The Case for a Creator: Small Twigs

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 3

Jonathan Wells’ second “icon” is Darwin’s tree of life, which he says is a “dismal failure” [p.43] as an illustration of the fossil record.

With a lead-in like that, you’d expect a typical creationist jeremiad against transitional fossils. In fact, that’s not what we get. The focus of Wells’ complaint is about the Cambrian explosion, 550 million years ago. No transitional series more recent is treated here: not the origin of tetrapods, not the therapsids which illustrate the evolution of reptiles into mammals, not the beautiful and compelling whale transitional series, and certainly not the emergence of the human species. Wells never even mentions these compelling, and indisputably relevant, examples of evolutionary transition preserved in the fossil record. Instead, the source of his ire dates all the way back to the origins of modern phyla:

“Darwin knew the fossil record failed to support his tree. He acknowledged that major groups of animals – he calls them divisions, now they’re called phyla – appear suddenly in the fossil record. That’s not what his theory predicts.” [p.43]

This is a lie. For the record, Darwin was well aware of the imperfection of the fossil record, and devoted an entire chapter of his book to explaining why we should not expect to see clear transitions preserved. If anything, he was too pessimistic, and our paleontological surveys have surpassed his expectations.

“Then at the beginning of the Cambrian – boom! – all of a sudden, we see representatives of the arthropods, modern representatives of which are insects, crabs, and the like; echinoderms, which include modern starfish and sea urchins; chordates, which include modern vertebrates; and so forth. Mammals came later, but the chordates – the major group to which they belong – were right there at the beginning of the Cambrian.
    This is absolutely contrary to Darwin’s Tree of Life. These animals, which are so fundamentally different in their body plans, appear fully developed, all of a sudden…” [p.44]

Wells’ argument is that the various phyla are so different in their body plans, they could not possibly have all diverged from a common ancestor in such a brief period of time. The best answer to this is a clever analogy originally proposed by Richard Dawkins to clear up just this sort of confusion:

Suppose you have a great oak tree with huge limbs at the base and smaller and smaller branches toward the outer layers where finally there are just lots and lots of little twigs. Obviously the little tiny twigs appeared most recently. The larger boughs appeared a long time ago and when they did appear, they were little twigs. What would you think if a gardener said, “Isn’t it funny that no major boughs have appeared on this tree in recent years, only small twigs?”

Strobel and Wells would like their readers to believe that the various phyla were already radically different from each other at the time of the Cambrian explosion. This is not the case.

The phyla are like the twigs on Dawkins’ tree. Originally, far back in the Cambrian, they were very similar to each other. But over great spans of geological time, they have diverged farther and farther, and what were originally slight differences became accentuated by evolution to fit the varying lifestyles to which they adapted. Today, the living representatives of these groups have major differences from each other, and looking all the way back, we can see how those differences developed from what were originally slight distinctions. In that sense, it’s fair to say that the “fundamental body plans” first appeared in the Cambrian. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the earliest members of these groups were radically different when they lived side by side.

When Wells speaks of “major groups”, he subtly misleads the reader. Based on his examples, a lay reader might erroneously conclude that starfish, crabs, reptiles, insects, and the like all just suddenly appeared during the Cambrian. In fact, as already stated, most species of the Cambrian explosion were relatively similar, and none of them looked much at all like the modern groups that are thought to have descended from them. Here are several Cambrian animals that Wells claims represent “major groups” that are “fundamentally different in their body plans”. Can you tell which one is the ancestor of what modern group?

(All images from the Smithsonian’s Burgess Shale Fossil Specimens page.)

If you’ve given up, the first of these animals is called Aysheaia, and is thought to be an ancestor of the velvet worms (phylum Onychophora), segmented worm-like animals with rows of clawed feet. The second is Canadia, believed to be an ancestor of annelids (phylum Annelida), whose modern representatives include earthworms and leeches. And the last is Pikaia, believed, with some dissenters, to be an ancestor of the phylum Chordata – us. All modern animals with dorsal nerve cords – fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals – all of them were represented in the Cambrian by this tiny, one-inch-long free-swimming creature.

These supposedly vast phylum-level differences, in the beginning, were trifling things. It’s only time and evolution that have turned these small twigs into great branches spreading far and wide.

Other posts in this series:

Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Weekend Coffee: March 28
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andrew

    Also, wernt most pre-cambrian creatures soft bodied, and thus unlikely to leave fossils behind?

  • Leum

    Yes. Even most Cambrian organisms left little or no trace.

  • Modusoperandi

    These animals, which are so fundamentally different in their body plans, appear fully developed, all of a sudden…
    Of course, by “all of a sudden” he means over a period of up to 80,000,000 years.

    Andrew “Also, wernt most pre-cambrian creatures soft bodied, and thus unlikely to leave fossils behind?”
    Pretty much. The Ediacaran had goo and worms and whatnot, some of which have been found, while the Devonian really started to branch out. Remember, though that in the Deluge, they only place lower in the so-called “geologic column” because they couldn’t swim as well as more advanced kinds, like chimpanzees and butterflies. I shit you not.

  • Purple

    I just want to state my appreciation for this post; I had read this chapter a couple of years earlier and it really confused me, but Ebonmuse explains it in wonderful detail and clarity. Thank you. =]

  • prase

    Another analogy could be the evolution of languages. Isn’t it strange that already in the earliest written records all major groups (Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Uralic…) were there?

    To see the fallacy, it’s enough to think a little about it. If we classify anything genealogically and the record is broken somewhere in the past, the branches at some level must appear “suddenly”, without regard to detailed specifics of the evolution.

