EN10: Darwin’s Doubt – The Cambrian Explosion

Stephen Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt, published in 2013, expands on his wonderful book from four years ago, Signature in the Cell. In Signature, Meyer discusses the fascinating history of the discovery of DNA and its extraordinary implications for demonstrating that life was designed, rather than evolved. He explains how the “specified information” in the genetic code necessarily requires an Intelligent Designer. No undirected physical or chemical processes, and no natural laws have the capacity to generate the spectacular quantity and quality of information that defines self-replicating organisms. Analysis of life from an information point of view results in a slam-dunk affirmative case for ID. In just the same way we conclude design when we observe the functional complexity of automobiles, supersonic aircraft, and supercomputers . . . or the digital data files that represent the details of their design and construction. Furthermore, the complexity of life is easily seen to be as far above that of a supercomputer as the supercomputer is above a toothpick.

In Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer goes beyond issues of the origin of life to analyze the complexity of multi-cellular life forms, whose phyla (basic body plans) show up “suddenly” in the rocks. Specifically, he goes after the puzzle of the so-called Cambrian explosion, which tormented Darwin, as he explained in his Origin, “The difficulty of understanding the absence of vast piles of fossiliferous strata, which on my theory were no doubt somewhere accumulated before the Silurian (ie., Cambrian) epoch, is very great. I allude to the manner in which numbers of species of the same group suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks.”

Sudden appearance is a problem when your philosophy depends on gradual, incremental change. How do you get from one-celled critters directly to trilobites, brachiopods, annelids, . . . , indeed all of the invertebrate phyla just pop suddenly into the fossil record. The most famous paleontologist of the 19th century, Louis Agassiz, concluded that the evidence of abrupt appearance, without ancestral forms, refuted Darwin’s ideas. Regarding the ancestors, Agassiz wrote, “Where are their fossilized remains?”

You can do a quick search online to find a number of speculative evolutionary “trees of life” that supposedly describe where the Cambrian fossils came from. In all such “trees of life” you can see that the actually observed fossils represent quite distinct kinds (Biblical “kinds”), and the alleged ancestors are mysteriously buried in the dashed lines . . . where there are no fossils . . . where there has been no observed evidence of evolution at all! Check any evolutionary “tree of life” anywhere . . . in any textbook or in any museum. You’ll see lots of mysterious dashed lines, allegedly giving rise to quite distinct kinds of creatures. And that’s the best that fully committed evolutionary paleontologists can do!

Meyer cites the work of Michael Foote, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, whose statistical analysis has shown that no one is going to find the intermediates to fill the all-pervasive evolutionary gaps in the fossil record. The pattern is that fossils are regularly uncovered that can be readily assigned to a known category. If “A” is the alleged ancestor of “B”, then why do we keep finding A fossils and B fossils, but never any fossils of the many different types of intermediate creatures that would fill the gap? It is probabilistically impossible to continually find A’s and B’s and never find anything in between.

I recall a discussion I had with a biology major on a campus a few years ago. He rejected the Gospel and the very existence of God because he believed that evolution explained everything. When I explained in some detail the mathematical and physical impossibilities associated with a naturalistic origin for even a one-celled creature, he yielded the point for the moment, but challenged me, “Well, surely you would agree that if somehow that first one-celled organism arose, then from that point mutations and natural selection could produce the rest of animal and plant life!” I replied that the impossibilities are even more severe, because the information content of a complex creature is far greater than that of a bacterium, and evolution would be constrained by generation times in “experimenting” with mutations and natural selection.

Namely, you have to wait a generation for the next mutation and then many generations henceforth to see if the mutation took over the population . . . not to mention that mutations are almost always destructive and that NO mutations have ever been shown to add functional information in any organism. So, no . . . it is even “more impossible” to go from single-celled creatures to what we see today than it is to go from goo to a bacterium – which alone is “impossibility cubed!”

Meyer tells of a debate he had with an evolutionary paleontologist in 2009. Meyer was surprised that the evolutionist claimed that the Cambrian “explosion” was not so explosive after all, developing over about 80 million years. Meyer countered with the consensus view (of evolutionists) that 13 new phyla appeared over a mere 6 million years, so “explosion” is a fair descriptor.

