Paradoxes. And Ants.
Happy New Year! I hope your holidays were merry and bright, and I hope ...well, I hope. Thursday was the first anniversary of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and hope for our democracy seems harder and harder to come by. So does hope for an end to the pandemic - our holidays were upended by COVID exposures, and while none of us got sick (thankfully!!!), this virus is hitting closer and closer to home.
Today, I'm thinking about paradoxes. Can two things be true? Merriam-Webster defines a paradox is, "something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible," and, "someone who does two things that seem to be opposite to each other or who has qualities that are opposite." Also, "a statement that seems to say two opposite things but that may be true." I'm thinking about all those times when two things seem to be polar opposites, but I accept that both are true.
For example, I don't have a problem believing that God exists, and that God created heaven and earth, AND that evolution occurred, and the Bible isn't exactly true on the creation stories. I don't have a problem believing that Jesus wasn't a football-player type warrior AND that in his weakness and humility he changed the world.
I'm struggling a little bit with the part about someone hurt me - badly - AND is a good person. The problem there is that if that person is good, then I must be the bad one. Nope - this is a paradox. She is a good person AND hurt me at my core.
I've also been thinking about ants.
I was listening to NPR the other day, and they were replaying an interview by Terry Gross with Edward O. Wilson. Edward O. Wilson died on December 26, 2021. He was a scientist who specialized in myrmecology (there is your vocabulary word for the week!). Myrmecology is the study of ants.
I won't try to encapsulate Dr. Wilson's life here - suffice it to say that I have added his books, On Human Nature and The Ants to my reading list. I had never heard of him before Wednesday, when I heard the clip of the interview with Ms. Gross, but I have been thinking of what he said ever since.
Let me ask you the question that Ms. Gross asked him: What would happen if all the ants were to magically disappear?
My answer, and I suspect yours, too, unless you are also a myrmecologist, is that picnics would be a lot more pleasant. I could take the ant traps off of my kitchen counters in the summertime. I would enjoy being out in the garden more - I was weeding two summers in a row and disturbed ant nests and they swarmed over my wrists and into my gloves and I had a very painful, itchy rash for several days (needless to say, they live undisturbed in that part of my garden now). I could bring potted plants in before the first frost and not worry about a swarm of thawed ants in my house.
Very short sighted of us. Here is the answer that Dr. Wilson gave:
GROSS: What would happen to the world if all the ants were to magically disappear?
WILSON: Terrible things. Let me preface my response by saying that, of course, we will do everything in our power to save the human species. That is the entire meaning of our own lives. But if the human species were to disappear from the Earth, the Earth would go on unperturbed. In fact, the ecosystems of the world would regain their previous equilibrium. And short of some great meteorite strike, the planet could count on another billion years or so of undisturbed evolution amidst great biological diversity. But if ants, these little despised creatures at our feet, were to disappear, because they are such vital parts of the ecosystem on which the turning of the soil and the removal of dead animals and the predation on other kind of animals and so on is vital, if they were removed, then we would see a partial collapse of the ecosystems on the land. Probably many thousands of other species would become extinct. Soon after, would - many plants would go extinct and so on. There would be a major reorganization and a depauperization of the land ecosystems. The world would suffer if it lost an important group like the ants.
"...if the human species were to disappear from the Earth, the Earth would go on unperturbed...The world would suffer if it lost an important group like the ants."
Well, if that doesn't bring us down to size. If humanity were to disappear, the Earth would go on - would, in fact, heal. But ants? Nope - catastrophic. Same with bees, who are getting a lot more attention these days. I'd guess the same could be said for worms, slugs, flies. I've often wondered why God felt it necessary to create mosquitos - surely fish could eat something else - but they probably have an important role to play, too.
The paradox here is that we are told that God created us, God loves us, and God commanded us to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. (Genesis 1: 28-29, NRSV);
AND God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. 24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good." (Genesis 1:20-25, NRSV)
In our arrogance, we have taken the words "subdue" and "dominion" to mean that the earth is our playground, to do with as we will. We have squandered the living things of every kind because we can, and we believe that we are so important - so beloved of God - that it doesn't matter. But scientists like E.O. Wilson remind us that it DOES matter. The world can go on without us, but not without the tiny creatures we tramp on and spray with ant killer.
