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Life’s Wondrous Variety

Bruce Rinker

One of my all-time favorite film scenes is from the 1991 adventure, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman.  In this high-quality moment, a little English peasant girl approaches a battle-hardened Moor called Azeem, played by Freeman, and asks politely but inquisitively, “Did God paint you?”  The Moor laughs and acknowledges the child’s innocence, but she persists: “But why did God paint you?”  Freeman’s character responds shrewdly, “Because Allah loves wondrous variety.”

For me, it was a breath-taking cinematic moment.

Think about the wondrous variety found among living things scattered across the planet.  Not just the wondrous variety among the human population: Tibetans, Quechua, Inuit, Jívaro and Yagua, Europeans, Zulu, Santal, Han Chinese, and thousands of ethnic groups that constitute 6.8 billion people across the planet.  But also the 30 million other species found across windswept tundra, expanses of grassland and taiga, ancient Appalachian forests, deserts and reefs, tropical rainforests, coastal bayous, and other ecosystems on Earth.  Indeed Allah loves wondrous variety.

The year, 2009, was called the “International Year of Science,” in part due to the 150th anniversary celebration worldwide of the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  Coincidentally, it was also the 200th birthday celebration for Mr. Darwin: 12 February 1809 to 19 April 1882.  For the entire scientific community, that man and his great book ushered in the current era of modern biology.  Unlike the philosophic works that preceded it (including the writings of Darwin’s paternal grandfather Erasmus), On the Origin of Species provided observational evidence, experimental data, field collections, and a theoretical mechanism to corroborate his earth-shaking ideas.  Since its publication, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has stood the test of time, taking its well-deserved position alongside Newton’s theory of gravity, Bohr’s atomic theory, and the germ theory of disease as cornerstones of modern science that explain natural phenomena.  Comments by a few vocal uninformed or badly informed antagonists aside, Darwin’s theory explains beautifully and simply all the wondrous variety that graces an otherwise lifeless planet.  At times, the complexity of life on Earth nearly overwhelms me with its multi-scaled beauty.

Darwin concluded his book with a quote to inspire the ages:  “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

What I find so strikingly sad about Darwin’s detractors is their false “either/or” dichotomy between evolution and spirituality.  It is a denial of grace.  Many scientists, including this author, consider ourselves theistic evolutionists with no conflict whatsoever perceived between science and theology as separate magisteria.  The 3.5 billion-year-old palette of life on the planet seems witness to the immensity and glory of the Divine.  When I pick up a seashell or crawling beetle or a laughing child, I’m gazing deeply for that brief moment into the near-impenetrable immensity of time and space represented by all living things linked together in a Great Sacred Cosmic Story.  How can I not find that a sublime and awe-inspiring moment?  Abraham Joshua Heschel, distinguished scholar and theologian of the 20th century, wrote: “Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”  Evolution holds me in radical amazement about the probabilities of life in an old, expansive universe of extraordinary possibilities.  Originally, “to evolve” meant “to unfold.”  As a theistic evolutionist, I am one small part of an ancient unfolding of Divinity in space and time.

As we begin the 201st observance of Darwin’s birthday, I for one will lift a glass to this brilliant naturalist and founder of modern-day biology, exclaiming that Allah indeed loves wondrous variety, and then reread the near-prophetic words of Darwin that “There is grandeur in this view of life.”

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer
[email protected]

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  1. I enjoyed reading your article. The beauty of our Earth is there for our eye candy. From the flowers at our feet to the clouds in the sky amazing beautiful varieties spread out across our vision.

    I always look forward to reading your next article….!

  2. The good doctor is a fantastic writer. I admire how Dr. Rinker can weave film, spirituality, literature, history, science, and personal experiences into a wonderfully succinct and educational article. Thank you for sharing with us.

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