Parasitic wasps and the death of Jesus, with hat-tip to Darwin

To the cynical natural history films are a mixture of sex and violence with either animals bonking in exotic ways or tearing each other to bits. Usually it is often a large cat tearing down a buck and then scoffing the gory remains. Yet most will find the ichneumon wasps too much for even the least squeamish. The female lays her eggs in a caterpillar and the larvae eat up the caterpillar from the inside but keeping the poor thing alive until they have metamorphosed into their imagos i.e. flying wasps. Those who have been to the tropics will know jiggers. The first thing you realise that your toe by a nail is very itchy. When you look it is red and the temptation is to scratch. After several days of infuriating discomfort you notice that the centre of the red area is a tiny black circle. Soon after that you can squeeze hard and out plops the larva, and the redness subsides. The ichneumon do it on a bigger scale!

Here is a picture of a caterpillar with the larvae exiting their host. Not a picture for the squeamish!!



Just imagine the larvae chomping away at the caterpillar which is just alive. Very grisly!

But this clip of a parasitic wasp is even more graphic and  takes the violence to an extreme.

Enjoy it!!

This video of maggots eating a caterpillar alive from the inside and then sending it mad is the stuff of horror films and would make most people squirm. It’s bad enough describing how to get rid of jiggers to even the least squeamish, but this!! Yuk, double yuk! Now Charles Darwin was squeamish and that is why he gave up medicine when he witnessed an operation on a child. To Darwin the ichneumon fly casts doubt on the benevolence of God as he wrote to the Christian botanist Asa Gray on 22nd May 1860 on issues raised by The Origin of Species. He wrote;

I cannot persuade myself that a benificient &omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intent of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that cats should play with mice.

Here Darwin lays bare the whole problem of theodicy; how we understand the existence of pain, suffering and death with a loving God. Little did he think when he casually wrote that letter to Asa Gray raising issues of belief in God, that his comments would be read and considered by so many and come to epitomise the question of a loving God. This letter and the reference to the ichneumon is a reminder that Darwin’s doubts about Christianity were less intellectual and more on morality and suffering.

Darwin was a sensitive person and in 1827 gave up studying medicine in Edinburgh because he could not accept the suffering involved in operations, having witnessed one on a child. His sqeamishness turned to a questioning of a benificient God and the death of his ten year old daughter Annie in 1851 is often seen as the last straw for his Christian faith. However Jim Moore argued somewhat too neatly that this extinguished what little Christian faith he had. He had found hard to accept the death of his father in 1848, who as an unbeliever had no place in Redemption. During this period Darwin studied several works of theology which had moved beyond the edges of orthodoxy notably F.W.Newman’s Phases of Faith (1850). As Moore points out “there was no resting place en route from Anglicanism through Unitarianism to a purely theistic belief….Darwin gave up Christianity”(1 ). He did not give up belief in God, but could not reconcile a loving God with such unneccessary death and suffering. This questioning stayed with Darwin for the rest of his life. His religious musings in his Autobiography also show that his problems with Christianity were not so much intellectual as moral, and thus Darwin may be regarded as a typical Victorian moral critic of Christianity (2 ). Nowhere does this come out more poignantly than in his letter to Gray of 22nd May 1860, as the essence of his letter is the question,’How can a loving God allow suffering?’


Darwin had sent Gray a complimentary copy of the Origin in November 1859 and Gray, who had known of Darwin’s natural selection theory for several years, soon made his basic acceptance clear to Darwin. In the first part of 1860 Gray was both arranging the publication of the Origin in the U.S.A. and writing a favourable review for the Atlantic Monthly. Frequent letters passed between them mostly on these preceeding matters, but also openly discussing more religious matters. In a letter dated 22nd May Darwin aired his problems over suffering. Unfortunately the letter from Gray dated 7th May has not been found. Darwin’s letter dealt first with matters of the American edition and then of recent reviews, refering to negative ones by Sedgwick, Clarke, Duns and Owen. The second part of the letter deals with ‘the theological view of the question’ and Darwin dealt with theological rather than scientific problems, stating ‘I cannot see, as plainly as others do,…. evidence of design and beneficence.’ He could not see how a good God could have created an Ichneumon fly or allowed cats to play with mice. Ichneumonidae lay their eggs in live caterpillars which remain alive until the larvae pupate, and gave the basis for the SF film Alien! It is difficult not to feel the force of Darwin’s argument as he required a benificient theodicy, and could not reconcile ‘Nature Red in tooth and claw’ with a loving God. To Darwin God not only had to be an Intelligent Designer, He also had to be a Loving Designer.

