Consilience and whale evolution

Way, waaay back in December of 2005 (ye gods has been ten years already?!) I wrote a Feedback response on the Talk Origins Archive to a question about the vestigial pelvic bones found in modern whales. In this case the questioner did not believe them to be truly vestigial, no doubt due to holding erroneous beliefs regarding the subject. In my response I of course took the time to correct their faulty views, however I also used the opportunity to talk about the concept of consilience wherein multiple independent lines of evidence converge on a single explanation, giving us greatly increased confidence that those explanations (hypothesis/theories) are likely to be accurate reflections of reality, i.e. “true”. 

I have now and again thought of going back and using that post as a spring-board for a more detailed examination of this subject and who knows, I may still do so someday. In the meantime however, here is a great video from Stated Clearly that I ran across on Facebook recently that uses the same topic—whales—to essentially do the same thing I did all those years ago; make a point about the consilience of evidence pointing to a pretty definite conclusion with regards to not just the ancestry of cetaceans but the evolution of life in general. Better they include more details than I did and it has animations.

Check it out:

I miss answering the feedback question on Talk Origins…

Beware the Coursera bait and switch!


On July 30 I signed up on Coursera to take their “verified certificate” version of the course Evolution: A Course for Educators, taught by Joel Cracraft and David Randle of the American Museum of Natural History. I figured it would be fairly easy given my background and the certificate would add a little something to my resume. So, as I said, I signed up, paid the $29 fee for the certificate got an email receipt back from Coursera and waited for the class to start on Aug. 3rd.

Aug. 3rd quickly rolls around and I get another email, ostensibly from Cracraft & Randle, welcoming me to the course.


Then I tried to log in and start the course only to get a 404 error message telling me that the page for the course isn’t there.

I contact Coursera and they send back the usual “use X browser & clear your cache” troubleshooting message. I was already using browser X and I cleared my cache but this has no effect and I inform Coursera of this.

Next I get an email telling me that the course I signed up for has “changed format” (apparently in a matter of days) and that I needed to “un-enroll” from the old course, get my money back and then re-enroll in the new version.

One problem though, the new “format” is $20 more than the old one!

I suggest to them that since I already paid the price they had asked for (and got a receipt & welcoming email etc.) that they should allow me access to the course.

They responded by refunding my money and telling me (in corporate happy talk) that it was too damn bad and that if I wanted to take the course I would have to cough up $49 dollars, going so far as to suggest that I look into their financial aide services if I thought that would help.

Well, instead of paying more money I am telling everyone I know about their bait and switch and asking that you pass this on on Facebook and Twitter and the like. Thanks!

By the way, does anyone out there know Cracraft or Randle? I wonder what they would think of how Coursera treats their would-be students. 

[And I was so looking forward to the Dinosaur Paleobiology course they offer as well…]

And now a little poorly concealed bragging



Last weekend while I was awaiting delivery of my copy of Cambridge University historian of science Nick Hopwood‘s new book Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (2015) on 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel and his (in)famous embryo illustrations, (which I have written about a few times here an PCWP and elsewhere), I got a Facebook notification that I had been “tagged” in a post by my friend (in real life, not just Facebook) and colleague Dr. Nick Matzke. The somewhat cryptic post said the following:

Hey look who’s in the acknowledgements – Troy Britain

Attached to this comment was the following picture:


Thereafter the comments conversation between Nick M. and I went like this:

Me: Wait, wait, wait, this isn’t Hopwood’s new book is it (my copy is in route)?!

NickYep it is!!

Me: Holy crap!

Nick: Immortality!

Apparently Professor Hopwood was kind enough to mention me (and Nick Matzke as well) in the acknowledgements section of his new book (page 304).

 The relevant section reads as follows:

For crucial pieces of advice, I thank Thomas Brandstetter, Troy Britain, Solveig Jülich, Ron Ladouceur, Nick Matzke, Signe Nipper Nielsen, Ron Numbers, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, and Constance Sommerey…

Quite an honor! All the more given the company of people like Nick Matzke, Ron Numbers and the rest.

Thank you Prof. Hopwood, you are too kind! And thank you for writing this book! It needed to be done and I look forward to reading it (or rather the rest of it, I’m up to chap. 3 already)!


Happy Lincoln & Darwin Day!

The Emancipator and the Evolutionizer, together again!!!

Happy Lincoln & Darwin Day everyone!!!

Lincol_Darwin_day - Copy

A cheeky new Evo-T

Evolutionists Do It… With increasing complexity and diversity.


A brand new Evo-T inspired by an old National Center for Science Education bumper sticker, it comes in both men’s and women’s sizes and is sure to have creationists everywhere clutching their pearls in horror.

You know what comes next…

Buy now!

Bye now!

Biologists Confirm God Evolved From Chimpanzee Deity – The Onion

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Onion:

Biologists Confirm God Evolved From Chimpanzee Deity

BERKELEY, CA—Challenging long-held views on the origins of divinity, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, presented findings Thursday that confirm God, the Almighty Creator of the Universe, evolved from an ancient chimpanzee deity. [Continue Reading at The Onion]


New page for creationist questions!

