Snake Arms and Legs

Posted: February 1, 2012 in Biology Related
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

While watching a PBS show called “Inside Nature’s Giants,” I was astounded to learn that snakes have legs. Well, vestigial legs, according to Richard Dawkin’s guest spot on the show. To which the lead biologist on the show exclaimed, “This is evidence of evolution.” The very next day, someone showed me an internet article of a snake with arms, and said pretty much the same thing: “Evidence of evolution!” After all, it seems logical. Snakes don’t have arms and legs, so if we’re finding snakes with arms and legs, they must be evolving, right? How could anyone argue otherwise?

Well one could argue otherwise if one, simply put, knew their evolution in the first place. Evolution theory maintains that the snake was originally lizard-like, having arms and legs. As the snake evolved and became longer and the need for arms and legs became less, its limbs shrank and eventually disappeared. This was also confirmed by Richard Dawkins during the show. And oddly enough, both evolutionists and creationists agree on this fact: Snakes once had limbs. Evolutionists believe the snake gradually lost their limbs, whereas creationists believe snakes abruptly lost their limbs in the Garden of Eden as described in Genesis 3:14. So we can all agree (which is rare) that snakes once had limbs.

But here is the question of the day. If the snake evolved to lose its limbs, and some snakes are found today with arms and legs, is that evidence of evolution? Well the answer is no. Because the snakes originally had the genetic information to produce limbs. And though many snakes today don’t have this information in their DNA (or just aren’t expressing it), some still may. Left overs if you will. Not a mutation driven increase in genetic information that was never there before as evolution (macro) requires.

Sometimes attempts to be funny just reveal ignorance… like this not being evidence of evolution and this not being a snake.

It’s like red hair on humans. You can kill every red head in the world, so that there are no more red heads. But non-red headed people can carry the genes necessary to produce a red headed child. Occasionally a child would be born with red hair. Now we wouldn’t say that was evidence of evolution if red heads started to appear worldwide because we always had (or originally had) the genetic information to produce a red hair. In the same way, snakes sporting limbs today, when they supposedly once had limbs isn’t exactly earth shattering.

Sadly most of the pictures people propagate of armed and legged snakes, aren’t snakes at all, but skinks. Which is more lizard than snake.

This isn’t an evolved snake. It’s a skink (lizard).

Another thing to consider is the vestigial legs Dawkins referred to in the documentary. He pointed out two small claws on either side of the snake’s reproductive organs. An autopsy of these claws reveal they have small bones attached to them, somewhat resembling limbs. The conclusion being that these are the left over legs of the snake, vestigial limbs that is. Their small size and single claw a reflection of their non-use. So in this case, the legs are not generating but degenerating.

But no one seemed to point out the obvious… and I say obvious because I learned this in my 7th grade science class while watching our two class pet snakes mate. Those vestigial limbs aren’t so vestigial. They’re critical! The snakes don’t have the convenient arms and legs most other animals have to assist in mating, so they use their two claws to “grip” their partner, to make sexual activity possible. Biologists often refer to them as “Copulation Claspers” or “spurs.” Without the two claws they could not mate successfully. Which is a far cry from being vestigial legs. Which leads me to another conclusion. Obviously Dawkins and the other biologists on the show are aware of this being highly educated and all. Yet it was never mentioned. Instead, the audience was misled into thinking that snakes have useless old little legs as PROOF of evolution. Clearly there is an ulterior motive here.

Note the two mating spurs sticking out of the snake. Not vestigial legs…

With that said, there is also a third possibility to make note of: Snakes eating lizards. Snakes can often eat more than they’re capable of digesting. Don’t be too judgmental, maybe they’re very depressed not having limbs and all, and are eating the pain away… Occasionally a snake will swallow an animal so large, that the snake’s tissue will burst open, and a limb will pop out. There have been many cases of lizards legs and arms coming out the side of snakes, not because the snake evolved them, but because the lizard was the snakes last meal, and that last meal was a little too large. Pythons in Florida have been kown to eat small alligators and occasionally they’ll find a dead python with an alligator leg sticking out its side.

Notice the lump in the snake where the digesting body of the lizard is.

With that said I think it’s safe to assume that people who boast about snakes with legs and arms as evidence of evolution don’t know much about evolution… or snakes for that matter.

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Comments
  1. Pastafarianist says:

    ” Evolutionists believe the snake gradually lost their limbs, whereas creationists believe snakes abruptly lost their limbs in the Garden of Eden as described in Genesis 3:14. So we can all agree (which is rare) that snakes once had limbs.”

