KQED Perspective aired July 2004

By Michael Ellis

When someone asks us naturalists to identify an insect that we don’t know, we invariably respond by stating “well, it must be some kind of beetle”. And statistically this is a pretty good answer.

In the seventeenth century a tradition developed called “natural theology”. The idea was that one should be able to determine the nature of God by observing his handiwork. And this good, intelligent design was supposed to reflect human superiority and justify our dominion over the plants and animals. Even God’s physical appearance could be deduced from looking at his favored humans. After Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection, scientists argued that nature is neither good nor bad and is certainly not established with humans in the utmost mind. And if there was an ulterior force behind the design in nature it was certainly did not center around one particular primate and therefore perhaps that God was not one worth worshipping.

The most famous story around this involved the eminent British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, a founder of modern Darwinism. He once found himself surrounded by theologians who were beseeching him to conclude the nature of the Creator from his own personal studies of the natural world. Whereupon he supposedly answered well God must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Apparently that is true because there are over 350,000 different kinds of beetles there may be two million more yet to find! They may account for almost half of all animal species! Beetles (like all insects) have a hard exoskeleton, a three-part body, two compound eyes, three pairs of jointed legs, and two antennae. The group is called the Coleoptera, which literally means the sheath wings. In adult beetles, the forward pair of wings is hardened and large enough to cover the insect’s back. This shell protects not only the beetle’s body, but also its precious rear wings. The familiar ones are ladybugs, fireflies, mealworms, darkling beetles, weevils, and scarabs.

So if I ever do a chance to look into the face of God I will expect to see a nice pair of antennas and some very large eyes. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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August 6, 2009