Did Fish Evolve Hands?
A Fossil “Fish-Hand” Proves Evolution . . . or Does It?
by Jerry Bergman, PhD
By far the main focus of evolutionists is human evolution. That story—filled with problems—goes from the first vertebrate to modern Homo sapiens. Not as much concern is expressed by evolutionists about the evolution of invertebrates, such as jellyfish, sea anemones, sponges, sea stars, sand dollars or oysters. Prior to that problem is the origin of carbon-based, organic life from inorganic chemicals. Each of these sub-categories of evolution is plagued with difficulties. Today, after a century of research, it can be safely alleged that they are now further from a materialistic evolutionary solution than ever before. New research findings just keep digging them deeper into the implausibility hole. For relief from those headaches, the trend today is to move on to research that seems to offer more hope of being productive.
One favorite method is exploring how major transitions in animals occurred that eventually led us to humans, such as how fish evolved into the first four-footed land tetrapods (as evolution requires and predicts must have occurred). A subtopic of this question is to ask how the fingers of the hand evolved from fish fins. This evolutionary step is of major importance because, besides the human brain, our hands are regarded by evolutionists as one of the most important innovations created by evolution. Much speculation exists but little evidence has been uncovered to support this critical transition. Here, we analyze some of the latest claims about a candidate fossil that might potentially fill the critical transition from a fish fin into a limb with digits that, one day, might have evolved into a human hand.
The Importance of Hands
Evolutionists correctly conclude that hands are what made humans toolmakers. Hands are one of the central traits that allowed us to make, not only tools, but also to write letters to friends, drive a tractor, bake a cake, paint a picture, ride a bike, brush our teeth, raise our children, and practice medicine and law. As one of the most prestigious science journals in the world, Nature, observed,
“The evolution of fishes to tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrates) was one of the most important transformations in vertebrate evolution. Hypotheses of tetrapod origins rely heavily on the anatomy of a few tetrapod-like fish fossils from the Middle and Late Devonian period.”
These few tetrapod-like fish are known as elpistostegalians and include Panderichthys, Elpistostege, and Tiktaalik. The many problems with Tiktaalik are well-documented and will not be repeated here.
The Nature article admitted that none of these examples has “revealed the complete skeletal anatomy of the pectoral fin” required to produce a semi-reasonable case for evolution. Never fear: Professor Cloutier, et al., reports on a 1.57-meter-long articulated specimen they called Elpistostege watsoni dug up from strata believed deposited during the Upper Devonian Period of Canada, that “represents—to our knowledge—the most complete elpistostegalian yet found.”
Analysis of Elpistostege watsoni
The fossil was determined to be complete, but was “preserved flattened dorso-ventrally although the caudal region was preserved in lateral view.” The investigators used high-energy computed tomography to examine the specimen, finding that the “skeleton of the pectoral fin has four proximodistal rows of radials (two of which include branched carpals) as well as two distal rows that are organized as digits and putative digits. … the most tetrapod-like arrangement of bones found in a pectoral fin to date.”
They then admit that, in spite of their excitement, the fin “retains lepidotrichia (fin rays) distal to the radials” but the evaluation allowed them to speculate (they use the term suggest) that the
“vertebrate hand arose primarily from a skeletal pattern buried within the fairly typical aquatic pectoral fin of elpistostegalians. Elpistostege is potentially the sister taxon of all other tetrapods, and its appendages further blur the line between fish and land vertebrates.”
Blurring the line is important for evolutionists because it reduces the enormous gap between marine vertebrates (fish) and land vertebrates. Reporters leaped from the appropriately cautious Nature article to conclusions about “how the human hand evolved from fish fins.” (Note that the article states not if “the human hand evolved from fish fins” but “how the human hand evolved from fish fins.”)
Figure 1. Ancient fish fossils reveal the evolutionary origin of the human hand according to Phys.org. In figure a (the top row), the 3rd illustration from the left represents the fossil which is the focus of this paper. The 4th drawing from the left is what the digits would look like if they were actually functional fingers. Note the contrast. The smashed condition of the fossil makes it difficult to evaluate the original configuration and placement of the digits.
