…the horse is of course the famous Eohippus.
One of my favorite corners of the alternate universe that is creationism is where creationists get to talking about (denying) horse evolution. The fossil record for horses and their relatives (rhinos, tapirs and some extinct groups) is so well documented it is amusing seeing how creationists rationalize their way around the evidence and when I find something about horses on a creationist site I often take a look to see what sort of silliness they’ve gotten up to.
Case in point: Answers in Genesis put up a short piece on their site recently titled “Not Just Horsin’ Around” which directs their readers to a site called “eQuest 4 Truth.com”. They report that the owner of the website (Rebekah Holt) started it to “… steer young people away from the incorrect information that they receive in many public school textbooks and encyclopedias” and that the site “…helps refute the claim that the modern horse evolved from a much smaller, non-horse ancestor.”
On the site is a page titled “Horse Evolution – Fact or Horse Manure?” written by creationist Arthur Biele, who, judging by a Google search on his name, has been pestering people with nonsense in various internet discussion forums for years. His article here attacking the evidence for horse evolution is a barely readable hodgepodge of unsupported assertions, factual errors and standard quotes from “The Creationist Joke Book™”.
Given that there is so much creationist nonsense out there on the web I normally wouldn’t have taken as much time as I did to dissect it but since Answers in Genesis put their seal of approval on it I figured it would be worth the time.
OK, we’re off to the Eohippus races…
Biele: High School and College textbooks still make the claim that the modern horse evolved from a small, not very horse like animal, called Eohippus. I am going to show that horses did not evolve at all from Eohippus. I will present the facts to you but leave it up to you to decide if today’s horse evolved from a species that was not an equine.
Great, “facts”, we are definitely in need of some of those here.
Biele: According to the horse series, the horse started as Eohippus, a four toed animal that lived 50 million years ago. Eohippus evolves into a larger three toed creature called Mesohippus. Mesohippus then evolves into the Merychippus, which still had three toes, but two were smaller than the one in the middle. Then finally it evolved into an Equus, a modern day horse with one toe or hoof.
This is a rather gross oversimplification. First Eohippus was, until recently, considered a junior synonym to Hyracotherium. In other words fossils once called “Eohippus” were considered to rightfully be classified under the name Hyracotherium by naming priority. Most books and museum displays on horse evolution will have Hyracotherium not Eohippus as the most basal equid. This has changed recently as some paleontologists have suggested that the genus Eohippus should be resurrected (more on this later). For the purposes of this article I will continue to primarily refer to this fossil group as Hyracotherium.
Secondly the illustrations and museum displays lining up various fossil genera, such as Hyracotherium, Mesohippus and Merychippus should not be taken literally to mean that these genera necessarily gave rise to one another in such a direct manner. Evolution and horse evolution in particular is much messier than that. The horse Family (Equidae) is more like a bush than a bamboo stalk.
Biele: Now I will tell why the above statement is incorrect. The Eohippus was discovered in 1841 by Richard Owen, one of the best paleontologists of his time and also the inventor of the word “Dinosaur.”
The first fossil material assignable to Hyracotherium was uncovered in 1838 in the form of a fragment of a jaw-bone with two teeth. It was discovered in Suffolk England by a brick maker but they ultimately came into the possession of Sir Richard Owen who mistakenly identified them as belonging to a monkey (Owen 1840).
Owen’s illustration of the first Hyracotherium fossil found (scanned from MacFadden 1994, p.91).
The next year (1839) a partial skull was found in Kent England and as with the jaw fragment it eventually came to Owen who, correctly this time, identified it as belonging to some sort of ungulate. He dubbed it Hyracotherium leporinum (Owen 1841), and shortly thereafter realized that the “monkey jaw” he had described earlier and the skull belonged to the same type of animal (Simpson 1940).
Owen’s illustration of the second Hyracotherium fossil found (Owen 1841).
Biele: Professor Owen did not call his fossil discovery Eohippus because, upon careful observation, it did not look like a “hippus” (horse) at all. He called it “Hyracotherium” because it resembled a modern day Hyrax (a rabbit like creature), also known as a Cony, a Rock Badger, or a Daman.
Now here we’ve really started to move into the creationist twilight zone. Owen did name the fossil Hyracotherium (which means hyrax-like beast), but he did not intend this to be taken to mean it was all that similar to a hyrax:
The general form of the skull was probably intermediate in character between that of the Hog and the Hyrax. The large size of the eye must have given to the physiognomy of the living animal a resemblance to that of the Hare and other timid Rodentia.
