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Derbyshire II: Of Bones and Beads

John Derbyshire recently rebutted a series of objections against Darwinism and, in the process, leveled a series of objections against intelligent design. He dismisses design by ignoring the actual arguments of its theorists and shadowboxing with letter writers instead. He shows, thereby, a lack of seriousness on his own part by trivializing and demeaning scholars whose views he apparently has not really bothered to understand.

One problem is that Derbyshire’s objections against design theory often state the positions of leading design theorists–in other words, he agrees with leading design proponents without even realizing it.

For instance, one of his blog visitors tried to refute Darwinism by asserting, “The fossil record is incomplete.” Derbyshire responded, “Well, duh. Fossilization only happens under extraordinary circumstances.” That’s correct.

He then goes on to assert that the fossil record is nevertheless complete enough to make inferences about the origin and history of species. Still agreed.

Then Derbyshire parts company with leading design theorists. He thinks the gaps in the fossil record protect the theory of common descent by natural selection. But the gaps don’t. The fossil record is a growing problem for neo-Darwinism because attempts to explain away the absence of transitional intermediates between phyla and even lower groups have failed.

University of Chicago paleontologist Michael Foote notes that we continue to find many new fossil beds around the world, but again and again the fossils we find there belong to phyla and other major groups that we already knew about. This strongly suggests that the fossil record’s pattern of sudden appearance, stasis, and yawning chasms between the orders does truly represent the history of life. In other words, it’s not just an artifact of an incomplete sample of the data.

Suppose you find a dumpster mostly full of beads (an IPO for Bead World tanked). You watch the garbage truck pick up the dumpster, shake it every which way,thoroughly shuffling the beads. Then the lid is removed and the garbage man tells you to help yourself. The dumpster opening is too tall for you to see into, but you can reach over the top and scoop beads out at random. When you remove a handful of beads, you find that they are all red, green, or blue.

Can you reasonably infer that the dumpster principally contains just these colors? Not yet. This sample is so small that it may not be representative of all the colors in the dumpster. Plus, the garbage man insists that every tenth bead in the dumpster is an intermediate color between red, green, and blue. In fact, he says, you’ll find that this transitional tenth — when arranged in order — forms an infinitesimally gradual movement from red to green to blue.

You nod and continue to reach in, bringing back handful after handful. Each time they are just red, green, or blue. You climb into the dumpster. All the beads on the surface are red, green, or blue. You plunge your arms in and pull up more and more handfuls. You’re positively wallowing in beads, and all of them are red, green, blue.

“Were they thoroughly mixed together?” you ask the garbage man. He assures you they were. You politely inform him that uh, no doubt, there are a few other bead colors–rare ones–but there’s no way that every tenth bead is a transitional color, much less a rainbow of transitional colors.
Since it just so happens that you’re a probability theorist, you run the numbers for him and show that the chances that every tenth bead is a transitional color is vanishingly small. He shakes his head. “Oh, so you’ve looked at every bead, have you?” He jumps in with you. After a few minutes, he finds an old yellow marble stuck in the lid hinge. “Ah ha!” he yells. “The missing link!” Now it’s your turn to just shake your head.

This is the situation with the global fossil record. As Foote concludes, “We have a representative sample and therefore we can rely on patterns documented in the fossil record.”

He doesn’t mean we will find no more species. He does mean that we have enough of the fossil record to see the basic pattern before us. It’s one of sudden appearance of phyla, stasis, and yawning chasms of morphological space between them. And the pattern simply doesn’t fit with Darwin’s gradually branching tree of life.

Meyer et al. elaborates in Darwinism, Design and Public Education:

Foote develops a method by which evolutionary models can be tested against several variables. Foote shows that “given estimates of [a] completeness [of the fossil record], [b] median species duration, [c] the time required for evolutionary transitions, and [d] the number of ordinal- or higher-level transitions, we could obtain an estimate of the number of major transitions we should expect to see in the fossil record.” His method provides a way to evaluate, as he puts it, “whether the small number of documented major transitions provides strong evidence against evolution.”

Because variables [a], [b] and [d] are reasonably well established, [c] the time required for plausible mechanisms to produce macro-evolutionary transitions, stands as the crucial variable in any such analysis. If the time required to produce major evolutionary change is high, as it is for neo-Darwinian mechanisms of change, then given current estimates of [a], [b], and [d], neo-Darwinism fails to account for the data of the fossil record.

Conversely, for punctuated equilibrium to succeed as an explanation for the data of the fossil record, [c] must be very low. In other words, the explanatory success of punctuated equilibrium depends upon the existence of a mechanism that can produce rapid macro-evolutionary change. As Foote and Gould note elsewhere, the punctuationalist model of Cambrian evolution requires a mechanism of unusual “flexibility and speed.”

As yet, however, neither Foote, nor Gould, nor anyone else has identified such a mechanism with any genetic or developmental plausibility. Thus, given the current empirical climate, the logic of Foote’s statistical methodology tends to reinforce the earlier work of Valentine and Erwin who concluded that, “neither of the contending theories of evolutionary change at the species level, phyletic gradualism or punctuated equilibrium, seem applicable to the origin of new body plans,” and thus, we now require “a [new] theory for the evolution of novelty, not diversity.” (343-4)

Derbyshire suggests that only “hypotheses that can be mathematically modeled” are truly science. That’s wrong. Much good science is done without mathematical modeling. The irony is that Foote and others are doing mathematical modeling on the fossil record, and the implication isn’t Darwinism. It’s design.

Jonathan Witt

Executive Editor, Discovery Institute Press and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a senior fellow and senior project manager with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. His latest book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (DI Press, 2018) written with Finnish bioengineer Matti Leisola. Witt has also authored co-authored Intelligent Design Uncensored, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Witt is the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors.