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As Evidence of Darwinian Evolution, Biogeography Falls Well Short of Satisfying

Jonathan McLatchie

why evolution is true.jpgI have been reviewing Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True. (See my previous posts here, here, and here.)

Chapter 4: The Geography of Life

The fourth chapter of Why Evolution is True discusses the subject of evolutionary biogeography. Biogeography is the field that seeks to explain the global distribution of organisms by reference to migration, continental drift, and so on. Coyne asserts that “the biogeographic evidence for evolution is now so powerful that I have never seen a creationist book, article, or lecture that has tried to refute it,” and “every bit of biogeographic detective work turns out to support the fact of evolution.” Is this true? Let’s see.


Coyne mentions the famous example of the concentration of marsupial mammals in Australia and South America. Marsupial fossils, dating to around 80 million years ago, have been found in North America. Fossils of marsupial mammals in South America have been found dating to 40 million years ago. The earliest evidence for the presence of marsupials in their current primary habitat, Australia, dates to about 30 million years ago. Between 30 and 40 million years ago, Australia and South America were connected by a continental land bridge, which is now Antarctica, to form the supercontinent known as Gondwana. Therefore, if evolution is true, we are told, we ought to find evidence for marsupial migration from South America to Australia via Antarctica. And, indeed, fossils of various species of marsupial, dating to 35-40 million years ago, have been identified on Antarctica.

I must confess that I have doubts about the efficacy of this argument in establishing universal common descent. Phenomena like island biogeography or “ring species” may well demonstrate limited common ancestry. In the case described above, it does not even compel the conclusion of the common descent of all marsupial mammals. For one thing, there is even some paleontological evidence for very old lines of marsupials inhabiting China (Ni et al., 2007; Luo et al., 2003)! Very ancient — indeed, the oldest European — fossil marsupials have also been discovered in France (Vullo et al., 2009). In fact, marsupial fossils have now been identified on every continent.

There are also many cases where the distribution of organisms defies explanation by common descent. One good example of this is the global distribution of freshwater crabs (Daniels et al., 2006; Yeo et al., 2007; Sternberg et al., 1997). These crabs are unable to survive prolonged periods in salt water. Molecular and fossil data indicate a divergence date long after the continental breakup. Yet freshwater crabs are found in regions as far apart as India, southern Europe, Australia, Asia, Central and South America, Africa and Madagascar.

A review paper published in 2005 in Trends in Ecology and Evolution lists a number of other examples of unexpected distributions (de Queiroz et al., 2005):

“Batrachians (frogs, toads, newts),” Darwin noted in The Origin of Species, “have never been found on any of the many islands with which the great oceans are studded.” He explained this absence by the fact that amphibians are quickly killed by seawater and are thus unlikely to cross oceans successfully. No biogeographer doubts that amphibians and certain other organisms (e.g. most terrestrial mammals, flightless birds) are especially poor oceanic dispersers. However, some recent studies show that it is unsafe to assume that such organisms never colonize new areas by crossing ocean barriers.

A striking example concerns two mantellid frog species found on Mayotte, an island of the Comoros archipelago some 300 km west of Madagascar. The two species had been described as conspecific with taxa on Madagascar (where nearly all other mantellids are found) and were assumed to have been introduced. However, morphology and DNA sequences indicate that the two Mayotte taxa are distinct new species and, therefore, are natural endemics. The Comoros are volcanic and have never been attached to other landmasses; thus, the results strongly imply origins by natural, overwater dispersal. Furthermore, the two species are not closely related within the Mantellidae, indicating two independent dispersal events.

Another case involves the carnivores and lemurs of Madagascar, medium-sized mammals that are considered poor oceanic dispersers. Yoder et al. found through molecular dating analyses that both groups diverged from African mainland relatives long after the separation of Madagascar from Africa. The estimated divergence dates also do not match the hypothesized existence of a Cenozoic land bridge between Africa and Madagascar. Thus, both groups seem to have reached Madagascar by oceanic dispersal, perhaps facilitated by the ability to go into torpor.

Other examples of unexpected oceanic dispersal include monkeys from Africa to South America, flightless insects from New Zealand to the Chatham Islands, multiple dispersals by chameleons in the Indian Ocean, several other amphibian cases, and, more controversially, flightless ratite birds to New Zealand. Although Darwin apparently was wrong in thinking that amphibians never cross saltwater, these cases reinforce a general message of the great evolutionist: given enough time, many things that seem unlikely can happen.

So, when the biogeographical data does not fit with the predictions and expectations of common descent, one always has “oceanic dispersal” at the ready to serve as an ad hoc fudge factor — including the rather remarkable claim that monkeys made it across the Atlantic from Africa to South America! As Casey Luskin notes here, molecular studies claim that the South American monkeys diverged from the African monkeys around 35 million years ago. But plate tectonic history shows that the continental breakup that separated South America from Africa took place between 100 and 120 million years ago and that South America was an isolated island continent from at least about 80 million years ago until approximately 3.5 million years ago. 35 million years ago, at the time of the New World/Old World monkey divergence, Africa was not significantly closer to South America than it is today.

In addition to these cases, there is a plethora of other biogeographic anomalies and conundrums that cannot readily be explained by the nested hierarchical pattern predicted by common descent. Examples include certain fauna of central and southern Africa, which are more closely related to that of southern Asia than that of northern Africa; and crowberries which are only found in regions in the far north of the northern hemisphere and regions in the far south of the southern hemisphere; and flora found in Madagascar which bears similarity to those found in Indonesia. One particularly striking example is the discovery of what appears to be a placental fossil in Australia, dating to 120 million years ago. According to previous reckoning, placental mammals evolved in the northern hemisphere, and only appeared in Australia about five million years ago. This has prompted the evolutionary rationalization that these placental mammals, having first evolved in the southern hemisphere, migrated into the northern and subsequently became extinct in the southern. But such post hoc solutions can be invoked to explain any observation. Indeed, when I was pursuing my masters degree in evolutionary biology, one of my lecturers was a proponent of the “expanding earth” theory, a hypothesis fueled almost entirely by the “still unresolved problem of disjointed distribution of fossils on the opposite coasts of the Pacific” (Scalera, 2007).

Here’s the bottom line: While the argument from biogeography, at best, only demonstrates limited common ancestry, and also the occurrence of speciation, the force of this argument is substantially undercut by mitigating adverse evidence such as the biogeographic anomalies to which I alluded. While one can account for some of those conundrums by invoking post hoc rationalizations such as convergence, oceanic dispersal, and unparsimonious extinctions, such anomalies significantly weaken the value of biogeographical distribution as positive evidence for descent with modification.

I will continue with Chapter 5 in a future post.

Jonathan McLatchie

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Jonathan McLatchie holds a Bachelor's degree in Forensic Biology from the University of Strathclyde, a Masters (M.Res) degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Glasgow, a second Master's degree in Medical and Molecular Bioscience from Newcastle University, and a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Newcastle University. Currently, Jonathan is an assistant professor of biology at Sattler College in Boston, Massachusetts. Jonathan has been interviewed on podcasts and radio shows including "Unbelievable?" on Premier Christian Radio, and many others. Jonathan has spoken internationally in Europe, North America, South Africa and Asia promoting the evidence of design in nature.