Without intending to imply that the present small extinct Pachyderm was more closely allied to the Hyrax than as being a member of the same order, and similar in size, I propose to call the new genus which it unquestionably indicates, Hyracotherium, with the specific name leporinum. (Owen 1841, emphasis mine)
The Order Owen is referring to here is “Pachydermata” (after Cuvier) which is no longer considered a valid taxon. It included elephants (as should be obvious), a variety of even-toed ungulates (cows, deer, hippos, pigs etc.), odd-toed ungulates (tapirs, rhinoceros and horses), and the hyraxes. So his placing Hyracotherium in the same order as hyraxes wasn’t really saying much for their being all that similar.
Further evidence that Owen did not see a particularly close resemblance between Hyracotherium and hyraxes came a few years later when he wrote a paper in which he attempted to refine Cuvier’s classification of “Pachyderms” (Owen 1848). In this paper Owen divided the ungulates up into three different groups, the Proboscidia (elephants), the Artiodactyla (even- toed), and Perissodactyla (odd-toed), and he gave a list of examples of each of these and here is where it gets real interesting (Owen 1848, p.139).
In the list of Artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates) he lists Hyracotherium.
In the Perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates) he lists the horse (of course) and the hyrax.
So Owen placed Hyracotherium in one branch of the Order and hyraxes and horses in the other. If anything this would imply that he thought hyraxes and horses were more similar to each other than either was to Hyracotherium. He was wrong of course, but again, all he had of Hyracotherium was a crushed partial skull and a jaw fragment, so he can be forgiven.
Biele: The skull and teeth of Hyracotherium is different than that of the Hyrax, but if you fleshed out the full bone structure, including its’ arched back, it would look very similar to a Hyrax. Textbooks, such as our ‘Exploring Life Science’ take great liberties when they flesh out Eohippus to make it look more like a mini-horse.
This is a slight improvement over the typical YEC descriptions of Hyracotherium. It is common to find creationists claiming that Hyracotherium is nearly identical to a hyrax or simply that it is a hyrax. In this case Mr. Biele doesn’t claim that Hyracotherium is identical, instead he admits there are differences but then tries to gloss over them by talking about reconstructions.
The skull and teeth of Hyracotherium are significantly different from that of the hyrax as are other details of the anatomy. As they say a picture is worth a thousand words:
Hyracotherium (top) from Romer (1945, p. 426) and a Hyrax (Procavia) (bottom) from Young (1962, p.708).
Hyracotherium skull (top) from the mounted fossil specimen at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and a living hyrax (Procavia) skull (bottom) from a mounted skeleton at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (photos by Don Frack).
As you can see no one would ever confuse the two either alive or dead.
Biele: Charles Darwin could not find any evidence of ‘Changes in Living Things Over Time’ in the fossil record for his Theory of Evolution.
Darwin did not have to “find” evidence of life changing through time in the fossil record because the fact of faunal succession was already considered to be established long before he even wrote the Origin of Species by the scientific community (who were nearly all creationists at the time).
I think that in the repeated and almost entire changes of organic types in the successive formations of the earth – in the absence of mammalia in the older, and their very rare appearance (and then in forms entirely unknown to us) in the newer secondary groups – in the diffusion of warm-blooded quadrupeds (frequently of unknown genera) through the older tertiary systems– in their great abundance (and frequency of known genera) in the upper portions of the same series – and, lastly, in the recent appearance of man on the surface of the earth (now universally admitted) – in one word, from all these facts combined, we have a series of proofs the most emphatic and convincing, – that the existing order of nature is not the last of an uninterrupted succession of mere physical events derived from laws now in daily operation: but on the contrary, that the approach to the present system of things has been gradual, and that there has been a progressive development of organic structure subservient to the purposes of life. (Sedgwick 1831, 305-306)
This quote is from scientist, philosopher and theologian the Rev. William Whewell whose writings on the philosophy of science had a significant impact on Darwin. Ironically it was written as a critique of geologist Charles Lyell (another important figure in Darwin’s intellectual background):
It is clear . . . that to give even a theoretical consistency to his system, it will be requisite that Mr. Lyell should supply us with some mode by which we may pass from a world filled with one kind of animal forms, to another, in which they are equally abundant, without perhaps one species in common. He must find some means of conducting us from the plesiosaurs and pterodactyls of the age of the lias, to the creatures which mark the oolites or the iron-sand. He must show us how we may proceed from these, to the forms of those later times which geologists love to call by the sounding names of the paleotherian and mastodontean periods. To frame even a hypothesis which will, with any plausibility, supply this defect in his speculations, is a harder task than that which Mr. Lyell has now executed. We conceive it undeniable (and Mr. Lyell would probably agree with us,) that we see in the transition from an earth peopled by one set of animals, to the same earth swarming with entirely new forms of organic life, a distinct manifestation of creative power, transcending the known laws of nature: and, it appears to us, that geology has thus lighted a new lamp along the path of natural theology. (Whewell 1831, p.194)
