Sheep in wolf's clothing
A reader sent the following comment after reading the article, “The great brain robbery”, which talks about parasites that override the normal behavioral patterns of their host and exploit the deviant behavior to their own benefit at the cost of the host's life:
I think it was a great article — but here is a question for you: Theologically speaking, why would God create a world where parasites destroy the capacity of other creatures to "think" properly? When God "saw that it was good", was he speaking about the things you mention in your article?
One can fully identify with the reader's thinking. How can parasites be considered “good” when they rob their hosts of their normal mental faculties — zero that they are? At the more basic level, the question becomes much simpler: how can we imagine that God would call parasitism “good”? The whole idea seems to fly in the face of reason as well as making such a God harder to have faith in. For this reason, some believers reason that at the beginning of creation it was not so; such nastiness cannot be considered good at all, and so it must have come about as a result of the so-called “Fall”. Parasitism betokens corruption and evil.
We at Dawn to Dusk believe that the only impact of “the Fall” on the natural realm is that described in Genesis 3:17 — “Cursed is the ground for your sake… both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you”. Whatever these words may mean — and their precise import is moot — they do not say anything about a drastic makeover of creation. Starting from this premise, we must recognize that when God called the creation “good”, He included parasites that manipulate their hosts' behavior to their own advantage and to the host's doom.
Our first answer to the question of how God could call parasitism good may appear to be a non-answer — far be it from us to question the wisdom of the Almighty. You and I cannot create a single atom, let alone a bacterium, a blade of grass or a universe. How laughable our questioning of God's wisdom must appear to Him.
Second, we suggest that we try to get some perspective. We have to face a simple creation truth — every animal lives at the expense of other living things. And that includes you and me. Every time we tuck into a two inch steak or a leg of lamb, the price for our taste buds being pampered is the life of ox or sheep. If God doesn't really “care” for the life of an ox (1 Cor. 9:9), and is quite happy for lions to kill gazelles and frogs to eat beetles, I personally don't have a problem with “worms” living at the expense of pillbugs or small crustaceans. All these phenomena in creation illustrate the infinite ingenuity of God — He can think of any number of ways of achieving the same end — survival. At the end of our lives, our bodies give life to numerous other creatures.
For the final point, consider this — things are not always what they appear to be. (See the tale below about the little girl and her lamb.) Oftentimes the infected individual actually benefits from its freeloaders. For instance, medical researchers are now coming to the shocking conclusion that some modern diseases, such as Crohn's disease, result from our ultra-hygienic environment and the resulting lack of parasitic infection by helminth worms know as Trichurus! Some doctors are now treating sick people by giving them a good dose of worm eggs.
Another bizarre example: consider the following fascinating insight from September, 1998 edition of National Geographic:
Almost all Greenland sharks host copepods that attach themselves to the sharks' corneas, severely damaging their eyesight… The three-inch invertebrate exhibits two claw-like appendages that grasp the cornea. The anchoring process creates a scar, and additional lesions occur as the copepod's body scrapes back and forth across the cornea while the parasite feeds on surface-layer cells. Before long, the abraded cornea fogs over… because they spend most of their time in darkness… these sharks seem to have little use for eyes. Scientists speculate that the copepod may actually aid the shark in feeding. Fish may be attracted to the parasite, which moves like a fishing lure when the shark is swimming. Although the shark's vision is severely compromised, it retains a keen sense of smell to seek out prey.
Oh the wisdom and ingenuity of the One who made all things! Many other instances could be provided, such as how ascaridoid nematodes in the stomach of fishes, marine birds, seals and whales mechanically loosen and break up large food particles, permitting digestive fluids to seep into the core quickly. Or how thiamine deficient rats infected with Trypanosoma lewisi live significantly longer than uninfected animals, and so on and so on.
Further, even those parasites that harm individuals generally seem to benefit their host species as a whole. As Klaus Rohde brings out in his book "Ecology of Marine Parasites",
Even if a parasite does not benefit an individual host, it seems possible that it may be beneficial to the host species by eliminating the weaker host individuals from a population. One might suspect that such effects are widespread, but little or no direct evidence is available.
They perform the same beneficial task as do wolves in maintaining the robust health of their prey species, such as elk. Yes, absolutely everything God does is good, even if we can't always see it.