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Adam and the Genome and Whale Fossils

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whale evolution

As noted here yesterday, Trinity Western University biologist and BioLogos author Dennis Venema could have selected a more accurately descriptive title for his recent book, Adam and the Genome. Much of the book is not about Adam and Eve. For example, whale evolution would not seem to bear very directly on questions of human origins. Venema cites various fossils that he thinks indicate that whales (cetaceans) evolved from land-mammals. Specifically, Venema endorses “the hypothesis that modern cetacean lineage passes through something Indohyus-like, to something Pakicetid-like, and so on through Ambulocetid- and Basilosaurid-like forms.” (p. 17) Venema even states, “Cetaceans are now something of a poster child for evolution, and for good reason.” (p. 15) Let’s consider the claim.

Many Darwin-skeptics have commented on this alleged fossil progression. Indeed, in his 2017 book Zombie Science, biologist Jonathan Wells notes that whales have become “a new icon of evolution.” (p. 99) And yes, this “icon” or “poster child” appears frequently in pro-evolution publications. We frequently see diagrams showing a nice smooth transition from land-mammals to fully aquatic whales. A 2017 review in Current Biology observes:

With the exception of a handful of genera represented by dense monotaxic bonebeds or near-complete individual skeletons, most early stem cetaceans are known from far less complete skeletons than many artistic interpretations would indicate (Figure 1). The incompleteness of these fossil taxa, especially for early quadrupedal forms such as Pakicetus, underscores the challenges of reconstructing their ecology.

(Nicholas D. Pyenson, “The Ecological Rise of Whales Chronicled by the Fossil Record,” Current Biology, 27, R558–R564, June 5, 2017, emphases added)

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the fossils clearly indicate some types of intermediates between land mammals and whales. Venema thinks these show a “pattern” that fits with evolution. But what kind of a pattern do we, in fact, see?

In his book The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years, cetacean paleontologist J. G. M. “Hans” Thewissen admits that in this “dramatic transition” whales were “rapidly evolving” and “undergoing fast evolutionary change” where features would “change abruptly.” He explains just how dramatic the transition is:

To point out how dramatic the evolution of whales is, I usually start by asking people to think about two fancy vehicles. I could use a bullet train and a nuclear submarine, but, because it is less intimidating, I ask them to think about the Batmobile and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Whales started out with a very elaborately perfected body adapted to life on land. They changed it, in about eight million years, to a body perfectly tuned to the ocean.

(The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years (University of California Press, 2014), pp. 33, 83, 115, 169, 207)

So even advocates of the whale-evolution sequence admit that it occurred “rapidly” and “abruptly.” In Zombie Science, Wells reviews many complex adaptations that would need to arise to convert a land mammal to a fully aquatic whale. These required changes include:

  • Emergence of blowhole, with musculature and nerve control
  • Emergence of ball vertebrae
  • Modification of the eye for underwater vision
  • Ability to drink sea water
  • Forelimbs transformed into flippers
  • Modification of the teeth
  • Reduction of hind limbs
  • Reduction of pelvis and sacral vertebrae
  • Reorganization of the musculature for the reproductive organs
  • Changes to hydrodynamic properties of the skin
  • Change in birthing process where fetus is delivered in breech position (for labor underwater)
  • Ability to nurse young underwater
  • Decoupling of esophagus and trachea
  • Origin of tail flukes and musculature
  • Origin of blubber for temperature insulation

Numerous mutations undoubtedly would be needed to produce these complex adaptations. Even Venema concedes that evolving cetaceans from land-mammals demands a “dramatic remodeling” (p. 37) of the mammalian body plan (though Venema thinks it’s a feasible remodeling). As we saw, Thewissen likens these changes to going from a bullet train to a nuclear submarine, or from the Batmobile to a submarine.

Wells notes that when we look at the fossil record of whales, the amount of time allowed by the fossil record is too short to allow these features to arise via unguided evolutionary mechanisms:

Biologist Richard Sternberg has applied this analysis to cetaceans. Large mammals (such as the supposed ancestors of cetaceans) tend to have effective breeding population sizes comparable to that of humans, but modern whales reach maturity much faster, so their generation times are much shorter. Assuming a generation time of twenty-five years for humans and five years for the ancestors of cetaceans, Sternberg pointed out that fixing just two mutations in the latter would take millions of years longer than the time available in the fossil record. So there isn’t enough time to fix even two mutations, yet we need hundreds or even thousands of new mutations. Obviously, eight million years is not long enough to accumulate enough accidental mutations to turn a “walking whale” into a real whale — even if nee-Darwinian theory were right about the power of mutations (which it isn’t).

(Zombie Science, p. 113)

In this passage, a date of about 8 million years is allowed between a land-dwelling cetacean precursor and the first truly aquatic whales, the basilosaurids. That was the standard accepted date in the evolutionary community. But Wells notes that in light of a new whale fossil reported in 2016, the time allowed by the fossil record for the land-mammal-to-whale transition is probably much shorter than previously thought:

In 2016, a team of paleontologists published a report of their discovery in Antarctica of a fossilized whale similar to Basilosaurus. The fossil occurred in rocks previously reported to be at least forty-nine million years old- older than some of the so-called “walking whales.” This would reduce the time available for land-mammal-to-whale evolution from eight million years to practically no time at all-making the problem of whale evolution even worse.

(Zombie Science, p. 113)

In sum, the earliest member of Protocetidae, a family of terrestrial mammals that are supposedly ancestral to modern whales, appears only 1 to 2 million years before the appearance of Pelagiceti (truly aquatic whales). There is simply not enough time for complex adaptations to arise in the time allowed by the whale fossil record. The transition is far too abrupt to be mathematically feasible under neo-Darwinian evolution.

In setting up his section on whale evolution, Venema writes:

If the species we observe in the fossil record are the direct, special creations of God, then we will not necessarily find a pattern in the fossil record. Faced with such an explanation, a scientist would not have the ability to make predictions about what should be found in the fossil record at certain times.

(Adam and the Genome, pp. 13-14)

Of course, Dennis Venema is not in a place to tell God to never create species showing some kind of a pattern in the fossil record. (As Steve Meyer and Paul Nelson argue in the recent book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, there may be good reasons why species are designed according to particular patterns.) That aside, what have we seen here? Darwinian evolution would predict, it would seem, a pattern where whale intermediates appear progressively, with sufficient time between them for new complex adaptations related to an aquatic lifestyle to evolve.

But this pattern is not what we find. We don’t find the “pattern” that evolution predicts “should be found in the fossil record at certain times.” Rather, we find that truly aquatic whales appear abruptly. And even if we accept some of the fossils as “intermediates” between whale and land mammals, there is not enough time for the complex adaptations needed for whales’ fully aquatic lifestyle to evolve. Whatever the correct explanation is for the origin of whales, unguided evolutionary mechanisms are not the answer.

In any case, it’s not clear why a book about whether Adam and Eve existed should include such a treatment of fossils supposedly documenting the evolution of whales. As we’ll find in future posts, Adam and the Genome seems to be more of an apologetic work in defense of evolution, directed against proponents of intelligent design.

Photo: Ambulocetus natans, National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, by Momotarou2012 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.