Evolution in the News - December 2005
by Do-While Jones

Getting a Leg Up

Does it really matter if fish can do push-ups?

This month’s issue of Scientific American contains an article claiming that “recent fossil discoveries cast light on the evolution of four-limbed animals from fish.” 1 It is an interesting fairytale, following the standard evolutionary fairytale format.

The replacement of fins with limbs was a crucial step in this transformation, but it was by no means the only one. As tetrapods ventured onto shore, they encountered challenges that no vertebrate had ever faced before--it was not just a matter of developing legs and walking away. Land is a radically different medium from water, and to conquer it, tetrapods had to evolve novel ways to breathe, hear, and contend with gravity--the list goes on. Once this extreme makeover reached completion, however, the land was theirs to exploit.

Until about 15 years ago, paleontologists understood very little about the sequence of events that made up the transition from fish to tetrapod. We knew that tetrapods had evolved from fish with fleshy fins akin to today's lungfish and coelacanth, a relation first proposed by American paleontologist Edward D. Cope in the late 19th century. 2

What she fails to mention is that Cope based his theory on the “fact” that the coelacanth lived 400 million years ago in shallow water and ventured onto land occasionally with its muscular fins. But, when some coelacanths were captured alive in 1938 3, it turned out that they live in very deep water, never come up on land, and their fins aren’t strong enough to move them on land even if they did come ashore.

With such scant clues to work from, scientists could only speculate about the nature of the transition. … Since then, however, many more fossils documenting this transformation have come to light. These discoveries have expanded almost exponentially our understanding of this critical chapter in the history of life on earth--and turned old notions about early tetrapod evolution, diversity, biogeography and paleoecology on their heads. 4

We wonder if evolutionists have defined a shortcut key on their word processors so that at the touch of a single key they can write,

With such scant clues to work from, scientists could only speculate about the nature of [something]. Since then, however, many more fossils have come to light. These discoveries have expanded almost exponentially our understanding of [something]—and turned old notions about [something] on their heads.

It would save them so much typing!

A few years from now, evolutionists will no doubt replace this fairytale with a new one. But let’s continue with this one.

The piscine [fishy ] resemblance suggested that the limbs of Acanthostega were not only adapted for use in water but that this was the ancestral tetrapod condition. In other words, this animal, though clearly a tetrapod, was primarily an aquatic creature whose immediate forerunners were essentially fish that had never left the water. The discovery forced scholars to rethink the sequence in which key changes to the skeleton took place. Rather than portraying a creature like Eusthenopteron crawling onto land and then gaining legs and feet, as Romer postulated, the new fossils indicated that tetrapods evolved these features while they were still aquatic and only later co-opted them for walking. This, in turn, meant that researchers needed to reconsider the ecological circumstances under which limbs developed, because Acanthostega indicated that terrestrial demands may not have been the driving force in early tetrapod evolution. 5

Upon further reconsideration, they now believe that the fins were used just to poke its head out of the water.

Indeed, evolutionary biologists have struggled to explain what transitional forms like Acanthostega did with their proto-limbs, if not locomote. The hypothesis favored on current evidence is that as the backwardly directed fins gradually turned into sideways-facing limbs with large areas for muscle attachments, they gained in strength. And although it would be millions of years before the forelimbs developed to the point of being able to support the body on land, they may well have functioned in the interim to allow the animal to raise its head out of the water to breathe. 6

The article went on for another three pages of fantastic speculation, and as it did, it occurred to us that being a paleontologist might be the best job in the world.

It Was the Best of Jobs …

Think about all the other occupations in the world. Imagine, for example, how your life would be affected if there were no farmers. Or, suppose there were no truck drivers to get the food to the store; or no factory workers to build the trucks; or no grocery clerks to stock the shelves. Open the yellow pages at random and think about how the jobs listed there affect your life. With the hopeful exception of bail bondsman, we suspect that whatever occupation you happen to find there has had an important impact on your life.

When somebody makes a mistake when doing his or her job, it usually results in something unfortunate. When your plumber makes a mistake, it can’t be good. If a truck driver makes a mistake, the consequences can be fatal.

One could argue that the job of evolutionary biologist is the dream job because it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. Let’s face it. Does it really matter to your day-to-day living if Acanthostega used its fins to poke its head out of the water or not? How did it affect you to learn that Edward D. Cope’s old notions about early tetrapod evolution, diversity, biogeography and paleoecology have been turned on their heads? We suspect that it was less important to you than if the UPS driver delivered your Christmas present to the wrong house.

Even here in California, we heard about the terrible problems that resulted when the New York garbage men went on strike. How often have you stayed awake all night, worrying that the paleontologists might go on strike? We’re guessing, “Never.” Wouldn’t it be great to have a job where, not only did it not matter if you did it wrong, it didn’t even matter if you did it at all?

It Was the Worst of Jobs …

But being a paleontologist could be the worst job in the world. People tend to (wrongly) associate the importance of their job with their worth as a human being. Suppose you spent all those years going to college, getting a doctorate, and writing all these wonderful fairytales about the fossils you found, and suddenly realized that your entire life’s work was less important than a truck driver delivering a package or picking up garbage. Imagine what that would do to your ego.

Although on-the-job stress might be non-existent, it might be stressful to realize that whoever pays you might realize how unimportant your job is, and eliminate it. If you are in that line of work, it becomes very important to convince other people that what you do is tremendously important. You would have to do this for your ego’s sake, and for job security.

Science is supposed to be impersonal and objective. That’s why the emotional intensity of the evolutionists might be surprising to some people. But it makes perfect sense when you realize that the emotion probably stems from the evolutionists’ fear that what they have believed all their lives is possibly wrong or irrelevant.

The theory of evolution has nothing to do with medical research. Creationist doctors have just as much chance as evolutionist doctors have of finding a cure for AIDS, or any other disease. We challenge any evolutionist to make a compelling argument that proving that “Acanthostega took pride of place as the missing link between terrestrial vertebrates and their aquatic forebears,” has anything to do with finding a cure for any disease, or improving the math scores of American high school students, or any of the other dire consequences that evolutionists claim will befall the United States of America if the theory of evolution isn’t taught uncritically in every public school in America.

Just Kidding

Yes, we went a little bit over the top; but sometimes it is necessary to be a little bit outrageous to make a point. Let’s get serious now.

Certainly, the job of paleontologist is important. Any job you get paid to do must be important to somebody. Otherwise, nobody would pay you to do it. We are simply reacting to the hysteria we have been hearing lately from the evolutionists, and poking some fun at their inflated sense of self-importance to the progress of science.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this. The theory of evolution is NOT the most important concept in biology. It is IRRELEVANT to biology, medicine, and all other branches of science. Studies of comparative anatomy, comparative physiology, and genetic research, are very important—but speculation about whether or not the similarities are the result of a common ancestor or a common designer is irrelevant.

Evolution and creation certainly are important to one’s religious beliefs. They are foundational to how one lives ones life; but they aren’t important to science.

Making up stories about how a fish built up its muscles sticking its head out of the water is of no scientific value. Ironically, the people who are trying so hard to make sure these stories are taught without question in public schools claim that the whole science program will go down the drain if kids aren’t tested on these stories at the end of high school. Science will not be harmed by the extinction of the theory of evolution.

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Footnotes:

1 Jennifer Clack, Scientific American, December 2005, “Getting a Leg Up on Land”, pages 100-107 (Ev)
2 ibid.
3 http://www.dinofish.com/ (Ev)
4 Jennifer Clack, Scientific American, December 2005, “Getting a Leg Up on Land”, page 100
5 ibid., page 102
6 ibid., page 104