It’s a problem

Thoughts from Steven: The Problem with Transitional Forms

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In the past week, I have seen two creationist programs that presented the lack of transitional fossils as a major weakness of evolutionism. One was Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels, which used the Tiktaalik as the example of a supposed transitional form and the other was Unlocking the Mysteries of Genesis, Buried Clues, which focused on Archaeopteryx. The former program is from Creation Ministries International and the latter is from The Institute for Creation Research.

In case you are unfamiliar with the argument that the fossil record contradicts evolution because it lacks transitional forms, it goes like this. When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the fossil record was very incomplete. Darwin recognized that there were no examples of transitional forms when he wrote his book, but he trusted that there would be a future discovery of such fossils. There are no undisputed transitional fossils, so even 150 years after Darwin, the fossils still fail to support the theory of evolution.

To provide some background, Tiktaalik is a creature with an amphibian-like skull and fish-like fins. It is considered to be a transitional form between fish and tetrapods (tetrapod is a term that refers to all of the vertebrates apart from fish). Archaeopteryx is the famous transitional fossil which is thought to lie between dinosaurs and birds. It has been referred to as the first bird and it has feathers and wings but has teeth in its beak; a long, bony tail; and long, clawed fingers.

Both Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels and Buried Clues made similar arguments. The transitional fossils are out of order. Fossil footprints of a tetrapod have been found in layers that are supposedly older than Tiktaalik, so how can it be the ancestor of tetrapods if they existed before it did? It is claimed that there are modern birds in layers that are supposedly older than Archaeopteryx,i so again, how can it be the ancestor of things that were already in existence? Moreover, all of these fossils arise suddenly in the fossil record and they persist unchanged for long periods of time. Rather than presenting examples of the “tree of life,” these transitional forms present evidence for the “orchard of life.” The orchard of life is the idea that God created separate kinds and that these kinds diversified into multiple species. Rather than all life tracing their lineages back to a single ancestral species, all species trace their origins back to separate and distinct kinds.

Recall in the last blog how facts do not speak for themselves but rather they are subject to interpretation? Such is the case on both sides of the isle on the topic of transitional forms. It is certainly true that certain transitional forms are hard for evolutionists to explain. There are widely acknowledged to be tetrapod footprints that supposedly predate Tiktaalik by millions of years, placing the earliest evidence of the descendant before the earliest evidence of the ancestor. Archaeopteryx’s position has fluctuated quite a bit with recent finds. There are some paleontologists who now consider it to be a dinosaur, rather than a bird, but still claim that it is representative of the lineage to birds. Yes, the fossils do not show a neat series of transitions between different animal groups.

On the other hand, the creationists arguments are oversimplified. In addition to Archaeopteryx, one must also consider other creatures, such as Microraptor, Anchiornis, Caudipteryx, Epidepteryx, Yi qi, and several others. All of these creatures are considered dinosaurs by (most) authors but are considered as birds by other authors. The confusion works both ways here: there may be no neat lineage from dinosaurs to birds, but then again, we can not even identify whether a particular fossil is a bird or a dinosaur. How can we claim that things appear abruptly and persist according to distinct kinds if we cannot even identify the nature of the animals?

On the topic of kinds “appearing” in the fossils record, some of these transitional forms are very rare and only appear in small localities. Take Archaeopteryx, for instance. There are only eleven specimens and all of them come from the Solnhofen Limestone in Germany. Because they are limited to one locality, the possibility exists that these specimens represent only one or a couple of populations of Archaeopteryx. Are eleven specimens from one population enough to claim that they belong to one kind and persist as a single kind? Probably not. In order to make the claim that fossils appear suddenly and persist in the fossil record unchanged, a creationist must take his ideology to the table. He must assume that a handful of specimens is sufficient to identify an entire kind and that it is sufficient evidence to conclude that said kind cannot interbreed with other kinds. While I would agree with my fellow creationists that Archaeopteryx belonged to a unique kind that did not interbreed with other kinds, I can only have confidence in that statement because that is what the Bible says. The fossil record is too messy and lacks too much clarity for me to claim that is the only way to interpret the fossils.

On their side of things, evolutionists have ways to account for supposed discrepancies. Take Tiktaalik as an example. There are surely tetrapod footprints found in lower layers. Evolutionists acknowledge this: they do not cover up that evidence or hide it. Why do they continue to claim that Tiktaalik is a transitional form? They cite the messiness and incompleteness of the fossil record. They refer to “ghost lineages.” They claim that Tiktaalik, or something like it, must have been the ancestor of tetrapods simply because of its anatomy. As such, Tiktaalik or a similar creature must have predated the tetrapod footprints, we just haven’t found their remains yet. This supposed existence of the Tiktaalik lineage where it is not found is called a ghost lineage. Similar to Archaeopteryx, the remains of Tiktaalik appear to be from a single locality. In other words, there is a limited amount of data about this creature so it is not outside of the realm of possibility to suggest that some fossils are missing. Matter of fact, we know  that some fossils are missing because there weren’t any body fossils  found with the tetrapod footprints. Whatever type of tetrapod made those prints, we are missing its skeleton. Maybe Tiktaalik skeletons are missing as well.

I know, the evolutionist’s explanation of ghost lineages is supposition based on a prior bias. That is the case with the claim that Archaeopteryx is a distinct kind. Both creationists and evolutionists bring a bias to the facts when they interpret them. Since the fossil record is incomplete, by anyone’s standards, there is a lot of room for speculation and supposition. As such, it is necessary for creationists to point out that the fossil record can be interpreted in a way that reflects the Biblical narrative. That takes away transitional forms as a proof of evolution. However, I do not think that creationists have the necessary evidence to take the next step and claim that the fossils only fit the creationist model.

Transitional forms will always be a battleground, but as long as the fossil record remains messy and incomplete, it will never be able to provide favor to one model over the other.

iThe video did not give specific information about the birds earlier than Archaeopteryx, but it was probably referring to Protoavis or bird footprints preserved in Triassic rocks. Protoavis is a composite fossil and not a bird at all. The Triassic tracks, however, have a much more interesting history, one that I may devote some time to in the future. Sufficient for this discussion, however, it should be noted that the rocks that have the bird footprints are no longer dated as Triassic but as Eocene, placing them well after Archaeopteryx.

2 Responses to “It’s a problem

  • Steven,
    This reminds me of “the missing link.”

    The phrasing makes it sound like we’re so close. Just one little missing piece to seeing the connection between man and apes. All the other pieces are in place and when we just find this last one we’ll move from theory to law.

  • Ross Wind
    10 months ago

    It’s only a matter of interpretation. Fossils from other species around don’t show transitional proof. There are more than a ape-man little missing piece. Chimp’s DNA is not the closest to human, it is the pig with 98%. This is another big blow for the evolution theory.

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