Donald R. Prothero’s “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils” and the evidence for evolution

Credit: Wikimedia Commons- H. Raab (User: Vesta)

I come from a background that was young earth creationist and have gone on a very lengthy journey that went from young earth creationist to theistic evolutionist to old earth creationist (a long time) to tentative endorsement of Intelligent Design and back to theistic evolution/evolutionary creation. In other words, I’ve thought about this a lot. I have several shelves dedicated to books on the topic, and have cycled my share of them through the shelf as well, updating to the latest or most interesting ones as I discovered them. I’m very thankful that I had friends who, despite being creationists themselves, spoke kindly to me as I began to explore this issue and were able to help me out of my crisis of faith when I became convinced geological history could not be contained in 6-10,000 years. So yes, I remain a Christian, and yes, I am convinced of the truth of evolution. One question I get asked about this “Why? Why believe that evolution is true?” I present here one of the several reasons I changed my mind. I write this with the caveat that I am not an expert in this field and am presenting the evidence as well as I can.

Interpreting Fossil Evidence

One of the most famous photographs of a fossil is that of archaeopteryx. Its strange shape captures the eye. The way its neck is twisted in death. The pronounced, clawed “fingers” coming from wings. Wings? Yes, there they are, writ plain in stone: feathers on this clearly dinosuar-looking specimen. Now, some will immediately scoff. After all, haven’t some scientists said that archaeopteryx is not a transitional form between birds and dinosaurs? Yes, so far as I can tell, some have said that. But what such a reaction does not account for is that what this means is that some scientists are saying that archaeopteryx cannot be established as the ancestor of living birds today. That does not mean that it is not a transitional form. Indeed, looking at such a fossil, one can’t help but see it as a pretty powerful example of a bird-dinosaur. I use this example because it illustrates a few of the errors I myself fell into. The first is overconfidence. It was pretty remarkable for me to think that just because I read that some scientists disagree with one interpretation of the significance of a fossil, I could reject the significance of it altogether. Second, it shows the kind of whack-a-mole strategy I and others use(d) to interact with evidence for evolution. Rather than viewing the evidence as a totality, it was much easier to dissect individual pieces and try to poke holes in specific, single strands of evidence. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it illustrates the error of thinking that if a series of steps A through Z cannot be known to the extent that every letter is put in exacting order, the series itself is rejected. That is, not being able to say with certainty whether D came before or after E along that chain of evidences does not entail that there is no chain. It simply means we may have uncertainty regarding specific steps along the chain.

Specific Fossil Evidence

Enter Prothero, and others. Donald R. Prothero’s book, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils is a powerful, accessible account of how 25 famous fossils illustrate the truth of evolution throughout life’s history. Each of the 25 stories of fossils, their discoveries, and how they can be shown to be in a web of life is fascinating. Here, I’d like to highlight a few that I think serve to illustrate the powerful evidence for evolution.

Archaeopteryx 

Yeah, that’s right. I’m going back to the one I already mentioned. Why? Because Archaeopteryx is really just the first of the many, many examples we have of feathered fossils that help illustrate the steps along the way from dinosaur to bird. It would be one thing if that famous bird-reptile were all we had to go on, but the fact is that there are many, many other fossils that have been discovered. Archaeopteryx is just the most famous. But when you start to put these fossils alongside each toher, and line them up with a skeleton of a modern pigeon, for example, you can observe the clear anatomical features that each illustrates. It’s not just feathers, but the elongated fingers of the archaeopteryx and the way they appear to be just a longer version of those same features on dinosaurs like orintholestes. But these are not the only examples, Sinosauropteryx is another example of a feathered dinosaur that exhibits features that would later be found on birds. Yutyrannus has direct evidence of feathers, but also has indirect evidence for a tongue like that of modern birds. The stunning images of preserved Confuciusornis can’t help but call to mind crows and other bids, despite it still having dinosaur-like forelimbs. The more and more fossils are found, and modern technology can analyze their feathers and compare them to modern birds, demonstrating several stages to get to the feathers birds use to fly in the skies of our own time.

