Golden Oldies: Transitional Fossils


With the recent find of various additional transitional fossils, it may be relevant to revisit a ‘golden oldie’ written by Wesley Elsberry title Missing links still missing!? Talkorigins Post of the Month: February 1998. Although, given the number of transitional fossils, I doubt that many creationists feel brave enough to still make the argument that such transitionals are lacking.

Based on the arguments by Darwin, Elsberry derives an estimate for the expected number of transitional fossils:

Elsberry Wrote:

Let’s derive an expectation of ratio of transitional to non-transitional fossils from what Darwin actually said, shall we? Darwin stated that natural selection would work intermittently, and often only at long intervals.

On the other hand, I do believe that natural selection will always act very slowly, often only at long intervals of time, and generally on only a very few of the inhabitants of the same region at the same time. (CR Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st ed., p.153)

Elsberry Wrote:

Darwin addressed geographical distribution of fossils as a factor.

One other consideration is worth notice: with animals and plants that can propagate rapidly and are not highly locomotive, there is reason to suspect, as we have formerly seen, that their varieties are generally at first local; and that such local varieties do not spread widely and supplant their parent-forms until they have been modified and perfected in some considerable degree. According to this view, the chance of discovering in a formation in any one country all the early stages of transition between any two forms, is small, for the successive changes are supposed to have been local or confined to some one spot. Most marine animals have a wide range; and we have seen that with plants it is those which have the widest range, that oftenest present varieties; so that with shells and other marine animals, it is probably those which have had the widest range, far exceeding the limits of the known geological formations of Europe, which have oftenest given rise, first to local varieties and ultimately to new species; and this again would greatly lessen the chance of our being able to trace the stages of transition in any one geological formation. (CR Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st ed., p.306)

In his famous section on the imperfection of the geological record, Darwin gave several further reasons to doubt that we would ever have a complete record of past life.

I have attempted to show that the geological record is extremely imperfect; that only a small portion of the globe has been geologically explored with care; that only certain classes of organic beings have been largely preserved in a fossil state; that the number both of specimens and of species, preserved in our museums, is absolutely as nothing compared with the incalculable number of generations which must have passed away even during a single formation; that, owing to subsidence being necessary for the accumulation of fossiliferous deposits thick enough to resist future degradation, enormous intervals of time have elapsed between the successive formations; that there has probably been more extinction during the periods of subsidence, and more variation during the periods of elevation, and during the latter the record will have been least perfectly kept; that each single formation has not been continuously deposited; that the duration of each formation is, perhaps, short compared with the average duration of specific forms; that migration has played an important part in the first appearance of new forms in any one area and formation; that widely ranging species are those which have varied most, and have oftenest given rise to new species; and that varieties have at first often been local. All these causes taken conjointly, must have tended to make the geological record extremely imperfect, and will to a large extent explain why we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all the extinct and existing forms of life by the finest graduated steps. (CR Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st ed., pp.340-341)

Given these views of Darwin, we can derive an expectation of the ratio of transitional to non-transitional fossils found. I include in the following only those factors which yield a differential expectation of discovery of transitional fossils displaying the action of natural selection.


where EFR is the “expected fossil ratio”, NSTP is the “natural selection time proportion”, NSPP is the “natural selection population proportion”, AP is the “area proportion”, SEVR is the “subsidence vs. elevation variation ratio”, FSDP is the “formation to species duration proportion”, ETF is the “expected number of transitional fossils”, and OFS is the number of “observed fossil species”.

Now, we can assign some estimated numbers to the variables listed above. Because Darwin said “often only at long intervals”, NSTP should be small. Let’s assign a relatively large “small” value of 0.1. Since Darwin said that natural selection operates on only a very few inhabitants at a time, NSPP should be smaller still than NSTP. Let’s assign a value of 0.01. For AP, the area proportion between the geographic extent of a widely ranging species and its local variety, a value of 0.1 is probably an overestimate, but let’s leave it at that for the moment. For SEVR, Darwin’s text would indicate a value of 0.25 or less would be reasonable. FSDP is something best estimated by a geologist, but Darwin probably felt it to be under 0.5. Replacing values, we find that

EFR = 0.1 * 0.01 * 0.1 * 0.25 * 0.5 EFR = 0.0000125 = 1/80,000

David Raup has estimated the number of catalogued fossil species at 250,000. This allows us to generate an estimate for number of transitional sequences expected under Darwin’s own views as:

ETF = EFR * OFS = 0.0000125 * 250,000 = 3.125

Roger Cuffey’s 1974 paper on paleontologic evidence listed references for at least 139 fine-grained species to species transitional sequences. According to an expectation derived from Darwin’s own words and values from the real world, it can be seen that the fossils have been rather more forthcoming than one would expect, not less.

