Why Would God Create a World with Parasites?

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BY FAZALE RANA – JUNE 5, 2019

A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.1

—Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

If God exists and if he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? This conundrum keeps many skeptics and seekers from the Christian faith and even troubles some Christians.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the problem of pain and suffering more than the cruelty observed in nature. Indeed, what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of animals?

Often, the pain and suffering animals experience is accompanied by unimaginable and seemingly unnecessary cruelty.

Take nematodes (roundworms) as an example. There are over 10,000 species of nematodes. Some are free-living. Others are parasitic. Nematode parasites infect humans, animals, plants, and insects, causing untold pain and suffering. But their typical life cycle in insects seems especially cruel.

Nematodes that parasitize insects usually are free-living in their adult form but infest their host in the juvenile stage. The infection begins when the juvenile form of the parasite enters into the insect host, usually through a body opening, such as the mouth or anus. Sometimes the juveniles drill through the insect’s cuticle.

Once inside the host, the juveniles release bacteria that infect and kill the host, liquefying its internal tissues. As long as the supply of host tissue holds out, the juveniles will live within the insect’s body, even reproducing. When the food supply runs out, the nematodes exit the insect and seek out another host.

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Figure 1: An Entomopathogenic Nematode Juvenile. Image credit: Shutterstock

Why would God create a world with parasitism? Could God really be responsible for a world like the one we inhabit? Many skeptics would answer “no” and conclude that God must not exist.

A Christian Response to the Problem of Evil

One way to defend God’s existence and goodness in the face of animal pain and suffering is to posit that there just might be good reasons for God to create the world the way it is. Perhaps what we are quick to label as evil may actually serve a necessary function.

This perspective gains support based on some recent insights into the benefits that insect parasites impart to ecosystems. A research team from the University of Georgia (UGA) recently unearthed one example of the important role played by these parasites.2 These researchers demonstrated that nematode-infected horned passalus beetles (bess beetles) are more effective at breaking down dead logs in the forest than their parasite-free counterparts—and this difference benefits the ecosystem. Here’s how.

The Benefit Parasites Provide to the Ecosystem

The horned passalus lives in decaying logs. The beetles consume wood through a multistep process. After ingesting the wood, these insects excrete it in a partially digested form. The wood excrement becomes colonized by bacteria and fungi and then is later re-consumed by the beetle.

These insects can become infected by a nematode parasite (Chondronema passali). The parasite inhabits the abdominal cavity of the beetle (though not its gastrointestinal tract). When infected, the horned passalus can harbor thousands of individual nematodes.

To study the effect of this parasite on the horned passalus and the forest ecosystem inhabited by the insect, researchers collected 113 individuals from the woods near the UGA campus. They also collected pieces of wood from the logs bearing the beetles.

In the laboratory, they placed each of the beetles in separate containers that also contained pieces of wood. After three months, they discovered that the beetles infected with the nematode parasite processed 15 percent more wood than beetles that were parasite-free. Apparently, the beetles compensate for the nematode infection by consuming more food. One possible reason for the increased wood consumption may be due to the fact that the parasites draw away essential nutrients from the beetle host, requiring the insect to consume more food.

While it isn’t clear if the parasite infestation harms the beetle (infected beetles have reduced mobility and loss of motor function), it is clear that the infestation benefits the ecosystem. These beetles play a key role in breaking down dead logs and returning nutrients to the forest soil. By increasing the beetles’ wood consumption, the nematodes accelerate this process, benefiting the ecosystem’s overall health.

Cody Prouty, one of the project’s researchers, points out “that although the beetle and the nematode have a parasitic relationship, the ecosystem benefits from not only the beetle performing its function, but the parasite increasing the efficiency of the beetle. Over the course of a few years, the parasitized beetles could process many more logs than unparasitized beetles, and lead to an increase of organic matter in soils.”3

This study is not the first to discover benefits parasites impart to ecosystems. Parasites play a role in shaping ecosystem biodiversity and they intertwine with the food web. The researchers close their article this way: “Countering long-standing unpopular views of parasites is certainly challenging, but perhaps evidence like that presented here will be of use in this effort.”4

