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Canadian fossil makes waves in Huckabee's presidential run

Thanks to Graham Dolby for the link.

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Unlikely as it sounds, an extinct Canadian fish with foot-like fins is set to make a serious splash in the U.S. presidential race.

Tiktaalik roseae -- a 375-million-year-old fossilized "fishapod" discovered on Ellesmere Island in 2004 -- has been hailed as an "evolutionary icon" because it represents the crucial transition from sea to land for some of the Earth's most primitive creatures.

The discovery was announced amid global fanfare in 2006, and Tiktaalik is now the showcase species in a report released last week by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to promote the study of evolution and counter calls for U.S. schools to teach creationism.

That issue has dogged Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and an ordained Baptist minister, who publicly rejects the idea that humans came from apes.

bookNow Neil Shubin, the University of Chicago biologist who discovered the High Arctic fossil, is poised to release a populist recounting of his Canadian find -- Your Inner Fish -- in which he traces the primordial origins of the human race to such lowly creatures.

"It is far worse for Huckabee. Before apes, his ancestors were fish, worms, and other creatures," Mr. Shubin told Canwest News Service yesterday. "With jaw bones that correspond to gill bones in fish and sharks, a body plan shared with headless worms, and with parts of a DNA recipe shared with relatives of jellyfish, Huckabee's ties to some of the most humble forms of life on our planet run deep indeed."

The planned launch of Your Inner Fish next Tuesday has already prompted a prediction from the leading U.S. evolutionary scientist Don Johanson -- co-discoverer of Lucy, the "missing-link" ape -- that "creationists will want this book banned" because it so convincingly discredits their world view.

"If you want to believe that you and your family came from apes, I'll accept that," Mr. Huckabee said in an interview last year. "I believe there was a creative process ... I believe that there is a God and that he put the process in motion."

Though he has tried to avoid the issue in recent months, Mr. Huckabee's views about evolution are coming under renewed scrutiny after solid support among evangelical Christians powered his surprise victory last week in Iowa in the opening round of the Republican presidential race.

The influential journal Nature welcomed the publication of Science, Evolution and Creationism this week, applauding its focus on "fossils such as the Canadian Tiktaalik" and noting the book's timely release came "on the same day that Mike Huckabee won the Republican presidential caucus in Iowa."

And in its latest issue, New Scientist magazine editorializes warmly about the pro-evolution push by the U.S. National Academy Sciences, arguing that the effort is "unlikely to be enough to convince Huckabee" but "will help to highlight the idiocy of a political position that calls for America to lead the world while denying one of the foundation stones of scientific progress."

Mr. Huckabee has said he doesn't oppose the teaching of evolution and wouldn't expect U.S. schools to promote creationist ideas, such as Intelligent Design, "as if it's the only thing that they should teach."

Polls in the U.S. routinely show that nearly half of all Americans discount the theory of evolution.

Tiktaalik was a predatory species that hunted in shallow waters at a time in Earth history when Ellesmere Island -- now Canada's northernmost land mass -- was a subtropical swamp situated near the equator.

The fossilized bones of the three-metre-long Tiktaalik (its Inuktitut name means "big, shallow-water fish") showed that it had the scales and fins of a fish but the ribs, neck, head and limb-like bones of a land animal.

"The major bones in our own arms and legs are similar in overall configuration to those of Tiktaalik," notes the report by the National Academy of Sciences. "The discovery of Tiktaalik, while critically important for confirming predictions of evolutionary theory, is just one example of many findings made every year that add depth and breadth to the scientific understanding of biological evolution."

The academy, which is congressionally mandated to advise the U.S. government on scientific issues, also states: "Because science has no way to accept or refute creationists' assertions, creationist beliefs should not be presented in science classrooms alongside teaching about evolution. Teaching non-scientific concepts in science class will only confuse students about the processes, nature, and limits of science."



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