A terrific popular article on the evolution of whales

In both my evolution class and general talks for laypeople, I use the evolution of whales as a great example of predicted and then discovered transitional forms. Those creationists who claim that “there is microevolution but not macroevolution” are simply unable to deal with this wonderful series of fossils, documenting the transition between a terrestrial “even-toed” animal (artiodactyl), and modern marine whales, showing all gradations of the transition. And most of the change took place over only about 10 million years, a remarkably short time for such a pronounced change in body form and lifestyle. Remember that our divergence from chimps took place about 6 million years ago, and we’re much more similar to chimps than are whales to their terrestrial ancestors! (The closest living relative to whales, by the way, is the hippo, which can serve as an example of how a “half-terrestrial/half aquatic” animal can be perfectly adapted to its environment—something creationists claim is impossible argues against natural selection producing whales.

I’ve put below the diagram of whale evolution I use in my talks (I was kindly given permission to use it by Ken Miller, and the sources are shown on the slide). Note that not only do we see all sorts of intermediate stages, but independent dating of those fossils shows them to occur in the precise temporal order expected if they were transitional forms. (The tree below shows the time when each form diverged from its ancestor.) The rear legs get smaller, the nostrils move atop the head to form the blowhole, the earholes and hair disappear, a new auditory apparatus forms, the pelvis separates from the spine, and so on.  It’s all described in Why Evolution is True.

Whale phylogeny

But it’s described even better in a new article in National Geographic, “Valley of the whales,” by Tom Mueller (free online!).  I often recommend articles for my readers, but I demand that you read this one. It’s a wonderful combination of travelogue and scientific exposition of one of our best transitional series, and it’s extremely well written. It describes my colleague Phil Gingerich and his team’s work in the Wadi Hitan, a desolate section of the Egyptian desert only 100 miles from the Pyramids of Giza.   There (and also in Pakistan) lies a rich treasure of early whale fossils. Mueller describes the scene, the finds, and what scientists now know about the evolution of whales from artiodactyls. The writing is concise and clear, and that’s why I’d like you to read it. Here’s a specimen:

The common ancestor of whales and of all other land animals was a flatheaded, salamander-shaped tetrapod that hauled itself out of the sea onto some muddy bank about 360 million years ago. Its descendants gradually improved the function of their primitive lungs, morphed their lobe fins into legs, and jury-rigged their jaw joints to hear in the air instead of water. Mammals turned out to be among the most successful of these land lovers; by 60 million years ago they dominated the Earth. Whales were among a tiny handful of mammals to make an evolutionary U-turn, retrofitting their terrestrial body plan to sense, eat, move, and mate underwater.

That is what I call good popular science writing: lively and not dumbed down.

Here’s another:

Around 45 million years ago, as the advantages of a water environment drew whales farther out to sea, their necks compressed and stiffened to push more efficiently through the water, behind faces lengthening and sharpening like a ship’s prow. Hind legs thickened into pistons; toes stretched and grew webbing, so they resembled enormous ducks’ feet tipped with tiny hooves inherited from their ungulate ancestors. Swimming methods improved: Some whales developed thick, powerful tails, bulleting ahead with vigorous up-and-down undulations of their lower bodies. Selection pressure for this efficient style of locomotion favored longer and more flexible spinal columns. Nostrils slid back up the snout toward the crown of the head, becoming blowholes. Over time, as the animals dived deeper, their eyes began to migrate from the top toward the sides of the head, the better to see laterally in the water. And whale ears grew ever more sensitive to underwater sound, aided by pads of fat that ran in channels the length of their jaws, gathering vibrations like underwater antennae and funneling them to the middle ear.

Though finely tuned to water, these 45-million-year-old whales still had to hitch themselves ashore on webbed fingers and toes, in search of fresh water to drink, a mate, or a safe place to bear their young. But within a few million years whales had passed the point of no return: Basilosaurus, Dorudon, and their relatives never set foot on land, swimming confidently on the high seas and even crossing the Atlantic to reach the shores of what is now Peru and the southern United States.

