Transitional Forms as Evidence for Evolution: Tiktaalik and cdesign proponentsists (From The Archives)

I wrote this post back in 2007, after I had  just finished watching the episode of NOVA, “Judgment Day”, about the Dover intelligent design trial. What I liked best about it was the way it highlighted the predictive power of evolutionary theory, something often denied by creationists of various sorts.

When we hear about the discovery of a transitional form or ‘missing link’ like Tiktaalik, it would be possible to presume that this discovery came about by accident. In fact, the paleontologists who found the fossil were looking for just such a transitional fossil, having chosen that particular place to look for fossil evidence of the branching off of amphibians from fishbased on the age of the rocks exposed in that area and Darwinian evolution. In other words, Darwin’s theory makes predictions and they are confirmed (in contrast with intelligent design, which the Dover trial showed clearly knows precisely what experiments to do in order to test its claims, and yet never does them).

This cannot be emphasized strongly enough. This was not simply a find that happened to fit with evolution. This is a case where evolutionary theory made a prediction about where one should look for certain kinds of transitional forms, scientists looked there, and found precisely what evolutionary theory predicted they should. This evidence is as strong as when a witness in a criminal case confesses the stolen loot is hidden in a particular place, the police go search there, and they find it.

Kenneth Miller put it clearly and succinctly in “Judgement Day” when he said ” Any theory that can stand up to 150 years of contentious testing is a pretty darn good theory. And that’s what evolution is.”

A similar example of a prediction made by mainstream evolutionary theory was that the view that humans, having one less chromosome than other primates, had lost one as two chromosomes had fused into one. In one particular human chromosome, one finds not merely a match of genes with two chromosomes found in other primates, but also evidence of the telomeres from the ends of the chromosomes having been incorporated into the midst of the new chromosome formed by the fusion. It is worth noting that the result of this was presumably not mild and gradual. Occasionally such major changes have presumably occurred. We are all mutants, after all.

Another important transitional form mentioned in the documentary was that uncovered in earlier editions of the intelligent design/creationist textbook Of Pandas and People. I had known from reading the book Monkey Girl that they had found manuscripts written just before and just after the judicial decision that outlawed the teaching of creationism in public science classrooms, in which the one before said “creationism” and this was changed in the edition immediately after the decision to “intelligent design”. What I hadn’t known was that there were “transitional forms” providing evidence of this evolutionary process of textbook design. In the version immediately after the judicial decision, there were places where hasty changes had led to forms such as cdesign proponentsists (see, that wasn’t a typo in the title of this post!). The intention had been to highlight the whole word “creationists” and replace it with “design proponents”, but the person making the substitutions had failed to highlight the whole word creationists, and thus ended up making a hodge-podge of the two using this cut and paste method. The evidence for deception on the part of the proponents of intelligent design and creationism in the Dover case is every bit as strong and clear as the evidence for evolution.

A sad irony of the viewpoint of the religious fundamentalists who think they know what is best for science education is that they claim to trust teenagers to weigh the evidence and draw their own conclusions, and yet cannot accept it when the vast majority of those who, having done just that not only as teenagers but in careers in science, overwhelmingly find themselves persuaded by the evidence for evolution.

The transitional forms are consistently found where Darwinian evolution predicts they will be, whether in arctic Canada or creationist literature.

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  • Michael Wilson

    Off the subject, but I love the transitional “fish” you used to illustrate the article. I remember the current thinking about fish to amphibian was the fish evolved legs to crawl from pool to pool.  I was watching a video of a salamander navigating a shallow pool and I thought, what if lung fish developed legs to to move in shallow water? Those kinds of pools won’t allow a large fish to swim around or through branches and stumps. then low and behold, a fish with legs, but legs that won’t support it out of water.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    Did it grow legs because it desired to leave its pond, or did it leave its pond because it grew legs? Also, who decided that legs were necessary to move on land? Ask a snake! Oh wait, snakes were cursed by God to go limbless. You better ask a worm instead. Silly rabbit, tricks are for creationists.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    I had a thought, its a little off topic, but if the purpose of evolution is so that species can change and adapt to a hostile environment to insure its survival, can we look forward someday to deer, for example to be impervious to bullets, like superman?

    Cervidae of steel!

  • Paul D.

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus What you’ll actually get is deer that are smaller and don’t grow impressive antlers, since these are the deer that tend to survive hunting season better than large deer with impressive trophy antlers.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @Tenorikuma:disqus But when will it not be a deer anymore? :)

  • James F. McGrath

    @Howard, when the human beings that give names to and categorize living things call it something else. But by that point, after so much time, would we still call ourselves human beings?

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I’m a human, and I’ve decided to call it a Valconian Smidget. Or is it too soon?

