Creationists love mantis shrimp

My graduate adviser and some of his collaborators recently published a paper in Nature Photonics, about the efficiency of the natural quarter-wave retarder used in the mantis shrimp’s circularly polarized light detection system. The paper got a lot of play in popular press (because mantis shrimp are awesome), including a write-up by the “prestigious” Institute of Creation Research (ICR).

Too be fair, their article actually starts off better than most of the popular science writing about these animals. However, after the fifth paragraph it takes a nose-dive into a mire of fairly typical creationist misconceptions and misdirections. The downward spiral begins with heaping helping of “living-fossil” nonsense.

“The mantis shrimp is also one of many examples of “living fossils”―creatures that have not changed over supposedly vast evolutionary time spans. Some modern mantis shrimps are exactly the same as their ancestors that were fossilized in Devonian strata, which have been assigned an astounding age of 400 million years. The odds of this creature remaining unchanged for that length of time are fantastically remote.”


No biologist claims that mantis shrimp have remained unchanged since the Devonian. Mantis shrimp diverged from other crustaceans around the Devonian. Here is a comparison between a fossil and modern mantis shrimp.

Sure they share some superficial similarities; similarities also shared with thousands of other malacostracan crustaceans. However, these are different animals, with different morphologies and ecologies.

Take, for example, the raptorial appendages (red arrow). The raptorial appendages in modern mantis shrimp are massively enlarged maxillipeds (mouth-parts). They are highly specialized and used for predation (I will post in depth about this at some point). You can see that the fossil proto-mantis shrimp does not have an enlarged set of maxillipeds. It took hundreds of millions of years for them to evolve to their modern glory. This evolutionary modification of the first maxillipeds is obvious in the fossil record.

The ICR continues,

“And the odds of nature having constructed the world’s most complicated eyes so soon after the “Cambrian Explosion” of life, only to have left them perfectly alone ever since, seems counter-evolutionary.”

The eyes, like the raptorial appendages, obviously did not reach their full complexity when the mantis shrimp diverged in the Devonian. They also took hundreds of millions of years of evolution to develop from their proto-typical form into their elaborate modern design. There is nothing “counter-evolutionary” about the mantis shrimp eye.

“This research had little to say about the origin of the mantis shrimp eye, but it is clear that such high design demands a high designer.”


Argument from incredulity? Check!

Evolution builds complexity, the currently unknown is not unknowable, and just because we haven’t figured a particular detail out yet doesn’t mean we are going throw our arms in the air and give up. “Vision is complicated and science is hard, therefore God did it,” is a pitiful capitulation.

“While the source of mantis shrimps’ rarefied level of vision is unclear to evolutionists, other researchers, who are not convinced that nature is the only explanatory option for ultimate origins, suspect that the exquisite level of specificity, elegance, and effectiveness in the mantis shrimp vision system testifies to the unsurpassed level of the Creator’s genius.”


The source of stomatopod vision is not unclear to evolutionists. It is obviously the modified product of a suite of evolutionarily conserved visual pigments and optical components. These components are closely related to those in other crustaceans, slightly less related in other arthropods, and present (in some form) in all animals.

Also, I would like to know who these “other researchers” are. I am fairly well immersed in the mantis shrimp literature; it is not a huge research community. Nowhere have I heard a researcher present evidence or submit speculation that mantis shrimp are anything but the product of evolutionary processes. These “other researchers” are not studying the mantis shrimp visual system. They cherry-pick research from real scientists, and throw a creationist spin on it. Actual researchers do not doubt the evolutionary ancestry of the mantis shrimp visual system.

Creationists love mantis shrimp for one of the same reasons that I love them: because they are complicated. Creationists see this complexity, reported to them by actual researchers, and having done no work of their own, declare victory. Scientists also love mantis shrimp for their complexity. They offer unique and exciting opportunities for further research. Research in genetics, evolution, biomechanics, visual ecology, and neurobiology.

Tomorrow, countless scientists will go into their offices, labs, observatories, and field stations. They will work to better understand our world, and communicate that understanding with others. Scientists are driven by the ecstasy that comes with discovery, and they need not doubt that, “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” -Carl Sagan

13 Responses to “Creationists love mantis shrimp”

  1. 1 kevin Z March 4, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    I love this post, it reminded me of when I did Anemones Raise a Tentacle in Support of Evolution a couple years ago.

    You had a good point in your second to last paragraph. I think its something I knew intuitively but hadn’t thought much about. That is, scientists really know their systems from observing, tinkering, experimenting on them for a really long time. Creationists don’t do the work but more or less read the press release.

    We intuitively know evolution is the mechanism for change in organisms and instinctively work within that framework in our studies. Creationists swoop in during the final act to claim victory without understanding what they are reading, or what they are really even doing.

    The last thing I want to say is I also notice this trend of creationists saying that “other scientists” disagree, dispute etc. evolutionary interpretation. It is my belief that they are irresponsibly saying this without having any clue and doing no further research on the literature, history or opinion of scientists in whatever field it is they are discussing. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that they are cutting and pasting ideas or words from ID “scientists”, but are just blatantly lying.

    (p.s. mantis is misspelled in title)

    • 2 Mike Bok March 4, 2010 at 3:39 pm

      Yeah, the extent of their research usually entails reading a press release, spinning whatever is spinnable, and then making things up to fill in any obvious holes in their argument.

      (p.s. mantis is misspelled in title)

      Goddamnit, that has been sitting there for 3 months, and this is one of my most viewed posts. Oh well, thanks for letting me know!

  2. 3 dtitle March 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    I agree with Kevin Z. Creationists are out and out liars, repeating lies that have been publicly denounced over and over again. It’s the Nazi tactic of the “big lie” all over again. Say it enough times and people will believe it.

    As long as you are lying for God, I guess they think it’s OK. As far as I’m concerned Creation scientists are the sleaziest bunch to ever walk the publishing world. Snake oil belongs in evangelical tent revivals, not as scientific evidence.

    God help us all.

    • 4 Mike Bok March 4, 2010 at 3:42 pm

      Luckily their snake oil never passes in scientific circles. That leaves them with a cultural movement, that they unfortunately try to force into science classes.

  3. 5 Ocypode May 1, 2010 at 11:52 am

    This post is superb, you said it so well!

    It reminds me something I saw a couple of month :

    Creationists are bad taxonomists : here they confound slipper lobsters with mantis shrimps… And then say that the fossil evidence show no difference between current and past slipper lobster.

    Take a look at the picture here, you’ll see a picture of a current slipper lobster (probably picked up from wikipedia without respecting CC-BY-SA licence) and a fossil… I think you’ll recognize this arthropod in a glance : it’s a stomatopod, Pseudosculda laevis (Schlüter 1872)… Even with the poor quality of the picture, the two characteristic thoracopods are easy to find.

    The last paragraph is really beautiful, since it’s quite how I feel during my job experience in invertebrates palaeontology… And every day I learn more exciting things, from the fossils, or from the literature.

  4. 6 Mike Bok May 3, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    I had never see that slipper lobster plate before, by Harun Yahya’s ‘Atalas of Creation’ is infamous for its taxonomy fails.

  5. 7 From The Creationist August 3, 2010 at 1:08 am

    Thanks for the post, I really don’t know where to begin except to say for something to live so long ago and to have evolved, adapted or whatever you choose to call it has lived till present day is a sign of both God and evolution.

    For the Creationists out there: Stop being so close minded, is it not so farfetched to think that if God created the earth and created all of the living things in the earth after his intelligent design that he would not allow them to evolve to keep pace with the ever changing environment that they live in? What sense does it make to try and argue that a Mantis shrimp is the same as it was 350 mya when it clearly does not look the same? What point are you making? Because it’s not that God exists. I can’t find in the bible anywhere that it says that evolution is wrong, so is it a possibility maybe just a small one that you have forgot the real reason that you believe in creationism and are all wrapped up in the hoopla that is going around. Be a pillar of society like JESUS not a cum stain. Accept people for what they believe and allow people to choose what they want to believe instead of forcing your ways on them and maybe just maybe they might give you the time of day to talk to them about why you believe what you believe.

    For the Evolutionists: you know what it is like to be looked down on, casted out, sneered at, mocked, judged and laughed at, and you remember how dumb, ridiculous and close-minded you thought those arrogant, self righteous people looked and sounded. Don’t take up the same attitude of disgust because it doesn’t matter if you have the cure for eternal life no one will listen, look at how you view creationists and our snake oil. Learn from the Christian pitfalls and let your facts speak for you not your pompous attitudes. I apologize for the way my people (creationists) oppress and propagate your views of the world.

    It saddens me to see that we seem to spend more and more time putting energy and intellect into hating the other side of our realm instead of joining forces and really making leaps and bounds in both science and religion.

    Mr. Bok- we need more like you. Even though you do not have the same belief system as I do you still respected it and for that I thank you, you could have easily bashed and thrashed but you stated the facts and let them speak on your behalf. You have a magnificent blog and I hope that you continue on your quest in the scientific community. you are a inspiration, it is refreshing to see someone who is so emerged in their craft.

    As for my snake oil it works for me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m gonna force you to take it as well, it here for the taking but only if you ask.
    And ahhh its ahh great way to stay in shape.

  6. 8 Margaret September 1, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Reading this made me think back to our conversation about Creationist thinking during a hike with the lab on Old Rag Mountain.

    I hadn’t realized that it’s something you actually deal with in your own field of research!

    Great article!


  7. 9 T C March 18, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Interesting article; can you tell me which of the 400+ species of Stomatopoda was used as the representative ‘squilloid’ in the line drawing? It would seem that comparing species to species would be most scientific.
    Also, does anyone know if any fossils of Stomatopods have been found that include a fine detail impression of the eye? That would be interesting to compare, from an evolutionary standpoint.

  8. 10 E.E December 2, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Can anyone verify this research with sources? When using a blog such as this one, the sources are important. In order to use this information it would be great to have some alternate sources

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I have moved.
Arthropoda can now be found here.

Michael Bok is a graduate student studying the visual system of mantis shrimp.

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