Mueller’s piece is accompanied by a lovely photo gallery with pictures by Richard Barnes. Here’s a few that I’ve chosen.

Here’s Wadi Hitan; the path is there for visitors to inspect the whale fossils in situ:

Valley of Whales

Here’s Gingerich with a portion of fossil whale jaw protruding from the rock.  Would that all paleontologists could have their fossils so easily accessible!

Gingerich and jaws

Mohamed Samah (left) is Wadi Hitan’s head ranger, and is shown putting together the skeleton of a Dorudon (fourth from the bottom in the first diagram above).  The article notes that this area, because of its wealth of important fossils, has earned status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dorudon in situ

A skeleton of Malacetus from Pakistan (47 mya, not shown in my diagram), assembled in the basement of the University of Michigan. The caption notes that it had webbed feet and walked awkwardly on land, much like a sea lion. Note the elongated skull and reduced rear limbs.

Malacetus skelton

The two pictures I like best are below, for they present undeniable visual proof of evolution. This is Basilosaurus (see diagram above), a 37-million-year-old fossil from Wadi Hitan. This was a fully aquatic beast. And although it might not have been a direct descendant of Malacetus, it shows roughly the amount of morphological  change that occurred in those 10 million years—a lot!  Look at how the forelimbs have become paddles, the tail has become long and flexible, and, especially, how the rear limbs have almost disappeared (they’re the tiny bones flanking the mid-section of the tail). But they’re still recognizable: rock-hard evidence that whales evolved from land animals—something amply confirmed by DNA sequencing.

Basilosaurus entire

Below is one of the pair hind limbs of Basilosaurus: each is 18 inches long—on a 50-foot skeleton! The femur, tibia, fibula, and tarsals are clearly recognizable. Gingerich surmises that these tiny limbs may have been used as “stimulators or guides for coopulation,” but it’s also possible that they were completely without function: remnants on the way out or simply something that remained as a byproduct of other important aspects of development.

Creationists often deny that these vestigial limbs are evidence for evolution, noting that they could function in copulation. But that’s ridiculous, for we not only see their gradual shrinkage over time, but—more important—why would the Creator make a “copulation guide” that had every bone homologous to those of the fully-functioning hind limbs of their ancestors, and of modern tetrapods? To deny that this is evidence for evolution shows the intellectual dishonesty of creationists.

Remember, vestigial traits need not be nonfunctional to serve as evidence of evolution.

Basilosaurus,legs

There is a weird bit at the end of Mueller’s piece—some accommodationist testimony that doesn’t seem to belong in the article.

Ironically, Gingerich himself grew up in a strictly principled Christian environment, in a family of Amish Mennonites in eastern Iowa. (His grandfather was a farmer and lay preacher.) Yet at the time, he felt no clash between faith and science. “My grandfather had an open mind about the age of the Earth,” he says, “and never mentioned evolution. Remember, these were people of great humility, who only expressed an opinion on something when they knew a lot about it.”

Gingerich is still baffled by the conflict that many people feel between religion and science. On my last night in Wadi Hitan, we walked a little distance from camp under a dome of brilliant stars. “I guess I’ve never been particularly devout,” he said. “But I consider my work to be very spiritual. Just imagining those whales swimming around here, how they lived and died, how the world has changed—all this puts you in touch with something much bigger than yourself, your community, or your everyday existence.” He spread his arms, taking in the dark horizon and the desert with its sandstone wind sculptures and its countless silent whales. “There’s room here for all the religion you could possibly want.”

I’m not sure why Phil is baffled by the conflict between science and religion: their methodologies and conclusions are totally at odds, and here he absolutely conflates “religion” with “awe at the wonder of the universe.” Finding fossil whales is not the same thing as finding Jesus.  The whole interpolation is gratuitous and jarring. I suspect that National Geographic stuck it in to soothe those readers whose worldview has been jarred by such convincing evidence for evolution. (Many “liberal” religionists still are uncomfortable with evolution, though they profess to accept it.) This seems to be the magazine’s way of saying, “Look readers: you can still have your faith and fossil whales, too!”

