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.
Marilyn vos Savant has a column in Parade magazine. In the February 5, 2017, issue (page 8) the above was the title of her column, taken from a reader. We get this same question in one form or another on a fairly regular basis, and it is usually from an adult, not a child. The view of many people seems to be that the gasoline that drives our cars and all of our fossil fuels came from the bodies of dinosaurs that were smushed into crude oil. The fact that the Sinclair Oil Company had a green brontosaurus as their mascot for a long time probably contributed to this misunderstanding. The real answer has a lot to do with our view of how God has provided for advanced human civilization. Reflect on this issue for a moment, and ask yourself what you would answer when a young person asks you where did crude oil come from? In a Bible class context the question might be, “How did God make crude oil?”
The answer to this question comes from our view of how God does things. Do we view God as a magician who zaps things into existence? Did God just zap petroleum products deep underground so that we could find them and use them to drive the industrial age and our infatuation with gasoline-powered cars? We have tried to suggest over the years that God has used natural processes for most of what He has done. In Genesis 1, the word for “create” indicating a process that only God can do is only used three times–verses 1, 21, and 27. These are all major items–space/time in verse 1, life in verse 21, and the human soul in verse 27. All of the other verses in Genesis 1 use a word for “make” or “formed” which implies a natural process. The bottom line is that most of what Genesis 1 describes were things formed by natural processes, not miraculous acts of God. In Genesis 2:3 both words are referred to as methods that God had used: “…he had rested from all his work which God (elohim) created (bara) and made (asah).” (Hebrew words in parentheses.)
So where did the gasoline for your car come from? The answer is that it came from an ecology that God created and shaped to produce it. That ecology was warm, had a special chemical balance, and was full of an animal called foraminifera–a single-celled organism that formed a drop of crude oil in its body during its life processes. When the organism died, the skeletal remains formed diatomaceous earth and the drop of oil from its body united with hundreds of other drops to make a pool of crude oil. The agents that served as the gardeners to provide nutrients, prune, spread seeds, and generally control the ecology were the dinosaurs. Because God used this method, scientists can locate oil deposits literally miles below the earth’s surface. If God had formed the petroleum with a magic trick, humans would not be able to locate these resources. Because we know how the oil was formed, we know where to find it.
(Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin and has been proclaimed by many organizations as “Darwin Day.” This post by John Clayton is a condensed version of an article in the printed DOES GOD EXIST? Journal for May/June 2013.)
The Galapagos Islands are located some 600 miles west of Ecuador. They were made famous by the studies and work of Charles Darwin who visited the islands in 1835 at the age of 26. His studies led him to some understandings which violated the religious traditions of his day. They also were seized upon by some philosophers to justify a belief system that rejected God and depended on naturalism as the faith upon which they lived their lives.
The reason I have always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands is that evolution has been used as a club by many skeptics and atheists against belief in God and acceptance of the Bible as His word. In our ministry, we have maintained that science and faith are friends and not enemies and that science supports the biblical record. We have also maintained that since the same God who created all living things also gave us the biblical record, no scientific fact can conflict with what the Bible says. If there is a conflict, I believe it is because we have bad science or bad theology or both.
Darwin was studying the question of how animals came to be as we see them today. There are 13 species of finches scattered throughout the 13 main islands, six small islands, and 42 islets, where detailed studies of the finches have been conducted. In addition to the finches, there are various iguana species that cannot interbreed. The Galapagos land iguanas are infertile with the Galapagos marine iguanas. The marine iguanas feed on algae on the floor of the ocean and have a gland in their respiratory system that collects excess salt in their bodies and “sneezes” it away. Even the huge Galapagos tortoises, which can weigh over 500 pounds, are different on each island and infertile with the tortoises on other islands. Today our studies of DNA and the genomes of living things have shown how close these animals are to each other genetically. The incredible wisdom built into their DNA allows them to adapt and become unique for a particular environment. The research being done at the Charles Darwin Research Center is helping us to understand how to control and protect all forms of life on this planet.
In Darwin’s day, the claim of most theologians would have been that God created each tortoise separately, and placed each one on its island and that they were unchanged to this day. What Darwin maintained was that there was a design system built into the animals which allowed them to change to fit the physical conditions in which they found themselves. Since genetics was not a functional science at that time, Darwin had no idea what the design feature was that allowed this natural change, but he maintained it was the explanation for the finches and iguanas and tortoises.
What was going on theologically in Darwin’s day is essentially what is going on today. People had decided that the Bible was too radical to be believed. Not only did people not want to follow the Bible’s teachings, but they considered it to be primitive ignorance to suggest that Genesis was true. We now know that the genome of the iguanas contains enough stored information to allow the iguanas to live in a marine or land environment. The design of the genome is a fantastic demonstration of God’s wisdom and design allowing the finches to live in every ecological niche the Galapagos has to offer. Even the tortoises have subtle physical characteristics that enable them to reproduce and live in particular habitats.
What impressed me about the work going on in the research stations we visited was that it was good science and not speculative theories and philosophies. Researchers were not looking for a link between the finches and the iguanas. They were concerned with understanding how the natural history of the Galapagos had shaped and was being shaped by the forms of life that exist there. In talking with researchers, I encountered no one who felt there was a conflict between what they were doing and faith in God and the Bible. We had a guide assigned to our boat by the governmental agencies. He was very knowledgeable and expressed some wonderment that anyone would even suggest that somehow this area that he knew so well would be contributing to doubts about God and the Bible.
Over the years we have presented data on some amazing migrations. We have had several discussions about the Arctic tern and how it makes its incredible 12,000-mile journey. Research has shown that the Arctic tern uses multiple cues including magnetism, sight, smell, and even sound. We have also talked about whales, salmon, and sea turtles and the way they benefit multiple ecosystems by their migrations. Now we have a new migration that has just been discovered and is equivalent to 20,000 flying reindeer. It’s migrating insects.
According to the study, 2-5 million migrating insects fly over the United Kingdom each year. The study is reported in the December 23, 2016, issue of Science by a team headed by Jason Chapman. Tracking these arthropods involves the use of special radar designed to detect insects. The team estimates that the total biomass of these arthropods is 3200 tons which is 7.7 times more than the biomass of the songbirds in the same area. These are tiny creatures with some of them weighing less than 10 milligrams.
Chapman notes that these arthropods are not just accidentally caught up in the wind. Some of them climb to the top of a plant to launch their flight. Some stand on tiptoe and put out silk until the wind catches them and carries them away. The animals only launch when the wind is to the north from May to June, and in August and September, they launch when the wind blows to the south. Chapman concludes “these arthropods must have some kind of built-in compass plus a preferred direction and the genetics that change that preference as they or their offspring make the return migration.“