Intelligent Design Has Scientific Merit in Paleontology

Casey Luskin
OpposingViews.com
September 8, 2008
[Editor's note: This article was posted as part of a series of articles both for and against ID at OpposingViews.com.]

"What one actually found was nothing but discontinuities. All species are separated from each other by bridgeless gaps; intermediates between species are not observed. ... The problem was even more serious at the level of the higher categories."1
--Leading 20th Century Evolutionary Biologist Ernst Mayr


Intelligent Design has scientific merit in paleontology because the history of life shows a pattern of explosions where new fossil forms come into existence without clear evolutionary precursors, concurring with design theory’s unique ability to explain the abrupt appearance of new ‘fully formed’ body plans.”

Intelligent design (ID) has scientific merit in paleontology because in many instances, it can be applied to the fossil record to detect where design has occurred in the history of life by finding the rapid introduction of large amounts of complex and specified information (CSI).2 (CSI was described in greater detail in my first opening statement ("Intelligent design (ID) has scientific merit because it uses the scientific method to make its claims and infers design by testing its positive predictions").)

It should be stated upfront that many assume that if common ancestry is true, then the only viable scientific position is Darwinian evolution--where all organisms are descended from a common ancestor via random mutations and blind selection. Such an assumption is incorrect: Intelligent design is not necessarily incompatible with common ancestry. Even if all organisms on Earth share a common ancestor, it does not follow that the primary mechanisms causing the differences between the species are merely blind, unguided processes such as natural selection.3 Nonetheless, ID has a unique ability to detect the rapid appearance of large amounts of CSI, thereby easily accounting for the abrupt appearance of new biological forms, making it possible to infer design from the fossil record.

As I argued in my first opening statement ("Intelligent design (ID) has scientific merit because it uses the scientific method to make its claims and infers design by testing its positive predictions"), ID starts with observations of the information produced when intelligent agents act. Design theorists have observed that intelligent agents are capable of producing large amounts of complex and specified information and rapidly infusing it into the natural world in a form which produces fully functional machines. As four pro-ID scientists, Stephen C. Meyer, Marcus Ross, Paul Nelson, and Paul Chien explain, “We know from experience that intelligent agents often conceive of plans prior to the material instantiation of the systems that conform to the plans--that is, the intelligent design of a blueprint often precedes the assembly of parts in accord with a blueprint or preconceived design plan.”4 Intelligent agents can thus rapidly infuse large amounts of genetic information into the biosphere. This led some design theorists to conclude that “[i]ntelligent design provides a sufficient causal explanation for the origin of large amounts of information, since we have considerable experience of intelligent agents generating informational configurations of matter.”5

This sort of reasoning can be applied to detect design in the history of life through analyzing the fossil record. Design may be inferred in the history of life when we see in the fossil record fully-formed blueprints which appear suddenly, reflecting the rapid infusion of large amounts of biologically-functional information into the biosphere. This could be reflected in the fossil record as the abrupt appearance of new types of organisms, without similar precursors. When we find the rapid appearance of new fossil forms that lack similar precursors (evolutionary precursors), we may infer intelligent design.

In fact, the history of life shows a pattern of explosions where new fossil forms come into existence without any clear evolutionary precursors, concurring with design theory that predicts that species might appear abruptly.

In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin stated that his theory of evolution predicted that “[t]he number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, [must] be truly enormous.” However, Darwin recognized that the fossil record did not contain fossils of these "intermediate" forms of life: “Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.”6

Today, 150 years after Darwin’s work, very little has changed; out of thousands of species known from the fossil record, only a small fraction are claimed to be candidates for intermediate forms. In a famous admission, the leading evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould stated that “[t]he absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.”7 This problem led to various failed attempts to save Darwin’s theory from the lack of confirming fossil evidence.

Darwin tried to save his theory by claiming that the geological record is “imperfect,” and that transitional organisms just happened to avoid becoming fossilized. Even Gould acknowledged that the “imperfection” argument is weak, stating that it "persists as the favored escape of most paleontologists from the embarrassment of a record that seems to show so little of evolution directly."8 Biologists were eventually forced to accept that the jumps between species in the fossil record were real events and not artifacts of an imperfect fossil record.

