Feature Article - November 2018
by Do-While Jones

Shallow Thinking

The theory of evolution certainly isn’t rocket science.

I happened to see the movie First Man on the same day I read an article about how life allegedly evolved in shallow water, and I could not help but notice the difference between real science and the theory of evolution.

First Man

Based on the book by James R. Hansen, the movie First Man portrays the life of Neil Armstrong from his days as a test pilot in 1961 through his return from the Moon in 1969. It isn’t a movie you need to see on the big screen, but it is best if you hear it in a theater (or a home with a really loud surround-sound system)! When the rockets blast off, the sound makes your seat shake almost as much as if you were actually riding the rocket yourself.

Parts of the movie are actual footage from the 1960’s that have been digitally restored to quality better than it was in the 60’s. The other parts are recreations so historically accurate that it is hard to tell them from the actual footage. I could go on at length about the memories that film brought back to me, but let’s skip right to the point.

Armstrong’s “one small step for [a] man” was really the last of many small steps for NASA. Although he is best remembered for his flight on Apollo 11, one could argue that his Gemini 8 mission was actually a bigger step because it was the first time two spacecrafts docked in orbit. Docking while in orbit illustrates the difference between the real science of the space program and the non-scientific theory of evolution.


You may have seen a movie or TV show where an empty tractor-trailer truck is speeding down the highway and lowers its tailgate so a stuntman can drive a car up into it from behind for whatever reason the plot requires. Parking a car inside a trailer at high speed is dangerous, but theoretically simple. It isn’t that simple in orbit.

If two orbiting spacecraft are going the same speed a short distance apart, the following spacecraft can’t just “step on the gas” to catch up and dock. Paradoxically, equations predicted that firing the rocket motor to go faster would actually make the craft go into a slower, higher orbit. The mission of Gemini 8 was to confirm that the equations were correct, and that spacecraft could dock in orbit if the following spacecraft “stepped on the brakes” to catch up to the one in front.

That’s how real science works. There is an expected outcome, and an experiment is conducted to confirm the expectation. NASA got to the Moon by doing many carefully planned experiments confirming expectations about docking, walking in space, and so on, before Apollo 11 went to the Moon.

If you aren’t old enough to remember the first step on the Moon, you might wonder why (as the movie showed) Armstrong was very careful about taking that first step. Some people (at that time) thought that the Moon was about 2 billion years old, and was probably covered with billions of years of cosmic dust which could be dangerously thick and unstable. Many people (including Armstrong and creationists) were pleased to discover there was only a very thin layer of dust. People had differing expectations. That’s why experiments are necessary to confirm or refute those expectations. The actual amount of dust on the Moon was not determined by the eloquence or prestige of the academics holding differing opinions.

Shallow Water

Let’s contrast the real science in a movie with the evolutionary “science” in a peer-reviewed science journal.

Late last month, an article appeared in the journal Science claiming that shallow water was the “cradle of early vertebrate diversification.” 1 This article was so significant in the eyes of one of the editors of the journal that she had to add her own comments about it. 2

Here is the premise: There are more different species of marine creatures in shallow water than there are in deep water. Therefore, all must have evolved in shallow water, and some moved to deep water later. Those are our words. Here are their words:

Ancestral vertebrate habitats are subject to controversy and obscured by limited, often contradictory paleontological data. We assembled fossil vertebrate occurrence and habitat datasets spanning the middle Paleozoic (480 million to 360 million years ago) and found that early vertebrate clades, both jawed and jawless, originated in restricted, shallow intertidal-subtidal environments. Nearshore divergences gave rise to body plans with different dispersal abilities: Robust fishes shifted shoreward, whereas gracile groups moved seaward. Fresh waters were invaded repeatedly, but movement to deeper waters was contingent upon form and short-lived until the later Devonian. Our results contrast with the onshore-offshore trends, reef-centered diversification, and mid-shelf clustering observed for benthic invertebrates. Nearshore origins for vertebrates may be linked to the demands of their mobility and may have influenced the structure of their early fossil record and diversification. 3

The body of the article begins,

The ancestral habitat of vertebrates has long been debated, with opinions ranging from freshwater to open ocean habitats. Inferences have been derived from either the evolutionarily distant modern fauna or qualitative narratives based on select fossils. Early records of vertebrate divisions, such as jawed fishes and their relatives (total-group gnathostomes), consist of long gaps between inferred origination and definitive appearances (ghost lineages), punctuated by suggestive microfossils. 4

Up until now (and, actually, still now) there has been a debate about where vertebrates evolved because all they have are inferences based on selected fossils with long gaps between them, and the belief in ghost lineages.

Here is how they believe they have ended the debate.

We applied Bayesian threshold models to phylogenies of occurrences using prior probabilities of residence in each benthic assemblage zone. This methodology allowed positive inference of both ancestral habitats and amount of evolutionary change required to move between zones (“liability” values). 5

The article is filled with evidence like this:

Jawed and jawless fish distributions are highly clustered in BA0 to BA2 early in clade history (n = 478), in the Silurian and Lochkovian (n = 1035), and over the mid-Paleozoic (n = 2147) (Fig. 1 and figs. S1 and S16 to S18). We recover no significant or strong positive correlations between this gnathostome pattern and other fossil records (linear regression r2 range: -0.90 to 0.27, P range: 0.41 to 0.9) (Fig. 1B and fig. S16). 6

Their paper consists of a statistical analysis of the different features in different kinds of sea creatures, combined with the researchers’ inferred prior probabilities of residence. In other words, it is a statistical comparison of actual variation measured now, compared with presumed variations in the unobserved past, and an explanation of why the amount of variation changed. Their conclusions are nothing more than opinions about the meaning of unconfirmed computer models.

