Wintery Knight

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Fazale Rana responds to new paper claiming that rapid evolution explains Cambrian explosion

Dr. Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe takes on a new paper that claims that the evolution can explain the Cambrian explosion.

They linked to this article from NBC News, showing how the paper was popularized.

Excerpt:

The team found that the emergence of many sea creatures during the Cambrian explosion could be explained by an accelerated — but not unrealistic — evolution by way of natural selection, or the process in which organisms change over time due to changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. (For instance, changes that give an organism a leg up will help it survive to pass down that trait to offspring.) The team focused its study on animals related to arthropods, the group that includes crustaceans and other insects.

“In this study we’ve estimated that rates of both morphological and genetic evolution during the Cambrian explosion were five times faster than today – quite rapid, but perfectly consistent with Darwin’s theory of evolution,” Lee said.

That’s the challenge. If you can’t listen to the entire podcast, then let me say that the problem with the paper is the way that they are measuring the “rate of change”. They are only measuring the rates of change in genes and phenotypic characters. They are not measuring other important requirements for the new body plans, like the network interactions and regulatory elements of the network. Also, they haven’t demonstrated a mechanism for even the rapid change they do measure in the genes and phenotypic characters.

Here’s is the MP3 file. (29 minutes)

The interviewer is Joe Aguirre and the scientist is Dr. Fazale Rana.

Summary:

  • JA: Does this paper explain the sudden origin of the Cambrian era fossils without the need for an intelligent cause?
  • FR: The paper claims that the rapid rate of change in the Cambrian explosion is within the capability of Darwinian mechanisms
  • JA: What is the Cambrian explosion?
  • FR: Sudden appearance in the geological record of 50-80 percent of the animal body plans that have ever existed
  • FR: Prior to that there were single-celled organisms
  • FR: The only multi-cell organisms (Ediacaran fauna, etc.) are not precursors to the new body plans
  • FR: This is not a diversification of plans from existing plans, this is about 30 new body plans
  • FR: Not just body plans, but complex organs like eyes appear suddenly
  • FR: The paper focuses on one body plan – arthropods (crustaceans, arachnids and insects)
  • FR: The paper looks at anatomical features as well as genes
  • FR: Paper says the rate of evolutionary change needed would be about 5 to 6 times the normal rate of change
  • JA: Has the rate been the same since that time
  • FR: No the rate of change we see is a fifth of what is seen in the Cambrian explosion, and it is constant
  • FR: The claim is that the rate of change of 5X is anomalous, but is reasonable
  • FR: The researchers established that what happened in the Cambrian explosion is unusual
  • FR: The researchers just assert that the faster rate of change is plausible
  • FR: They have not provided a mechanism for this faster rate of change
  • JA: Has anyone come up with a mechanism for the higher rate of change?
  • FR: No. There are speculations, but no one has published a robust, defensible explanation
  • FR: They are saying, if you embrace the evolutionary paradigm, then the rate of evolution has to be 5 to 6 times faster
  • FR: But they haven’t demonstrated a mechanism that can produce that rate of change, they just asserted that it’s no big deal
  • FR: To me, a requirement for an accelerated rate of evolution is an argument for intelligent design
  • JA: Why aren’t people working on the mechanism?
  • FR: The Cambrian explosion happens at a time when Earth is exiting a frozen stage
  • FR: The environment becomes hospitable to life as we exit this “snowball event”
  • FR: But just because the environment is now hospitable, that does not mean that the genetic changes are automatic
  • FR: On a Genesis creation account, the Cambrian explosion is described in the 5th day
  • FR: God creates the new animal types when the environment can accommodate them
  • JA: Can the naturalist explain how they go from single-celled organisms to compound eyes with 3000 lenses?
  • JA: Why did evolution-agitator Eugenie Scott say that the Cambrian proceeded “at a leisurely pace”?
  • FR: doing a calculation like from single cells to compound eyes is difficult
  • FR: these visual systems are intricate and sophisticated, with respect to field of depth, resolution, etc.
  • FR: additionally, the eye requires support systems in order to function
  • FR: The Cambrian era goes from 540 mya to 490 mya
  • FR: The two most important sites to study it are the Burgess Shale and the Chengjiang Valley
  • FR: The Chengjiang site shows the earlier period of the Cambrian, and the animals are there in the first 5 million years
  • FR: The period is at most 5 million years
  • FR: We are talking about completely different body plans and architectures
  • FR: It’s been shown that you cannot go from one body plan to another body plan, it will kill the intermediate forms
  • JA: You have to explain how ALL of the phyla came in together in a short period
  • FR: Yes. When evolutionists just assert that higher rates of change are “plausible” without specifying a mechanism, that’s not good science

Uncommon Descent had another response to the paper.

