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Misconceptions creationists have about evolution, redux

This is a direct quote from a creationist video. I would like to stress that this is a seriously made production with relatively high production values, not a parody or a joke, nor an amateur video made by some random individual person.

If, as evolutionists claim, a reptile evolved into a bird, who did the first bird mate with?

I'm not joking. This professionally-made video really makes that argument, literally. The contrast is accentuated by the video first showing an iguana and then a pair of hawks (or birds like that; I'm not a bird expert).

Do the makers of this video honestly think that the theory of evolution says that an individual reptile, like an iguana, suddenly "evolved" into a bird, like a hawk, and that after this transition it was the only one of its kind and thus would have gone extint? These people seem to get their biology lessons from sci-fi movies from the 50's.

One could argue that the video is not talking about an individual animal, but that it's really saying "a reptile species evolved into a bird species". But if that's the case, what sense does it make to ask "who did the first bird mate with"? It's clearly talking about one bird, not an entire species (which naturally consists of many individuals). Or are they saying that only the males of the entire species evolved into another species (or all alternatively only the females)?

(Besides, birds did not evolve from lizards, as the imagery in the video seems to suggest. They evolved from dinosaurs, which are quite distantly related to lizards. Even crocodiles are more closely related to dinosaurs than lizards are, meaning that they have a closer common ancestor species. In other words comparing a crocodile to a hawk would actually be less of a stretch as comparing an iguana to a hawk.)

To confuse things even more, the very next sentence uttered in the video is this:

Furthermore, all intermediate forms would be fatal. What good is half a wing, or half a beak?

Is it now suddenly talking about the gradual change that happens to a species over a prolonged period of time over thousands of generations, or is it still talking about one individual animal "evolving" into another?

It really seems like this video is simply throwing random arguments without any regard for consistency. Anything goes.

(As a side note, but this is not really the point if this article, I can understand how a layman who has not studied these things nor thought about them at all could not imagine how bird wings could evolve, but that beak argument puzzles me. Are they really arguing that the snout of a reptile could not slowly transform into the beak of a bird over thousands of generations while remaining fully functional all the way through? Really? Where exactly do they get this "half a beak" idea from? Yet another excellent example of shotgun argumentation...)

There are many misconceptions (and, let's admit it, deliberate distortions) that many creationists have about evolution, which can be inferred from these two short sentences.

Slow evolution, or fast evolution?

Creationists who oppose the entirety of the theory of evolution seem to be unable to decide whether the theory talks about extremely slow gradual changes that happen over millions of years (an idea they oppose), or if it's very sudden, such as a dog suddenly giving birth to a cat, or an individual animal transforming into a completely different species. (This latter they also oppose, rightfully so. Too bad that it's a caricature of evolution, a straw man, not what evolution says.)

It's very confusing when opponents of evolution seem to make both assumptions at the same time, even on the same paragraph (or, as in this case, two consecutive spoken sentences).

I really can't understand why creationists keep spouting this fictitious sudden change hypothesis as if it was what the theory of evolution teaches, even though everybody knows that's not what it says. Anybody who has been taught about evolution at school or read even the lightest introduction to the subject knows perfectly well that it's all about slow gradual change, not sudden changes. Yet creationists keep pounding on that straw man that everybody knows is false. I don't understand it at all.

What's worse, they do this while at the same time ridiculing the concept of "millions and millions of years". They can't even get their story straight. What is it? A sudden change, or a gradual change during millions of years? Make up your mind already.

Of course evolution happens at different speeds to different species, depending a lot on the environment and the species in question. While there are species that have remained almost unchanged for over a hundred million years (such as the coelacanth) there are others that present visible changes in appearance and behavior in a surprisingly short period of time (such as less than 50 generations), if the evolutionary pressure of the environment (or for example artificial selection) is high enough.

However, this is far from a sudden change. Individual animals do not change, their offspring is always slightly different from them. How much different, and how much these differences are favored, depends on a ton of things. (And two separated groups of the same species becoming so divergent that they have become their own species usually takes a lot more generations than that.)

Anyways, this is a perfect example of straw man argumentation: Present a claim that your opponent is not making, and attack that claim. Since the claim is ridiculous, it's an easy target.

The sad thing? Many listeners will believe that the argument is valid.

Intermediate forms

Most creationists seem to have this rather antiquated concept that there exists a certain amount of idealized "species" (or "kinds" in creationist parlance), and that all animals distinctly belong to one of them. They may have slight variations from this "ideal" species, but all of them nevertheless belong unambiguously to that single species and nothing else. (After all, if God created all the "kinds" and all animals to belong to their own kind, this must be true, doesn't it?)

