January 16, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Walking Fish Gets Good Mileage

In 2006 (04/06/2006), 05/03/2006), Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago announced his missing link: Tiktaalik, a fish with wrist bones that he claimed were transitional between fish and four-footed creatures, or tetrapods.  Since then he has taken his fish on the road and is getting good mileage for evolution.
    Tiktaalik shows up right off the bat as evidence for evolution in Chapter One of the newly-revised National Academy of Sciences booklet, Science, Evolution and Creationism.  It was given a prominent place in the PBS film Judgment Day (11/14/2007) last November.  Now, Shubin is promoting his new book that takes Tiktaalik all the way on the road to humans.  This is clear from the title, Your Inner Fish: A Journey Through the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.  Despite the amount of arbitrary inference that must be asserted to connect a fish fossil with a lineage outside its class (see 10/20/2006) commentary, Shubin has made his pet fish the centerpiece of a vast ancestor’s tale covering billions of years.
    Donald Johanson, discoverer of the austrolopithecine fossil he named Lucy, was delighted.  “I was hooked from the first chapter,” he said, according to press release from Shubin’s campus.  “Creationists will want this book banned because it presents irrefutable evidence for a transitional creature that set the stage for the journey from sea to land.  This engaging book combines the excitement of discovery with the rigors of great scholarship to provide a convincing case of evolution from fish to man.”
    The theme of the book is mentioned in the press release.  Shubin writes, “The best road maps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals.  The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are often simpler versions of ours.”  The book mentions similarities in limbs, teeth, head, ears and eyes between humans and other animals.
    Yet similarities have never been controversial, even to creationists.  Asserting that they came about through an evolutionary process of descent with modification by an unguided natural process assumes what needs to be proved.  Though the book recounts the “epic expedition to arctic wastelands” where Shubin’s team found the fossil, only scientific evidence that can be adduced to establish the claim of common ancestry is germane to the argument that these similarities evolved, rather than were created.
    Nevertheless, “In 2006, the public was overwhelmed with news on the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, a fossil ‘fishapod’ that represents the transition between fish and four-legged animals, known as tetrapods,” the press release continues.  Shubin seemed to take his fishapod on a very long walk of faith when he mixed the uncontroversial observation of similarity with the Darwinist assumption of unguided common descent over billions of years:

Ancient fish bones can be a path to knowledge about who we are and how we got that way.  We are not separate from the rest of the living world; we are part of it down to our bones and even our genes….
   I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity, and remedies for many of the ills we suffer, nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet.

Again, even creationists acknowledge the similarities Shubin mentions.  Our common traits, including a universal DNA code, bilateral symmetry, similar genes that code for similar traits, even susceptibility to diseases, could have different explanations than Darwinian common ancestry.  Creationists would say they point to a single Creator who designed all life according to a plan for living on a shared biosphere.  Creationists also celebrate man’s connectedness to the world and all of life.  Your Inner Fish begs the question that Darwin had the only explanation for the data.  Since there are other species of fish that exhibit walking behavior, (e.g., mudskippers, walking sharks), and the previous missing link Coelacanth had bony fins but did not use them for walking, the insertion of Tiktaalik as a definitive missing link in an evolutionary timeline seems arbitrary.
    Shubin found an inner human in his fish.  Carl Zimmer, in a book review in Nature,1 said that Shubin went so far as to propose stories about the evolution of hiccups and hangovers:

The simple, passionate writing may turn more than a few high-school students into aspiring biologists.  And it covers a lot of ground.  Shubin inspects our eyeballs, noses and hands to demonstrate how much we have in common with other animals.  He notes how networks of genes for simple traits can expand and diversify until they build new complex structures such as heads.  Also, that hangovers explain how our ears evolved from sensory cells on the surface of fish.  He investigates the hiccup, the result of a tortuous nervous system.

The book hit bookstores January 15.  In addition, Shubin gave special lectures to the public at Chicago’s Field Museum, where he works as provost.

1.  Carl Zimmer, “Twenty-first-century anatomy lesson,” Nature 451, 245 (17 January 2008) | doi:10.1038/451245a.

Shubin’s broad-brush conclusions, extrapolated from a few bits and pieces of bone, go wildly beyond any justified scientific inference.  It is one thing to examine similarities between species in a lab in the present.  It is quite another to tie them together into a speculative historical sequence that is unobservable and non-repeatable.  Moreover, the conclusions rest on dating methods that assume the very evolutionary story Shubin describes so passionately.  In science, empiricism is king.  Simple, passionate writing, while admirable in rhetoric or theater, is not a substitute for observability, testability and repeatability in scientific work.
    Creationists are not book banners; good grief.  Does Johanson forget what the Darwin Party did to Of Pandas and People?  The radical Darwiniacs didn’t even want students in Pennsylvania to even know the book existed in the library.  Talk about banning books.  Creationists want the public to do more reading, not less, and learn more about evolutionary theory than he, Shubin and the NAS are revealing.  Go ahead; read up about your inner fishie.  Munch on some goldfish crackers while you’re at it, so you can experience your inner fish as you read.  Then wake up, grow up and read books with more philosophical substance.  (Suggestions)
    A little bit of data morphed into a grand, sweeping tale – this is propaganda, not science.  It would be like a Stalinist pointing to a pitchfork as evidence for the class struggle in history that requires the state to take over the property of the bourgeousie and move the peasants to the collective farms.  Support the Five-Year Plan!  Is that the only interpretation of the pitchfork?  Send the capitalists to Siberia!  Come now.  Neither Shubin, the NAS nor Johanson have any justification for drawing such broad conclusions from the bits and pieces of data they exhibit, by any standard of logical inference that can withstand critical scrutiny.  It was instructive that the press release said that the “public was overwhelmed with news on the discovery of Tiktaalik”.  Does this sound like overwhelming evidence, or an overwhelming marketing campaign?  The news media were all primed for the unveiling, and pushed out the most shameless hyperboles imaginable (review them at 04/06/2006).
    You can evolve the word diorama from data by mutating the t (truth) into m (misinterpretation), adding r (recklessness), and rigging the io (input-output, as in GIGO).  But because the diorama is the goal, it would be a rigged form of evolution using a twisted form of intelligent design.  Don’t be dazzled by the diorama in the Shubin commercial.  Look at the data and ask if other dioramas fit the very same observations just as well or better.  The only way Tiktaalik got such good mileage was with a lot of pedaling (and peddling) by its salespeople.

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