is professor of biology at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. He holds a B.A. in biology from Atlantic Union College, an M.A. in biology from Loma Linda University and a Ph.D. in biology from Loma Linda University. Dr. Zuill also serves as curator of the Joshua C. Turner Arboretum, which is an affiliate of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum.
The verandah at “High Sycamore” (named for a large, handsome sycamore tree at the foot of the hill upon which the house stands) overlooks a wide and wooded valley stretching southwestward toward a ridge of hills seven or eight miles away. This is a remote region to which we frequently come. It generally takes several days to wind down to nature’s slower pace, but by then it is possible to see nature, really see, and listen and learn.
I was not seeing just the view of that wooded valley, however. There was another view as well. I was seeing the “view” that would become this chapter, and I was wondering how I should describe the ideas of which it was composed. As words came together, it turned out that the two views were not entirely isolated from each other. Threads of one became woven with the other until there was only one fabric.
In the view from the verandah, there are many colors and hues, varying light through the day, and under different weather conditions, highlights and shadows an ever-changing panorama. We listen to audible sounds of wind in trees, beating rain, crackling thunder and distinguishing calls of woodland creatures. One may also hear, if listening, the inner voice of the Creator teaching lessons through things He made. As a Christian ecologist, I need those times of renewal among our Creator’s works.
Those mountains and valleys humble me. A large variety of plants and animals inhabit more than a million and a half acres of surrounding mountain forestland, meadows, lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. I want to know how all of these creatures work with each other. This is a mixed hardwood and short-leaf pine forest. Trees include varieties of oaks, elms, and hickories, plus sweet gum trees and, of course, stands of short-leaf pine especially on southern exposures. Wildflowers splash brilliant colors across the landscape from spring to autumn.
Birds from buntings and bobwhites to roadrunners and turkeys abound, as do many insect species, including butterflies and grasshoppers, cicadas, bees, beetles and myriads more. Mammals include armadillos, squirrels, deer, bears and coyotes. Amphibians and reptiles are common. In the evening, I often sit by the pond and listen to the frog chorus. In the morning, little lizards sun themselves on the verandah.
There are so many species, it would be impossible to see or recognize them all. I am amazed by, but will never fully understand, what is happening between them either. However, I am happy for the little I know and I hope for additional insights. For in those hills I discover many marvelous relationships among different creatures. Is there a pattern among all of this biodiversity that can help me understand creation? Is it possible that I could know the Creator better, too?
As I sat on the verandah at “High Sycamore,” I thought about the meaning of it all. Why did God make such abundance? Why was there so much diversity, so much biodiversity? What was the meaning of it all? What does this have to do with the six days of creation?
Thinking about biodiversity
In recent years, much consideration and research has gone into studying biodiversity. In general, biodiversity studies have focused on conservation and how to preserve ecosystems. They have provided a whole new understanding and approach to saving endangered species. Instead of trying to save individual species, the approach now is to save intact ecosystems that are necessary for preserving and providing for endangered species as well as for those not so endangered.
Why did God make such abundance? Why was there so much diversity, so much biodiversity?
The word “biodiversity” was first used at a conference at the Smithsonian Institute in September 1986, and reported in the November 1986 edition of Smithsonian Magazine. The idea of biodiversity was understood much earlier by some ecologists, but it began to spread widely as a result of the conference.1 Since then, it has been increasingly used and books have been written on the subject.2 So, what is the idea of biodiversity?
“Biodiversity” obviously refers to plants, animals and microbes, from bacteria to fungi, that collectively make up living systems—ecosystems. What are not so obvious are other meanings that have become attached to the word. It also refers to different populations of species, with their unique sets of genes and gene products.3 Even more importantly, it includes the collective ecological services provided by those different species and populations working together for each other, keeping our planet healthy and suitable for life. Baskin describes the relationship this way: “It is the lavish array of organisms that we call ‘biodiversity,’ an intricately linked web of living things whose activities work in concert to make the earth a uniquely habitable planet.”4
If I tried to completely list all ecological services, I would undoubtedly fail5 and besides, it would be tedious for you. But a few examples may be helpful. We know plants and animals maintain relatively constant atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide6 and oxygen through photosynthesis and respiration. Many decomposers keep soil fertile. Biodiversity services purify water, detoxify toxins, moderate climate, and pollinate flowers. All organisms provide habitats and niches for other creatures.
