A four-legged whale, fossils and the public understanding of science

Scientists in Egypt have made the discovery of a four-legged whale, an ancestral species and a transitional form between land-dwelling mammals and modern, purely aquatic whales.

The newly discovered ancestral whale, called Phiomicetus anubis, is named partly after Anubis, the canine-headed Egyptian god associated with death and the afterlife. Found in the Fayum depression, it is in line with similar ancestral semi-aquatic fossils found in other continents.

Whale evolution is amply documented with a strong evidentiary basis in the fossil record. Evolving from aquatic artiodactyls, palaeontologists have been examining the ancestral species of modern whales – and the related cetaceans – for decades. Protocetids are semiaquatic whales that inhabited a niche midway between their semi-terrestrial predecessors and the ocean-going whales.

Possessing a raptor-like feeding style, they were fearsome predators. Phiomicetus anubis weighed an estimated 600 kilograms, and was three metres in length. The Phiomicetus is not the only ancestral quadrupedal whale fossil that has been found.

Back in 2019, scientists in Peru discovered the fossil of an ancient four-legged whale with hooves – adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Located in marine sediments off the coast of Peru, that finding, of a 42.6 million years old creature, shed light on the transition from land to sea by the ancestors of today’s largest mammals.

Fossils which are morphologically transitional from land mammals to modern, purely aquatic, whales are not without precedent. In 2010, National Geographic magazine reported that whales are descended from aquatic, hoofed ancestors. Indohyus, an amphibious ancestor of modern whales, had hooves with slender legs, and would take to water in the course of feeding and avoiding danger.

Indohyus, now extinct, lived 50 million years ago in what is now Southern Asia. It is an early member of the cetacean stem, related to whales and dolphins. While Indohyus had legs resembling a small deer, it also possessed the dentition of early modern whales. It lived life in both terrestrial and aquatic milieus, it possessed an involucrum, an ancient cetacean trait – a thickened piece of bone which helps whales to hear underwater.

Do palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists expect to find a transitional form of half-salamander and half-giraffe? Of course not. Creationist commentators make ridiculous claims, imputing them to evolution. They have no understanding of phyla and existing morphological similarities.

Back in 1985, when I was learning high school biology and geology, creationist Michael Denton made the following statement about a purported difficulty in evolutionary biology – a hyperbolic claim repeated in different forms over the years:

to postulate a large number of entirely extinct hypothetical species starting from a small, relatively unspecialized land mammal and leading successively through an otter-like state, seal-like stage, sirenian-like stage and finally to a putative organism which could serve as the ancestor of the modern whales. Even from the hypothetical whale ancestor stage we need to postulate many hypothetical primitive whales to bridge the not inconsiderable gaps which separate the modern filter feeders (baleen whales) and the toothed whales.Denton (1985) Evolution: A Theory in Crisis Adler & Adler Publishers:Chevy Chase, MD. p. 174

Be careful what you wish for – because the quadrupedal and semi-aquatic ancestral whale is precisely the finding that renders Denton’s observation completely irrelevant. Back in 2007, former child actor now creationist preacher Kirk Cameron, mocked evolution by presenting a fictional hybrid animal consisting of half duck-like features, and half-crocodile – a crocoduck.

Once again – be careful what you wish for; Kirk should make the acquaintance of Anatosuchus, a species among numerous examples of what can be reasonably described as a ‘crocoduck.’ The purpose of the current article is not an exercise in egotistical chest-thumping. Learning about evolutionary biology and geology in high school – a Catholic school – was a rewarding and enriching experience. The curriculum was set by the Australian Academy of Science.

Science education, and the public understanding of science, are crucial areas which impact public policy. In this age of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become painfully obvious why more people should engage with scientists and achieve scientific literacy. Of course, no single individual can become a subject matter expert on every branch of science. However, we cannot afford to be indifferent to the developments of science – and not just because of the impact of technology.

Understanding new technology is important, but it is only one part of the full interplay between science and society. Science denialism is a serious hindrance to the public acceptance of policies based on scientific issues. Climate change denialism, while relatively new, is actually based on earlier denial of evolutionary biology, and anti-vaccination hostility for that matter. We have trained ourselves to be deniers – it is time to retrain our minds to accept evidence.

Ancient alien astronauts, UFOs and Atlantis – pseudoarcheology is not just harmless fun

Alien astronauts building ancient megastructures, the lost continent of Atlantis, the Kensington Runestone and the Roswell UFO – all these are examples of pseudoarcheology. The History Channel and cable tv generally, under the pretext of promoting academic debate, has given credence to one or more of these claims, posing as a contrarian outsider challenging the ‘orthodox’ archeological establishment.

Playing the Galileo gambit – the courageous genius maverick waging a lonely fight against the dominant forces of orthodoxy – is a cynical ploy, one that has enabled misleading and dangerous pseudoscientific nonsense to gain credibility. It is impossible to refute each and every pseudoarcheological claim, however, we can make important observations here that will enable us to be skeptical next time outlandish claims about the past are made.

The Atlantis myth

The story of Atlantis, and the perpetual search for that alleged continent, is the mother lode of pseudoarcheological theories. Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher, first elaborated an allegorical tale in his Socratic dialogues – Timaeus and Critias – about a lost paradise. Criticising the hubris, corruption and greed of his time, Plato was making a commentary regarding the sociopolitical issues of his time.

A lush paradise inhabited by people who were half-god and half-human, Plato employed this allegorical device about Atlantis as a cautionary tale regarding the cataclysmic downfall of hubristic civilisations – and the superiority of his theory of the ideal state. Atlantis was abundant in minerals, a utopian state that became morally bankrupt. It sank, 9000 years before Plato was writing this story in 360 BC, and remained a cautionary tale.

The idea of an ultimate catastrophe destroying a once-prosperous civilisation – the Armageddon in Christian theology – is a powerful literary device used by political writers, poets, and commentators throughout the ages. However, the question that lingered bedevilled writers since Plato’s time – was he referring to an actual place?

This question remained in the background for centuries, until the discovery of the Americas. Here was a previously continent, peopled by indigenous civilisations, with no connection to any of the monotheistic religions – and they developed independently for centuries. The existence of entire nations, developing their own science, ethics and technology shattered the exclusivity of the biblically-based worldview – there was no mention of indigenous Americans in the Bible.

Could Atlantis be another lost continent, inhabited by its own resident peoples, with its own science and technology? Interest in Atlantis pseudohistory erupted with the publication of books such as Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, by Ignatius Donnelly, a populist American politician. Numerous publications followed, with an intermingling of speculation about a ‘race’ of Atlanteans, and their allegedly superior intelligence responsible for seeding the achievements of various non-white civilisations.

Ancient alien astronauts and megastructures

The notion that superior extraterrestrial intelligence – visiting aliens – built the majority of the world’s ancient megastructures has a long lineage. Erich von Danikin got the ball rolling in 1968 with his book Chariots of the Gods? Speculating that alien astronauts are responsible for constructing ancient monuments, such as the Egyptian Pyramids, alien astronaut responsibility for megastructures has made its way around the world.

Indeed, nonwhite civilisations have had to defend themselves from claims that extraterrestrial visitors seeded their nations and built their structures. Numerous popular culture movies – such as Stargate – have popularised notions of ancient Egypt, and the pyramids, being enmeshed with alien races, demons and curses. The Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs in Peru, have also been assigned to alien creativity.

What is the harm of these kinds of pseudoarcheological beliefs? So what if a person thinks aliens built the pyramids, or indigenous American structures?

The problem with this kind of thinking is the inherent racism in such an outlook, dismissing the possibility that indigenous civilisations could develop the mathematics, science and technology to construct sophisticated megastructures. Julien Benoit, writing in The Conversation magazine, states that misdirecting responsibility for great archeological structures in nonwhite civilisations to alien intelligence contains a component of dismissive racism.

African nations have extensive archeological records, and impressive monuments in their own right. While Egypt has the well-known pyramids, Africa also has the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, not to mention archeological sites in South Africa and Mali. The proponents of alien architects not only misunderstand the depth of knowledge and scientific skills in nonwhite civilisations, they go to great lengths vandalising such monuments in order to prove their outlandish theories.

The Egyptian pyramids have attracted the speculations of alien enthusiasts, occultists and Atlantis advocates. Pyramidology is a particularly fertile branch of pseudoarcheological obsession. Sir Isaac Newton, the noted English scientist, spent hours not only on physics, but also examining the geometry of the pyramids, looking for signs of the Christian God’s presence in its design. The pyramids as a product of some ‘lost superior wisdom’ has preoccupied Atlantis enthusiasts and alien advocates for decades.

The purpose here is not to denounce each and every instance of ancient alien speculation. It is to highlight that archeologists deal with unsolved mysteries every day; they are passionate about their work and driven by a profound sense of curiosity about the past. They explore numerous evidentiary avenues to bring the past back to life – alien astronauts and Atlantis theorising are dead-ends.