Saturday, April 15, 2006

Genesis of Fishapods

Two discoveries of new links in the evolution of life have been announced recently. One is a fish whose fins have become somewhat more like the feet of most land animals. The other is a 4.2 million year old hominid that falls in between Ardipithecus and Australopithecus.

News coverage of both finds has unfortunately come with headlines like "Darwin would have loved it," and commentary on the "long-running debate with creationists." No doubt Darwin would have loved it. So what? The truth is the truth, whether Darwin would have loved it or not. Darwin was right about some things, wrong about others. Aren't we all?

If the "fishapod" has been accurately identified, and accurately dated, it represents a key link between animal life in the oceans and animal life that walks on land. It does not have legs, or feet. Where other fish have fins, it has something like a wrist and five digits encased in fin-like webbing. These are the beginnings of a "tetrapod hand" – the hand or paw that every four-legged land reptile or mammal walks on. The interlocking rib cage suggests that it had lungs. It was the kind of fish that could do well in warm, shallow, marshy waters. Unlike fish, it had a flexible neck, and eyes on the top of its head.

Notably, the discovery of this aquatic non-fish has demonstrated how biological theories change with new evidence. That silly "Darwin fish" that grew legs and walked onto the land is out. Seriously, everyone who thought it was good fun to put one on your car, just to get Christians riled up, can take it off now. That didn't happen. By the time anything walked on land, it wasn't a fish. It took a few million years of fishapods living in shallow seas before some oddball descendant actually had legs to walk on land with.

When it comes to science, nothing we think we know remains firmly entrenched. This fishapod has indeed filled in one of the missing transitional links in the chain of living organisms. And it has vindicated the plain language of Genesis, for those who have eyes to see, and a mind to understand what we read.

Genesis? Yes, take another look at Genesis 1: 20-21. First God said "Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life." Then it says "God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly." That word "great whales" is something of a mystery. The King James translation into English says "great whales." Some translations say sea serpents. Orthodox Jewish understanding is that it was a "great fish" of a type unknown at the present day. Maybe it was a fishapod.

The key point is, first God called upon the waters to bring forth life, then God "made" everything the waters brought forth.Whatever is turning up in the fossil record is simply giving us some details on the results. The "long-running debate" is a lot of hot air. Evolution is a hypothesis that can be tested. God is not. There is no experiment ever devised that can test for the presence or absence of God. The real question on the subject of divine creation is: How did Moses get such a sophisticated overview, more than 3000 years before a University of Chicago paleontologist dug the fishapod fossil out of a rock formation on Ellesmere Island?

By the way, don't forget that while this animal with five primitive digits did swim around in the primeval swamps some 375 million years ago, there were still plenty of fish in the oceans, lakes and rivers. There still are. The fish didn't all evolve into something else, some fish took off in a new direction. We're still not sure how. Genesis says "God made" the life that "the waters brought forth." When something new appears, it has a tendency to "be fruitful and multiply."

The new hominid found in Africa isn't even close to human. The difference in the timelines for humanity of "instant creationists" compared to the timelines of "evolutionary creationists" is only the difference between 6000 years or so and 200,000 years, or maybe as little as 50,000 years. Out of a possible 4 billion years, that is next to nothing.

Tne new find does close a sequence of 12 hominids over a period of 6 million years, through three phases of hominid development. Note that "hominid" does not mean the same thing as "human." Nor is it accurate to say, as many news reports do, that "Ardipithecus evolved into Australopithecus." Whatever may have happened, most Ardipithecus went right on having Ardipithecus babies, until all the Ardipithecus died out. Maybe a few of the Ardipithecus had oddball children who were the ancestors of the newly discovered fossil. Maybe a few of their descendants had oddball children who were the ancestors of Australopithecus.

All the hominids except for homo sapiens sapiens, aka Adam, are long since extinct. We might have some descent from a few of them. Our genes suggest a "genetic bottleneck" only 50,000 years ago. That means a very small number of individuals was isolated from all others of their kind, and became something new and different. That is how "evolution" generally works. Either a very few individuals are physically isolated, or almost all life is destroyed in a great catastrophe. The whole process follows a very Biblical pattern.

The last of the other hominids were no more than very distant cousins to our ten-thousand-greats-grandparents. It was only 50,000 years ago that actual humans appeared on the earth, with powers of speech, with minds to create art, with ability to develop new technologies... It seems that something new and different was breathed into their nostrils. But it is interesting that all the hominids developed in one small area of Africa. Somewhere east of Eden perhaps?

The physcial evidence is real, and it means what it says. Whatever God has been doing, it took a lot more time, as we experience time, than our pious ancestors could conceive of. Well, we can't expect humans to think on the grand scale of an omnipotent God. Our minds can only handle as much as we can handle. Let the facts speak for themselves. And let Genesis tell us what it all means.


April said...

Thank you. Your point is very well made. I have often wondered why Christians feel so threatened by the idea of a God-guided evolution when it seem so obvious to me in Genesis 1. If God could make a woman out of a man, why couldn't he have made land animals out of a fish? (For that matter, being God, he could have made all of us out of a piece of bubble gum if he had wanted to.) Why do we care and why do we make such controversy of the question? His hand is evident in every aspect of creation.
By holding so tightly to the importance of instant creation as a cornerstone of the Bible, aren't we doing what the Catholic Church did when they insisted on the truth of an earth-centered universe? When science proves evolution beyond any doubt, we will be the reason that non-believers are able to shut their eyes to God. If we could only find the humility in ourselves to admit that God is God and that we don't have any clue about what makes him tick, we could save a lot of grief for later Christians. More importantly, we might leave a door open for non-believers to see God's hand instead of our scowls.

April said...

Thank you for the reply on my blog. Yes, I am the same April. I don't know why you couldn't reply to me directly.
I appreciate the information on "ish" and "isha." Something else that has been eating at me lately is the image of God as a male, which is of course, nonsense. So the Hebrew background is a good picture.
My husband, who is a cynic (if not an agnostic), has The Language of God on his ipod, so I'm going to listen to it. Thanks for the heads-up. I looked up your book and would love to read it as well. (It will be on my Christmas wish list.)
Yes, I agree with you that God used physical steps in creating the universe, and that we will, therefore, never be able to prove creation. If it is impossible to please God without faith, why would he give us a way to prove his existence? My belief and faith in God comes from something much deeper within me, and nothing scientific will ever confirm or deny that for me.
(To follow up your self-proclaimed "shameless self-promotion," perhaps I should mention that I'm a freelance copyeditor/proofreader. Just in case you ever need one.)

Tom McIver said...

Do you have a used, damaged, or review copy of your Third Look at Creation that you could send me? I am doing bibliographic research on theories of creation and am trying to examine and present as many different theories as possible.
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