    And what about vestigial legs in a Bowhead whale? Did your good ol’ God take away whales legs because long long ago one wicked whale seduce Eve with the apple too?

    • matthew2262 says:

      You are making some assumptions there, namely that those bones on the Bowhead Whale are vestigial and that they’re leg bones. Those bones are actually not leg bones but ones that aid in sexual reproduction, much like how the tail bone on humans aids in bowel movements. The Bowhead’s “leg” bones thus serve a purpose and should therefore not be considered “vestigial.”

      • octopus says:

        Wow, just came across this blog and cannot believe this comment (Amongst others)! All cetaceans (whales and dolphins) have vestigal leg bones. They sit underneath a thick layer of blubber and are not attached to the rest of the skeleton, and have no associated muscle – they are incapable of articulation, and completely invisible from the exterior. They do not aid in reproduction in bowheads or any other cetacean. There’s a strong chance I’ll be setting one of my undergraduate zoology tutorial groups an assignment to critically analyse the material here as an example of bad science communication!

      • matthew2262 says:

        Thank you for your comment octopus. Your description of the bones being vestigial because they cannot be articulated, they’re under blubber, do not protrude outward, etc. is only relevant if we assume the pelvis and femur were originally used for walking in the past. As far as their role in reproduction, the Alaska Sea Life Center published an article referencing and displaying the role that the so-called pelvis and femur play in reproduction which can be accessed here: http://www.alaskasealife.org/New/Contribute/pdf/Atkinson_2002.pdf

        Pg. 452 of another article suggests reproduction function: whitelab.biology.dal.ca/lb/Bejder%20and%20Hall.pdf .

        Jennifer Philips from Wheelock College writes, “A more accurate description is that the pelvis serves a very important function for the reproductive physiology of the whale. Several small muscles attach to the little pelvis bone and are partly responsible for making reproduction possible. So, whales may no longer walk, but they still have a use for their pelvis.” http://whale.wheelock.edu/archives/ask01/0201.html . Granted, she maintains they were originally used for walking, but she also maintains they serve a function.

        My stance on the subject is that if they serve a function today, it is possible that they may have always served as that function, and would therefore not be vestigial.

        Now it could be argued that they may have previously been small protruding rear fins that aided in swimming but due to natural selection under environmental pressures this function was lost, which would fall under micro-evolution. But that is speculation and would be a loss of function which does not support macro-evolution. Since we do not know the past function of these bones, but we do know that they have function today, I do not feel it is appropriate to call them vestigial.

        Thank you again for your comment.

  2. Cookie says:

    You say, “Without the two claws they could not mate successfully. Which is a far cry from being vestigial legs” – but you are saying snakes as a whole. Many species of snake mate successfully without having and using spurs, they are not a necessity. Boas and Pythons are species of snakes that have vestigial limbs and use it for mating.

    But also is it not plausible that while the snake or whale was evolving and getting rid of their unused or unnecessary limbs, it gained another use for them and why vestigial limbs are only seen in some species?

    • matthew2262 says:

      Thank you for your response Cookie. The reason why I point out these vestigial features is beacause by definition they should be completely useless to be vestigial, or have lost significant function. But the only way to determine whether an organ has lost significant function is to know the original use of that organ. Snake spurs and whales having hind legs as an original use for these appendages is an assumption though. Though if these appendages are not useless but serve a vital purpose, whether initially or as a gained function later as you mentioned (which is likewise an assumption of course), then they can no longer be considered vestigial.

      Thank you for pointing out that not all snakes have spurs, you are correct that only a few do. It is my understanding that the snakes that do have them do require them for intercourse though. So again, they can’t be considered vestigial.

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. magreth says:

    thats so incredible……..

  4. marilyn says:

    wow its amazing

  5. Patrick says:

    I think you misinterpret the term “vestigial”. The fact that these spurs are used in mating today does not preclude the possibility that they were once used as legs. They are vestigial legs to the extent that they are no longer used as such for locomotion, but have retained either one function they once had (stabilization during mating) or serve a new one (physically grabbing the partner during mating).

    • matthew2262 says:

      Hi Patrick, thank you for your comment. However, I don’t believe I misinterpreted what vestigial means as I completely understand and agree with your explanation. The argument I make is first: Many people depict the spurs as having no use what so ever (which or course is false); and second: What we often declare as “vestigial” is nothing more than an assumption of past use and function. In other words, the snake’s spurs are only vestigial under the assumption that they originally had more function in the past. We do not know that though, since we have never observed this loss of function. Therefore, we should not overlook the possibility that the particular snakes that have spurs may have always had said spurs to assist in mating, and if this was their original function, then the spurs would not be vestigial. Now of course you could argue that that is in itself an assumption as well. And that is precisely the point. We don’t know for sure the past function of these spurs, so declaring them vestigial is no more than an assumption and should be declared as such, instead of being declared as fact, as many people do.

