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MSNBC’s Birthday Present to Charles Darwin: Puff-Pieces on Evolution (Part 3)

In Part 1 and Part 2, I discussed two of MSNBC’s recent puff-pieces promoting evolution that they’ve published to celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday. The final article, which pushed evolution much harder than the others, was titled, “Fossils reveal truth about Darwin’s theory” (also posted on Foxnews) and gloated, “Events and press releases are geared, in part, to combat false claims made by some who would discredit the theory. One frequently cited ‘hole’ in the theory: Creationists claim there are no transitional fossils, a.k.a. missing links. Biologists and paleontologists, among others, know this claim is false.”

The initial glaring problem with the MNSBC puff-piece is that so-called “creationists” are by no means the only ones discussing a lack of transitional fossils in the fossil record. There are many (i.e. many dozens) of admissions from leading evolutionary paleontologists acknowledging that the fossil record does not generally show a pattern of gradual evolution and that plausible transitional fossils are generally missing.

Moreover, the MSNBC article misrepresents how critics characterize the fossil record. Sophisticated critics of the fossil record don’t contend that there are “no transitional fossils,” but rather observe that the pattern we see in the history of life is one of explosions, where potential transitional fossils are the exceedingly rare exception. Rather than acknowledging the general pattern of explosions in the fossil record, MSNBC asserts that the fossil record “is full of” transitional forms that show “gradual change over time.” But many scientists unmentioned in this article have stated otherwise.

As a first of many possible examples…

… a 2001 college-level invertebrate zoology textbook acknowledges that the fossil record has not given clues to help explain the abrupt appearance of animal phyla in the Cambrian explosion:

Most of the animal phyla that are represented in the fossil record first appear, ‘fully formed,’ in the Cambrian some 550 million years ago…The fossil record is therefore of no help with respect to the origin and early diversification of the various animal phyla.

Likewise, Robert Carroll recognizes that “within less then 10 million years, almost all of the advanced phyla appeared, including echinoderms, chordates, annelids, brachiopods, molluscs and a host of arthropods. The extreme speed of anatomical change and adaptive radiation during this brief time period requires explanations that go beyond those proposed for the evolution of species within the modern biota.”

Of course no mention of the Cambrian explosion was made in the MSNBC puff-piece.

But this is not the only such “explosion” in the fossil record. Paleontologists have observed a fish explosion, a plant explosion, a bird explosion, and even a mammal explosion. Abrupt explosions of mass biological diversity seem to be the rule, not the exception, for the fossil record. In fact, no mention whatsoever of the “explosion” pattern in the history of life was made in MSNBC puff-piece.

The reality is that evolutionary transitions plausibly documented by fossils seem to be the rare exception in the fossil record. As leading evolutionary biologist, the late Ernst Mayr, wrote in 2001, “When we look at the living biota, whether at the level of the higher taxa or even at that of the species, discontinuities are overwhelmingly frequent. . . .

The discontinuities are even more striking in the fossil record. New species usually appear in the fossil record suddenly, not connected with their ancestors by a series of intermediates.” This phenomenon exists not only at the species level but also at the level of higher taxa, as one zoology textbook discusses:

Many species remain virtually unchanged for millions of years, then suddenly disappear to be replaced by a quite different, but related, form. Moreover, most major groups of animals appear abruptly in the fossil record, fully formed, and with no fossils yet discovered that form a transition from their parent group.

Likewise, the leading evolutionary paleontologist Niles Eldredge has stated, “…we have proffered a collective tacit acceptance of the story of gradual adaptive change, a story that strengthened and became even more entrenched as the synthesis took hold. We paleontologists have said that the history of life supports that interpretation, all the while really knowing that it does not.”

Ignoring this pattern, the MSNBC puff-piece cites Donald Prothero’s book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, to assert that the fossil record “is full of” transitional forms that show “gradual change over time.”

Buying Prothero’s Arguments? Caveat Emptor!
First, Prothero’s book–which forms the basis of authority for the MSNBC puff-piece–is hard to take seriously because it reads more like a polemic than a serious academic treatment. Consider these statements from Prothero’s book:

  • “[T]he creationist political pressure, propaganda, and lies are not restricted to public schools. In many smaller colleges … the professors are just as intimidated by creationist bullies who are eager to disrupt class.” (Prothero, p. 354; Note: it’s amusing that Prothero provides no documentation to back his anecdotal claim.)
  • “If the fundamentalists continue to expand their political power, are we in for another Inquisition, with the religious fanatics suppressing and destroying books and evidence, and harassing anyone who doesn’t agree with them?” (Prothero, p. 355)
  • “Many scientists and authors have written how uplifting and liberating the scientific worldview can be for humankind, especially in comparison to the vengeful God of the Old Testament.” (Prothero, p. 358)

Prothero’s book sounds like one with an agenda that clearly falls short of a calm, collected, objective scientific analysis. His examples of transitional forms follow a similar form of argumentation. In fact, when reviewing Prothero’s book, Niles Eldredge made a subtle but unmistakable complaint that Prothero did not discuss the overall pattern of evolution in the fossil record, where we often don’t find transitional forms and instead find abrupt appearance of new species:

[George Gaylord] Simpson begged to differ: His entire point in the ensuing chapters was to demonstrate that patterns in evolutionary history characteristically repeat themselves regardless of position in time, place, or clade. The pattern he focused on was the rapid-seeming appearance of higher taxa with their defining adaptations/ synapomorphies already well in place in the earliest known fossils–implying to Simpson a very rapid evolutionary origin, often leaving no trace of intermediates.

