We see occasional reports that attempt to quantify the number of species that have become extinct over a certain period of years or centuries or millennia. And we see occasional reports identifying various species at risk of extinction. We go to great lengths to save species. Think of the bald eagle, the buffalo, the panda, the tiger, and many smaller creatures. We educate people. We restrict hunting and fishing. We preserve habitat. We restrict use of pesticides. We turn out lights (for turtles). We enable creatures, like toads, to cross underneath roads.
If these efforts were not working, would someone go all out, would someone “go to the ends of the earth” to save a species? Here’s a thought experiment: Would you become a toad to save toads?
Toads are indeed at the risk of extinction. A 2013 study found that on average, populations of amphibians vanished at a rate of 3.7 percent each year. At that rate these species would disappear from half their current habitats in about 20 years. Amphibians already listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are vanishing from their habitats at an even faster rate of 11.6 percent a year. At that pace, the threatened species would disappear from half their current habitat in six years.
As a first step in this thought experiment, we are reminded of the literature on human beings who have “gone native” or, in more politically correct language, have adapted the cultural norms of a culture other than their own. One early example was Moses. He was, if you will recall, a prince of ancient Egypt. He became a fugitive from justice, married into a family of shepherds, and returned to Egypt as a leader of the Hebrew slaves.
There was Italian Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) who became a friend of the Chinese emperor. There was T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) whose British-to-Arab transformation was depicted in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Turning to fiction, in Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper (1881), the characters trade lives. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), remade into Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1964), an attempt is made to have a commoner pass for nobility. In the 1925 operetta The Vagabond King, the protagonist in 15th century France becomes a “king-for-a-day” and defends France against the forces of the Duke of Burgundy.
Fr. Matteo Ricci, left, wearing clothes appropriate to a Chinese scholar, and convert Paul Xu Guangqi, a mathematician, from Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata (1667).
Let’s take a second step in the thought experiment of becoming a toad to save toads. Might we identify someone whose professional life, indeed emotional life, has involved intimacy with toads? For example, here are three people whose lives were entwined with large mammals: Dian Fossey (1932-1985) who lived with mountain gorillas for 18 years in Rwanda and was the subject of the film Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Jane Goodall (b. 1984) who worked for 55 years with chimpanzees in Tanzania, and Birutė Galdikas (b. 1946) who worked with orangutans for 30 years in Borneo.
And a third step in this thought experiment of becoming a toad to save toads is this: the miniaturization of human being. There have been some well-received, high-grossing science fiction films depicting the miniaturization of, or transformation of, human beings. In The Fly (1986), a human being becomes a fly. In Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), human beings are miniaturized. In Jurassic Park (1993) and its three sequels, human beings aren’t miniaturized, but they live in a world of much larger creatures: dinosaurs.
In the film O Brother, Where Are Thou (2000), a character thinks another had been turned into a toad and said to him, when it becomes apparent that he had not been, “We thought you was a toad.” There is the fairy tale The Frog Prince where the prince, who had been turned into a frog, returns to being a man when, as a frog, a princess kisses him.
How badly would you want to work towards the survival of toads to become a toad? How much would you have to . . . love them?
Before volunteering to become a toad, you would have some questions, I’m sure, questions such as:
• How would you go about saving toads? Maybe leading them to a safer place or one with a more abundant food source. Maybe organizing them to fight their enemies. If they are affected by disease, how might you help them?
• What would you do to get toads to “listen,” and then to follow, you? How would you goad the toads, we might ask? Would you do deeds that no toad had ever done before? Would you be a Supertoad á la Superman? Would you “speak” to toads with authority, not like their normal leaders?
• How effective might you be? What percentage of toads would you hope to save now in order to ensure their survival as a species? How high would the odds of success have to be to propel you to become a toad?
• If you could foresee becoming distracted from your mission to save all toads by trying to save individual stray toads, would you still become a toad?
• How would you handle the psychological effect of lowering yourself to toad-dom?
• What risks to your personal safety would be willing to take? Would you be willing to undergo starvation? Or attacks by predators -- especially if you started out as a tadpole?
• Toads may not follow you. Toads may not do what is best for them. How would you respond to such rejection?
• Worse yet, the toads may attack you, or place you a position vulnerable to predators. Simply put, toads could act in ways human beings would call evil. How would you defend yourself?
• Would you be willing to be a toad for the rest of your life or would you insist on being able to return to being a human being?
A 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian dealt with a similar set of circumstances. In his book Philosophical Fragments (1844), Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) included a parable entitled "The King and the Maiden." A short retelling of the parable can be found here: TheologyForTheChurch A king becomes a peasant in order to win the hand of a maiden. What people will do for love, eh? In the film Naughty Marietta (1935), a French princess (played by Jeannette MacDonald (1903-1965)) abdicates her title, elopes with a Louisiana colonial military officer (played by Nelson Eddy (1901-1967), and they become a frontier couple.
And so we turn to the story, the true-to-life event, of the Incarnation, of Jesus Christ, God Himself, becoming “incarnate,” becoming a human being. A human being becoming a toad is really not analogous to God becoming man, to the Creator becoming a creature.
Whatever we may think of time travel, either to the past or to the future, as portrayed in H.G. Wells in Time Machine (1895), Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time (1980), or Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985), God’s epiphanies in the Burning Bush of Moses or His Incarnation in created time is just not analogous.
As St. Paul wrote, Jesus, although God, did not deem equality with God something to cling to, but emptied Himself, taking on the likeness of a slave. (Philippians 2:5-8) He did it for the love of humankind, to save humankind, to save us not from extinction as a species, not from annihilation because we will live eternally, but to save us from an eternity in hell. For His love, He was attacked by human beings, tortured by them, crucified by them, killed by them.
What caused me to write this essay is this realization: After He was raised from the dead, Jesus did not despise His human nature. He did not shed his human nature. He remains true God and true man to this day and . . . for eternity.
* The author is a Washington, D.C. lawyer who practiced environmental law for 15 years. He was one of two co-authors of Federal Chemical Regulation (BNA, 1997).