A Tale of Two Sites: Moby Dog and The Claw
Discoveries portrayed as major evolutionary missing links were announced this week. One is a putative transitional form from land animal to whale, and one is a Cambrian trilobite-like creature said to be evolving the first claw.
- Moby dog: The current evolutionary scenario for the origin of whales is that they evolved from dog-like hoofed animals that took gradually to water at the seashore. Another fossil in the theoretical sequence has been found in Pakistan. The news media, like National Geographic and Live Science, are calling this a “big” find, because it is the most complete skeleton of a protoceratid yet discovered. National Geographic remarked, “It’s an evolutionary discovery Darwin himself would have been proud of.”
The discovery by Philip Gingerich and team was published in PLoS One this week.1 A mostly complete articulated male was found, and a kilometer away, a pregnant female. The female was most exciting because it indicated the embryo, already with teeth, would have been born head first. To Gingerich, this indicates that the creature had not yet evolved the tail-first birth pattern in modern whales. There also appeared to be significant sexual dimorphism. Gingerich inferred from the legs that it was semi-aquatic, probably hunting in the water with paddling, and returning to the land to sleep. Another paleontologist said, “These complete limbs are almost exactly intermediate between a seagoing creature and a land animal.” In many respects, the new creature, dubbed Maiacetus inuus, resembles the already-known protocetid Rodhocetus, but with some differences in the ankle, and minor differences in ratios of some skeletal parts. A paleontologist at SMU remarked, “It is a missing link of the most informative sort. Charles Darwin would delight.”
The paper did not say much about the circumstances of burial other than that the female appeared to be floating belly-up, probably due to buildup of gases during decomposition. The strata are described as marine marl and shale dated to middle Eocene, 47.5 million years old. Other “Eocene whales” such as Artiocetus clavis (GSP-UM 3458), Rodhocetus balochistanensis (GSP-UM 3485), Protosiren eothene (GSP-UM 3487), and Makaracetus bidens have been found in the same general area. The paper says, “The specimens described here were found near the top of the major flooding sequence in the early Lutetian stage of the middle Eocene, calibrated to approximately 47.5 Ma.”
Gingerich is convinced these specimens provide information on an important evolutionary transition from land to water for the ancestors of whales. The “precocial development” of the partially-mineralized teeth in the fetus indicated to him a preparation for life in the water, while the head-first delivery orientation indicated a land-animal life habit. The sexual dimorphism suggested a limited competition between males. The slightly shorter legs told him the creature was “a slightly less specialized foot-powered swimmer” than its look-alike Rodhocetus. The team summarized the importance of the discovery in this paragraph from the paper:
Discovery of a near-term fetus positioned for head-first delivery provides important evidence that early protocetid whales gave birth on land. This is consistent with skeletal morphology enabling Maiacetus to support its weight on land and corroborates previous ideas that protocetids were amphibious. Specimens this complete are virtual ‘Rosetta stones’ providing insight into functional capabilities and life history of extinct animals that cannot be gained any other way.
- The Claw: It looks like a trilobite with appendages coming out of its head. What is it? Look at the picture at PhysOrg. They say it shows the “origin of claws.” Found in Germany, the four-inch-long critter dubbed Schinderhannes bartelsi is said to be 390 million years old. This fossil was also described as a missing link – a “missing link in the evolution of the front claw of living scorpions and horseshoe crabs.” It seems to have a head similar to that of the terror of the Burgess Shale, Anomalocaris, even though that animal was thought to be extinct a hundred million years earlier. As with many trilobites and arthropods, “The eyes are covered in numerous tiny, close-packed, hexagonal lenses.”
The article describes it further: “The fossil’s head section has large bulbous eyes, a circular mouth opening and a pair of segmented, opposable appendages with spines projecting inward along their length. The trunk section is made up of 12 segments, each with small appendages, and a long tail spine. Between the head and trunk, there is a pair of large triangular wing-like limbs – that likely propelled the creature like a swimming penguin, according to [Derek] Briggs” [Yale]. It’s the only known member of its species. It was found in “a quarry near Bundenbach in Germany, a site that yields spectacularly durable pyrite-preserved fossils.”
How does this fossil help evolution? Is it really a missing link? The original paper in Science made no such claim. They only used the word evolution once, and nothing about transitions or links. If anything, they said it indicates stasis and decline of good fossilization opportunities:
The discovery of Schinderhannes emphasizes the importance of exceptionally preserved deposits (Konservat-Lagerst�tten) in revealing the evolutionary history of arthropods. It shows that features of the giant Cambrian anomalocaridids survived for about 100 million years after the Middle Cambrian. The Hunsr�ck Slate also yields examples of Marrellomorpha, a clade well known from the Cambrian and more recently discovered in exceptionally preserved fossil deposits from the Silurian and the Ordovician. Thus, the rarity of post-Cambrian great-appendage arthropods may be a result in part of the decline of Burgess Shale-type preservation after the Middle Cambrian.
1. Gingerich et al, “New Protocetid Whale from the Middle Eocene of Pakistan: Birth on Land, Precocial Development, and Sexual Dimorphism,” Public Library of Science One, 4(2): e4366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004366, published Feb 4, 2009.
2. Kuhl, Briggs and Rust, “A Great-Appendage Arthropod with a Radial Mouth from the Lower Devonian Hunsr�ck Slate, Germany,” Science, 6 February 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5915, pp. 771-773, DOI: 10.1126/science.1166586.
