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Of Butterflies and Caterpillars

Did you know Letterkenny has a Butterfly Garden? It is the brainwave of the folks at An Taisce, and was officially opened last Thursday, beside the tourist office. It’s a place where suitable plants are grown to provide a habitat for butterflies to flourish in and around a growing town.

I’m a designer at heart. I studied architecture at university, and still dabble in various forms of design. One of the things that strikes me as I look at this world is how fantastically designed it is. And butterflies are an incredible example.

When you think ‘butterflies’, don’t just think ‘bright flappy things’—think of the two stages before that: the caterpillar and the pupa. There aren’t many other animals that go through such a complete change during their lifetime. Yet all the information for that transformation is built in right from the start in the little eggs just a millimetre long and a fraction of that wide. Inside is the information for all three utterly different stages.

The caterpillar has cutting jaws, perfect for chewing leaves. Its intestine and digestive glands are matched to this diet. The butterfly, on the other hand, has jaws no longer suited for chewing. Instead, it has a long probscis which enables it to drink flower nectar.

The caterpillar has eight stumpy feet. The soft soles of these feet adhere as firmly to the smoothest surfaces as their circular bristles cling to rough surfaces. On the other hand, the butterfly’s finely jointed long legs are capable of landing safely and clinging to blossoms which blow back and forth in the breeze.

When it reaches the end of its caterpillar stage it sheds its skin for the last time. But what now appears—the pupa—has almost no resemblance to a caterpillar. This motionless pupa has neither head nor legs.

Under this seemingly lifeless shell something quite unbelievable is happening. The old caterpillar organs, with the exception of the nervous system, begin to dissolve into smaller groups of cells, even to disintegrate into single cells. From this ‘cellular soup’, new and, in part, quite different organs begin to develop.

When you consider this rebuilding process, what strikes me is that everything is happening with the utmost precision according to an extremely cleverly programmed plan. Without it the jumble of cells would not develop into the beautiful butterfly.

New and functioning organs are constructed, which then collaborate and complement each other in a purposeful and error-free way to form a new and radically different organism—the butterfly.

Consider the colourful wings—their patterns are transmitted unchanged from generation to generation. That means that the position and colour of each of the countless individual wing scales is encoded in that tiny egg cell—alongside all of the other incredibly complex and intricate information.

This degree of miniaturization of information storage can hardly be imagined. To appreciate the technical difficulties, consider that the exactly symmetrical patterns on the wings developed while the wings were totally crumpled up in the cramped conditions of the pupal case. Yet when the wings unfold for the first time, you see the distinctive pattern unique to that species.

Stunning—why did God make it that way? There’s no great reason why he couldn’t have just made caterpillar and butterflies separately. But I think he did it for two reasons: one—to bring delight to many people, especially children. And two—to give us a picture of life, death and new and beautiful life after resurrection. Butterflies should make us ask about the life to come. For it is only with Jesus that we can emerge from the caterpillar phase into the glories of the new heavens and new earth.