There are all kinds of paradoxes here. Can I care about ants AND not want them on my kitchen counter? Yes - they need to stay in their part of the world and leave me to mine. That said, maybe I/we need to consider whether we really belong on top of remote mountains (apparently Mt. Everest and Denali have major litter problems now that people have learned how to get to the top), in the deepest ocean, and in outer space. Maybe we need to be more judicious in where we choose to live - and in another post we can talk about why so many of us find lawns so necessary.
If you are old enough - do you remember the Chiffon Margarine commercials, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!" If you don't, or if you want a trip down memory lane, you can watch one from 1977 here. Mother nature will do a whole lot more to us if we don't stop thinking we are better than she.
Another paradox: can we subdue and have dominion over creation AND respect it? Biblically, I mean?
According to the KJV Dictionary, to subdue something means, essentially, to overcome it. One can conquer it by force or oppress it into submission. Given that KJV stands for King James Version, this pretty much destroys my argument. Christianity has been taught since 1604, when translation of the Bible into English was authorized by King James I, that mankind was to oppress and overcome creation in order to bring it to heel. This brought us directly to where we are today. Our dependence on plastics and fossil fuels has brought our climate to the brink of catastrophe. Pesticides now threaten our water and food sources. All because we were taught that the earth is ours to do with as we will.
Ah, but there is another definition - the Hebrew definition. In Hebrew, the words "have dominion over" translates to radah. Radah means to go down and wander among and spread. Reading Genesis this way - and remember Genesis is the creation story of the HEBREW people - humankind is to live with and among God's creation - including ants - and help them to thrive. In helping ants thrive, humankind will thrive.
But what about mosquitos, the number one killer on the planet? Are we supposed to let them thrive, too? Well, I don't know. As I said, God must have had a reason for creating them. And if you have a mind for apocalyptic literature, take this idea: mosquitos (or some other reviled creature - snakes, maybe?) and give them brains to defend themselves against all enemies. The story would be the war between species, and if you like apocalyptic literature - you're welcome. In the meantime, I am going to kill many mosquito larva by emptying water collection vessels during the summer. If Jay didn't empty water buckets every day, I'd consider putting fish in them.
Two more paradoxes. First, can I believe that God loves me AND holds ants dear, too? Yes, I can. Just because God wants me (and you!!!) to thrive and flourish, doesn't mean that God doesn't care deeply about God's creation. The bottom line is that defining what it means to thrive for ourselves at the expense of the animals, plants, and creation is sinful, and not at all what God intended when God told Adam to fill the earth and radah it.
Second, we can believe in the Bible AND believe it has been misinterpreted and used to bludgeon creation (including people). We must seek to understand what is written there, which starts with reading it. Then wrestle with it. Pray about it. Learn about it. Have a question? There are multiple resources at your fingertips that will help you understand it - I'll give you a hint: I do not own a Hebrew dictionary.
Now don't start with me about disease carrying insects being allowed to live in the kitchen. That isn't what I am saying at all. But there has to be a way - another paradox! There has to be a way that we can coexist AND maintain our healthy boundaries.
Be curious. Ask questions. If someone tells you something is true, question it - it doesn't matter how authoritarian the person is. Does it make sense? Does it ring true? Why or why not? God gave us all brains and it is time we use them. Otherwise, we really aren't any more evolved than ants.
P.S. In rereading the last paragraph, I think I meant to use the word "authoritative," not authoritarian. But authoritarian fits there too - because authoritarians often want you to believe they know of what they speak, when they really don't. In that case, they demonize the ones who question. The ones who challenge the authoritarian person cannot be allowed to remain. The people who disagree are dehumanized. Sound familiar?
Benner, Jeff A. "Subdue." Ancient Hebrew Research Center. Hebrew Word Definition: Subdue | AHRC (ancient-hebrew.org). Accessed 1/9/22
Davies, Dave, et al. Remembering Edward O. Wilson, a conservation advocate who studied ant colonies : NPR. Accessed 1/9/22
Image. Andrey Pavlov's Ant Theatre (animalworld.com.ua) Accessed 1/9/22
KJV Dictionary. SUBDUE - Definition from the KJV Dictionary (av1611.com). Accessed 1/9/22.
Merriam Webster. Paradox Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster. Accessed 1/7/22
Wikipedia. E. O. Wilson - Wikipedia. Accessed 1/9/22