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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ

Contacting the Author
[Last Update: March 17, 1997]

Before contacting the author, please read the following common questions about the Transitional Fossils FAQ:

1. "The FAQ doesn't have real transitional fossils"

If you have just skimmed part of the FAQ and concluded that it doesn't have what you consider to be "real" transitional fossils, go back to part 1 of the FAQ and carefully read the section titled "What is a transitional fossil?" Think about what you have read. Then read the rest of the FAQ, and pay particular attention to the "species-to-species" sections in part 2. If you still think the FAQ doesn't have "real" transitional fossils, chances are you have misunderstood the theory of evolution. Define what a "real" transitional fossil should be, and why you think the modern theory of evolution would predict such a thing. Then let's talk.

2. "Yeah, okay, but if the dating techniques are wrong, doesn't that make the whole 'fossil record' fall apart?"

This is a good question, but it is outside the scope of this FAQ (which is long enough as it is). The short answer is yes, the fossil record depends utterly on accurate dating techniques. Dating techniques come in two basic (and independent) varieties: relative techniques, which tell you whether a fossil layer is older or younger than another layer, and absolute techniques, which give a numerical age for a rock. Describing these techniques in detail would require a whole nother set of FAQs. (See, for example, the FAQ on radiometric dating). In a nutshell, though, if the techniques are applied carefully they are surprisingly accurate, and independent methods show a remarkable tendency to come up with the same date. If you want to learn more about this field, get a copy of Prothero's "Sedimentary Geology" or another geology text and read it thoroughly.

3. "I don't have time to read the whole FAQ, so could you just answer the following question for me?" (followed by a complicated two-page series of questions, some of which have nothing to do with fossils)

People who send me this sort of e-mail may expect a short-tempered response! If you didn't have time to read the FAQ - or any of the other FAQs - why should I have the time to write a detailed response to spoon-feed the information to you? It took a lot of time to write this FAQ, and it also takes a lot of time to write long e-mail responses. I love teaching biology, and it would be great if I had a full-time job to teach biology by e-mail; but unfortunately, I have to do it in my spare time, which I do not have a lot of.

Face it, learning about biology takes time, and you are just going to have to buckle down and read the FAQs -- yes, the whole darned fossil FAQ and the whole darned other t.o. FAQs as well.

4. "Why isn't the FAQ illustrated?"

The primary reasons are practical: there aren't any un-copyrighted illustrations available, and I don't own a scanner (or even a modem, or even [gasp] a web surfer). Furthermore, creating good fossil illustrations would be extremely difficult, for the following reasons. Many of the fossil illustrations seen in textbooks are actually very inaccurate (for instance, Hyracotherium is usually drawn to look like a little horse; but in fact, it did not look at all like a horse). Good fossil illustrations can only be done by a small subset of scientific illustrators who are trained in anatomy and paleontology. Hiring one of these people would cost actual money. The illustrator would then have to spend several years flying to 50 or so museums to see the original fossils and talking to the expert paleontologists who have studied each fossil. Furthermore, the species-to-species transitions would be tricky to illustrate, since they involve whole populations of hundreds of fossils simultaneously showing gradual shifts in various traits. It would be an exciting project -- but doing it right would take years and would require substantial funding for salaries, travel, and equipment.

5. "Why hasn't the transitional fossils FAQ been updated recently?"

Lack of time and money. The FAQs are not organized by any central entity, and are not funded at all. They are just written by people who know the subject matter, got inspired, and felt like spending long hours of their (unpaid) time writing a FAQ. This FAQ is a typical example. I wrote the first version in 1991 (inspired by the astonishing ignorance exhibited on I updated it regularly until 1994. Each update took a significant amount of time (several months' part-time work, unpaid). This was possible because in those years I was a new grad student with a fully paid fellowship, no teaching duties, and no social life. I now have two part-time jobs, am finishing my PhD thesis, coordinating three other research projects, writing post-doc grants, and moving regularly to different houses (plus, I have a social life now). So unfortunately I no longer have time to update the FAQ. I plan someday, before I die, to fully update and publish a new fossils FAQ....but this may not happen till after the turn of the millenium! If you are knowledgable about vertebrate evolution and are interested in taking on the job, get in touch with me about doing the next FAQ update yourself.

6. "What is the FAQ author's background?"

I'm a zoologist, currently working on my Ph.D. thesis in endocrinology and behavior at the Department of Zoology, University of Washington. I am not a paleontologist; rather, I am a vertebrate biologist who primarily studies living animals (not extinct ones). Most of my own research is on birds. I have a broad training in physiology, anatomy, behavior, and conservation biology, and I have taught or TA'd vertebrate anatomy, vertebrate natural history, vertebrate evolution, and general evolution. The history of vertebrate evolution is a pet side interest of mine. Writing this FAQ was a wonderful excuse to burrow into the primary literature and read a lot of fascinating textbooks and articles about vertebrate evolution.

Send your comments and suggestions to me, Kathleen Hunt, at: I welcome your feedback to the FAQ, but since I am often in the field, please be prepared to wait a while (usually weeks) for a email response. Thank you very much!

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