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Paleontologists reconstruct an entire animal from a single bone (Talk.Origins)

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Response Article
This article (Paleontologists reconstruct an entire animal from a single bone (Talk.Origins)) is a response to a rebuttal of a creationist claim published by Talk.Origins Archive under the title Index to Creationist Claims.

Claim CC401:

Many of the fossils on which evolution is based on are reconstructed from the flimsiest evidence, even from a single tooth or bone. The conclusions based on such fossils are mere speculation.


CreationWiki response:

(Talk.Origins quotes in blue)

1. Evolution is not based on fragmentary fossils.

While it is true that evolution is not based entirely on fragmentary fossils, such fossils are sometimes used to fill critical gaps in so-called transitional series.

The theory would still be extremely robust with no fossils at all, based on evidence from modern life.

Not really. It's only given apparent robustness by the censorship of alternatives.

Furthermore, there are more than enough substantially complete skeletons to support evolution. The whale transitional sequence, for example, is based on several excellent skeletons.

What Talk Origins calls "substantially complete skeletons" are often missing critical parts of the skeleton. Often when these are found they show the reconstructions to be wrong. Funny that Talk Origins should use "whale transitional" as an example, since it was based in part on three fossil skeletons with conveniently missing parts.

  • Pakicetus — Known only from its skull and a fragmented skeleton.
  • Ambulocetus natans — Originally based on a badly fragmented skeleton. A more complete skeleton has been found, but even it lacks some critical parts, such as the shoulder and upper fore-limb.
  • Rodhocetus — The original fossil did not have complete hind legs or any front legs, yet based on this incomplete skeleton it has been depicted essentially as a dolphin with small front and hind legs. However, a more recent fossil shows that Rodhocetus did have substantial front and hind legs, totally destroying the dolphin-like image.

There is more to this problem than evolutionists using totally fragmented fossils. In many cases it is not what they have that's the problem, but what is missing.

2. A single bone, even in isolation, can give a surprising amount of information. A tooth, for example, can show generally what kind of food an animal ate and give an idea of its size. These conclusions, in turn, tell how the animal fits into the ecology.

No one is saying that fragmented remains are useless, but using such remains as evidence for evolution is problematic at best, providing much opportunity for misinterpretation and bias. This is particularly so when what is missing is critical to objectively determining relationships between animals. And the more of the animal that is missing, the less objective the claims.

3 Bones are never considered in isolation; rather, they are compared with other bones from more complete skeletons. If you have a bone that looks like an Iguanodon femur but smaller, to give a simple example, the reconstruction would look a lot like a smaller Iguanodon. A complete reconstruction, however, is possible only if you can match the single bone to an animal for which there is a complete skeleton already.

Such reconstructions are not the problem, because they are based on known animals. In the above example it is logical to conclude that the femur belonged to a small Iguanodon. The problem comes when the fossil is not such a good match or has traits in common with more than one type. In such cases an incomplete fossil can easily be misinterpreted.

The ability to deduce much about a fossil from a single tooth or bone was made famous by anatomist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier. In 1804, for example, he confidently announced that a French fossil was an opossum (then unknown from France) on the basis of only its teeth. Cuvier was a creationist.

True, but opossums were known animals. He did not accurately reconstruct an opossum from its teeth without knowing about opossums.