"All mammals, living or fossil, have a single bone, the dentary, on each side of the lower jaw, and all mammals, living or fossil, have three auditory ossicles or ear bones, the malleus, incus and stapes. ... Every reptile, living or fossil, however, has at least four bones in the lower jaw and only one auditory ossicle, the stapes. ... There are no transitional fossil forms showing, for instance, three or two jawbones, or two ear bones. No one has explained yet, for that matter, how the transitional form would have managed to chew while his jaw was being unhinged and rearticulated, or how he would hear while dragging two of his jaw bones up into his ear." (Gish 1978, p. 80)
Gish was incorrect in stating that there were no transitional fossil forms, and he has been corrected on this gaff numerous times since he wrote these words. However, Gish's statements nicely delineate the morphological conundrum at hand. Let's review the required evolutionary conclusion. During their evolution, two mammalian middle ear bones (the hammer and anvil, aka malleus and incus) were derived from two reptilian jawbones. Thus there was a major evolutionary transition in which several reptilian jawbones (the quadrate, articular, and angular) were extensively reduced and modified gradually to form the modern mammalian middle ear. At the same time, the dentary bone, a part of the reptilian jaw, was expanded to form the major mammalian lower jawbone. During the course of this change, the bones that form the hinge joint of the jaw changed identity. Importantly, the reptilian jaw joint is formed at the intersection of the quadrate and articular whereas the mammalian jaw joint is formed at the intersection of the squamosal and dentary (see Figure 1.4.1).
Figure 1.4.2. A comparison of the ears of reptiles and mammals. The reptile ear is shown on the left, the mammal ear on the right. As in Figure 1.4.1, the quadrate (mammalian anvil or incus) is in turquoise and the articular (mammalian hammer or malleus) is in yellow. The stapes is shown in brown. Note how the relative arrangement of these bones is similar in both taxa, in the order of inner ear-stapes-quadrate-articular.
How could hearing and jaw articulation be preserved during this transition? As clearly shown from the many transitional fossils that have been found (see Figure 1.4.3), the bones that transfer sound in the reptilian and mammalian ear were in contact with each other throughout the evolution of this transition. In reptiles, the stapes contacts the quadrate, which in turn contacts the articular. In mammals, the stapes contacts the incus, which in turn contacts the malleus (see Figure 1.4.2). Since the quadrate evolved into the incus, and the articular evolved into the malleus, these three bones were in constant contact during this impressive evolutionary change. Furthermore, a functional jaw joint was maintained by redundancy - several of the intermediate fossils have both a reptilian jaw joint (from the quadrate and articular) and a mammalian jaw joint (from the dentary and squamosal). Several late cynodonts and Morganucodon clearly have a double-jointed jaw. In this way, the reptilian-style jaw joint was freed to evolve a new specialized function in the middle ear. It is worthy of note that some modern species of snakes have a double-jointed jaw involving different bones, so such a mechanical arrangement is certainly possible and functional.
Since Figure 1.4.3 was made, several important intermediate fossils have been discovered that fit between Morganucodon and the earliest mammals. These new discoveries include a complete skull of Hadrocodium wui (Luo et al. 2001) and cranial and jaw material from Repenomamus and Gobiconodon (Wang et al. 2001). These new fossil finds clarify exactly when and how the malleus, incus, and angular completely detached from the lower jaw and became solely auditory ear ossicles.
Figure 1.4.3. A comparison of the jawbones and ear-bones of several transitional forms in the evolution of mammals. Approximate stratigraphic ranges of the various taxa are indicated at the far left (more recent on top). The left column of jawbones shows the view of the left jawbone from the inside of the mouth. The right column is the view of the right jawbone from the right side (outside of the skull). As in Figure 1.4.1, the quadrate (mammalian anvil or incus) is in turquoise, the articular (mammalian hammer or malleus) is in yellow, and the angular (mammalian tympanic annulus) is in pink. For clarity, the teeth are not shown, and the squamosal upper jawbone is omitted (it replaces the quadrate in the mammalian jaw joint, and forms part of the jaw joint in advanced cynodonts and Morganucodon). Q = quadrate, Ar = articular, An = angular, I = incus (anvil), Ma = malleus (hammer), Ty = tympanic annulus, D = dentary. (Reproduced from Kardong 2002, pp. 274, with permission from the publisher, Copyright © 2002 McGraw-Hill)
Recall that Gish stated: "There are no transitional fossil forms showing, for instance, three or two jawbones, or two ear bones" (Gish 1978, p. 80). Gish simply does not understand how gradual transitions happen (something he should understand, obviously, if he intends to criticize evolutionary theory). These fossil intermediates illustrate why Gish's statement is a gross mischaracterization of how a transitional form should look. In several of the known intermediates, the bones have overlapping functions, and one bone can be called both an ear bone and a jaw bone; these bones serve two functions. Thus, there is no reason to expect transitional forms with intermediate numbers of jaw bones or ear bones. For example, in Morganucodon, the quadrate (anvil) and the articular (hammer) serve as mammalian-style ear bones and reptilian jaw bones simultaneously. In fact, even in modern reptiles the quadrate and articular serve to transmit sound to the stapes and the inner ear (see Figure 1.4.2). The relevant transition, then, is a process where the ear bones, initially located in the lower jaw, become specialized in function by eventually detaching from the lower jaw and moving closer to the inner ear.