Coelacanths illustrate the difference between real science and creationist science

Ken Ham says something stupid and dishonest again.

https://twitter.com/aigkenham/status/662450677625569280

The fish that forgot to evolve? Here’s the difference between observational and historical science: ow.ly/Ug1wU

If you bother to read the awful article, it includes a standard creationist canard: Coelacanths haven't changed a bit over their long history, and this disproves evolution.

Well, this fish apparently forgot to evolve for 65 million years! You see, the living coelacanth is easily recognizable from the fossils. Despite having supposedly “primitive” features, many of these features not seen in any living vertebrates, this fish has survived basically unchanged for an alleged 70 million years.1 How is this possible?

Well, it’s a matter of interpretation. You see the fossil of the coelacanth is studied in the present—we observe it today. But what happened to make it a fossil is in the past—it’s historical science because we can’t directly test, observe, or repeat the past. So what you believe about the past is going to influence your interpretation of the evidence. In the case of the coelacanth, evolutionists have the presupposition that the fossil record shows Earth’s history over millions of years. So when they find this fossil that doesn’t have a living match today, they interpreted that fossil to have gone extinct millions of years ago. Now, the fossil itself didn’t tell them that. Their interpretation of that fossil through their evolutionary worldview drew that conclusion. And that conclusion turned out to be very wrong. Coelacanths were happily swimming deep in the ocean all along and were even being sold in fish markets, unbeknownst to scientists.

It's wrong in a couple of ways. Stasis is also part of evolution, and natural selection typically acts conservatively, to cull variants from a successful norm. The basic coelacanth body plan hasn't changed much, but then, coelacanths haven't been particularly successful, either, and are now reduced to just two extant species.

When we find a fossil, we determine its age by its provenance, not by whether it looks like something that's alive today. The reason coelacanth fossils were dated at 70 million years (or much older -- they've been around for hundreds of millions of years) has nothing at all to do with comparing them to extant species, and then deciding that because we can't find a modern example, it must have died a long time ago. That's simply a lie by Ham. Those other species of coelacanth did go extinct millions of years ago.

And that's the other problem with Ham's half-assed analysis. There has been change within coelacanths.

Coelacanths are an order within the class Sarcopterygii, just like primates are an order within the class Mammalia. It was thought that the whole order went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, and the discovery of Latimeria told us that one species of a large group had survived. If we humans manage to exterminate all gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and gibbons, and then our lineage manages to survive for a long time afterwards, we'd be able to say that that unsuccessful clade of primates went extinct, except for one holdout. That does not, of course, imply that humans never evolved, or that all primates were the same.

As for his utterly bogus misuse of the distinction between historical and observational science, he's got that all wrong. The death and relative stasis of a few remnant species was determined by observation of the evidence…evidence that dishonest frauds like everyone at Answers in Genesis ignore. Get into the literature, and you'll discover lots of careful examination of the evidence to determine the evolutionary history of this order. Here's an example: Earliest known coelacanth skull extends the range of anatomically modern coelacanths to the Early Devonian.

Coelacanths are known for their evolutionary conservatism, and the body plan seen in Latimeria can be traced to late Middle Devonian Diplocercides, Holopterygius and presumably Euporosteus. However, the group's early history is unclear because of an incomplete fossil record. Until now, the only Early Devonian coelacanth is an isolated dentary (Eoactinistia) from Australia, whose position within the coelacanths is unknown. Here we report the earliest known coelacanth skull (Euporosteus yunnanensis sp. nov.) from the Early Devonian (late Pragian) of Yunnan, China. Resolved by maximum parsimony, maximum likelihood and Bayesian analyses as crownward of Diplocercides or as its sister taxon, the new form extends the chronological range of anatomically modern coelacanths by about 17 Myr. The finding lends support to the possibility that Eoactinistia is also an anatomically modern coelacanth, and provides a more refined reference point for studying the rapid early diversification and subsequent evolutionary conservatism of the coelacanths.

