Simon Barnes, a sports and nature writer is highly esteemed by journalist colleagues. He recently left The Times to the surprise of colleagues. The cost-cutting move by The Times is thought by one fellow journalist to be likened to a football manager selling off their main striker; it didn’t seem to make sense. I read his article in the Daily Mail recently, titled ‘Giraffes in Jeopardy’.
When it comes to the animal kingdom and their threatened extinction due to poaching, killing for their ivory, human population expansion, etc, that does get my attention. But the essay held my interest for another reason; it did surprise me to read:
“So, there are populations of giraffe in serious decline, and it’s time we started worrying about this. Not only because giraffes have a right to exist, but because giraffes matter very much to us humans.
“Take that neck. You could say, if you wished, that the neck of the giraffe explains the mystery of life. You can grasp this by counting the number of vertebrae in your neck: the answer is seven. Now count the number of vertebrae in a giraffe neck. And the answer is … seven. (But I would have to but in here and ask, but Simon, don’t all mammals have 7 vertebrae?).
“So giraffes and humans have something rather unexpected in common. We share an ancestor — an ancestor with a seven-vertebra neck, which was little more than a handy way of joining head to body.
“But when the rich forests of Africa disappeared millions of years ago and the open wooded savannahs took their place, giraffes found it advantageous to reach higher up into the trees that were left.
“The individuals with the longest necks had the best chance of surviving, and they passed their necks onto their progeny. When it came to the next generation, those that had still longer necks now had the advantage.
“And so, in the course of countless millennia, giraffes became tall, stately, long-legged, long-necked beasts, yet with those seven — gigantic — vertebrae to show that we have an ancestor in common.”
I have read ‘a children’s funny’ about how giraffe got its long neck, but this part of Simon Barn’s essay gives what appears to me a serious explanation of how the giraffe got its long neck.
In my reading the ‘high browsing’ and stretching for food used to be taught as the reason for giraffes evolving long necks. But that Lamarckian explanation is now discredited. It was long-necked giraffes that produced long-necked offspring.
As a lay person I see the ‘historical sciences’ not like real science where things are observed and seen to be repeated. The giraffe’s neck has not been observed to have evolved nor evidence for it in the fossil record, even if there are giraffes with shorter necks they could be another species of the same kind. Like the claim about Haeckel’s Embryos that is now discredited, this explanation for the giraffe’s long neck through ‘high browsing’ as I read, is also now discarded.
However, as with Haeckel’s Embryos, there are still sites that give evidence that this ‘classic evolutionary hypothesis’ for the giraffe’s neck is still promoted, and even by the BBC.
For a layman like myself this article, ‘What Giraffes Will Do For A Drink’, gives a more reasoned and responsible explanation for the giraffes’ long neck. I found it worth reading the essay but a few of paragraphs will give more than a hint why I see the giraffe’s ‘high browsing’ being responsible for its long neck is no longer a credible explanation for the long neck of the giraffe, there is much more to it than the stretching of the neck, as the following suggests:
“Many hospitals use what is known as gravity suits. These ensembles prevent fluid retention (edema) in the lower extremities. The giraffe has an in-built gravity suit that prevents blood pooling and edema. The two portions of the giraffe’s body that help in the function of this system are its tough skin and its fascia (connecting tissue). So, in order to survive, the giraffe must have evolved a long neck, a heart to push the blood up the neck, special valves to maintain its blood pressure, and antigravity suit to resist the extreme pressure that is routinely produced. Did these structures arrive by coincidence? (Sounds like ‘irreducible complexity’ to me).
“The list of what must have evolved ‘in sync’ with the rest of the giraffe’s anatomy is lengthy and impressive. Evolutionist Robert Wesson stated:
“The protogiraffe had not only to lengthen neck vertebra (fixed at seven in mammals), but had to make any concurrent modifications: the head, difficult to sustain atop the long neck, became relatively smaller. . . . Big lungs were necessary to compensate for breathing through a tube 10 feet long; many muscles, tendons, and bones had to be modified harmoniously; the forelegs were lengthened with corresponding restructuring of the frame, and many refluxes had to be reshaped (1991, p. 226, parenthetical item in orig.).
“As Wesson noted, these processes had to come into existence at the same time! The head had to be miniaturised in order to rest on the top of a 15-foot-high-giant. Plus, the giraffe’s lungs are eight times the size of an average human’s in order for it to breathe through a ten-foot-long-trachea. And every structural support must reshape to match the new form of the neck. Any statistician (or physiologist) would balk at the probability of a creature evolving these extreme characteristics.”
In his essay, ‘Why do giraffes have long necks?’ Brian Switek concludes with what seems to me to be an honest answer. At the close of his essay he writes:
“Ultimately, a combination of natural history, embryology, and palaeobiology will be needed to fully understand the unique anatomy of giraffes. This is not something which will be accomplished in a year or even ten, but will take the persistent investigations of many researchers working across a variety of scientific disciplines. For the moment, the question of “How did the giraffe get its long neck?” must be answered with “We do not yet know”, but that is as it should be. It is better to admit that we are still unravelling a mystery than to dogmatically assert that all is solved and that all the uncharted places on the evolutionary map have been filled in.”
Evolutionists might balk at Intelligent Design as the best explanation for the physical design of the Giraffe, but I would want to look for more serious explanations for the giraffes’ long neck other than it was stretched through ‘high browsing’.
For one looking on at the Natural Sciences v Intelligent Design debate from the outside, on this one the latter has the more credible answer for me.
See also: Origins vs Operational Science and related articles