The Eccentric Echidna

For the last few years I’ve been privileged to live in Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and arguably most beautiful state.  One of the wonderful things about Tasmania is the opportunity to regularly encounter unique wildlife.  We have some of the most interesting creatures in the world and with many of them, you don’t have to travel far to meet them. 

For example, I take a daily walk which brings me through a nearby bushland reserve.  During the warmer months, I frequently encounter the oddly fascinating echidna.  I’ll be walking along and an echidna will be foraging for food in the dirt at the side of the track.  If I walk up slowly from behind, usually I won’t be noticed.  But if I am noticed, the echidna doesn’t scurry away like most creatures might.  Instead, it freezes in place, tucks its head down and hopes for the best. 

If you’ve never seen one, an echidna is best described as a cross between a porcupine and a hedgehog.  It has quills like a porcupine, but unlike a porcupine the quills can’t be released as a defensive measure.  You don’t see Tasmanian dogs with echidna quills stuck in their noses!  If you’re careful, you can pick up an echidna – though you probably really shouldn’t.    

Echidnas are a type of monotreme.  Monotremes are egg-laying mammals.  The only other example is another Australian oddball, the platypus.  Female echidnas lay a single egg into a pouch – they don’t lay them on the ground in a nest, so you’re unlikely to find any echidna eggs.  The egg is incubated in the pouch and in 7-10 days the baby echidna (known as a ‘puggle’) hatches.  It stays in the pouch feeding on its mother’s milk until its ready for the outside world, about 6-8 weeks.  The development of the puggle’s sharp spines is what marks the moment – momma echidnas don’t like being poked.

They’re renowned for their slow metabolism and their typically low body temperature.  In the winter months, echidnas enter into a type of hibernation known as torpor.  By Canadian standards, winters in my home city of Launceston are quite mild.  Occasionally it does fall below freezing, but most of the time daytime highs are 10-14 degrees Celsius.  Despite that, you’ll seldom see an echidna in the winter.  Even those relatively mild winter temperatures will put them into a state of torpor.

Other fun facts about echidnas:

  • They don’t have teeth. Instead they have rough pads on their tongues and roofs of their mouths between which they grind their food.
  • Male echidnas have a spurs on their hind legs which secrete a smelly substance thought to play a role in communication. 
  • Male echidnas also have four penises, but only two are functional at any given moment. 
  • Apparently because of their slow metabolism, echidnas can live up to 50 years.
  • Historically they were used for food by First Nations. After all, they are easy to catch.

I’ve always had a fascination with wildlife, so my regular encounters with echidnas never get old.  I love watching them waddle along and intently search for insects.   But more than that, for me seeing echidnas is a moment to stop and praise God, the Creator of these amazing creatures.  It’s doxological.  Echidnas are unique animals, purposefully designed for their environment and also to bring adoration to their Maker.  When I see one, I always try to remind myself that my Father, who holds all things in his hand, has put this one echidna on my path so that I would see it and praise his handiwork.  Echidnas truly are eccentric members of the animal world, but like us, they were put on this planet for the glory of God.

A sixth sense? Yup, it’s true.

We all know about the standard five senses – taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing – but did you know some of God’s creatures have a little something extra?

In some animals that extra amounts to “super senses”: hummingbirds can see in the ultraviolet range (their eyes’ 4 types of color receptors is one more than we have), and elephants can communicate over long distances by using tones that are so low our ears can’t detect them.

In other animals that extra something goes beyond the standard five senses. Bumblebees seem to be able to use the positive electrical charge their bodies generate while buzzing around to help them detect flowers’ pollen which has a negative charge.

Meanwhile, sea turtles are able to somehow navigate across the ocean using variations in the Earth’s magnetic field to guide them on their way. Exactly how they do it is unclear, but scientists are closing in on how birds do something similar, and remarkably, it may involve quantum mechanics. It’s theory at this point and a really complicated one at that, but just the gist of it is amazing enough. Scientists are speculating that some birds can “see” the earth’s magnetic fields and do so by using particles in their eyes that are in a “quantum entangled” state. We don’t need to worry about what that exactly means; here’s one key point: that state lasts for just 1/10,000th of a second. That these birds might be processing information derived from a state lasting such a short time is pretty cool, but there’s another incredible wrinkle, as detailed by PBS Nova‘s Katherine J. Wu.

“Even in ideal laboratory conditions, which usually involve powerful vacuums or astoundingly icy temperatures, artificial quantum entanglement can unravel in just nanoseconds. And yet, in the wet, messy environment of a bird’s eye, entanglement holds. ‘It seems nature has found a way to make these quantum states live much longer than we’d expect, and much longer than we can do in the lab,’ Gauger says. ‘No one thought that was possible.’”

