I agree with AiG: Najash is not the snake of Genesis

The kooks at Answers in Genesis never disappoint—they always come through with their own daffy interpretations of things. It didn’t take them long to scrape up a few excuses for Najash rionegrina, the newly discovered fossil snake with legs.

They have a couple of incoherent and in some cases mutually contradictory arguments against Najash as evidence for evolution.

One argument is that there are competing hypotheses for the origin of snakes within the evolutionary community: some think they had aquatic ancestors, others that they were burrowers. This is a non sequitur. We don’t pretend to know everything, there are many issues on which scientists disagree, but all agree on one thing: the proper way to resolve differences of opinion is by the evaluation of the evidence, and this is one more piece of evidence. That scientists don’t have a full explanation for the evolution of a specific lineage does not in any way imply that they think the caterwauling dingleberries at AiG have a valid opinion.

AiG also suggests that Najash might have used its limbs for clasping during mating, rather than walking, as if this somehow fails to support evolution. That’s exactly what scientists say, ascribing the evolution of some innovations to exaptation, where features have multiple functions and can change roles.

Another argument AiG makes is that this is an example of degeneration, and therefore fits perfectly within a creationist “model”. At the same time, though, they insist that “Those who claim that snakes are just legless descendants of other reptiles really don’t understand their uniqueness,” and go on to mention special adaptations of their backbones. Guess what? Najash has anatomical features unique to snakes, in addition to having legs. Its spine and skull lack some features unique to more derived snakes, but possesses others that unambiguously define it as a snake. It has specialization that represent both the gain and loss of characters, and that fits perfectly with evolutionary expectations, and not at all with creationist dogma.

Oh, and then there’s the argument from chronology. Hang on to your hats and take a whirl through the creationist wonderland.

AiG is cautious about comparing this fossil snake to the serpent in Genesis 3:14. First, we really don’t know much about the serpent’s anatomy anyway. Yet we can offer a reasonable guess that it apparently was once able to crawl or walk; after the serpent was cursed, it was pronounced that “on thy belly shalt thou go,” suggesting that it previously moved using appendages. Also, this fossil probably resulted during Noah’s Flood, an event that took place about 1,500 years after the serpent was cursed to crawl on its belly.

In other words, it can’t be biblical because the perambulatin’ snake in Genesis lived 6000 years ago, and this fossil is only 4500 years old. Never mind that the fossil is from the Upper Cretaceous, and is actually about 70 million years old—actual real world data can’t fit into a thick and pea-sized cranium that is barely capable of accommodating a chronology invented by bored, antique goat-herders.

You know, Answers in Genesis is a much bigger and much more popular outfit than the Discovery Institute ever was, and I suspect that the DI is going to be waning in influence over the next few years. I have mixed feelings about the prospect of having to switch primary targets, from the evasive sleaze of the dishonest DI, to the outright crackpot lunacy of these babbling wackos at AiG.


  1. Zombie says

    AiG’s chronology suggests that a species can evolve – by loss of function only, but something as significant as loss of limbs – in only 1500-2000 years. So where are the species that existed in Biblical/Roman times which have evolved into something lesser today? Looks to me like AiG’s version of evolution has a big gap in its fossil record. :P

  2. says

    I trust your ability to target AiG as capably as anything else. The bad part is that some of the DI morons have at least enough sense to feel shame, even if they misunderstand what it actually is they’re felling. The AiG lunatics are shameless because they’re believers…if you point out their idiocy, they’ll tell you “SHUT UP OR WE’LL BURN YOU AT THE STAKE!” or some other enlightened religious shit.

    don’t forget,
    Leviticus 11:9-12 says:
    9 These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat.
    10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:
    11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.
    12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

    I mean, they’re fuggin nuts, man.

  3. Russell says

    I’m curious: why do you think AiG is more popular than DI? DI certainly gets more attention in the press and in the legislatures. But that doesn’t measure popularity, and might only reflect the difference in reception between ingenuous cranks and caterwauling dingleberries.

  4. ktesibios says

    I’ll take outright crackpot babbling lunacy for $400, P.Z.

    People who couldn’t draw more attention to their obvious insanity and ignorance if they were dancing naked in the middle of the street and firing flares are probably preferable to people who work hard at concealing it behind a veneer of big words, subtly fallacious reasoning and “truthiness”, at least as far as the battle for public opinion is concerned.

    To make an analogy, who’s more of a threat to your wallet, a semi-coherent urban street lunatic or a well-trained con man?

