Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Cheetah and the Gazelle and the Groaning of Creation

One of Professor Richard Dawkins's most widely circulated points is about the cheetah and the gazelle. In River out of Eden (1995), he explains how, according to evolutionary biology, the cheetah is the product of an "arms race" with the antelope. As gazelles and other small antelopes gets faster and more alert over the millions of years, so too the cheetah gets faster and more skillful at stalking. After explaining this process, Richard Dawkins steps back and says, how can one still believe in a benevolent God after knowing all this? Here is the argument in the summary of Michael Ruse:

Natural selection presupposes a struggle for existence, and the struggle on many, many occasions is downright nasty. Using the notion of a "utility function" for the end purpose being intended, Dawkins drew attention to the interactions between cheetahs and antelopes, and asks: "What was God's utility function?" Cheetahs seem wonderfully designed to kill antelopes. "The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we should expect if God's purpose in designing cheetahs was to maximize deaths among antelopes." But conversely, "we find equally impressive evidence of design for precisely the opposite end: the survival of antelopes and starvation among cheetahs." It is almost as though two warring gods were at work, making different animals and then setting them to compete with one another. If there is only one god who made the two animals, then what kind of god could it be? "Is he a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is He trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa? Is He maneuvering to maximize David Attenborough's television ratings?" The whole thing is ludicrous (Dawkins 1995, 105). Truly, concludes Dawkins, there are no ultimate purposes to life, no deep religious meanings. There is nothing.

Indeed Dawkins notes that a similar argument about certain wasps and their habits of providing for their young is said to have made Darwin loose his faith:

Charles Darwin lost his faith with the help of a wasp. "I cannot persuade myself," Darwin wrote, ---that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars." Actually, Darwin's gradual loss of faith, which he downplayed for fear of upsetting his devout wife Emma, had more complex causes.

His reference to the Ichneumonidae was aphoristic. The macabre habits to which he referred are shared by their cousins the digger wasps. A female digger wasp not only lays her egg in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it. According to Fabre she also carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system so as to paralyse it but not kill it. This way, the meat keeps fresh.

It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general anaesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim's ability to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from inside, but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot accept that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

Professor Dawkins has presented this argument in so mesmerizing a form that other smart people like Michael Ruse have overlooked that it has nothing to do with evolution, Darwinian or otherwise, at all! In other words, the cheetah-gazelle point (or the ichneumon-caterpillar point) is one that any observer of nature can make directly, without ever involving the evolutionary past whatsoever. The addition of the arms race is a clever metaphor but adds nothing to the fundamental problem of theodicy (God's justice). As a passage from Stanley Jaki excerpted by the Pontificator notes:

One need not be a professional naturalist, it is enough to step out into one’s garden or the nearby meadow to see the grim spectacle of one species using other species for food. One may indeed stay in one’s house and watch the methodical cruelty of a spider as it traps in its web unaware insects which desperately try to shake themselves free.

It might seem, however, that the idea of a fallen creation can resolve the issue. God made cheetahs and gazelles good and innocent but in Adam's fall into sin they were, as part of creation, subjected to sin:

For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now (Romans 8).

Now this is indeed the truth about the matter: creation was made good and then was made subject to vanity. But simply mapping this onto Genesis 1-3 in the usual way involves a number of puzzles -- and again involves them entirely independently of whether one believes in evolution or not.

Let us assume according to a plausible reading of Genesis 1:29-30 that cheetahs and antelopes were both created on the sixth day and the both received the command of God:

And God said, Behold . . . to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

So, presumably cheetahs were vegetarians and only with Adam's fall into sin did cheetahs begin chasing and eating gazelles. Thinking about this in terms of evolution and creation, one often hears the argument that evolution involves death before Adam's sin and that blames God for death and/or makes nonsense of Jesus's atonement abolishing death.

