The bamboozling panda
Published: 5 December 2012 (GMT+10)
It’s not hard to see why the ‘cute-and-cuddly’ giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, below) is so widely adored. Its striking black and white colouring and a short muzzle on a seemingly oversized head give it a baby-like appeal. To many people, this animal, renowned for its lack of aggression towards man, seems like a lovely soft toy come to life—everybody’s favourite bear.
The earliest specific record of these bamboo-eating creatures of the highlands of western China is in a Chinese geography text allegedly more than 2,700 years old.1 Other records show that during the Han dynasty (around 2,000 years ago) the emperor kept a much-treasured giant panda in his garden.2 Regarded as a symbol of peace and friendship, panda skins are documented throughout Chinese imperial records as goodwill gifts on great occasions of state. But the panda apparently remained unknown outside the secretive ‘Middle Kingdom’ (China) until the late 1800s, when accounts of its existence reached the outside world via traders and Christian missionaries.
Today, the giant panda is widely recognized as the international symbol for wildlife conservation. The arrival of Chi-Chi the panda at the London Zoo in 1961 inspired the fledgling WWF3 to adopt the ‘big, furry animal with her appealing, black-patched eyes’ for its famous panda logo. But the panda’s fame has not kept it from sliding towards extinction, with fewer than a thousand estimated to be still alive in the wild.4
The panda’s decline has been attributed to the progressive loss of its natural habitat of bamboo forests. Expanding human settlement and agriculture now confine the giant panda to just six isolated populations across Si Chuan, Gan Su and Shan Xi provinces in China.5
Pandas are supremely suited to their bamboo habitat and diet—e.g. the famous ‘thumb’-like appendage on their front paws enables them to hold, pull and strip bamboo stems, and their large head supports the strong jaw muscles needed for chewing. But their 99% dependence on bamboo means they face starvation when their favourite food flowers and dies! Massive simultaneous die-back occurs in cycles of 10–100 years, varying according to bamboo species, and it can take up to 20 years before regrowth can again support a panda population.6
Pandas used to simply migrate to areas with other (i.e. nonflowering) bamboo species, but agricultural expansion now restricts such migration.
Trying to rescue this flagship species from the ‘seriously endangered’ list, China and the international community have instituted programs to protect the giant panda from poachers7 and restore bamboo habitat,8,9 and have joined in million-dollar breeding projects with zoos worldwide in an effort to boost panda numbers.10,11 (However, breeding giant pandas in captivity has proven notoriously difficult, despite leading scientific expertise and technology.)8
But are illegal hunting and habitat loss the only threats to panda survival? A recent news report said it was not just these that were ‘doing in’ (i.e. killing) the giant panda—but also evolution! ‘Evolution simply has not done right by one of the world’s most popular animals, now a critically endangered species with only about a thousand believed to exist in the wild’, said the report.11
Surviving against the odds
The report went on to explain that, as giant pandas mostly live a solitary life amongst the dense bamboo thickets, females must rely on their scent to attract an equally reclusive male. Timing is crucial, as female pandas have but two or three fertile days per year. And if an egg is successfully fertilized, it floats free in the womb for up to five months before it implants in the uterus and starts developing.
And then, if there are no complications during pregnancy, a tiny (approx. 100 g/4 oz), blind and helpless cub is born, with very little fur. It is utterly dependent on its 100 kg (220 lb) mother who, if not extraordinarily careful and devoted, could easily crush her infant—and, apparently, often does. This would be the equivalent of a 3.5 kg (8 LB) human baby having a mother weighing around 3,000 kg (three tonnes)!!
When twin cubs are born (nearly half of all births), the mother panda must abandon one of them, such are the demands of caring for the one helpless infant that must be cradled to her chest for weeks on end if it is to survive.
How much evolution can a panda bear?
With all these obstacles to reproduction, it seems incredible that the panda still exists. No wonder that the report’s author—along with others who believe that evolution produced all life—says that evolution ‘has simply not done right’ by the panda. Yet here is an evolutionary conundrum—how is it that, with such reproductive deficiencies, ‘the species managed to survive well enough for [the alleged evolutionary] millions of years’?11
A Biblical view
The panda’s situation takes on a whole new perspective within a Biblical framework. Because the Bible is historical truth, we can know that pandas have not been in existence for millions of years, nor are they descended from primeval pond scum which supposedly sprang to life by chance, billions of years ago. Instead, the ancestors of today’s pandas were created with the other land animals on Day 6 of Creation Week (Genesis 1:24–25), so pandas cannot have been on Earth longer than about 6,000 years. Furthermore, all giant pandas in the world today are descended from a pair of animals that came off the Ark around 4,300 years ago.
