Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Record isn't There

My biggest shock in investigating the theory of evolution was learning that the fossil record I'd always been told supports evolution does not exist...

Phillip Johnson, in his book, Darwin on Trial, quotes from a well-regarded American textbook on Introductory Biology in the 1980s:

"Can more extensive evolutionary change, macroevolution, be explained as an outcome of these microevolutionary shifts? Did birds really arise from reptiles by an accumulation of gene substitutions of the kind illustrated by the raspberry eye-color gene? The answer is that it is entirely plausible, and no one has come up with a better explanation... The fossil record suggests that macroevolution is indeed gradual, paced at a rate that leads to the conclusion that it is based on hundreds or thousands of gene substitutions no different in kind from the ones examined in our case studies."
Except, says Johnson, "that last sentence is false and has long been known to paleontologists to be false."

A casual perusal of the Wikipedia entry on evolution produces only three instances where the fossil record is even discussed:

"The study of evolutionary biology began in the mid-nineteenth century, when studies of the fossil record and the diversity of living organisms convinced most scientists that species changed over time."

"Speciation events are important in the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which accounts for the pattern in the fossil record of short "bursts" of evolution interspersed with relatively long periods of stasis, where species remain relatively unchanged...

"...the periods of stasis in the fossil record correspond to the parental population, and the organisms undergoing speciation and rapid evolution are found in small populations or geographically restricted habitats, and therefore rarely being preserved as fossils..."

[This last basically says that the fossil record does NOT support the earlier statement that the "fossil record" convinced most scientists that species changed over time. If only the organisms that haven't changed are preserved, not those which are evolving, there is no support in the record, so it couldn't have been the record that convinced them!]

[I would also like to note that in every other Wiki page I've checked in the course of writing these posts, even on the Gap Theory, there's always been a sub-heading on "Criticisms". There was no such category for evolution.]

But that's only a Wikipedia article. What about the paleontologists, those scientists who are expert in the study of the fossil record and who have been diligently seeking every -- any -- instance of fossil remains that will support their theory of evolution? After all, Darwin himself stressed the fact that if his theory were true, the number of transitional inntermediaries would be "inconceivable." He was confident that the more paleontologists dug, the more intermediary fossils they would discover.

Stephen Jay Gould (prominent American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist who taught at Harvard and worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and a proponent of the alternative evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium) said in his Natural History article, 'Evolution's Erratic Pace,':

‘The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. . . . [T]o preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study.'
Likewise, Niles Eldredge, paleontologist and Chief Curator at The American Museum Of Natural History, said in his book, The Myths of Human Evolution (1982):

"Darwin's prediction of rampant, albeit gradual, change affecting all lineages through time is refuted. The record is there, and the record speaks for tremendous anatomical conservatism. Change in the manner Darwin expected is just not found in the fossil record."
In Reinventing Darwin (1995), Eldredge said,

"Simple extrapolation does not work. I found that out back in the 1960s as I tried in vain to document examples of the kind of slow, steady directional change we all thought ought to be there, ever since Darwin told us that natural selection should leave precisely such a telltale signal as we collect our fossils up cliff faces. I found instead, that once species appear in the fossil record, they tend not to change much at all. Species remain imperturbably, implacably resistant to chance as a matter of course." (p.3)

"Stasis is now abundantly well documented as the preeminent paleontological pattern in the evolutionary history of species."(p.77)

"No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It seems never to happen. Assiduous collecting off cliff faces yields zigzags, minor oscillations, and the very occasional slight accumulation of change -- over millions of years, at a rate too slow to really account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere! Evolution cannot forever be going on someplace else. Yet that's how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution."(p.95)
Gould and Eldredge proposed an alternative theory of punctuated equilibrium, where evolution consists of long periods of stability in organism phenotype punctuated by rare explosions of new and startling collections of organisms or "evolutionary branches." This is in contrast to Darwin's idea of gradual change and attempts to reconcile the actual record.

Whether embracing punctuated equilibrium or the gradual change of Darwinism, proponents dismiss the fossil record's lack of evidence as "a result of migrational events." Or else they attribute it to the fact that all the changing organisms were on the fringe of the population center and thus were never preserved in fossilized form. I think they must be too invested in defending the theory to hear how silly that explanation sounds.

And how completely unscientific this entire evolution business is.

More on that tomorrow.

The quotes from Gould and Eldredge used here are from Stephen E. Jones's quotes database on evolution which can be found here:

The page of this database I specifically used is

This page has a mind-boggling number of quotes from all manner of sources -- Einstein, Louis Agassiz, Darwin, Dawkins, Dennett... If you're interested in what these people had to say about evolution and science in general I encourage you to check it out. It's amazing.