Conserving Island Earth

The world must have seemed like a big place to Helga Estby, a Norwegian woman who walked across America in the year 1896. Helga immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1871 at the age of 11. On May 5, 1896, at the age of nearly 36, Helga and her 18 year old daughter Clara set out to walk across the United States. They started from Mica Creek, in far eastern Washington state, and walked an estimated 3500 miles to New York City, where they arrived on December 24. The mother and daughter may have been the first to walk intentionally across the United States on foot. Since then, numerous people have repeated the feat, usually requiring from five to seven months. From the point of view of a person living in 1896, the world would seem big and its resources virtually unlimited. But this view has changed.

We now recognize the world is not so big, and its resources very definitely are limited. Part of the credit for this comes from a photo known as “The Blue Marble.” On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 crew took a photograph of our planet, showing it to be a blue island in space. That photo has become known as “The Blue Marble.” Although it was not the first photo of the earth from space, it captured the attention of the American public in an unprecedented way. The photograph coincided with a surge in interest in environmental protection, and quickly became an icon of the environmental movement. Our view of the earth had shifted from one of unlimited potential to one of a fragile blue island in space.

Concern for the environment continues to occupy a place in current culture. We hear frequent warnings of global warming and its possible relationship to human use of fossil fuels, sunspot activity or variations in earth’s orbit. As the human population increases, other species are crowded out and lost to extinction. Fears of an ongoing “mass extinction” are often expressed, with varied estimates of how many species are threatened with extinction before we even discover their existence. Many voices oppose the expansion of human population at the expense of other species, sometimes resorting to reducing humans to the level of other species. At its extreme, some have even promoted the idea that animals such as chimpanzees should be regarded as “persons” in the same sense as humans. Fortunately, the courts have not agreed, perhaps aware that such a precedent could easily be applied to gorillas, then monkeys, dogs, horses, pigs, etc., with no obvious criteria to distinguish those with legal accountability for their actions from those without it. Meanwhile, poverty and pollution, both related to environmental degradation, reduce the quality of life for increasing numbers of humans, increasing human misery and threatening to destabilize society. Amidst the turmoil and challenges of caring for our world, what is an appropriate Christian response?

Fortunately, the biblical story of creation provides some important principles for responsible care of “Island Earth.” For example, Genesis indicates that God regards the animals with favor. After creating the animals and before humans were created, God considered the world to be “good. This shows that the creatures with which we share this world, along with their habitats, have value in themselves.

Another point from the creation story is that humans were put in charge of the world. God gave us “dominion” over the other creatures. The word “dominion” implies a kind of kingship, which means we are to function as kings on behalf of the other animals. Kings properly use their authority to manage their subjects for the common good. Our mandate from creation is to use our power to enhance the quality of life, not only for ourselves, but also for the other species that share the planet with us. It is true that we sometimes have to restrain or even kill other animals, but we do so with a sense of regret, looking forward to the promised new creation when such things will no longer be necessary. We should never cause unnecessary suffering, even to rats and other nuisance animals, because we serve and represent a Creator who values all creatures and intended them to live in harmony with one another.

Recognition of humans as created in the image of God is a third point that guides our care for the environment. Every human should be treated with respect and dignity out of respect to the One whose image they carry. Poverty, violence and suffering had no place in the “very good” earth originally created. These atrocities are the result of human choices, and all who recognize their calling as stewards of creation will work to oppose them.

From these biblical principles we can derive guidelines for managing our world and its resources. This includes our treatment of the physical environment, the diverse biota with which we coexist, and our fellow humans.

We may not be able to control some aspects of the physical environment such as sunlight and earth’s orbit, but we do have powerful effects on the quality of the water, soil and atmosphere. Waste management is a problem we have still not solved, as seen in the “garbage patches” of our oceans, the smog in the air of our cities, the industrial pollution in our soil and groundwater, and the problem of safely storing radioactive waste products. We can all see evidence of changes in the climate. Whether these are due to human activities, to natural cycles or both, we can carefully evaluate our use of resources and plan how to change our habits to respond to changes in climate. As individuals, we can reduce consumption, recycle materials, and properly dispose of household wastes. As citizens and tax payers we can support responsible efforts to manage waste disposal, maintain supplies of clean water, and work to eliminate pollution from industries and automobiles. Each of these methods is consistent with the biblical principle that we are given the task of being stewards of God’s creation.

There are many ways we can care for the other living organisms. Setting aside land in wilderness areas helps preserve diverse habitats, and also provides us with opportunities for healthful outdoor activities. Wildlife refuges provide safe resting places for birds in migration and habitats for the plants and animals of the region. Habitat corridors linking wildlife preserves improve the survival chances of threatened species. Animals used in research should be treated well, and not left to suffer. Domesticated animals should be treated with care, even when raised for food purposes. Pet predators can be spayed or neutered to prevent destruction of smaller creatures, such as by feral cats. Each of these activities, along with many others, is evidence that we take seriously our responsibility as stewards of “Island Earth.

Care for other humans should be a high priority for we who have been charged to exercise dominion in our world. This includes respecting the rights of others to the basic freedoms: freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom of assembly; and freedom to participate in the political process. We should endeavor to provide opportunity to each person to work to support themselves and their families. We should provide means to reduce suffering from disease, poverty and environmental degradation. All humans are part of one family, and family members take care of one another.

Caring for the environment is a natural concern for those who accept the biblical teaching of a six-day creation, in which God created a good physical environment, filled the world with diverse kinds of plants and animals, created humans in His own image and gave them responsibility to act as stewards on His behalf. Our understanding of this responsibility has increased over the years as we have come to realize that our world and its resources are finite, and that we truly live on an island called Earth.

For further reading, consult Entrusted: Christians and Environmental Care. Available from http://adventus21.com/Producto.aspx?idProducto=457&idIdioma=1&idCategoria=25

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Patterns in the Fossil Record, Part 2

Balancing extremes

A general note of caution is necessary in the discussion of patterns in the fossil record. As with many other aspects of the natural world, the complexity that we find in this field of study tends to transcend our idealized categorizations. This needs to be kept in mind to avoid misrepresentations or the promotion of unbalanced perspectives. Here is a list of apparently contradictory aspects that coexist and emerge when looking at the study of fossils from different angles:

Time: instantaneous and prolonged. Fossils are often produced as evidence for rapid and cataclysmic sedimentation and in most cases this is correct. The process of fossilization generally requires rapid burial for preservation of body parts. At the same time, there are fossils that carry with them the implication of passage of a certain amount of time, such as encrusted and bored shells, organisms growing attached to a hard substrate, or tracks and traces of bioturbation.

Anatomy and Structure: different and similar. The fossil record is a rich archive of organisms that have gone extinct and exhibit morphological characteristics often extremely different from what we are used to in the modern world. It is also evident, however, that many fossil creatures have body plans that can readily be associated with basic structural plans still observed today. For example, in spite of all the alleged eons of evolutionary time, modern bacteria do not appear much different from microfossils interpreted as Precambrian bacteria (Schopf et al., 2015).

Geographic distribution: global and local. The sequential order of distribution of fossils in the geologic record appears consistent on a global scale. Dinosaur remains are found in all different continents and they always occur in Mesozoic layers. However, at higher resolution (e.g., going from the family to species level) very few fossil organisms appear to have a truly cosmopolitan distribution. This implies complications in the correlation of regional schemes of fossil distributions developed for non-overlapping areas of the world.

