By William P. Lazarus
A recent news story about a fish cracking open clam shells with a rock has animated vigorous debate. A diver taking pictures caught “a foot-long blackspot tuskfish smashing a clam on a rock until it cracks open, so it can eat the bivalve inside,” according to the report.
Seems pretty innocuous, right? After all, animals have long been known to use tools. Chimpanzees, for example, use twigs to gather insects. Birds have been seen dropping shellfish onto rocks to break them open. I used to live in New Haven where the levees extending into the Sound were littered with mussel shells dropped by sea gulls.
Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus was killed when a bird mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a turtle on it.
The tuskfish, however, is different. Some scientists argue that the tuskfish was using a tool, a sign of intelligence. Others counter that the fish isn’t smart. After all, it does not move the rock.
Naturally, the discussion really has nothing to do with fish or rocks. It’s really about religion.
Those who object to the idea that this fish somehow is using a tool are actually fighting for their religious beliefs. Primates use tools; birds and fish really don’t. One scientist called them “proto-tools” because fish and birds don’t have hands.
That’s pretty desperate, since fish and birds will never have hands. But, that’s not the point. If fish use tools, they must be intelligent. If they are intelligent, then humans – the top primate – are not special or unique. After all, what makes us so different if not our ability to use tools, thereby bending the world to our needs? Other creatures communicate, are aware of self and demonstrate a conscience through altruism. Some walk upright; some use hands as we do. Tools have always been thought as our true calling card, our supposedly God-given distinction.
However, if fish use tools, then we must not be anything more than an intelligent animal.
The answer to the biblical question to God -- “what is man that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4) – becomes obvious: God isn’t mindful of man at all. We are no different than any other creature.
That’s something a lot of people do not want to contemplate.
However, science doesn’t care about religion, belief or the status of humans. Science gathers knowledge. It analyzes and assesses. It poses questions, pokes holes in past paradigms and creates new ones.
Religion today opposes science since it often contradicts belief. However, religion was science’s chief advocate. The idea was that science would open a window into God’s design for the world. Muslims led the way. They created the first observatories and the House of Wisdom – in Baghdad and then in Cairo . Mosques were built with observatories to study the sky. So were later churches. Christians soon followed suit, sure that God’s plan could be pieced together by science. That’s why, in the 1200s, a monk named Roger Bacon first developed the scientific method for experiments and church steeples often doubled as observatories.
However, the findings began to undermine religious teachings. So, the dominant Roman Catholic Church forced later scholars like Galileo to recant their discoveries. Copernicus preferred to die first rather than announce his momentous discovery that the Earth was not the center of the universe. German professor Herman Reimarus did the same thing so his investigation into the non-historical aspects of New Testament did not lead to vicious personal attacks.
Unfortunately for religion, all efforts to halt scientific research have failed. Even the Roman Catholic Church has given up the fight. First, Pope John Paul II – on the road to sainthood – gave his immense support to the Theory of Evolution, meaning that God didn’t create man. Pope Benedict the XVI recently endorsed the Big Bang Theory, eliminating God from the origins of the universe.
Now, it seems, a fish – ironically, a Christian symbol – is undermining any idea that man is different or special.
In fact, our only distinction appears to be an adamant unwillingness to accept the truth of our commonplace status. To do so, naturally, would erase any religious teachings.
The innocuous tuskfish is only the latest step to that reality.
William P. Lazarus is a writer and an historian who expresses his opinions in blogs. His books can be found on Amazon.com, Kindle and his website, williamplazarus.com.