News Release

Capture the flag: 'Darwin fish' may be a new version of a very old game, University of Georgia study proposes

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. -- The Scopes Trial on evolution never really ended. It just wound on up the bumpers of cars.

Symbols can unite towns, armies--even nations. A new battle of symbols is now being fought across America these days--a stylized version of "capture the flag." One of the symbols is a fish. The other is a fish with small walking feet. Inside the symbols are a variety of words, the most common being "Jesus" in the legless fish and "Darwin" in the other.

A new survey of the attitudes of those who stick Darwin fish symbols on their cars shows that while some are merely making fun of religion in general, many want to appropriate a sacred symbol--and wreck it.

"In several respects, displaying the Darwin fish is the symbolic equivalent of capturing and desecrating and enemy's flag, an act of ritual aggression," said Dr. Tom Lessl, an associate professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia who studies the rhetoric of science. "The Darwin symbol's obvious emulation of a religious symbol gives it unique power to express ridicule in a vivid and symbolically pointed fashion."

The entire brouhaha began with the Christian fish symbol. In the early days of Christianity when the faith was considered dangerous, it is thought that believers often drew the outlines of a fish to quietly proclaim their faith. The idea was simple and elegant: the fish was a symbol for Christ because the initial letters of Greek word icthus ("fish") form an acrostic interpreted as "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."

For those who believe in the Biblical story of Creation, the fish symbol became a powerful statement of public belief. But for those who accept evolution by natural selection, the fish symbol was a golden opportunity for parody, and soon Darwin fish, with their flat feet heading presumably toward land and further natural selection, showed up on car bumpers, too.

Finding a way to gather data on those who use the Darwin fish on cars presented daunting problems for Lessl. He considered using a survey on the Internet, but there is no way to be sure respondents actually have the fish on their cars. So he set out on foot in parking lots in several states, looking for the symbols and leaving questionnaires under windshield wipers. He asked three simple questions:

  • Why did you put this emblem on your car?
  • What audience did you hope to reach?
  • What does the Darwin fish mean to you?

Out of nearly 140 surveys put on cars, he received 51 completed questionnaires that were mailed back.

"The fact that 66 percent of the respondents identified Christians as their target audience is the key to interpreting these themes," said Lessl. "The apparent desire to deride this audience seems to be just as important as any serious message they want to communicate."

The messages, as might be expected, were wildly varied and often inconsistent.

"I put the Darwin fish on my car for a number of reasons," said one respondent. "Mainly I did it to annoy the Christian right wing, since they are so fond of putting the fish/Christ symbols on their cars. I also use it to display the symbol of my group, which believes natural processes explain the world around us."

But other respondents did intend a positive message.

"I believe that the Darwin fish sums up my religious beliefs," the respondent said. "I believe in a higher being, God, if you will, but I do not believe that the acknowledgment of such a god excludes scientific and anthropological evidence for either the Big Bang theory or evolution."

Lessl identified numerous themes from the respondents, including the association of Darwin with an ecological view of life; a belief in the superiority of science and scientific knowledge; a simple desire to make a joke; and as a symbol of harmony between science and religion. The meanings, however, may be even more complicated than that.

"By inserting Darwin's name in to the place on the fish icon usually reserved for Christ, the Icthus symbol is ritually profaned," said Lessl, "which is to say, emptied of its religious meaning. By putting Darwin's name where Christ's would traditionally go, the Darwin fish does not assert, as one might think, that science is salvation and that Darwin is its prophet. For the majority of those who display this emblem, Darwin's role seems to be that of anti-Messiah. This is more like the inversion rituals of carnival, where some drunken peasant is dressed up as the king. Its purpose is not to elevate the peasant but to make fun of the king."

Lessl found, by looking at the symbols on the cars, that having Darwin's name on the fish was a major factor. The "fish with legs" symbol with the word "evolution" in the middle was far less common than the ones with the name "Darwin."

A large number of respondents did mention humor as the reason for displaying the Darwin fish, though it is humor with an edge, Lessl said.

"I am not trying to attack any other religious groups," said one respondent. "I believe that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and I don't want to impose mine on anyone; however, I can see how some people might feel hurt by the obvious play on the traditional fish logo. I can't speak for everyone, but I don't see it as anything but light-hearted." Another respondent said pointedly that "the last thing I would ever want to do is purposefully insult or hurt another human."

But many of those answering the surveys had no trouble at all with being blunt.

"It is my way of saying, 'Creationists are [expletive] idiots. Get a [expletive] education. Humans are no better than chickens, redwoods, fireflies, earthworms, goldfish, algae or infectious salmonella, just because we walk upright and have opposable thumbs.'"

The issues involved in religion and evolution are clearly not going away any time soon. And those sending messages by bumper might sometimes realize that maybe it's not the best place to make a coherent argument anyway.

"There are a few times when I a see a Jesus fish on someone's car and wonder what he or she thinks of people with Darwin fish," said one respondent. "I would imagine it comes across as very disrespectful and sacrilegious to them. I have actually been approached by people who are confused by the Darwin fish on the back of my car and the Christian College of Georgia parking sticker on the front, which is JUST for parking. They wonder how I could have both, so obviously people do put a great amount of stock in what one sticks on their car."

Lessl's study has not been published.


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