Some ecological relationships are so necessary that involved organisms could not survive without them. An example of this is the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. As many as 90 percent of plant species interact with either generalized fungi that can service a variety of plants, or with others that are highly selective in the plants with which they interact.7 Regardless, these fungi enable plants to obtain nutrients that would otherwise not be sufficiently available. Plants in turn provide carbohydrates for their fungi.
Several experiments8 have been made to examine biodiversity.9 Evidently highly biodiverse communities are more stable, more productive, have higher soil fertility and are generally better off. Under stress, however, individual species populations may noticeably vary in size but, fortunately, redundant services appear to cover for immediate lacks. Nevertheless, when we look at the broad picture, higher diversity communities are more productive and more able to recover from stress.
As we look at the broad picture of biodiversity, it is clear that just as a body depends upon division of labor among cells, so an ecosystem depends upon division of labor provided by biodiversity. Just as there are important metabolic pathways in cells, so there are “ecochemical” pathways in ecosystems. The nitrogen cycle, among many possibilities, is an example of this. Different organisms, with different enzyme systems, are essential links in these ecochemical pathways.
An interesting phenomenon in ecosystems is ecological services redundancy. This means that a service provided by one species may also be provided by other species. Some have suggested that redundancy may make some species unnecessary.10 Research reveals that above a certain level of plant biodiversity, soil fertility or productivity did not increase, even when biodiversity continued to increase.11 The “extra” biodiversity appeared redundant. Does this mean that some species really are expendable?
Since all plants generally contribute to both soil fertility and productivity, it is difficult to make a case for expendability based on these studies alone. What about other services provided by the same species? Are they not needed? As a result, ecologists have reportedly moved away from the species expendability position and may even refrain from using the word “redundancy.”12
A single species may provide not just one, but several services, some of which may not be redundant. Consequently, with these variously overlapping and species-entwining redundancies, together with nonredundant services, it may not be possible to eliminate species with impunity after all.
Fundamentally, species making up an ecosystem need each other. As already seen, when under stress, populations of individual species may vary in size. Consequently, when one species is down, services it ordinarily provides will have to be provided by other species not as seriously affected. They cover for each other. Under different situations, of course, the roles may be reversed. Ecological backup is important and necessary for the long-range operation of ecosystems.
When we look at a species in terms of both the services it provides and those it requires, we are essentially referring to the “ecological niche,” generally defined as the role of a species in its environment. Since no two occupied niches can be identical, or redundant, without one of the two species being competitively excluded,13 it appears reasonable to say that two species cannot provide and require identical ecological services. There may be some overlap in services, however. When that happens, the niches of the two species may be compressed14 and thereby avoid or reduce competition. Different niches could lead to changes in the species itself.
Redundant systems prevent mass extermination.
Ecosystems are dynamic! They can withstand a certain amount of abuse without ecological collapse. When one species becomes extinct, a few other species, but not all other species, become extinct.15 Redundant systems prevent mass extermination. Lost services are provided by other species, as far as possible. Nevertheless, there is a limit to the abuse an ecosystem can withstand. Any loss weakens it. There is always a price to pay for environmental mistreatment. Continued species loss could eventually lead to ecosystem collapse, of course.
Two ecosystems may be functionally similar, but not identical in species biodiversity. Biodiversity is flexible and resilient. Those two ecosystems reflect available biodiversity. Opportunism must be taken into account when trying to understand differences that actually exist. Redundancy undoubtedly plays a part in ecosystem resiliency.
Species move into ecosystems when they can. Some species may not be found because they are not locally available. On the other hand, certain available propagules or offspring may not germinate, grow or survive because necessary ecological services may not be available. When provided with those essential services, however, those species would be able to move into the ecosystem. The dynamic nature of ecosystems provides for making use of what species are available and able to function.
Biodiversity, redundancy and resiliency permit an ecosystem to recover from severe damage and even ecosystem destruction. When this happens, the recovery is stepwise and may take a number of years. The process is called “ecological succession.”