Before proceeding, it’s important to address one rhetorical issue. During debate, Darwinists are known for framing arguments and ruling out contradictory evidence such that it is logically impossible for their side to ever be challenged in any meaningful way. For this reason, many Darwinists live by the self-serving rule that if someone quotes a neo-Darwinian evolutionist while critiquing neo-Darwinian evolution, then that person is guilty of “quote-mining.” Darwinists’ common treatment of those accused of “quote-mining” would make one think the accused had violated the Geneva Convention. But Darwinists’ self-serving allegations of “quote-mining” are often misplaced.

In a court of law, citing an admission from one’s opponent about a weakness in their own case is not considered to be a weak argument, but strong and highly reliable evidence.9 I should thus state upfront that unless stated otherwise, all of the scientists I have quoted in this second opening statement support neo-Darwinian evolution and oppose ID. This does not diminish the force of their admissions. If anything, it makes their admissions all-the-more weighty.

Despite the fact that numerous statements could be provided from evolutionary paleontologists admitting the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, sometimes Darwinists try to engage in politically-motivated damage control to disavow their statements that the fossil record lacks plausible transitional intermediates. For example, Stephen Jay Gould complained about being quoted on the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, saying “it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists--whether through design or stupidity, I do not know--as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.”10 Yet this statement was written during the heat of political battles over teaching creationism in the early 1980s, and it directly contradicts one of Gould’s earlier statements where he clearly admitted that “transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt.”11

In his earlier quote, Gould plainly admitted that “transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt” but then later, during the heat of political battles with creationists in the early 1980s, he alleged that transitional forms are “abundant between larger groups.” Which Gould are we to believe? The answer is clear: Gould’s scientific partner in promoting the punctuated equilibrium model, Niles Eldredge, concurs with the former Gould that “[m]ost families, orders, classes, and phyla appear rather suddenly in the fossil record, often without anatomically intermediate forms smoothly interlinking evolutionarily derived descendant taxa with their presumed ancestors.”12 Elsewhere, Eldredge again validates the former Gould, stating that “the higher up the Linnaean hierarchy you look, the fewer transitional forms there seem to be.”13 It seems very clear which Gould we should believe--and it is not the one who made his statements in the heat of political battles with young earth creationists.

Some paleontologists (including Gould and Eldredge) attempted to explain the lack of transitional forms by speculating that evolutionary transitions occurred in small populations, too rapidly or too remotely for evolutionary change to be recorded in the fossil record. This theory of “punctuated equilibrium” was problematic not only because it required too much evolutionary change in too little time, but because it predicted that the direct fossil evidence confirming an evolutionary transition should not be expected to be discoverable.14

Rather than documenting the evolution of new species, the fossil record consistently shows a pattern where new fossil forms come into existence “abruptly,” without clear evolutionary precursors. Scientists have dubbed many of these events “explosions” of new life forms.

A striking example is the Cambrian explosion, where nearly all of the major living animal groups (called “phyla”) appear in the fossil record in a geological instant about 530 million years ago. As one college-level textbook acknowledges, “Most of the animal phyla that are represented in the fossil record first appear, 'fully formed,' in the Cambrian ... The fossil record is therefore of no help with respect to the origin and early diversification of the various animal phyla."15

Intelligent agents tend to produce machines that are fully functional when they are introduced for usage. As noted, four pro-ID scientists wrote when discussing the Cambrian explosion that “a blueprint or plan for the whole precedes and guides the assembly of parts in accord with that plan.”16 The finding of such “fully formed” features is precisely what we would expect if an intelligent agent rapidly infused large amounts of CSI into the biosphere.

Indeed, the Cambrian explosion is not the only such "explosion" in the fossil record. Paleontologists have observed explosions of fish species, a plant explosion, a bird explosion, and even a mammal explosion. Abrupt explosions of mass biological diversity seem to be the rule, not the exception, for the fossil record. Transitions plausibly documented by fossils seem to be the rare exception. As leading evolutionary biologist, the late Ernst Mayr, wrote in 2001, "When we look at the living biota, whether at the level of the higher taxa or even at that of the species, discontinuities are overwhelmingly frequent. . . . The discontinuities are even more striking in the fossil record. New species usually appear in the fossil record suddenly, not connected with their ancestors by a series of intermediates."17 This phenomenon exists not only at the species level but also at the level of higher taxa, as one zoology textbook admits: "Many species remain virtually unchanged for millions of years, then suddenly disappear to be replaced by a quite different, but related, form. Moreover, most major groups of animals appear abruptly in the fossil record, fully formed, and with no fossils yet discovered that form a transition from their parent group."18

Throughout the history of life we see large amounts of biological information appearing very rapidly, often without any clear evolutionary precursors. The fossil record shows wholesale blueprints introduced fully formed with integrated parts already functioning within the body plan.

