On Creation Science and "Transitional Fossils"

This article addresses one of the unfortunate failings of "creation science" that has turned into an eternally repeated mantra by creationists, despite being quite directly wrong. That is the mantra that "there are no transitional fossils"; it simply is not true. This oft-repeated fallacy does not agree with what paleontologists actually know. What follows is a full citation of the section entitled "Effect of Transitional Fossils on Taxonomic Practises", from the article "Paleontologic Evidence and Organic Evolution", by Roger J. Cuffey, published in the book " Science and Creationism", edited by Ashley Montagu; Oxford University Press, 1984. The article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 24(4), December, 1972. I will make comments following the text.

Note: I have omitted one cited reference from the text which did not appear in Cuffey's reference list. I have marked the text where this happens.

Begin Quote: Still further, because the Linnean system of taxonomic nomenclature has been very useful historically, we tend to refer transitional individuals to that species which they resemble most, rather than calling attention nomenclaturally to their intermediate status (Bird, 1971; Crusafont-Pairo & Reguant, 1970). As a result, a casual reader might conclude erroneously that we see no evolutionary variations within species. However, the true situation is that paleontologists frequently ignore such variations because it is not pertinent to their immediate goals (Williams, 1953, p. 29), but that such variation is present as transitional individuals within the species (Anderson, 1971; Cuffey, 1967, p. 41, 85-86; Klapper & Zeigler, 1967; Scott & Collinson, 1959; Williams, 1951, p. 87).

Similarly, we also tend to refer transitional fossils to that higher taxon which the most resemble or to which their final representatives belong. Consequently, the fact that we are dealing with continuously gradational sequences may be obscured by our conventional practise of superimposing artificially discontinuous, higher rank taxonomic boundaries across such lineages (Olson, 1965, p. 100-101, 202-203; Van Morkhoven, 1962, p. 105, 153; Williams, 1953, p. 29; Cuffey, 1967, p. 38-39). As a result, for example, in the middle of sequences of transitional fossils bridging the conceptual gaps between the various vertebrate classes, we find forms which sit squarely on the dividing line between these high-rank taxa and which can be referred to either of two. In addition to Archaeopteryx between reptiles and birds (discussed previously), we can also note Diarthrognathus between reptiles and mammals, the seymouriamorphs between amphibians and reptiles, and Elpistostege between fishes and amphibians (see references in Table 5).

Higher taxa - from genera on up through phyla - are useful concepts in handling data concerning organisms (in fact, they constitute what the layman terms "major kinds" of organisms); however, they are artificial mental constructs rather than "basic facts of nature" (Brouwer, 1967, p.161; Olson, 1965, p. 100-101, 201-203). Moreover, although there are reasons why transitional sequences between higher taxa are not as frequent as we would like (Brouwer, 1967, p. 160-169; Olson, 1965, p. 118, 184-211; Simpson, 1953, p. 366-376, [omitted reference]), nevertheless we can cite some particularly impressive transitional fossils between higher taxa of various ranks. In addition to those mentioned previously as inter-phylum and inter-class transitions, others involve higher taxa of class-group rank (Erben, 1966; Raup & Stanley, 1971, p. 306-307), orders (Easton, 1960, p. 446; Miller, Furnish, & Schindewolf, 1957, p. L22; Teichert, 1964, p. K325), families (Arkell, Kummell & Wright, 1957, p. L117-119; Brinkmann, 1937; Easton, 1960, p. 425; Flower, 1941, p. 526; Moore, Lalicker & Fischer, 1952, p. 351), and genera (Arkell, Kummell & Wright, 1957, p. L116-118; Brinkmann, 1929; Brouwer, 1967, p. 158; Gimbrede, 1962; Newell, 1942, p. 21, 59; Raup & Stanley, 1971, p. 264)

Cuffey's references follow:

Anderson, E.J., 1971, Discriminant function analysis of variations among populations of the brachiopod Gypidula coeymanensis; Geol. Soc. Amer.; Abs. Prog., v.3, no.1, p. 14-15

Arkell, W.J., Kummel, B. & Wright, C.W., 1957, Mesozoic Ammonoidea; p. L80-L465 of Moore, R.C., ed., Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, pt. L (Molluusca 4, Ammonoidea), p. L1-L490

Bird, S.O., 1971, On interpolative open nomenclature; Syst. Zool., v. 20, p. 469.

Brinkmann, 1929, Statistischbiostratigraphische Untersuchungen an mitteljurassischen Ammoniten uber Artbegriff und Stammesenwicklung; Gesell. Wiss, Gottingen, Abh., math.-phys. Kl., n. ser., v. 13, no. 3, p. 1-249

Brouwer, A., 1967, General Paleontology, Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago; 216 p.

Crusafont-Pairo, M. & Regaunt, S., 1970, The nomenclature of intermediate forms; Syst. Zool., v. 199, p. 254-257

Cuffey, R.J., 1967, Bryozoan Tabulipora carbonaria in Wreford Megacyclothem (Lower Permian) of Kansas; Univ. Kan. Paleont. Contrib., Bryoz. art. 1, p. 1-96.

Easton, W.H., 1960, Invertebrate Paleontology; Harper, N.Y.; 701 p.

