woensdag 17 december 2008

Some silliness

The Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad has a gushing review of Creationist biochemist Duane Gish's book about dinosaurs. Judging from the review, it seems to be standard OEC boilerplate with a dose of cryptozoology (dinosaurs are, apparently, still with us). I should note that the Reformatorisch Dagblad is in general a quality Calvinist newspaper, if you look away from their quirks such as shutting down their website on Sundays.

Some quotes of Gish I just can't leave alone (my translation):

Have you ever seen the tail of a hippo?

This is, of course, of the Behemoth, which is argued to be possibly a brachiosaur. The article has a helpful article about a man (presumably Job?) staring at three brachiosaurs (aren't brachiosaurs supposed to have been semi-aquatic, though?).

The relevant passage from Job (40: 15-19)

Look at the behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
What strength he has in his loins,
what power in the muscles of his belly!
His tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are close-knit.
His bones are tubes of bronze,
his limbs like rods of iron.
He ranks first among the works of God,
yet his Maker can approach him with his sword.

Now, at I understand, the reading of "hippopotamus" is based on the etymology of "Behemoth" which does seem to be a loan from an Egyptian word for hippo. Also, some of the other verses talk about the Behemoth hiding in swamps and under reeds, which fits the hippopotamus as well. But I agree that the 'tail'-part does not suggest a hippopotamus.

Then again, one might remark that cedars, as trees generally do, grow from the ground upward. Not sideways. So I can't see a brachiosaur reflected in the text either.

And look at the surrounding verses. First, we have amazement at the Behemoth's strength in the loins, then at the close-knit sinews of the thighs. 'Thighs' happen to be 'stones' or 'testicles' or 'male organs' in some other translations. The New International Version has a footnote that the 'tail' might be a trunk (supposing the Behemoth is an elephant) but, looking at the verse in context which reads as a praise to the creature's power and virility, my thoughts are drawn to a different organ.

I do not know whether 'tail' was a usual metaphor for that-other-thing in Biblical Hebrew (and can't be bothered to look up right now) but it seems natural enough (see for example German Schwanz which has both meanings).

For the record, I think it is fairly useless to speculate on what creature the Behemoth is supposed to mean. When the Bible talks about Behemoth, or Leviathan, it does not do so in quite the same way as it talks about sheep or camels - we do not find any Biblical figure encountering a herd of Behemoths. Rather, they are very specific monsters in the Biblical narrative as well. And I think that's what they basically are: monsters.

Elsewhere in the article Gish is quoted against the existence of transitional fossils:

None of the animals is on its way to change for 25, 50 or 75 percent; they are all complete 100 percent. Fossils are strong evidence against evolution.

The point of transitional fossils is one I have never understood.

It seems self-evident that if species A is the ancestor of species B (after a number of evolutionary changes) and that species B is an ancestral form of species C, that then species B is a transitional form between A and C, and fossils of it are 'transitional fossils'. Thus Homo Erectus is a transitional form between Homo Habilis and ancestral modern man. Which does in no way have to imply that species B (say Homo Erectus is in any way incomplete. It is only from the perspective of its ancestors and its descendants that it is a transitional fossil. As far as Homo Erectus was concerned, it probably was the pinnacle of creation. And of course Homo Erectus was a full-blown species, interbreeding with its companions, and persisting over a given quantity of time (perhaps some time after its modern descendants entered the scene. Most any creature is a representative of a species.

Likewise, from our contemporary perspective, we might state that Middle English is a transitional form between Old and Modern English, which does not mean Middle English was in any way an 'incomplete language'. Alternatively, if Monk A copies a Bible, makes a few mistakes, and leaves the copy to Monk B who adds some copying mistakes of his own in the copy he, in turn, is making, the intermediary form is a 'transitional form' from a historical perspective. It's still a Bible, too.

What has always remained entirely unclear to me is what, if my reading above is wrong, 'transitional fossils' are supposed to look like? Dinos with feathers? Check. Hairy reptiles? Check. Ape-men? Check. Ah, but all those are species in their own rights! But what else would we expect?

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