But I’m not going to come down hard on Gingerich for this.  He’s a terrific guy, a crack scientist who has made pathbreaking discoveries, and we’ve both worked not only against creationists, but as severe critics of Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium.  So who says that I can’t join forces with accommodationists?!

Go read the piece!

h/t: Jon

52 Comments

  1. Matt G
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I like how that one whale is giving creationists the finger.

    Happy birthday, Jerry!

    • Matt G
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      I forgot to mention that you are featured in today’s Freethought of the Day from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The quote they use is:

      “As the years went on I gradually transmogrified from being an evolutionary biologist to an evolutionary biologist atheist and now I’m more of an atheist than an evolutionary biologist. I realized that creationism, the opposition to evolution, is the least of our worries that religion promulgates, compared to someone throwing acid in the face of a schoolgirl in Afghanistan.”

  2. Mateus
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Someone should show this to Duane Gish.

    Happy Birthday, Jerry!

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Someone should show this to Duane Gish.

      Attached to a “clue-by-four”?
      Oh, and a happy anniversary from sub-tropical Aberdeen too!

  3. Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Great NG article! Thanks for sharing. Let’s hope this is a slippery slope from disbelief in evolution, to belief in evolution, from belief in a creator to disbelief in a creator.

  4. jose
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Amazing!

    What makes me mad is we have current animals like dugongs and seals which look just as transitional as Basilosaurus. Evolution is happening right under our noses! It’s alive and well.

  5. Posted December 30, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I do believe that this post of yours is about as good a present as we could hope for on Coynemas. Thank you!

    b&

  6. thh1859
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Would you like to investigate if the accommodationist sentences attributed to Gingerich are due to NG editing?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Because they’re given as quotes, I have little doubt that Gingerich said them. Nat. Geo. is a reputable publication and I seriously doubt that they’d make up quotes like that.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      David Quammen writing in the National Geographic [2004]

      Seeing me to the door, Gingerich volunteered something personal: “I grew up in a conservative church in the Midwest and was not taught anything about evolution. The subject was clearly skirted. That helps me understand the people who are skeptical about it. Because I come from that tradition myself.” He shares the same skeptical instinct. Tell him that there’s an ancestral connection between land animals and whales, and his reaction is: Fine, maybe. But show me the intermediate stages. Like Charles Darwin, the onetime divinity student, who joined that round-the –world voyage aboard the Beagle instead of becoming a country parson, and whose grand view of life on Earth was shaped by attention to small facts, Phil Gingerich is a reverant empiricist. He’s not satisfied until he sees solid data. That’s what excites his so much about pulling shale fossils out of the ground. In 30 years he has seen enough to be satisfied. For him, Gingerich said, it’s “a spiritual experience.”

      “The evidence is there,” he added. “It’s buried in the rocks of ages.”

      • Dale
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        I like to think that the last sentence could be interpreted in more than one way. As Quammen noted Gingerich is a “reverent empiricist”. Among the definitions of revere is “respect” and “honor”. It could be said perhaps that he he is religiously empirical as in empirical out of habit.

        Great Post, I haven’t opened the new NG, I will now.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          I agree. I think he’s spiritual in the same sense as Dawkins is.

  7. peter
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    “There’s room here for all the religion you could possibly want.”

    Yes, I could not agree more. In fact, any place, however small, could accommodate all of mine!

    Let us hope that the islamists gaining political control of Egypt do not devolve into the much worse types running around with assault rifles in Mali right now. For the latter, this sight would be even more rife for destruction than the historically famous islamic buildings they are destroying in Mali because they represent a slightly different theology.

