Stones, Bones, and Groans

Creationist Ph. D. Joe Lary in the March 03, 2004 Tuscaloosa News wrote in support of the notion that Alabama teachers should teach intelligent design creationism. As a matter of fact, he shows us that “intelligent design” is nothing but gud ol’ “creation science” warmed over. Lary started with a lengthy blather about why evolution is impossible because of 140 year old experiments, and 50 year old false quotes that I delt with over the last two days. He next launched into a “discussion” of the fossil evidence for evolution.

It is commonly believed that the fossil record provides the most direct evidence for evolution. In fact, the fossil record fails to provide any support for the evolution of species or higher taxonomic groups.

Darwin actually thought that fossil record was an area of potential critisim of his theory, within reason, and not as a substitute for the observation of living species. For example, in The Origin of Species, VI Edition, Darwin writes, <blockquote> “But just in proportion as this process of extermination has acted on an enormous scale, so must the number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed, be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.” Chapter 10, first paragraph.</blockquote>

Darwin needn’t have been so worried. In an excellent essay The Fossil Record: Evolution or “Scientific Creation”, by Clifford A. Cuffey writing for the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Minerologists, Gulf Coast Section, presents evidence that is compelling support of evolutionary theory to anyone able to rationally consider the question. Most people will only need to read sections 4, Transitional Fossils, and 5, Mammal-Like Reptiles. This by itself shows Lary to be either remarkeably ignorant, or is purposefully misleading.

During the so-called Cambrian explosion that began about 600 million years ago, thirteen of the fourteen major groups (phyla) of animals that exist today appeared suddenly in the fossil record, fully developed and highly complex, with no hint of evolutionary development in earlier geological strata.

“So called” explosion is about all that Lary got right! The early Cambrian fauna apeared over the course of 10 to 60 million years. At least Lary is not going to make us debunk any young Earth nonsense as he accepts the conventional dating of early strata.

From the Cambrian period to the present, all groups of animals and plants have appeared just as suddenly, fully formed, with no trace of the intermediate species that supposedly gave rise to them.

This is simply, and completely untrue. The references are presented just below on fossils that totally discredit Lary’s baseless assertion.

With few exceptions, the fossil record shows no evidence of transitional forms that would document an evolutionary link between different species, genera, families, orders, classes or phyla.

Well Joe, which is it - no trace of transitionals or “with few exceptions” ? It is important, because it is obvious that any example proves the point. In fact there are ample numbers of transitional species known both as fossils, and as living species as well.

If evolution really occurred, the fossil record should be replete with billions of transitional forms.

I have found over the years that creationists have absurd ideas about what a “transitional” must look like. They typically demand some bizarre chimera: a part goat, part rooster sort of monster appropriate to a medieval bestiary or (bad) science fiction. Again, Darwin addressed this in The Origin of Species, VI Edition, <blockquote>“I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself forms DIRECTLY intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor; and the progenitor will generally have differed in some respects from all its modified descendants. To give a simple illustration: the fantail and pouter pigeons are both descended from the rock-pigeon; if we possessed all the intermediate varieties which have ever existed, we should have an extremely close series between both and the rock-pigeon; but we should have no varieties directly intermediate between the fantail and pouter; none, for instance, combining a tail somewhat expanded with a crop somewhat enlarged, the characteristic features of these two breeds.” Chapter 10, second paragraph.</blockquote>

The fossil record shows that species suddenly appear, persist for millions or sometimes hundreds of millions of years with little or no perceptible change, then either become extinct or continue to live today.

Lary is leading up to an issue that was basically resolved over 20 years ago. There are two rather complex aspects. The first is whether the fossil record, under any conditions, could yield direct decent pathways, and the other whether evolution was mostly a slow process or could it occur rapidly. This is the “cladistic” versus classic taxonomic structures argument, and the “punctuated equilibrium” versus “gradualism” argument. The scientists raged on from the middle 1960s through the middle 1980s (almost an academic generation) and a great deal of intemperate, and exaggerated things were said. All this was a bonanza for creationists who now selectively quote one side or the other (or both) without ever considering basic things like context.

Evolutionary progression is nowhere to be found in the fossil record. Paleontologists have long known this to be true, but the general public and most scientists are virtually unaware of these facts.

All anyone needs to do is to review Smooth Change in the Fossil Record by Don Lindly to see through this claim by Lary. But I give a few more references below anyway.

Lary quoted with out reference, "Paleontologist David Kitts stated in the journal Evolution: "Evolution requires intermediate forms between species and paleontology does not provide them."

Dr. Joe is back working at the quote mine. Let’s look at this a bit closer than he would want us to look.

