Evolution Icon Evolution
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Chinks in the Chicxulub Story

Image credit: Donald E. Davis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Evolutionists have a strange theory of causation. Disasters drive living things to emerge and arise, like Phoenix out of the flames, into greater levels of complexity and beauty. What in the blazes of a conflagration awards regenerative power to survivors?

We have roses, petunias, and orchids, we are told, because a big rock slammed into the Earth 65 million years ago. We also have delicate butterflies and shrews, but none of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, or ichthyosaurs. Dinosaurs, the fossil record shows, ranged in size from the mighty T. rex and long-necked sauropods down to species the size of chickens. They lived in all parts of the world, even in the Arctic. Some may have been warm blooded. Though they had survived on a dynamic planet for 135 million years, they all perished because of one space rock that landed in the Yucatan, leaving the Chicxulub Crater as a scar.

The event brought the Cretaceous Period to a close and launched the Paleogene, a boundary designated K-Pg. Not a single dinosaur survived, but strangely, the asteroid didn’t discriminate against all the reptiles, because lizards, snakes, and crocodiles are still with us. Delicate butterflies, worms, frogs, flowering plants, tweety birds, and small mammals made it through. All these groups didn’t just survive, we are told, but they catapulted upward into evolutionary glory. Does something sound strange about this scenario? It gets stranger still. Consider flowering plants. From Jamie Thompson at The Conversation:

However, it’s not clear how they did it. Angiosperms, so fragile compared with dinosaurs, cannot fly or run to escape harsh conditions. They rely on sunlight for their existence, which was blotted out.

Fossils in different regions tell different versions of events. It is clear there was high angiosperm turnover (species loss and resurgence) in the Amazon when the asteroid hit, and a decline in plant-eating insects in North America which suggests a loss of food plants. But other regions, such as Patagonia, show no pattern. [Emphasis added.]

Mammals, too, were “not as boring” as thought before the asteroid hit, according to the Field Museum in Chicago. They were already specialized in various groups with distinct lifestyles. This overturns a long-assumed idea that only generic, unspecialized types would be able to diversify after an extinction event. 

“The idea of the ‘survival of the unspecialized’ goes back to the 1800s, and the conventional wisdom is that generalized animals are the least likely to go extinct. But we found that the ones that survived more often only seemed generalized in hindsight, when compared with their later descendents. They were actually pretty advanced animals for their time, with new traits that might have helped them survive and provided evolutionary flexibility,” says Ken Angielczyk, the MacArthur Curator of Paleomammalogy at the Field Museum and senior author of the study in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Evolutionary flexibility: yes, Darwin storytellers are quite the contortionists. The curators of the museum call this finding “Survival of the Newest” — “having new and different traits can be the key to succeeding in the aftermath of a catastrophe.” Did this strategy give rise to giraffes, elephants, lions, monkeys, and people? Prior specialization was also true of birds, now that we know that birds resembling modern ducks and shorebirds were living before the K-Pg disaster.

Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

A common theme in the evolutionary accounts of mass extinctions is that geological disasters create opportunities for evolutionary progress. Disasters are healthy for evolution. They clear the land for new ecosystems. Dr. Thompson put it this way in news from the University of Bath:

After most of Earth’s species became extinct at K-Pg, angiosperms took the advantage, similar to the way in which mammals took over after the dinosaurs, and now pretty much all life on Earth depends on flowering plants ecologically.

Looking at the bright side, Peter Wilf at Penn State treats the asteroid like a welcoming maître d’:

The K-Pg extinction ushered in the rise and true dominance of flowering plants and helped establish the planet’s tropical rainforests that hold most of its biodiversity, Wilf said.

We might call this the Homesteader Theory. With the landscape cleared, survivors glanced into the Wild West, dreaming of a better life in the new frontier. Evolution became the world’s homesteading agency, subsidizing the pioneers with land grants, motivating survivors to start over with new resources, like governments distribute after a hurricane or pandemic. But can Evolution (capitalized as if a benevolent Blind Tinkerer) distribute relief checks in the form of beneficial mutations, hoping that organisms will naturally select them to rise out of poverty and enrich the environment? Is Evolution a wealthy benefactor handing a homeless man on the street some hefty cash, hoping he will improve himself and become an entrepreneur, hiring other homeless people, turning a blighted community into a prosperous town?

Whether or not the disaster happened as believed and held the Earth hostage in dark, wintery conditions for a hundred thousand years, we should question the power of natural selection to “take advantage” of a catastrophe and “usher in” a new paradise of diversification. If organisms were engineered to do that, one might believe it to be possible. But can this happen to blind products of blind processes?

If one stops personifying Evolution and organisms, such a vision sounds highly problematic. Disasters witnessed in recent history have had no such effect. The Tunguska explosion of 1908 flattened trees for 830 square miles in Siberia, but no new species evolved to enter the blast zone. The Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 blasted mutation-inducing radiation all through the surrounding countryside, but the same species are slowly returning, none of them with new evolutionary traits. Should we accept an excuse that Evolution has just not had enough time in these cases to show her power? (It’s a she, remember.)

