The guardian of the species: Gen 1:28 and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic and other recent outbreaks of infectious diseases of animal origin have shed a new light on one of the most famous passages of Genesis, the story of the creation and the relationship between human beings and the animal world.

Dec 19, 2020

By Jean-Pierre Sonnet, SJ
The COVID-19 pandemic and other recent outbreaks of infectious diseases of animal origin have shed a new light on one of the most famous passages of Genesis, the story of the creation and the relationship between human beings and the animal world. In Gen 1:26, in an inner monologue, God shows his intention to create humans, male and female, “in our image, according to our likeness,” and this – he specifies it from the very beginning – in order to “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 wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” Once having created in this way, God communicates to them their purpose with a sequence of imperatives: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (v. 28).

The coronavirus crisis is linked, as we know, to human interference in the integrity of the habitat and life of non-domestic animals, and it has been amplified by people’s lifestyles and movements today, which make them high-speed viral propagators. The outbreak of the pandemic did not surprise virologists and epidemiologists: the clinical outcome of COVID-19 was a feared scenario.

David Quammen’s 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, is instructive in this regard. In it the spillover phenomenon, the jump of a virus from an animal species to the human species, is considered an inevitable scenario: “Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behaviour are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.”

To Quammen’s voice can be added that of Richard Leakey, who has warned: “By continuing to put pressure on other living beings, we will promote the passage of new pathogens from fauna to humans.” Leakey is the Kenyan paleoanthropologist who, in 1995, published the prophetic book, The Sixth Extinction. Biodiversity and Its Survival. Five major extinctions have interrupted natural evolution since plants and animals began to diversify about a billion years ago.

They were caused by catastrophes on a planetary scale: large volcanic eruptions, climate change, alterations in the composition of the atmosphere, impact of an asteroid. Each time the cataclysm caused a huge extinction of living species. The sixth extinction has as its cause a particular species: humans. The pressure we exert on animal species with our intensive agriculture and animal husbandry, deforestation, poaching of wild species for the benefit of the growing urban population, etc., leads inexorably to the upheavals we are witnessing.

Long before Leakey and Quammen, the Book of Genesis expressed a similar warning. In Gen 1:28, the Creator God constitutes humans, male and female, as the guardians of animal species and makes them the guarantors of their distinction. So we can see that the Bible, far from being an anthology of obscurantism, is the fruit of a wisdom at once long-established and prophetic.

No less than some in-depth scientific books published in recent years, the Bible is prophetic when it comes to the relationship of humans with the range of animal species. It dares to make humans the guardian of the species, the witness and guarantor of their distinction within the system of living beings. It teaches that the divine image in us is inseparable from a right relationship with all animal species. The Christian reading of the Bible over time has not enhanced this line of interpretation, and there was a need for the encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) of Pope Francis (2015), a document of the Magisterium dedicated exclusively to the question of the protection of creation. ––La Civiltà Cattolica

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