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April 20, 2010 Tags: Human Origins

Today's entry was written by James Kidder. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Facing Reality

On the Evolution, News & Views Web site, Casey Luskin’s piece critiques the new Smithsonian exhibit "What Does It Mean To Be Human?". In his post, he addresses what has become a standard creationist argument: that gaps in the fossil record disprove evolution. In support of this perspective, he quotes from a section of the Smithsonian educator's guide, written by David Koch, which reads:

Misconception: Gaps in the fossil record disprove evolution.

Response: Science actually predicts gaps in the fossil record. Many species leave no fossils at all, and the environmental conditions for forming good fossils are not common. The chance of any individual organism becoming fossilized is incredibly small. Nevertheless, new fossils are constantly being discovered. These include many transitional fossils—e.g., intermediary fossils between birds and dinosaurs, and between humans and our primate ancestors. Our lack of knowledge about certain parts of the fossil record does not disprove evolution.

Luskin responds:

Did you get that? Ignoring the fact that transitional fossils are often missing even among taxa whose records are very complete, now Darwin’s defenders argue that their theory “predicts gaps in the fossil record.” How convenient!

This is a semantic trick. It is the same as saying black holes don't exist because we cannot see them. Such a statement completely overlooks the fact that there is a very large amount of evidence, based on how astronomical bodies behave under the influence of strong gravimetric forces, that, yes indeed, black holes do exist. I would venture to guess that very few professional astronomers doubt the existence of black holes.

Because we are missing sections of the fossil record, even large sections of the fossil record overtrivializes the fact that we do have very good fossils to work with and almost unbroken sequences of fossils of many different orders. Luskin, in fact, ignores the second part of the paragraph that he quotes.

That we have gaps is unavoidable. Evolutionary theory doesn't predict gaps. Geology predicts gaps. There is simply no way short of a miracle that we would have completely fossil rich preservation sites for every conceivable depositional environment. Such an expectation misunderstands how geological processes work. Expecting such a fossilized environment misunderstands how taphonomy works. Luskin continues:

What's ironic, however, is that if you ask the question How Do We Know Humans Evolved? the answer you’re given is, “Fossils like the ones shown in our Human Fossils Gallery provide evidence that modern humans evolved from earlier humans.” So whether you find fossils or you don’t, that’s evidence for evolution.

Here's irony for you. The human fossil record, in fact, is replete with transitional forms. In a future post here, I will demonstrate just exactly how rich the human fossil record really is. The recent controversy surrounding the new hominin discovery in South Africa has revealed not just that different researchers have different ideas about how to best view the succession of forms in south and east Africa but also that there is a very wide diversity of forms present. No one working in the field doubts that there was an evolutionary progression from Australopithecus to Homo, even if they cannot quite figure out how it happened.

The point is that, despite the fact that we have gaps in the fossil record, what we do have is good enough to make some solid assessments of what happened in the past. The human fossil record is a wealth of information about our history as a species. To dismiss it entirely because there are gaps is simplistic at best and ignorant at worst.

Luskin ends by quoting the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, who passed away a few years ago:

But the exhibit gives no evidence of dissent from the official party line, such as an admission from Ernst Mayr in 2004 that "[t]he earliest fossils of Homo, Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus, are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap,” and therefore we’re in a position of “[n]ot having any fossils that can serve as missing links."

Mayr was a brilliant evolutionary biologist but he did not work in the human fossil record. He is incorrect about his assessment. There are fossils of all shapes and sizes between the late australopithecines and Homo erectus. The problem is that there is no agreement about what they represent. It is, nonetheless, not an unbridged gap. Finds like Australopithecus sediba help to bridge that gap. Maybe it is not a direct ancestor to early Homo. It still shows the progression toward the Homo line in one of these late australopithecines.

The fact that there are gaps in the fossil record has nothing to do with the fact that evolution has or has not taken place. How does Mr. Luskin explain the areas where there aren't gaps?


Further Reading



James Kidder holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Tennessee (UT). He currently employed as an instructor at UT, and as a science research librarian at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has been involved in the Veritas Forum at UT and runs the blog "Science and Religion: A View from an Evolutionary Creationist/Theistic Evolutionist."

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Glen Davidson - #10915

April 23rd 2010

Yes, John, I realized after writing it that I should have mentioned the rather obvious “re-do” of past discoveries that creationists effected.  But it was such a lame stunt in my view, and really nothing other than sending some samples to a lab, no real scientific work at all.