In addition, creationists seem to believe that gradualism is not a feature found in the fossil records. Again, they are perhaps unfamiliar with the scientific literature in this area. Luckily, there is an excellent resource by Mark Isaak called Index to creationist claims.

Don Lindsay shows some beautiful examples of gradual fossils

a single species of snail

A tree dweller becomes two

Chris Cuffey provides us with a beautiful series of “Mammal like reptiles”


Looks like BarryA’s effort re transitional fossils over at UD is set to cause yet another rift between the YEC IDists and whatver the rest are:

To quote the genius biologists at Uncommonly Dense:

Seriously, I hope some of our Darwinists friends who post comments on this site can help me understand how evolutionary theorists deal with their cognitive dissonance when they consider the issue of gradualism and the general absence of transitional forms from the fossil record.

IDiots have always ignored (or dismissed as irrelevant) inconvenient evidence. Why would they change now?

Side note: I think it would be appropriate for ‘IDiot’ to be added to the spellchecker.

Isn’t it sad how ID still embraces the ignorance of its creationist roots? Any claims that ID is interested in teaching the controversy and ‘correct science’ should be taken with a significant grain of salt.

Is not every fossil a transitional fossil?

I hope that I’m a transitional fossil and not an ordinary fossil. I’d hate to be just an ordinary fossil, know what I mean, Vern?

I always thought I was special.

Wikipedia shows nicely how transitionals were filled over time in for human evolution

And of course, Talkorigins has a large FAQ on vertebrate transitionals

Why is it that it seems that so often ignorance is guiding ID creationism?

Even after watching this sort of stuff go on for a few years now, I’m still amazed that some people (even “major players”) can outright deny the veracity of any and all transitional forms. Worse still, the constant appeals to Eldridge and Gould as if it made the case for evolution itself any weaker. I guess this is partly why I’ve been “enfascinated” into the whole thing. Some people are just stupifyingly interesting to watch.

wow phillip.

it’s amazing how consistently your comments look like almost pure stream of consciousness.

was there a point you were trying make here?

I’d recommend you be a try to be a bit more specific in the future.

Bruce, After reading a bit of your website, I can only say: Wow! How incredibly, psychotically imaginitive can one get in order to attempt to prove that the bible has much to do with evolution or the genesis of this solar system?

Heywood, contribute or use the bathroom wall.

toejam, I’m paraphrasing, but I think the point was “some different species are kinda samey, at least one species is kinda diverse for very artificial reasons, and therefore blah blah blah”. Hope that clarifies.

I interrupted my Saturday night drinking to read:

Leaving Man aside: life is common to all species: the difference between species is information.

Yes, quite right, life is not common to all members of our species.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

I wonder about this:

Today, you can have all sorts of things done to you after you die. You can be buried, burnt, shot into space, frozen, be fed to vultures…

But is there actually an option to get yourself well-fossilized so you could be found some millions of years later?

If you can’t come up with a fossilisation process you could consider plastination .

Last I checked, all humans are apes. This is verified not only by all that information you liked to harp on about at the molecular level, but also by the outward manifestations of said information, i.e. morphology. This sort of classification would hold out even neglecting the accepted idea of evolutionary relatedness, as no less than Carol Linnaeus himself classified humans among the other primates, and that was before much of modern biological classification was explored and established with solid methodology. Since you seemed so dismissive of using anatomy as a classification method, it does bear repeating that all the “information” i.e. that wonderfully complex genetic code indicates that humans are a sort of ape. This whole Creationist uproar about being “related” to apes amuses me to no end. “More like an ape than a human” indeed. My dogs do not act more like mammals than they do dogs.

