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Secular Sunday: “Intelligent” Design and the Evolution of Whales

March 1, 2009

Almost done with Chapter Three of Case for a Creator, but before finishing it out I want to go back to something that I wanted to spend more time on last time I posted. I had to kind of brush over it because I wanted to get more of the book done, but it’s important to address both for the previous discussion of common descent, and for the following and closing discussion of “transitionary fossils.” These two concepts are closely intertwined, so it’s important to understand what they mean and why they are accepted as fact by people who actually look into them.

Going back to something Wells said, that I touched on briefly last time:

“[Homology] is just as compatible with common design as it is with common ancestry. A designer may very well decide to use common building materials to create different organisms, just as builders use the same materials — steel girders, rivets, and so forth — to build different bridges that end up looking very dissimilar from one another.” [page 55]

Let’s look at some steel bridges.

This is the Brooklyn Bridge:

Brooklyn Bridge

This is the George Washington bridge:

George Washington Bridge

This is the Golden Gate bridge:

Golden Gate Bridge

As we can see, suspension bridges do have quite a few common features — in fact I would say that Wells is rather incorrect to state that they look “quite dissimilar from one another.” It seems like a good analogy for common design, until you realize that suspension bridges are not the only kind of bridges.

This is also a bridge:

Stone Bridge

And another stone bridge:

Stone Bridge w/Arches

So stone bridges share common features — with each other. And they have a very, very basic similarity with suspension bridges, in that they both accomplish the same goal of being a bridge.

I was going to post some wooden bridges too, but I think you get the point I’m making. The needs of the bridge (the width it has to span, for example), the materials used, and therefore the design of the bridge are all intricately connected. You would not want to build a wooden bridge instead of a suspension bridge to cross the Hudson. That’s an intelligent kind of design.

Also, you wouldn’t want to use the design for a bridge to build, say, a skyscraper. The design, again, is intricately connected to the object’s purpose — when the design is of the intelligent, consciously-driven kind.

And yet Wells would like to argue that using the same design for vastly different purposes is also “intelligent.” He would argue that it’s perfectly reasonable that a whale’s fins and a human hand should be consciously designed with the same bone structure — even though humans have a use for the individual phalanges (aka fingers) and the whale does not. Or that a whale should have a pelvis shape more suited to walking on hind legs with rear legs than swimming with a tail.

If this is conscious design, it is hardly intelligent. It’s lazy and artless. If a God did design things this way, then he/she/it is certainly a mediocre, half-ass God. To use common design for totally different functions is completely senseless.

On the other hand, if the process is not driven by a consciousness, and we share a common ancestor with whales, then it is perfectly reasonable that whales could have bone structures like ours, even though they don’t use them the same way we do. Vestigial organs make perfect sense through the lens of evolution and common descent; they make little to none in the case of “intelligent” design.

Nonetheless, let’s say we grant that a designer could still exist, if not a particularly intelligent one. Design could account for these observations almost as well as evolution can. So how do we decide which one is the better explanation?

Evolution has a leg up on design, and it’s one of the reasons that evolution counts as science and creationism (and that’s what so-called “intelligent design” really is) does not. Evolution does not just explain existing observations and evidence — it also predicts future discoveries. The process says “If evolution is true, then we should expect to find this, that, and the other piece of evidence as we search.” Not finding the evidence doesn’t mean that evolution is false, of course, but finding it strengthens the case for evolution.

So, in the example of whales, evolution’s predictions state along the lines of “If we had a common ancestor with the whales, which explains the bone structure of whale fins; and if whales descended from land-dwelling creatures, which explains their pelvic structure; then we should expect that there was an organism related to whales, but which lived on the land and had use for the phalanges in its forward limbs.”

Creationism would predict, at best, that we should not find any such creature; whales would have been created as they are, designed specifically for their seafaring lifestyle.

So which one had it right?

Meet Ambulocetus, “the walking whale.”


Ambulocetus is a fossil that looks very much like a whale in terms of its skeletal structure, but with two hind legs and front paws allowing it to walk on land. The creature was amphibious, with back legs more suited to water than land, and is presumed to have look more like a mammalian (furry) crocodile than a modern whale. Nonetheless, it is considered to be an early whale fossil.

“Sure,” the apologist will say, thinking fast. “It’s ‘considered’ to be an early whale fossil, by the scientists who want it to be. That doesn’t mean it is — this may have been a completely different organism. There’s no transitional fossil between this and modern whales!”

Meet Rodhocetus:


Like Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus was probably amphibious, but it had physiological features that are clear adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle. For example, the lower five pelvic vertebrae — fused in land mammals — are separated into individual vertebrae, allowing for the creature to undulate its back all the way down; a precursor to tail-driven swimming.

“That’s still amphibious at best,” the creationist says, sweating. “There’s no fully-aquatic whale ancestor indicating land-based descent.”

Meet Maiacetus.


You may be wondering why, of all the whale fossils, Maiacetus has no artist’s interpretation of what it might look like. This is because Maiacetus was discovered less than a month ago.

