The Institute for Creation Research has presented the world with another taxonomic turd from the cat box of creationist wisdom. This time it comes from ICR’s “Senior Science Lecturer” Frank Sherwin. However before I get to the main event, I want to take a closer look at the litter in which Mr. Sherwin’s little jewel is nestled.
In the February (2010) issue of ICR’s monthly Acts & Facts Mr. Sherwin (whose background is in parasitology) graced us with an article titled “Darwinism’s Rubber Ruler” in which he argues that descent with modification is untestable and that “any and all scientific evidence” can be “stretched to fit” the theory.
The first thing that comes to my mind when reading this is to ask: if this is so, then how is it that I could have in my personal collection literally hundreds of books and pamphlets, many of them originating from Mr. Sherwin’s organization, that purport to contain absolutely scads of evidence that contradict evolutionary theory?
How about Dr. Duane Gish’s (the emeritus vice president of ICR) books Evolution the Fossils Say NO! (1978) and the update Evolution: the fossils STILL say NO! (1995)? How can the fossils say “no” to evolution if any scientific evidence (in this case fossils) can be “stretched to fit” the theory?
This whole argument is of course total rubbish, as there are any number of observations, any number of facts that could, if confirmed, throw evolutionary theory into serious doubt (‘Precambrian rabbit‘ anyone?). And this is why (amongst other things) creationists have made a cottage industry out of trying to discover what are known as ‘Ooparts‘ (out of place artifacts) such as dinosaur footprints along side human footprints in strata dated to the Mesozoic (an argument that ICR has tended to shy away from in recent years after most of the claimed examples were shown to be either fraudulent or mistaken).
Another example of an ‘oopart’ might be a bronze hand-bell supposedly found in coal dated to the Carboniferous period (300 million years ago) which, as it happens, is featured in an article by ICR president Dr. John Morris on the page immediately preceding Mr. Sherwin’s article. Dr. Morris states therein that “there are some fossils, however, that cannot be made to fit the evolutionary timeline at all” (Morris 2010, p.16).
Perhaps Mr. Sherwin and Dr. Morris might want to get together and figure out which way they want to go with this whole ‘evolution is unfalsifiable/evolution has been falsified’ thing.
For more evolution and testability see:
- The Index to Creationist Claims – Claim CA211: “Any fact can be fit into the theory of evolution. Therefore, evolution is not falsifiable and is not a proper scientific theory.”
- 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent (1999-2006) by Douglas Theobald.
- Evolution and Philosophy: An Introduction (1997) by John Wilkins.
- Evolution and Testability (1986) by Peter Hutcheson.
However let us set aside this contradiction for the moment and look at some of the things that Mr. Sherwin presents as evidence of evolutionary theory’s supposed unfalsifiability:
Sherwin: Darwinism’s plasticity is also seen in Stephen Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, which was invented to “explain” the lack of credible transitional links in the fossil record. He proposed that species are stable for eons, then transmutate from one body plan to another so fast that the changes are not captured in the rock record.2 In this case, no ruler is even needed, since there’s essentially nothing to measure. (Sherwin 2010, p. 17)
To quote the proverbial bowl of petunias: “Oh no, not again”.
This is one of those creationist mischaracterizations of a scientific idea that is just doesn’t seem to want to die no matter how many times you drive a stake through its evil little heart.
The paper that Sherwin cites in support of his statements is the late Stephen Jay Gould‘s (1941-2002): “Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?” (1980), which was published in the journal Paleobiology. In the article Gould is arguing in support of a couple of what were his pet ideas, primarily a hierarchical view of selection (that macroevolutionary patterns cannot be explained solely by allelic substitution) and macromutations (mutations which alter the embryological development process leading potentially to relatively large changes in the adult organism in a single generation).
He does mention punctuated equilibrium but it is not the focus of the article and neither hierarchical selection nor macromutations are part of punctuated equilibrium theory, which is simply an extrapolation of what the fine grained (species to species level) fossil record ought to look like based on standard Neo-Darwinian Synthesis ideas about speciation. See: “Punctuated Equilibria” (1996-2004) by Wesley R. Elsberry for an excellent explanation of punk eek.
