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An eyeful of creationist IDiocy

by Donald Prothero, Jul 13 2011

A few weeks ago my email box was full of gloating messages from creationists claiming that the latest discovery of complex eyes in the Cambrian “proved” creationism and “refuted” evolution. As usual, creationists demonstrate a remarkable ability to completely misunderstand and misinterpret real science, and get the message of the paper ass-backward. The article to which they referred is an excellent new paper on the appearance in the Early Cambrian of compound eyes, slightly earlier than they were known previously. But creationists doesn’t know enough science to understand the paper—all they do is read “complex eyes” and “Early Cambrian” in the title, and to them, “Darwinism is falsified.” It never ceases to amaze me how they can mangle legitimate research to mean just the opposite of what was written, but so strong are their belief filters that they hear only what they want to hear, and completely miss the point of most of the world of science that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions.

The discovery itself is quite remarkable, and good discussions are given here and here. From the Lower Cambrian Emu Bay Shale of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, are nicely preserved elements (ommatidia) of compound eyes, which are larger and more complex than any others known from the Early Cambrian (although similarly complex but smaller compound eyes are found in trilobites of the Atdabanian Stage of the Cambrian, just  a few million years later). The eyes themselves are individual molts and not attached to bodies, but they were once part of some large arthropod. Some ommatidia have over 3000 lenses, equal to many of the compound eyes found since the Cambrian. Although it forces us to revise our treatment of the history of eyes a bit, it it not “the end of Darwinism” as creationists claim. The molecular data have long predicted that complex compound eyes should have appeared long before we see them in the fossil record, but were simply not preserved because they had no hard parts yet (probably because conditions in the Precambrian and Early Cambrian oceans only gradually reached a threshold that allowed mineralization of soft tissues). This discovery simply extends the range of compound eyes back a few million years earlier than we had known previously.

Yet if you read the creationist accounts of this discovery, it was as if this one paper had caused all of evolutionary biology to crumble! The main thread of their argument is the same, tired old “Cambrian explosion” misconception they’ve been beating for decades. Somehow, the appearance of one more complex fossil in the Early Cambrian makes the “Cambrian explosion” completely inexplicable by evolution. In the words of creationist IDiot David Buckna, “The Cambrian explosion is affirmed; complexity appears suddenly without transitions; Darwinism is falsified; the inference to the best explanation is intelligent design. Let the world know.”

That is pure garbage, and shows once again that creationists cannot read, or if they do read, they don’t understand anything. The truth of the matter was outlined in Chapter 7 of my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, and I will summarize the major points below:

1. Contrary to creationist lies, there is an excellent sequence of fossils that show the logical stepwise transition from the earliest single-celled bacteria at 3.5 billion years ago, to the first eukaryotic cell at 1.8 billion years ago, to the multicellular (but soft-bodied) Ediacara biota 610 million years ago, and finally in the first two stages of the Cambrian (545-520 million years ago), the “little shellies”, which are small bit of armor of the first skeletonized organisms. Only in the third stage of the Cambrian (the Atdabanian) do the hard-shelled trilobites and other complex organisms first appear. This is exactly as would be predicted by evolution: single-celled prokaryotes, then eukaryotes, then soft-bodied multicellular creatures, then the first tiny bits of skeletonization, and finally large skeletonized fossils.

When I read the creationist versions of this reality, they always ignore all the evidence of anything prior to trilobites, despite the fact that the Ediacara biota has been known for 70 years, and the rest documented over the past few decades. They act as if no fossils existed before the trilobites (as it was in Darwin’s day) and none of the discoveries of the past 70 years existed. When Michael Shermer and I debated and beat creationists Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg in Beverly Hills in 2009, I attacked them on this very point—and they dodged it by focusing on the trilobites, and completely ignoring all the less complex organisms that preceded them.

