Ostriches are curious creatures. They are very large birds that, although they have large wings, are incapable of flight. They make themselves at home in some of the most inhospitable places. They lay their eggs in simple dirt nests and behave in ways that have perplexed our ancestors since they first laid eyes on them. In several previous posts (Theistic Models of Ostrich Origins and Consider the Ostrich: Job 39 and God’s Commentary on Creation) we have focused on the ostrich, and specifically the descriptions of the ostrich in the book of Job, to explore questions about biological diversity. We have been especially interested in asking how Christians might discern what God has revealed to us about the original condition of the ostrich.
If you have read our previous discussion about Job and the initial state of birds you may think that we have avoided the most straightforward literal reading of the Genesis account when assessing the origins of the ostrich. Most literal-day creationists place a strong emphasis on the Genesis text over other scriptural accounts of origins. Focusing only on the Genesis account many Christians may conclude that the original condition of the ostrich—the prelapsarian state—was that of a bird fully capable of flight. Hence, the author of Job must not have been referring to the created (original) state of the ostrich when describing the flightless ostrich in Job chapter 39. That line of thought could be stated as below:
Proposition 1: God created birds to fly. Genesis 1:20-22 records the creation of “every winged bird according to its kind” and commands that the “birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.”
Proposition 2: Biblical authors considered ostriches to be birds. Leviticus 4:3 lists the ostrich (the same cognate Hebrew word) with other birds “species” and other Biblical authors also considered the ostrich to be a bird.
Conclusion: Therefore ostriches, being birds and having wings, must have been originally been created with the ability to fly. Furthermore, when faced with the fact that the ostrich described in Job is so different than that of its presumed original state, the cause of this change in condition is the state of decay and chaos brought into the world by Adam’s sin in Genesis chapter 3.
If this logic is sound, does the description of the ostrich in Job conflict with the description we find in Genesis initial condition of birds? It would appear so within the literalistic hermeneutic of some interpreters of scripture.
However, I don’t believe each of the propositions in the argument above to be unassailable. 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” carry the same implications as our modern scientific mindset does. What is being communicated in Genesis is that God created the living creatures of the sea, land and air, rather than specific taxonomic descriptions of animals groups identifiable by modern science. For example, we classify mammals as whales that live in the sea. Likewise, bats are mammals that take to flight. We don’t need to find corresponding equivalents of modern classifications to those mentioned by the author of Genesis in order to convey the truth that God made each of these creatures to perform “good” functions in the sea, sky and on land.
What happens if we try to make the Bible into a modern science text?
Briefly, I would point out here that a very literal hermeneutic, as set forth in the propositions and conclusions above and commonly promoted by young earth creationists (YECs), results in a number of strained interpretations of the Biblical text. Furthermore, YECs don’t evenly apply their own literalistic hermeneutic principles (see section below: Ostrich origins are confusing) consistently. For example, every YEC article about penguins I have read has recognized that penguins are true birds, yet no YEC seems to believe than any penguin ancestor was created with the ability to fly. Again, a straightforward reading of Genesis, as is demanded by YEC apologists, would require that “birds” were created to “fly” above the surface of the earth. To further illustrate how the literalistic hermeneutic leads to strained interpretations, some YECs claim that “the birds of the earth” must also refer to flying reptiles (pterosaurs) and to mammals (bats).
So What Did the Original Ostrich Kind Really Look Like?
Asking this questions allows us to examine and test some of the principles that creation scientists refer to as baraminology. I’ve provided a more extensive introduction to this speculative discipline in the past (See:“Thoughts on Baraminology” post) but, briefly, baraminology is the “science” of identification of Biblical kinds which are considered by many creationists to be the basic organismal units of creation. They believe that God created kinds rather than species, 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 or “baramin” would be the canine kind. The canines are usually considered to be a single baramin that is represented by 35 living biological species including foxes, wolves, coyotes, etc. each of which is said to have evolved from a common ancestral pair of canines preserved on an Ark by Noah about 4350 years ago.
