Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Ken Ham on Tiktaalik roseae

The hit parade of creationist responses to Tiktaalik roseae continues with this article about the response of Ken Ham, founder of the American wing of Answers in Genesis. Like the rest, it’s amusing for the almost total lack of any substantive response to the facts.

“If you look at a platypus, a platypus has features of reptiles, birds, and mammals,” he notes. “Now, that’s not considered to be a transitional form. But what you find is that God has used optimum features in different creatures. And so you see some similarities and you see differences, and so on — just as the forelimb of a human is similar to the forelimb of a chimp is similar to the structure of the bones in other animals, other vertebrates.”

The fossil — which Ham describes as a lobe-finned fish — is just another example of God’s divine design, he says. “They’re saying that it was evolving legs. But, you know, you’ve got a shallow water fish here, like the lungfish,” says Ham, “and they have the strength in their fins — these lobe fins. They’re different from fins of other fish.”

Well, he’s right that the platypus is not considered a transitional form but he doesn’t say why that is because it would undercut his argument. See, he wants you to think that scientists will call anything that has a mixture of traits a transitional form, but that isn’t the case. In order to be a potential transitional form, it not only has to have an intermediate morphology, it also has to be found in the correct temporal and anatomical sequence. It’s the pattern of appearance that documents a transition, not the mere existence of a species with a mixture of traits from two groups.

In the case of the fish to amphibian transition, we’re talking about the very first amphibians to appear on the earth. Prior to about 365 million years ago, there were no amphibians on this planet, no terrestrial animals at all other than insects (which had only appeared about 400 million years ago). The earliest amphibian tetrapods looked remarkably like lobe-finned fish, called sarcopterygians, which led scientists to posit that they probably evolved from a species in that group.

But it doesn’t end there; we can get more specific. The earliest amphibians were not just closest to lobe-finned fish but to a particular subset of those fish known as osteolepiform. Osteolipiform fish share a trait with amphbians called a choana, an opening between the nostrils and the mouth that is essential for breathing air. In the water, it’s used for smell, not for breathing, but it allows air to pass into the body through the nostrils so on land it could be adapted for breathing. Amphibians and osteolipiforms had them, but other forms of lobe-finned fish did not.

So the ancestor could further be narrowed down to a species that was both sarcopterygian and osteolipiform. And of course, we could identify the time frame (just prior to the first appearance of amphibians about 365 million years ago) and have a pretty good idea what a transitional form must have looked like by comparing the later osteolipiform species to the first amphibians and viewing which anatomical changes had to take place. This is an excellent example of how scientists use predictions to test hypotheses. And as it turns out, Tiktaalik fits the bill perfectly and was found right where it was predicted to exist.

So Ham is in fact attacking a straw man. He’s arguing that just because an animal has a mixture of traits doesn’t mean it’s transitional. But of course, scientists know that and don’t claim that any animal with a mixture of traits is transitional. It’s the pattern of appearance, not just of one species but of several, in the correct temporal and anatomical order, that documents a transition. When you add in that criteria, it becomes much more difficult for Ham, a young earth creationist, to explain why we see this pattern of appearance repeated over and over again in the fossil record.

From a young earth perspective, how would you explain why the first amphibians to appear in the fossil record look virtually identical to osteolipiform fish with just a few adaptations? How would you explain the fact that, as new amphibians appear in the fossil record, they become more and more diversified, less like their ancestral forms and more like modern amphibians? Remember, Ham believes that all of the animals found in the fossil record were created virtually simultaneously, in a single week. They all existed at the same time and were all, according to him, buried by the flood.

Yet all over the world we find this very distinct pattern of appearance in the fossil record and it’s not just with amphibians. The first birds to appear look just like theropod dinosaurs with feathers (because, of course, that’s what they were). As new species appear in the fossil record, they gradually become more diversified, less theropod-like and more modern looking. They lose their reptilian teeth, their vertebrae fused (reptiles have unfused vertebrae, modern birds have fused vertebrae), their pelvic girdle and wishbone become better adapted for flight, and so forth.

