Evolutionists divided over coexistence of placental mammals and dinosaurs
Published: 21 January 2014 (GMT+10)
If you can remember being taught as ‘fact’ that only small, ‘primitive’ mammals were around at the demise of the dinosaurs (supposedly 65 million years ago), because placental mammals1 didn’t evolve until afterwards, you’re not alone. There are many people who remember that. In fact, many textbooks still teach it.
However, if you’re aware that for some years now the evolutionary fraternity has shifted the existence of ‘modern’ mammals to overlap that of dinosaurs, then we would say that you are actually more evolution-savvy than some of today’s ‘authorities’ on evolution! We can point to a recent (January 2014) Nature News item, written by senior reporter Ewen Callaway, as an example of this.2
Its headline reads: “Debate over which mammals roamed with the dinosaurs: Genetic tree challenges fossil-based conclusion that placental mammals emerged only after mass extinction.”
The article goes on to say that evolutionary researchers are now arguing, on the basis of new genetic evidence, that placental mammals originated much earlier than previously thought, i.e. before the extinction of the dinosaurs. Callaway reports that this has again stirred up an ongoing “heated debate” between those evolutionists who hold that fossils are “the ultimate timekeeper of life’s history”, versus the modern wave of evolutionists who contend they can glean more reliable dates and other “evolutionary detail” from analysing proteins and DNA.
Callaway acknowledges, correctly, that “such disputes have been waging for decades”. However, he is either ignorant of, or ignoring, previous evolutionary literature on mammals when he then writes:
“But the skirmish over placental mammals—animals that give birth to live offspring that are in late stages of development, including whales, mice and humans—began with a paper3 published early last year, arguing that the group diversified only after those dinosaurs that did not evolve into birds went extinct, 65 million years ago.”
The paper he refers to was published in Science journal in 2013 by a group led by evolutionary biologist Maureen O’Leary, of Stony Brook University in New York. She and her team had used standard evolutionary interpretations of the ‘fossil record’ to provide the evolutionary timeline for their comparison of traits of living and fossil mammals. Callaway juxtaposes this against a new (January 2014) paper published in Biology Letters by evolutionary geneticists Mario dos Reis and Ziheng Yang of University College London, and paleobiologist Phil Donoghue of the University of Bristol.4 Callaway reported that they argue that O’Leary’s team “made a fatal error in assuming that lineages of species date back no further than their oldest fossils”. They posit instead that the fossils should mark a minimum, not maximum, age “because it is likely that animals existed before that, but were not preserved as fossils or their remains have yet to be discovered”. Dos Reis and his co-workers are mooting that placental mammals emerged sometime between 108 million and 72 million years ago, while dinosaurs were still around.
But the conflict about the evolutionary timing of the origin of placentals is hardly new. For example, a 1999 paper in Systematic Biology proposed on the ‘basis’ of mitochondrial protein sequences that a great many of the (supposed) evolutionary divergences within placental mammals overlapped the existence of dinosaurs—even up to 169 million years ago!5 (No doubt wryly, the authors say of their dating of whale origins as being contemporaneous with dino extinction: “The whale/cow split at 65 mybp6 may be older than commonly assumed.”)
Also, as a ‘senior reporter’ for Nature News, surely Ewen Callaway (not to mention the editors!) ought to have been aware of their employer’s own journal publishing in 2007 a paper that compiled sequence data and concluded that modern placental mammal orders were certainly in existence by 85 million years ago.7,8 Those authors were certainly aware that evolutionary interpretations of the genetic evidence and fossil evidence often contradict each other:
“Molecular data and the fossil record can give conflicting views of the evolutionary past.”