All of these necessary ecosystem qualities, in summary, allow ecosystems to function, to adapt and to recover from injury.
Biodiversity and creation
What does biodiversity tell us about creation? Does it tell us anything about the Creator? Does it have anything to say about why it was created? Does it support a six-day creation?
I believe there is a connection between biodiversity and creation, although I have seen no such connection made by other authors. All of the attention that I have seen has been directed toward the immediate problem of conservation. Without biodiversity and its ecochemical and ecophysical services, it is doubtful that ecosystems, or possibly even life itself, could exist. This much seems clear.
Behe noted complex biochemical relationships in cells and suggested design to explain their origin.16 We tend to see the world through the “lenses” of our scientific disciplines. Thus Behe, a biochemist, understood cell complexity to result from design. If we jump to the ecological level, at the other end of the spectrum of life, our “ecology glasses” reveal unimaginable complexity there as well.
When we look broadly at the panorama of life and ecological relationships, we see that ecological complexity is built on layer upon layer of complexity, going all the way down through different hierarchical structural and organizational levels to the cell and even lower. Thus, if we think cytological complexity is impressive, what must we think when we realize the full scale of ecological complexity?
The biodiversity picture is still being developed. Some refer to biodiversity studies as an “emerging science.”17 Certainly there is much more to learn. It may not yet be possible to predict precisely what will happen when species are removed from an ecosystem, but we know an effect of some kind is certain. What has already been discovered, however, suggests that ecological relationships are essential. If biodiversity is as necessary for normal ecosystem operation as appears to be the case, it suggests that these services, and organisms providing them, had to have been simultaneously present right from the beginning. If these ecological interrelationships are really indispensable, then there is no easy evolutionary explanation. This suggests that ecology was designed.
The situation parallels what happened with the cell. As long as cells were visualized as mere sacks of nucleated protoplasm,18 and little else, it was quite possible for many to be content with the assertion that it originated through natural processes, otherwise known as biochemical evolution! The development of the electron microscope and biochemistry changed all of that. Yet, the claim continues. Nevertheless, such a claim must now get by an overwhelming amount of information documenting an extremely high level of internal cell structure. Complexity of the cell is now just too daunting to flippantly assert biochemical evolution to explain it, unless you close your mind and press on blindly and boldly. It has now become quite a feat to think about cells originating through biochemical evolution. And if cells could not originate naturally, then nothing else could.
In the same way as with the cell, as long as ecology appeared to be only a loose collection of organisms without binding interrelationships, one could likewise think of it as possibly originating through natural processes. But now that ecosystems appear to be held together by essential and unbelievably complex biodiversity, about which information is steadily increasing, we have a dilemma similar to the one faced when the intricate structure of the cell was discovered. Since ecology is built upon so much underlying multispecies complexity, trying to explain the origin of ecology by chance events painfully stretches one’s credulity.
Coevolution is often given as the way ecology came into existence. But, coevolution is defined as “joint evolution of two or more noninterbreeding species that have a close ecological relationship.”19 Note that ecological relationships had to precede coevolution. Consequently, coevolution appears to be no answer for understanding the origin of ecology.
I have no problem with two species fine-tuning an existing ecological relationship; I do have a problem with using coevolution to explain the origin of ecological services. That is an altogether different problem. Remember, we are talking about an essential multispecies integrated service system—an entire integrated system. There seems to be no adequate evolutionary way to explain this. How could multiple organisms have once lived independently of services they now require?
Systems of living things supporting each other, the modus operandi of biodiversity, is exactly what we would expect to find from the Creator who said, “
Give, and it shall be given unto you” (Luke 6:38) and, “
Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). If this is the way heaven operates, would we not expect that it would also have been this way among creatures, including man, in the beginning? Sadly, in our fallen state, we have departed from this way of life. And what are the results?
How long is the land to mourn and the vegetation of the countryside to wither? For the wickedness of those who dwell in it, animals and birds have been snatched away (Jer. 12:4, NASB).
Nevertheless, we have hope:
For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. … that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:19–21).
