Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor



Edward Roux
Head, Department of Botany
University of Witwatersrand
Johannrsburg, South Africa

From: JASA 16 (June 1964): 64.

I think Professor Howe is being too biblically-minded about the ostrich and that he lacks a reasonable biological approach to the subject (15:107-110, Dec. 1963). Any animal that gets into a strange or artificial environment may act in a manner unfavourable to its own life or welfare, but to apply the term "foolish" to its behavior is to use words in an all too popular and unscientific way.

The prickly pear (Opuntia) is not indigenous to Africa but was introduced recently from America. I suggest that natural selection has not operated on ostriches living in a "prickly pear environment" long enough for them to have developed an instinct for avoiding prickly pears.

Similarly with wire fences. They do not form part of the original environment of ostriches. They may be largely invisible to ostriches running quickly. I have observed our South African vlei owls impaled on barbed wire fences and dying there. If an ostrich puts its head through a wire-mesh fence to eat a quince and then gets stuck with the quince in his throat, he is in a situation he is unlikely to meet with in nature. Put the quince in a bush and the ostrich will get it and his head out all right.

Ostriches, like many birds, eat stones and grit. I understand this facilitates the breaking up of seeds in the gizzard. The size of the hard objects eaten is apparently related to the size of the bird and in ostriches the objects are correspondingly large. Again pennies, which may cause copper poisoning, did not lie about on the veld in ancient times.

Many animals die because man has introduced hazards into their environment. Lighthouses probably caused the death of hundreds of thousands of migrating birds until bird lovers provided perches for them in some cases. The moth's death in the candle flame is well known. Fundamentalists would say God has deprived moths of, wisdom, but this would be a strange way for a biologist to explain what actually happens.

On the other hand, chances of survival in many wild animals may be increased by man's activities. Bluetits in England, we are told, now open the covers of milk bottles left in the porch by the milkman before the householder awakes. Sparrows make their nests on telegraph poles and swallows use the eaves that man provides. Mosquitos breed in ruts made by wagon wheels. These animals, in biblical language, have been given "understanding," but this would be a complete misuse of the term, with its human implications.

Regarding the egg-laying and nesting habits of ostriches, I quote Darwin's own words: "The condor lays a couple of eggs and the ostrich a score, and yet in the same country the condor may be the more numerous of the two .... the real importance of a large number of eggs or seeds is to make up for much destruction at some period of life; and this period in the majority of cases is. an early one. If an animal can in any way protect its own eggs or young, a small number may be produced, and yet the average stock be fully kept up; but if many eggs or young are destroyed, many must be produced, or the species will become extinct." (Origin of Species, Chap. III).

In fairness to the ostrich's instincts it should be said that the descriptions given by Schreiner, and quoted by Professor Howe, refer to circumstances where the birds were kept in captivity so that their numbers were far greater than would normally occur in nature. The instinct of the hen to lay her eggs in the nest made by the cock would normally serve to perpetuate the species. Only under conditions of unnatural crowding produced by man do the hens appear "foolish" when they attempt to lay in a nest already overflowing with eggs.

Finally I would ask why it is considered necessary or helpful to attribute the statements concerning the ostrich in Job 39:13-18 to God and not to the writer of this book, whoever he may have been. The author of Job* notes that the wings of the ostrich wave proudly, that the eggs are left in the sand and are sometimes brooded by the parents, that on occasion ostriches appear to neglect their young, that ostriches do strange (foolish) things (which modern biologists can perhaps explain but which the author could not), and that ostriches can sometimes outdistance riders on horseback or even attack them. Ability to observe such things on the part of an educated Babylonian or Hebrew living about 400 B.C. does not necessarily suggest divine wisdom. Aristotle at about the same period made far more penetrating observations in zoology.

*I am aware, of course, that these remarks about ostriches were made in a section where the Lord is answering Job out of a whirlwind. Surely this was a literary device on the part of the writer. Only a fundamentalist would take it seriously.