Are Natural Disasters the Fundamental Evils We Think They Are?
Saturated news coverage of the next earthquake or storm will bring a troubling question to mind again. It is common for people, even Christians, to conclude that natural disasters, carnivores, and parasites are fundamental evils. They wonder why a good and powerful God would allow such "evils" to exist. Skeptics assert that the persistence of such "natural evils" is proof that indeed a good and powerful God does not exist.
Why Natural Disasters?
No doubt hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, wildfires, ice ages, floods, and droughts cause inestimable damage and untold suffering to plants, animals, and humans. Though it does not diminish the pain and loss, the fact is that even more damage and suffering would result if none of these "acts of God" ever occurred.
Hurricanes & Tornadoes
The number and intensity of hurricanes and tornadoes depend on several factors:
• the strength and paths of ocean currents
• the size, orientation, and shape of continental landmasses
• the extent, average height, and orientation of mountain ranges
• the intensity of solar radiation on ocean surfaces
• the mass and composition of the atmosphere
• Earth's rotation rate.
The Creator could completely rid the world of hurricanes and tornadoes, but not without a tradeoff. The formation and movement of hurricanes and tornadoes prevent certain ocean and continental regions from getting too hot for the creatures that live there.1 Earth's tropical oceans are designed so that when they heat up, they generate hurricanes. Hurricanes waft huge amounts of sea-salt aerosols into the atmosphere. These aerosols, and the thick clouds they form, scatter solar radiation efficiently, and in this manner cause tropical oceans to cool back down to benign temperatures. To a lesser degree, tornadoes also act as thermostats, cooling down certain continental landmasses. In other words, without hurricanes or tornadoes, Earth would lose critical thermostats.
An Earth without hurricanes or tornadoes would also result in one or more of the following:
• less rainfall
• less evenly distributed rainfall
• a lesser amount or lower quality of living spaces
• more extreme temperature differences between day and night
These costs would still exist if the planet had fewer or less intense hurricanes and tornadoes, though in less severe measure. Thus, the present level of hurricane and tornado activity yields the optimal balance between advanced life productivity and collateral damage.
Hurricanes and tornadoes serve several other good purposes. For example, hurricanes significantly increase chlorophyll concentrations along continental shelves.2 Such enrichment benefits many of the life forms that inhabit areas of the continental shelf.
Aerosols produced by hurricanes and tornadoes make up a large fraction of cloud nuclei, which in turn play a critical role in raindrop formation.3 Thus, hurricanes—and, to a lesser degree, tornadoes—ensure that enough rain falls from the atmosphere to support a large and diverse land-life population.
Earthquakes, Volcanoes & Tsunamis
Plate-tectonic activity, which gives rise to earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, plays a critical role in several processes essential for life, including:
• building islands and continents
• compensating for the Sun's increasing luminosity
• maintaining life-essential chemical cycles
• providing an ongoing supply of nutrients to surface soils.
The maintenance of these life-essential processes early in Earth's history required greater tectonics. Today, tectonic activity is only a fifth of what it was at the time of life's beginning on Earth. Scientists have noted that, just as humans appeared on Earth at the best time with respect to the level of hurricane and tornado activity, so, too, they appeared at the ideal tectonic moment. Earthquake activity today is high enough to sustain adequate levels of nutrient recycling and the formation of mineral deposits and new agricultural regions, but it is also low enough to allow for global, high-tech civilization.
The primary factors determining how frequently wildfires start and spread are: (1) the quantity of atmospheric oxygen; and (2) the electric discharge rate (rate of lightning strikes). If these figures were greater by even a small percentage, the increased number of fires would seriously limit the attainable levels of human civilization and technology.
Soil science reveals that humanity would be in similarly serious trouble without enough forest and grass fires.4 First, fires get rid of certain growth inhibitors. Anyone walking through an old-growth forest notices how dead vegetation accumulates on the forest floor. Burning off this organic litter enhances germination by giving seeds greater access to the mineral soil beneath. Old forests also accumulate certain plant- and microbe-suppressing agents. Burning stimulates essential microbial activities, such as soil nitrification. The lightning that starts many fires contributes by generating nitrogen fixation from the atmosphere.
The by-product of forest and grass fires is charcoal. Charcoal benefits the soil by absorbing tannins and other plant- and microbe-inhibiting chemicals. During and after a fire, charcoal breaks down into fine dust and ash, which wind and water easily transport to adjoining regions. This dust and ash, relatively chemically inert, greatly enhance the soil's water retention capacity. They can transform sandy soil into a clay-like material.5 Further, the dust and ash can help form new wetlands, and they also help develop peat bogs, which, in turn, lead to coal formation.
