How Darwin Lost his Religion

What an old-fashioned way to start a blog in 2021!

Parasitoid wasps are wasps whose lifecycle involves laying their eggs in other small animals, such as caterpillars.  When the eggs hatch, they begin to consume the host from the inside. Eventually the host is killed by the larvae.  If you want to see what this looks like, there are some illuminating images on Wikipedia.

After publishing On the Origin of the Species, Darwin wrote to a devout friend  about these charming creatures:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always  painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write  atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do,  & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design &  beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the  world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God  would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitoid wasp] with the express  intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars [emphasis added]


What interests me about this passage is that, normally, the plight of insects doesn’t really move me very much. I swat flies like anybody else. When I had bed bugs, I hired an exterminator. But when I think about parasitoid wasps, I have the same reaction that Darwin does. Parasitoid wasps strike me as an ostentatiously evil thing, one whose design by a benevolent creator would call for explanation. Thinking about insects dying in other ways doesn’t have the same effect. Even if we stipulate, just for the sake of the argument, that caterpillars cannot feel pain, there is something a bit sick about the design of parasitoid wasps. Something is wrong here.

When I mentioned this letter to a devout friend of my own, he said that these aspects of the natural world reflect the influence of Satan. But I don’t find this very satisfying because either it implies that God is not strong enough to overpower Satan (this is the Gnostic heresy), or that God allowed Satan free reign to design parasitoid wasps. In a way, this kind of natural evil seems like an even more potent objection to omnipotent omnibenevolent omniscience than natural evil affecting human beings. Maybe if I get mesothelioma next month and die horribly, I will wake up in heaven and God will explain to me what lesson I was supposed to derive from that experience. Perhaps I would be bothered at first, but I would have eternity to get over it. It is hard to believe that God has some explanation that a caterpillar could understand of what parasitoid wasps are supposed to teach.  So I think parasitoid wasps present a major problem even for theodicies that offer universal salvation.

There is a way out: skeptical theism, the idea that the Lord works in mysterious ways. If there is an omnipotent entity with perfect access to the facts about morality, perhaps we should assume that He knows what He is doing, even if it looks bad from our fallible perspective. This argument is not logically incoherent.

But to the extent that parasitoid wasps represent either a strong reason to disbelieve or a mysterious way for the Lord to work, it seems like I incur a duty to not behave like a parasitoid wasp myself. After all, I know I don’t work in mysterious ways. When I do something bad, it isn’t part of the working of Providence, it is just bad.

I’m not sure exactly what the implications of not wanting to be like a parasitoid wasp are, but I think they probably involve not eating the bugs.

6 thoughts on “How Darwin Lost his Religion”

  1. I expected the answer would be “evolution removes the need for God as creator”. But no – the issue was something else entirely (theodicy). If anything, evolution could provide a sort of response to his theological crisis – from a utilitarian perspective, evolution could be seen as beneficial on the net despite causing suffering in some cases; while if each species was created independently, there would be no justification for God creating those cases of suffering).

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  2. “But to the extent that parasitoid wasps represent either a strong reason to disbelieve or a mysterious way for the Lord to work, it seems like I incur a duty to not behave like a parasitoid wasp myself…I’m not sure exactly what the implications of not wanting to be like a parasitoid wasp are, but I think they probably involve not eating the bugs.”

    I’m not sure this follows, at least for me. The repugnant part of the parasitoid wasp, over insects that simply eat other insects, is the ‘parasitoid’ part – the hijacking of the nervous system and the will, and the eating from the inside out.

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  3. “Something is wrong here… …isn’t very satisfying”

    Here I predicted you would examine your own feeling more, but instead you go on to accept it as evidence of a fundamental evil. This is premature.

    For my part, past the disgust, contemplating the wasp evokes the psychedelic-comedown effect of sensing profound understandings which are just out of reach, but I think I’ll leave off for now with the observation that the video posted in an earlier comment evokes a comparison to traumatic insemination in other invertebrates, and even to animal reproduction.

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