Sir David Attenborough receives many letters from creationists who ask him why he doesn’t give credit to a Creator for the wonderful design features he demonstrates on his shows. He answers:
‘When Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things.
‘But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’ going to make him blind.
‘And [I ask them], “Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all- merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’ full of mercy.”’1
Andrew Denton: ‘When you see this sort of stuff, do you ever get a sense of God’s pattern?’
Sir David Attenborough: ‘Well, if you ask…about that, then you see remarkable things like that earwig and you also see all very beautiful things like hummingbirds, orchids, and so on. But you also ought to think of the other, less attractive things. You ought to think of tapeworms.
‘You ought to think of … well, think of a parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it’ common, turning people blind.
‘So if you say, “I believe that God designed and created and brought into existence every single species that exists,” then you’ve also got to say, “Well, he, at some stage, decided to bring into existence a worm that’ going to turn people blind.” Now, I find that very difficult to reconcile with notions about a merciful God.
‘And I certainly find it difficult to believe that a God — superhuman, supreme power — would actually do that.’2
Though Attenborough is said on some internet references to have been referring to the Loa Loa sickness, caused by a parasitic nematode filarial worm, this is only very uncommonly the cause of blindness. It is more known for skin lumps and inflammation as the parasite moves through the human host’s tissues. The worms can frequently be seen travelling under the conjunctiva (the thin membrane that covers the eye) but it rarely does harm there.
He was (or should have been) referring to the related filarial nematode illness Onchocercosis. Behind trachoma, it is the second commonest infective cause of blindness in the world. Its non-technical name is actually ‘river blindness’—because the biting insect that carries it to and from humans breeds around rivers. When it comes to the clinical facts about this parasitic illness, Attenborough was mistaken in a number of areas anyway. He could have used other examples of natural evil, of course, and the real answer for all of them is basically the same—the Genesis Fall. So what did he get wrong?
First, this worm does not live only in the eyeball—in fact it is almost never found there, but rather in nodules in the skin. It is the microfilaria, one of the larval stages produced by the mating of male and female worms, which travel to the eyeball (and many other places, too) and do the damage there. And these microfilaria do not live in the eyeball either; they die there and it is this dying which causes the problems. Even then it is not the worm or its larvae, either. Rather, the Wolbachia bacteria, which live symbiotically in association with this parasite in its several stages, are what does the damage when they are released at the death of the microfilaria, which triggers a severe immune reaction.