Responsible Citizenship: In the Wake of Charles Darwin

EarthzineEarth Observation, Essay Contest 2010, Essays, Original, Sections

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Makerere University logo

Makerere University

By Benjamin-Axel Mugema

Makerere University


Timing is everything. And nowhere is this more pronounced than on the planet that we occupy today. As a vast mass with the most diverse of conditions, the Earth is also very dynamic. Nature allows for its own evolution to occur such that sustainability may be maintained and also that the various species with which we share the Earth may be able to survive. The Darwinian theorists may be compelled to believe that these changes happen because the dominant species will, in an ideal situation, eventually come out on top of the food chain and thus survive. Alternatively, the Bible will suggest that the resources God gave the Earth and her occupants should, again, in an ideal situation be sufficient for all living things to survive amicably. Whatever the case, at any given time, changes are occurring on the Earth in the climate and the landscape primarily through human activity. And when the time is ripe, whether Darwinian or Bible forces come into play, it is not doubted that such Earthly changes shall have grave effects on humanity.

What then is the role of Earth citizens in this, besides being the primary causation of these changes? How can humanity create positive change and appropriate use of natural resources? What can we do to make certain that at any moment, the right changes are happening to our planet, changes that will positively benefit the future generations?

This paper takes the view of man as consumer, destroyer and eventually determinant of this planet’s future. Earth observation provides a particularly interesting and educational view from which the ordinary Earth citizen can positively contribute to the sustainability of natural resources, and to the creation of a more liveable planet.

In The Beginning

Perhaps, the notions that the Creator bore in mind when creating the Earth and all that is in it were notions of perfection and eternal favor. We can safely assume that on the sabbath, or the seventh day, after God had done the work of creation and seen that His work was good, He rested. But this was after creating man and placing him in charge of His creation. In fact, God created people in His own image, patterning male and female to be like Him1. In any case, the controversies that followed may have prompted the Creator to expel the first man and woman from the Garden of Eden, but this did not mean that man’s responsibility towards the Earth was removed. There was the obvious need for man to survive, and, despite the subsequent punishments that the Lord lauded upon man, He allowed man the benefit of using natural resources for his survival. With the intelligence, intellect and creativity that were bestowed to man, he was able to forge mechanisms and systems that would enable him to sustain his lifestyle and that of the future generations which in turn led to the continued existence of human beings. Evidence may be traced back to the Bible, in the book of Genesis, when the Lord brought the flood upon the Earth. Noah was able to build the historical ark, saving a pair of each animal species on the planet and thus allowing for the continuity of life on the planet. Centuries later, despite the constant population increase of humans, and consequently the increase in demand for resources, the Earth has been able to provide the necessary resources such that, until very recently, humanity could exist amicably with nature.

In attempting to discover the origins of nature and species, their survival, and the eventual continued evolution that takes place on the planet, several sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth century historians, philosophers and naturalists took contrasting views and opinions. William Paley viewed natural theology in three major ideas which all, in one way or the other led to a similar conclusion. First, he believed that nature was the source of information about God and Christianity. Thus, people did not have to read the Bible or study doctrines of Christianity- all they had to do was see the beauty and complexity of nature and therein discover God. Second, by studying nature, people would be able to accept and believe that God created the Earth and all that is in it. People would therefore become Christians just by studying nature. Third, by studying nature, it shows the orderly and logical nature of God’s creations2. Following in the gallant footsteps of the seventeenth century, philosophers and theologians such as John Toland (1670‰ÛÒ1722) and George Berkeley (1685‰ÛÒ1753), Paley’s idea was to convince readers of his theories that Christianity indeed made sense. He wanted to convince his readers that Christianity and the Bible, indeed, held the answers to all their questions about the true origin of species and nature. All one had to do was study nature itself, to see that everything that existed had a creator who, in the ideal sense was able to manipulate nature and keep it in existence3. Paley chose to use a simple metaphor to explain his theory, using a watch that he had picked up in a field; ‘The watch must have had a maker; there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer—telling the time4.’ The difference between Paley’s Natural Theology and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was that, while both were mechanical views of biology, Darwin chose to explain extinction and the distribution of different species around the world by referring to the action of natural selection; Paley chose to refer to the creative action of the Christian God. Paley’s view of the universe was therefore, for the most part, static. It created the illusion that nature was not changing and that it would remain the way God had created it. Perhaps it would hold water since the orthodox scientific belief of the 1800s was that nature was generally not changing, and would ideally not change.

