The Fossil Record Problem–Part II

“The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.” — Stephen J. Gould

In Part I, I laid some foundations for my personal skepticism in the fossil layer. As noted above, one of the worlds biggest proponents of evolution (now dead), makes an honest statement about the fossil record.

My coauthor1,2 asks:

So if the newbies are virtually unchanged from the “millions of years” old fossils, then where is the evidence for evolution? Why are there not hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of fossilized variations (evolutionary stages) of these creatures, which I would think that you and others, including scientists, would have found as you explored? Were these particular creatures an exception to the rule of evolution? In other words, were these particular creatures created whole from the beginning? If so, then the theory of evolution has some really inventive explaining to do!

The frequent and insightful commenter Mike3 notes:

Consider the modern shark species, which have remained more or less unchanged in the last 100 million years (where they just start “appearing”). And ancient sharks are thought be have been around for as much as 400 million years. Yet sharks have always been predatory fish and nothing else according to the fossil record.

William Dembski speaks to the problem:

Gould’s solution to this problem was to propose his idea of punctuated equilibrium, in which evolution takes place in isolated populations that are unlikely to be fossilized, with the result that the fossil record exhibits a pattern of sudden change followed by stasis. But this patch has its
own problems. For one, it does not address the mechanism of evolutionary change. Also, it is
largely untestable because all the interesting evolution happens where it is inaccessible to
scientific observation.4

So there you have it. Evolution takes place in isolated populations which are unlikely to be fossilized. Isn’t it amazing how we seem to be in a stage of stasis right now?

Uniforimitarians claim that these fossilization takes place over 10000+ years.5

So, in this picture, you can see what ancient man was doing 10000 years ago. Yes, those appear to be fossilized sneakers, teddy bears, and other things.

1 An Outsider’s Perspective
2 An Outsider’s Sojourn
3 Massdream Musicworks
4 Expert Witness Report: The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design, Dembski, W., (2005), pp 6.
5 Wiki – Fossilization

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15 Responses

  1. So there you have it. Evolution takes place in isolated populations which are unlikely to be fossilized. Isn’t it amazing how we seem to be in a stage of stasis right now?

    This is the issue for me and has been over the thirty plus years since I graduated from college. There always seems to be a convenient, yet unverifiable, reason for this kind of anomaly in the theory of evolution.

    I’m sure from the evolutionist’s perspective that believers in God make it up as they go, which, of course, I disagree with. But evolutionists never seem to be able to come to the reality that your examples on this post, as well as many more, are proof that they’re making it up as they go. The evolutionist also seems to be an expert at dodging a question, which would lead me to believe that most politicians are evolutionists, or perhaps, the other way around.

    As an example: on the post, The Fossil Record Problem Part I, a frequent commenter just answered Mike’s point about sharks and with the same, basic answer as Gould gives here. But the commenter doesn’t address my original questioning of Part I, which is, why are the modern day ancestors virtually no different than the their fossilized and supposedly ancient ancestors? (These creatures, unlike sharks, do maintain their form in the fossil record!)

  2. So, in this picture, you can see what ancient man was doing 10000 years ago. Yes, those appear to be fossilized sneakers, teddy bears, and other things

    In reality, that’s a crustacean that evolved over millions of years. Scientists think that the curious brims may indicate that this is a transitional fossil, as the legs are obviously becoming wings. Also, note the increased cranial cavity to enable more air, and hence lift, to aid in getting airborne. And that the outer shell, common to crustaceans, apparently been has already pre-adapted to a lighter cloth-like skin.

  3. Mike,

    I must be tired, ’cause ya almost had me convinced;-)

  4. a frequent commenter just answered Mike’s point about sharks and with the same, basic answer as Gould gives here. But the commenter doesn’t address my original questioning of Part I, which is, why are the modern day ancestors virtually no different than the their fossilized and supposedly ancient ancestors?

