Overcoming Natural Evil with Good
Things that bite and sting are not always 100% harmful. Maybe some of our categories of natural evil are due to ignorance.
We shy away from pain, but few would claim that pain has no purpose. Victims of leprosy illustrated with stunted limbs what can happen when pain responses are deadened. Botulin toxin is one of the most potent poisons known, yet it is now used in medical procedures and even for beautification in plastic surgery. While this entry by no means exonerates animals and plants that damage and kill, it shows with recent findings that some of what we dub “natural evil” can have a beneficial side.
“Why That Bee Sting Might Be Good for You” seems like a strange headline for a piece in Science Now; what person could not recall in horror the sight of a bee sting pumping its poison into the arm? Yet the article describes how the toxin sets the immune system in motion, protecting the stingee from the next reaction.
Allergy sufferers, rejoice. Two new studies suggest that your sneezing and wheezing may actually protect you. Researchers report that mice that develop an allergic response to the venom in honey bee stings are more likely to survive potentially lethal doses of the same venom later on. The findings show that allergy can be beneficial and reveal some of the molecular machinery at work, but experts say the implications for humans are still unclear.
The allergic reaction to natural substances (called Type 2 response, as opposed to Type 1 that destroys viruses and bacteria) needs practice to kick into gear. It’s possible that the body’s production of immunoglobulin-E antibodies by a bee sting is a response that provides future protection from similar or greater dangers (unless the allergic reaction is so strong it becomes life-threatening). The author of the article cites studies that implicate immunoglobulin-E with protection from worm infections. One commenter asked if a bee sting might have conferred resistance to black widow bite.
The author speculates that allergic reactions “evolved to protect against parasites (as opposed to microbes) but that they have no modern-day protective purpose.” That’s why, presumably, moderns get seemingly useless allergies. Another possibility, though, is that some exposures to “nasty” beasties that bite or sting “boot up” our immune systems in a diverse world. Since the bee needs its defenses, too, the result is a dynamic interplay between the bee’s needs and ours. The pain response warns the person of invading the bee’s space; the bee toxin prepares the person’s immune system for future encounters with it and perhaps similar toxins. If children today got more exposure to plants and animals outdoors (see 11/28/13), perhaps their allergic reactions would be less severe or less frequent.
The word “toxin” conjures up natural evil, but pain responses are a matter of degree. Live Science discussed a toxin that can actually reduce pain. In “Stings So Good: Centipede Venom Could Fight Pain,” writer Tia Ghose discussed research on the Chinese red centipede, whose bite is “excruciatingly painful.” A molecule extracted from the venom deactivates a specific sodium channel involved in pain. As effective as morphine but non-addictive, this molecule shows promise to defeat the very pain that creates fear for the bite victims. (Incidentally, some people with a mutation that deactivates that sodium channel are already not affected by the centipede’s bite.)
A similar case was reported in Science Now. There’s a rodent that appears impervious to scorpion stings. Live Science says that humans bit by the Arizona bark scorpion feel like they’ve been hit by a hammer, but the grasshopper mouse munches the critters with no apparent reaction, because specific sodium channels involved in pain have become deactivated, rendering the toxin ineffective. The full paper was published by Science Magazine. Note: you are reading crev.info.
Even inside our bodies, little living things we might recoil from could we see them actually help us. For those who can stomach an article with a high Yuk! factor, Medical Xpress described a new “wonder cure” for certain bacterial infections in the digestive tract that have been difficult or impossible to treat with drugs, like Clostridium and agents that cause colitis, inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease. Here it is – get ready: “fecal transplants.” That’s right; a donor, like a family member, can contribute poo to the sufferer through the rectum (preferably under doctor-controlled processes), and symptoms disappear as if by magic. Why? The sufferer usually lost beneficial bacteria because of antibiotics. Those beneficial microbes from another person quickly restore the protection, killing off the bad bugs, putting things back in balance. Hopefully this new wonder cure will come in pill form some day, but it’s a very hot topic in health care, illustrating the new respect health experts are gaining for the 100 trillion microbes in our digestive tracts.