2. The term “Cambrian explosion” is a complete misnomer. These events took place between 610 and 520 million years ago (spanning 90 million years), or even if you just restrict it to the Early Cambrian, 25 million years. Ninety million or even 25 million years is hardly a rapid “explosion” by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve urged geologists to use the more appropriate “Cambrian slow fuse” to reflect reality and not give the creationists fuel for their lies, but it’s hard to change old habits. The archaic term “Cambrian explosion” dates back to the early days of geology, when the events of the Precambrian-Cambrian transition, lasting 25 to 90 million years, seemed abrupt on the scale of the 520 million years that followed, or the 3 billion years that preceded it. That’s a geologist’s perspective, where millions of years are nothing when you’re used to billions of years of time.

Whatever caused the “Cambrian slow fuse”, and however it occurred, is is most certainly not an “abrupt explosion” that is too fast for evolution to explain. Even 25 million years is almost half of the Cenozoic, or the “Age of Mammals” that we are still a part of! There is plenty of time for events to unfold at normal rates of evolution, and the discovery of earlier compound eye fossils does not change the overall pattern.

Ironically, the creationists themselves cite articles showing the “Cambrian explosion” took tens of millions of years (clearly labeled through the paper) yet they don’t believe in a time scale longer than 6000 years for all of creation! That’s their usual tactic: cherry-pick a few things out of context, quote-mine whatever seems to support their position, and then ignore everything else that completely contradicts and falsifies what they have asserted. That may serve their purposes, but it’s not science and it’s dishonest. But as I documented in my 2007 Evolution book, they don’t care about honesty as long as they can distort and misquote science and scientists to serve their purposes of evangelism and suppression of science they don’t like.

I realize that most of us are tired of creationist lies and propaganda and political interference, and want to get on with our lives doing science and true scholarship, or just earning a living. But garbage like this latest event are evidence that the fight must go on. We must keep vigilant that they don’t threaten our schools or scientific institutions any more than they do already.

17 Responses to “An eyeful of creationist IDiocy”

  1. Doug Philips says:

    Thank you for this piece. I found it informative and I agree that this is an important fight, not just for our schools, but for society as a whole. Maybe one day soon politicians won’t be lauded for blabbering about nonsensical, faith-based rhetoric.

  2. Marcus says:

    Excellent article Dr. Prothero. As a theist, I am alarmed at the so called “science” coming out of the ID and creationist camps. The Cambrian Explosion, as you so clearly stated, has been so misused by these camps for so many years to the detriment of real inquiry. Thank you for the clarifications and for shedding light on an important part of our evolutionary history.

  3. Jared Jammer says:

    For those who are skeptical of Prothero’s Darwinian proselytizing, as I am, I’d recommend viewing (or listening to; I’m not sure video is available) his and pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer’s debate against the brilliant Stephen C. Meyer and Richard Sternberg. It can be listened to here: Streaming Media – Debate on Origins of Life – Stephen Meyer, Richard Sternberg, Michael Shermer, Donald Prothero

    Prothero, who doesn’t want you to know that he’s actually motivated by his atheism, not science, embarrassed himself, being clearly outclassed by both Meyer and Sternberg. The latter two both presented Earth shaking scientific arguments, all while the design-denialist-duo resorted to childish name-calling.

    Give it a listen to and then try to take Donald Prothero seriously again. I know this skeptic couldn’t.


    • Bryant says:

      He made a strong case for the scientific evidence for evolution in his opening remark while the opposition pretended a plethora of evidence didn’t exist. I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I think with your above statement you fall into the camp Dr. Prothero describes in this post.

    • Jared, you forgot the scare quotes around “skeptic” when you identified yourself.

      Rather, you forgot to identify yourself as a pseudoskeptic.

      That’s not to deny that Shermer’s not a pseudoskeptic, but on ground of fusing libertarian political beliefs with skepticism.

      And, no, I’d listen to a dentist’s drill at 110 dB before your podcast.

  4. Scott Drouin says:

    I honestly believe that skeptics of any level should strive to keep their arguments and comments based purely on fact and not allow emotion to seep into their writing or talks on such subjects. I do applaud the use of real science in the article and that fact you used properly garnered evidence to reinforce your points and arguments, very good.

