Does Genesis require that ostriches were flight capable in the prelapsarian world?
If you have read parts I and II of this series you might think that I have overlooked one very important clue about the origin of ostriches: the Genesis creation account. You could suggest that a logical argument can be made that the Genesis does show us that ostriches were created as very different animals than we see them today and therefore God must not have been talking about the their creation when speaking of the ostrich in Job 39. That argument might go something like this:
- If Leviticus 4:3 lists the ostrich (at least the same cognate Hebrew word) with other birds “species” then we know that other Biblical authors considered the ostrich to be a bird.
- If Genesis 1:21-22 records the creation of the living creatures with wings and associates them directly with that which flies “above the surface of the earth”
- Then ostriches being birds and having wings must have been originally created to fly
If this logic is sound does this create a contradiction between what God has said concerning the ostrich in Job and their implied original created condition from Genesis? I think that this argument from Genesis is far from a proof though it would require addressing numerous interpretive/hermeneutic issues to sort out why. I would just point out here that I think that a very literal sense hermeneutic, as seen above and among young earth creationists, results in a number of strained interpretations at this point. As far as I can tell, creationists all consider penguins birds but they believe that they were created flightless and yet a straightforward reading of Genesis suggests that birds were created to fly above the surface of the earth. For now let me just say that I don’t believe it is necessary for Genesis 1 to be read as a guide to animal nomenclature such that the terms birds, wings, and flight have to have the strict definitions that are implied in the proposal above. What is being communicated here is that God is telling us He created the living creatures of the sea, land and air rather than making specific taxonomic statements. For example, whales are mammals which are usually land animals but live in the seas and bats are mammals that take to flight. We don’t need to know they are mammals for the author of Genesis to be conveying truth about their origins.
So What Did the Original Ostrich Kind Really Look Like?
Asking this questions allows us to examine and test some of the principles of what creation scientists like to call baraminology. I’ve provided a more extensive introduction to this idea in the past (Link to my “Thoughts on Baraminology” post) but briefly, barminology is the “science” of identification of Biblical kinds which are considered by many creationists to be the basic organismal units of creation. God created kinds rather than species the thinking goes though the original kinds may have contained many morphologically distinct populations that we might equate with species today. An example of a putative created kind would be the canines. The canines are usually considered a single baramin that today is represented by 35 or so biological species including foxes, wolves, coyotes, etc.. In the case of canines all of these species are related to one another through common ancestry to an original pair of canines that were present on Noah’s ark. Of course, kinds may also have been more diverse prior to the flood but only a single pair of what could have been hundreds of species is required by barminologists to have been preserved on the Ark. As you can see this field of baraminology provides a creationist rationale for their being many fewer animals (possibly as few as just a few hundred) on the ark than most people would expect if each species had to be preserved.
So what about the ostrich? Although there is only one recognized species alive today there are many other ostrich-like flightless birds in the fossil record including birds just like ostriches from fossils in China and other places far from where they are found today. In addition, there are Emus from Australia, and the extinct Moa’s from New Zealand both of which look similar to today’s Ostrich although the Moa’s had no wings at all. I haven’t been able to find any discussion about the baraminology of ostriches but I wouldn’t be surprised if some other flightless birds might not be considered the same kind and thus only a pair would have been on the ark. All penguin species are considered by creationists as part of one kind and in this case one created flightless. If this is the case and even if we look at the various fossils of ostriches doesn’t one have to conclude that the “ostrich” that stepped off the ark would have been very different from the one we see today. Also consider that the ostrich is highly adapted for living in a desert including dehydration protection structures and other physiological adaptations but the prelapsarian world (eg. the edenic state) has almost universally been considered devoid of deserts since young earth creationists view deserts as harsh locations that would not have been present in the world before the entrance of sin.