Indeed, looking at modern birds, one sees the scales on their feet. Look at the talons of raptors today, and one can see the evidence of transition on their feet, the scales that cover them and their shape, and then look at fossilized dinosaur skin or the way theropod dinosaur feet are shaped. I once wrote this off as God using a good design multiple times, but that again illustrates the error of trying to explain individual features rather than looking at a holistic picture. Looking at the whole, and observing the many fossils that have been found since the famous archaeopteryx, one cannot help but see the evidence for a series of life forms that transitioned from dinosaur to bird.

Odontochelys

Some of the most striking evidence for evolution requires a literal digging (har har). This kind of evidence isn’t flashy; it isn’t the kind of fossil photograph you’ll see on the news, but it is significant, convincing evidence nonetheless. Think about the turtle. It’s not that exciting, but there are a lot of (slow-)moving parts that have to get pieced together to make the turtle work. A retractable neck, a shell for protection, a way to eat–these are just some of them. But how did turtles get a shell? It’s the kind of absurdist story creationists put forward to try to discredit evolution. One day, a reptile of some sort lays an egg, and out pops a creature with a shell! Impossible! Yes, of course it is. But that doesn’t mean a number of gradual steps could not have gotten from shell-less creature to one with a shell. And that is the kind of evidence we do have.

Odontochelys is not going to win beauty pageants. It looks like roadkill in fossil form, and artist depictions don’t make it look that much better. But when you look at the bone structure you can see it there as plain as day: a prototype shell, but one that only covers the bottom of the creature. It is something like a halfway point to the turtle. Prothero notes that the creature provides the answer to the question “How could turtles have evolved from no shell to a full shell?” (148). The way this happened, scientists think, is through the expansion of ribs on the back of the proto-turtle into a shell to protect from predators. Odontochelys essentially shows this in process and mostly settled the debate over where the shell came from. Indeed, tying it together with Eunotosaurus, one can see the same back ribs in transition at an earlier stage. Another fascinating feature of Odo (sorry, had to sneak a Star Trek reference in somewhere) is that it has teeth in the beak still, showing both features of a turtle (beak) and earlier creatures (teeth). It truly is a remarkable discovery because it appears to be a real transitional halfway point between earlier reptiles and turtles. Just think about it abstractly. Strip away the knee-jerk reaction to try to explain away fossils and really look at it. It would be hard to ask for a better transitional fossil.

Ambulocetus

The evolution of whales from walking relatives is one that I fought against intellectually for a while. It just seemed like an absurdist story: life emerged from the water, dominated the land, and then decides to crawl back into the oceans? Ridiculous! I spent quite a while looking over creationist literature on this and laughing about the silliness of evolutionary explanations. Then, I decided to read “the other side” because I wanted to write about it myself. I was astonished. The pictures of a walking mammal gradually lengthening a snout, shifting to flippers, elongating the tail, etc. weren’t just conjured out of nothing. They were based on actual fossil evidence scientists have found. And that fossil evidence shows significant evidence for the lineage of whales over time.

Ambulocetus is special because it shows the increase in size from the earlier specimens, the long toothy snout similar to early whales, ears more suited to being in the water, long fingers and toes that possibly had webbing, and a spine that was able to undulate up and down similar to some whales (275-277). These features place it fairly well between earlier walking creatures and later swimming creatures. It shows features of both, and is a kind of halfway point between the walking mammals earlier and the later whales. Discoveries like Rodhocetus helped solidify that evidence, showing the elongation of the snout that continued towards what whales had/have as well as a tail that was better suited to helping steer in the water. It is just the kind of step-by-step process that is often challenged to be presented in creationist literature, but it has been found! Again, I doubted this sequence very much, in part because I was assured by some creationist literature that such a sequence was purely speculative (with the implication that the fossils didn’t exist) and in part because it just seemed kind of silly (creatures emerged from the water only to return?). But the fossil evidence is quite strong on this lineage and it’s astonishing to see creatures like Gaviocetus that continue the trend. Creationist literature disparages the fossil evidence due to some aspects of it being inference, but the fossils that have been found demonstrate the features in a convincing line of change from walking to swimming. It’s a fascinating look at the evidence for evolution.

