In the beginning of the history of biodiversity on earth, life first emerged from non-life, forming a living thing that continued to multiply and grow in ever-changing splendour, radically transforming the story of the earth.
Over eons of time, the branches of this ‘tree of life’ were shaped though interaction with the natural environment leading to the development of complexity and a vast diversity of species.
Charles Darwin invoked the scientific concept of a 'tree of life' in his great work ‘On the Origin of Species’ to describe the evolutionary relationships between all living things on earth.
Darwin wrote: ‘The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree...As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.’
The theory of evolution has been exhaustively tested and broadly verified by a wide range of evidence especially in the field of genetics. A common ancestry for all life on earth is confirmed by the universality of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic code that specifies the manufacture of the proteins from which living things are formed. Every living thing is related with genetic roots trailing back through time to the beginning of life itself forming an unbroken chain of deep connection.
Throughout evolutionary history, this one precious tree, the only one that we know of in the universe, has lost twigs and branches in major extinction events just as new shoots have continued to flourish.
Today, humans are largely responsible for wielding the axe that leads to mass extinctions. Therefore, it is more critical now than ever before for us to understand the ‘tree of life’ so that effective conservation approaches can be put in place. It is time to rediscover, re-imagine and revitalise the biblical story of Noah’s ark to protect the inhabitants of the earth against the flood of environmental destruction that we ourselves have caused.
Remarkably, the symbol of a tree has stood the test of time for millennia. Today, its universality draws us towards the global compatibility of science, environmental ethics, social justice and spirituality.
In human culture, the ‘tree of life’ features in nearly all forms of religion and symbolises harmony, connection and balance. In the biblical Book of Genesis, the tree of life stood next to the tree of knowledge in the middle of the Garden of Eden and conferred on anyone eating its fruit the gift of immortality. In the Book of Revelation, this tree also appears in the midst of a holy city.
With its roots penetrating deep into the ground and its arching branches reaching majestically up into the sky, the ‘tree of life’ is a deeply meaningful symbol that helps us to comprehend and value the vastness and diversity of the life-giving, deeply-rooted, ever-fruitful tree of the Spirit of God.
The ‘tree of life’ is nothing less than a divine invitation to all people towards a full life in harmony with our deepest selves, with God and with all creation. This is what it means to live upon the earth. By answering the amazing appeal of the Almighty, we come to dwell within the boundless beauty of Belonging amidst the complete connectedness of Creation.