Creation/Evolution Journal

Those Amazing Animals: The Whales and the Dolphins

The animal world is full of amazingly complex and baffling life forms. It is the perfect hunting ground for any creationist out to impress an audience during debate or a reader of creationist publications. All the creationist needs to do is pick any one of millions of species, catalogue its unique characteristics and complexities, and then dare scientists to explain in detail how such an amazing specimen could have developed over time "by random and chance processes."

Often, the creationist will describe a hypothetical evolutionary scenario. Humor is an important element here; the creationist shows all the problems the animal's ancestors would have had trying to become the animal in question. Such scenarios are a parody of evolution but never fail to amuse audiences at lectures and debates.

Favorite Examples

Over the years, a particular selection of animals has become the stock-in-trade of those advancing the creationist cause. If one needed an encyclopedia of such "animal wonders," the best place to turn would be the Worldwide Church of God. This organization, directly or through its branches (Ambassador College, Ambassador Publications, Ambassador International), has published numerous colorful booklets and periodicals. Its most famous periodical, The Plain Truth, has frequently featured articles on these animals.

Back when Garner Ted Armstrong was with the organization, various booklets were published bearing cute titles such as A Whale of a Tale or the Dilemma of Dolphins and Duckbills!, Some Fishy Stories About Evolution, and A Theory for the Birds. The subject matter of each was self-evident. In these booklets, the reader was treated to beautiful color photographs and lavish descriptions by Armstrong of the duckbilled platypus, the dolphin, the angler fish, the lungfish, and the flicker woodpecker, among others. Humorous evolutionary scenarios were suggested to show how each animal could never have evolved.

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Other creationists followed up on this lead, often cribbing arguments from Mr. Armstrong, at other times discovering "animal wonders" of their own. For example, Dr. Robert Kofahl of the Creation-Science Research Center seems to be responsible for adding examples such as the bombardier beetle and the gecko lizard to the growing menagerie, and Bolton Davidheiser has added the turtle.

What all these animals have in common is either beauty or intriguing complexity of structure and behavior. Conspicuous by their absence are animals that are dangerous or disgusting to humans. To remedy this oversight, a critic of creationism in Australia, John Bowden, wrote a booklet called Creation or Evolution. Among the arguments in this booklet, he included descriptions of animals with traits that humans consider less than desirable. These included the skunk, vampire bat, maggot, sewer rat, tapeworm, Chinese liver fluke, and bedbug. This latter animal, for example, could serve creationists well as evidence of "purposeful design." Bowden writes, "It has been observed that, if the legs of a bed are placed in receptacles containing insecticide, the bedbug will climb up the adjacent wall to the ceiling, crawl an inch or two thereon, and then drop onto the bed" (p. 31). However, it would be obvious whose side God is on!

Of course, such arguments don't disprove creation, they simply reveal a creationist preference for the most appealing examples. But the creationist arguments fail to disprove evolution. All they do is show that there are some things yet to be explained, some animal adaptations that are truly fascinating and incompletely understood. The theory of evolution does not require that its supporters come up with a step-by-step evolutionary history for every form of life on the face of the earth.

Nonetheless, it is often the case that the examples the creationists choose turn out to be animals about which science knows a lot. There frequently is a known evolutionary history that the creationists have simply ignored. Perhaps the most blatant example of this appeared in the August 1982 issue of Youth 82, published by the Worldwide Church of God. There the reader was treated to still another "animal wonder." However, this time it was the camel, an animal with a fossil record so complete and detailed that you can't find anyone with enough money to publish it in its entirety.

Whales and Dolphins

Creationists have recently renewed their interest in whales and dolphins and have referred to them often in debates as examples of animals that evolution cannot explain. Let us, therefore, take a look at the arguments creationists use and have used in this regard.

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Garner Ted Armstrong, in his typical mocking style, declared in his 1970 booklet, A Whale of a Tale, that no matter how amazing the facts are about whales and dolphins, they are "nowhere near the 'whoppers' of the supposed story of their 'evolution.' " Armstrong's basic line of argument was to first establish the amazing characteristics of these animals. He noted, for example, that dolphins can dive more than one thousand feet, and whales much deeper, without the need to go through decompression to avoid getting the "bends." He then declared that the sonar of these animals is superior to human made sonar and that whales are capable of swimming in total darkness.

There is really nothing to dispute in this data. His conclusion, however, was that all of this is just too complex to have evolved.

Armstrong's next step was to quote authorities as proof that there is absolutely no fossil record for whales or dolphins. After five such quotations, he concluded, "Yet-in spite of missing evidence and no proof, evolutionists continue clinging to their faith."

