I’m sure we’ve all seen more than our fair share of egregiously dumb anti-evolution arguments. I mean, it’s hard to top Ray Comfort’s banana for sheer stupidity. But the opening sentence of this column by Jerry Newcombe is at least in the running:
Every time I log into a computer and have to enter my password, I’m reminded of how impossible evolution is.
One little mistake on the keypad and I can’t log in. There’s even a website where I seem to be in permanent “log-in purgatory.” I can’t log in ever. Granted, it’s operator error. But still …
How does this tie to evolution? Because if evolution were true, then we are to believe a whole series of complex sequences managed to get everything right – repeatedly.
To use a clichéd example: It would be like a monkey typing at random and coming out with the complete works of Shakespeare without any errors.
Only if you believe that evolution had the goal of producing the complete works of Shakespeare. And if you don’t understand the difference between pure randomness and contingency. And if you completely ignore natural selection and number of trials when building that golly-gee-whiz probability assumption. In other words, only if you’re completely ignorant of the subject, as Newcombe clearly is.
There’s a new book on evolution that is getting a lot of attention – and deservedly so. It is “Darwin’s Doubt” by Stephen Meyer. If you’re familiar with the topic, the subtitle is very clever – “The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.”
This is not some minor book by an “obscurantist backwoods fundamentalist.” It is published by HarperCollins and was written by a man who earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge. This 500-page illustrated book made its way to seventh place on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Let’s see: Appeal to authority? Check. Appeal to popularity? Check. Reasonable argument for a substantive conclusion that Meyer is correct? Nope, not here. But even the appeal to authority is absurd. Meyer has no background or training at all in paleontology, which is the primary subject of the book. And isn’t it amusing how creationists absolutely love appeals to singular authority — we’ve got this one PhD who agrees with us — while ignoring the far more relevant authority of virtually every scientist working in the relevant fields?
I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Meyer of the Discovery Institute on my radio show last week. He said of his book, “The title tells the story. I tell the story of a doubt that Darwin had about his own theory.” The doubt centers around what’s known as the Cambrian Explosion…
Meyer explains, “The Cambrian Explosion refers to the geologically sudden or abrupt appearance of the major group of animals early in the fossil record, in a period of time that geologists call the Cambrian.” The key word is “abrupt.”
No, the key word is “geologically.” We’re talking about tens of millions of years, at bare minimum, and that number keeps getting bigger as we discover more pre-cambrian fossils. Meyer and Newcombe want you to think that this happened “abruptly” in colloquial terms, like in an afternoon or a week. As Donald Prothero, who actually is a paleontologist, points out in a review of Meyer’s new book:
Let’s take the central subject of the book: the “Cambrian explosion”, or the apparently rapid diversification of life during the Cambrian Period, starting about 545 million years ago. When Darwin wrote about it in 1859, it was indeed a puzzle, since so little was known about the fossil record then. But as paleontologists have worked hard on the topic and learned a lot since about 1945 (as I discuss in detail in my 2007 book,Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters). As a result, we now know that the “explosion” now takes place over an 80 m.y. time framework. Paleontologists are gradually abandoning the misleading and outdated term “Cambrian explosion” for a more accurate one, “Cambrian slow fuse” or “Cambrian diversification.” The entire diversification of life is now known to have gone through a number of distinct steps, from the first fossils of simple bacterial life 3.5 billion years old, to the first multicellular animals 700 m.y. ago (the Ediacara fauna), to the first evidence of skeletonized fossils (tiny fragments of small shells, nicknamed the “little shellies”) at the beginning of the Cambrian, 545 m.y. ago (the Nemakit-Daldynian and Tommotian stages of the Cambrian), to the third stage of the Cambrian (Atdabanian, 530 m.y. ago), when you find the first fossils of