When my oldest daughter married and moved to West Texas, I worried about how a young lady born and raised in Indiana would fare in an area that was essentially a desert. Leaving a state full of lakes, streams, trees, and fruit and vegetable crops for a world of cactus and yucca seemed to be quite an adjustment. When my daughter and her husband showed us a lot they were buying high on a butte, I worried even more. They were miles from town and surrounded by nothing but thorn-covered plants, mesquite trees, and bare rock and dirt.
Our first visit after they built their new house was during a time when they had been blessed with a great deal of rain. I was amazed at the transformation that had taken place in the landscape. Everything was green, and most things were blooming. Even the obnoxious cactus I always managed to get scratched by was covered with beautiful flowers.
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.
In our age of scary stories about global warming when alarmists are warning that humans are destroying the Earth by our huge carbon footprint, it is always good to hear something positive. That is especially true when that positive thing is something people have held up as negative for a very long time. I have stood on the edge of a huge swamp in the southern part of the United States and wondered what possible use an area like that would have. You can talk about providing a home for insects, birds, or rare tropical plants, but the swamp still looks like a wasteland with its mile after mile of muck and dead vegetation.
Imagine a swamp that covers 56,000 square miles and has a depth of 20 feet of ugly black muck. Why would God create a place like that? What possible use can it have? That huge swamp is the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in Africa’s central Congo Basin, and it has been accumulating for nearly 11,000 years. We now know that this particular swamp is a huge carbon sink. Recent measurements by scientists show that this one swamp holds about thirty billion tons of carbon. That’s the equivalent of 20 years of United States fossil fuel emissions. Satellite measurements have shown this swamp is sixteen times larger than previous estimates. Chemical studies show it is highly acidic and devoid of oxygen so it traps carbon that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere.
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.“
How big can an animal get? Science fiction frequently shows animals of enormous size, and yet in reality land mammals can only get so big. The amount of oxygen in the air, the type of muscle development needed to run, the limitations of reproduction by live birth, and a host of other technical problems are involved in limiting the size of land mammals. This is not just true of mammals, but it is true of birds which are also warm-blooded. Reptiles, on the other hand, never stop growing. An 80-year-old T. Rex was still growing, but I can tell you from personal experience that an 80-year-old man is not. This issue has a lot to do with whether the dinosaurs were birds, and whether dinosaurs and humans could have lived at the same time.
In Ocean Park in Hong Kong there is a “Goldfish House” which features some 300 different varieties of fish that appear to be creatures from another world. The Red Bubble Eye for example has two cheeks that bulge out like huge balloons with a yellow color bridging off from an orange body. The tricolor Dorsal-Finned Bubble Eye looks similar, but it has a large dorsal fin and its body is black and white and it has a long flowing black and white tail. The tricolor Ranchu has a face like a bulldog and a multicolored body and the Black Dragon Eye has two huge eyes that protrude from the body and large, delicate fins. All of these fish that look so different from one another descended from the Prussian carp, also known as Gibel carp, which were raised by Chinese Buddhists in the Tang Dynasty. By the tenth century these fish which we call “goldfish” were prized as pets.
The Japanese took many of these very different kinds of goldfish back to Japan where raising unusual looking fish became a hobby of many people. By 1850 breeding clubs were formed in the United States and in Great Britain, there is a Goldfish Society with a large number of members. Goldfish have two sets of chromosomes from each parent, which means that mutations are preserved and expressed in many ways. Over 300 varieties exist at the present time.
Our local breeder of goldfish calls this “evolution at its best.” There are practical uses for this hobby. Most of these fish are small–four to ten inches–but there are varieties that grow to 25 pounds. I can remember crappie fishing in the 1960’s with goldfish minnows, which were raised by a fish farm in Martinsville, Indiana. They were effective as bait because of their visibility, but the rapid growth of these fish makes them ideal as a food source in some areas of the world.
Evolution is not a synonym for “man from monkey.” Evolution is a tool for producing new varieties of life which can benefit us in many ways. In the case of the goldfish there is aesthetic value in these changes, but also economic and nutritional value. When young people study biology in high school, they learn about how these genetic processes work and why. The design of the genetic materials that allow all of this is incredibly complex. In the Bible, Jacob used evolutionary change. The flocks of Laban were modified in a beneficial way by Jacob using these same principles. (See Genesis 30.)
