Are We Playing God?

I often hear that humanity’s greatest characteristic is our ability to manipulate the environment in complicated ways. We can control fire, explore outer space, and converse with strangers across the globe. However, this ability is also our most controversial. We can produce weapons of mass destruction, contribute to the extinction of other species, and commit great atrocities against each other. But are we mentally equipped to responsibly make such largescale decisions? Are we “playing god”?

Recently, the Government of Western Australia pushed controversial biodiversity laws (PDF) before its state parliament. One aspect of the legislation, nicknamed “the God clause” by opposing scientists and conservationists, gives the Environment Minister sole authority to approve industrialization within threatened habitats. Piers Verstegen, a critic of the bill and the director of the Conservation Council of Western Australia, explained in a press release:

There is no provision for an independent Biodiversity Authority, no requirement for scientific advice, no targets for wildlife recovery, and no requirement for the Minster to use any of the powers in the legislation or to publicly report on the condition of wildlife. Instead the Bill creates new powers for a Minster to play god by allowing the extinction of an entire species.

Although it will still remain illegal to kill threatened wildlife (the provision actually increases the fine for removing threatened species from their habitat), if this legislation passes it will be legal to destroy the ecological niches of threatened species for economic gain. This, Verstegen notes, is misguided. As he told the Guardian, “Pretty much the majority of threatening processes do not occur when people go and deliberately kill native wildlife….most of it’s indirect.” In fact, human-induced habitat loss and manipulation is the primary cause of extinction worldwide.  A recent study by the University of Queensland published in Proceedings of Royal Society B examines our indirect influence on other species. The study shows that humans not only contribute to the extinction of other species, but also to the evolution of new ones. New species evolve through domestication, hunting, accidental introductions, and even through the creation of new ecosystems like urban centers. Although it seems like good news, the study makes clear that the emergence of new species does not make up for the great loss we’ve instigated. Sarah Kaplan from the Washington Post explains that “newly created species don’t fill the same ecological niches as the ones humans have wiped out; often, those species went extinct because humans made life in their ecological niche untenable.” With this knowledge, it’s alarming to see legislation with little concern for environmental consequences gain traction abroad. We, as humans, have significant influence on the biodiversity of this planet. We manipulate the environment until species cease to exist, and new ones evolve. Although our behavior might mirror attributes associated with gods, likening our actions to deities in order to make a point is problematic. Declaring that we are “playing God,” even to convey disapproval, indirectly removes our responsibility and minimizes the severity of the damage we inflict. The phrase itself is a mechanism for disengagement (especially among secular communities where god-talk holds little weight) by distancing us from our actions.  Some may be proud that our species can be so influential in its detriment, but we don’t need to reject our humanity to do what’s right. This is an issue, no doubt, that transcends interspecies relationships but is attributable to the hubris of humankind.Tags: