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“Fossils. Fossils. Fossils.” Does Ken Miller Win?

Casey Luskin

Ken Miller was recently quoted in a campus news article saying, “We have the fossils. … We win.” Professor Miller’s logical fallacy was pointed out years ago by those who attempted to clarify reasoning in paleontology, systematics, and evolutionary biology, and it led some scientists (like Colin Patterson) to the conclusion that a paleontological pattern may support or falsify an evolutionary hypothesis, but it can never absolutely prove one (i.e. fossils can’t make Darwinism positively “win”). As a result, some scientists (e.g., Brower, 2000) proposed a strict separation between paleontology and systematics on the one hand, and evolutionary theory on the other.

Unfortunately, this clear-thinking approach has been largely abandoned or ignored by most paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. Those who are ignorant of this fallacy don’t realize that pattern observations are independent of process hypotheses. (For instance, just because I know the sun “rises” everyday does not mean my pet theory about its origin must be correct.) Rather than following the approach of authorities like Colin Patterson, Professor Miller seems to draw his amusing talking points on evolution from comedian Lewis Black, whom Jonathan Wells recounts in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design makes the following authoritarian argument for Darwinism: “I don’t have to argue [evolution] any more. Fossils. Fossils. Fossils. I win.”

The campus news article stated that Miller “demonstrated the 23 intermediate species that have been discovered as evolutionary stepping stones between land mammals and swimming mammals,” and called whales “the poster children for macroevolution.” I would have loved to have been there to see Miller “demonstrat[e]” all “23 intermediate species.” That sounds a lot more impressive than University of Michigan whale paleontology expert Philip Gingerich’s admission that currently the “poster children” merely have “fossils illustrating three or four steps that bridge the precursor of whales to today’s mammals.” Indeed, Kevin Padian noted that these “poster children” fossils have “distinguishing characteristics, which they would have to lose in order to be considered direct ancestors of other known forms.” My suspicion is that Professor Miller didn’t delve into too many details, but rather used the fossil name-dropping approach to discussing alleged intermediates between land-mammals and whales. I have described this approach as follows:

[John] Wise and [Pia] Vogel also mention “whale-like tetrapods” and “tetrapod-like whales,” name-dropping a long string of fossil names but leaving the reader with little, if any, information about this alleged evolutionary transition. … So how good an example is this “poster child”?

Philip Gingerich admits that “[w]hales have not been collected on a fine enough time scale to see rapid change. This will be revealed through more fieldwork. So far we have fossils illustrating three or four steps that bridge the precursor of whales to today’s mammals.” To be fair, there are some fossils in this field with cetacean features, but some of the fossils cited by Wise and Vogel are land mammals that do not explain how whales become aquatic. For example, Wise and Vogel mention Pakicetus, a full-fledged land-mammal [whose only real claim to belonging in the alleged whale series is the fact that it had] ear-bones like a whale. Full-fledged land mammals don’t provide much evidence when one is trying to document the evolution of fully-aquatic whales from land-mammals. So Wise and Vogel name-drop Ambulocetus. But this fossil also had strong load-bearing legs with “large hind limbs and enormous feet,” a “long, muscular body,” and a pelvis “like that of a land mammal” (Gingerich, 2001). These two fossils don’t look like a “walking whale” (as they were called in National Geographic). Instead, Wise & Vogel subsequently name-drop Rodhocetus: it probably spent more time in the water than Ambulocetus, and did not swim like a whale, but had large feet and hands.

One expert said Rodhocetus probably swam like Ambulocetus: “an otter-like pelvic paddler” or alternatively, that it had “[t]runk and limb proportions” that “are most similar to those of the living, highly aquatic, foot-powered desmans.” Of course, desmans are a type of European mole that do just fine walking on land. Are the whales walking yet?

But let’s acknowledge that theses fossils do have some skeletal characteristics which appear intermediate between the features of land-mammals and whales. Have Darwinian paleontologists made their case? The aforementioned bird evolution expert, Alan Feduccia, observes that “the evolution of whales (the ‘poster child’ for macroevolution) from terrestrial ungulates is well documented at < 10 million years.”

Think about that for a moment. Whales, with all of their complex adaptations for aquatic life evolved from a “primitive little mammal” (Steven Stanley, The New Evolutionary Timetable, pg. 93) to a full-fledged whale in less than ten million years. Whales have a long generation time, meaning that there were perhaps only a few million generations at best to allow for the change to add up. If they had a generation time as short as 5 years, Haldane’s dilemma predicts that only a few thousand mutations could become fixed into an evolving population during that time period. (See Walter ReMine, The Biotic Message.) [In other words, the fossil record permits dramatically insufficient time to convert a land-mammal into a whale.]

Wise and Vogel can name-drop whatever fossils they like, but if the amount of time allowed by the fossil record for this evolutionary transition is too short to accommodate the vast genetic and morphological changes that must have taken place, critical thinkers have good reasons to be skeptical of this evolutionary story. The exceedingly short timescale of the alleged evolution of whales from land mammals is a major problem with this Neo-Darwinian story, but this point is never mentioned by Wise and Vogel as they name-drop their supposed fossil evidence.

(Casey Luskin, “A Reply to Dr. John Wise and Dr. Pia Vogel’s Evidentiary Response to Intelligent Design“)

Something tells me Miller didn’t mention this problem either. Regardless, this article raises two crucial questions:

  • (1) Miller was brought to speak by the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire’s Chippewa Valley Dialogue on Science and Religion. Will the university now bring a pro-ID speaker to speak in favor of intelligent design to correct any of Miller’s mistakes? (According to their events page, it doesn’t look like they plan to invite any speakers to support ID anytime soon.)
  • (2) Apparently Miller feels comfortable declaring victory for evolution regarding whale origins. But what about the numerous other aspects of the fossil record where the fossil record does not give so many hints of an evolutionary story? As a college-level invertebrate zoology textbook states, “Most of the animal phyla that are represented in the fossil record first appear, ‘fully formed,’ in the Cambrian, some 550 million years ago . . . [t]he fossil record is therefore of no help with respect to the origin and early diversification of the various animal phyla.” Ken Miller thinks that when he “has the fossils,” he “wins.” So when Miller doesn’t have the fossils, does that mean he will he admit that he loses?

Reference Cited: A.V.Z. Brower, “Evolution is not a necessary assumption of cladistics,” Cladistics Vol. 16(1):143-154 (2000).


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Ken Miller