Dispatches from the Creation Wars

We’ve already documented the profoundly silly response of the Discovery Institute and ID advocates to the recent announcement of the finding of Tiktaalik roseae; now let’s look at the response of more traditional creationists. Two creationist groups, the young earth Answers in Genesis and the old earth Reasons to Believe, have put out press releases (what is it with creationists and press releases?) claiming to have debunked the finding and shown that it poses no problem for creationism. As we will see, this is wishful thinking to the point of delusion on the part of both organizations.

Let’s look at the YEC answer first. Amusingly, they rely on the fact that those who announced the find took a moderate and cautious tone as a reason, all by itself, to doubt the find:

In a preliminary response — titled “Gone fishin’ for a missing link?” on its website — Answers in Genesis called attention to the “cautionary words being used about this creature.”

“… [W]hen you read other tentative wording (e.g., the use of the word ‘may’ in the headline ‘Fossil may link fish, land animal’), then the find is not as firm as evolutionists would lead you to believe,” Answers in Genesis noted.

But of course, this is the manner with which scientists usually announce a new finding. Why? Because science, unlike creationism, always leaves open the possibility of being wrong. This is difficult to comprehend for the creationist, who is absolutely certain that he has the absolute truth direct from God himself and thus there is no possible way the evidence could possibly conflict with that truth. And when it does, the evidence simply must be wrong. That’s why creationist organizations typically require that their members and employees actually sign an oath that they will maintain their belief in creationism no matter what the data says. The fact that a scientist uses cautious terms to describe something does not mean, all by itself, that their conclusions are not well supported and justified.

David Menton, an Answers in Genesis lecturer who served as a biomedical research technician at the Mayo Clinic, helped craft the creationist rebuttal.

“[Tiktaalik] is not an amphibian or a reptile,” said Menton, who holds a Ph.D. in cell biology from Brown University. “It belongs to a group of fish called lobe-fin fish.”

Why is a cell biologist making arguments on a finding in the field of paleontology? Well, because there are virtually no paleontologists who are creationists. The closest they have is Kurt Wise and I’ve seen nothing from him about this find (Wise is generally careful not to make statements without first doing some study on the subject, unlike Menton, who is more than happy to step completely outside his expertise and make bold statements without any real study of the subject). He doesn’t even seem to know that they are called “lobe-finned” not “lobe-fin” fishes. But his point here is totally irrelevant. Of course it’s not an amphibian, much less a reptile; no one has claimed such a thing. Yet he states this as though it was in opposition to some claim made about the find.

The lobe-fin fish have bones similar to other vertebrates. Tiktaalik, Menton said, is not unique in having these bones because other lobe-fish, such as “coelacanth” fish, also have them. Evolutionists say the lobe-fin fish became extinct millions of years ago.

This is utter nonsense. No evolutionist ever said that lobe-finned fish were extinct. It was once thought that coelacanths were extinct, until cousins of the extinct forms were found in the Indian Ocean a few decades ago. That’s right, cousins. If you listen to creationists, you would get the idea that the coelacanths that live today were just like the ones thought to have gone extinct some 80 million years ago, but that idea is completely wrong.

Coelacanth, you see, is not the name of a species or even a genus, but of a family of fish. And the specimens that survive today, Latimeria chalumnae and Latimeria menadoensis, are of an entirely different genus than the ones that went extinct long ago. Coelacanths are evolutionary cousins of the Rhipidistian fish that gave rise to amphibians. And here again, his argument is simply irrelevant. Okay, so other lobe-finned fish have bone structures similar to Tiktaalik and other species. How this is an argument against the fish-amphibian transition is a mystery.

“It was known in the fossil record a long time before we found a living one,” Menton said. “They are a fish; they do not walk on the land; they use these fins to swim with.” A 1955 Scientific American article exposing its consistent lineage embarrassed evolutionists, he said, because “it didn’t evolve; it didn’t change; it looked like the one found in the fossil record.”

That is simply a lie. As stated above, the modern coelacanths are so distinct from the 120 or so extinct species of coelacanths that they are placed in an entirely different genus. Not just a different subspecies or different species, a different genus.

None of the lobe-fin fish, including Tiktaalik, have bones attaching their fins to the axial skeleton, Menton said.

“This means that these limbs would not be weight bearing,” he said. “I don’t believe the fish walked because the fins that are attached to these bones are delicate.”

This argument is correct, but so what? No one claims that they walked on land. Tiktaalik fits temporally and anatomically between Panderichthys and Acanthostega. The former was primarily adapted for marine life; the latter was better adapted to terrestrial life. Tiktaalik still has fins, but the bone structure inside those fins is clearly intermediate between fish and amphibians; Acanthostega is the first species with true feet, and those feet are of course connected to the axial skeleton. Tiktaalik also has a pelvic girdle that is much stronger and more adapted to being able to hold itself up out of the water (remember, these are shallow water fish). And the skull is also directly intermediate between the earlier marine-adapted specimens and the later, more terrestrial-adapted tetrapods. So again, we have an irrelevant argument from Menton; he’s responding to claims no one has made.

