Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Islands of compassion

In a small country such as Ireland, that has been minutely examined by naturalists for two centuries, the discovery of a new macroscopic species is a matter of some excitement. So kudos, then, to Dr. Chris Williams, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Ireland Galway, for finding a previously unknown species of parasitic wasp in the bogs of Mayo. He has dubbed his discovery Mesoleptus hibernica.

Not an especially lovable creature, this. M. hibernica lays its eggs in the larvae or pupae of marsh flies. The wasp eggs hatch and the larvae eat their living hosts from the inside out, emerging as adult wasps -- ta-ta -- from a hollowed-out shell. But before you start feeling sorry of the marsh flies, bear in mind that they feed on aquatic snails, which in turn carry liver flukes, which...Need I go on?

Granted, this is a minor drama in the great scheme of things, but it reminds us again that nature is amoral. Good and evil appear to be exclusively human categories, although no doubt prefigured among primates and perhaps other species. That is, morality is an emergent concept, primarily cultural, but likely with biological roots.

We have a way of calling tidal waves and hurricanes "acts of God." We wonder why a loving, just God lets bad things happen to good people. It is part of the anthropomorphic frame of mind to want to see justice everywhere, but natural catastrophes have no more to do with morality than do the parasitic habits of wasps. Meanwhile, for one reason or the other, humans cultivate islands of compassion and justice within a sea of amorality, and let us be grateful for that.