We are extremely proud to have worked with Donald R Prothero, noted paleontologist and author of 333 scientific papers and 48 books. The story of Evolution is a collection of 6 cards sighting the best evidence of evolution and the interesting facts that demonstrate this.
Weighing over 900 pounds (400 kg) and living more than 100 years, the Galápagos tortoise is the largest turtle alive on the planet today. Even more importantly, they have evolved slight differences in the shell shape, so Charles Darwin could see that those living on the wetter Galápagos Islands had the normal round shape, while those living on drier islands had a high saddle-shaped peak on the front of the shell, so their necks could reach higher and obtain food during droughts. The differences are so striking that many people could tell which island a particular tortoise came from. The only explanation that made sense to Darwin, and to scientists today, is that they must have evolved from a common ancestor about 5 million years ago, then began to diverge in genes and in shape as they adapted to the conditions of their local environment. Today, they are considered one of the first great examples of evolution in action.
The peppered moth lives in England, and normal moths have a black-and-white speckled pattern that helps conceal them from predators when they rest on tree bark with lichen-covered surfaces. But during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the smoke from burning coal in thousands of factories made the air so polluted that the tree trunks were coated with black soot. Soon, the light gray moth became conspicuous against the black tree bark, and birds ate them. A rare genetic variant arose that produced a black-colored moth, and soon only the black moths were common. Then when pollution laws came to Britain in the 1970s, the soot vanished from the air, the tree bark resumed its normal gray speckled color, and the speckled moths have returned, while the black variant is now rare again. This is one of the first and best demonstrations of natural selection ever documented.
What would you think if we told you that, when you were an embryo only 5 weeks after conception, you looked like a fish embryo and had a long tail and gill slits? It’s true! All embryos of backboned animals look fish-like at first, with long tails and gill slits and other fishy features. But then fish embryos grow and develop to keep these features, while the embryos of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals modify these features, so the gills are replaced by lungs, and in some animals (like apes and humans) the tail disappears entirely. This powerful line of evidence is proof that all backboned animals evolved from a fish-like ancestor in the distant past, and have transformed by changing the later stages of their embryonic development. So you re-enact your long evolution from the fish in every part of your development as an embryo.
The flipper of a dolphin, the wing of a bat, the long legs of a horse, the digging hand of the mole, and the structure of a human hand all are used for entirely different purposes—yet they have exactly the same bones and muscles in them. In every case, there is an upper arm bone, a pair of lower arm bones, and then the wrist and finger bones. This is true across all of life. Animals build their bodies out of the structures they inherited from their ancestors, then transform these fundamental building blocks into completely different structures for swimming, flying, running, digging, grasping, or whatever they need to do. This shows that nature doesn’t engineer perfect solutions to biological problems, but “jury-rigs” the building blocks of the body that are already there. Nature isn’t a designer, but a tinkerer.
On the outside, a dolphin, a fish, and a penguin look very similar, and the extinct marine reptiles known as ichthyosaurs look much like a fish as well. They all have a pointed snout, smooth tapered bodies to create less drag in the water, some combination of flippers and fins, and most have a tail with a fin for water propulsion. Likewise, a bat, a robin, and a pterodactyl look very similar, because they all have bodies adapted for flight. But we can tell that these animals are not closely related, because all of their internal anatomy shows they are members of completely different groups. A dolphin is a mammal, a penguin is a bird, an ichthyosaur is a reptile, and a fish is not closely related to any of these. Likewise, a bat is a mammal, a robin is a bird, and a pterosaur is a reptile. In both of these cases, convergent evolution has sculpted their bodies so they are well adapted for a particular function like swimming or flying, yet these animals are not closely related. Convergent evolution is a common thing in nature, because there only so many ways to build a fast swimmer or an aerial flyer.
Some people point to the human body as the model of perfection, or a marvel of design. In fact, every aspect of human body shows that it is very poorly designed, with lots of things that don’t work well or can even kill us. We have useless organs like the appendix or the tonsils, which can become dangerous if they are infected. Our eyes are constructed backwards, with the rods and cones in the retina pointed away from the light and covered by a network of nerves and blood vessels that make our eyes inferior to that of an octopus. We are poorly adapted to walk on two legs, because we eventually get lots of back problems, hip problems, knee problems, and ankle and foot problems from walking and running, rather than moving on all four limbs. If you want an animal better designed for walking on two legs, look at an ostrich. Finally, our genes are full of useless “junk DNA” that is never used, and only 2% of our DNA is different from the DNA of a chimpanzee or a gorilla. In short, the human body is full of non-functional or poorly adapted anatomical and genetic features, that show that we were not perfectly designed, but instead are a haphazard jury-rigged collection of features that only occur because we were once walking on four legs and have many other features inherited from our ancestors.
Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University.
He is the author of over 40 books (including 6 leading geology textbooks, and several trade books), and over 300 scientific papers, mostly on the evolution of fossil mammals (especially rhinos, camels, and horses) and on using the earth's magnetic field changes to date fossil-bearing strata.
He has been on the editorial boards of journals such as Geology, Paleobiology, Journal of Paleontology, and Skeptic magazine. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the Paleontological Society, and the Geological Society of America, and also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Science Foundation.
He served as President of Pacific Section SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology) in 2012, and served for five years as Program Chair of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1991, he received the Charles Schuchert Award for outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. In 2013, he received the James Shea Award of the National Association of Geology Teachers for outstanding writing and editing the geosciences.
In 2015 he received the Joseph T. Gregory Award for service to vertebrate paleontology. In 2016, he received the "Friend of Darwin" award from the National Center for Science Education. He has been featured on numerous TV documentaries, including Paleoworld, Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, Prehistoric Monsters Revealed, Monsterquest, Prehistoric Predators: Entelodon and Hyaenodon, Conspiracy Road Trip: Creationism, as well as Jeopardy! and Win Ben Stein's Money.