The same pattern is found in mammals and every other major animal group. And this pattern must be true if evolution is true. If there were any other pattern, evolution simply could not be true. But these patterns are quite inconsistent with the notion that all animals were created in the same week and lived at the same time. And even from an old earth perspective, they’re difficult to explain. Did God just happen to create in just the right order to mimic evolution? It’s possible, of course, but it’s special pleading. It’s only an ad hoc explanation without any evidence, whereas for evolutionary theory it’s a prediction that must be true if the theory is valid.

Comments

  1. #1 mark
    April 24, 2006

    You can find the same level of sophistication as Ken Ham coming from writers of letters to the editors of local papers, like this one from the York (Penna.) Daily Record, that explained that Tiktaalik was just a mud puppy because, well, the picture in the paper looked like one. And these writers don’t get paid for their observations.

  2. #2 sdanielmorgan
    April 24, 2006

    Ed, that is absolutely unfair of you to make the creationists align their thinking with evidence and logic, rather than a literal reading of a creation myth from dusty scrolls of uncertain origins. Unfair.

    Besides, we all know that the flood arranged all the animals in neat little strata with characteristic fauna. It happens all the time in my back yard during a flash flood — the animals displaying the most primitive characters are buried first, due to the “sorting effect” that occurs when God’s finger swirls the water. Duh! And, even better, the “mobility effect” where the faster animals made it to higher ground than the slower ones…like how the orange trees outran velociraptors…

  3. #3 tacitus
    April 24, 2006

    It often strikes me as funny (strange and haha) that YECs go to such lengths to explain how the evidence “fits” the biblical record when, no matter how hard the try (in some cases, a lifetime of effort) they always end up having to admit their only “rational” explanation is that “God did it”.

    Take Noah’s Ark for instance. Hundreds for articles have been written defending the plausibility of housing all the world’s land animals in a big boat for months on end. They argue about the definition of “kind” and how “microevolution” occurred after the flood to explain the diversity we see today, and so on, all in excruciating detail.

    Yet ask them how fresh water fish survived the salt water flood (or vice versa) or how all the marsupials survived the 7,000 mile trip back to Australia (save the few that took a wrong turn and ended up in the Americas)? Slick con artists like Ken Ham will no doubt come up with something that sounds reasonable to the faithful (I’ve heard him say “Were there kangaroos living in the Middle East before the flood? Of course there were!”) but most people are only left with “it was a miracle”.

    In other words, why bother with trying to rationalize the miraculous in the first place? Who knows what God did before, during, and in the aftermath of the flood? I guess the answer is that even the least curious of believers needs a modicum of rational thought (no matter how ill-conceived) before they feel comfortable defending their beliefs.

    Sadly, Ken Ham’s half-assed hand-waving dismissal of the latest fossil finds is all most believers need to reaffirm their belief in creationism. To them it’s all okay, since experts like Ken are on the case!

  4. #4 blogista
    April 24, 2006

    And besides, every single species is a transitional form, between the one it came from, and any that later come directly from it. In about 200 million years, homo sapiens fossils will be a “missing link” from prehominids to some future offshoot from our own species.

    Oh, and about this from Ham:

    …a platypus has features of reptiles, birds, and mammals…

    No, it looks like it has features of reptiles, birds, and mammals. It may or may not but delving into the intricacies is not Ham’s style. He just wants to set up the straw man (or straw platypus).

    This perfectly illustrates the creationists’ horrible mischaracterization of evolution as meaning that if it were true, one day a dog should birth to a catdog or a horse should give birth to a horsecow. “And ya ain’t never seen one a those!”

    By the way, if we came from apes, why are there still apes? :-)

  5. #5 plunge
    April 24, 2006

    Yeah Ed, I agree with blogista: what you say about Ham is true, but you passed over without comment the truly stupid implication that platypii have a “mix” of features at all. He thinks that the fact that monotremes lay “eggs” or have a “beak” is evidence that they share a relation with birds. But in fact, egg laying is the basal therian style (and the “eggs” and not like bird eggs: they hatch either immediately or within days, and are very much like a slightly more durable placental amniotic sac) of which eutherians are a particular variation on. And of course, the beak is not a bird beak, nor is the webbing particular to birds (OMG, I have webbed hands! I’m a duck!)

