The Fossil Record Problem-Part IV

Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely-graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.1

It continues today. This is quite unfortunate for Darwinists, but it does not shake their faith in naturalistic evolution one bit. Because, from their worldview, evolution is true. If there is any evidence against evolution, there is an explanation. In this case, it is that the fossil record is incomplete.

Both the Creationists and IDists have better explanations for the fossil record. Their explanations have more explanatory power. Both provide an explanation for the apparent gaps. To Young Earth Creationists, there is no gap. There was a natural sorting during the great flood. To many, but not all, IDists, an Intelligent Designer shaped the common descent of species by modifying the design at various points.

1 The Origin of Species, Darwin, C. (1859).

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11 Responses

  1. I can’t help but feel that there’s something profoundly dissatisfying about saying “things are as they are because that’s how God did it.” And I don’t see how creationism offers anything more than that. Intelligent design does offer a bit more, but without any precision. At which points was the design modified? And — more importantly — how?

    The more I turn over these problems in my head, I find that evolution is far more satisfied at the level of empirical detail, but that it’s silent on the fundamental metaphysical questions — on which I posted elsewhere on this blog earlier today. I’m surprised that “a pox on both your houses” is not a more widespread reaction.

  2. For those who study the issues from a YEC perspective, there is a lot more to it than “God did it.” I don’t feel the need to explain it. Those who are interested will seek it out on their own.

  3. I can’t help but feel that there’s something profoundly dissatisfying about saying “things are as they are because that’s how God did it.”

    This is similar to reducing philosophic naturalism to nothing more than “things are as they are because that’s how Nature is.”

    It’s interesting that some feel that naturalism* is supposedly profoundly satisfying, to the point that they are even willing to be fundamentally irrational in order to uphold it. Of course, the simple fact is that feelings of satisfaction have little to do with the empirical evidence and what is rational. Ironically, to argue that we will find the truth satisfying in some sense is to basically to assume that the truth is designed for us to discover so that we will sense it as fitting and satisfying when we discover it.

    *

    Carl Sagan’s buoyant affirmation that “the universe is all that is, or was, or will be” is widely understood to have captured the spirit of naturalism, but since the denial of this sentence is a contradiction, the merits of the concept so defined are not immediately obvious. Just who is arguing from the pulpit that everything is not everything? ….
    If naturalism is a term largely empty of meaning, there is always methodological naturalism. Although naturalism is natural, methodological naturalism is even more natural and is, for that reason, a concept of superior grandeur. Hector Avalos is a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, and an avowed atheist. He is a member of good standing of the worldwide fraternity of academics who are professionally occupied in sniffing the underwear of their colleagues for signs of ideological deviance. Much occupied in denouncing theories of intelligent design, he has enjoyed zestfully persecuting its advocates. “Methodological naturalism,” the odious Avalos has written, “the view that natural phenomena can be explained without reference to supernatural beings or events, is the foundation of the natural sciences.”
    Now a view said to be foundational can hardly be said to be methodological, and if naturalism is the foundation of the natural sciences, then it must be counted a remarkable oddity of thought that neither the word nor the idea that it expresses can be found in any of the great physical theories.
    (The Devil’s Delusion by David Berlinksi :52)

  4. If we’re going to talk about “methodological naturalism,” I’d rather not begin with Avalos. Avalos gained some notoriety, I suppose, in some circles given his opposition to intelligent design in general and to Gonzalez in particular. But I can think of better philosophers on that topic — Michael Ruse, for example, or Philip Kitcher.

    Lately I’m more and more inclined to think that my commitments to naturalism and to pluralism are not consistent. But there are many flavors of “naturalism,” some less odious than others. There are philosophical issues here that are only tangentially related, I think, to evolution and intelligent design.

  5. On the topic of the fossil record, Gould noted* how hard it is to get those with a Darwinian mindset to be open to falsification and to admit that data or progress in knowledge does not necessarily comport with Darwinism. Their mindset tends to be that Progress will inevitably and gradually verify Darwinism because their knowledge is rooted in the Darwinian creation myth itself. Everything is merely a “gap” which will inevitably be filled in by Progress so there is no empirical observation which falsifies Darwinism, although many empirical observations are not “gaps” in knowledge at all and it’s more likely that they should be advanced as falsifications.

