I left you hanging last week with our Land Cruiser in between two rival lions on the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. We had joined a flurry of other jeeps eager to see an encounter between these magnificent males. Our adrenaline was building in anticipation of how this competition would play out.
From The Lion King we learn at an early age the challenges of a male lion. Young males are forced to leave the pride and usually must fight for a pride of their own. The dominant male of the pride must fend off rivals. The life of a male lion can be brutal.
There is, however, some evidence that males will cooperate, forming coalitions, to help survive those difficult adolescent years out on their own. These coalitions are often brothers, but some form among “friends” and can even include an older male mentor who lost his pride. While most of what happens between unrelated male lions is competitive, they can cooperate.
Johnson, our guide, maneuvered through the bush to get ahead of the rogue lion (Red Eye) while most of the jeeps followed the lion we had first encountered. Johnson had already told us that the Red Eye was the outsider who been injured by another nearby pride after trying to kill a young male cub. We followed Red Eye until he laid down beside a clump of bush. Johnson swung our jeep around so we could see both lions. It wasn’t long before the remaining jeeps joined us.
These two guys were only about ten feet apart when, after a pause, our lion friend advanced towards Red Eye. Red Eye stood and they trotted a few paces before there was a lunge and a cloud of dust as they disappeared into the brush.
Remember, it was another group’s guide who had told Johnson about Red Eye’s presence across the channel. In fact, I think even earlier conversations with other outfits had helped Johnson find us the closest lion activity. Cooperation among guides on a safari was common. They shared intel on their radios and in those brief conversations whenever vehicles were side-by-side.
That all seemed to change with the lunge and cloud of dust. Suddenly about eight jeeps were racing through the bush trying to track these rival lions and provide the best view for their passengers. We were bouncing up and down and getting thwacked by branches and brush as Johnson sped around trying to get us a glimpse of the chase. I’ve never been off-road racing, but I imagine the ride was quite similar.
When we got back to camp, one of my girls said, “Mama, I may have lost one of your gloves.” Somewhere in the flurry of jeeps chasing lions, while we white-knuckled our arm rests, a black glove was left behind in the delta.
- Here’s my earlier attempt to describe the debate around cooperation in biology.
- 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.
- Our upcoming video-based curriculum includes a lesson featuring this video on evolution produced by our friends at Science for Seminaries.
The Lion’s Roar
Roaring lions hunting their prey lurk throughout Scripture. The biblical lion is a creature of power, bold and unrivaled as a hunter, not unlike those in the Okavango Delta. They symbolize strength and courage and are creatures to be feared.
It took several minutes, but we found Red Eye in retreat. Soon after, we heard the kind of roar the Bible references which led us back towards the victor. For nearly half an hour, we followed him as he marked territory and roared his warnings to Red Eye and any other challengers. While we watched and listened, our guides were again chatting and sharing stories of these creatures they track.
This was the most powerful experience I’ve ever had of nature “red in tooth and claw.” Just remembering the intensity directed towards Red Eye, I find myself clenching my fist as if I will need to grasp a Land Cruiser’s armrest to brace myself for a chase.
Between Evolution and Christian Faith
Perhaps the best-known biblical reference to lions is the one where the lion lays down with the calf and eats hay like an ox (Isaiah 11:6-9). It is an image of the most feared of all beasts suddenly domesticated. We are told every year at Advent that thanks to a little boy that leads them, this is what we can anticipate when creation is finally redeemed from the fall.
Observing fauna and flora, human and non-human, our safari was a case study in both competition and cooperation. The indications of sin and grace, fall and redemption were everywhere around and even among us.
Many Christians feel stuck somewhere in between their faith and evolution. The issues are complicated but here is one place where I find agreement between the two. Observation clearly shows that Earth’s biology entails both competition and cooperation. It is the kind of world one would expect if you believe in the theological truths of fall and redemption. It is not implausible that the God revealed in scripture would use both cooperation and competition to advance life on our planet.
This may not eliminate the tensions you feel between faith and evolution, but I do believe it leads to Good News. We may not know the relative balance between cooperation and competition in the process of evolution—other than the fact that both play important roles. We may never fully understand the grind of daily life stuck somewhere in between sin and grace. But by faith, what we do know is that redemption follows the fall. “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5). These two truths remain: all life will die; but through Christ, death can now lead to eternal life.