Atheists often challenge us with the widely quoted statistic that “95 to 99 percent of all creatures that have ever lived are now extinct.” Their argument is that if there were a wise God who created life, he would have done a better job. The skeptics are assuming that they know the purpose for which a wise God would have created those life-forms. Perhaps the extinct species had a purpose of preparing the Earth for humans, and they went extinct because they had served their purpose. But I am assuming that humans are the pinnacle and ultimate purpose of God’s creation. Atheists reject that idea. One of our skeptical followers recently posted a comment referring to “the virus called man,” as if humans are a blight on an otherwise good world.
Another possibility is that perhaps the statistic of extinct species is highly exaggerated. Since the life-forms that have gone extinct are no longer around, how do scientists determine how many species have gone extinct since life began? The number of fossils of extinct species we have actually found is estimated to be about 250,000. So we have direct evidence of a quarter of a million extinct species. According to National Geographic (May 2014), there are at least 1.9 million animal species today and at least 450,000 plant species. If it’s true that 95 percent of the animal species have gone extinct and there are 1.9 million living today, that means that over 36 million have gone extinct. If we have fossils of only 250,000 extinct species (plants and animals) how do we know that there were 36 million others for which we have no evidence? According to National Geographic (May 2014), Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, and his colleagues “reviewed data from fossil records and noted when species disappeared, then used statistical modeling to fill in holes in the record.” In other words, they are filling in the “holes” or “missing links” in the evolutionary record to determine how many other species must have existed that disappeared without a trace.
It is easy for humans to minimize the design that is needed for life to exist on Earth. How do you feed massive numbers of birds, especially in the spring when winter has taken away most of their food sources, and their food needs are maximized as they lay eggs and feed baby birds? In the past scientists have shrugged their shoulders and imagined that there are food sources we don’t recognize that fill this gap until the summer season generates sufficient seeds and insects to sustain the growing populations. Similar problems exist for many other animals like bats that depend on insects for their nutritional needs.
In the April 2017 issue of Scientific American (page 84), there is an interesting report about previously unknown migrations of insects. We have known about monarch butterflies for some time, but this study by British researchers shows that migrations of insects are massive. Over southern Britain alone there are 3.3 trillion insects migrating. That is an average of 3200 tons of bugs moving through the skies over Britain every year. The study also reports that similar patterns have been observed in Texas, India, and China.
The complexity of this migration is astounding. Insects don’t live long enough for one bug to complete the migration. Researchers found that in some cases six generations were involved to complete a migration. The insects do not just get randomly blown about. They travel in a well-programmed pattern taking advantage of wind direction and speed. The elevation at which they fly to get the strongest support for their journey is carefully chosen. For a number of reasons, spring migrations are different from fall migrations.
Much has been made of bacteria that live in extreme conditions. We have mentioned the forms that live in the geyser pools at Yellowstone National Park. Those bacteria use a chemical source to allow them to exist in high-temperature environments. They, in turn, provide the basis for other forms of life that use the Sun as their energy source. The British Broadcasting Corporation has had numerous features in which they have reported on other animals that function in extreme environments. Some of the examples that the BBC cites are:
The sperm whale feeds 2000 meters down in the ocean where the pressure “is the equivalent of carrying ten jumbo jets on your back.” The whales deflate their lungs to do this and then spend up to an hour using chemically-stored oxygen to supply their muscles while they are down there.
Polar bears spend seven months without eating or drinking and then give birth in an area where the temperatures can hit -60 Celsius and the winds can reach 160 km/hr.
The bar-headed geese that fly over the Himalayas at 10,000 feet by concentrating oxygen with their special lung design.
Imagine a creature that has no backbone, no ribs, in fact, no skeletal structure at all. It can weigh up to 200 pounds (90 kg), and its arms can be almost seven feet (2 m) long. It has three hearts, and the color of its blood is blue. Its limbs are covered with hundreds of tongues which have taste receptors, and its body is embedded with cells that sense light. Its eight arms are covered with suckers that can be moved independently and have tongues and taste receptors embedded in them. This “alien” creature is not as alien as you might think. It’s the octopus.
The octopus is the dominant member of a class of marine animals called cephalopods which number some 750 known living species. Octopuses have about 300 species, and they are far and away the most intelligent of the cephalopods. Trying to keep an octopus in an aquarium is almost impossible because they always find ways to escape. Since they have no skeletal structure, they can squeeze through the smallest crack. They can unscrew a jar lid, fit into a drain pipe, and camouflage their activity by releasing a cloud of ink. In an article on “Animal Intelligence” in the “News and Notes” section of our November/December 2016 printed publication, we told the story of “Inky” the octopus. Inky squeezed through a narrow gap at the top of his tank at the National Aquarium of New Zealand. After flopping to the floor, Inky scooted across the room to the opening of a drain pipe. He got into the pipe and dropped 164 feet (50 m) to where the pipe entered the sea, and there he escaped.
