Secular Sunday: “Intelligent” Design and the Evolution of Whales
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:
This is the George Washington bridge:
This is the 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:
And another stone bridge:
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!”
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.”
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.