Note that when a scientist is talking about a conserved body plan, they are not claiming that there has been no evolutionary change. Rather, that a successful general form persists for a long time, but may contain many different species, each unique in its own way. After all, people and chimps are all the same in this broad sense of their shape and structure, but I think we'd all agree there are also significant (to us) differences.

But the observational science of paleontology is telling us that there are diverse species of coelacanths that radiated rapidly and then exhibited a notable degree of retained similarities. The paper digs deeper into the variety of coelacanths, and just the fact that they are making a distinction between anatomically modern coelacanths and primitive coelacanths should tell you right away that not all coelacanths are the same.

And even within the anatomically modern coelacanths, they describe distinct differences between species.

The body plan of anatomically modern coelacanths in comparison to that of primitive coelacanths and non-coelacanth sarcopterygians. (a) Parietonasal or parietal shields from selected sarcopterygians showing different proportions of preorbital, orbital and postorbital regions. Elongated preorbital portion (purple) and orbital portion (green) represent a derived feature characterizing Euporosteus and other anatomically modern coelacanths. Miguashaia resembles primitive sarcopterygians such as Psarolepis and Styloichthys in having elongated postorbital portion (red). Parietonasal or parietal shields drawn to comparable anteroposterior length and are not to scale. (b–e) Differences in caudal fin between anatomically modern coelacanths and primitive coelacanths. Miguashaia (b) resembles primitive rhipidistians such as Glyptolepis and Osteolepis in having a heterocercal tail. Diplocercides (c), Coelacanthus (d) and Latimeria (e) have a diphycercal or trilobed tail with symmetrically developed dorsal and ventral lobes. Illustrations not to scale. Cd, dorsal lobe of caudal fin; Cv, ventral lobe of caudal fin; Ra, endoskeletal radial. Scale bar, (c) 1 cm. The body plan of anatomically modern coelacanths in comparison to that of primitive coelacanths and non-coelacanth sarcopterygians. (a) Parietonasal or parietal shields from selected sarcopterygians showing different proportions of preorbital, orbital and postorbital regions. Elongated preorbital portion (purple) and orbital portion (green) represent a derived feature characterizing Euporosteus and other anatomically modern coelacanths. Miguashaia resembles primitive sarcopterygians such as Psarolepis and Styloichthys in having elongated postorbital portion (red). Parietonasal or parietal shields drawn to comparable anteroposterior length and are not to scale. (b–e) Differences in caudal fin between anatomically modern coelacanths and primitive coelacanths. Miguashaia (b) resembles primitive rhipidistians such as Glyptolepis and Osteolepis in having a heterocercal tail. Diplocercides (c), Coelacanthus (d) and Latimeria (e) have a diphycercal or trilobed tail with symmetrically developed dorsal and ventral lobes. Illustrations not to scale. Cd, dorsal lobe of caudal fin; Cv, ventral lobe of caudal fin; Ra, endoskeletal radial. Scale bar, (c) 1 cm.

Here's the thing, too: to pursue their bizarrely blinkered version of observational science, the know-nothings at AiG have to throw away a tremendous amount of evidence. The dates and species in this chart are not imaginary, but all backed up by lots of data, data that contradicts everything AiG believes in.

Primitive coelacanths are in light blue and the anatomically modern coelacanths including extant Latimeria are in red. Euporosteus is positioned either crownward of Diplocercides or as its sister taxon, indicating that the distinctive body plan of anatomically modern coelacanths must have been established no later than 409 million years ago (Ma). Euporosteus also lends support to the possibility that Eoactinistia may represent an early member of the anatomically modern coelacanths with the dentary sensory pore. Eif, Eifelian; Giv, Givetian; Loc, Lochkovian; Pr, Pragian. Primitive coelacanths are in light blue and the anatomically modern coelacanths including extant Latimeria are in red. Euporosteus is positioned either crownward of Diplocercides or as its sister taxon, indicating that the distinctive body plan of anatomically modern coelacanths must have been established no later than 409 million years ago (Ma). Euporosteus also lends support to the possibility that Eoactinistia may represent an early member of the anatomically modern coelacanths with the dentary sensory pore. Eif, Eifelian; Giv, Givetian; Loc, Lochkovian; Pr, Pragian.