It is a telltale sign when a creationist speaks about cognitive dissonances. One will find he exhibits one in the very same text.

This time twice, since the UD poster both refers to explanations such as Elsberry’s for the number of transitional fossils and Darwin explaining why the fossil record will not be complete without understanding what he is saying. The task of science is of course to explain the observations we can make, not asking for observations we can’t make.

On Philip’s comments I reacted the same as several here. He exhibits the frontloading that Charlie Wagner does on Pharyngula and the Loom.

He even adds some quantum babble for good measure. “A tree is a pre-programmed information device-the Creator’s quantum style computer.” What is this thing with trees and nuts? Don’t tell me it’s good for the species procreation.

How come there is some much vicious spew against those poor uneducated or misled believers in ID or creationism?

I mean, you hate their guts.

What should be an academic matter becomes viciously personal…oh, there is the argument kids are being misinformed, etc, but our society passes all kinds of spew off on kids everyday and you don’t complain.

And since the schools are doing a poor job anyway, less than a third of the kids graduating, and of those only half being able to really read and write at a high school level…it seems there is more going on here.

Yep…atheist propaganda; the atheist dare not let a “theistic foot” in the door as one atheist scientist commented, or their whole rotten humanity hating edifice could come crashing down.

JC (not THE JC by any chance?) Wrote:

How come there is some much vicious spew against those poor uneducated or misled believers in ID or creationism?

I mean, you hate their guts.

What should be an academic matter becomes viciously personal…

Well, you’re right. It does become a bit like a playground brawl at times. But I think you’ll find that it’s one of those vicious cycles. In addition to repeating the same old canards, severely testing the patience (and, frankly, the ability to grant the benefit of the doubt that these guys are being honest), ID/creationists say ugly, stupid, intolerant things about non-creationists; things like, Oh, I don’t know…

or their whole rotten humanity hating edifice could come crashing down.

What should be an academic matter

This is not an academic matter:

Yep…atheist propaganda; the atheist dare not let a “theistic foot” in the door as one atheist scientist commented, or their whole rotten humanity hating edifice could come crashing down.

But “ID isn’t about religion. No sirree Bob. It’s just them lying atheist darwinists who say it is.”

Thanks for once again demonstrating to everyone that (1) ID is just fundamentalist apologetics, (2) IDers are just lying to us when they say it isn’t, and (3) Judge Jones was perfectly correct when he rukled that it is.

Oh, and by the way, I’m, uh, not an atheist.

Lenny, Heywood is down to his last few marsupials in his top paddock. I expect the men in white coats will be called soon.

JC. You know you are 100% right. The sons and daughters of Cletus and Brandine Spuckler (all 26 of them) would be much better off at a decent madrasah.

Although, given the number of transitional fossils, I doubt that many creationists feel brave enough to still make the argument that such transitionals are lacking.

Ever the optimist.

Heywood Wrote:

These commentators are chewing on the rug because their PreCambrian preconceptions tell them that being a member of a species is all to do with outward shape, when it is known and always has been known and always will be a fact that being a member of a species has mostly to do with being able to marry and have children.

And here you are again making pronouncements about things that you’re obviously ignorant and/or misinformed about.

According to your definition, no asexual organisms could be termed a species, and yet these commentators wouldn’t be surprised to find that asexual species do exist. Has this thought not crossed your mind before coming to your conclusion?

In fact, what you’re referring to is a typological species concept, and one that hasn’t been prevalent in quite some time. You’re really going all the way back to Linnaeus here, to a time when morphology was the basis on which phylogeny was centered because that’s all there was to work with. I can assure you that if any modern biologists base their understanding of evolutionary relationships solely on either morphology or upon the capability to reproduce sexually, they are a tiny minority slaving away over bubbling retorts in a cave somewhere. In fact, one current school of thought is to do away with this taxonomic concept entirely and base phylogenetic relationships almost exclusively on molecular data.

Your attribution of purely typological classification to modern science is exclusively of your own creation. It may be one aspect that is considered, but it’s only one among many. It’s really quite typical of the kind of arguments that creationists spin, and what is generally known as a straw man. You put forth an argument that you claim is that of the other side, then proceed to knock it down without ever acknowledging that it is you, not they, who put forth the argument in the first place.