The response from the old earth Reasons to Believe isn’t much better, and it also relies on an analysis from someone way outside his field of study. Fuz Rana is a biochemist, not a paleontologist. And he makes a claim right from the start that is absolutely false:

“If Tiktaalik is a transitional intermediate, it means that evolution from fish to land-dwelling animals must have happened in less than 10 million years.

“When evolutionary biologists claim that the transition from sea to land is that fast-paced,” argues Rana, “it raises very real questions about evolution as an explanation for life’s history, even if this fossil is regarded as the ‘holy grail’ of paleontology.

“Evolution couldn’t have happened that rapidly given the extensive biological changes needed for a creature to move from the water to land. Evolutionary biologists have made up their minds before they even examine the data,” Rana continues. “They are so convinced that evolution is a fact they are unwilling to carefully weigh the evidence.”

To be blunt, this is BS. The first true amphibians date to no earlier than 365 million years ago. But the development of the key diagnostic traits that allowed the first tetrapods to adapt to life on land – the changes in the skull structure, the bone structure in the fins, the pelvic girdle and so forth – began much earlier. Even as far back as 385 million years ago you had Eusthenopteron, which already showed intermediate traits in each of those areas and more. So we’re actually looking at over 20 million years over which the transition occured.

Bear in mind, also, that the earliest amphibians were not entirely adapted to terrestrial life. Creationists seem to think that there was a specific time frame that can be labeled “the transition” to be able to define precisely how long it took, but that simply isn’t the case. Such adaptation is virtually continuous, particularly when new environments are being explored. The gradual evolution of the features that defined amphibians began more than 20 million years before the first amphibians appeared and continued for tens of millions of years afterward. The earliest amphibians still looked very much like the lobe-finned fish they evolved from. Over time, of course, they diversified and became less and less fish-like and better adapted to life on land. And what is the creationist explanation for that order of appearance? Dead silence. Rana says:

“It’s apparent that Tiktaalik was well-suited to live in a shallow-water environment near the land’s edge. The biological characteristics that this creature needed to thrive in that environment are similar to those required to live on the land,” maintains Rana. “These shared features could just as easily reflect the work of a Creator who reused a mosaic of designs.”

Possible, of course, but then why did God create them in just that order to mimic evolution? There was a terrestrial environment long before there were tetrapods roaming through it. Of course it’s true that traits that are required to live well in shallow marine environments can be similar to traits required for living partially on land near the water, but then why are there no tetrapods found until after the fish that live in those shallow marine fish showed a gradual development of all of those traits? If God created both, why in that specific order? Why wouldn’t we find tetrapods living side by side with those marine-adapted fish all the way along and not only after we see all of those terrestrial-adapted traits slowly develop in a series of species in just the right temporal and anatomical sequence to mimic evolution?

And notice that Rana offers no actual argument as to why it should have taken longer than this, he just relies on the bare assertion that it should have.

Comments

  1. #1 Miguelito
    April 14, 2006

    When a belief system requires absolutely no evidence, it’s unlikely that any evidence to the contrary will its followers.

  2. #2 dogmeatIB
    April 14, 2006

    Personally I don’t find these mental gymnastics surprising, annoying, but not surprising. C’mon, the Bushies and their supporters pull this crap in virtually every facet of their lives. They “know” that they’re right, damn the facts! When the facts build up to a level that any sane person would recognize that they were wrong, they simply change the equation, rewrite history, and claim that nothing has changed. Look no further than … well hell, just about everything the Bush administration has done. The economy, the war in Iraq, the war on terror, global warming, hurricane Katrina, the list goes on.

    They constantly demand a higher level of “proof” from their opponents than they would expect to have to provide (if they bother with proof at all). They demand transitional fossils and then dismiss them or ignore them, and continue to insist that there are no transitional fossils.

    Honestly with these nutjobs in charge of the GOP, and the GOP running all three branches, the inmates are truly in charge of the asylum.

    [dogmeat quietly enjoying his establishment clause questionable holiday] ;o)

  3. #3 386sx
    April 14, 2006

    “[Tiktaalik] is not an amphibian or a reptile,”

    It also isn’t a puppy or a gopher. Or a tree. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

  4. #4 Qoheleth
    April 14, 2006

    what is it with creationists and press releases?

    Simple: press releases don’t have to undergo peer review.

  5. #5 Inoculated Mind
    April 14, 2006

    Reasons to believe are a strange couple of folks. First, there’s Fuz Rana who makes grand declarations without any expertise, and then there’s Hugh Ross who makes weird statements like “This universe has the optimum physics for combating evil”…. WHA??

    RTB actually advocates the Noah’s Ark myth, claiming that all humans descended from 8 people, (5 effective genomes due to relatedness) and that animals descended from the “kinds” of animals stored on the ark. Ark creationists then have to contend with the fact that they are relying on a rate of mutation that is astoundingly greater than evolution requires. So when Rana says:
    “Evolution couldn’t have happened that rapidly given the extensive biological changes needed for a creature to move from the water to land. Evolutionary biologists have made up their minds before they even examine the data,” Rana continues. “They are so convinced that evolution is a fact they are unwilling to carefully weigh the evidence.”
    I can only think of this: accuse your enemy of what you are guilty of before they notice.
    RTB is interesting in that they very concretely accept the age of the Earth and Universe, and accept a literal fossil record. By that, I mean, “yeah, those fossils existed, but nothing more than what we have found existed.” So they imagine that there’s nothing between ancient species, no reason to expect any transitions. Then when those transitions are found, they go “ah the creator made some of those, too. But that’s it.”