Finally, he brought in "Dither, the doleful dolphin," who was the supposed ancestor of the modern dolphin. Dither lacked many of the characteristics modern dolphins require and so was unable to survive in the ocean. This destroyed the dolphin's line and hence the case for evolution.

Armstrong's pattern of argument is standard for creationists, whether the animal under discussion is the flicker woodpecker, the bombardier beetle, or any other fascinating example. Dr. Gish of the Institute for Creation Research uses the same basic pattern in his debate and lecture presentations. Here is what he said about whales in a March 20, 1982, debate held in Tampa, Florida (his opponent was Dr. Kenneth Miller):

I had a great time yesterday watching the dolphins out in the bay going after a school of fish. Marvelous wonderful creatures, beautifully designed for life in the water! What do evolutionists say about whales and dolphins?

Well, here is an article that appeared as a fold-out in the National Geographic, December 1976, entitled "Whales of the World." The author says that "whales' ascendancy to sovereign size apparently began sixty million years ago when hairy four-legged mammals in search of food or sanctuary ventured into the water. As eons passed, changes slowly occurred, hind legs disappeared, front legs changed into flippers, hair gave way to the thick smooth blanket of blubber, nostrils moved to the top of the head, the tail broadened into flukes, and, in the buoyant water world, the body became enormous."

So according to this story, then, some hairy four-legged mammals evolved into a whale. Now here is an article that appeared in Scientific American, entitled "Dolphins," and this was in March 1979, by Dr. Burt Worsey. Dr. Worsey said that "dolphins evolved at least fifty million years ago from land mammals that may have resembled even-toed ungulates of today such as cattle, pigs, and buffalo." All right, that is what he said, "cattle, pigs, and buffalo." Something like that went into the water and evolved into a whale or dolphin or something like that.

Well, a friend of mine got together with an artist and tried to visualize what these transitional forms looked like. We see those in the next slide.

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At this point, Dr. Gish presented a slide acquired from Luther Sunderland that depicted a cartoon of a smiling cow, much like pictures and cartoons used by some dairies in their advertising. This cow was shown evolving into a whale by becoming first a cow with whale flukes instead of hind legs, then a cow with front flippers instead of front legs (but still possessing an udder), and then, finally, a full whale.

We see that the cow got into the water, that's what they said, something that may have resembled a cow, pig, or buffalo got into the water, and listen, they said she stayed around the water for eons of time as her tail broadened into flukes, the hind legs disappeared, and the front legs changed into flippers. And I suppose if we had a failure in the thing that was just hanging underneath [pointing to udder], we'd call it an udder failure. Fortunately everything succeeded, and we finally ended up with a whale.

Now my challenge to Dr. Miller and to all evolutionists is the following: If you don't like these suggestions, what are yours? I would be delighted to see what your suggestions are. How did some hairy four-legged mammal get into the water, stick around for eons of time, and just gradually and slowly evolve into a whale which is wonderfully and marvelously designed for life in the water?

You see, when it comes right down to a specific case, the whole idea of evolution is an absurdity.

Well, Dr. Miller accepted Dr. Gish's challenge when his turn came. Dr. Miller responded:

And finally, evolution has even occurred where Dr. Gish makes his best jokes. Next slide. Now my wife is an artist, and I knew about Dr. Gish's slide. So I wanted to draw up the intermediate between a whale and a cow that Dr. Gish had before, and she made this nice slide for me before I came. If you would like to use this you can. I think it's a really good drawing and it's a lot of fun and it looks very silly. But when you retire from comedy and decide you want to do science, you say, "Okay, what do the real fossils look like?" Next slide.

What does the fossil whale look like? On the top is Zeuglodon. He is a fossil whale. You know what? Zeuglodon doesn't have his nose on the top of his head the way modern whales do. He has it in the front. Next slide.

There is, in fact, an evolutionary trend from terrestrial vertebrates on the left to Pro-zeuglodon to modern whales on the right which show slowly and gradually how the blowhole evolved in modern whales. And the next slide shows how these forms looked, what the record is. You don't need to make a joke. You can deal with the facts.

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A Summary of the Evidence

The constraints of debate don't allow for a complete summary of the evidence for whale evolution, so it will be useful to cover the material more fully here. There are four basic bodies of evidence that support the proposition that whales evolved from land mammals. Let's take them one at a time.

1. Homology. First and most obvious is the fact that the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are mammals. Sea life is not ordinarily mammalian, which shows that whales and dolphins are likely "intruders" into that domain. Because cetaceans are mammals, they are more similar to animals such as cattle than they are to fish. This is why cetaceans and land mammals have been grouped in the same class. Evidence from comparative anatomy and biochemistry completely justifies this.

