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Centipedes and souls

Centipedes and souls

by Molly Wolf

I just called the resident offspring upstairs to deal with a very large centipede in the bathtub. I’m actually okay with centipedes, although my first reaction was the standard squeamishness — all those feathery legs. Then I saw one at rest on the downstairs bathroom wall, simply sitting there with its antennae quivering but otherwise motionless, and I studied it for a while. They have quite lovely striped bodies, once you get past the gazillion wee limbs. Actually, I think much of the repulsion has to do with the way they scuttle, that and the Quammen Six and Two Rule (David Quammen: anything with more than six legs and two eyes is repulsive.)

Nonetheless, the resident offspring loathes and detests centipedes and wants to seek and destroy them, so whenever I sight one, I call him, and he does dastardly things to the insect with a piece of toilet paper and drops the remains in the loo. And I get a tiny case of the spiritual squeams.

It has been part of the human condition for some time now to believe that only Homo sapiens (and often only select Homo saps) have souls. It’s not so long ago that the existence of women’s souls was a matter for debate. I can remember, with discomfort, a sort of underlying quiet dismissiveness about the emotional/ psychological/ spiritual reality of other races and peoples — that they were perhaps not really on the right side of a dividing rope between the fully ensouled (white human beings, of course) and the proto-souled or even de-souled (other primates). It did not, for example, register with us that enslaved people grieved hard when family members were sold away from each other. In some ways, that understanding has still not entirely sunk in.

I have no idea whether centipedes have souls; I have too little data, and I doubt if the question has ever arisen. But I’m pretty sure that we drew that spiritually narcissistic boundary without reference to the possibility that the soul does not necessarily reside in the human forebrain. And yet we have everyday evidence that other critters have intelligence, feeling, and meta-awareness. Our furpersons comfort us in distress. Elephants grieve their dead; whales sing songs to each other; crows play jokes; chimp mothers carry their dead babies. There may be a whole spiritual world undersea of which we have no direct knowledge, ‘cos we don’t swim that well. The airborne critters may sing songs we cannot properly interpret, and who knows what beats at the heart of a beehive?

Considering the possible soul of a centipede would probably horrify some of my co-religionists, who would see it as being a mockery of all teaching and understanding of Christianity. And it might horrify a good many other spiritual mindsets (the Jains excepted). But I doubt if it would horrify most of the people in my resident offspring’s post-modern age group. Why shouldn’t centipedes have souls? Who made that rule in the first place, and why?

They have a point. Physical anthropology suggests that the boundary between Homo saps and other hominids cannot really be determined; Lucy the ancient australopithecine had a chimp-like posterior skull, but her teeth and legs were more human than not. What of neanderthals or Homo habilis? We don’t have cellular or mitochondrial DNA from Lucy, but the fact is that that our genes have far more in common with (say) an Angora goat’s than we’d care to think about. We are not, in biological terms, so very distinct — except in our unusual adaptability and aggressive spread. On an ecological level, we are akin to kudzu.

Perhaps one of the appeals of the Genesis creation account is that it’s so much tidier than the fossil record. Humans are simply put out there complete, fully human, language, moral capacity, and reasoning power all ready to rip, but free of sin, death, and perverted desires (perhaps including sex). And yet Lucy certainly died — we have her bones to prove it. I don’t know if we could talk of her in terms of sin at all. I think it’s likely that she had a specific Lucy-ness, simply because even domestic shorthairs have quite distinct and lively personalities. Does a distinct personality constitute a soul or not? Who’s writing the definition, and by what authority?

In short, it’s not just that the answers are changing: so are the questions. And if we’re ready to snap out prepared answers without seriously wrestling with the questions, we will lose any credibility we might have. If Genesis is literally true, as it must be for the doctrine of original sin to hold water, then no Lucy. But those dry bones are real bones; they belonged to a real, living, chimpish woman or womanly chimp-cousin who lived and died at least two million years ago, long, long before _Homo saps_ came up with the questions to which Genesis was the right understanding for so long.

We’ve been upended; we have been tumbled arse over teakettle, and part of us wants to put everything back where it was before this new tohubohu and part of us wants to dance on what only looks like a formless void, looking to discern the Creator’s patterns. The one truth that is surfacing with increasing certainty and strength as post-modernism takes off is that we’re all emergent. That is, we’re coming out of something; we can’t go back, and we don’t know what will happen next, but it may be a whole lot of fun. Perhaps it’s not so much that we’ve fallen from grace as that we have yet to discover what grace really is.