What’s more, the ensuing passionate conflict between evolutionary advocates wanting to give priority to one or the other was hardly hidden from public view. Some of the robust response in the wake of that 2007 paper can still be viewed online, e.g. on the blog of outspoken atheist and evolutionary biologist PZ Myers.9
A certain(?!) stridency
It’s notable that those who argue that fossils should take precedence over molecular data are particularly strident about the identity and the dating of those fossils. I.e. they say that there are no certain placental fossils pre-dating the demise of the dinosaurs. However, their stridency on this matter is increasingly being exposed as unfounded, given the mounting evidence of mammalian fossils in ‘dinosaur rock’—and one might reasonably expect at least a proportion of the total found to date to have been placental.10 Fossils of no less than 432 mammal species in Mesozoic rock have been identified by evolutionists, and this included nearly 100 complete mammal skeletons.11 The mammal fossils so far discovered have been described as including the remains of creatures that “look like” squirrels, hedgehogs, shrews, beavers and primates12—all of which are placentals.
And one wonders just how many mammal fossils in dinosaur rock strata have been passed over, simply because they are mammals. Here’s what Dr Donald Burge, curator of vertebrate paleontology, College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum, admitted:
“We find mammals in almost all of our [dinosaur dig] sites. These were not noticed years ago … . We have about 20,000 pounds of bentonite clay that has mammal fossils that we are trying to give away to some researcher. It’s not that they are not important, it’s just that you only live once and I specialized in something other than mammals. I specialize in reptiles and dinosaurs.”13
Pretending the problem isn’t there?
In light of all this, it’s surely remarkable that Ewen Callaway and the editors at Nature News issued their news release as if there was not only no previous conflict between evolutionists about a pre-dino-extinction origin of placentals, but also as if there were no troublesome placental mammal fossils from dinosaur strata either!
Do they know more than they’re letting on?
Actually, there’s something very intriguing reported in the Nature News item that might show that savvy evolutionists are aware of the issues raised by the existence of fossil ‘dino-era placental look-alikes’—and are seeking to limit the damage to the evolutionary paradigm. The news item reported one of the authors of the Biological Letters January 2014 paper, Phil Donoghue, as saying that O’Leary’s 2013 paper was “an incredibly impressive study in all aspects—except the timescale in evolutionary history. What we were really concerned about is that this stuff was going to end up in textbooks.”
Ah yes, the tyranny of textbooks.14 Donoghue and his colleagues have good reason to be concerned, given that evolution textbooks that get published tend to echo the dominant evolutionary ‘clique’ of the day. They’re generally not subjected to journal-standard ‘peer-review’ (which depends upon who15 is doing the reviewing, in any case). And it can take a long time for textbooks to catch up with new thinking—as we noted in the opening paragraph of this article.
It’s about time
As for the evolutionists’ in-house debate over whether fossils should hold sway over genetic studies, it’s not as if dos Reis, Donoghue and Yang, a year after the publication of the O’Leary team’s paper, are the only critics of the fossils-are-the-only-ultimate-arbiter diehards to bravely speak out. Another group,16 independent of both the O’Leary and the dos Reis teams, at the time of publication last year “took umbrage with the [O’Leary et al]–suggested Palaeogene origin, because, they said, it requires a dramatic increase in the rate of evolution to explain the early diversity of placental mammals.”
This brings into focus the issue of time. While the paleontologists might well proclaim that fossils are the ‘ultimate timekeeper’, the geneticists know, or should know, the problems that time poses for the evolutionary paradigm. Far from being the ‘hero’,17 there hasn’t been enough time,18 and adding more time does not make the impossible possible. In fact, the more time you have, the worse it gets for evolution.19
Observing, and keeping, time
The ongoing conflicts and problems regarding the supposed evolutionary timeline are in part caused by the timeline assumptions at the root of evolutionary interpretations of fossil, biomolecular, and other, evidence.20 And the contradictions are not resolved when evolutionists seek to ‘harmonise’ their findings by re-dating evidence to suit!21
Here’s the nub of the matter. The fact that interpretations of evidence of whatever hue (be it fossil/geological/biomolecular/genetic/astronomical) are often hopelessly contradictory, ought to be no surprise to Christians. That is, Christians who are familiar with the principle that the definitive timing of past events cannot be ascertained by scrutinizing evidence in the present, but rather depends upon knowing reliable eyewitness testimony (2 Corinthians 13:1, Deuteronomy 19:15). We have a reliable testimony that says that placental mammals and dinosaurs were indeed on this planet at the same time (Genesis 1:20–31). In fact, placental mammals were already plying the air (bats) and the sea (dugongs, dolphins, whales) the day before the dinosaurs (along with man—Job 40:15) were created.
