Footprints in the Sand

| By Darrel Falk

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 ofTiktaalik. As one of my two all-time favorite science books, I wrote a blog post about it soon after we startedScience and the Sacred last May. Now though, as a result of these footprints-in-the-mud, we know that neitherTiktaalik, 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. Sciencemagazine 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.


About the Author

Darrel Falk

Darrel Falk is former president of BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialog. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.


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