Sep 21 2015
Part I: Transitional Fossils
Creationists are an endless source of material for skeptical analysis. The reason for this is that modern creationism is what I call “sophisticated nonsense.” It is an elaborate system of motivated reasoning crafted to defend a particular religious view.
The energy, time, and resources that some creationists put into this endeavor is astounding, resulting in a mountain of false claims, half-truths, misdirections, unsound arguments, and misinterpretations.
Creationists are engaged in science denial – denying evolutionary science. The purpose of denial is doubt and confusion, so they don’t have to create and defend a coherent explanation of the origins of life on Earth. They don’t have to provide an explanation for all the available evidence. All they have to do is muddy the waters as much as possible.
This behavior is absolutely clear when you examine their arguments and their methods. One of the hallmarks of creationist arguments is that they don’t change, or they change only slowly and minimally. They continue to use arguments that have been demolished decades ago. That is a sure sign of intellectual dishonesty – even when corrected on a factual error, they don’t seem to care. They continue to spread the misinformation.
One recent example is called, “44 Reasons Why Evolution Is Just A Fairy Tale For Adults.” The author, Michael Snyder, is the worst kind of creationist in my opinion – a polemicist for creationism who boldly and even condescendingly spouts utter nonsense.
His “44 reasons” are not actually 44 separate reasons – he spreads out a single point into multiple “reasons.” He also likes to use the old creationist method of taking quotes out of context. This is another sure sign of intellectual dishonesty. You will see what I mean. (It takes a lot more time to correct a misconception than to create one, so I will have to break this up into multiple posts.)
Reasons 1-6: Transitional Fossils
The first six reasons are essentially the same point, that there is a lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. This, of course, is a complete lie. Snyder, however, maintains this lie with two common misconceptions among creationists that relate to how we define “transitional fossil.”
Creationists, of course, do not provide and then use one consistent definition of the term. They rely upon shifting definitions to sow their confusion. Evolutionary biologists consider a transitional fossil any fossil that gives us information about the evolutionary connection between two groups. These two groups can be descendants and ancestors, or two descendants with a common ancestor. The two groups can also be at any taxonomical level – two orders, two families, or two species. This is a broad definition, which allows for creationist mischief.
When scientists discuss the fossil record they will often discuss specific aspects of the record, and their points can easily be taken out of context, especially if you allow yourself a fluid definition of “transitional.” First let me explain, in broad brushstrokes, what the fossil record actually shows, and then we can see how they exploit the details to confuse.
We now have an enormous fossil record containing numerous transitional forms – species that are clearly in between extant species or that clearly fall between extant groups. To give some common examples:
There are now many transitional whales, such as Pakicetus, that are part way between terrestrial mammals and full whales, with stubby legs and nostrils still toward the front of their skull.
Archaeopteryx was the first fossil species part way between theropod dinosaurs and birds, but now we have discovered numerous examples of feathered dinosaurs, and part birds.
Tiktaalik is part way between fish and amphibians.
We have excellent documentation of the evolution of reptiles to mammals, including therapsids and cynodonts. This includes many steps in the transition from a reptilian to mammalian jaw and inner ear.
And of course there is excellent documentation of the hominin group – species that are between modern apes and modern humans. This includes the recently discovered Homo naledi, 15 nearly complete specimens of a creature that is about as close to half-way between apes and humans as you can get.
Here are a list of some other transitional forms.
While this is impressive, the fossil record is admittedly patchy. We are getting narrow glimpses into the past – into a 550 million year history of the evolution of hundreds of millions of multicellular species. Scientists try to understand the patterns in evolutionary history as well as the small details of what exactly evolved from what and when, from this patchy record. Scientists frankly discuss the limitations of this record and will often argue with each other about how to interpret it.
This is where creationists step in – to exploit this discussion and pretend as if a disagreement over the details calls into question the bigger picture, that there is massive evidence that evolution happened. Three of those details are most commonly exploited: the difference between species-level transition and group-level transition, the extent and meaning of stasis in the fossil record, and the difference between a transitional form and an actual ancestor.
Generally we have better documentation of group-level change than species-level change. This is a matter of the resolution of the fossil record. We can see changes that happened over millions of years much easier than changes that occurred over thousands of years. Although when we get closer in time to the present, the resolution of the fossil record improves and we get more species-level data. For example, we are fleshing out the evolution of early humans down to the species level.
Stasis in the fossil record simply means that species tend to arrive in the record, remain relatively stable for their existence, and then disappear. They are not constantly slowly changing. This led Gould and Eldredge to propose the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which is now generally accepted. This means that selective pressure tends to keep a species in an optimal relationship with their environment. However, this stability is punctuated by often rapid change when that environment changes or something disturbs the stability. “Sudden” in the fossil record, of course, can mean 50 thousand years – enough time for a speciation event.
In order to understand the third point about actual ancestors you need to understand that evolution does not progress in a straight line toward some end. Rather, adaptive radiation results in species evolving in multiple direction, in a branching bushy pattern. For example, theropod dinosaurs hit upon feathers as an adaptation, and there were many species of feathered theropods. They were not evolving into birds, just adapting to their niche. One branch of theropods started using those feathers in a way that led to flight, a rather significant adaptation. They branched out in many directions, only one twig of which ultimately led to modern birds.
So – when paleontologists find a fossil of a half-bird, half theropod (like Archaeopteryx), that is a transitional fossil because it represents the morphological space between birds and theropods, and is a definite evolutionary connection. However, we have no way of knowing if the specific individual discovered was an actual ancestor to modern birds, or was from a closely related branch. This again gets to the resolution of the fossil record. Also, without DNA it is impossible to confirm actual ancestry. Fossils alone will never do it. This doesn’t mean that the form is not transitional, however.