Many of Darwin’s scientific predecessors, however, did not feel the problem of suffering so keenly as is evidenced by those who wrote the Bridgewater Treatises a generation earlier. The Bridgewaters represent the height of design and evidential theology in the 1830s. All the authors were Christian, mostly clergy. At least two discussed suffering. Buckland, the Oxford Geologist, who in the 1820s was the foremost proponent of Diluvialism, wrote On Geology and Mineralogy in 1836 which, according to Jon Topham, was the biggest seller of the eight and found in many mechanics’ institutes (3 ). This treatise presented the geological and palaeontological understanding of the mid-1830s through the eyes of one of geology’s foremost Anglican exponents. By 1835 Buckland had rejected his diluvialism and in 1838 became convinced of the Ice Ages proposed by Agassiz, following a visit to the Jura. Theologically Buckland was close to moderate Evangelicalism as was his friend Edward Copleston of Oriel College, whom Simeon considered to share all his essential beliefs. In the 1820s Buckland was encouraged by the Evangelical theologians J.B.Sumner (Archbishop of Canterbury 1848-62) and G.S.Faber, and by the ultra-conservative Bishop Shute Barrington of Durham (4 ). To Buckland and many contemporary Evangelicals predation did not contradict the beneficience of God, as is shown by Chap XIII of his Bridgewater Treatise; ‘Aggregate of Animal Enjoyment increased, and that of Pain diminished, by the existence of Carnivorous Races’. Neither did they accept that passages such as  Genesis 3 or Romans 8 raised problems for the concept of predation (5 ) Buckland is echoing Paley’s view of suffering in Natural Theology where he says without predation we would ‘see the world filled with drooping, superannuated, half-starved, helpless and unhelped animals’ (29 ).

And put satirically by the Oxford professor of chemistry, Charles Daubeny;

It is true  Paradise was delicious and nice,

Yet, if those born on earth had ne’er died,

‘Twould have been such a cram, like the berries in jam,

Pic-a-back men and women must ride.

 William Kirby’s On the History, Habits and instincts of Animals (1835 ) was unique among the Bridgwater Treatises for adopting a young earth position to the consternation of other writers. The introductory chapter claimed that all strata were laid down in the Flood. Kirby was the leading early 19th century entomologist and his work was widely used by Darwin. This is borne out by his correspondence with the Rev John Rodwell in late 1860, describing cats and blind rats and how these supported the ideas in the Origin. On discovering that Kirby was Rodwell’s uncle he wrote, ‘whom I for as long as I can remember have venerated’. In 1818 Kirby and Spence had written a four volume Introduction to Entymology of which Darwin had a heavily annotated copy. As his was the first edition he probably used it for his beetlemania at Cambridge. In the second volume of his Bridgwater Treatise Kirby described the Ichneumon and how they destroy pests ‘by the goodness of Providence'(6 ). The chapter on insects speaks of them demonstrating the beneficence of God in their beauty, design and behaviour, especially the maternal care of the female wasp which found a suitable caterpillar for the larvae to feed on , slowly eating the poor beastie from the inside as in the video clip, something Darwin could not accept. However in his letter to Gray on 22nd May 1860 it is far more likely that Darwin was thinking of Kirkby’s account in his Entymology rather than his Bridgewater, as the former was one of Darwin’s most used texts. Kirkby described how, ‘The active Ichneumon braves every danger, and does not desist until her courage and address have insured subsistence for one of her future progeny'(7). Kirkby focussed on maternal care of the wasp and Darwin on the poor caterpillar.

There is not only suffering caused by predation , disease and other aspects of pain for living beings,but that caused by the earth itself, especially volcanoes and earthquakes. Last month saw the ghastly earthquake in Nepal caused by a small shift in the Indian plate sliding under the Eurasian plate. It was nearly as powerful as the Nepal earthquake of 80 years ago and the Assam earthquake of 1950. April was also the 200th anniversary of the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia, which killed thousands near the volcano and disrupted the climate and thus harvests for several years , causing even more deaths. No wonder the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed some 10,000 to 100,000 people in the city alone. The repercussion were also theological and philosophical and the common argument that it showed God’s judgement lacked plausibility, especially as Lisbon’s Red Light district got off lightly! Among others Voltaire and Kant wrote on the questions raised, particularly of a totally benevolent creation.

With a growing understanding of geology and the structure of the earth, it was increasingly impossible not to see that these “natural evils” have been there from all time and WRITTEN into the structure of the earth. There was no way anyone could accept the view of theodicy immortalised by Milton in Paradise Lost;

Of man’s first disobedience ,and the fruit

Of the forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe.

With loss of Eden…….

 Without me giving a well-thought out understanding of death and suffering in relation to a belief in a loving God, we have to say that any  philosophical or religious view which does not accept that earthquakes, suffering and death are part of the inherent fabric of this planet is utterly false.

But there are those, who do not say this as Young Earth Creationists will echo the theodicy of John Milton and say there was no suffering or death, and even earthquakes before the Fall. It is the lynchpin of creationist thought and can be persuasive. A good example is Ken Ham’s musings on the Nepal earthquake;

You see, God’s original creation did not contain earthquakes or any other natural disasters. When God saw all that He had made over Creation Week, He called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The original creation was free from any death or suffering. It wasn’t until Adam and Eve rebelled against God that death and suffering became a part of our world (Genesis 2:17, 3:1–24). The death and suffering caused by this earthquake is a reminder of sin and the severe consequences that rebellion against our Creator brings.

