Toward a Theology of Creative Worms

God is more generous with power than we usually imagine.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


I think that, at least before Descartes decided animals were mere automata, there’s always been some concept that there is a heirarchy of “volition”. But the point must be that it is a heirarchy: one’s ox, like Israel, might be seen as stiff-necked and stubborn, or obedient and willing, and therefore in some sense and degree possessing a will.

But earthworms were correspondingly less likely to spring surprise choices - I strongly suspect that whoever coined the ancient proverb about worms turning was thinking more of a cornered snake than a self-willed annelid.

Now we have a better understanding of how “choice” relates to anatomy and physiology: and by any standard the choices available to an earthworm are stricty limited compared to that of a human being. If the nature of a worm’s nervous system gives it the capacity to differentiate food sources (which zoologically I would suggest is about it), then that capacity of “choice” indeed is part of the fabric God has created in the building of his world, and even more so for the mammal moulding its environment.

But what about the capacities of a bacterium? It has no nervous system. As far back as Lamarck, the realisation that there was a clear distinction between the “volitional” activity of the “infusoria” - its basic desires, in other words, driven by invariant needs and responses - and the increasing options afforded by evolution only in the higher animals and, far more, mankind. Does the bacterium’s nature endow it with any significant capacity of choice? Really? It serves its maker by being what it is, surely, not by creating new ways to serve him.

Even more relevantly for BioLogos, what about things that are not organisms at all, like “genetic material”, or “the process of evolution” or “Nature”? Organisms undergo evolution from the effects of an insentient chemistry and an unconscious environment, not by making decisions (at least until we get to higher animals and niche construction theory, which isn’t mainstream). When we start to talk about “creative freedom” there, we’re pretty close to considering rocks as having free will, and panpsychism.

So if we look at this scientifically (or theologically), rather than poetically, we surely have to ask what it is that differentiates a human from an earthworm: and a big part of that is orders of magnitude more freedom of will and action, correlated with a vastly different nervous system. The image of God may not only refer to capacity for responsible choice, but it presupposes it. We might well validly put dolphins and elephants closer to us than to the worm - but we’d be foolish to speak of “choice” as a universal property of life, regardless of biology, and more foolish still to turn “evolution” by inanimate processes into a quasi-creature with the capacity to “choose” the direction the world goes in.

Or if we do, we have to explain why that isn’t panpsychism.

While I do agree with Bethany that we should not rule out the creation-building activity based on choice from other animals, I also agree with Jon’s point above. In fact if we look more closely at the fascinating behavior of both the milk-drinking birds, and the potato-washing macaques, we see something that any suburbanite (such as myself) observes daily: these creative and innovative behaviors on the part of birds and mammals are all tied in with human activity and human culture. In the wild, other primates do not tend to innovate much, and certainly other animals and birds dont either. I think it is remarkable and quite wonderful that dogs (and I guess I should add cats for the cat people) not to mention horses, dolphins, chimps, and even goldfish, once in contact with human beings can transcend their “natural” limitations and acheive sometimes spectacular breakthroughs in intelligence, understanding, and of course, choice-making. And I believe that this widespread phenomenon of non-human transcendence in the presence of humans (or human culture) is a strong pointer to the majesty of God’s overall creation, but most importantly of the Imago Dei residing specifically within human beings. The fact that this gift of God can be easily spread from us to other creatures is quite wonderful, and inspires awe in all of us, including non-believers.


I think that we are thinking about God too narrowly when we define the Image of God as thinking. The only real sefinition of God is “God is Love,” and love is a relationship.

Jon is right in that oth4er living things do not think and Sy is right to point out that some other creatures are also creative in our sense of the word, however all aspects of God’s Creation interact and are interdependent.

Einstein demonstrated that time and space, mass and energy are interdependent, w3hich means that they are relational. O(n another level plants interact with their environment as they evolve and thrive or fail to thrive. On a still higher level animals do the same. Humans on a still higher level interact with their physical environment, plant and animal environments, and their human environments.

