The science media are calling us to “meet our earliest mammal ancestor” but is this based on evidence or hype?
When Science Magazine announced “The Placental Mammal Ancestor” on February 8, the evolutionary propagandists went on a media blitz to promote it (see 2/07/13), with titles like “Meet your earliest common mammalian ancestor” (New Scientist), “Meet your Mama” (Live Science), and “You’re descended from a fuzzy, bug-eating, scampering critter” (Christian Science Monitor). Few seemed concerned about the problems with evolving giraffes, whales and humans from a shrew-like animal. What did Maureen O’Leary, John Wible and the team of 23 researchers actually present?
If Anne Yoder can set the pace from her Perspective in the same issue of Science (“Fossils versus Clocks”), she began in a decidedly storytelling mode:
It’s a great story, and one that most of us learned in grade school. Dinosaurs ruled Earth for eons, shaking the ground beneath them as their colossal forms roamed the dense tropical forests of the Mesozoic. Mammals were present but were minuscule by comparison, skulking about in the undergrowth as they foraged for insects. And so it went until a massive asteroid hit Earth about 66 million years ago, causing environmental havoc, climate change, and the worldwide extinction of non-avian dinosaurs.… Only then did mammals begin to flourish and diversify into the myriad forms of today. It is a compelling tale, but one where timing is everything.
Although Yoder bluffed that “The fossil record has always lent veracity to the classical account,” she then undermined it with some important questions:
Why did virtually all placental groups—such as primates, bats, ungulates, and whales—appear so abruptly in the fossil record? Where are the transitional forms that must link the diminutive insectivores of the Mesozoic to today’s multitude of mammals?
It’s only Darwinism that “must link” a shrew to a bat or a whale. Yoder next described long conflicts between molecular clocks and fossil dates that have, presumably, been reconciled by O’Leary et al.‘s big Tree-of-Life project, involving analysis of 4,451 “phenomic characters” from 86 fossil and living species. But if Murphy’s 2nd Corollary is correct (“Every solution breeds new problems”), accepting the new tree requires digging up some old ones, as Yoder explains:
Given the notoriously incomplete nature of the fossil record, the revised and much older dates gained traction. The older dates were also attractive for their biogeographic implications. About 200 million years ago, the supercontinent Pangea began to split apart in a process that neared completion about 52 million years ago. With dates as old as 100 million years ago, hypothesized by the molecular clock studies, the placental radiation could be explained by continental breakup. Taxonomy followed suit, with major clades named for the landmasses on which they were postulated to have evolved.
O’Leary et al. now shed doubt on this sequence of events. They have used cladistic methods to reconstruct the characteristics of a hypothesized placental ancestor that evolved soon after the K-Pg event and after the complete sundering of the ancient supercontinents. This ancestral mammal is inferred to be the predecessor of the explosive radiation of placental mammals at ∼60 million years ago, thus requiring long-distance dispersal, perhaps over large bodies of water, to explain the present-day distribution of placental species.
Shedding doubt, as opposed to shedding light, must be something like shedding darkness. Yoder appears to be saying that it was necessary to shed doubt on an “attractive” hypothesis in order to promote one that requires small mammals to swim across the oceans.
Furthermore, Yoder explains that O’Leary and team’s conclusions rest on switching methods of tree-making, not on actual evidence. In fact, it depends in cases on the absence of evidence:
The ghost lineage approach instead uses the defining morphological characteristics that align fossils with living clades to calibrate the phylogeny as a whole. This it does by using direct fossil evidence for the earliest appearance of lineages and by inferring the presence of “ghost lineages” not documented in the fossil record but implied by sister-group relationships.
But if sister-group relationships are mere figments of Darwinian imagination, the whole tree (with its “calibration”) comes tumbling down. And if the “earliest appearance” of a lineage shows a fully-formed mammal already well adapted to its environment, it explains nothing about how mutations and unguided processes produced the ancestor in the first place. Furthermore, the new hypothesis not only requires the shrew-like insectivore to swim the oceans, it reduces the time available for unguided processes to morph the shrew into an elephant. Lastly, it leaves unexplained what the Cretaceous mammals were evolving into for another 65 million years before the impact. Some of them were reportedly big enough to eat dinosaurs for lunch (see 1/12/2005 and Science Now from 2005, commenting on the post-impact radiation notion with the dismissive phrase, “or so the story goes”).
