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Just-so Houston

Another natural history museum spotlights unnatural events

Robert Bakker, curator of paleontology, shows a fossil of a ichthyosaur and unborn pups on display in the Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. ames Nielsen/Houston Chronicle/AP

Just-so Houston
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Rudyard Kipling published his famous “just-so” stories in 1902. Among them: How the Camel Got His Hump (a djinn punished a lazy one) and How the Leopard Got His Spots (an Ethiopian painted them). Kipling called them “just-so” because his daughter would happily fall asleep only if they were “just-so,” no variations. Children are natural conservatives.

These days, so are Darwinists. With challenges to their dogma growing, they stick to the just-so story Richard Dawkins typed in The Blind Watchmaker about How Critters Got Their Ears: “Any piece of skin can detect vibrations … a natural outgrowth of the sense of touch. Natural selection could easily have enhanced this faculty by gradual degrees until it was sensitive enough to pick up very slight contact vibrations. At this point it would automatically have been sensitive enough to pick up airborne vibrations of sufficient loudness and/or sufficient nearness of origin.”

Ya gotta love those words like “natural outgrowth” and “automatically.” Presto, change-o, nothing to it. Following up on analyses of New York and Washington natural history museums (WORLD, Aug. 22, 2015), I saw more pseudo-science at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), which has a terrific sequence of just-so stories. Here are just three examples:

How did sea animals go onto land? Museum placard: “When abundant food arrived on the land, one group of sea scorpions modified their ‘book gills’ to become ‘book lungs’ and became land scorpions. … Meanwhile, several clans of fish had evolved lungs.”

How did some sea creatures go the opposite way, down into the deepest water? “Deep water was an evolutionary challenge for nautiloids, because the increased water pressure could crush their shells. Some, like the Giant Squid, responded by evolving extra-thick chamber walls.”

How did Arctodus, the giant short-faced bear, spread from North America to South America? “North America sent bear invaders into South America. The short-faced bear clan set up evolutionary centers in both continents.”

Notice that in Darwinian dogma all of these changes should be described in the passive—no one planned or activated these changes—but HMNS makes them active: Scorpions modified their gills, squids responded, bears invaded and set up evolutionary centers, somewhat like real estate model homes.

‘It is clear that miracles abound in the evolutionary origins myth.’—Anthropologist Paul Gosselin

My favorite just-so story is about the trilobite, a three-part exoskeleton with articulated lobes and compound eyes. Trilobites are important because they suddenly emerge with a unique body plan, with no “intermediate forms,” no immediate predecessors—and they have these intricate eyes which seem hardly likely to emerge via usually destructive mutations, even over hundreds of millions of years.

The Houston museum’s just-so story about those eyes goes like this: “Although trilobites did not invent the eye, they were among the first animals to develop sophisticated systems of sight. …” How sophisticated? Many animals “have lenses with a spherical shape. But a spherical lens distorts light beams, resulting in a fuzzy image. When scientists created the first lenses for telescopes and microscopes, inventors had to design a double lens to correct distortion. So did the trilobites known as Phacops.”

It seems that trilobites 500 million years ago were sophisticated: “These species grew an outer lens of normal calcite that would bend light beams slightly, and they also grew an inner lens with magnesium that bent it back. The result: “Phacops’ eyes could see with nearly perfect focus. Few, if any, living species have eyes as high-tech as these trilobite eyes.”

Another placard makes this just-so story even more outstanding: “What do trilobites and B-17 bombers have in common? Both use crystal for their optical equipment. Most trilobites had compound eyes with hundreds, or even thousands, of small lenses. Each lens was one perfect crystal of calcite, with the c-axis aligned to let light pass through with minimal distortion. … Many insects today use similar compound eyes, but none of them build lenses from single, perfect crystals.”

B-17s are clearly a product of intelligent design, so it’s strange that the trilobites’ optical equipment just happened. The trilobites seemed to will their way not only to eyes but eyelids: “At noon, especially in the tropics, solar rays beat down on any sea creature crawling on the shallow ocean bottom. What could evolution do? Invent shade! Some of the biggest-eye trilobites evolved projecting ledges that kept the noon rays away from the eyes.”

Curators, working hard to make animals seem humanlike, describe an early species of hyena—Ictitherium—as having an “Audrey Hepburn Neck. Our Ictitherium neck would be the envy of most fashion models—magnificently long, thin, and elegant.” The infamous Tyrannosaurus rex’s “weak claws were good for gentle stroking and tickling during courtship or for family bonding.” Happily, the museum shows pro-life sentiment when displaying an ichthyosaur with this explanation: “We nicknamed this skeleton ‘Jurassic Mom.’ She was carrying seven unborn babies when she died and became fossilized.”

The museum also promotes marriage when it discusses saber-tooth specimens with fractured fangs: “How could saber-toothed cats survive with broken sabers? The best theory is that mated pairs helped each other. If one injured a fang, the other took over the prey-killing duties.” But wait, does that sound too pro-marriage? Let’s add a different ending: “Or, like lions today, groups of sisters may have hunted together.” Yes, sisterhood is powerful.

What to make of this? Canadian anthropologist Paul Gosselin notes that “in the evolutionary origins myth one regularly encounters phenomena that are contrary to natural law and which have never been observed by any human. And the first of these miracles is abiogenesis, the transition from inert matter to living organisms, capable of reproducing themselves.”

Gosselin continues, “That is just the beginning. From there we go on to the transition from invertebrates to vertebrates, then there’s the transition from marine organisms, such as fish, to terrestrial organisms, the transition from reptiles to mammals, the transition from land mammals to marine mammals and then the transition from crawling reptiles to flying birds.”

All of that is hugely improbable, and Gosselin concludes with what he calls “the greatest miracle of all … the appearance of functional genetic code and its chemical basis, DNA, and all this without the intervention of a Programmer. It is clear that miracles abound in the evolutionary origins myth. The faith of evolutionary believers is great, but for my part I have to admit lacking enough faith to believe in such miracles.”

Houston, we have a problem: Lack of faith in evolution. Maybe a few more just-so stories will fix it.

—Go to wng.org for a WORLD member’s report on the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. If you’ve visited a big natural history museum recently, please send photos of signs and plaques to molasky@wng.org.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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