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Fossil Friday: New Study Challenges the Artifact Hypothesis

Photo: Fossil algae, Ediacaran Lantian Formation, Zhang et al. 2021: fig. 4, fair use. Source: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2021.110449.

The abrupt appearance of many different animal phyla with distinct body plans in the Cambrian Explosion, about 530 million years ago, presents one of the many fatal problems for Darwinian evolution. That theory necessarily predicts that such complex biological novelties came into being by a slow and gradual accumulation of numerous small changes over long periods of time, with thousands of intermediate forms. However, no such transitional fossils have been identified in the late Precambrian strata that preceded the Cambrian Explosion. Even though the terminal period of the Precambrian, called Ediacaran, features the earliest known macro-fossils of remarkably complex biota, their affinity with the later Cambrian animal phyla has been rejected or is at least highly controversial even within mainstream evolutionary biology (Bechly 2018d2020a,b,c2020e,f,g2021a,b,c2022c2023i). Where are the predicted transitional forms?

The Gravest Objection

Charles Darwin himself recognized that this may be the gravest objection that could be raised against his theory and commented that “it is indisputable that before the lowest [Cambrian] stratum was deposited, long periods elapsed … and … the world swarmed with living creatures. To the question why we do not find records of these vast primordial periods, I can give no satisfactory answer” (Darwin 1859). Darwin appealed to the incompleteness of the fossil record, and this is still the most common approach to explain away the highly inconvenient conflicting data from paleontology. The claim is that the predicted animal ancestors of course must have existed, but are only missing in the fossil record because they were too small and soft-bodied to become easily fossilized (Runnegar 1982Fortey et al. 2005), or because suitable layers with favorable preservational conditions somehow happened to be absent in the Precambrian, or because of our incomplete knowledge of the fossil record (“just give us 100 more years and we will find them”), maybe because we simply looked at the wrong places (Brasier et al. 2011). This so-called artifact hypothesis has been addressed and rejected by Stephen C. Meyer in his bestselling book Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer 2013). The artifact hypothesis has also been empirically refuted in the past years by the discovery of several Ediacaran fossil localities of the so-called Burgess Shale Type (BST), which would have allowed for the preservation of small and soft-bodied animal precursors, but only yielded fossil algae (featured this Fossil Friday) and a few problematic organisms (see my review in Bechly 2020d).

Now a new study drove a further nail into the coffin of the artifact hypothesis: A team of paleontologists led by an eminent expert on Cambrian fossils, Derek Briggs, compared the fossilization processes and geology of Precambrian and Cambrian strata. They published their findings in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (Anderson et al. 2023Shelton 2023). The scientists found a total absence of animals in Precambrian layers that would have allowed their preservation and therefore suggest a soft maximum constraint on animal antiquity at 789 million years ago. The authors conclude that “Burgess Shale-type conditions are rarely associated with Neoproterozoic fossil biotas, but in the few assemblages with these conditions, dated to 789 million years ago or older, no animals have been identified, suggesting they had not evolved by this time.”

A Cryogenian Gap

The authors implicitly suggest that a Cryogenian gap in exceptionally preserved biotas may explain the later abrupt appearance of animals, which they place at 574 million years ago, even though at this age only the strange Ediacaran biota appeared abruptly but uncontroversial metazoan or even bilaterian animals are absent (see above). The sloppy or even dishonest reasoning to hide even greater conflicting evidence is obvious from the authors’ figure 1, which places the “minimum age of crown Metazoa from oldest unambiguous fossils” at 574 million years ago, but in the figure legend only list a “possible cnidarian” and a “possible sponge” as well as Dickinsonia as an early animal, even though the oldest Dickinsonia fossils are more than 15 million years younger (at 558 mya from White Sea; see Cunningham et al. 2016: 5) and their animal affinity far from established (Bechly 2018d2022c). It is unbelievable and shocking what passes peer review as “unambiguous” evidence in evolutionary biology nowadays.

Anyway, another study by Daley et al. (2018) looked at BST-localities from the Ediacaran (ignored by Anderson et al. 2023) and placed the maximum constraint for the first animals at an even much younger age of about 550 million years, which is quite close to the beginning of the Cambrian (542 million years ago). Either way, the suggested maximum ages not only contradict the gradualist assumptions of Darwinian evolution, but also contradict the hypothetical datings of all molecular clock studies. It is time for Darwinists to stop their audacious science denial and face the stark fact that empirical data strongly and consistently contradict and refute core predictions of their theory.