"Despite the bright promise that paleontology provides a means of 'seeing' evolution, it has presented some nasty difficulties for evolutionists, the most notorious of which is the presence of 'gaps' in the fossil record. Evolution requires intermediate forms between species and paleontology does not provide them. The gaps must therefore be a contingent feature of the record." --*David 8. Kitts, "Paleontology and Evolutionary Theory, " in Evolution , Vol. 28, September 1974, p. 467.

This appears as Quote #54 of the TalkOrigins Quote Mine Project. On the very next page Kitts observed that “The claim has been repeatedly made that the fossil record provides a basis for the falsification of synthetic theory [Neo-Darwinism] and Simpson has demonstrated that this is not the case.” op. cited, pg 468.

A good discussion of the very basic idea of a transitional fossil is presented by Don Lindsay in his essay Wha Is A Transitional Fossil?.

Evolutionist Mark Ridley said in the journal New Scientist: "In any case, no real evolutionist, whether gradualist or punctuationist, uses the fossil record as evidence in favor of the theory of evolution as opposed to special creation."

Again, Lary is misleading his readers. This popular creationist distortion is addressed in SciCre Misquotes: The Archive maintained by Wesley R. Elsberry from 1995 to 1998.

This quote is originally taken from Mark Ridley’s, “Who Doubts Evolution”, New Scientist, Vol. 90, No: 1259: 830-832, June 25, 1981. This quote is of course obsolete, nor does it mean what Lary abused it to mean as we can see by just reading a little further. From the same article:

`Someone is getting it wrong, and it isn't Darwin; it is the creationists and the media.' (page 830) `In any case, no real evolutionist, whether gradualist or punctuationist, uses the fossil record as evidence in favor of evolution as opposed to special creation. The does not mean that the theory of evolution is unproven. `So what is the evidence that species have evolved? There have traditionally been three kinds of evidence, and it is these, not the "fossil evidence", that the critics should be thinking about. The three arguments are from the observed evolution of species, from biogeography, and from the hierarchical structure of taxonomy.' (page 831) `These three are the clearest arguments for the mutability of species. Other defenses of the theory of evolution could be made, not the least of which is the absence of a coherent alternative. Darwin's theory is also uniquely able to account for both the presence of design, and the absence of design (vestigial organs), in nature.' (page 832)

This popular creationist quote is also discussed by Don Lindsay. As a matter of fact, what Ridley is refering to is that with so much superior data avialable demonstrating natural selection and common descent, the academic paleontology argument whether gradulism or “punctuated equilibrium” are superior explanations of the fossil record no longer held significance in the discussion of evolution theory. This was true 23 years ago. An easily available discussion of genetic analysis of common decent by Wesley R. Elsberry is Sequences and Common Descent: How We Can Trace Ancestry Through Genetics. And another good genetic article avialable on the web is Compelling Data for Common Descent from Matching Redundant DNA Sequences by Steve Hinrichs. There are of course millions of pages of texts in thousands of journals that demonstrate the validity, and utility of evolutionary theory today.

I’ll give Ridley the last words on this topic, “The theory of evolution is outstandingly the most important theory in biology.”</i> Evolution Boston: Blackwell Scientific, 1983.

Space does not permit me to describe many other lines of evidence that support intelligent design over evolution. Readers are encouraged to visit ICR and other creationist Web sites (search under "creation" or "intelligent design" ) for such evidence.

I am sooo glad Lary ran out of space, because it is boring to have to refute the same creationist nonsence over and over. At the same time it is sad that an educated person can so give way to half-truths and outright lies that they promote them to their discredit.

Lary piddles on for a bit more, but there are only two items worth mentioning. The major “intelligent design” creationists rant and rave when they are spotted as creationists. They generally follow Phillip Johnson’s “Big Tent” position of blurring questions over age of the Earth, and the special creation of unique, immutable species or allowing for common descent (as do Behe and Dembski). This plan is known as the “Wedge” strategy and is directly associated with Johnson and the Discovery Institute, the movement’s political center. Lary proudly broadcasts that he recognizes Intelligent Design to be the same as classic (and unconstitutional) fundamentalist creationism. Not only does he recycle theses repeatedly refuted creationist arguments, he encourages his readers to refer to the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the writing of arch-creationist Duane Gish. The DI fellows must be praying to their not-to-be-named “designer” that nobody noticed.

A final observation is about Lary’s closing sentence, <blockquote>Our students deserve the chance to examine the scientific evidence for both intelligent design and evolution to decide for themselves which explanation of origins is most logical.</blockquote>

This should send a chill up the spine of every parent in Alabama (or any other place). Lary is arguing that your kids should chose to study whatever, and do whatever. Math is too hard?- drop it. Science is too hard?- drop it. There is always magic. Hey a kid gets to chose, right?