Victorian Parasites

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Gently Licking Worms & Preaching Mosquitoes: the Linguistic Dialogue Between Parasitology and Religion

NB. the linguistic relationship between parasites and religion is in fact at the very core of parasitology as a discipline and underscores the very concept of the parasite – see my earlier post on the parasite’s etymological heritage here

I was recently visited by two Jehovah’s witnesses. I opened the door to a little old lady and her younger friend, who greeted me with smiles and began to tell me about their religion. They asked if they could leave me their magazine to read, which I accepted, mostly out of the same crippling politeness that had kept me on the doorstep in the first place. The little old lady then, quite disarmingly told me, that it was “a lovely issue, all about THE END.” The front cover was a [badly] photo-shopped image of a young family amid plane wreckage, looking like they’d just stepped out of an episode of The Walking Dead—on the winning side. Nevertheless I opened it to find, amid the Bible verses, some very practical and thoughtful advice. The next month they brought me another issue—this time all about science, with, again, some very practical advice regarding sanitation and infection control. Despite treating science with a somewhat sceptical tone, the issue worked to demonstrate that science and religion could be productive bedfellows, and that science, far from contravening the teachings of the Bible, actually confirmed much of what the Bible already taught.

Although not one hundred per cent convinced that Pasteur’s Germ Theory and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation are encoded in Biblical texts (both things the younger friend had tried to demonstrate), I can see how post-discovery we interpret the Bible through those lenses. Equally, I do believe that quarantine practices, for example, which are described in the Bible, were practical, pre-scientific responses to the experience of disease. Just as the transmission of malaria parasites by mosquitoes—proven by Ronald Ross in 1898—had its roots in the theories of Varro, Vitruvius, Columella and Palladius, who all attributed malaria to ‘minute animals’ engendered in swamps, prime mosquito breeding grounds (116BC/4th and 1st BC), and in cuneiform scripts, which attribute malaria to the Babylonian god Nergal, who is pictured as a mosquito-like insect. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine made me think more broadly about the dynamic relationship between science and religion. One of my thesis chapters explores the relationship between parasitology and Christianity, 1700-1900, and charts the ways in which Christianity both opposed and supported theories concerning the transmission of parasitic disease.

One of the most high profile entanglements between religion and parasites in the eighteenth century concerned the theory of spontaneous generation—the idea that some organisms could be generated from inanimate matter. The strongest argument in favour of this was the existence of parasitic worms inside the body, which prior to the elucidation of parasite lifecycles and transmission pathways, appeared to support the generation de nuovo of these organisms. However, many objected to this idea on the grounds that, according to the Bible, God created the world in seven days and no more organisms were created after this point. This led to the establishment of theories of preformation: the idea that within nature existed the “blueprints” for all organisms that had ever and would ever exist, and that these seeds or germs would, under the right conditions, turn into the corresponding organism. In regard to parasitic worms this necessitated Man to contain within him the blueprints for all his parasites, which would under the right conditions—immoral thoughts and behaviours—become these pathological organisms.

[via: seafoodpunch.com]

However this still didn’t adequately reconcile itself with the Bible, which taught that Man, created in innocence before the fall, was free of all diseases, and owing to the seven days of creation, no new species could have been created after him. Italian physician and biologist Antonio Vallisneri suggested that the worms might have originally served a beneficial purpose such as digestion aids and became parasitic only after the fall from grace: ‘Worms [which] God appointed to Man, while he preferred him in his first state of innocence, were to be useful to him and render his body more perfect’.[1] He went on to suggest an ordained symbiotic relationship in which Adam supported and fed ‘those insects, which had a mind to live together quietly and friendly’ who in turn would not ‘transgress their bounds or eat holes thro’ the sides of the guts […] but they would rather by gently licking the parts and by healing them do their Host a kindly office.’[2] After the Fall however, the worms became ‘Ministers of Divine justice’ mounting an insurrection upon man and given ‘leave to destroy and become a common Enemy of Mankind.’[3]⁠ 

This explanation correctly argued against spontaneous generation, and by theological analogy, hit upon an idea about the evolution of parasitic organisms that recognized the parasitic lifestyle as an evolutionary adaptation. However, the theologically ordained relationship between pathology and morality, was an association that focused on internal disorganization and ignored the significance of external sanitation practices. T. Spencer Cobbold lamented the persistence of this association as late as 1879: ‘some [people] still cling to the creed that the presence of parasites, of internal ones at least, betoken evidence of Divine disfavor.’[4] The relationship between religion and science then is complex, and can have lasting effects, which are to some extent, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mutualistic. Indeed even now scientists recognize their cultural relationship to religion, as evidenced in the nick-naming of the Higgs Boson, the ‘God particle’. While some may interpret this as a discovery that makes religious beliefs obsolete, others would more pantheistically argue that it simply demonstrates a reinterpretation of our fixed anthropocentric ideas about a Divine Creator.

