December 24, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Evidence for Evolution, or for Uncontroversial Variation?

Science papers and articles often announce promising new evidence for evolution.  To distinguish Darwinian evolution from creation, though, requires evidence of a certain magnitude.  The staunchest Biblical creationist allows for a great deal of variation within kinds.  When evidences for evolution are announced, do they rise to the level of change Darwin theorized – like the change of one animal or plant into another, with new tissues, organs, and functions?  Do they support a grand story of the common ancestry of all living things from simple microbes?

  1. Mammals:  “Fossil shelved for a century reworks carnivore family tree,” announced PhysOrg.  A fossil from the American Museum of Natural History shelved since 1896 has been looked at anew.  The phrase family tree immediately connotes an image of Darwinian common ancestry.  One would expect the fossil would show progress in understanding evolutionary relationships.  The body of the article, however, shows problems instead of clarification:

    This analysis is the fifth time that early carnivore postcrania have been carefully described in detail.  Adding the information from this long-neglected fossil to the previously known data, though, does point researchers into new directions.  An analysis of 99 traits among 29 fossils and 15 living taxa resulted in a new evolutionary tree that shows that ‘M.’ uintensis is distantly related to the type specimens from the Miacis genus, suggesting that an extensive revision of the current understanding of the evolutionary relationships among early carnivore fossils may be needed.  But more significantly, the structure of the evolutionary tree suggests that adaptations to terrestrial or semi-terrestrial locomotion were more common than previously suspected in early fossil carnivores, preceding the split between the two major groups of living Carnivora, the Caniformia (a group that includes dogs, weasels, bears, seals and their relatives) and Feliformia (cats, hyenas, mongooses and civets).

    It appears that what was found was not the expected primitive carnivore, but a specimen that indicates just as much diversity of lifestyles as seen in modern carnivores.  The creature apparently was able to climb trees and walk on the ground.  But then again, so do raccoons today.  Curator John Flynn tried to explain: “It is typically thought that the miacoids of the Eocene—the basal fossil relatives of modern Carnivora that root the family tree—were arboreal.  But we now are beginning to see that there was a greater diversity of locomotor styles in early carnivores.”  The only thing that seems to have evolved here is the thinking of the evolutionists.

  2. Fish:  Over in Africa, evolutionists are still trying to figure out how the cichlid fish trapped in inland lakes evolved.  Cichlid fish have diversified in Lake Malawi and Lake Victoria in “a classic example of adaptive radiation and rapid speciation,” the authors of a paper in PLoS Biology said.1  (See also summary on Science Daily).  But the details of evolution they studied are mere shifts in the expression of existing genes and slight changes in existing proteins that affect sensitivity to wavelengths of light that differ, at most, by 100 nm, at the ends of the spectrum of sensitivity.  The words novel and innovation are missing from the paper.  There are no indications that something genetically new has arisen, even though the authors say, “Hundreds of new species have evolved in Lake Malawi within the past 1-2 million years and within a mere 15,000-120,000 years in Lake Victoria.  These two haplochromine radiations provide a large number of closely related, yet ecologically and morphologically divergent, species.”  The fish are still cichlids; they could be classified as variations rather than species.  Furthermore, the rates of variation differ widely between the two lakes.  It would seem that no natural law has been found that could illuminate Darwinian evolution in general: “The rapid changes in opsin gene expression that we observed among these closely related cichlid species are unprecedented in vertebrates.”
  3. Whales:  In five million years, just 2.5 times the interval in which the fish mentioned above changed little, whales are thought to have evolved from a cow- or dog-like land animal.  A pompous-sounding headline on PhysOrg would lead a casual reader to expect a breakthrough discovery: “Australian fossil unlocks secrets to the origin of whales.”  It touted “groundbreaking discoveries” to follow – but then disappointed with a mere re-interpretation of a fossil that had been sitting in a museum since 1939.  Dr Erich Fitzgerald decided to “hypothesize it was a bottom-feeding mud-sucker that may have used its tongue and short, blunt snout to suck small prey from sand and mud on the seafloor.”  According to Dr. Fitzgerald, “This indicates early and varied experimentation in the evolution of baleen whales.”  While the reader is left wondering who the experimenter is, the article was quick to announce that Darwin would be proud. “The research conducted by Dr Fitzgerald supports Charles Darwin’s speculation in The Origin of Species, that some of the earliest baleen whales may have been suction feeders, and that their mud grubbing served as a precursor to the filter feeding of today’s giants of the deep.”
        A little closer reading, though, shows that Mammalodon colliveri was already considered a “primitive toothed baleen whale, one of a group of whales that includes the largest animal ever to have lived, the blue whale.”  An artist reconstruction in the BBC News shows the creature to look whale-like in most respects: flippers, tail, sleek body and all.  (It should be kept in mind that soft part reconstruction is highly subjective.)   Moreover, “Mammalodon is a dwarf, having evolved into a relatively tiny form from larger ancestors.”  That would seem a regression, not an evolution, if the blue whales were on the same branch of the tree.  How did the advanced baleen whales evolve their baleen if a dwarf experimenter was off over in Australia grubbing in the mud, doomed to become a dead-end line?  Dr Fitzgerald was unable, nonetheless, to contain his excitement over his old bones.  Because another family member of Mammalodon was found nearby, “Clearly the seas off southern Australia were a cradle for the evolution of a variety of tiny, weird whales that seem to have lived nowhere else.” 
  4. Dinosaurs etc.:  National Geographic displayed the “Top Ten Dinosaur and Fossil Finds: Most Viewed of 2009.”  Most of the ten show extinction, not evolution.  The first eight show no progression from simple to advanced.  If anything, they show that the past had more diversity and larger sizes than today – giant snakes, giant crocodiles, giant arthropods, and, of course, giant dinosaurs.  Even so, NG acknowledged that “a third of dinosaurs” may never have existed due to human classification errors.  The last two entries are the controversial Ardi and Ida.  These alleged missing links arguably shed more controversy than light on the story of human evolution.  Regarding Ida, NG said, “The publicity frenzy made National Geographic News’s brief coverage our most viewed page of the year—and inspired a backlash as some experts, including one here at Nat Geo HQ, suggested Ida was more media event than milestone.”  Sure enough, the link to Brian Cooley’s blog on NGM Blog Central is quite critical of the media hype over Ida.

Interesting as the varieties of extinct fossils are, the perceptive reader may be left wondering what they have to do with evidence for the evolution of carnivores, fish and whales from non-carnivores, non-fish, and non-whales. 

1.  Hofmann et al, “The Eyes Have It: Regulatory and Structural Changes Both Underlie Cichlid Visual Pigment Diversity,” Public Library of Science: Biology, 7(12): e1000266. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000266, December 2009.

We really tried to have a good time at the Darwin Party, but the event didn’t live up to the hype.  The place was filled with boors overcome with their own perceived self-importance.  Everywhere we turned, people were trying to sell us a bill of goods.  So we left and went to the other celebration instead.  MC2U&HNY2!

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