The pre-Darwin creationists also recognized the existence of extinct animals intermediate in forms between existing groups. This is from Louis Agassiz of Harvard University who remained a staunch opponent of Darwin’s ideas even when most in the scientific community had turned his way:
I have now to introduce the class of Reptiles. – They are animals very dissimilar in their structure and appearance. At first one can scarcely understand the likeness existing between a snake and a turtle. Their skeletons in their external form are so totally different that a common characteristic is by no means easy to perceive. It seem almost impossible that such heterogenous animals as frogs, snakes, lizards and tortoises should belong to one natural division; nevertheless the class of reptiles is the most natural group of the Animal Kingdom. The extreme differences we notice between the groups just named, disappear more and more when we examine the distinct types of those animals which lived in former epochs and are now extinct. We have now some animals which, by their form, stand intermediate between lizards, or crocodiles, and tortoises. We have other forms even intermediate between the snakes and lizards. (Agassiz 1847, p. 45, emphasis mine)
The place of the genus Palaeotherium (see Plates 3 and 4) is intermediate between the rhinoceros, the horse, and tapir. Eleven or twelve species have already been discovered; some as large as a rhinoceros, others varying from the size of a horse to that of a hog. The bones of the nose show that, like the tapir, they had a short fleshy trunk. These animals probably lived and died upon the margins of the then existing lakes and rivers, and their dead carcases may have been drifted to the bottom in seasons of flood. (Buckland 1837, I:81, emphasis mine)
Again from Buckland, only in more general terms:
The study of these Remains presents to the Zoologist a large amount of extinct species and genera, bearing important relations to existing forms of animals and vegetables, and often supplying links that had hitherto appeared deficient, in the great chain whereby all animated beings are held together in a series of near and gradual connexions.
This discovery, amid the relics of past creations, of links that seemed wanting in the present system of organic nature, affords to natural Theology an important argument, in proving the unity and universal agency of a common great first cause; since every individual in such an uniform and closely connected series, is thus shown to be an integral part of one grand design.
The non-discovery of such links indeed, would form but a negative and feeble argument against the common origin of organic beings, widely separated from one another; because, for aught we know, the existence of intervals may have formed part of the original design of a common creator; and because such apparent voids may perhaps exist only in our own imperfect knowledge; but the presence of such links throughout all past and present modifications of being, shows an unity of design which proves the unity of the intelligence in which it originated. (Buckland 1837, I:114, emphasis mine)
The (creationist) geologists of the time mostly explained existence of intermediate forms as part of an overall Divine plan (Buckland’s “unity of design”) and the pattern of the fossil record by postulating a series of global catastrophes that supposedly would have wiped out all, or nearly all, life on Earth. These catastrophes were followed by the wholesale (capitol ‘C’) Creation of new, slightly different species to replace those lost.
Modern creationists who argue against the existence of intermediate forms and the pattern of the fossil record do so only by contradicting all of the real creationist scientists (like Sedgwick, Buckland) who worked before Darwin brought evolution into the scientific mainstream.
Biele: How did Hyracotherium come to be called Eohippus? … In the 1860’s, a man named Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale University became a supporter of Charles Darwin and a defender of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. From reading Darwin’s book Origins of the Species … he knew that Charles Darwin was very concerned about the great lack of transitional fossils in the fossil record. Marsh paid people to dig up and bring him fossils from the American west. He was hoping to collect enough fossils to demonstrate a major evolutionary transformation of a species into a new quite different species. An abundance of horse fossils were brought to him. They varied enough that he was able to arrange a selection of them into an evolutionary order starting with Mesohippus, then Merychippus, and finally Equus. These all looked like horses with minor changes, mostly in size.
Mr. Biele seems to be making much of this up as he goes along. Othniel Charles Marsh did not just line up equid fossils in an arbitrary manner creating the illusion of an evolutionary progression. He simply arranged them chronologically based on the relative ages of the strata they were found in. Below is a chart showing the chronological/stratigraphic distribution of various fossil horses:
From Matthew, W.D. (1926) “The Evolution of the Horse: A Record and Its Interpretation”, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 1(2):139-185. [Via Laelaps] Note that Hyracotherium and Eohippus are from the early Eocene, Orohippus from the mid-Eocene, Mesohippus from the Oligocene, and Merychippus the Miocene.
Biele: Marsh had in his collection a fossil of a creature that he named Orohippus which means Mountain horse. Eohippus had been discovered by David Cope, Marsh’s chief rival.