    I didn’t both responding to this question because I took the answer to be, well, obvious. In order for evolution to take place, there has to be (a) inheritable phenotypic variation and (b) selection. (It’s widely assumed that the principle cause of inheritable phenotypic variation is genetic mutation.) Whether or not selection occurs depends on whether or not there are changes in the environment which cannot be accomodated by the organism’s existing range of behaviors. (Such changes include intraspecific and interspecific competition.) All this seems strikes me as so obvious as to hardly need mention.

    The members of the shark clade are efficient predators which have been able to hold onto its ecological niche, despite changes in their competitors and prey species, so there’s been nothing to force it to evolve much beyond the form it took 400 million years ago. It’s impressive, sure, but I don’t see it as somehow calling out for an explanation beyond the conceptual resources of evolutionary theory. Though as I cautioned as well, the fossil remains of sharks are pretty scanty, and that could lead to systematic under-estimations of how much evolution there’s been — “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

  5. “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    Except to an atheist….sorry couldn’t resist. Mynym goaded me into being uncivil. Shame on you Mynym….for shame. I can just see him feeling guilty now… 😉

    I would also say, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, nor it is evidence of presence.”

    I would also add, that there is such a thing as supporting a null hypothesis in science. That is, you predict, based on your theory, the absence of an effect. In order to support a null hypothesis, it’s statistically more rigorous in its requirements. Unfortunately, we can’t really do much experimental research in terms of what fossils exist and which don’t. However, it seems more than convenient that the evidence of transitional fossils is scant at best, and open to alternative interpretation in each of the few cases that evolutionists have claimed to have found.

    So, is it always true that the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?” Or are there times when we are forced (cognitively), to decide whether a certain continued absence of evidence may actually be evidence of absence (e.g., SETI)?

  6. In reality, that’s a crustacean that evolved over millions of years. Scientists think that the curious brims may indicate that this is a transitional fossil, as the legs are obviously becoming wings. Also, note the increased cranial cavity to enable more air, and hence lift, to aid in getting airborne. And that the outer shell, common to crustaceans, apparently been has already pre-adapted to a lighter cloth-like skin.

    Very good Mike. I would make a phylogenetic chart, but all of the software available for doing such is so poorly written and so user-unfriendly that I gave up trying. I just figure I’ll wait for it to evolve.

  7. Carl, you must realize you are describing an process that is guilty of intelligent action. A process that can decide that a particular organism within a particular environment at a particular time should develop a particular mutation that should be genetically passed on. While deciding that another organism in similar circumstances be deprived of the same. Have we hit upon the ideal, perfect shark? (Do you believe in absolutes now, all of a sudden?) Scientists have no problem pointing out the “useless” panda’s thumb. Certainly they can point out a few improvements that could be made to sharks.

    What about the countless changes that would have been necessary to get to that point where the shark has “arrived”? Who was keeping tabs on the environment, competitors, food sources, efficiency of speciation, etc in order to make such a decision? And why did each individual species seemingly stop evolving? Clearly, they can’t all lay claim to the label of Universal, Transcendent, Archetypical shark?

    To me, this is where evolution absolutely falls down, because it is no longer “safely” defined as random. Random works – it need not explain anything in terms that make sense to us humans (and we like logic and order, after all). Random is an appeal to forces we don’t understand (or magic!) – and so is “God did it”, I submit. But once human logic and order is imposed onto the system (and a logic that of course assumes “affirmation of life” and not “affirmation of death”), you open up a whole new can of worms. “Why life?” for starters.

    Evolutionists would do best to admit that they take it all on faith. I have no quarrel with that at all. And furthermore, I think my faith explains the data better – that sharks in fact did “just show up” (and the fossil record backs up that one).

  8. Many groups have excellent fossil records, but not once does he indicate that there is unequivocal evidence of transition from one to another, as evolution requires.

    I would like to register my disagreement that that is what “evolution requires.” What is required is that evolution be a more plausible explanation than the alternatives.

