By Robert Deyes
In his letter to the Hebrews, the apostle Paul wrote how "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Ref 1). It would appear that faith has had a major part to play in much of the Darwinian synthesis. Darwinists after all continue to this day to hope for solutions for incongruent data, proclaiming a certainty on an imperfect fossil record and filling in the 'gaps' of theoretical evolutionary sequences with intermediates that they have not seen (Ref 2-3). University of Wisconsin molecular biologist Sean Carroll provided a perfect example of such an application of faith at last month's International Symposium On Human Identification by lifting the iconic status of a well-known fish called the coelacanth to new heights (Ref 4). His message was clear- the coelacanth was and still is a living fossil; a window into the past that gives us a glimpse of how life transitioned from sea onto land. Let us examine the evidence.
It is now considered fact by many evolutionary biologists that early land dwelling vertebrates, the tetrapods, owe their origins to a small group of fish belonging to a family known as the osteolepiforms (Ref 5). These lobed-finned fish supposedly crawled out of the water at the end of a period called the Devonian, almost 350 million years ago, to take up a terrestrial life style (Ref 5). Such a move has been dramatically portrayed through images that show osteolepiforms crawling on paired fins (Ref 6). Data in support of this move continues to be in short supply and the precise details concerning the true identity of osteolepiforms remains extremely vague (Ref 6). Indeed it is questionable whether osteolepiforms were really intermediates in the water-to-land transition or simply an extinct fish group (Ref 6).
The history of the theory describing the water-to-land transition dates back to 1861, just two years after the publication of The Origin Of Species when Thomas Huxley, an ardent Darwin supporter, described the so-called crossopterygian fish (Ref 6). Huxley considered these to be close relatives of the lungfish that at the time was viewed as the most likely candidate for a terrestrial ancestor (Ref 6). It was from Huxley's crossopterygians that the American paleontologist E.D Cope identified the first specimens of a group of fish called the rhipidistians. From their general anatomy- specifically the bone structure and teeth arrangements- rhipidistians bore a likeness to a group of extinct amphibians called the labyrinthodonts (Ref 6). Several other features including nostrils that may have allowed rhipidistians to breath with their mouths closed, seemed to support the idea that rhipidistians were truly a missing link in the evolution of life onto land. Further discoveries followed- the unearthing of another group of fish called elpistotegids from late Devonian strata which appeared to close the gap between fish and tetrapods yet further (Ref 6). Yet this 'ride of discovery' was far from uncontroversial (Ref 6).
The finding of the first coelacanth in 1938 was hailed as a breakthrough in the evolutionary saga for it appeared that here paleontologists had a 'living fossil' upon which to closely study the internal, soft anatomy of a supposed rhipidistian relative (Ref 7). Named after its discoverer Marjorie Courney-Latimer, the story of the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) was from the beginning one that was filled with suspense and political intrigue (Ref 7-8). Its internal biology proved to be no less fascinating for it showed no clear cut evidence of having been intermediate for a terrestrial environment and thus was far from what would be expected for a terrestrial ancestor (Ref 7). While its fins were admittedly 'limb like', it had no backbone. Instead it displayed a notochord- a hollow tube filled with oil that ran from the brain to the tail (Ref 7). Some organs were similar to those of sharks and rays while other parts of the soft anatomy, such as vena cava which brings blood back to the heart, resembled those of land animals (Ref 7). The heart itself was extremely fish-like, lacking the right and left division that is characteristic of all land animals. Curiously the coelacanth revealed a number of specialized organs such as a gel-filled cavity in the nose thought to be responsible for detecting electrical impulses from potential prey. The overall picture was not, as many had hoped, unarguably indicative of a terrestrial precursor Indeed, if the internal biology of the rhipidistians had in any way resembled that of the coelacanth then they too would have been far removed from the sea-to-land transition (Ref 7).
Nevertheless, the picture of the coelacanth as a window into life's aquatic origins was heavily publicized (Ref 7). Darwinists supplied a simple exit from the inconsistencies in the data. They claimed that while its outward appearance had changed little over its 400 million year existence, its internal anatomy must have evolved such that its intermediary status between fish and tetrapods was no longer recognizable. Thus the uncertain nature of the coelacanth's soft anatomy was precisely what we would expect to see from a long period of internal evolution (Ref 7). Needless to say, such a proposition was unsupported by any evidence and was merely designed to fit into the pre-conceived model of vertebrate evolution. Indeed paleontologist Niles Eldredge admits that living fossils, such as the coelacanth are today, "something of an embarrassment" for the evolutionary picture (Ref 9, p.108).
