Why are there transitional animals?

“Uh oh,” thought I upon seeing this headline from LiveScience: Greatest Mysteries: Why Are There Transitional Animals?

“This could go wrong in so many different ways,” I said to myself, “let’s see which one they went with”.

Much to my pleasant surprise, the story is actually pretty good. There’s a bit of the usual anthropomorphizing of natural selection (“it shows us how evolution could have tinkered with variation”), but overall it is a reasonable discussion of an interesting topic. I doubt the existence of so-called “transitional animals” counts as a “great mystery”, but this is made up for by an excellent quote from Jack Conrad of the AMNH in New York (where I spent a year as a post-doc).

“These early whales were basically playing the same game that crocodiles play: Wait for something to come get a drink and then pull it in the water for dinner,” Conrad said. “This is also the same game that early land vertebrates, early amphibians and early relatives of crocs and dinosaurs were playing. These animals weren’t necessarily ‘on their way’ to being anything; they were well suited to being exactly where they were.”

It is quite refreshing, after the dazed hype about human evolution over the past couple of weeks, to see a statement so on the mark.

One thought on “Why are there transitional animals?

  1. Remember, the purpose of science is to provide narrative. Don’t get all het up about that “on their way” stuff. Since we know the outcome of the narrative, characters in the middle of the story may well have been on their way.

    Of course, as a computer scientist, I always get het up about that “the computer added the two numbers” stuff. That’s base teleology. Computers don’t add numbers. Computers provide a framework for electric charge interactions, and it is humans who interpret the results as being an addition.

    They always warn you not to anthropomorphize computers. They hate that.

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