Excerpt:

I’d like to make two very general observations here. First, measuring rates of change in existing traits is not the same thing as measuring the rate at which new traits appear.

Second, the rapid appearance of new body traits that occurred during the Cambrian explosion could never have taken place without a host of underlying changes at the genetic level. It is these changes that we need to explain. How do we explain, for instance, the sudden increase in the number of new cell types that occurred during the early Cambrian period? Lee et al. do not even discuss this question in their paper: a search on the phrase “cell type” turns up empty.

[...]In a recent post over at Evolution News and Views, Casey Luskin drew readers’ attention to a new book by paleobtologists Douglas Erwin and James Valentine, entitled, The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity (Roberts and Company, 2013). The authors, who are recognized authorities in their field, are no friends of Intelligent Design, but they firmly reject the standard neo-Darwinian explanations that have been put forward for the Cambrian explosion. In particular, they take issue with the claim that macroevolution is nothing more than an extrapolation of microevolution.

He then prints a few excerpts from the Erwin and Valentine book.

Here’s one:

Increased genetic and developmental interactions were also critical to the formation of new animal body plans. By the time a branch of advanced sponges gave rise to more complex animals, their genomes comprised genes whose products could interact with regulatory elements in a coordinated network. Network interactions were critical to the spatial and temporal patterning of gene expression, to the formation of new cell types, and to the generation of a hierarchical morphology of tissues and organs. The evolving lineages could begin to adapt to different regions within the rich mosaic of conditions they encountered across the environmental landscape, diverging and specializing to diversify into an array of body forms.

Like Dr. Rana said, the new paper never takes these factors into account.

UD continues:

Reading through the introduction, it is readily apparent that Erwin and Valentine have thought long and hard about the issues relating to the Cambrian explosion, and that they truly appreciate the magnitude of the problem of explaining this seismic event in the history of life. By contrast, the new study by Lee et al. fails to grapple with the deeper issues: its aim is merely to defend Darwinism, and it “succeeds” only by shrinking the problem by focusing on minutiae such as rates of change in genes and phenotypic characters. No wonder, then, that the study’s authors perceive no threat to Darwinian evolution in the Cambrian explosion.

So should we be concerned about this paper? I don’t think so – not until they have a mechanism that can drive the required level of innovation. The paper pushes a naturalistic explanation, and so we are within our rights to ask for a naturalistic mechanism. Even if they had the mechanism, they still aren’t taking into account everything that needs to be explained – like regulatory elements in the coordinated network that Erwin and Valentine mentioned.

UPDATE: Kylie asked me a question that caused me to update this post. She asked me what about Behe’s work that shows that Darwinian mechanisms cannot even account for the NORMAL rate of change? I just want to be clear and say that I don’t think that Darwinian mechanisms can even account for that. What the paper does is assume that Darwinian mechanisms can account for the 1X “rate of change” they see. Then they further assume that evolution is able to do the 5X change rate as well. All they did was measure the amount of change and then assert that it’s not that far off of normal. But I don’t accept that Darwinian mechanisms can even do the normal rate of change, because of Behe’s book on the limits of Darwinian mechanisms to drive change.

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , ,

New paper in Nature: Ediacaran fossils not ancestors of Cambrian fauna

Uncommon Descent reports on a new paper in the most prestigious peer-reviewed science journal.

Excerpt:

new paper has just been published in Nature by Gregory J. Retallack of the University of Oregon. The paper argues that the Ediacaran fauna are not ancestral to the animals which arose in the Cambrian explosion and that life existed on land 65 million years before previously thought. Retallack further argues that the iconic fossils of Dickinsonia and Springgina, which appear in the Precambrian Ediacaran assemblages, were not in fact animals at all. Rather they were, according to Retallack, lichens, soil structures and traces of slime moulds.