In 1872 O. C. Marsh’s rival Edward Drinker Cope (who is “David” Cope?) was the first to describe “Hyracotherium” fossils in North America, however he originally referred them to the genus Lophiotherium. Later, recognizing their similarities to Owen’s Hyracotherium, he reassigned them to that genus (Cope 1884). While Cope recognized the general taxonomic position of these fossils (as ungulates) he did not recognize their significance to horse evolution.
It was Marsh who assigned similar American fossils to the genus Eohippus in 1876 and who realized its relationship to horses (Kitts 1956). This is made evident by name he chose, Eohippus means “dawn horse”.
Yet another scientist named Charles Earle was the first to make comparisons between the American and European horse fossils in 1896. Earle suggested that the American Eohippus be synonymized with Hyracotherium. This was followed by two studies one in 1932 by Sir Clive Forester Cooper, and the other in 1952 by George Gaylord Simpson who both concluded that the two fossil types were so similar that they should be placed in the same genus (Froehlich 2002). Thereafter according to the rules of taxonomy Hyracotherium became the official name for all the fossils and the name ‘eohippus’ became a junior synonym of that genus.
Biele: Orohippus looks just like the Eohippus in our textbook illustration except that a premolar in Eohippus had become a molar in Orohippus. Marsh chose to place Orohippus at the base of the horse series as the ancestor of all the horses.
Biele: Thomas Huxley, the chief defender of Darwin’s theory, came to America to see Marsh’s horse series. It was at this time that it was decided that Eohippus (dawn horse) would be used in the horse evolution illustration instead of Orohippus. This horse series has remained this way in textbooks ever since.
Huxley didn’t come to America (in 1876) just to see Marsh’s fossils, he came to visit several museums and to give a keynote address at the founding ceremonies for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. However while in the U.S. he did spend several weeks in New Haven, CT visiting Marsh and looking through the Yale Peabody Museum‘s fossil collection.
During this visit Marsh and Huxley speculated on what the earliest member of the horse family would look like and as a bit of fun Huxley drew a cartoon of the ancestral horse and at Marsh’s suggestion added an ancestral human to ride it:
They joked about “Eohippus” being ridden by an “Eohomo” (dawn man) and Marsh then added the names below Huxley’s drawing (or so the story goes). Later that same year Marsh described a new fossil which seemed close to what he and Huxley had talked about and so he named it Eohippus (MacFadden 1994, p. 31-32).
Biele: Today, one could just as easily arrange modern horses in a similar evolutionary manner from the 17” tall Fallabella to the 7 foot tall English Shire Horse.
Except these extinct genera of horses are not simply small versions of modern horses. They differ in the structure of their feet, teeth and skulls (largely to accommodate changes in the teeth) as well as a host of more minor differences. Miniature horses are anatomically modern horses which have simply been bred down to much smaller sizes. They are not products of natural development; they are man made breeds which, like many domestic breeds, would likely not last long in the wild. The existence of these forms explains nothing about the wild extinct equids of the distant past.
Biele: If Hyracotherium/Eohippus/Orohippus were eliminated from the horse series, all we would have is a series of horses evolving into slightly different horses.
It is odd to me that so many creationists seem to think that if they ‘eliminate’ Hyracotherium from the base of the horse family tree then all the rest of the evidence for horse evolution will disappear. Especially when one can make a strong case that the next “stage” in the evolution of the horse, Mesohippus is more similar to Hyracotherium than it is to modern horses (Equus). Mesohippus is only about twice the size of Hyracotherium (about the size of a largish dog), it had three well developed toes on each foot and teeth much more like Hyracotherium than Equus.
Here we have Hyracotherium (cast) on top and Mesohippus on the bottom (both on display at the Chicago Field Museum. Who are you going to believe, Biele or your own damn eyes?
Of course the coup de grâce on this question is that some creationists have come round to admitting that Hyracotherium is indeed part of the horse family (in their own somewhat stilted way):
Despite the negative correlation observed when comparing Hyracotherium directly to Equus, Hyracotherium positively correlates with Mesohippus, which positively correlates with Kalobatippus, which positively correlates with Parahippus, which positively correlates with Equus. Even by changing the probability cutoff from 0.05 to 0.25, the overall pattern remains. At p<0.25, Hyracotherium positively correlates with Miohippus, which positively correlates with Parahippus, which positively correlates with Equus. Thus, we can draw a “line” of correlation that links Hyracotherium and Equus. (Cavanaugh et al. 2003, p. 145)
So Biele needs to go explain to Cavanaugh et al that they are wrong about Hyracotherium “positively correlating” to Equus via Mesohippus etc.
