What’s the shortest poem in the English language? The generally accepted answer is “Fleas,” by Strickland Gillian (early 20th century). Here it is:
Adam Had ’em.
You’d think that fleas would not be particularly inspiring to poets, but you’d be wrong. In 1633, John Donne wrote a love poem, entitled The Flea (Click here for entire poem), in which a young man tries to seduce a maiden with the argument that the same flea has sucked blood from each of them, so they’re already joined. And a century later (1733), Jonathan Swift dismissed other writers who tried to imitate him as being like nuisance biting fleas. Inspired by Swift, mathematician Augustus De Morgan wrote the poem Siphonaptera (the biological order to which fleas belong) in 1872:
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum;
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
De Morgan, being more a scientist than a poet, saw fleas as an illustration of the wonders of Nature. In his day microscopes were revealing smaller and smaller elements of reality: an animal, an organ, a cell, a molecule; ultimately, an atom, an electron, a quasar, etc. And telescopes were opening human knowledge outward, from earth to moon, to solar system, milky way, galaxies; ultimately to an expanding, curved universe with black holes leading into unknown other realities.
And, of course, fleas also remind us of the amazing scientific reality of evolution. “What? Pastor, you said a naughty word!” That’s the way a lot of modern 21st century “evangelical” Christians view the subject of evolution, and that’s tragic. If we would be more open to what science has learned through the eyes of evolution, we would see dimensions of God in his creation that we’ve been missing.
Augustus De Morgan had read about the fact that some investigative scientists had discovered that fleas have fleas. Yes, there are, apparently, some super-tiny fleas that live by sucking blood from their “normal”-size relatives, and De Morgan’s poem postulates that stronger microscopes might reveal even more layers of dependency-relationships. These various flea models all turn out to be distinct species. More than 2,500 species of fleas have been identified as existing today, and many more have thrived in the past, but are now extinct. Paleontologists have determined that the evolution of fleas goes back about 125 million years. Yes, they’re able to trace stages of change in fleas over millions of generations that have transformed an original plant-eating bug into a highly specialized insect, with half its body designed to suck blood from hairy mammals and the other half consisting of gigantic hind legs that can propel it 50 times its body length, from one hairy mammal to another. This is what makes it your dog’s worst nightmare.
“Okay, the ‘evolution’ of fleas may be fascinating, just as imaginative science fiction is; but why should that matter to me?”
Good question. And the answer is Dr. Francis Collins. He’s the current Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the umbrella Federal organization under which Dr. Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases operates. Collins was appointed by President Obama in 2009, was affirmed by President Trump, serving four years in that administration, and was re-affirmed by President Biden’s new administration. He has overseen the United States response to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping his critical agency on an even keel through all the emotionalism, politicization, polemical diatribes and ignorant pronouncements of the past year. There are two things you should know about Dr. Collins:
- He’s profoundly committed to a belief in evolution. Since his graduate work in the 1980s, Dr. Collins has been dedicated to the study of genetics to find the key to cures for dangerous diseases. His research has led to advances in treatment for cystic fibrosis, type 2 diabetes and cancer, all by studying the genetics that cause disease and how this knowledge can be used to find cures. This is all about the mechanisms of evolution on a cellular level. From 1984 to 2009, he was the Director of The Human Genome Project, which led to the “mapping” of all the sites on a human gene. This is basically a sequential chart in every cell of a person’s body of all the characteristics that define her/him as an individual human being. Changes in any of these are called “mutations,” and they are the basic building blocks of evolution. All the COVID-19 reports you hear that use terms like DNA, Messenger-RNA, adaptation, monoclonal antibodies, and genetic variants are all about evolution of the COVID-19 virus. Dr. Collins and his associates are 100% sold on the belief that this is the best way to understand, attack and defeat this disease.*
- He’s profoundly committed to his Christian faith. Collins became a believer as an adult, when he had already earned his PhD. His testimony of coming to faith through his scientific study of the natural world is very inspiring. He describes himself as “a serious Christian,” and he’s written a book about it.** The fact that many Christian leaders openly teach their followers that belief in evolution is incompatible with belief in the God of the Bible bothers him so much that, in 2007, he began a very creative on-line site called BioLogos.*** The BioLogos Foundation defines its mission simply as: “God’s Word. God’s World,” and it defines “evolutionary creation” as one of its core commitments. Articles by many thoughtful Christian thinkers appear regularly to shed light on how scientific knowledge and Christian faith reinforce each other.
For me, as someone who has often felt alone in believing that my faith has been nourished by fully embracing both science and religion, Dr. Collins is a personal inspiration.**** My childhood fascination with animals and plants has never left me, and, in my later years, it affects my view of the meaning of my life more than ever. I might choose as a Bible passage that describes my life journey an obscure text from the Book of Job:
Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
The birds of the air, and they will tell you;
Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
And the fish of the sea will declare to you;
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
And the breath of every human being. (Job 12:7-10)
A tiny flea, an even tinier virus – Who knew they could inspire faith in God through the lens of evolution?
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* To learn more about the likely future evolution of COVID-19, check out here
** The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006)
**** Another inspiration for me is former ABCer Dr. Reed Wicander, who has spent his whole adult life pursuing geological knowledge about the evolution of an extinct single-celled organism. His textbook has become a classic in his field: Monroe, James S., and Reed Wicander. The Changing Earth: Exploring Geology and Evolution, 2nd ed. Belmont: West Publishing Company, 1997.