Now, let’s get to Snyder’s claims and see how he exploits the complexity of the science to sow confusion. He writes:
“#1 If the theory of evolution was true, we should have discovered millions upon millions of transitional fossils that show the development of one species into another species. Instead, we have zero.”
Forgetting the lack of the subjunctive, the core problem with this statement is that it refers to “species” without putting that into context. We do have some evidence of species to species evolution, but not much. Most of the fossils we have demonstrate genus or higher level transitions. He is simply wrong that we should (given the state of the fossil record) have “millions” of fossils that are transitional at the species level. He never explains this either because he is confused on this fact, or he simply wants to create confusion.
Point #2 is simply that Darwin admitted there were no transitional fossils during his time – this is irrelevant since we have discovered numerous transitional forms in the last 150 years.
#3 Even some of the most famous evolutionists in the world acknowledge the complete absence of transitional fossils in the fossil record. For example, Dr. Colin Patterson, former senior paleontologist of the British Museum of Natural History and author of “Evolution” once wrote the following…
“I fully agree with your comments about the lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions in my book. If I knew of any, fossil or living, I would certainly have included them …. I will lay it on the line – there is not one such fossil for which one could make a watertight argument.”
OK – this requires some explanation. Fortunately, Lionel Theunissen has already done so. First, the comments in question were made in 1979 (a fact Snyder does not disclose). Relying upon a 36 year old quote about the current state of the scientific evidence is always dubious.
From reading the full quote, and knowing that Patterson accepts evolution, it seems obvious that he was referring to the third point I discuss above – the difference between a transitional fossil representing the morphological (and I would add temporal and geographic) space between two groups and proving that a specific specimen is an actual ancestor. Theunissen suspected this also, and so he wrote a letter to Patterson asking him if this is the correct interpretation. Patterson replied:
“I think the continuation of the passage shows clearly that your interpretation (at the end of your letter) is correct, and the creationists’ is false.”
(Follow the link for the full letter.) It cannot be more clear than that. Patterson directly says that the creationist interpretation of his quote is false, and that he was only referring to the difference between being transitional and being an actual ancestor. Despite this iron-clad revelation, creationists continue to use this out-of-context quote, and even dispute Patterson’s own explanation of what he meant.
Of course, all of this is also a misdirection – it is not a discussion of the actual evidence of transitional fossils. It is a discussion about a quote from one scientist from 36 years ago and about what, exactly, they meant. I suspect part of the reason (other than misdirection) that creationists like this tactic is that they are used to citing a book as authority. So when they argue against evolution they follow their form, and make arguments from authority, specifically how to interpret a particular passage of the speech or writings of a scientist. Very telling.
In fact this form of misdirection is so common that TalkOrigins has a page dedicated to exposing creationist “quotemining.” On that page you will find Snyders next two examples.
Stephen Jay Gould, Professor of Geology and Paleontology at Harvard University, once wrote the following about the lack of transitional forms…
“The absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.”
As talk origins explains:
“This is a rather unspectacularly predictable mined quote, as everyone who has had a few hours exposure to Gould’s writings on evolution can instantly see that he’s arguing against gradualism and probably in favor of punctuated equilibrium, a theory that he co-originated with Eldredge in 1972. Contrary to possible first impressions of the uninformed, Gould is presenting a problem FOR gradualist evolution, and countering WITH solutions to this apparent “problem” later in the paragraph.”
Gould and other scientists argue about gradualism vs punctuated equilibrium. Essentially this is a debate over whether or not the admitted gaps in the fossil record are an artifact of the spotty record or do they reflect the actual pace of evolution – long periods of stasis with rapid change in small populations?
Gould is not arguing against evolution, but against gradualism. This is a common denialist tactic – to confuse debate over the details as if it calls into question the bigger claims.
Snyder finishes this section with the following claim:
#6 If “evolution” was happening right now, there would be millions of creatures out there with partially developed features and organs. But instead there are none.
This is the crocoduck gambit. In fact evolution does not predict the existence of “partially formed features and organs.” Rather, each form is complete for what it is.
To use a technological analogy, Snyder would have you believe that in the 1700s farmers were dragging half-constructed modern tractors behind their horses, or that the absence of such half-built tractors in the 1700s means that modern farming sprung up whole without any antecedents. Rather, pre-industrial farmers were using fully formed (but far simpler) plows.
Likewise, the predecessors to any modern biological structure were not partly formed, but were a fully formed something else. Creationists never seem to get this simple evolutionary concept. The entire pseudoscience of “irreducible complexity” is built upon this misunderstanding.
Snyder is an aggressive creationist whose writing is dripping in equal measures with condescension and abject ignorance, with a heavy helping of intellectual sloppiness and/or dishonesty (it can be sometimes difficult to tell the difference, but it doesn’t really matter).
He is raising no new points – no points that have not already been demolished long ago. This is because creationists have no new points. They also have no evidence or science on their side.
Evolutionary science, meanwhile, continues to progress nicely. The gaps in the fossil record are slowly being filled in. Recent finds show transitions in turtle evolution, for example. What evolutionary theory predicts is that we would find fossils that fit into a coherent evolutionary history of life on earth, with nestled hierarchies of related creatures. That is exactly what we find.
The pace and tempo of evolution is a detail. Creationists exploit both limitations of our understanding of tiny details, and scientists debating over these details, as if they refute or call into question the massive evidence for the big picture – that all life on earth is the result of common descent.
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