Parasites and morality

An anonymous Christian academic commenting on an earlier piece of mine, about the overwhelming witness in pre-modern theology to the ongoing goodness of creation (notwithstanding the Fall), criticized my passing reference to parasitism, because it was passing. Though the old writers were well acquainted with predation, they were simply unaware, he said, of the grave new challenge to God’s goodness posed by parasites:

Without microscopy, most parasites couldn’t even be seen; and without molecular biology, their exquisitely designed mechanisms for producing slow, prolonged suffering leading to death—not quick, relatively painless death, such as at the hands of a lion or a shark—were not fully “appreciated.” This is the type of phenomenon that Darwin was driving at.

What he has in mind are clearly principally insect parasites, for that is what troubled Charles Darwin so, and Darwin used exactly the same highly teleological language:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.

For Darwin, the host’s suffering is “the express intention” of the parasite’s design, and for his successor too their mechanisms are designed “for producing slow, prolonged suffering leading to death.”

Science then (rather than the common experience of the natural world enjoyed by the ancients) is what makes continued belief in creation’s goodness untenable in this enlightened and disillusioned day and age. Being eaten by lions was known to Augustine, waspbut though he could attribute that to God’s wisdom (as the Bible does, Ps 104.21) he would have been rendered mute by the wicked ways of wasps. That viewpoint is shown by the prevalent angst about theodicy, and the kind of expedients that are put up so often by Theistic Evolutionists which, for the most part, seek to distance God from creation by making evolution to a greater or lesser extent independent of him. And thus the basic assumption is that the Ichneumonidae over which Darwin agonized cannot, to any moral person, be the work of a moral God, but of an imperfect, quasi-autonomous “Nature”.

Meanwhile, of course, the atheists, who have already infinitely distanced God from creation intellectually, use the same evidence from parasites to claim that the Creator God is evil. To complete the picture, the dominant folk-theology blames it all on Satan, which is equally for the purpose of exonerating God by distancing him from his creation.

Now the original comment was pretty irrelevant to my article on historical theological beliefs, and is also rather less than scientifically or theologically rigorous in attributing the deliberate infliction of suffering to one of God’s creatures, or in attributing any purpose whatsoever to naturalistic evolution. I think we need to be a little more careful in both areas – in theology, regarding the “morality” of God, and in biology regarding the suffering of animals, especially when the latter is regularly used nowadays to remodel the former.

On the first head, it’s rather important to remember that Christianity is all about coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ (Acts 16.34). That’s faithπιστις, belief, trust, assurance, reliance. The very start and core of that (going back to how faith was lost at the Fall) is acknowledging that God’s way is right, and that ours is wrong (Lk 7.29). The God of faith is the God who is our Judge, excluding him from any possibility of being the one we judge. The person who does not believe in God may disbelieve because he does not accept what God does – for example, not only in nature, but in punishing sinners – but that is directly linked with the refusal to acknowledge him as our Judge, and as the source of all true wisdom (aka “knowledge of good and evil”) that we have.

Regarding this metaphysically, God is definitionally the infinite source of good, of which we participate only in a very limited and particular part. God, in his very nature, is not the kind of Being that we can judge, but the One who judges us. What he does and says are right not only because he does and says them, but because he is not just one particular instance of a being, but the One who by very nature is right, which is why he does and says what he does. This is the classical view of the God of divine simplicity, in which God and good are identical, as opposed to the personalist view in which God is a complex of rather contingent and sometimes partial attributes (cf Open Theism, in which there are things he finds out – even from us, that change his mind and correct his misapprehensions).

In this latter mindset, there might conceivably be a God whose goodness is less than morally perfect, and so whose creation contains unforced errors. So we need to prove that our God isn’t like that one through case-by-case theodicy. But in the former, classical, theology God is not strictly a moral being at all, for “morality” is God’s good will regarding man’s created nature. If one takes the Ten Commandments, or any other moral precepts of God, they are the way we ought to behave in order to be consistent with our true human nature. It does not at all follow that the same precepts hold for apes, or lions – or Ichneumonids. As Aquinas taught, they each reveal diffent, sometimes surprising, facets of God’s goodness.

