Snake Legs

By Michael Baruzzini - Southern Tennessee, USA - Ordinary Time/All Saints 2011


The words of Agur, son of Jakeh of Massa....

Three things are too wonderful for me;

Four, I do not understand:

The way of an eagle in the sky,

The way of a serpent on a rock,

The way of a ship on the high seas,

And the way of a man with a maiden.

-- Proverbs 30:18-19


Agur, son of Jakeh of Massa, might have made a good scientist. He noticed some very remarkable things -- soaring birds, slithering snakes, sailing ships, young love. Ornithology, herpetology, buoyancy and love are all worthy of a lifetime of study, but I would like to take a look at just one of Agur’s examples of mystery, namely, the way a serpent slides across the rock. The movement of snakes is indeed one of the most astonishing things to see in nature. How a creature that consists of little more than a long wriggling tube can be so ruthlessly efficient in its locomotion is surely a wonder of the natural world.


The terrestrial movement of snakes is especially astonishing to us because snakes have no legs -- except, of course, for the ones that do. Recently, a news story about snake legs caught my eye (and how could it not?). The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology reports that a team of European paleontologists made use of x-ray technology to look at the bones of fossilized snakes from Lebanon. Embedded in rock, the 95-million year old bones are difficult to analyze, but using new techniques to reveal structures hidden inside the stone, the researchers found that these ancient snakes possessed miniature legs very much like the legs of modern lizards, only smaller and less developed. The scientists concluded that the snake legs were evidence in support of the hypothesis that modern snakes evolved from earlier lizard-like reptiles. Hearing this news, I reflected on the likely reactions of various people I know: some would meet it with hearty triumphalism, others with equally hearty skepticism. It was in considering these disparate reactions that I recalled Agur’s proverbial ruminations about snakes.


Agur was once identified as a minor proverb-maker by the late singer Rich Mullins, who wrote, “I may have liked the sayings of Agur when I was a kid because they got in at the end of the book of Proverbs like third string players get in for a few seconds in the fourth quarter of a game that it is already safe or unsalvageable.” It is clear that Agur was indeed a modest man. Just before his meditation on the laws of animal motion, he asked God for “neither riches nor poverty,” lest he “be rich and deny Thee… or be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.” Agur was a man very aware of his limitations. His observation of birds, snakes, ships and couples is humble -- he recorded his astonishment, his wonder, and his ignorance.


One suspects that Agur would be just as astonished by snakes that had proto-limbs as he was by the legless snakes he saw slipping through the Middle Eastern desert. This is exactly why Agur would make a great scientist. Science at its purest is founded on humility, astonishment, and wonder. The greatest scientists of the past and today share this humility towards the natural world. If you regularly read the writings of scientific atheists, between the lines of anti-theistic boilerplate you will find an honest wonder and a recognition of the beauty of the universe. Carl Sagan, the late prominent spokesman of popular science, wrote, “By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship.”

Yet despite this developed and even religious sense of wonder, Sagan himself remained an atheist, and his wonder-at-nature substitute for religious feeling is invoked by his followers to this day. Still, as Walker Percy noted in Lost in the Cosmos, “… one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula.” Like Agur, Sagan and his disciples can indeed have a humble and genuine sense of wonder at the Cosmos.


It’s the funny things the atheists say, when their wonder has worn off, which are of concern. Take Richard Dawkins, who famously opined that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Dawkins was presumably thinking of things like fossilized snake legs, which fit neatly into Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yet the connection between the presence of snake legs and the absence of God seems less than tenable. Agur, for one, would have been unconvinced. Snakes with tiny legs and snakes without are both wonders of nature, he would have said, and equal works of God, evolution or no.


But the atheists are not the only ones who say funny things about strange evidence like snake legs. For instance, when the seventeenth-century Catholic scientist Nicholas Steno proposed that seashells found high in the Alps were fossilized remains of creatures that lived long ago, turned to stone as the Alps were raised from seafloor to mountaintop over long periods of time, the famed English naturalist John Ray balked. It was impossible that the seashells on the mountaintops were really seashells, Ray argued, because not only were they found on mountains, the species they represented were unknown in the modern world, and thus would have to be extinct. Since God would never allow the imperfection of extinction in his Creation, Ray insisted that the shells were simply inanimate stone formations that resembled shells. The truth eventually emerged on Steno’s side, as more and more fossils of definitely extinct creatures were uncovered. Steno himself was eventually ordained a bishop, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.


Something of Agur’s humility is lacking in both the case of the Darwinist critic of a Creator and the strict creationist critic of any kind of evolution. Unlike Agur, both are inordinately certain of their understanding of things. Both admit of one source of knowledge, and deny the validity of another -- the materialist rejects anything but science, the fundamentalist any knowledge that doesn’t come nearly straight from the Bible. Both see the universe as smaller than God made it. Confronted with oddities like snake legs, both retreat to a preferred, comfortable narrative: snake legs are proof that God does not exist and Nature takes care of herself; or, snake legs are trickery and scientifically meaningless curiosities.


There is another possible view, though. Snake legs are a sign, a puzzle, a clue about the ordered, developing nature of a magnificent world. Snake legs are a reminder that the world is full of things too wonderful for us. And that is the best reason to study it.