Stratigraphic distribution: ordered and disordered. We have already described the pattern of ordered distribution of fossil forms through the geologic column. Even in this case, however, it is important to acknowledge that at finer resolution the lowest and highest appearance of taxa are not always easily and univocally determined. Complications include reworking of older fossils in younger sediments, masking of the highest and lowest appearances due to erosion, lack of appropriate sediments for fossil preservation, offset in lowest or highest appearance at two locations due to lateral migration of a community. These factors can cause differences in the relative order of appearance of the same fossil species in different localities.

Quality of the record: complete and incomplete. The fossil record is often presented as a highly incomplete documentation of the variety of life forms that have inhabited the Earth. At the level of individual specimens, the incompleteness is evident in the preservation of only certain parts of the original organism, with others, usually the soft parts, not fossilized. At the level of the whole record, incompleteness is thought to result from discontinuous sedimentation, gaps created by erosion, and the random and infrequent nature of fossilization. Notwithstanding the validity of these points, it is also important to remark the incredible richness of the fossil record. Many fossil forms are preserved in great quantities (e.g., microfossils) and there are numerous instances of specimens with exceptional preservation, including fossilization of soft parts. As for the overall completeness of the fossil record, in many cases the available data appear more than adequate to extract trends and address the shortcomings of a discontinuous record (Foote, 2001).

Fossil record patterns and origins models

There is a fundamental difference between the biblical and Darwinian models on the origin of biodiversity. The biblical model clearly states that numerous distinct groups were created from the beginning, whereas Darwinian evolution sees all organisms as interlinked in a chain of descent with modification from a single common ancestor. In this respect, creationists find good support of their position in the scarcity of transitional fossils and the sudden appearance with high disparity of forms documented in multiple levels of the geologic column. There is, however, much work still to be done to develop an overarching comprehensive model accounting for other patterns in the fossil record. For example, explanations for the ordered distribution and increasing modernity of fossil forms have been addressed by creationists at a general conceptual level, but not always systematically investigated through detailed hypothesis testing. This is in part due to differing views on how much of the geologic record should be considered as formed by the biblical flood.

Those who view most of the Phanerozoic geologic record as the result of diluvial activity rely on a mixture of physical, ecological and behavioral processes to account for the patterns observed in the fossil record (e.g., Clark, 1946; Roth, 1998; Brand, 2009). Mechanisms invoked include sequential inundation of spatially segregated ecological systems of the pre-diluvial world (this hypothesis is known as ecological zonation or biome[1] succession theory), differences in animal mobility and behavior in the face of rising waters, and hydraulic sorting of floating organic remains.

Those who consider large parts of the Phanerozoic rock record as representing pre-flood or post-flood sedimentation, explain the succession of different fossil assemblages as an effect of biological change and migration with time of communities populating the Earth. This scenario appears similar to that proposed in the classic evolutionary interpretation of the fossil record, but there are two crucial differences. First, in the evolutionary model life diversifies from a single monocellular ancestor and evolution implies an overall increase in biological information. However, in the creationist model, modification affects pre-existing created lineages and does not require the generation of new complex biological information (Brand & Gibson, 1993; Wood & Murray, 2003). The second difference relates to the rate of change, which, in the creationist model, is assumed to be much faster than the traditional view of slow gradual accumulation of advantageous traits over millions of years (Brand & Gibson, 1993).

From the perspective of evolutionary models, certain patterns of the fossil record (such as increasing modernity and ordered distribution) are compatible or fit well with the standard paradigm. However, others present challenges to the conventional interpretative framework. The lack of numerous intermediate forms is the foremost challenge, which has been noted since Darwin’s times. A common response is to attribute this problem to the low sampling effectiveness of the fossilization process. However, this assumption has been dismissed by quantifications of the completeness of the fossil record. In the words of Wagner (2010, p.462), “we now have the sediments: but they do not yield what Darwin predicts they should yield.” It should also be noted that when several transitional forms are known along an alleged evolutionary lineage, their morphological traits may show incongruent and conflicting distributions. This implies that the alleged transitional fossils very often cannot be arranged in a sequence that consistently accommodates all the characters undergoing evolutionary modification (Luo, 2007).

The phenomenon of stasis is also a pattern partially counter-intuitive to the evolutionary scenario. The observation of limited or no net change through the entire stratigraphic distribution of a fossil species fits poorly with a model explaining the variety of life forms as the result of continuous modification.

Another pattern which is not straightforwardly accounted for in the evolutionary interpretation of the fossil record is the high disparity shown by new groups at their first appearance. As remarked by Valentine (2004, p. 444), “this record runs counter to what might be expected during the origin of phyla, which would be the divergences of two lineages form common ancestors, at first at the species level only. Then as time passed their differences would become more pronounced, the two lineages becoming as distinctive as average genera, and then as average families, then as orders, and so forth.” Therefore, one would expect disparity to progressively increase as new modifications are acquired, but this appears not to be the case.

Moving forward: areas for future research

The creationist viewpoint would benefit from research exploring more in detail possible mechanisms responsible for some of the patterns observed in the fossil record, especially if these are seen as the result of natural processes being at work before, during and after the flood.

One area deserving more focused attention is the testing of ecological zonation theory. This idea suggests that vertical trends in fossil distributions reflect more an original difference in spatial arrangements of biomes rather than an evolutionary sequence. Interestingly, a similar approach has been presented in the standard scientific literature to explain turnovers in Paleozoic fossil plant assemblages (DiMichele et al., 2008; Looy et al., 2014). Even major dominance shifts in Paleozoic tetrapods appear to be strongly correlated with the disappearance of the coal forest biome (Sahney et al., 2010) or with a switch in the geographic location of the preserved fossil record (Benton, 2012).

Another area deserving attention is the study of sea level fluctuations and their effect on fossil distribution and preservation. It is possible that some patterns in the fossil record are the result of physical processes of deposition rather than evolution through time. Sea level variations could trigger sedimentary processes controlling the appearances and disappearances of taxa (including extinctions and radiations), and replacement and repetition of fossil assemblages (Brett, 1995;1998). An important part of this process would be to consider the difference between transported fossil assemblages and assemblages indicative of minimal transport or fossilized in place.

Finally, studies exploring time implications from the fossil record would also be highly significant. Of particular interest would be an analysis of the relative proportion of fossil concentrations (e.g., shellbeds) formed through slow time-averaging or sudden event deposition.

Conclusions

Fossils represent a unique archive of past life forms. Opening windows in the history of life on Earth, they should be highly valued as sources of information by anyone interested in origin issues.

The significance of fossils is greatly enhanced when they are examined in their stratigraphic context. Acceptance of the geologic column as an empirical construct based on correlation of local observations is therefore essential for the study of general patterns in the fossil record.

Any of the emerging patterns is always undergoing discussion and refinement, but there is a solid base of empirical data that represents the common ground on which both creationists and evolutionists may test their models.

The discontinuities between major fossil groups fit well with the creationist paradigm of an original diversity of created species, and represent, together with high initial disparity and the predominance of stasis over gradual change, a problematic aspect for the evolutionary interpretation of the fossil record. On the other hand, patterns related to orderly stratigraphic distribution of taxa and increasing modernity are currently the less satisfactorily integrated in creationist models.

Treasuring our trust in Scripture and exploring the richness of nature, we should maintain an awareness of the complexity of the fossil record, highlight with balance its many facets, and contribute through rigorous research to a better understanding of some of its aspects.


Ronny Nalin

Geoscience Research Institute


 

Footnotes

[1] A biome is an ecosystem characterized by specific climatic and geographic conditions (e.g., tropical grassland biome, temperate wetlands biome, etc.)