      Thank you again for your comment Patrick.

  6. matthew2262 says:

    “The existence of functionless ‘vestigial organs’ was presented by Darwin, and is often cited by current biology textbooks, as part of the evidence for evolution… An analysis of the difficulties in ambiguously identifying functionless structures and an analysis of the nature of the argument, leads to the conclusion that ‘vestigial organs’ provide no evidence for evolutionary theory.” -Steve Scadding, biologist.

    Scadding, S.R. (May 1981) “Do ‘Vestigial Organs’ Provide Evidence for Evolution?” Evolutionary Theory, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 173.

    *Scadding did write that he believes vestigial organs do support evolution theory on homologous grounds, but not on the grounds of perceived lack of function.

  7. matthew2262 says:

    “These invocations of evolution also highlight another common misuse of evolutionary ideas: namely, the idea that some trait must have evolved merely because we can imagine a scenario under which possession of that trait would have been advantageous to fitness. Unfortunately biologists as well as philosophers have all too often been guilty of this sort of invalid inference. Such forays into evolutionary explanation amount ultimately to storytelling rather than to hypothesis-testing in the scientific sense. For a complete evolutionary account of a phenomenon, it is not enough to construct a story about how the trait might have evolved in response to a given selection pressure; rather, one must provide some sort of evidence that it really did so evolve.” -Austin L. Hughes, evolutionary biologist.

    Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism,” The New Atlantis (Fall, 2012):32-50

  8. nelly says:

    Absoulutly incorrect snakes did not evolve from land lizards. The earliest forms of snakes came directly from the ocean. If you would like proof please drop me an email and I will send you the information. Unfortunately for yourself religion is dying off. All the doubts religion created are now being answered by a scientific method.we are just a complex organism no.different from a microbe.its time to get rid of these religious chains and free from it all. Time to have scientific progression and less religious regression.

    • Cookie says:

      Woah woah woah there’s no need to get rid of religion full stop. It’s not just about believing that there is some sort of creator etc etc but also a way to live your life by! I’m not religious in the slightest but that’s just me, just because I’m not doesn’t mean everyone else should be otherwise the world would be a very boring place! It’s interesting learning about other people’s religions and culture that goes with that!

    • matthew2262 says:

      Hi Nelly, thank you for your comment. After reading it, here are my thoughts. Personally I’ve never heard the theory of snakes evolving from sea creatures, but instead from lizards. That is the ancestry that Richard Dawkins subscribes to, at least on the show I saw. Whether or not the sea creature ancestry is correct or not, this testifies that there is a discrepancy in the exact origin of the snake. Why would I adhere to one theory or another as “truth” if there isn’t a consensus among biologists? Again, since I’ve never heard of this ancestry theory for snakes I’d love to find out more about it if you’d like to send me more info.

      Now, where does your statement that religion is dying off come from? Is this based on polls or population studies? Is it only in America or the entire planet? Is it just Christianity or all religions in general? I’d like to know more about that. Additionally, what “doubts” did religion create? I would disagree that humans are just a complex organism no different from a microbe. Besides the obvious differences in anatomical cell differentiation, humans are capable of reason, self-awareness, emotion, language, music/arts, and ethics. If we’re no different than microbes than there can be no grounds to prohibit heinous acts towards others or grounds to be distraught at the death of others, if we are just a bunch of cells… who cares? Yet, we do care. That is, because we are much more than a complex organism.

      Lastly, I’m not sure where your perception of religion holding back scientific progress comes from. The vast majority of scientific breakthroughs during the majority of the history of science as comes at the hands of religious men. Religion and science are not at odds with each other and science progresses regardless of religion. I encourage you to see another post I wrote: http://matthew2262.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/christianity-is-for-dumb-people/

      Thank you for your comment Nelly. Take care.

  9. Freddo says:

    So if what is said is believed by evolutionist and creationists, common sense says creation is right. The gene for the legs is there but god simply took them away and left the remnants as evidence. Where as Darwin has just studies of the universe but no proof. We find bodies in the Red Sea, proof of Noah’s ark. Trails of sodom and Gomorrah. But monkeys are still here while we’re here, and I don’t think we believe we’re monkeys. Everything can be connected because their is one creating everything

    • matthew2262 says:

      Thank you for your comment Freddo. I agree that everything can be connected together because there is One that created everything. However, I feel I should point out a few things you wrote in your comment and expand on them briefly. For example Darwin: Darwin didn’t really study the universe per say, but focused on biological origins. Now his conclusions did require proof/evidence, but evidence (data) can be interpreted different ways which leads to different conclusions. Between evolution, creationism, and intelligent design the data is the same, but the conclusions different.