Now I could quote, as I have done countless times before, from one of Gould’s other popular essays wherein he completely refutes these canards about punctuated equilibrium (Gould 1983, pp.253-262), but instead let’s look at another article by Dr. John Morris in the very same issue of Acts & Facts as Sherwin’s that also mentions punctuated equilibrium. Dr. Morris:
The species changes touted by punctuated equilibrium that we do see are either common variation of individual offspring, or adaptation of a population to differing conditions. Punctuated equilibrium doesn’t even address the larger changes needed for meaningful evolution. (Morris 2010, p. 12)
So, even Sherwin’s boss at ICR, in the same issue of same newsletter refutes Sherwin’s characterization of punctuated equilibrium as being about rapid wholesale changes in body plan! In fact Morris’ characterization of punk eek is surprisingly closer to reality than I have seen from creationists since, well since ever. Usually they wrongly equate it with the late geneticist Richard Goldschmidt’s (1878-1958) “hopeful monster” theory or similar hypotheses involving macromutations (Morris & Morris 1996, pp.101-104). Morris has finally apparently gotten the message (at least for the momment) after decades of having it, metaphorically, beaten into his skull that punk eek isn’t about large scale changes. But Sherwin apparently hasn’t gotten the memo and is continuing the old creationist party line. Again, these guys really do need to get on the same page.
Alright, so according to Dr. Morris punk eek is not about sudden changes in body plan, nor does the Gould article ascribe to punctuated equilibrium the characteristics that Sherwin gives it; could it be however that Gould did advocate geologically ‘sudden’ changes from one “body plan” to another, though perhaps in the context of macromutations rather than punk eek?
No it couldn’t. In fact Gould specifically renounces this concept in the article Sherwin cites:
I do not doubt the supreme importance of preadaptation, but the other alternative, treated with caution, reluctance, disdain or even fear by the modern synthesis, now deserves a rehearing in the light of renewed interest in development: perhaps, in many cases, the intermediates never existed. I do not refer to the saltational origin of entire new designs, complete in all their complex and integrated features―a fantasy that would be truly anti-Darwinian in denying any creativity to selection and relegating it to the role of eliminating old models. Instead, I envisage a potential saltational origin for the essential features of key adaptations. Why may we not imagine that gill arch bones of an ancestral agnathan moved forward in one step to surround the mouth and form proto-jaws? Such a change would scarcely establish the Bauplan of the gnathostomes. So much more must be altered in the reconstruction of agnathan design―the building of a true shoulder girdle with bony, paired appendages, to say the least. But the discontinuous origin of a proto-jaw might set up new regimes of development and selection that would quickly lead to other, coordinated modifications. (Gould 1980, p. 127, emphasis mine)
Apparently Mr. Sherwin didn’t bother to read article he chose to cite.
Sherwin then talks about a couple other issues regarding natural selection. Like how it is supposedly contradicted by cooperative behavior in humans and other animals, or by seeming exceptions wherein less aggressive species can sometimes out survive more aggressive ones in particular circumstances (‘truels‘ for example, where three species are competing in a particular environment and the two more aggressive species cancel each other out leaving the less aggressive species ahead of the game.), but natural selection is so well documented in both the lab and the wild so that even creationists rarely question it, I won’t bore you with a refutation. Sherwin also cites something about evolution always being about increasing complexity but this is simply not the case and I’m not going to bother with that either.
Perhaps the main focus of the Sherwin’s article though, is about how sometimes evolution goes “backward” which Sherwin apparently believes makes it more untestable. First we’ll look at his example from paleoanthropology:
Sherwin: Indeed, it’s thought that even human evolution may have gone backward. Science writer J. N. Wilford reported, “Australopithecus africanus, which lived in southern Africa, had more archaic, apelike arms and legs than the earlier A. afarensis.” Wilford quoted evolutionists Drs. Henry McHenry and Lee Berger as saying, “For Lucy and her kind to evolve into descendants with more apelike limbs…evolution would have to go backward, which rarely happens.”
This turns out to be yet another case of creationist quote-mining as the very next paragraph goes on to say:
In a popular account of the findings in the August issue of National Geographic magazine, Dr. Berger said it was more likely that africanus did not descend from afarensis but that the two species evolved separately. They were apparently “sister species that share a missing-link ancestor.”
Thus, only one of them could have been a direct ancestor of humans, Dr. Berger said, and africanus seemed more likely to have been that ancestor. It had developed a larger brain and somewhat more humanlike face and teeth than afarensis. Although the fossil evidence is scrappy, the first members of the Homo genus, Homo habilis, appeared to have had long arms and short legs, not unlike africanus. (Wilford 1998, p. F6, emphasis mine)
So the scientists that Sherwin is citing to show that evolution supposedly goes “backward” actually don’t think that is the most likely scenario. Now, other paleoanthropologists might disagree with Berger & McHenry’s views on the path of human phylogeny but that is neither here nor there, it was their views that Sherwin was citing to support his contention and their comments, when read in context, simply do not support his implication.
