Darwin, Tinker Creek and bugs

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Last night, Jeff and I watched Creation, a lovely little film that dramatizes the period in Darwin’s life right before the publication of  On the Origin of the Species. For those who are not familiar with Darwin’s biography or married to a historian of science who has some expertise on Darwin’s life, Darwin lost two children in infancy and his daughter, Annie, at the age of ten. He worried his whole life that his children’s deaths were due to the fact that he had married his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood, and that this inbreeding had led to genetic deficiencies. In the film, Darwin’s hesitancy and reluctance to finish and publish Origin is attributed to both his fear of upsetting Emma, who was deeply religious, and his feelings of guilt about the death of Annie. It’s a very sad but lovely film, and really drives home how difficult it would have been for Darwin, struggling with the potential effects the idea of natural selection would have on the world and the emotional fall-out from the death of a beloved child.

I’m also reading Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in slow, small increments at night. It’s meant to be the meditative reading I do before I go to bed, though I confess, sometimes it’s not all that comforting. Darwin and Dillard are both oddly interested and disturbed by bugs, and reading about praying mantis right before bed is not always what you’d call soothing.

In Creation, there’s a scene between Darwin and Reverend John Brodie-Innes, a priest and friend of the Darwin family. Brodie-Innes is trying to comfort Darwin and assure him that God has a plan, and Darwin cites the parasitoid wasp, which lays eggs inside live caterpillars. The larvae eat the caterpillar, alive, of course. There’s a lot of eating of things while they’re still alive in the insect world, and perhaps in nature in general. In Dillard’s book, she watches a frog gradually deflate as its insides are liquefied and then sucked out by a giant water bug. Then she describes another entymologist who observed a wasp licking honey off of a live honey bee it was eating while a praying mantis came along and began eating the live wasp. So what you have here is a mantis eating a wasp live while the wasp continues to eat the live honey bee. And is there really anything else to say to that but, eeuww?

Buddhists say, so Jeff tells me, that insects are the worse thing you can be reincarnated as because they are most ruled by their karma. Humans, of course, are the best because we are least ruled by our karma. Thank goodness, there’s very little of eating things alive or generally being eaten alive among we humans.

It seems to me the problem with insects, besides the fact that they’re just generally yucky, is that they problematize our attempts to develop a natural conscience. Countless philosophers, social theorists, and religious traditions have attempted to use nature as a guide to the way we as humans should behave. These often take the form of trying to discover “human nature,” which is supposed to be a reflection of what humans would be like without the effects of society and culture, a question which as a sociologist I find slightly ridiculous. In his book on environmental sociology, Michael Bell notes that the attempt to use nature as a guide to behavior usually goes in two directions–social reflection and social selection–and sometimes both. In the first, nature serves as a mirror and reflects back to us exactly whatever it is we most want to see. In social selection, we pick and choose exactly what it is about nature we want to see and ignore the icky stuff. Hence, when you hear people waxing poetic about nature, how often do they include parasitoid wasps? Bell, as a good sociologist, does a great job demonstrating how nature is socially constructed. Did Darwin “discover” natural selection in nature, or did the particular society in which he lived lead him to see nature in that particular way? How do other societies lead people to see nature in very different ways? If the way we view nature is always conditioned by the particular society in which we live, what are we really seeing when we look at nature?

I would describe myself as someone who likes nature. I like knowing the names of birds and watching them. I find it peaceful to be in the woods or on the beach. I like seeing the gently rolling hills in my native Kentucky and the bend of the river here in Southeastern Indiana. I like gardening and growing things, and I think that counts as nature, too. I like watching the odd and sometimes off-putting behavior of my cats, which I also consider nature. But I’m with Darwin and Dillard here in that I’m not sure what to do with bugs. They have their purpose and they certainly greatly outnumber us. In many ways, we are merely guests in an insect world, whether we choose to notice it or not. But I’m not sure if I want to know all the time exactly what they’re up to. I’m not sure what the lesson is for me to learn, except a small cautionary note. The sunset is pretty, as are the swifts diving into the chimney next door at dusk and even the turkeys looking ancient and paleolithic at the side of the road. But the insects are a cautionary tale…it ain’t all sunsets and pretty birds, they warn us. It is also sometimes bloody and mindless and, well, horrifying. And what are we to do with that?

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