A nanosecond is a billionth of a second (yes, I had to look it up). This might have us tempted to say that the birdbrains are beating the brainiacs, but as amazing as the bird’s performance is, to give the credit where it is due we should be singing the praises of its Designer!

Humans beings also have a sixth sense, and we’re not talking about ESP. Proprioception is your sense of bodily awareness – the ability to know where all the bits of your body are without looking or feeling them. That might not seem as cool as “seeing” magnetic fields, but just consider what it allows you to do. When you close your eyes and can still touch your nose, that’s proprioception enabling you to do it. This is also why a quarterback can throw the ball accurately, even though his overhand motion doesn’t really allow him to see his throwing arm until the ball is released. And proprioception is why you can be balanced (even on one leg!) and how you can walk, without having to look down at your feet. This is one important sense!

So if you’ve ever thanked God for the wonderful flowers you can smell, the amazing sunrise you can see, the funky music you can hear, the delicious pizza you can taste, or the amazing softness of a newborn’s cheek that you can just barely feel, now you know there’s also a sixth sense to marvel at and thank Him for!

Why we’ll never run out of things to discover!

A few years ago National Geographic published a provocatively titled article:

“Opinion: Science is running out of things to discover.”

Author John Horgan’s view is a rarity, but not entirely unique – it was already popping up in the late 19th century. In Steven Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory, he shares this recollection from famed physicist Robert Millikan:

“In 1894, I lived…with four other Columbia graduate students, one a medic and the other three working in sociology and political science, and I was ragged continuously by all of them for sticking to a ‘finished’, yes, a ‘dead subject’, like physics when the new ‘live’ field of the social sciences was just opening up.”

There was an idea at the time that it would be possible to finish off a whole field of science because we’d discovered all there was to learn there. This was a minority view then and is today, but there’s a reason some scientists held it and a reason some still do. The new discoveries still being made are evidence against it, but when Horgan’s view is evaluated from an evolutionary perspective, it’s actually the logical conclusion to draw.

After all, if the physical universe is all there is then no matter how vast, it is finite. And if it was brought about by chance, and without purpose, then just how sophisticated and complex can the universe really be? Shouldn’t we expect to figure it all out eventually?

Deeper and deeper

In contrast, Christians have every reason to expect the discoveries will never end. We know the universe was crafted with purpose, and designed to reflect the attributes of our infinite God (Ps. 19:1-4, Roman 1:19-20). We should assume that no matter how deep we dig into God’s creation there’ll always be more to uncover.

And that is, in fact, what we find.

In the last decade, there has been a flood of discoveries related to our own DNA. Back when Darwin first published his book On the Origin of the Species, the individual cell was a “black box” – its inner workings were undiscovered and thought to be simple structures. That assumption served Darwin’s theory because the more complex that Man proves to be, the more obvious it is that we couldn’t have come about by evolutionary happenstance.

But since then we’ve discovered that even a single one of our cells has a level of complexity comparable to that of a city, with its own microscopic vehicles traveling on its own highways, carrying material from manufacturing plants, supplied by energy from its power plants.

Even after DNA was discovered and we started to get a glimmering of how much more was going on in the cell than Darwin had thought, evolutionists repeated their mistake – they underestimated the cell’s complexity. Again, that was only natural: how complex should something produced by unguided processes really be? So it was, that prior to about 2012, evolutionary scientists were writing off the 98.5% of human DNA that didn’t produce proteins as being “junk DNA” because they had no apparent function. As evolution apologist Richard Dawkins put it in his 2009 book The Greatest Show on Earth: The evidence for Evolution: 

“it is a remarkable fact that the greater part 95% percent in the case of humans) of the genome might as well be not there for the difference it makes.”

But just a few years later the ENCODE project discovered this “junk DNA” was active, getting transcribed into RNA, and may have a role in regulating protein production. There’s lots of maybes and perhaps still being tossed about, so there’s much more to discover, and in an area of the genome that was once thought to be unimportant.

Still sticking with DNA, one of the more fascinating recent discoveries has been how the same section of our DNA can produce differentproteins if read different ways. Or as Andrew Moore explained in Nov 12, 2019 Advanced Science News article “That ‘junk’ DNA…is full of information!”:

“One of the intriguing things about DNA sequences is that a single sequence can ‘encode’ more than one piece of information depending on what is ‘reading’ it and in which direction – viral genomes are classic examples in which genes read in one direction to produce a given protein overlap with one or more genes read in the opposite direction…to produce different proteins. It’s a bit like making simple messages with reverse-pair words (a so-called emordnilap). For example: REEDSTOPSFLOW, which, by an imaginary reading device, could be divided into REED STOPS FLOW. Read backwards, it would give WOLF SPOTS DEER.

