Mantids, Stick Insects, and Centipedes

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA



Sometime around 1970 or 1971 (I could look it up, but I’m too lazy), I was in Berlin during the summer and spent a number of days at the Zoological Gardens. The reasons for my being in Germany had to do with philosophical rather than zoological pursuits, but I always tried to combine them whenever possible. So, I won’t bore you with all the fascinating details of how I happened to be there and was waiting for a visa to venture into the dark recesses of East Germany. I’ll save that for another time.

So, back to West Berlin and the Zoological Gardens. I think it was the 125th anniversary of the founding of the zoo. (My secret agent, Monsieur Google tells me that it was in 1969.) Zoos can be awful places and many an animal has lived out an utterly miserable existence simply to gratify the idle curiosity of us humans. The great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (how could one have such a beautifully alliterative name and not become a poet?), wrote a powerful poem expressing the terrible things that we can inflict upon animals by caging them. Rilke had gone to Paris and was suffering a writer’s block. He became secretary to the great French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. When he told Rodin of his difficulty, Rodin advised him to go to the zoological gardens and to write about specific, concrete entities. Out of this period came one of his most famous poems The Panther in which he captures the sense of this noble beast trapped and condemned.

Here is a site where you can find several different translations of this poem. My preference is for the very last one by C.F. MacIntyre.

In the last few decades, major zoos have undergone significant modifications. They are no longer just rows of prisons to exhibit strange animals to the curious. Many have become research institutions and are desperately trying to breed endangered species, study the diseases and parasites that their animals are subject to, and even collect DNA samples in the rather forlorn hope of eventually being able to restore specific creatures should they become extinct. In addition, many zoos have spent large sums of money to simulate the habitats of various groups of animals which allows them to live in a more natural environment. This means that they live a better existence than they used to in zoos and also such contexts allow them to behave more naturally which can provide researchers with important information. The most important issue is that some major zoos are being transformed into genuine scientific institutions. People like Gerald Durrell and Bernhard Gzrimek, just to mention two, have made enormous contributions to transforming the very concept of a zoological garden—Gerald Durrell with his National Trust on the Isle of Jersey and Bernhard Gzrimek at the Frankfurt Zoo. Such undertakings are very expensive and as long as human beings persist in waging war on each other and everything around them, then large numbers of organisms which share this planet will be at risk of extinction. There are also still those trophy collectors who want to go out and slaughter a rhinoceros, chop off the head, and hang it on the wall of their den. If I could afford to have a den, I would adorn its walls with the heads of “Great White Hunters” and also those of various and sundry politicians.

What does all of this have to do with mantids, stick insects, and centipedes? I’m getting there; I’m getting there, but first I have to tell you about the okapis and capybaras. Okapis are simply splendid animals which look rather like a cross between a zebra and a large antelope but the males have only short horns which are covered with skin. These animals are actually the only living relative of the giraffe. They don’t have the long neck of the giraffe, but have long blue tongues–long enough to wipe their eyes, wash their ears, and bend branches down to reach the leaves and buds which they eat. The Berlin zoo has benches conveniently situated for weary observers to sit at various strategic points and view specific compounds (provided, of course, that one’s view isn’t blocked by crowds of watchers standing at the rails.) I would usually visit the okapis in the very late afternoon when the keepers were trying to cajole them into the building where they would be fed. As it turned out these okapis were very playful and they led the two keepers a merry chase. Just as one of them seemed to be going into the building, it would bound off and the other okapi would join its mate and the two of them would give a goading look as though saying: Come on, let’s play some more.” This game could go on for 10 or 15 minutes and finally the okapis would tire of the fun and enter the building. Our anthropocentrism sometimes leads us to forget that humans are not the only animals who like to play. Of course, we can observe it in cats and dogs, but if we pay attention to animals in the wild we can also see what indeed seems to be play even though some such behaviors may also be associated with learning survival skills or with courting behaviors. When one observes otters frolicking, it would be hard indeed to believe that they are not playing and having an enormously good time.

My fascination with the capybaras was of a quite different character. They are the largest living rodents and can weigh up to 140 pounds. They strike me, with their large soulful eyes, as contemplative, even philosophical, creatures. Two of them would come up near the railing on which I was leaning and they would look at me and I would look at them and we would have a silent dialogue. They strike me as quite docile beasts, but I don’t think they would make very good house pets. One would require quite a large shovel to clean up after them.

