The Cambrian explosion of life has long befuddled evolutionists. New data have only deepened the mystery and caused a critical rethinking of cherished evolutionary concepts.
This article is also available in Spanish.
Another Big Bang?
The impish Calvin, from the now defunct daily comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” once offered to rename the Big Bang Hypothesis, “The Horrendous Space Kablooie!” Most of us have heard at some point of cosmology’s preferred explanation for the origin of the universe, the Big Bang Hypothesis. The Big Bang of cosmology describes the origin of the universe as occurring in a powerful explosion that eventually results in the universe as we see it today. But a recent issue of Time magazine (4 December 1995) heralded a new Big Bang, a Big Bang of biological evolution previously known as the Cambrian Explosion of Life. And just as many draw theistic conclusions from cosmology’s Big Bang, so it is possible to draw theistic conclusions from what is now being called Evolution’s Big Bang.
But first, just what is evolution’s Big Bang? The cover of this issue of Time declared: “New discoveries show that life as we know it began in an amazing biological frenzy that changed the planet almost overnight.” A subheading just in front of the inside article proclaimed, “For billions of years, simple creatures like plankton, bacteria, and algae ruled the earth. Then, suddenly, life got very complicated.”
The standard evolutionary story describes an earth bombarded by meteorites from its origin 4.5 billion years ago until almost 3.8 billion years ago. Within only 100 million years the first life evolved following the cessation of this celestial onslaught. This, in and of itself, is a huge evolutionary hurdle without explanation. For the next 3 billion years, little else but single- celled life forms ruled the planet. Then suddenly, in the Cambrian geological period, the earth is populated with a huge diversity of complex multicellular life forms. This has always looked suspiciously like some form of creation event, and paleontologists frequently seemed rather embarrassed by the reality of the Cambrian Explosion.
So, where is the documentation for the long history of the evolution of these creatures? The usual answer is that the necessary fossil layers prior to the Cambrian period have not been discovered yet. The fossils are just missing! Hmmm. . . . how convenient! This, after all, was Darwin’s excuse and many evolutionists after him followed suit. Well, recent discoveries from Canada, Greenland, China, Siberia, and Namibia document quite clearly that this period of biological creativity occurred in a geological instant virtually all around the globe. So, the usual excuse no longer holds water. While evolutionists are not exactly joining a creationist wave of conversion, they are being forced to ask tough questions concerning the nature of evolutionary change. Darwin did not envision major evolutionary change happening this fast. Darwinism has always been characterized by slow gradual change that is imperceptible in our time frame. Major evolutionary change was only visible as we looked to the fossils to reveal the number and type of intermediates between species and major groups. But the Cambrian explosion is anything but gradual, and identifiable intermediates are totally absent. Where are the ancestors? What conditions could have prompted this frenzy of creativity? Is there some form of unknowable evolutionary mechanism at work? I think you will find the evolutionary community’s answers to be quite revealing.
How Fast is Fast?
Anomalocaris! Ottoia! Wiwaxia! Hallucigenia! Opabinia! If these names are unfamiliar to you, well, they should be. For they are only becoming familiar to paleontologists over the last twenty years. Paleontologists are those scientists who study the fossils embedded in ancient layers of rock. And this strange list represents a group of animals from the Cambrian period that is only now being appreciated–animals which supposedly lived over 500 million years ago. These animals not only possess strange sounding names, but are even stranger looking! So strange and different are they that most are contained in phyla of which they are the only example and which no longer exists.
Whoa! . . . you say! And just what is a phyla? Well, if you think way back to high school biology, phyla is actually the plural form of phylum, a Latin term designating a large category of biological classification. The largest category of classification is the Kingdom. We all know about the Animal and Plant Kingdoms. Well, Phylum is the next category below Kingdom. The Animal Kingdom consists of such well known phyla as the molluscs which contains clams, oysters, and snails. Another commonly known phylum is the annelids to which belong the earthworms. The largest of all phyla is the arthropods. Arthropods range from insects to millipedes to spiders to shrimp. We are placed in the phylum Chordata along with all other vertebrates, the fish, amphibians, reptiles, and other mammals. Representatives from different phyla are very different creatures. There is not much in common between a human, an earthworm, a clam, and a mosquito. They are all from different phyla–so different that evolutionists have assumed that it must have taken tens of millions of years for these phyla to evolve from one common ancestor.