References 

Benton, M.J., 2012. No gap in the Middle Permian record of terrestrial vertebrates. Geology, 40, 339-342.

Brand, L., 2009. Faith, reason and Earth history. Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, 508 pp.

Brand, L. & Gibson, L.J., 1993. An interventionist theory of natural selection and biological change within limits. Origins, 20, p. 60-82.

Brett, C.E., 1995. Sequence stratigraphy, biostratigraphy, and taphonomy in shallow marine environments. Palaios, 10, p. 597-616.

Brett, C.E., 1998. Sequence stratigraphy, paleoecology, and evolution; biotic clues and responses to sea-level fluctuations. Palaios, 13, p. 241-262.

Clark, H.W., 1946. The new diluvialism. Science Publications, Angwin, 222 pp.

DiMichele, W.A., Kerp, H., Tabor, N.J. & Looy, C.V., 2008. The so-called “Paleophytic–Mesophytic” transition in equatorial Pangea—Multiple biomes and vegetational tracking of climate change through geological time. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 268, p. 152-163.

Foote, M., 2001. Estimating completeness of the fossil record. In: Briggs, D.E.G. & Crowther, P.R. (eds), Palaeobiology II. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, p. 500-504.

Looy, C.V., Kerp, H., Duijnstee, I. & DiMichele, W.A., 2014. The late Paleozoic ecological-evolutionary laboratory, a land-plant fossil record perspective. The Sedimentary Record, 12/4, p. 4-18.

Roth, A.A., 1998. Origins – Linking science and scripture. Review and Herald Publishing Association, U.S.A., 384 pp.

Sahney, S., Benton, M. J. & Falcon-Lang, H. J., 2010. Rainforest collapse triggered Carboniferous tetrapod diversification in Euramerica. Geology, 38(12), 1079-1082.

Schopf, J.W., Kudryavtsev, A.B., Walter, M.R., Van Kranendonk, M.J., Williford, K.H., Kozdon, R., Valley, J.W., Gallardo, V.A., Espinoza, C. & Flannery, D.T., 2015. Sulfur-cycling fossil bacteria from the 1.8-Ga Duck Creek Formation provide promising evidence of evolution’s null hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112/7, p. 2087-2092.

Stanley, S.M., 2001. Controls on rates of evolution. In: Briggs, D.E.G. & Crowther, P.R. (eds), Palaeobiology II. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, p. 166-171.

Valentine, J.W., 2004. On the origin of phyla. University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL, U.S., 608 pp.

Wagner, P.J., 2010. Paleontological perspectives on morphological evolution. In: Bell. M.A., Futuyma, D.J., Eanes, W.F., & Levinton, J.S. (eds.), Evolution since Darwin: the first 150 years. Sinauer Associates, Inc., Sunderland MA, U.S., p. 451-478.

Wood, T.C. & Murray, M.J., 2003. Understanding the pattern of life. Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, 231 pp.

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Patterns in the fossil record, part 1

Fossils are remains of organisms or traces of their activity preserved in the rock record. The scientific significance of fossils is truly remarkable, because they represent the only available archive of past forms of life. Through fossils, not only can we reconstruct the morphology of extinct creatures but also infer aspects of their ecology and environment. Fossils are also very relevant in discussions about the origin of the varieties of life forms seen on Earth today.

This blog is divided in two parts. In the first, we will review some of the patterns that emerge from a general look at the fossil record. In the second, we will discuss the patterns in the light of naturalistic and biblical models of origins.

 

Fossils and the geologic column

In order to extract general patterns related to the distribution of fossils, it is first necessary to establish a spatial relationship between the rocks that contain them. Geologists have created a framework, called the geologic column, to serve the purpose of ordering rocks from various locations in an idealized succession of units and events. Imagine the geologic column as a layered cake, so that rocks at any given locality can be readily assigned to a specific layer of the column and their relationship with others rock units become self-evident. The geologic column is the outcome of scores of local observations, measurements and correlations between outcrops from all over the world. It is continually being refined, but its basic subdivisions are well established.[1]

In spite of skepticism from some creationists about the reliability of the geologic column as a valid construct, many endorse it as an effective tool to organize spatial information in the rock record.[2] In this paper, most of the patterns discussed assume the validity of the geologic column as a necessary foundation for their reconstruction.

In standard geologic practice, the geologic column is tied to a chronology of hundreds of millions of years. However, creationists generally do not agree with such long chronology for the formation of the many intervals of the column. Therefore, creationists who accept the geologic column keep the stratigraphic[3] data (i.e., order and correlation of rock units) separate from the absolute chronology (i.e., the numerical age) assigned to the rock units.

 

Review of some patterns in the fossil record 

Ordered distribution

One of the most prominent features of the fossil record is that every fossil species consistently occurs within a specific interval of the geologic column. Some taxa[4] may have a very restricted distribution, whereas others may be found in larger portions of the column. The interval of distribution for a taxon is sometimes called its stratigraphic range. For example, the stratigraphic range of human fossils corresponds to the Quaternary (the uppermost portion of the geologic column) whereas the stratigraphic range of dinosaurs is restricted to the Mesozoic (lower in the geologic column). Therefore, the distribution of fossils of these two groups does not overlap and they are never found together at the same site.

The stratigraphic range of fossil taxa is obtained through collection of samples from many localities. If numerous specimens are available (such as with microfossils, which can be collected by the thousands per sample) the stratigraphic range can be very precisely defined. On the contrary, when only a few specimens of a taxon are known, the upper and lower boundaries of its stratigraphic range can be expanded by new discoveries.

From exclusively marine to marine and terrestrial

Determining the mode of life of extinct organisms is not always straightforward, but it is usually possible to at least infer whether a fossil lived in a marine or terrestrial habitat. A remarkable feature of the fossil record is that all organisms found fossilized in the lower part of the geologic column (up to the Silurian) have generally been interpreted to be adapted for life in fully marine conditions. This implies a lack of terrestrial organisms among the millions of fossils of the lower Paleozoic. The Silurian-Devonian represents the first interval where fossils of terrestrial affinity begin to appear. What is particularly notable is that very different groups such as plants (Edwards & Burgess, 1990), invertebrates (Selden, 1990) and vertebrates (Milner, 1990) all present their first terrestrial representatives in this interval of the geologic column. Some of these forms, such as the lowermost occurring tetrapods[5] (Carroll, 2005), seem to have been adapted for life in coastal or riparian environments, at the interface between water and land. From the Devonian upwards, marine and terrestrial organisms are both widely represented in the fossil record.

Increasing modernity

Many of the fossils preserved in the rock record pertain to groups of organisms that are now extinct. Some fossil groups however, have representatives still living in modern times. One can estimate what percentage of the fossil taxa found in a specific interval of the geologic column is still living today. This exercise could be done at the species level or at a higher taxonomic category (such as genus or family). This analysis of similarity between present and fossil faunas and/or floras shows that as we move lower in the geologic column the similarity decreases (or, said in other words, fossils in the upper part of the geologic column are more similar to living organisms than those in the lower part of the column).

Disparity

Disparity is a measure of the morphological difference between two organisms. When examining the fossil record, we could look for the degree of disparity between forms found in a specific interval of the geologic column. It is particularly interesting to estimate disparity at the appearance of new groups, because we want to see if they are relatively homogeneous or already differentiated when they first occur as fossil. The general trend emerging from the fossil record is one of high disparity right from the first appearance of a new group. A classic example of high initial disparity is the Cambrian “explosion” of metazoans[6], where very disparate organisms belonging to essentially all the animal phyla appear for the first time in Cambrian strata (Marshall, 2006).

