Science v Intelligent Design: ID and whales

In the comments section of an earlier posting in which I explored the “arguments” from an ID proponent as to why the suckling behavior of whales shows evidence of Intelligent Design, Duncan posted the following rebuttal by Dr Colin D MacLeod

Duncan wrote:

The comment about whales and their nipples being evidence of Intelligent Design was published in a letter to the Scottish newspaper The Herald, and seems to derive from a 1938 book by the Creationist Douglas Deraw, entitled “More Difficulties of the Evolution Theory”. The claim received a pretty terminal rebuttal on 20 October, with the publication of the following letter:

Dr Colin D MacLeod wrote:

Joe Pieri claims (Letters, October 17) that a watertight cap around the nipples of whales that fits tightly around the baby’s snout to prevent sea water entering is a perfect illustration of intelligent design (ID) as any gradual transitional form would result in the baby whale’s death. If this is the best example a supporter of ID can muster, it only helps to illustrate how flawed this non-scientific idea is and why it has absolutely no place in the science classroom. First, as a whale biologist, I can say with some certainty that no such structure exists.

Baby whales use “fringes” around the edge of their tongue to help channel milk from the nipple to their thoats. This does not to prevent the entrance of sea water into the baby whale’s mouth, nor is it intended to, but only serves to reduce the mixing of sea water and milk. This leaves plenty of possibilities for functional transitional forms where the tongue is only slightly more fringed and, therefore, only slightly better at keeping the milk and sea water separate, making the milk less dilute and, therefore, beneficial to the calf as it gets more concentrated milk faster.

Secondly, there is no need for baby whales to prevent sea water entering their mouths as it will not kill them. Presumably, Mr Pieri thinks that the reason the baby whale would die if sea water entered the mouth is because it might get into the airway causing the animal to drown.

However, unlike humans, the windpipe of a whale sticks right through its oesophagous, completely separating the airway and the digestive tract (a requirement for all whales, whether adult or baby, as they need to be able to open their mouths underwater to feed) so there is no risk of drowning while nursing in baby whales. A similar, but not as complete, separation of the digestive tract and the airway is found in all young terrestrial mammals, including humans, to allow them to breath while nursing, and while adaptation is lost in older humans through a descent of the larynx, this basic mammalian separation has been enhanced by natural selection in whales because it is beneficial to their life in the sea. Incidentally, this positioning of the larynx through the digestive tract limits the size of fish whales can swallow because if the fish is too big it may displace the larynx and allow water into the airway, resulting in death.

In fact, whales are not uncommonly found washed up on the shore having died due to suffocation with large fish wedged in their throat, demonstrating that while this design works most of the time, it is far from perfect and certainly not evidence of any ID. Therefore, Mr Pieri’s “perfect” example for ID is a figment of his imagination based a poor understanding of biology and no facts.

Dr Colin D MacLeod, Beaked Whale Research Project, 1 Froghall View, Aberdeen

It seems clear that another ID ‘prediction’ has been falsified so when will ID admit defeat? At least it shows the immense amount of ignorance on which ID relies.