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Mudskippers and apemen

How useful are cladograms and ‘transitional’ creatures as evidence for evolution?

Published: 31 March 2012 (GMT+10)

Kevan M. from the United States writes:

I am looking for information on the mudskipper, which I am told is a member of the suborder Oxudercinae, from the creation perspective. It has often been used to promote Evolution. Could you give me an answer about it, showing its design and how it makes problems for the worldview of Evolutionism? If there are articles already on this, could you give me the links to them? Thank you!

Wikimedia: JJ Harrison

Kevan M.
Psalm 119:160

There is still time to win a battle before the sun goes down.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle writes:

Dear Kevan,

Thank you for your email. As it happens, the very latest issue of Creation magazine has an article about mudskippers—you can subscribe via our gateway page to our online archive of Creation articles. (In about one year from now, the current issue’s mudskipper article will be accessible online for free. We maintain a one-year embargo on the majority of Creation articles in fairness to our subscribers.)

Why do evolutionists use mudskippers as examples of evolution? Evolutionists use them because they are quite literally ‘fish out of water’. Mudskippers can live in water or in moist land environments, such as mangroves. They have a unique and specialized physiology that allows them to do this. However, nobody has observed anything evolve into or from mudskippers; all we’ve observed are mudskippers begetting mudskippers.

It looks nice and neat to arrange mudskippers in an evolutionary series that may go something like: perch—mudskipper—salamander, based on various traits each creature has. Because the mudskipper has some features in common with the perch and the salamander it looks like a transitional form. But there are a number of problems with such a proposal.

First, mudskippers don’t represent a transitional form between fish and land-dwelling vertebrates because they are the wrong type of fish. Mudskippers are ray-finned fish, but land-dwelling vertebrates supposedly evolved from lobe-finned fish (like coelacanth and the lungfish).

Second, the argument doesn’t demonstrate evolution. We can put together the same type of series with cutlery: spoon—spork—fork. Arranged in a series, we could infer that in the evolution of a spoon to a fork, it had to go through the ‘transitional form’ represented by the spork. There’s just one problem: cutlery can’t reproduce! Of course, what this ‘transitional series’ of cutlery represents is that the spork was designed to do the job of both a fork and a spoon. Similarly, the mudskipper was designed to live on both water and land, thus we would expect it to have some traits in common with land-dwelling vertebrates (weight-bearing limbs, ability to breathe air).

The mudskipper also has many unique specializations that enable it to live a semi-aquatic lifestyle in intertidal zones. Its robust fin morphology and musculature allows it to move on land and swim in the water, though its locomotion pattern on land is unlike any other creature. Its eyes are able to operate in water and in air, and may even see better on land! It breathes mainly through its skin and by gulping air (it can actually breathe better on land than in the water, and it doesn’t have lungs!). However, mudskippers can’t progress further inland beyond the intertidal zone because they constantly need moisture to function, especially to breathe and see. These and other specializations set it apart from any other fish, and from any other animal that can live on land.

Mudskippers are unique mosaic creatures, not transitional forms. This means that, while they have some traits fish have, and other traits amphibians have, they are all fully formed traits arranged in a unique combination not found in either fully aquatic fish or amphibians. It’s not the individual traits that matters; it’s the way they are arranged to form a functional creature that matters. If evolution were true, we would expect to see a half-fin-half-leg. Instead we see a functional fin, with modifications determined by function, not evolution.

For more information, please see Are there transitional forms between fish and tetrapods?, Walking sharks: evolution in action?, Rare Australian fish has fins like hands, and The Axolotl: The fish that walks?

I hope this helps,

Shaun Doyle
Writer and Editor
Creation Ministries International

Keith N. from the United States

So, I am discussing evolution with the atheists on a page. They put up the picture of the skulls leading up to modern man and call it proof of evolution. Seems like proof. What is the response of those who have actually done the science.

John Woodmorappe (Walking whales, nested hierarchies, and chimeras: do they exist?) John Woodmorappe (/walking-whales-nested-hierarchies-and-chimeras-do-they-exist)
A mock cladogram of wheeled vehicles, showing ‘transitional’ changes leading to the ‘evolutionary’ emergence of 18-wheeled trucks.

Shaun Doyle responds:

Dear Keith,

Thank you for your email.