But is not God the God of love, and does that not give us the right – even the duty – as those created in his image, to judge by that criterion what actually is his work in creation and what is not? In short, No. Firstly because the how of the expression of God’s love towards his handiwork is solomonnot the same how as the expression of human love for God and neighbour. Even in human situations such distinctions hold true by analogy. To mutilate someone else’s body is an evil, but for a surgeon it is his particular virtue. To kill another person is murder, but not necessarily for a governor, who is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” How much more for the Healer of our souls and the Governor of the universe?

But secondly, and equally important, we do not judge because faith precludes judgement and requires us to learn to trust in God’s word to us. And since throughout the Bible God makes two clear claims – (1) that he is good in all his works and (2) that he made everything in the world – then faith requires us to put those claims first in our minds. As Paul said (of unclean foods, but legitimately of all created things):

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim 4.4)

Did_God_Really_SayThere is no Creator but God: such is the message of Genesis and the whole Bible, and is the foundation of our monotheism. It makes not a scrap of difference if we regard creation’s goodness as absolute (which is on shaky ground theologically, for after creation Adam’s need of a companion was “not good”, and furthermore man’s role was the transformation and subduing of creation to make it better yet); or whether we regard “good” in Genesis as meaning “fit for purpose”. For in either case, if God created parasites as he did all other things, they perform his purposes for them, which he says are good. Who are we to argue with our Maker?

Indeed, as Pope Francis makes clear in his recent encyclical, such an attitude to creation is also the basis of Christian ethics and morality – you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth:

First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.

To turn now to the scientific side of the coin, it’s rather astonishing how a question of which we can have no certain knowledge – the nature and degree of suffering in animals – should be used by some Christians to construct entirely new, demiurgic doctrines of creation, leading inevitably to new doctrines of sin (now to be regarded as an inevitable product of wayward evolution), and hence to new doctrines of atonement, moral theology, eschatology and everything else.

I’ve already pointed out the sloppy error of attributing malevolent goals (like causing the maximum suffering) to natural organisms like parasites – modern science was designed to outlaw the speculative attribution of final causes in nature. It’s unsurprising for an agnostic like Darwin to pass moral judgement on some other creature’s nature and declare it not God-given. For a Christian to do the same, and deny either God’s universal goodness or his universal creation, is a mark of weak faith, and especially so since it arrogantly implies there can be nothing in God’s ways that is not transparent to our human judgement. But “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD” (Isa 55.8).

The question of animal suffering in general is a huge metaphysical question in itself – being a bat, or anything else, is something – but it is not being I in the same way as it is for a human. Any supposed measure of suffering is radically incomplete without an understanding of being the sufferer – and that is in very principle impossible.

There is a concept in philosophy of the “zombie” – the creature that acts in every way like a human, but which lacks our true self-consciousness. There is no way to distinguish it from a real person from without. Descartes considered animals to be pure automatons, and there is no way to prove him wrong – for a sophisticated automaton would show the same avoidance mechanisms, physiological stress responses and damage patterns that we do when we suffer – but without anybody home to experience them. The only way to be certain about animal suffering is to be the animal – everything beyond that is a metaphysical faith statement.

Alfred-Russell-WallaceBut from a purely evolutionary standpoint, as pivotal a figure as Alfred Russel Wallace argued cogently that there would be no selective advantage – and many selective disadvantages – for animals to develop the capacity for extreme suffering. Pain, and related discomforts, evolved for the avoidance of commonly met sources of damage. And there are no more commonly met causes of damage than predation and parasitism.

There is also much empirical evidence against the “maximum suffering” story. A handy survey is here (though I disagree with his handling of the biblical, as opposed to the scientific, material). There is even more evidence against the specific protest that started this column – the hideous suffering of insects, the reiteration of Darwin’s fellow-feeling with the agony of parasitised wasps that pre-scientific theologians like Gregory or Calvin could never have conceived.

