It was our second to last day in the Okavango Delta and our guide Johnson, following our wishes, was trying to find a lion. He took us to a wetter part of the Delta and along a slightly deeper channel, we saw a hippo enjoying the morning sun not more than 20 feet from our Land Cruiser. On his back was a bird, likely breaking its nighttime fast on ticks.
Johnson did not stop long for us to watch the hippo. He drove on as we looked back at the hippo gently bobbing in the water. After only a few hundred yards, he stopped. We turned to our left to find a majestic male lion gazing beyond the hippo across the channel. We didn’t know which way to look while parked in between two of Africa’s most magnificent creatures.
This is the setting that has had me pondering questions at the intersection between biology and faith at great length. What unfolded became the most striking example of survival of the fittest I have ever witnessed.
Nature’s Tooth and Claw
There is an ongoing debate in biology regarding the relative importance of both cooperation and competition. Even before Darwin, it was clear competition was a part of life on our planet. Search the scriptures for “lion” and you will find a bold, frightful competitor. After Darwin, the prevalence of competition leaked out of biology and into many other sectors. Markets compete, as do ideas and memes. Humans must compete, not just for survival but to get ahead.
What this narrative leaves out is the enormous role of cooperation in all these same systems. You can’t beat the other team or the other guy without an assist from a teammate or colleague. Cooperation is found nearly everywhere in biology too. Between competition and cooperation, it is not clear which is the primary driver of evolution.
I see this interplay between competition and cooperation like I see the interplay between sin and grace or fall and redemption. For now, seeing the empirical evidence only dimly, it is difficult to see what the scriptures promise us — that ultimately grace and redemption will win out. This comparison between competition and cooperation is not a perfect analogy for sin and grace — we can cooperate with forces of evil and injustice just as we compete with that which opposes God’s will. Yet, they do represent the kind of world we would expect stuck between the fall and our ultimate redemption.
An Uninvited Visitor
Our lion friend seemed calm when we first came upon him, but he was very intent, staring through the jeeps that had gathered to marvel at him. On our other side, the hippo had a fit of energy bobbing out of the water and opening its mouth nearly 180 degrees flaunting its large canines.
While we were gazing back and forth, unsure where to focus our attention, Johnson was speaking to another guide whose passengers were photographing the lion and hippo. He learned of a second male lion across the channel, a few hundred yards beyond the hippo. It was then that it became clear this was the subject of our lion’s attention, and perhaps the reason for the hippo’s canine display.
Our lion eventually began to move along the channel, pausing here and there. Finally, he walked past the jeeps and crossed the channel, paying no heed to the hippo. Johnson, unsure if our Land Cruiser could cross the channel, plunged boldly across so we could follow. Soon, dripping wet, we pulled up beside the second lion.
He had an injured eye (I’ll dub him Red Eye), and Johnson immediately recognized it as a rogue male who had tried to kill a young male cub and, as a result, had been badly injured by another nearby pride. He had fled here and was now intruding on a second pack, which was led by our first lion friend.
As our friend slowly approached, Red Eye got up and moved. Several vehicles now followed each lion. Soon, we were maneuvering between the lions.
- Here’s my earlier attempt to describe the debate around cooperation in biology.
- Director of Faraday Churches, Ruth Bancewicz, reflects on these themes for Christianity Today.
- Take a deeper dive into evolution and cooperation with theologian Sarah Coakley.
- If you are considering a safari, I highly recommend Bushman Plains in Botswana, one of the few Black African owned and operated safari outfits. Contact Deeper Africa to learn more.
- Check out our collection of resources on biology and evolution.
- Our friends at BioLogos, Peaceful Science, and Faraday Churches have many more resources on Christian approaches to modern biology.
On the Other Side of the Delta
I don’t think I was the only member of our family who dreamed of seeing a lurking big cat pounce and chase down its prey. We saw several big cats but never saw one go in for the kill during our five-day safari.
Instead, what we saw was lots of cooperation, like oxpeckers on the backs of wildebeests and hippos, or hyenas crunching bones leftover from a nighttime kill, or all the birds who would sound out danger to all the animals within earshot.
And then there was the poop. It was everywhere on the sandy delta, spreading seeds and nutrients that mixed with the flood waters to create a rich habitat in a region that might otherwise be channels of water in a sandy desert.
Johnson knew this combination of cooperation and competition, growing up hunting in the delta with his father. He described many of our daily ventures as a hunt, only without a gun. He and his ancestors had lived on this land for centuries and knew the complicated webs that connected animals and plants and the place of humans (and even the Land Cruisers) within it. He was our guide to see and appreciate both sides of the Delta.
An Exciting Siesta
Each afternoon was a siesta, a chance to rest up after early morning hunts with Johnson. It was a time to take in each day’s experiences plus a nap and shower before the late day safari. This was the time I found myself pondering questions of competition and cooperation, fall and redemption, processing all that we had seen and were learning about God’s amazing creation.
One siesta, I was roused by my family pointing towards the crackling of branches. Just outside our tent, an elderly elephant, known as Sam, was snacking on the trees that stretched out from our camp to the grass-covered plains. Over a period of several minutes, he crushed tree branches and crunched leaves as he moved across the vista in front our tent. In between bites of tree, he pulled a clump of grass, shook off any bugs or parasites, and ate anything in his path.
Sam had come through the camp the previous night — quite loudly — leaving behind crushed branches and cracked trees along with multiple piles of dung. His trail of ruin all but killed several trees, and at the same time, left behind the seeds and fertilizers needed to grow new ones.
Stuck in our tent, Sam manifested these questions about competition and cooperation, fall and redemption. His actions were both life-taking and life-giving. This is something we know a thing or two about as Christians: even from death comes new life.
Next week, I’ll finish the tale of those lions.
Safari Photos by Ruth Rick.