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God’s wilderness

Biography shows Rolston’s faith in evolution


A recent study by the mining industry consultant Northwest Corporation claimed that, if leased, Montana’s southeastern coal tracts would net the state $1.4 billion over the next four years in royalty payments. Ignore for a moment the source, the lost revenue for subsidies and eminent domain payments needed to kick-start mining in a bleak coal market. What Northwest Corporation did was put a price tag on a slice of Montana land, correlating its value only to the sum of its coal yield.

But land, for many, has greater value than can be counted in dollars. Still, opponents to development choose to cite the financial costs of coal extraction and use. They calculate that runoff from mines damages fish habitat and harms tourism. They evaluate the harmful waste put into our air and groundwater, the escalating health care costs and the contribution to climate change. But that’s just another reckoning by human arithmetic. Doesn’t wilderness have a value that can’t be calculated by corporate accountants?

That’s essentially the question Colorado State University philosophy professor Holmes Rolston III has spent the bulk of his career contemplating, and the question at the heart of Christopher Preston’s biography of Rolston, Saving Creation.

Born and raised in the Virginia Mountains, Rolston followed family tradition and became a Presbyterian minister. During his few years ministering in rural Southern pastorates, however, Rolston’s devotion to field biology and environmentalism estranged him from the farmers whose souls he tended. He was puzzled by the conflict between science and religion and enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh’s philosophy of science program as a means of reconciling the two. After taking a teaching job at Colorado State University, he found the Western landscape a revelation.

The hikes in the mountains and the wonder at the variety of local biology inspired Rolston to pen the essays and books that propelled him to become one of the pioneers of environmental philosophy.

Rolston’s first notable essay was an assertion of nature’s intrinsic moral value. But unlike other intellectual advocates of nature’s rights—like animal rights’ advocates, say—Rolston never transposed human values onto nature. Instead, he advocated for a kind of “wild” moral system, one that encompassed entire ecosystems and the cold, evolutionary process of natural selection and cycles that included cruel suffering and widespread, but natural, devastation. His theories were complementary to the controversial National Park policy calling for hands-off management of the park’s ecosystem that allowed for huge fires in 1988 to consume a large portion of Yellowstone. Unpopular at the time of the fire—with pictures of massive, fiery infernos ablaze in one of the country’s favorite parks—the policy, and Rolston’s views, looked more moral later, in the wake of the park’s natural renewal post-burn.

After years of secular works on environmental philosophy, Rolston tried to wrap theology into science by noting that a number of necessary evolutionary steps were “sideways” and not the “inevitable results” of some “fixed biological or physical law.” This “cascading serendipity” looked to Rolston like the “mask of God.” This wasn’t a hands-on God that actively designed or managed, but was instead “woven very delicately and continuously into ongoing evolutionary processes,” and leading life upwards into ever-increasing complexity. That this process was inevitably built on suffering and death, not to mention mass extinctions of innumerable life forms, was not a cause for despair and renunciation of God, but was instead the method by which life survived, thrived and evolved. And “just as Christ’s death on the cross” was necessary for human redemption, “so were the deaths of millions of animals...necessary to drive the trajectory of earth’s history upward.”

Despite the myriad logical leaps in this theory—for one, it assumes that what scientific theory can’t explain implies the presence of supernatural design—it’s a long way from the hostility to science that a literal interpretation of the Bible spawns. And it certainly gives Christians a theological basis for preserving wilderness.

In any case, Preston’s book is a delightful, easily accessible introduction to Rolston’s theories and the school of environmental philosophy. Still, you’ve got to wonder why Preston, a University of Montana philosophy professor, chose to write about Rolston in biographic form since he opts to omit the usual psychological and dramatic explorations found in many contemporary biographies. No doubt the decision is due to some kind of professional respect to the still-living Rolston’s privacy, but the result is a life—apart from its philosophical impact—that is dazzlingly unremarkable.

Make no mistake, the meat of this book is in Rolston’s theories, and in the competing and complementary works of Rolston’s contemporary peers. Perhaps a better dish to serve would have been a history of the environmental philosophy movement, with Rolston simply playing a significant part.

A discussion of Saving Creation begins at the Del Brown Room in Turner Hall Monday, April 27, at 7 PM with a panel including Christopher Preston, Holmes Rolston III, Deborah Slicer and Albert Borgmann. Free.


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