Sherwin: Doesn’t man’s supposed journey from a single-celled ancestor clearly imply an upward progression from one kind to another? Not necessarily–now some scientists have surmised that evolution goes backward. Diapsids are considered “primitive reptiles,” from which crocodiles and dinosaurs supposedly evolved.
OK first a little background for those not familiar with the taxonomic groups involved here. What we have are three basic sorts of amniotes (vertebrates whose eggs posses an amnion) the anapsids (not mentioned by Sherwin) synapsids and diapsids. These terms refer to the number of temporal fenestrae (‘windows’ or holes) in the skulls of the vertebrates behind the orbit of the eye:
A) Anapsids = 0 holes.
B) Synapsids = 1 pair of holes.
C) Diapsids = 2 pairs of holes.
Basal amniotes, the earliest known from the fossil record, lack any opening in the skull and therefore are anapsids. Turtles also lack any temporal fenestrae however this might have been later evolutionary change (sort of like the “backwards” evolution Sherwin was looking for).
This fact makes Mr. Sherwin’s crack about diapsids reptiles “supposedly evolving” into crocodiles and dinosaurs nonsensical. Crocodiles and dinosaurs are diapsids by classification whether or not they evolved from earlier diapsids, in the same way they are also amniotes and reptiles and archosaurs. The same way humans are amniotes, synapsids, therapsids and mammals.
But that was just the warm up, now we move on to what you’ve all been waiting for, the really, really, jaw-dropping absurdity Mr. Sherwin wanted to share with us:
Sherwin: They are also seen as the ancestors of synapsids, some of which are believed to have evolved backward to become birds and dinosaurs. But others are thought to have maintained their synapsid anatomical features and evolved into people. The ruler must look like a Mobius strip if it can accommodate these possibilities.
First, diapsids are not seen as ancestors of synapsids, rather synapsids and diapsids are thought to have arisen independently from anapsid ancestors, with synapsids and the reptilian ancestors of diapsids evolving at around the same time. Sherwin needed only to have cracked a vertebrate paleontology textbook written anytime within the last century to learn this.
Here are a few examples:
We know now that the earliest reptile lived in the Early Carboniferous, and that three major groups of reptiles had diverged by the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian (Figure 10.1). The earliest reptiles had anapsid skulls (they had no openings behind the eye)(Figure 10.2, left). This character was inherited from fishes and amphibians, so it is primitive. The two major reptile clades have derived or advanced skull types in which there are one or two large openings behind the eye socket. Synapsids (with one skull opening behind the eye socket)(Figure 10.2, right), evolved first, from an anapsid ancestor that we have not yet discovered. Synapsids include the Late Paleozoic pelycosaurs and their descendants, the therapsids and mammals. We know that synapsids evolved first because they never evolved the water-saving capacity to excrete uric acid rather than urea, a character that occurs in all other amniote groups (Figure 10.1). Synapsids dominated Late Paleozoic land faunas.
Some time later the diapsids evolved (with two skull openings behind the eye socket)(Figure 10.2, center). Diapsids include the dominant land-going groups of the Mesozoic, including dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and all living amniotes except mammals. (Richard Cowen 2000, p. 154, emphasis mine)
Both the earliest synapsids (Protoclepsydrops from the early Carboniferous and Archaeothyris from the middle Carboniferous) and the earliest reptiles (Westlothiana, Hylonomus, and Paleothyris) are known from deposits of about same age, suggesting that synapsids and reptiles are separate, contemporaneous branches, not ancestor and descendants. (The earliest animal widely regarded as a diapsid, Petrolacosaurus, is known from the late Carboniferous.) This pattern of relationships is supported by a wide variety of other characters. Synapsids are not “mammal-like reptiles,” but a separate clade that split off very early from the branch that led to the groups we recognize as reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and their extinct relatives). (Prothero 1998 p. 367, emphasis mine)
Amniotes can be broadly classified on the basis of the pattern of openings in the dermal skull roof behind the orbits (Figure 10-11). In primitive amniotes, this area is completely covered by bone. This pattern in termed anapsid and forms the basis for the subclass Anapsida, including the Captorhinida as a primitive stock. The turtles are typically included among the anapsids since they retain a continuous bony covering behind the orbits.
The first group to diverge from the ancestral stock were the synapsids (Figure 10-12). This group, also termed the mammal-like reptiles, includes the ancestors of mammals. They have a single pair of openings located low in the cheek and bordered by the jugal, squamosal, and postorbital. The synapsids were the first group of amniotes to become abundant and diversified. Members had achieved large body size and differentiated into a range of habitats by the late Carboniferous.There subsequent evolution is discussed in Chapter 17.
