On car bumpers throughout the nation, there is a perpetual raging battle between the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish—aka, the Jesus fish plus legs. A joke on the religious symbol and an icon of the evolutionary idea of transitional forms, the Darwin fish packs a blasphemous one-two punch.
Granted, there doesn’t have to be a divide between religion and evolution; it’s just that many choose to make it an either/or proposition. Take the case of the young-Earth creationist crowd, led by such reality-benders as Ken Ham of the Creation Museum. Even after the 2004 discovery of a literal ancient fish with legs, Ham gave the perplexing response that “there are no transitional forms that support evolution” because “the Bible says God made fish and land animals during the same week, not millions of years apart.” The old your-tangible-evidence-doesn’t-actually-exist-because-THE BIBLE argument! Gets em every time.
Soul-crushing Creationist reactions aside, the discovery of a leggy fish is super important for a couple reasons. The research team led by paleontologist Neil Shubin found that the 375 million-year-old specimen (Tiktaalik roseae) is an anatomical mishmash of a fish and a landlubber, revealing a critical phase of evolution that ultimately led to the development of modern humans . . . not to mention—to be scientifically accurate—a bajillion other land species.
Like us Home sapiens, Tiktaalik had a discrete neck—a trait lacking in all other fish—as well as a more modern arm structure under its fin (Shubin says the fish was capable of doing push-ups—which must have been a humiliating sight for the limp-finned fish). Plus, it had both gills and lungs. As Charles Darwin famously wrote in The Descent of Man, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” (Care to add that reality-check quote to your office’s inspirational poster collection?)
But wait, there's more. In addition to revealing the beginning of modern anatomical structures, Tiktaalik reveals how scientific knowledge can spur important earthly discoveries. Shubin and his team specifically looked for this specimen in the Canadian Arctic. Why? Evolutionary theory holds that life originated in water, but since so much life obviously now exists on land, there must have been aquatic species that developed features for spending time on solid ground.
Previous research suggested the magical era of land invasion began 375 million years ago, so Shubin put these facts together and looked for areas where river delta systems from this time were still preserved. Sure enough, researchers found our beautiful fish/reptile-monster ancestor! Thus, our dear great-(great-great-great . . .) grandpa Tiktaalik offers further proof of evolution and insight into our anatomical forms and more proof that the scientific method works.
In a world in which many people so desperately want to defy scientific truth, it’s vital we reinforce that message. Darwin fish FTW!