I am trying to read This Is Your Brain On Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe. It’s an effort, not because the material lacks interest. Far from it. But because the author is so anxious to demonstrate that she believes with all her heart the standard model of neo-Darwinism. In her introduction she says “laymen are often dumbfounded by how nature could have given rise to parasitic manipulations in the first place; some stratagems seem so clever and cunning that only a human or an omniscient God could have dreamed them up.” She then immediately goes on to assure any nïave layman who might be reading the book that the standard model of neo-Darwinism is adequate to explain it all. The Darwinian model attempts to reduce all explanatory systems to random mutation and natural selection. McAuliffe does what most apologists for this model do: she dwells on the natural selection part of it. That part of course, is plausible. Once you are able to produce new experiments, those which are successful are the ones likely to be selected. However she skims over the incredible improbability of mere chance producing one brilliant adaptation after another by purely blind and mechanical means. On the back cover she quotes Edward O Wilson who describes her book as “a fascinating account of an extraordinary suite of biological phenomena only recently coming to light and proving that given enough time evolving species to work with, natural selection can accomplish almost anything.” Again notice the emphasis on natural selection rather than random mutation. A description of a phenomenon is hardly proof of a theory about its cause.
Early on the author describes how a parasite in an ant get from there to the stomach of a sheep, which is the next stage of its lifecycle. “It invades the region of the ants brain that controls its locomotion and mouthparts. During the day, the infected insect behaves no differently than any other ant. At night, it does not return to its colony; instead it climbs to the top of a blade of grass and clamps onto it with his mandibles. There, it dangles in the air, waiting for a grazing sheep to come by and eat it. If that doesn’t happen by the next morning, however, it returns to its colony.” It returns to its colony to avoid being baked by the sun, and tries again by the same strategy to be eaten by a sheep the next night.
The phenomenon that McAuliffe describes in her book does not emerge by blind chance. The fingerprints of conscious intelligence are all over it. What sort of intelligence might have led to this, and by what obscure pathways, is beyond me. But at least I know that I don’t know. Tacking all of this on to something that McAuliffe calls “a lucky few. . . mutations” is a statement of blind faith – a faith that is no more plausible than the belief in the in-errancy of the Scriptures. Which brings us to the main point of this little meditation. It’s a question: what sort of conscious intelligence would have permitted tinglers. I mean these are the real thing – as in the movie.