Like the effectiveness of charcoal filters used in water purification, the benefits of soil charcoal dwindle with time. Studies of Swedish forests indicate that the benefits of charcoal drop to one-eighth their original level in one hundred years. After two hundred years, no measurable benefit remains. Studies of American forests demonstrate that fires occurring every twenty years, for example, do much less damage than fires occurring every 150 years. These findings have led researchers to estimate that Earth's biomass and biodiversity are maximized if forests and grasslands burn every 20 to 100 years, which is the natural rate of fire occurrence as measured by ecologists.
Why Carnivores & Parasites?
Skeptics consider carnivores and parasites to be two more examples of natural evil. Yet, contrary to what one might intuit, both prove to be examples of optimal ecological designs. Carnivorous and parasitic activities establish circles of life that not only prevent species from over-consuming food, but also ensure that the nutrients needed by living things are cycled efficiently throughout the environment. Through such protection of the food supply and nutrient base, suffering and death are minimized for all species.
Nature observers note that plants vastly out-produce what they need for survival. This overproduction provides food for herbivorous animals. As herbivores consume the overage, they both transform the nutrients obtained from plants and transport them to other places in the environment. If the herbivores did not feed on them, plants would deplete their particular nutrient base to a point that threatened their population, habitat spread, genetic vitality, and/or health. Herbivores also benefit plant populations by spreading their seeds over a wide area.
Just as plants need herbivores to maintain their vitality, so also herbivores need carnivores. Unlike humans, other carnivorous animals are only able to hunt the sick, injured, unwary, and weak. By -removing these individuals from herbivore herds, carnivores alleviate herbivore suffering and extend average lifespans by limiting disease and genetic decay in herbivore populations. They also limit starvation by stopping herbivores from exhausting their food resources.
Unlike most carnivores, parasites do not kill their "prey" quickly or immediately. But their activity, too, has useful purposes. Some parasites, including certain species of bacteria, indirectly protect their hosts from calamity. For example, humans who suffer frequent bouts of parasite-induced diarrhea experience a significantly lower risk of contracting colon cancer. Some parasites distract their hosts from feeding or encourage them to leave a particular habitat and thereby give species lower on the food chain a reprieve. Parasites, like carnivores, may help control the population levels of their host species (see sidebar) or pressure those species toward healthier behaviors.
Evidence for a Caring Creator
Advancing scientific knowledge and understanding has transformed our perception of natural disasters, carnivores, and parasites. Rather than these "natural evils" proving that a good and powerful God does not exist, they are evidence establishing that a caring, loving, and powerful Creator has designed Earth and all its living creatures to maximally benefit humans and to equip them to fulfill their God-mandated purposes. •
Parasites & the Gypsy Moth
by Hugh Ross
Research may never reveal all the good that parasites accomplish in the balance of nature. But a true story illustrates some ways in which parasites benefit life and resources in much the same way that carnivores benefit herbivores.
Famed Harvard anatomy professor Dr. Etienne Leopold Trouvelot studied exotic insects as a hobby. One afternoon in 1868 a few of his prized gypsy moths, which he had imported from Europe, escaped from his home laboratory. Unchecked by any local predators, this moth's population ballooned to pandemic proportions. Within several years, deciduous forests across New England, then over most of the eastern United States, were stripped of every leaf. Not only were these forests virtually wiped out, but also hundreds of species dependent on them suffered catastrophic population declines, including the gypsy moths themselves.
For the first few decades, nothing could slow or stop the moths—except the lack of food once they stripped the forest foliage bare. After each destructive episode, the forests took years to recover, but when the trees came back, so did the gypsy moths. Each cycle of destruction and recovery produced a progressively weaker gene pool for all the plant and animal species involved.
When local carnivores, primarily birds and mice, finally adapted to gypsy moths as a new food source, the devastation decreased some. But it did not end.
Significant headway was made when researchers introduced a European virus specific to the gypsy moth. But not until 1989 did the destructive cycles finally end. That's when scientists brought in a second parasite. Another European pathogen, this time a fungus, came to the rescue.
Thus, it took several carnivore species and at least two parasite species feeding on gypsy moths to ensure that North American deciduous forests would remain extensive enough and healthy enough to sustain hundreds of other species, as well as gypsy moths, with an optimal quality of life.
This story shows how the lack of appropriate parasites resulted in loss for all the species of a habitat. It also demonstrates that, when an adequate number and diversity of parasites are present, everybody wins, including the species the parasites attack. The story of the gypsy moth reveals that, when sufficient ecological knowledge and understanding are available and acted upon, parasites prove to be well-designed creatures consonant with the plan of a caring, powerful Creator. •Hugh Ross
is an astrophysicist and the founder and president of the science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB).This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #37, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo37/acts-of-god