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Fossil Friday: Triassic Kraken Hypothesis Provoked Scornful Darwinist Revenge

Photo: Ichthyosaur vertebra, Liassic Germany, by G. Bechly.

Professor Mark McMenamin is a maverick paleontologist and critic of neo-Darwinism, who is known for very interesting but controversial hypotheses like Hypersea (McMenamin & Schulte McMenamin 1993, 1994, Zimmer 1995), The Garden of Ediacara (McMenamin 1986, 1998), Paleotorus (McMenamin 2009), and the Triassic Kraken (McMenamin & Schulte McMenamin 20112013McMenamin 2023). The latter hypothesis has met with particularly scornful skepticism from his peers (Simpson 2011Switek 2011Than 2011DNews 2013Pappas 2013Viegas 2016HourDark 2020), and of course from the usual suspects, i.e., activists of the Darwinian thought police like P. Z. Myers (2011) and Donald Prothero (20112013). It has even been called a “dangerous speculation” (Dresow 2022).

An Admittedly Bold Hypothesis

McMenamin’s kraken hypothesis has never been published in a peer-reviewed journal but was only proposed in two congress abstracts (McMenamin & Schulte McMenamin 20112013), a magazine article (McMenamin 2012), and a book chapter (McMenamin 2016). It was also covered by numerous sensationalist press releases and media reports (Bryner 2011Flatow 2011GSA 2011Herald Sun 2011IB Times 2011Leach 2011Praetorius 2011Wang 2011). The admittedly bold hypothesis claims that a gigantic 100-foot Triassic cephalopod killed large ichthyosaurs and arranged their bones in a self-portrait-like pattern. The main evidence is a curious biserial pattern of ichthyosaur vertebrae at the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada, which mimics the pattern of suckers on a cephalopod tentacle. Meanwhile, a second locality with this pattern was discovered in Switzerland (Sander et al. 2022). Just this year, McMenamin described a large cephalopod beak from the same Triassic layers in Nevada, which could directly confirm the actual existence of the postulated “kraken” (McMenamin 2023, also see Pappas 2013).

Nevertheless, instead of a reasonable and fair scientific debate, McMenamin’s hypothesis has been ridiculed by other scientists and science journalists. Of course, this was totally unrelated (irony warning) to the fact that McMenamin is an outspoken critic of neo-Darwinism and has dared to write a positive review for an ID documentary based on Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt at Amazon (McMenamin 2010), just a year before the publication of his kraken hypothesis. He was even accused by vicious activists in the skeptic movement (Prothero 2013) of being a “creationist” himself, even though a fair reading of his review clearly shows that he is not. Others were not beneath abusing McMenamin with the insulting nick name McMinimal (Simpson 2011).

An Inconvenient Thinker

To be clear: There are some good scientific arguments against McMenamin’s interpretation (e.g., the fact that basal fossil coleoids from the Mesozoic all had uniserial suckers; see Anonymous 2020Greenfield 2021), and his kraken hypothesis may very well be wrong. However, the way he and his hypothesis were treated by the scientific community is far from impartial. It is clearly driven by the desire to marginalize and ostracize an inconvenient thinker — who made the big mistake of showing sympathy for the ID movement — as a foolish crackpot who should be ignored. McMenamin is lucky to have a tenured position as college professor, because his opponents would not shy away from destroying his career as they tried or successfully did with other dissidents who think outside the box. I can tell you a thing or two about that myself. So much for objective science and academic freedom.