Such evidence does not “revolt our understanding,” as Darwin might suggest, but instead enhances our insights into the creation and helps counter the challenge of the problem of evil. Even creatures as gruesome as parasites can serve a beneficial purpose in creation and maybe could rightfully be understood as good.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809–1882 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), 90.
  2. Andrew K. Davis and Cody Prouty, “The Sicker the Better: Nematode-Infected Passalus Beetles Provide Enhanced Ecosystem Services,” Biology Letters 15, no. 5 (2019): 20180842, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2018.0842.
  3. University of Georgia, “Parasites Help Beetle Hosts Function More Effectively,” ScienceDaily (May 1, 2019), https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190501131435.htm.
  4. Davis and Prouty,“The Sicker the Better,” 3.

Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2019/06/05/why-would-god-create-a-world-with-parasites

Why Would God Create a World Where Animals Eat Their Offspring?

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BY FAZALE RANA – MAY 22, 2019

What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature!

–Charles Darwin, “Letter to J. D. Hooker,” Darwin Correspondence Project

You may not have ever heard of him, but he played an important role in ushering in the Darwinian revolution in biology. His name was Asa Gray.

Gray (1810–1888) was a botanist at Harvard University. He was among the first scientists in the US to adopt Darwin’s theory of evolution. Asa Gray was also a devout Christian.

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Asa Gray in 1864. Image credit: John Adams Whipple, Wikipedia

Gray was convinced that Darwin’s theory of evolution was sound. He was also convinced that nature displayed unmistakable evidence for design. For this reason, he reasoned that God must have used evolution as the means to create and, in doing so, Gray may have been the first person to espouse theistic evolution.

In his book Darwinia, Asa Gray presents a number of essays defending Darwin’s theory. Yet, he also expresses his deepest convictions that nature is filled with indicators of design. He attributed that design to a type of God-ordained, God-guided process. Gray argued that God is the source of all evolutionary change.

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Gray and Darwin struck up a friendship and exchanged around 300 letters. In the midst of their correspondence, Gray asked Darwin if he thought it possible that God used evolution as the means to create. Darwin’s reply revealed that he wasn’t very impressed with this idea.

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope & believe what he can.1

Darwin could not embrace Gray’s theistic evolution because of the cruelty he saw in nature that seemingly causes untold pain and suffering in animals. Darwin—along with many skeptics today—couldn’t square a world characterized by that much suffering with the existence of a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.

Filial Cannibalism

The widespread occurrence of filial cannibalism (when animals eat their young or consume their eggs after laying them) and abandonment (leading to death) exemplify such cruelty in animals. It seems such a low and brutal feature of nature.

Why would God create animals that eat their offspring and abandon their young?

Is Cruelty in Nature Really Evil?

But what if there are good reasons for God to allow pain and suffering in the animal kingdom? I have written about good scientific reasons to think that a purpose exists for animal pain and suffering (see “Scientists Uncover a Good Purpose for Long-Lasting Pain in Animals” by Fazale Rana).

And, what if animal death is a necessary feature of nature? Other studies indicate that animal death promotes biodiversity and ecosystem stability (see “Of Weevils and Wasps: God’s Good Purpose in Animal Death” by Maureen Moser, and “Animal Death Prevents Ecological Meltdown” by Fazale Rana).

There also appears to be a reason for filial cannibalism and offspring abandonment, at least based on a study by researchers from Oxford University (UK) and the University of Tennessee.2 These researchers demonstrated that filial cannibalism and offspring abandonment comprise a form of parental care.

What? How is that conclusion possible?

It turns out that when animals eat their offspring or abandon their young, the reduction promotes the survival of the remaining offspring. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers performed mathematical modeling of a generic egg-laying species. They discovered that when animals sacrificed a few of their young, the culling led to greater fitness for their offspring than when animals did not engage in filial cannibalism or egg abandonment.

These behaviors become important when animals lay too many eggs. In order to properly care for their eggs (protect, incubate, feed, and clean), animals confine egg-laying to a relatively small space. This practice leads to a high density of eggs. But this high density can have drawbacks, making the offspring more vulnerable to diseases and lack of sufficient food and oxygen. Filial cannibalism reduces the density, ensuring a greater chance of survival for those eggs that are left behind. So, ironically, when egg density is too high for the environmental conditions, more offspring survive when the parents consume some, rather than none, of the eggs.

