Flanders’s Jesus Fish and The Intelligent Design of Natural Selection


Some seasons back, I don’t remember the exact circumstances, Lisa Simpson is at a farmer’s market or a swap meet or other such convention. She comes across her hyper religious neighborino Ned Flanders and sees he is selling some fish with a remarkable design, the word “Jesus” imprinted in their skin pattern. From a transcript:

Lisa: Mr. Flanders, how did you make these amazing fish?
Flanders: Actually, God made some fish that were pretty close to these, so naturally we selected those for further breathing.
Lisa: So that natural selection was the origin of the species?
Flanders: Yup, that’s exactly…Whoa-oa-oa! You almost got me.

(Immediately afterwards, one of the Jesus fish tries to crawl out of the tank, onto land. Flanders declares “Not on my watch!” and shuts it back in, further illustrating, understand, his stubborn opposition to the facts of evolution in the face of incontrovertible proof.

Now this is all somewhat amusing, but I’m not quite convinced it proved what Lisa intended to the certainty she exudes. I imagine the writers sided with Lisa the smug skeptic over Flanders the illogical fundamentalist (those being the archetypes assigned), because it’s not at all hard for me to imagine a very easy retort to follow.
Flanders: …And thus, I used my God-given intelligence to design them this way.

It’d be a response that would have flowed organically in the context of the scene, both in the inherent logic of deducting universal conclusions about the nature of life’s origins from the microcosm of the Jesus fish, and name-checking such concepts. If Flanders hadn’t de-evolved into such a simplistic straw man over the years, he may have been allowed to realize that.

The astute reader will have already gleaned my central thesis, and how it relates to a larger and more significant argument than one scene from the 21st Season of The Simpsons. It’s the very old question of natural selection vs intelligent design, and it manifests with this simple question:

How on Earth can Lisa claim that the pattern of Flanders’ fish is an accident?

She seems so content in her assumption that the creationist has undone himself, that by showcasing a display of selective breeding, he proved, contrary to his most sacred beliefs, that the species of Earth, including homo sapien, were the product of unguided macroevolution. Little Lisa, who rightfully doubted the angel hoax and was drawn to Buddhism for its lack of a creator God, is very pleased with her conclusion.

Yet surely she sees that these fish were NOT the product of Darwinian natural selection, but instead were designed but a sentient, and in this case, powerful being (she may bristle at calling Flanders intelligent, but never mind), one with an explicitly religious agenda, in fact. If we take these fish as a microcosm of life itself, as clearly we are to, then they are not human beings gradually coming into existence from the primordial ooze after billions of years, but rather Flanders is their God creating them with with a purpose, an intention, a will. Clearly, survival of the fittest is not a factor here. There is no evolutionary advantage to a fish displaying the word JESUS on its body. But intentionally bred that way by an evangelical Christian, as they were, that’s the crux of it.

Now there are two counter-arguments to this, both of which I find fascinating to the larger picture. The first is that Flanders did not create these fish ex nihlo in one day. It must have taken several generations of finding (yes, selecting) the right fish whose color patterns vaguely resemble the human word “JESUS”, mating them together for the end result seen here. Mating is a process seen in nature, and at first glance does not suggest supernatural intervention or guidance. So in Lisa’s worldview, perhaps these fish would eventually find each other by happenstance, breed up for instinctual survival or simply chance, and at some point, the word Jesus can be found in their skin. This is not what happened, however. One man, over the course of one human lifetime (Flanders is 60, not six billion) decided to breed the fish that way and carried out his plans. They are no more proof of unguided evolution than his angel topiary from “Cape Feare”.

"Maybe it grew that way on its own?" "We can't take that chance!" "We never take a chance. I want to take a chance!"
“Maybe it grew that way on its own?”
“We can’t take that chance!”
“We never take a chance. I want to take a chance!”

The second, and trickier counter-counter is that Ned himself is the result of such natural selection and atheistic evolution, and thus, anything he does is naturally a part of that same process. I find this argument recursive and self-proving, presupposing its own conclusion. “Since man evolved without external intervention, anything he does evolves without external intervention”. I could just as easily say that since man was designed, everything he does is designed”. This is a very frustrating line of thinking, but it’s understandable. Why not start at the beginning? Well, because we’re not at the beginning, nor can we observe it. We can only ascertain from its results, the world we see around us, including ourselves and our fish.  This gets back to the teleological argument, or in my case, my teleontological argument, wherein the very existence of design as a concept proves that design exists, and thus, a Designer.

You find a watch in the desert and assume that it didn’t spontaneously assemble. The evolutionist would argue that this analogy does not prove design, that watches themselves were the product of thousands of years of evolving, from simplistic sundials to our modern digital timekeepers, and that likewise the humans who improved their inventions were themselves the product of a similar process.

But hold. You’ve presupposed that design itself, by man rather than God, does exist, is a legitimate fact of the universe. Yes the watch was not instantly created by man waving his hand and is in fact the latest in a long line of cruder timepieces. But each and every one of those timepieces, like man himself or Flanders increasingly Jesus-liked fish, was the result of deliberate design. Perhaps in some primitive era, a few rocks happened to fall in place just the right way for a cave man to notice the effect of the sun on the shadow. I’ll allow that. But it was not an accident that man would place rocks into place with the explicit idea of measuring the progression of shadows and thus, time itself. If both the deliberate design of the caveman’s sundial and the intentionally breeding of Flanders’s fish (the patterns of which have started out with only a vague resemblance of J and S) are the result of sentient men enacting a plan, how does that prove, how does it even suggest, that they themselves were accidents of nature? How can the undesigned design things.

In his commentary about one of his Dilbert strips, wherein Dilbert unsuccessfully attempts to clone his boss, Scott Adams said that if we ever manage to successfully clone a human, it would disprove religion. Again, not convinced. Because, again, if the idea is that we’re to see the actions of modern man as a microcosm of the history of the universe, then, again, you simply cannot overlook the fact that the clone was designed. With intelligence. As a method of creating human life, it is an interruption of the previous process, but as it was the result of a designer, it could still follow that the designer himself may be the result of a design originally set in place by the ultimate Designer. Again, recursive on my end, but I merely mean to suggest that this intentional working of man does not disprove his own ultimate secret origins.

This goes too for the Miller-Urey experiment, which was intended to prove that organic compounds could have been produced during the primordial ooze of early Earth. But you cannot remove the experimenter from his experiment. Stanley Miller and Harold Urey had a thesis that they put into practice. Amino acids (organic compounds, not life itself, it must be kept in mind) eventually were produced in their lab, but only after these conditions were intelligently designed by intelligent men. It does not prove, it does not even suggest, that God might not have used such mechanisms in original creation. So far, nothing has disproven Theistic Evolution. It is an insurmountable paradox to suggest you can design anything without design, in the same way you cannot intentionally cause an accident. By planning to attempt to recreate conditions that caused a result, you yourself are responsible, by will, intelligence, and designed, for that result.

I haven’t done anything so grand as prove the existence of God, of course. I simply postulate the simple logic that nothing man designs to do proves he himself is undesigned. I should hope that even Springfield’s answer to a question nobody asked should consider that.

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