Once again, the deeper we dig the more we find there is to learn!

No end in sight

What’s true for our DNA is true everywhere else too – Millikan’s roommates couldn’t have been wronger about physics being a dead science. But endless and ever more intricate discoveries present a problem to an evolutionary theory that says the universe is finite and unplanned. If they were right, there should be an end to it. But no such end is in sight.

In contrast, these constant discoveries are an inspiration to Christians. Knowing our Creator to be inexhaustibly great, God’s people can look forward to not only a lifetime of discoveries, but to an eternity of them!

Jon Dykstra is the editor of Reformed Perspective.

Dr. Gordon Wilson: The ordinary is extraordinary

During the Creation Science Association of Alberta’s Creation Weekend 2018, Dr. Gordon Wilson was the featured speaker, giving three lectures. Dr. Margaret Helder offers an account of his second presentation below.

*****

While Dr. Gordon Wilson had entitled his presentation “The Magnificence of the Mundane” he wanted us to note that the words in the title are actually contradictory. While the word “magnificence” communicates excitement, the term “mundane” suggests that something is boring or dull.

But what he wanted to share with us is that God’s “ordinary” work in creation is amazing, displaying God’s wisdom and finesse (Ps. 104:24). And in this context, we are told that King Solomon – full of wisdom – spoke about trees, herbaceous plants, beasts, birds, reptiles and fish (1 Kings 4:33).

It is evident, declared Dr. Wilson, that one place to observe God’s wisdom is in nature. Similarly if one wants to be an expert on the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, one will endeavor to study his creative works in addition to any of his writings. Thus, said our speaker, biology is part of theology. It is the study of who God is, as an artist, engineer, and sculptor. In this context, Dr. Wilson discussed several organisms that might seem mundane or ordinary, but which are actually quite amazing.

THE “NORMAL” EASTERN BOX TURTLE

The eastern box turtle lives in the eastern half of the United States. This animal may look quite ordinary (as turtle appearances go), but it has an amazing capacity to survive cold winters. As fall gives way to winter, this reptile builds up high levels of glucose in its blood. This acts as a sort-of antifreeze which prevents ice crystals from forming in its cells (ice is allowed to build up in the turtle’s body cavity, but not in its cells where ice crystals would poke and rupture the membranes). With all this chill, the heart can even stop. But then, in the spring, when things start melting, the heart starts up again and the turtle goes about his normal life activities.

ORDINARY HOUSEFLY

In keeping with Dr. Wilson’s theme of looking at everyday creatures, what could be more ordinary than houseflies? It turns out, however, that these organisms have quite an interesting way to escape from the confining walls of their pupal stage.

It so happens that there is a trapdoor of sorts fashioned in the skin on the face of the developing fly. Muscles in the abdomen push blood vigorously into the head. This blood fills an inflatable bag, which in turn pushes open the trapdoor and then bulges out from the face. This bag, called the ptilinum, exerts pressure on the puparium– the cocoon-like structure formed from the maggot skin which houses the pupa as it develops into the now-emerging adult. The puparium also has a weakened seam that cracks under pressure from the ptilinum. The now-adult-fly pushes out through the opened seam, and afterwards the blood-filled ptilinum empties, and retreats back into the body, and the trapdoor in the fly’s head closes back up.

Then, behold, we see a normal fly descending on our hamburgers!

LASSO-SWINGING SPIDERS

More showy are the hunting habits of the Bolas spiders. These creatures, which look like bird droppings (for purposes of camouflage), share many characteristics with ordinary orb weaver spiders, and can be found throughout the eastern United States down to Chile. At night these spiders – looking every bit like cowboys swinging a lasso – hang from a leaf and swing their “bolas,” a thread with a glob of sticky glue attached to the end.

This amazing spider secretes a very special organic molecule: the scent of a particular female moth. This compound, called a pheromone, acts like a perfume to attract male moths of the same species. The spider deftly swings its bolas and hits the incoming male moth, penetrating his scales. The spider then hauls in her pretty and wraps it up in silk. This spider is even able to vary the chemical composition of the pheromones in order to catch another moth species. The ability of the spider to imitate such elaborate pheromone designs demonstrates that these spiders possess remarkable synthetic abilities that could never have developed by trial and error. Magnificent indeed! And certainly not mundane.

