Richard Dawkins Will Be Your Docent Today

Sweet! Richard Dawkins paid a visit to the Explore Evolution museum exhibit I helped put together. Here’s the first of a series of videos he filmed while he was there, on the evolution of whales. You can watch the others here.

0 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins Will Be Your Docent Today

  1. 3 “intermediates” over 40+ million years isn’t exactly an impressive or even very meaningful sample. This is the sort of oversimplification that gets Dawkins in trouble. And the alleged closeness of hippos to whales is based only on CURRENT molecular analysis, subject to change.

    Carl: These are three enlightening species intermediate between land mammals and living whales, documenting the sort of intermediate anatomy that one would predict based on evolution. There are dozens of other fossil species as well that help document the transition, but a museum exhibit directed at young people is hardly the place for that sort of data dump. The closeness of hippos to whales is now supported by many molecular studies, and also by studies of relatively new fossil material. In other words, Dawkins is not in any sort of trouble here.

  2. This is a great exhibit. I visited it twice in the past year. It does a nice job reiterating the common themes of evolutionary theory, while presenting some of the best examples of the evidence for evolution. I strongly suggest that people check it out.

  3. I agree with Carl regarding comment #1. One of the hard things about comprehending evolution is imagining intermediates and the nature of positive selection pressure on them, and this little lecture is wonderfully instructive. A second hard thing is comprehending the time involved. I used to tell my A.P Biology students to just try to relax into the notion of “millions of years;” don’t rush it, wait for it to slowly become clear over long periods of biology study. These intermediate fossils help with the time problem too, by dividing it and providing signposts along the way.

  4. Very nice, but I only have one (too late) suggestion. The modern baleen whale in the exhibit chart is a Northern Minke Whale (M. acutorostrata), not a Blue Whale (M. musculus), I know, I painted it.

  5. And of course… that should read (B. acutorostrata) and (B. musculus)… the B being for Balaenoptera… I have NO idea what I was thinking and have no idea what the M. is for.

  6. Pretty neat. 🙂

    What about the whale ancestor featured in the “Walking with Beasts” BBC-TV doco – ambulocetis?

    This was an aquatic vaguely otter-like creature that lived at the start of the eocene – was it discovered too late to include here or … what?

    The other extinct whale species they featured on that great doco – a sequel to “Walking with Dinosuars” was the Basilosaurus found as fossils in what’s now the Sahara desert, forget exactly which era – Oligocene maybe? That one was really very whale-like and entirely marine – but still had small back legs. Again, it could’ve been mentioned here although I guess there are quite a few examples to choose from.

    Personally, my favourite intermediate / transition fossil is the half-bird, half dinosaur archaeoptyerix. ( Spelling?) 🙂

  7. Maybe Ambulocetus is becoming too cliche?

    Also, Basilosaurus, which was first discovered in my home state of Louisiana, thank you very much, was an evolutionary offshoot and not in the lineage leading to modern whales. My guess is that this is the reason it was left off the display.

  8. If he’s had another minute, another useful thing to do with this chart is to talk about how evolution is in fact testable. This set up (incomplete as it is) predicts the existence of a number of other intermediary forms, and of course a common ancestor. It also suggests what age and what kind of strata to look in to find them. Take that, “Evolution isn’t science because it’s not testable” meme!

  9. Inferences, inferences, inferences, when will they ever end. Little wonder that after 150 years most people, other than the faithful, still don’t buy evolution, which is ultimately a hypothesis based on presuppositions, conjecture, interpretations, explanations, and endless speculations. And grounded in unsubstantiated and unverifiable materialism. All of which makes Dawkins a great story teller. A quality he seemingly shares with Charles Darwin, who was renown for telling tall stories as a youth, and seemingly as an adult.

    One glance at a whales penis is sufficient to torpedo any misguided notion that it evolved from anything, particularly a land animal.

  10. @Carl (#1): I really think reggie has got a point. There may very well be many transitional fossils as you say, the point is: Richard is not showing them. Scientifically speaking he might not be in trouble, but showing only three is hardly going to convince the unconvinced. And if the number has been limited to three for educational purposes, please dont! The average 6 year old would love to see as many weird animals as possible.

