"Naz", a poster on the discussion group CARM had this to say about whale evolution
  • "Pakicetids did not look like whales at all, and resembled land mammals. However, the skulls of pakicetids have an ear region that is highly unusual in shape, and only resembles that of modern and fossil whales. These features are diagnostic for cetaceans, they are found in all cetaceans, and in no other animals. These features are the main reason why pakicetids are considered whales."
  • This feature would eventually become beneficial to modern whales but where is the advantage for pakicetid and all its descendants before we see the benefit emerge? Pakicetid itself must have had an ancestor that did not have this feature so for what reason did this feature emerge and become dominant in that species?

I did a search on some of the quoted text, and found a close match in Answers in Genesis BUSTED! The page cites as a source, an article at Answers in Genesis (AiG), but it is no longer there. Never fear. Good old WayBack Machine comes to the rescue. It has it archived. The AiG article appears to be this one, Not at all like a whale by a certain A. Williams and one J. Sarfati.
  • ... the ‘whale’ status of Pakicetus received another potentially fatal blow. This came from a recent study of the semicircular canal systems in both living and fossil cetaceans (whales and dolphins).1 The semicircular canal system is a set of tubes connected to the inner ear that provides information on head (and therefore also body) movements. The tubes are filled with small, solid particles suspended in liquid. The inner surfaces of the tubes are covered with sensors that show which way the contents are flowing. This organ gives us our sense of balance.
  • To the surprise of the international team of scientists, the cetaceans, both living and fossil, all had the same ‘unique’ small canal size—about three times smaller than all other mammals, when corrected for body size.1 The researchers suggested that the canal system had to be small to reduce the sensitivity, thus preventing information overload as the animals rolled around.1 They concluded that the early whales had semicircular canals unlike those of any non-cetacean mammal. This, they said, shows that even the ‘earliest’ whales had unique behaviour, suited to aquatic life.
  • But while the paper defended whale evolution, the detailed analysis demonstrated a sharp gap in relative sizes between whales and non-whales, including the pakicetid Ichthyolestes (creationists would probably group it into the same created kind as Pakicetus). There were no examples of slow and gradual shrinking of the canals—they were either one relative size or the other.2 In fact, the paper affirms that the alleged change in canal structure happened ‘instantaneously’ and produced a ‘unique’ apparatus.

So what about Naz's question, "where is the advantage for pakicetid and all its descendents before we see the benefit emerge?"

Well, the answers are right there in the reference that Williams and Sarfati made, but did not link to.

  1. Spoor F., Bajpai S., Hussain S.T., Kumar K. and Thewissen J.G.M., Vestibular evidence for the evolution of aquatic behaviour in early cetaceans, Nature 417 (6885):163–166, 9 May 2002.

But first, what of Williams and Sarfati's note that, "the paper affirms that the alleged change in canal structure happened ‘instantaneously'"?

The word 'instantaneously' does appear in the referenced article. But what it means is also explained in the article. The changes appeared 'rapidly' - within 'five million years'!

  • The first appearance of small semicircular canals in the middle Eocene genera Remingtonocetus and Indocetus shows that the reduction in canal size took place rapidly and early in cetacean evolution, within five million years of the origin of the order.

So Williams and Sarfati's AiG piece is misleading. Spoor et al. describe the 'instantaneous' appearance of small canals as 'rapid' (in an evolutionary context) - taking five million years. This whole section of the the AiG piece relies on an 'argument' based on a five million year gap in the fossil record. But five million year gaps are common in the fossil record. And a high level of selective pressure can work substantial changes in such a time, especially changes in the relative size of already existing structures. This "potentially fatal blow" to the "'whale' status of Pakicetus" consists, not of a lack of some whale-like or transitional whale-like feature, but of a gap in the fossil record. No doubt, if an intermediate is found, the single gap will turn into two gaps.

And so finally, finally to Naz's question - what advantage are the small canals? Back to Spoor et al.

  • There remains the question of why Remingtonocetus and Indocetus would have shown increased levels of angular head motion, as is suggested by their reduced semicircular canal size. Although their neck length was shortened compared with pakicetids and other cursorial species, this was not to the extent seen in extant cetaceans.We hypothesize that the key underlying factor is the large, remarkably long-snouted head of Eocene cetaceans, including the oldest, terrestrial pakicetids. When adapting to agile aquatic locomotion this particular morphology favours hydrodynamic integration of the head and trunk to reduce drag, minimizing neck movements at the cost of effective reflex stabilization of the head. The semicircular canals, as a functionally constrained sensory system, instantaneously adjusted to such a kinematic change, whereas skeletal modification leading to extreme shortening of the neck was a more gradual process.

Answer - no advantage whatsoever in a non-aquatic environment, where they were not in evidence, but an advantage in an aquatic environment, where they rapidly evolved.

What makes obviously intelligent men like Williams and Sarfati abuse what they believe are their God-given talents in such a way as to produce this carefully constructed misinformation? Why was the article pulled from AiG? Why, when you google with distinctive sections of text from the article, do no end of creationist page hits pop up, perpetuating, and even amplifying the misdirection? It is like tales of UFOs and Berluda Triangle 'mysteries'. They gain spurious credibility with each retelling.

And why did I have to spend several hours putting the record straight? What a dreadful all-round waste of time and energy this whole evolution denial business is!