Creation and the Venus Flytrap
Author: Ian Taylor
In the perfect world described in the first two chapters of Genesis there was no physical death. This raises the question, what food sustained those creatures we know today as carnivores and particularly the insectivorous plants in that perfect world? This question relates to a time in the past and to non-reproducible circumstances. Thus, the solution to the problem can only be approached by the same logico-deductive method employed under similar circumstances by orthodox science. However, in our case we shall place Scripture as the primary authority rather than man’s speculation:
In Genesis 1:11-13 God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass … according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day.” The two other categories of living things produced on the third day were “the herb that yields seed and the fruit tree that yields fruit.” We can reasonably deduce that the insectivorous plants were included among the grasses and not among the herb that yields seed e.g. cereal grains. Interestingly, at the end of the sixth day of creation when God specified what may be eaten by the animal kingdom and by man, the grains and the fruit were included but not the grasses (1:29-30). As we shall see, there was undoubtedly a good reason for this. The Lord then declared that His creation was very good (1:31) and that it was finished (2:1-2). Apart from the fact that death can hardly be described as “very good,” death is not mentioned in the account of creation. The first hint of death was given in God’s warning to Adam, but not Eve, about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam was warned that should he eat of its fruit, “by dying you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). We will return to this passage later and conclude from Scripture that prior to the Fall of Man no living creature, including the insects, had experienced death. However, the question posed by the carnivorous mammals and the insectivorous birds and plants, is that if their survival depended upon the death of a living creature, what did they survive on prior to the Fall? The ease with which plants may be studied rather than carnivorous animals, has led to a continuing debate since the late 18th century centered about the Venus flytrap.
The great work of botanical classification begun by Carl Linneaus in the mid-eighteenth century led to the investigation of the insectivorous plants. The Venus flytrap was given its botanical name, Dionaea muscipula, in 1770. The Venus flytrap is a member of the sundew family while the name “sundew” refers to the moisture seen to glisten on their leaves. These wild plants may be found from the arctic to the tropics and seem to flourish in marshes. They are generally small, not prized for their beauty but have the unique ability to capture living insects and digest them. The earliest studies began in the late eighteenth century in Germany and were followed up in the nineteenth century in England. Studies were conducted by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of Kew Gardens, then notably, a major study by Charles Darwin. Quite late in his life Darwin studied several common members of this family of plants including especially Drosera rotundifloria and Dionea muscipula. The first edition (1875) of Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants, will be referred to here by page numbers for a brief description of the plant and its characteristics1. The Venus flytrap typically consists of a group of green leaves at the base of a tall stem topped by a spray of two or three flowers. The flowers serve the usual purpose of pollination while it is the leaves near the ground that have the ability to capture and digest the insects. The leaves of Dionae muscipula are bi-lobed and stand together at rather less than a right angle to each other. The outer edges of each half of the leaf contain a series of sharp, rigid spikes. These spikes are located such that when the lobes close together, they inter-lock like the teeth of a rat trap. On the upper surface of each half of the leaf is from two to four short filaments approximately one millimeter long and perpendicular to the leaf surface; however, they have the ability to lay flat once the leaf halves fold together. These filaments are extremely sensitive to touch. The upper surface of the leaf is thickly covered with minute reddish or purple glands that secrete a fluid capable of digesting and adsorbing nitrogenous matter (p. 287). The root system of these plants is rather rudimentary and the quantity of nitrogenous salts i.e. nitrates, absorbed is likely to have been minimal, particularly from marsh waters.
When an insect lands on a leaf and touches one of these filaments the two halves of the leaf close together firmly taking as little as 100 milliseconds2 or as long as two to three minutes. The closing pressure is sufficient for the outline of the insect to be seen on the outside of the leaf (p. 307). During the closing process, the moving spikes retain large insects but smaller insects can still escape (p. 311). The digestion process can take one or two days during which time digestive juices are exuded from the leaf surfaces and the decomposed organic body adsorbed by the same glands. Darwin conducted a number of experiments and found that the short sensitive filaments were not affected by raindrops or wind, and provided they were not moist, objects such as bits of wood, cork, moss, paper, stone, or glass had no effect upon inflection of the leaf. He tried various dilute chemical solutions and determined that the filaments did not react to inorganic or to non-nitrogenous solutions. Reaction was most effective with the salts of ammonia while phosphate of ammonia was particularly powerful (p.168). In these experiments Darwin also tried human urine and found this to be effective although he pointed out that the power of the urine did not lie in the urea (CO(NH2)2) which is the chief solid component of mammalian urine and an end product of protein decomposition (p.79 and p.124). Although unstated by Darwin, this would leave uric acid (C3H4N4O3) as the active component and, significantly, this is the chief component in the urine of birds and reptiles. Further, urine from birds and reptiles is not a liquid but a semisolid. Each leaf is seemingly limited to four or five capture cycles requiring several days rest between each cycle. Finally, when a leaf has captured two or three insects at the same time, digestion takes longer and sometimes results in the death of the leaf. The actual moment of death mimics that of the animal kingdom when the tightly closed leaf quite suddenly relaxes and opens, turns flaccid then becomes blackened.
