Feature Article - December 2006
by Do-While Jones

Whale Brains

The smarter animals get, the dumber the theory of evolution becomes. Now evolutionists have a whale of a problem!

For some time there has been external evidence that animals are smarter than previously thought. Now there is some cellular evidence about whale brains that is disturbing to evolutionists.

Smart Animals

From an evolutionary perspective, intelligence is one of the last things to have evolved. It is intelligence, they think, that sets us apart from the apes. The smarter you are, the more highly evolved you are.

Of course, there is ample evidence that animals are very smart. Any pet owner can tell stories of how his or her pet learned how to do something remarkable.

When I was a boy, I had a German shepherd dog that lived mostly inside our house. We had a kennel outside where we put him when we ran errands. This kennel was nothing more than a small chain-link fenced area in our backyard. The gate had one of those U-shaped latches that you have to lift to open the gate. It didn’t take the dog long to learn that he could lift the latch with his nose and get out. The latch had a place for a padlock, so we hung a padlock on the latch, but didn’t bother to lock the padlock. We would just twist the padlock to take it off to open the gate. The dog learned to do that, too. So, we started locking the padlock, but we left the key in the lock to make it easier for us to open. Soon the dog learned to turn the key with his teeth, twist the padlock, push the padlock out of the hole, and lift the latch to get out. After that we took the key out of the padlock. The dog never learned to pick the lock, so there was a limit to his intelligence; but still, we thought he was a pretty smart dog.

Pets are not the only smart animals on the planet. In the past we’ve told you about smart parrots 1, and swallows that learned how to operate the motion sensor to get into a Home Depot . 2

Instinct

You know, of course, that birds and butterflies can migrate great distances, knowing somehow where to go, when to leave, and how to get there. Evolutionists often chalk this up to “instinct” rather than “intelligence,” as if this somehow makes a difference. You no doubt have seen countless documentaries showing how different creatures hunt their prey, or devise clever ways to avoid becoming prey. The evolutionary explanation usually involves some hand-waving about how those creatures with this particular instinct survived, and the ones without it went extinct. These dumb animals, they say, don’t really know what they are doing. They were just lucky to do it once by chance, and natural selection turned that chance into an unconscious habit. We doubt that evolutionists are very comfortable with this explanation, but it is the only explanation they have been able to devise.

Darwin himself was troubled about instinct. He pondered,

Thirdly, can instincts be acquired and modified through natural selection? What shall we say to so marvellous an instinct as that which leads the bee to make cells, which have practically anticipated the discoveries of profound mathematicians? 3

Darwin, at least, was honest about the difficulties with his theory of evolution, and that sets him apart from a lot of modern evolutionists.

The Human Difference

From an evolutionist’s point of view, all that separates us from animals are our abilities to think and communicate. We are just smart apes who know how to talk. The more we learn about the intelligence and ability of animals to communicate, the less evolutionary difference there is between us and the animals. This is a mixed blessing for evolutionists. On the one hand, it helps their argument that we are nothing more than evolved animals. On the other hand, it hurts their nice little step-by-step evolutionary story. Intelligence and the ability to communicate have been the traditional crowning achievements of evolution. It is the final evolutionary step that makes us better than the animals. Now it seems that lots of other animals have taken that step, too, without becoming human.

Humpback whales have a type of brain cell seen only in humans, the great apes, and other cetaceans such as dolphins, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

This might mean such whales are more intelligent than they have been given credit for, and suggests the basis for complex brains either evolved more than once, or has gone unused by most species of animals, the researchers said. 4

Two Problems

This presents two problems for the theory of evolution. One involves timing. The other involves independence.

Spindle neurons probably first appeared in the common ancestor of hominids, humans and great apes about 15 million years ago, the researchers said -- they are not seen in lesser apes or monkeys.

In cetaceans they would have evolved earlier, possibly as early as 30 million years ago, the researchers said. Either the spindle neurons were only kept in the animals with the largest brains or they evolved several times independently, the researchers said. 5

They believe whales and primates had a common mammalian ancestor. At some point in the distant past, that ancestral line split in two. One line led to whales, and the other led to primates. Much later, the primate line evolved into apes, one of which evolved spindle neurons and became human. Whales should not have spindle neurons because they split off ancestrally from primates before spindle neurons evolved.

Discovery of these brain cells in whales implies, to evolutionists, one of two things. Either whales are more closely related to humans than lesser apes are, or these cells evolved independently twice. The first conclusion is unthinkable, so spindle cells had to have evolved twice. What an amazing coincidence!

Are Whales Human?

They were touted as the brain cells that set humans and the other great apes apart from all other mammals. Now spindle neurons -- the specialised brain cells thought to process our emotions and that may even enable us to love and suffer -- have been found in whales. The discovery will stimulate debate both on the level of whale intelligence and on the ethics of hunting them. 6

Theoretically, scientists are unbiased. But scientific discoveries have political and religious implications that can influence interpretation. We debated whether or not to include the last sentence in the quote above. Science Against Evolution takes no position on the ethics of hunting whales, or any other animals for that matter. We included the last sentence because the author of the New Scientist article apparently has an opinion about hunting whales, and that opinion affected how he wrote the article. He wanted to raise the possibility that whales are human, too, and implied we should not be murdering them.

Whether we agree or disagree with him about hunting is beside the point. Our point is that scientific discoveries have philosophical implications that cannot be ignored.

