Evidence for evolution: whales

After my CfI lecture in Portland, I met reader Jon Peters, who told me he’d made and videotaped an entire lecture on the evidence for evolution—using only whales and other cetaceans as examples. Some of the material is from WEIT, and I must have given permission for that, though I can’t recall. I may have even posted this before, but can’t be arsed to look.

At any rate, this 47-minute lecture uses evidence from fossils, morphology, vestigial organs, development, atavistic traits (legs popping up, etc.), and genetics. The talk has been up over a year but has only a bit over 500 views. It deserves more attention, for it’s not only full of interesting data, but is also a great teaching resource.

It’s especially useful as ammunition against those who claim that microevolution occurs but not “macroevolution”—usually defined as the evolution of one “kind” of animal into another “kind.” “Kind”, of course, is a Biblical term without any biological meaning.  But if it has any meaning at all, surely the evolution of a small terrestrial artiodactyl into a giant seagoing mammal without hindlimbs is macroevolution. And it all happened in a relatively short time: about 10 million years. In contrast, the evolution of Homo sapiens from our common ancestor with chimps took roughly 7 million years, a much slower rate of morphological change.

I asked him to send me the link, which he did (see below) and added this:

I have compiled evidences for whale evolution into a lecture that from what I can tell one cannot find in a single presentation. Although none of the content is original, I have tried to put so much evidence together that further denial of whale evolution is untenable even to the most diehard creationist. Indeed, the lecture is holding up very, very well against anti-evolutionists. Some of the material has been taken from WEIT and I am grateful for all your posts and activity for science and evolution.
Here’s the lecture (it’s being used now in some college courses in east Texas and it’s been well received by multiple groups in the Northwest). I have changed it over the years to be much more friendly to those who doubt evolution – my target audience. I’ve tried to make it visually compelling and simple enough for high school students. Since the copy below was made, I’ve also fixed a few errors and updated it by putting in a section on pseudogenes, using the ENAM gene and pseudogenes as one example when they are compared in placental mammals.

Given that the lecture’s being used in Texas, I look forward to creationist Don McLeroy’s response explaining how these data really comport better with the creation story of Genesis.

45 Comments

  1. Matt G
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    It is most fortunate that some of the most complete fossil records occur in such popular critters as whales, horses and humans. Not sure why humans are so popular, however.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      For humans, much is owed to the rich fossil beds of the Great Rift Valley in Africa, which is still forming future fossils today. Of course knowledge of our history is in part because of intense interest and funding.

      • dabertini
        Posted April 25, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        And especially important because some creationists will accept evolution for other organisms, but not humans. For example Ontario, Canada’s evolution curriculum does not once mention human evolution. WEIT takes care of it nicely.

  2. rockythemonkey
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    There is also an excellent BBC Radio Podcast from the In Our Time Series.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kfqm6

    • bric
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Thanks, I missed that one. The range of subjects Melvyn and his guests cover is staggering, I think the current count is around 700

  3. Posted April 25, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Pardon the self-promotion, but I wholeheartedly agree that teaching whale evolution can be immensely successful. That’s why I published a case study on the very topic at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University of Buffalo. For those of you who might be interested, check it out:
    http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/collection/detail.asp?case_id=814&id=814

  4. Posted April 25, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    The evolution of whales is one of the most astonishing facts of the natural world. But when I go to the zoo and watch the hippos lazing in their pool, I can imagine some of the steps from ungulate to seagoing giant.

  5. colnago80
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I’m sure that ole Donald will just claim that all the intermediate species between the pterodactyls and modern day whales/dolphins were specially created by the almighty.

    • noncarborundum
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      I’d like to see that fossil sequence.

  6. noncarborundum
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    A land animal that was in the process of becoming a whale would fall between two stools. It would not be fitted for life on land or at sea, and would have no hope for survival.

    I’ve always wondered if people who make arguments like this are aware that walruses exist.

  7. Pliny the in Between
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Evolution!

    Here is the only logical explanation for vestigial traits in whales.

    http://pictoraltheology.blogspot.com/2015/04/more-creation-science.html

    • Posted April 25, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Good one! How did I miss that?

      • Pliny the in Between
        Posted April 25, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        There are over 1000 of these things so it’s understandable if you miss a few 😉

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 12:05 am | Permalink

      There is another. That they, the whale, use them for mating positioning.

      • Posted April 26, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        Very true. The problem is their concept of vestigial structures. They are not defined as useless but rather losing their original function. Most or all the extant whale species use their vestigial pelvis for mating – at least in males. Females are unknown at this time. This is discussed in the lecture.

        But the whale vestigial pelvis is still a wonderful example of evolution for at least two reasons. 1) any anatomist can identify in the vestigial pelvis the former bones they were derived from, including femurs sometimes 2) When looking at hind limb atavisms, the femurs usually articulate with the vestigial pelvis. These two observations totally destroy the assertion that the vestigial pelvis is designed only for reproductive functions.