    *

    …if we adopt openness to empirical falsification as a criterion for strong and active theories in science, consider the empty protection awarded to gradualism by Darwin’s strategy. [Noting that the fossil record is imperfect, see Shrink’s quote above.] For the data that should, prima facie, rank as the most basic empirical counterweight to gradualism-namely the catalog of cases, and the resulting relative frequency, for observed stasis and geologically abrupt appearances of fossil morphospecies-receive a priori interpretation as signs of an inadequate empirical record. How then could gradualism be refuted from within?
    The situation became even more insidious in subtle practice than a bald statement of the dilemma might suggest. Abrupt appearance…might well be attributed to the admittedly gross imperfection of our geological archives. The argument makes logical sense, must certainly be true in many instances, and can be tested in a variety of ways on a case by case basis…
    But how can imperfection possibly explain away stasis (the equilibrium of punctuated equilibrium)? Abrupt appearance may record an absence of information, but stasis is data. …I became so frustrated by the failure of many colleagues to grasp this evident point (though a quarter century of subsequent debate has finally propelled our claim to general acceptance…) that we urged the incorporation of this little phrase as mantra or motto. …
    ….a conclusion of stasis rests on the presence of data, not on absence!
    (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould :758-759)

    Anyone who criticizes the Darwinian creation myth will come across the same types of problems as Gould did attempting to reform it. Given the mythology Progress itself is linked to the theory and it is assumed that any problems with the theory will be filled in, every “gap” will be done away with and every line of evidence will inevitably verify the mythology of Progress itself. ID proponents come across the same pattern and continually have to point out that they aren’t making an argument from supposed ignorance or a “gap” in knowledge, typically they’re making an argument or a rational inference based on what is known about the nature of information, intelligence, design and technology.

  6. ID proponents . . . continually have to point out that they aren’t making an argument from supposed ignorance or a “gap” in knowledge, typically they’re making an argument or a rational inference based on what is known about the nature of information, intelligence, design and technology.

    Fair enough, but this doesn’t get us very far. The design inference gives us at best a hypothesis for testing. That is: we know that there are some cases in which intelligence is necessary for the production of order. And here are some other cases in which we observe order. It could be the case that the two cases are similar — but it also could be that there they are not!

    Design theory, in its present form, consists of (a) a hypothesis based on analogy and inference and (b) arguments based on probability to the effect that all competing hypotheses are astonishingly unlikely. What it lacks is a way of testing the hypothesis. Whereas the same is not true for evolution — which is the point we’ve been going around. But allow me to be cautious: I wouldn’t say that design theory cannot be tested. I would say only that in its current version, it is not testable.

    I’ll come back later on today and address what I regard as the testability of evolution.

  7. Back on the topic of the fossil record, you claimed in another comment: There are multiple lines of empirical evidence — genetic, paleontological, embryological, anatomical, and (sometimes) behavioral. And there is a remarkable — actually, quite astonishing — degree of consilience between these different lines of evidence.

    The interesting things is that a geneticist will tell you that phylogenies don’t match the Darwinian creation myth, the paleontologist will tell you that the fossil record doesn’t support gradualism and one must reform Darwinism or “interpret” it to fit while the embryologist is still back correcting the notion that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and so on.

    For example, genetics:

    …it would be wrong to read this as a victory of genetics over anatomy. It was, rather, the triumph of one carefully interpreted corpus of data over another body of data, interpreted more freely.
    ….
    We routinely now hear, however, of the reassessment of phylogenies based on molecular data- that “no matter what it looks like,” cockeyed genetic evidence shows that guinea pigs aren’t really rodents, that dogs were domesticated ten times earlier than had been thought, that humans diverged from Neanderthals five times earlier than had been thought, that rabbits are more closely related to people than to mice, that frogs are more closely related to fish than to lizards, and that the groups of modern mammals diverged from one another far earlier than everyone thinks.
    Even Vince Sarich, the doyen of iconoclastic molecular evolutionary studies, takes a jaundiced view today from retirement. Small miscalculations can have huge effects, he notes.
    “Then toss in a bit of molecular omnipotence, mix in a disdain for the paleontologists, and you’ve got me some 25 years ago-and other researchers today. How did I escape? Well, mostly by reading, listening and thinking. Having been down the very seductive ‘molecules are everything; fossils are nothing’ road, and through the lengthy and painful process of weaning myself off it, it hurts me to see that the existence of the lesson is not even acknowledged, never mind the lesson itself being learned.” (What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee by Johnathan Marks :12-13)

    One shouldn’t be surprised at consilience when one field is often interpreted in the light of another. Genetics is interpreted in light of paleontology, yet the empirical evidence seen in paleontology itself often doesn’t comport with the Darwinian creation myth and typically rests on uniformitarian assumptions. It is ironic that an ignorant paleontologist or an ignorant geneticist will sometimes point to another field which has already been interpreted to fit their own to the point that data is thrown out in “astonishment” as if the fact that it fits is surprising. Given all the assumptions and interpretations (and even the failure to publish data which doesn’t fit) it would be very surprising if things didn’t fit. In fact in some areas one has to wonder if that’s even a possibility.