Biele: Here are examples of prominent scientists rejecting the Marsh’s Textbook horse series…Evolutionist and Professor G.A. Kerkut… H.G. Coffin… Botanist H. Nilsson…
The problem is of these three citations only one is from a supposed paleontologist and that one is a young Earth creationist (YEC).
There are of course several paleontologists who work specifically on horses and other perissodactyls, but strangely creationists rarely if ever quote any of them. Instead they recycle the same old quotes over and over again.
Biele: Evolutionist and Professor G.A. Kerkut, in his book Implications of Evolution, writes about the horse series:
“The evolution of the horse provides one of the keystones in the teaching of evolutionary doctrine, though the actual story depends on who is telling it and when the story is being told. In fact, one could easily discuss the evolution of the story of the evolution of the horse. … In the first place, it is not clear that Hyracotherium was the ancestral horse”. G. A. Kerkut, Implications of Evolution, 1960, pg 149.
The next sentence after what Biele quotes here is:
Kerkut: Thus Simpson (1945) states, “Matthew has shown and insisted that Hyracotherium (including Eohippus) is so primitive that it is not much more definitively equid than tapirid, rhinocerotid, etc, but it is customary to place it at the root of the equid group.” (Kerkut 1960, p. 149)
What better evidence could there be for common ancestry of perissodactyls than the fact that as we trace the fossil forms back in time their appearance converges to such an extent that when we get to the time of Hyracotherium it is difficult to tell whether it is a “horse”, “rhino” or “tapir”?
“Comparison of the early members of four perissodactyl families. (A) Hyracotherium (Equoidea), (B) Hyrachyus (Rhinoceratoidea), (C) Heptodon (“Tapiroids”), (D) Eotitanops (Titanotheriomorpha).” Source: Taxonomy, Transitional Forms, and the Fossil Record by Keith Miller.
Biele: H.G. Coffin, Creation: Accident or Design? (1969), pp. 194-195. writes:
“The first animal in the series, Hyracotherium (Eohippus) is so different from the modern horse and so different from the next one in the series that there is a big question concerning its right to a place in the series … [It has] a slender face with the eyes midway along the side, the presence of canine teeth, and not much of a diastema [space between front teeth and back teeth], arched back and long tail.”
“Not much of a diastema” compared to a modern horse? The diastema in the horse is the gap between the grinding teeth in the back of the jaw and the biting teeth in the front. Let’s look at a Hyracotherium skull again but this time I will add an arrow for clarity:
As you can see despite Dr. Coffin’s claim Hyracotherium does indeed have a diastema much like a modern horse.
“The presence of canine teeth” makes it different from a modern horse? Once again I will add an arrow to highlight what we are talking about:
And again, as you can see, Dr. Coffin’s claim notwithstanding, modern horses still have canines just like Hyracotherium. However, in modern horses only the males usually have them. Sexual dimorphism of the canines is found in Hyracotherium as well, only not to the same extent. In Hyracotherium both sexes have canines but the males have larger canines than the females (Gingerich 1981).
These facts were not difficult to uncover. You have to wonder if they ever bothered to look at a Hyracotherium or a modern horse before they write these things. I doubt they do. Creationists as a group seem to be rather incurious about the natural world and only look for things that in their eyes contradict evolution in some way. This often means looking no further than a book or web page written by another creationist.
Whatever the case may be in this particular instance, it is clear that Dr. Coffin is not up to the task of competently analyzing the similarities (or lack thereof) between Hyracotherium and modern horses.
Biele: Botanist H. Nilsson maintains that while Hyracotherium does not resemble present-day horses in any way, they were remarkably similar to the present-day Hyrax. He writes (Synthetische Artbildung):
“The family tree of the horse is beautiful and continuous ONLY IN THE TEXTBOOKS [Emphasis mine]. In the reality provided by the results of research it is put together in three parts, of which only the last can be described as including the horses. The forms of the first part are just as much little horses as the present day damans are horses. The construction of the whole Cenozoic family tree of the horse is therefore a very artificial one, since it is put together from non-equivalent parts, and cannot therefore be a continuous transformation series.”
Nilsson was indeed a botanist who apparently went off the deep end towards the end of his career. In the book (written in German) that creationists quote from he proposed his alternative hypothesis to explain how life on Earth got to be the way it is. He believed that periodically through geologic time the Moon (and/or perhaps other planetary bodies) closely approached the Earth causing massive tidal waves to sweep over the entire planet, reducing all plant and animal life down to single cells (or less). These single cells then spontaneously reformed into new complex plants and animals.
