Tetrapods, walking ‘fishapods,’ Tiktaalik, Qikiqtania and transitioning from water to land

The transition from water-based living to land is one of the most pivotal moments in the history of life on Earth. A number of fossils, discovered by a team of researchers in the Canadian Arctic, sheds light on this crucial question. In 2004, a team of researchers lead by Neil Shubin from the University of Chicago, discovered a series of fossils which help answer the questions surrounding this transition.

Tiktaalik – from fish to land-dwelling vertebrates

The fossils were discovered on Ellesmere Island, northern Canada, in 2004. Named Tiktaalik roseae, the genus name meaning “large shallow water fish” in the indigenous language of Canada’s Nunavut Territory nations, is a transitional extinct species possessing features of fish and also tetrapods – four-limbed vertebrates. Tiktaalik used its frontal fins to move itself in a walking fashion in shallow waters, straddling the transition to amphibious living.

Tetrapods are four-limbed vertebrates – amphibians, reptiles, mammals, me, you – it includes an extensive series of animal phyla. This body form first appeared in the Devonian geologic period. The Devonian is known by palaeontologists as the age of fishes. Amphibious animals, emerging in the Devonian, came to be the dominant form of life in the next geologic period, the Carboniferous.

Tiktaalik demonstrates the transition from swimming fish to land-based locomotion for vertebrates. Tiktaalik, while possessing fish characteristics, also had wrist bones, so it could propel itself with its front limbs. Wrist bones are lacking in fossils earlier than the Tiktaalik. Located in sediment beds dating back to 375 million years ago, this stratigraphy layer is located in Devonian geological period.

Qikiqtania – the ‘fishapod’ which went back to the water

The amphibians, the first true tetrapods, evolved from the lobe-finned fishes, but finding the transition from the fishy ancestors of amphibians and true tetrapods has been challenging until now. Related to the discovery of Tiktaalik is another fossil cousin, Qikiqtania wakei, named from the indigenous Inuit languages where the fossil was found.

Another ‘fishapod’ – no, that word is not a scientific classification, but a portmanteau made up by writers. Actually, Qikiqtania is a type of elpistostegalian, a prehistoric species of lobe-finned fish. Qikiqtania’s pectoral fin contains a humerus bone. However, Qikiqtania was more suited to life in the water, and returned there soon after its land-dwelling phase. Neil Shubin, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, stated about Qikiqtania that:

The specimen includes partial upper and lower jaws, portions of the neck, and scales,”

“Mostly importantly, it also features a complete pectoral fin with a distinct humerus bone that lacks the ridges that would indicate where muscles and joints would be on a limb geared toward walking on land.”

The media release about these findings from the University of Chicago make the following important point:

We tend to think animals evolved in a straight line that connects their prehistoric forms to some living creature today, but Qikiqtania shows that some animals stayed on a different path that ultimately didn’t work out. Maybe that’s a lesson for those wishing Tiktaalik had stayed in the water with it.

While Tiktaalik’s front fins contained bones which correspond to our humerus, wrist, ulna and radius bones, the later Qikiqtania only had a corresponding humerus bone. Qikiqtania, while closely related to Tiktaalik, took on a different evolutionary pathway. Tiktaalik, in contrast to Qikiqtania, had a mobile neck, allowing it to support its head out of the water and adjust to gravity. The fish-to-tetrapod transition marked the beginning of the vertebrate dwelling in terrestrial ecosystems.

Nowhere in the scientific literature is there any reference to a ‘social Darwinist’ competition between emergent species, nor any ‘struggle for existence’. The tetrapods did not emerge by smashing their competitors, or becoming the strongest ‘king’ of their ecosystem. Neither is there any reference to a supernatural creator, or teleological direction in the evolutionary process. If you want to discuss philosophical issues of theism, or a faith-based natural history of life on Earth, please save that for another blog article.

Evolution, rather than proceeding in a straight linear fashion, moves in a series of branching tree-like pathways. Tiktaalik, and Qikiqtania, are not merely ‘stepping stones’ on the way to the eventual emergence of vertebrate organisms.