    Sorry for introducing a bit of negativity into this happy info provided by Coyne.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      We (the wife and I) have considered “doing” Egypt on several occasions in the holiday stakes – a bit of archaeology, a bit of scenery, a bit of scuba (of the not-sub-tropical variety). Should have been good. But it’s been off the agenda for the last couple of years with the “Arab Spring” and other regional warfare. With the increasing Islamisation of Egypt (and other “Arab” states), I don’t see the area coming back onto the agenda.
      I wasn’t aware (until now) that the Egyptians were trying (in some degree) to commercialise the whale fossils. I’d add that onto the list of things to do (and in the process, complicate matters, possibly to the point of needing two holidays there!) if Egypt in general was on the agenda at all. Which it’s not.
      I’d better check if I need special visas too – being an atheist, but not an apostate, I suspect that I may still be subject to the death penalty.
      I notice that I’m receiving fewer job offers for working in Somalia. Which suggests either that they’ve found someone willing to do the work, or that they’ve dropped the idea for a few years. I’d suspect the latter, since our response last time was “what is the day-rate, and elaborate on your security plans” – hardly un-welcoming.
      I do hope that the lunatic fringe of Islamic Creationism (the Yahya-ites and such like) don’t cotton onto the presence of these extraordinary fossils. Unfortunately, as we know from computing “security through obscurity” doesn’t really work, and these sites are by no means obscure. If the lunatics do take over the asylum, I wouldn’t bet on any other form of security having any worthwhile effect.
      On the other hand, the lunatic fringe are unlikely to really understand that
      (1) the story is out and published ; destroying the heretical fossils ( ? insanity !! ) will do nothing to affect the reality of these fossils ; and
      (2) even if they go through the whole valley (“wadi”) and sledgehammer every piece of exposed bone, there will remain fossils an inch, a foot, a metre behind the rock surface there will be next decade’s fossils, and behind those, next century’s fossils.

      Anyone with two braincells to rub together and who has ever dug a single fossil out of a grubby mud-pile will know these things ; the religious fanatic wielding a sledgehammer probably won’t think it through. That’s scant protection, and little consolation.

      • Achrachno
        Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        It sounds like this site is quite a way from any population center, so it’ll be difficult to mobilize enough fanatics to wreck the whole place. Your point about still buried material is well taken, and so I’m thinking that obscurity may be good protection in this case. You can’t wreck what you can’t find — and I’ll bet religious fanatics won’t be able to find much percentage-wise. Even of the stuff already on the surface due to erosion. This is not a few giant statues or mausoleums that “everyone” knows about.

        It’s also great that so much material as been salvaged and studied already. The core of the story may already be in the bag.

        • gravelinspector
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          The core of the story may already be in the bag.

          You’ve worked as a mudlogger too?
          Sorry, that’s the basis of lots of muddy old geologist jokes. I’ve drilled, caught and logged a few dozen cores, bagged hundreds of thousands of samples of (technical term) ‘shit’, looked at probably approaching a hundred thousand samples of ‘shit’ (washed), dried hundreds of thousands more …
          As I tell my minions these days – “if in the slightest bit of doubt – shove samples into a bag. It is always easier to throw away uninteresting samples than to catch cuttings after they’ve fallen off the end of the shakers into the (technical term again) ‘shit pit’.”

        • gravelinspector
          Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          I wouldn’t bet on being out in the desert being much protection. “A hundred km” is mentioned … ah, a KML file covering the area. Around 145km from Cairo as the corvid flies ; say 200km on the ground. But only about 80km from the large town / small city of Faiyum. I don’t think that is anything like far enough to be any appreciable protection. If (see the blog post accompanying the KML file) the area is being actively promoted for tourism, then decent roads are a must-have. Which makes it accessible.
          I wouldn’t depend for one second on protection from “the authorities”. Or to be more precise, the police on the ground.

          • Dominic
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:50 am | Permalink

            All of the countries in the ‘Arab Spring’ have important historical, archaeological, cultural AND scientific treasures that are invaluable. Let us hope that the lunatics do not take over the asylum.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      I once read a paper that purported to prove (the physics was too deep for me, so I’m not sure how soundly) that if there is at least one magnetic monopole in the universe, then electric charge is quantized and all electrons have the same charge.

      I was profoundly impressed by the idea that such a proof is possible, from the unique and local to general and universal.