The Cuisinart theory if you will:
Biele: In 1980, paleontologist Colin Patterson had the horse series removed from display at the British Museum in London, and geologist Dr. David Raup had Eohippus removed from the horse series display at the Field Museum in Chicago. Pressure from angry evolutionists forced Dr. Patterson to reinstate the horse display at the British Museum. These scientists were the Curators of their respective Museums at the time and believed the horse series to be grossly misleading the public.
There is no evidence that any of the above is true, save perhaps the last sentence which is something of an exaggeration. This set of nonsense seems to have originated with Biele himself. He posted an earlier version of this claim to the FidoNet Evolution Echo in 1994 (Elsberry 1994):
Colin Patterson had the horse series removed from display at the British Museum in London, and Dr. Raup had eohippus removed from the horse series display at his museum. (Biele 1994)
Biele popped up with a new version of this story a few years ago on an internet discussion forum. This time adding more detail –a time frame and claims of “pressure from dogmatic evolutionists”– which was not present in the version archived by Wesley Elsberry:
In 1980, Paleontologist and Curator at the British Museum in London, Colin Patterson had the horse series removed from the Museum’s display, and Dr. Raup had eohippus removed from the horse series display at the Field Museum in Chicago. Pressure from dogmatic evolutionists forced Dr. Patterson to reinstate the horse display at the British Museum. (Biele 2006)
As best I can tell (and Wesley concurs) Biele seems to have imagined this stuff after reading the following in a book by creationist Luther Sunderland:
Not only was there general agreement among the museum officials about the questionable nature of some of the scenarios made up in an attempt to explain the lack of fossil or living evidence to support macroevolution, but there was also agreement on the so-called horse series. This series, commonly shown in school textbooks, starts with a four-toed Hyracotherium, passes through several three-toed creatures, and ends with a single-toed modern horse. Dr. Patterson agreed that it was not really a series at all. Dr. Raup said that as more has been learned about the supposed evolution of the horse, more separate lineages have been recognized and it is far more complicated than early work indicated. He said that you do find lineages “on a small scale,” but his museum’s display omits the four-toed Hyracotherium completely and starts the display on horse evolution with a three-toed creature. (Sunderland 1988, pp. 80-81, emphasis mine)
Apparently in Biele’s mind “Dr. Patterson agreed that it was not really a series at all”, became: “…Patterson had the horse series removed from display…”, and the statement that Raup’s “…museum’s display omits the four-toed Hyracotherium completely…” became: “Raup had eohippus removed from the horse series display at his museum.”
I can only guess that this is where Biele gets this from as he supplies no references whatsoever in support of his claims.
However with due diligence in mind I contacted people at both museums. One gentleman who has been at the British Museum of Natural History (AKA The Natural History Museum) for 37 years told me that while some changes had been made a while back in the fossil mammal exhibit, Colin Patterson (1933–1998), who was a fish paleontologist, had no involvement in it at all. Apparently they did have at one time a classic evolution of the horse display but it was dismantled in the late 1980’s. However the fossil material was reused in a more inclusive “Discovering Mammals” gallery. They also currently have a “…interactive horse evolution exhibit, which features a diversity of ancient horse types including Hyracotherium.”
As for what Patterson thought about the fossil evidence for horse evolution including Hyracotherium, here is a quote from the second edition of his book Evolution which was published shortly after his death in 1998 (he died three days after delivering the final manuscript):
In several animal and plant groups enough fossils are known to bridge the wide gaps between existing types. In mammals, for example, the gap between horses, asses and zebras (genus Equus) and their closest living relatives, the rhinoceroses and tapirs, is filled by an extensive series of fossils extending back 60 million years to a small animal, Hyracotherium, which can be distinguished from the rhinoceros-tapir group only by one or two horse-like details of the skull. (Patterson 1999, p.108, emphasis mine)
And just to preempt any creationist conspiracy theories about unauthorized changes made after his death, the same comments appear in the first edition of this book as well (Patterson 1978, 131-133). Why, assuming he had that power, would Patterson have removed the horse evolution display from his museum but say this in his book?
As far as the Chicago Field Museum goes, a gentleman who works there informed me that his museum does “…have some fossil horses in [their] paleontology exhibit, and a mounted skeleton of Hyracotherium is among them [see photo above]. In the exhibit they are portrayed a bit more as part of ungulate evolution than the “classic” story of horse evolution.”
However they also have this display which they were kind enough to photograph it for me:
From left to right they have Hyracotherium, Mesohippus and Pliohippus.
