February 27, 2021 | Jerry Bergman

A Failed Attempt to Refute Living Fossils: The Case of Coelacanth

How a major concept was dismissed
based on appallingly flimsy evidence

 

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

Introduction

A central evidence against evolution is the existence of thousands of so-called ‘living fossils.’ Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a living fossil as an “organism (such as a horseshoe crab or a ginkgo tree) that has remained essentially unchanged from earlier geologic times and whose close relatives are usually extinct.”[1] For example, the “Ginkgo tree is a living fossil, with the earliest leaf fossils dating from 270 million years ago.”[2] Comparison of the leaf shape and other traits preserved in the fossil record document that, as far as can be determined, the external morphology of the fossil is identical to that of living examples today.

Creationists use the living fossil concept to argue for stasis, asking why no discernible change has occurred, in this case in 270 million years, assuming evolutionary dating is correct. Thousands of living fossil examples are known, as illustrated in the four-volume series Atlas of Creation, with each volume being close to 900, 14.5-by-10-inch, pages.[3] These volumes have pictures of fossils dated by evolutionists to be multi-millions-of-years-old next to photographs of modern examples that, as far as can be determined, are morphologically identical.

Figure 1. A preserved coelacanth specimen on display at a museum in Austria. Image: Alberto Fernandez.

The Coelacanth

One important evidence of living fossils was the 1938 discovery of a live coelacanth near Madagascar. G. Dvorsky in Gizmodo (9 Feb 2021) says its discovery was

quite the shock, as these animals were believed to be extinct. This large fish was thereafter referred to as a ‘living fossil’ owing to their uncanny resemblance to near-identical species spotted in the fossil record.[4]

Another reason for its importance is that observations of living coelacanths refute the Darwinians’ claim that the coelacanth fossil “provides a glimpse of the fish that first walked on land,”[5] referring to the evolution of tetrapods. Evolutionists believe that the “vertebrate land transition is one of the most important steps in our evolutionary history.”[6] Living specimens, however, do not use their bony fins for locomotion. They tend to feed on the ocean bottom in a vertical position.

The two known extant coelacanth species are Latimeria chalumnae found near the Comoro Islands off the east coast of Africa, and Latimeria menadoensis living in the waters off Sulawesi, Indonesia. The fact is the “modern coelacanth looks remarkably similar to many of its ancient relatives.”[7] Its importance rests in the fact that its

discovery is considered to be one of the most notable zoological finds of the twentieth century. Latimeria is the only living member of an ancient group of lobe-finned fishes that was known previously only from fossils and believed to have been extinct since the Late Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago.[8]

The reason it was labeled a living fossil was,

besides the lungfish, they are considered by evolutionists to be “the closest relatives to tetrapods and share with them several morpho-anatomical features that are not found in more distantly related vertebrates such as ray-finned fishes.”[9]

And what was the explanation for why it had not evolved during the last 70 million years? Evolutionists “suggested that coelacanths possess a slowly or even not evolving genome.”[10] This circular reasoning does not answer the question, but only rephrases it by begging another. Why did the “coelacanths possess a slowly or even not evolving genome?” The problem was, why did evolution stop for this creature, and thousands of others, when it was progressing for most other life-forms including humans?

Figure 2. Professor J.L.B. Smith with a coelacanth in 1953. From Wiki Commons.

The Coelacanth is Back in the News

As of 2021, the fish is back in the news due to the finding that “An analysis of coelacanth DNA suggests its genome has experienced some significant changes in recent evolutionary history, potentially dispelling the popular image of these iconic fish as being “living fossils.”[11] Reporters telling about study claim that, “while the coelacanth’s body may have changed little, its genome tells another story.”[12] Specifically, the new study by Yellan et al., published 10 Feb 2021 in Molecular Biology & Evolution[13] claims

that at least one species of coelacanth, formally known as Latimeria chalumnae, is not the living fossil it’s presumed to be, having acquired dozens of new genes in the past 23 million years—a surprising finding, and a far cry from the idea that the species has barely changed since its ancestors emerged over 300 million years ago. What’s more, the finding is further evidence that the living fossil concept is outdated and somewhat of a misnomer.[14]

When the research paper is examined in detail, though, it tells a very different story. The main problem is that the researchers did not have a 70-million-year-old genome available with which to do proper comparisons with the modern genome. Consequently, they substituted a lot of assumptions about the nature of transposons and differences from unrelated “relatives.” The researchers evaluated transposons which they admit “often evolve quickly.”[15] They used microarrays to identify similarities in the living example, and found

At least eight CGGBPs [CGG triplet repeat-binding protein 1] in the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae bind distinct motifs… Strikingly, the genome of the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae includes 62 CGGBP genes, with 47 containing the full zf-BED and Hermes DBDs.” The authors admitted that “CGGBP proteins are largely unstudied and undocumented.

