One of the significant points of contention between those who believe in God and those who don’t is the concept of what makes us human. The biblical position is that humans are that form of life created in the image of God. Our spiritual makeup allows us to create art and music, worship a supreme being, feel guilt, be sympathetic, and have a form of love that is self-sacrificing and has nothing to do with survival. The atheist response to this is that our intelligence and brain structure accounts for these characteristics. The atheist insists that they are totally a product of our evolution.
What does the evidence show? That is a complicated question, and one we frequently address as science makes new discoveries. National Wildlife magazine (June/July 2020) published an interesting article about crows and research by John Marzluff at the University of Washington. For the past ten years, researchers at the university have been putting on caveman masks and catching and tagging crows. The crows have learned that the caveman face means trouble, and they mob and dive-bomb the researchers. When baby crows learn to fly, they immediately do the same, even though they do not have personal experience with being caught and tagged.
Crows are incredible creatures. Crows will fashion twigs into hooks to reach food in a hollow tree or limb. Other crows will drop nuts on a hard pavement to crack them open. Crows have learned to pay attention to what a farmer has in his hands. They will fly away from a farmer with a gun, but not when the same farmer holds a rake. Crows will help raise younger siblings, and that cooperation causes them to flock together and seemingly communicate with each other.
The point is that intelligence is not a measure of human-ness. The things that make humans different than crows is not our brain. Mentally challenged humans do the things that make us human. Many animals with high intelligence do not engage in those things. What makes us human is being created in the image of God. Having that image makes humans unique and special, and gives us value and purpose in our existence. Human life is sacred, and that hasn’t changed despite our abuse of one another.
Many years ago, while working in a teen camp in Alaska, I heard a skeptical teenager disparage God’s existence by saying that if God existed, He certainly wouldn’t have made mosquitoes. I have heard similar comments about ticks, hornets, lice, locusts, spiders, and stink bugs. I suspect we have all had times when we were unhappy with annoying bugs, yet when you examine the role of insects, you realize they are critical to our own existence. The well-known entomologist E. O. Wilson said, “If human beings disappeared tomorrow, the world would go on with little change, but if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt the human species could last more than a few months.” Why do we need insects?
Insects pollinate plants, aerate and fertilize the soil, decompose dung, and the bodies of things that have died. They control pests contributing 70 billion dollars every year to our national economy. Ninety-six percent of land-dwelling birds feed their young on insects, consuming approximately 400 to 500 million tons of insects. Most creatures in and around lakes and streams feed on insects, including fish and bears.
Why do we need insects? Humans are already seeing the cost of eradicating them. There are 68 species of bumblebees and roughly a fourth of those are in danger of becoming extinct. In Europe, the data shows a 76% drop in insects, including bees, beetles, lacewings, and katydids. The loss of pollinating insects has sharply affected the growing of many cash crops, and scientists are studying the effects of insecticide use.
Before we castigate God for what He has created, we need to be sure we have all the facts. We should learn what each creature does and how it contributes to our own well being. I dislike mosquitoes as much as the next person, but a majority of mosquitoes are pollinating insects. I am reactive to a bee sting, but bees contribute to much of what I eat. From our earliest existence, God has challenged us to take care of what He created. (See Genesis 2:15.) That includes caring for and protecting the agents that allow Earth to be hospitable to our existence.
If you ever found your car looking like the one in the picture, you know how frustrating it can be. Maybe you should have parked in a different spot. Seriously, bird droppings and waste disposal by all animals present many design challenges.
One of the major issues for all living things is how to dispose of waste. Left inside the body, waste products can be toxic. Surviving the toxic effect can be a significant challenge for a hibernating bear. For birds, it becomes complicated because they must remain lightweight to fly. They cannot have a waste removal system that is heavy or dense. That means there is no bladder and no elaborate intestinal tract in birds.
God has designed a system of waste removal in birds that we are all aware of, but may have never considered carefully. The next time you see bird droppings on your car or the sidewalk, take a close look. You will see that there is a dark spot surrounded by white material. The dark spot is fecal matter, and the white stuff is urine. The urine washes away quickly in the first rain, and the fecal matter remains. Waste removal systems frequently benefit other forms of life, and that dark spot may contain seeds that contribute to the spreading of plant life.
Some birds have unique disposal systems such as owls, which make pellets out of solid material they eat, including bones. The birds that decorate your car are specially adapted to flight. The design of their disposal system allows them to be rulers of the sky. Birders are probably familiar with a periodical put out by a humorous writer who called himself Dick E. Bird. Years ago, he wrote this poem to explain how birds defecate:
“Birds, ya know, don’t got no bladder, So wherever they is, it just don’t matter. On the deck or on the sills, The spirit moves, you hear a trill. Then they fly, just like a thief, That is how they spell relief.”