The fossil record of many groups begins with few but morphologically very distinct organisms and is followed, in overlying strata, by an increase in diversity but as variations of already established themes.

Coordinated disappearance (mass extinction)

When no living representatives of a fossil taxon are known, the group is considered extinct. The great majority of fossil species is extinct, but the position of their highest occurrence in the geologic column varies greatly. However, some species disappear at the very same level (coordinated disappearance) and when the lost groups are numerous and belong to different categories of organisms the term “mass extinction” is applied. At least five distinct intervals of mass extinction have been recognized in the Phanerozoic (Sepkoski, 1986). The largest is the P-T (Permo-Triassic) extinction, where an estimated 54% of all marine families and 83% of all marine genera present in underlying strata disappear (Erwin, 1990). The most renowned is probably the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) extinction because of its association with the disappearance of dinosaurs and its possible link with a high-energy meteorite impact (Alvarez et al., 1980). Beside these five major extinctions, there are several other examples of coordinated disappearances involving smaller numbers of taxa or geographically restricted provinces (Sepkoski, 1986).

Coordinated appearance (radiation)

The pattern of coordinated appearance (often referred to as radiation) basically represents the opposite phenomenon of coordinated disappearance. It relates to the occurrence in the same restricted portion of the geologic column of numerous taxa which were not present in underlying layers. Classic examples of radiations are the Cambrian “explosion” of metazoans (Marshall, 2006), the Ordovician diversification of marine faunas (Miller, 2001), the Cretaceous radiation of angiosperms (Friis et al., 2006), and the Eocene-Oligocene radiation of modern mammal orders and families (Bowen et al., 2002).

Stasis and gradual change

In a very influential paper, Eldredge and Gould (1972) proposed that fossil species show little morphological variation during the entire range of their stratigraphic

distribution. This hypothesis, called stasis, contrasted with the previously popular idea of a fossil record showing gradual and directional morphological change between species arranged in stratigraphic order. Several attempts have been made at clarifying which of the two patterns (stasis or gradual change) is truly represented in the fossil record. Some studies strongly suggest the reality of stasis (e.g., Cheetham, 2001) but others illustrate gradual morphological change (e.g., Arnold, 1983). A third modality, named “random walks,” is also possible and consists of appreciable change through the layers of the column but not in a definite direction. Statistical studies on the relative importance of these patterns of morphological change in the fossil record indicate that examples of gradual change are much less common than stasis or random walks (Hunt, 2007; Grey et al., 2008).

Intermediate forms between major groups

Since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, one of the most sought after patterns in the fossil record is the presence of forms with transitional characteristics, arranged in sequential stratigraphic order. Of particular interest are morphological intermediates (or “links”) between major categories of living organisms (such as fish and amphibians, dinosaurs and birds, terrestrial and marine mammals). These connecting forms would represent the nodes between branches of an alleged evolutionary tree of life. However, such transitional forms are very scarce in the fossil record. Discussing the origin of higher taxa, Kemp (1999, p.246) states that “in virtually all cases a new taxon appears for the first time in the fossil record with most definitive features already present.”

It should be noted, however, that some forms with transitional characters or a mosaic of characteristics from different groups are indeed preserved in the fossil record. Representatives include Devonian tetrapod-like fish (Daeschler et al., 2006; Long et al. 2006; Ahlberg et al., 2008), upper Paleozoic-lower Mesozoic mammal-like reptiles (Kemp, 1999; Luo, 2007), Lower Cretaceous theropod dinosaurs with bird-like characters (Qiang et al., 1998; Xu et al., 2003), and Eocene terrestrial and amphibious cetaceans (Thewissen et al., 2001, 2007).

Other patterns

There clearly are numerous other patterns which could be investigated from the fossil record which are not discussed in this blog. These include trends in diversity, complexity, body size, specialization, preservation, trace fossils, and nature of embedding deposits. For a creationist commentary on most of these patterns the reader is referred to Gibson (1996).


Ronny Nalin

Geoscience Research Institute


Footnotes:

[1] For a standard version of a chart showing the subdivisions of the geologic column (some of which are mentioned later in this article) see http://www.stratigraphy.org/index.php/ics-chart-timescale.

[2] For an example of differing creationist views on the geologic column, see Reed & Oard, 2006.

[3] Stratigraphy is a branch of geology which aims at subdividing the rock record into discrete units characterized by specific combinations of observable parameters (such as rock type, fossil content, magnetic properties, isotopic composition, etc.).

[4] The nomenclatural scheme of biology has different hierarchical levels to rank organisms from the general to the specific (e.g., phylum, family, genus, species). Taxon (pl.: taxa) is the general word used to refer to any of these categories (the word taxon, for example, could equally be applied to a species or a family).

[5] The term tetrapod is used to indicate four-limbed vertebrates, a group including amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds.

[6] Metazoan is a technical term used to refer to multicellular animals.

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Teeming Creatures of the Sea!

The number of different kinds of living organisms is one measure of biological diversity, or what has become known as “biodiversity.” Our world’s oceans have the highest known biodiversity, second only to the number of species found in the tropical rainforest.

The small, white shell is a dead giveaway for the snail, Cyphoma gibossum on Caribbean coral reefs. The actual flesh of the animal is cream-colored with bright yellow spots. It feeds on polyps of gorgonian sea fans (a type of coral).

The small, white shell is a dead giveaway for the snail, Cyphoma gibossum on Caribbean coral reefs. The actual flesh of the animal is cream-colored with bright yellow spots. It feeds on polyps of gorgonian sea fans (a type of coral).

However, if we consider the potential number of undiscovered species in marine systems, it’s likely that our oceans would come out on top as the environment with the greatest number of species on the planet.

While more than 70% of Earth is covered with water, much of the vast expanses of ocean have relatively few species. Instead, much of the known biodiversity in our oceans is found in special areas that cover less than one percent of the ocean’s floor – coral reefs[i]. This is because although the vast areas of the ocean have plenty of space, they’re a little like deserts when it comes to the nutrients animals at the lowest level of the food chain need to survive and grow. In contrast, coral reefs are like oases, where nutrients are plentiful, but space is hard to come by. With so many organisms, from microscopic bacteria and algae to sea turtles

The ornately colored Caribbean Spiny Lobster, Panulirus argus, is found in crevices during the day throughout the Caribbean, and comes out to hunt and feed at night. It’s numbers are decreasing because of overfishing.

The ornately colored Caribbean Spiny Lobster, Panulirus argus, is found in crevices during the day throughout the Caribbean, and comes out to hunt and feed at night. It’s numbers are decreasing because of overfishing.

and hammerhead sharks, reliant on these important nutrients, there’s always lots of competition for places to live in coral reefs. But, there’s cooperation, too! Among other things, both competition and cooperation provide us with spectacular views of so many species of organisms (that high biodiversity) in these coral reef oases.

Still, we know relatively little about the number of species in coral reefs, and only very recently about the biodiversity of the deep ocean floor. For instance, we know of about 7,200 species[ii] of single-cell marine algae (known as phytoplankton), many of which are caught and eaten by microscopic predators (known as zooplankton, some of which are the larval, or baby, stages of larger animals), of which there are an estimated 50,000 species![iii] We know something about a great number of the groups of animals that live in and around coral

Although brightly colored, the hermit crab, Paguristes cadenati, is sometimes difficult to find because of its small size and shy demeanor. It uses the left over shell of a snail to hid in and protect its soft abdomen.

