#1: Inexplicable Species and the Theory of Evolution

I’m kicking things off with a really generalist creationist article from evolutionnews.org. I mentioned this during my mission statement/debut/whatever, but Evolution News is one of the main reasons I started this blog. They’re a deceptively branded creationist site where a bunch of creationist writers write on a whole lot of topics, from evolution to ethics to free speech and current news media. It’s aggressively fundamentalist and while the tone varies by the author, it’s not uncommon to see them mocking scientific theories and the people who propose them. I started this blog to refute their articles specifically, because I’m tired of their falsehoods clogging up my results when I’m trying to do serious research. Obviously, I’m going to be focusing on the ones talking about creationism. Anyway, let’s get into it.

The article I’m looking at in this post is called “Inexplicable Species and the Theory of Evolution,” published on August 8, 2018 by Geoffrey Simmons. I was drawn to this article by the title, mainly the “Inexplicable Species” part. I was curious what animals were inexplicable, because I thought we had a pretty good idea of where most species come from. The article is headed by this picture:

Mylodon

As the sign at the bottom right says, this is the lower jaw of Mylodon darwini. Mylodon was a giant ground sloth that lived in South America until around 5,000 years ago. I’m not really sure why this was the image they chose for this article, because again, we have a pretty good idea of where giant sloths came from. Maybe it’s because it’s named after Darwin? It’s not like it’s the only animal named after him, though…

So, the first paragraph is:

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Notice the way the third sentence is worded. “Darwin utilized fossils to bolster his theory of evolution.” It reduces all of the study and observance of the fossil record to, essentially, “This one guy used fossils in his argument for evolution.” It’s a subtle way to discredit evolution.

I guess I have some kind of answer for the image in the article. It’s still not really related to anything, though. Anyway, the next section is called… “A Striking Absence of Transitions.”

Oh boy. Here come the paragraphs, I guess.

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Let me try to break this down. The “show us the transitions” argument is wrong for a couple of reasons. First of all, we don’t really need the fossil record to prove evolution happens—it’s evident enough in living animals, and our study of genes gives us a clear picture that we’re all descended from the same thing if you go back far enough. There also isn’t really such thing as a ‘transitional’ animal. Every animal that’s ever lived has been a whole animal in its own right. Evolution isn’t some sort of line with checkpoints on it, where it goes from shrew-like mammal to monkey to ape to human, with forms in-between. If you were to go back and follow the timeline of your ancestors all the way back to the beginning, the transition would be really, really gradual. You wouldn’t even notice any significant change until you looked back to where you started. That being saaaaaaaaaid…

The person who wrote this article has no goddamn clue what he’s talking about. His argument is that we have no idea where all these different animals came from, and the implication that you’re supposed to take from this dreck is that they show up fully-formed in the fossil record with no apparent similarities to anything else. That’s just patently false, and has been for a good century or so. Let’s talk about some of the examples listed in the first paragraph.

Birds

I think this article supposes that dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus or Diplodocus evolved into birds, when that’s just not what happened. I think Simmons is preying on his audience’s lack of knowledge about dinosaurs. They weren’t all huge. They started off chicken-sized, and a lot of them stayed that big. Birds evolved from one branch of smaller carnivorous dinosaurs. There are a ton of dinosaurs in the fossil record who look a lot like birds, and we’ve known since the 90s that many of them had feathers. The most famous bird cousins are the Dromaeosaurs, which include Velociraptor. Which was, you guessed it, covered in feathers. It’s really not so unbelievable that birds evolved from dinosaurs when so many dinosaurs looked like birds to begin with.

Amphibians

I’m going to argue cladistics real quick and point out that the first amphibians weren’t salamanders. Salamanders didn’t appear until the Jurassic period, more than 100 million years after amphibians evolved.

Second, there’s an entire clade of intermediate animals between fish and amphibians. They’re called Stegocephalians, and we’ve known of one of them, Ichthyostega, since 1932. This group shows roughly what the transition from sea to land looks like. My favorite member of this group, and one of my favorite prehistoric animals ever, is named Tiktaalik, and it’s pretty much a textbook example of a “halfway point.” It’s a fish with primitive legs and bones that show an almost even mix of fish and amphibian traits. It’s a perfectly plausible example of what our early ancestors looked like back then.

Humans

This one comes up a lot, for some reason. Not only do we have a ton of fossils of Australopithecus, an early hominid who walked upright but still had a ton of features that make it look more like the other great apes, but we also have a nearly complete timeline of hominid evolution from there to here. There’s a montage of fossils of Australopithecus and archaic Homo showing the loss of more typical ape traits and the acquisition of features we have now.

Whales

I’ve gotta say, it takes some serious guts to say in total boldfaced sincerity that there are no transitional fossils showing whales migrating from land to sea. Whales are up there with horses as the poster kids of evolution. I know I said creationism is based in half-truths, but this isn’t even that. This is a straight up lie. There are a ton of fossil whales, and many many many of them have legs. There’s even one named Ambulocetus, which literally means “walking whale.” That’s not even getting into Pakicetus, Rodhocetus, Protocetus, Basilosaurus, or any of the other myriad of archaic whales.