Late in the Pennsylvanian, a second major group diverged from the basal anapsid stock: Diapsida. Diapsids are characterized by the presence of two pairs of temporal openings ―one pair located ventral to the postorbital, like that of synapsids, and a second pair dorsal to the postorbital and squamosal and lateral to the parietal. The major groups of Mesozoic amniotes, including the dinosaurs and the pterosaurs, arose from the base of the diapsids stock. (Carroll 1988, pp. 199-200, emphasis mine)
Certain of the Cotylosauria (Diadectes) show rudimentary supratemporal openings; according to the recent observations of Case these are variable in the Permian Cotylosaurs of Texas, in certain cases being present on one side and not on the other. These rudimentary openings support the theory of fenestration as well as the theory that the Cotylosauria are the source of both the Diapsida and Synapsida.
[…] Morphologically the Cotylosauria pass so directly into the Anomodontia and other Synapsida that English anatomists actually embrace the order within the Anomodontia. Theoretically, however, they constitute a far more primitive group, which will undoubtedly be found to include some of the Carboniferous animals which are now placed with the Stegocephala. The passage from the Stegocephala to the Cotylosauria, so far as the skull is concerned, is theoretically a simple one, involving only the reduction of the parasphenoid, the corresponding ossification of the basioccipitals, the substitution of a median basioccipital or tripartite (basi- and exoccipital) condyle for the widely separated and exclusively exoccipital condyles of the Stegocephala. Similarly in the vertebral column the hypocentra are reduced, the paired pleurocentra are united into a single centrum, etc.
Theoretically also the Cotylosauria gave rise by the lateral compression of the skull and the precocious formation of superior and lateral temporal fenestre, through such a type as Procolophon, to the Diapsida, but there is no further evidence that such a transition took place except by inference from the possession of a number of primitive characters in common by the Synapsida and Diapsida. (Osborn 1903, pp. 456-457, emphasis mine, emphasis original)
It is the common inheritance of these primitive characters from Cotylosaurian or Stegocephalian ancestors, in the Permian and lower Triassic members of the two subclasses which has formed the deceptive basis of the monophyletic theory, namely, that such orders as the Sauropterygia and Testudinata sprang from Protorosaurian, Proganosaurian, or primitive Rhynchocephalian ancestors.
This monophyletic theory is rendered untenable by a consideration of the divergent characters which clearly distinguish the earliest known members of these two subclasses. [synapsids & diapsids -TB] These are of two kinds: (1) fundamental divergences, such as the structures which show that the Testudinata, Sauropterygia, Anomodontia [synapsids -TB] and Mammalia never passed through a Diapsidan stage; (2) progressive divergences, illustrated in the different trend of structural modification and development in the two subclasses, ―in the coracoid region for example. (ibid, p. 458, emphasis mine, emphasis original)
In all Synapsidan types above the Cotylosauria the squamosals and prosquamosals early coalesce (Fig. 4); they are peculiarly arched in certain of the Anomodonts, but the dominant feature is that they form a firm lateral attachment to the quadrate, more or less covering this element and invading the glenoid facet (Fig. 5). Correlated with this firm outer support may be the fact that in Testudinata and Plesiosauria the opisthotics tend to remain suturally distinct from the exoccipitals. In the Diapsida, on the other hand, the quadrates are never so firmly supported externally; the degeneration of the lower arch leads into the streptostylic condition and the opisthotics firmly unite with the exoccipitals. In the above characters we have very strong evidence of independent derivation from Cotylosaurian ancestors; neither the Synapsidan nor Diapsidan types being derivable from each other. (ibid, 460, emphasis mine)
Now let me give the devil what very little he has due. In this last set of quotes, Osborn made reference to something he called the “monophyletic theory”, and indeed this appears to be a reference to an earlier (19th century) hypothesis that synapsids may have been derived from diapsids. And in fact I did find two references to this in a couple later works. For example there is the following:
The term synapsid, meaning ‘fused arch’, is actually a misnomer, due to the fact that early workers believed, wrongly, that the single arch was formed from the fusion of the two seen in diapsids. (Young 1962, p. 392)
Nevertheless I should think I have decisively established that few if any biologists or paleontologists have argued that synapsids evolved from diapsids for at least a hundred years, claiming otherwise is intellectually dishonest at best.
Now we come to the Pièce de résistance. In addition to inaccurately claiming that evolutionists see synapsids has having evolved from diapsids, he also states that some synapsids are “…believed to have evolved backward to become birds and dinosaurs“.