Unlike the rest of the universe humans have the ability to change and resist change. We can think and make decisions. God calls us to make decisions which promote the common good, but often we prefer our selfish good, which is sin. God calls us to do for ourselves, our world, and God, what God does for the rest of the universe, create God’s Kingdom of love and harmony.

The theology of the earthworm is not as silly as it may seem. The humble earthworm takes many forms and is an important part of the global ecology and thus our world. life would be significantly harder with them. They probably adapted from the water to the dry land where they make life better for many other plants and animals, but not all.

God is relational in that God is Love. God created all Creation to be a cosmos, to work together. Those plats and animals who work best together survive and flourish. Sin is the opposite of this because many people live in fear, rather than by faith.

I’m grateful for your response, and I think you are right that there is a huge variance of choice–from something quite near to what humans have in our closest mammalian cousins, right down to whatever it is a bacterium does.
I am not really interested in whether we think other animal’s capacity for choice is very wide, nor if we think their choices are surprising or interesting. I am more interested in the significance of the effect of their choices. If you acknowledge that earthworms might be able to make some choice of food, think of the ecological effect that would have overall if they refused to compost one sort of soil becuase they preferred another. Over just a few years, the entire ecology would change. The landscape would be transformed, the creatures that lived there would change, and how those creatures lived there (including humans) would be greatly altered because the humble earthworm made a choice about its food.
I don’t know if a bacterium has any capacity for “choice”, but they certainly have a capacity for change. And their capacity for change has had a marked effect on human culture: on medical research, on industry, on the lives and deaths of countless people.

Essentially, my point is that even very limited capacity for choice–far below the level of conscious choice or moral decision making–has the potential to greatly alter the course of evolutionary history. This is a capacity that God invites other creatures to exercise.
I would avoid pansychism, and I would not speak about the “process of evolution” choosing anything. What you do have is billions of creatures living their lives in ways that result in patterns which we describe as a process…

I don’t disagree the innovation spawns innovation, and that observing human creativity would often enhance non-human creativity. But to make the point I want to make, I only need the barest sort of choice and/or innovation, and it does not need to be common. Again, my interest is more in the capacity for large effect derived from a small choice than it is in the complexity of the choice. The sense of transcendence in community is a good one, but I would again be careful about limiting it to the human sphere. Perhaps the most stunning examples happen in human communities, but complexity and beauty of some symbiotic (or, come to think of it, even parasitic) relationships show similar strains of transcendence.

I’m not sure that John is saying “other living things do not think”–but rather was pointing to the hierarchy and spectrum of thought. I do like your emphasis on relationality and the love of God. I would argue that God’s love is a central component of theology of earthworms!


IO would certainly agree, but Love cannot be central to the theology of the earthworm if it was formed by conflict or survival of the fittest.

The truly philosophical worm, being incapable of pain (unless neurology is optional), may well see its nutritional value to birds as glorifying to God’s love - ie it anticipates with joy the transformation of its lower nature into the bird’s higher nature (as Augustine reasoned). They do, after all, have several years of life (up to 10, apparently) to meditate on such matters as they choose which dead leaf to eat.

That’s not entriely facetious: if we’re going to play with the idea of worms thinking, there is no reason to suppose they think like us, rather than like their maker. They certainly never read Malthus!

Bethany, if we’re going to construct serious theology on this, the devil is in the detail. My remark about worms choosing food was, factually, certainly a gross exaggeration of their will-power. The truth is probably closer to this, from a book on invertebrates:

The brain appears to direct the movements of the body in response to sensations of light and touch. And it has important inhibitory functions, for if it is removed the worms move continuously, but otherwise their behavior is affected little.

And that, I suppose, is self-evident from the anatomy, as those of us who dissected earthworms at school know:

That’s not to deny earthworms their God-given role in the world - but it is to relativize that role in terms of analogy to human “choice”.

Worms are quite a good way up the scale of complexity: I suspect we have to go a fair bit further up before we really begin to discern “choice” if we are scientifically rigorous. And further up still before we can honestly consider it some kind of deliberation, rather than (say) the beetles running out and the predator eating a cactus rather than starving.