        • gil
          Posted May 1, 2016 at 7:08 am | Permalink

          hi jon. what about the possibility that this structure is actually a vestigial fin bone?

          • Posted May 1, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

            These bones make up a vestigial pelvis for at least two reasons. One, it’s easy for anatomists to identify the bones they were derived from (ishium, ilium, pubis, obturator foramen, etc.)Please see the various pictures in the lecture that begin at about 21:30. Secondly, of the many atavistic whale hind limbs that occur several have the femur articulating with the vestigial pelvis. A vestigial fin bone would not be explained by these observations. For similar reasons, a great designer could have created a bone for reproduction in that location but it is beyond belief that it would have the former bones from a pelvis in it let alone that one can see the pelvis becoming vestigial in the fossil record.

            • gil
              Posted May 1, 2016 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

              “A vestigial fin bone would not be explained by these observations. “-

              why not? the front flipper also share traits with human hand. but its a perfect flipper. so why not the hind bones?

              • Posted May 1, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure what the issue is. The vestigial pelvis has no merged bones from the limbs, it’s all pelvic bones which have been listed above. Have you seen photos of fossil pelvic structures and also the photos of extant whale vestigial pelvic bones? Have you looked at a few modern mammal terrestrial pelvis complexes? The pelvis articulates with limbs in modern mammals but they are separate bones from (in hind limbs) the femur, tibia/fibula, metatarsals, phalanges. Just check out an anatomy source. What are you alluding to or what issue is a problem here?

            • gil
              Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:45 am | Permalink

              the basilosaurus for example also share this traits. but he use it for fin structure:

              • Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

                The basilosaurus hind limb is an atropied leg with the usual leg bones (femur, tib/fib, etc.) in it, some of it articulating with the shrinking pelvis and some sticking outside the body. Have you seen the fossil limb and it’s proportion? I hope you are not pranking me, because I don’t understand what your point is. Please look at my #5 slide. It’s a hind limb going extinct and fits in with the series of fossil whales where you can see the hinds limbs shrinking. I don’t get what you are asserting. What is your point?

              • gil
                Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

                my point is that its may be a vestigial fin and not a leg. the fact that even in basilosaurus its function as fin support this idea. this is just my opinion.

                i also point that some whale actually can smell very well. so the claim that whale cant smell isnt 100% correct. also think about this: if we will have a self replicating car with dna. do you think it will evolve into an airplane? if not- then it will not happan with a self replicating animal.

              • Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

                > Gil. I never said whales could not smell. They however have genes for land olfactory senses that are mutated and are olfactory receptor pseudogenes now, only explained if they evolved from land ancestors. They also have vestigial nerves for smell that are not longer used running out their “nose”. The hind limbs in basilosaurs are obviously legs – look at the miniature bones – they are the same ones you have – femur, tibia,fibula and metatarsals. They obviously derived from an animal that walked. No rational person would say those were designed for swimming. They are LEGS. They even articulate with the vestigial pelvis which sits in the blubber and does not communicate anymore with the spine. Me thinks you have become irrational in your attempts to rationalize this as anything else as macroevolution of whales. Evolution is true!!! And whales prove it unless one is so deluded as to hold onto a position which is no defensible. Again, thanks for proving my points.

              • gil
                Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:28 am | Permalink

                hi again dr peters.

                you said:

                “I never said whales could not smell. They however have genes for land olfactory senses that are mutated and are olfactory receptor pseudogenes now, only explained if they evolved from land ancestors.”-

                first: if they can smell (and i link for this before) – then its mean that those or pseudogenes arent for land olfactory senses.

                secondly- some fish (like the stickle back) also have or pseudogenes for land senses. but the problem is that fish never have a land ancestor.

                about the basilosaurs legs- evolutionary whale expert Philip Gingeric saying that : “‘It seems to me that they could only have been some kind of sexual and reproductive clasper.”

                so its isnt a leg even according to leading experts.

              • Posted May 3, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                Gil – Now I think I see the problem(s). Your reference to Gingerich makes my point. In their present state, those shriveled former basiolosaurid hind legs could only probably serve some kind of reproductive function. You have a wrong concept of the term vestigial. It means the structure has lost it’s original function. That’s exactly what Gingerich is saying. Perfect – thanks. Think about it – if a designer was making a ancient whale de novo to have some kind of reproductive claspers it could have come up with all kinds of forms, but instead we have shrunken legs with all the parts you have in your legs. Unless this designer is lazy or desires to trick us into being fooled that it looks like evolution, especially in the context of all the other whale fossils that came before it and after it showing a nice transition, the only rational explanation is that they were former legs. Your designer is either a trickster or can’t come up with a novel design that would show it was originally designed only as a basilosaurid reproductive clasper?? That you can say that a structure with a femur, tib/fib, foot bones, etc. and articulates with a vestigial pelvis in this whale fossil is not a leg is the pinnacle of denial. Look at my slide #5. You would stand before a group of biologists and paleontologists and claim this is not a vestigial leg? Really? It does not look like yours, in miniature?