Here is where the author gets into trouble. Stephen C. Meyer is firmly entrenched in the ID (Intelligent Design) camp. He is emphatically not a Biblical creationist, who would attach about 6,000 years to Earth history. Meyer discusses Cambrian debate as if it matters whether new phyla appeared over a 6 million as opposed to an 80 million year time frame. It doesn’t! Later in the book (and in Signature) Meyer cites modern genetic research to prove conclusively that evolutionary processes could not produce a new kind of organism in even billions . . . not even trillions of trillions of years. So why argue about a mere order of magnitude?

Marrella - 1st fossil collected in Burgess Shale

The ID movement was launched about twenty years ago by Phillip Johnson, a brilliant lawyer and a professing Christian. Johnson believed – erroneously – that he could generate open-minded debate between evolution and design if the Bible were left out of the picture entirely. Namely, let’s not ever talk about just who the Designer is and we won’t ever get dragged into discussions of the age of the Earth. Therefore, leaving the “religious” Bible out, and dissociating ourselves from those undesirable and contentious creationists, surely we can have respectable debates . . . even within academia! Let’s just debate the scientific issues!

The error is that these issues are ultimately spiritual. Evolution stands as a philosophy, a worldview, without any scientific foundation at all. (See my many essays on this web site.) When the scientific issues are addressed openly, as occurred in many debates in the 1970s and 1980s, creationists invariably win. Since the 1990s, it has become very difficult to find an evolutionist even willing to debate publicly. And why should they? They censor the textbooks and the journal publications. High school teachers who dare to critique evolution in the classroom get fired. Tenure is denied to fully-qualified Ph.D.s who happen to be creationists. Intimidation is the rule. Why argue when you can destroy?

The ID movement has not fooled the evolutionists, who lump Johnson, Meyer, Dembski, Behe, and others into the same bin as the hated creationists. Meyer, in compromising on a literal Genesis, does not earn respect from his adversaries. He might just as well affirm Genesis, which reports that all of Earth’s life was created within its first week about 6,000 years ago. And the fossil record is almost entirely due to the Genesis flood, survived by Noah’s family.

Marrella - artist reconstruction

I note that creationist institutions, like Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, will insist that you can be a true, born again Christian, and yet deny a literal Genesis. To do so, one would have to disagree with the very words of the Lord Jesus Christ, who affirmed the historicity of Genesis many times, notably in Mark 10:6-9. I do believe it is possible to repent and trust Christ, be born again, and naively fail to understand the inerrancy of Genesis. That was my situation as a young man . . . until I discovered a book laying out the truths of creation. My mind was converted on the merits of the arguments immediately – both the Biblical and the scientific arguments. More significantly, my heart and spirit rejoiced! The indwelling Holy Spirit affirmed my spirit and the issues were quickly settled.

Yet the fellows in the ID camp are fully informed on the Genesis debate. And they still argue over such issues as 6 vs. 80 million years. That tells me they are lost. You simply cannot deny such foundational Biblical truth and claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ. What about Meyer? I’ve seen him in several interviews. Such a nice guy! So sad that he understands so much and yet has missed the main point – God designed us in His image and has given us each the capacity to repent, trust Christ, and live on a New Earth. How do I know that Meyer is actually lost? He gives it away at the end of the book . . . I’ll get to that by the end of this blog.

The evidence for a “young Earth” is actually . . . overwhelming. Here is just one example that I suppose Meyer is willfully unaware of: At the August, 2012, Western Pacific Geophysics Meeting in Singapore, a research team presented Carbon 14 dating results for a variety of bone samples from eight different dinosaurs. All dates fell in the range of 22,000 to 39,000 years, because the fossils contained a significant amount of C14. But if these fossils were millions of years old, there would not be 1 solitary atom of Carbon 14 left! You might ask how the creationist explains ages of over 20,000 years if the fossils were allegedly buried by the Genesis flood about 4,600 years ago. The explanation is straightforward, based on the immense quantity of pre-flood biomass, the limited amount of time for atmospheric C14 to build up since creation, plus several other factors. The main point is that the only potential debate is about a few thousands of years, as opposed to the alleged 65 million years since the dinosaurs disappeared.

Interestingly, in the aftermath of the Singapore presentation, the abstract and other records of the talk were expunged from the conference records. Clearly, the evolutionary censors in charge could not bear to have such damnable data available to the public!

Opabinia - it had 5 eyes!