Real Science

Here’s how real science should work: Step 1: A scientist observes more different kinds of sea creatures in shallow water than deep water. That’s a good starting point. Sallan and his associates began there, as they should.

Step 2 should be to ask, “Are there really more different kinds of sea creatures in shallow water, or does it simply appear that way because we haven’t explored deep water as much as we have explored shallow water?” In other words, is the observation accurate? When James Cameron dove down to explore the Titanic, it took so long to get down he only had a short time to explore before he had to come back up. Deep-water biologists have the same problem. Deep-water environments haven’t been observed as thoroughly as tide pools have.

In her analysis of Sallan’s article, Pimiento said,

The examination of primary data on early fish (e.g., from the mid-Paleozoic) revealed that their fossil record accumulated in shallow waters. However, it has been recognized that this might be an artifact of a poor fossil record; in other words, the habitats from where ancient fish have been recovered might reflect outcrop (the exposure of rocks) availability rather than true origins. Sallan et al. explicitly test this possibility and demonstrate that although fossils of early fish are mostly are [sic] found in rocks coming from depths between 60 and 200 m, the early diversification of vertebrates was restricted to shallower environments of less than 60 m of depth. Accordingly, the ancestral habitats of early fish are not a sampling artifact. 7

We question the reliability of the way they tested the possibility; but we give them credit for trying and won’t dispute their conclusion because we are discussing the scientific method, and they used the correct method regardless of the accuracy of the conclusion.

Step 3: Propose a hypothesis. Their hypothesis is that there is something about shallow water that is different from deep water that promoted diversity and caused evolution. OK.

Step 4: Propose a theory to explain the hypothesis. They did not do this.

They could have theorized that sunlight causes evolution, and less light penetrates the deeper the water. They could have theorized that pressure or temperature inhibits evolution, and the pressure is too high, or temperature is too cold at great depths. They didn’t propose any theoretical reason for the observation.

Step 5: Devise experiments to test the theory. Of course, they didn’t do this because they didn’t have a theory to test.

If their theory was that sunlight causes evolution, they should have taken two identical aquariums of sea creatures, keeping one in a dark room and exposing the other to sunlight and see in which aquarium more diversity happens. Or, they should have taken two identical aquariums and put one in a high pressure chamber. Or, they should have taken two identical aquariums and kept one as cold as it is in deep water. Whatever they thought the cause was, they should have devised an experiment to test their theory.

Sallan didn’t do that because he couldn’t. You can’t compare the amount of evolution in an aquarium in a dark place to evolution in an aquarium in a sunny place because there won’t be any evolution in either one. Macroevolution has never been observed anywhere because it has never happened.

Instead, Sallan did lots of statistical analysis to compare the amount of variation in shallow water creatures to deep water creatures, and the amount of variation in shallow water fossils to deep water fossils. That simply quantifies the amount of variation. It doesn’t tell you anything about the cause of the variation, and doesn’t prove that new species originated there.

More people live in New York City than here in the Mojave Desert. That doesn’t mean people evolved in New York City. I live in the Mojave Desert—but I wasn’t born here. Statistical differences don’t prove anything about why or where those differences arose.


We can’t ignore the corrupting influence politics has on science, as seen in the last paragraph of Pimiento’s commentary on Sallan’s study.

Today, protected shallow-water ecosystems are not only biodiversity hotspots, but also serve as essential nurseries for fish (e.g., coral reefs, estuaries, and mangroves). These ecosystems offer physical structure, habitat heterogeneity, and trophic complexity, thus providing abundant food and refuge to marine fauna, as well as important services to humans. Nearshore systems have supported fish diversity for at least 66 million years. Sallan et al. not only extend this association to the very origins of vertebrates, but also highlight the role of shallow waters as a persistent cradle for their diversification. Nevertheless, just as these environments can support biodiversity, their reduction can also result in its loss. Between five and two million years ago, shallow-water habitats contracted as a result of dramatic sea-level oscillations, likely causing the extinction of a substantial number of marine vertebrates. Before these already-vulnerable organisms had time to recover, modern humans started degrading their (shallow-water) habitats by overexploiting their fauna and destroying the structure that provides the foundations of biodiversity. Sallan et al. show that without shallow-water ecosystems, vertebrates (humans included) would probably not have evolved. Worryingly, it is precisely these ecosystems that have been altered the most by human activities. 8

Pimiento is “worrying” that human activity is “destroying the structure that provides the foundations of biodiversity.” She thinks Sallan’s statistics prove she is right.

Ironically, she believes “between five and two million years ago, shallow-water habitats contracted,” despite the fact that there weren’t any humans causing global warming back then. Somehow, the climate changed before man messed it up. Furthermore, she thinks decreasing sea levels is bad. So, if global warming is causing the sea levels to rise, isn’t that a good thing?

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1 Sallan, et al., Science, 26 Oct 2018, “The nearshore cradle of early vertebrate diversification”, pp. 460-464, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6413/460
2 Pimiento, Science, 26 Oct 2018, “Our shallow-water origins”, pp. 402-403, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6413/402
3 Sallan, et al., Science, 26 Oct 2018, “The nearshore cradle of early vertebrate diversification”, pp. 460-464, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6413/460
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.
7 Pimiento, Science, 26 Oct 2018, “Our shallow-water origins”, pp. 402-403, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6413/402
8 ibid.