The ostrich then seems to be made or “designed” for this present world not the past world in the way of young earth creationist thinking. How then to young earth creationists explain the amazing adaptations of the ostrich to its present environment and its behavioral characteristics? On the creation kids page at Answers in Genesis they note that the ostrich will swallow rocks in order to help it digest its food after which they make the comment: “How would the ostrich know that this would help it without the designed instinct given by its Creator?” (link to AIG). Amazing adaptation yes, but clearly not one that they believe the prelapsarian ostrich would have been in need of. Did God create this ostrich with the hidden genetic potential to express this instinct they wouldn’t need until after the Flood? I can’t quote anyone directly, because I can’t find any creationist writings that speak to the origin of this specific group, however by following the logic of their explanation for other animal groups I am almost certain the explanation for why they look they way they do now would go something like the following:
In the beginning there was a bird that had some ostrich like properties in the Garden of Eden. This bird was created with the ability to fly and a lot of genetic variation including the ability to adapt its genes to develop traits for survival in the desert and peculiar behaviors in anticipation of Adam’s sin. After Adam sinned, because some animals became predators, a form of natural selection caused those variations in the proto-ostrich genome to be selected for being able to run very fast and kick very hard, it also allowed the animals to develop, again from a pre-existing gene pool, features for life in the future deserts where it would make its home. This selective process happened very quickly after the flood and that original ostrich or flightless bird baramin (kind) split into several populations which developed different features becoming the ostrich we see today and possibly the 10s of species of now extinct Moa’s in New Zealand and several other flightless birds that are found in the upper fossil record.
There are many many avenues that could be explored at this point. But bringing this back to the text from the book of Job it is clear that the report we have in Job is of an animal that has nearly the identical features as those we find today. Since most creationists believe the book of Job records events from the very earliest years after the Flood this then provides us with a way of testing their ideas about baraminology. Let me illustrate this process of prediction by using canines: creationists wish to claim that there was only one pair of canines on the Ark that then have given rise to all the species of foxes, wolves and all domestic breeds we see today and yet we have very clear historical records of breeds of domestic dogs in the earliest dynasties of Egypt. All indications are that domestic dogs came from wolves and yet there are fossils of wolves, foxes and other extinct canines in the upper geological column which creationists claim was formed after the Flood. Logically then, if these are all canines and there were only two on the Ark, then those two canine individuals reproduced and evolved into 50 or more extinct and living recognizable species of canines and at least 10s of specific breeds of domesticated dogs. All of this must have happened within a generation of bounding off of the ark. Even with 4000 years to sort genetic variation and select features in populations to form distinct species, the “evolution” of all of these species would have to occur at an astounding and unobserved rate but in reality creationists need all the species of canines to evolve from a pair of canines within a few years to maybe 300 years at most.
Getting back to the ostrich, not only does the Bible confirm the likeness of ostriches from thousands of years ago to today’s ostriches but there are Egyptian records and images of ostriches that are at least as old that also demonstrate that ostriches at that time would probably be indistinguishable from today’s ostriches. In other words, the ostrich species has not visibly changed (but see footnote) over 4000 years. What about the large-sized but extinct Moa’s of New Zealand, what about the many fossils of ostriches that have been found in Africa and other places in the world that reveal that there were many other species in addition to the one we have today? If there were other ostrich species in the past including, in the Middle East, why no change in appearance of the African ostrich during recorded human history? If Moa’s, Emus, kiwis and other flightless birds similar to Ostriches came from the same pair of birds that exited Noah’s ark when did this divergence of species happen and why has there been no discernible change since?
I want to look a bit closer at the question of flightless birds and their speciation but to do so I will need to describe the natural history of the Moa’s from New Zealand in more detail. I will explore this in part IV wherein we ask how birds with no wings at all got to New Zealand.
No visible changes in a species does not mean that there have been no genetic changes. The DNA sequence is always changing because of mutations and recombination. Undoubtedly where DNA sequences from Ostriches from the past compared to those from the present there would be differences. But those differences in their DNA code are not at critical positions that have resulted in apparent morphological changes.