Not of Cabbages and Kings

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Originally published in Creation 13, no 2 (March 1991): 18-20.

Have you ever noticed that when one considers two apparently different items, any characteristics they do hold in common can also be found in a wide variety of other things?

‘The time has come’, the walrus said, ‘To talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.’

The lines quoted [above] were written more than 100 years ago by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass. They are amusing because there seems to be only the remotest connection between the proposed topics to be discussed. Take cabbages and kings, for example. Why would the Walrus and the Carpenter want to discuss such different items in the same conversation? The answer in the poem seems to be that they are not really sincere about discussing anything.

Let us continue where the Walrus and the Carpenter left off. Have you ever noticed that when one considers two apparently different items, any characteristics they do hold in common can also be found in a wide variety of other things? Cabbages and kings, for example, are both living, but so are mosses, sea horses, mushrooms, and a host of other plants, animals, and microbes. There are absolutely no features which cabbages and kings share that are not shared by countless other living creatures.

An alternative conclusion would be that the two groups share features in common because they were both created by a logical designer.
Biologists use the above principle to classify organisms. When two groups share an unusual characteristic, as a general rule one would expect the two groups to be similar in many other features as well. Many classifiers (taxonomists) during the past 125 years have assumed that the possession by two groups of many features in common, especially unusual features, indicates that the two groups have descended from a common ancestor. They assume that an initial single population at some stage split (evolution) into two populations which differ in some characteristics. An alternative conclusion would be that the two groups share features in common because they were both created by a logical designer.

One phenomenon which the evolution model is ill-equipped to handle (but which fits the creation model well) is the finding of highly different creatures which share one unique characteristic. Can you imagine cabbages and kings sharing one unique feature? Maybe not. That seems as ridiculous as the idea that some whales and a desert shrub could share one unique feature. But they do... and their stories are fascinating!

Moby Dick

Sperm whales (Physeter catodon), at a maximum of 18 metres (60 feet) long, are far from the largest whales, but they have historically been the most vigorously hunted. Thanks also to Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, this is probably the best known whale species.

Sperm whales are easily identified by their enormous, square-shaped head which makes up a third of their total body length. A large reservoir inside the head contains 10-15 barrels of highly unusual liquid. It appears to be a thin, transparent ‘oil’, but on contact with air it solidifies to form a white wax called spermaceti.

The liquid is in fact a liquid wax. During most of this century these sperm whales were sought for their liquid wax, which has been used in industry as a lubricant of exceptional quality and resilience. As the sole commercial source of this lubricant, imports of sperm whale ‘oil’ into the United States over 30 years escalated from 900,000 kilograms in 1932 to 25 million kilograms in the mid-1960s. All this abruptly ended in 1971 with the enactment of the Endangered Species Conservation Act. This Act forbade, among other things, the importation of whale products into the United States. Where was industry to turn for such an important commodity? The unlikely answer is a desert shrub.

Indian harvest

The jojoba (pronounced ho-HO-ba) grows in Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico. This ever-green shrub with grey-green leaves grows in the wild up to 1.8 metres (six feet) and may live as long as 100 years. The Indians of these desert regions have long harvested jojoba fruit for its medicinal properties. Said to be something like a hazelnut, the soft-skinned fruit is a three-valved capsule. The medicinal claims, some of which seem to have some merit, range from facilitating childbirth to making skin and hair grow better, to limiting the growth of tuberculosis bacteria. Nevertheless, until the 1970s interest in jojoba was minimal.

The plant is unique, with one property not shared by any other known plant. In 1933 the unique property of jojoba was discovered. The supposed oil in the fruit was found to be instead a liquid wax—almost exactly like that from the sperm whale. In some ways jojoba ‘oil’ is even an improvement. It naturally lacks a fishy smell, and at 97 percent pure wax esters, it requires less processing than sperm whale oil.

Experimental plantations can now be found in Israel’s Negev desert and in the interiors of Argentina and Australia. Thus far in America almost all the harvest comes from wild plants. Experimental plantations were first established in the late 1970s, but commercial production is not as easy as one might hope. The major problems are wide disparity in yield from one plant to another, and the fact that the fruit-producing female flowers and the non-productive male flowers are on separate plants.

There is no way to recognize a male plant until the flowers appear. In natural stands in Arizona the ratio of male to female plants is 4:1. No commercial enterprise can afford to devote 80 percent of the land to non-productive male shrubs! Current research in breeding and propagation techniques may soon alleviate these problems.

Examples of Creation

In summary, we have the sperm whale and a desert shrub which share a highly unusual biochemical product. There is nothing remotely similar about their ecologies which could be said, by evolutionists, to have contributed to selective pressure encouraging the production of this particular metabolic end-product. As a matter of fact, the reason why the whale and the shrub synthesize liquid wax at all is far from clear. There are speculations as to possible benefits, but no one really knows. It would be nice to know the benefits to these organisms, but it is obvious that they cannot share one benefit in common.

Rather than a conclusion in favour of the evolution model, it seems more logical to conclude that these are examples of wise design, not products of common ancestry or similar ecological pressure. Unlike cabbages and kings, which truly have little in common, sperm whales and jojobas shed interesting light on the nature of our world.

(Acknowledgment for use of this article goes to Reformed Perspective, Box 12, Transcona Postal Station, Winnipeg, Manitoba R2C 2Z5, Canada.)


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