Although now in the Western world commonly considered to be a replacement for religion, even to be a new religion, science also functions to reaffirm faith. Albert Einstein famously asserted that the more he studied science, the more he believed in God, and argued for a symbiotic relationship that saw one lame and the other blind in isolation. This perhaps conflates wonder at the universe with teleology, however is something I often come across in my research. Certainly the argument that science is religion is found in the correspondence between two physicians in the 1890s: Sir Ronald Ross and Sir Patrick Manson, two epoch-making

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

scientists who specialized in tropical medicine. They both use religious language to discuss their research, and in the process equate the discovery that mosquitoes transmit malaria (which Ross won the Nobel Prize for in 1902, and which saved thousands of lives through preventative sanitary measures in the colonies) as on a par with the coming of a biblical prophet. Ross (working in British India) prepares to send Manson (working in London) some mosquitoes containing malaria parasites to dissect, and Manson responds:

I shall welcome the twelve apostles –I mean the twelve mosquitoes in glycerine, for I hope to make them apostles in a malarial sense—preachers of the gospel of Laveran and of the cause you and I have at heart.[5]

The ‘Gospel of Lavernity’ is mentioned in other letters in the five-year correspondence, and refers to Alphonse Laveran’s discovery of the Plasmodium parasite and his postulation that it was responsible for the disease Malaria. The religious framework is continued. When discussing Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrie, who disbelieved in the malaria parasite, instead believing Laveran’s organism to be degenerated protoplasm, Manson writes: ‘these are thy prophets O Israel’[6] referring to Ezekiel 13 and the reproof of the false prophets. Indeed, it is not just Christian terminology that they borrow to express their ideas. When discussing the aetiology of Plague and its potential connection to a mammalian vector, Ross asserts: ‘If I were Surgeon General Cleghorn, the first thing I would do would be to bring a Jehad against the rats and I would kill all the rats in and around Bombay’.[7] Manson and Ross use religion to lend authority to scientific endeavour, however, in doing so they do not belittle its authenticity, nor dismiss its claims to truth.  During Ross’s years spent dedicated to the malaria problem he wrote research poems, some of which are discussed in earlier posts. These explore and catalogue his emotional response to his research and his troubled relationship to theology. In an 1890-3 poem entitled ‘Indian Fevers’ Ross recounts his experience as a colonial physician and his frustration at being unable to provide effective treatment. He entreats God to enlighten him.

            In this, O Nature, yield I pray, to me.
I pace, and pace, and think and think, and take,
The fever’d hands, and note down all I see,
That some dim distant light may haply break.

The painful faces ask, can we not cure?
We answer, No, not yet; we seek the laws.
O God, reveal thro’ all this thing obscure
The unseen, small, but million-murdering cause.[8]

Elsewhere he talks about ‘gazing worn and weary from this Dark world’ and again asks help from the ‘steadfast eye of God’. His Romantic tradition poetry, borrowing from the likes of Keats and Shelley retains a pantheistic outlook and worships Truth, Wisdom and Nature as readily as a single deity. In his frustrations he often questions organized religion, and the politics of imperialism.

            The lordly anthem peals
The while the people rot
The gilded church reveals
The penury of their lot.

No matter—let them starve!
The gorgeous mass atones;
These glorious arches serve
To sepulchre their bones.[9]

His poem ‘Reply’ from ‘In Exile’ written in India is his most famous poem, composed upon finding the proof for his discovery. The first part is often quoted as his ‘malaria day poem’ and is as follows:

                  I

This day relenting God
Hath placed with in my hand
A wonderous thing; and God
Be praised. At his command

Seeking his secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad man will save,
O Death where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?[10]

He attributes his findings to divine intervention, but understands this intervention in terms of patience and faith. Ultimately he advocates an understanding of religion that celebrates human endeavour and rather beautifully illustrates the divinity within the human:

The voice of God is heard,
Not in a thunder-fit;
A still small voice is heard,
Half-heard, and that is it.[11]

In an increasingly secular time, many people still find wonder in the power and beauty of the universe. Whether we attribute that feeling of awe, privilege, and emotion to its divine creation, to a Romantic sense of pantheism, or simply to an attempt to impose meaning on an otherwise chaotic world, it still remains significant that the cultural dialogue engendered by this functions as a space in which we can ponder our practical and moralistic identity as human beings.


[1] A. Vallisneri, New observations and experiments upon the eggs of worms found in humane bodies (London, 1713) quoted in Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms: Bred in the Bodies of Men and Other Animals (London, Printed for J Wilcox at the Green Dragon, 1721) reproduced online: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Fwz6h7oaoHQC [accessed July 2015] p.352.

[2] Daniel LeClerc adds the suggestion that other parasites like lice might be explained in a similar manner, having a use which is now impossible for us to discern and appearing innocence to innocent Adam under the auspices of a holy symbiosis, ‘the Lice which we now seem to have such an abhorrence of […] might [have been] very serviceable to [man], in gently opening the pores of the skin.’ A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms, p.354.

[3] Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms pp.352-3.

[4] T. Spencer Cobbold, Parasites; a treatise on the entozoa of man and animals including some account of the ectozoa (London: J & A Churchhill, 1879) reproduced online: http://archive.org/stream/parasitestreatis00cobbrich#page/n5/mode/2up [accessed July 2015]

[5] Patrick Manson, ‘Letter 32 02/011’ The Beast in the Mosquito: the Correspondence of Ronald Ross and Patrick Manson eds. W.F.Bynum and Caroline Overy (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998) p.92.

[6] Patrick Manson, p.77.

[7] Ronald Ross, ‘Letter 50 02/021’ Beast in the Mosquito, p.149.

[8] Ronald Ross, ‘Indian Fevers’ Philosophies (London: John Murray, 1911) p.21.

[9] Ronald Ross, ‘Lies’ Philosophies, p.43.

[10] Ronald Ross, ‘Reply’ Philosophies, p.53.

[11] p.54.

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