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Sure enough, in 2004, scientists found one of those transitional species: Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old Devonian period specimen discovered in the Canadian Arctic by paleontologist Neil Shubin and his colleagues. Tiktaalik, explains Shubin on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, is an "anatomical mix between fish and a land-living animal."
"It has a neck," says Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago. "No fish has a neck. And you know what? When you look inside the fin, and you take off those fin rays, you find an upper arm bone, a forearm, and a wrist." Tiktaalik, Shubin has observed, was a fish capable of doing a push-up. It had both lungs and gills. In sum, it's quite the transitional form.
Had any of them consulted a Bible, they would have found it ironic in the extreme to find themselves paraphrasing a certain Jewish high priest who, at the conclusion of a highly irregular judicial proceeding, tore his robes and cried out, "You heard Him! We don't need any witnesses! He has just convicted Himself!" (Matthew 26:65) But none of them could have predicted the embarrassment they would feel when, almost four years later, someone would find tracks supposedly indicating that a fully-developed amphibian or reptile was walking on land--twenty million years earlier.
Creationists, including David Menton and Mark Looy of Answers in Genesis USA and Jonathan Sarfati of the former Answers in Genesis Australia (now known as Creation Ministries International), urged caution about Tiktaalik roseae from the beginning. They warned their evolutionary counterparts not to read too much into Tiktaalik, and cited the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) and the class Panderichthys as having similar features. (Coelacanth, of course, qualifies as a "living fossil.") Sarfati went further: he reminded his readers that all the features described for the new find, and other such finds, were consistent with the deliberate design of different life forms using similar design principles and even modular subsystems. In addition, the creationists reminded everyone of previous vaunted findings that had been found either to be false or not to suggest evolution at random after all.
Last month came the find that suggested that Tiktaalik roseae was not a transitional form after all. In response, some commentators declared Tiktaalik roseae to be a persistent primitive form. Others, on on-line forums everywhere (including one to which this Examiner subscribes), continue to this day to defend Tiktaalik roseae's place in the fossil record.
In fact, as Luskin points out, in 2009 four other fossil findings received the same sort of unwarranted attention as did Tiktaalik. The most famous of these was Ida, the lemur-like creature touted briefly as a transitional form between simians and humans and abandoned soon afterward. This Examiner predicts that Tiktaalik roseae will likewise have an inevitable successor, and that successor, too, will be dethroned in the same manner. In other words, this, too, shall pass. And pass, and pass.
At first glance, Tiktaalik seemed to delineate a key evolutionary transition, thereby providing a strictly naturalistic explanation for the emergence of life on land. But recent discoveries of other “fish-amphibian intermediates” in Latvia raise questions about the evolutionary interpretation.
Paleontologists have analyzed the fairly complete remains of a creature called Ventastega.2 This animal lived about 365 million years ago and is thought to occupy a halfway point between Tiktaalik and amphibians. However, its skeletal features indicate that it’s out of sequence. Older fishapods actually exhibit more advanced features than those of Ventastega.
This same problem has recently been noted for another fishapod, Panderichthys.3 This creature existed about 385 million years ago and is considered to be much closer to a lobe-finned fish than an amphibian. Yet, it has digits at the end of its fins, whereas Tiktaalik, considered to be more advanced, doesn’t. Again, the fossils are out of sequence.
Another difficulty is the speed with which the transition from fish to amphibian appears to occur. According to the fossil record, the putative transition begins about 385 million years ago and finishes about 365 million years ago. Intuitively, this timescale seems too rapid considering the extent of the anatomical and physiological changes needed to transform an aquatic creature to one that lives on land.
Yet another concern for the evolutionary account is that the fishapods co-occur in the fossil record. Instead of appearing in a sequential fashion, the creatures evidently coexisted and overlapped. In other words, the pattern observed in the fossil record doesn’t describe a linear evolutionary change over time. The challenge for evolutionary biologists lies in letting the fossil record dictate the pattern rather than imposing a pattern on the data.
How does the existence of fishapods fit a creation interpretation of life’s history? For one, these animals were perfectly suited to live at the water’s edge. Also, the mosaic of fish and tetrapod characteristics possessed by the fishapods signifies design. Human designers frequently design objects and systems that blend properties and features of different systems.4 If humans create mosaics, why wouldn’t a Creator do the same?
These fascinating creatures, well-designed to exploit their environment, make sense from a creation perspective. Conversely, overlapping fishapods that appear in the “wrong” order in the fossil record indicate Darwin’s long-sought “innumerable transitional forms” still don’t exist.