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National Geographic Finds Opportunity to Conflate Intelligent Design with Creationism while Misreporting Fish Fossil

Casey Luskin

In the past, I have observed that the newsmedia and scientific establishment commonly promote the Darwinist bias against intelligent design (ID), where the media “carefully selects the sources of information it will broadcast to the public on this issue.” (To see how various groups in the establishment serve as checkpoints to prevent scientific information that challenges neo-Darwinism from reaching the public, observe the diagram at left.)

National Geographic (NG) is doing its job as a media checkpoint, promoting biased information to the public on ID. In an article yesterday about a new fish fossil-find, the NG news headline states, “Odd Fish Find Contradicts Intelligent-Design Argument.” According to the story, “Intelligent design advocates have seized on the idea of instant flatfish rearrangement as evidence of God or another higher being intentionally creating new animal forms.”

The article then claims that a new Nature paper has reported the discovery of a transitional flatfish fossil that refutes this “intelligent design argument” (more on the fossil below). The article not only misrepresents intelligent design by conflating it with creationism, but it fails to report about the part of the paper exposing that, according NG’s own standard, the flatfish fossil record is not “consistent” with neo-Darwinian evolution.

First, NG claims that ID refers to “God or another higher being,” but NG ignores the fact that intelligent design does not try to address religious questions about the identity of the designer. While ID proponents may have their own individual personal views about the identity of the designer, the theory of ID itself does not identify the designer.

Second, NG ignores the fact that intelligent design does not require special creation, and is in fact compatible with common ancestry:

“Intelligent design does not require organisms to emerge suddenly or to be specially created from scratch by the intervention of a designing intelligence. To be sure, intelligent design is compatible with the creationist idea of organisms being suddenly created from scratch. But it is also perfectly compatible with the evolutionist idea of new organisms arising from old by gradual accrual of change. What separates intelligent design from naturalistic evolution is not whether organisms evolved or the extent to which they evolved, but what was responsible for their evolution.” (William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution, pg. 178 (InterVarsity Press, 2004).)

Third, NG apparently did not care about the fact that flatfish have never been an “intelligent design argument.” In fact, NG refers its readers to two creationist sources–and zero ID-sources–discussing the flatfish. One source is a staff member of the notoriously young earth creationist Institute of Creation Research (a group that has, at times, been critical of intelligent design). The other source, quite frankly, I’d never even heard of before today: It’s James Lee Best Jr., a non-scientist whose experience is apparently primarily in the church setting and who apparently wrote a book titled “God and the Fallacy in the Theory of Evolution.” A search of the book reveals no hits of the phrase “intelligent design,” but there are plenty of hits for “God” or “creation.”

So perhaps some creationists have talked about flatfish (specifically, the flounder)–but it seems that it is the Darwinists at NG who have sought to masquerade creationism as “intelligent design.” Apparently, when Darwinists in the media want to report about intelligent design the facts don’t matter: they simply consult creationists rather than actual scientists in the ID movement.

Tacit Admissions That the Fossil Record’s General Pattern Conflicts with Natural Selection
As will be discussed below, these new fossils do NOT document any impressive type of evolution. But what is most interesting about the NG article is not the meager degree of evolutionary change allegedly documented by these fossils, but NG‘s tacit admission that fossil morphology changes that happen “suddenly” are not “consistent” with natural selection. As the article states:

So the change happened gradually, in a way consistent with evolution via natural selection–not suddenly, as researchers once had little choice but to believe, the authors of the new study say.

(Anne Minard, Odd Fish Find Contradicts Intelligent-Design Argument, National Geographic News, July 9, 2008.)

Thus according to the NG article, “gradual” change is “consistent with evolution via natural selection,” but the wording implies that “sudden” change is NOT “consistent with evolution via natural selection,” and that Darwinists only accept such sudden change when they have “little choice” due to the nature of the fossil record.

So does the fossil record bear out predictions of Darwinian gradual change or sudden change? Let’s look at what Darwinists say about the overall pattern of the fossil record, as stated on JudgingPBS.com:

[A] textbook published just six years ago acknowledges that the fossil record has not given clues to help explain the origin of animal phyla in the Cambrian explosion:

“Most of the animal phyla that are represented in the fossil record first appear, ‘fully formed,’ in the Cambrian some 550 million years ago…The fossil record is therefore of no help with respect to the origin and early diversification of the various animal phyla.”