So, why lay so many eggs in the first place?

In general, the more eggs that are laid, the greater the number of surviving offspring—assuming there are unlimited resources and no threats of disease. But it is difficult for animals to know how many eggs to lay because the environment is unpredictable and constantly changing. A better way to ensure reproductive fitness is to lay more eggs and remove some of them if the environment can’t sustain the egg density.

So, it appears as if there is a good reason for God to create animals that eat their young. In fact, you might even argue that filial cannibalism leads to a world with less cruelty and suffering than a world where filial cannibalism doesn’t exist at all. This feature of nature is consistent with the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God who has designed the creation for his good purposes.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. To Asa Gray 22 May [1860],” Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge, accessed May 15, 2019, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-2814.xml.
  2. Mackenzie E. Davenport, Michael B. Bansall, and Hope Klug, “Unconventional Care: Offspring Abandonment and Filial Cannibalism Can Function as Forms of Parental Care,” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 7 (April 17, 2019): 113, doi:10.3389/fevo.2019.00113.

Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2019/05/22/why-would-god-create-a-world-where-animals-eat-their-offspring

Why Did God Create the Thai Liver Fluke?

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BY FAZALE RANA – JULY 11, 2017

The Thai liver fluke causes quite a bit of human misery. This parasite infects fish living in the rivers of Southeast Asia, which, in turn, infects people who eat the fish.

Raw and fermented fish make up a big part of the diet of people in Southeast Asia. For example, in Thailand, a popular culinary item is called sour fish. This “delicacy” is prepared by mixing raw fish with garlic, salt, seasoning, and rice. After rolling the mixture into a ball, it is placed in a plastic bag and left to ferment in the hot sun for several days.

The fermentation process isn’t sufficient to kill the cysts of the Thai liver fluke embedded in the muscles of the infected fish. So, when people eat sour fish (or raw fish), they risk ingesting the parasite.

The Thai Liver Fluke Life Cycle

After ingestion, the cysts open in the digestive track of the human host, releasing the fluke. This parasite travels through the bile duct, making its way into the liver, where it takes up residence.

Once in the liver, the fluke lays eggs that are carried into the host’s digestive track by bile secreted by the liver. In turn, the eggs are released into the environment with human excrement. After being ingested by snails, the eggs hatch, producing larvae that escape from the snail. The free-living larvae infect fish, forming cysts in their skin, fins, and muscle.

Image: Life cycle of Opisthorchis viverrini. Image source: Wikipedia

The Thai liver fluke is a master of disguise, evading the immune system of the human host and living for decades in the liver. Unless the infestation is extreme, people infected with the fluke are completely unaware that they harbor this parasite.

Estimates indicate that 10% of the Thai population is infected with the Thai liver fluke. But in the villages of northern Thailand, where the consumption of raw and fermented fish is higher than in other areas of the country, 45% of the people carry the parasite.

The Thai Liver Fluke and Cancer

The Thai liver fluke can live for several decades in the host’s liver without much consequence. But eventually, the burden of the infection catches up with the human host, leading to an aggressive and deadly form of liver cancer that claims about 26,000 Thai lives each year. Once the cancer is detected, most patients die within a year.

Biomedical researchers think the liver cancer is triggered by the Thai liver fluke, which munches on the host’s liver. Interestingly, the fluke’s saliva contains a protein (called granulin-like protein) that stimulates cell growth and division. These processes help the liver to repair itself after being damaged by the fluke. In effect, the parasite eats part of the liver, supercharges the liver to repair itself, and then eats the new tissue, repeating the cycle for decades. The repeated wounding and repairing of the liver tissue accompanied by rapid cell division eventually leads to the onset of cancer.

The Thai Liver Fluke and God’s Goodness

The problems caused by the Thai liver fluke are not limited to the biomedical arena. This parasite causes theological issues, as well. Why would a good God create the Thai liver fluke? Questions like this one fall under the problem of evil.

