A Squirrel that Keeps Falling Over: Raccoon Roundworm, Theodicy, Creation and Evolution

About a week or so ago, my family and I noticed a squirrel behaving oddly. It seemed unable to stand up straight for long periods – as though its sense of balance were affected. It would fall over, and lie on its side while trying to eat seeds it found beneath our bird feeder. Here’s a YouTube video someone else made illustrating what it looks like:

A quick search online found a probable explanation: raccoon roundworm. If a squirrel eats food that has passed through the digestive tract of an infected raccoon, it may ingest the roundworm eggs. When they hatch, they will make their way to the brain (among other parts of the squirrel, such as the eyes) and cause brain damage (among other things). In the rare instance that a human being were to ingest raccoon roundworm eggs, the consequences are comparably devastating.

Young-earth creationists would presumably have us believe that God inflicted this punishment on squirrels (since they are typically affected, whereas humans rarely are) as punishment for humanity’s sin. Proponents of Intelligent Design might instead point out that there are features of the roundworm which are irreducibly complex and were created as they are now to optimize the organism’s ability to thrive – with all the consequences that has for other living things.

Both views have scientific problems that are well known (except, apparently, among the adherents of these views). But one can also offer criticism from a theological perspective. I don’t see why anyone finds these options religiously appealing. If it seems theologically problematic to account for why God would create through a process of evolution that produces pain and suffering of this sort, surely it is no less problematic, and arguably more, to attribute the existence of raccoon roundworm and other parasites like it directly to a supposedly benevolent Creator.

Having posted this, and having discussed Michael Patton’s cartoon, it seems worth sharing links to some of the other blog posts about evolution and creation that I’ve noticed today.

The Panda’s Thumb talks about the UK Education Secretary’s recent statement and its significance.
RJS continues blogging about evolution and entropy in conversation with Collins and Giberson’s book The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. Internet Monk also posted a review (and I hope to in the not-too-distant future too!)
Arni Zechariassen wonders what would happen if we simply accepted the bills that advocating evaluating strengths and weaknesses – and focused instead on pointing out the weaknesses of young-earth creationism and intelligent design.
Doug Chaplin posted on the third episode in the series The Bible’s Buried Secrets, which focused on the Garden of Eden.

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  • jj

    I see the sickle cell gene as another problem here. Where if two parents pass on the gene, a child typically gets sickle cell anemia, if a child gets one normaly copy and one mutant copy the child has a better chance of surviving Malaria (and one normal copy is sufficient to prevent disease). If the child receives two normal copies they child has an increased chance of dying from Malaria. Likely some oversimplification, but this is what is generally reported. From an evolutionary perspective there is no issue here. However, if one wants to invoke a creator (of the 6 day creation or ID sort) then there are some theological implications to deal with.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    While it is true that natural or biological existance has certain requirements to function effectively, it is also true that society needs those same structures. Law protects society's definition as to value. Parents provide an environment in which values are transferred, as well as the larger societal values. Schools equip the growing mind to develop potential that provides the needed "resources" or creativity, ingenuity, invention, information, labor, etc.Biological and neurosceience is studying the effects on the brain within certain contexts. It has already been found that sex releases certain hormones that create a "bonding", just as nursing does. Therefore, certain physical behaviors are conducive to form bonds of commitment emotionally. Fallen or dysfunctional social structures might be due to a lack of bonding, nurturance, and/or sex without limit.As to theodicity, I really think that "God" has to do with leadership, not a "father in the sky"…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    On the other hand, even though there is a correlation to bonding with sexual intercourse, sexual intercourse does not predispose one to the same bonding in all instances, meaning that there is more to "bonding" than physical contact and hormones…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16965813933692515592 SkepticHeretic

    Dr. McGrath, I'm not really wrapped into old-earth, young-earth, or ID BUT you asked this question:But one can also offer criticism from a theological perspective. I don't see why anyone finds these options religiously appealing. If it seems theologically problematic to account for why God would create through a process of evolution that produces pain and suffering of this sort, surely it is no less problematic, and arguably more, to attribute the existence of raccoon roundworm and other parasites like it directly to a supposedly benevolent Creator.It's not really a problem if you also hold the philosophical view that this "is the best possible world of all possibilities"That is, if we had access to examine all possible created worlds, that this might actually be the best option depending on the objective of the Creator.For example, without hate we cannot know love and vice versa.Without sickness, we have no idea what health is. Without loss we don't know what treasure is.

  • Anonymous

    Pain has its evolutionary advantages it can alert the sufferer to cease doing a certain activity especially if its harmful and can bring to their attention signs of illness or ect.But you James still haven't shown why evolution is theologically preferable to other competing theories. And this is important especially if you want to bring creationist over to your side. Satire only alienates creationist from considering the evidence in favor of evolution.My propose method is to present evolution both cosmic and earthly as something sacremental. Although evolution has been the author of countless deaths and has resulted in the extinction of hundreds of speicies it does display themes we may find attractive. Most notably the sacrifice our ancestors made so that we have life and the mutual discovery of man and god. We could also see the whole of creation as a gift from the creator to all of creation. Natural catastrophies may cause man to question god but they do benefit the world in numerous of ways.Brian

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment, Brian. I suspect that putting some distance between the creator and the parasites might itself be considered beneficial – although I suppose it is a bit like Gnosticism, the distance posited from God still doesn't really explain why thinks can go wrong, as it were.But I think that if evolution is at least no more theologically problematic than other views, and has the scientific evidence squarely behind it, that ought to be enough to eliminate the hurdles to accepting it for most Christians.

  • Anonymous

    James, when will the deconversion be staged?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13483419817200339955 Paul D.

    Anonymous, when will you stop beating your wife?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Anonymous, I actually asked the squirrel whether this experience caused it to lose it's faith, but it declined to do an interview. Maybe next April Fools Day I'll have better luck…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04335917715944481443 Gary

    For the squirrel's benefit and well being, I will propose that he got into the trash and discovered left over Stroh's cans from St Patrick's Day, and thus had a buzz, instead of a parasite. Knowing the propensity for Stroh's cans in the midwest, I think it is reasonable. Concerning evolution and theology, I can't help but think about how all the ecological niches fill up with appropriate life…whether adapting to the environment short term, or evolving long term. Life is a rather robust commodity, considering the randomness of the big bang, and all the energy associated with the big bang. If that doesn't connect to a theological string, I don't know what does.

  • Deborah

    I don’t think young earth creationists, if they knew their theology, would say that the terrible things that happen to people or animals are a punishment from God.

    Rather, they would say that sin is so incomprehensibly catastrophic, it touches everything – just as the pebble you throw in your side of the pond creates ripples, however small, on the other side, too. When God made this world (one hopes they would say), it had no parasites, and everything co-existed in a beneficial way. But sin spread – as it always does – changing the very fabric of creation, so that even the smallest harmless things became harmful after the initial catastrophic separation, through sin, of creation from God.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      I don’t see how that would constitute “knowing their theology.” There is nothing in the Bible or outside that suggests that human sin brings viruses and bacteria into existence, and the passages YECs appeal to, such as the cursing of the ground in Genesis and Paul’s reference to creation being subjected to frustration, all clearly have God as the one bringing these things about. And so I do not see any way that YECs can avoid this implication that is a result of knowing their theology, and not a lack of knowledge thereof.