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The Fossil Record of the Cambrian “Explosion”: Resolving the Tree of Life

Geologist Keith Miller examines the "Cambrian Explosion", a period of rapid evolutionary diversification approximately 575 million years ago, and whether it poses a challenge to evolutionary theory. From the June 2014 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation.

 

Same Universe, Different Lenses: Science, Ethics, and Religion in Dialogue

This is a transcript of an interview given by Dr. Jennifer Wiseman at The Faith Angle Forum Conference on Religion, Politics, & Public Life on November 5, 2013.

 

What evidence do we have for evolution besides fossils and genes?

Scientists have found multiple lines of evidence for evolution, not just one or two. These types of evidence are independent of each other, coming from sources as different as ancient fossils and modern genetics labs. Evidence also comes from comparing the anatomy of creatures living today. All creatures with four limbs (whether mammals, birds, or reptiles) have the same bone structure in each limb, pointing to their descent from a common ancestor. More evidence comes from biogeography. Isolated islands are missing common species found on the mainland, but are filled with many unique species that can be related by a common ancestor. Finally, evidence comes from embryonic development. As an embryo of a mammal grows, its heart develops through stages similar to fish, amphibians, and reptiles. God’s creation declares the history of life in many different ways. All these ways are pointing to a consistent picture of God creating through evolution.

 

Science as an Instrument of Worship

NASA astronomer Jennifer Wiseman asserts that studying creation can show us the nature of God; science can inform us of what we need to do as stewards of God’s creation; understanding the natural world gives us a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ; and science can give us a better understanding of ourselves. This essay was presented at the November 2009 Theology of Celebration Workshop.

 

Does the Cambrian Explosion pose a challenge to evolution?

The “Cambrian Explosion” refers to the appearance in the fossil record of most major animal body plans about 543 million years ago. The new fossils appear in an interval of 20 million years or less. On evolutionary time scales, 20 million years is a rapid burst that appears to be inconsistent with the gradual pace of evolutionary change. However, rapid changes like this appear at other times in the fossil record, often following times of major extinction. The Cambrian Explosion does present a number of interesting and important research questions. It does not, however, challenge the fundamental correctness of the central thesis of evolution.

 

How can evolution account for the complexity of life on earth today?

A complex biological structure with many interacting parts might appear, at first glance, as if it were originally created in its present form with all its interlocking components fully formed and intact. It doesn’t seem possible that they developed step by step via biological evolution. In Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe introduces a term that he and other proponents of Intelligent Design use for this concept: irreducible complexity.

 

Isn’t the origin of life highly improbable?

From all we know about the state of the Earth 3 to 4 billion years ago and what we know about the complexity of the building blocks of life — DNA, RNA, amino acids, sugars — no entirely plausible hypothesis for the spontaneous origin of life has been found. But this does not mean that supernatural activity is the only possible explanation.

 

How are the ages of the Earth and universe calculated?

Many independent measurements have established that the Earth and the universe are billions of years old. Geologists have found annual layers in glaciers that can be counted back 740,000 years. Using the known rate of change in radio-active elements (radiometric dating), some Earth rocks have been shown to be billions of years old, while the oldest solar system rocks are dated at 4.6 billion years. Astronomers use the distance to galaxies and the speed of light to calculate that the light has been traveling for billions of years. The expansion of the universe gives an age for the universe as a whole: 13.7 billion years old.
(Updated April 16, 2012)

 

What does the fossil record show?

Fossils provide a unique view into the history of life by showing the forms and features of life in the past. Fossils tell us how species have changed across long periods of the Earth’s history. For instance, in 1998, scientists found a fossil showing an animal at the transition from sea creature to land creature. This tetrapod had a hand-like fin, confirming a prediction of evolutionary biology. Though the fossil record does not include every plant and animal that ever lived, it provides substantial evidence for the common descent of life via evolution. The fossil record is a remarkable gift for the study of nature.

 

What is the "fine-tuning" of the universe, and how does it serve as a "pointer to God"?

Fine-tuning refers to the surprising precision of nature’s physical constants, and the beginning state of the Universe. To explain the present state of the universe, even the best scientific theories require that the physical constants of nature and the beginning state of the Universe have extremely precise values.

 

What is evolution?

Evolution is the biological model for the history of life on Earth. While some consider evolution to be equivalent to atheism, BioLogos sees evolution as a description of how God created all life. Evolution refers to descent with modification. Small modifications occur at the genetic level (in DNA) with each generation, and these genetic changes can affect how the creature interacts with its environment. Over time, accumulation of these genetic changes can alter the characteristics of the whole population, and a new species appears. Major changes in life forms take place by the same mechanism but over even longer periods of time. All life today can be traced back to a common ancestor some 3.85 billion years ago.

11 resources found