For our response to claims of human evolution from the fossils, I recommend you see our Q and A pages on anthropology and ‘apemen’ and fossils. I would also recommend this article: Presuppositionalism vs evidentialism, and is the human genome simple? It teaches a simple but profound truth; atheists work with anti-biblical assumptions and fallible human reason that we simply don’t have to grant. Rather, we start from the Bible and interpret the evidence in the light of the Bible. The Bible itself warns against this in Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding”. That doesn’t mean we leave our brains behind when we trust God and look at the evidence, but it reminds us that we can be fooled. God, however, cannot. Therefore, we should look at the evidence through his Word rather than our own (or anybody else’s) fallible thoughts.

More generally, there are a few things to consider whenever an evolutionist shows you some fossil sequence that supposedly demonstrates evolution, whether it’s the evolution of humans, whales, mammals, birds, or pretty much anything to do with fossils.

The tree diagram they are showing to you proves very little for either creation or evolution. It’s called a cladogram. To get a cladogram, the researchers compare a whole bunch of traits from the fossils they identify from the creatures they’re looking at, and then find the best fitting tree diagram for all those traits. They assume that the lines on the cladogram represent how evolution happened, with each division representing a point where a population branched into two different species. Since they assume evolution to do the cladogram, it doesn’t count as independent evidence for evolution.

Cladograms don’t really demonstrate the different types of dissimilarity found in biology very well. They only show one type of dissimilarity, and assume that’s the only important one. Therefore, they can’t really tell us if there are some forms of dissimilarity in biology that can’t be explained by evolution. That means you can’t judge from cladograms whether common design or common descent is the better explanation. The ‘tree’ pattern of similarity that multicellular organisms have (at least at a very general level) was used well before evolution became popular, so we don’t need evolution to explain it. See this article for some more information: ‘Not to Be Used Again’: Homologous Structures and the Presumption of Originality as a Critical Value.

You can make cladograms of just about everything: fossils, genes, spoon sets, vehicles. The only requirement is that they can be sorted by a tree diagram. See this article: Walking whales, nested hierarchies, and chimeras: do they exist? This article shows how a cladogram of vehicles can be made using the same principles that evolutionists apply to the fossils (see especially table 3 and figure 3 of this article). As John Woodmorappe stated, reflecting on this very analysis in a later article:

“Assuming evolution a priori, one could construct a cladogram that has an 18-wheel truck as its crown group, and which shows a clearly transition-filled, incremental appearance of ‘truckness’, beginning with the stem-group unicycle. Note also that the human, elephant, and bat is each a highly-derived fish, just as an 18-wheel truck is a highly-derived unicycle. Such is the reductio ad absurdum of cladistic methodology.”

Fossils are fickle because they are mostly the remnants of bones, usually wrenched completely out of place. Bones are not very good evidence to base evolution on because they make up only a small percentage of the information needed to evaluate evolutionary relationships. This means that fossils are very open to interpretation, and as such, one person’s evolutionary trait derived from fossils is another person’s noise.

To form cladograms, you need traits that are independent of each other. For evolution to work as a useful interpretation of a cladogram, the traits that are used also need to be heritable; i.e. determined by the creature’s genes. But bones are a whole suite of interdependent traits—not just one trait. So bones have an overall low heritability, which means that heritable traits in bones are often very hard to distinguish. Therefore, bones are not good structures to use to try and figure out precise evolutionary paths from. Expert in human evolution Daniel Lieberman agrees:

“Bones have generally low degrees of heritability because they form parts of complex, integrated functional units that are subject not only to many genes with multiple effects (pleiotropism), but also to a large number of nongenetic influences. It is therefore difficult to divide bones into discrete, independent units of phylogenetic information. For these reasons, bones and other aspects of morphology can yield reasonably correct results for phylogenetic analyses of high-level taxonomic units, but become increasingly less reliable at lower taxonomic levels, such as species.”1

These tree diagrams that look like such impressive evidence for evolution are really nothing of the sort—they’re little more than an illusion:

“There is a popular image of human evolution that you’ll find all over the place … On the left of the picture there’s an ape … On the right, a man … Between the two is a succession of figures that become ever more like humans … Our progress from ape to human looks so smooth, so tidy. It’s such a beguiling image that even the experts are loath to let it go. But it is an illusion.”2

For more detail, Please see my article: Doyle, S., Cladistics, evolution, and the fossils, Journal of Creation 25(2):3239, 2011.

I hope this helps,

Shaun Doyle
Writer and Editor
Creation Ministries International


  1. Lieberman, D.E., Homology and hominid phylogeny: problems and potential solutions, Evolutionary Anthropology 7:142–151, 1999. Return to text.
  2. Wood, B., Who are we? New Scientist 2366:44, 26 October 2002. Return to text.

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