So what are we to think of substances often considered prime examples of natural evil? There don’t seem to be any redeeming virtues in some of them. Live Science described attempts to thwart the toxin of the brown recluse spider with a drug that is normally used for a rare heart disease. Live Science also generated some good Halloween screams with electron micrographs of the mouthparts of a tick that seem engineered to not only bite but anchor themselves securely in animal or human skin, masking their presence with molecules that turn off pain receptors, so that they can engorge their bodies with blood, using other molecules to turn off coagulation. In the process ticks can also transmit disease bacteria. And what’s “good” about a malaria mosquito? Examples could be multiplied of animals and plants that kill or cause intense pain and suffering.
These are questions science cannot answer. Science describes; science explains processes, but does not provide reasons. One thing that has changed with science, though, is the simplistic categorizing of animals or plants into black-and-white moral categories of good and evil. Some things that infect or cause pain, as these stories show, actually benefit their victims in direct or roundabout ways. There are complex interplays between needs of organisms. If the vast majority of interactions were not beneficial, we could never dare set foot in the woods (cf. 10/28/13, “Boost Your Health Outdoors”).
The origin of natural evil is a complex problem. We need to avoid simplistic answers. Some agents of pain could be due to mutations away from an original good function. For instance, in a recent lecture at the Bible-Science Association, a scientist showed a beneficial purpose for the cholera microbe in its marine habitat. He explained how mutations to the microbe allowed it to jump to infect humans, causing the tragic cholera epidemics that have so plagued human populations. Even so, cholera is very rare with proper water sanitation. The same scientist has other examples in ecology of “pushes and pulls” between organisms that create homeostasis, seasonal responses, or protection against novel agents when an animal wanders into a new habitat. Still, this kind of answer falls short being able to explain more severe examples of suffering and death, and doesn’t explain why suffering seems unequally applied.
Theists struggle to explain natural evil, but evolutionists have a far worse problem. They cannot call anything evil. Whatever is, is! Darwin sanctified Thomas Hobbes’ description of society as a “war of all against all,” or Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw.” Each organism is self-interested – but even that description is incoherent in Darwin’s world, because the concept of self is meaningless. Stuff happens; that’s the only thing that can be said. Obviously such thinking can harden the heart against compassion for the victims of suffering. On what basis should an evolutionist interfere with the evolutionary process? Even Richard Dawkins would not want to live in a society that is consistently Darwinian.
Only the Bible has a coherent response to natural evil: the original perfect world was cursed due to sin (Genesis 3), but awaits redemption through the triumph of Christ (Romans 8). Genesis 3 describes a few of the curses the Creator brought about: leaves modified to become thorns, serpents made to slither on the ground, woman’s reproductive system modified to be painful, and man’s work made to be filled with toil and sweat (implying a multitude of changes in the living world). We might call this God’s “plan B” – a world to handle rebels (You want a world where selfishness rules? Here, try this one). The Biblical answer also must include the realities of the spirit world; when man chose disobedience, Satan was given some measure of dominion over the earth, albeit under the permissive will of God.
God could have destroyed the sinners right then and there. He did, after all, warn Adam and Eve that disobedience would result in death. Instead (though their spiritual death was immediate), He graciously extended the physical death process, giving humans opportunity to taste both the suffering of judgment and the beauty of the earth. Most of the creation was still beautiful; it showcases His wisdom and design, but now it presents a mixed message. The beauty gives us a view of God’s glory and grace; the curse, a reminder of coming judgment. Men and women (still with the image of God intact yet tarnished) were set to walk a world with traps and snares, dreading the certainty of death but not knowing when; “man knows not his time.” The common grace of God, though, allows many of us to live for decades, long enough to taste the blessings of light, food, seasons (Acts 14:8-18), and the beauty of “God’s green earth,” long enough to respond to the call of salvation.
The Bible promises a new creation without pain and death for those who accept Christ’s free love gift. Purchased with His blood – a sacrifice only God Himself could make – the gift will remove the curse and bring a new creation in which righteousness dwells. This is the blessed hope of the Christian. Sharing that hope with others, a hope that rests on the promises of God, a hope bolstered by the evidence of design in the universe, a surety attested to by the resurrection of Christ, is the greatest purpose in life for a redeemed soul (read the map). Along the way, the redeemed have the opportunity to share God’s compassion by mitigating the proximal causes of physical suffering whenever they can.