      Additionally, regardless of the authenticity of bodies in the Red Sea, the famous sea crossing you’re surely referring to from Exodus isn’t actually pertaining to the Red Sea. The sea Moses crossed with the freed slaves was actually the “Reed Sea,” which is an ancient sea in the region that no longer exists (it can be located on maps made prior to the creation of the Suez Canal). The reason many Bibles say the Red Sea is due to a mistranslation long ago which many modern translations have acknowledged by placing a foot note on the bottom of the page correcting the passage to say Reed Sea. So bodies in the Red Sea probably have nothing to do with the events in Exodus.

      As far as Noah’s Ark, I’m not sure what proof you’re referencing. As far as I know, no conclusive proof of Noah’s Ark has been discovered. Many claimed finds of the Ark on Mt. Arat have been debunked.

      Lastly, the rational on monkeys is one that I too for a time believed. If we evolved from monkeys, but monkeys are still here, why haven’t they evolved like us? The “problem” really isn’t a problem for evolution. Human evolution proposes that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor. In other words, they believe we came from the same ancestor, but we split off to evolve while the other monkeys did not. Because evolution is believed to be the result of selective environmental pressures there could be a thousand reasons why humans evolved to such a high degree and the rest of the primate world did not. So un-evolved monkeys around today isn’t a problem for evolutionists.

      I just wanted to point these things out to you because it is my hope that we can present the most compelling argument for the existence of our God with accuracy. I’ve learned in the past that if I am incorrect when asserting certain “facts,” and am found wrong, the damage to my credibility hurts my witnessing of Christ to others. Thankfully someone clarified these things to me then, as I am doing for you now. Thank you again for encouraging comment.

      Take care Freddo.

  10. matthew2262 says:

    “The problem with this line of evidence [vestigial structures] is that the number of vestigial organs is rapidly shrinking. For many years opponents of evolution have predicted that functions of would be found for structures labeled vestigial, and this has been the case. In most cases serious treatments of evolutionary theory now restrict themselves to one or two paragraphs about vestigial structures. If this line of evidence is retained in textbooks at all, perhaps in the interest of fairness it would be good to indicate the number of structures once thought to be vestigial that have been shown to have important function.”

    -Gerald Rau (Ph. D., Cornell) Founder and Chief Editor at Professional English International.

    Rau, G., (2012) Mapping the Origins Debate, (Downers Grove, IL: InvterVarsity Press) pp.115

  11. DJ says:

    Then why are there hind legs in the skeleton of a whale, but we don’t see whales walking around with hind legs anymore?

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-iSsOGOpacP0/UKS-p3OMFoI/AAAAAAAAAjY/0hXZoJKpPy8/s1600/vestigial-whale1.gif

    Answer: Because whales evolved from land mammals.

    The uncountable holes in bible stories continue to be filled with ever increasingly more scientific evidence and reasoning. Stop walking your mind in circles trying to find explanations for the obvious: people today are simply more educated and knowledgeable of our world than sheepherders 6,000 years ago who wrote the old testament. Be on the side of reason, not on the side of faith, religion is dying as the world becomes educated, don’t fall behind under a blanket of ignorance; evolve your thinking!

    • DJ says:

      Edit: I noticed that above, many said what I already did about vestigial whale legs. That is a major example, but so many more exist. Humans, for instance, still have an non-functioning appendix (while in our ape cousins it still functions), we still have wisdom teeth though have long outgrown the necessity for chewing bark and rinds, we still have DNA which codes for a tail (which some people still grow a piece of today).

      I stand by my statement in the last comment though; you really need to give up your archaic thinking. The world is moving on. The old testament is nothing but a series of stories told over millennia, then transcribed and translated thousands of times to get the versions we have today. It is no different from the stories in the Hindu Mahabarata, or the tales of Norse Gods, or the Greek story of Odysseus; people believe those stories as fervently as you believe your book. Come into the 21st century man, use your head, Christianity is outdated, and for centuries has merely been a tool to subjugate and maintain order and status quo.You only buy into it through being essentially brainwashed from childhood, no child raised as non-religious would grab a bible at age 18, read it, and say “Oh this makes perfect sense”, because it doesn’t.