The discovery of this fossil was extraordinarily providential, because the specimen they found was pregnant. The fetus was positioned for a headfirst birth, which indicates that Maiacetus probably gave birth on land. Whales now give birth tail-first, in the water, while swimming. A headfirst birth would not be suited to this, the offspring would likely drown before it was fully born.

That’s another, very basic point about whales — they have to come to the surface to breathe. Why would they be “designed” to need air from the surface instead of extracting oxygen from the water like fish? Not a particularly “intelligent” choice, is it?

None of these fossils should exist if there was a creator that made everything just as it is. Yet all of these fossils — and more — are to be expected if evolution by means of natural selection took place.

Is it clear by now which of the two is the best explanation for the evidence, even granting both as possible?

Creationists like to trumpet the “fact” that no transitional fossil has ever been found for any animal living today, yet I could continue introducing you to known “transitional” organisms just between land mammals and modern whales, to say nothing of all the other branches of the tree of life. Wikipedia has an entire article on the evolutionary pathway of whales. Some of them, like Maiacetus, Wells and Strobel could be excused for not knowing about, as this book is over five years old. (UPDATE: I looked it up on Amazon, and apparently the book was published four years ago today.)

But they can’t be excused for making the claim, at that time, that all possible fossils have already been found and are insufficient to support evolutionary theory. Many of the fossils I mention, and as are mentioned in the Wiki article, were well-known to exist long before Case for a Creator‘s publication in 2004. Which just goes to show that every day, more evidence is being found to bolster evolutionary theory, and none to discredit it.

“Theory in crisis?” It is to laugh.

  1. I believe that designs are indeed an artifact of intelligence, such as the many and varied bridges in your essay. And from a look across the widely varied animal kingdom, including humans, it appears that intelligence is an artifact of evolution. It’s just another thing that comes along as a result of processes that go on in the universe. So, then intelligence can’t pre-exist the universe or evolution. Therefore, God cannot be intelligent and consequently, the universe can’t be a design.

    Creationists hold God above and beyond all of nature, yet they cannot refrain from visualizing him as anything ourselves.

    Their view of science is confined to a brief time between Genesis, 10 or 12 thousand years ago, and the apocalypse, coming soon. While they love the fruits of science and find political science to be a very useful tool, all other natural sciences must be mangled into the time frame handed down from their sacred texts.

  2. They seem to have accepted something odd as their basis: “Man is special above all else.” They seem to think that’s proven somehow. If true, Man was designed by an intelligence, and the dominoes fall into place with everything else, but the need for any of the extra evidence would be moot. The attempt to use evolution as proof relies on a specific intent for the design of Man. It means we have a purpose above all else.

    Yet, where’s the proof that Man is special? All they need is just one undeniable thing to separate Man from animals, and all their dreams come true. Everything people have told me we do different from animals has a possible representation among so-called “animals” (and even plants in a few cases, ignoring couch potato jokes).

    Do animals lie? Do they purposely deceive? Do animals hold themselves as important over others? Does an ant queen control her workers to defend her at their cost? Do animals build? Do animals swim? Do animals eat? Do animals solve? Do animals trade? Do animals cultivate and harvest? Do animals communicate? Do animals care? Do animals adapt?

    Do animals believe?

  3. Spiff permalink

    I’m always annoyed when folks say that `missing links’ discredit evolution. Sure, evolution relies on a lengthy sequence of random events that bring about small iterative change. However, these iterative changes cannot be precisely tracked due to the sparseness of data in the fossil record. This is not because the in-betweens didn’t exist, but rather because fossilization is rather improbable.

  4. There is, however, a flaw with this line of argumentation. Under universal common descent, one would expect species with common ancestry to have similar body structures. One would not expect something like this:

    1. The Petrosaurus
    2. A Bat
    3. A Bird

    Similar body types, but are they the result of common ancestry? Evolutionary biologists say no.

    Such a phenomenon is known in evolutionary biology as convergence: the acquisition of the same biological trait in unrelated lineages.

    Okay, you say. There is this one freak occurrence where the same trait evolved independently in two separate lineages. It still doesn’t undermine the argument from homology, where similarity in body traits is evidence for common descent. If this was the only case, I might agree, but no.

    On the left, the Tasmanian Wolf. On the right, the Grey Wolf. According to evolutionary biology, the two evolved independently of one another, yet they have nearly identical skeletal structures.

    In fact, as of this writing, Wikipedia has 96 examples of what they call “convergent evolution”

    If there are so many examples of similar features that evolutionary biologists say are not the result of common ancestry, how could you possibly argue that similar features are evidence for common ancestry?

  5. @ Drew:

    Convergent evolution points towards similar anatomical structures and given other factors (geographical location, etc), rules out common ancestry.

    “If there are so many examples of similar features that evolutionary biologists say are not the result of common ancestry, how could you possibly argue that similar features are evidence for common ancestry?”

    Simple: vestigial structures. A vestigial structure has no purpose, and is not something that would come from natural selection under Convergent evolution. A vestigial structure that is similar to another animal’s structure points towards common ancestry as an explanation.

