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Darwin’s “Abominable Mystery”: Still Alive and Kicking

Photo: The Jurassic seed fern Sagenopteris belongs to the extinct gymnosperm clade Caytoniales, which is believed to be the closest relative of flowering plants, via Wikimedia.

On a podcast for ID the Future (Bechly 2021), I discussed some recent articles about Darwin’s “abominable mystery” of the abrupt origin of flowering plants in the Cretaceous period, and showed that this mystery is not only still unresolved, but has even become much more mysterious since Darwin’s time.

Now, two new studies claim progress in solving this mystery. But before we look into these new studies, let’s first explore some background context on this fascinating issue.

“As Fully Formed as Aphrodite”

The crucial issue is a remarkable phenomenon in the fossil record, namely the sudden appearance of fossils of flowering plants in the Early Cretaceous age without any of the required precursors recorded from the older Jurassic layers. In the mid Cretaceous there is already a large diversity of at least 50 different families of flowering plants, as if they came out of nowhere or were planted there by a creator. This fact is beautifully captured in a comment by Oskin (2015) about the highly controversial discovery of a Jurassic fossil flower:

Then, about 125 million years ago, angiosperms and their flowers sprang forth during the Cretaceous period, as fully formed as Aphrodite.

Darwin knew about this phenomenon and called it an “abominable mystery” in a private letter to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1879, who was then the director of the Kew Royal Botanic Garden. It was later often thought that Darwin referred to the origin of flowering plants in general. However, renowned British plant geneticist Richard Buggs, from the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, demonstrated in his articles (Buggs 2017a2017b2021) about the history of Darwin’s “abominable mystery” that Darwin had only referred to the fossil record of dicotyle flowering plants (those with two embryonic leaves) and their rapid diversification in the Cretaceous. This was because in Darwin’s time it was erroneously believed that dicotyles include gymnosperms (e.g., cycads, gingko, and conifers) and that these and monocotyle angiosperms (those with a single embryonic leave, such as grasses) existed as fossils in much older layers than the Cretaceous, way back to the Carboniferous. So, they then had two possible candidates as potential precursors of Cretaceous dicotyle angiosperms. However, modern research has changed these views dramatically. Dicotyle angiosperms are no longer thought to be rooted in either gymnosperms or monocotyle angiosperms, and also the alleged pre-Cretaceous monocotyles were all recognized as misidentifications.

In his earlier articles, Buggs (2017a2017b) had already written about the implied deepening of this mystery since Darwin’s time. In his new article (Buggs 2021), which was published in the American Journal of Botany and was widely publicized in popular science media and news around the globe including The Times (Bridge 2021) and the BBC (Briggs 2021), he explored the detailed history of Darwin’s statement and asked why he called it “abominable.” Buggs shows that Darwin mainly considered the mystery as abominable because leading contemporary paleobotanists such as his friend Oswald Heer and his critic William Carruthers saw it as evidence for — wait for it — divine intervention!

Darwin’s Gradualism vs. the Fossil Record

Darwin was bothered not only by the theistic implications, but generally by the fact that the fossil record did not support his theory. He tried to explain away the latter as an artifact (Darwin 1859): 

Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.

In a letter to the famous Swiss paleobotanist Oswald Heer, Darwin wrote in 1875:

The sudden appearance of so many Dicotyledons in the Upper Chalk appears to me a most perplexing phenomenon to all who believe in any form of evolution, especially those who believe in extremely gradual evolution … But I fully admit that this case is a great difficulty in the views which I hold.

Just three years later, in 1878, Darwin wrote a letter to French paleobotanist Gaston de Saporta, offering the following surprising admission:

… my ideas on the flower imply a long succession of changes from which the class of Dicotyledons would have come; but their sudden appearance about the bottom of the Cenomanian overturns all the calculations and brings us face to face with an unknown whose limits elude us.

