“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.”
But what about nasty, bloodsucking bedbugs, which, during the past few years, have made one of the most spectacular comebacks in entomological history?
In the movie Creation, there is a scene in which Charles Darwin walks out on his local vicar when the congregation belts out the line, “The Lord God made them all.” I doubt that Darwin did any such thing during his long struggle to face the religious implications of his observations and write On the Origin of Species. He was, after all, an English gentleman. But he certainly had his doubts about the Lord’s intervention in creatures great and small, from the bacteria that killed his young daughter to the bugs and rodents that had been his companions on the historic voyage of The Beagle.
The return of bedbugs to 21st-century urban America presents a most potent argument against the idea that everything in creation was planned by an intelligent designer.
If you live in any large city, it has been hard to miss the spate of articles and television specials – eeeeeuw! — about the bedbug resurgence. Unlike humans, bedbugs always find the skies friendly, and cramped planes that are torture instruments for us are a swift route to their next meal. That would be our blood.
Part of the argument for intelligent design — the eye is often used as an example–is that many phenomena in nature are so complicated that they could only have been fashioned by a designer; ie., God. Actually, this is an argument against intelligent design. Simpler designs — in which the fewest possible number of things can go wrong and knock out the whole apparatus — would be much more intelligent.
But the idea that complexity must be engineered is only part of the intelligent design argument. The other aspect is the conviction that everything in nature contributes to an overall, divinely envisioned purpose. We may not enjoy being stung by bees, for example, but bees pollinate many plants. And so on. Taken to extremes, even natural disasters can be seen as part of the Creator’s plan — Hurricane Katrina, for instance, as God’s judgement on America for tolerating homosexuality.
Bedbugs, however, don’t seem to have any purpose at all — except to feed on the blood of larger mammals. According to May Berenbaum, author of The Earwig’s Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-Legged Legends, bedbugs inject humans with natural anesthetics at the moment of biting so that we won’t wake up and kill them before they finish their meal. They also give us a dose of anticoagulant so that they can slurp two to three times their weight in clot-free blood during one short feed. An intelligent design for them, certainly, but not for us.
About the only thing to be said in defense of bedbugs is that, unlike many other insects, they don’t spread dangerous illnesses. They are providing a great deal of extra income for exterminators, however. In the 1960s, before the huge surge in relatively low-cost air travel, bedbugs seemed to have become a pest of the past in the developed world. Now they have been reported in all 50 states, but the world’s great vertical cities are their most popular destinations. According to Dr. Berenbaum, there were more than 31,000 calls about bedbugs to exterminators between June 2009 and 2010 in New York alone. The bugs also — not surprisingly — love to set up shop in bedding and clothing stores. One Victoria’s Secret branch in Manhattan was closed for fumigation, prompting New York women to take a very close look at their latest silky and lacy purchases. Eeeeeeuw!
Bedbugs are also very, very hard to get rid of, in that they have developed a resistance to pesticides that were once used to kill them. After an exterminator has gone over an infested site, and you have either thrown out or washed every bit of cloth in your apartment, the final step for many New Yorkers is to bring in a bedbug-sniffing dog to find any survivors. New York writer Alan Good, in “The Bedbug Theodicy,” views bedbugs as an indicator of cosmic hostility. “Either God doesn’t exist, or God exists and hates us (or at least isn’t fond of us),” he writes. “I cannot accept that a loving God would create a creature whose sole purpose is to feast on the flesh of his so-called children.”
That was pretty much the conclusion Darwin reached, as his private papers show, about the indifference of nature. Of course, the great scientist and naturalist he took a more magesterial view of the whole process, concluding his book with the often quoted, “There is a grandeur in this view of life…whilst this planet has gone cycling on according the the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
But Darwin, unlike the social Darwinists who misappropriated his theory, never applied his ideas about man in a state of nature to man in a state of civilization. If he did walk out while the local congregation was signing, “All Things Bright And Beautiful,” I would like to think his exit came when the choir came to this verse: “The rich man in his castle,/The poor man at his gate,/He made them, high or lowly/And ordered their estate.” Those lines, written in 1848, have of course been deleted from today’s more progressive Anglican hymnals.
Bedbugs, it should be noted, make no distinction between the rich and the poor. But since they do find it easy to hide in plush surroundings, they may well prefer to feast on those who sleep on percale sheets in penthouses. Why doesn’t Congress start a campaign against these nasty, itch-producing illegal immigrants? Anchor bedbugs are a real menace. Since God hasn’t struck them down, there oughta be a law.
Image via Internet Archive Book Images.