At News24, almost any article that approaches evolution, biology, or a dissenting voice to religion, faces a barrage of mindless screeching for ‘Fossils’… “Fossils – show us the TRANSITIONAL FOSSILS!!!”, we read, in quadraphonic upper-case replete with the apparently necessary accompanying machine-gun jabs at the exclamation mark‘!!!!’.
I’ll not dwell on the fact that these comments are uniformly out of context to the articles or surrounding commentary. Instead, I’ll rather humour these hecklers who seem – on the strength of their repetition at least – keen to learn an answer.
In penning this, and given that museums and textbooks are brim full of infinitely more detailed feedback than I can cram in here; I know up-front that this essay will in no way satisfy the most vacuously echoing of the jeers, but it is you, the silent majority who deserve an objective answer. Those who have made up minds are truly not worth anyone’s time; but the doubt they sow requires a rebuttal:
In past articles or comments, I have touched on aspects of the evolutionary transition from one species to the next; e.g. “If we came from Apes, why are there still apes”; but, in this essay I’ll cast the net a little more broadly.
Science calls this level of mutational change ‘speciation’ – while, creationists insist on the defunked term ‘macro evolution’; a concept ignored by science because it supposed the introduction of some supernatural agent into the matter; where none is necessary.
But, the howling for fossils is, of course, a living fossil inside of the creationists’ own head: those obsessing over fossils have simply failed to evolve their understanding of other major breakthroughs that almost make fossils redundant as a means to prove common ancestry.
Darwin – The Father
For over 150 years, Darwin’s original Scientific Theory of Evolution has, itself evolved from a set of mere insightful observations in the real world during Darwin’s time, to the modern science it now is; standing firmly on half a dozen solid foundational pillars that were undreamed of by the Victorians. It now encompasses discoveries that would have stunned Darwin, it answers questions that plagued him and made him doubt his epiphany.
When he published his observations of the natural world, Darwin, the founder of Natural Selection, didn’t have any inkling about Molecular Biology or DNA of today – nobody did. Yet today, a century and a half later; forget fossils (!); those two fields now produce the greatest evidence for evolution that we see.
Of course, Molecular and DNA evidence represents just the latest tools in the study of nature and origins: In the past 150 years there have been in excess of 245,000 peer reviewed research articles in the world's leading scientific journals containing specific quantifiable proof that runs to millions of data points, all agreeing with evolution. And, during that period, despite conserted aggressive attempts to unseat it, not a single observation nor a single experimental result has ever contradicted evolution. Pause a moment and consider these facts; this is indeed the mark of a mind-bogglingly precise and successful scientific theory indeed.
Love it or hate it: One has to be astounded that somebody in the 1800’s could make predictions that are being confirmed today in ways and by methods that nobody for more than a century could begin to imagine. It puts Darwin as a thinker on a par with Einstein; also a victim of doubt for theories that today are constantly being reinforced by experiment and breakthrough.
Whether through genuine ignorance or deliberate mischief, the opponents of evolution have, to their great detriment (with evidence that rubbishes their claims now constantly pouring in), chosen to focus their unblinking fanaticism on fossils and a few long-abandoned Victorian aspects of what was during those Victorian times a mere fledgling study.
What they fail or refuse to grasp is that the unknowns in Darwin’s time on which they base their opposition, are now very much known’s.
A Fishy Story?
Take, for instance, the evidence that suggested we have common ancestral heritage with fish. This reality became clear when the fossils of tetrapods (4-legged animals) in rock strata that date before 365-million or so years ago, simply did and do not exist. Or course, marine fossils stretch back twice that distance in time.
Clearly, the 4 limbs of tetrapods and their skeletal details of limbs equated in significant ways with marine skeletal fin arrangements, indicating a strong correlation to common linages. But, what scientists needed to complete the picture were the transitional fossils that evolution’s detractors attempt so heartily to ignore in other speciation links.
What was predicted ahead of any discovery was a fossil that would have a flat, more terrestrial style head with eyes on top. This was inferred from already-discovered 380-million year old fish fossils (Panderichthys) and already discovered 365-million year old tetrapod fossils (Acanthostega and Ichthyostega); clearly, the transitional fossil would lie somewhere in that 15-million year gap.
The trick was to identify the right type of rock (sedimentary) of the right age. Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada proved to have that ‘right stuff’ – In 2004, 3 years of relentless excavating bore fruit, Tiktaalik; half fresh-water fish, half tetrapod, was unearthed.
The find vindicated and confirmed the prediction beautifully; stubby fins capable of limited terrestrial movement, gills and lungs.
What nonsense is this?