What's the difference between observational and historical science, as presented by Ken Ham? Observational science is the stuff that they can accommodate in their narrow, twisty interpretations of the Bible; historical science is all that data and evidence and science that shows that their holy book is bullshit.

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I was reminded of one of the more comical, but persistent misconceptions by creationists in a thread on Internet Infidels, on The Coelacanth. Try doing a google search for “coelacanth creation" and be amazed at the volume of ignorance pumped out on this subject. I've also run across a more recent…

To the few, if any, objective readers here:
Don’t let the science-y smokescreen fool you. The point of P.Z.’s opinion piece, and that of virtually every atheist’s, is this -
“their holy book is bullshit.”

By See Noevo (not verified) on 06 Nov 2015 #permalink

The point, sn, is that ham, like you, have no clue about science and so choose to repeatedly lie about it. In short - you are completely lacking in any sense of integrity.

WE as a nation apologize deeply and unreservedly for inflicting Ken Ham upon the world.

By Mark Bolton (not verified) on 06 Nov 2015 #permalink

I honestly don't get literal creationists, or how that particular worldview can be in any way satisfying. If a god exists, if some sort of creator being exists, do you really want one that just... poofed everything instantly into existance? One that wiped out whole cities on a whim (if you take it literally)? One that killed every single human on the planet except for like, four (if you take it literally)? One that promotes chemically-induced abortion as a tool to "test" for infidelity (it's right there in the bible) and who lets horrible things happen to good, innocent people for no discernible reason? Taken 100% literal, the god of the bible (especially the Old Testament) is pretty horrendous.

If there is a god, give me one that set the universe in motion, established physics, chemistry, biology and the stuff of life, and then left it to develop on its own. Not the anthropomorphized, petty, meddling god so many of these creationists cling to.

Science and spirituality are totally compatible, but science and fundamentalism are like oil and water. I'll side with science and the religious folk who aren't completely insane.

RC, just read SN's first comment above. There's nothing to "get" - it's wingnuts all the way down.

If Homo "evolved" to be sapient, why is there still Ken Ham? Answer me that!

@ See Noevo “their holy book is bullshit.” we Catholics Agnostics and Atheists don't say this at all. It is fundamentalists who say we say that. When we read Genesis we dont look at it as if it were a Geology text. When we read story of Jonah we don't view it as wildlife documentary. Back when those text were written the whole idea of evidence based scientific discourse was a world view that was to wait a few thousand years to develop in our culture. It is like reading "Biggles flies East" and trying to figure out why Biggles has left his GPS behind in the hanger. There is a big difference between Holy Writ, Fiction and a PhD Thesis.

By Mark Bolton (not verified) on 07 Nov 2015 #permalink

Your fight against half-assed analysis with more than three-quarters-assed analysis doesn’t hurt the scientific progress of the world, but the errors take away from its attractiveness for some…and it would seem to hurt our ability to help those we might call the “overly devout” to take a step into more 19th century awareness. With luck on that, we can perhaps help them take additional steps. Attacking their social and moral foundations with ridicule seems cruel and counter-productive.

You claim Ham is “wrong in a couple of ways”, citing “Stasis is also part of evolution…” appears to be a strawman, since he never denies that, either explicitly or implicitly in the text you quoted. All we can say he implied is that surviving “basically unchanged for an alleged 70 million years” is sufficiently exceptional to warrant investigation and attention. On this, real biologists and everyone else AFAIK agreed on both points when extant Coelacanths were found – many will remember what big news it was at the time.

While it is proper to criticize him for overlooking / avoiding how actually we “determine age” (far more important on small issues of refinement/measurement within scientific models), his statement was rather about how the fossil was “interpreted”, a valid point about the role paradigms play in science and even in general, everyday types of reasoning. The only way we can decide something should count as evidence or not is via some paradigm or cognitive framework for evaluation.