The gentleman at the CFM told me that he had not heard of this claim regarding Raup and suggested that if there was any basis in fact to it at all it was possible:
…that the horse portion of the older exhibit was modified at some point so that it didn’t present the classic, erroneous story of horse evolution being an anagenetic progression towards larger body size, larger teeth, and fewer toes, but instead presented the more up-to-date theory that horses include several different lineages, each of which went its own way in terms of things like size or number of toes.
If I learn of anything new in regards to either museum I will post an update. And if any of my readers work at either museum, or have been to either museum recently, please let me know what you have seen there.
Biele: Finally, the Hyracotherium (Eohippus) has been utterly kicked out of the horse family by science. Horses fall under the scientific classification called perissodactyls. Reference: Phylogenetic systematics of basal perissodactyls Froehlich, DJ, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 1999, 19(1): 140
Here we have a classic case of a creationist shooting themselves in the foot by attempting to cite an actual expert on horse paleontology. Yes it is absolutely true that David Froehlich and some other paleontologists (Hooker 1994) argue that some of the fossils lumped together in the genus Hyracotherium should be removed from the base of the equid Family tree and placed in other branches of the Order perissodactyla. This includes the type species for the genus, H. leporinum originally described by Owen in 1841.
Froehlich, based on his cladistic analysis, argues that H. leporinum is a basal palaeothere (an extinct branch of the perissodactyls) rather than a basal equid.
Owen (1841) originally described this taxon. The name was subsequently applied to the North American early Eocene equid taxa (e.g. Cope, 1884; Wortman, 1896; Kitts, 1956). Several direct comparisons between the North American and European material (Earle, 1896; Forster-Cooper, 1932; Simpson, 1952) resulted in a consensus that Hyracotherium was applicable to the North American taxa. This orthodoxy was challenged by Hooker (1989, 1994) who argued that Hyracotherium leporinum was a basal palaeothere and thus the name could not be applicable to the North American material. This analysis confirms Hooker’s contention. (Froehlich 2002, p.183, emphasis mine)
But, and it’s a ginormous but, Froehlich also argues that the fossils O. C. Marsh originally assigned to the genus Eohippus (and those Cope assigned to Lophiotherium) do rightfully belong near the base of the equid Family tree and resurrects Marsh’s generic name for them. Along with Cope’s original species name it becomes Eohippus angustidens (and given their dislike for one another this no doubt has both Marsh and Cope spinning in their respective graves).
This means that Biele is right about Hyracotherium being removed from the horse family, but wrong about Eohippus (that ought to make his head explode).
Biele: What the rest about of the horse series? It is simply horses evolving into horses simply by expressing the rich variety of genetic traits contained in their genetic make up.
There is no evidence for any of this genetic mumbo jumbo that Biele is spouting here. No evidence that Mesohippus (which Biele apparently accepts is a member of the horse family) had built into its DNA the all the genetic information of modern Equus; None. This is pure ad hoc speculation on his part.
One obvious problem with the idea that ancient horses already had the genetic traits necessary for not only themselves but modern horses and everything in between (aside from the fact there is no independent evidence to support it in the first place) is that any unexpressed genes that might have been “front-loaded” into the original “horse” (Mesohippus?) would have been subject to mutation unchecked by stabilizing pressure from natural selection.
It is unreasonable to expect “front-loaded” genetic information for modern Equus to persist undamaged by mutation for millions of years until it was needed.
Oh wait; if Biele is a YEC (Answers in Genesis certainly are) then he doesn’t even accept the existence of millions of years of geologic time. In that case we are expected to believe that Noah’s Flood somehow sorted drowning horses into the pattern in which they are found in the fossil record. This would mean under Biele’s front-loaded genes hypothesis that somehow the Flood buried them according to which ‘pre-existing’ genes they had expressed, arranging them generally in order from most basal to most derived. That sure was one heck of a flood.
Biele: The diversity of sizes, shapes, and other variations of horses can easily be accounted for by natural selection favoring the expression of different existing genes existing in a changing environment. Another means of a change in gene expression is the loss of existing genes due to small population of a species becoming isolated, usually through migration. This causes them to be cut off from the larger gene pool of the much larger population of their species.
Natural selection always acts on existing genes, and these come into existence through mutation. Is Biele an evolutionist now? :)
Matthew, W.D. (1926) “The Evolution of the Horse: A Record and Its Interpretation” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 1(2):139-185 (click for larger version). [Via Laelaps]
Biele: Also, feeding habits, environmental changes can account for all horse size variation. Variations in sizes of living horses today are compatible to those of all horses of the past.
Again, size is only one difference between modern and fossil horses.
Biele: Long term trends in diet changes can also account for the tooth evolution observed in the fossil record. The presence of certain proteins in the diet can trigger the transformation of horse molars from cutting type to grazing type in the offspring.