Although brightly colored, the hermit crab, Paguristes cadenati, is sometimes difficult to find because of its small size and shy demeanor. It uses the left over shell of a snail to hid in and protect its soft abdomen.

reefs, as well. For example, there are about 11,000 known species of corals (which are animals, not plants) and their relatives (the jellyfishes and anemones) in existence today[iv].

One of the largest known groups of ocean organisms is the Molluscs (the snails, sea slugs, chitons, and octopuses) of which there are some 100,000 described species (although not all of these live in the ocean), along with another 70,000 that are now only known from the fossil record[v]. There are several groups of marine animals that are made up of large numbers of species. One of these is the Superclass Crustacea, with a whopping 42,000 living species[vi], including the crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and the barnacles[vii].

The Indigo Hamlet, Hypoplectrus indigo, is rare in many parts of the Caribbean sea, and is one of the many brightly colored fish that make up the rainbow of colors on tropical coral reefs.

The Indigo Hamlet, Hypoplectrus indigo, is rare in many parts of the Caribbean sea, and is one of the many brightly colored fish that make up the rainbow of colors on tropical coral reefs.

With so many species living in our oceans (and many more which have yet to be discovered)[viii], we can see that our oceans are places of amazing diversity, beauty, and discovery. However, humans are taking a toll on these ocean systems with our input of chemical and plastic pollution. There are some places in our oceans where plastic fragments now make up a large amount of materials zooplankton and small fish are eating every day[ix]. Plastic pollution in our oceans and washing up on our beaches has become so wide-spread, it now accounts for the death of many marine animals and oceanic birds, even in places where no humans live[x].

It’s time for each one of us to stand up for our fellow creatures that live in the oceans. As stewards of the creation, let’s not simply talk about believing in creation, but work together to care for creation in ways we’ve been entrusted to do so from the beginning[xi]

This species of hydroid (a relative of corals and anemones) is the Christmas Tree hydroid, Halocordyle disticha, captures plankton with its toxic tentacles. In this photograph, individual polyps with their ring of stinging tentacles can be seen extended from the “tree.”

This species of hydroid (a relative of corals and anemones) is the Christmas Tree hydroid, Halocordyle disticha, captures plankton with its toxic tentacles. In this photograph, individual polyps with their ring of stinging tentacles can be seen extended from the “tree.”

______________________________________________________________

Stephen Dunbar

Loma Linda University

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[i] http://www.noaa.gov/features/economic_0708/coralreefs.html

[ii] Castro, P. & Huber, M.E. 2010. Marine Biology, 8th Ed. McGraw-Hill New York, NY.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Pechenik, J. A. 2015. Biology of the Invertebrates, 7th Ed. McGraw-Hill New York, NY.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Yes! Barnacles are closely related to crabs and shrimp, even though they were once thought to be more closely related to snails, and were classified as molluscs up to 150 years ago.

[viii] Some recent estimates place the number somewhere between 700,000 – 1 million. See, for instance, http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/11/hundreds-of-thousands-of-undiscovered-marine-species-await-discovery.html

[ix] http://www.ted.com/talks/capt_charles_moore_on_the_seas_of_plastic?language=en

[x] http://pacificvoyagers.org/midway-atoll-the-plastic-plight-of-the-albatross/

[xi] Genesis 2: 8 – 15

Posted in Biology, Environment | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The True Colors of the Ocean

Have you ever snorkeled or scuba dove in a coral reef? If you have, and I asked you to describe the experience in less than five words, I bet your answer would be an explosion of color. Well, maybe you would express it slightly differently, but I am sure that you would Anemone and clown fish - cc Tim Sheerman-Chaseinclude the word color in your description. Coral reefs are one of the most colorful spectacles of nature; electric blues, vivid yellows, striking pinks, and swirly greens fill the eye coming from everywhere, both from the corals themselves and from the myriads of fish species that inhabit this incredibly diverse ecosystem. Scientists have suggested several explanations for such a dazzling array of colors and design patterns. Highly conspicuous fish may be warning predators that they are toxic, or, almost the opposite, they may be trying to camouflage by blending into a background mosaic of colorful corals and algae. Intricate color patterns may be also useful for species recognition when attempting to find a mate in such a crowded environment, and they may even allow individual recognition. As a marine biologist specialized on animal behavior, I find all these explanations quite compelling yet, as a Christian scientist, I would suggest at least one additional reason for the amazing variety of colors, shapes and patterns that we see in coral reefs: God’s overwhelming creativity. Besides their CIMG2602_Two_Red_Sea_Bannerfish,_Lighthouse_Reef_(2692870043) - cc Tim Sheerman-Chasefunctionality, God filled coral reefs with a profusion of colors for us to enjoy the beauty of life, the same way He composed birdsongs for much more than attracting mates or exhibiting territoriality. God’s extraordinary artistry and sense of esthetics always amazes me; when He created the heavens and the earth he made everything not only very good, but also very beautiful, and despite all the distortion caused by several thousand years of sin, we can still admire and enjoy that beauty.

Unfortunately, this will probably not last. The colors that God wisely distributed across the ocean scenery are being distorted because we, humans, have introduced new colors out of place, messing up environments and threatening sea life. On one hand, we are erasing the colors of coral reefs. Have you heard of coral bleaching? When corals are stressed they

A colony of the soft coral known as the "bent sea rod" stands bleached on a reef off of Islamorada, Florida. Hard and soft corals are presently bleaching- losing their symbiotic algae – all over the coral reefs of the Florida Keys due to unusually warm ocean temperatures this summer. Months with waters warmer than 85 F have become more frequent in the last several decades compared to a century ago, stressing and in some cases killing corals when temperatures remain high for too long. Photo credit: Kelsey Roberts, USGS.

A colony of the soft coral known as the “bent sea rod” stands bleached on a reef off of Islamorada, Florida. Hard and soft corals are presently bleaching- losing their symbiotic algae – all over the coral reefs of the Florida Keys due to unusually warm ocean temperatures this summer. Months with waters warmer than 85 F have become more frequent in the last several decades compared to a century ago, stressing and in some cases killing corals when temperatures remain high for too long. Photo credit: Kelsey Roberts, USGS.

release the symbiotic microscopic algae that color them, and turn white. Warmer water temperatures due to global warming may cause coral bleaching, and several massive bleaching events have been recorded around the globe in the last decades (Brown 1997). On the other hand, we are coloring specific sites of the oceanic scenery that were specifically characterized by their lack of color. In the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, billions of tiny colored particles accumulate where we should see only shades of blue; the white coasts of the Arctic are dotted with colorful objects of many shapes and sizes, and so are the creamy beaches of remote islands all over the world. These colorful invaders can be found even inside the bodies of many marine animals such as fish, seabirds and sea turtles. As you have probably guessed, I am talking about plastics.

Plastic pollution ocean hawaii - PD NOAAPlastic pollution in the ocean is a huge conservation problem that also impacts human health (Derraik 2002). The same characteristics that make plastics so useful – they are light, strong, durable and cheap – turn them into a serious hazard. Plastics ingested by marine animals reduce their actual food consumption and fat deposits, weakening them and hindering long migrations. Large plastics may even block their intestinal track and cause death. Colored plastics attract seabirds and they often use them to feed their chicks. Entanglement is an additional threat to seabirds, sea mammals and sea turtles, which often get caught in plastic debris when they are young, causing deformed growth, or strangling them to death. Moreover, plastics contain persistent organic pollutants (POPs), known to alter hormone levels, cause reproductive disorders and increase risk of other diseases (Derraik 2002; Seltenrich 2015). When plastics are ingested, these POPs accumulate in the animal tissues and may be passed on along the food chain, eventually reaching humans.

