Interview with a true green giant— Holmes Rolston & ecology’s secret story

Holmes Rolston in mountains Holmes Rolston III isn’t a household name in the movement to protect our natural world—but he should be. What’s more, while he’s still in his mid-70s, someone should rush out to the Rockies and produce some documentary films of the great philosopher, theologian and eco-activist so that, for years to come, we all can virtually take a walk into the wilderness with him.
Saving Creation Holmes Rolston III Over my 30-plus years as a journalist, I’ve interviewed green activists around the world—and I can’t recall a figure who more effectively invites all parties toward the pure wonderment in nature. Holmes is talking about much more than a feel-good experience. He’s promoting the kind of crucial experience we all need to share—if we’re to survive as a species.
This isn’t exaggeration. There’s solid evidence of his accomplishments. In 2003, Holmes was honored at Buckingham Palace with the Templeton Prize. He’d already given the internationally famous Gilford Lectures in the mid 1990s.
Yet—at age 76 with shelves of honors to his credit—Holmes still is working to knit together a most unlikely community of secular scientists, nature lovers, public-policy wonks—and people of faith.

If you’ve never heard of him until today—grab a copy of the brand-new biography, “Saving Creation.” Click on the Amazon link at right. When I opened the cover, I couldn’t put it down.
This is a man who—once he begin to understand his beloved themes—begins to sound like a first cousin to Billy Graham, Charles Darwin, Al Gore and the Dalai Lama. Wouldn’t that be a stunning family tree?

Holmes says that he does his best teaching by “sneaking up on people and inviting them to get in a whole lot deeper than they ever thought possible.”
In publishing the 1979 story of the humble pasqueflower (also pictured below), Holmes snuck up on readers around the world. He chuckles that the pasqueflower story was “the best sermon anyone ever snuck into Natural History magazine.”

SPECIAL NOTE: Because of the significance of Holmes’ work—and the important online record that this interview with him represents—we’re publishing this in 2 parts. There’s a link to the second part at the end of this post.


Pasque flower Holmes Rolston     DAVID: Let’s start by bringing readers up to speed about your life: You’re a third-generation Presbyterian pastor who grew up in America’s Appalachian region and earned your doctorate in Scotland—but you’re best known around the world as a founding father of environmental ethics from your post at Colorado State University as a professor of philosophy.
Probably the accomplishment that has earned you the highest accolades is your development of a purely hard-edged, secular argument to support the preservation of the natural world.
In defending nature, it’s easy to appeal to religious faith or to beauty—or even to our own human survival on this planet. But you built a new kind of philosophical argument that stands up even in completely cold, secular analysis.
Am I describing this accurately?
HOLMES:  Yes, that’s about right. But, I don’t like to use the word “cold” to describe this kind of argument. I would use the word “hard,” though. That’s opposed to “soft” arguments about this.
Actually, I make both kinds of arguments—hard and soft. I am well known for writing things that invite people to come and experience the aesthetic side of nature. But that’s only half of what I do.
The half you’re describing there—the hard side of my work—is what I use when I argue to biologists, and argue with biologists, and sometimes argue against biologists that nature has real value in itself.
DAVID: Why does anyone need to make that argument? Today, millions of Americans simply assume we should preserve the natural world. Why is your hard-edged argument so important?
HOLMES: There has been a widespread idea that nature is “value free” and only humans bring value to the natural world when we use it or we enjoy experiences in it.
In my work, I argue that living things have their own value. And living things value their own lives.
When biologists tell me that there are no values in nature—I remind them of Darwin and what he taught us about nature. I ask them to think about the value of a thorn to a rose, the value of grasses to rabbits. The value of rabbits to foxes. Biology is soaked full of values in competition with each other.

DNA helix holds story Holmes Rolston argues     DAVID: But you go a whole lot further than that. As you talk about this ongoing competition for survival in nature—you point out that the natural world also has its stories that have been preserved for millions of years.
We’re not talking about human stories about nature. You argue that DNA code itself is a kind of story, a precious record, that species in the natural world carry with them down through the millennia. The DNA is a life-story shared from one generation to the next—and, through evolution, DNA actually accumulates lessons of adaptation learned by the particular family.
Beyond human stories about the natural world—you argue that the natural world itself is a real storyteller and has this brilliant way of allowing each species to carry the accumulated story within each body.
Am I saying that right?
HOLMES: To use a religious word, I say: Amen!
Scientists deal most effectively with things that resemble laws. We know that from the mathematics of physics and it’s true in other scientific disciplines, too. Scientists look for law-like forms in their research.
I’ve argued that, within biology, these laws of nature are transformed into the history of life forms through their DNA. What DNA molecules can do is accumulate discoveries, repeat lessons learned, and elaborate them over thousands of years.
DNA becomes a record of storied achievements.

