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Fact-Checking Wikipedia on Common Descent: The Evidence from Paleontology


Previously in this series, I have discussed the arguments for common descent presented by Wikipedia in the areas of comparative physiology/biochemistry and comparative anatomy. In this third installment, I will discuss the arguments from paleontology and the fossil record. Wikipedia’s page on the “Evidence of common descent” contains only a brief section on the fossil record, half of which is concerned with describing the discipline of paleontology and noting the limitations of the fossil record.

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Semi-Off Topic: Several months back, Wikipedia introduced a page ratings system, where users could rate Wiki articles in five categories (trustworthy, objective, complete, well-written), on a scale of 1-5. Those ratings are now being made public. The article on intelligent design currently has scores of 3.4 in well-written, 3.1 in completeness, a lousy 2.6 in trustworthiness, and a dismal 2.0 in objectiveness. Those final two scores are the lowest I've seen yet for any article. Let's hope this is more than a dog-and-pony show and this actually leads to action being taken. Jammer
"Archaeopteryx cannot have descended from the so-called feathered theropod dinosaurs (which exhibit the most bird-like characteristics) because they lived some tens of million years after Archaeopteryx. "   --I did a quick search and found this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchiornis_huxleyi "But the real challenge posed by the Cambrian explosion comes from the wide variety of fossilizable forms that appeared at more or less the same instant in geological time. Every single phyla represented by modern day organisms -- certainly all those with fossilizable parts -- were included" --"certainly all those with fossilizable parts"? From E. O. Wilson's "The Diversity of Life": “The number of living animal phyla … is about thirty-three. Of these, approximately twenty comprise animals large and abundant enough to leave fossils of the kind preserved in beds of the Burgess Shale type. The number of Cambrian phyla identified with confidence remains at eleven.” That was from 2001, and it doesn't seem that the situation hasn't changed that much. Phyla which have a fossil record but have not been found from the Cambrian explosion include bryozoans, onychophora, tardigrades, and loricifera. Others like rotifera, nemertea, and entoproct admittedly don't fossilize well, but they and other phyla have left fossils that are many millions of years old, but don't date to the time of the Cambrian Explosion. "Moreover, many phyla (such as the brachiopods and arthropods) couldn't have evolved their soft parts first and then added the hard parts (such as the exoskeleton or shell) later -- their survival depends in large measure upon the ability to protect or shield their soft parts. Soft and hard parts had to arise together." --They can survive without their hard parts as long as there isn't anything around trying to eat them. There seems to have been a great rise in predation around the time of the CE which may have been part of the reason for the increase in diversity and increase in life forms having shells. goodusername
Geoxus -- You were right regarding clavicles -- some theropods *have* been identified in possession of clavicles. That was an error on my part. Hence the amendment. Thanks. J Jonathan M
lungs, pulmonary circulation system, and ciliated eggs would be three pieces if evidence I can think of off the top of my head. Acipenser
What is the evidence that tetrapods can evolve from lobe-finned fish? Joseph
The reference to clavicles has now disappeared from the Evolution News and Views post without any explanation. I think that kind of silent editing would not be welcome on a Wikipedia talk page. Geoxus
Can you explain to us why it is amazing that transitional fossils had relatives that lived after them but kept ancestral characters? That's "why are there still monkeys" level stuff isn't it? Tetrapods descend from the Sarcopterygii (lobe finned fihes) but there are still lobe finned fishes today! The fact some feathered non-avian dinosaurs existed after the first birds branched off doesn't really tell us anything. wd400
Just two examples to illustrate that this "fact-check" needs a lot of fact-checking itself. In order to support the very high metabolism associated with flying, birds have a unique manner in which they distribute air around their bodies. There is zero evidence, however, of reptiles ever having such a system or anything that may be remotely considered its precursor. Indeed, one study published in Science concluded that the theropods had a crocodilian mode of breathing, and thus to convert this to the bird system would require passing through a non-viable transitional stage (Ruben et al., 1997). Zero evidence, except that presented in this paper and this paper, both of which cite Ruben et al. 1997, so they wouldn't be really difficult to find. And btw, I'd like to mention that despite many differences in lung anatomy, alligators breathe with an uni-directional airflow, demonstrating that the hypothesised hepatic-piston breathing system in dinosaurs would not preclude their ability for bird-like breathing, contrary to Ruben's ideas. Theropods also lacked clavicles which are present in Archaeopteryx and fused to form the familiar wing-supporting avian furcula. Except for the many non-avian theropods for which clavicles were found, some of them even having distinguishable furculae. In fact, this point was addressed in John Ostrom's classic 1975 paper, which is usually one of the first readings for any review on bird origins. Geoxus
