It seems like a false choice to me. Evolution is exactly the sort of cool and elegant idea I think God might have. I don’t think of God as a micromanager. When God looked at creation and said it was good, I don’t think he meant every specific detail was good. A world in which the Kardashians are famous and the National Teacher of the Year is not obviously has a few glitches. I think he meant “good” as in good enough, good to go, give it a whirl, let ’er rip. In that context, a system as creative and elegant as natural selection seems like a nifty bit of engineering for God to include to keep the system fresh and allow it to repair itself.
If we must choose, however, between God and evolution, on which side do the cicadas argue? A more preposterous, yet miraculous, creature is difficult to imagine. Hatched in the warmth of early summer, the cicada scooches down whatever tree it has been attached to, burrows into the earth and lies dormant for 17 years. Not 16, not 18. Seventeen years. Then, by the billions, cicadas emerge from the soil to do nothing more interesting than sit around making a great racket for a little while, mate briefly and die. Their offspring crawl back to the earth and disappear for another 17 years.
That may not be every single detail in the life of the cicada, but it’s the highlight reel. The next appearance for the D.C. area’s cicadas is just a few short weeks away.
Thinking like a Darwinist, I can see where bugs that hide in the dirt from 2004 to 2021 have an advantage in terms of not being eaten. Any predator designed to feast on cicadas is going to get awfully hungry between meals, and natural selection will favor consumers of more frequently available chow.
But how do you get from the random genetic mutations of Darwin to a perfectly timed 17-year alarm clock? And how do you install that remarkable clock in the comparatively simple genome of an otherwise unglamorous insect? That twist is so improbable that it makes me feel like someone — some One — is up to something, and that (as the murderous playboy jewel thief Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy once told me of his transformation into a prison evangelist), “God has a sense of humor.”
However they came to be, I find these homely little bugs compelling. T.S. Eliot, in one of his later poems, looks at time through the eyes of God’s basic creation, the water separated by land into oceans. The heaving, endless rhythms of the water mark time, but “not our time.” It is time on the grand scale, the sort of time that cuts a Grand Canyon or wears a jagged peak down to a rolling hill. The cicada has one papery wing in each version of time, connected to the human calendar, but only at its own glacial pace.
Cicada time is mostly composed of emptiness. Tom Brady had a measly two Super Bowl rings the last time they were here. They missed the entire Sarah Palin phenomenon. Mention Barack Obama to them, and you will probably get a blank, uncomprehending look. As for Donald Trump, to the cicadas, he’s just that guy on “The Apprentice.”
Sages from many cultures have suggested there is something valuable to be learned by tuning out of the frantic day-to-day. The ancient Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius told the story of a shepherd who fell asleep for more than 50 years, only to awaken with the power of prophesy. The early American writer Washington Irving put Rip Van Winkle to sleep for 20 years. When he awoke, Rip had missed the Revolution but was, on the whole, happier for the nap.
Every time the cicadas return, the human calendar has accelerated. When they were here in 2004, there were no iPhones and only about 24 percent of American adults had broadband at home. On their previous visit, in 1987, the top-selling music storage system was the cassette tape. But as we’ve seen in recent years, a balanced, healthy mind cannot live on acceleration alone. There is such a thing as too much stimulation and too much focus on the events of the past day, the past hour, the past minute. Slow down, the cicadas sing to us; look at the world through a longer lens. I know not where they come from, but the message is a godsend.
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