2. Embryology. Creationists freely admit that mysticete whales, when in the embryonic stage, have tooth buds which are resorbed before birth and never erupt through the gums. Creationists are also aware of the coat of hair these embryos have and lose before birth. But they don't explain why the creator would have to put teeth and hair into a fetus in order to make a whale that has neither. Even if the teeth and hair could be shown to have some limited function in the development of the fetus, as creationists are inclined to claim, this would be a new function for old features and hence would not challenge the clear connection these features have with earlier evolutionary stages. Overall, whale and dolphin fetuses are more similar to fetuses of land mammals than they are to those of fish. This would not be the case if there was no relationship between cetaceans and land mammals.

3. Vestigial organs. In sperm whales, there are cases of posterior extremities attached to the pelvis that are structured like leg bones. As Yablokov concludes, these are "characteristic of the distant ancestral forms, which have apparently been discarded because of adaptive evolution" (p. 243). Thus, whales evolved from animals having hind legs.

These are true vestigial organs, since they neither help nor hinder the survival of the animal possessing them and since they appear only rarely. If sperm whales needed these limbs, they would all have them. If creationists respond that these are just "freak" features as are things like a fifth leg on a cow, they must remember that a cow has four other legs; whales have none. And if creationists claim that such limbs are signs of "degeneration" in the animal since creation, they will have to explain from what these legs are degenerating (Awbrey and Thwaites). The real source is clearly terrestrial mammalian hind legs.

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4. The fossil record. Both the absence and presence of certain fossils demonstrate that whales and dolphins evolved from land mammals. First, the absence of any fossil evidence showing that the cetaceans could have evolved from early sea life in a scheme of evolution paralleling that of the emergence of land mammals rules out that idea from consideration. Second, the presence of clear ancestral fossils of modern-day cetaceans that show greater similarities to land mammals than do modern cetaceans gives support to the position that whales evolved from the land.

Although everything is not known about the evolution of the cetaceans, there are a number of fossils that document the progression from land to sea. An illustration of five of these fossils appeared in the April 1979 National Geographic. It will be useful to summarize that data.

The first fossil was a Mesonychid, a member of a family of land mammals that lived fifty million years ago and had skulls similar to that of modern wolves or dogs. Its nostrils were at the tip of the snout, as would be expected for this type of mammal. The second fossil was a forty-five million year old Protocetus. This amphibious mammal had an elongated skull in which the snout was extended forward ahead of the nostrils. The third fossil was a Durudon, a forty million year old, fully aquatic mammal with the snout even further out from the nostrils. The fourth example was from the family Squalodontidae, being a porpoise-like animal from twenty-five million years ago with its nostrils on its forehead between the eyes. The last example was a modern bottlenose dolphin. This animal first appeared fifteen million years ago and has nostrils above its eyes.

When this data is combined with the fossil examples Dr. Miller used, one can see that there is no lack of transitional forms in the fossil record.

A Better Scenario

The data from morphology, biochemistry, embryology, vestigial organs, and the fossil record all support cetacean evolution. They show us that whales evolved. However, people still wonder how they did. They picture this poor even-toed ungulate, such as a cow, jumping into the water and holding its breath, desperately trying to evolve before it drowns. They can't imagine how evolution would work.

No animal tries to evolve. Rather, due to variations caused by beneficial mutations, some animals do evolve. For example, if a cow was born with some of the abilities of a water buffalo, this cow could spend more time in the water. The mutation would allow this change in environment. Further evolutionary changes would allow later animals of this line to spend progressively more time away from dry land.

Modern hippopotamuses are even-toed ungulates that spend most of their lives in the water. Though they graze on vegetation as do cattle, they have large whalelike blubbery bodies and swim comfortably. This makes them an excellent ecological type for demonstrating the workability of whale evolution.

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Hippos even have nostrils turned up to allow them to breathe while sleeping on the water's surface. Their calves are born and nursed under water and can swim before they can walk (Goodwin). One could imagine evolutionary changes that might create improved swimming abilities, such as seals and walruses have, bringing us even closer to the whale.

Of course, whales did not evolve from water buffalo, hippos, or walruses. But the above scenario does show us that intermediate stages make sense, thereby allowing us to dispense with the caricatures of evolution given by Armstrong and Gish.

Though the animal world is full of startling creatures that often seem to defy evolutionary explanation, this cannot help creationism if there are plenty of other animals that have well-known fossil histories. No creationist is prepared to say that perhaps some animals evolved and others didn't. Creationism is an all-or-nothing proposition. Therefore creationists should devote their time to explaining away the well-documented examples instead of focusing on those that they imagine are inexplicable. But if they insist on concentrating on the latter, demanding birth certificates for every transitional ancestor, they should first read the latest sources and study all the data. Otherwise they might find that the evolutionary answers to their bold challenges come all too quickly.

By Frederick Edwords
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.