    If anything, you took Ham too seriously. Which is probably pretty hard to do. :)

  6. #6 db
    April 24, 2006

    Ed,

    It’s disappointing that you accuse Ham of using a straw man argument while creating a straw man of your own.

    “Remember, Ham believes that all of the animals found in the fossil record were created virtually simultaneously, in a single week. They all existed at the same time and were all, according to him, buried by the flood.”

    Really? I don’t think that’s true. This article calls the notion that all species were created during the first week “a caricature”. Find “Contrasting the Models” for the reference.

    Of course, maybe you have some quotes from Ham that would show my objection to be misguided.

    Can you help me out?

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    April 24, 2006

    db:

    I certainly hope I can help you out. First, the article you cited was written by Sarfati, not Ham. Second, Ham is a young earth, global flood creationist. That means that he believes that virtually the entire fossil record, certainly including all of the Devonian (there is some dispute as to which strata are the result of the flood, but any flood model has to include the entire Devonian), was deposited by the flood. He believes the earth was created 6000 years ago and everything killed off 4500 years ago. Even if he believed that only the original “kinds” – whatever that means at any given moment – were created and those then evolved within the “kinds” to all of the various species within that “kind”, there would be only 1500 years for that to occur in. No one in their right mind believes that speciation could take place that fast. So while they say it’s a caricature, the facts suggest otherwise – if all of the species buried in the flood weren’t created during the initial creation week, then they have to posit rates of speciation orders of magnitude faster than anything possible. Think of the rates of beetles alone, for which we have nearly a million species identified and who knows how many more not yet identified. If they all evolved from a single pair of the beetle “kind”, then we’re talking about a new species of beetle appearing every single day since the alleged beginning of the earth 6000 years ago. And if they’re going to posit rates of speciation that fast, why on earth would they argue that lobe-finned fish could not have evolved into amphibians? Their entire position is completely incoherent from the start.

  8. #8 Dave S.
    April 25, 2006

    I’ve had dealings with Sarfati on just this issue of super-fast speciation. You might think that this is an instance of macroevolution, but this too can be rationalized in the mind of the creationist. After all, to them, macroevolution means ‘particles to people’, not variation above the level of species.

    Anyhoo, he had no answers for questions like if species really do spit out that fast, shouldn’t we be observing that on a massive scale today? And how does this happen with no increase in “information”, as he insists? One example I think was used was the canidae family, whose various members have 36, 50, 64, 74, 76 and 78 chromosomes. It was wondered how all this variation managed to happen from the original “dog” kind, without any change, or even with a loss, of information. It must have happened quickly after the Flood, as even in ancient Egyption times these animals (dogs, jackals, wolves) were known as distinct animals.

    Horses were another example used.

  9. #9 Zeno
    April 25, 2006

    The creationist ministry Reasons to Believe had one of their resident scientists, Fazale “Fuz” Rana (a chemist), offering his perspective on Tiktaalik: “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. These shared features could just as easily reflect the work of a Creator who reused a mosaic of designs.”

    Nice use of buzz words, Fuz: mosaic & designs. He also said Tiktaalik didn’t have enough time to evolve if it were supposed to be a transitional species. I wrote up some more quotes and some links here.

  10. #10 db
    April 25, 2006

    Ed,

    I think your response is closer to what your average reader would have expected from you in the first place. AIG openly embraces speciation and natural selection, which is why I was unhappy that you seemed to claim that they denied it. By all means, give evidence as to why you think they are wrong, but be careful not to mislead as to what they stand for. And yes, I know that Ham didn’t write the article himself, but I think he agrees with it completely.

    Two comments on your numbers. I don’t think AIG claims to know how many beetle “kinds” were initially created. One, ten, ten thousand? You would have to have a starting number in order to determine the speciation rate, wouldn’t you?

    The other thing is how speciation would occur. Would it be one at time? Or can each new species eventually branch off into a new species? Looked at it that way, if you start with one and double it every day (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.), you get to 1,048,576 in 21 days. Spread out over 4500 years, you’d need an instance of speciation every 214 years or so. And that’s if there was only one beetle “kind” in the beginning.