But this is not the only such “explosion” in the fossil record. Paleontologists have observed a fish explosion, a plant explosion, a bird explosion, and even a mammal explosion. Abrupt explosions of mass biological diversity seem to be the rule, not the exception, for the fossil record. Transitions plausibly documented by fossils seem to be the rare exception. As leading evolutionary biologist, the late Ernst Mayr, wrote in 2001, “When we look at the living biota, whether at the level of the higher taxa or even at that of the species, discontinuities are overwhelmingly frequent. . . . The discontinuities are even more striking in the fossil record. New species usually appear in the fossil record suddenly, not connected with their ancestors by a series of intermediates.”

This phenomenon exists not only at the species level but also at the level of higher taxa, as one zoology textbook discusses: “Many species remain virtually unchanged for millions of years, then suddenly disappear to be replaced by a quite different, but related, form. Moreover, most major groups of animals appear abruptly in the fossil record, fully formed, and with no fossils yet discovered that form a transition from their parent group.”

(JudgingPBS.com, The abrupt appearance of biological forms, internal citations removed)

Indeed, in an infamous quote, Stephen Jay Gould admitted, “The absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.” Gould thought that punctuated equilibria models of Darwinian evolution could account for the data, but if, as NG admits, sudden change is not “consistent with evolution via natural selection,” then what does NG’s admission say about Darwinism in light of the bulk of the fossil record?

A Floundering Transitional Form?
The fossils that were found were little fish fossils that are species of flatfish. Known living species of flatfish (like the yummy flounder, sole, or halibut) are unique in that as adults, the eyes sit on the top of the head, rather than on the sides of the head, like most fish. But young flatfish DO have eyes on the sides of the head–their eyes migrate to the top during development. Now observe the meager scope of evolutionary change allegedly documented by these fossils: they have some skull features similar to known living flatfish, but their eyes remain on the sides of the head, like normal fish. As the abstract of the paper says, “Most remarkably, orbital migration was incomplete in Amphistium and Heteronectes, with eyes remaining on opposite sides of the head in post-metamorphic individuals.”

Forgive me if I’m not highly impressed with the degree of “evolution” documented by these fossils. Do they explain how halibut and sole evolved to have eyes on the top? Not really. The eyes on these fossils weren’t in an “intermediate” location, halfway from the sides to the top. Their eyes are on the sides on the side of the head, much like normal fish. The only interesting thing about these fossils, as far as evolution is concerned, is that they share some other skull features–the asymmetrical eye sockets–that are unique to “eyes on top” flatfish.

Some other questions must be asked.

How do we know that these represent the evolutionary intermediate ancestors of flatfish? We don’t: The paper reports that they appear in the fossil record at the same time as “eyes on top” flatfish, so their placement in the fossil record does not make them a candidate for being the actual ancestors of flatfish.

And do these fossils show how the “eyes on top” condition evolved in typical flatfish? No. Assuming these fossils are related to flatfish, for all we know, perhaps the “eyes on top” condition is the primitive basal condition for flatfish, and the “eyes on side” condition was evolved simply through LOSS of genes causing eye migration during early development. In other words, perhaps these newly discovered fossil fish species lost the genes for eye migration so the eyes got “stuck” on the sides of the head after the bones ossified. Genetically speaking, that seems like the easiest way to account for these fish. But in such a scenario, these fish would be descended from “eyes on top” flat-fish, and are not their evolutionary descendants, not precursors. At best, these fossils document a new morphological state that at best shows fairly trivial evolutionary change or loss of function–not “major morphological transitions” (as the paper’s author claimed).

In fact, the paper’s author admits that according to the fossil record, we don’t know where the overall clade of flatfish came from, and that many types of flatifsh (including these new finds) appear around the same time in a “sudden” fashion:

Amphistium and Heteronectes are contemporaries of the earliest members of many derived pleuronectiform lineages, including the oldest known sole. The sudden appearance of anatomically modern pleuronectiform groups in the Palaeogene period matches the pattern repeated by many acanthomorph clades. Inferring interrelationships between higher groups in this explosive radiation has proved difficult, and an unresolved bush persists.

(Matt Friedman, “The evolutionary origin of flatfish asymmetry,” Nature, Vol. 454:209-212 (July 10, 2009).)

This is what we call a retroactive confession of evolutionist ignorance, where, as I’ve observed before, evolutionists exhibit predictable behavior where they “only admit how weak the evidence was for evolution after they have some new allegedly ‘transitional’ fossil in their hands.” (For more examples, see Retroactive Confessions of Ignorance and Overblown Claims of Evolution: Observing Evolutionist and Media Behavior after Discovering “Missing Links.)

And what of the paper’s confession that the clade as a whole appears in a “sudden” fashion where there is an “explosive radiation”? According to NG, such fossil data should not be considered “consistent with evolution via natural selection.” But of course, like a good science media checkpoint, National Geographic chose not to report about the above-quoted part of the paper.


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.



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