News to Note, August 4, 2007

A weekly feature examining news from the biblical viewpoint

Featured in News to Know

A “re-un-ancient” fish, Neandertal controversy, bird-brained evolution, fish submarines, and a swift plane round out this week’s News to Note.

1. Sorry, But You Are Extinct: the Coelacanth's Story

Just imagine it: you’re a fisherman in Indonesia just looking to catch some dinner and maybe a little extra to sell in the local market. You cast your net over the side of your boat and wait patiently. Next thing you know, you’re hauling a 350-million-year-old coelacanth aboard.

2. National Geographic News: “Odd Skull Boosts Human, Neandertal Interbreeding Theory

The connection between modern humans and Neandertals is once again the issue at hand in evolutionary anthropological debates, reports National Geographic News. And who’s at fault for starting the debate? According to scientists, it’s an allegedly 33,000-year-old man whose skull was recovered from a Romanian bear cave in 1942. What’s so interesting about this skull? “The Homo sapiens [sic] skull has a distinctive feature previously found only in Neandertals, providing further evidence of interbreeding between the two species, according to a new study.” The article elaborates:

The otherwise human skull has a groove at the base of the back of the skull, just above the neck muscle, that is ubiquitous in Neandertal specimens but has never been seen in the remains of a modern human[.]

Other anthropologists, such as paleoanthropologist Eric Delson of the Bronx’s Lehman College, counter that “you can often find one or two [modern humans] that have a bump here, or a groove or depression there[, but t]hat doesn't make them Neandertals or prove that there was a Neandertal in their ancestry.”

Fair enough, but amid all the other evidence that Neandertals were fully human, this discovery just adds to the pile of evidence that Neandertals, rather than a legacy of our evolutionary past, were as much descendants of Adam and Eve as we are. (For more information, see also The Neandertals: Our Worthy Ancestors and The Neandertals: Our Worthy Ancestors, Part II.)

3. “Learning to evolve: With a little help from my ancestors

A new theory by a Sheffield University scientist proposes that birds’ innate ability to learn to fly has been shaped by evolution:

According to a new theory by Dr Stone [...] skills such as flying are easy to refine because the innate ability of today’s birds depends indirectly on the learning that their ancestors did, which leaves a genetically specified latent memory for flying.

Stone’s theory purports to explain how many skills are “acquired by a combination of innate ability and learning over many generations,” and it’s certainly an intriguing one. There are a few problems, however. First of all, this theory (though not a true “theory” in the scientific sense; more accurately, an “idea”) is not based on the actual study of birds (at least, not that the article indicates), but rather on brain models called artificial neural networks, which “can be made to evolve using genetic algorithms.” Such artificial models are often designed with the explicit presupposition of the truth of evolution, and thus, are not necessarily accurate reflections of the actual workings of nature.

Furthermore, while Stone theorizes an explanation for how birds “learn so easily how to fly,” we can just as easily theorize an equally powerful explanation: God created birds’ learning capabilities! If our starting point is that everything (including birds’ learning capabilities) had to evolve, then of course it may require various theories to explain away the problem of how not only organic structures, but also behaviors and capabilities—including “innate knowledge”—evolved to work together (see also ‘Irreducible complexity’). We, on the other hand, understand that God created everything “very good,” in complete working order, from the beginning, with no evolution necessary!

4. BBC NEWS: “Robot fins to propel submarines

This week’s first example of one of God’s designs inspiring human technology comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where researchers “have created prototype mechanical fins that mimic the movements of the bluegill sunfish.”

The goal for the robo-fin project is to contribute to the development of agile, propellerless submarines with both powerful forward thrust and maneuverability. The BBC article explains the complete vision:

The hope is that in the future propellerless, fish-like submarines could carry out a range of tasks, such as mapping oceans, surveying shipwrecks or sweeping for mines, with more agility and speed than current autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) controlled by propellers.

The bluegill sunfish was chosen for its “great efficiency” swimming motion, which propels it forward without creating much backward thrust nor increasing water resistance. Yet another example of God’s design inspiring human technology!

5. BBC NEWS: “Swifts inspire morphing-wing plane

The second example this week of one of God’s designs fueling human engineering plans is an aeronautical project from the University of Delft in the Netherlands. Based on the ability that swifts, a type of small bird, have to change the shape of their wings while in flight, a team of Delft students along with tutor David Lentink has come up with RoboSwifts, with a wingspan of 20 in. (50 cm), that likewise “morph” wing shape in flight.

The BBC article explains just why the team found swift capabilities so compelling:

Dr Lentink’s research found that during its life, a swift flies the equivalent of five times the distance to the moon and back.
To do this, the swift has to be highly efficient, and so has “morphing” wings which allow it to take advantage of prevailing flight conditions.

Team member Jan Wouter Kruyt expressed enthusiasm over the greater possibilities for the future of such bird-mimicking technology: “There’s a lot to be learnt from the birds—this is just the first step.” Indeed, the fascinating world of God’s incredible designs seems to get more complex and amazing at each turn!

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