What is the claim?

Thoughts from Steven: Are Coelacanths Living Fossils? Part 2

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Now that we know what coelacanths and their significance are, what is this claim? The claim is that the coelacanth record does not end at the Cretaceous. Instead, coelacanth fossils are known from rocks that are supposedly younger than 65 million years. In other words, the claim is that there is no (significant) gap in the record of coelacanths. One example of this claim is given here:

The supposed 65-million-year gap in the coelacanth record does not exist in any case: in addition to the two living species, a Paleocene coelacanth is known from Sweden, and a Miocene coelacanth was reported in 1997.i

To put this quote in context, it is from a science blog written by Darren Naish. This particular post was a counter to claims that cryptids, such as sea monsters and cadborosaurus, represent surviving plesiosaurs. It is interesting to note that his claim was not made as a defense against creationists but against cryptozoologists.

Now, the specimens that Naish cites were hard to track down. For one, that post gave no citation for papers to back up the claims for these post-Cretaceous coelacanths. Citations were given in the comments of one of his earlier posts.ii Even with the citations, the original refers were hard to find. I was not able to track down the original papers, but I was able to find a little bit of information about them.

One paper is titled “Coelacanthid in Israel’s Early Miocene? Latimeria tests Schaeffer’s theory.” It is not a full paper. Rather, it is an abstract from a presentation at the Fifty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.iii Was I was not able to find the full abstract, I was able to find another paper that quoted it extensively.iv In the abstract, the researcher state that they compared fish fossils from Israel to the modern coelacanth, to see if they might be from a fish of the same family. Part of their reasoning was that since coelacanths are still alive, they must have been somewhere during the 65 million years since the Cretaceous.

Here are a few things to note about this abstract. First of all, there is no associated paper to explain all of its details. That makes it difficult to assess the researcher’s conclusions. Second, the title suggests that the researchers may have had a question about the identity of the fossils. Not only do they question whether the fish is a coelacanth, they call it a coelacanthid, suggesting that they were not able to conclusively say that it was a coelacanth. Finally, it appears that they had to rely on the assumption that coelacanths were alive for 65 million years to even reach that conclusion. Now, none of these observations negate the claim that the fossils from Israel are from a coelacanth. However, they do bring up many questions and should at least cast doubt on the certainty of the claim.

As for the Swedish Paleocene coelacanth, I was able to find a reference to the original article in the chapter of a book.v This chapter specifically dealt with the sarcopterygians, which are the lobe-finned fish. That is the group that the coelacanth belongs to. While reviewing the history of Actinistia, which is the group that includes coelacanths, the authors of the chapter note that there was a fragment of bone from Sweden that was “possibly referable to an actinistian.” While this does not give much information about this bone, it does suggest that its identification as a coelacanth is far from certain.

Finally, I found one more paper.vi This one did not deal with fossils directly. Rather, it suggested that there are two living species of coelacanth and speculated about their evolutionary history. Even though these authors suggested the Miocene as an important time of divergence between the two modern species of coelacanths, they made no reference to either the Miocene coelacanthid or the Swedish Paleocene coelacanth, even though both discoveries had been made two or more years prior. The lack of references suggests that the authors either were not aware of these fossils or did not consider them significant enough to include in their discussions.

Taking all of these materials together, the post-Cretaceous fossils of coelacanths appears to be weak. Again, this is not to say that it is non-existant. Rather, it is to say that the supposed coelacanth fossils appear to be fragmentary and of questionable identity. This type of evidence is not the sort one would normally want to rely on when making a claim that there is no 65 million year gap in the coelacanth fossil record, especially when the coelacanth is famous because of that gap. Then why did Darren Naish say so in his blog post?

I want to give Naish’s quote again, highlighting a particular phrase:

The supposed 65-million-year gap in the coelacanth record does not exist in any case: in addition to the two living species, a Paleocene coelacanth is known from Sweden, and a Miocene coelacanth was reported in 1997.vii

If that phrase caught your eye earlier, congratulate yourself. No, it is not subtle, but it is easy to overlook. If Naish is claiming that a 65 million year gap does not exist, why would he cite the modern species? The gap exists because there are modern species and there are no fossils after the Cretaceous: In other words, the gap exists because of the modern species. Once can not use them as evidence that the gap doesn’t exist. Unless one accepts the theory of evolution. See, if evolution is true, and there are modern coelacanths, then they must have existed somewhere the past 65 million years. If that is your premise, then it would be much easier to accept the questionable evidence of post-Cretaceous coelacanth fossils. I think that is why Naish accepted that evidence so readily. It is not because he is a bad scientist. It is not because he is twisting facts to fit the theory of evolution. Rather, it is simply because his acceptance of the theory of evolution preconditions him to accept certain evidence.

Is the coelacanth a living fossil? I still call it that. I do not find the Miocene and Paleocene fossils convincing. Is the coelacanth a thorn in the side of evolutionists or long-agers? I do not think so. There are several reasons (given in the prior blog) why long persisting types can exist in the theory of evolution. However, this particular instance provides a nice example of how a presupposition can affect one’s reasoning. In this case, a scientist’s presupposition of evolution caused him to quickly accept poor fossil evidence for coelacanths in Miocene and Paleocene rocks. We must be aware that people have such biases and use that knowledge to carefully consider their conclusions. We must also apply that reasoning to ourselves to be sure that our own claims can be substantiated. Part of that is insuring that our presuppositions are truthful, and there is no better place to go for truth than to the Word of God.

iNaish, Darren (2010) “A sea monster poster for the 9th European Symposium of Cryptozoology” Tetrapod Zoology, accessed December 24, 2016, at http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2010/04/17/esc-sea-monster-poster/

iiNaish, Darren (2009) “Sea Monsters, the CFI conference” Tetrapod Zoology, accessed December 24, 2016 at http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2009/10/30/sea-monsters-cfi-conference/. The citations in question are: Goldsmith, N. F. and Yanai-Inbar, I. (1997) “Coelacanthid in Israel’s Early Miocene? Latimeria tests Schaeffer’s theory” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 17(supp. 3): 49A and Øvig, T. (1986) “A vertebrate bone from the Swedish Paleocene” Geologiska Föreningens i Stockholm Förhandlingar 108: 139-141

iiiGoldsmith, N. F. and Yanai-Inbar, I. (1997) “Coelacanthid in Israel’s Early Miocene? Latimeria tests Schaeffer’s theory” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 17(supp. 3): 49A

ivKhalaf-Sakerfalke, Norman (2013) “Macropomoides palaestina Khalaf, 2013: A New Coelacanth Fish Fossil Species from the Anthracothere Hill in Al-Naqab, Palestine” Gazelle: The Palestinian Biological Bulletin 107: 30 – 38

vCloutier, Richard and Ahlberg, Per Erik (1996) “Morphology, Characters, and the Interrelationships of Basal Sarcopterygians” in Interrelationships of Fishes Stiassny, Melanie; Parenti, Lynne; Johnson, G. David, eds., Academic Press, San Diego, California

viHolder, Mark; Erdmann, Mark; Wilcox, Thomas; Caldwell, Roy; Hillis, David (1999) “Two living species of coelacanths?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96(22): 12616 – 12620

viiNaish, Darren (2010) “A sea monster poster for the 9th European Symposium of Cryptozoology” Tetrapod Zoology, accessed December 24, 2016 at http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2010/04/17/esc-sea-monster-poster/

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