I have just added a whole new page to the blog just for creationists to ask questions. Just click on the tab above to take a look. Please DO NOT post your questions in the comments thread of THIS post, rather enter them into the comments of the creationist questions page. Thank you.sm_question-mark

The Carnival of Evolution #66 is up!

Or rather it has been up since the 1st of December… [sigh] Yes, I am that pathetic. However, I couldn’t let another month go by with my failing to fulfill my CoE obligation especially given that this edition of the Carnival is being hosted by my friend and colleague the inestimable John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts (which you should be reading regularly anyway).

Another selling point for this CoE is, as the presence of the TARDIS (over there on the left of this post) indicates, the Carnival of Evolution is yet again going under a Doctor Who theme. This time it is The Day of the Doctor..of Evolution! Lots of evolutionary goodness, so go and check it out!

Besides, if you don’t the Cybermen will win!

Though I have been neglectful of my participation in the Carnival of Evolution you can still find all the previous installments at this link.  Go and read!

All in the family

Credit: M.F. Bonnan via "I f***ing love science (on Facebook).

Credit: M.F. Bonnan via “I f***ing love science (on Facebook).

Yes, exactly! A significant percentage of the population (cough, creationists, cough) doesn’t understand that the evolutionary relationships between species is a lot like that between extended family members; just over a much longer time scale. Phylogeny is primarily a branching (family) tree-like pattern, not a single file, ladder-like, progression (cladogenesis vs. anagenesis).

Addendum: It has been pointed out to me that the cartoons depiction of a family “tree” superimposed on a cladogram is somewhat inapt and I absolutely agree that the cartoon is by no means a perfect analogy (comparing speciation, species giving rise to new species, with two parents coming together and bearing children). However, I think it gets the idea across much better than the linear iconography that has become so entrenched in peoples minds. Especially, I think, concerning the relationships between fairly closely related species like between chimps and humans. People incorrectly tend to think of humans as somehow being directly descended from chimps rather than our being “cousins” descended from a common “grandparent” (that was probably somewhat chimp-like in appearance).

Once you grok this fact you will understand what is fundamentally wrongheaded about questions like: “If humans evolved from [share a common ancestor with] apes why are there still apes?”

This sort of question is, except for the timescale involved, just like asking: “If you and your cousin share a common ancestor (grandmother), how can you both exist at the same time?”

Understanding this also answers the common creationist objection against many transitional fossil series based on species overlapping in time. For example:

“Early” horses have been preserved in strata from the same evolutionary age as several ‘”later” horses

Hyracotherium/Eohippus and Orohippus do for instance appear in the fossil record at the same time as Epihippus. Mesohippus and Miohippus appear together with Merychippus and Parahippus. Almost all other horses (with a possible exception of one or two)—Parahippus, Merychippus, Pliohippus, Equus and possibly also Miohippus—are represented at the same time during much of the period when they have been found as fossils.16 (But especially in the newer evolutionary schemes, different names have been given to very similar animals, giving the appearence of evolution as well as providing fame to their discoverers; see examples in Froehlich 20029 and MacFadden 20054). Fossils of Hyracotherium (sic) have also been found very high up in the strata (Pliocene), but these findings have been rejected as reworked (i.e. eroded and deposited at a later strata) in spite of the fact that the geological observations do not show any signs of disturbance.17 Thus, the fact that most of the horses lived almost at the same time undermines their proposed evolution. (Molén, 2009, emphasis mine)

Buzzzt, sorry but that is incorrect, thank you for playing, here is a home version of our game as a consolation prize.*

The coexistence of two genera of horses does nothing to undermine their evolutionary relationship any more than your grandparent or cousin coexisting with you undermines your familial relationship.

Evolution does not require that a parent species become extinct after a speciation event (after it gives “birth” to a new daughter species) nor does it require that once two lineages split apart that both will change at the same rate or in the same direction.

Fossil species A could be directly ancestral to species B, persisting relatively unchanged after the two lineages have split. Or species A could be a cousin to species B that only strongly resembles an as yet undiscovered common grandparent species. Such distinction are very difficult to make in fossil organisms.

[* Note: This is not even close to a comprehensive dissection of the problems with quoted article or even this paragraph.]


Molén, Mats (2009) “The evolution of the horse“, Journal of Creation 23(2):59–63 (downloaded on 9-14-2013)

The Carnival of Evolution #59 is up!

Yes, the Carnival of Evolution LIX is up and waiting for your visit from wherever in the nigh on infinite reaches of time/space you might happen to be reading this from. This month it is being hosted at DNA Barcoding, and is titled “A letter from the Doctor”.

Now go check it out or the Daleks will win!I have been shamefully neglectful of my participation of the Carnival of Evolution but all the previous installments can be found here. If you missed any of these you’ll definitely want to go check them out as well!