Back to Meyer’s book . . . A Georgia Tech geneticist, George F. McDonald, describes the “great Darwinian paradox.” Genes that have significant variability within populations only affect very minor traits and functions. (People are short, tall, light, dark, etc.) However, genes that affect major changes like body plans, do not vary or do so only with harm to the organism. Thus the only types of mutational changes that could produce macro-evolution – producing the awesome variety in extant living organisms – simply do not occur. Specifically, the genes most likely to affect body plan changes would be critical to the development process, from zygote to adult, but particularly in the early stages. Yet it is clear that changes in developmental genes are least likely to be tolerated, and most likely to produce premature death. The scientific literature offers zero examples of useful mutations affecting body plan formation. Some researchers have concluded that neo-Darwinism simply cannot provide an explanation for new body plans.

Such research is consistent with my (Dr. Dave’s) thesis that there is no theory of evolution. Namely, there is no scientific theory or any experimental data to support the formation of the first proteins, the first DNA, the first single-celled creatures, the first multi-celled creatures, the first invertebrates, etc. No theory at all. Just stories.

Meyer offers a stimulating discussion of the fairly new field of epigenetics. Most people, even most Ph.D. evolutionists, assume that an organism is characterized entirely by his DNA, the sequence of bases in his genes that code for proteins and regulatory RNA. This simply isn’t true. Modern research has shown that the amount of information required to code for a complete biological system is vastly greater than what is contained in the DNA.

I note that even if DNA were the whole story, evolution is sunk without a trace. You can’t get there from here with mutations and natural selection. But let’s go beyond the genetics of DNA. While proteins are coded by DNA, and consist of amino acids as the building blocks, specialized cell types and tissues use a variety of proteins as building blocks to form unique 3-D configurations. And organs are specialized constructs using tissues as the building blocks. Just like a building’s structural design is not determined by the shape of a particular brick, so cell types and organs are not determined uniquely by the DNA code – which only specifies the “bricks.” Furthermore, body plans arise from unique configurations of tissues and organs.

Meyer cites a useful analogy. Electronic circuits include many different types of components, including resistors, diodes, inductors, capacitors, and transistors. But these components do not determine the design or function of the integrated circuit in which they reside. There are clearly hierarchies of information involved.

Where does all this 3-D configurational “epigenetic” information come from? One source is a cell’s internal “skeleton,” the arrangement of microtubules of the cytoskeleton. Cells are far more complicated than can be guessed at from the fairly featureless blobs adorning many textbooks. Another source is the detailed structure of cellular membranes. Microtubules and membrane patterns strongly regulate the thousands of chemical processes operating every moment within the cell. The genes code for the building blocks, but the detailed structure of the factory beyond determines just what the cell does and how it interacts with other cells within tissues. This 3-D structure effectively provides the information to enable cellular functionality.

Trilobite

New and fascinating to myself is Meyer’s report on the “sugar code.” Sugar molecules can attach themselves to a cell membrane’s lipids – glycolipids. Or they can attach to proteins embedded in the membrane – glycoproteins. Sugars can combine in many more ways than can amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins. Thus the complexity of cell surface patterns can be enormous, even with respect to the mathematical complexity of proteins. These patterns have critical influences on embryological development in regulating how cells divide and how they interact with and bond with other cells and cell types. The bottom line is that the sugar code is far more complex – and necessarily so – than the DNA code.

How does neo-Darwinism fit in? The supposed driving force is mutations within DNA. But embryological development and body plans are dependent on the higher levels within the information hierarchy. Mutations aren’t relevant to epigenetic information! It’s the wrong tool for the job! Mutations can conceivably produce changes only in genetic information . . . and all scientific data indicate that such changes are destructive to functionality. Building new body plans requires drastic changes in epigenetic information . . . which is NOT stored within DNA. Meyer provides useful examples detailing how the microtubule and membrane patterns of daughter cells are derived from the parent cells, quite independent of DNA.

Can something else, analogous to mutations, alter epigenetic information? The 3-D information is structural and quite insensitive to heritable bumps and bruises. Sources of genetic mutation like radiation or chemical agents do not affect the large-scale 3-D structures. Furthermore, any notable alterations in epigenetic structure are typically catastrophic.

Quite a number of evolutionary biologists have concluded that neo-Darwinism simply cannot account for macroevolutionary changes, such as in turning a fish into an amphibian or a reptile into a mammal. One quote . . . “the origin of species – Darwin’s problem – remains unsolved.”

