by Denyse O'Leary
Have you noticed that animals are frequently classified as "primitive" if they are thought to be older life forms. Why? Older life forms need not necessarily be more primitive. The underlying concept is that complex features are built up through a slow Darwinian process and therefore the older forms should be more primitive.
For example, I have written here before about the myth of the unfeeling reptilian brain - the assumption that because mammals use the limbic (mammalian) brain for emotions, reptiles, which lack it, have no emotions. Observation of alligators does not seem to bear that out. The idea originated from the need to classify the brain in a hierarchical way.
The duck-billed platypus is another example. This mammal with some reptilian features is described by American Zoo as "the most primitive of the living mammals, retaining some characteristics of their reptilian ancestors and displaying some characteristics of birds as well."
Yet, it turns out that the primitive platypus has
"an 'electric' beak, a dense set of nerve endings across the shield on its bill that enables it to find its food. Platypuses shut their ears and eyes when diving for food and from considerable distances retrieve their meal of shrimps and insects from the riverbed by a process of electrolocation. From this striking evidence researchers concluded that the platypus left the mainstream and evolved a completely new and distinct sensory system that differed from any other animal. Hence, far from being a primitive animal, as 19th century scientists believed and insisted, the platypus has emerged as the most highly evolved animal in the animal kingdom. Monotreme expert Mervyn Griffith calls it 'the animal of all time'."
Primitive? Most highly evolved? Or just different? A question that lurks just below the surface (and will likely stay there a long time) is, how much time was required for the evolution of this unique electrolocation sense? How likely is it to have been random?
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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