Introduction: God in the Galapagos

In January 1995, I realized a life-long ambition by taking a ten day cruise in the Galapagos Islands. I had first learned of the islands in the early '60's by watching a Jacques Cousteau special on television. More than anything, I had wanted to see the giant tortoises, which are my totem animal.

Charles Darwin travelled to the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle, and the divergence of species that he observed in the isolated islands helped set him on the path to the theory of evolution. He was still a religious man then, but, over the years, as he worked out his theory, there was less room for God in his cosmos, and finally none at all. He said later in life:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [digger wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars..."

(Quoted in Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2d ed., p. 284.)

When I went to the Galapagos, I had just started researching and writing An Auschwitz Alphabet, and I brought books with me on Nuremberg and the psychology of Holocaust survivors. The whole voyage, I was in a very sad and reflective mood; and two experiences started me thinking about God.

On most islands, we visited colonies of seals, and twice we saw abandoned pups, their ribs showing through, lying almost comatose to conserve energy, then suddenly galloping after a passing adult and crying pathetically for help. Adoption does not exist among seals. If a female dies, her pup will starve to death, and no other seal will help it. Some pups are abandoned when their mothers no longer recognize their smell (for example, if they are handled by humans) and these die too.

Seal pups apparently don't know that adoption doesn't exist among their kind, or even altruism; an abandoned pup will chase any passing adult, crying and hoping for help. We saw a male bite a pup to drive it away, and we saw a female panic and run away from a crying pup the way humans sometimes run away from an insistent beggar on the street.

None of this was new to me. My whole life, I had wondered why a merciful God would let babies die. Though I am Jewish, I think I understand the concept of original sin. It is hard, but just possible, to stomach the idea that humans are a guilty race, that dying babies are participating in our punishment. People commonly say, also, that God works in mysterious ways, calling souls home to him at unexpected times, and so forth.

But there is something different about watching a baby seal suffer and die. It makes you wonder about the seal's architect. Note that the death of an abandoned pup is a normal phenomenon, not linked, in the majority of cases, to man's invasion of the islands. One of the ways that the seal population governs itself, and avoids expanding to overwhelm available resources, is through the death of some number of pups. I can understand why seal pups would suffer and die in a blind, self-regulated, Darwinian system; but why would an intelligent architect create the seal pup's dilemma? What a waste of energy and resources it seems to manifest a seal pup as flesh, then throw it away a few months later.

Even assuming that there is an intelligent architect, who has a mysterious purpose in creating a living thing to survive so briefly, what additional goal is achieved by allowing the pup to suffer in the process? Why would the architect create seal pups that know how to ask for help, and adults who universally refuse to give it?

The answer to the seal's dilemma is given by the blue-footed booby, another resident of the Galapagos. This large, awkward seabird always lays two eggs in its nest among the rocks. But it only ever raises one offspring. The first hatchling to emerge, blindly programmed for this behavior, always kills the other. Without exception. Every adult booby killed a brother or sister in the nest.

The death of seal pups, though normal, is also accidental, the result of intervening circumstances such as the death of a female. But the slaughter of booby chicks, with the corresponding waste of matter and energy, is built in to the system.

During the initial selections made at Auschwitz as the train arrived in the station, all babies and small children were sent immediately to the gas. Many survivors remember guards murdering babies on the spot; there is a recurring recollection--impossible to tell how many separate incidents it is based on--of a guard swinging a baby by its legs and smashing its head against a brick wall. For a while, the murder of infants was built into a human system; it is safe to say that at every moment, it is an integral part of a human system somewhere. And where is God?

I have read the Bible, old and new testaments, looking for him. The most memorable passage I have found, one that is never quoted anywhere or explained away as a quaint parable, is the following:

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.

Exodus, 4:24-25.

The following essays explore God's place in our minds, and ask whether we can derive a morality without him.