June 4, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionists Try to Explain Away Living Fossils

You can’t play word games to deny extreme stasis.
You can’t say living fossils really are evolving.


Numerous plants and animals look identical to fossil counterparts said to be tens or hundreds of millions of years old. How can the Darwinians explain this? Charles Darwin himself, who coined the term “living fossils,” wrestled with the phenomenon. The amount of extreme stasis in the fossil record was so obvious, it led Gould and Eldredge to conjure up their theory of punctuated equilibria in the 1970s, suggesting that evolution occurs in rapid bursts that leave no fossils. Many saw that as a trick to support a belief in spite of lack of evidence. Now, 50 years later, Darwin Party apologists at Imperial College London are trying another excuse, calling it “evolutionary heritage.” But are they just playing word games?

Dr Carl Werner has investigated dozens of living species that are identical to fossils alleged to be many millions of years old, yet museums sometimes classify them with different names. Click to see trailer for his DVD about Living Fossils.

‘Living fossils’ are unique, not ancient, say Imperial researchers (Imperial College London, 29 May 2024). Living fossils are not really exceptions to evolution, say these Darwinians. The organisms may look static, but really they have been evolving all this time.

The basic idea of “evolutionary heritage” is that traits come in and traits go out, and what an organism is left with over millions of years constitutes its bequest after millions of years of change. In some cases, the net variation may be small.

The new measure, termed ‘evolutionary heritage’, highlights the importance of unique species traits – which include physiological adaptations, like beak variations in different birds – when assessing the richness and complexity of life.

This is particularly important in the face of rapidly changing pressures on our world’s biodiversity.

It can also help answer enduring debates in the field, such as whether ‘living fossils’ – species like the lungfish, which don’t seem to have changed for millions of yearsdo still evolve.

Living fossils are evolving, they promise. You just can’t believe your lying eyes.

Evolutionary heritage incorporates not just the accumulation of biological features over time, but also their attrition— the gradual loss of features through mechanisms other than extinction.

Species not only become distinct from each other by gaining new traits along their evolutionary branches, but they also lose traits that they both inherited from their common ancestor.

Is this a conclusion arising from field research on real plants and animals? Or are they playing computer games again with the DIDO algorithm?

This process can be captured by calculations or simulations that use an algorithm that ascribe a random chance of gaining or losing an existing trait.

They claim that the old “phylogenetic diversity” algorithm focused on traits that were gained, but overlooked traits that were lost. OK, so how does “evolutionary heritage” explain living fossils? They first want to get away from the term “living fossils” because, they say, it implies that evolution can be switched off. No; they claim: “Organisms will continue to mutate and not all will survive to reproduce, so evolution will occur.” Evolution is a fact! Got it? Stop denying it! But to see the evolution, and to gain “understanding,” you will need a crystal ball. Here is one they devised:

Evolutionary heritage offers a new lens to understanding living fossils. The new framework defines and identifies living fossils by the predicted uniqueness and rarity of their evolutionary features rather than their superficial resemblance to ancient species….

“If we think of a set of ancestral features, some will not survive at all, some will survive in a very small number of living species, and others may be observed in thousands of descendent species today,” Professor Rosindell said.

How does this help explain living fossils? If one sees a living horseshoe crab that looks identical to a fossil horseshoe crab said to be 450 million years old (22 Feb 2021), where is the evidence that it has been evolving all that time? Dr Carl Werner documented dozens of examples of living fossils where the fossil and living species are indistinguishable. Sometimes taxonomists give them different genus or species names, but they look the same.

Formalities and Jargonwocky

Maybe the formal research paper can help enlighten us on the fact of evolution when it looks like stasis. The press release refers back to a paper published late in 2023.

Phylogenetic Biodiversity Metrics Should Account for Both Accumulation and Attrition of Evolutionary Heritage (Rosindell et al., Systematic Biology, 15 Dec 2023).

Here we introduce “EvoHeritage”, a generalization of PD [phylogenetic diversity] that is founded on the joint processes of accumulation and attrition of features. We argue that while PD measures evolutionary history, EvoHeritage is required to capture a more pertinent subset of evolutionary history including only components that have survived attrition. We show that EvoHeritage is not the same as PD on a tree with scaled edges; instead, accumulation and attrition interact in a more complex non-monophyletic way that cannot be captured by edge lengths alone. This leads us to speculate that the one-dimensional edge lengths of classic trees may be insufficiently flexible to capture the nuances of evolutionary processes.

Tuatara, from color slide by Photocentre Ltd., Oamaru, NZ. No evolution since the time of the dinosaurs.

Much of the paper involves calculus on invented terms portrayed with icons like dots, triangles, and diamonds in simplified flowcharts instead of real-world data. This sounds like Jargonwocky and hand-waving, even though they claim it will explain living fossils. Instead of slogging through pages of their jargon, let’s look at specific examples and see how their explanation works. Take the tuatara, a type of lizard that survives unchanged in New Zealand.