This was a new one on me and once again Biele supplies no references to support his claim. However after several hours of Google mining I think I may have found the seed that spawned this idea in Biele’s head. I found the following by Jonathan Sarfati (a chemist) on the Answers in Genesis web site:
It’s possible that body size and tooth shape were also controlled by regulatory genes. This is supported by an experiment by Paul Sharpe and his colleagues on mouse embryos. They found that a single protein, called BMP-4, inhibits the gene that causes molars (back grinding teeth) to form, so incisors (cutting teeth) can grow instead. Without this protein, no incisors grew.
These mechanisms would explain the alleged horse evolutionary series as variation within the equine (horse) kind. (Sarfati 1999)
Unfortunately reading this doesn’t reduce the mind boggle. How does Sarfati get from mice embryos being artificially stimulated in a lab into growing molar teeth where they should have incisors, to horses naturally changing from brachydont dentition to hypsodont dentition (See chart above) through geologic time? I have no idea and I doubt Sarfati does either.
Biele: Many of the horse types are known to overlap and coexist at the same time and this overlapping continues to grow as more fossils are found. For example, in northeast Oregon, a three toed Neohipparian (type of Merychippus) and one toed Pliohippus (type of Equus) were found in the same rock layer, thus proving that one could have not evolved from one another.
Biele is on the verge of taxonomic word salad here. The genus Neohipparion is not a “type” of the genus Merychippus nor is the genus Pliohippus a type of the genus Equus. Rather both Neohipparion and Pliohippus are thought to have evolved out of separate branches of what is called the ‘merychippine complex'; a group of fossil types similar to Merychippus.
The merychippine complex has been divided into two main branches: Tribe Hipparionini and Tribe Equini (Waring 2002, p.11). Neohipparion is part of the Hipparionini, and Pliohippus (and Equus) are part of the Equini (MacFadden 1994, p. 100).
As for any of these being found to overlap in time, this proves absolutely nothing. No part of evolutionary theory demands that a parent species become extinct once it gives rise to a daughter species. Both parent and daughter can live side by side for long periods of time. Biele’s ‘logic’ here is essentially the same as arguing that your mother could not have given birth to you unless she died in childbirth.
Biele: The birth of three toed horses still happens today. O.C. Marsh himself noted that some horses in the American southwest had three toes of almost equal size, thus corresponding to the feet of the extinct Protohippus which allegedly roamed the Western US 15 million years ago.
This sort of occurrence is called an atavism. This is where a ancestral characteristic is re-expressed in living species. Other famous examples include humans occasionally being born with short tails. Such things are easily explicable under descent with modification (evolution) but not under creationism.
Biele: Paleontologist David Raup wrote:
“Darwin’s theory of natural selection has always been closely linked to evidence from fossils, and probably most people assume that the fossils provide a very important part of the general argument that is made in favor of Darwinian interpretations of the history of life. Unfortunately this is not strictly true. … The evidence we find in the geologic record is not nearly as compatible with Darwinian natural selection as we would like it to be. Darwin was completely aware of this. He was embarrassed by the fossil record, because it didn’t look the way he predicted it would, and, as a result, he devoted a long section of the ‘Origin of the Species’ to an attempt to explain and rationalize the differences. … Darwin’s general solution to the incompatibility of fossil evidence and his theory was to say the fossil record was a very incomplete one. … Well, we are now about 120 years after Darwin, and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter million fossil species, but the situation hasn’t changed much. The record of evolution is surprisingly jerky, and, ironically, we have fewer examples of evolutionary transition [Changes Over Time of species] than we had in Darwin’s time. By this I mean that some of the classic cases of Darwinian change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse, in North America, have had to be discarded or modified as a result of more detailed information – that what appeared to be a nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appears to be much more complex and much less gradualistic. So Darwin’s problem has not been alleviated….”
I wrote a detailed analysis of what Raup was talking about in the paper this is quoted from as a Talk Origins Archive feedback response, so rather than reinvent the wheel here I will simply direct those interested to a copy of that analysis on my personal web page (Troy Britain’s Creation/Evolution Locus).
At the end of it all the creationist machinations over whether or not Hyracotherium/Eohippus belongs at the base of the equid Family tree are moot because it has been supplanted as the most basal equid by a new fossil type called Sifrhippus. Let’s see how long it takes them to catch on.
Odds are if they ever do they’ll just go back and scratch out Hyracotherium and Eohippus and write in Sifrhippus using the same old tired arguments.
The Last Decade (More or Less) of Equid Paleobiology by Richard Hulbert
Horse Evolution by Kathleen Hunt
Is “Dawn Horse” a Hyrax? by Michael Hopkins
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