Back in June of 2004, I wrote an essay about the varying degrees of credibility among creationists (with people like Kurt Wise and Art Chadwick at the top and people like Kent Hovind and Karl Priest at the bottom) that included a snarky little tidbit about William Gibbons. Gibbons describes himself as holding a “Ph.D., in Creation Science Apologetics summa cum laude, Emmanuel College of Christian Studies, Springdale, Arkansas.” I made a snippy comment or two about that and said:
But Gibbons’ bio gets even better. Under “special achievements”, he actually lists “Conducted four expeditions to central Africa in search of Mokele-mbembe, believed to be a living sauropod dinosaur.” That’s roughly equivalent to listing “went camping 4 times to look for bigfoot” or “followed a rainbow 4 times to find the leprauchan and his pot of gold” as a special achievement. Oh, and he wrote a book with the uber-fraud, Kent Hovind. That doesn’t exactly help one’s credibility.
Gibbons replied in the comments attached to that post and we had a bit of an exchange. I challenged him specifically on the question of biostratigraphy and the successional order of appearance of the various forms of life in the fossil record. Specifically, this is my challenge for any creationist to explain:
If evolution is true, and each of these major animal groups split off from the previous one, then what would we expect? Well, we would expect that since each of these new groups split off from an already existing one, the order of appearance within those groups should be as conspicuous as the order of appearance in general. If the first amphibians split off from fish, then the first amphibians could only be slightly different than fish; if birds evolved from reptiles, then the first birds must have been very similar to reptiles; and so forth. And what does the fossil record show? Precisely that. The first amphibians to appear are the most fish-like, so much so that they retained internal gills and were still primarily aquatic. Over time, amphibians become more and more diversified and less fish-like, with later forms being successively more terrestrial and less aquatic. The first birds to appear are so reptile-like that they would be classified as theropod dinosaurs if not for the feathers. We now have multiple feathered theropod species to bridge the gap, and they all appear very early and share most of their traits with reptiles, not with modern birds. Over time, they diversified and became less reptile-like. The same can be said of the first mammals, which are so identical to the therapsid reptiles that they evolved from that where exactly you draw the line between the two groups is largely academic. And just like the other lineages, they start out with only one or two species that looks just like their presumed ancestor, then over time new branches appear that are successively less like those ancestors and more like modern mammals. This is exactly what evolution would predict. Indeed, if it wasn’t that way, evolution would be falsified. If modern birds appeared all at once in the fossil record, with entirely avian skeletal structure and feathers and fully adapted for powered flight, there would be no way to link them to reptiles, and the same is true of every other major animal group. But they don’t appear that way, and the order in which they do appear is precisely what evolution predicts.
This is called “biostratigraphy”. As you go up the geologic column, from older strata to more recent strata, the types of plants and animals that you find fossilized within them change rather dramatically, but they change in a very specific pattern. In the oldest rocks you find nothing but bacteria and the chemical traces thereof, and that continues for over 2 billion years of the earth’s history. Then you find simple multi-celled organisms in the form of algal stromatolites. Then in the late Precambrian, more complex life forms begin to appear, all marine invertebrates. The pattern continues in this basic order: hemichordates –> chordates –>jawless fishes –> jawed fishes –> amphibians –> reptiles –> birds and mammals. That’s a very rough overview, of course, and there is a lot of detail to be filled in. But the important fact here is that the order of appearance is exactly what one would predict if evolution is true, and within each of those major animal groups we find the same predicted order. Now, from the perspective of a young earth creationist, what is the explanation for this order of appearance?
After a bit, I moved the whole discussion up to a new post so it didn’t get lost and repeated my question. After that, I didn’t hear from Gibbons at all until a day ago when he posted a long reply. I am again moving that post up here to the top since it is now a year old, almost to the day, and I don’t want it to get lost. There’s nothing new or surprising in Gibbons’ reply. It’s all pretty much standard creationist boilerplate, complete with the usual laundry list of inaccurate quote mining and oversimplified claims. In fact, it’s not just standard, it’s outright plagiarized from a variety of other people, none of whom are given credit for the words he claims as his own.
Faced with the facts of biostratigraphic succession, he takes the predictable tack of pointing to gaps in the fossil record. But this is a rather pointless exercise and in no way answers my argument. Of course there are gaps in the fossil record; there will always be gaps in the fossil record because fossilization is a relatively rare phenomenon and finding a fossil after it has formed is equally rare. It is likely that we only have fossils of a small portion of the species that have ever lived on this planet. But remember that this is a small portion of millions and millions of species, meaning tens of thousands of fossilized representatives and, as I wrote above, they all fall into the same general pattern with very specific patterns within each group. Now, Mr. Gibbons’ position is that all of those fossil species were alive at the same time on this planet. How, then, did they manage to sort themselves into the precise order that I detailed above, an order that he does not attempt to dispute (it should be noted that young earth creationists do not, in fact, dispute this order of appearance at all)? Well, the standard creationist answer is that they were sorted into that order by the flood. But this, in fact, is the place where the “flood geology” model of young earth creationism fails spectacularly to explain the evidence. Stephen Jay Gould summed it up brilliantly in his essay Genesis vs Geology:
Since God created with such alacrity, all creatures once must have lived simultaneously on the earth. How, then, did their fossil remains get sorted into an invariable order in the earth’s strata? To resolve this particularly knotty dilemma, creationists invoke Noah’s flood: all creatures were churned together in the great flood and their fossilized succession reflects the order of their settling as the waters receded. But what natural processes would produce such a predictable order from a singular chaos? The testable proposals of “flood geology” have been advanced to explain the causes of this sorting.
