The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

Image result for cambrian explosion creationismYou may or may not be aware that one of my research interests is the response of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to the theory of evolution. It was actually my whole master’s thesis.

So in studying how Christians have tended to oppose the teaching of Darwinian evolution (in which all living species are descended from a single common ancestor through natural selection and genetic mutation, among other processes) over the past century, one of the key arguments they’ve used against it is the existence of the Cambrian Explosion.

The argument is typically made this way: “Darwinism argues that all of life has gradually evolved from a single common ancestor, but they can’t explain the Cambrian Explosion, where the fossil record goes from basically no living species to an incredible amount of diversity in a very short time.”

This argument had two prongs: One was negative – the explosion is something evolution cannot explain; therefore, it chips at the foundation of support for the theory – and one was positive: The explosion is the fossil record’s evidence of God’s special creation of a limited number of “kinds” that then evolved to the current diversity of life. This idea, let’s call it young earth evolutionism, is still propagated by Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and Ark Experience, as scientific creationism.

Here are some examples from my research:

In 1966, Douglas Dean – a former Abilene Christian University biology chair then teaching at Pepperdine and a leading member of the Institute for Creation Research – delivered a series of lectures in Arlington, Texas, that he subsequently published as The Bible, Science, and Evolution. In these lectures, Dean argued that scientists had found no fossils representing modern phyla in the rocks predating the Cambrian Explosion; thus the fossil record provided evidence of God’s special creation of modern “kinds.” (The fuzziness of how creationists define the concept of a “kind” is a whole other post.)

As Dean put it, “All animal phyla are represented in the Cambrian Period, and no new phyla have appeared since then.”

This argument was echoed by J.D. Thomas, the ACU Bible professor and Lectureship director who in 1989 edited a unique book called Evolution and Faith that married essays by evolution-accepting biology and physics professors with evolution-rejecting Bible and history professors. According to Thomas, revisions to classic Darwinism by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould were the result of an uncooperative fossil record, primarily the Cambrian Explosion.

The problem before now has been that their presentation, if not their knowledge of the Cambrian Explosion was inaccurate. The “explosion” still happened over millions of years, and the precursor species of modern phyla can in fact be found in the pre-Cambrian fossil record – scientists began unearthing them in 1959, seven years before Dean’s presentation and forty years before Thomas’ essay. Likewise, the chordate phylum, to which humans belong, is not found in Cambrian rocks, but in Ordovician, which were laid down many millions of years later. So even before now, this argument was a bit of a dud – Darwin’s theory of evolution handles the Cambrian Explosion just fine.

But to the extent the explosion did provide any challenge to Darwinism – given that it did seem to present a faster-than-usual evolution of numerous complex species with a harder than usual line between the (few, simple) species that existed before it and the (many, complex) species that began appearing after it – here comes a development: The Cambrian Explosion might not be much of an explosion at all!

From the Atlantic article:

“It’s very difficult to pick out a discrete Cambrian explosion,” says Wood. “It’s more fruitful to think of it in terms of a very long narrative of change that started before, and continued long afterwards.” The Cambrian explosion, in other words, was just one burst in the middle of a protracted fireworks display.

“I think it’s a valuable reframing of the story,” says Phoebe Cohen, a paleontologist at Williams College. “The more we look at the Cambrian explosion, the less explosion-y it looks.”

This, sadly for those of us who grew up with misrepresentations and caricatures of evolutionary theory, is typical of creationist arguments. Not only do they rely on information that is no longer – or never has been – correct, but the argument is essentially the “God of the gaps.” Where science can’t explain a phenomenon, God’s direct action must be there. But what happens when science discovers an explanation? Where does that leave God? From the oldest arguments decrying the lack of missing links to the more modern “irreducible complexity” of intelligent design creationism, each argument relying on the allegedly inexplicable to combat Darwinism has collapsed, even as their supporters continue to propagate them to a naive and trusting audience.

That’s why I say “sadly.” Because the dogmatism, fear and denial required to sustain the system of anti-evolutionism – dogmatic creationism, fear of the theological and philosophical implications of Darwinism, and the denial of scientific findings undercutting the dogma – are antithetical to the spirit of scientific inquiry. Generations of young Christians, including yours truly, have now been scared away from science because the message they receive is that science will corrode and destroy their faith, when in fact an alternate path exists.

Yes, the knowledge that God created a world in which death and suffering are inextricable components of its primary creative process is theologically challenging. It’s a different story than a literal reading of Genesis implies. But does it make Jesus’ defeat of death more or less important? Does it make God’s declaration that this creation is “good” and “very good” more or less meaningful? Does it make Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God in the interest of their own independence more or less appropriate for our experience? I argue more, not less, to all three of those questions.

Science – the study of God’s creation – can add to our knowledge of God, or we can grip so tightly to what we think we know about creation that we miss out on the chance to know God better. The news this week can shape our knowledge and our theology, or it can cause us to retreat, retrench and refuse to accept that God’s world is far stranger, far more complicated, far more beautiful than we can ever understand.

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