The philosophical implication that is important to evolutionists and creationists has to do with how brain cells set humans apart from all other mammals. Creationists generally believe in some sort of spiritual, metaphysical difference between humans and animals. Evolutionists generally believe that there really isn’t any fundamental difference. Humans are just animals that have more or less of certain basic animal characteristics; and one of those characteristics is intelligence.

Evolutionists need to explain our humanness in purely biological terms, without any spiritual component. Up until now, that biological difference has been our brain. Some scientists now say that our brain isn’t unique in the animal world, and that could be troubling to evolutionists on a philosophical level.

But let’s leave the philosophical problems aside and return to the technical problems that this discovery has caused for evolutionists.

What's more, they [these particular kinds of brain cells] have existed in whales for at least twice as long as we have had them, and early estimates suggest they could have three times as many as us proportionately. 7

There is a serious problem for evolutionists here. The evolution of the human brain is considered to have been so remarkable that it is amazing it happened even once. It was the crowning act of evolution. Standing upright, eating meat, and using tools caused it to happen. Whales don’t walk upright, and they don’t use tools, so how did they get so smart? How could this happen without a close common ancestor?

Convergence

“Convergence” is a code word that evolutionists use whenever the evidence doesn’t fit the theory of evolution. It is their way to explain the unexplainable.

"The discovery is a stunning example of neuroanatomical convergence between cetaceans and primates," says Lori Marino of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. 8

Whenever evolutionists believe that two species have a close common ancestor, and those two species share a common characteristic, that common characteristic is proof of common ancestry. But whenever evolutionists DON’T believe two species shared a close common ancestor, if those two species share a common characteristic, that common characteristic is NOT proof of common ancestry. Instead, it is said to be proof that evolution caused two entirely different species to evolve the same characteristic independently as a response to environmental necessity. Both species must have converged on the same solution to the same survival problem independently. Whenever this happens it is “stunning” because it is so improbable that the characteristic could have evolved by chance even once, let alone twice.

Marino is stunned by this “example of neuroanatomical convergence between cetaceans and primates” because he believes that whales and humans don’t share a close common ancestor. But both somehow evolved the same kind of brain cells in entirely different environments, in response to entirely different survival challenges. Not only that, humans didn’t evolve this intelligence until millions of years after whales evolved it! They’ve been smarter longer than we have!

Two Kinds of Whales

In order to understand the next problem for evolutionists, we need to review some terminology. “Cetaceans” are marine mammals—that is, whales, dolphins, and porpoises. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just use the term “whales” instead of “cetaceans.”

Whales have been divided into two kinds by the purely arbitrary classification system used by biologists. When the modern classification system was first devised by Linnaeus (a creationist, by the way, so he could not have been a “real” scientist ), it was merely intended as a way to group similar animals in such a way as to facilitate study. Later, evolutionists got the idea that similar animals are similar because they must have evolved from a common ancestor. The biological classification system has become a de facto roadmap to evolutionary history in their minds. This causes some problems for the theory of evolution, as we will see in a moment.

Whales are put into one of two classifications depending upon whether or not they have teeth. The animals you see performing at aquariums can chomp down the fish the trainers give them because they all have teeth.

Most of the whales that are too large to perform in aquariums don’t have teeth. Instead, they have stringy fibers called “baleen” made out of the same stuff found in hair and fingernails. They use their baleen to strain tiny sea creatures out of sea water, and swallow them whole without chewing them.

One of the ironies that we like to point out is that some evolutionists claim that whales evolved from a wolf-like animal called Pakicetus because of “the arrangement of cusps on the molar teeth … absent in other land mammals but a signature of later Eocene whales.” 9 Pakicetus is supposedly the ancestor of whales because it had teeth like a whale, but many whales don’t have teeth at all!

Now that you know the difference between toothed whales and baleen whales, we can examine this next quote.

The brains of smaller cetaceans examined by Hof and Van Der Gucht didn't have spindle cells. The only toothed whales -- the suborder of cetaceans that includes dolphins -- to have spindles were the two largest, the killer whale and the sperm whale. But Hof suspects that all baleen whales, such as humpbacks and fins, are likely to have the cells.

The smaller cetaceans might have evolved some kind of alternative to spindle neurons. "In this respect, it will be interesting to discover what mental capacities might distinguish humpback whales from dolphins," says Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, UK. 10

All toothed whales presumably came from one common ancestor, and all baleen whales came from another common ancestor, and these two common ancestors supposedly came from Pakicetus. If all toothed whales came from a common ancestor, why would they not all have the same kind of brain cells?

Despite the fact that Flipper and Shamu have different kinds of brain cells, they both learn tricks, and apparently can communicate with others of their species using “songs.” So, the brain cells don’t explain the problem of how intelligence evolved, and merely raise questions about why whales which supposedly have the same common ancestor have different kinds of brain cells.

The discovery also raises questions about how these special brain cells could have evolved independently in such different kinds of mammals as whales and apes.

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Footnotes:

1 Disclosure, August 2004, “Darwin Want a Cracker?
2 Disclosure, August 2004, “Smart Swallows
3 Darwin, Origin of Species, Chapter 6
4 Reuters, 27 November, 2006, “Humpback whales have ‘human’ brain cells: study”
5 ibid.
6 New Scientist, 2 December 2006, “Whales get emotional”, page 6
7 ibid.
8 ibid., page 7
9 Chadwick, National Geographic, November 2001, “Evolution of Whales”, page 68
10 New Scientist, 2 December 2006, “Whales get emotional”, page 7