We know now that we’re more interconnected than we ever dreamed possible. We can listen to whales and begin to grasp how much it frightened and grieved them to be hunted. We can look back at the horror and trauma that our European diseases inflicted throughout this continent and understand a little better what that meant for Aboriginal peoples. When an earthquake happens in China or Turkey, it’s no longer remote; we can see the destruction and empathize with the survivors’ fear and grief. Cell phones record the abuses visited on civilians in Syria. We no longer see torture as permissible because we recognize the humanity of the tortured — or if we don’t, we begin to know bad that looks. In that sense, our understanding of sin is also emergent.

I am sculpting these words, descended from ancestral linguistic fusions and compromises, in electrons on a screen that did not exist — could not have existed — a mere half-century ago, when the Leakeys began snuffling around the Great Rift Valley, finding the first proto-human fragments. Did those individuals whose bits and pieces emerged from the strata have souls? Maybe the question is totally irrelevant. But then, maybe it matters greatly that I can, at least, ask it.

What does matter is that God created and is instinct in every bit of life as we know it, don’t know it, refuse to see it, reject it, embrace it. God’s love reaches past and over us to be the water in which the dolphins swim. God sees the little centipede get squished in a piece of toilet paper and sent swirling down the drain. God calls us all, whether or not we know it, towards God.

Perhaps to be ensouled as human, what we have that defines us as separate and special is the will to resist God’s call to love. And maybe that’s what I’d say if someone asked that question.

Molly Wolf plays hackysack with theology in Gananoque, Ontario, among the Thousand Islands. She lives with her resident offspring Ross and with Magnificat (aka Maggie), a sizable calico with tortitude, whose personality fits her name. She (Molly, not the cat) is the author of four collections of applied meditation and Scrambling towards Zion: A weekly essay on finding Godstuff in real life.

– this essay is reposted by permission ~ed.


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After I read this essay, I went on to my email, and the first message I saw was the “Poem of the Day,” from the Academy of American Poets:

An August Midnight by Thomas Hardy


A shaded lamp and a waving blind,

And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:

On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—

A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;

While ‘mid my page there idly stands

A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands…


Thus meet we five, in this still place,

At this point of time, at this point in space.

—My guests besmear my new-penned line,

Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.

“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?

They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

Doug Curlin


This is a wonderful meditation. My wife (conservation biologist) and I often ponder over the nature of animals, and think the traditional notions of animals not being sentient or un-souled (is that a word?) is too facile by half.

From that, we often ponder about humanity and the congenital connection we seem to have for Nature, particularly other mammals. Personally, I am fascinated by the connection people have with dogs and cats, and the connection they seem to have with us.

Kevin McGrane

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

Ann and Molly, Thanks so much for this.

I believe that we really need to begin to “theologically” deal with the changing world view that has been opened to us through our studies of the natural world and the evolution of life on this planet. We can still value stories such as the P and J accounts in Genesis, but we need to continue to place them in their cultural and historic settings and consider that their relevance for us can not be anything other than metaphorical. I often wonder that we place so much emphasis on the Genesis creation accounts, as there are clearly other creation accounts in scripture. Psalm 104, for example, is a beautiful and poetic creation narrative, but gets very little attention. John 1 is clearly a creation story. The conclusion of the Apocalypse details the “new” creation of heaven and earth. These are just a few examples.

We need, I believe, to admit the emergent “scientific” creation story into our “canon” of creation accounts. What does it mean to our cherished “orthodoxies” when we see that the “beginnings” of humanity have no clear boundary. What are we to make of our non- Homo sapiens cousins, H. neanderthalensis that lived for 250,000 years on this planet and coexisted for a time in Europe with H. sapiens? They had a non-human culture, buried their dead, probably had art and symbolic language. Yet our “theology” is silent about them. We have too long set the bounds of our “theology” on an excessively humanocentric world view, and look at the consequences! How hot are you this summer? We need more, not less, creative and creation-honoring theology and speculation. We need these questions… desperately.

Adam Wood

>>If Genesis is literally true, as it must be for the doctrine of original sin to hold water

I’ve heard this from Creationists (using it to point out that we MUST believe in Creationism, or else we’re not really Christian, because without Original Sin we don’t really need Jesus) and I’ve heard it from liberal/progressives (Genesis clearly isn’t true, so there is no original sin).

This is a ridiculous conclusion to draw, and misses the point entirely. You don’t need recourse to mythological first parents in order to explain the inherently broken nature of human beings.

In fact, I suspect our ancestors had a sense of what we now call Original Sin, and the story arose from that understanding (not the other way around).

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