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.
The animals making this migration are insects. According to the study, 2-5 million of them 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.“
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.