By Gary Greenberg
We found the bug, my son Joel and I, on one of the first hot days of summer. It was perfectly preserved in the remains of an abandoned spider web, as if it had flown through a museum window and right into a display case. More than three inches long, its body was brown-black and so deeply articulated that its abdomen trailed its thorax like some kind of afterthought. Three wiry appendages, one of them at least twice the length of the bug itself, hung from its belly like the antennae of a spy plane. With its narrow waist and yellow-and-black-striped head and legs, the bug reminded us of a gigantic wasp, but really, in our collective fifty-five years, we had never seen anything like it.
Forty-eight of those years are mine, and with them comes this feeling of responsibility to impart knowledge—as if it’s not enough to sit on the front porch and look at the creature under a magnifying glass, to speculate on its origins and purpose before tossing it into the overflowing dustbin of family history. So I got out the Audubon guide I bought for just this kind of Teaching Moment, and there on plate 465 was a dead ringer for our find: the Giant Ichneumon. “Mated female flies from tree to tree,” I read to Joel, “pressing its long antennae against the bark to detect vibrations made by horntail larvae in wood. Female curls ovipositor”—I decided that was the long wire—”over abdomen, curving it down to enter bark at right angle. Sharp tips cut progressively deeper until they reach larval tunnels. Female inserts a very slender egg into each horntail tunnel. Each ichneumon larva attacks horntail host, causing its death, but not before ichneumon larva is fully grown.”
As I translated Audubon into seven-year-old—”So the ichneumon mom kills the horntail baby so that hers will grow”—I thought that all this carnage under the bark was a perfect illustration of nature at its most savage and ruthless. “Isn’t it amazing,” I asked him in my best Socratic tone, “that all of this could happen by accident?” I was winding up into full pedantry, ready to expound on the improbability of the idea that natural selection—the shotgun marriage of luck and necessity—could spawn the ichneumon’s ability to seek out and ambush a tiny worm in a sapwood burrow, that this insect’s distant ancestors stumbled by accident on such a bizarre and bloody solution to the problem of reproduction.
When he ran away to show his mother the latest addition to his cabinet of wonders, I figured it was because he didn’t want any more bad news.
Joel is more collector than philosopher these days. He doesn’t ask so much anymore about where the person before the first person came from or who painted the sky. He’s content just to carry a jar of fireflies up to bed and drift off to sleep watching them, as if all the answers were self-evident in their shimmering. But when he asks me who brought him the loom he got for Christmas or who traded the shiny quarters for the tooth under his pillow, I can tell that he’s still worrying those knotty questions, his apprehension evident in the way he circles around the metaphysical implications of Santa and the Tooth Fairy by never just asking me whether they are real.
Not that I blame him. Seeing things from your kid’s viewpoint can give sudden credence to all sorts of strange notions—the enchanted universe, for instance. I mean, when you think about it, natural selection is so farfetched as to seem impossible, if not downright ridiculous. It’s a story with too much pathos and drama not to have an author. I intended to point out the monstrous majesty of unplanned beauty, but something else arose: the Giant Ichneumon put me, a long-lapsed Jew married to a longer-lapsed Methodist raising a child outside of any church or temple, in mind of God.
Once that happens, you’re suddenly in league with some unexpected folks: the creationists, the intelligent designers, the textbook-burning Bible thumpers who reject the tradition of empirical inquiry and flout the logic of Occam’s razor to insist that the accretion of accident cannot possibly account for order and symmetry in the natural world, that all the intricate hand-in-glove relations of creation must have a creator. And for a moment, watching your barefoot son chatter to his mother in the sun-drenched garden, the purple irises brilliant against his yellow hair, it doesn’t feel too bad to think that this was somehow all planned, that your delight is more than the firing of an electrochemical potential descended from a distant fight-or-flight imperative, that it is something real, something that matters, something that some intelligence had it in mind for you to feel.
That doesn’t make the moment itself any less fragile (and you have to wonder where the intelligence lies in a nature so much stingier with joy than with pain). But it does imbue it with substance and depth and meaning, the exact qualities erased by all the rational talk about random variation and struggles for survival.
I don’t know which is the greater folly—to believe that billions of years of accident created this luminous tableau and the capacity to revel in it or to believe that some force actually went to all the trouble of making this happen for me. I know which one I find more convincing, if for no other reason than that it is very hard for me to believe that Creators do retail. And I know which one I wish were true, because whatever consolation there is in stoicism, Darwin’s is a pitiless view. My son is only on the cusp of disenchantment, and for a moment I was there with him. If he’d stuck around, maybe I could have bolstered his belief in Santa and fairies and ichneumons as characters in an epic true story. But then again I am sure I would have found my way back to reason, teased him with transcendence, only to come crashing back to earth.
Author’s Note: When the bug incident happened, George W. Bush had just joined in the shouting match about Darwinism and intelligent design. It was easy to see the president’s advocacy of ID as another example of his conviction that reality is beside the point, that truth must serve power, but I hadn’t grasped the inherent childishness of this attitude, its wish-fulfillment logic, until we found the ichneumon, and that led to unexpected sympathy. I may wish my president was more grown up, but I have to admit there is something compelling and comforting in his sense of a magical universe.
Brain, Child (Winter 2006)
About the Author: Gary Greenberg is a freelance journalist and psychotherapist who lives and works in Connecticut. His essays and features have appeared in Mother Jones, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Tin House, among other publications.
Art by Digital Imaging by Clover Archer
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