    Also, the choice of fossils is rather poor. The first two intermediate fossils shown look very much alike – apart from the colour, which is artistic license anyway. There’s nothing much intermediate about them. The third one looks completely different – like a slightly modified whale. Mr. Dawkins mentions the gradual loss of hind legs, but what you actually see is the sudden disapearance of two rather impressively long limbs. No gradual loss is actually shown.

    If I hadn’t been convinced by other evidence, this clip would have done nothing to convince me – on the contrary.

  11. It’s worth stressing that these kind of ancestor-descendent genealogies are now no longer accepted by palaobiologists thanks to cladism. The idea that any particular fossil really is the ancestor of any other extinct or extant species is now extreme heresy. Rather, what we are looking at is a series of branches of a tree that illustrate evolutionary transitions. As Carl has pointed out in the past, transitional forms can live alongside or even before what we consider to be the two kinds of organisms they sit between, e.g. the platypus shows how it is/was possible for mammals to lay eggs and suckle their young. Maybe this is too complex for a display aimed at kids, but what is shown is misleading.

  12. I always laugh a bit when I see creationists make remarks like, “Little wonder that after 150 years most people, other than the faithful, still don’t buy evolution, which is ultimately a hypothesis based on presuppositions, conjecture, interpretations, explanations, and endless speculations.” It’s such an obvious demonstration of the delusional nature of creationist rhetoric. Beside the simple fact that the vast majority of scientists have accepted evolution, because of the voluminous substantiating scientific research (and those creation “scientists” who dispute evolution show by their own rhetoric that they are obviously motivated by their religious beliefs), Christians worldwide have also accepted evolution because of the science, such that in fact is the creationist literature that is permeated with the presuppositions of their religious dogma and the already-known-to-be-scientifically-wrong conjectures and speculations. Which is why they keep spouting pseudoscience arguments that have been known to be wrong for decades.

    I use the word “delusional” quite purposely. This is because the very purpose of this rhetoric is their desperate attempt to convince themselves in their own minds that their false beliefs are right despite all of the evidence from the realm of science that has shown that their particular religious beliefs are wrong. Because they can’t bring themselves to modify those beliefs, they force themselves into pretending that the science doesn’t even exist.

  13. Todd, your post is nothing but assertions and generalizations, and your language reveals a mindset that belongs to the school yard. For heavens sake, grow up, if you want readers to seriously consider what you are on about.

    Firstly, the majority mob mindset has never been the basis of scientific progress. Progress comes when individuals and smaller groups challenge the entrenched establishment. And these new insights mean that the earlier scientific majority were wrong, though at the time they believed themselves be correct. All of science is tentative, and not necessarily the last word. Scientific truth never comes down to numbers, or statistics.

    Secondly, argue and protest as you will, when all the evolutionary presuppositions, inferences, explanations, conjecture, and speculations are summed up, we still have the same ultimate reality. No one has ever seen one creature evolve in macro fashion into a different creature. Every variation and adaptation ever observed is at a micro level, and works to ensure the preservation of that particular creature. All creatures have the existing capability to change and adapt within broad limits, and this is true of lizards, dogs, viruses, bacteria, fruit flies, bacteria and humans. And that is precisely why macro variations observed happen rapidly. Far to rapidly to be a gradual random mutational driven process.

    Furthermore, every breeder has discovered from the start that such variations have definite limits, even with engineered hybrids. And that the variations and adaptations act to preserve the particular creature as such, be it a virus or a lizard. Breeders also know that subspecies of any creature represent a loss of genetic information, not an evolutionary gain from the simple to the complex.

    The bottom line is that any observed variations and adaptations within lizards, or within any creature, does absolutely nothing to prove either macro evolution or the evolutionary continuum from the simple to the complex.

    I’ll give you the chance to prove me wrong. Share with us any empirical evidence – not based on presuppositions, inferences, interpretations, or conjecture – that conclusively proves evolution to be a fact, allowing no other conclusion, including God. We will see how it stacks up.

  14. The statement: “And that is precisely why macro variations observed happen rapidly. Far to rapidly to be a gradual random mutational driven process.”

    Should read: “And that is precisely why MICRO variations observed happen rapidly.