                It appears you have missed the point about the land olfactory pseudogenes. They are not using them to smell underwater. The land olfactory receptor genes have been mutated beyond repair and are not functional – that’s why they are called pseudogenes. And we’ve got the vestigial olfactory nerves running out from their brain to a nose that no longer can smell underwater. Any aquatic olfactory abilities they have involve other genes.

                Please direct me to your sources for the fish species that have pseudogenes only found in terrestrial animals.

            • gil
              Posted May 5, 2016 at 6:35 am | Permalink

              you said:

              “if a designer was making a ancient whale de novo to have some kind of reproductive claspers it could have come up with all kinds of forms, but instead we have shrunken legs with all the parts you have in your legs. “-

              according to this logic we can also claim that this rare shark evolved from a land species, because it have something that look like legs:

              http://stromdotcom.blogspot.co.il/2007/07/shark-with-webbed-feet.html

              “especially in the context of all the other whale fossils that came before it and after it showing a nice transition,”-

              actually we can arrange cars in hierarchy: a car–> a geep–> a truck. but it doesnt prove any evolution. we also find a whale like species in a different geologic layer. so its not so perfect transition.

              “Please direct me to your sources for the fish species that have pseudogenes only found in terrestrial animals”-

              here:.

              http://bmcevolbiol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2148-11-237

              . “Groups α and γ of type 1, which are present in amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals and absent in fish except for one intact gene in zebrafish and a few pseudogenes in medaka and stickleback”-

              so now we need to conclude that those fish evolved from a land species?

              • rickflick
                Posted May 5, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

                Your link does not show that fish have pseudogenes only found in terrestrial animals. It only mentions that mammals adapted to the land by adding new odorant receptors. Exactly what evolution would predict.

                “Most mammalian OR genes in group α and group γ are thought to be airborne substance receptors [20, 21]. The conservation of OR genes in mammals is higher than that in fishes [22], and it may be that the mammals evolved more OR genes to adapt to the environment on the land [20].”

                Your arguments all seem to lead to dead ends.

              • gil
                Posted May 5, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

                ” Exactly what evolution would predict.”

                how evolution predict that fish will have a olfactory receptor that appear in bird and mammals? the opposite should be true because terrestrial species evolved from fish and not the other direction.

                more then this: what about the flagellum for example?

                from scientific prespective a motor can onlt come from a mind. even if its made from organic material or have a self replicating watch. think also about this: accoording to evolution a car can evolve in a close room. why? because a bacteria in the close room (for bilions of years) can evolve into a human that will make a car)= a car evolved in a close room.

                plus: lets say that someone will made a robot like- human. lets say that it will be so similar to human that you will not be able to conclude if its a robot or human. do you think that such a robot need a designer?

              • Posted May 5, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                Gil – sorry about the reply delay; busy work day. 1. the shark “leg”. The links are broken so I can’t begin to evaluate this claim. Really a leg? Anomalous fin more likely (I think fish can grow extra finds but they are not legs). So I don’t see any evidence for your assertion. 2. Olfactory genes in fish – your link says nothing of the kind.

                Nothing you have said about my lecture has diminished it in any way. What about the other evidence? The DNA protein genes, the transposons, the fossils showing transitional blow hole movement, oxygen enamel ratios, etc. etc. What about all the evidence I presented that we can all see in living cetaceans? It’s not just each observation but the mass of overwhelming evidence from so many independent lines of study that cry out for whale “macroevolution”. I am again so grateful that my lecture holds up so well against creationist attempted attacks. Evolution is true and we’ve got incredible evidence now – and I would say it is so voluminous and great that it has risen to the level of proof, except for those few who refuse to accept it due to prior religious (by far the most) or ideological stumbling blocks.

                And I haven’t even touched upon all the incredible DNA evidence we have now for human evolution. It’s a great time to be a biology teacher!!

                I don’t think there’s a need to go on with this thread. I’m not learning anything from you that is useful in terms of correcting or helping me with this lecture. You have zip objections to the evidence that stands up to any rational examination. FYI – I have put much of this up on my web site: http://www.trueorigins.us

              • gil
                Posted May 6, 2016 at 6:47 am | Permalink

                ok, first about the shark “legs”:

                http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/07/29/shark-with-legs/

                of course they arent real legs but they are very similar to. so by your logic (if its similar to leg structure therefore its a leg)this shark had legs in the past?

