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Refuting Evolution by Jonathan Sarfati, Part V


  02:37:11 pm, by Nimble   , 1668 words  
Categories: Reviews, Religion, Science

Refuting Evolution by Jonathan Sarfati, Part V

[Other parts of the review]

No book by a creationist would be complete without an obligatory reference to Michael Denton's infamous book, Evolution, a Theory in Crisis:

Michael Denton points out that 97.7 percent of living orders of land vertebrates are represented as fossils and 79.1 percent of living families of land vertebrates - 87.8 percent if birds are excluded, as they are less likely to become fossilized.

This is meant to imply that the fossil record is "pretty much complete", and thus any ideas of transitional fossils would be laughable.

It relies on the reader not knowing a great deal about fossils and taxonomy, though, and that is sneaky and disingenuous.

For example, you can find transitional whale fossils classified in the order Cetacea. Modern whales are also classified under this order, so *bing*, their order is represented in the fossil record.

What about [taxonomic] families, then? Well, transitional whale fossils have a whole set of their own families. Ambulocetus natans is under the family Ambulocetidae. If there were living members of Ambulocetidae, they would be actually be counted towards Denton's percentage. There are not, so they do not count either for or against.

The only things that could detract from Denton's family percentage are really new or hard-to-fossilize families. Is it unreasonable for 12-20% of all families to be classified this way?

Isn't that sneaky?

After an accurate paragraph of how tough it is to have things fossilize - and yes, I have to actually get down to the paragraph level in this book when it comes to accuracy - he then launches into a sneaky bit of equivocation.

The essence of his argument is: well, jellyfish/etc. would not fossilize very well, so something catastrophic must have happened to bury them, and doesn't that just sound like Noah's flood? *wink wink*

Part of the problem is that we know how some of those catastrophic processes work, and they are not indicative of a global flood. Shales are fossil muds, indicative of mud deposition. Spots like the Burgess Shale would be indicative of a mudslide.

The grander issue of whether the mudslide could be part of a global flood is at its simplest refuted by the multiple different layers of limestone, sandstone, chert, gypsum, paleosols (ancient soils), volcanic tuff and, of course, shale. A strange flood indeed to manage that in a singular event.

More details refutations of flood geology are available, such as Joe Meert's takedown, but we shall continue for now.

Sarfati manages an amazing "why are there still monkeys?" argument vis-à-vis the evolutionary fish-to-amphibian transition:

Some evolutionists believe that amphibians evolved from a Rhipidistian fish, something like the coelacanth.

The first part, sure. "Something like the coelacanth." Debatable, but sure. Oh no, he's going to do something with that, though.

He then says that this seemed impossible to disprove because the last coelacanth, according to evolutionists, lived about 70 million years ago.

Wait, what?

Sorry for the taxonomy word salad, but we are expected to believe that because the Rhipidistia, a subgroup of Sarcopterygii, go on and have a branch become early amphibians, that the subclass Actinistia, also a subgroup of Sarcopterygii, to which coelacanths belongs, have to come along for the ride!?

They are sister subclasses, for goodness' sake. "Hey, coelacanths, I'm going to turn out to have evolved down this pathway to a semiaquatic lifestyle - you have to come along for the ride - or... or, I KEEL you!"

Really, it's the "if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" gambit in fancy dress.

He then goes on to be amazed that we have discovered living coelacanths, and that they are so very, very fishy. I imagine the implication being that they are not amphibianish at all. Aside from the fact that there are two living species, which are not identical to either each other or their ancestral forms, they are still Sarcopterygii-ish, meaning that it does not detract from the pro-Rhipidistian-to-amphibian arguments even by analogy.

Sarfati manages to pull out yet another creationist misunderstanding out of his hat in discussing the amphibian-to-reptile transition:

Seymouria is a commonly-touted intermediate between amphibians and reptiles. But this creature is dated (by evolutionary dating methods) at 280 million years ago, about 30 million years younger than the "earliest" true reptiles, Hylonomous and Paleothyris. That is, reptiles are allegedly millions of years older than their alleged ancestors!

There are a few things wrong with Sarfati's interpretation here.

One may be "innocent", in that Seymouria is further out from the transitional chain than was originally thought, based on its rather reptilian features.

However, equating transitional form and ancestor is incorrect.

