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April Fools—and Missing Links

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Lived in water? Check. Possessed well developed gill arches and a gill chamber? Check. Possessed small pectoral fins and fin rays instead of limbs? Check. Covered in overlapping tuberculated scales? Check. The “missing link” fish that crawled out of water? Not even close. Given the amount of press this newly discovered creature has received, I was anxious to read what was actually discovered. I had heard all of the reports of how this “tetra-pod” or “fish-o-pod” was the missing link. I received countless e-mails from individuals who shared news accounts proclaiming this creature filled in the gap between fish and land-dwelling creatures. However, after all of the evolutionary propaganda was whittled away, an unbiased reader was left with little more than the fossils of a new unique creature that lived in the water.

Deemed Tiktaalik roseae [NOTE: Tiktaalik is derived from Inukitut, the traditional language in Nunavut where the fossils were discovered. Roseae honors a benefactor of Devoian paleontology], this creature is represented by several fossilized specimens that were discovered in the Nunavut Territory of Canada (Daeschler, et al., 2006, 440:757). The authors of the study make no hesitation in declaring that they have found a missing link between fish and land-dwelling creatures. They begin their scientific report noting:

The relationship of limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) to lobe-finned fish (sarcopterygians) is well established, but the origin of major tetrapod features has remained obscure for lack of fossils that document the sequence of evolutionary changes. Here we report the discovery of a well-preserved species of fossil sarcopterygian fish from the Late Devonian of Arctic Canada that represents an intermediate between fish with fins and tetrapods with limbs, and provides unique insights into how and in what order important tetrapod characters arose (Daeschler, et al., 440:757, parenthetical items in orig.).

That type of speculation and propaganda might be acceptable or even expected from the popular press, but not from a scientific journal where researchers should not delve into the realm of imagination or guesswork. Given the timing of the article and the news releases from the popular media, it is obvious that the announcement of this creature was a staged event—with the media having images and charts ready for publication long before the original scientific article was released. They wanted everyone to know that “the missing link” was no longer missing. The bold assertions made by the authors helped create media frenzy around this new creature with headlines declaring: “IT WAS one of the most important events of the last 400 million years: the moment our fishy ancestors began hauling themselves onto dry land. Now a fossil from the very beginning of that crucial transition has been found in the remote Arctic” (Holmes, 2006, emp. in orig.) The account in National Geographic quoted Neil Shubin, one of the authors of the study, proclaiming: “This animal represents the transition from water to land—the part of history that includes ourselves” (Owen, 2006). John Wilford, staff writer for The New York Times observed: “In an interview, Dr. Shubin, an evolutionary biologist, let himself go. ‘It’s a really amazing, remarkable intermediate fossil,’ he said. ‘It’s like, holy cow’” (2006). Wilford’s article also quoted H. Richard Lane, director of paleobiology at the National Science Foundation. Lane noted: “These exciting discoveries are providing fossil ‘Rosetta Stones’ for a deeper understanding of this evolutionary milestone—fish to land-roaming tetrapods” (as quoted in Wilford, 2006). The New York Times account also confronted the controversy between creation and evolution, noting: “Other scientists said that in addition to confirming elements of a major transition in evolution, the fossils were a powerful rebuttal to religious creationists, who have long argued that the absence of such transitional creatures are a serious weakness in Darwin’s theory” (Wilford, 2006, emp. added). Powerful rebuttal to religious creationists? How about smoke and mirrors with the media promoting this anti-God propaganda?

What Did They Really Find?

The authors summarize their discovery of Tiktaalik in the following manner: “Overall, the skeleton of Tiktaalik is that of a flat-bodied animal with raised and dorsally placed eyes, a mobile neck, imbricate ribs, and a pectoral girdle and forefin capable of complex movements and substrate support” (Daeschler, et al., 2006, 440:762). Simply put, these researchers found some fossilized remains of a unique aquatic fish that we had not yet discovered. Once you get beyond those facts, we find ourselves firmly embedded in the land of speculation. As Ahlberg and Clack admitted: “In some respects, Tiktaalik and Panderichthys are straightforward fishes: they have small pelvic fins, retain fin rays in their paired appendages and have well-developed gill arches, suggesting that both animals remained mostly aquatic” (440:748, emp. added). But what about this fin that Shubin makes such a big deal about? Ahlberg and Clack remarked: “It turns out that the distal part of the skeleton is adapted for flexing gently upwards—just as it would be if the fin were being used to prop the animal up” (440:748). Further: “Although these small distal bones bear some resemblance to tetrapod digits in terms of their function and range of movement, they are still very much components of a fin (440:748, emp. added).

So let me get this straight. It possesses characteristics that are very much like a fish, and yet all of the media outlets act like this creature was out walking on the land?! Before just blindly accepting the headlines presented in the media one should ask just what can we learn from a fossil dug out of the ground. Without a living specimen, can scientists know how a creature lived in the environment? Can we know the diet or the movements of the creature? Without preserved soft-tissue, can we determine what the internal organs looked like? The answer to all of these questions (and more) is a resounding “no.” Fossilized remains can only tell us so much about a creature. Once we go beyond what the physical evidence reveals, we begin seeing phrases such as “it is possible,” “it probably happened this way,” “many have suggested,” “could very well have,” or “we believe.” All of which are subjective speculation on the author’s part.