One of the most detailed discussions of living things is Karl von Frisch’s book Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Von Frisch spent 40 years studying how bees communicate to other bees information about pollen sources. He referred to the honeycomb as a dance floor and described the bee making a “waggle dance” which gave other bees information where to find nectar. The bee dance indicates the direction to this food source and an alteration of the shape of the dance indicates the distance to the source. If the food source was close, the bee uses a round dance instead of the waggle dance. Von Frisch’s study catalogs what the bee does, but it doesn’t tell you how the bee does it.
Barbara Shipman is a mathematician with an interest in bees. There is a mathematical concept known as “manifolds.” Manifolds can have two dimensions, but they can have an infinite number of dimensions. One type of manifold called the “flag manifold” has six dimensions. As Shipman worked with flag manifolds, she saw patterns that were similar to the patterns of the waggle dance of the bees. Physicists use flag manifolds in dealing with subatomic particles called quarks which are the building blocks of protons and neutrons. Shipman believes that bees are sensitive to quarks and the sensitivity appears to be a reaction to a quantum field acting on the membranes of selected cells in the bees. It has been demonstrated that bees are sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field and the polarization of sunlight. Shipman is seeking to add the dimension of quantum fields to the bee’s repertoire of tools for location and communication.
Are you carrying around some vestigial conviction that God is good, or that Nature loves you? We guarantee that our newest nominee, the Guinea Worm, will fix that in one easy lesson. –From an atheist website.
Many atheist sites promoted the Guinea worm as the ultimate example of how one cannot believe in God because of terrible things that exist in the creation. It also shows how far atheists will go, and how much sarcasm and derision fills most atheist sites. A frequently quoted phrase is this one: “God’s plan [for the Guinea worm] is … carefully engineered pain machines, self-sustaining, spreading ever wider and deeper through the world … the worm is the very incarnation of god’s plan.”
A careful study of this situation is useful not only to answer the challenges of atheists but to better understand the design issue and how God functions in the world. The Guinea worm is a creature that is unquestionably a real horror story. This animal begins with Guinea worm larvae in ponds or rivers being eaten by small lobster-like water fleas. The embryos mature inside the water fleas. When humans drink the water, the water fleas with the larvae get into the human stomach where the fleas are digested, but the Guinea worm is not. They will find their way to the small intestine where they burrow through the wall and pass into the body cavity. During the next 10 to 14 months, the female worm will grow to as much as 31 inches (80 cm) long and as big around as cooked spaghetti. It will migrate to the lower limbs of the human. The worm will chew its way to the surface of the skin where it will emerge from a blister which causes a painful burning sensation. The only way to get relief is to put the foot or leg into water. When this is done, the female will release a milky white liquid with millions of larvae into the water contaminating the water supply. Once the worm emerges through the skin, you can pull it out, but you can only move it a few centimeters each day. If you pull too fast and break the worm, it will cause massive infection in the human body. It can take weeks to pull a worm from a person’s body. A person who has this parasite is likely to have many worms in his body and can be totally incapacitated and in severe pain. A person does not develop immunity and can be infected multiple times.
Our purpose is not to “gross you out” as my high school kids liked to say, but rather to look at the question of why such horrific creatures exist and how issues like this relate to the concept of a loving and compassionate God. Many other examples could be given from mosquitoes to the AIDS virus, and the points we want to make here apply to all of them.
It is important to understand that many things that exist in the world were not created by God, but they are a consequence of something else. As a simple example, God did not create war, but because God created humans with free will, there is war. Similar statements would apply to pornography, sexual abuse, and any number of other social issues. In the biological arena, there are many things that exist because good things have been mismanaged, misused, or are a product of a human-corrupted environment. Humans have many times caused nature to function in a way it was not designed to function. There are many examples of animal behavior that turn out to be aberrant, caused by the duress of captivity or other human activity and not by the normal function of the organism. In other cases, natural processes have caused changes with negative consequences. Seventy-five percent of all mosquitoes are pollinating insects that feed on nectar and plant juices and do not depend upon blood to survive. However, in many species, the mouthparts of the females have adapted to pierce the skin of humans or animals. Many virus mutations have caused changes in what was a positive organism and turned it into a negative one. Genetic studies of the Guinea worm have shown it is related to other worms which have positive roles in the environment. It appears that this terrible parasite is a mutant. Our point is that assuming that the Guinea worm is something God created to torture humans is an assumption that is due to the vested interests of those making the claim, not what the evidence shows.
Guinea worm infections are due to misuse of the environment. The worm is totally transmitted by humans drinking from contaminated water. Filtering water to remove the water fleas would stop the disease. Drinking from underground water sources would prevent it. The water sources given to the Israelites in the Old Testament would never have allowed the Guinea worm to exist. Not allowing humans to enter water supplies would stop the disease. For the most part, the disease has occurred where war has forced people to extreme situations and conditions.
