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Early Whale Echolocation Was Fully Formed


Evolutionists are determined to keep the narrative of whale evolution, one of their “Great Transformation” stories, despite the evidence. It’s too good to give up. Picture the egg on the faces of PBS producers if, after 15 years of promoting their TV series Evolution (and they’re still promoting it on their website with teachers’ guides and student guides), they had to backtrack and tell teachers that those animations of land creatures evolving into whales owed more to fancy than fact. Imagine the blush on former Nature editor Henry Gee’s face if he had to confess that one of his “Evolution Gems” was junk jewelry.

Case in point: a paper in Current Biology says a fossil dolphin was a product of evolution, even as the authors admit it had modern-looking echolocation. More on that in a bit. Suffice to say the evidence debunking whale evolution has been out there a long time. Our free online book, Getting the Facts Straight: A Viewer’s Guide to PBS’s Evolution, shows by logic and evidence that the story can’t float. Jonathan Wells found back in 2007 that schools were still using the flawed TV series; but here we are, almost a decade later, and it’s still a flagship product on the PBS website Evolution. Nature still promotes its “15 Evolutionary Gems” including the whale narrative. They observe memorably:

This study demonstrates the existence of potential transition forms in the fossil record. Many other examples could have been highlighted, and there is every reason to think that many others await discovery, especially in groups that are well represented in the fossil record.

Wishful thinking should not take the place of observational evidence. Yet Henry Gee and his co-authors exhibited Ambulocetus and Pakicetus as fossils that could fill in the narrative, even though they had four legs (Pakicetus was no more aquatic than a tapir, its discoverer admitted, and terrestrial Ambulocetus had large feet, nothing like flippers). The only “transitional” characteristic alleged from these fossils is their inner ear anatomy. Casey Luskin also wrote here in 2010 about the other fossil mentioned, Indohyus, a small mammal like a mouse-deer that is even less whale-like than the other two. From this raccoon-sized four-legged land animal the great sperm whale sprang — if you have sufficient evolutionary imagination.

With those reminders as a backdrop, let’s see what Morgan Churchill and four others found to support “The Origin of High-Frequency Hearing in Whales.” Here’s their list of highlights from analysis of a fossil they named Echovenator (“echo hunter”), found in South Carolina (across the globe from Pakistan, home of the other purported whale ancestors):

  • An ancient toothed whale is described, which possesses a well-preserved inner ear

  • Features associated with ultrasonic hearing are preserved in the ear of this whale

  • Ultrasonic hearing evolved with echolocation in the first toothed whales

  • Hearing at higher frequencies began in the ancestors of toothed whales

In other words, an extinct dolphin with complete echolocation and high-frequency hearing, just like in modern dolphins. If the Darwinians cannot build up a transitional form from the starting line, it doesn’t look like they’re doing well showing whale evolution from the finish line. This fossil is already across.

But here comes the spin:

When viewed in a phylogenetic context (Figure 3), this indicates that Eocene cetaceans could hear higher frequencies than their terrestrial ancestors. This suggests that adaptations for hearing higher frequencies preceded the evolution of Odontoceti [toothed whales] and that this capability was further developed and then co-opted for echolocation by early members of this clade.

Figure 3 is a phylogenetic tree, topped by drawings of inner ear structures. The more detailed drawings in the Supplement appear to show complex inner ears with all the parts. Without Darwin-colored glasses on, it’s hard to see what the authors claim to see.

Other than Echovenator belonging to a class of extinct Odontocetes, it doesn’t seem that different from living dolphins. The artwork at Phys.org shows actively echolocating dolphins. What, exactly, makes this animal part of the “Great Transformations” narrative? Phys.org teases with verbiage about this “ancient relative of the modern dolphin”. We are told, “A newly-named fossil whale species had superior high-frequency hearing ability, helped in part by the unique shape of inner ear features that have given scientists new clues about the evolution of this specialized sense.”

Maybe Figure 4 will help display the promised clues. This shows animals with ultrasonic hearing, and other animals with infrasonic hearing. All the toothed whales (including Echovenator) are within the ultrasonic group. Baleen whales and hippos are in the infrasonic group. Principal-component analysis shows “no overlap” between the groups. But wait! We need a transition. We see two data points between, both called “Archaeocetes” (ancient whales), which we are told represent “the paraphyletic stem group that gave rise to all extant cetaceans.” But the very next sentence admits, “The hearing abilities of archaeocetes have been difficult to infer, with some studies supporting high-frequency hearing and others supporting low-frequency hearing.”

Here’s where a “phylogenetic context” maintains the narrative. There are hundreds of fossils of archaeocetes, such as Basilosaurus, but these were large extinct whales that probably lived full-time in the ocean and were incapable of terrestrial locomotion. Since evolution theorists teach that archaeocetes lie somewhere between hippos and toothed whales, they must have been on the way to developing high-frequency hearing — even though their hearing abilities have been “difficult to infer.” Got it? So we’ll place them in a transitional position in the diagram in Figure 4, and we’ll put Echovenator near the inside lower edge of the ultrasonic group to make it look like it co-opted high-frequency hearing for echolocation.

We learn more clues from the Phys.org article. First, the fossil was found back in 2001, but its ear structures were just analyzed now after the NSF provided $220,000 in funds “to conduct the first wide-ranging study of cetacean skull development in nearly a century.”

Another thing we find is that the ability to hear high-frequency sounds will require rewriting the textbooks. “The research pushes the origin of high frequency hearing in whales farther back in time — about 10-million years than previous studies have indicated.” That gives evolutionists even less time to find the lucky mutations for this complex trait.

Another difficulty for the narrative becomes evident when we learn that “the specializations associated with high frequency hearing evolved about 27 million years ago — about the same time as echolocation, although a few features evolved even earlier.” This could be called “pressing your luck” when one must rely on chance to supply mutations as the raw material for selection. Now they have to account for two unlikely wins at the same time.

A review of the evidence from Illustra’s film Living Waters is helpful here. As Richard Sternberg explains there, the probability of getting two coordinated mutations for a trait exceeds by an order of magnitude the time available for the transformation from a land animal to a whale, according to best estimates from the fossil record for the transformation. And as Sternberg says with dramatic irony, “In my estimation, it would take a lot more than two mutations.” The transformation from a land dweller to an obligate ocean swimmer, where “you have to do everything there, including reproduction,” is enormous. The film lists some of the complex systems that would require dramatic overhauls.

That’s the negative evidence. The positive evidence is apparent from the animated sequence about echolocation, with all its coordinated parts. Paul Nelson identifies four prerequisites: the ability to produce the sounds, the ability to receive them, the ability to interpret them, and the ability to act on the information. If any one of those traits were missing, echolocation would not work. Think of just a few of the parts involved: phonic lips, sealed chambers, expanding storage sacs, a melon with the right audio characteristics and muscles to focus the sounds, a jaw with teeth and specialized tissues to amplify the echoes, a specialized cochlea that can hear high frequencies, and a brain that knows how to process all that information. How many coordinated mutations would that take? It’s far, far beyond the reach of chance.

Evolutionists should stop insisting on the arbitrary rule that excludes intelligent causes from science. That rule (methodological naturalism) distorts reality, requiring dot-to-dot pictures of widely separated data points to maintain a predetermined conclusion. Science progresses by following the evidence where it leads, employing causes that are known to be necessary and sufficient to explain the phenomenon under investigation.

Image credit: A. Gennari 2016, via Phys.org.