So, one afternoon, I was walking around the zoological gardens and I noticed a building I hadn’t yet visited which, as it turned out was the Berlin Aquarium which also has an insectarium. I found some large glass cases on the second floor, which would be our third floor, no wonder the world is so confusing, and I wandered over to one of the cases which contained a leafy bush or miniature tree–whatever. I strained my eyes to see what was in the case, I walked around it 3 times–a bunch of leaves–boring as dust. What was I supposed to be looking for? Aphids? Plant mites? In that case, they should have provided me with a magnifier! I was standing there staring at this disappointing case, when suddenly I noticed a slight movement, but it was just a little breeze making the leaves move. But, wait a minute, this was a glass case; there shouldn’t be any zephyrs gusting though it. There it was again, another leaf moved and I suddenly realized that I was looking at a tree branch occupied by some of the most remarkable camouflage artists in all of nature–leaf insects. Take a look.


Can’t believe your eyes. Take a second look. Here’s another one.

Over hundreds of millions of years, nature has experimented with the most remarkable variety of camouflage imaginable. Think of how wonderful it would be if we could blend into our surroundings as effectively as these leaf insects when pesky neighbors, creditors, or religious missionaries come around.

While I was watching and waiting for another leaf insect to move, suddenly a whole 8 or 9 inch branch sprouted legs and began to crawl forward–a giant stick insect.

This beastie is another example of stunning camouflage. These creatures rival anything that Heironymous Bosch dreamed up. And just think, now you can have a whole insect tree, both branches and leaves, and you won’t have to water or fertilize it, just throw in some edible insects from time to time.

These kinds of instances are highly impressive to the human psyche in its quest for meaning and justification for its existence, because they suggest design, intent, intelligence. Most people find it depressing even to contemplate the idea that we might not be the products of “special creation”. Even in those who are culturally regarded as the “heros”, the strong ones willing to make “the ultimate sacrifice”, there is, in most cases, an overpowering need to believe that they shall be rewarded in the afterlife and their enemies punished. A rather quaint idea, but it’s time we moved beyond the Victorian era. There are many ways of critiquing the theological arguments based on design and one can find some of the very best in the writing of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. However, to the IDTs (Intelligent Design Theorists), one can simply admonish them to grasp the overwhelming impact of mathematics against their “theories”. Any of the intelligent “Intelligent Design Theorists” will not dismiss mathematics, since they so frequently find its misuse an important tool for bolstering their “positions” when it is convenient.

There is a tendency among IDTs to conflate 2 distinct issues: 1) Where did the Urstoff, the “primordial stuff” come from in the first place? and 2) How does one account for the many instances of often striking and remarkable order which occur in nature? Let’s take issue #1 first. The answer to the question about where all of the building blocks for the universe came from–all the quarks, mesons, neutrinos, protons, electrons, positrons, dark matter and 100 plus elements, is very simplenobody knows or can know. This is not a question that can be settled empirically; there are no experiments we can run; we can’t try having a rerun of the creation of the universe without blowing ourselves to smithereens. Positing superbeings, whether they be gods or monsters, is no help because they are simply stabs in the dark; there are countless possibilities and there is no evidence for any of them and so such conjectures are reduced to idle fantasizing to provide a kind of “metaphysical and psychological comfort” in an attempt to alleviate our terror of the unknown and inexplicable.

I’ll bet you never guessed that leaf insects and stick insects had such heavy-duty implications! They are, of course, especially relevant when it comes to dealing with issue #2. When we observe such marvelous examples of camouflage, we cannot help but be amazed. Furthermore, there are many other examples in nature which display overwhelming properties of organization.

Euplectella aspergillum, a spectacular glass sponge also known as Venus’ Flower Basket;

the extraordinary “horns” and armor of Eupatorus gracilicornis , a rhinoceros beetle;

or the eyespots on the wings of certain moths and butterflies “designed” to deceive predators. This butterfly is Papillon demodocus. And this is just to mention 3 examples. If one wanted to construct a catalog, it would be possible to come up with tens of thousands of examples. However, it is precisely at this point where we need to insert a strong caveat, namely, that one could also construct a catalog of examples of chaos or disorder, some of which might even appear on the surface to be orderly. If you have spent any time in truly sandy deserts, you will have observed how the wind can create a variety of patterns and sometimes the dunes appear to be “sculpted”. There is a rather wide variety of patterns, but certain types recur frequently and, I dare say, someone could compile a catalog of desert sand patterns, all neatly classified according to the desert, the particular area, the types of sand, the meteorological conditions including wind velocity, etc. We would indeed have a mass of empirical data, but from this would we want to conclude that the wind (the primary causal agent) has intelligence? I think not.

