Of Caterpillars And Philosophy

The life cycles of butterflies and moths really are an example of how utterly bizarre life can be.

As a child, I was always outdoors playing in the woods and fields and keenly interested in wildlife. I had an especial interest in butterflies for a long while, and I’m quite confident that as a ten year old I could have named every single British species, and told you a reasonable amount about their life cycles. I knew, for example, that every butterfly or moth started out as an egg, hatched into a caterpillar which ate like there was no tomorrow, and then turned into a chrysalis.

And as that child, I assumed that inside this chrysalis the caterpillar just grew a pair of wings, lengthened its legs, and made a couple of other adjustments too minor for me to worry about and then hatched out into whatever butterfly or moth it happened to be.

It is not quite like that, of course.

When it turns into that chrysalis, the caterpillar essentially ingests itself, so that its insides turn into a kind of organic soup (which makes me think of the so-called ‘Primeval Soup’ of amino acids out of which life supposedly first arose on Earth about two billion years ago, which is actually not a bad analogy). From this soup a completely new creature forms.

So, let me now introduce you all to Trevor.


Trevor has been living in our back garden for the last few weeks. He is the caterpillar stage of an Elephant Hawk Moth (probably – some of the hawk moth caterpillars not only resemble each other fairly closely, but may also have variations within the species). In that time he has been doing his best to eat a small tree.

You’ll excuse him if he doesn’t say hello, I’m sure, as he is much too busy eating at the moment. It’s what he does. It’s pretty well all he does.

Eventually, he will reach a stage when he stops eating, finds a handy spot to attach himself, and then turn into a chrysalis (or pupa) and will eventually hatch out into a moth – an Elephant hawk Moth, if I’ve identified him correctly, although I’m sure he won’t care in the slightest what I think.

You may be familiar with the Zen koan (essential a riddle that cannot be solved by pure logic) that asks ‘if you light one candle from the flame of another candle, is the new flame the same as the old one, or an entirely new one?’

Which brings me, rather neatly if I might say so, to today’s riddle. Bearing in mind all of the above, is the newly hatched butterfly or moth the same creature as the caterpillar that preceded it, or a new being entirely?

I think we should be told.

50 thoughts on “Of Caterpillars And Philosophy

  1. Oh, Trevor is lovely! What a find!
    I too had the Observers Butterfly and Moth identification book as a child. (Sadly I no longer have childhood possessions such as that cherished book that I won in a competition).
    I collected all manner of insects and their larvae as a youngster. My little furry caterpillar (a Tiger Moth) was a pet that I fed and watered until it turned into a chrysalis. I should (and now would) let it turn fully into its adult form, but at the time, age 10, I could not find any information about how it transformed… Not in the library, not in encyclopedia Britannica, nor in my beloved identification guide. So in the interests of scientific research, my pet was sacrificed mid-winter, to see what was going on. I expected to see a half formed butterfly, but was met with the milky liquid of the stuff of life… The soup that we are all reduced to when the physical cell structure breaks down. While I wept for my pet (at the harm I had done), I had a new respect for how life forms, what it means, and how all things are related. Even at the tender age of 10, I questioned religion, the concept of ‘creation’ and the knowledge that was or wasn’t the truth. I remember my parents getting very angry with me when I tried to explain the fluidity of plate tectonics floating on the earth’s mantel. I did not know that the, the theory was new and not believed by most scientists at that time. I was too young to know better. I devoured new theories then, and still do.

    We know so little about life… What a shame that we are destroying it at a rate far higher than learning what it is that we are destroying. I am sad for my blunt experiment on my pet caterpillar… Oh that I had found that knowledge through another means.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Trevor is lovely, yes. We are keeping a keen watch on him and my wife has now declared she will act as his agent if I’m bringing him to the World’s attention – exploiting him, she says! I fear we may have to draw up a contract…

      But I’m sure I did far worse as a child. I used to collect butterflies and, yes, kill them and stick them in a case with pins. I shudder with horror at that now, but I suppose it was what we all did. And perhaps it played its part in giving me a profound respect for the sanctity of life as i grew older – I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown the sense of shame I developed about that. And perhaps that’s a valuable lesson. And it was only a few years later that I first decided I wanted to become vegetarian.

      I also lectured my family on plate tectonics – geology was the science that took my interest as a teenager – but I don’t remember my Mum getting cross about it, although she was a very devout Christian. perhaps because it didn’t bother my Dad, who wasn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Trevor is pretty cool-looking, in his own way, and I looked up what he’ll look like, in his next incarnation, and that’s a pretty dazzling moth. I hadn’t realized what they were getting up to, inside the cocoon, but soup making was nowhere on my list!

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  3. Trevor is lovely just as he is, but I’m sure he will be a gorgeous butterfly as well! A pair of caterpillars ate a number of leaves from one of my sunflowers this year … I chatted with them every morn when I watered the flowers, but then they were gone. I hope they are happy, wherever they are.

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  4. So interesting. I remember learning it in school all about caterpillars and butterflies but thought just like you. Never knew it eats itself up. Rather creepy and magical. Thank you for sharing this. Trevor is cool ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When we get down to the nitty gritty, there is nothing all that consistent about our self, and probably even more so with insects. Now for the sake of conceptualizing the world about us, so that we might communicate and get along with others, it is necessary to make distinctions. So as your biology teacher, if you bring me a caterpillar when we are to examine a butterfly, you’re going to get a zero on that part of the test. Nevertheless the notion of a koan seems to be relevant here, mainly because it is difficult to know exactly when one thing becomes another. Take for instance a seed that slowly becomes a shoot. Imagine taking a picture of its growth every hour for several days. You will not find the frame when one stage suddenly merges into another. In a way nothing really is what it appears to be; i.e. everything is in flux. Does that answer your question?

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    1. It is certainly an answer, Jason, as I don’t think there can be a definitive answer to this particular koan. Of course Buddhists, who came up with the concept of the koan, would agree one hundred percent that everything is in flux; that nothing is permanent.
      Now, if I was your student and you asked me to bring in a butterfly and I brought a caterpillar, in answer to your censure I might reply that a) I wanted to ensure that when the time came to examine the butterfly, I had done my best to ensure it would be fresh and new and hadn’t died of butterfly old age, and b) caterpillars are a lot easier to catch, anyway.

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  6. The answer surely is, “It’s the same, but different.” Heraclitus pegged it: no one steps in the same river twice; the river’s never the same, the person’s never the same, and the interaction’s never the same. And yet we say, “I stepped in that river twice today.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yet the person stepping into that river is presumably sentient, and presumably there is a continuity of sentience between the first and second visits to the river that implies a continuity of existence (and perception) in that being (if that being really exists, of course!). Just muddying the waters there…

      Liked by 1 person

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