Then we have to run the exercise of determing (how?) whether those deliberations are truly comparable to “creative” human acts of will, or better seen as the natural results of how God created them to act.

With those provisos, it doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to rejoice in the fact that this world reached its present form because of cultural “choices”, at least in the higher animals. That seems to be what Eve Jablonka postulates as an important component of evolution, and it is a component in niche construction theory. Whether that should be seen as “co-creation” or as “God’s mighty works” is a more slippery decision.

I like the idea of the philosophical worm! :smile:
I think you will misunderstand me if you concentrate too much on capacity of choice. Perhaps “agency” is a better word. The earth has been far more profoundly shaped and changed by bacteria than by all the “choosing” and “higher” creatures. I want to get us thinking about the theological ramifications of the fact that the changes brought about by bacteria were… brought about by bacteria, not by the micromanagements of God. They are major agents of change, along with more familiar agents such as ants and earthworms. And that is, theologically, so very important.


OK Bethany - “choice” (or its analogy) is but one aspect, you say. In the category of “agency” we could consider the anaerobic bacteria which, in all likelihood, gave rise to the aerobic bacteria. The former sealed their own death warrant by producing aerobes: the latter prepared the earth for the rest of us.

But they did those epochal things not by choices (for which they are insufficiently equipped), but by their nature. And it is indeed theologically important that God works through the agency of secondary causes, and even that the world is a community of being, and not just a toy for us to exploit…

But how does that bacterial agency differ (if it does) from the agency of the KT asteroid obeying Newton’s laws, or the primaeval tectonic forces, or variations in the sun’s luminosity, all of which non-biological “agents” had similarly vital effects on our world’s history? A human may be rewarded (literally or by a sense of participation and achievement) for their work in God’s household, but not, presumably an asteroid - so where does the bacterium fit on the scale of “passive agency” and “active participation”?

Are any of those things actually independent of the providential governance of God, who created their natures? The word “Micromanagement” sugggests that God’s supervision and care is in competion with nature, as if God were just another secondary cause himself. that doesn’t seem right. Is there no creatio continua in the bacterial realm?


Dear Jon,

As I understand it, the difference between living and non-organic matter is precisely the abillity to sense the environment and respond in order to maintain homeostasis. That is a sort of agency that bacteria have which the meterorites do not. (The formal definition of life also includes metabolising, growing, etc.) This is also the difference between a living being and a corpse, even if they are constituted of the same matter. The movement of a bacterium is self-directed in a way that the movement of the meteorite is not.
I’m not suggesting that any of these things (meteorite, bacterium, or human freewill) happen outside of God’s providence, rather I’m arguing that God’s providence is tolerant of (or better, encapsulates and incorporates) a great deal of self-direction amongst agents. Creatio continua happens by co-creation. Plenty of theological positions would hold that God minutely directed all events (whether by primary or secondary causation) up until humans came with “freewill”. Some would even hold that human freewill is an illusion, and all our choices are determined by God. I think both of these are entirely wrong.
Having said all that, I acknowledge that my line of saying “freedom begins with life” is arbitrary. I don’t know that God determined the path of the meteorite either… but we have to draw distinctions somewhere, and I think the boundary between life and non-life is a good one precisely because it centers around the capacity to sense and respond.


I guess the important thing is the warrant for what one thinks. Occasionalism (your latter option) has been a very uncommon position in historic Christianity, and so, actually, has the other idea of “meticulous providence until free-will came along”.

By far the commonest position amongst serious theologians down the millennia has been meticulous providence acting in concurrence with secondary causes, including human free-will.

The arguments for it have been primarily a consensus that Scripture cleraly teaches it, but in various ways bolstered by through metaphysical and philosophical reasoning. And so its case is argued by Apostolic Fathers like Lactantius, Chrysippus, Irenaeus or Justin Martyr; by post-Apostolic Fathers like Augustine; by the mediaeval scholastics like Aquinas; by the Reformers like Calvin and Luther, and by later figures like Wesley and even Jacobus Arminius. It is the view taught in Orthodoxy, and it’s clearly laid out in the Catholic Catechism.