The idea of a naturalistic origin for the first DNA and proteins is incredible enough to put the lie to evolution. But the structural information – the upper levels of the information hierarchy – required for the first viable cell to exist boggles everyone’s imagination. The entire creature must be there at the start, whether bacterium or fish or mammal. They don’t morph.

Meyer goes on to analyze the latest desperate hopes of evolutionists who have abandoned neo-Darwinism. I won’t detail those here. Suffice it to say that when God is excluded, man will persist in creating new fantasies to explain the impossible. Meyer then offers a cogent explanation of the ID position. Interestingly, he claims that resistance to ID “seems to come simply from not understanding what the theory of intelligent design is.” After all, it’s not religion! It’s not a form of Biblical creationism! Sorry, Stephen, it’s not so easy to fool the other team. The materialist cannot allow even the possibility of God who would make him accountable.

Meyer’s concluding chapter is “What’s at Stake.” I was anxious to read this, to see whether a truly Christian, Biblical worldview motivates the fellow. The discussion is centered on a trip he and several other ID-sympathetic scientists took to see the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, an enormous treasure trove of Cambrian fossils. In tow were two teenagers, Stephen’s son and a friend of his, a lad who had apparently “studied up” in preparation for the trip. Their guide was an evolutionary paleontologist who stuck to his devoted party line throughout the day’s hike. On the way back down the mountain, the guide said that he thought Darwin would feel “vindicated” by the discovery of the Burgess fossils.

Walcott Quarry - Burgess Shale

The lad couldn’t help but burst out with, “What?! Darwin would feel vindicated? By the sudden appearance of all those animals without any ancestors in the fossil record! Are you kidding?!”

Here is where it gets interesting to me. Meyer admits that he and his fellows were mortified. They had avoided any such discussion, believing that “with scientists it is generally safer to discuss religion and politics.” The guide was gracious, though, and engaged with the lad. After some discussion, the lad demanded evidence of gradual change and a mechanism to produce new kinds of animals so quickly. The guide – remarkably – admitted that he had often wondered about that himself. Then he asked the lad how he would explain it. The young fellow replied, “Intelligent design, of course!” So the guide started to ask probing questions, eventually stumping the lad, who begged Meyer to join the conversation. He did so, “reluctantly at first.” But a “terrific conversation ensued.”

The guide admitted that as a scientist he was committed to the evolutionary perspective, but found its denial of purpose depressing. Eventually they all parted ways and Meyer concluded that “we had made a genuine human connection.”

Meyer goes on to admit that he often obfuscates when asked exactly what he does for a living, “to avoid getting trapped in a heavy conversation on an airplane or over a broken dishwasher; often the conversations come whether I want them or not.”

Disgusting. But perfectly understandable for an unbeliever who does not see people around him as lost and who need the Savior, Jesus Christ. Is Meyer a born again Christian? Absolutely not. He actually avoids the opportunity to relate the issue of the creation to the Creator and from the Creator to the Savior. The stakes are not just philosophic or faith affirming, as Meyer boringly goes on to opine. The stakes are infinite, that men and women, boys and girls will live in God’s family or else be consigned to the trash heap of the Devil’s Hell. I mean, come on! What a wimp! Letting a teenager challenge an atheistic skeptic, after a whole day of listening – in apparent acquiescence – to evolutionary fantasies.

ID and even creationist apologetics are indeed useful because the stakes – souls – are of infinite value. I wish I could spend an afternoon with Meyer. I’d love to challenge him on his need for the Savior and offer some perspective on the Designer – the Lord Jesus Christ – that Stephen should so greatly admire . . . and worship. But alas. Experience tells me that Meyer is a completely informed fellow. He has been confronted with Biblical creation . . . and inerrancy . . . and has rejected truth. He is certainly aware of the Gospel message, but counts it of little importance, as he so graphically demonstrates in his last chapter. Ergo, he is not “for Christ” and, therefore, is against Him (Luke 11:23). Satan’s strategy is brilliant. Take a brilliant anti-evolutionist like Meyer and emasculate him. Convince him to avoid extremists like those creationists, who might try to convert him. Keep the discussion all civil and secular, lest he offend anyone by mentioning God!

I do recommend the book. The author does an entertaining and thorough job in examining the issues of the fossil record in the light of neo-Darwinism and ID. Just remember what the stakes really are and don’t get emasculated!

– drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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