In their 1981 book The Liberation of Life, Charles Birch and John B. Cobb wrote, “It is remarkable how much new wine we can put into old wineskins.” Making reference to the metaphor used by Jesus, they meant that humans have shown limitless creativity when it comes to cramming new discoveries into old world views.
This book, rather tedious and not much read today, a theologian and a biologist joined forces to examine how a spiritual view of life—not a view based on religious doctrine, but on spiritual sensitivity—might transform both religion and science. I’m afraid I missed most of their points, even when I re-read the marginalia I wrote back when I originally read it. But I want to share a couple of insights that these authors presented.
One of these ideas, which sounds like something from the writings of Ernst Mayr, is that it was not so much the idea of evolution by which science changed our view of the world as it was population biology. In the earliest days of science, the “balance of nature” view prevailed. In this view, providence maintained populations and species by creating them with different birth rates. Balance was maintained because prey reproduced rapidly and predators reproduced slowly. This was a view expressed by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Today we understand that there is a struggle for existence, as Darwin called it, and that the rapid reproductive rate of many prey species has evolved as a response to predators. That is, from the pre-Darwinian view, Darwin not only disrupted belief in the orderly realm of supernatural creation by saying that life evolved, but he upset belief in the balance of nature by writing chapter 3 of the Origin: The Struggle for Existence. Darwin’s opponents tried and failed to put new ideas, about the struggle for existence, into old balance-of-nature world view.
Another example is one that remains with us today: the idea of limitless growth. We talk as if we believe that the world economy, and the economy of each country, should grow forever without limit. The alternative gets labeled “stagnation” rather than “equilibrium.” But, as Birch and Cobb pointed out, nobody really believes this. We all know we live on a planet of limited resources. In some cases technology can raise the limits, as with breeding and the invention of fertilizers that boosted crop production. But we all know that we have to make the transition to a sustainable economy—as a whole planet, and as separate countries. The consequences are sobering: the economic and political leaders of the world are lying to us and they know it. And we progressives play right along with it when we say that a sustainable economy, based on solar energy, will continue to allow unlimited growth. To paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, anyone who believes that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.
The old wineskin of the balance of nature was born from a view of the Earth as a peaceable garden, like Gilbert White’s garden (The Natural History of Selbourne), and the old wineskin of unlimited growth was born from the period when empires were expanding. Empires could expand only because the cultures with powerful military forces conquered and usually killed the people who had less military strength. We need new wineskins (new concepts) in our world. Actually, they are no longer new, but as 2018 begins, we find that they remain largely unaccepted.