In the 1980s, there was great concern about the shrinking population of California condors. In 1987, they became extinct in the wild, and only 22 were left in captivity. Due to a captive breeding program, at last count, there were 518 living California Condors in 2019. Most of them were in the wild in California, Arizona, and Utah. Recently, scientists discovered two cases of California condor parthenogenesis, or as news reports called it, “virgin birth.”
Researchers from the San Diego Wildlife Alliance discovered two male condors who had not been produced by sexual reproduction, even though their mothers had previously produced offspring in the usual way. The scientists could determine that because they have a record of the genetic data for the more than 900 condors hatched since the captive breeding program began in the 1980s. Both birds contained identical copies of their mother’s DNA, which cannot happen when a female’s egg has been fertilized by sperm.
Parthenogenesis occurs in some insects and other invertebrates and a few fish, amphibian, and reptile species. It even happens in some captive birds, but it is unknown in wild birds. I have often kidded my biologist friends about their discipline, saying that the only universal rule in biology is that anything you say always has an exception. California condor parthenogenesis is one of those exceptions.
Reasons for preserving wildlife are to protect the environment and its impact on humans and learn from studying the design of living things. But, of course, another reason is to enjoy the beauty of the natural world. We can see God’s creative wisdom in the world all around us, and the more we know about the creation, the better we understand the Creator.
It was a flightless North Atlantic bird that stood upright 30-33 inches (75-85 cm) tall and weighed 11 pounds (5 kg). Its small wings were less than 6 inches (15 cm) long. It’s also the story of the great auk and human stewardship failure.
The fact that the great auk couldn’t fly and that it was large enough to provide a meal for hungry sailors is a major reason why it became extinct. People also killed them for their feathers. As the great auk was nearing extinction, people killed the last ones to stuff their skins and display them as trophies in museums and private collections.
Though the great auk couldn’t fly in the air, it did fly underwater. Some might say this bird was poorly designed with its large body and small wings. But underwater, those wings became fins to pursue and catch fish. Larger wings would have been a hindrance underwater. The large size of this bird gave evidence that it found abundant food and had no need to fly in the air.
Great auks had few predators, but since they couldn’t fly and were slow on land, they became easy prey for humans. When it was evident that they were becoming extinct, great auks became more valuable. Collectors wanted a stuffed bird for a trophy, and museums wanted one for display. At last, there was only one breeding pair and one egg left on Eldey Island off the coast of Iceland. On July 3, 1844, three men climbed up on Eldey Island, killed the last two birds, and smashed the egg. The great auk was no more.
The picture shows a monument to the great auk in Iceland facing toward Eldey, the rocky island where the birds made their last stand. It tells the sad story of the great auk and human stewardship failure. God gave humans the duty to care for His creation. He commanded Adam and Eve to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Jesus told us that God cares for the birds. (See Matthew 6:26 and Luke 12:6.) The Apostle Paul in Romans 13:4 talks about human rulers. He wrote that they are “God’s servants for your good.” I think we can apply that concept of rulers to our duty toward the living creatures God created. We are stewards entrusted with caring for the world God gave us, including the living creatures.
There are those who like to change things, even if they have not investigated all the ramifications of that change. When God’s creation is involved, there are especially drastic proposals that are sometimes a product of ignorance. There is an ongoing battle between those who want to preserve elephants as a species and those who say that elephants are an ecological disaster. Instead of elephant ecology, they believe that elephants need to travel the road to extinction.
Those who want to allow elephants to go the way of the dinosaurs say that the volume of plants they need to survive makes them too destructive to justify their existence. To support such claims, they show pictures of areas decimated by elephants and tell stories about the invasion of elephants into agricultural regions. Elephants, they say, have threatened the survival of whole communities of subsistence farmers by eating the plants humans depend on.