As explained in my first opening statement ("Intelligent design (ID) has scientific merit because it uses the scientific method to make its claims and infers design by testing its positive predictions"), ID predicts irreducibly complexity. Because irreducibly complex structures require all of their parts to function, they cannot arise in a gradual, step-by-step manner.19 If many characteristics of life are irreducibly complex, then ID leads us to expect that the fossil record will exhibit a pattern of abrupt appearance of novel, fully functional body plans that do not develop in a gradual, step-by-step fashion. This is precisely what we typically find in the fossil record.

The abrupt appearance of large amounts of biological information in the history of life, as evidenced by the numerous “explosions” of life detailed in the fossil record, is uniquely explained by the ability of intelligent agents to rapidly introduce large amounts of information into the biosphere. The fossil record provides powerful evidence for intelligent design.

References Cited:

[1.] Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance, pg. 524 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982).

[2.] Some portions of this opening statement are drawn from Casey Luskin, “Finding Intelligent Design in Nature,” in Intelligent Design 101: Leading Experts Explain the Key Issues (Kregel, 2008).

[3.] For Descriptions of Neo-Darwinian Evolution See, for example, Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, pg. 5 (3rd ed., Sinauer Associates Inc., 1998); The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity: Nobel Laureates Initiative (September 9, 2005) at http://media.ljworld.com/pdf/2005/09/15/nobel_letter.pdf; Biology by Neil A. Campbell, Jane B. Reese. & Lawrence G. Mitchell (5th ed., Addison Wesley Longman, 1999), pgs. 412-413; Edward O. Wilson, "Intelligent Evolution: The consequences of Charles Darwin's 'one long argument'," Harvard Magazine (November-December, 2005); Francisco J. Ayala, "Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 104:8567–8573 (May 15, 2007).

[4.] Stephen C. Meyer. Marcus Ross, Paul Nelson, Paul Chien, "The Cambrian Explosion: Biology's Big Bang," in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, pg. 386, John A. Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer eds. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003).

[5.] Ibid.

[6.] Ibid.

[7.] Stephen Jay Gould "Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?," Paleobiology, Vol. 6(1): 119-130 (1980).

[8.] Stephen Jay Gould "Evolution's erratic pace," Natural History, Vol. 86(5): 12-16, (May, 1977) (emphasis added).

[9.] See, for example: Federal Rules Evidence 802(d)(2).

[10.] Stephen Jay Gould “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” from Discover Magazine (May, 1981), reprinted in Stephen Jay Gould, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, pg. 260 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994).

[11.] Stephen Jay Gould “The Return of Hopeful Monsters,” Natural History, Vol. 86: 22-24 (June-July, 1977).

[12.] Niles Eldredge Macroevolutionary Dynamics: Species, Niches, and Adaptive Peaks, pg. 22 (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1989).

[13.] Niles Eldredge, The Monkey Business: A Scientist Looks at Creationism, pg. 65-66 (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982).

[14.] As Gould Wrote: Under punctuated equilibrium “Speciation … is so rapid in geological translation (thousands of years at most compared with millions for the duration of most fossil species) that its results should generally lie on a bedding plane, not through the thick sedimentary sequence of a long hillslope.” Stephen Jay Gould "Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?" Paleobiology, Vol 6(1):119-130 (1980).

[15.] R.S.K. Barnes, P. Calow & P.J.W. Olive, The Invertebrates: A New Synthesis, pgs 9-10 (3rd ed., Blackwell Sci. Publications, 2001).

[16.] Stephen C. Meyer. Marcus Ross, Paul Nelson, Paul Chien, "The Cambrian Explosion: Biology's Big Bang," in Darwinism, Design and Public Education, pg. 386, John A. Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer eds. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003).

[17.] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, pg. 189 (Basic Books, 2001).

[18.] C.P. Hickman, L.S. Roberts, and F.M. Hickman, Integrated Principles of Zoology, pg. 866 (Times Mirror/Moseby College Publishing, 1988, 8th ed).

[19.] Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig "Dynamic genomes, morphological stasis, and the origin of irreducible complexity," in Dynamical Genetics, pgs. 101-119 (Valerio Parisi, Valeria De Fonzo, and Filippo Aluffi-Pentini eds., 2004).