Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26 (RSV))
The view that human beings, or some of them, are superior to all other life forms, has long been expressed in what have become the world’s predominant cultural streams.
Nowhere has this been more obvious and important than in the Hebrew Bible’s creation story. And nowhere is this more clear than in Genesis 1:26, where God is said to have created human beings (alone) in his image, thus by divine fiat, establishing and justifying human domination over all life.
Some have seen through and debunked this imperial ideology.
The Great Scottish-American naturalist John Muir, based on his experiences during a long walk to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, offered perhaps the most trenchant, early attack on this myth. In an essay titled Cedar Keys, named for the Florida Gulf town where he became deathly ill from malaria, Muir sardonically deconstructed the typical understanding of the Genesis creation story:
The world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by all the facts. A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God’s universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves . . . .
To this way of thinking, Muir lamented, ‘whales are store houses of oil for us, to help out the stars in lighting our dark ways until the discovery of the Pennsylvania oil wells,’ while every other thing in nature was made just for us, including lead for the bullets we need to kill one another. Then, advancing disconfirming evidence in biting questions he asked:
How about those man-eating animals—lions, tigers, alligators—which smack their lips over raw man? Or about those myriads of noxious insects that destroy labor and drink his blood? Doubtless man was intended for food and drink for all these?
Muir then mocked an apologetic response to human suffering with which, given his strict Christian upbringing, he was intimately familiar:
Oh, no! Not at all! These are unresolvable difficulties connected with Eden’s apple and the Devil.
But Muir would have none of such rationales as he continued, his prose seething with sarcasm:
Why does water drown its lord? Why do so many minerals poison him? Why are so many plants and fishes deadly enemies? Why is the lord of creation subjected to the same laws of life as his subjects? Oh, all these things are satanic, or in some way connected with the first garden.
Of course, the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – which share this creation story, are diverse. Each have individuals and groups within them who think they have a duty to God to take good care of the entire creation, and are striving to do so. Some of these contend that the Genesis story and other Biblical themes, enjoin not dominion but loving care for nature.
But the Genesis creation story is the foundational sacred text that unites these traditions, and consequently, it deeply conditions them; and the language of dominion is clear. It appears not only in the Genesis creation story but in another horrific story, after God destroys all but Noah’s family and all but a breeding pair of other kind. Even though God did so to punish human beings whom he judged negatively and nearly exterminated, he nevertheless declared again that this deeply flawed species was to rule over all the others!
It is little wonder that those who value the miracle and diversity of life on earth find real- life horror in the long, destructive shadow these texts have cast over planet earth.
Many are so used to these stories that they do not even notice the silliness and ironic horror to be found in them.
If we were to think honestly about ourselves, about our imperfections and failings, would we not find laughable the idea that we resemble the supposedly perfect and good author of the universe? Would we not question the judgment of a creator God who put us in charge not once but twice? Given the steady erosion, at human hands, of the earth’s genetic and species variety, it would seem impossible to defend these judgments as wise. One would think, then, that even the creator God would acknowledge this mistake, since after each act of creation he pronounced the result to be good. Presumably such God would like it all to flourish and would be, at least, disappointed that the being he created in his image did not feel similarly.
If we are to ever overturn our own anthropofascist impulse we must reject its spiritual underpinnings. Despite deep conditioning from his Christian upbringing, John Muir managed to do just that. He did so by deeply questioning the roots of his culture’s anthropocentric conceits, which opened up to him a love of nature much broader and deeper than the tradition that he had inherited. Beginning by speaking of the sorts of religious teachers with which he was well acquainted, his essay from Cedar Keys concluded with his own, profoundly humble, and biocentric, revelation:
It never seems to occur to these farseeing teachers that Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.