Part 3 in a series. Click here for part 2: why humans did not evolve from monkeys.
I can remember the morning I learned one of the most valuable lessons in arguing. My friend and I had been debating for days, and in the minutes before class I thought I had him beaten. As I prepared my final statements, I realized with horror that I had forgotten to define our terms. While my mind had focused on developing the final blows, I had allowed him to tweak our definitions and surreptitiously bring my argument crashing down.
This lesson applies to science as well. While doing research or presenting results, a team must carefully define all terms as a foundation for its work. This is also important when addressing critics and naysayers. A prime example of this is the “debate” over transitional fossils. While some claim they do not exist, this argument can often be boiled down to people redefining scientific terms.
Why transitional fossils exist
Among Darwin’s chief concerns when publishing On the Origin of Species was the inadequacy of the fossil record. While his theory proposed a multimillion year process of biological change and adaptation, this necessitated a trove of “transitional fossils.” These fossils would be of so-called “between” organisms, creatures that showed a mixture of primitive and more highly developed traits. For example, since early birds evolved from dinosaurs, there would have to be a dinosaur-like creature with bird-like traits.
Darwin was right to be worried: limited nineteenth-century technology had produced only a small number of fossils, not nearly enough to convince the scientific population of his theory. Furthermore, none of them displayed clear characteristics of these transitional species. Though every organism is technically a transitional species (all species evolve), there were no bird-like dinosaurs or land-adapted sea creatures to be seen.
Fortunately for Darwin (and for science), two years later scientists unearthed Archaeopteryx, the first clear transitional fossil. This dinosaur displayed clear bird-like characteristics and served as a perfect example of Darwin’s conjecture. Since then, countless other transitional fossils have been discovered, rendering any related objections moot. Nonetheless, creationist groups today stick to the “there are no transitional fossils” argument like bread on butter.
My explanation for this instance is two-fold. As discussed last time, almost all groups that disparage science have ulterior motives. I suspect that many leaders and demagogues who spread this claim are lying to protect their own interests. My other guess is that this has to do with letting others define our terms. To some, the term transitional fossil likely brings about images of a fish with functioning legs or a dog with flippers (this is not how evolution works). When scientists are not careful about explaining these terms, those who are confused may voice their concerns, which creates a cascade of misinformation.
Note that all fossils are transitional, as all species are always evolving. There are currently catalogs upon catalogs of transitional fossils–if there’s one thing we know about them, it is that they exist. Next time you hear someone claim scientists haven’t found any, be sure to hand him a volume about evolution and transitional fossils.
Have you ever encountered this assertion? I’d be fascinated to hear who was saying it and why. Leave your thoughts in the comments below! As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. That small click really helps me out! Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!
Other related articles:
Comment question of the week
Why do you think people claim there are no transitional fossils? You’ve read my thoughts–now I want to hear yours.