Critique of the Research

This paper raises far more questions than it answers. For example, how can they accurately determine the sequence of the Latimeria chalumnae genome, which evolutionists claim lived 22.3 million years ago? Only the modern living Latimeria chalumnae was sequenced. Yet they know that the “expression of the corresponding genes varies considerably across tissues, suggesting tissue-restricted function.”[16] The researchers focused on the CGGBP gene mentioned above. One must also control for the specific tissues examined because “the Latimeria chalumnae CGGBPs are often expressed in different tissues from each other.”[17] The new research found the Latimeria chalumnae coelacanth “has 62 CGGBP genes—way more than any other vertebrate.”[18]

These 62 genes are all transposons, often called “jumping genes” because they can cut themselves out of their position in the DNA strand and move somewhere else in the genome. Some transposons can also make copies of themselves. A further problem is that the role of the CGGBP1 protein in “evolutionary history is poorly understood, as is its apparent similarity to a specific family of transposons—DNA sequences capable of shifting positions within a genome.”19 The researchers then assumed that these 62 coelacanth genes probably produced significant genetic variety. In fact, the researchers are not sure what their role is in the genome, but they probably play a role in gene regulation. Another conundrum is that the CGGBP1 transposons they studied are evidently no longer able to move around in the coelacanth genome.[19]

Summary

The finding that 62 genes were bouncing around the coelacanth genome for 22.3 million years caused the researchers to conclude that the modern coelacanth genome must be very genetically different from the genome of its ancient relatives. The conclusion from this very shaky evidence caused the lead researcher, Isaac Yellan, to make very sweeping generalizations:

I always liked the concept of living fossils, but I’m sufficiently persuaded that it’s a bogus concept. Sure, animals can superficially resemble their distant ancestors, but it’s the parts beneath the hood that tell the whole story… as more and more genomes are being published, the ‘living fossil’ concept is becoming increasingly something of a misconception, and I think many scientists would probably hesitate to assign it to any species.[20]

Given this radical, totally unwarranted claim, I was surprised that this paper was published. The evidence by itself—without the evolutionary conclusion—would likely have received very little press. The evolutionary conclusion resulted in dozens of citations in science news reports and articles, including this one.  The researchers may have realized this, and looked for a connection to evolution to garner interest in their otherwise uninteresting, humdrum results.

Figure 3. A display of the ‘living fossil’ coelacanth in England. From Wiki-Commons. The term ‘living fossil’ was originally coined by Charles Darwin.

References

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/living%20fossil.

[2]. Adams, K., “When will one of Louisville’s oldest trees drop its leaves this fall? Guess and win big,” The Courier-Journal, 23 October 2020.

[3] Oktar, A.,  Atlas of Creation, Global Publishing, Istanbul, Turkey, 2012.

[4] Dvorsky, G., Huge Fish, Once Believed Extinct, Isn’t the ‘Living Fossil’ Scientists Thought, GIZMODO, 9 February 2021; https://gizmodo.com/huge-fish-once-believed-extinct-isn-t-the-living-fos-1846230762.

[5] Amemiya, C. et al. The African coelacanth genome provides insights into tetrapod evolution, Nature 496:311-316, p. 311, April 2013.

[6] Amemiya, 2013, p. 315.

[7] Amemiya, 2013.

[8] Amemiya. 2013, p. 311.

[9] Science News, “Coelacanths Are Not ‘Living Fossils,’ New Study Shows,” 10 February 2021; http://www.sci-news.com/biology/coelacanth-genes-09341.html.

[10] Science News, 2021.

[11] Dvorsky, 2021.

[12] Science News, 2021.

[13] Yellan, I. et al., Various eukaryotic CGG binding proteins produced by independent domestication of hAT transposons, Molecular Biology and Evolution, published online 9 February 2021; doi: 10.1093 / molbev / msab007.

[14] Dvorsky, 2021.

[15] Yellan et al., 2021.

[16] Yellan et al., 2021.

[17] Yellan et al., 2021.

[18] Dvorsky, 2021.

[19] Dvorsky, 2021.

[20] Quoted in Dvorsky, G,


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.

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