Enough Time for Whale Evolution?

(Dr. S Joshua Swamidass) #1

This recent article by ENV on whale evolution lead me down a delightful path, https://evolutionnews.org/2018/01/adam-and-the-genome-and-whale-fossils/. They make the claim,

They write:

even if we accept some of the fossils as “intermediates” between whale and land mammals, there is not enough time for the complex adaptations needed for whales’ fully aquatic lifestyle to evolve. Whatever the correct explanation is for the origin of whales, unguided evolutionary mechanisms are not the answer.

Regarding the claim, that illions of years is “not enough time.” There is no genetic or mathematical analysis to backup this conjecture. What types of genetic changes are required for whale evolution? How unlikely or likely are they? This leads us to this phenomenal review of the genetic details of whale evolution:

This is just a beautiful paper, because I did not realize how much of the genetic story had been worked out, and even confirmed with directly laboratory experiments. I cover more details in a longer post on my forum (https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/molecular-genetics-of-whale-evolution/83) but its notable that the vast majority of changes are caused by losing protiens (creating hundreds of pseudogenes!).

As @Joel_Duff aptly observes, this evidence is so compelling that even young earth creationists think that whales evolved from a terrestrial animal (citing vestigial limbs). With all this evidence (DNA and fossil) for the common descent of whales, even some young earth creationists (yup, that’s right!) have come to accept this as a clear example of evolution. Some wonder if walking whales were on the Ark, and think 4,000 years was enough time for them all to evolve. Says Dr. Kurt Wise,

“…some of the animals which are aquatic or marine today may not have been aquatic at the time of the Flood. The marine and sea otters, for example, are members of the mustelid (weasel) family and their aquatic character is likely to have been revealed after the Flood. The whales might turn out to be another example… Vestigial legs and hips in modern whales confirm legged ancestors of the whales existed only a short time ago. It is possible that the purely marine cetaceans of the present were derived from semi-aquatic or even terrestrial ancestors on the ark.” https://thenaturalhistorian.com/2017/10/05/walking-whales-on-board-noahs-ark-the-inevitable-end-point-of-creationists-post-flood-hyper-speciation-belief/

We have to commend Dr. Wise for following the evidence here. However, it seems this process still needs a few million years to take place. but 4,000 years is not enough. Even AIG calles Pakicetus the “Whale-headed Rat-doghttps://arkencounter.com/blog/2015/08/12/nicknames-animals/, and includes it in the Ark Encounter.

Though, not all YECs appear to agree with Dr. Wise on whale evolution: https://answersingenesis.org/charles-darwin/darwinism/was-darwin-right/

Honestly didn’t plan on writing such a long post, but the science here is really amazing. And, if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to look at @Joel_Duff’s work on hyper evolution in YEC origin models. A few million years looks like enough time, but 4,000 years is not enough.

(George Brooks) #2


… wonderful inspiration to read even the YEC writings on whales!

Let’s not forget that whales also provide the strangest conundrum!

The giant marine reptiles that plowed the seas of the Dinosaur epochs were air breathing just like whales. However, bizarrely, YEC’s don’t seem at all puzzled by the fact the global flood rapidly killed all those slinky marine reptiles… burying them below the K/T Boundary layer … while cows, pigs, rats and whales all avoided drowning until all the dinosaurs (and dinosaur-age marine reptiles) had drowned and were covered over.

Whales, from the YEC perspective, appear out of nowhere in the fossil stack … because they (and the proto-whales) don’t start to appear as fossils until hippo like common ancestors start to drown. Amazingly, the YEC’s must think, not a single whale drowns with the marine reptiles… but they soon start drowning as modern mammals start to drown.

It’s all very odd…

(A.M. Wolfe) #3

I was going to say… I wonder what the YEC guild said of Dr. Wise’s comments on whale evolution during the peer review process! I didn’t think that would pass muster with all the PhD baraminologists…

(Dr. S Joshua Swamidass) #4

And an interesting response from ENV. I do want to point out the professional tone, which I appreciate.


(Dennis Venema) #5

From the ENV article:

(Dr. S Joshua Swamidass) #6

Was not sure if I would respond, but this is a good place to start.

First of all, this does not undermine common descent in any way. Interestingly, the article seems to indicate that common descent in whales to terrestrial ancestors is not the target here. Given that that is what we mean by “evolution,” I’m not even sure I have a dog in the fight.

Second, Dr. Jones is correct that it is difficult to simultaneously evolve a pre-specified set of 4 mutations. This is often called the “waiting time” problem. This fact alone, however, tells us nothing about the evolvability of whales. There are a string of conjectures that must all be demonstrated true for the waiting time problem to be a reasonable model of whale evolution. Failing to justify or expose these conjectures is a large modeling / mathematical error. It is for this reason, I would say that the whole argument is in serious error, even though the math behind the waiting time problem is correct (sort of).

Does anyone want to articulate the string of conjectures that must be true for the waiting time problem to apply?

Simply put, there are some things that might be improbable in evolution, but there is no evidence if any improbable steps are required in whale evolution.

