Dispatches from the Creation Wars

There are few things more ridiculous than Joseph Farah talking about science, something he understands about as well as I understand Bulgarian folk music. In his latest column he displays his ignorance while discussing a very exciting recent find of three octopus fossils from Lebanon. He starts with the standard “scientists are shocked” premise:

Scientists are baffled by the latest fossil find.

It’s an octopus they claim is 95 million years old.

And, guess what? It looks just like a modern-day octopus – complete with eight legs, rows of suckers and even traces of ink.

Wow, an octopus fossil complete with 8 legs? How amazing. Of course, if it didn’t have 8 legs, it wouldn’t be an octopus fossil. That’s what octopus means. Now start the whoppers:

In all that time, it seems, the octopus hasn’t evolved – not one tiny bit.

What’s rare about this find is that octopuses are almost all muscle and skin. When an octopus dies, it quickly decays and liquefies into the oozy slime from which evolutionary scientists claim life began. After just a few days, there’s nothing left at all of a dead octopus. No octopus fossil has ever been found before – especially not one 95 million years old, explained Dirk Fuchs of Freie University Berlin, the lead author of the study.

“The luck was that the corpse landed untouched on the sea floor,” Fuchs said. “The sea floor was free of oxygen and therefore free of scavengers. Both the anoxy [absence of oxygen] and a rapid sedimentation rate prevented decay.”

What most surprised Fuchs and his colleagues was how similar the specimens are to today’s octopus.

“These things are 95 million years old, yet one of the fossils is almost indistinguishable from living species,” Fuchs said.

The negation of his absurd statement that octopi had changed “not one little bit” in 95 million years is right there in the very article he is quoting. They found not one octopus, but five, and they belonged to three different species. Listening to Farah (always a bad idea), you would think that all existing octopi are exactly the same today and exactly the same as they were 95 million years ago.

In fact octopi show a great deal of diversity. Contrary to popular myth (stated in almost every article about this find, in fact), there is a whole suborder of octopi, Cirrata, that do have internal shells and they look quite different from their sister suborder, Incirrata. Some octopi have ink sacks and some do not. Some are benthic (meaning they live on the sea floor), some are pelagic (meaning they swim freely) and some are both. There is so much diversity among the order Octopoda that there are two suborders, eleven families and five genuses within it, containing about 300 species.

So based on one statement about one of three species found, Farah absurdly concludes that they haven’t changed “one little bit” in 95 million years. But in fact scientists have documented lots of change within octopi in the last 95 million years, including radiations into new habitats and thus multiple speciation events in just the last 30 million years. But knowing that would require actual research, something Farah doesn’t really care much about.

What does all this mean to the evolutionary scientists?

Somehow, it proves evolution – even though it shows the opposite.

Only to an ignoramus, of course. The fact that many species show more or less stable populations over very long period of times is hardly a shock. Species that are well adapted to their environment would obviously tend to do so. But at the margins of a large population, one would also expect speciation to take place as new habitats are explored and that is exactly what has happened here.

PZ wrote about this last week and predicted exactly these kinds of arguments (not that this was a difficult prediction). And he pointed out that the fossils actually an enormous amount of evolutionary change in octopi:

The other wonderful thing about these specimens is that they are sufficiently well preserved that we can see transitional features all over the place. This is not a modern octopod at all.

In particular, look at the gladius. This may not be familiar to most of you, but the octopus is a mollusc, and molluscs have shells…shells that may be reduced to miniscule remnants in some forms, but they’re still there, hidden away. If you’ve ever cleaned squid, you may have found a slender springy rod in the mantle, which you’ve stripped out and thrown away. Octopods also have something similar, but in modern forms it is reduced to a delicate little rod-like bar, nothing more…

Don’t be fooled by the superficial resemblance — there are more subtleties to being an octopus than simply having eight arms. What these fossils reveal is more detail about the evolution of the octopods.

But recognizing such things would require expertise, something Farah does not have. But my favorite part is his blather about the age of the earth (Farah thinks it’s only a few thousand years old, of course):

It’s all based on science’s doctrinaire ties to time. Because evolution has become a matter of faith for many scientists, they determined a long time ago the earth must be billions of years old. It would take that much time, they decided, for the diversity of life we see on earth to occur.

So the earth’s strata were labeled by time periods. The age of fossils are determined by where they are found in the strata, which are somewhat arbitrarily labeled by time periods.

Utter nonsense. The fact that the earth could not be only a few thousand years old was worked out by creationist geologists long before Darwin published and long before we had radiometric dating. Now we have the ability to date the oldest rocks on earth with a high degree of accuracy and we have hundreds and hundreds of concordant dates all converging at about 4.55 billion years old. Farah is mindlessly repeating creationist stupidity. As usual.