The fish emblem has been part of Christianity since the first century, when it allowed fellow believers to recognize each other. Jesus had called his followers "fishers of men," and the early Christians discovered the Greek word for fish, "ICHTHUS," could be an acrostic for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior."
The fish symbol -- either the outline alone or framing the letters ICHTHUS -- was the exclusive property of Christianity for almost 2,000 years. But in the last decade of the 20th century a challenger appeared. The same fish outline was used but, in a tribute to evolution, it had grown feet and the word "DARWIN" appeared inside. The fish wars were on.
The Darwin fish was created by a California designer in about 1992. It's now marketed by a Santa Cruz mail-order company called Ring of Fire. The company's web site explains the popularity: "Many of our customers appreciate free-thought humor, seek the unusual, or simply enjoy exploring the tributaries beyond the mainstream." (www.rof.com)
Escalating bumper wars The antagonism between evolutionists and creationists has kept the fish wars raging on America's bumpers, with ever-escalating counter-attacks. Creationists answered with a larger fish, labeled "TRUTH," gobbling up the smaller Darwin fish. The evolutionists' response, a crude testimony to fish procreation, is too profane to print.
There are less contentious imitators too. We have the fish framing the word "BUDDHA" (appropriately the fish is much fatter than normal). The "RASTA" fish has smoke swirling from a pipe in the fish's mouth. Then there's the fish "N CHIPS."
And you don't have to be a fish to play. The "What Would Jesus Do?" phenomenon has spawned the "WWBD?" bracelet ("What Would Buddha Do?").
Appropriating the opposition's symbol for one's own use is an ancient practice; Christians got the cross from the Roman executioners. The Romans knew the reaction they would get when they mockingly hung a sign atop Jesus' cross proclaiming him "King of the Jews."
Tom Lessl of the University of Georgia has been studying the fish wars and understands their impact. "In several respects, displaying the Darwin fish is the symbolic equivalent of capturing and desecrating an enemy's flag, an act of ritual aggression," says Lessl, an associate professor of speech communication. Emulating a religious symbol gives the Darwin fish "unique power to express ridicule in a vivid and symbolically pointed fashion," he said.
Lessl walked parking lots to find cars displaying Darwin fish and stuck surveys under the windshields asking three questions: Why did you put this emblem on your car? What audience did you hope to reach? And what does the Darwin fish mean to you? Out of nearly 140 surveys distributed, 51 completed questionnaires were mailed back.
"The fact that 66 percent of the respondents identified Christians as their target audience is the key to interpreting these themes," Lessl reports. "The apparent desire to deride this audience seems to be just as important as any serious message they want to communicate."
Some of the respondents insisted they were just being humorous. "I don't see it as anything but lighthearted," said one. Another wrote: "The last thing I would ever want to do is purposefully insult or hurt another human."
But another supported Lessl's premise. "It's 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."