On the other side of the fence is the “Save the Elephant” campaign in Kenya. They maintain that there is interconnectivity in the natural world between all organisms. They argue that elephants provide a variety of connections to various African ecologies. Elephants are ecosystem engineers. Scientists tell us that elephants knock over trees, trample brush, prune branches, and disperse seeds, which increases the biodiversity of the areas in which they live. Elephant ecology helps to maintain the savannas and forests.
A recent discovery connects the largest animals in the African ecology with the smallest. Herpetologist Dr. Stephen Platt has been studying the Nay Ya Inn wetland in Myanmar (Burma). He found that frogs depend on elephants in a very surprising way. As elephants travel in wetland areas, they leave Jacuzzi-size pools in the ground that stay full of water during the dry season. Frogs depend on these pools to lay eggs and develop tadpoles to maintain their populations in a fragile environment. Platt says there other small organisms that also depend on these pools for their survival. In Platt’s words: “Such microcosms of life are probably commonplace, but almost no one has bothered to look before.”
Earth’s history has been full of examples where large animals supported an ecosystem that produced not only life, but also resources for humans. Dinosaurs were huge for a reason, and it was not to make movies. Like the elephant, dinosaurs provided for humans by being the ecosystem engineers of their day. Without them, we would not have the coal, gas, iron, and many other resources that make our modern world possible.
One of the major misunderstandings of many creationists and naturalists alike is the belief that, given enough time, anything can happen. Those who believe in naturalism deny that God had anything to do with creation. They promote the idea that evolution by natural selection can explain everything as long as there is adequate time for it to act. Time as creative agent does not work for many reasons.
We can all agree on what will happen if you have two animals in identical environments and one of them can run very fast and the other one cannot. When a predator comes to eat them, the one who cannot run fast is more likely to get eaten. This process cannot explain how a platypus could be produced from animals that have existed in Australia now or in the past. Atheists would maintain that given enough time such a change would have happened naturally, excluding God’s role in the production of every form of life on the planet. Time as creative agent cannot replace the role of God the creator.
Some creationists seem to agree. They assume that the only rebuttal to the atheist belief is to maintain that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. They argue that such a change couldn’t happen in that short of a time. The reality is that natural selection cannot explain the creation, no matter how much time has been available for life to evolve.
There are a large number of reasons why natural selection and time as creative agent do not explain what we see in the creation. Here are just three simple ones:
1-Natural selection only deals with what has already been created.
Any theoretical explanation of how a living thing has come into existence starts by assuming the existence of an ancestral form of life. Not only is it assumed that the life-form existed, but its properties are also assumed. To explain why the male platypus has a poisonous spur on its back leg, one has to assume that it evolved from an animal that had a spur which served some other purpose. One must also assume that the ancestor used venom in some way. To explain the “radar” unit in the platypus’s nose, one has to assume that there was some kind of appendage that housed the nerve cells. Then one must assume that nerve endings with a frequency equivalent to the electromagnetic signals of the platypus’ prey were present in some primitive form.
Those oversimplified proposals are just the start. The baby platypus has to lick the milk off the mother’s stomach because she has no nipples. One can say that the nipples never evolved from the ancient ancestor, but the skin has to be porous enough for the milk to come through. The mammary glands also have to be in the right place, and the system has to be selective enough that milk can get out, but toxins cannot get in. With a good imagination, you can propose ways each of these things could happen. However, they would all have to happen simultaneously or they would be of no use and could, in fact, be life-threatening for the animal.
2-Natural selection does not propose the formation of organs with unique chemical properties, nor does it explain the chemicals themselves.
We have discussed the bombardier beetle, where a lethal combination of chemicals produces a spray that protects the beetle from predation. This is one of many specialized organs in the natural world that demands an organ that has no other function than the one the beetle uses. For natural selection to work, a previous organism would have to exist with a different a chemical having a different purpose from which this animal could evolve.
