Footprints in the Sand

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January 11, 2010 Tags: History of Life

Today's entry was written by Darrel Falk. You can read more about what we believe here.

I have a confession to make. I almost hollered in frustration when I read what Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute wrote about this week’s cover story in Nature. Then I read Donald M‘s blog over at Uncommon Descent. It happened all over again—I almost hollered. I am the one who wrote that we need to imagine our exchanges as being like conversation over coffee. I am the one who indicated that as we put away our cups, we need to do so as friends. For far too long the discussion regarding this issue has been like people yelling at each other. The louder we yell, the less we hear. So here I am, coffee cup in hand, ruminating over what I fully expect was a sincere effort to do what they think is right, even though it seemed so wrong to me. I don’t want to holler, and I don’t want to be condescending, we all have to listen to each other. There is much at stake.

The Nature article describes the finding of “footprints in the mud”—some quite detailed—in what is now 395 million year old rock. This set of walks in what was then a marine intertidal zone represent the earliest vertebrate footprints ever discovered. Until last week’s publication, we didn’t know there were animals with backbones walking on land that early. This is 18 million years earlier than paleobiologists expected. I was shocked when I read the article, but my old scientific juices started to flow, too. Science thrives on unexpected results, especially when they show unequivocally that things are not as simple as they first thought. Scientists are—first and foremost—puzzle-solvers. Finding a new piece that doesn’t quite fit into the picture and then revising it accordingly is what brings great joy to being a scientist.

You may remember the excitement engendered by the 2006 report of the discovery of a well-articulated fossil in northern Canada. It contained the impression of the bones of Tiktaalik, a fish that 375 million years ago had obviously been able to support itself on land. Neil Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish, describes the discovery of Tiktaalik. As one of my two all-time favorite science books, I wrote a blog post about it soon after we started Science and the Sacred last May. Now though, as a result of these footprints-in-the-mud, we know that neither Tiktaalik, nor any of its contemporary cousin species, was the transitional species that led to the first land vertebrates. That transition had occurred at least 18 to 20 million years earlier. As interesting as this information is, it will simply involve a revision in the timing of the origin of land vertebrates.

I am puzzled then, that Donald M. in his Uncommon Descent blog, concludes his discussion of the footprints story this way: “…as more and more discoveries like this one are forthcoming, it seems less and less likely that there even is an evolutionary tape to rewind.” Why would he conclude from this that evolution is untrue—that there was no evolutionary “tape?” Why does he think that because scientists were perhaps two percentage points off on their estimate of the timing of the origin of land vertebrates, that this puts the theory of evolution into crisis? Why does he tell people this?

Excuse me. I need to take another sip of my coffee.

Casey Luskin puts the “crisis” into a broader perspective. After telling the Tiktaalik story in his blog, he goes on to summarize four other cases where new data has emerged this year. For reasons, I do not understand he thinks that when new data arises it puts the entire theory into crisis. Here are his four other events:

  • Archaeoptrix, which has long been known to be closely related to the transitional species on the lineage from reptiles to birds, was shown to have a bone growth pattern which is more like a dinosaur than expected. This is minor tweaking. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that Archaeoptrix is the transitional species. There are likely a whole set of them and the chances that Archaeoptrix itself is on the lineage are probably quite slim. I’m not sure Luskin understands this.
  • The fossilized remains of a 4.2 million year old early hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus were described. Science magazine has declared this to be the most important discovery of 2009. True, there is some ambiguity as to whether this species was on the direct lineage to humans. It may well have been a cousin species. But we have new data and even a new species. The fact that it may or may not be on the direct lineage to humans is irrelevant to the theory of evolution. It doesn’t, in contrast to what Luskin states, even provide reason to doubt. It is beside the point.
  • A paper was published in which the authors conclude that birds may have arisen through the Archosaur lineage of reptiles rather than the dinosaur lineage. I think we can just wait for more data. I don’t know of any paleobiologist who has suggested that this creates reason to doubt that birds evolved from reptiles.
  • There was a great deal of media hype about the discovery of a primitive primate, Darwinius masillae, which lived 47 million years ago. (Primates include monkey, lemurs, apes, and humans.) For some reason this, the earliest complete primate fossil ever found, was touted by the media as a missing link to humans. All it did was fill in some missing data on very early stages of primate evolution 40 million years before the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees strolled upon the earth. It was a nice piece of data that provided a more complete story for primate evolution in general. Certainly its description and the media hype associated with it do not create reason to doubt that primates evolved.

Luskin concludes his discussion of these paleontology discoveries by citing a quotation from Francis Collins: "The evidence mounts every day to support the concept that we and all other organisms on this planet are descended from a common ancestor, and that the theory of evolution is really no longer a theory in the sense of being untested. It is a theory in the sense of gravity. It is a fact." Having quoted Collins, and having discussed the new data described above Luskin goes on to say, ”But yet we see the facts of neo-Darwinism constantly being revised.” Collins didn’t say that these five bits of the still emerging story were facts. He said that the theory of evolution is a fact. Of course, the details are being revised. Is not that how science works?

