The Ultimate Question

When it comes to Creationism, especially young-Earth Creationism, the ultimate question is not “how many roads must a man walk down?” Nor is it “what do you get if you multiply six by nine?” Closer, however, is the title of the latest Daily Science Update from Mr Thomas, Why God Created Large, Sharp Teeth. The answer, whatever it is, seems unlikely to be “42”.

The teeth of the T-rex were not particularly well-suited for plant eating

For those unaware of the full magnitude of the problem, we begin at the beginning with Genesis. As you know, according the Biblical literalists, all was peaceful in the Garden of Eden. Nothing died in the Garden – though, of course, this means that in the eyes of creationists plants and worms cannot be “biblically alive.” Also used as supporting biblical ‘evidence’ is Genesis 1:29-30, which reads:

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

But fast forward 6000 years and we have all these animals that, like the late Sue the T-rex above, have teeth that look pretty damningly like they’re supposed to be used to eat living flesh. This is the conundrum that Brian Thomas intends to answer.

He begins:

Nineteenth-century English poet Alfred Tennyson famously described nature as “red in tooth and claw.” But were claws and teeth originally intended to draw blood, or were they used to eat vegetation?

This is a common line of reasoning on the part of creationists, but a flawed one. We know what teeth that are used for plant eating look like: completely different to Sue’s. But let’s see if B.T. will manage to in anyway back up his speculation.

Recently, three U.S. biologists studied the feeding habits of 11 Central and South American leaf-nosed bats and looked for “relationships between diet, tooth structure, feeding performance, and behaviour.” Some bats eat insects and small vertebrates, some eat fruit and nectar, others a little bit of everything. Vampire bats, of course, will eat blood.

Bats, eh? Now, if Mr Thomas was going to make a testable hypothesis at this point, he would probably predict that there would be no relationship here between teeth and diet, or at least a very odd one. For if these sharp canines are useful for plants as well as for meat, wouldn’t they still be using them for plant eating?

To conduct their research, which was published in 2011, the team generated three-dimensional images of the teeth and skulls of 17 bat species. The BBC featured some of the images on its website, such as the fruit bat skull below.

Yeah, yeah, yeah – the picture given is the genuine article.

The study authors found that fruit bats have more complicated surface features on their molars, which they use to crush fruit pulp. Insectivorous bat molars have pointed crests that are more efficient at shearing insect exoskeletons.

As you would expect. Oddly, there seems to be a missing paragraph in here: what they also found, and what Mr Thomas is driving at but forgets to mention is that fruit bats use their sharp teeth to grip fruit. Well, no – that’s the headline of the BBC sideshow that B.T. links to: Sharp teeth aid bats’ fruit diets. I’m not completely sure that that was the crux of the study.

But before we get too carried away with this apparent discovery of vegetarian bats with carnivorous teeth, note that the insectivorous bats (i.e. the carnivorous ones – vampire bats don’t seem to have been studied) don’t have these sharp teeth. Fruitbats need their teeth to grip fruit. T-rex needed its teeth to grip and tear flesh. But insectivorous bats need their teeth to shear off exoskeletons from the more palatable parts of the insect (as Mr Thomas says above), and their teeth are developed accordingly. The hidden element to the bat situation, then, is that it is these teeth that need to be explained, not the long, sharp ones.

A 2012 study of multiple large fruit bat species that inhabit the same locations in Brazil found that although their chromosomes looked virtually indistinguishable at first, species-specific banding patterns show up when stained. A separate 2011 study found “a considerable range of individual variation” in Phyllostomatid vampire bat skulls.

This, rather pointless paragraph seems to have replaced the one I said was missing. Where is Mr Thomasgoing with this?

The fact that fruit bats use their sharp teeth to eat fruit fits with the biblical teaching that God originally intended animals to eat vegetation, not other animals:

Nowhere with that, evidently. You can see now, I hope, what I mean about a missing bit – I’m quoting the whole thing today.

Large, sharp teeth are not used solely for killing and ripping flesh from other animals. Fruit bats have sharp, pointed teeth, similar to those in cats, designed to quickly tear flesh from fruit. These teeth easily could remove flesh from an animal, but the fruit bat does not use them for this purpose.

That quote brought to you by molecular biologist Daniel Criswell, writing in Acts & Facts. Why don’t they? There are plenty of other bats and other animals that do eat ‘meat’ of some kind. Why do cats, and not bats, if they are so similar? Perhaps, perhaps, they wouldn’t actually be all that good at it? Taking a look at Thomas’ picture, the skull shape looks all wrong for a meat-eating animal, and the other teeth that the bat would need to eat meat don’t look overly well suited either.

