This is the first of a series of posts where we’ll hear from the scientists involved in the Wonders of the Living World book, about their science and faith and how they influence each other.
Dr Margaret Miller is the Research Director of SECORE International, a conservation organisation for the protection and restoration of coral reefs.
What got you into science?
My father was an academic geographer, which in my family was referred to as a ‘professional sightseer’. Thus, from a young age, I was exposed to nature through hiking and backpacking, and slightly later, through SCUBA diving. Thus, I think I always had a wonder and awe for nature and its beauty, and wanted to understand it more as a means of cherishing that wonder and beauty.
Can you tell us a bit about your faith journey?
My family also provided me a faithful start but I grew up in a mainline denomination church in an academic town, which I suppose did not represent the most vibrant of faith communities. In my mid-adolescence, my family had the opportunity to live in Southeast Asia for a year. There, we attended a multilingual Chinese Christian church. The reality of Christ’s sacrifice for ALL people was made so real in those cacophonous worship services, and the fellowship of predominantly first-generation believers were formative experiences for me. After my return I took responsibility for my own faith, and sought out and participated in a campus fellowship during college. Through graduate school and much of my adult life, though, my church life and my scientific career remained highly compartmentalized. An initial invitation to participate in this project has led to additional opportunities (some I have even had the courage to actively pursue) to integrate these major endeavours (i.e. my faith, my scientific career, and my deep desire to instigate care for and cherishing of God’s creation and its fruitfulness).
What role does wonder play in your scientific work?
Wonder is what maintains my motivation and joy in my work.
dData from a recent study show that biologists tend to find complexity beautiful, while physicists are more likely to admire simplicity. Which aspects of your research do you find beautiful?
How absolutely fascinating! I never thought about this, but it seems clearly true. One cannot examine a coral reef ecosystem (or indeed any ecosystem) without marvelling at its complexity. As an ecologist, I understand that diversity and complexity provide buffer and ‘backup systems’ allowing ecosystems to function smoothly. As an observer, I find the richness of biodiversity a primary manifestation of coral reefs’ beauty; the myriad colourful fish, the countless forms and colours of corals in which they shelter, and the amazing and complex relationships among different creatures from which they all benefit.
The same study found that 66% of scientists feel a sense of reverence or respect about the things they discover, and 58% feel as if they are in the presence of something grand, at least several times a year. Can you describe a time when your scientific work gave you a similar sense of awe?
I will give two examples. The first is one of horrific awe. In 2014 – 2015, two consecutive marine heatwaves hit the Florida Keys where my colleagues and I had been undertaking a long term study of elkhorn coral (the iconic, large branching, reef-building species of the Caribbean region) which had been in decline already for several decades. Heat stress causes corals to ‘bleach’; essentially the physiological stress breaks down the cooperative relationship with tiny plants that live within the coral, the plants get evicted, and the coral starves. The first few dives when we were visiting ‘our corals’ and saw them bleached completely ghost-white, instead of their healthy rusty brown, were truly heartbreaking. This heatwave ended up lasting for several years and affected reefs globally, and I heard many of my colleagues working on reefs throughout the world express similar sentiment (e.g., ‘I have never before cried underwater’). Perhaps this awe-filled broken-heartedness gives a glimpse of Gods’ disappointment and broken-heartedness at the state of our planet which humans have wrought. Indeed, about one third of the (already) remnant elkhorn coral abundance in our study population was lost in these two years.
In contrast, I continuously experience the wondrous sort of awe in the bulk of my current work aiming to restore fruitfulness of coral populations. Corals’ reproduction and early life are fraught with hurdles and bottlenecks that are worsening as reef environments are being degraded. Most reef-building corals begin life as tiny sperm and egg cells that are shed into the open ocean water, meaning that many complex developmental steps from fertilization to metamorphosis into the adult form must take place in a vast, open ocean environment and at the mercy of myriad hazards, such as predators or currents that carry the babies far away from a suitable reef habitat. If a baby coral is delivered to a reef habitat, it has only one chance to settle in a suitable spot where all its lifelong needs can be met, and it can survive a whole different set of reef-based predators and competitors. Thus, as one studies these processes and seeks means to assist in overcoming these myriad hurdles, one is awed by the realization that the mere existence of corals, and their natural recruitment, are truly miraculous.
When Wonders of the Living World was written you mentioned some big questions about meaning and purpose that your work raises. What sorts of questions do you think you will be asking, or would like to be asking, in your work in ten (or twenty) years time? Might your future discoveries raise even more big questions of meaning or purpose?
Unfortunately, there are fairly big questions that the field of coral restoration is already facing, due to the rapidity of coral decline and the emergence of real extinction risk. Climate change represents an existential risk to corals that is manifesting even more quickly than the similar existential risk it poses to human civilization. Radical intervention in natural populations is now commonly contemplated by management and conservation authorities to mitigate extinction risk and to attempt to extend the ecosystem services that coral reefs have historically provided to humans. We are now contemplating and debating the implementation of strategies such as selective breeding or even direct genetic modification to enable corals to persist in changing (especially warmer) environments. Even secular management interests are prone to refer to such strategies as ‘playing God’. Is it appropriate for humans to intervene in natural populations in ways that (from past experience, we know) may carry unintended consequences? Given the active role that humans continue to play in degrading corals’ environments and the subsistence value that these ecosystems provide to many vulnerable human communities, are we not obligated to intervene in the most careful and conscientious manner we can to prevent extinctions, and maintain as many of the ecosystem’s working parts as possible? These questions have strong philosophical and moral aspects with which we are already grappling. The outcomes of this grappling, in concert with humans’ capacity to address the existential climate change threat within the next decade, will determine the future existence of coral reefs (a beautiful element of God’s creation and provision) on our planet.
We are heading towards the COP26 conference that will see world leaders gather to discuss ways to tackle climate change in the next few years. What do you think the church’s place can be, both in the wider discussions about this issue and our response to it?
The Church possesses unique tools (e.g. a divine calling to care for creation and the ‘least of these’, experience with evangelism, concepts of repentance and spiritual discipline that can inspire a simpler lifestyle, a global network of people spanning all sectors of society) and, I would argue, the obligation to lead the world in addressing climate change. So far, the church has largely failed to take up this obligation, but as the realized impacts and predictions of climate change become more dire, I hear more and more Christian voices calling us in this direction, including direct participation in the upcoming COP26. Genuine good stewardship of our planet requires overcoming greed and the idolatry of comfort, requiring radical transformation of human hearts. True hope for repentance and renewal of creation is in God; his Creation is fruitful and can heal if we will do our part to maintain viable conditions on our planet.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14
Videos, articles, study guides and a sample of the book Wonders of the Living World: Curiosity, awe and the meaning of life, are available at wondersofthelivingworld.org.