Curiuoser and Curiouser

Another odd scenario in Darwinian storytelling appeared recently: an asteroid created agriculture! According to James Kennett at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “A prehistoric cosmic airburst preceded the advent of agriculture in the Levant.” Modern humans had been laboriously hunting and gathering from their caves for over a hundred thousand years, but then, 12,800 years ago, boom! A Tunguska-like airburst committed climate change and made them consider planting seeds for the first time to plan for a sustainable future.

To be clear, Kennett said, agriculture eventually arose in several places on Earth in the Neolithic Era, but it arose first in the Levant (present-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and parts of Turkey) initiated by the severe climate conditions that followed the impact.

Something clearly happened in the Middle East and perhaps other places around the world, but do disasters cause new bursts of evolution? 

Taken together, the evidence presented by these papers, according to the scientists, “implies a novel causative link among extraterrestrial impacts, hemispheric environmental and climatic change, and transformative shifts in human societies and culture, including agricultural development.”

Were intelligent humans incapable of thinking about planting seeds long before an asteroid caused them to do so? Just asking.

Intelligent design theory, with its engineering model, incorporates foresight that can equip organisms for risk management. Evolution has no such ability. In Darwinism, organisms live for the moment. They have neither desire nor power to survive or improve. If they do survive, it is due to sheer dumb luck. Design advocates might agree that those left behind were lucky. But what happened next? Neo-Darwinism would require creatures to wait for a rare beneficial mutation, or an even rarer set of coordinated mutation. Only then could its blind, mindless, impersonal “selector” (by chance) use them to confer some advantage upon the survivors. No government subsidies will follow an asteroid. Only what already exists within the animal or plant, or reshapes their coded instructions, will equip them to thrive.

The neo-Darwinian might respond that previous naturally selected traits had endowed them with tools to survive and diversify. But again, to think consistently as a Darwinian, one must disavow all forms of personification. On Darwin’s view of the world, nobody was around to care. There was no providence, no intervention, no disaster relief program. Whether at K-Pg or long before, organisms could not foresee any need to keep evolving and progressing, nor could they care to. Natural selection could not plan ahead to give an organism a general-purpose survival toolkit with instructions, “In case of asteroid, pull handle.” At best, it could only tinker around with what works in the immediate moment.

The famous line from Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way,” presupposes an inner urge to keep on keeping on. What could be the source of this desire, this unction, this anointing that drives organismal perseverance in the wake of disaster? The interlocutor might retort, “If our shrew-like ancestors at K-Pg didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be here!” So it was caused by chance, then? Wasn’t science supposed to disavow chance explanations and seek necessary and sufficient causes for things? Applying my Mars Rover analogy once more, if Mars were populated with rovers, and some survived after an impact, would it be due to foresight by the designers, or because a few lucky ones had been previously hit with cosmic rays that improved their electronics? Could the proponent of that view say, “Electricity finds a way”? 

In the University of Bath news, one of the co-authors ranks groups by adaptability. 

Dr Ramírez-Barahona said: “Flowering plants have a remarkable ability to adapt: they use a variety of seed-dispersal and pollination mechanisms, some have duplicated their entire genomes and others have evolved new ways to photosynthesise.

“This ‘flower power’ is what makes them nature’s true survivors.” 

A quirky tribute to hippies, perhaps, but it begs the question of why plants survived but dinosaurs did not. One scientific way to evaluate this claim would be to catalog the common traits among all the survivors that provided them with “a remarkable ability to adapt” compared to the losers. It’s hard to imagine all the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and ichthyosaurs from multiple habitats around the globe were so deprived of the special unction to function after one asteroid impact when they had presumably survived numerous other disasters over millions of years. Not even one breeding pair in Russia made it through alive?

Why One Disaster When You Can Have Two?

Not every scientist thinks Chicxulub alone was responsible. A diehard group points to another disaster — the Deccan Traps — as the cause of the dinosaurs’ demise. A team writing in Science Advances gives evidence that repeated “volcanic winters” prior to Chicxulub may have weakened the biosphere:

Independent evidence suggests the Deccan flood basalts erupted in high-flux pulses. Our data suggest that volcanic sulfur degassing from such activity could have caused repeated short-lived global drops in temperature, stressing the ecosystems long before the bolide impact delivered its final blow at the end of the Cretaceous.

Once again, though, whether disasters around K-Pg occurred alone or in combination, we must ask why so many delicate organisms made it through — butterflies, worms, frogs, and birds, as well as other reptile groups. The fact that birds could fly is not an answer. Pterosaurs flew; some were as small as birds. They existed on every continent. All the groups of flying insects survived. Not one dinosaur made it. No extinct reptile on sea, air, or land survived. Why?

Evolutionists have one standard retort: “Birds are dinosaurs!” Well, OK. But true birds were flying around long before Chicxulub. Given the variety of survivors, it seems that a breeding pair of ichthyosaurs in the deep sea could have made it through, or a small pterosaur colony somewhere, or an ankylosaur family in Africa. Given that all the primates derived from the small mammals at K-Pg, it seems a surviving dinosaur colony could have evolved to walk upright by now, like the humanoid reptiles in the cartoons. 

Chicxulub was remarkably selective. It brought the Earth a gift of unprecedented evolutionary powers — storytelling powers, I mean.