Erben, H.K., 1966, Uber den Ursprung der Ammonoidea; Biol. Rev., v. 41, p. 641-658

Gimbrede, L. de A., 1962, Evolution of the Cretaceous foraminifer Kyphopyxa christneri (Carsey); Jour. Paleont., v. 36, 1121-1123

Klapper, G. & Zeigler, W., 1967, Evolutionary development of the Icriodus latericrescens group (Conodonta) in the Devonian of Europe and North America; Palaeontographica, ser. A, v. 127, p. 68-83

Miller, A.K., Furnish, W.M, & Schindewolf, O.H., 1957 Paleozoic Ammonodoidea; p. L11-L79 of Moore, R.C., ed., Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, pt. L (Molluusca 4, Ammonoidea), p. L1-L490

Newell, N.D., 1942, Late Paleozoic Pelecypods-Pectinacea; Kan. Geol. Surv., (publ.) v. 10, pt. 2, p. 1-115

Olson, E.C., 1965, The Evolution of Life; Mentor, N.Y., 302 p.

Raup, D.M. & Stanley, S.M., 1971, Principles of Paleontology; Frreeman, San Francisco; 388 p.

Scott, A.J. & Collinson, C., 1959, Intraspecific variability in conodonts - Palmatolepis glabra Ulrich & Bassler; Jour. Paleont., v. 33, p. 550-565

Simpson, G.G., 1953, The Major Features of Evolution; Columbia Univ. Press, N.Y.; 434 p.

Teichert, C., 1964, Nautiloidea-Discordia; p. K320-342 of Moore, R.C., ed., Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, pt. K (Mollusca 3, Nautiloidea), p. K1-K519

Van Morkhoven, F.P.C.M., 1962, Post-Paleozoic Ostracoda; Elsevier, Amsterdam; 204 p.

Williams, A., 1951, Llandoovery brachiopods from Wales with special reference to the Llandovery district; Geol. Soc. Lond., Quart. Jour., v. 107, p. 85-136

Williams, A., 1953, North American and European stropheodontids - their morphology and systematics; Geol. Soc. Amer., Mem. 56, p. 1-67

End Quote.

And now, Thompson comments.

From top to bottom, the classification scheme runs as follows:


In this paper, Cuffey has specifically mentioned and referenced inter-phylum transitions, as well as inter-class, inter-order, and inter-family.

But then again, Cuffey also tells us that "they are artificial mental constructs rather than 'basic facts of nature'". So what is the real significance to the theory of evolution if transitions are not forthcoming? Well, if none, it would still be significant, since no matter how you cut it, or classify it, there have to be sequences somewhere to connect the past to the future. Which boundary you choose, whether it be inter-family, or inter-phylum seems more of an arbitrary choice. But the deeper you go, the better evolution looks, and documented inter-phylum transitions just about hang the "no transitionals" argument out to dry big time.

I will also mention Cuffey's referenced Table 5. It gives references for fish-tetrapod, amphibian-reptile, and reptile-mammal transitions. The assertion so often repeated, that there are no transitional fossils, is simply a falsehood that lives on despite being long since buried by the truth.

Following the section that I have transcribed here, the next section of Cuffey's paper is entitled "Evolutionary Implications of Transitional Fossils" (pages 266-270). Considerably longer than the section I transcribed above, I won't proceed to do likewise here. Suffice to say that Cuffey spends some considerable time on the relationship between the amply documented transitionals and how they fit into an evolutionary framework.

Now I will reproduce the last paragraph of that section, as it is of major bearing on this particular forum, as well as his conclusions paragraph, which also follows immediately after in the original text.

Begin quote

A few remarks are also appropriate about the theological implications of evolution as demonstrated by sequences of transitional fossils. As the reader may have noted, theological considerations do not enter at all into our demonstration of evolution as a very highly probable scientific conclusion. Consequently, like other scientific conclusions, this one cannot be viewed as inherently either pro- or anti-Christian. However, of course, Christians - especially theologians - will need to integrate evolutionary process into their views as being the proximate means which God uses to create various forms of life, just as He uses other scientifically demonstrable processes to maintain the natural universe.


In summary, the paleontologic record displays numerous sequences of transitional fossils, oriented appropriately within the independently derivable geochronologic time framework, and morphologically and chronologically connecting earlier species with later species (often so different that the end-members are classified in different high-rank taxa). These sequences quite overwhelmingly support an evolutionary, rather than a fiat-creationist, view of the history of life. Consequently, after carefully considering the implications of the fossil record, we must conclude that that record represents the remains of gradually and continuously evolving, ancestor-descendent lineages, uninterrupted by special creative acts, and producing successive differernt species which eventually become so divergent from the initial form that they constitute new major kinds of organisms.

End quote

And now, Thompson comments.

The American Scientific Affiliation, which originally featured this work in their publication, describes itself as " ... a fellowship of men and women of science and disciplines that can relate to science who share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science." Looking in as an "outsider" (i.e., a non-Christian), I find the internecine conflict within the edifice of Christianity somewhat bemusing. Evolution is not a matter of Good vs Evil, of Christian vs anti-Christian, nor is it an atheist plot. It is an observation on the creation itself, and an idea that the majority of people who call themselves Christian do in fact accept.

The End

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