We can draw several conclusions from this work. In the first place, the mechanism that causes the bi-lobed leaves to close together is quite complex and has only recently been elucidated. Researchers at Cambridge University have determined that the rapid closure depends upon the subtle double curvature of the leaf. When an insect lands on the leaf it touches the sensitive hairs on the surface and these in turn stimulate the plant to pump water into the outer surface cells of the leaf but not the inner surface cells. The outer cells elongate, build up a tension in the leaf and, after only a moment or so, cause the two halves of the leaf to buckle into the closed shape. In their article, the researchers describe the Venus flytrap as, “nature’s consummate hydraulic engineer.”2
From Darwin’s experiments, it is clear that prior to the Fall of Man neither air nor water alone were the subject of the digestion process. However, Darwin showed that nitrogen is a necessary symbiotic component of the digestive process. Today, that component is derived from living insects but prior to the Fall there was seemingly only one other source of nitrogenous materials: excrement in small doses. It is considered significant that the grasses seem to thrive on this source of nitrogen as is evident by a walk through the local cow pasture. This could be the reason the grasses were not included in the foods offered to Man. However, in offering Man herbs and fruits to eat, the Lord certainly recognized the inevitable result would be the final products of digestion. In fact, He provided an amazing hierarchy of insects and bacteria that have faithfully served to take good care of these by-products. Entire armies of dung beetles and smaller fry attend to the by-products of the larger mammals and Man but what about the by-products of the birds, the insects and the small reptiles? Any visitor to a busy rookery will attest to bird by-products as a veritable hazard from above, however, the Venus flytrap may have considered it all to be manna from heaven.
The Venus flytrap raises the broader question relating to the period of time before the Fall of Man: For how long was the animal kingdom, and insectivorous plants in particular, vegetarian? Creationists are generally inclined to think that it may have been as little as a few weeks, perhaps a year at most. The Scripture is read as a continuing narrative and it is assumed that the temptation in the Garden took place almost immediately after the creation of Eve. Further, there is no mention of any children and, making the unsaid assumption that the relationship between Adam and Eve was the same as would be expected today between a naked couple in paradise, it is argued that the Fall took place not more than a month or so after the creation of Eve. We need to return to the Scripture to get a better estimate of the more probable time interval.
As punishment for unrepentant disobedience God declared to the woman — she was not named Eve until Genesis 3:20 — “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception …” (Genesis 3:16). The Hebrew word heron is only used once in Scripture and, while its exact meaning is uncertain, it does seem to be related to the word her-ay-on that appears twice and is known to mean “conception.” The NKJV and the 1967 KJV have translated heron as “conception” while other translations use the word “pain” twice or “childbirth” etc. but it is suggested here that heron means the potential for conception rather than actual conception. This would relate to the menstrual cycle and by declaring that it would be multiplied would indicate that it was initially less frequent than it is today. The only figures we have for the number of Eve’s offspring is from Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (2:3) where the footnote adds: Adam had 33 sons and 23 daughters.3 Genesis 5:1 tells us that Adam lived for 930 years and it would be reasonable to assume that Eve lived a similar number of years. Further, assuming that Eve’s capability of having children was proportionately the same as women today, say 400 years, then with 56 children during this time means one child every 7 years. Even the sainted Augustine (City of God, Book 15, chap. 15) remarked whether it was credible that men of the antediluvian age abstained from sexual intercourse for the number of years indicated by Scripture.4 However, this proposal is supported by The Book of Jubilees (chapters 3 and 4) where it is said that Adam and Eve were in the Garden seven years before the expulsion then sixty years before their first son, Cain, then seven years between each subsequent child.5 In the light of this, the time between the end of Genesis chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, that is, the creation of Eve and the Fall of Man, could well have been 7 years. However, there is still one final consideration:
In God’s judgment of Adam, He did not curse Adam directly but rather cursed the ground (Genesis 3:17). Noah adopted the same principle when he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, rather than the culprit, Ham (Genesis 9:20-27). The principle here is that the a cursed son is a reflection of a poor father and in this case Adam’s Father, God the Creator, wisely avoided this stigma by cursing the earth. Technically, the earth was Adam’s mother, hence “Mother Earth.” To return to Genesis 2:17 quoted earlier, God had promised Adam that the day he ate the forbidden fruit, “by dying you shall die.” However, Adam lived for 930 years. Some teach that Adam “died” by being separated from God and, while in some sense this was true, the facts are he did begin to die that day physically, cell by living cell. Every morsel of food eaten by Adam came from the cursed ground and he gradually changed from eternal to mortal, i.e. subject to death. The same unavoidable destiny applied to the animal and plant kingdoms and to every one of Adam’s descendants. A small, though important caveat, concerns the initial absence of death in the Creation. According to 1 Timothy 6:16 God is, “King of kings and Lord of Lords who alone is immortal” therefore all living things, including Man, will have been created to be eternal not immortal. We are thus left to conclude that for the first seven years of human history all life, including the Venus flytrap, was vegetarian and eternal. Following the Fall of Man, the change from purely vegetarian diets — or something of a secondary nature in the case of the Venus flytrap – took place gradually and likely over several hundred years.
1. Darwin, Charles. Insectivorous Plants. London: John Murray. 1875.
2. Forterre, Yoël et. al. How the Venus flytrap snaps. Nature. 433:421-425. January 27, 2005.
3. Whiston, William (translator). The Works of Josephus. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers. 1985. Page 27.
4. Dods, Marcus (translator). The City of God by Saint Augustine. New York: Random House, Inc. The Modern Library. 1950. Page 498.
5. Charles, Robert Henry (translator). The Book of Jubilees. NY: Macmillan. 1917. Reprint: Berwick, ME: Ibis Press, 2005. Page 48.
Photo: Venus flytrap. Courtesy of Noah Elhardt. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license.