Now What?

Okay, so I affirm evolution and I have presented some evidence I think is convincing. But why am I a Christian still? There are many, many answers for that and they’d largely center around theological reasons, but speaking specifically on this issue, the fact is that from before evolution was ever a theory through its earliest genesis in intellectual circles and beyond, Christians have struggled with and debated the topic. It is just false to think no Christians immediately embraced evolution, as many did and saw it as evidence for God’s sustaining providence in all things. George Frederick Wright (1838-1921) is one who noted this synergy and argued against those who charged him with affirming deism, for example. Christianity and evolution are not enemies. Each has evidence to support it and reasons to believe it, and together they form a powerful way of understanding the world.

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Vaccines: A Resource List

Source: By Photo Credit: James GathanyContent Providers(s): CDC – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #2674. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=367791

I have engaged with a few people who are anti-vaccination for a number of reasons. I believe that people who are against the use of vaccines believe that they have strong reasons for their beliefs and practices. I wish to engage with people–some of whom I know personally–on a thoughtful level that does not denigrate their sometimes deeply held beliefs. I do believe that those who line up in the anti-vaccination camp are mistaken on a number of topics, and I understand the anger that some have against those who refuse to vaccinate, but I wish to avoid that with this list that I’m putting together.

Here, I hope to gather a list of links to engage with arguments from the anti-vaccination side in a thoughtful way. I hope to avoid putting anything on here that will denigrate those who are anti-vaccination, but rather make it a resource list to engage with. The list will grow as I find more links to add. It is by no means complete, and will begin here with far fewer resources than I hope to have later. I’ve arranged it by either key words or topics, and added what I hope is a fair summary of the anti-vaccination argument under the topic before I link some evidence against the argument. In some cases I’ve type up a brief response to go along with the resource(s). I hope you find this useful, whatever your background. If you have some resources you believe belong on this list, please share them, though I make no guarantees I will add them. Please, if you wish to share resources, make sure they have adequate citations, are not memes, and do not belittle others.

Vaccine Injury Court

Anti-Vaccination Argument(s): The fact that we have a vaccine injury court suggests that vaccines are unsafe. After all, if they were safe, there’d be no need to have such a court. The court has paid out billions of dollars for vaccine injuries, which means that vaccines are not safe.

Brief Response: Simply having a vaccine injury court does not guarantee that vaccines are dangerous. Though it is true that $3.18 billion has been paid out for vaccine-related injuries by this court, a large percentage of these were settled without ever agreeing that the vaccine caused an injury. Moreover, if one divides the $3.18 billion by the number of vaccines administered in the United States (2.5 billion between 2006-2014 alone), you get an average of $1.27 per vaccine being awarded. That’s incredibly low and suggests that simply based on dollars spent on purported injuries, vaccines are, in fact, incredibly safe. Of course the 3.18 billion should be divided by all vaccines since 1988 when the fund was established, but that would make the number much lower.

Resource(s)

Here’s How the Anti-Vaxxers’ Strongest Argument Falls Apart– the title is a bit provocative, but the information it contains is strong. It notes how the vaccine injury court is set up, how frequently it is less expensive to settle than to try to disprove a claim of vaccine injury, and demonstrates that the numbers do not hold up to saying vaccines are harmful.

Doctors Against Vaccines

Argument: Some doctors are also against use of vaccines, so the evidence can go either way. 

Brief Response: Anecdotal evidence does not trump research and numerous studies that seem to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of vaccines. As in almost any area where there is a consensus position, there will be a limited number of people who dissent. 

Vaccines Cause Autism

Argument: Some study(ies) demonstrated that vaccines are linked to autism. There is a correlation between the number of vaccines administered and the increase of cases of autism in the United States. 

Brief response: Correlations are often spurious, as a rather entertaining website can help you explore. Correlation is not (always) evidence of causation, and correlations between all kinds of unrelated things can easily be drawn (again, check out the linked text in the sentence before this one). Not only that, but the studies that purport to demonstrate this link have been largely discredited.