Yet, here is the real puzzle of the Cambrian Explosion for the theory of evolution. All the known phyla, except one, along with the oddities with which I began this discussion, first appear in the Cambrian period. There are no ancestors. There are no intermediates. Fossil experts used to think that the Cambrian lasted 75 million years. But even that seemed to be a pretty short time for all this evolutionary change. Eventually the Cambrian was shortened to only 30 million years. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the time frame of the real work of bringing all these different creatures into existence was limited to the first five to ten million years of the Cambrian. This is extraordinarily fast! Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould says, “Fast is now a lot faster than we thought, and that is extraordinarily interesting.” What an understatement! “Extraordinarily impossible” might be a better phrase!
In the Time magazine article (p. 70), paleontologist Samuel Bowring says, “We now know how fast fast is. And what I like to ask my biologist friends is, How fast can evolution get before you start feeling uncomfortable?” I would love to ask Bowring just what he meant by that statement. It’s almost as if he is recognizing that current evolutionary mechanisms can’t possibly act that fast. The potential answers to that dilemma are only creating more questions, questions that evolutionists may never be able to answer.
How Could the Cambrian Explosion Occur?
Charles Darwin proposed an evolutionary process that was slow and gradual. This formulation has remained the mainstay of evolutionary explanations for the over 100 years since Darwin until very recently. One of the many reasons for a rethinking of this slow, gradual, snail-like pace has been the intricate complexity of living things. In the years before Darwin, the marvelous fit of an organism to its environment was considered the chief evidence of a Supreme Designer. But Darwin supposedly showed another and better way, natural selection. But if organisms were so finely-tuned to their environment, so wonderfully adapted to their particular niche, then if they were to change at all over time, then that change would have to be very gradual so as not to upset too quickly that delicate balance between the organism and its environment.
This notion of the gradualness of the evolutionary process was deeply reinforced with the discovery of DNA and the genetic code. DNA operates as an informational code for the development of an organism from a single cell to an adult and also regulates all the chemical processes that go on in cells. Mutations, or mistakes in the code had to have very minor effects. Disruption of the blueprint would be very sensitive. The small changes brought about by mutations would have to be cumulative over very long periods of time to bring about significant evolutionary changes.
This necessity of gradualism explains the difficulty evolutionists have concerning the Cambrian explosion or Evolution’s Big Bang, as Time magazine called it. How could animals as diverse as arthropods, molluscs, jellyfish, and even primitive vertebrates all appear within a time span of only 5-10 million years with no ancestors and no intermediates? Evolution just doesn’t work this way. Fossil experts and biologists are only beginning to wrestle with this thorny dilemma. Some think that genes which control the process of development from a fertilized egg to an adult, the so- called Hox genes, may have reached a critical mass which led to an explosion of complexity. Some of the simplest multi-celled organisms like the jellyfish only have three Hox genes, while insects have eight, and some not-quite-vertebrates have ten. Critical mass may be a real phenomena in physics, but biological processes rarely if ever work that way. Besides, that doesn’t solve the important riddle of where the first Hox gene came from in the first place. Genetic information does not just spontaneously arise from random DNA sequences.
Other scientists think that a wholesale reorganization of all the genes must have also changed along with the duplication of Hox genes to bring about this stupendous amount of change. But that only complicates the picture by requiring additional, simultaneous genetic mutations that have to occur virtually all at once. This would have an enormous negative effect on an organism that was already adapted to its environment. How could it survive? It seems that the equivalent of a miracle would be required. But such things aren’t allowed in evolution. To quote Time magazine again,
Of course, understanding what made the Cambrian explosion possible doesn’t address the larger question of what made it happen so fast. Here scientists delicately slide across data- thin ice, suggesting scenarios that are based on intuition rather than solid evidence.
Why Hasn’t Such Rapid Change Ever Happened Again?
Before addressing this question, let’s review our discussion thus far. Evolution’s Big Bang, the Cambrian explosion of life that supposedly occurred over 500 million years ago, continues to puzzle evolutionists. Recent discoveries have narrowed the time frame from over 70 million years to less than 10 million years. This has only complicated their dilemma because so many different creatures appear in the Cambrian with no ancestors or intermediates. The major evolutionary innovations represented in the Cambrian would ordinarily require at least tens of millions of years to accomplish. Some might even suggest over 100 million years would be required. The differences between the creatures that suddenly appear in the Cambrian are enormous. In fact these differences are so large many of these animals are one of a kind. Nothing like them existed before and nothing like them has ever appeared again.
In fact, a question that is just as perplexing as how this explosion of diversity could occur so fast, is why hasn’t such drastic change ever happened in the 500 million years since? The same basic body plans that arose in the Cambrian remain surprisingly constant ever since. Apparently, the most significant biological changes in the history of the earth occurred in less than ten million years, and for 500 million years afterward, this level of change never happened again. Why not? This may seem like a simple question, but it is far more complicated than it appears.
