Monday, October 21, 2013

Summer in Kansas: The Feedyard Fly

My neighbor Zeno, who tends to be an agnostic on nearly every question concerning human nature and practice, on all questions theological, political, psychological, astrological and oeconomical, still manages to surprise me. His constitutional skepticism makes him an affable and congenial conversationalist at the occasional neighborly confrerie, when, properly fueled on absinthe or white armagnac, he expresses grave doubts on any received opinion, from telekinesis to predestination.(The initial letter of his given name, arriving as it does at the tag end of our alphabet, has also prompted him to eschew lists and in particular alphabetized lists.)

My neighbor Zeno

So admittedly it came as a surprise when, as I was expounding to him the thesis that the Kansas feedyard fly is the complete, final and tormenting proof of the success of natural selection and (should the theory require any further proof based on sheer numerical density), an incontrovertible coup de grace to any explanation other than Darwinian evolutionary biology, I met with tacit dissent from Zeno on this point. I had rather expected I would find a sympathetic ear in a friend who claims to have spent his boyhood summers in the great Midwestern sirloin of America.

He merely smiled indulgently, raised his balon of armagnac, and wagged a finger at me with exaggerated patience. That I cannot accept, he said finally. I was befuddled by this, but he persisted in his calm refusal of my thesis. Wait, I spluttered, surely you endorse the evolution of our own kind from some distant genetic link we share with all large primates?

Of course, he assured me. Our ready use of the gun is sufficient proof of that. But all that is mere evolutionary child's play. Likewise I accept the gradual development, from their own kind, of any other creature we choose to consider more or less sinister than ourselves - the varieties of sharks, of large cats, venemous serpents, dangerous arachnids - all perfectly accounted for by genetic evolution. Just as the dog springs from the wolf.

Why this exception? I asked, with what I thought a forgiveable note of triumphal condescension. Ah, it is a very simple answer, my friend, Zeno smiled. Zeno generally reserves the phrase 'my friend' for chess matches in which he smiles often and holds the clear advantage. But first, tell me why you think this insect is a product of some process of natural selection?

I sensed a trap but, failing to imagine what quicksand might lie ahead, I floundered on. Well, I said, it's pretty clear to me. First of all, they are abundant beyond number, beyond any hope of evolutionary competition from any other species. I include cockroaches in that.

Secondly, they feed on anything and thrive everywhere, whether or not there is a feedlot within twenty miles. They live on discarded plastic, their appetite is never abated by heat, their fevered procreation continues in the coldest weather, they bite savagely. 

Finally, they are opportunistic in the extreme, intruding themselves into your home or personal conveyance by clinging to your buttons or shoelaces. They assault one, singly or in numbers, whether frontally, dorsally or laterally. They drive out every other living form. When they are finally and lethally swatted they merely flatten themselves into the thickness of a few microns, then buzz off again, perfectly unscathed, when the swatter is lifted. Quod erat demonstrandum, I concluded. If I didn't know better I'd say they were the devil's own work.

Satan (by Fonzo)

But you are too hasty, my friend, purred Zeno. They evidently don't drive away the cattle. Only, I replied, because it's Kansas. Cows are everywhere already, they nearly outnumber the flies, at least in sheer biomass. But tell me, I asked him, what your own thesis might be on the persistence, prevalence and permanence of the feedyard fly. 

He took a sip of armagnac, paused, set his snifter on the little stand beside his wicker chair, looked into the autumn foliage and smiled. It's really quite simple, my friend. There is, to put it succinctly, a creator. Or, if you wish, a Creator.

"I'll make 'em too small to hit but big enough to cuss."

Pray tell, I said. You interest me strangely. I, for one, cannot believe my ears. You of all agnostic souls?

Well, simply put, Zeno continued, you are doubtless aware of some of the rather shabby arguments employed by the intelligent design contingent. The usual chestnut is the so-called argument from "irreducible complexity" - certain biological structures are too complex and appeared suddenly in the biological continuum without any apparent structural antecedents. So it must have been some designing mind at work. A creator, in brief.

But surely, I squeaked, just short of expostulation. You can't believe that?

No, no, old chap, Zeno chuckled. I may have my secrets, but surely that belief is not among them. All in all it's very weak as an argument, easily discredited on the evidence. But I do subscribe to a variation of the argument. Call this lame version the Argument from Irreducible Complexity - some physiological thingummy is composed of well-matched, interacting parts, all contributing to some basic function such that the removal of any one of these parts must cause the said appurtenance to effectively cease functioning. Rubbish as biology goes, ditto for theology. But consider the Argument from Inexplicable Malignancy.

Say more, I implore you. Limn it for my impoverished intellect.

Only that the creature you have described and with which I am distantly acquainted, this musca bovinensis domestica, cannot have been the result of any natural process, but could only be the creation of a malicious and utterly humorless creator. The malevolence of such a being, creator and creature both, towards the sentient universe is completely unaccountable, yet pure and unswerving. How else account for them? I rest my case.

So you really do believe there must necessarily be a God? I mused aloud.

Ah, he said, I spy a drop remaining in that flask at your elbow.

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