Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Lord God Made Them...All?

Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks 1834
I've always loved James Herriot's books about his life as a Yorkshire veterinarian. That was pretty much inevitable, since I'm the son of an English teacher and a rural veterinarian. The books are full of comical but kind-hearted stories about eccentric creatures and their even more eccentric owners, and they're pretty much delightful all the way through. If you find yourself in a bad mood, Dr. Herriot offers good medicine.

The title of one of his books, which is often used as the title of the whole set, is All Creatures Great and Small. This comes from the second line of an Anglican hymn called Maker of Heaven and Earth, written by Ms. Cecil Frances Alexander in the 1840's. Its first verse goes:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Once Herriot had used the second line, it was a no-brainer to use the other three for the titles of later books. I always liked those four lines. They really do fit the books perfectly, with their unabashed innocence and reverence. They don't match the more cynical, ironic aesthetic you find these days at all, but that's fine with me. 

But the rest of the hymn, it turns out, isn't as charming. Besides getting a bit too cutesy, it also includes this uncomfortable little verse: 
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

That's not the only part of the hymn I can't agree with, though. As much as I like the first verse, I don't think the Lord God really made them all, any more than I think he made the 19th century English class system. Science has made it clear that all the animals on earth, as well as all the plants, fungi, diatoms, bacteria, etc, were shaped by evolution, not God. If there is a God, maybe he set the whole thing in motion, but even if the theory of evolution had never been formulated, I still wouldn't believe God could have crafted each of the living things on earth himself. Not if God is good, as most theists think he is.

Because the thing is, all things aren't bright and beautiful, much less wise and wonderful. Some creatures are really just horrid. I learned this at an early age, because as I said, my dad is a veterinarian. For as long as I can remember, he's had a jar in his office with a dog's heart in formaldehyde. The dog was killed by the heartworms that are still packed into its heart like a fistfull of vermicelli. Dad brings it out to show people why they need to get their dog on heartworm prevention medicine. It works. He's also got a jar of sheep bot fly larvae, and the less said about their life cycle, the better. Suffice it say you don't want to be a sheep.

When people wax eloquent about how God crafted all creatures great and small, they don't usually have heartworms or bot flies in mind. They talk about lambs, or hummingbirds, or whales...the beautiful people of the animal kingdom. But really, those who believe there's a God, and that he is good, might want to think twice about crediting him with some of the other creatures. Did God create the heartworm as well as the lamb? Did he create the bot fly that lays its eggs in that lamb's nose (sorry, TMI). Did he create the brain-eating amoeba and the bubonic plague...or the fleas that carried it...or the rats that carried them? Did he devise the lifecycle of the parasitic wasps I discussed in my last post? Did he teach the little cuckoos, laid in another bird's nest, to hatch early and push the rightful eggs over the edge? Do we really want to chalk those things up to God? 

The irreverent geniuses of Monty Python made the same point, lampooning Ms. Alexander's optimistic little hymn with their version; All Things Dull and Ugly, which begins:
All things dull and ugly
All creatures short and squat
All things rude and nasty
The Lord God made the lot 
Each little snake that poisons
Each little wasp that stings
He made their brutish venom
He made their horrid wings
Now, some may think I'm doing a sort of reverse cherry-picking, by choosing some especially yucky creatures to talk about. Surely those are in the minority? Well, no. Most people think parasites are on the yucky side of creation, and if you include bacteria and viruses in the definition of "parasite", then parasites may outnumber "free-living species" four to one. Parasites strike us as especially uncalled for, but they aren't the only source of nastiness in the living world. Male ducks, for example, practice something euphemistically known as "forced copulation". Among mammals, infanticide is rampant. There are snakes that lie in wait in nests, and welcome hatching babies into the world by eating them. They've been doing this since the hatchlings were dinosaurs. Most species on earth either eat, or are eaten by, other species. Many do both, of course (though they tend to have the second experience only once). 

If God is good, and God made the natural world--designing each organism in its turn--why is there so much pain and strife in nature? If you're going to credit a supernatural creator, Satan seems like a better candidate than God for some of what goes on out there. Doesn't Old Scratch seem more likely, for example, to have arranged for baby sharks to eat each other in the womb? That has his stamp all over it. As Darwin himself said, "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!"

You can believe that God is good, or you can believe that He created every species personally, but I don't see how you can believe both at the same time. This leads to a surprising thought. If you want to keep believing God is good, it actually makes more sense to believe living species were created by a blind, amoral process of natural selection than individually by God. Natural selection is where all the evidence points, anyway, and it doesn't put us in the position of trying to explain why God made the liver fluke and the Guinea worm. Or, for that matter, why Satan did. The idea that those things evolved by blind natural processes may not be especially uplifting, but it's not as depressing as thinking they were created by a vengeful God or the evil king of the underworld.

But enough about the nastiness of the living world. It is an undeniable fact, but there's a lot more to nature than that. As shocked as Darwin was by waste and cruelty in nature, he also found nature awe-inspiring. This is apparent in these beautiful and oft-quoted concluding lines of The Origin of Species
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
In later editions of the book, Darwin actually changed the text to say "breathed by the Creator." I'm not sure whether he believed this, or if it was meant to make the idea more palatable to the public. Darwin himself seems to have been an agnostic later in life. Whatever the implications of his theory for religion, Darwin was right about evolution, and I think he was also right about nature's grandeur. It really is full of "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful". Nature may be amoral, but it's astonishingly creative; inventive beyond all human imagining. Some of those creations are beautiful, and some are awful, but all of them are amazing in one way or another.

From salt-loving bacteria in boiling volcanic pools, to horned narwals navigating though arctic ice, the variety of life is stunning. This world has seen dragonflies the size of crows and giant ground sloths the size of elephants. There are fish that fly and birds that swim; flowers that mimic insects and insects that mimic flowers. In the Rocky Mountains there are aspen groves--single organisms connected at the roots--covering dozens of acres and living for tens of thousands of years. You could study the living world all your life and never run out of wonders to marvel at. The Lord God didn't make them all (and that should be good news for people of faith), but that doesn't mean the world can't be bright and beautiful.


Do Parasites Rule the World? / Carl Zimmer

I discovered Monty Python's version of the hymn, and Darwin's remarks about a devil's chaplain, in Richard Dawkins' excellent book The Greatest Show On Earth.