Many biologists think the answer must lie within the genetic structure of organisms. During the Cambrian, new forms of life could readily appear because the genetic organization of organisms was relatively loose. Once all these body plans came into existence and were successful, then these same genetic structures became relatively inflexible in order to preserve what worked so well. In other words there may be genetically built-in limits to change. Developmental biologist Rudolf Raff said, “There must be limits to change. After all we’ve had these same old body plans for half a billion years.” Lane Lester and I coauthored a book over ten years ago titled The Natural Limits to Biological Change. Though the limits to change we proposed were tighter than what these evolution scientists are proposing, it is the same basic idea. We even suggested that these limits to change would be found in the genetic organization and regulatory programs that are already built in.
Some evolutionists have gone so far as to suggest that the mechanisms of evolution operating in the Cambrian were probably radically different from what has taken place ever since. This raises the possibility that we may never be able to study these mechanisms because animals with the proper genetic structure no longer exist. We are left only with the products of the Cambrian explosion and none of the precursors. The speculations will therefore be wild and uncontrollable since there will be no way to test these theories. Fossils leave no trace of their genetic organization. We may never be able to know how this marvelous burst of creativity occurred. Sounds like evolutionists may be faced with the very same problems they accuse creationists of stumbling over: a process that was unique to the past, unobservable in any shape or form, and unrepeatable.
Stuart Kaufmann, a leader in complexity theory, places his faith in self-organizing systems that spontaneously give rise to order out of chaos–a sort of a naturalistic, impersonal self-creator. A supernatural Creator performs the same function with the added benefit of providing a source of intelligent design as well.
Marvelous Evidence of Creation and Design and the Role of World View
So often at Probe our focus is on some issue that has the opposing forces shaped by worldview. A worldview is a system of beliefs or philosophy of life that helps us to interpret the world around us. We often compare one’s worldview to a pair of glasses that helps bring everything into focus. Just as it is important for someone with impaired vision to have the right prescription glasses, so it is also necessary for sin-impaired people to have the right world view with which to make sense of the world of ideas around us.
Clearly we believe that the Bible offers the only tool to arrive at the right prescription or worldview. We have been discussing here Evolution’s Big Bang, the Cambrian explosion of life approximately 543 million years ago according to evolutionists. The latest discoveries in this field were highlighted in Time magazine’s 4 December 1995 issue. Three weeks later, some very interesting letters appeared from readers in Time. They are very instructive of the effects of one’s worldview when evaluating the very same evidence. Much of our time in this pamphlet has been spent detailing the vast problems that the Cambrian explosion produces for evolutionary theory. But that is from the vantage point of a biblical worldview. One Time magazine reader commented, “This report should end discussions about whether God created the earth. Now there is no way to deny the theory of evolution.” Another reader said, “It is great to see a national magazine put the factual evidence of evolution’s vast, complex story out there for the lay public.”
Now, before you go assuming that they surely didn’t read the same story I have been describing in these pages, listen to these readers with a different perspective. “A more appropriate title for your article could have been ‘Evolution’s Big Bust.’ One hundred and thirty-five years of Darwinism out the window just like that? What a poor excuse for the lack of transitional forms.” Another reader said, “This story read more like confirmation for Noah’s Deluge than Darwin’s theory of evolution.”
Well, they all read the same story. Many even quoted from the article to explain their views. So, how can four people read the same information and come to such radically different conclusions? The difference is worldview. To those who are working within a naturalistic worldview, one which holds that there is no God, some form of evolution must be true. Therefore, while the evidence of the Cambrian may be perplexing, the fact that scientists are wrestling with it and offering some possible explanations is exciting and invigorating. However, I find that they are usually missing the big picture. By concentrating on explaining the minutiae, naturalistic thinkers often miss the clear possibility of intelligent design precisely because they don’t expect to find any.
A great example of this is a comment by Harvard’s Steven Jay Gould on the Cambrian creatures found in the Burgess Shale of Canada:
Imagine an organism built of a hundred basic features, with twenty possible forms per feature. The grab bag contains a hundred compartments, with twenty tokens in each. To make a new Burgess creature, the Great-Token-Stringer takes one token at random from each compartment and strings them together. Voila, the creature works–and you have nearly as many successful experiments as a musical scale can build catchy tunes.
Sounds like a marvelous description of a Creator to me, but perhaps only if you are thinking biblically from the start.
©1996 Probe Ministries