It has been said that it’s a bug-eat-bug world. Although in the circle of life, it’s probably more accurate to say that it’s a bird-eat-bug world. No matter how you phrase it, nature is full of heterotrophic organisms that need to consume other organisms in order to survive. Being eaten can have a significant negative impact on your fitness (your reproductive success, not your ability to climb Mt Everest or run a marathon). At the end of the day, the organisms/species that have the largest number of healthy offspring win, so it is not surprising that over evolutionary time, many adaptations have evolved that provide a way for organisms to avoid being eaten. Some types of defensive mechanisms include body modification (a.k.a. spines or thorns), chemical warfare (a.k.a. venom or poison), and defensive behaviors (a.k.a. running, hiding, or forming social groups).
There are cool examples of all of these in the insect world. All insects have protective armor in the form of an exoskeleton, and many also have spines or spikey hairs for extra protection. Two truly bizarre looking examples are the Io caterpillar (Automeris io) and the Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea). Both of these have spines that contain a toxin that can make anyone that touches them sick, so don’t get too close.
Many of the most well-known insects — bees and wasps — defend themselves with venom, and their sting injects a toxin that can cause a range of negative effects. Velvet ants (Dasymutilla klugii) may look soft and fuzzy, but when threatened these wasps defend themselves with a sting that rates a 3 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index*. And then there are the stinging ants in the genus, Solenopsis, which includes tropical fire ants, ginger ants, and approximately 200 other species. These ants have a venom, composed mostly of alkaloids, that can cause painful, infected sores.
Among my favorite insects are the ones that use cryptic coloration, or camouflage, to hide in plain sight. Stick insects and leaf insects in the order Phasmatodea are personal favorites. As their name implies, these insects mimic plants. Their morphology is generally similar to the plants in their native habitat. Some add to their disguise by swaying back and forth when air blows across their bodies to mimic the movement of a branch in the wind. I am also a fan of flies that mimic bees like the hover flies. And, then there are the viceroys (Limenitis archippus), non-poisonous butterflies that protect themselves by mimicking Monarch butterflies which are poisonous. One fairly famous group of cryptically colored Lepidoptera are the peppered moths (Biston betularia) in England. These moths can be dark gray or light colored. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the majority of moths were light colored because they were difficult for their predators to see against light colored tree trunks. As trees became discolored by the smoke from burning coal, it became easier for the dark colored morphs to hide, and the formerly hidden light morphs became easier targets. Over time, the dark colored moths came to outnumber the lighter morphs.
And now I have to confess that one reason I like cryptic insects is because of their ability to hide — something I am tempted to do much too often. I know from the Bible that I should “let my light shine”, but let’s face it, sometimes it is hard to be bold. And it is not always easy to be a Christian and a research scientist in an Evolutionary biology field. On one side of the aisle there are many well-known (at least in their sphere of influence) biologists who are very outspoken about their negative opinions of religious people in general. I never quite know where my colleagues stand on the issues of faith (we don’t talk about Bruno or religion), so it is not something I bring up until I am sure it won’t be held against me professionally. On the other side of the coin, Church can be an uncomfortable place to be for scientists who study evolution and related topics. There are quite a few Christians who are vocal about their views on science-related issues — including, but not limited to, the age of the Earth, climate change, vaccines, and infertility treatments — and their opinions of people who study these things. Sometimes, hiding my light under a basket is often the way I have chosen to deal with discomfort from both sides. I suspect I’m not the only one. (Reader, she is not. -ASW)
Over time I have become bolder about publicly sharing my faith and my views of science. One thing that has helped me gain boldness is finding others who are also passionate about their faith and science. It should be a surprise that joining with others in communities, which is another strategy used by bees, ants, aphids, and other insects for a variety of reasons, is valuable for people too.
One challenge I faced with participating in community was actually finding others who are passionate about science and faith both in the workplace and in church congregations. Fortunately, there are a growing number of societies and organizations for folks who are passionate about faith and science and want to be part of communities of people with similar interests. Many of them also provide resources for church leaders who want to engage their congregations in science/faith dialog. I have provided links, and a brief description of groups that I am familiar with below. If I have neglected to include your favorite group (especially if it is one focused on a specific science discipline), feel free share it in the “Comments” section.
Organizations and/or resources for Christians who are passionate about science:
BioLogos is a group of Christians established by Dr. Francis Collins, former director of NIH. Topics of conversation among members include many issues related to science and faith including theistic evolution, creation care, and ethical questions related to advances our knowledge of biology and medicine.
American Scientific Affiliation is a diverse group connected through their commitments to orthodox Christianity and mainstream science. The goal of the group is to provide a safe environment where ideas about science and Christian faith can be discussed.
The Canadian Scientific & Christian Affiliation is “a network of professionals who seek to understand and apply science through a perspective that is shaped by Christian faith. It is the Canadian counterpart of the American Scientific Affiliation.
Christians in Science is a group based in the U.K. that advocates for the idea that the relationship between science and religious faith is key to answering some of the big questions of life, and members work to correct conflicts between the Christian Church and science.
The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion is an interdisciplinary research institute based at Cambridge that works to improve understanding the relationship of science and religious beliefs.
Sinai and Synapses is largely Jewish organization working towards offering people of all faiths a scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting worldview. One of their goals is to equip scientists, clergy, and others with skills and knowledge to be role models and ambassadors for others who want to include both scientific and religious sources of wisdom in their journey toward personal growth.
Center for Theology and Natural Sciences is part of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley. Their goal is to promote “the creative mutual interaction between theology and the natural sciences through research, teaching, and public service.”
National Council for Science and Faith is a network of scholars, clergy, faith leaders, and scientists that aims to build bridges across the divide that exists between science and faith communities.
Peaceful Science promotes civil discussion of difficult topics. Their goal is “to support trustworthy scientists as the public.”
AAAS DoSER is part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As their name suggests, their goal is to facilitate dialogue on science, ethics, and religion between scientific and religious communities.
About the author:
Dr. Julie A. Reynolds is a Research Scientist at The Ohio State University in the department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology. She studies insect physiology and biochemistry with the goal of learning how animals adapt to extreme environments and survive changes in climate. In addition to writing for the Emerging Scholars Network, she is actively engages in discussions about science and faith as a Sinai and Synapses Fellow.