Philosophers and theologians recognize two kinds of evil: moral and natural.Moral evil stems from human action (or inaction in some cases). Natural evil proceeds from nature itself—earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, diseases, and the like.

Natural evil seems to present a greater theological challenge than moral evil does. Skeptics could agree that God can be excused for the free-will actions of human beings who violate his standard of goodness, but they reason that natural disasters and disease don’t result from human activity. Therefore, this type of “evil” must be attributed solely to God.

Are Some Forms of Natural Evil Actually Moral Evil?

As I have previously argued, many times natural evil is moral evil in disguise. (See the Resources section below.) In other words, the suffering humans experience stems from human moral failing and poor judgment, not the actual natural phenomenon.

This most certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the Thai liver fluke. Liver cancer caused by parasite infestations would plummet if people stopped eating raw fish and developed better public sanitation systems and practices.

So, is it God’s fault that humans become infected with the Thai liver fluke? Or is it because the people of northern Thailand suffer from poverty and a lack of sanitation—ultimately, conditions caused by human moral failing? Is it God’s fault that people of Southeast Asia develop liver cancer from fluke infestations, when they eat raw and fermented fish instead of properly cooking the meat, knowing the adverse health effects?

Parasites Play a Critical Role in Ecological Systems

Still, the question remains: Why would God create parasites at all?

As it turns out, parasites play an indispensable role in ecosystem health.1 Though these creatures make minor contributions to the biomass of ecosystems, they have a significant effect on several ecosystem parameters, including biodiversity. In fact, some ecologists believe that an ecosystem becomes more robust and functions better as parasite diversity increases.

Considering this insight, a rationale exists as to why God would create the Thai liver fluke to be a member of the ecosystems of the rivers in Southeast Asia. This parasite infects any carnivore (dogs, cats, rats, and pigs) that eats fish from these rivers, not just humans. Undoubtedly infecting these carnivores influences a variety of ecosystem processes, such as species competition, and energy flow through the ecosystem. The harm this parasite causes humans is an unintended consequence of imprudent human activities—not the inherent design of nature.

Parasites and God’s Providence

Remarkably, recent work by scientists from the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) indicates that the suffering caused by the Thai liver fluke may fulfill a higher purpose—a greater good.

These researchers believe that the Thai liver fluke may hold the key to effectively treat slow- and non-healing wounds caused by diabetes.2

High blood glucose levels associated with diabetes compromise the circulatory and immune systems. This compromised condition inhibits wound repair due to restricted blood flow to the site of the injury. It also makes the wound much more prone to infection.

The AITHM researchers realized that the granulin-like protein produced by the Thai liver fluke could be used to promote healing of chronic wounds because it promotes rapid cell proliferation in the liver. If incorporated into a cream, this protein could be topically applied to the wounds, stimulating wound repair. This treatment would dramatically reduce the cost of treating chronic wounds and significantly improve the treatment outcomes.

Ironically, the properties of the granulin-like protein that make this biomolecule so insidious are exactly the properties that make it useful to treat diabetics’ wounds. To put it another way, the Thai liver fluke is beneficial to humanity.

The idea that God designed nature to be useful for humanity is a facet of divine providence. In Christian theology, this idea refers to God’s continual role in: (1) preserving his creation; (2) ensuring that everything happens; and (3) guiding the universe. The concept of divine providence also posits that when God created the world he built into the creation everything humans (and other living organisms) would need. Accordingly, every good thing that people possess has been provided and preserved by God, either directly or indirectly.

On this basis, as counterintuitive as this may initially seem, it could be argued that as part of his providence, God created the Thai liver fluke for humanity’s use and benefit.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

–Romans 8:28

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Peter J. Hudson, Andrew P. Dobson, and Kevin D. Lafferty, “Is a Healthy Ecosystem One that Is Rich in Parasites?” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 21 (July 2006): 381–85, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2006.04.007.
  2. Paramjit S. Bansal et al., “Development of a Potent Wound Healing Agent Based on the Liver Fluke Granulin Structural Fold,” Journal of Medicinal Chemistry 60 (April 20, 2017): 4258–66, doi:10.1021/acs.jmedchem.7b00047.