I don’t know what you hope to accomplish by accusing “everyone at Answers in Genesis” of being “dishonest frauds”, but I do tend to think most are sincere. If anyone makes such a strong claim, it seems a minimum respect for good reasoning obligates them to provide evidence of such dishonesty.

“Ignoring evidence” is insufficient unless one truly believes that good science doesn’t ignore oceans of evidence all the time simply because their cognitive framework judges it irrelevant or yet to be explained. That the framework is generally accepted in a field remains widely regarded as the most proper standard most of the time among scientists, but there are stronger models now from philosophers of science, such as Hoyningen-Huene’s “Systematicity” model.

Equipped with a grounding in philosophy of science and cognitive science of science, the debates like Nye-Ham become astonishing – such as when Ham clearly states first principles and assumptions which Nye fumbled on and was ultimately unable to articulate at all - other than fallacies like the argument from personal incredulity.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 07 Nov 2015 #permalink

Of course buck, your comments are as stupid as they usually are. No surprise there.

From where I stand, secular science seeks truth, creation science seeks influence and money.

To Mark Bolton #7:

“@ See Noevo “their holy book is bullshit.” we Catholics Agnostics and Atheists don’t say this at all.”

Did you miss the last line of atheist PZ’s article above?

By See Noevo (not verified) on 07 Nov 2015 #permalink

Ham's dishonesty has nothing to do with "the role paradigms play in science" or philosophies of science.
His position, which is an a priori commitment to the literal truth of the Bible, is fundamentally anti-science. All science is based on the assumption of naturalism. This is what makes science possible, and the validity of this assumption is demonstrated by the fact that our knowledge and understanding of the universe has advanced vastly more in the past century through the application of the scientific method than was achieved in the previous hundred millennia of our existence.
The reason why many people whether they have religious beliefs or not are opposed to creationism is that creationists such as Ham claim scientific support for their religious dogma. If they were not making this claim this would not be an issue. The fact that they misrepresent, distort and lie about science demonstrates not any weakness in the science they attack, but the moral values of their movement.

By Richard Forrest (not verified) on 07 Nov 2015 #permalink

The question is: Does someone like Ken Ham really believe, or if he is just running the line because there is a good living to be made doing so.

Politicians raise this issue all the time, if you look critically. Do they really believe what they are promoting? Or are they in on the gag, and just pushing people's buttons to get what they need from the crowd.

I have met quite a few Christians - including pastors and leaders, who clearly no longer believe. There is a joke among Christians that going to divinity school and studying the history and origins of the church and the Bible will cure you of belief. They keep at it for other reasons - some noble, some not.

Something tells me that the whole Adam and Eve riding around on a dinosaur routine marks Ham as a huckster, and that debating a huckster may be bad practice. But I guess someone has to do it for the good of us all.

@Richard Forrest

To your point, the Catholics do a pretty good job of not tangling with Science. The Vatican has more or less signed on to Evolution, simply accepting it at one of god's methods, as I understand it.

I admire the Catholics, they have some institutional clarity, You don't find too many of these freelancers like Ken Ham in the Catholic church. It tend to be protestants - Some guy or gal with a bible just free-lancing and talking to god.

The Catholics learned there lessons a long time ago. See Galileo.

Something tells me that the whole Adam and Eve riding around on a dinosaur routine marks Ham as a huckster,

Everything Ham does marks him as a huckster. The fact that people still pay attention to him, or any creationist, shows that folks like him have a huge pool of stupid people from which to skim money.

"The Vatican has more or less signed on to Evolution,"

Pope John Paul said,
"Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. "

People like Ken Ham, De nuevo and the Buck clown are failures and outliers who have fallen off the train of human intellectual progress.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 08 Nov 2015 #permalink

People like Ken Ham, De nuevo and the Buck clown are failures and outliers who have fallen off the train of human intellectual progress.

Read much from either sn or ham and you soon realize that it isn't only intellectual progress they've given up on but moral progress: it would be difficult if not impossible to find two people more reprehensible and completely unencumbered by ethics than that those two.