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Early Cambrian Complexity and Other News

Evolution News

Cambrian explosion

Here’s a collection of cross-disciplinary science news stories united by a common theme: intelligent design.

Earliest Cambrian Arthropod/Crustacean

Ercaicunia represents the first stem-group pancrustacean known from macrofossils,” begins a paper in Current Biology. Don’t worry about what a pancrustacean is for now, because taxonomists can’t agree among themselves. Assuming everything is related by common ancestry, they try to draw phylogenetic trees, inventing new stem group names like edysozoa (“moulting animals”) and lobopodia (“blunt footed”) and pinning fossils onto different branches. Some will say such-and-such is a stem-group this, or a crown-group that, but other taxonomists will disagree and move things around. Pancrustacea is one of these theory-laden groups within Euarthropoda (“true joint-footed things”) that is supposed to include Crustacea and Hexapoda (“six-footed things”). This new fossil is hard to classify, because “early evolution of Pancrustacea remains elusive given the difficulty of recognizing synapomorphies [shared ancestral traits] between Cambrian forms and extant representatives.” In addition, many fossils show mosaics of traits rather than clear lines of descent, forcing evolutionists to resort to theory-rescue devices like convergent evolution or parallel evolution.

Enough taxonomy for now. What’s important is that Ercaicunia multinodosa is a complex critter! At first glance it resembles a tiny silverfish, but those came later. The earliest known arthropod of this type, found at the Chengjiang fossil site in China (pictured above), shows a complex animal preserved in 3-D with clear evidence of head appendages, including “antennulae, differentiated antennae, mandibles, and maxillae,” as well as trunk appendages with jointed legs (epipodites, the first joints of arthropod legs) and feathery setae on the appendages.

The diagrams clearly show this little (8-11 mm) segmented “bivalved euarthropod” had a high degree of complexity, with a gut with both mouth and anus, motile mouthparts for feeding, sensory antennae implying a nervous system and a brain, probably legs for movement, and an exoskeleton — but no eyes. Though found in China, other representatives are found in the morphologically similar Burgess Shale euarthropods on the other side of the world. The Chengjiang and Burgess Shale fossil sites are estimated to be about 545 million years to 525 million years old.

Although no date is assigned to this animal, it had to be very close to the Cambrian explosion. Its size is not as important as its complexity. It has a great deal of hierarchical organization to suddenly appear without ancestors. Think of the new genes, cell types, tissues and organs that Darwinians have to believe exploded onto the scene by chance in a very short time, geologically speaking. Moreover, “E. multinodosa possesses characters uniquely shared with extant crustaceans, including differentiated tritocerebral antennae and epipodite-bearing biramous trunk appendages” (emphasis added). Stephen Meyer’s case for intelligent design in Darwin’s Doubt keeps getting vindicated by new fossils.

Design Your Own DNA

The intelligent designers at MIT have made it so easy to build structures out of DNA, they say anyone can do it. You can draw something, and a computer program named PERDIX (Programmed Eulerian Routing for DNA Design Using X-overs) will take your design and manipulate the molecules into the desired shape at the nanometer scale. A cheerful video clip shows how your little DNA drawing, say a lotus flower, gets made. “PERDIX can be used to print any free-form drawing using DNA,” they boast, illustrating what intelligent minds can do with natural materials. Is the double helix with all its coded information any less a product of a mind?

Alleviate Water Shortages the Way Life Does It

While many people in arid countries struggle to find enough clean water, some plants and animals pull what they need right out of the air. In fact, hot deserts — some of the most inhospitable places on the planet — are often adorned with large green plants like saguaro cacti. The driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert of Chile, will spring to life with vividly-colored wildflowers after rare storms. Desert insects and reptiles also get by. Noticing these wonders, engineers at Ohio State University want to get smart like the plants and animals. They want to mimic how organisms are able to get sufficient water by collecting fog and condensation.

Humans can get by in the most basic of shelters, can scratch together a meal from the most humble of ingredients. But we can’t survive without clean water. And in places where water is scarce — the world’s deserts, for example — getting water to people requires feats of engineering and irrigation that can be cumbersome and expensive.

It requires intelligent design, in other words. “A pair of new studies from researchers at The Ohio State University,” the news item continues, “offers a possible solution, inspired by nature.” They observed that well-spaced bumps on some beetles and grooves on some cacti effectively collect and channel condensed water from fog and dew right to where it is needed. Why don’t we do that? Why make poor people walk for miles with heavy jugs on their heads? Let’s do it the well-designed way. They’re testing some prototypes, but there’s a lot more designing and testing to do. One researcher says, “By using bio-inspired technologies, we can help address the challenge of providing clean water to people around the globe, in as efficient a way as possible.”

2019 Is the Year of the Periodic Table

Celebrating Dmitri Mendeleev’s first periodic table, the United Nations has declared 2019 to be the “International Year of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements.” According to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, this year will “will coincide with the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Periodic System by Dmitry Mendeleev in 1869.”

The Russian chemist’s predecessors had searched for patterns, but Mendeleev’s great insight was to leave gaps for undiscovered elements. Believing that nature was orderly and harmonious, he wrote down elements and tried arranging them in rows and columns of elements with increasing atomic number. When he found one with similar properties, he started a new column. He noticed that some elements seemed to jump over a spot in a certain row or column without a corresponding matching type, his intuitive sense of design made him refuse to believe nature would leave a gap. He marked those spots with question marks, proposing undiscovered elements in those spots would prove to have similar properties. In their book A Meaningful World, Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt use this historical incident as one of many to show the underlying beauty and order in natural phenomena.

Mendeleev did make some errors, but he didn’t fall into the trap of preferring his tidy little system to reality. He believed that more and more refined experimental work would continue to bring into focus the real order he argued was there. His intuitions, and his predictions, proved correct. Thus Mendeleev is properly credited with finally revealing to us the order of the periodic table of elements.

And thus the search for new elements began. Over decades, the gaps were filled, just as Mendeleev predicted. Mendeleev didn’t live to see all his expectations confirmed. According to Mark Lorch at The Conversation, technetium wasn’t discovered till 30 years after his death.

The periodic table has undergone many refinements since Mendeleev’s 1869 draft. We now rotate Mendeleev’s columns into rows. Others have proposed different ways to diagram the underlying natural order, Lorch shows. But it was the intuition of a man who believed in an orderly and designed universe that inspired the key discovery. The IUPAC says that the periodic table has become “a unique tool enabling scientists to predict the appearance and properties of matter on Earth and in the Universe.”

Beauty vs. Evolution

A surprising headline appeared in The New York Times Magazine: “How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.” Writer Ferris Jabr sets the stage with his subtitle, “The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone — so how did it come to be?” We’ll analyze his answers in a future post, but ID advocates may want to read this interesting article to see how well Darwinian evolution can explain the extravagant beauty of birds and butterflies. Is it natural selection, sexual selection, both, or neither?

Photo: Chengjiang fossil site, courtesy of Illustra Media.