Ecology Evolution Scientific Speculation

What kind of God lives in my garden?

Our Earth is a wild place. Even if our urban eyes refuse to acknowledge it, wild nature goes on with its mechanisms in our back-yard just as it does on wide open grasslands of Africa or emerald green forests of Brazil. And yet, when the TV screen shows a mother cheetah offering a live baby Thompson’s gazelle to baby cheetahs to ensure that her kids learn how to hunt, it seems like a distant world that is tucked away to its own devices. 

We want to believe that such things are too far away to be part of our world, our morality, our picture of the God. And thankfully, our daily living in our urban world is rarely more than today’s index or location of a good eatery in our city. But, for those who look around, even in a city, there is no escape from the crazy clock-work of nature with a sense of confusion. 

It is amazing to see nature at work and even more amazing to see people from different backgrounds responding to the working of nature.

Recently, I was walking around in my urban garden to supervise some construction work being carried on by the typical cross section of people from our society. 

There was an educated civil engineer, some skilled but half-educated city-dwelling workmen and some tribal laborers for whom city is a destination of seasonal migration.

For one, nature was just part of the TV screen or a place mandatory to go to in vacations while consuming necessary quota of alcohol.

For other, it was part of some distant past-life when taking cows to graze meant a (now hard to remember) brush with jackals or porcupines.

While the last lot still knew the flowering season of Mahuda or the snake that bit Mukhi’s daughter. I am sure that each of them had a picture of nature in his mind suitably matching with what he knew.

But, they were all in for a very rude shock.

Walking around, I soon came across a spectacle (see the photograph) that, for me, can easily qualify as a replay of nominee for “Events that changed the world”. It has been so often discussed that I will quickly run through only the basic facts before going into the real subject matter.

What you see here is a wasp (Most wasps are bee-like, but predatory insects, known for their poisonous sting) and a spider. The spider is reduced to a paralyzed state by the wasp’s sting. 

Though it seems like any other prey-predator tableau, it is actually a lot worse.

The paralyzed spider is not for the immediate consumption of the wasp. It is actually to serve as ‘fresh’ baby food for wasp babies sleeping quietly within their egg-shells inside the spider’s body. The spider is paralyzed only to ensure that its body does not rot over time. The eggs within spider’s body will hatch into wasp-lings that will devour the living spider from within before coming out into the beautiful world made by the Lord God.

There are few stories that can match this one for its utter goriness.

When French entomologist Fabre described it in early twentieth century, all God loving Christians brought up in a just and fair world where “The meek shall inherit the world” were shell shocked. But, more importantly, this small anomaly prompted some of the thinking people to start looking at the world of God in a different way. 

It is extremely plausible that revolutionary scientific ideas like Theory of Evolution or Freudian ideas about human psychology started as part of this chain reaction leading us to a brave new quantum world of a God who could be found throwing dice in his past time.

The wasp changed our world with a single sting.

But, has it really changed it in our hearts? 

To find the answer, I looked at the people gathered around me when I told them this story, while all of us watched the struggles of wasp to bury the spider under-ground for safe-keeping. 

After initial reaction of disgust, it was suggested by the leading thinkers that this ‘cruel’ wasp should be squashed right here.

They all wanted to just bury it and assume that this never happened. When I pointed out that there were babies inside the spider, age-old instinctive notion of ‘innocence’ of the unborn brought a sense of reluctance.

As minds got confused, deeper thinking took over instinctive reaction.

The civil engineer just wanted to bury the whole lot and move on, as he believed that there were more important things to do in life.

The skilled but half rural workmen wanted to squash the wasp and yet bury the spider as there was no point killing the babies for “no fault of theirs”.

The Tribal lot was just amazed. They were milling around, trying to get a better look at this wonderful wasp. They were not judgmental as they didn’t think it to be their job. Yet, for them, wasp seems to be doing the right thing i.e. taking advantage of its better weaponry. 

But, for all Indians, there was one universal explanation that made sense. For them, the spider must have bad ‘karma’ from past life that made his deserve this torture!

When they discovered that I wanted to shoot the whole sequence using my (pathetically inadequate) mobile phone (these were early days of mobile phone cameras), the age old feudal Indian spirit rose.

All jobs were dropped. Trees were climbed to rig up lights for the shoot. A general sense of awe was whipped up for the fact that I could predict the next move of this strange drama purely from having read about it.

All this while, the wasp carried on enacting its part and yet not making sense. It kept digging holes completely unsuitable for stuffing a large spider inside. We wanted to make it look smart and commented upon its ‘choice’ of location as ‘oh, ground is soft and more suitable here’ or ‘it would be easy to carry spider down that slope’; but the wasp didn’t seem to know what to do beyond digging half way and moving to a new location. (May be, the Fabre book was out of print when the wasp was in school). 

It carried the spider all around the place, dumping it here and there and then running around looking for it. Our respect for it was partially retained from the fact that it did find the spider every time.

At last, it did get a few things right and managed to make a hole wide enough to accommodate the spider. Our spirits rose. As construction people, all of us had started developing sympathy for the wasp for the complex engineering job it had undertaken. It was relief to feel that the project was about to get over. Wasp stuffed and brought out the spider couple of times, making us oscillate between assuming her to be an engineering genius or a plain stupid automata.

By now, it had turned from a moral dilemma into an interesting drama. The scientific evidence had prevailed over requirement of moral justification. 

For me, it showed that human curiosity mixed with logical thinking did serve the purpose of making us better equipped to handle reality than other creatures.

I felt that I was witnessing people moving towards a rational understanding of the world, uncluttered by confused morality. A world brave enough not to require a benevolent God. And I went home.

Late in the night, I got a phone call, “Saheb, Ants came. They dug out the spider and ate it. It surely served the @#$ wasp right.”.

The God of people prevailed.

May be the God working in my garden is not the one that stays in the heart of the billions that make our society.

If we need a God to run the world, the one in my garden would be ‘Good’ enough. But I am not sure if He is fit to take it away from the One who sent the ants!

Spider-wasp

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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