But would this original ancestral ‘kind’ have looked like the lovable black-and-white big-headed creature we today call the giant panda? Or was the original ‘kind’ a more nondescript bear—the ancestor of all bears in the world today?
Though creationists are open to the idea that the giant panda is descended from a more generalized ancestral bear ‘kind’,12 we can’t be sure.13 One difficulty with such a concept would be explaining why only the giant panda and its possible relative, the red panda (see ‘Panda’monium), have a ‘thumb’. Could it be that other bears have lost the genetic information for the thumb, which was present in the originally created bear ‘kind’? Or could the appendage have arisen by mutations which resulted in distortion and enlargement of the wrist-bone?14
In my opinion, it stretches belief that random mutations could have produced such a wonderfully useful appendage as the panda’s thumb, complete with working muscles all in the right places.15 (Incidentally, evolutionists wrongly believe the panda’s thumb rules out a Designer—see Pandas thumb their nose at evolution). My assessment therefore is that giant pandas were originally created as their ‘own kind’, already endowed with their distinctive characteristics that suit them superbly to their specialized mode of life.16
So if the giant panda is so well-suited to living in bamboo forests, why is its present reproductive capacity so marginal for survival?
An ever-increasing burden
As genetic information is passed from parents to offspring, generation after generation, the number of ‘copying mistakes’ (mutations) present in the population progressively increases. Natural selection will not get rid of all defects, as many of them are ‘hidden’ in their effects if the mutated genes are inherited from one parent only.
Known as the mutational load or genetic burden, this is likely to be a primary factor in the giant panda’s decline. This problem is worse in species with low breeding rates. For evolutionists, this build-up of mutated genes is a major difficulty (usually glossed over in courses and textbooks),17 but it strikingly fits the Bible’s description of a ‘groaning’ creation ‘in bondage to decay’ (Romans 8:21–22).
The accumulation of genetic copying mistakes thus explains the giant panda’s degenerative slide towards extinction, aggravated by encroaching human settlement and illegal poaching. But for evolutionists, the ‘downhill’ trend in panda survivability flies in the face of ‘uphill’ notions of evolutionary development, as well as contradicting the belief that they have been around for ‘millions of years’. No wonder the giant panda is so bamboozling to them! For Christians, though, the delightful pandas bear gentle testimony to a creation ‘subjected to frustration’ and which ‘waits in eager expectation’ for God to restore everything, as He has promised (Romans 8:19–20; Acts 3:21).
Pandas thumb their nose at evolution
Uncomfortably aware that the superb design features in living things point to the existence of a Designer (i.e. God), evolutionists have eagerly cited the panda’s ‘thumb’ as evidence of evolution, rather than intelligent design.
Describing it as ‘clumsy’, one leading evolutionist says that the panda’s thumb ‘wins no prize in an engineer’s derby.’1
Building on this idea, a university biology/evolution textbook teaches that ‘jerry-built contraptions (the panda’s thumb, for example) are more convincing evidence that evolution has occurred than are the more usually cited examples of exquisite adaptation.’2 Actually, the idea that perceived imperfections in nature are a scientific argument for evolution is a fallacy. They are better classed as pseudo-theological arguments against a Designer.3
But is such thinking justified anyway? What does the panda’s thumb actually look like? Close inspection shows the panda forelimb to have the normal five digits, none of which are opposable to each other.
However, two of the wrist bones are uniquely enlarged, which effectively gives the panda seven ‘fingers’. The panda is able to grasp and split bamboo very effectively with the help of these two enlarged wrist bones.
As one of the enlarged wrist-bone ‘digits’ superficially looks like the human thumb, this digit is commonly known as the panda’s ‘thumb’.