    A fossil record showing remarkable similarities including certain structures becoming vestigial would only strengthen the case for common ancestry in that particular species.

  6. dorkmanscott permalink

    MasterDarksol covered it pretty well, but I’m going to expand on it a bit anyway.

    First of all, I’m going to call upon you to expand your perspective a bit when it comes to biological variation, Drew. You say there are “so many examples of similar features,” yet the article you cite lists less than 100. Sure, the number seems big if you assume that it ought to be zero (which evolutionary biology would not assume), but compared to the billions of organisms in the world, and the billions more that once existed and went extinct since life began, 96 examples of convergent evolution is statistically insignificant.

    But to the main point. Have you ever heard the term “reinventing the wheel”? It refers to the fact that, when you get down to it, there is really only one way to make a wheel. The incidental details may change, but they’ve all got to have a hub, they’ve got to be round, and most of them have spokes because making a solid disc is more difficult and less resource-efficient.

    It’s not a perfect analogy because the wheel is the result of conscious design and it gives the “design” argument something to latch onto, but the fact is still that it’s not a challenge to evolutionary theory to discover that the structure we call a “wing” is similar across a variety of winged organisms.

    Evolution via natural selection favors physiologies that give an organism a positive survival benefit; so if that is the general structure that best benefits winged organisms, it makes sense that evolution will continue to favor that particular form — that particular “design,” for lack of a better term — even among separate organisms.

    But similar structures evolving to accomplish similar tasks is very different from similar structures evolving to accomplish completely different tasks. In the context of “common design,” this makes no sense. “Common design” would predict that, just as the structure of wings looks the same across a variety of winged organisms, the structure of fins should look the same across a variety of finned organisms. Yet the bone structure of a whale fin looks astoundingly similar to a human hand, and nothing at all like the fin of a fish. If common design were the case, we would expect the opposite to be true.

    It makes perfect sense that similar structures should evolve separately to achieve similar results — and I’ll grant that it would seem to make sense that they could have been designed in that manner, as well. But it’s where similar structures exist to achieve entirely different results that the design hypothesis is inadequate — or at least, again, can hardly be called “intelligent” — while evolution explains it handily, without needing to do any kind of logical gymnastics.

  7. “If there are so many examples of similar features that evolutionary biologists say are not the result of common ancestry, how could you possibly argue that similar features are evidence for common ancestry?”

    Similar features are simply “evidence”. A single similarity between only two remote specimens is never called “proof” by a respectable scientist. They call that an “anomalous data point”. It’s only when enough fossils from over enough millions of years are amassed that a similarity of, and progression of change in, species can begin to emerge. Other sciences come in to play as well. It’s not just overriding belief in evolution as a false religion. Evolution is a science and not a belief system. It’s findings conclusions subject to test from all of the other sciences. The geologic age of the rock strata from specimens are found helps date fossils. Radio carbon half life provides another indpendent assessment. Creationists like to keep the conflict narrowed down to the evolutionary “theory”. The truth is creationism conflicts with all of the sciences. Biology, astronomy, physics, geology just to name a few more. There is no scientific support for creationism on any level.

    Now the new guise for pushing legislation to allow creationism in public education called “critical thinking”. Hello. The sciences and real education have always been about critical thinking. How about allowing critical thinking into sunday school?

  8. Jeremy permalink

    Great thing about a web page, you can devote all the resources to what works and ignore , in this case, significant amounts of what doesn’t.

    Back to the topic at hand though. You are so smart and I need help. So are you saying that in millions and millions of years the rock bridges will evolve into a life form and then into a steel bridge? Wow thats cool. Why even have steel mills??? Or maybe you were just saying that somehow the bridges were built completely void of intelligence? That one will need some convincing. My last idea was just that you meant that you know everything possible, the only requisite for a reasonable scientific mind, to determine that one is prepared to make the changes to perfect the human. My first suggestion would be to limit the “elasticity” of the anus opening. Just for your sake if nothing else.

    Its interesting how “you” people keep using this “science says” perspective to fight your cause. Thats a great perspective of course, but the funny thing is I could give you a short list of people far more educated then you that disagree with you. Feel free to challenge that statement.

    I find it interesting that people would label others with “ignorant” when the only grounds for measure would smother the very person throwing it around. Its late and Im tired and may be babling and I do apologize for that.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      I’ve been away from the blog and was just reminded of this.

      First of all, you’ve entirely missed the point of this post. The post is in response to an argument by an apologist, that analogous structures in biology can be seen as akin to analogous structures in architecture — i.e. they are in fact evidence of a designer. My point was merely that the kind of similarities we see in biological structures do not bear the hallmarks of design that we see in architectural structures, and that it is a poor argument.

      Your appeal to authority doesn’t interest me. Yes, I’m sure you could find a short list of “more educated” people who disagree with me. And I could come up with a much longer one of equally or yet more educated people who agree. And it wouldn’t matter how many people we could put down on our respective lists, because the facts are the facts regardless of who decides they’re willing to believe them.

      And yes, you were “babling.”

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