Pandas and the Problem of Homology

Posted by on Jan 4, 2013 in Articles | 0 comments

Pandas are usually a favorite in zoos.  They look like big, soft, cuddly, teddy bears, but are they really bears or aren’t they?  That seems like a silly question, but it has hounded biologists for over a hundred years.  Actually there are two major types of pandas, the Giant Panda, with the familiar black and white coloration, and the Red Panda, which, as the name implies, has a reddish-brown color.  Both are native to southwest China, and both feed predominately on bamboo.

For over a century, scientists were divided as how to classify them.  Some thought they were bears, while others put them with the raccoons.  All agreed, however, that they were closely related to each other, not only because they lived in the same region, but also because of the many features they have in common.  These include similarities in jaw and tooth structure, certain internal organs, chromosome numbers, and behavior patterns.  The clincher, though, seems to be the very specialized “thumb” of the panda. 

In 1964, Dwight Davis, of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, published an extensive study of the two types of pandas and concluded that the Giant Panda is really a bear and the Red Panda a raccoon.  His work has been considered authoritative on the topic and most researchers now agree.  What then of all the similarities?

Evolutionists frequently use similarity of structure as “evidence” of common ancestry.  Determining which similarities indicate common ancestry often proves to be a problem though.  Why should the Giant Panda be classed with the bears and not with the Red Panda?  They seem to share more similarities with each other than with either the bears or the raccoons.

It seems the evolutionary interpretation of similarity is quite arbitrary.  At times it is called “homology” (similarity of structure) and interpreted as evidence of common ancestry; other times it is called “analogy” (similarity of function) and interpreted as convergent evolution (arrival at similar functions by dissimilar evolutionary paths).  If two creatures with as many similarities as the Giant Panda and the Red Panda are not related, though, what confidence does it give us in other examples where two organisms are claimed to be related because of certain similarities (especially when the similarities are rather superficial or known only from fossils).

Creationists recognize that sometimes similarity is caused by common ancestry; in other cases, though, it may represent a “mosaic” arrangement of traits, distributed among the creatures at the Creator’s discretion.  We see, then, a reflection of the Creator’s imagination and creativity in distributing characteristics to each one as He wills just as He gave differing gifts to those in His church according to His will (1Cor 12:11)  This seems to be a good explanation of the fascinating pandas.


By Dave & Mary Jo Nutting

Originally published in the March/April 1996 Think and Believe newsletter.

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