DAVID: The moment I began reading about your work, this particular idea jumps out as very compelling. You’re arguing that living things carry this ancient record within their own cells. Until recent years, we didn’t even know this record existed and, until recently, we could not even begin to “read” this DNA story. Now we can see that the story of evolution and DNA has this amazing grandeur within it.
HOLMES: It’s a very distinctive part of biology on Earth. You don’t get that studying asteroids or the surface of Mars. I’m not trying to dismiss the stories in geology or cosmology. There are elements of story in the Big Bang and the creation of the galaxies that we still can “read” today.
But we haven’t found any pro-active accumulation of information in astronomy, let’s say, like the DNA record in living things. We actually store up this story in our genes and we pass it along generation to generation. In religious words, I think that’s a miracle.
A scientific person would at least say it’s a “wonder.” There is this storied history that’s passed along individual to individual in ways we don’t see going on in other parts of the universe. That’s what I celebrate as distinctive on earth and of great value.
We ought to admire and celebrate and conserve these storied achievements of the millennia. That’s why nature has value in itself. Eventually, this long process of evolution gives rise to human beings. This means that we clearly should admire and care for this storied earth.
DAVID: It’s such an elegant argument.
HOLMES: Thank you. Yes, I think so. In the past, we couldn’t appreciate the brilliance of what is packed inside those DNA molecules.
And I don’t want to overplay the idea of DNA itself, because DNA is useless unless it’s in a living organism within an environment where it can be expressed—and where the story can continue to unfold over the millennia.
That’s what I use when I’m sneaking up on biologists. I ask them: Look, is life a good thing? Is there value out there? Isn’t there essentially a biology textbook out there?
I ask them: Can you imagine aricher story than beginning with some simple forms of life and elaborating all of this into millions of species today? Isn’t that a story that should be celebrate and admire?
And the biologists may scratch their heads a bit at me, but they say: Yes, you’re right.
Then, to Christians, I say the Bible stories of creation may be a bit simplified, but think about this huge, marvelous story that unfolds in creation.

Sunflower examined closely Holmes Rolston     DAVID: Now, I know from reading your biography that you’re not an advocate of Intelligent Design. Your work rests on what we would call the scientific process of evolution. You’re not arguing for some back-door form of what’s often called Creationism. So, let’s clarify that point.
HOLMES: Right. I don’t think Genesis teaches Intelligent Design. The first chapter of Genesis teaches that God brought forth the heavens and the earth and then God says to the earth (in verses 11 and 24) that it should bring forth life—all kinds of plants and creatures—and God calls on the waters (verse 20) to bring forth all kinds of life.
It sounds to me that, in evolution, biologists are just giving us a much more elaborate account of how the earth does all of that—how the earth brings forth swarms of creatures.
DAVID: So, you’re not arguing that God somehow kept a divine finger in every twist and turn of this design. You’re arguing that God set all these marvelous processes in motion and evolution itself did quite a job of bringing us everything we see today. Of course, this process also leads to death of some species, fires, devastation, entire families of creatures that don’t adapt.
That’s what you mean by “storied achievements” and the “grandeur” of this story for the species that have survived.
You even use the word “grace” to describe what God provided for the natural world. That’s a key term in your work so tell us just a bit about how you use the word “grace.”
HOLMES: In the seminary tradition out of which I came, they made a big contrast between nature and grace.
Nature was one thing. It was how the world works. But God came in Jesus—and we were saved through grace. This strong contrast was set up between nature and grace. What I’m trying to do is mellow that out and ask: Don’t we want to think of nature also as a kind of gift, as well as whatever else may be added or increased by what we receive from Jesus in the Bible?
I came out of tradition of teaching that wanted to set aside anything that could be learned in nature. They’d say: Oh, you can get everything you need out of the Bible and out of Jesus. There was this strong opposition to a natural theology. To that kind of theologian, I’ve been preaching that nature, too, is grace.
DAVID: You’re not alone in this, of course. I think immediately of the Celtic tradition.
HOLMES: The classical tradition knew this truth. They all believed that God created earth and in that sense earth was a gift of God. But a whole lot of people forgot that along the way. For so many, we’ve left out the idea that nature, too, has this marvelous long history that leads up to human history and human history continues. Maybe we ought to think of earth and all life on earth as a kind of gift. That’s grace.
I can use that idea of “gift” to get into the bloodstream of some people who might not think of themselves originally as religious. I might say: Isn’t earth a kind of wonderland that we’ve inherited—more than we deserve. It’s so surprising, isn’t it? And, we find ourselves at the apex of these developments. Shouldn’t we think of all we have as a kind of gift?
And even people who aren’t religious will say: Well, that’s right. They may go on to tell me: I don’t believe in any Giver with a capital G. But we do have something we’ve been given.

DAVID: This is sounding close to what E.O. Wilson argues in his book, “The Creation.” He doesn’t believe in God, but believes that devout believers and secularists can agree that the Creation is too precious to destroy.
HOLMES: That’s right. Wilson has pretty thoroughly rejected any supernatural belief in God. But he still writes about the marvelous wonder of life on earth in his book. He wants to incorporate all the allies he can in preserving this wonderful natural world. He knows there are billions of Christians in the world and he’d like to incorporate religious people and their energies along with his work in preserving nature. In that book he’s mellows out some toward the religious people people whose supernatural elements he would reject. He tries to
invite them to join him in celebrating the diversity of life.
DAVID: And there you might join hands.
HOLMES: We do need to get together the evolutionary biologists and the religious people in this idea we can share of being responsible stewards of this earth that we’ve been given.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2, in which Holmes talks about the problem of beauty—and the power of Psalms. (NOTE: The photograph at right above is a magnified detail of a sunflower in bloom.)

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