However, Cuvier’s research begged to differ. Cuvier, a French zoologist, believed that he had evidence to show the extinction of at least twenty three species. Unlike Darwin, he was no subscriber to the theory of evolution. He questioned the orthodox theory of the origin of species by asking such questions as whether all species, say some years after their creation, still looked the same as on the day of their creation? Dwelling on the flood in Genesis, Cuvier was convinced that there had been several other catastrophes which explained the existence of fossils and remains of plants and animals. This view, which was shared by several other naturalists and scientists of his time, would be among the primary views that Darwin used as a basis for his Origin of Species.

However, inasmuch as Darwin attempted to describe the origin of species, his theory was, in fact, descent by modification and not necessarily evolution5. He wanted to study the diversity in species and their varieties. Whatever, the case, it went on to become one of the most popular studies on life and the origin of species, and laid a foundation stone for the debate that still rages on today.

Darwin’s theory has been fundamental in developing the base for naturalists and observers of Earthly changes today and thus aiding to pave the way for new research on Earth changes and evolution in animal and plant species, which today constitute some of the primary concerns for humanity. In any case, both views, whether from the side of Christianity or the naturalists, agree to a certain extent that nature changes, and, therefore, the Earth is constantly changing. The fact that God allowed man to manipulate nature so as to survive, would portray slight agreement to Darwin’s argument that at the top of the evolutionary table is man– the most intelligent of all animal species. This would, perhaps give us a direct and easier explanation to the ever dynamic lifestyle of humanity, and why, thousands of years later, Homo sapiens is not yet extinct, and not, in any case, an endangered species.

Therefore, through Earth observation, collection and validation of data, scientists and other ordinary global citizens have been able to assist in the basic livelihood of humanity, and the sustenance of life on the planet.

The New Age: What Is In It For Us?

Today, several decades after Charles Darwin, the world seems to have agreed to disagree, even though the studies of nature still continue. Darwinists and Christians alike will work according to their terms as regards the origin of species, but the end result remains the same– the Earth, as it is today is our only home and our only source of livelihood. We have used the Earth’s resources to invent significant scientific feats, to create powerful economies, to take overwhelming steps in technological development and thus make life a lot easier. We have been able to penetrate the depths of the medical world, using science and technology to make people’s lives last longer and making situations that seemed impossible in the ages of Darwin and his contemporaries now easily solvable. Agricultural innovation has allowed for cultivation of lands that were once considered un-cultivatable, which in turn has provided basic food requirements for the ever increasing world population. All this has been possible because of the natural resources that we have at our disposal.

However, this has come at a price. From the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, led by England and the grand colonial masters, to the present technological and information revolutions, the Earth has suffered drastic exploitation. For continents such as Europe and North America to develop to their current levels, Africa and Asia have had to provide the raw materials to furnish this unprecedented rate of growth. And in order to maintain the consequent high quality lifestyles, nature has, in the long run, been compromised. With the continued rise in consumption habits in the West, the demand for these products, which are mostly for luxury consumption such as automobiles and electronics, has increased. Thus, in order to meet this demand, countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon have had to augment mining efforts to provide the necessary materials.

Increased levels of food consumption in Europe have led to equally high levels of cultivation in India and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, which are some of the primary sources for this food. Increased demand for ‘haute couture’ in the global fashion capitals of Paris, Madrid and Rome means that cotton, wool and silk products from the farms of Uganda and Sri Lanka need to meet this demand or risk losing out on such lucrative dealings. Extensive industrial growth in France and Canada has to be fueled by petroleum products from the wells of Equatorial Guinea and the Niger Delta. The rise in nuclear research and nuclear energy production in parts of Asia and Europe means that uranium and plutonium mines in South Africa and Botswana have to be up to the task of providing the raw materials to support these innovations.

In turn, brilliant students from Asia and Africa are traveling to the developed world to augment their educational levels. Skilled workers are migrating from Africa to Europe and North America in search of greener pastures.

At the least, what we see here is the highest level of globalization. In any case, nature has been the victim of all this development. Climate change, as we know it, is perhaps the greatest global phenomenon today. According to the United Nations, from the 19th century (at the time of the Industrial Revolution), the awareness began to dawn that continued emission of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere could create a ‘greenhouse effect’ and increase the temperature of the planet. These emissions were highly contributed by the industrial age that had started taking shape in Europe. By the mid 20th century, it had already become all too clear that human activity was having severe effects on the variability of the global climate. The need to support this industrial growth has been one of the primary factors that have caused climate change. Human action, in the bigger picture would mean activities such as mining, large scale farming and cultivation, industrial processes, forest exploitation for the construction of cities to serve the increasing populations, exploitation of water resources and general degradation of environments to provide resources for humanity. All these, which have occurred at unprecedented rates in the last 20 years, have been contributing factors to climate change. The end results have been severe, leading to serious impacts on health, society and rainfall and temperature patterns. In Europe, for example, the heat wave of 2003 led to over 30,000 deaths. Temperatures reached record levels of 48.1 degrees centigrade in the same year6. Only two years later, Hurricane Katrina ferociously struck the coast of the United States of America and it was largely attributed to elevated water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico7.