Let’s begin with the second creature. There are already many weird extinct animals known from the Burgess Shale and other parts of the Cambrian. One more does not indicate an evolutionary ancestry. This fossil does not help Darwin for several reasons. We already know that the Burgess fauna were complex and varied, and we have seen that trilobites showed the most diversity in the lowest layers, and less in the higher (see 07/28/2007). Another problem is that this critter suggests stasis of Burgess characteristics for 100 million years, according to the evolutionary timeline. A worse problem is that horseshoe crabs, similar in some respects to this creature, show no evolution from the time of their first appearance in the Ordovician. They survive today as living fossils (01/28/2008) – no evolution for 350 million years! None of this fits the slow-and-gradual branching tree of diversity Darwin predicted. So what do we have here with Schinderhannes? Another complex creature with elegant compound eyes and a symmetrical body, well suited to its environment, that is now extinct. That’s all one can say before leaving the realm of natural science and talking worldview.
For the whale story, the new fossil adds very little to what was already known. It is not that different from Rodhocetus (notice how the naming of these extinct animals, like Protocetidae, embeds the “whale” stem cetus into the name, begging several questions right there). Like the pregnant ichthyosaurs, this amazing fossil of a pregnant female indicates rapid burial under flood conditions. Why should that fact not be the highlight of the story? It’s not like such conditions were the norm for these animals. A flood over a vast region, rapid burial, extreme preservation – sounds almost Biblical. Does it mean evolution? Why are finds qualifying for the coveted term “missing link” so rare? There should be thousands upon thousands of finely graded forms throughout the record, not one here and one over there. The Darwin Tree paradigm has already been falsified, so it’s a waste of time to look for missing links anyway. The Cambrian explosion falsified it before The Origin was even published, and more Darwinists have been speaking out that the tree was a myth all along (01/22/2009). There’s no need to discuss this further. But we shall, for the overkill of it.
Suppose we knew seals, sea lions, manatees, beaver and otters only from fossils. Suppose further that clever storytelling geologists managed to put them into a timeline claiming they died tens of millions of years ago. How many of you would want to bet that a Darwinist storyteller would be able to rig up a complex, plausible-sounding, jargon-laden scientific paper showing an evolutionary progression between them? The variation between living sea lions (seals, elephant seals, harp seals, big ones, small ones, fat ones, skinny ones) exceeds the variation between Maiacetus and Rodhocetus. Without soft parts and behavior and habitats available, it would be very tempting for Darwinists to arrange these and other unrelated fossils from around the globe into an ancestral tree. Is a beaver or sea lion becoming something else, just because it has webbed feet and spends a great deal of time in the water? Orthogenesis went out of style a hundred years ago. For Gingerich and his Darwinist friends to believe Maiacetus was on the fast track to whalehood, they have to also believe that otters, beaver, sea lions and manatees decided to resist the evolutionary force and remain happily half-evolved. What kind of law of nature says that if you are an artiodacytl, you’ll go all the way, but if a dog, you will stop at navy seal? Or if a rodent, you will leave it to beaver? Evolutionary theory is so flexible it explains anything.
The grouping called Artiodactyla contains animals as diverse as pigs, hippos, camels and dog-like animals. What does such a composite class signify? (see 01/29/2009 entry). The differences between members of this class are arguably more significant than the traits they share. Does it indicate that they evolved from a common ancestor? Could it not equally well illustrate a pattern of nested hierarchies in nature that resists evolutionary theory? Walter ReMine, in The Biotic Message, theorized that the nested hierarchies do just that: they show a common Designer (one God, not many), but the lack of evolutionary ancestry. Darwin’s picture is not the only way to look at these patterns – nor is it the best.
We already know from fossils that the ancient world contained many more species and families of animals than we have today. Evolutionary sequences are made up by humans, not by the data. The data just as well describe the Creator’s love of variety. He designed the basic kinds of animals and allowed them to diversify within limits, after their kind. Groups of animals share similarities; this does not mean they evolved from one another. Evolutionists are very choosy about which similarities they want to relate by common ancestry and which they want to explain with hand-waving (see The Convergence Concoction by Brett Miller for many examples). A worldwide cataclysm sent as judgment on sin left the current postdiluvian world impoverished of its former diversity, yet sufficiently adorned to speak powerfully of intelligent design so that men are without excuse. The data fit this picture. We have an eyewitness testimony telling us this is what happened. If you choose to disbelieve that evidence, then you are not better off, nor more scientifically grounded. For one thing, you have not gotten rid of miracles – you have multiplied them! The whole animal kingdom becomes miracle after miracle of accident and happenstance, going against what we know is true about the way laws of nature operate. For another, you are not engaging in observable, repeatable, verifiable science, but in narrative with a good bit of imagination and worldview preference mixed in. To top it off, you have to assume Biblical principles (rationality and morality) to do science. It cannot be done from an evolved monkey brain that reduces to particles (see top right quote by Darwin). If sensible people forced the Darwinists to be consistent with their own beliefs, they would turn into a caricature of the Three Monkeys: see no science, hear no science, speak no science.
The supposed evolutionary sequence from dog-like hoofed animal to right whale exists only in the imaginations of Darwinists. A variety of amazing, complex animals, well adapted to their habitats, has lived on this planet. We have a subset of them still alive today. Arranging them into an ancestral sequence is just a game played by certain persons addicted to divination (07/26/2008, 10/09/2008).