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The Fossil Record

The British organisation calling itself Truth in Science has set out to systematically inveigle its ideas into UK schools by distributing 'intelligent design' materials, and by its website. Here, as an example of their lies and distortions, is an analysis of one of their web pages. Hopefully you will soon realise why I chose the title...

(Note: this is still under construction; more to follow!)

Truth in Science page says: Analysis Verdict
The fossil record is one of the most common evidences given for evolution.
Correct, because it is the remains of past life -- life that has changed across time.  
 It is named as such in the National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 Science and so features in most syllabuses and textbooks at this level and above. And so it should.   
But there are several facts about the fossil record which do not fit well with Darwin’s theory of evolution – We need to clear up some terminology from the start.

All science is provisional, because we have not examined every last corner of the universe. Yet there are some things which are so well evinced that we can be pretty certain they are true. We call them facts. Hence in science, a fact is something from which it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.

However, science is not merely a cataloguing of the world. It seeks to explain what we see. Science does this by hypothesis and theory.

A hypothesis is a supposition or conjecture put forth to account for the known facts. And a theory is a broader category: it is a bundled set of hypotheses (some very well confirmed, some quite well confirmed, and a few more tentative ones) which, taken together, explain some major aspect of the world.

Therefore, evolution is a fact, and a theory. It is a scientific fact that organisms are related and have descended from a common ancestor by modification; and the theory of evolution is the proposed explanation of this fact -- natural selection, genetic drift, and so on.

If one attacks evolution, it is important to bear in mind what is being attacked. If the proposed explanations -- eg natural selection -- were shown to be faulty, the fact (descent with modification) would remain, albeit now unexplained. But to show that common ancestry is incorrect, the data has to be directly addressed.

Darwin provided a host of evidence for descent with modification. He also proposed a mechanism to account for it. But note that he did so a hundred and fifty years ago. More has been discovered since then.

So it is unclear whether the TiS authors mean that the fossil record fails to support Darwin's theory, or the modern scientific theory, or the (alleged) fact of relatedness.

It is merely an assertion that the facts do not "fit well", and muddled as to what they do not fit well with.

facts which evolutionary biologists need to explain away rather than use as evidence for their theory. Again, a mere assertion. And note the weasel wording "explain away". The facts must be accounted for. If they can be accounted for, then they are explained, not 'explained away'. Assertion
Charles Darwin was very aware of this and devoted a whole chapter of The Origin of Species to the subject. And you can read it here. This is perfectly normal, however. All papers that propose something take account of possible objections.  
The key problem is this: Darwin’s theory relies on minute changes in organisms which slowly accumulate, gradually changing the organism until it eventually becomes a new species. This is a subtle, though significant, mis-statement of the modern position. Each descendant must be viable; it must be able to survive and reproduce. It does not have to be a minute change, though generally each step would be. All the theory says is that the mechanism proceeds in a step-wise fashion.  
If this is correct, then the fossil record should contain many fossils with forms intermediate between different species. Darwin dealt with this in the chapter referred to above. The discipline involved is called taphonomy, the science of fossilisation.

It should be obvious that not every organism that has ever lived could have become part of the fossil record. The organism must not be eaten, broken down by bacteria or trampled. And generally it must be buried in sediment.

It should also be obvious that not all rocks from a particular place and period have survived the range of geological ravages that rocks are subjected to: erosion, subduction, and so on.

It should be obvious that only a small fraction of the relevant rocks that have survived are physically accessible to researchers.

And it should go without saying that we have only searched a tiny proportion of those!

Nevertheless, intermediate forms should indeed be found. Which is why this...

This is not what the fossil record shows. ... is a complete lie. There are indeed many fossils with form intermediate between different species. The claim was to the absence of 'many', but just a few examples should suffice:

The fish to tetrapod transition:

The reptile to mammal transition.

The dinosaur to bird transition.

Smooth change in the fossil record.

More transitional vertebrate fossils.

And, given the old adage that a picture paints a thousand words, here is a dissertation:

Hominin skulls, arranged by age

Indeed, for some sorts of organism, the fossil record is so complete that we can use it to analyse modes of speciation. Unsurprisingly, these tend to be marine and durable critters. See for instance the details here.

Note that this was the "key problem" that had to be "explained away". While the fossil record is not a complete as we might like, there is no problem to explain!
Outright lie.
As Darwin put it:

Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely-graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory. (The Origin of Species)


Note that this was the "key problem" that had to be "explained away". While the fossil record is not a complete as we might like, there is no problem to explain!    
  (More to follow asap...)  


© Oolon Colluphid 2006. The contents of this site may be freely used for educational purposes provided they are attributed - only so that Oolon himself is not accused of plagiarism!