The very existence of, and explanation behind, “baraminology” and “the kinds” stems not from scientific evidence for them, nor from the analysis of scripture, but rather this entire pseudo-science has “evolved” because of an inability to store and maintain two of each “species” of animal on Noah’s Ark, during the time required for Noah’s great, global flood. To further complicate the question of biological diversity, the YEC has only 2500 (or however many) years in which to explain how all species are present today. All of these subsequent species of canines must be related to one another via common ancestor— an original pair of canines—that were present on Noah’s ark. For the young earth creationist, the massive population bottleneck caused by the Ark does not exclude the possibility that the canine “kind” was more diverse prior to the Flood it simply limits all the present diversity in this post-flood world to an origin in those representatives on Noah’s Ark. So that when God commanded Noah to bring “two of every kind,” it would have been understood that Noah knew which animals to take and which to leave, or that God told him which to take (though the text does not suggest this), or that every individual from every species from every kind possessed the biological ability to evolve into all species we see today!
So what about the ostrich? There are only two recognized living species today but there are more than ten recognized extinct species of ostriches, as well as a number of fossil species that may be more distantly related. These extinct species are found across Africa, Asia and Europe indicating ostriches once occupied a much wider geographical range.
Consider also that the ostrich has a multitude of adaptations for living in a desert. For YECs, however, the prelapsarian world (eg. the edenic state) has been almost always been considered devoid of deserts. Young earth creationists view deserts as harsh locations that would not have been present in the world before sin entered the world (i.e. they are not “very good”).
Upon review, it appears that the ostrich is “designed” for this present world and not some past perfect paradise that creationists imagine. How then do young earth creationists explain the presumed amazing adaptations of the ostrich to its present environment and its odd behavioral characteristics?
Interestingly there has been very little commentary by creationists about the ostrich or any other animals in Job with one exception. YECs are obsessed with the description of behemoth, and to a lesser extent the leviathan, found in chapter 40, insisting that they must be descriptions of a dinosaur and fire-breathing dragon; animals that they believe lived contemporaneously with Job.
Ostrich origins are confusing to Young-Earth Creationists
Previously (Comparing theistic models of biological origins) I suggested that young-earth creationists take one of three approaches to explain the present condition of animals and the ostrich in particular.
- YEC-1. (Classical or Historical Creationist model) The ostrich we see today is effectively the same species that God made on the 5th day of creation. Characteristics of the ostrich we currently observe are adaptations to a fallen world and are traits that may have served some other function in the prelapsarian (pre-fall) world. God, in his wisdom, created ostriches with this functionality and behavior knowing that each feature would be useful in the postlapsarian world.
- YEC-2 (Moderate change model) God created the first ostrich flightless but modern physical and behavioral characteristics are adaptive responses to a corrupted world resulting from sin. God, by design, pre-loaded future genetic changes into the original ostrich (or ratite) kind such that it experienced moderate changes in physical features and behavior after Adam sinned.
- YEC-3 (Hyper-evolution or de-evolution model) God created the ancestor of the modern ostrich capable of flight. That ancestor may have been hardly recognizable as an ostrich since it subsequently “devolved” due to Adam’s sin. The ostrich may have been pre-loaded with genetic programs for future adaptations. These genetic programs may have resulted in many species of ostriches and possible other living and extinct ratite birds.
Let’s see how these different hypotheses of ostrich origins play out in the YEC literature.
First, we should observe that some YECs have avoided engaging with the implications of the description of ostriches in the Bible by suggesting that ostriches are not mentioned in the Bible. Consider the oft-identified father of modern young-earth creationism himself, Henry Morris. In his 1995 book, KJV New Defender’s Study Bible, he provides a footnote to 39:13:
“There is a question whether or not the bird described in Job 39:13-18 is really an ostrich, or some extinct bird. In the other three occurrences of this word (Hebrew notsah) it is translated “feathers,” in no case referring to ostriches. The characteristics of the bird described in these verses correspond only in part to those of the modern ostrich. The reference to “wings” would seem pointless, for the ostrich is flightless.”
Apparently Morris is not familiar with the behavior and other attributes of modern ostriches as Job 39 describes an animal that fits the description of an ostrich perfectly. Despite the respect Morris has in the YEC community, his interpretation appears to have been roundly ignored by his peers.