I need another sip of coffee.

Remember what Steven Benner said in his essay on December 30? “When scientists cease to be more critical of data that support their own hypotheses than data that contradict them, they soon lose the ability to distinguish reality from non-reality.” Science works through constant revision of the individual little hypotheses that make up the entire body of the theory. Luskin and Donald M don’t seem to understand this. Why did the footprints-in-the-mud make the cover of Nature magazine? Why is Ardipithecus on the cover of this week’s Science magazine? It is because scientists, when they are at their best, love to find pieces in a puzzle that don’t quite fit their pre-conceived notions.

So if ID is really science (and I believe it is), why are the scientific leaders of the movement allowing Casey Luskin and Donald M to make statements that are so illogical? With all due respect, as I wash my coffee cup and place it on the wall hanger beside the sink, I am thinking that the leaders owe it to members of the Church who are not scientists to make sure that this kind of writing ceases for good. It is not fair to the Church and it dishonors the discipline. Can we (I say ‘we’ because these people are my brothers and sisters in the family of God) get back on track? I hope so. There is much at stake.

Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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beaglelady - #2442

January 12th 2010


Thanks so much for your response.  I agree with you that of course we should teach the scientific consensus.  I’m just afraid that if ID is labeled as science, even as poor science,  it will make teaching it legal.  That would give the DI just what they need to legally slip it into the curriculum, say as “teaching the controversy” or “academic freedom” etc.

I can only imagine what all those hard-working, dedicated high school biology teachers are thinking if they are following this!

Brian - #2443

January 12th 2010


Thanks for the post.  You quote Collins as saying,  “The evidence

...a fact.”

There are (at least) two parts to it:
1- “descended from a common ancestor,” which is fairly clear.  As much as many folks might want to reduce the discussion to a very rigid black-white, us-them dichotemy (and these people exist on both sides of the ideological aisle), there are at least some (Behe, most notably) in the ID camp who hold to common descent. 

2- “the theory of evolution,” which is not so clear.  For many (again, on both sides), this also includes the notion of philosophical naturalism, which I take it you guys, being theists, don’t agree with. 

So, a question:  what scientific evidence is there that evolution has been guided, controlled, or perhaps influenced (but not designed?) either by God or by some other intelligent force?  I’m particuarly interested in how you might speak to the “time-chance-and-undirected-natural-law-can-do-it-all” view that is so often incorporated into most mainstream definitions of evolution. 


pds - #2445

January 12th 2010


You said

Nevertheless, we are trying to promote strong science so we must critique them on their science, which is close to non-existent.  I just watched Darwin’s Dilemma, a DVD produced by the DI and was quite dismayed at the presentation.  Simon Conway Morris was “packaged” to look like an ID guy; Paul Nelson waxed eloquent about the “suddenness” of a Cambrian Explosion that he does not believe in, since he is a young earth creationist who rejects the geological epochs; and there were other examples that looked like attempts to mislead.

Most of your critique is based on your subjective impressions.  I strongly disagree that Conway Morris was packaged as an “ID guy.”  In fact, the film is effective because he is presented as a leading expert (which he is) and not as an ID guy.

You claim that “their science ... is close to non-existent” but you cite no factual errors in the film.  That is a pretty insulting comment with no back up.  The film is full of science and it is all pretty accurate as far as I can tell.  Can you give some precise examples of scientific errors?

Gregory Arago - #2449

January 12th 2010

“I have always been worried about how so called “Christians” can be so dishonest and deceitful in their writings.” - AusAdrian

Does it appear that BioLogos is an appropriate place to discuss such things?

John Kwok - #2451

January 12th 2010

@ Gregory -

“Does it appear that BioLogos is an appropriate place to discuss such things?”

Indeed it does. Not surprisingly, I strongly endorse AusAdrian’s remarks.

Am still waiting for you to reply to the questins I have posed to you for days, of which the latest variant is noted above (#2439). I would appreciate a prompt reply finally.

beaglelady - #2452

January 12th 2010


I think that it’s very, very hard if not impossible to acknowledge that people you regard as brothers in Christ might also be just plain liars, to put it bluntly.

Gregory Arago - #2463

January 12th 2010

No, since you *still* didn’t answer my question, John. Please say you can’t or won’t, if that is your decision.

What is an example of something (other than God or other real supernatural things) that doesn’t evolve?

To a former ‘evolutionary biologist’ who believes that ‘nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution,’ the idea of ‘universalizing evolutionism’ is probably normal. And you used to be an evolutionary biologist, John, so this is probably how you see things. In biology, out of biology, what’s the big difference, right? Everything changes!

To non-biologists, however, many things in the world ‘make sense *outside* the light of evolution.’

This is not rocket science and shouldn’t be difficult for people to admit.

John Kwok - #2470

January 12th 2010


Gregory Arago -

Well, let’s see:

1) Leica M rangefinder camera - though there have been at least a dozen different models since the Leica M3 was introduced back in 1954, the camera has remained basically unchanged until the recent introductions of the Leica M8 and M9 digital rangefinder cameras

2) State of American science education - has gotten worse, with no thanks to your creationist “friends”.