God intelligently designs every living system, and waste disposal systems are no exception. Bird droppings and waste disposal from animals also require clean-up after the fact, and God has that covered too, as we have discussed before.
One of the wonders of life on planet Earth is the influence of sunlight. As winter fades away and summer approaches, we see all kinds of changes in life. As scientific research continues into the wonders of the animal and plant kingdoms, we see more carefully designed biological systems. Here are some examples of how sunlight affects life cycles:
COCCOLITHOPHORES: These are tiny phytoplankton plants that live in the ocean. As the season changes and the Sun warms the waters, those organisms increase their rate of reproduction. They would smother themselves with overcrowding except for the fact that they give off dimethyl sulfide. That chemical rises into the atmosphere and oxidizes into solid sulfate particles. For raindrops to form, there must be moisture, cool temperatures, and condensation nuclei. The solid sulfate particles provide the condensation nuclei, and the rising air cools the moisture from the sea resulting in clouds. The clouds block the sunlight, thus cooling the sea and slowing down the reproduction rate of the coccolithophores and avoiding a massive die-off. This phytoplankton literally manipulates the weather to ensure its own survival.
SALMON. These fish know when to return to the waters of their birth to spawn. Built into their bodies is a pineal gland that stimulates the pituitary gland, triggering an urge to spawn. Navigation tools designed into the salmon allow them to find the place of their origin where they spawn and die.
BEAN APHIDS AND OTHER ANIMALS. Bean aphids give birth when the length of the day reaches 14 hours and 55 minutes, assuring that the offspring will have warmth. Similar triggers by sunlight affects life cycles, allowing muskox to shed their insular undercoat, mallard ducks to shed their winter down, and snowshoe hares to change their color from white to brown before all the snow melts.
FROM FRUITFLIES TO HUMANS. Fruitflies shed their pupal husk an hour before dawn even when kept in the dark. Even when kept in total darkness, hummingbirds slip into torpor at dusk, allowing them to conserve energy. A poppy folds its petals at dusk, even in a dark box. Both the hummingbird and the poppy will resume operations at dawn, even in the darkness. Scientists are still researching what triggers these changes even without sunlight. Medical researchers are also studying how humans respond to a lack of sunlight, causing seasonal affective disorders (SAD).
Studying the incredible ways in which sunlight affects life cycles on Earth is a great way to grow in appreciation for the creation process. We marvel at the careful design built into all living things. David looked at himself and his world and remarked, “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are your works…” (Psalms 139:14).
The natural world is full of examples of two species living together in a way that each benefits the other. This mutualistic relationship is known as symbiosis. In some cases, the species are totally dependent on the relationship for their survival. In many plant/animal relationships, the animal depends on a plant for food, and the plant depends on the animal for pollination or the spreading of seeds. We see evidence for design in symbiosis.
One of the most interesting symbiotic relationships is between ants and butterflies. Scientists refer to the caterpillar in this relationship as being myrmecophilous, which means “ant-loving.” Dr. Philip Devries has written several articles in scientific journals about the caterpillars of certain butterfly species and their symbiosis with ants. The caterpillars feed on the nectar of croton trees, but they have a mortal enemy in the form of wasps. The wasp will find a caterpillar, kill it by stinging and then eat it. If ants are present, they will drive off the wasp and protect the caterpillar. Devries has covered some croton trees with ants, and they will have many caterpillars, but trees without ants will have very few caterpillars.
So the ants benefit the caterpillars, but what do the ants gain from this relationship? The caterpillars have organs on their posterior which extrude a clear liquid containing amino acids but virtually no sugar. The croton tree has a secretion that is 33% sugar but has very little nutritional value. The ants get vital nutrition from the caterpillar even though what they get is not sweet.
The caterpillar has other ways of attracting ants, including an organ on its back that secretes an ant pheromone that chemically attracts them. The caterpillar also has an organ that attracts ants by sending sound vibrations through the wood of the tree. Because of this feature, Dr. Devries coined the term “singing caterpillars.”
One of the great challenges to evolutionists is explaining how such a complex system of symbiosis happened by chance mutations. The more we study such relationships, the more different systems of design we see in the natural world. The more relationships we see, the more difficult it is not to recognize evidence for design in symbiosis. It speaks to us about God’s wisdom and design that allows the biological world to exist.
There are many chemical wonders in our world, but few are as important and complex as the chemistry of nitrogen. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our atmosphere. It combines with oxygen to form nitrates and with hydrogen to produce ammonia, both of which are essential for growing our food. Nitrogen fixation, which is how nitrogen gets from what we breathe to what we eat, is an amazing demonstration of design.