    • Paolo Scimone says:

      I think “emotionally biased” would be more accurate here. I hope you are not implying that emotions are not facts and hence have no place in “science”. Somethings tells me that our pyschology based scientific fields would find such a biased view highly questionable.

      The fundametalists can really be a trying bunch though, I couldn’t agree more, yet hardcore atheists also go beyond their realm when denying anything metaphysical.

      These issues seem to be entering our society more and more, but not all religiously minded and agnostic people are so committed to deny anything outside of their belief system. An intellectual system can initiate the “proof” both systems search so fervently for, but intellectualisation in this sense is a personal experience. A catch-22 (countering standard empirical data collection) which dares the scientific mind to go beyond the borders of what is believed in our society to be rationalisation (but it can still be rational). Once the premises change, anything is possible.

      Blind faith is akin to stupidity, no assumptions please.

      • DecemberJazz says:

        Regarding blind faith as stupidity, the sad truth is that even stupidity and ignorance are defended by IDeologues, hence their argument for god(s) based on the assertion that the complexity of life and universe is incomprehensible.

  5. Amen, brother. “It’s just Evolution!” If the Cambrian Explosion took 90 million yrs, what should we call the explosion of the mammalian world in the early Tertiary? After the demise of the dinosaurs, we find organism that go from a Cretatious shrew-like tree hugger thru a Mesonychid hoofed carnivore to Basilosaurus in 25 million yrs? From a different shrew-like organism to the 26 ft. tall giraffe-rhinoceros, Paraceratherium in 28 million yrs? All in a good days (or just a few million yrs) work for Evolution.

  6. Crabe says:

    I disagree on two things:

    1) there’s no such clear transition. At least, if you adopt cladistic methods and acknowledge fossil record is all but complete :

    Some species has long been tagged “transitional form”, For instance, one shouldn’t say Archaeopteryx is the ancestor of birds, indeed it seem close to this ancestor, but it also possess its own set of particularities. one should’t say Tiktaalik is the common ancestor of tetrapods… Once again, it’s close to the ancestor, but we won’t never know if it belong to the very population or species that we can call our ancestor. In fact, it’s just like saying fossil species were just incomplete form, Like if the animal when it was born said himself “well, bad luck, I’m only a transitional form, I hope my progeny will be better”.

    This kind of mistake is often summarize in bad documentary when you see a “fish” morphing into a frog then in a lizard then into a mammal and so on until reaching the man. That’s garbage science, and to me, it explain why creationist have such success.

    2) There is no point in explaining a creationist why his/her belief are wrong: it’s only belief. If you prove they are wrong about the fossil, they’ll say “fossils have been created by God to test our faith”. Basically, you can’t prove a creationist is wrong… Because they don’t do science.

  7. Fiend says:

    There were precursors even in the Precambrian; namely, Parvancorina, Spriggina, and Bomakellia.

    You can hear Meyer and Sternberg embarrassing themselves on a different subject here as well:

  8. Fiend says:

    Saying “God did it” is no different than saying “It must be magic!” Either explanation is, in fact, no explanation at all. It’s anti-scientific. It is impossible to apply logic to evidence in the presence of super-naturalism and therefore no science is possible.

    Of course Meyer and Sternberg sound like geniuses to some of those who are generally ignorant of science.

  9. WeyrCat says:

    I think I love you. Or maybe just your grey matter. Either way it’s probably the wine. Thank you for posting though. This one made my giggle, and thus made my night.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Glad you liked it! Love your blog, too! Take a look at my older SkepticBlog posts and see what you think…


  10. Grisha says:

    Why anybody would need to proof anything to creationists?

  11. Scott Ostrander says:

    Having been involved in seemingly countless arguments against the creationist crowd, what became obvious to me rather quickly was that their arguments are not even so much a product of poor education, but a lack of simple critical thinking skills.

    This is pure opinion on my part, but I think that if we could concentrate on critical thinking skills before even broaching the sciences in education, those skills would provide the solid framework required to understand exactly what the evidence was being presented in scientific discovery and why that evidence has so much weight.

    Without the foundation of critical thinking, every idea appears to have equal footing, no matter how baseless it actually is.