The recent famine in Niger, whose signs started to show as early as 2005 have been attributed to a continued shrink in green space in the Sahel and the increase in the desert cover. This has reduced the amount of arable land in Niger and worse still, only 0.1% of the arable land is irrigated8. The recent flooding in Pakistan that left over 3 million people homeless has, according to experts, shown that global warming is indeed happening. Flooding in China, again attributed to increased monsoon rains has killed over 1,100 people across the 28 provinces that were affected by the flooding. In Russia, heat waves and wildfires have devastated the country as it faces one of its hottest summers in 130 years9. Clearly, it is a global phenomenon. We might ask ourselves, therefore, what the relation is between climate change, Charles Darwin and Earth observation.

Earth Observation and The Ordinary Citizen

Scientific data has often been recorded by experienced and learned scientists with the appropriate equipment and funding. It is widely thought that the ordinary global citizen cannot possibly influence scientific policy. However, it has been seen that such phenomena as climate change and global warming are indeed global phenomena and do not therefore affect the scientists exclusively. The effects of climate change transcend borders, race and cultural differences. Thanks to the innovation and spread in technology, information and communications, the world is able to share information and observations about their surroundings through social networking sites and on-line discussion forums, upload photos and videos and post their thoughts, comments and suggestions. In this regard, Charles Darwin, in the capacity of a global citizen chose to study the origins of plant and animal species. His studies have allowed the world to develop mechanisms for animal and plant survival, with the basis of the availability of natural resources. Therefore, as global citizens today, we are faced with the responsibility of taking care of our planet, and inasmuch as we may not be scientists of excellent repute, our concerns and observations could help in forging steps to a better and more amicable relationship between man and his planet.

Every day, changes are taking place on the globe, changes that could affect the livelihoods of people in these areas. It is paramount that such changes be noted and made public for the better good of society. Man, as the primary consumer of natural resources is by this virtue tasked to take an equally primary role in the conservation of these resources and their protection so that the future societies may benefit positively from these resources. Again, Darwin and his contemporaries, Paley and the like come into play. While their views may have co-coincided, the bottom line is that both scientists took on de-alienating the mysteries of nature in relation to man. Suffice to say that this is essentially what Earth observation is all about.

As such, in order for humanity to overcome global challenges, then a collaborative role between the citizens or ordinary public and the scientists and experts is necessary.

In any case, challenges are inevitable. There is a considerable lack of equal advancement of technology and human resource between the developed world and developing countries. Capacity and financial capability to carry out Earth research and observation are limited to developed countries while the issues at hand are global problems. Communication and information technology is not yet highly advanced and available in developing nations to allow for the sharing and spread of such information. As global temperatures continue to rise and climate patterns change drastically, particularly in developing countries, it is important that the people at the helm of such situations be in position to design problem-solving mechanisms that are best suited for their environments. This can best be achieved through the collection and dissemination of information and observations so as to seek global solutions for local problems.

As the Nobel-Prize winning physicist, chemist and philosopher Ilya Prigogine put it,

‘We cannot predict the future, but we can prepare for it. The future is our construction.’


1 New Living Translation Bible. Genesis, Chap. 1, vs. 27.

2 Francis, K. (2007). Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species. Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, CT.

3 The paper was titled ‰Û÷‰Û÷Extrait d’un ouvrage sur les especes de quadrupedes dont on a trouve les ossemens dans l’interieur de la terre, addresse aux savans et aux amateurs des Sciences” [Extract from a work on the species of quadrupeds of which the bones have been found in the interior of the earth, addressed to scientific experts and amateurs]. The Academie des science was the premier scientific society in France.

4 Paley, W. (1802). Natural Theology. R. Faulder, London.

5 The Origin of Species.

6 Climate Change. Retrieved 18th September 2010.

7 Climate Change. Retrieved 18th September 2010.

8 What caused the 2010 Niger famine? Retrieved 18th September 2010.

9 Lousie Gray. 2010. Pakistan floods: Climate change experts say global warming could be the cause.

10 Mayor, F., Binde, J. The World Ahead. Zed Books, London: 2001.