This may interest you as well Jonathan: Darwin vs. the Fossils Excerpt: Horse series: The old straight-line chart of horse evolution from a small dog-like animal to the modern thoroughbred is out. Othniel Charles Marsh and Thomas Henry Huxley in the 1870s were possessed of a vision of straight-line evolution known as orthogenesis. The iconic series presented in museums and textbooks has long been known to be erroneous. Most evolutionists today realize that Darwin’s theory does not call for a single progressive line of descent, but rather a branching tree or bush. Still, if Darwin’s theory is true, gradualism should prevail, with numerous intermediate forms progressing from ancestors to descendents. Darwin himself taught that “Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap.” Then came a paper in PNAS this week.1 A team of 22 international researchers led by Ludovic Orlando of the University of Lyon in France did one of the first-ever comprehensive comparisons of ancient DNA (aDNA) from fossil equids (including horses, donkeys and zebras). These specimens came from 4 continents. The results were so shocking, they call for an almost complete overhaul of the horse series. For one thing, they concluded that many specimens relegated to separate species are actually variations on the same species. For another, they found that for evolution to be true there had to be sudden bursts of diversification – Cambrian-like explosions within the horse family – contrary to Darwin’s prohibition of great and sudden leaps. Here’s how they began: The rich fossil record of the family Equidae (Mammalia: Perissodactyla) over the past 55 MY has made it an icon for the patterns and processes of macroevolution. Despite this, many aspects of equid phylogenetic relationships and taxonomy remain unresolved. Recent genetic analyses of extinct equids have revealed unexpected evolutionary patterns and a need for major revisions at the generic, subgeneric, and species levels. To investigate this issue we examine 35 ancient equid specimens from four geographic regions (South America, Europe, Southwest Asia, and South Africa), of which 22 delivered 87–688 bp of reproducible aDNA mitochondrial sequence. Phylogenetic analyses support a major revision of the recent evolutionary history of equids and reveal two new species, a South American hippidion and a descendant of a basal lineage potentially related to Middle Pleistocene equids. Sequences from specimens assigned to the giant extinct Cape zebra, Equus capensis, formed a separate clade within the modern plain zebra species, a phenotypicically [sic] plastic group that also included the extinct quagga. In addition, we revise the currently recognized extinction times for two hemione-related equid groups. However, it is apparent that the current dataset cannot solve all of the taxonomic and phylogenetic questions relevant to the evolution of Equus. In light of these findings, we propose a rapid DNA barcoding approach to evaluate the taxonomic status of the many Late Pleistocene fossil Equidae species that have been described from purely morphological analyses. What they are saying is that the horse series had been built on morphological analyses – comparing the outward features of skeletons. The molecular data they studied (ancient DNA) doesn’t match up. They spoke of “explosive diversification” twice in the introduction, and then “rapid radiation” once for horses and another time for elephants and bears. The only time they mentioned “gradual” was to debunk it: “The original linear model of gradual modification of fox-sized animals (Hyracothere horses) to the modern forms has been replaced by a more complex tree, showing periods of explosive diversification and branch extinctions over 55 MY” [million years]. Similarly, the only instance of the word “transition” connotes another bang: “The end of the Early Miocene (15–20 MYA) marks a particularly important transition, separating an initial phase of small leafy browsers from a second phase of more diverse animals, exhibiting tremendous body-size plasticity and modifications in tooth morphology. This explosive diversification has been accompanied by several stages of geographic extension from North America to the rest of the New and Old Worlds.” What this means is that these animals appeared in the fossil record suddenly without the gradual transitions Darwin expected, then appeared quickly all over the world. They tried nonetheless to put the data into an evolutionary tree. What resulted was confusion, disjunction, and irresolution. Sample quote: “The lack of resolution is complicated by the short divergence time among caballines and New World horses (circa 0.5 MY; nodes A and B/B1/B2; Table S4) and the lack of a close outgroup, as has been noted with mammoths (30, 31). When the rhino was used as an outgroup, the data were RY coded to reduce possible mutation saturation artifacts resulting from this the deep divergence (55 MYA), but this removed support for most nodes.” Not only that, their best fit was at odds with previous theories. This quote gives the feel of their frustration: According to our molecular dating estimates, the different equid lineages (hippidiforms, NWSL, caballines, and noncaballines) originated 