Vyoma.…. don’t waste your time .….Bruce will start talking about cats and dogs and the improbability of crows talking then move on to why Darwin died an atheist because he didn’t read Mendel’s papers.

Isn’t that right Bruce? Stone the crows mate, you must be busier than a one armed Sydney Cobbie with crabs throwing a technicolor yawn over evolution, a bit more choke and you would have started.

K.E. Wrote:

Vyoma.…. don’t waste your time

Dno’t worry about that. It’s Sunday, a day well suited for wasting a bit of time. Besides, yo never know… someone someday might get through to the guy enough for him to take that absolutely bizarre website of his offline.

Vyoma if only ‘twere that easy. I’m thinking of dropping sarcasm altogether (they just don’t seem to ‘get it’)and moving to outrageous insults. I’ve come a long way quickly with these idiots (as the surprised actress said.

insults go better without spelling checkers Sydney Cobbie=Sydney Cabbie

Philip Bruce Heywood Wrote:

I will add something on the off chance there may be some decent person who is wondering what that was all about. These commentators are chewing on the rug because their PreCambrian preconceptions tell them that being a member of a species is all to do with outward shape, when it is known and always has been known and always will be a fact that being a member of a species has mostly to do with being able to marry and have children. Your husband might look more like an ape than a human; he might act more like an sape than a human; he may swing through trees at a terrific rate making the appropriate noises; he may even contribute at TalkOrigins! But if you and he have raised a family, well, shape aside, what species does he belong to? And if you wish to find out more about the origin of the species, visit the link that is my name. There’s no monkeying there!

Philip, I already pointed this out, but here it is again, in bold:

The ability of humans and other apes to interbreed has never been tested. It remains an open question whether we could hybridize with, for instance, chimps. (Overall genetic similarity argues for it; the different (but not too different) chromosomal arrangement and developmental differences argue against.)

So if you’re hinging your species concept purely on interfertility, you cannot say that, say, humans and chimps are definitely different species. Do you think such a concept is particularly useful?

If any of you guys are ever in Capetown, South Africa, check out the Natural History Museum (it probably has an official name, but it escapes me).

I saw perhaps the best illustration ever of transitional fossils there.

They have a long wall, and on the left end of it, they have the fossil skull of a very ancient and primitive fish. On the right end of the wall, they have a modern human skull.

And in between, they have a whole slew of intermediates, all from the right geological era.

They’ve also helpfully color-coded all the individual bones on each skull, so you can track what moved where and when, so you can see how those pesky gill covers became ear bones with your very own eyes.

There’s a similarly convincing display of changing hominid skulls in the 3rd floor lobby of the British Museum of Natural History in London (not to mention an entire wing on Darwin).

I would hazard a guess that anyone who was truly looking for evidence of transitions with an open mind would come away from either of these displays convinced.

It’s a real shame that in recent years American museums have caved to public pressure and tuned down the emphasis on evolution in new exhibits, because when you see a really good example of this type of display, it’s pretty hard to honestly think anything but “Well, Duh.”

(By the way, Capetown also has an excellent exhibit on regional whales which shouldn’t be missed)

I awoke from the frat party to read this:

How come there is some much vicious spew against those poor uneducated or misled believers in ID or creationism?

I mean, you hate their guts.

Incorrect, poorly constructed arguments that ramble and go nowhere are not greeted with any sympathy at PT. When authors repeatedly present the same ramblings other commenter’s will intensify the harsh language in response. The wide range of backgrounds at PT guarantees that comments will be scrutinized from various viewpoints, especially those making extraordinary claims.

If Philip Bruce Heywood would spend time on his comments, restricting himself to what he believes is a single defensible point and present it in a readable format he might survive a little longer. By continually posting unreadable and undecipherable (except perhaps to himself) comments he opens himself to ridicule in the public arena.

Up your meds Bruce, it works for me.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

Yo Heywood I am still waiting to hear whether or not all Lepomis fishes (bream, sun perch, goggle eyes, whatever you wanna call them) are a single species. Did Go.. er the Intelligent Designer Formerly Known as God create one ‘kind’ of Lepomis fish and Sin has caused diversification, or is your species concept as useless as your website?

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on June 3, 2006 7:14 PM.

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