Whales, and understanding evolution

December 27, 2007

Partly because Kenneth Miller in his recent Dallas appearance made such a big deal about his “aha!” moment with whale evolution and the charts in Carl Zimmer’s stuff, and partly because of several conversations I’ve had, including in blog comments and e-mail, whale evolution is on my mind. (Must write about what Miller said, soon.)

To the chagrin of Dr. McLeroy and all other anti-science creationists, whale evolution offers some outstanding evidence of evolution, and the stories about whale evolution offer great chances to students of the science to understand what’s going on.

Carl Zimmer at the Loom has a great, short post answering questions he’s gotten about the recent publication of the discovery of another whale ancestor that both offers information about evolution, and also shows how such knowledge fits into the puzzles that need to solve about the diversity of life. The new find, indohyus, is dated at about 47 million years ago (MYA), about the same time as whale ancestor ambulocetus. How can two ancestors be contemporaries? some people asked.

Chart showing key events in whale evolution, and in which genera

Of course, this is a scientific hypothesis that needs to be tested. And the way to test it is to find more species like Indohyus. If paleontologists are lucky, they’ll be able to draw more branches at the base of the whale tree. And if the current hypothesis is right, a lot of the species belonging to those deep lineages will be a lot like Indohyus. They may turn out to have lived before the oldest whales, or they may have lived millions of years later. But that’s not the heart of the matter. What matters is kinship.

In the annals of misleading science reporting, this may be pretty small potatoes. But mistaking relatives for ancestors does lead to confusion, and it gets in the way of appreciating some very elegant research. And, of course, some people pretend that the fact that relatives are not direct ancestors means that evolution is false. So it’s worth getting right–not just for whales, but for humans, flowers, or any other organism.

Zimmer is the calm, collected end of evolution advocates. Never any heated language, no heated exchanges with Discovery Institute stalking horses — just the science, in lay terms. Always.

And good illustrations. Are those drawings of indohyus out of Carl Buell‘s studio?


Quote of the moment: Peter Drucker, on leadership and very high objectives

December 27, 2007

I will never forget when [Franklin D.] Roosevelt announced that we would build thirty thousand fighter planes. I was on the task force that worked on our economic strength, and we had just reached the conclusion that we could build, at most, four thousand. We thought, “For goodness sake — he’s senile!” Two years later we built fifty thousand. I don’t know whether he knew, or if he just realized that unless you set objectives very high, you don’t achieve anything at all.

 

BusinessWeek cover, Why Peter Drucker's Ideas Still Matter; November 27, 2005

BusinessWeek cover, Why Peter Drucker’s Ideas Still Matter; November 27, 2005

–Peter R. Drucker (November 19, 1909–November 11, 2005), in interview with Bill Moyers, 1988

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