    I’ve asked this a number of times, what biological observation would not comport with Darwinism?

    I suppose that’s a bit like taking the physics/Newton and biology/Darwin propaganda at face value and asking: What trajectories of adaptation can be predicted based on Darwinian theory?

    But allow me to be cautious: I wouldn’t say that design theory cannot be tested. I would say only that in its current version, it is not testable.

    Is language detectable empirically?

  8. Given all the assumptions and interpretations (and even the failure to publish data which doesn’t fit) it would be very surprising if things didn’t fit.

    I don’t see things as biased in this way. Here’s an example from the history of science that I find instructive. In the 1970s, molecular biologists weighed in on human evolution, and claimed that humans and the apes were much closer than was indicated by the fossil evidence at that time. This led to a long, drawn-out argument between the molecular folks and the fossil folks. There were criticisms of the accuracy of the molecular tests, and there were also debates between the folks who used protein data and the folks who used DNA data. The techniques used to measure DNA similarity had just been invented, and there were questions about how reliable they were. But eventually, the fossil folks came around, because of new discoveries and because of more careful anatomical studies. The big move came when paleontologists showed that Ramapithecus, previously considered a basal hominid at around 14 million years ago, was more closely related to Sivapithecus, a likely orangutan ancestor.

    What this indicates, I think, is that over time the lines of evidence become more convergent — more consilient — as more evidence appears. If the biological sciences became more divergent, or less consilient, as more and more evidence accumulated, then I’d be worried.

    On a more philosophical point, it’s worth stressing that on my view, there is such a thing as objectivity. The world does constrain what we can legitimately say about it. Theory-construction is not a free-for-all.

  9. What this indicates, I think, is that over time the lines of evidence become more convergent — more consilient — as more evidence appears.

    More consilient with what? It seems that because Progress is woven into the Darwinian creation myth then somehow all scientific progress is itself taken to be Darwinian or evolutionary. But that’s not necessarily the case. Indeed, if things like language, sentience and intelligence are to be excluded from science then we’d have no progress in knowledge. If it is said that progress is being made over time towards verifying evolutionary or Darwinian theory then one has to show that it was specified and therefore verifiable in the first place.

    For example, did Darwinian/evolutionary theory predict how similar humans and chimps will be observed to be based on how it is specified? I’ll answer my own question, there seems to be nothing within Darwinian/evolutionary theory which specifies or predicts morphological or genetic similarities between chimps and humans. History shows that if distinct races could be observed (which was generally believed in the past) then Darwinian/evolutionary theory would comport with that just as easily as if there were none, which is what is generally believed now. If human and chimps were observed to be very similar it would comport with that and if they were quite different it would comport with that as well. If human and chimps are observed now living in similar environments and geographic regions as very different types of organisms it is said that they diverged from a common ancestor based on the selective pressures of different environments in the past. If they are observed to live in entirely different environments as very different types of organisms it is still said that different selective pressures applied to their common ancestors in the past. And so on, it doesn’t seem to be a matter what can be observed empirically the truth of the Darwinian creation myth is assumed and then “explained” no matter the evidence. If the world constrains what can legitimately be said about it then what biological observation would not comport with evolutionary/Darwinian theory?

    Do current observations comport with creationism*? It would seem so given that chimps and humans are similar physically and yet quite different technologically, culturally, in intelligence, etc. That’s the irony of the 98% canard, if it is true then it only shows the irrelevance of DNA to many of the things which we value the most. Note, any conclusion about the similarity of chimps and humans drawn from such a number is much more subjective** than it sounds.

    **

    …to say that humans are over one-third daffodil [based on their DNA] is more ludicrous than profound. There are hardly any comparisons you can make to a daffodil in which humans are 33% similar. DNA comparisons thus overestimate similarity at the low end of the scale (because 25% is actually the zero-mark of a DNA comparison) and underestimate comparisons at the high end.
    ….
    The problem is that in being told about these data without a context in which to interpret them, we are left to our own cultural devices. Here, we are generally expected to infer that genetic comparisons reflect deep biological structure, and that 98% is an overwhelming amount of similarity. Thus “the DNA of a human is 98% identical to the DNA of a chimpanzee” becomes casually interpreted as “deep down inside, humans are overwhelmingly chimpanzee. Like 98% chimpanzee.” ….
    …whatever the number is, it shouldn’t be any more impressive than the anatomical similarity; all we need to do is to put that old-fashioned comparison into a zoological context.
    The paradox is not that we are so genetically similar to the chimpanzee; the paradox is why we now find the genetic similarity to be so much more striking than the anatomical similarity. Scholars of the eighteenth century were overwhelmed by the similarities between humans and chimpanzees. Chimpanzees were as novel then as DNA is now; and the apparent contrast between our bodies and our genes is simply an artifact of having two centuries’ familiarity with chimpanzees and scarcely two decades’ familiarity with DNA sequences. (What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee by Johnathan Marks :28-31)