As for the charge of being ‘inelegant’ and ‘imperfect’ (when compared with the fully opposable human thumb), we should remember that pandas do not have to cook, write, repair cars or use computers. Consequently, they do not need a human thumb—indeed, their own ‘thumb’ serves them far more effectively in handling bamboo than a human thumb could.
In fact, a recent scientific study4 reported that the two enlarged wrist bones ‘form a double pincer-like apparatus … enabling the panda to manipulate objects with great dexterity … .’ The researchers showed that ‘the hand of the giant panda has a much more refined grasping mechanism than has been suggested in previous morphological models.’
The dexterity of the panda’s grasping mechanism thus shows that evolutionists have no grounds for claiming that the panda’s thumb is some kind of nondesigned ‘contraption’.5 Nor can they continue to use it as a smokescreen to distract from the real question—that evolution simply does not explain how life could start in a pond and finish with a panda.
References and notes
- Gould, S.J., The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, p. 24, 1980.
- Curtis, H., Biology 4th Ed., Worth Publishers, New York, p. 918, 1983.
- Sarfati, J., Who’s really pushing ‘bad science’?, 1 December 2000.
- Endo, H. et al., Role of the giant panda’s ‘pseudo-thumb’, Nature 397(6717):309–310, 1999.
- Such arguments are comprehensively refuted by Woodmorappe, J., The panda thumbs its nose at the dysteleological arguments of the atheist Stephen Jay Gould, CEN Technical Journal 13(1):45–48, 1999.
The black-and-white giant panda is not the only panda that gives evolutionists a headache. The red panda (Ailurus fulgens, sometimes called the Lesser Panda, left) lives in the bamboo forests of the Himalayas, is somewhat larger than a domestic cat, has rusty red fur, a short white nose (snout) and a long striped tail. Both the giant and red pandas have long defied taxonomists’ attempts to name their ‘close relatives’—the first step in drawing up their supposed evolutionary ancestry.
For over a century, evolutionists were unable to agree whether the two pandas are members of the bear family or the raccoon family, or something completely different. They did agree, though, on one point: the two pandas are close relatives, and should be classified in the same family—whether with bears, raccoons, or in their own special group.
This view was based upon the many similarities between giant and red pandas. Both eat predominantly bamboo (though both are considered to have the digestive system of a ‘carnivore’—another evolutionary conundrum), and both have massive premolar teeth and enlarged chewing muscles.
The muzzle (snout) and jaws of each are similar in shape, and there are many similarities in their blood, skeletal structure and internal organs (e.g. stomach and liver). Unlike most bears, neither the giant nor the red panda hibernates.
Another factor influencing taxonomists was geography: both pandas are native to hill country in south-west China (though the red panda’s natural range extends to Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), India and Nepal).
Probably the most dramatic similarity is that both have the distinctive panda ‘thumb’, which the red panda uses to handle its bamboo dinner in a way similar to the giant panda. (The ‘thumb’ is larger in the giant panda, enabling it to grip larger bamboo stems.)
The pandas do not growl or roar like the bears: giant pandas vocalize by bleating rather than roaring (eleven distinct calls have been identified in the wild1), while the red panda’s usual communication call is a series of short whistles and squeaks.2
Finally, the giant panda’s 42 chromosomes are far closer to the red panda count of 36 than to the 74 chromosomes of most bears.3
But research in the 1960s led taxonomists to conclude that the pandas do not belong in the same family! They decided that the giant panda is a bear, but the red panda is a raccoon!3 This view attracted majority agreement for a time, and textbooks were changed to accommodate the pandas’ new split family identities. However, by the 1980s, detailed studies of the genes and proteins of bears, pandas and raccoons had raised further doubts.4,5
Even today, the classification of pandas continues to be controversial. On the basis of recent molecular research, taxonomists are more inclined to think that the giant panda shares ancestral linkages with the bears, while the status of red pandas remains uncertain.6
One thing is clear, though. Pandas have certainly frustrated attempts to classify them within an evolutionary framework; not unexpectedly, in light of Romans 1:20. In designing the panda, God didn’t pander to evolutionists—and nor should Christians, as the evidence overwhelmingly supports divine creation, not evolution.
References and notes
- Giant panda, bearbiology.com, 7 November 2000.
- Lesser Panda (Red Panda), edsitewa.iinet.net.au, 7 November 2000.