The survey linked above points out the problems of attributing pain to a creature with a segmentally-organized nervous system. One entomologist discusses similar doubts in a recent blog. After reviewing all the evidence, he concludes:

As Carl Sagan popularized, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Insect pain and suffering is one of those extraordinary claims and is going to require extraordinary evidence to definitively say one way or another. However, in the meantime I will not expose any insects to undue suffering when I use them in experiments or add to my insect collection.

It’s noteworthy to see an insect specialist equate the possibility of insect suffering with the atheist’s degree of doubt in God. That the entolologist nevertheless, in his own moral practice, errs on the side of compassion is a good illustration of morality being the way for humans to act in accordance with our nature, and not in accordance with that of parasitic wasps.

We simply can’t know if insects, for example, feel pain – nor, with absolute certainty even higher animals. That uncertainty still gives us our guide to the right moral behaviour (as do the handful of passages in the Bible that urge compassion to animals). Even if cruelty to animals didn’t really cause them suffering, it would still dehumanise us.

But with regard to God’s behaviour in creation, the best theology and the most perfect faith ought to leave the issue in God’s hands as Scriptural theodicies charactistically do. Wasps are not humans, and are not accountable to human morality, because they have both lower and different natures. We don’t know what it is to be an Ichneumonid any more than we know what it’s like to be its host.

But equally God is not human either, so he is not accountable to human morality because he is infinitely higher and also fundamentally different in his essence. We don’t know what it is to be him, but in distinction to the wasps we’ve been told to in trust his goodness: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

For the theist who doesn’t accept this, two theodicies seem possible. The first is to presume that God created animals so that they do not suffer in the way humans do, so it is a non-issue. Wallace’s evolutionary argument is in support of this, and no firm science is against it. Yet is it not presumptuous to insist, in our ignorance, that God has not created suffering when it might equally be the case that he has created suffering for some reason beyond our human frailty to encompass? Why are we so intent on teaching God his business?

The second is to presume that animals do suffer, even though the actual evidence is equivocal, and that furthermore it is undeniably a grievous evil. In that case nature cannot be wholly the work of God after all, but must have demonic or blindly indifferent “natural” elements, in order to exonerate God from the suffering about whose reality you have presumptively speculated. And thus speculation weighs in your balance more heavily than your trust in God’s word that he is the only Creator and the fount of all love and goodness.

That’s your choice – but don’t expect me to to take that line in my articles.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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9 Responses to Parasites and morality

  1. Good stuff.
    I shall leave the question of whether animal suffering is ‘good’ or not to God, as he is the final arbiter. I tend towards thinking that it must be good, for reasons that you have suggested.
    Some include in their grounds for rejecting the Christian God their belief that God either allows or causes ‘bad’ things. My response to this is usually hinges on their definition of ‘bad’ or on their definition of what God ought to be like.

  2. Cath Olic says:

    I don’t think the evidence for animal suffering is equivocal at all. I think animal suffering is obvious to us and to them.

    I think animals’ suffering is collateral damage from the Fall. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” [Rom 8:22-23]

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Cath Olic

      Your YEC interpretation of Romans 8 does neatly sidestep not only the academic’s “Why did God make parasites evolve, then?” but also the claim I had made in my article, that creation remains good.

      But in fact, as to the question of theodicy, which was the heart of my discussion, it leaves things little altered, for the theistic personalist (or atheist) would still ask, “What kind of moral God would ‘will to subject creation (to all that suffering), in hope that it would, some day, be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.'”

      The interpretation also raises the additional question, “Why would God inflict all that suffering on billions of innocent creatures because of human sin?”

      And the answers would still be the same: either it’s a moral problem, or we cofess that “He is Yahweh – he will do what seems good to him.”

      • Cath Olic says:

        “Your YEC interpretation of Romans 8 does neatly sidestep not only the academic’s “Why did God make parasites evolve, then?” but also the claim I had made in my article, that creation remains good.”

        I’m not sidestepping anything.
        Parasites would have functioned in some harmless, even beneficial, manner prior to the fall, perhaps similar to the way bacteria can be beneficial, even essential, to healthy human functioning. Likewise, lions would have been harmless before the Fall. They, like all other animals and man, ate only green plants (cf. Gen 1:29-30). All life remains good. It was just better before the Fall.