  • James F. McGrath

    You can call it anything you want. Categorization and labelling of animals is a human endeavor (as Genesis recognizes!) and while the overall taxonomic system itself illustrates evolution in certain respects, it also obscures the fact that we can see geographic variation in the present where the is no sharp line between two distinct species, and that the choice to place paleontological evidence under one label or another doesn’t mean that there is no gradation in the intervening fossil record. Hopefully this will clarify my point, and hopefully others will chime in on this too, since I will be out of Internet contact again for a bit while traveling.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, Actually, I was just messing around with it, but if you want my real opinion (which you probably don’t) I’ll give you just two reasons why evolution is not convincing to me.

    1. Because evolution is suppose to be a very slow process, with complete changes (e.g. limbless fish to fully functional legs) only happening over hundreds of thousands of years or even millions of years, it would require large amounts of evidence to substantiate the claim. Unless we have evidence of this gradual process, which would include thousands of fossils of a single species exhibiting this gradual change in a chronological order over smaller periods of time, anything else is speculation. So if we are looking at two specimens for an evolutionary connection, and a considerable amount of time has past between the times they were suppose to have lived, is this really undisputable evidence if we can not show how point A got to point B with many more pieces of evidence in-between? However, I could be wrong, all you have to do is point me to where I can see the thousands of intermediate fossils from Tiktaalik all the way back to the limbless fish it evolved from. If actual evidence of the intermediate forms are not necessary, and the supposition that fish A = fish B, is all that is necessary to say with confidence that this is proof of evolution, could you explain why?

    2. I think evolution erroneously tries to displace the symbiotic relationship between living things and the planet. Evolutionist see the obvious biological similarities between many species as a biological connection. But it is just as valid to see the biological similarities as the result of having to exist in a similar environment. If you bought an aquarium filled it with water, what would you place in it? A dog, a chicken, or a buffalo? No, you would place in it something that is biologically adapted to living in or on the water. On the other hand, you could just throw some chemicals and amino acids into the aquarium, and simply wait for something to come to life and evolve into a species that was biologically adapted to water. I just wonder, how many times would life have to spontaneously exist and then die, before one came forth that was adaptable to live in water and survive?

  • James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I would encourage you to take a look at a good biology textbook, which should provide what you are looking for, assuming you are not suggesting that there should be no missing forms, but are only making the reasonable request that we be able to see development that is traceable over time in the fossil record.

    If I am incorrect, then please do consider whether you would apply the same principle to criminal investigations, and would maintain that a video image of the suspect pointing a gun at the victim, the suspect’s fingerprint on a gun and a match between the gun and the bullet that killed victim are inadequate unless there is video footage that allows one to see the bullet leave the gun and be traced every step of the way without any gaps.

  • Ahnand

    Well, you know, “hasty hodge-podge”s have been done by teams on both side of the line. I mean, look at Nebraska Man. Realistic drawing that fit perfectly into the evolutionary timeline, and the whole thing was based on the tooth of a peccary. Making judgments about the whole based on the actions of the few is not good science, and is in fact detrimental to the scientific community as a whole.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    … the purpose of evolution …

    You still don’t seem to understand the implications: evolution has no purpose.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    1… Unless we have evidence of this gradual process, which would include
    thousands of fossils of a single species exhibiting this gradual change
    in a chronological order over smaller periods of time, anything else is

    Your demand for evidence is unreasonable. And why is it that you do not demand the same amount of evidence from whatever alternative explanation you might be imagining?

    Evolutionist see the obvious biological similarities between many
    species as a biological connection. But it is just as valid to see the
    biological similarities as the result of having to exist in a similar

    You should learn about convergent evolution, and the data scientists look for to distinguish between convergent and divergent evolution. It certainly is not “just as valid” to pull wild speculation out of an orifice as to follow the data.

    • stuart32

      Indeed. The demand is unreasonable. If you had a photograph album charting the life of one person from birth to old age, with one picture taken every year Mr Mazzaferro would probably believe it was a collection of pictures of eighty different people. He would only be satisfied if the pictures were taken at the rate of one a day.

      There are two things he fails to consider. The first is that all the theory of evolution has to do is to provide a better explanation than the alternative. We see a number of fossils which can be arranged in a series, with each fossil being slightly different from the one before.

      According to the theory of evolution, what we see is evidence of a gradual process of change. According to the alternative explanation what we see is a number of fossils of creatures that have appeared out of thin air. Since we don’t normally see creatures appearing out of thin air but we do see lots of examples of things gradually changing, evolution is the more plausible explanation.

      The other thing he fails to consider is that the fossil record provides a wonderful opportunity to refute the theory of evolution. If the fossil record showed that exactly the same creatures lived 200 million years ago as live now then the theory of evolution would be demolished.