                ” What about the other evidence? The DNA protein genes, the transposons, the fossils showing transitional blow hole movement, oxygen enamel ratios,”-

                i can discuss with you in any other evidence from your list. just choose one. lets start with the transposons. first- transposon are actually functional:

                http://hmg.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/R2/R159.full

                so the claim that their insertions are random isnt true. because they can be the result of design and not evolution.

                the second claim also have a big problem. we can arrange cars in hierarchy. but it doesnt prove any commondescent but a commondesigner.

                the oxygen level also doesnt prove evolution but just the species habitat.

                now- what about the evidence that doesnt fit with whale evolution? what about the time that need to evolve an echolocation system for example?

                sicence go by experiments. what experiment can you do to prove that a dog-like species can evolve into a 25 meter long whale?

                why do you believe that a self replicating motor like the flagellum doesnt need a designer?

  8. Posted April 25, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    The ‘cutting edge’ of ID arguments against whale evolution now come from Richard Sternberg and according to him involve population genetics. The claim is that so many physiological changes are required for a pelagic lifestyle from a terrestrial lifestyle that the time indicated by the fossil record is not enough for evolution to have produced it. Population genetics involves ever more complex equations tracking the changes in gene and allele frequencies over time but somehow Sternberg has managed to keep his analysis completely uncontaminated by any equations.

    • Posted April 25, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      The purpose of my whale lecture is to arrive at the conclusion that they evolved (evolution is the product) and not to address the process (natural selection or other mechanisms). The latter issue is separate and can be discussed at another time, but to continue to deny whale evolution is not rational. I can’t help him that he can’t imagine how it occurred (process). But when looking at all the independent evidence very few people can rationally IMO deny that whales evolved from a land ancestor shared with hippos.

      • Bruce Thiel
        Posted April 25, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        Very well done and informative. Thanks Jon

      • Zetopan
        Posted April 28, 2016 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

        Jon:

        “I have compiled evidences for whale evolution into a lecture that from what I can tell one cannot find in a single presentation.”

        “Evidences” (i.e. the plural form) is a word that is only used in religious apologetics and should never be used within science. Science uses “Evidence” for both singular and plural.

        The only time that I have seen the plural form in an alleged “scientific” paper was a preprint of an paper claiming cold fusion was possible. Most here are likely to know how that turned out.

    • Posted April 25, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Jon,
      Thanks for the comment and the video!

      I think the more sophisticated ID advocates would agree with your comment above. They’d say ‘yes’, the process is the issue and the transformation over time is not. But of course they’d say the process, which requires the “infusion” of new information, requires intelligence. Of course that would require ignoring key pieces of evidence that you present.

  9. Posted April 25, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I’ve given Jon Peters’ video a like on YouTube, and am enjoying following the other links in the posts. Thanks all.

  10. rickflick
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Sub.

  11. neil
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    But if whales evolved,why do we still have dolphins!
    🙂

    • Posted April 25, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      To entertain us at Sea World, of course.

  12. patrick clark
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I enjoy your emails very much.  My younger brother is a National Geographic photographer who has done numerous photo essays on evolution, including the evolution of whales. Evolution of Whales @ nationalgeographic.com | | | | | |

    |

    | | | | Evolution of Whales @ nationalgeographic.com | |

    |

    |

    From: Why Evolution Is True To: plclark8650@yahoo.com Sent: Monday, April 25, 2016 9:17 AM Subject: [New post] Evidence for evolution: whales #yiv9000805595 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv9000805595 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv9000805595 a.yiv9000805595primaryactionlink:link, #yiv9000805595 a.yiv9000805595primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv9000805595 a.yiv9000805595primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv9000805595 a.yiv9000805595primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv9000805595 WordPress.com | whyevolutionistrue posted: “After my CfI lecture in Portland, I met reader Jon Peters, who told me he’d made and videotaped an entire lecture on the evidence for evolution—using only whales and other cetaceans as examples. Some of the material is from WEIT, and I must have given per” | |

  13. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Very nice video, I enjoyed that and learned a whale lot.

    Note: I think Jerry has posted on the problems with ring species mentioned in the beginning of the video. (Seems there isn’t any good examples anymore.) Not that it concerns whale evolution, of course.

  14. Posted April 26, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I think whales are my favourite evolutionary example … clear change in lifestyle, morphology, etc. and yet with the legacy of what went before and of course well documented.

  15. Posted April 27, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Most interesting post.

    (I’d still want to hear from Jon Peters if he did get your permission to use your stuff. 🙂 What’s the correct protocol here?)

  16. Posted May 5, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Gil – The bacterial flagellum? That’s not the topic of this page and thread. It, along with the clotting cascade and the other ID objections have been dealt with nicely by mainstream biology and evolution. The answers are easy to find on the Internet and using the search engine of your choice. No time to beat that dead horse.


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