My Favorite Fossil: Maiacetus inuus

(system) #1

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #2

Dr. Bebej,

Thank you for sharing the story about your favorite fossil. I too find it fascinating because it is a transitional life form.

Let me share where I am coming from. I know that Darwin accepted “survival of the fittest” as an apt description of Natural Selection and survival of the fittest is the basis of Social Darwinism, which has bee roundly rejected as evil.

I do not think that survival of the fittest is an apt description of Natural Selection, because it is based on conflict, on the Selfish Gene. There is a better description or cause of Natuiral Selection, which Ecology. Ecology is the story of how plants and animals interact to take the4 best advantage of a continually changing environment to make the most of all its resources. It is not based on conflict, but working together for the benefit of all or at least most. It is basically the changes in the environment which drives changes of evolution.

I would seem to me that some mammals tentatively moved from the land to the ocean primarily because they found an abundance of food in the ocean available to them. From there they adapted in different ways to this different environment until they became many species fully at home in the oceans.

Does this kind of a scenario fit the fossils with which you have worked? What do you think?

(Mark D.) #3

I would have thought long before there was any opportunity for deliberate intentionality -selfish or not- that organisms which responded to their environment in advantageous ways would enjoy greater success and a better hold on their corner of the biome. Selfishness should therefore be the starting point for any subsequent adaption. Even cooperation and self sacrifice would only ever be selected for on the basis of survival advantage. We of course are capable of considering how we feel about unchecked selfishness on the part of creatures like ourselves. If that feeling turns out to be unpleasant and we adjust our behavior accordingly our doing so can still be described as self serving. Who among us would give anything up if doing so served no persons, projects or values dear to ourselves. Selfishness is like a bit of sticky tape stuck to ou boot bottom, very difficult to be rid of.

(Phil) #4

Enjoyed the article, and the explanation of what we see. Sort of off subject, but I see you study in the Egyptian desert, and wonder what you think regarding these verses in Psalms 74:

It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.

While this is usually explained as referring to the army of Pharaoh, the "food to the creatures of the desert " part made me wonder if perhaps some knowledge of whale fossils in the desert was part of the cultural memory leading to this imagery, even though modern discovery was much later. Any thoughts as to whether wandering Bedouins might have come across them?

(Christy Hemphill) #5

It’s important not to conflate selfishness (a moral failing) with self-preservation and self-care instincts (a natural trait of healthy organisms). Some people around here have a hard time with that concept.

(Ryan Bebej) #6

Thanks for the comment, Roger. I agree that quippy little phrases like “survival of the fittest” tend to oversimplify things. While there might be some aspects of natural selection that could be described by such a phrase, there are other aspects that would seem counter to it.

As for land-to-sea transitions, these have happened many times independently among tetrapods. During the time of the dinosaurs, there were many different types of marine reptiles (e.g., plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, etc.) that evolved from terrestrial reptiles. Even among mammals, there are many different groups that have experimented with life in the sea, including cetaceans, pinnipeds (including seals, sea lions, and walruses), sirenians (including manatees and dugongs), otters, and others (including sloths and fully extinct creatures called desmostylians). Each time, it appears that these creatures were opportunistically tapping ocean resources and adapting to a new way of life. In these cases, your ecological emphasis seems apt; however, I would also suggest that the “survival of the fittest” notion would have been borne out as these creatures competed with one another for those resources.

(Ryan Bebej) #7

Mark, you might be interested in checking out a book by another marine mammal paleontologist. Daryl Domning (the world’s expert in the evolution of sirenians like manatees and dugongs) co-wrote a book with Catholic theologian Monika Hellwig called Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution. One of the arguments Domning makes is that selfishness in and of itself is not evil; in fact, it is selfishness in the natural world that has helped generate the adaptation and biodiversity that we see on this planet. However, these selfish tendencies lie at the root of our sinful natures, and when we willingly give into these tendencies and act on them, despite being called to something greater, that’s when our biological selfishness becomes sin. It’s a well-written and interesting book well worth exploring.

(Ryan Bebej) #8

Thanks for the question, Phil. I would say that Bedouins very likely encountered the remains of early whales and other creatures in the desert. In Wadi Al-Hitan alone, over 1000 individual whale specimens have been documented. They are practically everywhere you look! We also drove out west to Siwa (one of the western-most oases in Egypt) and stopped at outcrops all along the way. Fossils were abundant almost everywhere!

(Mark D.) #9

And @Christy,

I think the reason we find fault with people who only ever seem to act for their own narrow self interest is that we expect people to enlarge their sphere of caring as they develop. If we care about our families, our descendants, the planet and other life enough, then their success or demise will affect us as much or more than our own narrow fate. We understand that our own end is unavoidable so the fate of things that endure longer should factor in more as we age if our humanity has not been stunted.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #10

True story: @DarylDomning made a brief appearance on here last year when I twisted his arm to respond personally to some ill-informed critiques of his Pezosiren discovery. It was a delight to have him weigh in! Glad to see his work come up again here!

(If you’re curious… What’s your favorite transitional fossil?)

P.S. In edit: I can’t recall a more-liked Forum post than that one of his. 13 likes! Popular post!

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #11

Where is the evidence that they do compete against each other as opposed to work together. As E. O. Wilson observed, the most successful species appear to be those where members cooperate for the well being of the group, not for themselves.

Selfishness as Dawkins called it is not at the root of evolution. Alleles are not selfish, but share their genes and advantages with others. Darwin called survival of the fittest, War (of Nature against Nature) which it is not.

Natural Selection is the sharing between the members of the species to improve the whole, which is the reason it is so successful. Life is NOT a zero sum game. Life multiplies when we share. Humans too often have to learn this lesson the hard way. God gives other creature this knowledge instinctively or they die out, which could very well happen to us.