Unexpected Evolution of a Fish Out of Water
By CAROL KAESUK YOON - New York Times, Feb 11, 2003 - original
It all began on that fateful day when one fish evolved legs. Suddenly transformed from a silver swimmer into a bold pioneer, this creature stood on the threshold of what would become an explosion of evolutionary diversification. But this flowering of forms would be played out, not in the muck of primordial seashores, but on automobiles.
This is the story of two small, plastic, adhesive plaques and all that came forth and multiplied after them: the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish.
Familiar to drivers everywhere, car fish and their spawn are the soldiers in an evolutionary arms race that has given rise to a host of strange new creatures and what some say is an entirely new form of self-expression.
This menagerie is not only diverse, but highly prolific — and profitable. Taxonomists of car fish say that the Darwin fish alone reproduces at a rate of some 75,000 new fish a year, worth nearly half a million dollars, retail.
The fish has long been a Christian symbol. Long before there were automobiles, legend has it, the fish was scratched in the sand by persecuted first-century Christians as a secret sign.
Different explanations are offered for why the fish became such a widespread Christian symbol. One is that the first letters of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior," form an acrostic that is the Greek word for fish.
The mists of history may obscure exactly when and where car fish first appeared, but in the modern era it is clear that by the 1980's a fish drawn simply with two curved lines containing the word "Jesus" had colonized numerous cars as a symbol of Christian belief.
By the late 1980's, however, a new generation had emerged in mutant form. At first glance, the new fish appeared the same, until one looked closer and saw that the fish said Darwin inside and had two feet sticking out from below, apparently trumpeting the car owner's belief in evolution.
The response to the new fish was swift and sure. A Truth fish could soon be seen devouring a Darwin fish. Or sometimes a Darwin fish could be spotted upside down on a car, its little legs poking into the air, dead.
Evolution, whether natural or otherwise, is notoriously difficult to stop. Eventually car fish radiation produced the Evolve fish, which is a tool-user (holding a wrench), the Gefilte fish, the Hindu fish (with an udder), the Pagan fish (ideal for the pagans who insist that the fish was stolen from them by the Christians, who are still fuming that the Darwin-enthusiasts stole it from them). There is even a flaming Satan fish.
Some say they've spotted a shark that says Lawyer, a Rasta fish smoking a pipe and Lutefisk fish (a kind of cod soaked in lye — the haggis of Norway) as well as increasingly diverse and enigmatic car organisms like dolphins, dead fish, aliens and chili peppers. Aliens and hot peppers may not seem to have any direct connection to fish, but when it comes to plaques on cars evolution proceeds in leaps that are completely unpredictable, perhaps because of the kind of selective pressure at work.
While natural selection drives biological change, the evolution of car fish seems to have been driven by ideological one-upsmanship at first, and then by market forces and irrepressible silliness. The newest species is the Sushi fish, a truly odd symbolic development in which the fish actually represents a fish.
"We finally made one after thousands of people asked for it," said Gary Betchan, who is a co-owner of EvolveFISH, a Web site that sells an elaborate array of the creatures. "People are always coming up with a new twist. If we think we can sell them, we make it." Mr. Betchan, whose Web site also offers Nunzilla, a wind-up fire-breathing nun and a Wash Away Your Sins soap, says he is pursuing the car fish business for more than the money.
"We are out to change the world," he said. "We want to make it a better place."
So what exactly are people thinking when they stick these things on their cars?
Dr. Tom Lessl may be the only one who knows.
Dr. Lessl, who studies the use of symbols, is a professor in the speech communication department at the University of Georgia. He has undertaken a study of car fish, and wore out two pairs of shoes walking the nation's parking lots in search of them.
Every time he found a Darwin fish, he left a survey form on the car. "There are two views," he said of the Darwin fish camp. "One group was openly hostile to traditional religious beliefs," he said, and the other seemed to believe in peaceful symbolic coexistence.
Dr. Lessl said some Darwin fish owners had so much to say that some went well beyond the single page provided for answers to as many as three single-spaced typed pages. Some described the fish as a kind of defense, a way for persecuted atheists to fight back against the onslaught of religion, something like its first use by persecuted Christians.
But, he said, he found many people who said they displayed the Darwin fish as a symbol of the harmonious coexistence of Darwinian ideas and religion.
Dr. Lessl says such marriages of science and religion have been a familiar refrain since the days of the Enlightenment, one continuous intellectual movement that has led through the writings of Francis Bacon in the 17th century on up to plastic fish.
Not surprisingly, the Darwin fish has stirred controversy around the question of the creator, specifically its creator.
What agreement there is about who created the Darwin fish, a question that has been muddled by lawsuits, points to Chris Gilman, president of Global Effects Inc., which makes costumes and props for Hollywood.
Mr. Gilman said he came up with the idea in the early 1980's when he was talking with some friends about how to promote evolution the way that religion promotes itself.
"So I said you put feet on the Jesus fish," he said, "and people said, `Ha ha, that's funny.' People kept bugging me about making them for years." Eventually, Mr. Gilman had the fish manufactured and handed the whole enterprise off to a friend, Daphne Bianchi, president of Evolution Design Inc., which trademarked the Darwin fish.
The rest is evolution.