Jonathan Wells debunks something nobody believes

Black bear

Black bear, Glacier National Park, September 2014.

Charles Darwin speculated that whales might have evolved from bears. He was wrong, but then he didn’t have the benefit of molecular sequence data, detailed morphological comparisons, and sophisticated methods of phylogenetic inference. We’ve known for at least 50 years that cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are most closely related to ungulates, specifically even-toed ungulates (artiodactyls). The current consensus is that the closest living relatives of cetaceans are hippopotamuses. Not everyone agrees with this specific relationship, but no one really doubts that whales are closely related to ungulates.

You wouldn’t learn that from reading Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Wells’ recent post, “From Bears to Whales: A Difficult Transition.”

Wells recounts Darwin’s musings on the topic, and the mockery they inspired even in Darwin’s time, but in arguing against this idea he never bothers to mention that no one believes it anymore.

Critics laughed at [the idea that whales evolved from bears], and Darwin removed it from later editions of his book, though he continued privately to believe it. Yet it would take a lot more than an enlarged mouth to turn a bear into a whale.

The article is essentially one big argument from incredulity, summarizing the differences between terrestrial and aquatic mammals and asking how all these differences could have evolved. It concludes

An intelligence could have planned to make fully aquatic mammals and designed these features to actualize the plan. But Darwinian theory says no design is allowed, and leaves us with little more than a fairy tale about how natural selection could turn swimming bears into whales.

This is a perfect example of a straw man argument. Rather than argue against what evolutionary biologists actually believe, Dr. Wells has chosen to engage with a speculation 160 years out of date. He either doesn’t know that the field of cetacean systematics has advanced since Darwin’s time or chooses to pretend that it hasn’t. He is either ignorant of the topic he’s writing about or just plain dishonest. There’s no way to know which.

Well…maybe there is. Back in 2009, Jonathan Wells authored a series of eight posts reviewing (and criticizing) Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True. The last installment is here and has links to the other seven. In the section titled “Back to the water: the evolution of whales,” Dr. Coyne relays that

Whales almost certainly evolved from a species of the artiodactyls: the group of mammals that have an even number of toes, such as camels and pigs. Biologists now believe that the closest living relatives of whales is–you guessed it–the hippopotamus, so maybe the hippo-to-whale scenario is not so far-fetched after all.

So much for ignorance as an excuse. Dr. Wells has clearly read this section; he wrote about it here (I assume he read the whole book, but just in case there was any doubt). He knew that modern evolutionary biologists consider whales “almost certainly” derived from artiodactyls, and yet he chose to write as if Darwin’s mistake had never been corrected. I wonder why.


  1. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “leaves us with little more than a fairy tale”
    That was still an inprovement over Genesis, which is nothing more than a fairy tale.

  2. Bernie says

    Darwin may have been more prescient than Wells gives him credit for. Bears (Ursidae) and seals (Pinnipedia) are sister taxa. The mammal that gave rise to bears also gave rise to a creature highly adapted to life in the sea. And a transitional seal has been found: Puijila darwini.

  3. another stewart says

    As I recall, Darwin speculated that bears could evolve into something “very like a whale”; that is not the same as arguing that whales did evolve from bears.

    What was known about cetacean affinities in Darwin’s day? As Basilosaurus was already known Ursidae would have been more or less out of consideration on chronological grounds, Haeckel correctly identified hippopotami as the sister group, but that was a little later.

  4. lpetrich says

    It’s also worth noting that filter feeding evolved *after* becoming aquatic. Baleen whales emerged from toothed whales, and there are some intermediates with both teeth and baleen.

    Filter feeding has evolved several times from being a large aquatic predator. Baleen whales, whale sharks, basking sharks, megamouth sharks, manta rays, Mesozoic pachycormid fish, and the anomalocarid Aegirocassis from the Ordovician.

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