I am finding it difficult to think of how to describe just how bizarre this statement is, so let’s look at a phylogenetic tree of amniotes with some colored arrows to graphically illustrate the problem (click for larger version and my apologies to the color blind).
Colored dots mark actual divergence points: red = synapsids/other amniotes, green = diapsid reptiles/extinct reptile types, blue = dinosaurs and pterosaurs/crocodiles, fuchsia = birds/other theropod dinosaurs. Arrows indicate direction of Sherwin’s scenario.
If I am following him, Sherwin is saying that evolutionists supposedly believe that synapsids (mammals and their extinct ancestors and relatives) evolved from diapsid reptiles of some sort (orange arrow) and that then some these synapsids “evolved backward” into diapsid dinosaurs and by extension birds (teal arrow).
This is absolute nonsense, nonsense on roller-skates. It’s so bad that it brings to mind the famous quip by physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) “Not only is it not right, it’s not even wrong!”
As you can see by looking at the originals tree (in black), birds are dinosaurs, which are archosaurs, which are diapsids, which are amniotes and (though this particular tree doesn’t have these details) primates, including humans, are mammals, which are therapsids, which are synapsids, which are also amniotes. There has been no going “backwards”, no crossing over from one lineage to the other, or from one classification to the other (whatever that might mean) since synapsida and reptilia diverged sometime in the early Carboniferous. No sane biologist or paleontologist has ever suggested otherwise because it makes no evolutionary or taxonomic sense.
One can only conclude from Mr. Sherwin’s implying otherwise, that he is either utterly and completely ignorant of both the taxonomy of vertebrates and their evolutionary history (even if he doesn’t believe there was such history), or he’s being deliberately dishonest with his readers.
Sherwin: Macroevolution is too malleable to be scientific. Conflicting data can always be made to fit by flexing its rubber ruler.
I can see how you might think that if you really believed that this claptrap, which you’ve apparently pulled out of your anal orifice, was part of actual evolutionary theory.
Bellairs, Angus d’A. (1968) Reptiles, Hutchinson University Library
Cracraft, Joel & Donoghue, Michael J. (2004) Assembling the Tree of Life, Oxford University Press, p.452
Carroll, Robert L. (1988) Vertebrate Paleontology And Evolution, W. H. Freeman And Company
Cowen, Richard (2000) History of Life (3rd edition) Blackwell Publishing
Gould, Stephen Jay (1980) “Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?” Paleobiology. 6 (1): 119-130.
Gould, Stephen Jay (1983) Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, W.W. Norton, New York, London
Hotton, Nicholas (1968) The Evidence of Evolution, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. N.Y.
Morris, Henry M. & Morris, John D. (1996) The Modern Creationist Trilogy – Science & Creation (Vol. 2), Master Books
Morris, John (2010) “An Amazing Anomalous Fossil“, Acts & Facts, 39 (2): 16
Morris, John (2010) “The Real Nature of the Fossil Record“, Acts & Facts, 39 (2): 12-14
Osborn, Herny Fairfield (1903) “The reptilian subclasses Diapsida and Synapsida and the early history of the Diaptosauria“, Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, vol.1 prt. 8, pp.449-519
Prothero, Donald R. (1998) Bringing Fossils To Life: An Introduction To Paleobiology, WCB/McGraw-Hill
Romer, Alfred Sherwood (1945) Vertebrate Paleontology, The University Of Chicago Press
Romer, Alfred Sherwood (1959) The Vertebrate Story (4th Edition), The University of Chicago Press
Sherwin, Frank (2010) “Darwinism’s Rubber Ruler”, Acts & Facts, 39 (2): 17.
Wilford, John Nobel (1998) “New Analysis of Fossils May Muddy Accepted Path of Human Evolution“, The New York Times, July 28, 1998.
Young, John Zachary (1962) The Life Of Vertebrates, Oxford University Press, N.Y.
Erratum (or should that be errata? Joke.): When I plugged in the title of this post I cut and paste the word ‘fenestrae’ into it. The problem is that this is the plural for fenestra (singular), which is more accurate for my play on words (hole in the head/fenestra in the head). Once my typo was pointed out (thanks Don) I fixed it in the title but with WordPress the title of the post is incorporated into the URL address of the post so I am unable to change this without messing up any links that may have been made to the post in the intervening time. It’s all good though, as unlike many antievolutionists I am willing to admit my errors and don’t need to send all evidence of them down the memory-fenestra, er, hole. Anyway, mea maxima culpa.