Nobody really knows how many biological species are currently becoming extinct but it is fairly clearly well above the “background” rate and at least some people believe we may be in the course of a “mass extinction” event. How many of these events there have been during the development of life on earth is a matter of debate and of judgement but a minimum figure of five would be generally accepted.
Something like 99% percent of all species that have ever existed have become extinct and a large proportion of these extinctions occur in a set of events, some of which are named. The most devastating was the Permian-Triasic extinction 250 million yers ago in which 96% of marine and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species became extinct. It was this event that cleared the way for the dominance of the dinosaurs. This dominance came to an end with the extinction of the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous-Paleogene event around 65 million years ago.
These scientific hypotheses are (as far as I can tell) reasonably secure and will be assumed here to be correct: most species have a limited life span, evolution has depended on extinction and especially on catastrophic mass extinctions caused by a wide range of different factors including volcanic activity, sea level falls, impacts by large extra-terrestrial objects (e.g. asteroids), rapid changes in global temperature, various kinds of chemical and other changes in the atmosphere or oceans, and even nearby nova or super-nova events.
What interests me, from the point of view of theology, is that these events are “natural” and alter the environment so radically that fitness and adaptedness to the prevailing conditions is not greatly helpful to species in surviving them. Mass extinctions are, to some large extent, external to the species affected, they are, in the language of insurance “acts of God”.
This should give theologically reflective people cause to ponder on the way in which we talk about Creation. Unless we want to come up with some alternative to the best prevailing science (and I don’t) we have either to give up talk of God and Creation (and I don’t want to do that either) or see God’s activity in the story science tells us. We have to say that God was at work in the extinction of that 99% of species that no longer exist.
Also if we want to use the Biblical idea or story of human beings having been created in the image of God we have to make that somehow work with this scientific tale of mass destruction as the precondition of our very existence as a species. The evolution of mammals and hence of homo sapiens depended on the mass extinction that freed them from competition with the dinosaurs.
I don’t have a worked out theology of creation that would enable this but neither do I see it as something that should be beyond our capabilities. I suspect, though, that it might challenge some aspects of contemporary religious discourse in creative and interesting ways.
It would force us to think about “nature” as dynamic rather than static, to see that “history” is not a uniquely human phenomenon. Often the theological gloss given to environmental concerns is deeply and problematically conservative. It seeks to conserve what is already in existence and to speak of it as if it came pristine from God’s creative hand. Any attention to the science of life on earth undercuts this. “Nature” is not and has never been static. Creation is not something done once but is clearly an ongoing and active process.
It would force us to think hard about the place of humanity in creation. We are late comers to the biotic party but we are clearly pretty special, whether in a good or in a bad way. If human activity is causing something like a mass extinction event how should we interpret that in light of the idea that we are made in God’s image? What does that phrase even mean? What kind of image are we? Is there something about us that constitutes us as such? Is it rather something about a function we perform or should perform?
It might well encourage us to return to a more sustained and intentional reflection on Christian apocalyptic. We all know that eschatological and apocalyptic thinking has been part of the tradition and remains prominent in some parts of the church. My hunch is that theological attention to the evidence for discontinuities in the processes of evolution would benefit from this eschatological traditions in Christianity.
At any event ignoring this stuff can’t be a good idea.