Ammonites once roamed the seas in huge numbers. No, not the ancient Ammonite tribe that descended from Lot and caused Israel so much trouble, but an extinct group of marine mollusks that resembled an octopus with a shell. The shell was usually spiral in form, with a diameter ranging from about 10 millimeters (less than a half inch) to 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) or more. Although they were once abundant, we would not have known of their existence except for the fossils they left behind.
Ammonites were a diverse group, with several thousand species. Most had shells in the form of a flat spiral, but a few had shells in a conical spiral or bent into other shapes. Some types swam at various depths in the ocean and fed on plankton, while others crawled on the seafloor and fed on small animals.
Although they are extinct, ammonites still teach important lessons. Ammonites illustrate both design and catastrophe, features seen in nature and explained by the Bible.
There is beauty in the spiral symmetry of the ammonite shell, with its curved form and continuously increasing radius. The spiral can be represented by a mathematical equation.1 Perhaps this is one reason it is interesting to us. Symmetry and mathematics also contribute to beauty in many other organisms. For example, the circular form of many flowers reflects radial symmetry, and can also be represented by a mathematical equation.2
Why should our world have such interesting mathematical properties? Why isn’t it chaotic? The answer comes from the way in which our world came into existence. We can see that the Creator is a superb mathematician.
Again, why should we find the ammonite shell to be interesting and beautiful? We do not observe other creatures admiring beautiful objects as humans do. Humans appear to have a unique capacity to appreciate beauty in symmetry, color, pattern, texture, and other features. Our capacity to appreciate beauty is explained by the fact that we are made in the image of the Creator. The Creator loves beauty, as He made us to, and His loving generosity is demonstrated in His gift of both the capacity to appreciate beauty and the gratuitous beauty with which He filled His creation.
The inside of an ammonite shell is divided into chambers that are formed in succession as the animal grows. As the ammonite grows, its body becomes too big for the chamber it has been occupying, so it builds a new chamber, extending the spiral shell. This continues until there are many chambers, each larger than the preceding one, with the animal living in the largest, outermost chamber.
The outgrown chambers control the buoyancy of the shell. Each chamber is walled off by a solid partition, which prevents gas from entering, except through a tube that penetrates the chamber walls. By pumping gas through the tube, the animal is able to control its depth in the water. Without this elegant design, the ammonite would be limited to crawling on the seafloor. This system of buoyancy control does not look like an accident. It looks like the result of intentional, intelligent design. This example, along with many other features of living organisms, points to an intelligent Creator with unexcelled expertise in engineering.
Ammonites belong to a group of mollusks that includes octopus, squid, nautilus, and others. These creatures have complex eyes that are strikingly similar to human eyes. The basic shapes and functions are the same, although there are important differences in details.
Vision requires an extensive set of precisely crafted molecular components interacting in highly complex, regulated reactions. Such complex systems do not arise from unguided natural processes, but are known only to be products of engineering genius. This provides yet another illustration of God’s creative power and expertise.
Despite their former abundance, ammonites became extinct. What happened to them? It appears they were victims of the global flood described in Genesis. Once flourishing, they are now all gone.
What lessons can we gain from their disappearance?
First, there is the lesson of judgment. The earth had become so full of violence that God determined that the only way to preserve His plan to redeem His fallen creation was to intervene in judgment.
A second lesson is that what we see now is not permanent. What flourishes for a while may come to an end, regardless of how widespread and abundant it is.
Third, the innocent often suffer with the guilty. There is no reason to think that ammonites were evil in any way. They seem to have been harmless, but they suffered because of the actions of others. We also suffer because we live in an evil world that is desperately in need of redemption and restoration. We cannot conclude that someone has done wrong simply because things have gone badly for them. In evil, collateral damage is unavoidable.
Ammonites teach us lessons of design and catastrophe that are relevant today. We live in a world that shows intelligent design in many features. Design in nature points us to a Creator, and the Bible reveals what that Creator is like. The Bible also helps us understand the evidence for catastrophe, God’s judgment in the past. It also points us to the future judgment, in which God’s people will be rescued and redeemed.
The lessons of the ammonite stand as both a promise and a warning that God cares for His creation and will eventually intervene to restore it to its original purpose.
Jim Gibson is director of the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California.