    Think about it this way, perhaps. Given some evidence, AND given some set of hypotheses, we’re faced with the question as to which hypothesis is the best fit for the evidence available. So it’s not a matter of asking whether the evidence provides a knock-down, absolute confirmation for a hypothesis. Rather, it’s a matter of asking which hypothesis is better than the alternatives. And of course, a lot depends on what counts as evidence, and also how the relevant hypotheses are described.

    One of the thing I’ve been insisting upon, and will continue to insist upon, is that the explanatory power of the evolutionary hypothesis is drastically underestimated by people whose understanding of the hypothesis is based on misunderstandings, if not caricatures.

  9. Think about it this way, perhaps. Given some evidence, AND given some set of hypotheses, we’re faced with the question as to which hypothesis is the best fit for the evidence available. So it’s not a matter of asking whether the evidence provides a knock-down, absolute confirmation for a hypothesis. Rather, it’s a matter of asking which hypothesis is better than the alternatives. And of course, a lot depends on what counts as evidence, and also how the relevant hypotheses are described.

    As for me, I believe that Intelligent Design provides a better (more plausible) explanation for the evidence. I’m not claiming that I’ve reviewed all of the evidence, or even at times understand all of the evidence.

    One of the thing I’ve been insisting upon, and will continue to insist upon, is that the explanatory power of the evolutionary hypothesis is drastically underestimated by people whose understanding of the hypothesis is based on misunderstandings, if not caricatures.

    I believe I’d level the same argument at ID critics.

  10. I believe I’d level the same argument at ID critics.

    I’ll accept that as fair, for the most part — and it’s especially fair when it comes to the sort of “criticisms” one finds in the blogosphere. I don’t even think Dawkins gives it a fair shake. But I appreciate Philip Kitcher’s take on it in his Living with Darwin, and Eliot Sober has a nice analysis of it in Evidence and Evolution.

  11. Well, I’m sure I stand accused of having a cariacature view of evolution.

    But evolution is a cariacature itself is it not? In essence it comes down to drawing a series of sequential cartoons of the past. This is what evolutionists see in their minds when they analyze any given data, is it not? I’ll take a worldview based on the word, rather than the image any day.

    So why not stick to the facts? Given a fossil, we can reasonably assume what it was, how big it was, how it lived, how long ago it lived, where it lived, what it ate, etc… all based on what we know about existing species we can actually observe.

  12. I would like to register my disagreement that that is what “evolution requires.” What is required is that evolution be a more plausible explanation than the alternatives.

    If that’s the case then evolutionary theory hasn’t really yet been specified in a way that leaves it open to empirical verification or falsification, even its critics are still looking for possible “edges.” For example, as it stands now it “predicts” any genetic change. Ironically Darwinism was actually more specified and open to empirical verification or falsification than the modern forms of hypothetical goo that the elastic term “evolution” has degenerated to. The problem is, Darwinism was falsified by the evidence to the extent that it was specified and so its specification and requirements had to be blurred away. Now even proponents are left with a theory specified only as opposed to other theories rather than the empirical evidence. Darwin did the same thing to some extent but not to the same extent, i.e. he would often “verify” his arguments as opposed to creationism instead of based on the empirical evidence. For example, to argue that you do not believe that God would design the panda’s thumb the way it is or to engage in theology is not using the theory of natural selection to predict the emergence of panda’s thumbs based on a process of filtering random mutations and so on. It’s not the same thing as using a scientific theory to predict a trajectory of adaptation or to really predict anything. If the predictions, specifications and requirements of evolutionary theory are defined by their opposition to other theories or to creationism then taking the case of creationism as an example all that has really been said is: “I don’t believe that God would make thumbs like this.”

    One of the thing I’ve been insisting upon, and will continue to insist upon, is that the explanatory power of the evolutionary hypothesis is drastically underestimated by people whose understanding of the hypothesis is based on misunderstandings, if not caricatures.