In this very moment more than 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing more than 269,000 tons are floating on the sea (Eriksen et al. 2014). Where did they come from? Oceans do not produce plastics. They come from land, from my kitchen, from my trash can, from the package of my sandwich, my shampoo bottle, my grocery bag, my pen, my sandals, my cell phone Pacific-garbage-patch-map_2010_noaamdp - PD NOAAcase, my food containers… I am a marine biologist and nevertheless, my plastics are contaminating the marine environment, killing marine animals and poisoning people. You may think that your case is different, because you recycle. Guess what! I recycle too, and I used to feel good about it, until I found that most of the “recyclable” materials that we proudly deposit in our blue containers end up shipped to some underdeveloped country, and dumped in an unregulated landfill over there. Three years ago I did a project on plastic pollution for my class The Bible and Ecology. I read several books and papers on the topic, watched documentaries and consulted specialized websites. Several of these sources pointed out the long life of plastics, their high toxicity, and the difficulty of proper disposal and recycling. Because of my scientist mindset, I wanted to check the accuracy of this information, so I went to visit the recycling facility for the city of Loma Linda, and asked what they do with the recyclable plastics. The answer was: We clean them, separate them by types, compact them, and… send them to China!

After that conversation I realized that I cannot just assume that others would take care of the problem. My plastics were my responsibility and if I wanted to be a consistent environmentally responsible Christian biologist, I should do something. I decided to reduce my plastic footprint as much as possible, so I stopped drinking bottled water, brought reusable fabric bags to the grocery store, and chose glass or metal food containers instead of plastic. I would love to say that I am still doing that, but it would not be true. At some point, convenience won over will and, to my shame, disposable plastics came back into my life. Does this story sound familiar? I have heard similar experiences from many people, which made me wonder if it is even possible to go countercurrent on this issue and live without using plastics in our current culture of disposability. Well, actually it is. I could give you several examples of people who have succeeded, some of them I know personally, but probably the most famous case is a woman named Beth Terry, an accountant from Oakland, California, who has lived plastic free since 2007. You can read her story at www.myplasticfreelife.com.

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There she explains how, eight years ago, she saw a picture of an albatross’ chick that died with a stomach full of colored plastic bottle caps. Beth realized that those caps could come from her own trash can, she felt responsible for the death of that bird, and she decided to do something. If we were in Jesus’ parable of the farmer who was planting seeds, I would be the gravelly ground, or maybe the terrain full of weeds, whereas Beth would be the good earth. I saw the same picture of the baby albatross’ carcass, I too felt deeply impressed, and I also decided to take action. The difference in the final outcome is that I let other things in my life suffocate the first commitment, and she did not. In the last eight years Beth has reduced her consumption of new plastic from the 100 pounds per year of the average American to less than 2 pounds per year. She has actively looked for plastic free alternatives of many products, and shared her findings with thousands of people. By getting others involved as well, Beth has been able to convince different companies to offer paper packaging instead of plastic, and to take back some of their plastic products to be truly recycled.

It is not my intention to make you feel guilty (or maybe just a little). What I would really like, for myself and for anyone who cares for God’s wonderful creation, is to encourage us to take the plastic problem seriously, and do something meaningful, for once and for all. Maybe you are already doing the best you can. Good for you! Maybe you did not even know how serious this issue is. In that case, I would recommend that you watch the documentary Plastic Planet, by Werner Boote, read the book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, and check out the website http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-bottled-water/. Maybe you already knew, but, just like me, you needed a boost to really commit. In Beth Terry’s website, she lists several good reasons for giving up plastics, such as to stop doing harm, protect health, and support ethical business. For us, Christians who believe in a Creator who made very good and very beautiful marine creatures, and put them under our stewardship, we have a powerful, additional reason to add to the list. God put us in charge of the true colors of the ocean, and we should start taking them back where they belong. So, what if we enjoy the dazzling colors of the coral reefs, but let the open ocean to be blue, the polar ice to be just white, and the sandy beaches to show the true color of the sand?

 

______________________________________________________________

Noemi Duran-Royo, PhD

Loma Linda University

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References:

Brown, B. (1997). Coral bleaching: causes and consequences. Coral Reefs 16, S129-S138.

Derraik, J. G. B. (2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 44, 842-852. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0025-326X(02)00220-5.

Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. C., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., Galgani, F., Ryan, P. G., and Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE 9, e111913.

Seltenrich, N. (2015). New link in the food chain? Marine plastic pollution and seafood safety. Environmental health perspectives 123, A34.

Posted in Biology, Environment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Cambrian Explosion

Texbooks describe the fossil record as the ‘best evidence’ for evolution. They claim that the fossil record proves evolution because there seems to be a succession from simpler to more complex life forms, and a succession from marine to terrestrial forms. Charles Darwin suggested that all life has a common ancestor. “All the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth may be descended from some one primordial form.”[i] Darwin depicted the history of life as a tree, with the universal common ancestor as its root. The vertical dimension represents time, whereas the horizontal dimension represents morphological variation.

Untitled

When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the oldest known fossils were from Cambrian strata (now dated to ~540 Millions of years using radiometric dating). But he realized that the Cambrian fossil pattern did not fit his theory. “To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer.”[i] Why was the Cambrian fossil record a problem for Darwin? Because if biological evolution occurred in a continuous and gradual way, then, 1) few fossil forms (low diversity) should occur in the lower layers of the sedimentary record or geologic column, 2) diversity should increase upward in the geologic column (and time), 3) the earliest forms should be more generalist and simple (low specialization), not highly specialized, 4) greater specialization should occur in the organisms of the upper layers, 5) new forms should be replacing ancestral forms with signs of gradual change (intermediate or transitional organisms), and 6) a common ancestor should be found.

COL13-191-Cambrian fauna

Darwin acknowledged the existence of an “anomaly” in the fossil record that posed a big problem for his theory of gradual evolution from a common ancestor: the abrupt appearance of highly complex life forms in the basal layers of the Cambrian. Its appearance is so abrupt that it has been dubbed the Cambrian explosion. Let’s have a look at the actual Cambrian fossil record to see why Darwin acknowledged a problem for his theory of evolution, then discuss the different hypotheses paleontologists have suggested, the problems of those hypotheses, and a view of the Cambrian fossils from a Flood model.

The fossil record of the lower layers of the Cambrian period consists of multiple forms of animals that are interpreted to have lived at the bottom of the ocean. They are representatives of most modern phyla, including echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins), sponges, molluscs, arthropods, etc. Smith and Harper present the problem of the origin of the Cambrian fauna in the context of the assumed evolutionary time scale for the emergence of body patterns: “Molecular clock estimates predict that the earliest members of many animal groups, including sponges, cnidarians, and bilaterians, lived 850 million to 635 million years ago. Yet molecular clocks and the fossil record together indicate that more than 100 extant animal phyla and classes first appeared in the Cambrian; only a handful predate the start of the Cambrian. Two events are thus distinguishable, with the origin of high-level animal groups temporally distant to the abrupt increase in diversity and disparity within the Cambrian—the Cambrian explosion in the strict sense.”[ii]

COL13-199-Acadoparadoxides briareus

It has been suggested that all the ancestors of the Cambrian organisms had soft parts and therefore they did not fossilize. This argument is not valid because there are many fossils of soft-bodied organisms in the sedimentary record, including many of the Cambrian fossils. Jellyfish have very soft parts and yet they left very distinct fossils in the Cambrian rocks. It’s not that there are no fossils in the rocks below the Cambrian layers. There are indeed in several places of the world, and they are called the Precambrian Ediacaran fauna. Ediacaran fauna predates the Cambrian explosion by 25 million years in the evolutionary time scale. Is the Cambrian fauna the descendant of the Ediacaran fauna? The Ediacaran fauna are soft-bodied animals, whereas the Cambrian fauna are both soft-bodied and hard-bodied (shelly) creatures. Ediacaran animals were not the ancestors of the Cambrian animals.