This isn’t ‘inexplicable.’ You’re just lying. I don’t believe the author of this article did this unintentionally. I really can’t believe that. Sure, he threw in that “a few fossilized bones” of early whales have been found, but makes it sound like they’re all tiny. We have big fossil whales too. The most famous one, Basilosaurus, was 50 feet long. That’s also a serious understatement. There are a whole lot of whale fossils.

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“Darwin said one thing that was later found to be wrong, therefore, the whole theory is bunk and nobody understands this stuff.”

“Some modern paleontologists,” again with the understatements. It’s pretty widely-accepted that whales are most closely-related to hippos. And, nice try, but it’s been determined that whales and hippos returned to the water independently of each other, and that their common ancestor lived on land. By that logic, we’d be arguing manatees are their closest relatives. While we used to think that, we’ve since realized that isn’t the case.

This article seems to think that whales evolved when one day, a land animal jumped into the sea and never returned. I think Simmons is talking about animals like Indohyus and Pakicetus. He’s right about them in a straightforward sense: Neither of these animals could have lived entirely in the sea. The thing is, evolution doesn’t work like that. Those two animals probably spent most of their time on land, escaping to water to avoid predators. They probably moved slightly better in the water than the animals trying to eat them, so they didn’t die. They had offspring who were very very very slightly better at swimming or moving in the water, and so on and so forth. They would have, over a few million years, become more and more adapted to spending time in water, until eventually they didn’t need to come onto land anymore. Animals that act like these transitional points in whale evolution still exist today. In order, with a fossil whale that filled a similar niche:

Marsh deer/Pakicetus (avoids predators by running into bodies of water),

Crocodile/Ambulocetus (sticks to shallow water close to shore, hunts fish and animals that live on land)

Sea otter/Kutchicetus (spends much of its time in water and has a lot of adaptations for swimming, eats marine animals)

Hippo/Rodhocetus (Mostly hairless and fatty, a bit clumsy on land and spends more time in water than on land)

Seal/Maiacetus (Only comes onshore to rest or breed, streamlined form and highly adapted to life in the ocean)

So, yeah. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this one.

The last point that’s made is honestly baffling to me. “The whale’s tail moves up and down, not sideways like a fish. And, whales never had scales.” Is that supposed to be an argument against evolution? All I see is a betrayal of their terrestrial past. Whales move by pumping their tails up and down, similar to the gallop of a land-based animal. Think also about how salamanders move by bending from side to side, like a fish. I think the implications speak for themselves. And, whales having hair instead of scales is an obvious sign they evolved from mammals. I really don’t get what Simmons is trying to argue here. Maybe he’s just giving up. Or maybe this is a deep-level parody and I’m getting tricked. If that’s the case, then well-played. You got me good.

This article is nearly done, but wait! There’s more whale talk to be had:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaMf9INTQjQ

We know damn well where blowholes came from. They’re nostrils. Lungs didn’t have to become connected to them because they did that 500 million years ago when vertebrates evolved. In fact, Protocetus and some other whale fossils clearly show the migration of the nostrils from the tip of the snout to the top of the head. Calling the organs in a whale’s head a “massive communication center” is pretty disingenuous. This “communication center” is specialized for hearing underwater, and consists of a fat or oil-filled organ in the bottom jaw and modified ear bones. We see the widening of the mandibular foramen (the space that you can feel if you press your thumb against the underside of your lower jaw) in the fossil record. The earliest whales didn’t have it, and, funnily enough, as they spend more and more time in the water, they develop space for this organ, as well as the modified ear bones.

To close us out, we get this banger:

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Come on, man. You’re making me explain everything there is to explain in my first article. I won’t get into all of these, because they will most certainly come up later, but let me hit on a few of them briefly.

… Actually, no. I can sum it all up, because I just realized what this is arguing. It’s “irreducible complexity,” my favorite creationist talking point. Most of those animals have some sort of unique characteristic or amazing trait that’s allegedly “too complex to have evolved,” like Kangaroo pouches or that species of woodpecker with the weird tongue. This argument is basically “I don’t understand how this could have happened, therefore no one does” and I’m not going to say too much on it for now. That’s for another post.

The only somewhat valid example in that list are viruses, because we aren’t exactly sure of how they evolved. The rest are represented in the fossil record in some way.

The last paragraph is a doozy. Yes, breeding a horse to be faster makes it a faster horse. That’s literally what evolution is, and how horses evolved. The first horses were little, kinda chubby guys with multiple toes. Over successive generations, they got leaner and bigger and taller as their circumstances demanded it. The ones who didn’t, died. A horse won’t evolve into something like a cheetah because it’s a completely different animal that needs to do completely different things. Cheetahs don’t look like they do just because they’re fast. They’re also stealthy, carnivorous, and partially tree-dwelling.

Okay. That’s it, that’s the end. I’ll be honest, this one was kind of low-hanging fruit. It’s pretty run-of-the-mill, and I want to go a little deeper than this. But I think it served as a good introduction to the way things work around here.

See you next time!

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