Incidentally, despite the fossil photo in some articles (e.g., Science Daily), the artwork of a furry critter decorating all the news stories (e.g., BBC) is not based on an actual fossil animal, but is a composite of what the team infers the ancestor must have looked like. “The scientists were able to work with an artist to approximate the appearance of this ancestor,” Science Daily explained. “While only hypothetical, the illustrated concept for this ancestor — from body size to fur type to number of teeth — could not have been achieved prior to the Herculean task of developing the matrix.”
It would be superfluous to dissect the gushy coverage from the science media about this claim, since it doesn’t add anything new. Jason Palmer at the BBC News shamelessly asserted in its headline that the placental mammal ancestor has been “pinpointed.” He made it seem as if the O’Leary hypothesis has been all but established; it “resolves a long-standing debate,” he said. Only New Scientist added a mildly skeptical opinion from Mark Springer (UCLA) – an evolutionist, naturally, who only disputes the timing, not the evolution. On Nature News, he said, “What fascinates me most is the tremendous incongruence between the morphological and molecular data.”
Yoder ended by praising the O’Leary team’s unprecedented “sophistication and meticulous analysis of morphological and paleontological data,” but criticizing its methods: “Even so, the reliance of age estimation procedures on a single phylogeny and the disregard for the consequences of branch lengths leave us wanting more.”
Critics of Darwinism will want more, too. This is surely a tall story to build on a choice of method for data analysis, no matter how much data is input to the method. Some critics will notice that an “explosive radiation” of fully-formed placental mammals without a fossil progression looks suspiciously like creation. Cf. the 11/29/2010 entry.
How many times must we say that similarities do not imply an evolutionary relationship? This is the old homology argument dressed up in modern jargon. Adding more data pieces does not make the case stronger; the assumptions and the method, if incorrect, will undermine the credibility of the conclusions, no matter how big the data set. To show this, we reprint part of the commentary from the 3/09/2007 entry:
Suppose you sent four different teams into a grocery market on a mission to read the ingredients on every box of processed food and arrange them all into a phylogenetic tree. The hapless victims would soon find themselves making arbitrary decisions among a mess of complications. One group might try to locate all the products containing lecithin, while another would use statistical analysis based on percentages of recommended daily allowances of vitamins, carbohydrates, fats and proteins. A third team might approach the problem by sorting everything according to texture, color, odor or some other physical characteristic, while the last team would feel confident they had the final answer, because a clear phylogenetic pattern emerged when they arranged the products by geometrical shape. Cheerios evolved from granola, they say.
Each team has its own concept of a phylogenetic tree, and has plenty of evidence to support it. Which one is right? Clearly, none is right. In this contrived case, all the products were created by intelligent design. Arranging designed items into an evolutionary pattern is an exercise in futility. General Mills can produce both cheerios and granola. But even if nobody knew the products were designed, arranging them into an ancestral tree pattern would be hopelessly messy. Group one might get a good-looking pattern arranged by lecithin content, only to find that separate branches have members with and without coconut. Scratching their heads, they might wonder if the coconut evolved by convergent evolution (homoplasy), or whether the coconut was present in the common ancestor but was lost in various lineages and retained in others. No amount of energy, enthusiasm, diligence and detail is going to justify what inferences these researchers are making. They are just playing games. Data notwithstanding, the patterns they are producing are nothing but mythical constructions of their own imaginations.
This illustration helps answer a counter-argument from some Darwinists. They complain that every time they produce a good transitional form, creationists allege that two more are produced: one on each side of the transitional form. Such a complaint is bogus, because it embeds a prior evolutionary assumption. It presupposes a linear sequence. The “missing link” terminology misleads the reader into visualizing a straight line, with an early “primitive” animal, a later “derived” animal with complex features (like detached middle-ear bones), and a gap in between that the evolutionist triumphantly fills in with his new transitional form. Toss out that picture, because it is nothing like what is found in either the fossil record or the zoo. Recall the supermarket or the 3-dimensional plot with scattered data points. No amount of new data points or processed food products added to the mix will justify inferring an evolutionary pattern. It cannot be done. Unless you already assume that the data points or the supermarket products evolved, you cannot convince a critic that the data imply an ancestral relationship, and you could never convince a well-trained philosopher of science that you are justified in making such an inference. Conversely, there is no way an evolutionist can deny the creationists’ inference that God created a wide variety of creatures, and gave each the kind of bones and ears and ribs and toes that it needed for its ecological niche.