So one needs some weighty arguments from Scripture and reason as to why they were all entirely wrong, since it is a virtual redefinition of the Church’s doxtrine of God.

As I sit and think about this, I ask myself why we have to draw such distinctions, when we know so little about God’s ways apart from what he reveals. I can see why it’s important (to science and faith) that God directs the heavenly bodies in their courses (presumably why Scripture says as much in Job 38:31-32), because we, created by God in his image, only exist through the KT asteroid impact. If it was actually fortuitous, so is mankind, just as Richard Dawkins suspects.

But tangling myself in speculations about “choice” and “freedom” and “co-creation” with respect to the bacterial population of the earth doesn’t immediately strike me as so relevant to the glory of God or the salvation of man, let alone the findings of science.


The problem as I see it is that you are coming up against the Natural /Supernatural divide of Western dualism. This makes the problem not scientific or theological, but philosophical, which people are not equipped to discuss. That is why I introduced the concept of relationships which resolves the issue.

You want to examine how living things relate to their environment, which is the realm of ecology, not theology or evolution… I have been advocating for a long time that we cannot understand evolution apart from ecology without a suitable response, which cannot happen until survival of the fittest is abandoned as false.

I would be glad to send you my book, Darwin’s Myth, which describes my approach if you are interested. Please send an email by the private channel.

Wow Sy, thanks for this. On a day where I’ve been struggling with the vastness of the universe (and perhaps even multiverse), this really helps center me. No matter how small we appear to be, our duty is to be God’s representatives here on Earth, and the fact that we can affect other creatures so powerfully is compelling evidence that we’ve got something in us that is different. It also feels distinctly in line with something I read (either NT Wright or John Walton): our duty as the image of God is to be the high priests of the world, and channel the praise of the rest of the creation back to God. I also think there’s quite a bit to be said (I’m sure someone else has said it elsewhere) about creation’s “groaning” that Paul describes.

I was going to take a break from blogs, etc. for a while to get some mental rest, but this really struck me as a powerful observation. Anyway, I’ll shoot you an email when I’ve gathered my thoughts about the guest blog post. All the best.

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This works both ways. We see God’s Glory, Harmony, and Love in God’s Creation. However when we look at ourselves and our kind, we see human ugliness, conflict, and selfishness. We have the ability and obligation create and maintain God’s Kingdom on earth, but we constantly fail to do so.

You clearly opened a can of worms.

In a recent lecture on microbial viability I explained
“life is the ability to move energy at will”
For a bacterium this will is encoded in it’s DNA as a physical form of memory which we can destroy by either destroying its DNA thus destroying the instructed will or by destroying its ability to control the motion of matter by destroying its energy boundary / partition across which to partition the energy e.g. its cell wall, thus to make it subject to passive diffusion.

In that respect “thy will be done” makes it easy to see how Jesus can have everlasting life in us.

The bacterium exercises choice via its feedback mechanisms and has the will encoded to reproduce. If I give it “the snip”, e.g. make it infertile it is still able to move energy at will and may even be able to generate toxins thus potentially kill and take part in the exchange of genetic material. difference between will and free will comes with the fall, e.g the realisation of the self as such to be able to use your will to consciously make decisions that benefit the individual self more than creation itself. Sin therefore is the use of your free will against the benefit of creation to your self-perceived advantage as it puts you in conflict with creation itself. Love is the conscious use of your will to the benefit of creation and not yourself.

Life is based on the word,e.g. the ability of information, a metaphysical entity, to control matter or instill the supernatural into the natural or the metaphysical into the physical. thus giving it meaning. By filling life with the will to survive the humble bacterium is a stark reminder of following the will to love thy neighbour as those little bacteria are what makes a human possible. After all, from a cellular point we are less than 10% human cells, from a genetic point less than 1% human genome. They outnumber us a lot and the consequence of any of those bacteria or human cells becoming selfish, whether human or bacterial in nature, tends to cause the physical collapse of the entire human. If they do not submit to the will of the overall system the system collapses.


