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Evolutionary Imagination and Belief Drive False Claims of a “Four-Legged Whale”

Image credit: Robert W. Booessenecker, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

The media are currently abuzz with claims of a newly discovered fossil from Egypt: a “four-legged whale.” Here are some prominent headlines:

And so on. The headlines are accompanied by an artist’s depiction of what was supposedly found. See above. The image is attributed to one of the co-authors of the technical paper, geologist Robert W. Boessenecker

“That’s Right, Folks”

The NPR story warns:

We regret to inform you that your nightmares are about to get worse. 

A team led by Egyptian scientists have dug up a 43 million-year-old fossil in the Sahara Desert in Egypt of a now-extinct amphibious four-legged whale.

That’s right, folks — a whale with legs.

The problem with these claims? That’s right, folks — they didn’t find any of the fossil’s legs. Everything you just read about this fossil is the product of imagination. In fact, if you check the technical paper you’ll learn that they found very little of the fossil at all. Figure 1 from the paper, which can be seen online here, shows the bones that were discovered shaded in red. Zoom in and look at the drawing in the middle. You may notice, as I said, a curious absence of red-shaded leg bones. 

Also absent: the pelvis, the vast majority of ribs and vertebrae, and the front portion of the snout. Undoubtedly the organism had these bones, but to call this a “whale with legs,” or to unequivocally depict it as some species transitional between terrestrial mammals and whales (as seen above), is to impose a huge amount of evolutionary imagination on the situation. 

Was It a Whale?

Consistent with all of this, the paper notes in the abstract that what they did find was “a partial skeleton,” later stating, “The new species is based on a partial skeleton.” A complete description of the bones is provided later in the paper as follows:

an associated partial skeleton of a single individual including the cranium, the right mandible, incomplete left mandible, isolated teeth, the fifth cervical, and the sixth thoracic vertebrae and ribs. The holotype is the only known specimen.

Perhaps this organism had four legs. Perhaps it had flippers. Perhaps it was closely related to whales. Perhaps it has nothing to do with whales. No one really knows. The simple fact of the matter is that we know hardly anything about this creature because, again, so very little of it was found. Forcing this species into an evolutionary paradigm to fit preconceived ideas about cetacean evolution, and promulgating headlines about a “four-legged whale,” is beyond belief. Actually, I take that back. Belief — belief in an evolutionary paradigm — is the thing that’s driving these headlines. 

Imagination. Belief. That’s putting it politely, which I insist upon doing. We all have imaginations, and we all have beliefs. So in that sense this is understandable. But if I weren’t so polite, a variety of other terms could be used to describe telling the public this fossil represents a “four-legged whale.”

Is it any wonder that people don’t trust overhyped evolutionary claims made by the media, or by some scientists?