the larger animals with hard shells, such as trilobites. But does Meyer reflect this modern understanding of the subject? No! His figures (e.g., Figs. 2.5, 2.6, 3.8) portray the “explosion” as if it happened all at once, showing that he has paid no attention to the past 70 years of discoveries. He dismisses the Ediacara fauna as not clearly related to living phyla (a point that is still debated among paleontologists), but its very existence is fatal to the creationist falsehood that multicellular animals appeared all at once in the fossil record with no predecessors. Even more damning, Meyer completely ignores the existence of the first two stages of the Cambrian (nowhere are they even mentioned in the book, or the index) and talks about the Atdabanian stage as if it were the entire Cambrian all by itself. His misleading figures (e.g., Fig. 2.5, 2.6, 3.8) imply that there were no modern phyla in existence until the trilobites diversified in the Atdabanian. Sorry, but that’s a flat out lie. Even a casual glance at any modern diagram of life’s diversification (Figure 1) demonstrates that probable arthropods, cnidarians, and echinoderms are present in the Ediacara fauna, mollusks and sponges are well documented from the Nemakit-Daldynian Stage, and brachiopods and archaeocyathids appear in the Tommotian Stage–all millions of years before Meyer’s incorrectly defined “Cambrian explosion” in the Atdabanian. The phyla that he lists in Fig. 2.6 as “explosively” appearing in the Atdabanian stages all actually appeared much earlier–or they are soft-bodied phyla from the Chinese Chengjiang fauna, whose first appearance artificially inflates the count. Meyer deliberately and dishonestly distorts the story by implying that these soft-bodied animals appeared all at once, when he knows that this is an artifact of preservation. It’s just an accident that there are no extraordinary soft-bodied faunas preserved before Chengjiang, so we simply have no fossils demonstrating their true first appearance, which occurred much earlier based on molecular evidence.
Meyer’s distorted and false view of conflating the entire Early Cambrian (545-520 m.y. ago) as consisting of only the third stage of the Early Cambrian (Atdabanian, 530-525 m.y. ago) creates a fundamental lie that falsifies everything else he says in the ensuing chapters. He even attacks me (p. 73) by claiming that during our 2009 debate, it was I who was improperly redefining the Cambrian! Even a cursory glance at any recent paleontology book on the topic, or even the Wikipedia site for “Cambrian explosion”, shows that it is Meyer who has cherry-picked and distorted the record, completely ignoring the 15 million years of the first two stages of the Cambrian because their existence shoots down his entire false interpretation of the fossil record. Sorry, Steve, but you don’t get to contradict every paleontologist in the world, ignore the evidence from the first two stages of the Cambrian, and redefine the Early Cambrian as the just the Atdabanian Stage just to fit your fairy tale!
Even if we grant the premise that a lot of phyla appear in the Atdabanian (solely because there are no soft-bodied faunas older than Chengjiang in the earliest Cambrian), Meyer claims the 5-6 million years of the Atdabanian are too fast for evolution to produce all the phyla of animals. Wrong again! Lieberman (2003) showed that rates of evolution during the “Cambrian explosion” are typical of any adaptive radiation in life’s history, whether you look at the Paleocene diversification of the mammals after the non-avian dinosaurs vanished, or even the diversification of humans from their common ancestor with apes 6 m.y. ago. As distinguished Harvard paleontologist Andrew Knoll put it in his 2003 book, Life on a Young Planet:
Was there really a Cambrian Explosion? Some have treated the issue as semantic–anything that plays out over tens of millions of years cannot be “explosive,” and if the Cambrian animals didn’t “explode,” perhaps they did nothing at all out of the ordinary. Cambrian evolution was certainly not cartoonishly fast … Do we need to posit some unique but poorly understood evolutionary process to explain the emergence of modern animals? I don’t think so. The Cambrian Period contains plenty of time to accomplish what the Proterozoic didn’t without invoking processes unknown to population geneticists–20 million years is a long time for organisms that produce a new generation every year or two. (Knoll, 2003, p. 193)
In other words, it’s the same old dishonest creationist drivel. How entirely unsurprising.