When it comes to eugenics, the Nazis were inspired by the example of the United States

Eugenics is normally associated with the barbarity of Nazi Germany and its perversion of science. It is regarded as something of a historical curiosity, as we dust off the cobwebs in the archives. However, when we examine eugenics more closely, we can find the one country which inspired the Nazi party with its eugenicist practices – the United States.

Let’s start with a very basic definition; eugenics (good breeding) is a belief that the quality of human beings can be improved by selectively breeding those with superior traits. If it can be done with animals, why not with humans? This idea is nothing new; the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato advocated the selective procreation of those with superior qualities as part of his plan for renewal in The Republic.

It was in the nineteenth century, with scientific advances in agriculture and human biology, that eugenics as a social movement began to take off. Francis Galton (1822 – 1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term eugenics and did his utmost to develop the pseudoscience of social Darwinism. Earlier, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, concerned about the rising numbers of the poor – including Irish immigration – proposed population control measures directed at restricting the dispossessed from reproducing.

It is important to note that Darwin never endorsed the Victorian-era perversion of evolutionary biology into the pseudoscientific detour of eugenics. The purported ‘survival of the fittest’ motivation was an expression of the English ruling class’ desire that the lower classes and poor would die off, and thus remove any threat to the unequal status quo. Providing a scientific veneer to the status quo became a hobby horse of the English intellectual community.

In Britain, the church along with industrial leaders were supportive of eugenics. However, it was in the United States that eugenicist thinking received enormous corporate philanthropy – the Rockefeller foundation, the Carnegie Institution and financial magnates, provided strong backing for the development of eugenics pseudoscience.

Malthus was worried about the pressures of an increased population on the food supply – he directed his ire at the Irish immigrant community. Blaming migrants for socioeconomic problems was not unique to Britain. Madison Grant (1865 – 1937), American conservationist and lawyer, worried that by allowing the genetically inferior races to settle in the US – such as Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans – the US was committing ‘race suicide’.

Racially restrictive immigration laws were passed at the national level. Numerous individual states in the US passed forcible sterilisation laws impacting the disabled, the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ and prison populations. Americans were attempting to breed a ‘better race’; numerous competitions for finding ‘better babies’ were based on eugenicist principles.

Madison Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), found a receptive audience in Germany (and throughout Europe for that matter). Reissued numerous times in the 1920s, none other than Adolf Hitler, writing a fan letter to Grant, stated that ‘your book was my bible.’ The theory of a superior Nordic white race did not originate with the Nazi party.

The Nazi hierarchy, and the wider German scientific community, closely studied, and found inspiration in, the eugenics movement in the US. American laws restricting the breeding of those with ‘defective’ genes were templates for similar laws in Germany. The Carnegie Institution developed close links with German race scientists in the 1920s. The Germans noted that the US Supreme Court, in 1927, sanctioned involuntary sterilisation. The US state of Virginia, the Germans observed, passed laws that explicitly stated the preservation of the white race as their goal.

The pseudoscience of eugenics provided a veneer of legitimacy for the policies of exclusion and legalised discrimination. The indigenous Americans, similarly to European Jews, were subjected to a multistage programme of annihilation – compulsory detention, increased pressures to emigrate and/or deportation, enforced resettlement, cultural exclusion and physical liquidation.

The parallels between the Nazi policy of lebensraum – living space for Germans and the liquidation of the genetically ‘inferior’ races – and the American policy of dispossession and extermination of indigenous nations – are striking. It may be uncomfortable to learn of the similarities – notwithstanding the differences between the Third Reich and the United States.

We are all well aware that the Nazi party regarded the Jews as genetically inferior. Anne Frank, German-Dutch Jewish diarist, died in a Nazi-run concentration camp because of that belief. When the United States, in its eugenicist crusade to ‘preserve the white race’, refused entry to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, their refusal was also based on that belief. So, we can say that Anne Frank died, not only because she was deemed genetically inferior by the Nazi party, but also because the US political establishment believed that as well.