First, let us review a little high school chemistry. The atoms of all elements have electrons which give them their properties for forming compounds. The electrons are arranged in pairs with their magnetic poles designed so that in a stable arrangement, one electron’s north pole is matched with its neighboring electron’s south pole. The electrons have various orbitals with different energy levels. The atom is stable and chemically inert if an orbital is filled with all the paired electrons it can hold. For example, neon has 10 electrons. The first two orbitals each have two paired electrons, and the last orbital has six electrons in three pairs. This pairing of electrons makes neon an inert gas which does not combine chemically with other elements.
Nitrogen has an uneven number of seven electrons. So how does nitrogen become chemically stable? The answer is that two nitrogen atoms share three electrons, giving them stability. The two nitrogen atoms bond together to form a diatomic molecule that cannot be easily pulled apart to bond with other elements. How strong is the bonding? To break up a nitrogen molecule into two nitrogen atoms requires temperatures of 400 to 500 degrees Celsius and pressures of 200 atmospheres. So with nitrogen as the dominant element in our atmosphere, the atmospheric gases are stable and inert. Also, nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas that could threaten our temperatures on Earth. How then has God built a system that takes these stable nitrogen molecules and breaks their triple bonds to produce nitrates and ammonia?
If you think this isn’t an important subject, ask yourself where your food comes from? The answer is that 50% of the American diet is produced using artificial fertilizers containing nitrogen, which has been “fixed.” Nitrogen fixation combines that inert gas with oxygen and/or hydrogen to supply the soil with the chemical needed to grow the plants we eat, and which the livestock eat to provide us with meat.
Bacteria accomplish God’s method of nitrogen fixation. The bacteria turn nitrogen into ammonia, which is a nitrogen atom sharing electrons with three hydrogen atoms instead of with another nitrogen atom. Plants known as legumes such as soybeans and peas, as well as bayberry and alder trees, attract bacteria which concentrate in nodules on the plant’s roots. The bacteria turn nitrogen gas into ammonia and nitrates the plants can use. Cyanobacteria in the ocean and cycad plants on the land are also major nitrogen fixers. Scientists are also discovering tropical plants that contribute to the wealth of nitrogen compounds in the soil.
Most of our fertilizers have nitrogen fixed by a method called the Haber-Bosch process. It uses massive amounts of energy to break the triple bonds of nitrogen gas. Producing 500 degrees and 200 atmospheres is expensive, and that is why you pay so much for the fertilizer you use in your garden. God’s methods are free. Scientists are trying to figure out how to recreate God’s nitrogen fixation method to save energy and produce more food.
Many bacteria are beneficial in various ways, and nitrogen fixation is only one of them. This is a great apologetic for God’s wisdom and design in preparing the Earth to provide food for us to eat.
We tend to think of frogs and toads as fairly common creatures, varying only in color and size. Dr. William Duellman has done extensive studies of the amphibian order Anura which includes more than 3800 separate species of frogs. His studies show enormous frog reproduction variations.
Some frogs lay eggs in clutches near, but not in, the water. They glue the eggs to vegetation or rocks where the tadpoles drop into the water when the eggs hatch. Other frogs lay eggs in a protective foam that protects the eggs and provides food and water that can last for up to ten days. One-fifth of all frog species hatch into froglets instead of tadpoles. Each four-legged froglet has an attached yolk to supply nutrition until it can catch its own food. The males of one frog species glue themselves to the back of the larger females. The female digs a burrow in the ground to lay the eggs. She then wets the eggs with water from her bladder, and the male fertilizes the eggs.
The males of the African hairy frog develop rigid hairlike extensions of their skin during breeding, so when the male sits on the eggs, he protects them from predation. In the poison dart frog of Costa Rica, both sexes guard the eggs. When they hatch, the female brings unfertilized eggs to the tadpoles to eat until they can find food on their own. The females of the Jamaican tree frog lays water-filled capsules along with the eggs to provide adequate water for the tadpoles. In some species, the tadpoles crawl onto the back of either parent. Some frogs have pouches on their backs that hold eggs that have gill-like structures that enable the embryos to breathe.
Other unconventional frog reproduction variations include Darwin’s frog in Chile. The male scoops up the newly hatched tadpoles into his mouth and broods them there for several weeks until they mature. Even more bizarre is an Australian frog in which the female swallows the eggs after fertilization and incubates them in her stomach. This process, called gastric-brooding, usually takes six weeks in which the female does not eat. The tadpoles secrete a substance called prostaglandin E-2, which neutralizes the hydrochloric acid and pepsin normally used for digestion.
All of these reproductive strategies are designed to cope with different environments. Frogs can exist in a desert or a tropical rain forest or even a polar area. Survival is only possible because their reproductive systems are designed to fit the environment in which they live. The intricacy of frog reproduction variations is an excellent example of the intelligence and design God has built into the simplest of living things.