3) Nikon F mount - which has remained unchanged for all Nikon SLRs - including digital SLRs - since the very first Nikon F SLR was made back in 1959.

4) “classic ” view camera - of various film formats consists of a bag bellows, lens board and film holder, and these have remained essentailly unchanged since the middle of the 19th Century.

That’s just for starters for this former evolutionary biologist. Now answer my questions.

John Kwok - #2472

January 12th 2010

Corrected post (Webmaster you can delete # 2471, but my warning stays in effect for this one.):

Gregory Arago -

I don’t believe in “universalizing evolutionism”. I’m far more practical and pragmatic. In fact, I’m so practical and pragmatic, that these are two of the reasons why I love the Klingons. Why? When their GODs began to meddle too much in their lives, the Klingons killed their GODS or had them banished permanently from the Klingon homeworld, Qo’nos.

(Note to Webmaster: If you delete this comment, you are doing so at yours and BioLogos’s peril. Will report it to others and have it so noted elsewhere online.).

Gregory Arago - #2488

January 12th 2010

Translate into English please John. In #2470 the word ‘evolve’ is missing.

I’m looking for examples of ‘things that don’t evolve.’

Are you saying that ‘cameras’ and ‘American education’ don’t evolve?

p.s. though I am not a ‘creationist’ or an ‘atheist’ there is little problem being ‘friends’ with either of such folks

John Kwok - #2491

January 12th 2010

@ Gregory Arago -

Don’t mince words with me. IMHO, judging from your comments, you are an ID creationist. Why don’t you just admit it? You still refuse to answer the two questions I have raised again and again.
Why, if you don’t mind my asking?

American science education is not in a state of “evolution”, but rather, “regression”. And I think I pointed out how and why, in the case of both Leica rangefinder cameras (the current M-mount) and the Nikon F SLR mount, cameras don’t evolve.

AusAdrian - #2492

January 12th 2010

@Gregory Arago-
I’m not sure what you mean by “other real supernatural things”.
Things are either real or supernatural, not both.
Also, you won’t answer John’s question until he answers yours. Interesting.
An example of something that doesn’t evolve. A rock. An individual mosquito. (Evolution is a population phenomenon). Are you equating the “evolution” of the modern motor car, which is clearly the result of “intelligent design”, with the evolution of vanco resistant enterococcus.

Gregory Arago - #2496

January 12th 2010

Thank you, John. Now I can answer your questions. Tomorrow.


Sure, supernatural can be real. Why not?

Bio - Life.

Logos - God’s word, reason, order.

The people behind this site (along with a majority of human beings on the planet, according to social surveys) believe that “God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s both supernatural and real. It doesn’t matter if one can or cannot ‘prove’ it in the ‘modern western scientific’ meaning of ‘proof.’ This is what we believe - supernatural *and* real.

I thank you, nonetheless, for answering a question that Gordon J. Glover wouldn’t, and that beaglelady dodged, and that finally John Kwok has now answered.

I’ll address that tomorrow.

Cheers, Gregory

AusAdrian - #2497

January 12th 2010

@Gregory Arago-
Thanks for your reply. I see your point, although as a western biology teacher, don’t agree with it. Nonetheless, thanks for your perspective.

Gordon J. Glover - #2498

January 12th 2010

“I’ll address that tomorrow.”  Now I won’t be able to sleep tonignt.

beaglelady - #2504

January 12th 2010

Now I won’t be able to sleep tonignt.

That’s because your wife is leaving you. (Because of your engineering degree.)

beaglelady - #2505

January 12th 2010

I thank you, nonetheless, for answering a question that Gordon J. Glover wouldn’t, and that beaglelady dodged…


I gave you an answer a while ago. My answer was that God doesn’t evolve.  Then you persisted in needling me for more answers and refused to provide your CORRECT ANSWERS©.  You also didn’t provide me with the requested list of words that might set you off as the e-word does. So I got tired of playing. Besides, if you want to pose riddles, why don’t you audition to sing Turandot at the Met? 

“Any man who desires to wed Turandot must first answer her three riddles. If he fails, he will be beheaded”
beaglelady - #2506

January 12th 2010

When their GODs began to meddle too much in their lives, the Klingons killed their GODS or drove off the Klingon homeworld Qo’nos.

Just one question, Captain John T. Kwok:

How many Klingons can dance on the head of a pin?

John Kwok - #2510

January 13th 2010

@ Beaglelady -

Henceforth, please address me as Starfleet Commander/Grand Nagus John T. Kwok. Just kidding of course….

Haven’t the foggiest idea how many Klingons can dance on the head of a pin? Reminds me of the question, “How many Brown students does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The correct answer is ten; one to screw it and nine to share in the experience.”

Live Long and Prosper,


John Kwok - #2511

January 13th 2010

@ Gordon (# 2498) -

Now that’s going to give me nightmares. Until I saw Gregory’s post, I had visions of Bill Dembski being chased by a pack of hungry velociraptors in “Jurassic Park V: Intelligent Design on Trial”.

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