A question

Thoughts from Steven: Are Coelacanths Living Fossils? Part 1

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Coelacanths are famous fish among two circles of people. Both of these groups appreciate coelacanths for similar reasons. See, coelacanths are fish. There are two living species of coelacanth, both of which live in deep waters. What makes them stand out is that aside from the two living species, all other kinds of coelacanths are known from fossils, and not just any fossils. They come from Cretaceous rocks and lower. According to long-age thinking, that means there is a 65 million year gap between the living coelacanths and their fossil relatives. In fact, coelacanths were first known from fossils, so the discovery of a living coelacanth in 1938 was a surprise to scientists. Because of the huge gap, coelacanths are called living fossils. A more technical term is Lazarus taxon, which simply refers to any organism that seems to disappear from the fossil record only to show up at a later time. (As an aside, isn’t interesting that a Biblical figure is used to name a long age concept? Subtle irony, there.)

Now, who might find coelacanths to be special? As I said, there are two groups among which these fish are famous. The first are creationists. These fish are the most famous example of a living fossil, and creationists like to challenge evolutionists with it. “If selective pressures are always at work, how come the coelacanth has remained unchanged for millions of years?”

The other group is the cryptozoologists. I have spoken about these people before. They are the ones who study cryptids, or “hidden animals,” such as bigfoot, yeti, Loch Ness monster, and so forth. One group of cryptids are those that appear out of time: the best identification for the mystery creature is something that is thought to be extinct. For example, many people suggest that the Loch Ness monster is a plesiosaur. Many suggest that the mokele-mbembe is a living sauropod. To bolster the idea that a cryptid could be an extinct species, cryptozoologists will often cite coelacanths as just such an example.

Now, evolutionists do not feel threatened by coelacanths. Their existence today is not something that is unexplainable. For one thing, selective pressures do not necessarily change creatures. There is something called stabilizing selection. It describes a situation where the average form of a population is the one that is favored. If the average is selected, will the population change? No, it will remain as it is because the current form is best suited to its environment. Any outliers will become extinct, because they are not favored by the environment, rendering the population static.

As for the longevity of other creatures, such as plesiosaurs and sauropods, an exception does not indicate a trend. Most creatures that disappear from the fossil record never show up again. Lazaras taxons are given a special name because they are an exception. Just because coelacanths survived without leaving fossils remains for 65 million years does not mean that plesiosaurs and sauropods could do the same just as easily. For one thing, these are all very different animals. They would be subjected to different selective pressures. To build an argument that plesiosaurs and sauropods survived up to the present, one would have to explain where they were, what their lifestyles were like, and why they didn’t leave any fossils remains. These answers would be different for a coelacanth, so the fact that the latter are still alive does not suggest that the former are, too.

So far, this has all been and introduction. Instead, I want to focus on one particular claim about the fossil record of coelacanths. That claim is an excellent example of perspective and bias. However, I needed this lengthy introduction to explain what coelacanths are and how they are viewed by people. I especially wanted to point out that, in theory, living coelacanths do not pose a threat to the theory of evolution. That knowledge makes the claim especially interesting. However, I will get to that in the next post.

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