(Niles Eldredge, “Paleontology and Evolution,” Review of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero, in Evolution, Vol. 62-6:1544–1546 (2008).)

When commenting directly on Prothero’s book’s unyielding focus on alleged transitional forms, Eldredge goes on to say that Simpson “would still wonder–as I do–if that is all there is to the story. Prothero does not address the repeated-pattern phenomena that arrested Simpson and those, like myself, who have gotten the message that here lies the path where paleontology can make a real difference in understanding how evolution has produced the history of life that it has.”

In other words, Eldredge notes that Prothero basically ignores the all-too-common pattern in the fossil record where groups appear abruptly without transitions. Eldredge thus observes that one of Simpson’s “core postulates” is that “large-scale events in evolutionary history are not exactly like the patterns produced in selection experiments under laboratory conditions,” and thus we often find what he calls “‘Starburst’ phylogenies,” specifically mentioning the “Cambrian explosion”:

“Starburst” phylogenies based on extant taxa can be expected to reflect monophyletic subcomponents of such turnovers-cum-rapid evolutionary diversification. The persistent lack of resolution of the relationships of the three major clades of coelomate animals, for example, arguably reflects rapid diversification of the “Cambrian Explosion.” But although such patterns literally leap out of the fossil record, and have been known since the days of Cuvier in the early 19th century, phylogenetic systematists still routinely dismiss “unresolved” polychotomies simply as products of faulty data or analysis.

(Niles Eldredge, “Paleontology and Evolution,” Review of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero, in Evolution, Vol. 62-6:1544–1546 (2008).)

Eldredge thus complains that this sort of “explosion” or “starburst” pattern is not mentioned by Prothero in his book:

Beyond a discussion of punctuated equilibria (a passage in part geared to refuting creationist claims that punk eek is merely a storyline made up to hide the absence of transitional, ‘missing-link’ fossils), there is nothing of Simpson’s second theme connecting paleontology with evolutionary thought in a far more dynamic way.

(Niles Eldredge, “Paleontology and Evolution,” Review of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero, in Evolution, Vol. 62-6:1544–1546 (2008).)

Again, Eldredge complains that Prothero’s book does not contain a complete discussion of the fossil record:

But still the plaintive lines from the Threepenny Opera (Lotte Lenya singing “Is that all there is, my friend. . .?”) echo in my ears as I type these words. Van Dam et al. (2006) recently published an analysis of rodent evolutionary history in the fossil record of Spain between 24.5 and 2.5 million years ago. Most of the evolution is tied up in turnovers–where extinction takes out most of the existing fauna, and evolution thereupon kicks in and produces new species in cross-genealogical spasms of replacement that Darwin actually knew about (i.e., as a general pattern) but found threatening to his theory. It is not: except in the sense that it implies (as does the basic postulate of punctuated equilibria) that most morphological change in evolutionary history (and remember that morphological change is the Ur-probleme of evolution) occurs in conjunction with speciation events. If that is so, that is way not expected from conventional evolutionary theory.

(Niles Eldredge, “Paleontology and Evolution,” Review of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero, in Evolution, Vol. 62-6:1544–1546 (2008).)

Again, the translation is that Eldredge is saying that “most morphological change in evolutionary history … occurs in conjunction with speciation events” and thus evolutionary change is seen to occur too quickly to be documented by fossils. And Eldredge is basically complaining that Prothero doesn’t disclose this fact of life’s history in Prothero’s book. So the buyer should beware that Prothero’s book does not tell us everything about, as the book’s subtitle advertises, “what the fossils say.” Prothero’s book is an incomplete discussion of the fossil record that ignores the highly common, if not general pattern, of abrupt appearance of new biological forms.

Not only that, but some of the specific examples of alleged “transitional” forms mentioned by Prothero in the MSNBC puff-piece also give questionable interpretations of “what the fossils say.”

What DO Prothero’s Fossils Really Say?
The first example of a transitional form given by Prothero in the MSNBC puff-piece was Sahelanthropus tchadensis, or the Toumai skull, which according to the article “walked upright 7 million years ago on two feet but is quite chimp-like in its skull size, teeth, brow ridges and face” and “could be a common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.” Of course, what the article doesn’t tell readers that the Toumai fossil is known only from a fragmented cranium! As an article in The Guardian reported, it was composed of “skull and jaw fragments.” The notion that they know this fossil “walked upright” is pure speculation and interpretation, much like many transitional forms. This should be a lesson for those who would buy wholesale Prothero’s interpretations of fossils.

Darwinists often claim to have found upright-walking apes even when the evidence doesn’t support that view. They did the same thing with Lucy, the famous australopithecine fossil (see “My Pilgrimage to Lucy’s Holy Relics Fails to Inspire Faith in Darwinism” for details).

Another set of alleged transitional forms are early elephant-like fossils connecting Mastodons and Elephants. I’m willing to consider these plausible relatives of elephants, but we’re not talking about large-scale evolution. Again, we see Prothero bluffing: he calls Moeritherium the “ultimate transitional fossil,” yet even Wikipedia notes that this fossil is seen as “a branch of the order that died out, leaving no descendants.”

Of course, Prothero also cites some of the usual transitional forms, like Archaeopteryx (which I discussed in Part 1) and Tiktaalik. We’ve discussed Tiktaalik as being over-hyped as a transitional many times here on ENV:

In my final installment, I’ll discuss one fossil from this article given the contrived name, the “frogamander,” and show how it too has been subject to unwarranted evolutionary speculation and assumption-laden interpretation.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.