All of the goldfish in the world are from the one species. It takes a creative imagination to visualize how some of these strange looking varieties of fish can form, but the changes do not involve adding organs or making massive changes in biological digestive processes.
There is probably no flower in America that gets more notoriety than the rose. Our music is full of songs about roses–“I Want Some Red Roses for a Blue Lady,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” “Paper Roses,” etc. We send roses to people for virtually all special occasions and to convey and emphasize all kinds of messages.
Those of us who grow roses are keenly aware of another side of roses–they have thorns. I love to grow roses because they are so easy to grow. Roses are very forgiving to “klutzy” gardeners like me. They do fairly well even when you forget to fertilize them. Even when you forget to spray them until the bugs have eaten off all the leaves or the black spot has covered the foliage, they seem to rebound and carry on. The only thing I do not like about caring for roses is weeding them. Every time I reach to get the weeds out of my rose garden, one of those treacherous thorns catches me and penetrates even my work gloves to draw blood. There is a tendency to castigate the plant for stabbing you when all you were trying to do is help it.
Many things in life are like roses–children, for example. They are beautiful in many ways, and in many ways a joy to help them grow and nurture. When you try to weed out the things you know may strangle and hurt them, you frequently get wounded by the child. Marriage is another beautiful thing that can bring incredible joy, pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment into one’s life. But there is always some pain in marriage too. The Church is beautiful and a joy to work with, but it is almost impossible to get involved in helping the Church grow without getting hurt in some way–usually by the ones you are trying to help.
The skeptic might look at this circumstance as an illustration of God’s ineptness. If God exists, why should there be thorns among the roses? It is the thorns in marriage and child raising and the Church that cause many to abandon these institutions. Even in our limited ability to understand, I believe we can see the answer to this question which, on the surface, seems to be a flaw in the design. The rose is not only a thing of beauty, but it is also an excellent source of vitamin C. One of the frustrations of growing roses is the fact that a variety of animals and birds like to eat the flowers. It is only the thorns that protect the plant from predation that would destroy it.
In the same way, our dealings with one another have to be conducted so that each person has a certain amount of protection. When I hear a parent bemoaning the independent streak in their teenager, I sometimes ask them if they really want a child who is dependent on them for life. When someone is complaining about their spouse having a different viewpoint on things, I wonder if perhaps their spouse may be right at least part of the time. Sometimes a different perspective prevents us from making foolish mistakes. When I see struggles in the Church over whether my choice of an action or activity is best for another person, I have to ask whether I want the responsibility of always having to have the right answer for every situation.
Let me introduce you to an animal that lives in the Arctic Ocean, spending much of its time under the pack ice. This animal has a refined sonar that is so intense and so directional that it can narrow or widen the sonar beam to find prey over short and long distances. The sound beams are asymmetric, narrowing on the top which minimizes noise clutter coming from the surface of the ocean or from the pack ice it swims under.
This is the most sophisticated sonar observed in a living species, and the animal that possesses it is the narwhal. The mechanism that generates the sonar is like that of a porpoise with clicks being emitted by the animal. The narwhal can do things that no other animal can do. Because narwhals can scan vertically as they dive, they always know where open patches of water exist so they can get back to a place where they can breathe.
One of the most studied fish in the ocean is a three-inch long shore fish called the frillfin goby (Bathygobius soporator). This little fish has even gotten attention from the New York Times which ran an article about studies by Dr. Jonathan Balcombe on this fish and how it survives (May 15, 2016).
This fish lives in the intertidal zones in the Atlantic Ocean. When the tide goes out, the fish lives in small tidal pools which are isolated and free of the large predatory fish which pose a threat when the tide is in. The problem is that these small pools can be hunting grounds for shorebirds and crabs so sometimes the fish needs to change pools. The goby does this by jumping out of its pool and landing in a nearby pool that offers better protection. The obvious problem with making this jump is knowing where the next pool is to land in it and not on bare rock. In 1971 a study was done at the American Museum of Natural History to see how the frillfin goby learns where to jump and how far to jump to land in the pool. Their conclusion was that the goby swims over the area at high tide and makes a mental map of the topography of the sea floor. It can use this mental map 40 days later to escape from a predator. Essentially they have a mental GPS that allows them to make what would otherwise be a very dangerous escape.