      So I do like the idea of a space (however small) being able to contain all the religion one could ever want.

      My next thought is, imagining it to be so contained, whether to fold or scrunch before flushing. :)

      • SLC
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        If magnetic monopoles existed, they would have been discovered long ago as their mass is predicted to be 137 times the mass of an electron. The problem is that a monopole is predicted by the Dirac theory to have a string of singularities attached to it, which presents a problem with rotational invariance and thence conservation of angular momentum.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted January 1, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

          Is the point of the mass value (inverse of the fine structure constant, yes?) that it’s well within the range that’s already been explored with accelerators?

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks! Whales are up there in my list of top organisms, after the three top categories taken by cats, cats and cats of course.

    What I find fascinating is how vertebrates have adapted to swimming. Granted, I don’t think all fishes prefer lateral body swimming mechanisms, but it seems to be pretty generic. But tetrapods have used both kinds, perhaps with the opposite preference. (Whales, dugongs, seals vs sea snakes and snakes when swimming and perhaps marine iguanas – and who knows where to place turtles and birds when diving?)

    Mammals turned out to be among the most successful of these land lovers; by 60 million years ago they dominated the Earth.

    I thought dinosaurs got mammals beat in diversity – ~ 10 000 bird species vs ~ 6000 mammal species. [Wikipedia "Bird" vs "Mammal" articles' numbers.]

    Then again, maybe they aren’t considered dominating “land”.

    Remember that our divergence from chimps took place about 6 million years ago, and we’re much more similar to chimps than are whales to their terrestrial ancestors!

    Don’t you mean to compare with hominini ancestor rather than chimp here?

    Besides the logical/evolutionary problem, in my layman understanding chimps are much derived in their knuckle walk making the comparison suffer.

    [In a comparison I would prefer to go back 3 times that to ~ 18 million years and make it the gibbons. If we take out their long arms and wrist ball joint they seem to be more generic hominoid than chimps in brain size, and hand and motion configuration.

    With of without arm help gibbons do a pretty decent generic bipedal walk, perhaps because of reduced mass. Compare with our common ancestors with chimps who seems to have done better in that department than chimps do today.]

    The example is perhaps even better than stated. (If we gloss over brain growth.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      “Brain growth”. At second thought, maybe we _should_ gloss over that considering that there is a body mass growth too. Or better make it “relative brain growth”.

  9. Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Wow–I look forward to reading this. For any of you whale fans, I’d highly recommend Philip Hoare’s recent book “The Whale”–lovely mix of memoir, literary criticism, capsule biography of Melville, and history of cetology. He’s one of the people behind the audio version of Moby-Dick now on the Web.

    Happy Birthday, Prof. Coyne!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Oh, is it The C-day already!? Koynezaa have me coyne-fused.

      I’ll add my congrats!

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    by 60 million years ago they dominated the Earth.

    By the way, this leads up to an oldish evolutionary unanswered question of mine, unless I am mistaken.

    Since Aves weren’t considered Dinosaur at the beginning, it was a broad brush notion that Mammalia took over and “dominated the Earth” after dinosaurs seemed to have gone extinct.

    But it turns out dinosaurs didn’t go extinct. So is there any time when mammals truly dominated over avian dinosaurs, or have dinosaurs always outspecied them?

    [I don't think I am lazy to put the question on the web as else I don't know how to go about to begin answering it.]

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      [I don't think I am lazy to put the question on the web as else I don't know how to go about to begin answering it.]

