Kenosis and Nature

Kenosis and Nature

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“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” — John 12:24

Life preys on life; all advanced life requires food pyramids, eating and being eaten. If the higher forms had to synthesize all the life materials from abiotic materials (also degrading their own wastes), they could never have advanced very far. The upper levels are freed for more advanced synthesis because they depend on syntheses (and decompositions) carried out by lesser organisms below. Heterotrophs must be built on autotrophs, and no autotrophs are sentient or cerebral. From a systemic point of view, we see the conversion of a resource from one life stream to another – the anastomosing of life threads that characterizes an ecosystem. Plants become insects, which become chicks, which become foxes, which die to fertilize plants.

Sometimes genes jump around. Two life lines, once independent, can fuse into a single identity. Now that scientists can couple molecular genetic analysis with traditional fossil paleontology, the tree of life is turning out to have surprisingly complex roots, because there are not just splits and branches, but gene exchanges by organisms that reconnect and interconnect the splits and branches. Genetic information has been widely distributed, redistributed, multiplied, divided, or “shared,” not only within but across species lines.

Two of the most important processes energizing life on Earth use endosymbionts. One, involving mitochondria, powers animals; the other, with chloroplasts, powers plants; and, of course, plant power is the basis of animal power. Mitochondria, which anciently had a free-living identity, have been incorporated into the organisms they now empower. Similarly with chloroplasts. Multicellular organisms may have formed by one-celled organisms joining up, as well as by their differentiation. Fitness is not something a gene, or even an organism, has as such. Adaptation, the central word in Darwinian theory, is an ecological word, not a genetic one. One does not know the fitness when one knows the output of a gene, not even when one knows how this output integrates hierarchically in the whole organism. We know fitness only when we know how this output operates in the environmental niche the organism inhabits. Although the mutants bubble up “from below,” the shape that the microscopic molecules take is controlled “from above,” as the molecular information stored is what has been discovered about how to make a way through the macroscopic, terrestrial-range world. Identity is identity in an environment.

Sometimes it is hard to say which level is prior and which is subordinate; perhaps it is better to say that there are vital processes at multiple levels. Biological identity is multi-leveled. Ecosystem is as ultimate a truth as is gene. Biological phenomena take place at multiple interconnected levels, from the microscopic genetic through the organismic to the ecosystemic and bioregional levels. Bigger networks are superposed on smaller networks, and these on lesser networks still; there is descent from continental and global scales to those in nanometer ranges. Genes have what identity they have only as they play a part in this larger biotic community in which they code a role. That the myriad creatures are in contest and competition cannot be denied; nor can it be denied that they are bonded together in interdependencies. Genes are cross-wired not only within individuals, within families, within populations, within species; they are cross-wired within ecosystems. Any particular self, with its integrated genes from the skin-in, distributed genes round about, and its web-worked connections from the skin-out, is a kind of holon, a genuine whole but one in which also its environment, its niche, is fully reflected. True, the co-actors are not so much co-operators as are they enmeshed in a series of checks and balances, controls and feedback loops; but equally true, just this system is the vital context of all life. Seen in this more comprehensive scheme of things, plants function for the survival of myriads of others. We could even say, provocatively for our “kenosis” inquiry, that they are “emptied into,” given over to, “devoted” to, or “sacrificed” for these others in their community. (…)

Life, Death, and Regeneration

With living things, questions of level mingle with questions of identity, which mingle with questions of persisting and perishing. Whole organisms are ephemeral. The genes have more of an eye on the species (so to speak) than on the individual. The solitary organism, living in the present, is born to lose; all that can be transmitted from past to future is its kind. Though selection operates on individuals, since it is always an individual that copes, selection is for the kind of coping that succeeds in copying, that is re-producing, producing again the kind, distributing the information coded in the gene more widely. Survival is through making others (altruism, even if similar others), who share the same valuable information. Survival is of the better transmitter of whatever is of genetic value in self into others, descendants. Survival of the fittest turns out to be survival of the senders.

Individual organisms must die. Species do not have to die; most, of course, do die. Ninety-eight percent of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct, so there are high probabilities; but there is no law of nature or inevitability about species extinction. But here a puzzling aspect of the matter strikes us. By virtue of the innovative genes, in their re-producing, the death of the organism feeds into the nondeath of the species. Only by replacements can the species track the changing environment; only by replacements can the descendants evolve into something novel. Genera and species sometimes do die, that is, go extinct without issue; but they are often transformed into something else, new genera and species; and, on average, there have been more arrivals than extinctions—resulting in the increase of both diversity and complexity over evolutionary history.

Excerpt from John Polkinghorne, ed., The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, (c) 2001 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.  Used by permission; all rights reserved.  To order this title, contact the publisher at 800.253.7521 or visit