This interpretation ends up, however, setting the most elementary biology on a collision course with theology -- entirely independently of the creation-evolution debate. Theology says the design of nature shows us God, that the natural world makes us think of and remember God. Among the things in the natural world that do so are the world of animals and plants. But if the natural world shows us God, and design, then we must notice that the cheetah is designed to eat meat. Even remote acquaintance with biology shows us that a cheetah, or an owl, or a crocodile, or a shark that eats plants is a simple contradiction: these animals are what they are as meat eaters. In other words if we accept the idea that the cheetah shows God's power and wisdom as an architect, then we must accept that the cheetah was designed by God for a world of death and killing. And if we deny that God designed anything for a world of death and killing, then we must accept that God did not design cheetahs, hawks, sharks, or weasels. Do we then say the devil designed the carnivores and God only designed the herbivores? Blasphemy, of course, and indeed in Job 38 and Psalm 104 it is God who provides food for the lions -- meat.

Are cheetahs and sharks and eagles good as they are today? And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. But indeed this was said of the pre-Fall vegetarian version of these animals, and biology shows us that every sinew, every biochemical pathway, every nerve, and every habit of these creatures is built to facilitate meat-eating. Indeed all of what we see around us is in nature is predicated on death and dying. If "very good" applies only to the pre-Fall state then how can we confidently assert that creation today is "very good," when it is based on fundamentally different principles?

So I don't see how any theology of creation can work that says creation was wholly good and vegetarian on day six, and then subjected to vanity and meat eating only after Adam's fall. Rather, it seems to me that the goodness and the subjection to vanity must be "marbled" (like fat in meat) throughout the body of creation.

Of course, a lot of people deal with these paradoxes simply by denying the moral status of creation and meat eating in animals. In other words, to Dawkins's and Darwin's points about cheetahs and antelopes, wasps and caterpillars, they simply say, "Oh, piffle! Animal suffering cannot be considered in the same way, since 1) lacking souls and free will, they are not moral actors, and 2) they have less capacity for pain." So a wasp is not guilty for feeding a caterpillar alive to her young and the caterpillar cannot feel the pain as we would. So the animal world presents no problems of theodicy. Go ahead, admire how the digger wasp is designed to know where the ganglion is on a caterpillar so it can be delicately paralyzed, and don't worry that it seems to make God author of suffering.

Contrary to what you might think, this is not some new idea bred by factory farming or something. I can't remember where, but I remember reading something similar in Augustine. So it's a got a solid theological pedigree.

Now, I certainly agree that caterpillars seem to be rather less sensitive to pain than a mammal, but again biological knowledge is showing us how similar in many ways we are at least to the mammals, and perhaps to birds as well. At some point, the knowledge of pain, self-awareness, cooperation, and other forms of human-like moral responses in the animal world build up, and an absolute moral barrier between man and animals becomes implausible. At any rate, I can no longer sustain this distinction in my mind (I've expressed my skepticism of the "God's image in man lies in his capacity to reason" line before, and as a Lutheran, the whole obsession with free will in Catholic moralists just strikes me as misguided).

At that point we face the challenge that some author (I can't remember who, and can't find it, after hours of searching) said is posed to us by our continuity with animals. Once again, evolution can sharpen the challenge, but a good deal of it comes simply from synchronic observation of how similar we are: if there is continuity between man and animal, then we must either moralize the animal world, or immoralize the human world. The "human world is moral, the animal world is amoral" dichotomy is problematic the more we know about animal behavior. And given the choice of moralizing the animal world or immoralizing the human, the former seems the obvious choice.

Now, we who know that man (wers and women alike) are created in God's image know that the continuity is not total, by any means. And that too is observable: morally we are qualitatively different from animals. But when it comes to many of the aspects we intuitively feel are linked to morals, good and bad (pain, self-awareness, cooperation, war, rape, delight in killing, perhaps even awareness of death), we're not. Again deciding against genealogical continuity between man and apes does not dispose of the issue. When one reads about ape behavior, for example, it is hard to avoid the feeling that some of them are morally good and some morally bad, that gorillas, elephants, and Cape hunting dogs are, for example, over all, pretty good characters, and chimps, lions, and orangutans are over all, pretty nasty pieces of work.

What can we make of all this?

(continued here)

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