One interesting point that readers should consider as they contemplate this latest “missing link” is that the team who reported this find specifically set out to find a missing link. Ahlberg and Clack reported: “The Nunavut field project had the express aim of finding an intermediate between Panderichthys and tetrapods, by searching in sediments from the most probable environment (rivers) and time (late Devonian)” (2006, 440:747). Why did these scientists set out to discover a missing link? Maybe it had something to do with the statement from Daeschler’s team that the “origin of major tetrapod features has remained obscure for lack of fossils that document the sequence of evolutionary changes” (440:757). Maybe because there was such a huge gap in the evolutionary fossil record in getting creatures onto the land. Or maybe it was because evolutionists realized just how many holes had been poked into their beloved theory in the past few years—necessitating a major shoring up.

As expected, scientists have tried to bridge this gap from water-to-land in the past. Many may recall reading through textbooks about previous “missing links” such as the coelacanth. For instance, one biology textbook has a beautiful picture of this amazing creature with the following caption:

The living coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae. Discovered in the western Indian Ocean in 1938, this coelacanth represents a group of fishes that had been thought to be extinct for about 70 million years. Scientists who studied living individuals in their natural habitat at depths of 100 to 200 meters observed them drifting in the current and hunting other fishes at night. Some individuals are nearly 3 meters long; they have a slender, fat-filled swim bladder. Although Latimeria is a very strange animal, its features mark it as a member of the evolutionary line that gave rise to the terrestrial tetrapods” (Raven and Johnson, 1989, p. 857, emp. added).

It seemed a good fit at the time. The funny looking creature with lobed front fins appeared to be the perfect candidate for evolutionists’ transitional creature. However, when live ones were found living below the 18 degree isotherm, the truth came out. Given the embarrassing position evolutionists found themselves in when it was discovered that coelacanths were deep water fish, one would think scientists would be more cautious in speculating about the shallow-water environment of the Tiktaalik. History has shown that the coelacanth was not the “missing link” that gave rise to tetrapods. The next delegate was the lungfish. Henner Brinkman and his colleagues summed up their research noting: “These data strongly support the hypothesis that the lungfishes and not the coelacanth are the closest relatives of the land vertebrates. This result emphasizes the importance of study of all aspects of the biology and genomics of extinct and extant lungfish; our closest ‘fish’ relatives” (2004, 101:4904, emp. added).

Well, goodbye lungfish, hello Tiktaalik. So, now we watch as scientists rejoice and speculate over the latest “missing link.” One can only wonder how long it will take before evolutionists are forced to go “back to the drawing board” as they redraw their beloved evolutionary tree of life with yet another alleged fish-to-land missing link. In his article rebutting the Tiktaalik, creationist Jonathon Witt quoted Henry Gee, previous editor of Nature (the journal in which this story was originally reported). Gee correctly observed: “To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific” (as quoted in Witt, 2006). Sadly, textbooks will begin featuring the Tiktaalik as that animal that dragged us out onto the land. Forget the fact that there is not one shred of scientific proof that this actually occurred. And forget the fact that twenty years from now they’ll likely have to change it to some other creature. The important thing to remember is that evolutionists have everything under control, and they have an answer for everything. Maybe that’s why this discovery was reported the week of April Fool’s Day.

REFERENCES

Ahlberg, Per Erik, and Jennifer A. Clack (2006), “A Firm Step From Water to Land,” Nature, 440:747-749, April 6.

Brinkmann, Henner, Byrappa Venkatesh, Sydney Brenner, and Axel Meyer (2004), “Nuclear Protein-Coding Genes Support Lungfish and not the Coelacanth as the Closest Living Relatives of Land Vertebrates,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 101[14]:4900-4905, April 6.

Daeschler, Edward B., Neil H. Shubin, and Farish A. Jenkins Jr. (2006), “A Devonian Tetrapod-Like Fish and the Evolution of the Tetrapod Body Plan,” Nature, 440:757-763, April 6.

Holmes, Bob (2006), “First Fossil of Fish that Crawled onto Land Discovered,” New Scientist, [On-line], URL: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19025464.600-first-fossil-of-fish-that- crawled-onto-land-discovered.html.

Owen, James (2006), “Fossil Fish with ‘Limbs’ is Missing Link, Study Says,” National Geographic News, [On-line], URL: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/04/0405_060405_fish.html.

Raven, Peter H. and George B. Johnson (1989), Biology (St. Louis, MO: Times Mirror/Mosby College Publishing), second edition.

Wilford, John Noble (2006), “Fossil Called Missing Link From Sea to Land Animals,” The New York Times, [On-line], URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/06/science/06fossil.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5070& en=3a609957702713ff&ex=1145764800.

Witt, Jonathan (2006), “Tiktaalik as Missing Link: A New Icon of Evolution?,” [On-line], URL:http://www.idthefuture.com/2006/04/tiktaalik_as_missing_link_a_ne.html.




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