3-Natural selection ignores catastrophic extinctions. The more we study the geological record of the Earth, the more we see that massive changes have happened in the past that put an end to biological processes. Asteroid collisions, massive volcanic eruptions, massive flooding, global cooling which resulted in the freezing of all bodies of water, and solar eruptions are all well documented. These changes have been so violent that they terminated most life-forms and their development. Natural selection demands a uniformitarian past for traits to continue unabated and ultimately be incorporated into the genome of a new species.
When humans throw the world of plants and animals out of balance, the result is extinctions. We can destroy God’s designed balance when we introduce a non-native species into an environment. The introduced species without natural predators uses up local resources leaving native species without food. There are many examples.
One example is the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) which was accidentally introduced to Guam aboard a military cargo ship after World War II. Those snakes are native to Australia and Indonesia where natural predators control them. On Guam, they have decimated 50 percent of the native bird and lizard species and two of the three bat species on the island. The brown tree snakes considered those native species to be tasty treats, and the snakes had no predators to control them. The result was the extinction of many species, some of which existed nowhere else on Earth. Alien invasions of brown tree snakes forever changed the ecosystem of Guam.
In other cases, humans throw nature out of balance by their direct actions. An example of that is the over-hunting of sea otters. Sea otters kept the purple sea urchins in check. Steller’s sea cows (Hydrodamalis gigas)were giant relatives of manatees, and they lived on kelp. Without control by sea otters, the purple sea urchins ate so much of the kelp that Steller’s sea cows had no food, and they became extinct. However, the research project indicated that direct interference by humans in cases like this has less impact on extinctions than the alien invasions have.
Sometimes humans make the mistake of bringing in another non-native species to control the first one. That technique often makes the problems worse. Usually, by the time people discover the problem of alien invasions, it’s too late to fix it.
The research concludes that 25 percent of plant extinctions and 33 percent of animal extinctions were caused by alien invasions – the introduction of non-native species. The bottom line is that humans have not been good stewards of the planet God has given us to enjoy and protect. God gave humans the responsibility to have dominion over creation and “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Romans 13:1-4 indicates that those who rule over people have the responsibility to protect. We might say the same of us who rule over the creatures.
There seems to be an unlimited number of methods by which plants and animals reproduce. In 2006 in England’s Chester Zoo a female Komodo dragon (a large lizard) who had never been in the presence of a male laid a clutch of eggs that hatched producing male Komodo dragons.
This self-fertilization process is called parthenogenesis, and it apparently happens often with Komodo dragons. When a female Komodo dragon is isolated so that normal sexual reproduction cannot take place, the isolated female can bear male offspring which will have the same DNA as the mother. When they grow up, they can be the female’s mate. This doesn’t allow for diversity in the gene pool, but it does provide a way for a geographically isolated population to reproduce.
Komodo dragons only live in the wild on seven islands of Indonesia. They are threatened by loss of habitat and poaching of the animals they prey on such as wild boar, water buffalo, and deer. They have been designed with a method to protect them from extinction.
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.
In Discover magazine (March 2017, page 24) there is a reference to a species of wild cattle called aurochs that lived in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The article says that the aurochs was the first recorded animal to become extinct. The last aurochs died in Poland in 1627. These animals are portrayed in the ancient cave art of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc and Lascaux in southern France. They have been called “supercattle.” Julius Caesar saw aurochs and said of them, “In size these are little but inferior to elephants. They spare neither men nor beast.”
In the Bible, there are animals described that we do not find examples of in the living biosphere of today. In Job 40:15-24 there is a description of an animal which in the Hebrew is called behemoth. This word is the plural of the word behema used in Genesis 1:24 and many later verses throughout the Old Testament. Behema is usually translated as livestock or cattle, and there is no question but that this is the intent in Genesis 1. Behemoth would be a large, massive example of behema. It cannot refer to a dinosaur, even if we ignore the scientific evidence because the word always referred to an ungulate, which is a mammal. Suggestions that it was a hippopotamus are unlikely since there was another word for the hippo. It could refer to a giant sloth which also became extinct. However, the aurochs probably fits the description better.