In contrast to Morris, we can look back to the early days of YECism and read the words of staunch creation scientists such as George Howe. He published a short article (1963) in the Jornal of the American Scientific Affiliation (now called Perspective on Science and Christian Faith). That article begins with the following statement: “Critics have questioned the accuracy of statements about the ostrich in Job 39. A study of ostrich life history, mating habits, nesting behavior, and care of the young reveals that the Bible account is completely reliable in every detail.” Howe proceeds to demonstrate that all the characteristics of the ostrich described in Job are confirmed by modern science and thus remarkable confirmation of the scientific accuracy of the scriptures.
For the purposes of our discussion we should also note that Howe’s observations demonstrate that he believed that the flightless ostrich described Job was not observably different from those living today. In other words, the ostrich has not experienced observable evolution, or de-evolution as some YECs might call it. It seems unlikely that Howe, who ascribes the distinct features of the ostrich to precise intelligent design would think of God as anything but the creator of the first ostrich nearly identical to those today. . As such he exemplifies the YEC-1 classical creationist model above.
The YEC apologetics ministry Answer in Genesis has little to say about the ostrich and doesn’t comment about Job’s account of the ostrich at all. The only article dedicated to the ostrich is found on the Creation Kids page at Answers in Genesis. Here an unnamed AiG writer notes that the ostrich will swallow rocks in order to help it digest its food. They follow this observation with the following comment: “How would the ostrich know that this would help it without the designed instinct given by its Creator?” An amazing characteristic, yes, but does the author believe the ostrich in the Garden of Eden would have needed to eat rocks to help digest food? Or did God create this ostrich with the hidden genetic potential to express this instinct that it wouldn’t need until after the Flood? The author of this article doesn’t provide any further insight.
However, Answers in Genesis has published an article about flightless birds. In it, they address the questions: Did God make flightless birds? The author, Donna O’Daniel, of this article suggests that most of the ratite birds (moas, rheas, emus, ostriches etc…) are each separate kinds and are “flightless kinds” However, Ken Ham stated the following in regards to revising the kinds, “Taking all of this into consideration, research estimates show that about 1,400 kinds were taken on the Ark. That’s only about 6,700 individual animals (remember, the clean animals came in pairs of sevens)—and that’s a generous number that will likely go down further as more research is conducted on which organisms belong to which kinds. In fact, it’s possible it could be as low as around 1,000 kinds.” For now Answers in Genesis believes that God created several different kinds of flightless birds, but in time it would be surprising if they may consider them all descendants of a single flightless bird type.
These responses by representatives of Answers in Genesis fall into our YEC-2 moderate-change model of origins.
The YEC-3 hyper-evolution model of ostrich origins can be observed in the writing of Dr. David Catchpoole of Creation Ministries International (a splinter group of Answers in Genesis). He doesn’t explicitly address the origins of ostriches but in writing about a similar flightless bird, the moas of New Zealand, he proposes that they originally flew to New Zealand and then lost their ability to fly:
“…the only types of creatures on the Ark to have lived in New Zealand before human occupation were those capable of flight—which would have included the ancestors of the flightless moa.
So how did the moa become confined to ground? As the first arrivals began to breed, any hatchlings with some kind of mutational disorder rendering them flightless were able to safely move into a vacant ecological niche that on other continents would have been occupied by ground animals. In the absence of ground-dwelling predators (absent because they were unable to make the sea crossing), the flightless moa (along with the kiwi, kakapo and notornis) survived and multiplied.”
Lastly, I found this reference to ostriches in an obscure 2007 book, Darwin’s Origin of Species. Science or Fantasy, by a lesser-known YEC, George Schulte. He says: “… the ostrich also sometimes lays her eggs in another bird’s nest, but also frequently lays her eggs on open, unprotected ground, in which case, many are destroyed by various means. It is interesting to note that the Bible states that this is exactly the behavior assigned by God to the female ostrich (probably as part of the Curse).”
Schulte is the only commentator I have found that suggests that the observed behavior of the ostrich is not the behavior of the primordial or prelapsarian ostrich but rather is the product of God’s curse on the ostrich. We might ask, does this really ring true with the passage? God is painting a picture of his wisdom in his references to the ostrich. God doesn’t appear to be making a point about the origins of the ostrich itself, but I don’t think we can help but notice that God doesn’t qualify his creation. He doesn’t blame sin for the behavior of the ostrich. Had adam’s sin been the cause of the ostrich’s poor behavior, why does God tell Job to look at his creation to learn about God’s good attributes? God created this world as a fallen world not as perfect paradise. He never describes his creation as a kind of blissful utopia.
