A Head Full of Magnets

on November 21, 2009

ScienceNOW: “Chemical Reactions Guide Birds HomeIntelligent design means never having to ask for directions.

Turtles, birds, and butterflies had GPS long before humans invented the device. These creatures migrate thousands of miles each year to find food, to find breeding grounds, and to escape harsher seasons. Now scientists may be one step closer to uncovering how this animal navigation system works.

The problem with the magnet idea is that scientists are unsure if these magnets are hooked up to the animals’ brains.

There are two camps in the debate over how animals detect earth’s magnetic field to find their way: some claim the animals use actual biological magnets, while others argue for chemical reactions that are impacted by magnetic fields. The problem with the magnet idea is that scientists are unsure if these magnets are hooked up to the animals’ brains. For example, the iron crystals in bird beaks would be useless for navigation if the bird couldn’t “tune into” them.

The chemical reaction camp has faced its share of problems as well, but two recent research initiatives seem to support the idea that a chemical called cryptochrome, when impacted by light,

changes into one of two states that differ in the position of an unpaired (or radical) electron. The ratio of these two states depends on the orientation of cryptochrome to magnetic fields. The “radical-pair” camp argues that birds navigate chemically with cryptochrome and visually by tracking the position of the sun and stars.

In the first study, which may seem macabre to some, biologists at the University of Oldenburg in Germany tested both theories by altering robins’ brains. One set of robins had the nerves to their beaks snipped, and the other set had lesions created in the region of the brain called cluster N (thought to control the magnetic sensing of eye cells). The first set could still detect magnetic fields, but the second set could not.

A related study investigated the “disorder” of the cells in the birds’ eyes. Critics of the chemical reaction theory say that this disorder would prevent the birds from using the cryptochrome to sense magnetic fields. Erin Hill and Thorsten Ritz, biophysicists at the University of California–Irvine, determined just how much disorder would keep the cryptochrome from working. They found that

even using the cryptochrome in a single cell, a bird should be able to sense its orientation relative to Earth's magnetic field.

For creationists, there are two main points to take away from these discoveries. First, the amazing complexity of living things is certainly strong confirmation of what Paul said in Romans 1:20. These biological systems far outstrip anything we could invent and testify about the Creator.

The problem is that good science like this is almost always polluted with unsupportable ideas.

Secondly, both of these studies demonstrate the effectiveness of observational science. Repeatable results have been produced using rigorous standards to uncover how something works. There’s still no definitive answer as to how these animals navigate, but these are steps toward that answer.

The problem is that good science like this is almost always polluted with unsupportable ideas. Evolutionary storytellers jump on such results and try to explain how animal navigation “arose by mutation and natural selection.” Is there a need for such conjecture? No, not one bit.

Good science doesn’t need evolution and billions of years. It needs observations in the present. Anything else almost always depends on beliefs and worldviews. Besides, we already know where these systems came from (Genesis 1:20–24); all that’s left is to figure out how they work.

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