Even if one were to conclude that the skeleton of the pectoral fin revealed phalanges organized into digits (fingers), it could well be interpreted as another example of design, given the environment that the creature probably lived in. Specifically, Elpistostege watsoni likely lived in the marshy interface between open water and land, making it well-suited to a wet marsh.
The main issue is, were the humerus (arm), radius and ulna (forearm), rows of carpus (wrist) and phalange-digits (fingers) precursors of the human-hand system? The lead author, Richard Cloutier, acknowledges that “Elpistostege is not necessarily our ancestor….” but could be.
One reason to doubt Elpistostege watsoni as an ancestor is due to dating problems with the fossil. This was noted by Sherwin as follows: “Elpistostege was dated to be 380 million years old. Tiktaalik is dated at 375 million years old. But paleontological findings in Poland [have] revealed vertebrate trackways 397 million years old—18 million years older than Tiktaalik.” Research in Nature magazine reluctantly concluded these Polish trackways “force a radical reassessment of the timing, ecology and environmental setting of the fish-tetrapod transition, as well as the completeness of the body fossil record. In other words, the dating does not support a progressive evolution of the fish limb into the human hand.
At face value, the fossil is another variety of fish, not a missing link between humans and our ancient fish ancestor. It is no more a transitional form than the octopus camera eye is a missing link between the trilobite eye, with its calcite crystal compound eye, and the modern camera eye of humans alive today. Even the assertion that the bones of the pectoral fin are homologous with the human bones, is “controversial.” Another evolution authority adds that homology “is assumed to be due to descent from a common ancestor.” From reading the reports the authors clearly believe in an imaginary line from fish to tetrapods to humans. This evidence, though, is far from conclusive. Other interpretations are possible. It is better explained as an extinct lobe-finned fish, as is the extant coelacanth, adapted to live in the environment it found itself. The probability that this one fossil is the first time scientists have unequivocally discovered fingers locked in a fin with fin-rays in any known fish is severely suspect. Should there not be hundreds or thousands of them? Until more examples are discovered, it is unwise to base sweeping conclusions on one questionable case.
Figure 2. A comparison of human hand digits and those from the Elpistostege fossil.
From Sherwin, Frank. 2020. “Was a Fossil ‘Fish-Hand’ Discovered?” Acts and Facts, June 21.
 Ancient fish fossil reveals evolutionary origin of the human hand. Phys.org. Posted on phys.org, 18 March 2020; accessed 21 June 2020.
 Bergman, Jerry. 2013. The Human Hand: Perfectly Designed. CRSQ 50(1):25-31, Summer.
 Cloutier, Richard, et al. 2020. Elpistostege and the origin of the vertebrate hand. Nature 579:549–554. March 18. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2100-8.
 One general source is Walker, Tas. 2010. “Is the famous fish-fossil finished? Tiktaalik, the transitional star, faces an evolutionary dead-end.” Creation 32(3):38–39, July; Menton, David. 2009. Chapter 25: “Is Tiktaalik Evolution’s Greatest Missing Link?” in The New Answers Book, Vol 3., pp. 241-252. Green Forest, AR: Master Books. A copy of the article is found here: https://answersingenesis.org/missing-links/is-tiktaalik-evolutions-greatest-missing-link/; Curtis, John. 2020. “What’s so great about Tiktaalik.” Journal of Creation 34(1):110-114.
 Cloutier, 2020, p. 549.
 Cloutier, 2020, p. 549.
 Cloutier, 2020, p. 549.
 Cloutier, 2020, p. 549.
 Cloutier, 2020, p. 549. Emphasis added.
 Ancient fish fossil reveals evolutionary origin of the human hand. Phys.org.
 Ancient fish fossil reveals evolutionary origin of the human hand. Phys.org., p. 2.
 Sherwin, Frank. 2020. “Was a Fossil ‘Fish-Hand’ Discovered?” Acts and Facts, June 21. https://www.icr.org/article/was-a-fossil-fish-hand-discovered/
 Niedźwiedzki, G., et al. 2010. Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland. Nature 463: 43-48, January 7
 Thain, Michael;Michael Hickman, et al.. 2004. Dictionary of Biology. London: Penguin Group, p. 353.
 Allaby, Michael. 2014. Dictionary of Zoology, 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 296.
 Cloutier, 2020, p. 553.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.