Let us consider the lengths of the terminal edges that connect each terminal vertex (species) to the rest of the tree. PD incorporates (as a minimum) the length of the terminal edge for any species under consideration, because that edge is required in a connection to any other place on the tree. It is clear that species with long terminal edge lengths contribute more unique features to biodiversity than others. But how much more? The tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), an extraordinary reptile endemic to New Zealand, has a terminal edge length of 275 million years and many unique features. It seems plausible to us that it possesses more unique features than, say, the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), with a terminal edge length of about 64 million years, but having over four times as many features, as PD would assert, seems disproportionate. This issue is mirrored by an idea in population genetics that net differences between groups will become saturated, given sufficient time, rather than grow indefinitely, even if evolution remains rapid (Crozier et al. 2005).

The handwaving obscures the problem. The tuatara has the same traits as fossil ones 275 million years old! Where is the evolution? They cannot invoke “attrition” as an explanation. What did its ancestors have that the modern tuatara lacks?

While our work gives a new way to re-scale edges in the form of values, we also show that, for interior edges the effects of attrition are more complex and cannot be entirely captured by rescaling. This is because features may be gained on one edge but lost on a different edge, resulting in a non-monophyletic pattern of features (Wicke et al. 2021). More extreme examples than the tuatara with long interior edges are not hard to find; the Filasterea clade of just three species is sister to animals and choanoflagellates together (Shalchian-Tabrizi et al. 2008) and over 900 million years old (Ferrer-Bonet and Ruiz-Trillo 2017; OneZoom Core Team 2021) incorporating interior edges of well over 100 million years. The PD framework, especially on dated trees, seems incapable of assigning a reasonable value to such edges and their descendent species.

All they are doing is claiming that their “EvoHeritage” model works better than the older “Phylogenetic Diversity” model. But they are not explaining why the inexorable force of evolution would leave some organisms untouched for 900 million years or more. Maybe in the final discussion they will come clean.

Mainstream Thinking as a Living Fossil

The key to our proposed solution of the living fossil controversy comes from recognising that living fossils show ancestral features that are rare in extant species, but need not show more ancestral features in total. Indeed, it has been pointed out before that scarcity is an important characteristic, otherwise we would have to admit bacteria as living fossils (Werth and Shear 2014). Given that the identity of the living fossils themselves was originally established by a non-quantitative thought process, it is easy to imagine how the discovery of rare ancestral features in an extant species would carry greater weight and be more worthy of commentary. In contrast, the discovery of ancestral features that are commonly seen in extant species could easily be taken for granted. It also seems likely that rare ancestral features in an extant species would be more informative for reconstructing the features of extinct ancestors. Therefore, the phenomenon of living fossils as real and noteworthy objects of study might have been masked by the subtlety of rarity and a shortage of quantitative approaches. Our explanation still requires an imbalanced phylogenetic tree and does not seek to provide an explanation for why such imbalance occurs. It may be due to lower speciation or elevated extinction within a clade—if the latter it would make our living fossils “relict species” in the spirit of Grandcolas et al. (2014). Perhaps in reality imbalance is caused by a mixture of factors. Regardless of the reason behind any phylogenetic imbalance, we have shown that the concept of living fossils does not need to invoke the “ladder of progress” or be in conflict with mainstream thinking.

Mainstream thinking: that is the anchor of their approach. Living fossils must not threaten Darwinism! To maintain living fossils within mainstream thinking about evolution, these five Darwinists engaged in hand-waving that would make a conductor of the Sabre Dance exhausted and his audience holding their ears. It’s sound and fury while standing in place and going nowhere. All their terms assume evolution! They only tweaked terms like rates of evolution, rates of attrition, rates of speciation and extinction in computer models. Telling us that their model works better than PD commits the best-in-field fallacy. And one cannot build a complex organism like a tuatara by attrition. It’s like the investor who lost money on every sale but tried to make up for it in volume. (See “Evolution by Subtraction” at Evolution News 2013 and 2015.)

Did these five Brits do anything to advance real science? No. Did they explain how Darwin’s Stuff Happens Law innovated complex functional systems? No. Did they use their gifted minds to enhance the human condition? No. Did they waste our time? Yes.

Here’s what they need to do: get out of the university environment, go out into the field, dig up some organisms said to be tens or hundreds of millions of years old, and put them side by side with living counterparts, whether they be worms, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, or microbes that look identical. Let them stop trying to cram the evidence of their senses into “mainstream thinking” and let the evidence speak to them directly. If there appears to be no evolution, then there was no evolution, and Darwinism is dead. And as they look at that tuatara, or coelacanth, or Wollemi pine, or ginkgo, or sand dollar, or any one of dozens of other living fossils, let them have the courage to ask if those alleged millions of years ever existed. Finally, when they return to the university, encourage them to use their knowledge of calculus to help their fellow humans by eliminating suffering or improving the lot of the poor.

Exercise: Analyze the following press release from USC. Is it playing word games and making up concepts to keep Darwinism safe within mainstream thinking? Is it a work of imagination, or based on observations in the real world? Does it provide any tangible help for old people?

A new ‘rule of biology’ may have come to light, expanding insight into evolution and aging (USC Dornsife, 16 May 2024).



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