On the Fixity and Fluidity of Species

On the Fixity and Fluidity of Species
Presented by Brian Edgar at the ISCAST Vic Intensive 2010


Brian Edgar is Professor of Theological Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary (USA), although he spends most of his time living in Australia, travelling at times to the US to conduct intensives and supervising students and teaching courses on-line from Melbourne. 


Prior to Darwin the fixity of species was generally assumed. This idea was challenged by evolutionary theory and it gave way to what we might call a fluidity of species. The concept of species has remained a useful, albeit debated form of categorization. Now, however, genetic engineering is able to overcome many limitations on species fluidity and, consequently, there are a significant number of pressing issues which can only be resolved with a theologically and scientifically adequate understanding of the concept of species, including: the appropriateness of trans kingdom/species gene transfer, and trans-humanism and human/non-human interaction; the ecological ethics of the conservation of species and the integrity of specific organisms; and the ethics of species-ism and the moral status of the person and animals. 

Taxonomic issues are important but will not resolve the matter. A Christian understanding of the value and significance of species requires an understanding of the biblical material, especially the significance of creation “according to its own kind” and of humanity in “the image of God”.   Scripture can be read (a) in an a-historical/literal manner which does not allow for science to influence the reading of the text and which is unsympathetic towards evolutionary theory; or (b) in an historical, contextual, literarial manner which takes into account cultural, historical and scientific realities and which, therefore, can accommodate evolutionary theory. But this latter approach can itself also be deficient unless it is read (c) in terms of theological/canonical issues which allow for a broader consideration of redemptive/eschatological themes as well as creational/covenantal ones. This can give rise to a tension between a creational view which seeks to respect the limitations which apply to species (and which, as a part of God’s creative activity may be considered to be ‘good’) and a redemptive view which seeks to respect the creative possibilities with which humanity has been endowed (and which may be connected to the concept of a ‘new creation’) which opens up the possibility of intentional changes to the form of species. 

The biblical concept of ‘kind’ does not equate to a scientific concept of species but nor can its significance or its relationship with species, in a general sense, be eliminated. It suggests, for example, (a) that God appreciates diversity; (b) that species/different ‘kinds’ are not absolute in value; (c) that God but produces new,  creative forms of life despite (perhaps ‘through’) the loss of species; (d) that there is a fluidity to life/species; (e) but that this fluidity is not un-limited. Consequently, decisions about human induced gene change have to operate within the area covered by three sets of tensions: (a) within the tension between biology and culture; (b) the tension between humanity as both animal and person; and (c) within the theological tension between the creational and the eschatological. In terms of any re-formation and modification of species there is no distinct and clearly defined biblical path to follow, but there are scriptural boundary markers which define a rather broader territory which humanity must inhabit. 

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