And Who created them? Well, let’s put it this way. The ‘fossil record’ can never take the title of ‘the ultimate timekeeper of life’s history’ away from the One who created time itself—our Lord and Saviour, and Creator, Jesus Christ.
References and notes
- Placental mammals give birth to live offspring in late stages of development, e.g. humans, mice, possums, whales, dugongs. Return to text.
- Callaway, E., Debate over which mammals roamed with the dinosaurs: Genetic tree challenges fossil-based conclusion that placental mammals emerged only after mass extinction, www.nature.com/news/debate-over-which-mammals-roamed-with-the-dinosaurs-1.14522#/b1, 15 January 2014. Return to text.
- O’Leary, M. and 22 others, The Placental Mammal Ancestor and the Post–K-Pg Radiation of Placentals, Science 339:662–667, 2013. Return to text.
- Dos Reis, M., Donoghue, P. C. J. and Yang, Z., Neither phylogenomic nor palaeontological data support a Palaeogene origin of placental mammals, Biological Letters, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2013.1003, 2014. Return to text.
- Waddell, P., Cao, Y., Hasegawa, M., and Minchin, D., Assessing the Cretaceous Superordinal Divergence Times within Birds and Placental Mammals by Using Whole Mitochondrial Protein Sequences and an Extended Statistical Framework, Systematic Biology 48(1):119–137, 1999. Return to text.
- “mybp”=million years before present. Return to text.
- Bininda-Emonds, O., and 9 others, The delayed rise of present-day mammals, Nature 446:507–511, 2007. Return to text.
- We reported on the Nature article (Ref. 7) here: Oard, M., Dinosaur demise did not jump-start mammal evolution, Journal of Creation 22(1):11–12, 2008. Return to text.
- Pharyngula (PZ Myers’ blog), Don’t blame the dinosaurs, scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/03/29/dont-blame-the-dinosaurs/, 29–30 March 2007, acc. 16 January 2014. Return to text.
- Oard, M., Jurassic mammals—more surprisingly diverse, Journal of Creation 21(2):10–11, 2007. Return to text.
- Kielan-Jaworowska, Z., Cifelli, R.L. and Luo, Z.X., Mammals from the Age of Dinosaurs: Origins, Evolution, and Structure, Columbia University Press, NY, 2004. Return to text.
- Living fossils: a powerful argument for creation—Don Batten interviews Dr Carl Werner, author of Living Fossils (Evolution: the Grand Experiment vol. 2), Creation 33(2):20–23, 2011. Return to text.
- This candid admission was made in an interview with Dr Carl Werner, 13 February 2001 (Living Fossils p. 173). See also Smith, C., The so-called ‘age of dinosaurs’, Creation 33(3):35–37, 2011. Return to text.
- Bergman, J., Textbook tyranny—how science is stifled by ‘authoritarianism’, Creation 24(2):56, 2002. Return to text.
- The Nature of peer review—known creationists blacklisted at major journals, 17 February 2013. Return to text.
- Springer, M.S., Meredith, R.W., Teeling, E.C. and Murphy, W.J., Technical Comment Abstract: Comment on “The Placental Mammal Ancestor and the Post-K-Pg Radiation of Placentals”, Science 341:613, 2013. Return to text.
- Time is the hero. Return to text.
- 101 Evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe. Return to text.
- E.g. Time—no friend of evolution. Return to text.
- E.g., Debunking the ‘molecular clock’, Seeing the pattern. Return to text.
- E.g., The pigs took it all! Return to text.