Can the Coleopterists Help?

Can the Coleopterists Help?

At a student party during my graduate school days, I had a fascinating discussion with a coleopterist. He did not use that label to describe himself in our conversation; he simply identified himself as a doctoral student in the field of entomology. But recently I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that informed me that a coleopterist is an entomologist who is devoted specifically to the study of beetles. And the world of beetles is what we talked about at that party.

The focus of this student’s doctoral research, he told me, was the beetle community that lived in a specific region of the Canadian Rockies. Indeed, he was interested only in the beetles that occupied the eastern and western slopes of one particular mountain. By every physical characteristic he could identify, he said, the eastern slope beetles were indistinguishable from the western slope habitants. There was only one problem: no matter what he and his research colleagues did, they could not get an eastern slope beetle to mate with one from the western slope. In other cases, groups of beetles with the same physical characteristics mated freely, even if they came from communities that resided at a considerable distance from each other. But these two beetle groups lived only a few miles apart—yet no sexual attraction. It was hard to avoid a social explanation, he said; it looked for all the world like the territorial difference had generated some sort of mutual hostility. But, he quickly added, the entomologists who study beetles—those folks that I now know go by the label coleopterists—were not very attracted to social explanations when it comes to beetles.

That conversation took place several decades ago. From time to time I have wondered whether he solved the puzzle of why the two groups of beetle kinfolk rejected each other. My guess is that some coleopterist has come up with a convincing explanation by now.

If the mystery has been resolved, I doubt very much that the answer came in the form of a social-psychological explanation. If so, though, I wonder whether it casts any light on parallel kinds of issues that occur in the human community.

I grew up in an extended family that was divided church-wise between two Dutch Reformed denominations. My grandmother switched from one to the other when she married my grandfather. In making the switch, she experienced no change in her theology or pattern of worship. But her birth family saw her as having crossed a wide divide—and the tensions never completely disappeared. To be sure, there were some small differences between the two groups over some issues. But the way in which those issues were taken to be matters of deep division would puzzle an outsider, even someone fairly familiar with Reformed thought and practice.

In my ecclesiastical travels I have seen similar patterns in other theological-denominational settings: Parents who come close to disowning their daughter because she left their Wisconsin-Synod Lutheran denomination to marry a husband from the Missouri-Synod Lutherans. Baptists who see another group of Baptists as their worst enemies. Wesleyan versus Wesleyan, Orthodox versus Orthodox, Mennonite versus Mennonite.

The Freudians have a label for this kind of thing: “the narcissism of minor differences”—where two individuals or groups are so close to each other that what are in reality rather small differences between them become very large in their imaginations. But, of course, the label doesn’t really explain anything. It is just another way of pointing to a puzzling pattern.

Maybe it is time for a dialogue on the subject between theologians and coleopterists!


  1. I have a question: when does our doctrine matter? Recently our best couple friends converted to Catholicism. We were fine until we witnessed the reception mass in Latin, the exorcism, the complicated ceremony that had the priest getting lost in his missal as he turned from page to page, section to section. We were fine until I was told that I wasn’t able to take communion because I didn’t believe in the presence. We came away reexamining our protestant roots and questioning ecumenism. Of course, I recognize that many, many wonderful Christians participate in their faith in the Catholic church, but witnessing their ceremonies I felt ill at ease with blanket ecumenism.

    Comment by Diane Smith — June 8, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

  2. I came to know Christ on one of those “Eastern Slopes” of Dispensationalism fifty years ago. What freedom there is in giving up those “minor differences” only to embrass brothers and sisters I never knew I had. Thank you for pointing the way of each conversation being of story value. bless you, Dr. Mouw.

    Comment by Susan Rigby — June 9, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  3. I’ve been mulling a little more. . . let me pose my question this way. Our postmodern culture challenges us to avoid truth claims because they are totalizing. Is it possible that our current ecumenical bent isn’t the church’s internal response to postmodernism?

    Comment by Diane Smith — June 10, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

  4. Brilliant! I completely agree!

    Comment by elizabeth — June 17, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  5. Shalom Dr. Mouw,

    I really enjoyed your illustration about coleopterists. My vocabulary has certainly been entomologically enhanced.

    Indeed, it is very disheartening how people associated with a mutation of the same umbrella denominational body can become engaged in disagreements or even disown a member of the family due to a slight variation on a sectarian theme. What is even more disheartening is when members from the very conservative Christian family exhibit cognitive dissonances when, God forbid, another member experiences her calling when preaching a sermon telling others about God in the local church. I am in agreement that dialogues, whether they be on the topic of race, color, creed, denomination, ethnicity, sex, or liberation theology, are the answer to mutual understanding, healing, and a peaceful climate.

    Comment by NameRequired — June 21, 2009 @ 1:35 am

  6. On the one hand, this shows how subtle cleavages between bees (and humans) can be. Multiculturalism introduces very complex relationships between cultures, which can both be a blessing and a possible explosive. I am a bit pessimistic about our human nature, so I am also pessimistic about multicultural societies and attempts to bridge the (real of imagined) differences.

    Awareness about the relative unimportance of perceived differences do help to create a more peaceful world. Although some might argue that a peaceful world is a world where willpower will be the first victim, and that nature has some reason to create such a division between the bees (and humans). I don’t know. But the differences between some Christian denominations mentioned by Dr. Mouw is ridiculous, that is for sure.

    Comment by Evert Mouw — June 26, 2009 @ 5:59 am

  7. Dr. Mouw,

    Coleopterist I am not, but as a student of entomology I would like to contribute a hypothesis to the illustrating problem in hand. The key word is ‘physically identical’. Indeed beetle mating specificity is driven partially by physical lock-and-key mechanism. But the other part of the picture is the chemical ecology of the beetles, especially the pheromone profiles of each beetle group. Sex pheromone plays a huge role in attraction and acceptance of mates in insect world. This year actually marked half a century of pheromone research in animal kingdom, much of which is richly rooted in entomology.

    My hypothesis on your beetle problem is that the otherwise-identical beetle groups were on the verge of splitting into two exclusively mating populations based on the usage of different chemical compounds as their sex pheromone.

    It is a bit lame and a much less exciting explanation, I know. Yet I think it is worth pondering (and, if possible, experimenting) upon.

    Comment by Buyung Hadi — June 29, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  8. Sorry but my ancient dictionary does not cover coleopterist. I don’t even know what it means.

    I have been through several denominations over the years ( including Catholics) and all seem to profess to preach the word of God. There the unity ceases to stop. It is sad that different denominations seem to be at war with each other over doctorine.

    No wonder the churches are loosing followers en mass and the non believers are looking on believers as fanatical fools at odds with each other. Why should they become believers?

    I would think the Body of Christ should be united as one body with the ultimate goal of leading others to Christ despite the doctorines of each denomination. Until the churches can unite, I am afraid the organized churches will loose and fail in their divine task much to the displeasure of the Lord.

    Comment by Larry Hughes — July 5, 2009 @ 8:48 pm