Toward a Theology of Creative Worms


handful of earthworms

I wrote in my last post that God works with creatures to finish the project of creation:

When God invites us to act, God waits with full attention, giving us the space and time to choose our actions—and not only us, but the whole spectrum of living creatures. The whole of creation is an improvisational drama with a billion times a billion players.

This line proved more controversial than I expected. The freedom of humans to act, to participate with God, was acceptable. Yet there was a hesitancy to accept without qualification the idea that other non-human creatures share in that freedom.

It is a reasonable objection.

The vast majority of philosophical debates center only on human moral freewill, as if moral choices were the only important type of choices we can make in terms of changing the world. But there are non-moral choices that can change the world as well. For many centuries, natural philosophers (like Descartes) and scientists (like T.H. Huxley) defended the idea that other animals made no choice of any kind; they they were no more than automata. Their behaviours were thought to be nothing more than complex and involuntary reflexes: unconscious processes like eye dilation or the kicking response. Experiments showed that very simple avoidance behaviours in frogs and rats still happened when the brain was disconnected from the body, and this reinforced belief in the automatic nature of animal action. However new scientific discoveries and further theological reflection suggest it might be time to reinvestigate these long-held positions.

First, let us look at the science. While there is no question that reflexes are automatic and involuntary, there is no reason to assume that all non-human animal behaviour is reducible to reflex. Biologists regularly study “behavioural plasticity”:  instances where animals have several possible responses to a stimulus or goal and choose the most appropriate response for the situation. Consider the killdeer bird. These birds lay their eggs in nests on the ground where they are vulnerable to different kinds of threat. If a predator comes along (most interested in eating the eggs) the adult flies away from the nest and pretends to have a broken wing to attract the predator’s attention. If successful, the bird slowly lures the predator away from the nest. If the danger is instead from a passing herbivore that might be in danger of trampling the nest, the bird takes an opposite tack. She stands right next to the nest and makes herself as big and conspicuous as possible to ward away careless hooves or feet. The bird has to make something like a decision between strategies depending on the assessment of threat. This sort of behaviour is not easily understood as a reflex. It might be called instinctive (usually a word reserved for behaviour that does not need to be learned), but this is quite different from the sorts of brain-divorced avoidance movements that first spawned the idea of automatic behavior. It is the bird herself who determines which alternative to take.

The same is true of animal learning. Tool use and problem solving are simply not amenable to the argument that animals have no inner conscious life. During the 1920’s in Britain, a novel problem emerged from animal learning. Milk was regularly delivered to doors in glass bottles with a tinfoil or cardboard cap. But an enterprising bird near Southampton discovered that the top could be removed to provide a tasty treat. Once one bird discovered the possibility of opening milk bottles, the trend caught on faster than a cat video on Facebook. All across the country frustrated people found their morning milk deliveries plundered by birds. The fad was not limited to one species of bird or one method of removing the cap (one observer saw a bird use two different techniques in a matter of minutes). All it seemed to require was for birds to understand that milk bottles could provide food, and they found various ways to access it. The problem became so bad that morning milk deliveries came to an end: human culture changed because of animal learning. Now, many avian generations later, the tradition of delivering milk bottles has been taken up again. A friend of mine in London has had milk delivered to her door for 5 years, and not once have the bottles been opened by feathered friends. The learning that was once widespread across British birds has been forgotten. If the bird learning had been instinctive or somehow reflexive, the behaviour would not drop out after just a few generations. Instead, the incidents point toward bird learning being a genuine choice made amongst a variety of options: a cultural tradition, if you will.

In another example, the macaque monkeys of Koshima were fed sweet potatoes on the beaches so that primatologists could more easily study their behaviour.[1] One enterprising monkey named Imo, apparently annoyed at the dirt and sand on her potatoes, started washing them in a nearby stream. Soon all the other monkeys did the same. Then it was found that washing in the sea instead of the stream seasoned the potatoes with salt. A second problem was also solved by the innovative Imo. The scientists would also leave piles of wheat out for the monkeys to eat. Inevitably, sand mixed with the wheat, leaving the monkeys with the long and boring task of sorting out sand from wheat. One day Imo scooped up the whole pile and threw it into the sea water. The sand sunk immediately, leaving Imo to collect the floating wheat. Soon, others did the same. There was one more unintended consequence: the monkeys were now spending enough time in the water to become familiar with it. Swimming, diving, and playing in the water became a common pastime and endured long beyond the point when scientists stopped feeding the macaques. Fifty years later, the macaques still visit the beaches to wash potatoes and play in the water. The change in behaviour has also opened up new foodsources: the monkeys eat limpits, octopi, and fish that they find in pools along the beach. One small innovation by one individual set off a chain of behavioural changes in an entire population that could in turn influence ecological and evolutionary relationships.

People might be on board with mammalian or bird learning, but question whether creatures with less developed brains (or no brains at all) can innovate or have “intelligence.” In so far as intelligence can be thought of as problem solving, there are plenty of examples of advanced problem solving amongst creatures without complex brains. Slime molds solve networking problems in similar ways to the best human engineers. Plants use networks to communicate with each other that work in ways uncannily similar to neural networks. The more we look, the more we find hints and signs that intelligence is all around us. While plants and other animals may not have moral freewill, it does seem that they have the ability to learn and innovate on their actions. Insofar as behavioural innovation and behavioural plasticity change the world around the innovating organism, then the door is opened theologically to the possibility that we humans are not the only creatures who have a part in creating the world with God. Innovation by innovation, small changes eventually take similar evolutionary pathways into vastly divergent ways, leading to wondrous new diversity.

What does this mean theologically? First, it means that God is more generous with power than we usually imagine. The much-beloved project of creation is not a jealously guarded activity. Humans have a unique relationship with God, but they do not have a monopoly on relationship with God. God was not simply waiting for humans to arrive before enjoying creation. Instead, the Scriptures testify to the wide scope of God’s love and interest. “The Lord is good to all,” writes the poet of Psalm 145:9, “and his compassion is over all that he has made.” Psalm 104 recounts the wonders of God’s care for the whole creation, from the grass to the great whales. Psalm 148 exhorts the entire living and non-living cosmos to praise God:

7Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

Though we cannot understand them as consciously praising God, we can understand them as praising God through all their capacities of living and being.[2] Worms do not compose hymns of praise, but they radically transform the earth through their humble lives. Darwin, who composed his very last book about earthworms, pointed out that even they showed some instances of behavioural plasticity (though he simply called it “intelligence”). Even earthworms, then, are part of the ever-enriching project of creation built with God upon the incremental choices, chances, and changes of all God’s creatures, great and small.


Notes & References


Bethany Sollereder
About the Author

Bethany Sollereder

Dr. Bethany Sollereder is a research coordinator at the University of Oxford. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering. Bethany received her PhD in theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver. When not reading theology books, Bethany enjoys hiking the English countryside, horseback riding, and reading Victorian literature.