In recent years, tiny flies with pictures on their wings have excited and intrigued scientists and lay people alike. “Surely those aren’t real?” people ask, aware of the need for a healthy dose of skepticism in this age of sensational claims. On first viewing, some wonder aloud whether the images have been photo-shopped1 by a talented graphic artist.
The species of fly pictured here (Goniurellia tridens) is very real indeed. Flies of this sort have been known to science for a century or more—and many more species have been described (in the family Tephritidae).2 They are fruit flies, not to be confused with the more familiar Drosophila genus of fruit flies (family Drosophilidae).
Picture-wing flies were brought to the attention of a new generation when Dr Brigitte Howarth, a fly mimicry specialist at Zayed University, encountered G. tridens in the United Arab Emirates. The National (UAE) reported, “… a closer examination of the transparent wings of Goniurellia tridens reveals a piece of evolutionary art. Each wing carries a precisely detailed image of an ant-like insect, complete with six legs, two antennae, a head, thorax and tapered abdomen [my emphasis].” One might add to this an eye, a visibly darker area of the head. Furthermore, Dr Howarth was reported as exclaiming, “The image on the wing is absolutely perfect.”3
When we talk of a ‘piece of art’, we often have in mind a painting or sculpture, something which is aesthetically pleasing—often intricate or beautiful—and which displays the skill and talent of its maker. A person’s artwork doesn’t have to have any utilitarian value in order for it to be highly acclaimed. As we say, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and we’re familiar with artworks which may ‘do nothing for us’ fetching fantastic sums of money at auction.4
Works of art frequently depict objects with which we’re familiar; a sketched or painted image might be an impressionistic representation or else a very close likeness. In the case of the ant-like insects on the wings of G. tridens, the likeness is so accurate that Dr Howarth initially took it to be “an infestation on the fly’s wings”—but seeing the perfect symmetry of the two images intrigued her. “When I got it under the microscope I realised that these were insects painted onto the wings.”3
The precise function of these images isn’t entirely clear.5 Some think they could be used as part of the fly’s courtship (attracting a mate), others that they may be for defence; that when threatened, the fly exposes the images on its wings, and the appearance of tiny ants seemingly walking back and forth may confuse a potential predator. However, G. tridens is about 3 mm (1/8 in) long and the ‘ant’ images only 1 mm long. That’s about the size of the world’s tiniest species of ant,6 so it seems rather unlikely that a jumping spider (the fly’s predator) would be deterred by these minuscule ‘creatures’.
Many will agree with the fly specialist that the wing images are “absolutely perfect” depictions of ant-like insects. They’re works of art—but “evolutionary art”? The strikingly accurate depictions seen in some human artworks demonstrate the skill of intelligent artists. Paintings do not paint themselves! That these wing images qualify as aesthetically pleasing ‘art’ is hardly in question, yet the idea of ‘evolutionary art’ is an oxymoron.7
By definition, evolution is meant to be purposeless and undesigned. Charles Darwin wrote, “I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind in the details.”8
Contrary to this, the Bible testifies that the natural world everywhere reveals overwhelming evidence for the Creator (Romans 1:20). Complex design implies an intelligent designer.9 Architecture requires an architect. Surely, then, the artful miniatures on the wings of this tiny fruit fly are testimony to the Divine Artist?10
Well, not so fast. Could there be a different explanation for these artworks that, while not supporting the evolution of new kinds of creature, nevertheless accounts for the art’s appearance by natural processes? A few Tephritid fly species are known to have similar, but less well-defined ‘ants’ on their wings, while numerous other species in this family have patterned wings, but no obvious images at all (see below: Figs 1–6. Wings of Goniurellia species). Did the Creation Week flies possess the artwork whereas most of the other species (related to G. tridens) have devolved (losing the defined artwork)? If so, they were directly ‘painted’ by God.
Alternatively, did the originally created flies lack such images entirely, a few species gradually acquiring them, over thousands of years of natural selection, because of some protection afforded by ant mimicry? If the latter, the case for their intelligent origin would not be quite so obvious.
Human beings have a tendency to see patterns and objects where they don’t really exist—for example, faces on toast, in the clouds or even on Mars!11 Pareidolia is the name given to this psychological phenomenon. A combination of the brain’s perception and the power of expectation (‘seeing what we want to see’) can result in something entirely coincidental being claimed as significant, even supernatural.12 Are these wonderful ant-like images on the wings of G. tridens simply a fluke and we’re seeing more than is really there? Well it certainly cannot be said that Dr Howarth is guilty of pareidolia regarding these images; as indicated earlier, she didn’t expect to see anything of the sort and initially thought she was observing a fruit fly infested with actual miniature insects!
Like Dr Howarth, many evolutionary biologists are also unwilling to explain away such striking ant depictions by appealing to pareidolia. Their only alternative is to argue that it’s a case of naturally acquired mimicry. This is the position of arch-evolutionist Professor Jerry Coyne (well known for his antipathy to God).13 Along with a few others, he speculates that G. tridens’ painted wings may be depicting spiders instead of ants, but acknowledges, “The truth is that we don’t really know why this fly has antlike markings … ”14
As already mentioned, their small size is a problem for a naturalistic origin (what use are they?). And could such life-like ant-art really be accomplished by natural selection within the biblical timescale? We have regularly demonstrated that natural selection is a valid part of the creation model, certainly not the same thing as big-picture evolution.15 Nevertheless, it seems a big ask to expect so many distinct insect features (as listed by Dr Howarth) to be arrived at by such a process.
British surgeon and author Dr Vij Sodera asks whether the changes you would need to see (to gradually evolve something complex and useful) are really possible, concluding, What you want you won’t get.16 For instance, if useful mutations could arise randomly, unless they enhanced the organism’s fitness (thus, its survivability), they would be invisible to natural selection until many other random mutations had been added.
Yet, the earlier mutated DNA sequences (with a neutral effect on fitness until much later on) would themselves be susceptible to mutations; such that, over evolutionary timescales, they would become completely scrambled before a later usefulness arose. Applying this to the artwork on the wings of G. tridens, is it really conceivable that all the body parts of the ant-like image were gradually produced by blind natural selection?
Within the creation model and timeframe, if one day it was demonstrated that the images had indeed arisen after Creation Week, there’s a more likely explanation—that the Creator pre-designed these fruit flies with the in-built capacity to produce ant images on their wings. If so, it would be an example of the plasticity of a creature’s outward appearance being brought about by the execution of pre-programmed ‘sub routines’ in the DNA.17 This seems to be the case with the many varieties of orchids with intricate reproductive systems.18 In other words, if natural selection cannot explain what we see, there are two options. Either, God painted ant-like creatures on the wings of G. tridens from the start, or else He designed their genetic system with the capacity to produce the images in response to some later environmental cue, whether related to mimicry or not.
Whether the artwork existed from Creation week or was acquired later via pre-programmed variability, or even natural selection, there is nothing here that is incompatible with biblical creation. Flies changing into the same kind of flies, albeit with different wing patterning, does not demonstrate how flies could evolve into something basically different. Moreover, God not only created but continually upholds all things (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). This speaks of His intimate ongoing interest in all that He has made, these humble fruit flies included.19
Add to this God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge, and we must surely credit the Divine Artist. ‘Evolutionary art’ it cannot be, for such an ideology makes no allowance for intelligent design or artists.