      Hmmm, I’d start off by getting together some lists of fossil vertebrate taxa by name and period. Then period-by-period, counting up Mammalia and “Ornithischia + Saurischia + Aves” taxa and comparing the two. By thr time that the ratio between the two is stable to one-and-a-half significant figures, you’re probably safe to move onto the next period. Or you could do it by taxa-counting and adding up the durations, but the age of a fossil is generally less debatable than the taxonomic position. The whole task is going to be bedevilled by selection biases. As the old joke goes – the global collection of pre-Cretaceous mammal fossils could be fitted into a couple of shoe boxes. Small shoe boxes. Things have improved in the last couple of decades – you might need four large shoe boxes now. But for mammals, most of the fossils are teeth, which may be hard to uniquely assign to taxa (one taxon can produce several morphologies of tooth, and if you’re mostly finding (and recognising!) disaggregated teeth … that’s going to over-estimate your taxon-count, severely), and which may be indistinguishable between several taxa (if the post-cranial skeleton would say “new taxon”, but you only have teeth, your tooth-morphotype count of taxa is going to be too low an estimate of the number of taxa. Did I mention sexual dimorphism? No. Shall we add that to the mix, or is it fluffy enough already?
      Taxa lists … I’d start with the SVP. What have we got? Bibliography of Foss. Verts. Looks promising : search for appropriate taxonomic groupings which have been “stable” (“-ish”) for a long time (see the hip classification above) and you should be able to dredge out references for lots of “I name this taxon” type papers.
      I think that the ball is back in your court.
      My two ¢ents worth … you’re right – “Dinosaurs + Aves” have probably always outnumbered “Mammalia”.

  11. Michael Fisher
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Happy Birthday dear Jerry

    Diving into the NG article now.

    Much more of this kind of thing please! Serving suggestion if I may:- I still have trouble grasping the reasons why group selection is the wrong model & I suppose it’s because as a layperson it’s easier for me to visualise evolutionary dynamics at the level of the ‘vehicle’ & groups of ‘vehicles’. I KNOW that’s wrong, but it’s seductively simple to think that way. So if you write more in that area at a layperson level I would be one grateful & avid reader…

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Fascinating! And nice that Egypt and Pakistan can now claim something of enormous historical significance that doesn’t relate to anything from the last 10,000yrs.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Fascinating. And depressing (as discussed above or below) that it’s entirely credible that sites like this are going to end up vandalised by pitchfork wielding mobs of peasants … oh, sorry, channelling Frankenstein movies there ; but you can see why.
      Oh, I’d always add a vote of interest to the Mohenjo-daro culture. We have a far poorer understanding of that culture than we do have of their Egyptian contemporaries.

  13. Michael Fisher
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    From the Basilosaurus Wiki:-

    Basilosaurus (“King Lizard”) is a genus of cetacean that lived 40 to 34 million years ago in the Late Eocene. [...] initially believed to be some sort of reptile, hence the suffix -“saurus“, but later found to be a marine mammal. Richard Owen wished to rename the creature Zeuglodon (“Yoked Tooth”), but, per taxonomic rules, the creature’s first name remained permanent.

    Question: I assume the first name is permanent because of the difficulty/expense of revising the printed record, but in our digital era wouldn’t it make sense to revise that rule so that “saurus” is only applied within the clade Dinosauria ?

    • Achrachno
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Priority is mostly just for stability of nomenclature. Changing for “appropriateness” would just multiply possible changes and thus confusion. It’s bad enough as things are.

  14. Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    So, I just finished reading the article — and, again, thanks! I agree that it’s an example of the Geographic at its finest, and that really means something.

    Of course, I started reading it just after reading the passing critique of the accommodationism at the end, and so I was primed and found it quite jarring to read the opening words describing deep time.

    I’m once again truly struck by how utterly bizarre and incomprehensibly absurd Christianity is even at its most basic when put in the grand historical context.

    Even the most liberal, pro-evolution, pro-science of Christians would have us believe that life proceeded apace on its natural evolutionary course for thousands of millions of years, in a context where a mere dozens of millions can turn a small shrew-like tree-dweller into a great blue whale…and then, not even a quarter of a percent of a million years ago, the creator of this vast universe finally puts in a personal appearance in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, does some magic tricks to impress some very gullible hicks, and then vanishes without leaving behind naught but some very contradictory and quite bizarre memories that its witnesses wouldn’t even bother to write down until their dotage.

    Dr. Sagan comes to mind, with his observation that, even in the fact of all the amazing and incredible stuff we see all around us, the religious continue to insist in their faith in puny, small gods lording it over a puny, small universe. How sad.