FUN FUNGUS

Dr. Wilson also discussed spore dispersal in ferns, mosses, and in a fascinating little fungus called Pilobolus. This little fungus grows on the dung of animals like horses and cows. The entire fungus is only about 1 centimeter tall, but it consists of a short stalk with a bulging balloon-like area above, topped by a black cap which shelters many fungus spores. The bulgy area focuses light onto carotenoid pigments in its base.

The bulge, with cap on top, grows straight sideways towards the incoming morning light. Pressure builds up in the bulge so that the cap is shot off at high pressure. Full of spores the cap lands and clings to grass about 2 meters away from the manure. Then along comes a grazing animal. The fresh grass looks good enough to eat and, once inside the animal, the spores proceed through the digestion system without germinating. Once deposited outside in another dump of manure, more miniature Pilobolus specimens grow to start the process all over again.

CONCLUSION

These examples demonstrate wonderful design and fascinating ingenuity. Yet there are taken from everyday life. The “ordinary” around us is extraordinary!

Dr. Wilson concluded with the admonition that we should observe Creation and ponder that God made it. God did not give us all the answers. He wants us to explore. As we read in Proverbs 25:2 “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”

This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of “Creation Science Dialogue” and is reprinted here with permission. Dr. Margaret Helder is the author of “No Christian Silence on Science.” Dr. Gordon Wilson has recently completed his second nature documentary called “The Riot and the Dance: Water

“Inferior” design: a proof of evolution?

fly“Suboptimal” design in nature is supposed to be the result of, and evidence for, evolutionary trial and error

by Margaret Helder

Everybody loves to hear about wonderful living creatures with their amazing talents. It is certainly uplifting to learn about Monarch butterfly’s continent-spanning migration, and the toe pads of the gecko that allow it to walk upside down, and the amazing strength of spider silk. Christians enjoy discussing the wonderful designs that we see in nature. And among scientists, these creatures have their fans too. Indeed, there is an entire field in science called biomimicry where scientists try to learn from living creatures in order to produce practical designs for modern applications.

But not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the implications of these amazing talents. Prominent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) in 1978 wrote:

“…ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator.”

Dr. Gould thus said that everyone should ignore examples of wonderful design and concentrate on phenomena that are below par. He continued:

“Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution – paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.”

Gould was telling us that he knew how God should act if, that is, God really existed. God, according to Gould, would make everything perfect. And since we know that everything is not perfect in nature then, said Gould, this proves there is no God. This kind of argument, based on assumptions of how God should act, continues to be common in science today. There is thus a lot of interest among scientists, in suboptimal (less than perfect) design. Let us look at some examples to see what the implications are.

THE PANDA’S THUMB

The example Gould discussed in 1978 was the thumb of the Giant Panda. These animals, native to China, eat almost nothing but bamboo shoots. They use their hands to strip off the leaves, leaving the nice tender shoots on which to munch. Their flexible hands are unusual – they have a thumb of sorts, an extra structure produced from an enlarged wrist bone, with associated muscles and nerves.

thumb-1024x560-2

Gould declares that this extra finger is a “somewhat clumsy, but quite workable solution…. A contraption, not a lovely contrivance.” Here he was declaring that the panda’s thumb was of suboptimal or inferior design, which thus constituted proof that the source of the thumb was evolutionary trial and error rather than from a “divine artificer” (supernatural designer).

A major argument employed by many evolutionists, even today, is to point to suboptimal (inferior) design and to declare that this proves that evolution was the source rather than God. However, what makes something “suboptimal” is an open question. Sometimes a phenomenon that appears less than ideal actually displays superior and unexpectedly sophisticated design. Gould might not like the panda’s thumb, but there is no denying how wonderfully this thumb gets the job done.

INFERIOR EARS?

Another example: the inner ear of humans includes a spirally coiled structure called the cochlea. Lining its interior are very fancy hair cells which, by their motion, amplify the sound. The whole cochlea functions as a remarkably sensitive and finely tuned sound detector. However, at the same time, it also distorts the sound. Might these distortions be considered inferior design?

A study in 2008 (Nature, Nov 13) demonstrated that the distortions actually contribute to clarity of sound. The distortions come from a particular structure connecting the top of the various hair cells. Mice without this connector in their cochlea became progressively deaf.

Who knew distortions were so useful?

STABLE vs. MANEUVERABLE

A recent article published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (November 4-8) discussed another counter-intuitive (contrary to our expectations) situation. The study was conducted by engineers trying to build efficient robots. This is a large field of research.