  • prase

    One more thing – I always wanted to know whether creationists also deny that languages evolve and insist on the veracity of the story of tower of Babel. To be consistent they should, but I haven’t seen any indicaten that they do. What a pity. Just imagine the opportunities: irreducibly complex grammar, absence of transitional languages… could a tornado in a printing factory produce a sensible dictionary?

  • PaulJ


    I have a four-page pamphlet (purchased for 15p at my local creationist museum) entitled “Language: has it evolved?” by Dr. Clifford Wilson (Creation Science Movement, 1984). He quotes Chomsky to support his contention that, no, it hasn’t. I haven’t (yet) examined it in detail.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    For a good modern treatment of the fossil record, written as a response to Creationist distortions, see Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters by Donald R Prothero.

  • John Nernoff

    By the way, realize that Babel is in chapter 11 of Genesis: this is where “God” deliberately confused (yet another wonderful example of the malevolence of the demon Yahweh) the speech of man into different languages.

    Yet in chapter 10, we can learn that already, man had divided itself into many tribes, each with its own language. This is a Biblical discrepancy not well known among critics of the Bible.

  • milukfrog

    Prase – some conservative Christians take the Babel story pretty literally. I studied linguistics, and a couple of years ago I was talking to my brother-in-law about languages and how they change over time. His wife piped up that, of course, the changes all started with what happened at Babel! I nearly choked. To keep the family peace, I did not confront her on it. And, I was so shocked, I don’t think I could have formulated a coherent answer anyway.
    So, one bit of anecdata. :)

  • Virginia

    A piece of news from Hong Kong. A civil group which I belong, called “Hong Kong Concern Group for Science Education”, have started a campaign to urge our policy make to keep Creationism/Intelligent Design out of biology curriculum.
    Today we achieved a great step:
    Victory for Darwin
    Creationism rejected in new guidelines on the biology curriculum
    Liz Heron
    Jun 26, 2009

    The Education Bureau has announced that creationism and intelligent design will form no part of the senior secondary biology curriculum.
    The move has been hailed as a victory by leading scientists at the University of Hong Kong, who in February called for curriculum guidance on evolution to be upgraded to reflect current scientific thinking.

    The four scientists, who include dean of science Sun Kwok and science faculty board chairman David Dudgeon, accused the bureau of encouraging schools to promote creationism in biology lessons through the guidelines.

    The Concern Group for Hong Kong Science Education, which is lobbying for changes to the guidelines, has also welcomed the paper but says it does not go far enough.

    The calls were prompted by a clause in the biology guide, which comes into force in September, that states: “In addition to Darwin’s theory, students are encouraged to explore other explanations for evolution and the origins of life.”

    The bureau’s paper was drawn up for the Legislative Council’s education panel, after the Concern Group called for a panel debate on the issue. The panel demanded a report from the bureau and postponed a decision on the debate. Last month, the row intensified when the “group of 64″ mounted a counter-offensive calling for the clause to be retained.

    The bureau’s paper points out that the curriculum aims to strengthen students’ understanding of scientific inquiry in biology and its links with technology, society and the environment.

    “In the topic `Evolution’, the emphasis is put on Darwin’s Theory, as it is currently the most widely accepted scientific theory on evolution,” it states. “Students are expected to understand the process and mechanism of evolution based on Darwin’s Theory. Students should recognise that biological knowledge and theories are developed through observations, hypotheses, experimentations and analyses and [be] aware of the dynamic nature of biological knowledge.”
    The paper also states: “In the biology curriculum framework, creationism or intelligent design, which was mentioned in the recent submissions to the Legislative Council panel on education concerning the biology curriculum, is not included. In addition to Darwin’s Theory, students are encouraged to explore other explanations on evolution such as that of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Sir Alfred Russel Wallace.” It stresses that non-scientific explanations are not included.
    Professor Dudgeon said: “The bureau has recognised that the Darwinian theory of evolution constitutes the core of modern biology and that intelligent design and creationism have no place in the modern science curriculum.

    “It is a victory for the students and it will help to ensure that our science teaching remains world class. Clearly this guidance needs to be circulated to all secondary schools before the next semester.”

    Concern Group founder Virginia Yue Wai-sin, said the paper only partially met demands in its petition for action by the bureau. “It is moving in the right direction,” she said. “They have excluded creationism and intelligent design from the curriculum and they also emphasise scientific methods in greater detail. Yet they have just failed to take the critical step of saying that intelligent design and creationism are not science. We will continue to pursue answers to these questions with the bureau.”

    The “group of 64″, which includes 40 academics and seven teachers, argued that there was no universally accepted definition of science. But spokesman Stephen Tsui Kwok-wing, a molecular biologist at Chinese University, said yesterday: “We accept and respect the clarification of the biology curriculum guidelines from the Education Bureau. We reiterate that the purpose of our letter was not to promote the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in secondary schools.”

    However, “group of 64″ member Chris Beling, an associate professor in HKU’s physics department, said: “The EDB’s response has many good points but its tacit approval of Darwin’s theory, which has so many blatant errors, is not commendable.

    “Understandably, Bible-based creationism is not to be taught as science, but it is regrettable that intelligent design is lumped in the same basket, seeing it has all the characteristics of good science. Fortunately, these are only guidelines and we live in a free society.”

    An Education Bureau spokeswoman said the paper was based on the 138-page biology curriculum and assessment guide for the new senior secondary curriculum and its interpretation demanded a “holistic” understanding of the guide.

    Cyd Ho Sau-lan, chairwoman of Legco’s education panel, said: “I find paragraph five enough to tell the stance of the administration. It says very clearly that intelligent design or creationism is not included.”

    She hoped the debate was now over. “I don’t think the panel is in a position to engage itself in a debate between theologians and scientists. It could be an endless one,” she said.