God gave humans instructions on how to live. God told the first humans to have dominion over the Earth and all that is on it, and to “take care of the garden, to dress it and keep it.” Mismanagement of the natural world has caused massive hardship for humans, but to attribute this to a design or plan of God is to simply be dishonest. Christian organizations have led the battle against the Guinea worm. Atheist complaints against agents like the Guinea worm would be much more convincing if atheists were instrumental in helping to alleviate the suffering. The Carter Center founded by former President Jimmy Carter began attacking the problem in 1986 when there were almost a million cases. Since then the number of cases has decreased each year until there were only 25 in 2016. Many Christian organizations have worked to supply clean drinking water to people in impoverished and war-torn nations.
It’s always interesting to see how the media distorts scientific material to make it more sensational. The front page of USA Today for March 2, 2017, carried a headline saying: “3.8 Billion-year-old Bacteria May Be Earth’s Oldest Fossils.” The article goes on to state as fact: “The bacteria lived near hydrothermal vents…” There are so many issues here that it would take several pages to point them all out, but the interesting thing is the actual discovery. Stromatolites are layered structures that may be produced by algae or bacteria, and some are ancient deposits, although others are still being produced today. I have seen these formations in the Gunflint Chert in Minnesota near a cabin owned by my brother. Those formations are circular and contain a mineral called hematite, an iron mineral that may have been a part of the biology of microorganisms.
This new find is an iron carbonate rosette that is circular and contains hematite. There is some evidence that it was formed near an undersea thermal vent. Since we see life around sea-vents today, it might be assumed the formation is of biological origin. There are chemical, non-biological processes that can produce similar structures. The problem with this kind of media headline is that it gives a false impression of how science works and what has actually been found. It may be that these structures were biologically formed, and they may be 3.8 billion years old. The Bible doesn’t date or describe bacteria and how God formed the ecosystem that would support humans on planet Earth. This same process may even be going on elsewhere in the universe, but it will take exhaustive research to verify or deny whether this is ancient life.
There was a time when human beings were defined as those individuals who fashion and use tools. When researchers showed that chimps could fashion sticks to pull ants out of their anthills, paleontologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey was quoted as saying, “We are either going to have to change our definition of ‘human’ or invite the chimps to send a representative to the United Nations.”
Recently it has been shown that Orangutans, after watching humans use canoes, borrowed the canoes to forage for aquatic plants using the same techniques the humans had used. Octopuses have been seen carrying coconut shells around with them and then using the shells as a shelter. Crows have been seen fashioning sticks to use as levers to pry the lids off of bottles. Several kinds of monkeys have been seen to use conchoidally shaped chert or flint as a cutting tool. I have a raccoon that pulls my bird feeder up hand over hand, hooks it on a nail that is sticking out of the support my feeder hangs on and proceeds to empty the feeder.
Dr. Robert Shumaker of the Indianapolis Zoo has an interesting article about tool use by animals in the “Explore” section of National Geographic for March 2017. He gives 22 different animal groups all of which use tools in one way or another. Some animals, like the chimps, can imitate tool use. We all know that dogs can learn. At least some animals can think, but some clearly others cannot learn or think. Archerfish, capture insects by shooting streams of water from their mouths to knock insects off of plants near the water. They compensate for refraction, and they do this even if they have never been around another archerfish. It is clearly built into their DNA and is not learned or thought out.
There is a great story circulating about a man named Jesse Newton who lives in Arkansas and has a dog. He also has a robotic floor-cleaner called a Roomba. The Roomba is a device you program to run while you are in bed, and it goes all around the rooms you designate sweeping up any dirt and debris on the floor. Last fall Mr. Newton had his robot programmed to clean his house starting at 1:30 AM. The Roomba was doing fine until it hit a pile of dog poop that was picked up by the brushes and wheels of the device. The robot then spread the feces all through the house, on the carpets, the floors, the chair legs, the baseboards, and the kids’ toy box. Mr. Newton tells the whole hilarious story of how he discovered the mess at 3:00 AM and how he spent the next three hours trying to clean it up. He said the Roomba left the house “looking like a Jackson Pollock poop painting.” The story went viral on Facebook and was picked up by many news agencies, newspapers, and their websites, including USA Today and The Guardian. You can Google it to get the whole story.
That story reminded me of articles we have published in the past dealing with the process of cleaning up the waste that accumulates in nature. There are many living things that exist solely on the wastes of animals and plants. A classic example is the dung beetle, which cuts up chunks of “cow pies” or “elephant pies” into small balls and rolls them to their homes underground. Termites process dead trees into fine confetti which helps aerate the soil. Flies produce maggots which process large carrion in such a way that it is returned to the ecosystem in the form of chemicals. Certain kinds of fish clean up the bottom of rivers and lakes. While zebra mussels are a hazard to water-handling equipment, they filter and clean the water of their environment.