- Davis, P., Kenyon, D.H. et al., Of Pandas and People, Haughton Publishing Co., Texas, pp. 30–33, 118–120, 1993. Just counting chromosomes of course is not enough, as there may be plausible steps for chromosome breaks to transform one pair of chromosomes into two, for instance, or for chromosomes to join. Once again, without new information, such mechanisms give no comfort to evolution.
- Mayr, E., Uncertainty in science: is the giant panda a bear or raccoon? Nature 323:769–771. (Cited by, and summarized in, Origins 13(2):93, 1986.)
- What can a panda bear? Creation 8(3):47, 1986.
- O’Brien, S.J. et al., The promise of comparative genomics in mammals, Science 286(5439):458–481, 1999.
References and notes
- Pandas, pandas and more pandas, geocities.com, accessed 7 November 2000. Return to text.
- The first pandas, cnd.org, accessed 7 November 2000. Return to text.
- Originally established as the World Wildlife Fund, WWF changed its name to World Wide Fund for Nature in 1986—but continues to be known by its original name in Canada and the US. WWF History, panda.org, accessed 8 November 2000. Return to text.
- This estimate based on the last census in the early 1980s. The WWF expects to complete an updated census of China’s pandas in mid-2002. Lanza, R.P., Dresser, B.L. and Damiani, P., Cloning Noah’s Ark, Scientific American 283(5):66–71, November 2000. Return to text.
- Giant Pandas, panda.org, accessed 7 November 2000. Return to text.
- Pandas are now known to eat at least 30 different species of bamboo, including the umbrella (Fargesia robusta), ringal (Arundinaria spp.) And sword (Fargesia nitida) bamboos, but their favourite appears to be the pencil-thin stems of arrow bamboo (Gelidocalamus fangianus). Return to text.
- Despite China having instituted the death penalty for killing pandas, and official international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), some poaching apparently continues, with pelts said to fetch up to US$200,000 from the overseas black market. Ref. 5. Return to text.
- The Chinese government has a ten-year plan to enhance existing reserves and create habitat corridors between reserves. Meiyue, Z., IVF project stirs debate over how to preserve pandas. Science 272(5268):1580–1581, 1996. Return to text.
- Recent research has overturned the conventional scientific view that pandas (and other endangered species) are living in areas on the periphery of their preferred range, and therefore marginal for survival. Instead such areas ‘hold great promise’ for threatened-species conservation. Channell, R. and Lomolino, M.V., Dynamic biogeography and conservation of endangered species, Nature 403(6765):84–86, 2000. Return to text.
- Even cloning is being considered. ‘Cloning giant pandas comes a step closer’, Nature 400(6739):10, 1999. Return to text.
- Brody, J.E., With a little help from friends, pandas hang on, nytimes.com, The New York Times on the Web, 22 September 2000. Return to text.
- Weston, P. and Wieland, C., Bears across the world, Creation 20(4):28–31, 1998. Return to text.
- The clearest evidence for common descent would be if pandas could hybridize with other bears. At present, such evidence is lacking and is unlikely to be witnessed in the near future, given the ideological interest zoos have in preserving the giant panda’s individual species identity, let alone the difficulty getting them to reproduce in the first place. Amongst other species, it is known that brown and grizzly bears can hybridize with American black bears, polar bears and Asiatic black bears. Sloth bears hybridize with sun bears. See Tyler, D.J., Adaptations within the Bear Family, Creation Matters 2:(5):1–4, 1997. Return to text.
- Though mutations are genetic copying mistakes which cause defects, even defects may on rare occasions be helpful, although they still involve corruption or loss of information. Evolutionary belief requires information-increasing mutations, but observed mutations are relentlessly ‘downhill’ in information content. Return to text.
- And Exodus 20:11 firmly rules out acts of special creation after Day 6. (And non-Biblical notions of ‘theistic evolution’ are never valid—neither during nor after Creation Week.) Return to text.
- The red panda also may well have been created as its ‘own kind’. ReMine (Ref. 17) explores the idea that the striking similarities between quite distinct species almost appear to have been created specifically to thwart evolutionary thinking. Return to text.
- ReMine, W.J., The Biotic Message, St. Paul Science, Saint Paul, Minnesota, pp. 251–252, 1993. See review and purchasing information. Return to text.