  5. DW says

    One up side is that we will have more fun reading your posts about AiG than about DI. There is bound to be some topflight weirdness coming from them. And, yes, I agree that DI was the more destructive with their efforts to get people to misunderstand what kind of enterprise science is.

    Young Earthers cannot even really pretend to be part of science.

  6. george cauldron says

    I’m curious: why do you think AiG is more popular than DI? DI certainly gets more attention in the press and in the legislatures. But that doesn’t measure popularity, and might only reflect the difference in reception between ingenuous cranks and caterwauling dingleberries.

    I think it’s easy to see why AIG is more popular. The DI pretends to be scientific, and while this pseudoscientific veneer reassures creationists, they don’t enjoy it. What they enjoy is straight-up, no excuses, Book of Genesis literalism, with no big words and no claims not to be religion. AIG gives them that. If you remember that ID really only exists to advance creationism, then AIG is popular simply because it sticks close to its roots.

  7. Russell says

    Ah, drat amphiboly. I was not asking for an explanation, assuming that AiG is more popular, of why that might be. Rather, I was asking what lies behind the notion that it is more popular? What is the evidence for thinking that? Do we have numbers of some sort? Or is it just rough perception?

  8. says

    Crooksandliars.com links to this video of creationist drivel that calls the banana “the atheist’s nightmare,” three minutes and thirty seconds in. (Smarter primates know that the end he’s calling “the tab” is not the most convenient end to unpeel). It follows that up by quotemining Darwin’s disclaimer on natural selection being unable to account for the eye, as if that were the end of the subject.

  9. says

    It’s also clear that their base is the flagrantly creationist crowd, and there has been some interesting tension between the DI leadership, who are always preaching that they are not religious, and the people who give them money and who pound away at school boards, who are doing it entirely for religious reasons.

    As for why I think AiG is more popular: follow the money. AiG is raking it in.

  10. says

    “As for why I think AiG is more popular: follow the money. AiG is raking it in.”

    What are their operation budgets? The references I found gave $5.5m for AIG and $4.1m for DI, but I don’t know whether these figures are reliable. Plus, DI is split into intelligent design propaganda as well as other issues like transportation studies.

    Googlefight gives the prize to the DI.

  11. Carlie says

    “Crooksandliars.com links to this video of creationist drivel that calls the banana “the atheist’s nightmare,” three minutes and thirty seconds in.”

    I’ve read the banana argument before, but it’s even more ludicrous on video. Perhaps I’m a very naughty person, but I immediately saw some distinct parallels of the banana/human mouth perfect design argument as displayed in the video with another setup that they would definitely not approve of.

  12. John C. Randolph says

    I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember, and I’m quite sure I’ve never had a nightmare about a banana.


  13. steve james says

    Not just the ludicrous anthropomorphic banana bit (which only works if you have access to a machete to cut the banana down, by the way) but all the rest of it. Oh, a building is obviously designed? How about a cave? A car has a windshield? Well, how about the 1892 Haynes? And how hard did they have to look to find an ‘atheist’ who would parrot their ten commandments talking points?
    BTW, I can prove there’s no gold in China simply by redefining ‘gold’ as a metal that doesn’t exist in China. that’s creationist logic.
    Fun for the whole family.

  14. Rieux says

    I’ve gotta agree strongly with the folks who prefer out-loud creationist lunacy to slimy DI lies.

    Then this:

    Perhaps I’m a very naughty person, but I immediately saw some distinct parallels of the banana/human mouth perfect design argument as displayed in the video with another setup that they would definitely not approve of.

    Bwahaha! That’s wonderful. And yet those same folks scream that that kind of… endeavor… isn’t “natural”!

  15. BrianT says

    Re: “Intelligently Designed Banana”

    I guess the fast talker in the video has never seen a wild banana. Stubby little affair full of seeds. That’s the one “god” “made”. Or maybe humans required divine inspiration (rather than a simple aversion to large amounts of roughage) to selectively breed the one on the supermarket shelf. Otherwise, god just goofed.

  16. Dustin says

    I for one will be happy to get back to taking on the young-earthers. The DI creeped me out much, much more than AiG & Co. Rather than trying to cut through layers of obfuscation and misdirection piled on top of layers of inane sophistic babble regarding irreducible complexity and complex specified information, I’ll be able to get back to debunking polonium halos, c-decay, and sharks that are not, in fact, plesiosaurs. It’s honest crackpottery, and even if it isn’t easy to get through a YECer’s head, it’s easy to show the rest of the crowd that they’re hocking palpable nonsense.

