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Darwinists and the Fossil Record: Missing a Few Marbles


Neo-Darwinism leads us to expect more than just change over time in the fossil record. It anticipates a fossil pattern of very, very gradual evolution of new forms — evolution by tiny steps. On Darwinian grounds we should expect to find this pattern even given our highly incomplete fossil record. Instead the pattern we find is sudden appearance and stasis, sudden appearance and stasis, and precious little transition. Charles Darwin himself admitted that this pattern, particularly in the Cambrian explosion, posed a serious challenge to his theory.

More than a century and a half later, the problem — and the pattern — persists.

Stephen Meyer details all this in Darwin’s Doubt. As he notes, Stephen J. Gould tried to patch up the problem of an uncooperative fossil record with his idea of punctuated equilibrium, according to which evolution moves by relatively quick bursts followed by long periods of status. But even the quick bursts proposed by Gould’s model require many millions of years to get major new forms. That’s because natural selection working on beneficial genetic mutations still must do the primary creative work, and that can only happen one small step at a time.

Why not big jumps? Big random mutations don’t improve fitness; they maim and kill. This is well established experimentally, and the reasons for it are discernible from an analysis of engineering constraints at the molecular biological level. (See Chapter 16 of Darwin’s Doubtfor why evo-devo and other patches offer no escape from the problem either.)

So if intelligent design isn’t allowed a foot in the door, we should expect extraordinarily gradual and incremental change in the fossil record from one form to a subsequent and dramatically different form. But the fossil record fails to cooperate, whether in the Cambrian explosion, in the appearance of birds and land animals, or elsewhere in the fossil record.

Darwinism’s Missing Marbles

Consider an analogy. You and your friends are driven to a giant field covered a foot deep in marbles. Your host tells you the marbles there come in a myriad of colors, so various that if a sample of each color type in the field were placed end to end with samples of all the other color types, they would form an exquisitely high definition rainbow progression across the visible light spectrum, so smooth that only a very close inspection would register the transition from one marble color to the next one beside it.

At this point you and your friends are each paid a nice sum to make the day’s labor worth your while and are released to wander blindfolded through the field selecting marbles at random and bringing them back to the base camp.

Each of you make several trips back to the base camp loaded with bags of marbles, but somehow all of you keep coming back with all primary colored marbles, again and again and again, despite ranging carefully all over the field. After a while the base camp is sporting three big marble piles — one red, one blue, and one yellow. Eventually one or two of you come across an orange marble, an occasional purple marble, and a couple of grayish ones with maybe a hint of blue if you hold it in the light just right. But there’s never anything remotely approaching the perfect rainbow of variation you were promised.

You don’t want to be rude, but finally you mention this to your host.

“Well,” your host explains, “it turns out that only a small fraction of the original marbles is still around — a very, very tiny fraction.”

“Oh,” you say, “did whoever carted the rest of them off choose almost all the transitional colors to take away? I guess they wanted to have mainly primary colors in the field then.”

Your host looks aghast. “Choose? It wasn’t by design. It was by utter happenstance. What are you suggesting, you fool?”

Wanted: Millions of Missing Missing-Links

The host’s response is so bizarre that you decide he must have misunderstood you, so you try one more time to make your meaning clear. “What I’m wondering is, if the field was once a rainbow of hundreds or even thousands of different colored marbles, and if most of those marbles were carted off more or less at random, well then…” Here you gesture at the field, casting about for some way to make clear to the host a point that should be clear to any objective mind. But before you can finish your comment, the host cuts in. “The orange and purple marbles!” he cries. “Can’t you SEE? The missing links!”

Now, of course, the history of life is more wide-ranging and variegated than any rainbow, but the marble analogy does accurately capture the Darwinists’ misleading attempt to pass off a few extinct animal body plans as proof of gradual Darwinian evolution. This just won’t do since, on Darwinian grounds, we should expect to find millions upon millions of distinct transitional forms. The pattern of stasis and abrupt transition is one that fits with an intelligent design hypothesis. Intelligence can proceed by great leaps. The pattern doesn’t at all fit the neo-Darwinian model.

Photo credit: Joe Mabel [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.