One of the most tense viewing experiences to ever happen in my household took place earlier this year as my sons, husband, and I hovered around the television, cheering and screaming for the outcome of a race. It wasn’t the Olympics or some popular automobile extravaganza. It was baby iguana vs. racer snakes, and the show was Planet Earth II.
First airing in the United Kingdom on BBC One in 2016, it was then released internationally in early 2017 (viewable in the United States on BBC America). Finally, Planet Earth II dropped on Netflix in January 2018 for those of us without cable or network television. Aided by the smooth narration of David Attenborough, Hans Zimmer’s dynamic score, and stunning ultra-high-definition 4k camera technology that makes you feel like you are walking, swimming, and soaring alongside the animals onscreen, Planet Earth II is an achievement on all fronts. It’s one thing to empathize with the plight of our fellow humans, but quite another to have our emotions so manipulated we feel greater pathos for the life of a reptile than we may feel for the outcome of an Olympic final. Obviously I don’t speak for all people, but in conversations in my slice of the Internet world, friends expressed emoting more while watching scenes in Planet Earth II than they did watching any sporting event, ever—and I know our experiences weren’t isolated. The race between the baby iguanas and the racer snakes on the Galápagos Islands, from episode one, alone, has gone viral.Human life is so much more meaningful than a mad scramble for existence—the sum total of our days so much more than to live and breed, to fight for existence and then die.
Planet Earth II is a good show to watch with the entire family, and for someone like me—with kids ranging between ages 3 and 11—that’s a rare thing to find. But as we sat captivated (horrified, inspired, tormented) by the plight of the baby iguanas, I began to ponder what sets us apart from the animals on the screen. My ponderings went beyond that first episode and that mad dash. Planet Earth II, although spectacular and a grand feat of nature documentary, ultimately tells a redundant story. Every interaction on the screen between the animals is driven by one—or some combination—of three things: The need to breed, the need to feed, and the need for basic survival (which, arguably, is just an amalgamation of the first two). Fight, breed, eat, repeat.
It’s a futile cycle, but one that is clearly captivating to watch under the right ultra-high-def-4k circumstances. And perhaps what makes it captivating to watch is the implicit understanding that we are not the same as the animals on the screen, driven by pure animalistic survival where the strongest survive and get to mate. (Although, in our age of toxic masculinity, maybe we need a reminder of this fact from time to time.)
Human life is so much more meaningful than a mad scramble for existence—the sum total of our days so much more than to live and breed, to fight for existence and then die. But because we are human, when we watch a show like Planet Earth II, we can’t help but impose our own sense of meaning onto the futile struggles we see on the screen. Every one of those animals will live the same cycle over and over again until death comes sooner, or later, driven by instinct and little more. But mankind is set apart.
What exactly is it that sets us apart, though? The producers of the show seem determined to drive home the message that humans are the apex predators on the planet, and that sets us above the rest. Of course, they are not wrong, in one sense. But the message of predator vs. prey is the message of the racer snakes vs. the baby iguanas, and humanity’s place on planet Earth is so much more than that. In fact, the program Planet Earth II (and others like it) wouldn’t exist at all if our identity was a mere evolutionary leap forward on the predatory food chain. Wonder, sub-creation, stewardship—these are attributes and obligations given to us by our Creator. These things reveal what really sets us apart from the animal kingdom and what our role is, not in it, but over it.
Genesis 1:26 reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” After the creation of the entire animal kingdom, God brought forth humanity in his own image, and he gave humans dominion over all animals, later also telling Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” God’s image, or the Imago Dei (as the Latin is often used), is what sets humankind apart from the animals, and there is a clear mandate issued side-by-side with the unique creation of mankind that we are to steward the earth and all the creatures within it. But this is a mandate we have all too often neglected.
The scientific community acting outside the Church often calls people to act to restore the world’s resources, as much as we are able—to take care of the planet we share with the animal kingdom. That is, ultimately, why programs like Planet Earth II get made—to draw people into a new appreciation of the planet, to educate people of our limited resources, and to call people to action to do their part in recycling efforts. Christians sometimes bow up at these efforts, either because they are uncomfortable with the evolutionary language, or because they are suspicious of the science. But Christians should remember that the first call to be good stewards of this planet came from God himself, and our care of the earth actually points to human exceptionalism in the created order and proof of the Imago Dei.
Animals don’t run around wondering at their own existence, let alone marveling at the existence of others.The Imago Dei allows us awe and empathy and the ability to steward. It calls us to sub-create, to follow in the footsteps of our Creator in restorative, redemptive works to make all things new—including the earth upon which we live and eat and breathe. Animals steward their own existence, but humans can recycle, start animal shelters, build artificial structures capable of growing trees in the midst of our cities, and so much more. We do these things because we’re innovative. Because we have the imprint of our creator on us. Because we are sub-creators.
And because we should. If someone were to build a home for you and hand you the keys, you would, hopefully, want to take care of it and everything in it. Taking an “us vs. them” mentality of our place on the planet in the animal kingdom is no different than conceding to a naturalistic viewpoint that says we are no more than the apex predator, scrambling for existence right alongside the rest of the beasts. But if we can remember the unique imprint of God on us, and our obligation to take dominion of the earth, we should be inspired when watching programs like Planet Earth II: We are not part of the futile struggle for survival, but called to steward everything on earth, with hope not just for a redeemed humanity, but a redeemed creation.