Has Earth been designed with complex ecosystems that show resilience despite human impact?

Hundreds of research papers have been published during the past decade addressing the threats that expanding human activity poses on natural ecosystems. These papers attempt to discern early warning signs of ecosystem collapses and the less serious ecosystem degradations in specific geographical regions and what can be done to avoid, or at least forestall, these collapses and degradations. Now, a new study reveals that natural ecosystems, especially the more complex ones, are more resilient to ecosystem degradation than previously thought.1

Anthropocene Extinction Event
The study was conducted by six ecologists from the Netherlands, Italy, and India led by Max Rietkerk at Utrecht University. The team begins by pointing out that Earth’s life now faces the sixth great extinction event known as the Anthropocene.2 The International Union of Geological Science officially approved the term as a subdivision of geologic time marking when human activity significantly impacted Earth’s geological features and ecosystems. Beginning at about the launch of the industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century, the extinction rate of plant species, and especially of animals, noticeably rose. With the continuing growth of the human population and the increase in human activity, especially since the end of World War II, the extinction rate has risen exponentially.

The Anthropocene extinction now rivals—some scientists claim even exceeds—the rate of extinctions during the past five great extinction events (see table).

Past Five Great Extinction Events

Extinction Event Time Period Species Extinction Rate
Ordovician-Silurian 440 million years ago (mya) Up to 70%
Late Devonian 375 mya Nearly 80%
Permian-Triassic 252 mya 90–96%
Triassic-Jurassic 201 mya More than 50%
Cretaceous-Tertiary 66 mya 75%

The extinction drivers for these five were huge asteroids or comets striking Earth with such force that they blanketed Earth’s atmosphere with dust and aerosols and ignited widespread volcanic eruptions. The extinction driver for the Anthropocene is human activity; namely, overharvesting certain species and encroaching on or destroying ecosystem habitats.

Extinction Warning Signals
For the past several decades, ecologists have presumed that critical transitions, or tippings from one ecological state to a different one caused by human activity, are driving extinction during the Anthropocene. When the tipping results in a less desirable or less stable ecological state, species within that state are subject to greater risk of extinction.

Conservation biologists, therefore, have focused much of their research on discovering early warning signals for ecosystem-critical transitions. One such signal that has garnered attention is spatial self-reorganization—the development of new regular vegetation patterns. Another way to describe it is the observation that trees and other large plants have reorganized and are growing in new patterns in an ecosystem.

Evasion of Tipping
Rietkerk and his colleagues cite both ground and satellite observations of real-time ecosystems and mathematical analysis of spatial models to demonstrate that spatial self-reorganization is often not a warning signal of imminent extinction but rather of resilience. They show that the observations and mathematical analysis both reveal multistability. Multistability is the property of many different environmental spatial patterns occurring at the same time under the same environmental conditions where each pattern can remain stable for a wide range of environmental conditions.

Multistability requires a complex ecosystem with a broad diversity of plants, animals, and microbes. The team of ecologists established that complex ecosystems can persist beyond tipping points through spatial self-reorganizations.

Design/Creation Implications
This research shows that Earth’s life is not as fragile as most ecologists had presumed. Evidently, Earth’s life is designed for resilience in ways that biologists had not previously recognized. Rietkerk and his colleagues close their paper with an exhortation to biologists and ecologists to increase their understanding of biological designs for resilience and determine where the real risks of extinction lie.

Clearly, however, species diversity is a key factor in enhancing and preserving ecosystem resilience. Rietkerk’s team’s research affirms RTB’s biblical creation model for Earth’s life. RTB scholars posit that God’s designs for the resilience of Earth’s life and his creating a wide diversity of species are the central themes of the longest creation psalm in the Bible, Psalm 104. This text declares that life flourishes everywhere on Earth across a broad spectrum of environments and always with a great diversity of organisms. Here is a short excerpt:

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small.

Creation Care Implications
In Genesis 1 God assigns responsibility to Adam and Eve and their progeny to manage Earth’s resources for their benefit and the benefit of all life. As Job 37–39Psalm 104, and the other creation psalms explain, humans and all of Earth’s life benefit from the great diversity and abundance of life that God has created and designed. Thus, we should do everything we can to preserve the diversity and abundance of life that God gave us.

What makes our responsibility all the more critical is that we are in the period of God’s rest (Genesis 2:1-3Psalm 95:11Hebrews 3:18–4:11). During the human era, God has rested and continues to rest from his creation work. He is no longer replacing species of life that go extinct with new species.

Human activity has had an especially damaging impact on Earth’s birds and mammals, particularly the large-bodied bird and mammal species, the very creatures God created and designed to serve and please us and make our global civilization possible. Research findings show that emphasis on the preservation of the largest tree species and the largest-bodied bird and mammal species will yield the greatest payoff in preserving biodiversity, ecosystem processes and health, and climate change mitigation.3 That’s a payoff worthy of human efforts and consistent with our role as creation caretakers.

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  1. Max Rietkerk et al., “Evasion of Tipping in Complex Systems through Spatial Pattern Formation,” Science 374, no. 6564 (October 8, 2021): id. eabj0359, doi:10.1126/science.abj0359.
  2. Jeremy B. C. Jackson, “Ecological Extinction and Evolution in the Brave New Ocean,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105, supplement 1 (August 12, 2008): 11458–11465, doi:10.1073/pnas.0802812105; S. A. Wooldridge, “Mass Extinctions Past and Present: A Unifying Hypothesis,” Biogeosciences Discussions 5, no. 3 (June 2008): 2401–2423, doi:10,5194/bgd-5-2401-2008.
  3. Brian J. Enquist et al., “The Megabiota Are Disproportionately Important for Biosphere Functioning,” Nature Communications 11 (February 4, 2020): id. 699, doi:10.1038/s41467-020-14369-y.

About The Author

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. I also am eager to equip Christians to engage, rather than withdraw from or attack, educated non-Christians. One of the approaches I’ve developed, with the help of my RTB colleagues, is a biblical creation model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive. I enjoy constructively integrating all 66 books of the Bible with all the science disciplines as a way to discover and apply deeper truths. 1 Peter 3:15–16 sets my ministry goal, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or "quasars," some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe. Not all of Hugh's discoveries involved astrophysics. Prompted by curiosity, he studied the world’s religions and "holy books" and found only one book that proved scientifically and historically accurate: the Bible. Hugh started at religious "ground zero" and through scientific and historical reality-testing became convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God! When he went on to describe for others his journey to faith in Jesus Christ, he was surprised to discover how many people believed or disbelieved without checking the evidence. Hugh's unshakable confidence that God's revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict became his unique message. Wholeheartedly encouraged by family and friends, communicating that message as broadly and clearly as possible became his mission. Thus, in 1986, he founded science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB). He and his colleagues at RTB keep tabs on the frontiers of research to share with scientists and nonscientists alike the thrilling news of what's being discovered and how it connects with biblical theology. In this realm, he has written many books, including: The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos, Beyond the Cosmos, A Matter of Days, Creation as Science, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory. Between writing books and articles, recording podcasts, and taking interviews, Hugh travels the world challenging students and faculty, churches and professional groups, to consider what they believe and why. He presents a persuasive case for Christianity without applying pressure. Because he treats people's questions and comments with respect, he is in great demand as a speaker and as a talk-radio and television guest. Having grown up amid the splendor of Canada's mountains, wildlife, and waterways, Hugh loves the outdoors. Hiking, trail running, and photography are among his favorite recreational pursuits - in addition to stargazing. Hugh lives in Southern California with his wife, Kathy, and two sons.

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