Car fish keep evolving, in a manner of speaking

Pop Culture

February 16, 2003|By Carol Kaesuk Yoon | By Carol Kaesuk Yoon,New York Times

It all began one fateful day when a 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 that would be played out not in the muck of primordial shores, 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 have given rise to a host of strange new creatures and what some say is an entirely new form of self-expression.

Taxonomists of car fish say that the Darwin fish alone reproduces at a rate of 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.

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 1980s 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 1980s, however, a new generation had emerged in mutant form. The new fish said "Darwin" inside and had two feet sticking out from below.

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.

Eventually, car fish evolution 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).

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 com-ing up with a new twist. If we think we can sell them, we make it."

Tom Lessl, a professor in the speech communication department at the University of Georgia who studies the use of symbols, has studied car fish. He 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.

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.

Gilman said he came up with the idea in the 1980s 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."

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