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Ixnay on the Ambriancay Plosionexhay

Paul Nelson
Image: Opabinia regalis, a creature from the Cambrian seas, by Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.ca/), CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Shhh — don’t say it. Don’t say, you know, that. The geological event, well, not “event,” as in something that happened about 541 million years ago…we don’t talk that way anymore.

Because people may get the wrong idea. And we don’t want them to have those bad thoughts and wrong ideas. Changing the names of things helps people to think correctly. Right?

A dozen authors at Michigan State University have proposed that the paleontological term “Cambrian Explosion” be laid “to rest for any use other than historical reference.” The problem, as they see it, is the tendency of “anti-science” readers to misappropriate “Cambrian Explosion,” to suggest that evolution somehow fails to explain the appearance of nearly all the animal phyla without fossil antecedents of equal complexity. As they argue:

Certainly, biodiversification at the beginning of the Cambrian was unique (Erwin et al., 1987) — all those new body plans — but no evolutionary rules were broken, nor is there mystery or discipline-dividing controversy, as is claimed by anti-science concerns who seize on the term “explosion.”

Their alternative? “Great Cambrian Biodiversification,” or GCB for short.

GCB, alas, may have a short life of its own, because the geological data haven’t changed. It isn’t the name of the paleontological pattern of sudden appearance, at the base of the Cambrian, that matters at the end of the day. Call that pattern “Wayne Q. Jones” or “cured sausage” or “Fossils-a-plenty,” the evidence in the rocks is what it is. When students find out about the fossil evidence, “GCB” will be just as bothersome to certain evolutionary sensibilities as “Cambrian Explosion” appears to be today. 

GCB = Cambrian Explosion = a pattern that puzzled Charles Darwin over 160 years ago. Change the name, and the puzzle lives on.