    *

    The primates confirm the predictions of message theory. There are large gaps, and there is no clear-cut phylogeny.
    ….
    The apes thwart any attempt to separate man from nature: they unify man with nature. The apes possess innumerable similarities to us. The apes show that we are a part of this unified collection of objects. We are a part of the biotic message, so we must draw the same conclusions about our origins. The apes make it abundantly clear-The designer of earth’s diverse life forms and the designer of man are the same. Our designer authored the biotic message.
    Kenneth Miller writes:
    ‘The big emotional issue among creationists is human evolution. It might be safe to say that all their previous arguments exist only to support the notion that humans are in no way linked to the other animals.’ (Miller, K., 1982, p 9-10, my italics)

    Miller is mistaken. Creationists are not saying that humans are “in no way linked” to other animals. On the contrary. All organisms are linked by design, not descent. This has been part of the creationist thinking from the beginning. Because of this, the discovery of the apes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did not frighten them.

    ‘Now you would have thought that the discovery of these half-animal, half-men [apes] would have most profoundly scared and upset people-this evidence of a link between animals and man. And yet the literature of that period contains no evidence of any such frightened references.’ (Medawar, 1982 p 106)
    (The Biotic Message: Evolution Versus Message Theory by Walter ReMine :323-324)

  10. Dawkins on the same topic, perhaps citing his own imagination and mythology as the equivalent of evidence as he sometimes does:

    The rise of Darwinism in the nineteenth century polarised attitudes towards the apes. Opponents who might have stomached evolution itself balked with visceral horror at cousinship with what they perceived as low and revolting brutes, and desperately tried to inflate our differences from them. This was nowhere more true than with gorillas. Apes were ‘animals’; we were set apart. (The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins :108) (He cites the “distinquished philosopher” Peter Singer approvingly in a footnote in the same chapter, yet as I recall Singer approves of infanticide.)

    In another section he argues rather ignorantly:

    Many of our legal and ethical principles depend on the separation between Homo Sapiens and all other species. Of the people who regard abortion as a sin, including the minority who go to the lengths of assassinating doctors and blowing up abortion clinics, many are unthinking meat-eaters, and have no worries about chimpanzees being imprisoned in zoos and sacrificed in laboratories. Would they think again, if we could lay out a living continuum of intermediates between ourselves and chimpanzees, linked in an unbroken chain of interbreeders like the California salamanders? Surely they would. Yet it is the merest accident that the intermediates all happen to be dead. It is only because of this accident that we can comfortably and easily imagine a huge gulf between our two species-or between any two species, for that matter.
    (Ib. :303)

    Note the way that the Darwinian mind constantly works towards citing imaginary evidence, so by the end of his paragraph he’s treating imaginary ancestors as if they are a reality which must be “imagined” away while neglecting a rational view of empirical facts at present. Ah well, he’s the one imagining things and if one does away with the mental illusions typical to Darwinian reasoning (in which the imagination is somehow transmuted into “evidence” while the actual evidence that we can observe empirically now is lost), it’s invariably the case that the Darwinist is relying on imagining things. That’s been my experience, at any rate. Also note his ignorance, we can already know that if there were actual evidence for his imaginary ancestors it wouldn’t make much difference. Does genocide happen among humans? Of course. Do people who know that they have the same ancestors still kill each other? Of course. Is common ancestry among humans any safeguard if the Darwinian creation myth is true? Of course not, Jews were experimented on by Nazis who firmly believed in Darwinism and the Nazis advanced anti-vivisection laws at the same time that they performed experiments on Jews.

    I guess I’m going further and further off the topic of the post. I’ll try to come back and post on a contrast between Dawkins and Gould on the fossil record. One generally tries to focus on the empirical evidence, the other is typically willing to cite their own imagination as if it is evidence.

  11. Note the way that the Darwinian mind constantly works towards citing imaginary evidence, so by the end of his paragraph he’s treating imaginary ancestors as if they are a reality which must be “imagined” away while neglecting a rational view of empirical facts at present. Ah well, he’s the one imagining things and if one does away with the mental illusions typical to Darwinian reasoning (in which the imagination is somehow transmuted into “evidence” while the actual evidence that we can observe empirically now is lost), it’s invariably the case that the Darwinist is relying on imagining things.

    plus,

    For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Romans 1: 20-23

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