Another leggy snake?
What should creationists think?Published: 29 April 2008 (GMT+10)
Evolutionists are excited about a recent discovery: hind legs in a fossil snake.1
But what was actually found, and what are acceptable—and unacceptable—interpretations?
What was found?
Actually, the fossil itself is fairly old news: French palaeontologists Jean-Claude Rage and François Escuillié discovered it in 2000, imprinted in a thin limestone block near the Lebanese village of al-Nammoura. The 85 cm (33.5 in) long creature was assigned under uniformitarian stratigraphy to the Cenomian stage, the first stage of the Upper Cretaceous, and ‘dated’ to about 94 million years old. It was first named Podophis descouensi,2 but the genus name was taken so it had to be renamed Eupodophis.3
Alexandra Houssaye from the National Museum of Natural History, Paris, and her team analysed this with the intense X-ray beams from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility on the edge of the Alps. The process is called computed laminography, where a 3D picture is worked out from hundreds of 2D X-ray images slicing through the creature. Thus the creature could be analyzed in fine detail without destroying it.
The researchers make a reasonable claim to have found a femur (thigh bone), tibia and fibula (lower leg bones), knee joint and ankle bone. Dr Houssaye commented:
‘We were sure he had two legs but it was great to see it, and we hope to find other characteristics that we couldn't see on the other limb.’
Indeed, the name means ‘snake with good legs’, so even the legs were not really a new discovery; it was the detail revealed by the advanced analytical technique. But whether ‘legs’ 2 cm (<1 inch) long and missing toes could be classed as ‘good’ is another matter.
Proof of evolution?
- Even assuming it could be established that the ancestor of snakes today had legs, creationists have no problem in principle with loss of features through natural processes. Development of leglessness is not evidence for molecules-to-man evolution, which requires the addition of new genetic information. Loss of legs could be achieved through degeneration of the DNA information sequences that specify leg development. See also Beetle bloopers: Even a defect can be an advantage sometimes.
- There are two rival evolutionary theories: one says that snakes came from the sea reptiles called mosasaurs, while others claim they came from land-based burrowing monitor lizards. The researchers hope that this new fossil will settle the debate. But this means that features that are alleged to show common ancestry according to one theory, must really be homoplasies, i.e. convergent evolution of features that arose independently, if the other theory were right. But homology is alleged to be the evidence for evolution (despite many problems—see Common structures = common ancestry?) Appeal to homoplasy is really explaining away evidence that doesn’t fit the paradigm, and indeed such explaining away is ubiquitous.
- Rage and Escuillié say of all three leggy snakes Haasiophis, Pachyrhachis and Eupodophis:
‘the three hindlimbed snakes have a macrostomate skull; but in existing snakes this character appears only in forms considered to be the most ‘advanced’, the Macrostomata; a priori, this structure should be derived.’5
It’s notable that all these snakes are in one stratigraphical stage and one major geographic location. Rage and Escuillié say:
‘The fact that all snakes confirmed or inferred to be limbed are of Cenomanian age is striking. … In addition, these snakes have a very restricted geographic distribution. All occur in the “Mediterranean” area of the Tethys or in its immediate vicinity: the north, east and south margins of the existing Mediterranean and its extension as far as the transitional area between the Aquitaine and Paris basins.’
It is reminiscent of the peculiarity of one province in China churning out all the alleged feathered dinosaurs as well as the Archaeoraptor hoax, except that the leggy snake research lacks the questionable aspects of the feathered dino industry.
- The legs are tiny compared to the size of the creature, in all three leggy snakes. But even today, boas and pythons have ‘tiny “spurs” sited near their ends, which today are used as grippers during sex.’ See also Vestigial Organs: What do they prove?
A better explanation is that the mosasaur advocates are right that snakes couldn’t have evolved from monitor lizards, and monitor advocates are right that snakes couldn’t have evolved from mosasaurs. Rather, snakes didn’t evolve from anything, and were created as snakes!
A credible evolutionary story should show ‘primitive’ snakes with pronounced legs, and as the snakes become more ‘advanced’, the legs should shrink. Yet the fossil record of snakes doesn’t demonstrate this. Snakes dated as ‘older’ than the leggy ones have not been shown to have legs. Rather, the leggy ones seem to be ‘advanced’ in certain ways. The previously described leggy snake Haasiophis terrasanctus was ‘advanced’ enough to unhinge its jaw to eat prey larger than its head, just as land constrictors like pythons do. This and another leggy snake, Pachyrhachis problematicus, were ‘advanced snakes that re-evolved legs’, according to Olivier Rieppel of the Field Museum in Chicago.4 In other words, he does not believe that this specimen is an evolutionary precursor to the first legless snake.