    That’s just it, the explanatory power of the evolutionary hypothesis is too great and too “overwhelming” because it explains everything. It hasn’t been specified so it “explains” all possible empirical observations. It is often said to explain one set of facts as well as their exact opposite. If men are homosexual then it explains that, yet it also explains why men are heterosexual as well as why they are promiscuous, yet also why they are monogamous and it even contains explanations as to why they are celibate. How can you verify a theory based on empirical evidence when it explains everything? Many “explanations” can be proposed given the vast explanatory powers attributed to a theory that was never specified based on a rational view of the empirical evidence in the first place. Its explanatory power is a mental illusion brought about by its own lack of specification. After all, what biological observation would not comport with evolution?

    The simple fact is that anyone criticizing the hypothetical goo typical to the theory of evolution will seem to be making a caricature out of it because it’s up to the critic themselves to specify it or to attempt to find its edge. There is no edge that has been specified by its modern proponents, thus its predictions are typically mental illusion which it never really predicted in the first place. Even in disagreements among themselves over their ridiculously low epistemic standards biologists have to point out that they’re not making a caricature out of that type of hypothetical goo:

    The viewpoint of Coyne et al. (1988) is one in which past events are argued to explain, in a causal sense, the world around us. Such explanations cannot be verified or tested, and the only biological observations they require are that variation and differential reproduction occur. This is not a caricature, as a reading of Coyne et al. will verify. In keeping with this general viewpoint, proponents claim that species are explained with reference to history. Important characters are hence “mechanisms” that have established and maintained the separation between diverged lineages of an ancestral population. According to Coyne et al., even the adaptive purpose of the changes that resulted in these mechanisms is irrelevant.
    We would ask where biology enters into this schema.
    (Points of View
    Species and Neo-Darwinism
    By C. S. White; B. Michaux; D. M. Lambert
    Systematic Zoology, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Dec., 1990), :400-401) (Emphasis added)

    It seems that because of the imagery and mental illusions brought about by such reasoning* it sounds better in your own mind but when someone else repeats exactly what you’ve specified back at you then suddenly it’s not what you said at all. Instead it’s a caricature, etc.

    *Which is linked back to the modern philosophy that did away with Aristotle, a mechanical philosophy which actually denies a scientific understanding of present causal patterns in favor of imagining things about the past.

  13. Mynym goaded me into being uncivil. Shame on you Mynym….for shame.

    Actually I’ve never believed in offering civility to those who subvert and undermine civilization/language which is linked to the symbols and signs typical to intelligent design. After all, if their words are an artifact of blind processes like natural selection filtering through the reproductive and excretory organs of ancient ape-like creatures then they have no claim to language itself, let alone the fruits of language like civilization and civility. Given their own “reasoning” one could point out that if those ape-like creatures hadn’t mated then their language wouldn’t exist and therefore all one need be concerned with is the conditions and causal patterns which produced their words and not any illusion of content and meaning within language itself.

    Simply asserting: “Well, I don’t agree with that reasoning but I can’t say why.” while supporting a creation myth based on it and engaging in such reasoning in other areas doesn’t really do away with the problem. If the problem is admitted at all then one has to wonder how far back into the Darwinian creation myth man’s understanding of language extends. For instance, if iconic cave men were capable of language with content and meaning which didn’t derive from a mechanistic chain of cause and effect extending into the past in a causal sequence then many elements of the mythology crumble. (Note that despite the icon if a natural catastrophe happened and you had to live in a cave and find a way to survive that wouldn’t really mean that you were less intelligent or less evolved or part of grand mythology of Progress, etc.)

    I can just see him feeling guilty now…

    I don’t. I guess Dennett would argue that it’s just not what my Mommy Nature selected for me to feel today. Good thing that she apparently selected some smarty pants for the little fellow. He’s a Bright, don’t you know.

  14. Eh, I should have edited those comments down but I have to leave so it was just write once and post.

  15. mynym,

    You frickin’ amaze me! How’s that for subverting and undermining civilization/language?;-)

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