        “The interpretation also raises the additional question, “Why would God inflict all that suffering on billions of innocent creatures because of human sin?””

        Even an atheist would acknowledge the reality that an action can have wide repercussions to man and animal (e.g. A tossed cigarette butt leads to a forest fire destroying plants, animals, houses; A dalliance with pornography leads to addiction and ultimately the breakup of a family.). Sin is serious business, and can impact society (and ecology), as well as the individual sinner. Still, such wide repercussions are short-lived and mild compared to what will await those destined for Hell. The earthly travails could be seen as a warning for repentance, a wake-up call.

        In my dialogs with atheists I’ve found that all their hand-waving about great genocides and pervasive pestilences is really just histrionics hiding their true, and much simpler bottom-line:
        They reject the idea of God because there is something, ANYTHING in life that they don’t like; if ANY difficulty/unpleasantness is experienced in life, there is no God.

        • Jon Garvey says:

          I wasn’t accusing you of sidestepping – just noting that accepting your interpretation the other two points become irrelevant as a matter of course. Of course I happen to disagree with the interpretation but that’s a different matter that I’ ve covered a number of times before and won’t pursue.

          But on your last point I couldn’t agree more: if one could prove that no animals ever suffer at all, they’d as a matter of course move on to something else – wastefulness, or perhaps God deceiving us by making us think they did suffer.

          Even the non-atheist theodicy-mongers are hard put to it to say exactly how much suffering has to be in the world for it to be too much to attribute to God. For some, even gut commensals dying on Adam’s compost heap requires an accounting from God…

  3. GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I have often dealt with the issues of theodicy by referring to a perfect world created for Adam and Eve, to answer the question, “why did God create a world that includes suffering?” the answer is He created such a perfect world for Adam and Eve (notwithstanding the odd views one may find on other sites), but we as human beings chose ours (and the deceiver’s) will – so there cannot be an issue with God’s goodness. I agree with you that mankind assumes his error even today by deciding what God should and should not be or do.

    Another perspective may be found from the commonly accepted view of natural laws – by this I mean the earth (and the entire creation) is in marvellous interdependence and this includes regeneration by using the remains of vegetation and other species to replenish the earth. This extraordinary ecological balance and cyclical relationship is difficult for us to fully grasp, but it shows that everything has a purpose and the earth can simply flourish (it is good as God meant it to be). Christians in the sciences may see how the creation unfolds so as to enhance its ability to praise its Creator; i.e. “.. the kingdom of God is at hand to all creation”. One interesting example from an interesting paper on laws of nature is our application of laser to eye surgery that shows we participate in the continuation of Christ’s redemptive work by restoring sight to the blind. Paul addresses this in Romans 8:19-22: “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.”

    • Jon Garvey says:


      Your last point includes various things: the original role of man in “subduing” God’s good creation and extending his rule; the eventual transformation of the cosmos into an altogether new state through Christ; and the “tokens” of the redemption of our bodies and the cosmos through such physical interventions as laser surgery.

      Plenty for reflection there, though I take it as read that in the age to come we look not towards better lasers, but the removal of the need for them.

  4. Cath Olic says:


    “… it’s rather important to remember that Christianity is all about coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ …That’s faith …, belief, trust, assurance, reliance. The very start and core of that (going back to how faith was lost at the Fall) is acknowledging that God’s way is right, and that ours is wrong… The person who does not believe in God may disbelieve because … that is directly linked with the refusal to acknowledge him as our Judge, and as the source of all true wisdom (aka “knowledge of good and evil”) that we have.”

    Those words have more truth and meaning than I think you intended.
    More and more people, even those who call themselves Christian, see true wisdom as coming from science and/or from THEIR interpretation of Scripture.

    I heard something today which I believe is true: While Protestantism is about 500 years old, of the 40,000-some Protestant denominations and independent congregations, the vast majority are less than 100 years old.

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