Yesterday we discussed how fish drink water. In the ocean, the problem isn’t water but salt. Ocean fish are designed with specialized gills that support the kidneys in getting rid of salt accumulations that would otherwise pickle the fish. Obviously, not all animals that live in the ocean have gills. How do sea animals drink water?
Albatrosses and petrels are birds that can spend a year or more in the open ocean, but they need to drink water. Whales and seals also do not have land-based water supplies, and yet, like all mammals, they need water to survive. So how do sea animals drink water when ocean water is salty? God’s design of living creatures always includes unusual equipment to enable them to deal with their environment.
In the case of sea birds, they have a set of salt glands in their heads that connect to the bird’s nostrils. The birds drink seawater, but the glands are so efficient that within three hours, all of the salt is removed through the nostrils.
Whales and other aquatic mammals produce urine that has extremely concentrated salt content. By allowing high salt concentrations in the urine to diffuse into the ocean, the salt never reaches toxic levels inside the animal. An interesting sidelight to this is that the milk of these sea mammals is very low in water content. In that way, they conserve water. Milk from seals has only half the water content of lean hamburger.
Everywhere we look in the natural world, we see that a wonder-working hand has gone before. These marvelous designs are not the product of mindless chance. They show an Intelligence who created with purpose and wisdom. When we realize that ocean water has high salt content, we question, “how do sea animals drink water?” God already took care of that.
In Job 38-40, God challenged Job to advance his understanding of God’s power and wisdom by considering the natural things of creation. When Job questioned God’s wisdom and purpose in his personal struggles, he did not recognize the wisdom shown in creation’s design. We too need to look at what God has done and “know there is a God through the things He has made” (Romans 1:18-20).
Have you ever wondered how a fish drinks water? Your first reaction is probably something like, “It opens its mouth.” Like most things in life, it isn’t that simple.
All living things necessarily have some saltwater content in their bodies to keep chemical balance allowing life to exist. The fluids inside an ocean-dwelling fish are only about a third as salty as the ocean itself. The water inside the fish’s body tends to leave by osmotic pressure, which is the tendency of fluids to move through membranes toward higher concentrations. To avoid this loss of water, the fish does simply open its mouth and drink seawater. But that brings large amounts of salt into the fish’s body. The salt concentration would be more than the fish’s kidneys could handle. To aid the kidneys, the gills of ocean fish are designed to expel salt, so the fish isn’t pickled by it.
In freshwater fish, the osmotic pressure is reversed, so the fluids inside the fish are saltier than the water outside. The skin of a freshwater fish is designed so that water seeps in through its skin and gills. Therefore, the fish doesn’t have to drink at all. When a salmon leaves the ocean and enters a freshwater stream, it merely stops drinking. Like freshwater fish, it depends on its skin to bring in its water needs.
Now that you know how a fish drinks water, the next question would be about other creatures that spend their time in the sea. Birds like albatrosses and petrels can spend more than a year at sea, and whales and seals live in the ocean 24/7/365. How can they avoid being poisoned by the salt? We’ll discuss that tomorrow.
God’s design of life includes fitting living things with specialized equipment to survive in every environment. Fish are remarkable creatures specially equipped for the waterworld in which they live.
Yesterday we wrote about leaf-cutting ants that engage in farming activity, which we used to think only humans did. The 1994 Disney movie Lion King started many people thinking about what these ants do. There is another tool leafcutter ants have that is impressive. These ants use vibratome to cut leaves.
Vibratome is sound emissions that alter the structure of matter close to the sound. Biologists use sound waves to prepare specimens to be sliced for microscopic examination. The sound waves cause soft material to become more rigid and, therefore, easier to cut. Ants had used vibratomes long before scientists discovered it.
As we said yesterday, leafcutter ants in the Atta genus slice off sections of leaves and carry them to their nests to feed the fungi they harvest. Researchers have found that as the ants cut, they chirp at a frequency of 1000 hertz. That sound frequency rigidizes soft leaf tissue, making it easier to cut. Vibratome is a technically sophisticated technique and one you would expect skilled technicians to use. Materials science is a relatively new field, and yet ants have it built into their DNA to chirp at a specific frequency as they cut leaves to feed the fungi they eat.
How is it that ants use vibratome to cut leaves? How did they know that it would stiffen the leaves and allow them to make a smoother cut? Scientists further discovered that the vibratome effect does not speed up the leaf-cutting. However, it enables a smoother cutting of the tender leaves, which the scientific report said gives “the most desirable harvest for the ants.”
God created the leaves as well as the ants that use the leaves to feed the fungi they eat. He gave the ants wisdom to use vibratome to cut leaves. The writer of Proverbs reflects God’s wisdom and intelligence in 6:6-8, “Go to the ant … consider her ways, and be wise.”