    They are also interesting because they refer to their stuff as intelligent design, but then undercut the ID movement by criticizing them for not having a “model.” Heh, but theirs is made of metaphors.

    I interviewed Fuz Rana on my show once, computer didn’t save it though, and I told him to go back to the lab and do some science instead of parade around with misunderstandings. And to come back with a testable model. But I don’t think he would be able to do much of anything in a lab… Fuz Rana’s laboratory venture was a failed attempt at designing a moisturizer for men. That would explain the greasy fingers, though…

  6. #6 wheatdogg
    April 14, 2006

    It was once thought that coelacanths were extinct, until cousins of the extinct forms were found in the Indian Ocean a few decades ago.
    Y’know, in all those science books I read when I was younger, I doubt they ever made this clear. I had always thought the fish they found was just like the ancient one, kind of like finding a velociraptor in the rain forest. D’oh! I shoulda known better, but heck, I studied physics. What do I know?

    Thanks for correcting a misconception of my youth.

  7. #7 snaxalotl
    April 14, 2006

    nice demolition, but you seem to be accepting the proposition that tiktaalik couldn’t move around on land at all. Why do you appear to be conceding that the limbs were not weight bearing (“This argument is correct”) unless weight bearing has the technical meaning of supporting full body weight indefinitely? On the topic of terrestrial behaviour in non-terrestrial bodies, there’s some very non-aquatic video of catfish about:
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/04/0412_060412_catfish.html

  8. #8 Baka
    April 14, 2006

    Ed Brayton wrote:

    “That’s why creationist organizations typically require that their members and employees actually sign an oath that they will maintain their belief in creationism no matter what the data says.”

    Is this true or was the above comment a bit of rhetorical flourish? I mean, I’ve been dealing with the lies the Creos sling for years, but I must admit, I’ve never looked into the employment requirements for creationist organizations. It seems like requiring a statement like that to be signed would be so “shifty” that even the Creos would wonder. After all, if your faith is strong, no amount of evidence, however compelling, could possibly change your mind, right?

  9. #9 Ken Brown
    April 14, 2006

    Baka,

    I don’t know for sure, but I would guess it’s probably true. Such “statements of faith” are common for all manner of Christian institutions, from universities to para-church organizations. While it is unlikely the DI requires such a thing, it would be quite surprising if explicitly Christian groups like AiG didn’t have one.

    It’s not (meant to be) a matter of group-think, but of affirming a shared conviction.

    Hope that helps.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    April 14, 2006

    snaxalotl wrote:

    nice demolition, but you seem to be accepting the proposition that tiktaalik couldn’t move around on land at all. Why do you appear to be conceding that the limbs were not weight bearing (“This argument is correct”) unless weight bearing has the technical meaning of supporting full body weight indefinitely?

    I think it’s unlikely that Tiktaalik actually did move around on land, but it certainly was capable of holding itself up out of the water on its limbs and push itself around in shallow water with its limbs on the riverbed. That’s precisely why such intermediate traits developed.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    April 14, 2006

    baka-

    No, that was not a rhetorical flourish. The ICR has such an oath, as do most other YEC organizations. You can find it on their webpage.

  12. #12 snaxalotl
    April 15, 2006

    but it certainly was capable of holding itself up out of the water

    but surely something which has specialized in doing this for a million years will have a strong tendency to enjoy the advantages of being one of the few large creatures who can slither about a bit on dry land?

  13. #13 snaxalotl
    April 15, 2006

    Such “statements of faith” are common for all manner of Christian institutions

    interestingly academics at Wheaton college sign a similar statement of faith, but many of them are bright enough to see which way the wind is blowing in science and sidestep the problem by encouraging presentations by outsiders (from my memory of the PBS series)

  14. #14 mythusmage
    April 15, 2006

    I see tiktaalix roseea as a tryout in Hoboken.

  15. #15 Bhersh
    April 15, 2006

    Minor correction–you talk about the pelvic girdle, but that is incorrect. There is no description in the papers of pelvic girdle materials–only the pectoral girdle (i.e., shoulder versus hips).

  16. #16 Jason Spaceman
    April 15, 2006

    WingNutDaily’s Joseph Farah gives us his take on Tiktaalik: Another fishy missing link

  17. #17 Jason Spaceman
    April 15, 2006

    No, that was not a rhetorical flourish. The ICR has such an oath, as do most other YEC organizations. You can find it on their webpage.

    AiG’s Statement of Faith, including my favourite part:

    6. No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.

    The ICR’s Statement of Faith.

  18. #18 Baka
    April 15, 2006

    Thanks Ken, Ed, snaxoloti, and Jason. I appreciate the info. No matter how many times I’m surprised at the antics of the Creatins, I still manage to be surprised, yet again, when another aspect of their silliness is revealed.

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