Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The problem of good

A visit to Wayne's homepage revealed this marvelous photograph of a saddleback caterpillar, which I reproduce here with his permission. A spectacular little beast, with, yes, a fine green "saddle blanket" and brown "saddle." But what are those saddlebags? They are the cocoons of a braconid wasp. The wasp lays its eggs in the caterpillar's flesh. The larvae feed on the caterpillar from the inside until they're ready to emerge through small holes they make in the caterpillar's skin, to which they attach their cocoons. Bad news for the caterpillar.

But that's the way life works. Predation and murder are nature's modi operandi. If the saddleback caterpillar had conscious awareness, it might well ponder the "problem of evil": Why does a benevolent God allow the wasp to prey on my flesh? But, of course, good and evil have nothing to do with it. Only a person who believes in a omniscient, omnipowerful, just and loving personal God has a problem of evil.

The rest of us have a problem of good.

The wasp has evolved a fine balance with the caterpillar; it must keep the host alive long enough for the next generation of wasps to complete their metamorphoses. Humans have apparently evolved a tendency towards altruism. The long term success of our genes depends upon the collective welfare of our close relations. The Golden Rule seems to have a biological basis, at least within the clan.

But unlike the caterpillar and the wasp, we have a tangle of neurons at the top of our spine that is able to extrapolate the Golden Rule beyond the biological imperative. Natural selection has not had time to adapt to a world of 6.5 billion technologically-advanced humans who depend utterly upon one another for survival . We are in new territory, with only our brains to guide us. An omniscient, omnipowerful, just and loving personal God is not going to pull our fat from the fire.

Forget the so-called problem of evil. Think of the saddleback as the Earth and the wasp as ourselves. How do we sustain ourselves -- all 6.5 billion of us -- without killing the host? That's the problem of good.

The resolution? I can only speak for myself. Tread lightly. Be gentle. Attend the beautiful. Vote for those who know that the wasp and the caterpillar are all of a piece.