The designers want systems that are not only stable but maneuverable. The problem is that these are opposite objectives. In general, the more maneuverable a robot is, the less stable it is. If your robot tips over, clearly it is not going anywhere. Alternatively, the more stable a robot is, the less one can fine-tune what it does – the harder it is to make sudden changes of direction. Thus your robot may be able to proceed briskly straight ahead, but what if you need it to turn a corner or climb over an obstruction? Will it be able to turn, or will it instead tip over?

Animals obviously have no such problems. That’s why engineers have turned their attention to animal locomotion. They ask themselves, how do animals achieve the “impossible” combination of stability and maneuverability? How indeed do actual insects like cockroaches manage their excellent locomotion skills? Biologists may have already observed the solution without recognizing its significance. Why, many biologists have wondered, do animals move in directions that are different from their desired destination? Why, for example, do cockroaches and lizards tilt from side to side as they run forward? An engineer would most likely eliminate these motions, which seem to waste energy, as they do not obviously contribute to the forward motion. Lately, however, mechanical engineers have begun to research how unexpected, “inefficient” movements may benefit these animals.

Insight into this mystery recently came from studies of a tiny fish from the Amazon basin. In order to avoid predators, this fish prefers to hide in various shelters such as tiny tubes. Scientists used slow-motion video to study fin movements of this fish as it finessed its way into its hiding places. At 100 frames per second, a strange situation became apparent. The fish was using one part of the lower body fin to push water forwards, and the other part to push it backwards. This was definitely against common sense since it was like two propellers fighting against each other.

When scientists built a fishy robot, they found that the opposing forces actually improved the stability and maneuverability of their model. The assumption of the engineers that it is wasteful or useless to employ forces in directions other than the desired forward motion had now been proven wrong.

Apparently, the same principle applies to the motion of many other creatures. The take-home lesson is that what, at first glance, appeared to be inferior design (opposing forces) actually turned out to be superior design!

PENGUIN ROCKETS

Another recent robotic study which shows promise is one inspired by the talents of emperor penguins. While these creatures look pretty inept on land, in the water they can accelerate from 0 to 7 meters/second in less than a second (a veritable rocket).

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One student at Caltech’s Aeronautics Department set out to create new propulsion technologies with high maneuverability and improved hydrodynamic efficiency. The new mechanical design is based on the penguin’s shoulder and wing system and features a spherical joint with various other technical features. Concerning the promise of the study, the student declared that the manner in which penguins swim is still poorly understood. Nevertheless, by accurately reproducing an actual penguin wing movement, he and his collaborators hope to shed light on the swimming mysteries of these underwater rockets (ScienceDaily.com November 14, 2013).

THE FLY EYE

There are many other examples of unrecognized excellence in design. For example, the compound eye of insects and other invertebrates is often considered to be less ideal than our own camera eyes. However, a recent study that modeled the compound eye found that it does offer some advantages over the camera style eye (Young Min Song et al. Nature. May 2, 2013).

Specifically the compound eye provides for an exceptionally wide field of view, and secondly such an eye has a nearly infinite depth of focus. As an object recedes away from the eye, the object becomes smaller, but it still remains in focus. It is apparent that in the case of eye design, there is no such thing as inferior design. There is instead good design that is more applicable to certain applications than to others.

GOD TELLS US TO EXPECT “INFERIOR” DESIGN

Obviously however there are many situations in nature that are less than ideal. This is a fallen world and there are many cases where we see distressing phenomena. The secular argument that a good God would never mandate inferior design is simply not valid. God cursed nature as a result of man’s sin, so we have no reason to expect wholesale perfection, and the former “very good” creation now displays many inferior design choices. For example in Job 39:13-17 we read:

The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
   but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth
   and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them
   and that the wild beasts may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
   though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear,
because God has made her forget wisdom
   and given her no share in understanding.

Clearly, the breeding behavior of the ostrich is suboptimal but nevertheless designed by God. Yet “when she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider” (Job 39:18). The strong legs of this bird and her running prowess also come from God. These gifts are a strong contrast to the behavioral deficits of the ostrich.

The evolutionists think they have proven that God did not work in nature. However, since their argument depends upon a discussion (however faulty) of the nature of God, this is a religious argument. Since they claim to have ruled out all religious arguments, then how can they use arguments concerning what God would or would not do – arguments touching on the character of God – to prove evolution? They need to make up their minds. If they want to explore the character of God and why He’d allow brokenness in the world, then let’s open our Bibles.

As for Christians, despite the fallen condition of the world, we can still enjoy and benefit from, and give thanks for, the many wonders of creation as coming from God’s divine wisdom.

This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue under the title ” Upon further reflection…” Dr. Margaret Helder is the author of “No Christian Silence on Science.