A hypothetical YEC-3 hyper-evolution model of ostrich origins
These references above are the only ones that I have been able to find in the YEC literature that speak to the origin of the ostrich. Drawing from these limited YEC writings and my experience with how YECs have explained the origin of diversity in other groups of animals, I would propose the following scenario as the likely endpoint of where modern YEC theories of biological diversity are leading them.
On day five of the creation week, God created birds to fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens. A few of those birds were the ancestors of birds that we call ostriches and maybe rheas, emus, moas and cassowaries, but they were flighted birds. In that earthly paradise, these birds ate the fruit of the plant and flew to and fro in the sky. Soon after (on the same day, in fact) God made Adam, He brought every bird of the heavens to him to see what he would name them.
The prelapsarian ancestor of the ostrich could fly but, unlike other birds such as parrots, falcons and owls, these ancestors were created with enormous genetic variability and special genetic functions and switches which would cause certain birds to lose the ability to fly. At same time, this special genetic variability would also allow them to adapt for survival in the desert. These adaptations would have included peculiar behaviors like utilizing stones to aid in digestion that otherwise would have been unnecessary in the initial perfect world. These future-endowed (could we call them pre-adapted or predestined?) capacities or abilities were installed in the original ostrich ancestor in anticipation of environmental changes due to Adam’s inevitable sin.
After Adam sinned, a process called natural selection began to act in the fallen world. Some animals had become predators and, for the ostrich ancestors, natural selection enabled the variations for fast running , hard kicking legs as well as camouflaged feathers in the proto-ostrich genome to be selected. Further selection on the pre-existing gene-pool allowed the birds to adapt to deserts that did not previously exist in an Edenic world and where it would eventually make its home. This selective process started after the fall but accelerated soon after the Flood. At that point the original ostrich or flightless bird baramin (kind) split into several populations as they migrated away from the ark, which had preserved them during the global flood. The flood, of course, had destroyed all but two of the original ostrich ancestors. As they separated into different continents, those that ended up in Africa developed features that we identify today with the modern ostrich species. Others which reached New Zealand, Australia and South America experienced different selective environments and developed features that possibly became tens of species of now-extinct moas (New Zealand,) emus (Australia) and several other flightless birds that are found in the upper (presumably, post-Flood) fossil record.
Coming back around to Job and the account of the ostrich.
There are many many avenues that could be explored at this point. But in returning 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 provides us with a way of testing their ideas about baraminology.
Let me illustrate this process of prediction by using canines: creationists claim that there was only one pair of canines on the Ark, and those have then given rise to 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 from the earliest dynasties of Egypt. There is near universal agreement that domestic dogs originated from wolves and yet there are fossils of extinct wolves, foxes and other 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 tens of specific breeds of domesticated dogs–all within a generation of bounding off of the ark.
Even with 4000 years to sort genetic variation and select features in populations in order to form distinct species, the “evolution” of all of these species would have to occur at an astounding and never before observed rate. But because 4000 years are not available to them, creationists actually need all the species of canines to evolve from a single pair in less–and probably much less–than 300 years.
Getting back to the ostrich, not only does the Bible confirm the similarity of ostriches from thousands of years ago to today’s ostriches, but there are Egyptian records and images of ostriches from the same time period that also demonstrate that ostriches at that time would have been indistinguishable from today’s ostriches. In other words, the ostrich species has not visibly changed (but see footnote) in over 4000 years.
What about the large-sized but extinct moas 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 has there been no change in appearance of the African ostrich during recorded human history? If moas, emus, kiwis and other flightless birds similar to ostriches came from the same pair of birds that exited Noah’s Ark how 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 the origin of flightless birds and their subsequent diversification through speciation, but to do so I will need to describe the natural history of the moas from New Zealand in more detail. I will explore this in the next installment of our series when we ask” how did birds with no wings at all end up in New Zealand!
The Ostrich Series:
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 of ostriches from the past are compared to those from the present, there would be differences. But those differences in their DNA code are not at critical positions that would have resulted in visible morphological changes.