The Evolution News article argued that for a land mammal to become a whale, or a Batmobile to become a Yellow Submarine, it would require multiple coordinated changes. To many people this would be a trivial and common sense assumption, even without the detail given in the article.

Except science defies common sense all the time. Biology defies common sense all the time too.

This gets to the core problem. The whole argument is predicated on an unjustified assumption, with which I disagree. It is possible that a specified-set of mutations is required to evolve whales, but Dr. Jones has just assumed this to be true. No evidence is offered. No evidence is found.

(Dr. S Joshua Swamidass) #7

This also turns out to be a very large equivocation.

Moreover, some even turn out to be essential, which would be very odd if they have been added last by evolution. The existence of these genes is a common problem elsewhere in the evolutionary story, even though it appears not to be relevant to whales. Protein coding genes are hard to explain when they appear de novo — see Doug Axe’s work as well as this recent EN article .

Doug Axe’s work is not at all about “protein coding genes,” but about stably folding and complex enzymes. These are very different things (one set is much larger and includes the other), and most (almost all?) “de novo” genes in mammals are of the former variety, not the latter.

(George Brooks) #8

@DennisVenema & @Swamidass

This piece of fallacious reasoning is a replay of an earlier analysis that winning the lottery is not just difficult, but virtually impossible, if you calculate odds based on the idea that you not only have to calculate the odds of a single person out 14 million people winning … but you have to calculate the odds of precisely “Joshua Swamidass” winning the lottery!

(T J Runyon) #9

On peaceful science I saw where someone posted about the Antarctic basilosaurid at 49 mya. That’s the press release. The paper ended up dating it at 40-46mya which is consistent with other basilosaurids worldwide. Basilosaurus is my state fossil and the centerpiece of the museum where I do some work. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on them. Including private discussions with Hans Thewissen about that very specimen

(T J Runyon) #10

And let’s assume that fossil is 49mya. If anything that would mean there are older Packcetids. Which is a real possibility. There aren’t any Indian Paleocene mammal localities! So we should be very cautious when discussing timeframes with whale evolution. And if I recall correctly when faced with the new date on the Antarctic jaw, the DI said the authors gave it the 40mya date to hold onto its evolutionary interpretation. if that’s the case why would they even announce the discovery? The fact that they did tells me they are doing good, honest science and came to the 40-46mya dates based on the data. Not “evolutionary bias”.

(T J Runyon) #11

The actual paper:

In summary, considering that 87Sr/86Sr ratios provided for TELM 4 might be biased (because of potential reworking and oscillation of the marine Sr isotope curve during the Eocene), we interpret the age of the horizon that produced MLP 11-II-21-3 (i.e., TELM 4) as early middle Eocene (~46–40 Ma; middle Lutetian to early Bartonian based on ICS International Chronostratigraphic Chart 2015; Cohen et al., 2013) and follow the most recent chronostratigraphic interpretation for the La Meseta Formation.

(Dr. S Joshua Swamidass) #12

So, I am curious if observers would feel a response to ENV would be helpful. I did not realize it would be picked up by them, but would consider a response if others want one.

(T J Runyon) #13

Any discussion where genetics is the subject would be helpful to me. I’m just now beginning my genetics studies so a lot of the time I just don’t know how to interpret certain things. So it would be for me. I’d also like to see the waiting time problem
Discussed and thoughts given on that

(George Brooks) #14

Or perhaps, @T.j_Runyon, a definite reality … according to these resources…

[My apologies… I reversed the numbers 48 and 56 at the start and end of the Ypresian Age ]

(A.M. Wolfe) #15

On the subject of whale evolution, there’s a fantastic article out in The Atlantic about evolution and the size of marine mammals. Well worth the quick read!

(Joshua Hedlund) #16

I can’t speak to the viability of the genetic/mathematical objections for “unguided evolutionary mechanisms” (and would be interested in further specifics/discussion), but supposing it to be true for the sake of discussion, that would be no objection for the evolutionary creationists who believe evolution may have been guided in some way, including possibly the ideas that “natural genetic engineering” mechanisms may have “guided” cells and their DNA to make quasi-intelligent changes that go beyond pure lottery-like random probabilities.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #17

I think you have some fair points there @joshuahedlund; last night my attention was drawn to the mathematical arguments that were referenced by EN. EN was super excited to find this paper for example:

I had no idea exactly how to read the paper, so I wanted to see some experts writing on the topic. One that I found was this critique of the PLOS One paper:

Also a great point regarding how scientists are honestly piecing together the fossil record. I think that most people have the idea though that paleontologists are just randomly ordering fossils so as to support their ‘religion’ of evolution. I suppose the great irony is that it is not scientists who are doing such, but typically those accusing scientists of doing such.

(Dr. S Joshua Swamidass) #18

Okay @joshuahedlund and @pevaquark this might count as a critical mass of interest. I may write something more detailed about the waiting time problem in the coming weeks.

(T J Runyon) #19

Please do. That’s a topic I haven’t seen much written about on the evolution side.

(George Brooks) #20


I believe the more we remind our YEC cousins of this, the more we’ll progress making getting the next generation of Evangelicals to embrace our God-Guided logic!