For some reason they extrapolate this notion to the theory of evolution as well. They talk about evolution in the same way, in other words, as if the animal kingdom consisted of idealized "species" which all animals gravitate towards and belong to. They thus view (their own concept of) "evolution" to be some species transforming from one of these idealized species into another. While transitioning (whether it happens to one individual during its lifetime, or to an entire group of animals during millions of generations), they are "intermediate forms", like a mix between the two species, but not really a species of their own.

That's one of the major problems they have with this straw man. They envision "intermediate forms" to be some kind of mixture of two "ideal" species, like taking some parts of one of the species and the rest from the other, and hence not being perfect at being either. (This is where the whole concept of the "crocoduck" argument comes from. Which, by the way, was a completely seriously postulated counter-argument to evolution, not a joke or parody.)

This is a complete misrepresentation and distortion of the real world. There are no "idealized species" to which every animal belongs (and somehow "gravitates towards"). In fact, there are no "intermediate forms" in this sense at all. Every group of animals (capable of reproducing among themselves) is a species on its own right. They are not "intermediate" to anything (in the sense that they would be somehow a mix of two "idealized" species).

This is often stated the other way around: It's a usual answer to "there are no transitional fossils" that "every animal is transitional between one form and another". This is true, and is essentially saying the same thing as above. In other words: There are no special "slots", special "idealized species" such that animals belonging to those species not being transitional or intermediate forms, while other animals which are "in-between" two of these "idealized species" are "transitional" or "intermediate". Instead, every animal belongs to its own species, which is not somehow "special", and every species is slowly changing to something else over long periods of time (again, without gravitating towards anything special).

There are, however, past species that are "intermediate" species between an even older past species (from which it evolved) and a modern species, if the modern species has evolved from them. This does not mean that any of these groups is somehow special, some kind of "hotspot" in the evolutionary history of the species. We can take any arbitrary individual from the entire evolutionary history of the species and it will be exactly as intermediate as any other individual of the same lineage.

This also means that there is no one single point when a species transformed into another species (which is another related misconception creationists like to spout). You can't just take one individual and say it was species A, and its offspring and declare it was a distinct species B. That's not how it works. We can take arbitrary points in the lineage of a species and name them, but they will always be arbitrary and overlapping. There are no hard transition points. It's one smooth curve from one to the next. And, as said, arbitrary: We could take other points in the lineage and name them as distinct species instead, and it would probably not be any more wrong. It's more like a naming convention.

Which brings us to another common creationist argument.

Dogs do not produce non-dogs.

This is from another serious creationist video:

Nobody has ever seen a dog produce a non-dog. I mean you may get a big dog or a little dog, but you are going to get a dog, every time.

Congratulations, you just explained cladistics in a nutshell.

What makes this statement amusing is not that it would be incorrect but, ironically, that it actually is correct and conforms with scientific definitions, yet it's supposed to be an argument against evolution.

The core principle of cladistics (a method of classifying species of organisms into groups called clades) is that all species are classified into the same cladistic groups as all of their ancestor species. That's the reason why, for example, birds are classified as theropod dinosaurs in cladistics (because birds are descendants of dinosaurs). In other words, using the video's own terminology, dinosaurs never produced a non-dinosaur: Birds are dinosaurs. (Likewise birds are also archosaurs, ancestors of both dinosaurs and crocodiles. There's your "crocoduck".)

Of course modern birds are quite different from their theropod ancestors from hundreds of millions of years ago (although actually not all that different, as many bird skeletons have an uncanny resemblance to many theropod dinosaur skeletons, this resemblance going well beyond just a superficial similarity, instead going all the way to being able to map the bone-to-bone equivalences), but that doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter how different the descendants may be: If they are descendants of a cladistic group, they are members of that cladistic group.

"Dogs never produce non-dogs" is perfectly in accordance to what science says. Hence the argument kind of misses its target.

Not surprisingly the video is inconsistent with this too. One of the very next sentences is:

It could be that the dog, the wolf and the coyote had a common ancestor

So what exactly is the problem? This creationist agrees with the theory of evolution, while still coming out as disagreeing with it.

What these crationists try to say is that there is some kind of limit to how much a species can change. It can change somewhat, but not "too much". It's never even hypothesized what this unexplained limiting factor could be or how it operates, or how much is "too much".

Basically, there are two options:

  1. There's a yet-unknown natural (or perhaps supernatural, which is even worse) phenomenon that stops species from changing "too much" from their "idealized" forms, no matter how much time passes.
  2. There is no such limit, and species can change arbitrarily much as time passes.

Which one of those options is more likely?

(In fact, the fact that species can change arbitrarily much is the reason why there's still life on Earth. The living conditions on Earth have changed quite radically during the hundreds of millions of years, and the natural changes that happen to species has allowed them to adapt to the changing conditions, no matter how much those conditions have changed over time.)

This, once again, showcases this notion creationists have that there are some "idealized species" towards which all animals gravitate towards. They cannot deviate too much from this ideal because of some unknown (perhaps supernatural) force.

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