Scientists are puzzled by the vast evolutionary changes that occurred in such short time.[iii] Many paleontologists believe that the Cambrian fauna represents the complete replacement of the Precambrian Ediacaran forms after a mass extinction, not the simple gradual change. But there is no evidence for that speculation. And the Darwinian model for the origin of animals requires the existence of ancestors of the Cambrian organisms. But they are found nowhere and it doesn’t seem that further search will solve the problem. What are some of the speculations for the sudden appearance of the Cambrian fossils? Paul Smith, a paleobiologist at the University of Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, said in an interview for livecience.com that “[t]here are well over 30 hypotheses out there for the Cambrian explosion.” Scientists have suggested everything from genetic variations to geochemical changes to a starburst in the Milky Way to explain the sudden explosion in diversity.[iv]

COL13-334-Cyclomedusa davidi

It has been suggested that increase in the atmosphere’s oxygen content around 700 million years ago triggered the evolution of more complex body structures. But research has shown that the oxygen content in rocks allegedly 2.1 billion years old was probably the same as by the time the Cambrian explosion occurred.[v] Even if an increase of oxygen occurred sometime before the Cambrian, this hypothesis does not explain why a sudden occurrence and not a gradual appearance.

Some have suggested the Cambrian explosion was triggered by a global sea level rise with the consequence of the flooding of flat, shallow areas of the continents. The flooded areas would have provided a vast habitat for the aquatic organisms but would also be eroded, releasing many minerals, such as calcium and strontium, into the seawater. Those minerals are toxic to cells and the organisms would have to evolve the ability to excrete the toxic minerals. Consequently, what they did was to incorporate those minerals into their exoskeletons, enabling much more complex body plans, and feeding adaptations. The problem for this hypothesis is that it presupposes that the Cambrian land surfaces were eroded, that minerals were released into the water and absorbed into the skeletons and that all of that triggered evolution. There is no known evidence for this cascade of events, and thus they cannot be used to explain why the Cambrian fauna suddenly arose.

COL13-332-Dickinsonia costata

Another speculation is that an extinction of life occurred just before the Cambrian and opened up ecological niches or “adaptive spaces,” that the new forms exploited.[vi] One major problem for this hypothesis is that there is no evidence for such Precambrian extinction(s), except for the extinction of the Ediacaran fauna, which nonetheless is not related in any way to the Cambrian fauna. Moreover, one would have to explain both the Precambrian extinction and the origin of those Precambrian organisms.

Some paleontologists have suggested that genetic factors were crucial in the sudden rise of the Cambrian fauna.[vii] They propose that gradual evolution of a “kit” of genes occurred prior to the Cambrian explosion. These genes controlled development processes. An unprecedented period of genetic changes occurred, which triggered the rise of many new biological forms (diversity) and the disappearance of many others. Only the body plans that proved to be successful came to dominate the ecosphere. The problems with this model are various. First, this idea is purely speculative, not based on actual pre-Cambrian specimens. Second, the scenario is plausible, but still does not explain the suddenness of the fossil record in the lower Cambrian. And third, the last assertion—that only the body plans that became more successful came to dominate the ecosphere—is circular reasoning.

COL13-333-Cyclomedusa davidi

These hypotheses are just a sample of the many that have been suggested. It is important to note that what those hypotheses offer is a number of possible environmental, genetic, and geochemical events associated with the sudden origin of the Cambrian fauna, but not how the Cambrian fauna originated. There is a fundamental difference between claiming what might have occurred during the rise of the Cambrian fauna and how the fauna arose in gradual steps from a common ancestor. What we need is a mechanism for the sudden origin, not a description of the results.

The Cambrian explosion is a tremendous problem for the theory of evolution. There is no evidence of how the Precambrian single- or multi-celled soft-bodied organisms might have evolved into the highly complex and diversified shelled and soft-bodied organisms. The complex Cambrian animals just abruptly appear in the fossil record with every organ and structure complete and ready to function. Some of the most complex biological structures are already present in the Cambrian organisms, such as the eye of the squid, which is very similar to the human eye.

Both the Cambrian and the Precambrian fossils indicate sudden appearance of 1) high complexity, 2) high diversity, and 3) high geographic distribution. These features are a problem for the evolution theory because they are not expected within a model of gradual appearance and change over time. According to the Darwinian evolution model, the first organisms should be very simple (low complexity) and show little diversification (there should be only a handful of forms). The initial forms show be very similar (low disparity) and progressively differentiate. Instead, we find high disparity at the very beginning of the animal fossil record. All these features are in startling contradiction with the Darwinian evolution assumptions and predictions.

HMNH14-61-Namacalathus

Is there an alternative to the evolutionary models? Can we provide a reasonable hypothesis within a short-age biblical Flood model? The answer is yes. The Flood model provides a reasonable explanation for the Cambrian explosion. First, it explains why the ancestors of the Cambrian did not fossilize. They did not fossilize because in reality they did not exist. Second, it provides a setting for the burial and fossilization of the Cambrian organisms. Probably the Cambrian fossils were species that lived on the pre-Flood ocean floor. They may have lived on the lower topographic areas and were the first buried by the sediment carried into the oceans. Or they may have been buried by the onset of the Flood when “all the springs of the great deep burst open” (Genesis 7:11). The opening of these springs must have been a catastrophic event that may have caused underwater earthquakes, large waves, currents, and the removal and transport of large masses of sediment, which probably were deposited covering exceedingly large surfaces of the seafloor, thus burying the bottom dwellers—the Cambrian fauna. The Precambrian fauna would have been animals and unicellular organisms that were buried and fossilized during sedimentation events that happened after the Fall and before the Flood.

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Raúl Esperante

Geoscience Research Institute

Loma Linda, CA

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[i] Darwin, C. 1872. The Origin of Species, 6th edition, p. 289.

[ii] Smith, M. P., & Harper, D. A. T. 2013. Causes of the Cambrian Explosion. Science, 341(6152), 1355-1356. doi: 10.1126/science.1239450. Emphasis added.

[iii] Even assuming the evolutionary time scale of millions of years for the appearance of all animal and plant forms, an interval of 25 million years that separates the extinction of the Precambrian fauna and the sudden appearance of the Cambrian fauna is too short to account for the novelty of the complexity of the latter.

[iv] For a summary see, Levinton, J. S. (2008). The Cambrian Explosion: How do we use the evidence? Bioscience, 58(9), 856-864.

[v] Oxygen not the cause of the Cambrian explosion. Astrobiology Magazine, October 22, 2013. http://www.astrobio.net/topic/origins/origin-and-evolution-of-life/oxygen-not-the-cause-of-the-cambrian-explosion/.

[vi] Marshall, C. R. (2006). Explaining the Cambrian “Explosion” of animals. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 34(1), 355-384. doi: doi:10.1146/annurev.earth.33.031504.103001

[vii] See Levinton, 2008.

[i] Darwin, C. 1859. The Origin of Species, 1st edition, p. 484.

