Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Theo-Coleopteraphelia: Actually, “An inordinate fondness for beetles” is precisely what I would expect

There is a famous[1] exchange between the early, flamboyant, population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane[2] and a nameless, religious inquirer. In response to the question “What can we learn about the Creator from biology?”Haldane responded:

“An inordinate fondness for beetles.”[3]

You see, Coleoptera compose nearly a quarter of all described species. So many biologists cite this quote[4], from this famous, charismatic, atheist,[5] as a sort of snarky shot at all things teleological. If God exists, he is a beetle-fancier. Well, first, that would put him in excellent company:

But upon review, isn’t that exactly what you would expect of the God described in the Christian Scriptures? Doesn’t it seem consistent with a God who said “Blessed are you who hid these things from the wise and revealed them to babes” and “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”[6] and “those who are last will be first” to hide the great pinnacle of his creative glory in an unassuming basal trophic level.

My friend Justin has said something like: “the trajectory of the naturalist invariably gravitates from charismatic species to insects.”[7] I have found this to be true. The deeper I get into the ecology rabbit hole, the more entranced I become with insects. Otters and polar bears are the ‘gateway drug’ to the intoxicating world of biological diversity.

It is precisely this kind of God who would not ‘dance’ for the miracle seekers and who prefers a measure of hiddeness that would make this unassuming organism replete with wonder. It is precisely the kind of God who counter-intuitively embeds his glory in unassuming ‘jars of clay,’[8] and who chooses particularly unremarkable human institutions (e.g. the wandering Hebrews in the first testament and the church in the second) to make himself know, who builds the best part of reality ‘just beneath the surface’, whose ‘theme and variation’ artistry would center for nearly a quarter of its production on the most unassuming of his makings.

Upon further review, a special fondness for beetles is precisely what I would expect.

This post was written while listening to Major/Minor by Thrice[9]

Beetle image from here
[1] It is uncited and has been considered apocryphal by some. But Gould devotes an entire essay in Dinosaur in a Haystack to the validation of this quote and generates a compelling body of evidence.
[2] Haldane is an interesting thinker outside of his early contributions to population genetics. His other famous quote is: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
However, less famously, he provided the raw materials for Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (which I don’t love, but cannot totally dismiss…I’ll do a post on it someday…but until then): “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” -"When I am Dead" in Possible Worlds (1927) This led at least one author to suggest that despite being a Marxist and a materialist, Haldane ‘was an unabashed mystic.’
[3] If this wasn’t Haldane, it was certainly a ‘deutero-Haldane’, of an ‘editor of the Haldane school’ because it has the right content, tone and vintage. And yes, I am extremely pleased with myself for coining ‘deutero-Haldane.’ That has got to be the best biology IM-sports team name in history.
[4] Roughly half a dozen of my professors and introductory texts have related this quote.
[5] What most people don’t know is that the other great, early population geneticist R.F. Fisher, (and a professional as well as personal rival of Haldane) was a devout Christian. None other than Dawkins argued that Fisher was the ‘greatest of Darwin’s successors.’ It is often overlooked that the history of evolution is replete with substantial Christian contributors (particularly plucky Anglicans).

My area of emphasis advisor in the Ecology department gave a lecture where he discussed the complicated relationship between these two men including a widely believed (though, possibly apocryphal story) that Haldane stormed out in protest in the middle of prominent scientific meeting. Only he had stormed out into a closet. But he stayed in the closet until the room had cleared rather than emerging and admitting his mistake.

[6] This is a favorite verse for people to mock because it is so counterintuitive. My favorite shots at it are a vintage onion article where the Pope revokes the blessed status of the meek and the exchange in Firefly (deleted scene) where Captain Mal says “More than 70 earths spinnin' about the galaxy, and the meek have inherited not a one. ...” (btw, how is that for nerd cred, quoting deleted Firefly scenes.)
[7] This is a paraphrase. I couldn’t find the quote. But the insight is his.
[8] Paul’s famous description of the Church in 2 Corinthians 4.
[9] I am going to see NT Wright speak on Wednesday. I described it to one friend as similar to going to see a band live. I like live shows because they infuse a fundamentally consumerist transaction with a modicum of relationship. They help make art something more human than commerce. Connecting artist and patron in a personal venue enlarges affection and helps the relationship transcend a crass consumer interaction. I feel the same way about authors. In the next year I will probably spend at least another 1,000 pages with Tom. It will help a lot if there is a veneer of relationship there. So I am going to hear our generations most penetrating and affable theologian speak, not as a sort of celebrity chasing, but as a personal subsidy to our already substantial (though asymmetrical) relationship.


Noah Elhardt said...

I love the fact that God paid inordinate amounts of attention to detail, even though we'll probably never even catch a glimpse of most of it. Ya gotta love a musician who plays for no-one and everyone at the same time! Even just the naming of beetles, which is probably less than 40% complete, barely scratches the surface of what they are.[1] Clearly, if we're going to view creation teleologically, the creatures and resources around us can't exist only to be seen, used, or studied.[2] Their value can't be tied to utility, or even to beauty. I've always loved the song of the Eldila in Perelandra, which says this so well:

"That Dust itself which is scattered so rare in Heaven, whereof all worlds, and the bodies that are not worlds, are made, is at the centre. It waits not till created eyes have seen it or hands handled it, to be in itself a strength and splendour of Maleldil. Only the least part has served, or ever shall, a beast, a man, or a god. But always, and beyond all distances, before they came and after they are gone and where they never come, it is what it is and utters the heart of the Holy One with its own voice.... Each grain, if it spoke, would say, I am at the centre; for me all things were made. Let no mouth open to gainsay it. Blessed is He!"

[1] I used to wish I had been born 300 years ago, when there were still unexplored frontiers on earth. And then I started studying insects.
[2] You could argue that the value of Coleopteran diversity is lent by its contribution to ecological fitness (is that even a correct usage of that word? I'm referring to community-level adaptability to change), but I think God could have gotten away with a fraction of the species diversity[A] and made them all ugly. Apparently He has bigger aims.[B]
[A] But then again, who really knows? We have no clue yet how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together - I shouldn't discount their ecosystem services just because I don't understand them.[i]
[B] Or maybe He just really is just inordinately fond of beetles. And why not?
[i] Do I get brownie points for self-referential level three footnotes in a comment on your blog? No? Ok, I better stop now, before I end up in a sermon illustration...

stanford said...

Hey Noah.

That has got to be one of the epic blog comments of all times: for its combined sublime content and absurd use of footnotes.

1) I could not agree more that teleology leads one to an 'intrinsic value' position... that goes even beyond aesthetic value.

2) I have had the same experience with wishing I was born 300 years ago at the frontiers of science when there was still stuff to be explored...until I realize people will be saying that about our time with respect to the genetic revolution in the biological sciences.

3) I love that quote in Perelandra. I have a partial blog post that I never finished about the intrinsic value of creation beyond human experience as one of Lewis' secondary arguments from that book...but it was mainly argued from a different passage.

4) If I had brownie points to give you would get them for going 4 layers deep in footnotes. But I have to wonder, do all my friends tiptoe around me in fear of becoming a talk illustration? :)