The response is inevitable, so I’ll spare you the keystrokes and bash it out here (complete with UPPER CASE anger):
“WHAT? Stubby fins, GILLS AND LUNGS. What NONSENSE is this?!!!! Why would a fish CONVENIENTLY have stubby fins? How on earth would lungs ‘suddenly’ develop to allow for the transition? Pah!”
A normal swimming fish that evolves to exploit the fast running waters of shallow streams would, you would agree, tend to be selected over the generations for ever stubbier fins; long elegant fins create too much turbulence, short stubbies allow the fish to make powerful short strokes. Ask me – I’m a bodysurfer – we don’t use the long fins of the snorkel diver in open water, we use – yes – short stubbies for the turbulence of waves.
The most adept over time will tend to ‘stand’ on the bottom, wedging themselves to feed as water rushes past.
Okay – stubby semi-pod like limbs explained; but lungs?
In a fish, the gills are ideally suited for filtering the necessary oxygen from the water; so, you’d expect that the gills would have adapted into lungs in tetrapods to carry on that task. But, how on earth can gills make such a crazy leap in function – I won’t dig into it here, but the methodology that gills use and lungs use are chasm apart.
Beeeeeeeg problem to explain, right?
Gills become… Lungs?
All fish – modern and ancient – maintain their depth in the water column using an air bladder; ask any fisherman who has gutted a fish. The air bladder is richly fed by the blood system; taking oxygen from the gills, into the blood stream, and depositing it into the air bladder, or, taking gas out of the air bladder and returning it via the gills to the water.
Now – during times of drought, water levels in a river will slowly drop – an unfortunate fish caught on the wrong side of a diminishing water channel winds up dead, leaving no legacy of it’s ‘poorly adapted’ genes that aren’t able to flip-flop back to another more viable channel.
You can see precisely what has occurred; some of that ready oxygen in the air bladder that passes back into the blood stream as stranded fish flip and flop around, will buy those lucky fish just a little more time for a fortunate few to fall into a new channel. The surviving fish breed, handing all of their genes on – and those with a higher preponderance to have efficient gas transfer are more likely to hand them over.
Fish have a pretty high turnover of generations – call it 1 year. Give them tens of millions of generations and tillions of members, and any number of mutations can occur that are fortuitous in opening an air feed directly into the air-sack. The likelihood may be tiny, but the number of individuals in all those generations through which this can build up is staggering.
We know that plant life had already colonized the dry land – creating rich pickings for those fledgling amphibians that could reach even a few centimeters further onto ‘damp’ land than their still fully-fish cousins. The ecological niche simply begged those with ever more ‘foot like’ adapted fins and efficient swim bladders to wriggle a little further from water.
And the gills? What happened to your and my gills?
Gill slits on fish feed the actual gill mechanisms; by definition, organs extremely well supplied with blood. Life on dusty dry land favoured those individuals and linages that had could efficiently moisten and evacuate the tracts of respiration and gullet, and endocrinal system. And so, over time, gills adapted to become all of the things you find in your throat; tonsils/thyroid, adenoids, etc.
And so it goes; tiny adaptations, billions and tillions of dead-ends/dead individuals who didn’t hand over unsuccessful genes – and a precious few survivors whose protégée at first faced zero competition or threat in a veritable Eden.
Say Hello to Grandpa/ma….
Tiktaalik (the transitionary Canadian fossil) is your and my greatest-great grandparent; it’s offspring pushing into every terrestrial niche – some adapting through controlled falls (another fully explicable transition) until flying was perfected, some ultimately becoming mammals and primates. Some of those other mammals, about 50-million years ago re-entered the aquatic environment; we call them ‘whales’; again, the fossil, DNA and Molecular evidence to this is overwhelming and irrefutable.
Clearly, the whales – whose common ancestors tellingly also gave rise to modern hippopotamuses, never re-developed gills, instead, their nostrils achingly slowly adapting within physiology ten or more million generations long until they settled at the ‘highest’ point of the skull – the lungs adapted to breath holding; the limbs becoming every more stubby over ten million generations until their front-limb vestiges flattened to become steering flues and hind-limbs almost (but not quite) disappeared entirely, still nestled deep inside the bulk and only visible to autopsy – and, of course, quite impossible to explain via a creationist conception.
Watch a whale ‘galloping’ its slow cadence through the oceans, and you are seeing its cousin, the hippo, galloping through the shallows. It truly takes very little appreciation of this vision to make the connection. A connection confirmed by whale and hippo DNA!
And, so, on to hominids… but this essa is now too long, and you have a lot of comments to make – so make them: > To be continued – Late tomorrow, look out for my follow-on article “The Thinking Ape”
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