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All Things Small and Great

It's time for a new, conservation-minded view of the microbial communities that live on and in us

Robert L. Dorit

Those who favor the big stomp approach to our interactions with the living world often point to the Bible for justification. As heavyweight sources go, the Bible is hard to beat, and sure enough, there it is, right at the beginning, an injunction to master the earth. God tells our forbears to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28). The commandment to "replenish the earth" has long been overshadowed by the drive toward "dominion" over nature. No wonder our ancestors thought the world was at their disposal.

If modern sensibilities recoil at this Biblical passage, it's because times have changed, and recently some commentators have worked hard to interpret the verse out of existence. But before we do so, it is worth remembering that the words were written some 3,000 years ago, at a time when the notion of subduing the natural world was no more than fantasy. The authors of these texts lived a hard, nomadic existence in an arid, inhospitable land. They survived at the mercy of natural forces that they could not understand, let alone control. Dominion over nature must have sounded pretty good.

And yet the authors of Genesis spell out an entirely different relationship to the natural world just a few verses later (2:15; 2:19). Adam is enjoined to dress and to keep the Garden of Eden. And, in his last act as a man alone, Adam gives every living thing a name. Adam the dominator has become Adam the gardener and Adam the taxonomist, a man responsible for curating and tending all of creation. From this point on, plenty of biblical metaphors suggest that a greener, more nurturing approach to other living things, and even to the land itself, may work out better for us in the end.

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