Over much of the last century a lot of research into the origins of tetrapods has focused on the osteolepiforms. When cladistics first got its hand on analyzing the interrelationships between this group of fish, it dismissed them as an "ill-defined assemblage of primitive lobe-fins, remote from tetrapods" (Ref 10). In one recent television documentary much was said about current hypotheses on the environmental cues that are believed to have lead to the terrestrial conquest 360 to 410 million years ago (Ref 11). Possible intermediate species such as the fish-like Eusthenopteron found in Quebec at the end of the 19th century as well as the distinctly tetrapod-like Icthyostega- with its rib cage, four limbs and five digits- did not appear to significantly close the gap between sea and land fauna (Ref 11). The jaw of another specimen from the Devonian called Livoniana was equally disappointing. While the jaw itself looked as if it might be intermediate between fish and tetrapods, other features such as its seven rows of teeth were clearly not (Ref 11). Such features were all too easily dismissed as mere evolutionary experiments rather than being seen as valuable pieces of evidence that contradicted the expected picture. Moreover, the incompleteness of the Livoniana specimen left many fundamental questions unanswered.
Harvard paleontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer's original 'drying pond' hypothesis proposed that fish might have needed to make the transition onto land in response to immense droughts that would have dried up their original aquatic habitats (Ref 11). Recent evidence, however, suggests that the late Devonian might have not been so drought-ridden as Romer originally thought. In fact, fossilized plants suggest a more swamp-like Devonian environment (Ref 11). Today some speculate that heavy predation might have been the crucial factor that drove animals out of the water (Ref 11). Of course, such speculation leaves out the crucial question of how fish themselves evolved. According to paleontologist Niles Eldredge, fish like the coelacanth "started with a bang" in the Middle Devonian (Ref 12, p.106)- hardly the kind of descriptive that leads naturally to the conclusion of a gradual step-by-step progression in the origin of complex multi-cellular life.
With names like Sean Carroll to carry their baton, evolutionary biologists can pledge allegiance to icons such as the coelacanth without acknowledging the faith-based aspects of many of their claims. Such is the grave state of the evolutionary story being promulgated today in our schools and colleges.
References & Notes
1. Hebrews 11 vs 1; Bible New International Version
2. The paucity of the fossil record is well documented in the scientific literature (David Raup and Steven Stanley (1971), Principles of Paleontology, W. H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco p.74). Geological processes such as plate subduction make fossil preservation an unlikely occurrence (Niles Eldredge (1987) Life Pulse: Episodes From The Story of The Fossil Record, Facts On File Publications, New York p.72, Jan Zalasiewicz and Alan Collins (2001), Eat Your Crusts, New Scientist, 10 February, 2001, pp.42-45). With the many snapshots that we do find in the fossil record, the picture of multiple intermediates linking life forms to common ancestors rarely arises. In other words, our best evidence becomes no evidence on the premise that the evidence has long since been destroyed by tectonic shifts.
3. It is one thing to write off the lack of a continuous chain of intermediates by adopting a series of plausible explanations; it is another to then assume that you can fill in the gaps with hypothetical intermediates without actually being able to provide any empirical evidence in support of their existence. But as science writer Roger Lewin has noted, filling in the gaps of the fossil record with subjective desires forms an integral part of paleontological study. On the story of human evolution, for example, Lewin wrote, "There is and always has been far more fleshing out of the course and cause of human evolution than can fully be justified by the scrappy skeleton provided by the fossils. As a result", [David Pilbeam] continues, "our theories have often said far more about the theorists than they have about what actually happened."" (Roger Lewin (1987), Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Published by Simon and Schuster, New York p.43)
4. Sean Carroll (2008), The Making Of The Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record Of Evolution, Presented On Tuesday, October 14th, 2008 At The 19th International Symposium On Human Identification
5. Michael Denton (1986) Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Adler and Adler Publishers, Bethesda Maryland, First Edition, pp. 178-180, 182, 194
6. Philippe Janvier (1998), Forerunners of four legs, Nature Vol 395 pp. 748-749
7. The program 'Ancient Creature Of The Deep' describing the biology of the Coelacanth was part of the Nova series on PBS and aired on Wisconsin Public Television on the 21st of January, 2003
8. Philippe Janvier (1999), Coelacanth a la Marseillaise, Nature Vol 401 pp. 854-855
9. Niles Eldredge (1987) Life Pulse: Episodes From The Story of The Fossil Record, Facts On File Publications, New York
10. Per Ahlberg and Zerina Johanson (1998), Osteolepiforms and the ancestry of tetrapods, Nature 395, pp. 792-794
11. The Nova documentary "The Missing Link" aired on Wisconsin Public Television on PBS on October 26th, 2004
12. Niles Eldredge (1987), Life Pulse: Episodes From The Story of The Fossil Record, Facts On File Publications, New York
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