    Cheers,

    b&

  15. Notagod
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    “stimulators or guides for coopulation”

    Bloody ‘el the christians are working to evolve into the hind limbs of the ancestors of whales.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      “stimulators or guides for coopulation”

      “Coopulation” is an new word for cooperative (consensual) copulation, implying that normal “copulation” is not cooperative? There’s a Freudian slit if ever I read one.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        There’s a Freudian slit if ever I read one.

        :-)

  16. Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Happy birthday prof and many good days ahead.

    Fascinating story on whale evolution.

  17. RLee
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    The article is great, but the header says it was published In August 2010.

  18. Richard William Posner
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for contributing to the endless process of my education.

  19. Tim Harris
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Happy birthday, and have a whale of a year in 2013!

  20. BornRight
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Great find Jerry and happy birthday!
    The whale story is a poster child of evolution.
    But what do you think of the discovery of a 49 million year old fossil jawbone, said to be from a fully aquatic whale, in Antarctica?

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/11/111116-antarctica-whales-oldest-evolution-animals-science/

    Creationists are now bringing this up to counter the impeccable whale fossil record.

  21. Susan
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the link to a wonderful article and the accompanying photos.

    Also, thank you for your writing, your lectures and your site.

    Happy Birthday from me and my cats (brothers, Wilbur and Lyle).

  22. Valjean
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Amazing.

    Thank’s and happy birthday Jerry.

    VH

  23. Raymond Freeman-Lynd
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Great article and pictures as expected from NG.
    I would note that the 47 Ma whale from Pakistan is Maiacetus, not Malacetus. It is named for 2 superb specimens, one of which is interpreted as a pregnant female with a fetus, hence the name mother whale. The original paper is:
    Gingerich PD, Ul-Haq M, von Koenigswald W, Sanders WJ, Smith BH, Zalmout IS (2009). “New protocetid whale from the middle eocene of pakistan: birth on land, precocial development, and sexual dimorphism”. PLoS ONE 4 (2): e4366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004366. PMC 2629576. PMID 19194487.

  24. Dominic
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    Has anyone done a fossil sequence for seals & sealions?

    • Dominic
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:56 am | Permalink

      Yes – I remember this –
      http://phys.org/news159625083.html

      There is clearly no room for gods here – Natural Selection wins again, producing several answers to the ‘return to the water’ path for mammals.

  25. andreschuiteman
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    A very good article indeed, but I take issue with this statement:

    “The common ancestor of whales and of all other land animals was a flatheaded, salamander-shaped tetrapod that hauled itself out of the sea onto some muddy bank about 360 million years ago.”

    This perpetuates a common and misleading error, often perpetrated by creationists, that the common ancestor was a single individual, instead of a population.

  26. Jim Thomerson
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    The generic part of a species scientific name can change. My first new species described is now in its fourth and, one hopes, final genus. So changes in generic names can be made, but not on the basis that you just don’t like the current genus name.

  27. Beau Quilter
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I also appreciated that Gingerich shows scientific humility when his research refutes his own hypothesis. He had believed that whales descended from mesonychids, based on similar tooth structures, rather than from artiodactyls, as genetic evidence indicated (the connection to hippos). His own research proved his hunch wrong and the genetic evidence correct, when he found double-pulley ankle bones in ancient whale fossils that are distinctive of artiodactyls.

    Gingerich demonstrates one of the primary differences between science and religion. Scientists follow the evidence where it leads, even if it contradicts previous convictions.

  28. Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on greek skeptic and commented:
    Ένα εξαιρετικό άρθρο για την εξέλιξη της φάλαινας. Απ’ ευθείας από το blog του Jerry Coyne, γνωστού βιολόγου και συγγραφέα. Το μεταφέρω αυτούσιο μιας και δεν θα μπορούσα ποτέ να το γράψω καλύτερα.

  29. marksolock
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  30. Posted June 30, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    What about hippos? This article does not seem up to date at all.


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