Creation was said to be very good when it came from the Creator’s hand, but ecosystems no longer function perfectly. They are degenerate. Scripture hints about original ecology, suggesting conditions that were far different from what we find today. It is hard to imagine ecology without death, for example. Nevertheless, that is exactly the picture painted in Scripture. Death and suffering came not only to man when he sinned, but to other creatures as well.
The woodland that I described at the beginning is a case in point. I can see it in the idealized way in which I described it, but there are problems there, too. Ticks and chiggers are abundant. For anyone not familiar with chiggers, they are tiny mites which may embed in your flesh, causing ugly raised and itching welts. Poison ivy is common, also. There are several species of venomous snakes. None of these are what we would ideally expect. Where did these blights come from?
When humans sinned, it looks like they opened the “flood gates” of natural disaster. A global catastrophe ravaged earth’s ecology. Genes were lost en masse, and mutations weakened those remaining. Degenerate environments, including degenerate occupants, stressed other degenerate inhabitants, which in turn reciprocated the stress, and so on. Some species disappeared, others adapted to new and trying conditions.
Predators and parasites developed as they and ecosystems became degenerate, and formerly abundant resources became scarce or were no longer available. Survivors turned to other sources for sustenance, including some not on the original menu. God predicted that thorns and thistles would result, as well as pain and death. Is this what God wanted? Was this punishment prescribed? No! But He foresaw it as an outcome of sin and life under Satan.
New species, as we now define species, developed from remnants of created “kinds.” That is why species today tend to form similar species clusters—species of warblers, species of squirrels, species of roses and so on. These similar species naturally provided similar, possibly even redundant, ecological services. On the other hand, as they adapted to new environments and niches, even those services could have become modified. It would be unsafe to suggest that, even within species clusters, there could be some expendable species.
Species clusters may help to explain some redundancy, but other species were undoubtedly made with redundant ecological skills. Some services may have been so widely needed that no single species would have been able to sufficiently provide it. Recycling of carbon and oxygen by plants and animals are examples of this.
Original created ecology must have been quite different from what we find now, but we can only speculate about details. The amazing thing about ecosystems today is that despite all they have suffered, they still continue to function. Redundant services, regardless of their original purpose, must play a part in this. We must appreciate the roles of both biodiversity and redundant services, even in the beginning, and as enabling forces in ecosystem resiliency and survival today.
The picture that emerges is one of ecosystems that do not now function optimally, but which still allow a glimpse of how things might have been. We can see that just as biodiversity is vital now, so it must also have been vital in the beginning. If this is so, then entire ecosystems, together with their ecological skills and backup systems, would have of necessity been present as well.
It appears that life on earth actually makes life on earth possible. That is, life on earth makes it possible for life on earth to continue. This is not saying that life made (past tense) life on earth exist, of course. It is saying that the whole system had to be present for life to go on existing. If this is true, there is no room for gradually unfolding ecology. Is that overstating the case? Although life is a gift of the Creator, He evidently gave His creatures important roles by which they were to contribute to each other.
Biodiversity, as well as Scripture, tells us that God placed humans in nature. We need the services that are there for us. Our services are needed as well. We must contribute together to the safe and smooth operation of nature because it nurtures all of us. Is this not what the Creator meant when He told man to tend and keep the garden? This is the way of heaven to give and to receive without worry as taught us by Jesus himself.
Biodiversity is a powerful testimony about the Creator that confirms Romans 1:20: “
From the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly observed in what he made.”
What does all this tell us about the six days during which God put ecosystems together? Biodiversity does not specify a six-day creation, it is not that finely focused, but it strongly supports such a possibility. It suggests that ecosystems were assembled during a very short time indeed. Otherwise, life could have failed for lack of mutually benefiting multispecies ecological services that are now requirements. Biodiversity consequently suggests that ecology was created.
Interestingly, much scientific energy has been devoted toward determining the age of Earth, but little has been expended to investigate a six-day or even a short-duration creation. In fact, what of a scientific nature could be done to research this? Biodiversity studies, involving cross-species ecological integration, may be among the few scientific pursuits that have the potential for supporting what Scripture emphatically states:
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth (Exod. 20:11).
This is the view from “High Sycamore.”