different,"she says. "It's a question of scale. It's tricky to draw the line, but there is a point beyond which alteration of our environment is not natural. In the case of global warming, we are threatening the very life-support system of earth on which all species depend. On the scale that we've done this, we are threatening everything."

Armin Moczek, an evolutionary scientist at IU Bloomington, agrees that the human species is bringing about colossal change all on its own and faster than ever before. "We humans are certainly now well equipped to mess things up, and we're doing it," he says. "We are massively altering the planet's entire ecosystem. We're removing resources at an unsustainable rate, resources that we need to continue to survive."

The wrong end of the telescope

To continue to survive, we need to remember our place. Lately, Sideris has been reading the work of Rachel Carson, the scientist and writer whose book Silent Spring (1962) is often credited with beginning the U.S. environmental movement. Sideris's co-edited collection, Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge, was published by SUNY Press in early 2008.

Like Darwin, Sideris says, Carson's work points to a "bigger picture"of the natural world. "Carson said that we look at the world around us through the wrong end of the telescope,"Sideris says. "We need to turn it around. We're at the small end.

"Our human smallness,"she continues, "ethically implies that nature should be valued it in its own right, apart from us, and that our role should be to fit within the larger system. It tells us we are only a small part of everything."

Without such a perspective, we are "in danger of losing touch with what it means to be human,"Sideris says. She relates an idea from the work of writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben to explain: "A world in which we see only ourselves reflected back, in which humans have left our mark on everything, including the climate, is very lonely."

Moczek, the evolutionary biologist, describes a similar view from the science side: "We live with the notion that we are at the top of the tree of life, but evolutionary biology very clearly tells us that present-day organisms are just as highly evolved and perfect for their own environmental conditions as we are. Humans are just one tip at the end of a branch on a humongous tree."And there lies the source of Darwin's enchantment. In Darwin's view, understanding where we fit in the natural world is "utterly ennobling,"Sideris says. Far from dead and disenchanted, Darwinism describes nature as a rich and intricate work-in-progress, a world defined by "tragic depth and beauty."

Even as she says this, Sideris admits to being a pessimist "by nature"who often despairs over what humans are doing to the natural world. But then she thinks of her son, a curly haired two-year-old who loves the moon and seashells and things that grow in his mother's garden.

"I have an obligation to be hopeful, to tell people what is enchanting about evolutionary science,"she says. From Darwin and the evolutionary science he established, we can learn to approach nature with "a more limited, less interventionist kind of love."Limits are not simply about restriction and surrender. Rather, Sideris says, limits help us value and appreciate the choices we make.

"A life within limits is a committed life,"she says. "Within limits, life becomes creative."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.