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A humpback whale frolicks in the sea offshore Alaska, 2016. (Navin Rajagopalan, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

“God” didn’t make whales as they are today.

In fact, “God” didn’t make whales at all.

Biological evolution by natural selection did.

Whales as we know them evolved in the natural world, science tells us, over some 60 million years of random genetic changes that began with a hyena-like terrestrial mammal named sinonyx. The now-massive, deep-sea creatures we today identify as whales did not result fully formed in the dawn of time from a spasm of divine fiat. At least there’s zero evidence for the latter, religious, hypothesis.

I mention this because the other day I read an article explaining the evolution of whales in the scientific website LiveScience — and also because December 20 will be the 15th anniversary of Dover vs. Kitzmiller, a Pennsylvania federal district court case that ultimately ruled “intelligent design” — a God-based view of biology — was a religious and not scientific hypothesis and, therefore, teaching it in Pennsylvania schools, as the local school board had voted to require, was unconstitutional.

“Intelligent Design,” also known as the “creationist” argument for earthly existence, posits that God at creation made every earthly creature in its complete and final form, and that dinosaurs and humans simultaneously co-existed in the world (they didn’t). Evolution, under the tenets of this proposal (deriving from Genesis in the Bible), would be seen by true Christian believers as untrue, and viewed as a “blasphemous” fiction.

In truth, the fiction is actually Genesis, and the reality of scientifically verified evolution is the fact.

Even more enthralling than the lovely if imaginary imagery in Genesis is the reality of the majestic whale’s evolution on Earth, from lowly mammal to king of the sea.

The LiveScience article explains:

“The story of the origin of whales is one of evolution’s most fascinating tales and one of the best examples scientists have of natural selection. To understand the origin of whales, it’s necessary to have a basic understanding of how natural selection works. Natural selection can change a species in small ways, causing a population to change color or size over the course of several generations. This is called ‘microevolution.’ But natural selection is also capable of much more. Given enough time and enough accumulated changes, natural selection can create entirely new species, known as ‘macroevolution.’ It can turn dinosaurs into birds, amphibious mammals into whales and the ancestors of apes into humans.”

evolution christianity whales science atheism
Evolution of whales: From the hyena-like sinonyx to today’s mammoth sea-dwellers. (Smithsonian, LifeScience)

Whales’ most distant mammalian ancestor evolved over eons into an alligator-like creature and later one that looked similar to a dolphin, along with various intermediate iterations, and finally into their present gargantuan form. Their mammal noses gradually moved backward to become whale blowholes atop the head (at first accommodating an amphibious land-water lifestyle as the creature slowly transformed into a fully aquatic mammal), front legs later morphed into flippers, back legs vanished, their bodies grew more streamlined, and tail flukes emerged that allowed them stronger swimming propulsion.

It’s the same basic evolutionary imperatives that caused Homo sapiens’ brain to expand to an astonishing size in relation to other primates (like chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas), and gave modern humans their world-beating intelligence and creative capacities.

Not that 19th century humans, especially religious ones, immediately accepted these new ideas when Darwin dumped them onto public consciousness. In fact, they were generally ridiculed.

LiveScience notes that in his first edition of On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution discoverer Charles Darwin speculated on how land mammals eventually turned into whales:

“As a hypothetical example, Darwin used North American black bears, which were known to catch insects by swimming in the water with their mouths open: ‘I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale,’ he speculated.

The idea didn’t go over very well with the public. Darwin was so embarrassed by the ridicule he received that the swimming-bear passage was removed from later editions of the book.”

Nonetheless, scientists now know that the great evolutionist was on the right track but referenced the wrong animal.

“Instead of looking at bears, he should have instead been looking at cows and hippopotamuses,” the LiveScience article offered.

Even as 19th century religious leaders remained skeptical (many still do), science moved forward in investigating the evolution of whales. According to LiveScience:

“Even though scientists could predict what early whales should look like, they lacked the fossil evidence to back up their claim. Creationists took this absence as proof that evolution didn’t occur. They mocked the idea that there could have ever been such a thing as a walking whale. But since the early 1990s, that’s exactly what scientists have been finding.

“The critical piece of evidence came in 1994, when paleontologists found the fossilized remains of Ambulocetus natans, an animal whose name literally means ‘swimming-walking whale.’ Its forelimbs had fingers and small hooves but its hind feet were enormous given its size. It was clearly adapted for swimming, but it was also capable of moving clumsily on land, much like a seal.”

In recent years, scientists have found more similar transitional species, or so-called “missing links,” in the whales evolutionary progression, further supporting Darwin’s theory.

This is what distinguishes the scientific study of evolution and the religious insistence on divine creation. The former adjusts and gains knowledge from continuing study of the natural world, buttressed by acquisition of new material facts. The latter holds tight to an inert and unsubstantiated past.

Science is a whale of a thing. Religion, a minnow.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...