  17. Axel says

    Don’t you mean, “Look, man, I ain’t fallin’ for no intelligently designed banana in my tailpipe!”

  18. Prudence Goodwife says

    If the banana is god’s perfect design for fruit why did he go and be a big jerk and not make all fruit banana shaped. It would make eating watermelon so much easier, and sexier.

  19. Carlie says

    No one’s said it yet? Oh, all right.
    Is that a banana in your pocket, or are you just happy to see Kirk Cameron?

  20. says

    LOL Creationists are always good for a laugh :p
    I’m glad I believed that stuff as a child because when I heard the arguments from real scientists it insured I’d never trust the creationist BullShit again.

  21. says

    Biblical literalists take all the fun out of scriptural analysis. Less literal readers claim the serpent represents the devil. The word in Hebrew means “the shining one” (apparently — I don’t know ancient Hebrew) and not “snake” as most literalists assert.

    A more interesting interpretation is that the serpent represents Baal, one of the other gods the Israelites worshipped at the time. Baal appeared on earth as a serpent sometimes. When Genesis was written, the followers of Yahweh (Jehovah) wanted their guy to be the creator, and Baal to be a disobedient, worthless deity. So in Genesis he tempts Eve, disobeys the laws of the “god council,” and is cursed by Yahweh for his transgression. There is lot of other Baal-bashing throughout the OT.

    You can also draw parallels between the Baal-serpent, who allows Adam and Eve to learn the difference between good and evil and be more godlike, and Prometheus, who brought fire to mortals, so they could be warm and toasty like the gods in Olympus. Prometheus’s punishment was a tad more gruesome, though. Zeus was way more imaginative than Yahweh in that regard, if you ask me.

    Another subtext is that women were big fans of Baal and the goddess Asherah, his father’s consort. Ritual sex was part of Baal/Asherah worship. Yahweh punishes Eve (who is later associated with temptation and sin) because she listened to the Baal-serpent and convinced Adam (who was as smart as a rock) to eat of the “apple.”

    So the serpent in the Garden story is propaganda, basically.
    More details are here, for the curious.

  22. Dustin says

    Ritual sex was part of Baal/Asherah worship.

    Can someone remind me, again, why Christianity caught on instead of that?

  23. Snavf says

    I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with a fruit of phallic proportionality has intended us to forego its use

  24. Rex says

    A minor quibble, Upper/Middle/Lower Cretaceous/Permian/Carboniferous et cetera refers to relative position of strata. When talking about time, use Early/Middle/Late rather than Upper/Middle/Lower.

  25. says

    This whole insistence on the Bible being literal reminds me of something a Buddhist friend told me, about an elderly Buddhist priest/scholar at the place she works (in Japan, one of the mainstream Buddhist sects) who was teaching some would-be Buddhist priests from various countries, here for training. There were a lot of Americans in the class, and one day as he was teaching some story about Buddha’s life, one of the trainees raised his hand and wanted to know whether the story they were being taught was true. The scholar hesitated, and asked,

    “What do you mean by ‘true’? It teaches something valuable about compassion, and in that way it is true.”

    The trainee said, “But it contradicts the story you taught us yesterday. They can’t both be true. Do we have to believe both, to be good Buddhists?”

    “Oh, you mean factual,” said the scholar. “Of course it isn’t factual. Why would you think that? It’s a teaching story. It is not supposed to be fact. I am not teaching you history. It would be absurd to insist that you believe it as fact. It would be like… like… like saying that Christians have to believe that the Bible is factually true to be good Christians! Ha ha ha!”

    He laughed and laughed and laughed at the idea. Then he noticed that his audience was not laughing.

    His questioner said, “But many Christians say you DO have to believe that the Bible is factual.”

    After that the lecture turned into a question and answer session. The scholar simply wouldn’t believe it at first. He thought his audience was making it up, or had misunderstood something. Living in his scholarly bubble he had managed to read the Bible and study something about Christianity but completely miss the whole Bible-as-literal-fact thing. When his audience had convinced him that it was true, he wanted to know how such an absurd situation had came about. He couldn’t understand at all how people could make such a fundamental mistake as confusing historical fact with religious myth. To him it was a completely new and absurd idea.

    Is the literal interpretation of the Bible a recent thing? Has there always been this confusion? Or is the division of ‘history’ and ‘myth’ that this scholar took so much for granted a Japanese (or Buddhist) thing?

