After gathering up what might have been the 100th three-quarter inch long oval gray bug off the floor here at home and enduring its overwhelmingly malodorous yet somehow vaguely pleasant almond-and-rotten apple chemical defense smell left on my fingers as I threw it out in the snow, I began to wonder just what this creature was. Google is god, so I queried the oracle and discovered that it was popularly called as a ‘rough stink bug,’ known to science as Brochymena affinis (Brochymena translates from the Latin as ‘short wing,’ and affinis as ‘related to.’)
Like everything alive today, this species can trace its existence back through evolutionary history to the inception of life on Earth, which occurred about 4 billion years ago. Nothing is alive today that is not a survivor of those long years of natural selection, or as the eminent biologist Lynn Margulis put it, ‘All organisms alive today are equally evolved.’
The rough stink bug is in the insect order Hemiptera—the ‘half wings.’ They do in fact have whole wings but in a typical view of a Hemipteran from above the wing appears to be truncated. Hemipterans have seriously sucking mouthparts, those parts being combined into a straw-like structure that is so long that it is folded down the midline on the underside of the creature when off-duty. Typically this ‘straw,’ or proboscis, is used to pierce the epidermis of the stem of a plant and suck out nutritious plant juices from within. But life is always adapting to new circumstances, and as plant-piercing insects became abundant there arose a new line of piercing insects that attacked other Hemipterans rather than plants. The rough stink bug uses its proboscis to cut through the exoskeleton of other insects, and then inject a chemical brew that immobilizes and then dissolves the innards of the prey creature, which it then drinks up as if it were a milkshake.
While this feeding method typically seems unsavory to humans, who prefer to consume their animal prey in fork-sized chunks and then dissolve them internally, the two techniques of obtaining nutrients are in fact not qualitatively different. Every organism that is alive eats almost every day, unless it is hibernating or dormant, and if it is not autotrophic—if it is not one of the photosynthetic organisms that create food out of carbon dioxide—then it has to kill and ingest other organisms on an almost daily basis.
The problem with this arrangement is that everything on Earth eats everything else (for emotional counseling on this traumatic point, see ‘How to Help the World’ at The Methow Naturalist website; thus all living things strive to eat, but not get eaten (at least until they reproduce, i.e. some red fruits and parasites want to be eaten to disperse seeds or eggs). The rough stink bug has several effective defenses to keep from being eaten, one of which is its camouflage coloration, and another the ability to release aromatic compounds sure to repel all but the most desperate predators.
On a planetary time scale, the rough stink bug is closely related to Homo sapiens, to humans. There is now good evidence that life appeared on Earth soon after the planet cooled sufficiently for life to exist, 4 billion years ago. Genetic analyses indicate that the first bilaterally symmetrical animals arose about 600 million years ago. Stink bugs and humans are both bilateral, so they would share this common earliest bilateral ancestor, which appeared after 85% of the journey of life had been traversed. Vertebrates and invertebrates diverged about 380 million years ago, which is 95% of the journey down life’s pathways.
The point here is that both Brochymena affinis and Homo sapiens are members of the Animal Kingdom, both have been forged in the same evolutionary fire by natural selection, and both inevitably share many traits in common, including the need to ingest other living things, not get eaten, and reproduce. Most of the behaviors of both species can be understood from this biological perspective of natural selection and survival.
The present historical moment—by which we mean the 5000-year history of urban and agricultural humans—constitutes only 0.025% of the evolutionary journey of Life. The longer 4 billion year life journey is comprised of behaviors by bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, and animals that are almost purely genetically determined. It has been frequently suggested by eminent biologists, psychologists and spiritual teachers that Homo sapiens has the potential to realize an ‘emergent quality’ (everything in the Universe has ‘emerged’ over time; everything was once non-existent and then utterly new) known as ‘intelligence.’ Briefly put, intelligence infers a capacity to reflect on current reality and choose behaviors that are life-generating, rather than behaviors that are mechanistically, genetically programmed and may be anachronistic. For example, while rough stink bugs emit a fetid odor to deflect predators, Homo sapiens deploys an arsenal of 15,000 hydrogen and atomic bombs for protection. While comparable in intent to the actions of the stink bug, the human defensive strategy is hypertrophied- it has vastly outgrown any conceivable usefulness.
The present is a critical moment in the evolutionary divergence of stink bugs and Homo sapiens. There is no question that the stink bugs’ only option is obey their genetic imperatives. The genetic imperatives of humans, which includes sucking up as many resources as possible, procreating multiple offspring, and overt aggression towards other human groups and other living things, no longer serves the evolutionary interests of either the planet nor the species. But it will take emergent intelligence on the part of each individual Homo sapiens (that would be you) to clearly and fully differentiate themselves from the evolutionary mainstream, as well as from their rough stink bug co-evolutionary colleagues.