3.7–4.3 MYA (95% confidence range: 2.8–6.2 MYA; Table S4). This directly contrasts with classical palaeontological models of hippidiform origins as descendants of the Pliohippines (divergence time with the Equus lineage ~10 MYA) (19) or as a lineage diverging from a (Dinohippus, Astrohippus, and Equus) clade ~7–8 MYA (32), and considerably reduces the time gap between the supposed divergence of the hippidiform lineages and their first appearance in the fossil record 2.5 MYA (20). They had to leave resolution of these and other problems to future research. Here’s one of their main take-home lessons: paleontologists have been too quick to split specimens into different groups. The DNA data are showing that equids that appear morphologically different are really just variations of the same kinds. Their final paragraph showed that their bombshell discovery could have impacts on many other evolutionary trees – including those of human ancestors: This pattern of taxonomic oversplitting does not appear to be restricted to equids but is widespread amongst other Quaternary megafauna [e.g., Late Pleistocene bison (49); Holarctic cave lions (50); New World brown bears (51), and ratite moas (52, 53)]. Together, these findings suggest that the morphological plasticity of large terrestrial vertebrates across space and time has generally been underestimated, opening the way to detailed studies of the environmental, ecological, and epigenetic factors involved. Interestingly, in this regard the human lineage shows a rich fossil record over the last 6 MY, spreading over seven possible genera and 22 species (54). The exact number of taxonomic groups that should be recognized is still debated, even within our own genus (55), and in this context it is pertinent to consider the degree of taxonomic oversplitting, from species to generic levels, that aDNA has revealed amongst Late Pleistocene equids and other megafauna. A further important implication of this finding is that the number of megafaunal extinctions and loss of taxonomic diversity from the Pleistocene to modern day may not have been nearly as large as previously thought, at least at the species or subspecies level. Conversely, at the molecular level, aDNA studies on a wide range of large mammal taxa (49, 50, 56, 57) have revealed that the loss of genetic diversity over this time period has been much larger than previously recognized with major implications for the conservation biology of surviving populations (58). Nevertheless, here’s how it came out in the popular media: Science Daily published a happy headline, “DNA Sheds New Light on Horse Evolution.” Though it mentioned some of the above problems, the article avoided stating that the findings challenge evolutionary theory. In addition, the press release bounced off the last line of the paper about loss of diversity to suggest this has something to worry humans more about global warming: “This has serious implications for biodiversity and the future impacts of climate change.” Since no humans were building factories when most of these lines went extinct, it appears a blatant non-sequitur to link this story to current climate debates. At best, it is a distraction from the point of the article. http://www.creationsafaris.com/crev200912.htm#20091211a bornagain77
Interesting read. A difference between YEC and iD folks is about the use of geology to criticize or defend evolution. ID creationists use the Cambrian explosion to hit evolution and evolutionists use geology greatly for making their case. Yet if the geology was wrong then it would crush evolution and knock about ID criticisms. This YEC complains about a different subject, geology, as being EVIDENCE for drawing conclusions about the subject of biology. HOw can one falsify evolutionary biology if one must first correct the geology? One can't , by definition , falsify the biology case of evolution where the fossil record is invoked. When evolution is finally defeated they will point back in retrospect to this LOGICAL fallacy that was always at the centre of the claim of evidence for evolution. Biological conclusions about connections was based on geological presumptions. For example. If all fossil horses were from the same decade killed and fossilized then there is no horse evolution in the fossil evidence. They would merely be showing diversity like found in modern populations of cichlid fishes or the arctic seals. A quick event fossilizing these modern populations would wrongly be seen as showing evolutionary in critters. The fossil record is only a cast of a former creature and that mostly about its most unbiological elements. Teeth and bones. The fossil record is NOT evidence for a theory in biology. Biology is where you get your fingers sticky and not where you get calluses. Robert Byers
Jonathan the following video may interest you, The following video shows that the purported transitional series of fossils leading to whales is, much like the cartoonish ape to man series, extremely forced to the point of being completely non-existent;
Whale Evolution vs. The Actual Fossil Evidence - video with notes http://vimeo.com/30921402
further notes;
Bird Evolution vs. The Actual Fossil Evidence - video with notes http://vimeo.com/30926629 Fish & Dinosaur Evolution vs. The Actual Fossil Evidence - video with notes http://vimeo.com/30932397
"Be Still" by Storyside:B (with lyrics) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMIcwiHZDHM

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