Sunday, October 30, 2005

Compare and contrast

Red State Rabble made the expedition to Topeka to watch as Science Meets the Grassy Knoll:
"Darwinists want to shut down all public discussion of the problems with the fossil record," retired law professor and intelligent design activist Phillip Johnson, told an enthusiastic audience of about 250 at Washburn University in Topeka last night. The fossil record, Johnson asserted, does not support Darwin's theory of evolution. In fact, fossil discoveries made since Darwin's time make the problems more more difficult for scientists who desperately want to believe in the theory of evolution.
Huh. Shutting down all public discussion must mean something different out there in Berkeley. Here in Kansas, when you put fossils out in public and explain what they mean, that's considered encouraging discussion.

Consider the brand new exhibit "Explore Evolution" at the KU Natural History Museum. The museum is one of the largest university natural history collections in the world, and people from around the world visit to look at our specimens and learn about how life has evolved. The director is a paleontologist himself.

It's not surprising then that the new exhibit has a major section devoted to fossil whales. Until 10 or 15 years ago, creationists like Michael Behe loved to use whales as a perfect example of an evolutionary transition without fossil intermediates, a case of sudden appearance. Creationists argued that the absence of fossil evidence of the transition was evidence that it never took place.

Scientists thought no such thing. They went about their business, exploring new fossil beds, looking in parts of the world that hadn't been explored, or where previous exploration had offered interesting results. They dug, and pretty soon came across a fossil which was named Pakicetus, a whale from Pakistan. While it shared many features with ancient land-dwelling species, it also had skull features like those of fossil whales. The discoverer, Philip Gingerich, wrote in Natural History Magazine "Pakicetus is perfectly intermediate, a missing link between earlier land mammals and later, full-fledged whales" ("The Whales of Tethys," 1994).

Further work in the field revealed a number of other species which showed the transition of ancient mesonychids into the water. Pakicetus, Ambulocetus ("walking whale") and Rhodocetus are the most important, but many other species were identified showing how terrestrial species became better fish hunters, then became better swimmers, until their hind limbs became tiny nubs hidden entirely within the body. To put it simply, evolution at work.

This is but one of the research programs highlighted in the "Explore Evolution" exhibit, and hardly the only discussion of fossils and evolution in the museum. Downstairs, there's a discussion of the evolution of birds and the origins of flight. Again, the fossil record is presented and discussed.

Pop quiz: Choose the answer(s) which best complete(s) the sentence:

1. Based on the reading above, Phil Johnson is:


a liara scientist
familiar with the practice of science desperate


2. Fossils _____________ evolution.


make it more difficult to believe in demonstrate
have no impact oncause


Time's up. Turn in your answers in the comments.