It can always be trumpeted as if these were some brave Davids tackling the Goliath, though, even though it was essentially a canned performance derivative of the discoveries of actual scientists who understand the enormous set of congruent data demonstrating that we live on a very old earth.

Glen Davidson


pds - #10982

April 23rd 2010

Chris (10541) and others,

“These Ediacara organisms do not have an ancestor-descendant relationship with the Cambrian animals, and most of them went extinct before the Cambrian Explosion,” said Shen.

And the Ediacara biota show the same pattern of stasis in body plans:

Surprisingly, however, as shown by Shen and colleagues, these earliest Ediacara life forms already occupied a full morphological range of body plans that would ever be realized through the entire history of Ediacara organisms. “In other words, major types of Ediacara organisms appeared at the dawn of their history, during the Avalon Explosion,” Dong said. “Subsequently, Ediacara organisms diversified in White Sea time and then declined in Nama time. But, despite this notable waxing and waning in the number of species, the morphological range of the Avalon organisms were never exceeded through the subsequent history of Ediacara.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080103144451.htm


Ashe - #10984

April 23rd 2010

Work by Weston EM, Lister AM (2009. Insular dwarfism in hippos and a model for brain size reduction in Homo floresiensis. Nature 459:85-88) suggests that it is plausible that insular dwarfism could have contributed to the relatively small brain size in floresiensis.


unapologetic catholic - #10986

April 23rd 2010

PDS,

So you answer to the Ediacaran fossils is the same as your answer to the trilobite ancestors?

“Now, what is YOUR answer to trilobite ancestors—There aren’‘t any because God made trilobites out of whole cloth?”


Chris Massey - #10989

April 23rd 2010

pds ...

You are falling into the creationist error of assuming that we should always be able to establish direct ancestor-descendant relationships through the fossil record. The chances of finding the precise ancestor are usually slim. Typically we find “cousins” of the ancestors. We find examples of transitional forms or structures in related organisms, not necessarily the actual transitional species themselves. So the fact that we haven’t unearthed a good candidate for the actual direct ancestors of trilobites is not surprising. The important thing is that we do see the emergence of hard body parts in the early Cambrian.


katz - #11004

April 23rd 2010

Now I can’t decide if I want to call my rock band Small Shelly Fragments, or Fishapod, or Moczydlwowska and the Trilobites.

And, yes, disagreeing with radiometric dating is just revealing yourself to be anti-science.  It involves math and is not immediately self-explanatory, therefore it can be doubted.  But it’s always right when we test it under controlled conditions, within the parameters established for that dating mechanism.  And it agrees with non-radiometric dating mechanisms.  And the different radiometric mechanisms agree with each other.  So if it’s wrong, it’s only wrong under circumstances where it’s impossible to determine whether it’s wrong or not.

Basically, denying radiometric dating is like being Invisible Boy from Mystery Men.


Karl A - #11025

April 24th 2010

Katz, you’re funny!  Thanks for the entertainment sprinkled in with the boring math stuff.


beaglelady - #11057

April 24th 2010

Basically, denying radiometric dating is like being Invisible Boy from Mystery Men.

Radiometric dating is evil! You should only be dating other Christians!


pds - #11128

April 25th 2010

Chris and UC,

“The chances of finding the precise ancestor are usually slim.”

Was there only one ancestor?  And why such low chances given that we have thousands and thousands of trilobite fossils and thousands of trilobite species?

Your desire to shoehorn these fossils into a Darwinian story is remarkable.  Even Gould sees these fossils as paradoxical and enigmatic.  Your commitment strikes me as a kind of fundamentalism.  I have no interest in that.


BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #11549

April 28th 2010

I think I have more sympathy for pds in this debate.  Current Darwinism is rife with Fundamentalism (just like much of Theistic Evolutionism).  I have no use for Fundamentalism since I only love mere orthodoxy.

As too the age of the Earth I think all the scientific & rational evidence clearly points to an old Earth.  I think the Bible & Tradition are compatible with belief in an Old Earth.  In order for me to even consider belief in a Young Earth someone would have to provide a plausible and rational philosophical theological theodicy to justify why a Holy and Truthful God would make an Young World that simply appeared old.  Bertram Russell of all people convinced me God COULD have done that but I would still need the theodicy.


Rowan - #11962

May 1st 2010

For a long-winded yet interesting debate on the merits of intelligent design with Casey Luskin, see here:

http://fourdollarsalmostfive.blogspot.com/2009/04/casey-luskin-email-debate_18.html


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