  26. says

    The problem is that the word myth has evolved from meaning the traditional story telling that served as ‘history’ in oral traditions, those stories that served to explain a world view of a people, to the rather throw away word of today: myth equals falsehood. A good word gone bad. Using the original meaning of the word myth, I feel it is a good and proper understanding of many of the Biblical stories, but using the modern usage of the word, I think it only distorts the conversation.

  27. says

    Come now, Br’er B, anybody remotely familiar with Joseph Campbell knows that a myth is not a lie, but a metaphor. A myth isn’t a lie any more than fiction is a falsehood. Your descriptivism strikes me as a strawman. As for your hedging that “many” of the biblical stories are myth, what would be the problem with that damned book being entirely myth? Why must a book be merely factual for it to contain value? I can see the value of a priesthood reserving unto itself the role of final arbiter of the meaning contained in the myth/metaphor. Also, the fastest way to become an atheist is to actually familiarize oneself with the contents…

    Getting back to PZ’s original point, and the intelligently designed bananas in the IDiocy Infomercial on how to use apologetics on atheists, they’re rather open about how unimportant the IDiocy is for their apologetics. The argument from design is just a cheap gag to pretend they’re engaging the intellect. They think they’ve scored some debating points when the atheist has admitted they’re really agnostic (like that would phase Thomas Huxley or John Wilkins), and then they aim for the presumably guilty conscience and fear of eternal torture by the monster they worship. They’ve got some awesome Jack Chick tracts if that doesn’t work. They show three “atheists” and no conversions.

    IDiocy is just the jackboot in the door to assault all who eschew their religion. A polite “No thank you” to politely conceal being squicked while inching away is taken for intolerable religious persecution.

  28. says


    {From “The Heathen in His Blindness… S.N Balagangadhara, translating/quoting the German writer Peter Bichsel}

    When I discovered, or when it was explained to me, that Hinduism is a pedagogical religion, namely, that in so far as the best “good deed” of a Hindu consisted of explaining something or the other, I lost my inhibitions and began with questions…..

    A young Balinese became my primary teacher. One day I asked him if he believed that the history of Prince Rama – one of the holy books of the Hindus – is true.

    Without hesitation, he answered it with “Yes”.

    “So you believe that the Prince Rama lived somewhere and somewhen?”

    “I do not know if he lived”, he said.

    “Then it is a story?”

    “Yes, it is a story.”

    “Then someone wrote this story – I mean: a human being wrote it?”

    “Certainly some human being wrote it”, he said.

    “Then some human being could have also invented it”, I answered, and felt triumphant, when I thought that I had convinced him.

    But he said, “It is quite possible that somebody invented this story. But true it is, in any case”.

    “Then it is the case the Prince Rama did not live on this earth?”

    “What is it that you want to know?” he asked. “Do you want to know whether the story is true, or merely whether it occurred?”

    “The Christians believe that their God Jesus Christ was also on earth”, I said, “in the New Testament, it has been described by human beings. But the Christians believe that this is the description of the reality. Their God was also really on Earth.”

    My Balinese firend thought it over and said: “I have been already so informed. I do not understand why it is important that your God was on earth, but it does strike me that the Europeans are not pious. Is that correct?”

    “Yes, it is”, I said.

    As Balagangadhara notes, the young Balinese

    is indifferent to the historical truth and suggests, in the italicized portion of the dialogue, that it is not a proper question; even if the invention of a human being and historically untrue, it is true. He correlates impiety with believing in the truth of the Biblical narrative. As I would like to formulate it, not only is the young Indonesian drawing a distinction between a story and a history but also suggesting that the historicity of the Ramayana is irrelevant to the story being true.

  29. says

    The trouble is, literalists don’t see that the Bible contains a lot of mythical content. If the Bible is inerrent, if every word means only what they say it means, then the deeper meaning of the text gets lost. Instead, they waste their time trying to make scientific evidence and their literal reading of Genesis conform to each other. It can’t be done.

    So, if I could hand out grades to that particular class of believers, I’d fail the literalists in science, literature and theology.

  30. says

    Tripped across a local (English) nutjob who considered the Najash discovery ‘proof of a biblical curse on serpents’ and some other bilge that made me see red. Went to his comments, cracked fingers, prepared to write, then clicked away. If the discoveries of the last six weeks haven’t dented ’em, they’re immune to logic, reason, weight of evidence and common sense. Taking them on nut job for nut job is ultimately pointless: this is a battle that has to be won in public policy debate, classrooms and committee rooms.

  31. says

    Arun Gupta wrote:

    “As Balagangadhara notes, the young Balinese

    is indifferent to the historical truth and suggests, in the italicized portion of the dialogue, that it is not a proper question; even if the invention of a human being and historically untrue, it is true.”

