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Friday, July 11, 2008

Killer insects and intelligent design

Norbert Smith, who was quoted here earlier about bison (which attracted the attention of a number of publicly funded Canadian Darwinbots), also writes to introduce me to a wasp called the cicada killer:

Growing up poor in western Oklahoma I did not have a lot of toys and enjoyed watching cicada killers. This is our largest North American wasp and they are amazing to watch. They capture a cicada several times larger them themselves and carefully sting the nerve ganglia that control the wings of the "locust" first. Next, one by one, they paralyze the ganglia that control each of the insect’s legs. The process often takes several minutes. Once the cicada is totally disabled they drag it up the nearest tree or fence post and fly toward their already prepared burrow. The prey is much to large for them to sustain flight and upon hitting the ground they again climb up any nearby structure and repeat this process until finally they have carried the cicada to its burrow. They then bury it and deposit a single egg. The larva carefully eats around the vital organs and finally eats the remainder of the prey and pupates. For this to have evolved by mutational error has always seemed impossible to this simple minded farm boy.
Well, of course it didn’t evolve by mutational error (= it just so happened) or by Darwinian evolution (= each and every step secured a selection advantage). From a human perspective, insects eating each other is all pretty nasty (think of the wings, for example).

But do we know that anyone except us actually cares? I got into quite a discussion with my e-mail friends on that very topic, and replied,

One thing that has always troubled me about the “evil in nature” schtick (and it so often does seem like a schtick) is the idea that the human perspective rules even though we don’t know that the life forms involved have any similar perspective.

I once saw a photo in National Geographic of praying mantises mating. The female had chewed off the male’s head. Apparently, he didn’t react to this insult, and simply continued mating. Both will die anyway soon after mating, but neither knows it. That’s just how insect life is.

Should God have given insects three score years and ten? Minds like human beings? Would the world be a better or worse place if he had?

Do insects suffer? So much of the kvetching I hear about insects (including Darwin’s) strikes me as a convenient confusion between aesthetics and morality.

Look, if I wanted a way to adjust the population of caterpillars and cicadas to prevent catastrophic vegetation loss in those years that favour insects, I would recycle the caterpillars through another insect and then through an animal life form - so as to keep the biota as varied as possible - rather than just giving the caterpillars a disease and turning them into bio compost.

So I might work out a system that does pretty much what Norbert describes. It’s quiet and convenient. The insect that is looking for a caterpillar does all the work with no further interventions needed.

If someone complains that it isn’t “nice”, I will offer them a 70-year lifespan insect, capable of a human level of thought, that breeds like flies - and has human rights in Spain!

Then I would ship him and the bug to Spain ...

THEN I would say, “Shuddup already and for good, Buster, or I am sending along its mate by a fast courier! And then welcome to the Garden of Breedin’ ”
Basically, I entirely agree that there IS a genuine moral question - around the suffering of animals that have a unitary consciousness. I mean animals that can feel pain as a locus of consciousness. Dogs, cats, horses, and apes are certainly animals of that type.

However, the caterpillar who munches along just as contentedly as he is himself munched is not a subject of such suffering and should not detain those who consider the question of suffering. Saint Charles Darwin was simply wrong about that.

(Note: The image is from Texas A & M Extension. Yeah extension! I love extension courses! Courses for the rest of us.)

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