Resources

Autism Science Foundation– This website, dedicated to looking at scientific evidence related to autism and research in that area, states clearly: “Vaccines save lives; they do not cause autism. Numerous studies have failed to show a causal link between vaccines and autism. Vaccine safety research should continue to be conducted by the public health system in order to ensure vaccine safety and maintain confidence in our national vaccine program, but further investment of limited autism research dollars is not warranted at this time.” The site also has its own list of resources related to studies that have shown that there is no causal link between vaccines and autism.

Doctor in MMR-Autism Scare Ruled Unethical– Dr. Andrew Wakefield is a big name in the anti-vaccination movement, and his studies are sometimes taken to be definitive justification for several of that movement’s positions. However, it is worth noting that Wakefield’s research has been ruled unethical–including paying children at a birthday party to give blood. Moreover, his research practice was deemed dishonest and irresponsible according to the medical panel’s ruling. It is difficult to see why he should continue to be trusted without a quite extraordinary conspiracy going on to discredit his research. It is the research itself that has been demonstrated to be wrong, and his methodology shown to be flawed and “dishonest.” In light of these findings, those who wish to continue to use Wakefield as a source must demonstrate the reliability of his research rather than simply pointing to it as a kind of dissent from consensus.

PBS’ Nature Episodes

My dear readers….

Few of you may know about my intense interested in everything. This blog is an expression of those eclectic interests.

One of the interests very dear to me is nature. I think the natural world displays a beauty and complexity which leads me towards awe and wonder at its Creator. Recently, I discovered that NPR has a great number of episodes on nature available in their entirety online: http://video.pbs.org/program/nature/

I watched the episode on there about Harpy Eagles and just loved it. I can’t stand monkeys–gross little critters if there ever were any–and these eagles eat monkeys. Yes, they’re that big. Awesome.

Another amazing episode was the one about wolverines. They’re such wild, amazing creatures. They can consume bones for nourishment and despite being small, they can take down very large prey. Wolverines climb all over mountains without even slowing down. Amazing.

Suffice to say, I have now found a great series to watch as I read. I love having them on in the background as I read philosophy/theology/history.

God’s creation is truly a majestic, wonderful canvas. I encourage you to learn more about it.

What _is_ this place?

Hello to anyone reading this. I’m J.W. Wartick and I’m already a fairly regular blogger over at my main site, Always Have a Reason. That site is itself about philosophy of religion as well as Christian apologetics, theology, and science. But I have way more interests than I could contain on just that blog.

I have a fascination for history, science, and the arts. I love reading sci-fi, fantasy, and history. Paleontology and archaeology fascinate me. I love playing role-playing games and driving franchises in Madden.

In short, I need an outlet for all these things–a place for me to just reflect on my interests that don’t seem to fall under the umbrella of my main site. There is too much going on in this head to keep it all in.

You, the reader, may find this diverting. I know how interesting it can be to explore the random thoughts of people. Hopefully this site will lead you to some new interests, or perhaps you’ll comment and help lead me off to learn about things about which I know little or nothing.

You, the reader, are therefore asked by me, the author, to leave your own reflections on the topics I present here. Or, if you desire, you can just post about other random interests of your own. When I put up a post on the Battle of Midway, you can respond by talking about Gettysburg. That is fine! Please do so!

Finally, readers are entitled to a bit of background about myself if we’re going to have engaging discussions. I’m a Christian theist who loves a good debate. I’m getting an M.A. in Christian Apologetics. Philosophy of religion is my primary interest, but as you read on here you’ll find I have interests all over the place. I’m a devoted Christian who believes that the evidence for Christian theism is quite strong (if you want to read on that, you should check out my main site). You’ll note, then, that theism–indeed, Christian theism–permeates my posts, even when I’m talking about things unrelated to it. I’ll not apologize for that. We all let our worldviews into every aspect of our lives. I hope as you read here you’ll find some questions to ask and, maybe even some answers.