Alison Campbell ponders the evolutionary significance of lolcats.
Makes me chuckle when I think about it. Not just because Lolcats (www.icanhascheezburger.com) make me LOL (they do), but also because the idea of an owlcat epitomises a standard creationist argument. It goes something like this: if evolution is true, how come there aren’t any crocoducks/owlcats/<insert laughable hybrid here>?
This is an example of the ‘straw man’ argument. No evolutionary biologist would suggest – except in jest – the concept of a crocoduck (wolfsden.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/stupid-creationist-arguments-5-crocoduck/), or an owlcat (no matter how sweet this hypothetical beast might look). This is because ducks and crocodiles, cats and owls, are all modern species, far removed from any last common ancestor.
In the case of owls and cats, very far removed indeed; mammals and reptiles (including birds) last shared a common ancestor around 300 million years ago, and have followed divergent evolutionary paths since then. Birds appeared on the scene much more recently, evolving from a group of dinosaurs known as maniraptors during the Jurassic period. And (contrary to what this straw-man claim implies) there is a rather nice series of transitional fossils that lets us trace the ancestry of this clade.
Thus true transitional fossils will not look like some fusion of their modern descendants – there is too much time and too many gradual transitions between them. As Richard Dawkins puts it:
The demand for a crocoduck is based on the misunderstanding that there should be intermediates between modern animals and other modern animals.
Unfortunately (for the creationist camp) this isn’t how it works. Dawkins again (using leopards and rabbits as his pair of modern species):
“You start with any modern animal you like, such as a rabbit, and put her next to her mother and then her mother in a chain that goes back in time a very long way until you hit the common ancestor with some other animal such as a leopard. It would no longer look like a rabbit but more like a shrew.
You call that the hairpin bend and you turn round and start going forward in time. You just keep taking the fork that leads to the leopard and in time you’ll get to the modern animal.
So, while owlcats are cute, and crocoducks giggle-making, any request that evolutionary biology should produce an actual animal simply betrays a profound misunderstanding of how evolution operates.