And they link to this post about the paper from Science Daily, which makes the significance of the discovery even clearer:

Ancient multicellular fossils long thought to be ancestors of early marine life are remnants of land-dwelling lichen or other microbial colonies, says University of Oregon scientist Gregory J. Retallack, who has been studying fossil soils of South Australia.

[...]“This discovery has implications for the tree of life, because it removes Ediacaran fossils from the ancestry of animals,” said Retallack, professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontological collections at the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. His evidence, mostly gathered from a site in the Flinders Ranges, is presented in a paper placed online ahead of print by the journal Nature.

“These fossils have been a first-class scientific mystery,” he said. “They are the oldest large multicellular fossils. They lived immediately before the Cambrian evolutionary explosion that gave rise to familiar modern groups of animals.”

Retallack studied numerous Ediacaran fossils and determined that the diversity reflects a preference by the ancient organisms for “unfrozen, low salinity soils, rich in nutrients, like most terrestrial organisms.” Thus the fossils in Australia’s iconic red-rock ranges, he concludes, were landlubbers. In his closing paragraph, Retallack outlines implications for a variety of other Edicaran fossils, that could have been lichens, other microbial consortia, fungal fruiting bodies, slime molds, flanged pedestals of biological soil crusts, and even casts of needle ice.

Ediacaran fossils, he said, represent “an independent evolutionary radiation of life on land that preceded by at least 20 million years the Cambrian evolutionary explosion of animals in the sea.” Increased chemical weathering by large organisms on land may have been needed to fuel the demand of nutrient elements by Cambrian animals. Independent discoveries of Cambrian fossils comparable with Ediacaran ones is evidence, he said, that even in the Cambrian, more than 500 million years ago, life on land may have been larger and more complex than life in the sea.

Here’s a quick re-cap of the Cambrian explosion:

Part 1: (7:50)

Part 2: (3:25)

This explosion in biological complexity fits nicely with an intelligent designer . Intelligent agents make information by sequencing symbols into functional instructions. That’s what new body plans are. It’s like new software, and new software requires a software engineer.

The standard naturalist response to this problem of sudden origins of anaimal body plans used to be that the Cambrian explosion did have precursors. The precursors were thought to be the Ediacaran fossils. But that’s all been shot to Hell now, with this new paper in Nature. Ooops!

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Are there any fossilized precursors to the Cambrian explosion?

Consider this article in the New York Times regarding the Cambrian explosion, which is one of the arguments for intelligent design from the sudden origin of all phyla in a brief period during the Cambrian era, with no precursors.

Excerpt:

Now, this once-worrisome gap in the fossil record is a period of intense interest to geologists as well as paleontologists. The former have even given it its own division in the geological timescale. The Ediacaran Period, from 635 to 542 million years ago, is the first new geological period to be named in more than a century. Moreover, geologists have developed some intriguing theories about how dramatic changes in the Earth’s climate and chemistry during the Ediacaran may have allowed for the evolution of animals.

[...]The Ediacaran fossil record thus stretches the origins of animals to well before the Cambrian Explosion.

Are the Ediacaran fossils precursors to the many different phyla that appear suddenly in the Cambrian explosion?

Jonathan McLatchie of Evolution News responds:

I, for one, am at a loss as to why Carroll and his fellow evolutionary theorizers find this sort of argumentation to be a convincing rebuttal to the Cambrian challenge to Darwin’s theory. Far from resolving Darwin’s dilemma, the presence of precambrian softbodied organisms — particularly the sponge embryos — only serves to deepen it and make the problem far worse. Darwinists want to have it both ways: “The conditions of the Cambrian were not suitable for the preservation of softbodied organisms so we shouldn’t expect to see the immediate precursors to the Cambrian fauna. Oh, and by the way, did we mention that the Cambrian wasn’t really an explosion at all because we have found soft bodied organisms in the Ediacaran assemblages, including the Cnidaria and even sponge embryos?”