So lets get back to mathematics. Let’s use a simplified model employing just the non trans-uranium elements. So, we could select some specific elements, throw them in a jar, stir well and out will pop a nice fresh leaf insect. Such a silly conception seems, however, to be rather like what some people think evolutionists are arguing and, of course, it isn’t. There are 92 elements in the periodic table not counting the transuranium ones. Now, recall that the DNA strands which are the basis of life on earth are all combinations of only 4 amino acids! Those long strands of the double helix molecules can account for the enormous complexity and variety of life forms. So, do the mathematics; if you have 92 chemical elements and approximately 12 billion years (give or take a billion), the chances are very high that a lot of interesting things are going to happen. If we also toss in all the sort of things that are going on at an even deeper level with over 100 subatomic “particles”, then the calculations produce results that are incomprehensible to the human mind. This number is much, much bigger that the 9 trillion dollar national debt and who can imagine how much that is–clearly not the politicians.

The IDTs remind me of Platonists who were looking for the “Ideal Form” of each type of thing which exists. The evolutionists are, in this respect, like Aristotle who asked the Platonists: “What is the Ideal Form of mud?” There are many things in nature, such as the sand grains on a beach or the distribution of water molecules interspersed with organic matter in a pond, that only a fool would try to give an account of to make a case for order and design in nature. Many of the IDTs are by no means fools and they know better than to try to make such cases. However, unfortunately, their need for “metaphysical comfort” does lead them to commit the selective fallacy and choose only those examples which fit their argument. When we encounter phenomena which, at a given time, we cannot explain, this does not justify positing special beings or substances in order to account for what we don’t yet or, in principle, cannot understand. Just look up the history of phlogiston.

The basic aims of science are to provide a simple, but precise account of complex phenomena and, in so doing, advance the fundamental process of providing intelligibility about nature. (However, from the prose style of the majority of scientists today, one would never guess that simplicity or intelligibility are significant issues.)

So, yes, planet Earth has many marvels–great whales, glass sponges, butterflies with “eyes’ in their wings, leaf insects and stick insects–and all of these should produce in us a sense of awe and a concern for their survival. We should be the caretakers of planet Earth, but we have instead made a terrible mess of it. There is also much which we cannot yet, and may never, be able to control–earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, etc. So we live on a violent, unpredictable, chaotic planet which also has these extraordinary examples of order that have emerged after billions of years of disorder and destruction. These blind experiments on the part of nature are so numerous that it would be incredible if no such creatures had evolved and developed.

Nonetheless, human consciousness has evolved in such a way that it cannot logically (nor psychologically) conceive its own non-existence. This is one aspect of what Descartes was pointing out with his famous maxim: “I think, therefore I am”, for it would have been a total absurdity for him to have uttered the proposition: “I, Descartes, do not exist.” In order for him to have even thought that remark, the precondition was his existence as a thinking being. For even the most ardent egotists, however, there is too much evidence against physical immortality and so the notion of an immortal soul came into being to combat that ultimately repugnant idea that, in the end, we are mere worm food.

Beauty is, of course, a subjective human characterization of certain kinds of patterns, structures, color Gestalts, that we find pleasing. Nature is indifferent to whether or not a creature is beautiful or ugly. (I realize I’m personifying again, but our language makes that very awkward to avoid.) Mantids are also masters of camouflage and from one point of view they are monstrous and from another, some of them are delicately and splendidly beautiful, in part, because they imitate flowers.

This is an image of an orchid mantid which pretends to be a flower and when an appropriate, succulent insect comes around, it’s dinner time. The praying mantis is a splendid example of nature’s indifference. Creationists tend not to use this example since, although this creature has a pious appearance, the female is a ruthless predator and after mating devours its consort. Not a very good advertisement for “family values”.

There are relatively few people who go into states of aesthetic rapture over centipedes. This is not to say that they aren’t fascinating, but “beautiful” is a dubious description for them. When my wife and I used to try to maintain a vegetable garden and a few more areas with flowers, we would, from time to time, run across small centipedes–about 1½ to 2 inches long. They are nut-brown, sleek, fast, and harmless. My wife, however, does not like them and when I showed her a 10 inch specimen of Scolopendra, she was not favorably impressed.

These centipedes are poisonous and can inflict a painful wound. What amazes us, and the same is true for millepedes, is their extraordinary ability to coordinate all those legs. We humans have to learn how to walk and coordinate ourselves in terms of spatial orientation. In organisms such as centipedes all of this is pre-programmed. In some respects, our very complexity as organisms can initially create hurdles which involve a learning process that then programs or “wires” the brain, whereas, centipedes (and lots of other critters) come with such information and abilities already hard-wired. Once we learn to walk, it does become non-reflective and, in fact, if we start to think about the activity of our own walking while walking, it can inhibit the automatic flow and make the whole process quite awkward. Centipedes can’t think about the process of coordinating; they simply do it.

Some people argue that such sophisticated behavior must be understood as demonstrating design and intelligence behind nature; they insist that such phenomena cannot be merely random consequences and yet, some of those same people nonetheless buy lottery tickets.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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Published in the May 2007 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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