Transitional forms are cousins. Based on their features, they are determined to be descended from intermediates between two forms, preserving some of the transitional features, or at least showing independent modification.

Transitional forms are usually much later representations of the features than any actual ancestor would be. It is not unusual for a transitional form to be younger than one or both groups to which it is considered transitional.

The living coelacanths, for example, could be considered transitional forms between jawless fish and amphibians, even though they are millions upon millions of years too late to be an ancestor to anything but their immediate fish fry, and their coelacanthish ancestors were not the actual ancestors of amphibians.

Now that we have more of the picture, though, we would reject their status as transitional forms in favor of much better examples.

This is what happens fairly often with fossil finds. We occasionally find better transitional forms - ones much closer in features, and further back in time. With enough evidence, previous transitional forms get relegated to a side branch, just because we have more detail. Genealogy can work the same way.

The chances of finding the actual ancestors are incredibly remote, but possible. We might not even recognize them, and in fact "over-shoot" to older cousins, but it will be within a much closer range.

Attacking the caricature of transitional forms is a pretty persistent feature of creationist literature and has been for a few decades. Why persist?

Ardipithecus tracked down the T. S. Kemp quote that Sarfati uses to poo-poo the reptiles-to-mammals chain. Here's the full quote, with the part that Sarfati uses bolded:

Rule 6: Within each lineage, species keep going extinct abruptly, only to be replaced by new, similar species. This is the phenomenon of species turnover.


Rates of speciation and extinction. Rule 6 encapsulates one of the most important observations from the fossil record—species turnover. Each species of mammal-like reptile that has been found appears suddenly in the fossil record and is not preceded by the species that is directly ancestral to it. It disappears some time later, without leaving a directly descended species, although we usually find that it has been replaced by some new, related species. The concept of punctuated equilibria—which envisages evolutionary change occurring in a series of jumps, with relatively little change in between—was introduced in 1972 by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, and accounts for this rather well.

What kind of book is it where you have to investigate every single quote for accurate context?

You can read more about Kemp's paper here.

The next section is entitled "The Function Of Possible Intermediates", and if you read the first sentence of it as an admission, then you really know all you need to know about a great many of the following pages:

The inability to imagine functional intermediates is a real problem.

"Deliberately Obtuse Failure Of Imagination" would be my own preferred title of this section and all the following ones: bird, whale and human evolution.

There are two major repeated themes:

1) An intermediate between two kinds of X would not be a good version of either kind of X, so wouldn't they limp/falter/be unable to breathe?
2) Aren't all these new features a creature would need special and amazing?

One problem with every single one of his claims is that they are not put to the test - they are just thrown out in a giant pile of incredulity as though we have no possible means of discerning how these things could possibly happen.

Mammalian milk, for example. Mammary glands are modified apocrine glands, and they likewise form from the skin early in development. Apocrine glands include scent glands, sweat glands and the glands that make earwax. Glands don't fossilize, but genes do, to a certain extent. Comparing bovine lactome genes sequenced in 2006 with those of other placental mammals, marsupials and monotremes (like the platypus) show that the origins predate their common ancestors. Other living branches from therapsids and cynodonts would make the origins search a lot easier, but we work with what we have.

Red blood cells without nuclei - an insurmountable soft-part difference between mammals and reptiles? Not particularly. Reptiles, birds, etc. have red blood cells with inactive nuclei. Mammals, reptiles and birds' red blood cells start with nuclei. As we have found out, in mammals, red blood cells' last division in two separates out the nucleus into only one of the two daughter cells, and that cell is eaten by the immune system. We could proceed further to see how the Rac 1, Rac 2 and mDia2 proteins get transcribed and regulated by the genes and how that differs from reptiles and birds.

On some level, he seems to be sticking out his tongue in a hey-you-can't-use-steenking-fossils-for-soft-part-stuff. Generally, no, we can't. We end up having to rely a lot on living creatures, using comparative anatomy, embryological development, genetic analysis and biochemistry, all of which have their own equivalent to fossils. It's obviously not ideal, because we do not have living representatives of even most fossil families (remember that Denton's tricky definition excluded extinct families by fiat) with which to perform such experiments.

That said, such seeming gloating is like a defense lawyer taunting the prosecutor about the rainstorm that washed away his client's footsteps after the murder. It doesn't alter the fact of the event, just the difficulty in tracking it down, by no fault of the investigators.

Next time: bird evolution.

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