I cannot buy into that and at this point I am somewhat theologically challenged by suffering, or bewildered  as was Darwin. Thus Darwin wrote ‘With respect to the theological view of the question …. I am bewildered’ as ‘There seems to be too much misery in the world’. A few lines further he wrote,’On the other hand I cannot ….. conclude that everything is a result of brute force’ (21 May 1860). Perhaps like William Blake, Darwin could accept that God ‘designed’ the lamb, but did not frame the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the tyger (8 ). As Blake’s biographer wrote “Few poems have been scrutinised so closely”, and one reading is that a benevolent God made the lamb but not the tyger. Among critics, there is little agreement to its meaning. However his Book of Urizen seems to accept two creators one benevolent and Urizen the other, thus providing a mythological dualism to explain the negative in creation (9 ).

Suffering was an insuperable problem for belief to Darwin, and in the face of it he was left bewildered as to whether a beneficient God could have designed a world with so much animal pain. Darwin’s theodicy was a baffled reverent agnosticism; Buckland and Kirkby regarded animal suffering as God’s intention for the natural order, but this became less acceptable in a post-Chloroform society.

I originally gave much of this material at a Christians in Science conference in 1996 (when I was introduced to Intelligent Design in the form of Behe’s book). At the conference where this paper was presented the most perceptive and awkward question was on how I, as a minister, tried to minister to people in the midst of suffering. Two days after the conference I was due to bury a little baby of five months, so the questioner touched a nerve. To give a brief outline how I personally grapple with suffering, I start with God as Creator, echoing God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind (Job. 38 -42) and considering the Love of God reflected in the beauty of Creation. I then move to the death of Christ, the Son of God and the Crucified God who not only forgave sins but also entered into all human suffering. I often focus on the cry of dereliction “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ( Mark.15.34.) Pastorally, I look for the appropriate way of considering Christ’s death as entering into suffering and seek what is the right and sensitive approach to the people concerned. I find I have to say things with diffidence rather than a boldness, which would be insensitive. I have found Darwin’s concerns over suffering most helpful and challenging to my own pastoral work. Desmond’s treatment of the poignant correspondence between Huxley and Kingsley over the death of Huxley’s little son Noel has also been spiritually formative for me and gave me the kernel for a sermon at the annual Memorial Service in my Church. (Desmond op cit. p286-9) Darwin and Huxley both raised acute problems over the goodnesss of God in their pain over the loss of young children. No help will be found from an Intelligent Designer or a Cosmic Fine Tuner. Like Job they were angry with God for “taking away” their children, see Job chaps 2 and 3. The beginnings of an answer come in Job chap 38 where God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and asks Job where he was at Creation. For succour one must go to the Suffering Servant who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” ( Isaiah 53.4.) Christians need to listen to both Darwin and Huxley over suffering as they raise the deepest of personal issues as well as the less important intellectual ones.

Ultimately, I do not get much further than echoing Jesus’s cry of dereliction;

My God , my god , why have you forsaken me.

1.) Desmond, A. and Moore, J.Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, (1991), chap 25 ‘Our Bitter & Cruel Loss’ especially p299.

2.) On the “moral criticism” of Christianity see Altholz, J. ‘The Warfare of Conscience with Theology.’, (1976) in Parsons, G. Religion in Victorian Britain. Vol IV. , Manchester: Manchester University Press (1988), p150-169. (Useful, despite howlers on the history of science!)

3) Topham, J. ‘Science and popular education in the 1830s’, British Journal for the History of Science (1992) 25, 397-430.

4.) Rupke ,The Great Chain of History p14.

5.) Buckland. W, Geology and Mineralogy considered in reference to Natural Theology., 2 vols, London, 1836 etc.

Buckland, W. An inquiry whether the sentence of death… London 1839.

See S.J.Gould’s discussion of the same theme in ‘Nonmoral Nature’ in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, London, Penguin, 1984, p32-45.

6.) Paley, W. op cit, p312.

7.) Kirkby, W. On the power, wisdom, and goodness of God. as manifested in the Creation of Animals London, various editions, from 1853 edit vol ii, p243.

Kirkby, W and Spence, W., An Introduction to Entomology, London, 1856 (6th Edition), p194.

8.) William Blake, Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright; and Little lamb, who made thee?

9.) Ackroyd, P, BlakeLondon, (1995), pp399, p 143f & p175.



One thought on “Parasitic wasps and the death of Jesus, with hat-tip to Darwin

  1. markbeaumont1951


    A beautifully expressed piece which gets inside the reactions of Darwin to personal loss. John Hick reacted to the loss of his two year old child in the 60’s by adopting universal salvation as the only way to account for the goodness of God in the face of death by cerebral meningitis of his beloved child. That solution is incredibly attractive but I have resisted it in light of the drift of scriptural revelation. A similar reaction to the holocaust by Moltmann I also have not been able to affirm, in that for him the 6 million victims are caught up in the sacrificial death of Christ that releases them into a new realm of existence.

    My own way of dealing with horrendous loss is to worship the Lord who set up the world to allow for such disasters and to leave the consequences of such awful pain to his purposes. I cannot dictate to Him as an equal partner in managing the world that he has also invited me to share in managing. I trust His ability to make sense of all the ins and outs of life, the ups and downs of existence, for He has the mentality to cope that He has not given to me! I’m very glad I’m not in charge!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s