In the Darwin Year 2009, which celebrated his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, evolutionary biologist William Friedman (2009) authored a review article about “The meaning of Darwin’s abominable mystery.” He found that “The seemingly sudden appearance of so many angiosperm species in the Upper Chalk conflicted strongly with his gradualist perspective on evolutionary change.” Friedman concluded that Darwin’s problem was not so much about angiosperm origins per se, but rather “about his abhorrence that evolution could be both rapid and potentially even saltational.” Thus, the reason for this abhorrence was that Darwin strongly insisted on gradualism, which is why he quoted the Latin dictum “natura non facit saltus” (= nature does not make jumps) six times in his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species (Darwin 1859). He was very well aware that saltations would not be compatible with a naturalistic unguided mechanism as the best explanation but would rather imply intelligent design. And that was his big problem, because he wanted to forge a completely naturalistic theory. This is the reason why the emphasis on gradualism is also found among Darwin’s modern defenders including Richard Dawkins (2009), who wrote that: “Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work.” This means that an empirical refutation of gradualism would be a fatal blow against Darwin’s theory, which is of course defended by Darwinists with teeth and claws.

Famous 19th-century botanist William Carruthers, who was head of the Botanical department of the British Museum in Darwin’s time and a big skeptic of Darwin’s theory, recognized this problem very well. He made clear that: “There is no time available in the fossil record for the evolution of willows by ‘slow and imperceptible changes’ from a ‘generalized Angiosperm.’” He also said that “the facts of palaeontological botany are opposed to evolution.”

I strongly suspect that Darwin was not amused at being reminded that the facts don’t add up, and neither are his modern disciples. So, they desperately searched the fossil record for potential Jurassic fossils of ancestral flowering plants.

Jurassic Fossils Failed to Help

Indeed, there were several published claims for alleged Jurassic angiosperm fossils mainly from China, such as EuanthusJuraherbaNanjinganthusSchmeissneriaSolaranthusXingxueanthus, and Yuhania. However, these were always highly controversial (Sokoloff et al. 2019) and were recently all shown to be refuted by Richard Bateman (2020) in his seminal article “Hunting the Snark: the flawed search for mythical Jurassic angiosperms,” in the Journal of Experimental Botany. He concluded that “Given current evidence, all supposed pre-Cretaceous angiosperms are assignable to other major clades among the gymnosperms.” What a bummer! This is not very surprising to the experts, though, as this field had been burned by failed claims of success before. For example, the misdating of Archaefructus, which was first published as Jurassic angiosperm but later shown to be of Lower Cretaceous origin. Or the discovery of the alleged Jurassic flower Euanthus that was very early criticized by other paleobotanists as not representing a flower at all. Evolutionary plant biologist Patrick Herendeen (quoted in Oskin 2015) from the Chicago Botanical Garden, said the following about Euanthus: “I am completely unconvinced as to their interpretations of the fossil, … I do not know what the fossil is, but I certainly do not see what they are reporting.” None of the alleged Jurassic flowering plants have withstood closer scientific scrutiny. This also shows that potential future claims of Jurassic angiosperm fossils will have to be taken with a large grain of salt, because scientists seem to be motivated to over-interpret the evidence and make far-reaching conclusions based on poor data. This is true in paleobotany as well as in paleoanthropology and other fields.

In any event, as experts like Bateman and Buggs have shown, the big problem for Darwin has become much worse over the years: not only do dicotyle angiosperms appear abruptly in the Cretaceous, but actually allangiosperms do, contrary to Darwin’s original belief. Therefore, Buggs (2021) confirmed:

Despite much progress in these areas, there is general agreement that Darwin’s “abominable mystery” remains intact, and the origin and diversification of the angiosperms remains one of the greatest open questions of the history of life.

In his earlier paper, Buggs (2017a) had already concluded that even “if evidence were found for clear pre-Cretaceous precursors for the Cretaceous diversity of higher plants, Darwin’s abominable mystery would not be solved but only restored to its original level.” That’s pretty bad news for Darwinists, who had hoped that 150 years of paleontological research since Darwin would surely make this nagging problem go away.

Next: “Darwin’s ‘Abominable Mystery’ Is Not Alone: Gaps Everywhere!”