Consider the cockroach and be wise

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by Neil Broom

“Consider the cockroach and be wise.” Actually, the advice given to ancient Israel by King Solomon was to heed not the purposeful ways of the cockroach, but the ant! However, for this little story I’ve chosen the cockroach. Let me explain why.

For most of us, any encounter with this invertebrate creature is met with a measure of revulsion as it is commonly associated with less than hygienic food haunts. These “creatures of darkness” (they really do shun the light) have dietary habits spanning everything from scraps of rotting food and diverse organic matter, to fluff, wool and even paper: they must surely be one of the most appreciative “freeloaders” in most homes, where less than perfect cleanliness tends to prevail.

But the point I wish to stress is not the cockroach’s dietary habits. Rather, it’s their ability to survive in the driest, hottest of conditions, conditions that would cause us humans to quickly shrivel. Remember that, for us, and most animals, water is essential for survival when things get hot. So what enables the cockroach to still thrive under such conditions? The answer is that it possesses a cleverly constructed water cleansing and recycling unit as a key part of its excretory system.

For the cockroach, every drop of water is precious, so it doesn’t really pee or urinate as a primary means of ridding itself of liquid chemical waste in the conventional manner. Instead, this insect uses a cunning internal apparatus to convert these water-borne chemicals into a solid, which can then be separated and excreted along with its other solid waste. The water, now purified of its nasties, is then recycled repeatedly by the animal. So whereas we require a regular top-up of water to keep ourselves comfortable, the cockroach manages nicely on his or her internal fluid reserves, even under the most trying conditions.

It is a splendid survival technique, and is just one impressive example, amongst myriad others, of the incredibly purposeful systems characterising all living beings, from the lowliest to the most sophisticated. Think of how our bodies repair and rebuild parts that have become damaged. We cut a finger and the body, instead of responding as if to say “so what?”, actually goes to all the trouble of mounting a campaign of repair and restoration, a process involving a highly complex set of beautifully coordinated biological processes. In fact, it would be much easier to just let the cut finger succumb to infection, rot and drop off — but this is not how nature works.

The French physicist Leon Brillouin captures this obvious truth of nature’s purposefulness in a book published in the 1960s:- “The living organism heals its own wounds, cures its sicknesses, and may rebuild large portions of its structure, when they have been destroyed by some accident. This is the most striking and unexpected behavior. Think of your own car, the day you had a flat tyre, and imagine having simply to wait and smoke your cigar while the hole patched itself and the tyre pumped itself to the proper pressure, and you could go on. This sounds incredible. It is, however, the way nature works . . . . There is no inert matter possessing a similar property of repair.”

So where does all this take us? In the world of science, the battle-lines are so often drawn between two fundamentally opposing camps. On one side are the materialists, secularists and atheists who assert that the living world can be explained entirely by the endless interactions of unthinking, physical and chemical laws and processes. At most, these people will admit only to an apparent purpose in nature, certainly not an actual one that could imply the creative influence of a transcendent Mind. For them, the universe is ultimately silent, impersonal, without any intrinsic goal or meaning — in brief, Godless.

On the other side of the divide are those who, while equally committed to the enterprise of science, recognise and celebrate a living world exuding real purpose, creative goals, and meaning; mind-inspired qualities that are illustrated as much in the water-cleansing apparatus of the cockroach as in the explorations of science by humans themselves. For those in this camp, these qualities are directly or indirectly an expression of a profoundly creative God who has infused meaning and purpose into all aspects of his creation.

In the spirit of our Christian heritage, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews similarly reminds us of this transcendent God who, through Christ, “holds all things together by the word of his power”. And that surely includes the clever survival systems in our not-always-welcome cockroach.

Neil Broom is an Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Engineering, University of Auckland, and has a particular interest in the relationship between science and faith.

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