    This is exactly how I understood the Japanese Buddhist scholar to have reacted: It is not a proper question.

    But it was not only not a proper question, it was a question he hadn’t even thought of asking.

    I suspect that the problem with using the Bible as ‘teaching stories,’ which is how the Buddhist canon is used, is that it wouldn’t really work. How on earth could you learn anything valuable (from the OT, especially) except, perhaps, “Look at how far we have come since then…”

  32. jaimito says

    I dont know how ritual sex got mixed up in the debate, which basically is about a 70 million old fossil. People seems to have abandoned those old fertility rites. What a pity. By the way, Najash is pronounced “Na Hash” (it is an Argentinian speaking serpent).The semitic root could be “shining” but there is great uncertainty about what kind of animal (if any) those sheep (and not goat) herders referred to.

  33. says

    BadAunt said: “How on earth could you learn anything valuable (from the OT, especially) except, perhaps, “Look at how far we have come since then…””

    Simple example, “eye for an eye” … in the Torah this was a whole new concept, for all around the Hebrews, punishment did not fit the crime, if one was of wealth or status, and you struck that fellow and caused him blindness in one eye, your punishment could have been death (or freedom), depending on your wealth and status. An “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was to wake the folks up to a new concept, punishment to fit the crime. Alas, today we have forgotten that truth in the Torah, as you say, “how on earth could you learn anything valuable …” — so today we still have punishment that does not fit the crime, where wealth and status still can sway the balance of justice.

  34. chuko says

    Hmmm, haven’t we specifically instituted standard punishments (jail time, community service, fines) in order to avoid this sort of retributative justice?

  35. says

    BadAunt, I can only guess at the answers. In the Indian traditions, stories are constantly retold. The story of the Prince Rama – the Ramayana – has umpteen versions, each with its own perspective. They are all Ramayanas; some versions are revered more than others, but there is no canonical Ramayana except for the philologist. (In some sense, the philologist is the ultimate fundamentalist).

  36. says

    Someone posted on the yahoo egroup devoted to “The Heathen in his blindness…” the following:

    Another example. (Just see what Skaria points out, not his interpretation)
    In his essay on the Dangs of the forested regions of Western India Ajay Skaria talks about their oral stories called goth. Among the Dangs, he says, “there is not always this obsessive focus on establishing a single goth as khari [true]. There is also, paradoxically enough, the converse phenomenon. Goth that are at variance with one another –
    usually either in the sense of being different accounts of the `same’ event, or in the sense of contradicting each other as units in a larger sequential narrative of which they are supposed to be part – coexist with one another. Sometimes the same narrators may provide radically divergent versions on different occasions; in any case, they would never tell the same goth two times round with precisely the same details. Dangi listeners and narrators are aware of these contradictions, but often continue to consider all of them khari goth.

    This multiplicity of truth is in stark contrast to the social sciences, which are marked primarily by the will to singularise truth. Here, within each narrative, differences have to be resolved and contradictions ironed out for it to make a persuasive claim to truth. Of course, the social sciences do allow for multiple truths (by now it is after all quite commonplace to call for multiple histories), but they allow for multiple truths that are exclusive of each other, that are within themselves singular. Multiple truths always betoken multiple perspectives and narrations. For the same narration to simultaneously embrace (as opposed to narrating from an omniscient perspective) stories that not only supplement but contradict each other – this is not easy within the social sciences.
    When we as social scientists abandon omniscience, we are left defending or affirming the fragment or anecdote, insisting on the impossibility of going beyond them.” (Skaria, Ajay. 1999. “Some Aporias of History: Time, Truth and Play in Dangs, Gujarat.” Economic and Political Weekly. 34: 15. 897-904.)

  37. Pattanowski says

    Mr. Menton must be really busy these days, with all these fossils “creeping” up.

  38. SEF says

    Is the literal interpretation of the Bible a recent thing?

    I’d say so. My evidence for this comes from Jewish tradition (remembering of course that the Christians took the first portion of the Jewish work to be their OT). The Jews have a long tradition of arguing over the best way to interpret the meaning hidden in various stories. Why would they do that at all if they didn’t know they were allegory/fable and instead thought they were literal/factual?! You either have to imagine that the Jewish academic/religious leaders were completely potty, and presumably living in fear of the peasants ever finding that out, or recognise that (nearly) everyone originally knew the stories were stories – oral traditions written down because they were thought to have teaching merit.