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Red in Tooth and Claw

During 1833, Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly and unexpectedly. This would be one of those sad but unremarkable facts of history were it not for his close friendship with Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson spent the next 17 years struggling with the death of his friend. During this time, Tennyson composed “In Memoriam,” a long poem that wrestles with the shock, sadness and despair he experienced and his search to find meaning from the loss. In Cantos 55 and 56, he penned these words:

Are God and Nature then at strife,

That Nature lends such evil dreams?

So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life, …

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone;

I care for nothing, all shall go.’ …

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravin, shriek’d against his creed

Anyone who has experienced the unexpected or even the expected loss of a loved one can probably understand some of what Tennyson felt. One incident of incredible evil can color one’s thinking in such a way that it eclipses everything else. But is nature really as grim as Tennyson depicts it? Is nature intrinsically “red in tooth and claw?”

Tennyson was not alone in his concern that nature may be at its core centered on suffering and death. In fact, the portion of In Memoriam quoted above is thought to have been written in response to Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published by Robert Chambers in 1844, which proposed an evolutionary origin of the universe and life before Darwin published his Origin of Species. Among the evidence discussed was the extinction of fossil species. 1844 was the same year that Darwin wrote what is known as his “1844 Sketch,” a brief summary of his ideas about evolution. Darwin seems to have shared the view of Chambers that older inferior organisms must be replaced by more advanced organisms and to see this cruel concept as a central part of his understanding of nature. In 1856 he wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker:

“What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature.”[1]

It becomes clear from Darwin’s later writings that his perspective led him to view all of nature, including humans, as pitted against one another in a struggle for survival, one in which races he considered to be less civilized must inevitably be wiped out:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”[1]

In this view he was in complete agreement with Chambers, but is this really what is going to happen? The Bible suggests a more optimistic view of nature and humanity. King Solomon wrote:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians stressing that, at least in Christ, there is not a difference in value between people, whatever their race or social status:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 NIV

Is there some way of observing nature impartially to determine whether the grim view embraced by Darwin or the more optimistic biblical view is better supported by the evidence? Or is life really more complicated than simply one or the other of these views?

It is an oversimplification to say that Darwin’s view was exclusively depressing and the biblical view is nothing but joy and light. Darwin wrote at the end of The Origin of Species about the wonder that is present in nature, with particular reference to the amazing interrelationships between organisms, and optimistically proposes that progress though evolution will lead to organisms more perfect than we may even have now.[2] And the Bible, as it seeks to convey God’s solution to it, talks about suffering in nature. For example, Paul, looking forward in hope to the promised new creation, observed that, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Romans 1:22 NIV.

Perhaps a better question would be, is the creation dominated by competition, struggle and suffering? Are these the defining principles that result in the occasional beauty that we see? Darwin put it this way:

“[F]rom the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.[1]

The biblical alternative is that the creation was, and still is, wonderful, but is marred by sin. In other words, the goodness God created is there, at least in part, and necessary for life to work, while the suffering and death is an imposition on what was initially created “very good” (Genesis 1:31).[2] Again, it is Paul who states this clearly, Romans 5 is an excellent example of this, where he ends with the hope-filled observation that: “… just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21 NIV). He later notes, in Romans 8:21 NIV, “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Someone seeing reality from the perspective of Darwinism should be alert to every flaw in nature; every evidence of struggle and, perhaps, be a little surprised at beauty and altruistic behavior. The biblical perspective is less constraining. While there is plenty of room for disagreement, it could be persuasively argued that Christians are in a better position to determine whether life is primarily based on struggle suffering and death or elegant, cooperative interdependence. The Bible addresses both evil and good, providing an explanation of both. There is no compulsion to see only peaceful cooperation in nature or only struggle.

Still, while it is impossible to completely set aside one’s worldview, it should be possible to at least try to look at nature, particularly the systems by which life works, and determine whether they are more commonly about “war” or cooperation. When we do this, it is fairly obvious that life probably could not exist, at least as we know it, if all species – or all individuals within species – were at war for survival. In other words, life is not “a kingdom divided against itself,” which Jesus Himself noted could not stand (Matthew 12:25,26; Mark 3:24; Luke 11:17,18).

While all organisms ultimately die, what should be surprising is how few pathogenic bacteria there are and how few predators. This is especially true relative to the vast systems of cooperation we see between organisms. In general, plants do not seem to be at war with the fungi that they live with. In fact, both organisms benefit when fungi amplify the surface area of roots, providing water, minerals and protection to the plant, which, in exchange, gives sugar to the fungus.

On a grand scale, ecological cycles tend to illustrate the division of work in nature that makes cooperation an essential element. Some years ago, my friend and colleague Henry Zuill and I published a paper in Origins on the subject of the nitrogen cycle.[1] This ecochemical cycle operates on a global scale with different organisms performing different steps in the cycle. The amazing thing is that each of the organisms involved – and there are many of them – benefits in some way from their role in the cycle, while at the same time being dependent on the other organisms in the cycle and providing benefits to organisms that are less directly involved. In fact, without the nitrogen cycle, life as we know it appears to be impossible.

Another example of life’s pervasive cooperative interdependence has been the recent realization that complex multicellular organisms live with an extensive microbiome that appears to be essential for their health. This realization has played a major role in development of effective therapies such as distasteful sounding, but remarkably effective, fecal transplants and a booming industry of “probiotic” foods. After more than a century of war with bacteria and other microorganisms, we are finally beginning to realize that most of them are our friends, not enemies. Without them, we probably could not survive, at least in any state of normal health. This should make the discovery that our bodies contain more non-human cells than human cells good news rather than a startling worry.[2]

Both Materialistic Darwinists and Bible-believing Christians should be able to see the beautiful cooperative relationships that pervade nature. I believe that the Darwinian view of life as intrinsically at strife is at odds with the most common reality observed among living things, peaceful cooperative interdependence. This is what makes the suffering that we do observe in nature so startling. Death and suffering are not the cruel tools of progress, they are the consequences of sin that Jesus Christ, the Creator God, has paid the price to overcome. Vestiges still evident today of the beauty that pervaded God’s very good creation provide good reason to look forward to His “new creation” Revelation 21:5. Ultimately, Tennyson himself, through the eyes of faith, grasped the hope that God’s Word gives to all of us who live in a world where we understand so little and suffering is truly an evil in which we can find no meaning.

Thou, from the first, unborn, undying love,

Albeit we gaze not on thy glories near,

Before the face of God didst breath and move,

Though night and pain and ruin and death reign here.

       Love – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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Timothy G. Standish

Geoscience Research Institute

April 2, 2015

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[1] Zuill HA, Standish TG. 2007. Irreducible Interdependence: An IC-like ecological property potentially illustrated by the nitrogen cycle. Origins 60:6-40.

[2] Note that this is possible because bacterial cells, on average, are much smaller than human cells. But the microbiome is not made up of only bacteria, eukaryotic cells are involved as well.

[1] Darwin CR. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 1st Edition. John Murray, London. P 490.

[2] I am certain that there is someway of misreading my words or criticizing the phrasing I use here. I am not attempting to make either a grand theological statement, or even a subtle one. I am trying to state an idea in clear simple and concise language that an average reader should be able to understand. Of course, this may mean that some theologians or philosophers, either over trained or untrained, will manage to criticize something about it.

[1] Charles R. Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex 2d edition. (London: John Murray, 1882), 156.

[2] Darwin CR. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 1st Edition. John Murray, London. P 489.

[1] Darwin, CR. 1856. July 13, Letter to Hooker. https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-1924

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