Possible biblically consistent explanation
One idea is not possible: that this is a snake from the time of the Fall, where God cursed the serpent in Genesis to crawl on its belly (Genesis 3:14). No, since this is a fossil, it was likely formed in Noah’s Flood, about 1600 years after the Curse. Note also, any geological order is not a sequence of age, but a sequence of burial by the Flood and its after-effects. See Biblical Geology: Properly Understanding the Rocks.
But such fossils might shed light on the nature of the Curse. We don’t know exactly what God did to the serpent, but one possibility is that He turned off the genetic information to make the legs, hips and other features necessary to walk.
If this is so, a mutation might have turned some of this information back on, but incompletely. Also, unused sections of the genome would be more likely to accumulate mutations without natural selection to weed them out. So if this section was turned on over a thousand years after the Fall, it could have been ruined by all the mutations. So the only result is tiny deformed legs too small to walk on. The fact that these leggy snakes were buried in one area and at the same stage in the Flood suggests a common environmental factor affecting this ecological zone.
Nowadays, a much longer time after creation, even more mutational load could have accumulated, meaning that there would be even less coherent information to switch on. Dr John Sanford, inventor of the gene gun, has showed that the rate of accumulated mutational damage is so great that it would have wrecked our genomes completely in the alleged millions of years. See his book Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome.
Indeed, turning off information happens all the time: every time an embryo grows into an adult. Each individual begins as a single cell—a zygote or an ovum fertilized by a spermatozoon. This fertilized ovum has all the instructions coded in the DNA to make us what we are physically (given the right environmental conditions).
But as the embryo grows, different cells in different places have to specialize, so that only certain instructions are executed—the cells become differentiated. The instructions are there, but turned off somehow, and in the right sequence. There are complicated genetic switches involved, and also a process called methylation—attaching methyl groups to the chemical ‘letters’ of DNA which code for instructions that need to be ‘turned off’.
It is hardly a stretch to propose that the One who programmed the sequences of turning off information during development could turn off information in the snake. Similarly, one explanation of carnivory arising after the Fall is turning on latent genetic information for defence-attack structures—see the specific example of the stinging mechanism in jellyfish.
- A few snakes with tiny legs have been discovered, but all around a single geographic locality and ‘age’.
- Researchers used an advanced technique to show some fine detail in the legs of one of them, Eupodophis.
- Loss of structure is consistent with the Fall, so is not proof of evolution over creation.
- There are two mutually incompatible theories of snake evolution: from water reptiles called mosasaurs, and from burrowing lizards.
- The legs exist in snakes that are hardly ‘primitive’ even by evolutionary reckoning; rather, they have features that exist only in snakes that evolutionists consider ‘advanced’. They also appear ‘later’ in the fossil record than legless snakes. Some evolutionist authorities do not consider them to be the ancestors of the first legless snakes.
- When God cursed the snakes to walk on their belly, He likely switched off genetic information for the legs and other structures. Leggy snakes could be the result of a mutation switching this information back on, but this information had been damaged by mutations since the Fall.
References and notes
- Amos, J., Ancient serpent shows its leg, BBC News, April 2008. Return to text.
- Rage J.C. & Escuillié F., Un nouveau serpent bipède du Cénomanien Crétacé. Implications phylétiques, Comptes rendus des’séances de l'Académie des Sciences, Paris, Series IIa, 330(7):513–520, 15 April 2000. Return to text.
- Rage J.C. & Escuillié F. Eupodophis, 2002. A new name for the genus Podophis Rage and Escuillié, 2000, an extinct bipedal snake, preoccupied by Podophis Wiegmann, 1843 (Lacertilia, Scincidae), Amphibia-Reptilia, Leyden, vol. 23, pp. 232–233. Return to text.
- Hecht, J., Prehistoric pins, New Scientist 2231:12, 25 March 2000. Return to text.
- Rage J.C. & Escuillié F., The Cenomanian: stage of hindlimbed snakes, Carnets de Géologie / Notebooks on Geology: Article 2003/01 (CG2003_A01_JCR-FE) . Return to text.