      • matthew2262 says:

        Hello again DJ! Thank you for your comment. After reading it, here are my thoughts: It is in fact, very incorrect to say the human appendix is non-functioning, and here are some reliable sources to prove that:

        http://www.physorg.com/news170010855.html

        http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/01/now_its_the_app054761.html

        Wisdom teeth have a function as well. Wisdom teeth are only removed when people have insufficient room along their jaw to grow them. When people do have sufficient room on their jaw the wisdom teeth operate as fully functional molars used just as much as the first and second molars. So why are some jaws too small to house the third molars? One reason is diet. In less developed countries diets are coarser, where in more developed nations the diet consists of softer foods. Coarser foods can influence the jaw to widen, which in turn creates the room necessary for the third molars. Other factors come into play as well, but the point is that they are not useless for everyone, only on those with small jaws.

        As for the human tail, it goes by the name coccyx. The coccyx is an anchoring point for many muscles. The levatorani muscle group for example, attaches to the coccyx and plays a very important role of supporting the pelvic floor and maintaining fecal continence (www.coccygectomy.org). Other muscles that anchor to the coccyx are the anococcygeal raphe used for support of the anus and the gluteus maximus which facilitates a wide range of body movement from the waste down.

        So as you can see, these body parts have function , and important function at that. It is therefore ironic that you suggest I abandon “archaic thinking” when it appears your data is the one guilty of being out of date.

        As far as the copying of the old testament, I encourage you to research exactly how it was copied by scribes and preserved for hundreds of years. You might want to research the Dead Sea Scrolls for example. A great place to start that is here: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/

        Lastly DJ, you seem to have made some hasty generalizations about me. You seem to think I was raised in a Christian home, brainwashed into faith, and am uneducated. When you wrote, “no child raised as non-religious would grab a bible at age 18, read it, and say ‘Oh this makes perfect sense’, because it doesn’t,” I almost fell out of my chair!

        And here is why: I was raised in a religion free home, and I knew nothing about the Bible other than that it was an old book written a long time ago. I probably knew about it as much as you do. I was educated in the public school system and learned contemporary biology through evolution in my science classes. I have since taken and passed upper division college courses in Biology, Human Genetic Applications, Botany, Ecology, and Soil Science from a non-religious university. Am I a scientist? No. But I am educated in evolutionary science. When I was 19, I picked up a Bible and began exploring it. I remained highly skeptical for about two years, during which I found myself extensively researching its creation and history. I took a chance and gave Christianity a shot and have had a profound life changing experience that I don’t regret in anyway. I still have questions from time to time, but I take the time to explore each problem I find in the Bible, and I always find satisfying answers.

        See DJ, I come from your world. I used to think just like you do. The difference between you and I is that I made the decision to try and understand the Bible before I came to any conclusions about it. Because drawing a conclusion about something that you know very little to nothing about is just as bad as discriminating another human because of the their skin color, social status or heritage. Only the narrow minded dismiss that which they do not understand. A truly tolerant and wise person takes the time to explore and learn both sides of the story before drawing any conclusions. I’ve taken the time to explore both sides. I hope you will too DJ.

        Thank you for your comment DJ. Take Care

        -Matt

    • matthew2262 says:

      Hi DJ, thank you for your comment. The problem with the question you pose in the beginning of your comment is that it begins with an assumption that what is being observed in the skeleton of the whale are in fact hind legs. Your answer, that whales evolved from land animals, is only correct if we accept the beginning assumption that those are indeed hind legs. But that is not known, only speculated. What is known is that those bones provide a vital role for reproduction in whales. So if I am to take your advice and be on the side of reason, not faith, then I reasonably conclude that the bones have a use for reproduction, not faith that they once served as hind walking legs.

      In addition, I find your critique of the Bible off putting considering that I’m not sure you know much about the Bible. For example, it was not written 6,000 years ago, and it wasn’t written by sheep herders. I encourage you to explore the history and archaeological authenticity behind the Bible and it’s authors before being so quick to dismiss it.

      Lastly, I would like to know where you’re getting the statistics that religion is dying? Feel free to share. In the meantime, I hope that you will put your assumptions aside and take the time to learn about the Bible before critiquing it. Because if you choose not to, then you yourself will fall under the blanket of ignorance you so kindly have warned me about.
      Thank you for your comment DJ, take care.

  12. matthew2262 says:

    Physical chemist Jonathan Sarfati writes, “Some evolutionists claim that the bones [hip bones in whales] show that whales evolved from land animals. However,… they are different in male and female whales. They are not useless at all, but help with reproduction (copulation).”

    Sarfati, J., (2008) By Design, (Howick, Auckland: Creation Ministries International) pp. 210.

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