I’m not sure if your post gets us off the hook…

Using “at will” in a science context can only be an analogy, because “will” is a teleological word, and science doesn’t do teleology. However, in this topic we’re in the philosophical and theological realms, where I think we need to be more exact in terminology.

I mean this: DNA, strictly, does not have a “will”, if we conceive of it in the sense of a biological algorithm. An algorithm might execute the will of its creator, but not its own, for it does not write itself: but if one conceives a random string of code chancing to avoid the halting problem and performing a “function” (analogous, maybe, to the atheist conception of genetic evolution) then its “will” is an appearance of purpose only. To the extent, then, that life is merely algorithmic, it has no more in the way of “will” than a computer program.

The question of higher organisms possessing some kind of choice I’ve mentioned before, and will ignore here.

So I still maintain that the active physiology of (simpler) living organisms, undoubtedly related to the informational content of their DNA, and undoubtedly affecting their environment, needs a different set of descriptors than “will”, or “freedom” and so on to avoid being misled into confusing being true to ones divinely-created nature with being a “co-creator”.

I think your concept of “the will of the whole system” is a helpful one, with the same proviso that it’s actually (as opposed to metaphorically) incoherent to speak of the biosphere’s having a “will”, as if it were a rational entity - except as a proxy for the will of God who created it. Nevertheless as a picture of sin it fits nicely the classical conception of sin as working against “natural law” - the order and function that God has created us for.

(I’m assuming here, of course, that panpsychism is still out of the frame).

Again, though, I quibble with the extension of that analogy of “nature’s will” to individual human cells or bacteria “becoming selfish”, as if a bacterium has a literal concept of self, and a literal will to rebel against nature.

Theologically, Scripture pictures upheavals within the natural order as the turning of nature against human sin (ie God’s lawful nature turned against man’s rebellion) rather than as the natural creation going against nature. Indeed, the picture of sin as an offence against nature only really works because human nature was intended to include willing obedience to God’s will. Sin is first a rebellion against the command of God, which is only possible because we humans have, by nature, a rational self which can vaunt our will against that of our Father.

So being human is a very special privilege with a unique downside: first, we have the capacity to will freely, for our service to God’s “order of creation” to be voluntary. But secondly, we are capable of sinning against that order in a way that, I suggest, no other species is. The two go together: the image of God and the potential for sin.

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thanks for that very constructive reply helping me to communicate my thinking better. This is what I like so much in this forum that people are here to help each other, probably because we are all aware that we “work for someone else”

To me the will is in the word that makes you move. That motivational force has to be anchored outside the physical self. Indeed I see that the will in creation is the to the execution of the will encoded in it. It is the failure to follow that will that leads to deletion. The critical step in the system is for any element to die in order to fulfill its instruction to love thy neighbor. So if you look at a cancer cell, it has not become selfish by making a conscious decision to become selfish but has turned selfish by events outside their control whilst conscious beings become selfish by their own making. This is the what the whole episode of the fall is about.

Thus the motion of the universe is an expression of the will of its mover. The art of a worldview is to be able to form a personal relationship to the “it” as to be in harmony with it. That is why a father model for God is very much in line with our psychology.

Our interference with the will expressed in creation is one of those things were we have to tread carefully to avoid taking decisions that put the will of individuals over the will of the overall creation.

Now God’s law allows creation to turn against itself in the form that genetic aberrations can occur but lead to deletion when failing to obey his law. Humans are getting closer to God as having realized the self putting them in conflict with the unified self in God

expresses the dilemma of the human condition nicely. It is the reason for human suffering, e.g. the perceived discrepancy between our will and the will of God.

I’d wish to meet you one day over a pint of choffee as there can be nothing nicer than the meeting of two people thinking differently with a common goal to enrich each others understanding of the ultimate truth in the love of God. I wish I could say what I think but I get frustrated that communication by words is so limiting.

Make that a pint of English ale and you’re on!