And the fact that other bats eat blood fits with the biblical teaching that sin resulted in a cursed creation. Bats now use their vegetation-eating equipment with less discrimination.

But what about the T-rex? The size difference between a bat and larger creatures means that there simply is no fruit big enough for them to grasp with these teeth.

It makes sense that God would supply various creatures with large, sharp teeth so that they could eat the varied plant products He provided for their nourishment. But since the “law of sin and death” now operates in this world, animals and humans use what was originally good to accomplish what is inherently not good.

So next time Brian claims that a carnivorous animal is ‘amazingly designed for its role’ we can call him a hypocrite? And, I wonder, is he a vegetarian?

With that over with, let’s return a moment to Criswell’s piece where Brian left off:

Large canine teeth are also used in communication. Many animals–including chimpanzees, dogs (wild and domestic), big cats, and other predators–expose their canines to communicate ownership of mates, animal groups, food resources, and territory. Teeth are vital to the success of animals, both for communication as well as for feeding.

Tell me, Dr Criswell, why does showing your teeth communicate these things? Is it because, perhaps, they signify your ability to cut your opponent up with them?

Bears of the American northwest provide the best example in the wild of how behavior determines diet. Grizzly bears and black bears are well-equipped to destroy the life of other animals. But they also use their physical tools to eat fruits and vegetables. As a biologist, I have personally witnessed bears clean apples out of an apple tree, consume large quantities of clover, and strip all the berries from wild raspberry, huckleberry, and choke cherry plants.

“As a biologist” – you’re a molecular biologist, Criswell. What does ‘as a biologist’ mean in this context? Did you take a sample of the Bear’s saliva for analysis? Or is this just an argument from authority?

These activities are also well documented in the scientific literature. Although classified as carnivores, bears are actually opportunistic omnivores and are quite capable of living off a vegetarian diet if the food source is available. Many “meat-eating” animals fall into this category. This “predatory” animal, like others, will eat the most nutritious meals that are the most easily obtainable.

But do they use their carnivorous teeth for this? And what about the ones that don’t?

Domesticated animals also provide an excellent example of how the behavior of an animal can be altered to utilize a specific food source. Dogs and cats have the same tooth structure as wild wolves and lions, respectively, yet these animals are able to change their behavior and eat processed food (cereal) made mostly from corn meal, soybean meal, and rice.

The point is not what the food is made out of, but its form. If you made leaves out of meat, could dogs eat them? Have you ever seen a cat eat grass? (They don’t look all that ‘designed’ for it…)

The ability and desire to eat prepared cereal or “chow” emphasizes another misconception concerning social predators. Most people are under the impression that these animals are after the same meat that we would use for roasts and steaks. They aren’t. The choice portions of a killed herbivore are the internal organs that are rich in vitamins and other nutrients acquired from a vegetarian diet. This is what social predators, like wolves and lions, are after. The lower ranking animals are left with the steaks, roasts, and bones, while the higher ranking animals enjoy the benefits of a more nutritious, “vegetarian” diet found in the gut.

So… they’re after the half-eaten stuff in the stomach? Really? Even if so, that doesn’t actually change that they need their sharp teeth to get at it, but don’t need them to eat leaves. The nutrition content is not relevant here.

The need for predation by these animals clearly results from a change in behavior, not from a change in form and function. It is also interesting to note that, typically, predators have to learn to kill. Social predators are not born with the knowledge of how to hunt and kill. They must learn these skills from the other animals in their group.

Also irrelevant. And with that we leave the subject, at least until the next time it comes up.

I’ll note first though that there are other ideas creationists have about this. First, God may have designed these features with “foresight” – see, for example, this A&F article from James J. S. Johnson.

Second, they could have simply developed through evolution/The Fall. This is obviously unpalatable to most creationists, but fits with baraminology and all that. The problem, of course, is that baraminology seems to be theologically inconsistent with the creationist position.


One thought on “The Ultimate Question

  1. 1. Whilst they are kind of pointy, the fruit bat’s teeth are also rather different from a pure carnivores equipment. From the study:

    “We illustrate a trend from relative simplicity of the shearing molars in insectivores and omnivores to high complexity of the crushing molars in frugivores”

    And there’s not just contrast between insectivores and these bates, if you look at the pointy bat skull you’ll notice the molars become flatter for crushing and grinding towards the back. This is because they’re adapted to a diet that needs this. Compare that to say, a T. rex skull and you’ll note that the sharp teeth go all the way back as they don’t need to do crushing or grinding.

    2. Larger canines are correlated with increased competition between males. If God gave them these canines then he knew there would be much fighting, typically over resources. Is that bad? Or since animals don’t have a soul it doesn’t matter if they maul each other (so long as they don’t eat each other).


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