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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Magnificent Monarchs
distributed 8/8/03 - ©2003

Monarch butterflies are remarkable little creatures.

They were a memorable part of my summer experience when I was growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. The beautiful and distinctive coloring of their wings seemed similar to an abstract, red-orange stained glass window. And their ability to flutter and float through the air was -- and still is -- amazing to me.

Later in life, I found out about the Monarch migration. Every autumn, all of those fragile little insects migrate thousands of miles to congregate in a few small locations in Mexico and along the California coast. I had been astounded that they could flit around in my backyard -- how much more remarkable that they can navigate over such long distances to specific places.

And now, I find that the annual cycle from wintering ground, to far-flung regions, and back to the same grove of trees is not done by individuals, but is spread across multiple generations. Four or five generations are involved in the yearly loop. And not only that, but the generations are not uniform.

With the arrival of spring, the Monarchs spread from their wintering groves, moving north along with the ripening of the milkweed plants which are their only source of food. They lay their eggs, which hatch into caterpillars, which feed and grow, spin a cocoon-like pupa, and emerge as butterflies -- which again fly north. After three or four of these generations, the insects reach the farthest extent of their range.

Then, as fall comes, a larger, stronger butterfly emerges from the pupa, and makes the long journey back to the wintering ground. The flight back south can take as long as two months, and the individuals in this generation may live for up to nine months, while those in the previous several generations lived for only a few weeks.

I admit it. I am drawn to the pure aesthetic beauty of the Monarch butterflies. And my reactions of wonder and delight are multiplied by the astounding things that these gorgeous creatures do: fly long distances, navigate to specific locations that they have never seen, and have one generation out of five that lives ten times as long as the generations before and after.

I am thrilled by the beauty of who they are, and the wonder of what they do. And because of that, I find myself almost saddened when I read the research into how the Monarch butterflies live their amazing lives.

Researchers have studied the effects of the timing and quality of light on the insect's ability to navigate. They have found amazing things about the precision of the butterfly's internal clocks, and how that is meshed with an awareness of the position of the sun.

As I read of those studies, my wonder about what seems almost miraculous starts to be downgraded to knowledge about biological processes. It is fascinating and impressive that such things can take place in the tiny bodies and infinitesimal brains of a butterfly. But I still feel a sense of loss as information about how the migration takes place displaces some of the wonder that I had felt.

I rejoice that there is still so much about these little creatures that is unknown. Apparently, nobody has a clue about the source of the amazing strength and longevity of the one generation which makes the long migration back to the wintering groves. And the nature of instinctive knowledge -- not only in butterflies, but in all animals -- is a profound mystery.

If and when humans learn all those things, we will be God-like in our comprehensive knowledge, but we will have lost something essential to our humanity. For when we know everything, we will not be amazed by anything.

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The scientific advances of the last decade have produced stunning technologies that allow the manipulation of chromosomes, and the splicing together of genetic information from unrelated life forms.

In DNA, geneticists have discovered the alphabet that is used to write out the shape of life. They have learned how to change words within that chemical text that define body parts and chemical secretions. They have figured out how to make specific, predictable genetic changes in many organisms -- producing salmon that grow faster, crops that exude their own insecticides, and strawberries that are frost-resistant. Many corporations have invested heavily in this new technology, and are reaping enormous profits.

As the scientists tamper with DNA, I think of the things that we do not know about the tiny Monarch butterfly. Somewhere in the genetic coding of that insect, there are instructions about life cycles and about homing instincts that are far more complex than anyone understands, far more subtle than the descriptions for physical characteristics.

My inclination toward extreme caution in genetic engineering grows out of the wonder that I feel about the Monarch butterfly. What we know of genes and chromosomes cannot begin to explain the complexity of its behavior and life cycle. The technologies of genetic engineering are changing messages that we don't fully understand.

I personally pray that some humility about the limits to our knowledge will slow and confine the use of genetic technologies. May we critique this technological wizardry, and name the risks that it poses to the subtle workings of God's Creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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