At any rate, as discussed in some detail here, the Ediacaran fauna are not generally thought to be ancestral to the modern phyla which appear explosively in the Cambrian radiation. The presence of these organisms, therefore, should offer no comfort to Darwinists. As Peter Ward has observed in On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions, “[L]ater study cast doubt on the affinity between these ancient remains preserved in sandstones and living creatures of today; the great German paleontologist A. Seilacher, of Tübingen University, has even gone so far as to suggest that the Ediacaran fauna has no relationship whatsoever with any currently living creatures. In this view, the Ediacaran fauna was completely annihilated before the start of the Cambrian fauna.” (p. 36)

This is worth reading for the people who want to understand how naturalists respond to ID arguments regarding sudden origin of all major forms of life 543 million years ago in the fossil record. Darwinists have to explain the origin of life and the origin of phyla. It does no good for them to talk about whales and horses when that’s not where the action is.

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Is opposition to evolution based on ignorance of the scientific data?

Consider this article by Jonathan Wells.

First, let’s re-cap the challenge to evolution from the phenomenon of the Cambrian explosion.

The newly released film “Darwin’s Dilemma” argues that the geologically abrupt appearance of the major groups of animals (the “phyla”) in the Cambrian Explosion posed a serious problem for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (as he himself knew), and that subsequent fossil discoveries—far from solving the problem—have made it worse.

Basically, all the major body plans we have today appear in the fossil record in a 2-3 million period about 543 million years ago. There are no precursors in the fossil record showing the gradual evolution of these major body plans.

The Cambrian Explosion: 0 to 60 in a few million years

The Cambrian Explosion: 0 to 60 in a few million years

Darwin expected to discover lots and lots of fossils leading up to the Cambrian explosion period that would show how all these phyla came into existence slowly over time. Unfortunately for the naturalistic evolutionists, the discoveries we’ve been making haven’t shown any hint of precursor fossils leading up the Cambrian explosion.

Since 1859, however, many Precambrian fossils have been found, including microfossils of single-celled bacteria in rocks more than three billion years old. In addition, multicellular Precambrian fossils have been found in the Ediacara Hills of Australia, though there is continuing debate over whether any—or how many—of the Ediacaran fossils were animals, or what relationship—if any—they had to the Cambrian phyla. In 1998, Cambridge University paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris (who is featured in the film “Darwin’s Dilemma”) wrote, “Apart from the few Ediacaran survivors… there seems to be a sharp demarcation between the strange world of Ediacaran life and the relatively familiar Cambrian fossils” (Crucible of Creation, 30).

But wait! Maybe we can’t find the precusor fossils required by Darwinism because they are too small or too soft to have survived for so long?

Since 1859, however, many Precambrian fossils have been found, including microfossils of single-celled bacteria in rocks more than three billion years old. In addition, multicellular Precambrian fossils have been found in the Ediacara Hills of Australia… In 1998, Cambridge University paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris… wrote, “Apart from the few Ediacaran survivors… there seems to be a sharp demarcation between the strange world of Ediacaran life and the relatively familiar Cambrian fossils” (Crucible of Creation, 30).

So there is now no shortage of Precambrian fossils. Not only do we have fossils of bacteria, but we also have many fossils of soft-bodied Multicellular organisms. “In the Ediacaran organisms there is no evidence for any skeletal hard parts,” wrote Conway Morris in 1998. “Ediacaran fossils look as if they were effectively soft-bodied” (Crucible of Creation, 28). The same is true of many of the organisms fossilized in the Cambrian explosion.

But wait! Scientists have discovered lots of exceptionally preserved microbes just before the Cambrian explosion. Don’t microbes count as precursors to the Cambrian explosion phyla?

Richard Callow and Martin Brasier reported in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of the Geological Society, London “a variety of exceptionally preserved microbes” from late Precambrian rocks in England that address “the paradox known as ‘“Darwin’s dilemma’.”

[...]Callow and Brasier didn’t solve Darwin’s dilemma. Instead, they put one more nail in the coffin of Darwin’s attempt to salvage his theory from it. The truth is that “exceptionally preserved microbes” from the late Precambrian actually deepen Darwin’s dilemma, because they suggest that if there had been ancestors to the Cambrian phyla they would have been preserved.

I am willing to believe in evolution. But in order to get me to believe it, I insist on seeing a fossil record that shows the gradual emergence of phyla, one or two at a time, over hundreds of millions of years. That is what Darwinism predicts. We now have a solid record of what came before the Cambrian explosion. So where are the precursors? Where is the record of gradual emergence? Where is my evidence?

More on the Cambrian explosion

The origin of life and biological information

Videos on intelligent design

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