The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.


3 thoughts on “The coelacanth as a red herring

  1. Great article. Well done.

    My favorite bits:
    “highlights that the discovery was unknown and unexpected. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light, maybe perhaps we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists.”

    The enormity of that leap of reasoning boggles the mind.

    Don’t the creationists know that the theory of evolution states that forms will evlove where pressured by the environment? Just like that shark, this fish simply didn’t need improvement in order to survive. No big mystery there, and certainly nothing to discredit the theory of evolution.

    Cheers! Well done!

  2. It’s also not true that Latimeria has not changed. Not much, OK, but it has changed.

    Earlier coelacanths show a pretty amazing diversity.

  3. Yep. But it’s one of those goofy “living fossil” icons. Don’t care for those.

    Folks who want to use these critters for their own purposes leave out the details. Thanks for the comment. Once I reread it, I realized I didn’t make it clear that their evolutionary interpretation was in error.

Comments are closed.