Scientists talk a lot about the origin of new species. It’s been referred to as being “nearly synonymous with evolution” and regularly features in biology textbooks as one of if not the primary evidence for evolution. Yet, as I’ve previously written on the pages of this blog, speciation provides no evidence for evolution. Yet researchers continue to trot speciation out as proof that evolution occurs. In this instance though, there is a new wrinkle. This time, scientists are claiming that this particular species “came back from the dead.” This claim is very interesting, and one I had not seen before. This article will address this claim of a resurrecting species.
In this instance, the species that supposedly returned from the dead is a species of rail, a type of bird. Known as the white-throated rail, it is about the size of a chicken and is native to the island nation of Madagascar. It is a normal bird, perfectly capable of flight. However, so the story goes, several hundred thousand years ago, a population of these rails colonized a desolate coral atoll in the Indian Ocean called Aldabra, near the Mauritius islands. As part of their life on this island, they lost their ability to fly. However, according to the story, Aldabra was flooded around one hundred and thirty-six thousand years ago, wiping out every organism on the atoll. In the years since this catastrophic deluge, the rails have returned to Aldabra and again lost their ability to fly. This process according to the story, is called iterative evolution.
While this story is very interesting, stories are not part of science. Science consists of things that are observable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable. So what evidence did these scientists have to demonstrate this point? Based on fossils of the rail which purportedly predate the inundation, scientists determined that the rails that previously lived on the island were flightless.
There are all manner of problems with this claim. The first problem is the massive assumptions behind the fossils. It is assumed that, as part of one of the many ice ages evolution needs, the water level dropped, exposing the then significantly lower atoll of Aldabra. While it is undoubtedly true that, during the Ice Age water levels dropped and could have done exactly what is described, the ages and time frames involved are completely bogus. Radiometric dating used to date the rocks is notoriously unreliable. Further, the Ice Age was very quick, only a few hundred years in most creationist models, leaving very little time for rails to colonize Aldabra after it was revealed by the drop of water, and lose their ability to fly, before being wiped out by the rising seas. This scenario simply makes more sense.
A far more plausible scenario for the fossils found on Aldabra is that of a global flood, such as that described in the book of Genesis. Rails living on the atoll at the time of the flood would have been rapidly buried, enabling them to be fossilized. In the post-flood dispersion, the surviving rails would have reached the island again, and natural selection would have again fitted them to their environment.
This leads up to the more pressing question. Did this species come back from the dead? The direct answer to this is we don’t know for sure. Without having genetic samples to compare against the extant rails, there is no way to be certain that this is the same species. Similarities in fossils are not enough to determine a species. In fact, often fossils are not classified below the level of genus, simply because it is impossible to tell them apart at that level. However, even if we had the same species occurring in this island after going extinct, we would still have no evolution occurring. Think about it: the ancestral population is the same. Therefore the birds started out with the same genetic information. That they both lost the ability to fly is a product of their environment, a phenomenon we call natural selection. But natural selection is not evolution. Natural selection creates nothing new. it merely fits an organism to its environment. Even if natural selection could create something new, in this instance, what we observe is a loss of information and loss of function. These birds lost the ability to fly. They did not gain any new information, nor did they advance up the evolutionary ladder. These rails are fine examples of natural selection, but they provide no evidence for the evolutionary dogma.