Wednesday, September 9, 2009

50 New Species: The Biblical Nightmare

The exciting discovery of "lost worlds," people and places never before seen by Westerners, used to be commonplace during the colonial era as European powers tried to claim the whole world. But the days when scientists and explorers would regularly discover whole new ecosystems and amazing new species are long gone ... or are they?

An amazing discovery of fifty new species in a volcano in Papua New Guinea brought back a little bit of that excitement this week. A BBC film crew returned with fascinating pictures of a giant woolly rat as big as a cat, a frog with fangs, three new kinds of new fish, and even a new bat.

Some of the best, and most instructive, ecosystem on the planet are small, isolated islands, such the Galapagos that were famously studied by Darwin. Such islands were "seeded" by a few species that blew in, flew in, or floated in long ago. These species then evolved independently of their continental brethren, largely undisturbed by new arrivals and interbreeding, and provided a natural "experiment" that proved and illustrated the principles of evolution.

But it doesn't take an island to make this happen – anything that isolates an ecosystem can have the same effect. One of my favorite examples is the Rocky Mountain peaks of Northern New Mexico. Some of these mountains reach over 4,000 meters, and support a rich diversity of plants, trees, and animals. But these species, highly adapted to the thin air and bitter winters, can't cross the dry, hot, lower-altitude deserts that separate the mountain peaks. Each mountain range becomes a virtual island, an isolated ecosystem, and there is often significant genetic drift between the plants and animals on adjacent mountains that are only a few dozen kilometers apart.

The volcano in Paupua New Guinea proved to be just such a system: steep, tall walls isolated the caldera from the outside world, allowing the species inside to evolve independently.

This has got to be a Biblical literalist's nightmare.
The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc.
— The Reverend Jerry Falwell
How does the good Reverend Falwell explain this new discovery? Did Noah go to Papua New Guinea, climb the volcano, scale the cliffs, and grab two of each of these fifty new species (plus many others that the BBC probably didn't discover), carry them back to the arc, and then after the flood, return them to the volcano?

It seems unlikely.


  1. Religiosos will say what they always say: God works in mysterious ways.
    Theists who take the bible literally say, "Oh, that was in the bible all along-- we just didn't understand it." It would be useful if God put all the cures for diseases, for example, in there in ways that we can understand... No doubt when we find a cure for cancer, literalists will say, "It was in the bible all along."

  2. To reply to Sarah:
    If the religious say that they misunderstand the Bible, then I would say they cannot criticize atheists for "taking these verses out of context."

  3. My guess is, creationists will simply claim that while these are previously unknown species, they don’t represent new “kinds” of animals.


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