  15. First of all, John, science never “proves” anything. I take off points of my students paper if they use the term “prove.” It supports explanations with evidence. As one example of the evidence supporting evolution, I’ll cite Neil Shubin. Knowing that amphibians first appear about 320 million years ago, and four-lobed fish appear 340 million yeras ago, he reasoned that a transitional fossil could be found about 330 million years ago.

    He researched what areas would have rocks that old, figured out which ones would be exposed to the surface, and dug. He found Tiktaalik right where it should be, using evolutionary biology and geology as predictive sciences.

    Now, you may say that was luck, and he happened upon some flood-drowned/God-created-as bone creature. Of course, its hard to rationally argue away an omnipotent being, as Carl Sagan demonstrated with his invisible dragon example in The Demon Haunted World.

    The thing is, science suppose no existing conclusions except that “things act on some sort of rules.” Good, practical science looks at evidence, then draws the conclusion. It’s not science to say, “there was a flood, what’ evidence supports it.” It’s scientific to say, “here’s the evidence, what conclusions does it support.”

    The evidence used to support evolution, from chromosomal hox similarities to homologous bones, works as a whole. Conclusions drawn using it are used in medicine and save lives. This is the point I always told my students. They would claim the Sun revolves around the Earth. I would point out that most of our space missions would not have succeeded with that conclusion. In the same way, epidemiology and genetic medicine would be demonstratively, statistically less effective if macroevolution didn’t work as an explanation.

    As to observing a process that takes millions of years, that’s not going to happen. It’s like I tell my students when they ask me about the life-cycle of stars. I compare use to a mayfly trying to figure out the human life-cycle. They can’t stay for 80 years, but they can see babies, toddlers, pre-teens, teenagers, etc. And make inferences. Yes, inferences! You can dismiss them, but that’s the type of scientific thinking trusted in cancer research, nuclear engineering, and the geology that can correctly discover oil. Inferences are a tool that can be said to demonstratively work because they lead to predictive success, and that is the core of science.

    I encourage you to go to http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ , which is the pages on “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution.”

  16. Also, great clip, going to use in my 8th grade Paleontology elective, going to share it with my whole department. Would be MUCH better if it included Georgiacetus between durodon and rhodocetus.

  17. You are correct, all of science is “tentative” and not necessarily the final word, with conclusions ultimately based on probability. However there are light years between science based on the Empirical & Scientific Method, and historical based theory like evolution. If you ignore the laws of motion or gravity you may well be dispatched, but I can assure you that you can totally ignore the “unobserved” theory of evolution and absolutely nothing will happen to you, I promise. I trust you see the vast difference.

    Evolution supposedly happened in the unobserved past, ensuring there were never any observers, necessitating that everything comes down to inferences, and nothing on the talkorigins site changes this in the slightest. as all supposed examples of evolution in action amounts to variation and adaptation within a particular lifeform. Virus in, virus out; frogs in, frogs out. that’s the reality as every breeder in history well knows. In view of this reality, I was particularly amused when Richard Dawkins used the variation in cows as solid proof of evolution in a promo for his latest “Greatest Show on Earth ” book. Someone needs to wisper in Richards dear little ear – cow in, cow out.

    Any suggestion that such evolutionary thinking is an essential element in medicine, nuclear engineering or oil discovery is unsustainable and totally without foundation, I will be more than happy to quote chapter and verse if you want to carry on down this track.

    Moreover, the only reason scientists can apply reason and intelligence to science and the universe, is because we, of necessity, live in a universe that clearly manifests intelligence, regularity and predictability, just as the Intelligent Design people have been saying for decades, with their opponents living in utter denial of the foundational basis of all of science. An intelligent effect, demands an intelligent cause. Reason necessitate an ultimates reasoner. And the vast complexity of even the simplist lifeform is well beyond the capabilities of chance and natural selection, with advanced biological systems, regulators, feedback loops, and a host of other factors making Darwin’s notions seem utterly infantile.

    Inferences are not the core of real empicial based science, direct observation is, to the point that people are forced to accept its conclusions in spite of their beliefs. No Hindu stands in from of an oncoming truck believing it to be an illusion (maya). Nor do they jump off cliffs to test the law of gravity.

    In short, Darwin’s theory of evolution is a mass delusion of considerable proportions.

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