Where Science and Faith Converge

Humpback Whale Fins: Fresh Evidence for Design

By Hugh Ross - July 1, 2008

I remember being taught as a child that the humpback whale must be an accident of nature. The weird bumps along the leading edge of the humpback’s flippers (or fins) seemed to thwart the aerodynamic (or aqua-dynamic) efficiency of this massive sea mammal. These noticeably counterproductive features served as evidence against the wisdom and involvement of a benevolent Creator.

    In recent days, however, three engineering professors at Harvard University discovered that these bumps actually represent an elegant design characteristic. In fact, their design is so good as to warrant imitation for the advancement of technology.1 Rather than faulty design or useless evolutionary artifacts, the bumps are worthy of in-depth study for application purposes!

    The researchers constructed a detailed model of the humpback whale fin and tested it in a wind tunnel. Their experiments demonstrated two things: first, the bumps are not as big a limiting factor in the whale’s straight-ahead swimming speed as was initially presumed; second, and more surprisingly, the bumps deliver a major payoff for the whale in maneuverability. The bumps enable the whale to achieve a much higher attack angle without losing essential momentum—an enormous advantage for the whale’s survival.

    A higher attack angle means the whale can climb faster through water without “stalling.” As a result, the humpback can more efficiently and effectively hunt for food. The bumps along its fins give this creature the ability to perform tight rolls and loops. So in spite of its huge body (as much as fifty feet long) the humpback can make turns in tight quarters and handle strong currents, tides, and eddies. This degree of maneuverability increases the whale’s range as well as feeding capabilities.

    The Harvard team then went beyond wind tunnel experiments. They performed a mathematical analysis on the bumpy structure of the fin. They wanted to determine whether the bumpiness of the fin or rather some other feature of the animal contributed so significantly to its climbing ability and maneuverability. Their analysis confirmed the bumps are the cause.

    This confirmation has led to some amazing breakthroughs in aerodynamic and aeronautic engineering. In more than a hundred years of research and design, no one had seriously considered that adding “bumps” to the leading edge of an aircraft or hydrofoil wing or to a turbine blade could provide an advantage, such as in avoidance of dangerous stalls. But it does.

    Once again, in-depth research reveals that what was once thought to be a design defect, a convincing indication of natural evolution as opposed to divine design, turns out to be just the opposite. It is now recognized and appreciated as a manifestation of creative genius, of a Mind that soars far above the brilliance of the best aircraft and naval engineers, even of Harvard researchers. It should be noted that the Harvard team concluded their study with a strong recommendation. They urged design engineers to look for new applications of the whale fin’s design in efforts to advance technology. It seems to me the whale fin’s design may also be applied to advancing faith in the biblical Creator.

  1. Ernst A. van Nierop, Silas Alben, and Michael P. Brenner, “How Bumps on Whale Flippers Delay Stall: An Aerodynamic Model,”

Physical Review Letters
100 (2008): id 054502.

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