Whitcomb and Morris offer three suggestions. The first — hydrological — holds that denser and more streamlined objects would have descended more rapidly and should populate the bottom strata (in conventional geology, the oldest strata). The second — ecological — envisions a sorting responsive to environment. Denizens of the ocean bottom were overcome by the flood waters first, and should lie in the lower strata; inhabitants of mountaintops postponed their inevitable demise, and now adorn our upper strata. The third — anatomical or functional — argues that certain animals, by their high intelligence or superior mobility, might have struggled successfully for a time, and ended up at the top.
All three proposals have been proven false. The lower strata abound in delicate, floating creatures, as well as spherical globs. Many oceanic creatures — whales and teleost fishes in particular — appear only in upper strata, well above hordes of terrestrial forms. Clumsy sloths (not to mention hundreds of species of marine invertebrates) are restricted to strata lying well above others that serve as exclusive homes for scores of lithe and nimble small dinosaurs and pterosaurs.
The very invariance of the universal fossil sequence is the strongest argument against its production in a single gulp. Could exceptionless order possibly arise from a contemporaneous mixture by such dubious processes of sorting? Surely, somewhere, at least one courageous trilobite would have paddled on valiantly (as its colleagues succumbed) and won a place in the upper strata. Surely, on some primordial beach, a man would have suffered a heart attack and been washed into the lower strata before intelligence had a chance to plot temporary escape. But if the strata represent vast stretches of sequential time, then invariant order is an expectation, not a problem. No trilobite lies in the upper strata because they all perished 225 million years ago. No man keeps lithified company with a dinosaur, because we were still 60 million years in the future when the last dinosaur perished.
Quite so. The hydrological sorting explanation fails entirely as an explanation for this exceptionless order of appearance. And without that explanation, what possible creationist explanation is there without evolution? I submit there is none, unless one wants to posit that God created in that particular order just to trick us into thinking that evolution was true, and I know no one who would consider that a good explanation. So we are left with evolution as an explanation for this evidence, and the only response left for Gibbons and his fellow young earthers is to point to gaps in our knowledge and say, “A ha, where’s the fossil that fits in there?” Well, as I said, there will always be gaps in the fossil record and we know why. If there were no gaps in the fossil record, that would be an astonishing fact that would run counter to everything we know about geology and fossil preservation. So in fact, the fact that there are gaps is quite predictable and normal and their existence, particularly in light of the failure of creationism as an explanation for the large scale trends in successional appearance, is not a compelling argument against evolution.
Now let’s take a look at some of Gibbons’ specific arguments and see if they hold up. First, he rolls out the tried and true “Cambrian explosion” argument. Anyone who has kept up with this debate has heard this argument a thousand times, and it never seems to get any better or even to keep up with new evidence. The trouble begins with his very first sentence:
First off, let us start our look at the fossil record at the beginning, starting with the Cambrian explosion.
Well, okay, but the Cambrian explosion is not the beginning of the fossil record, not by a longshot. There are many well known fossil beds that predate the Cambrian, which we’ll get to in a moment.
According to the theory of evolution, every living species has emerged from a predecessor. One species which existed previously evolved into a higher, more complex form over time, and all species have come into being in this way. According to the theory, this transformation proceeds gradually over hundreds of millions of years.
This may seem like mere quibbles, but there is something important in the way he misstates these positions. First, it isn’t true that in most cases one species “evolves into” a “higher, more complex form.” Most speciation events do not involve an entire species evolving into a new species, but involves a new species splitting off from an already existing one, with the bulk of the ancestral species continuing to exist. By way of analogy, imagine an outpost in the woods – the whole outpost can pick up and move somewhere else and become a new outpost, or a small group from the original (ancestral) outpost can move and start a new one and populate it, with the old one still where it always was. In evolution, speciation is generally of the second type, not the first. Secondly, it’s not true that speciation takes hundreds of millions of years, or even that the buildup of “complexity” takes hundreds of millions of years, and evolutionary theory does not say that it does. Evolution has been going on for hundreds of millions of years, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that complexity takes that long to evolve.
The Cambrian explosion supposedly happened some 500-550 million years ago. The living creatures found in the strata belonging to the Cambrian period emerged suddenly in the fossil record, with no pre-existing ancestors. Cambrian rocks are packed with the fossils of snails, trilobites, sponges, earthworms, jellyfish, sea hedgehogs, sea cucumbers and other complex invertebrates. This wide mosaic of living organisms made up of such a great number of complex creatures emerged so suddenly that this is referred to as the “Cambrian Explosion” in geological literature…Recent findings indicate that almost all phyla, the most basic animal divisions, emerged abruptly in the Cambrian period.
But this is highly misleading for several reasons. First, because this “abrupt appearance” in fact took place over the course of 40 million years, allowing an enormous amount of time for evolution to take place. Second, because as I noted above there are now many precambrian fossil beds that have been discovered that have added a vast number of precursor species to our knowledge, including many transitional forms. The Burgess Shale, the Ediacaran fauna, and other finds, have elongated this “explosion” back tens of millions more years, making it much less of an “explosion” and more like a long term adaptive radiation as the evolution of hard parts allowed fossils to form more commonly. The geologist Keith Miller, who is himself an evangelical Christian (and a colleague, I might add) has written extensively about the precambrian fossils and how they’ve weakened the “cambrian explosion” argument:
Some Late Precambrian Ediacaran fossils (~580-560 My) bear strong resemblances to colonial coelenterates called pennatulids, or sea pens. Others appear to have been solitary coelenterate medusoids attached to the sea floor. Some of these medusoid fossils show clear impressions of tentacles around their margins. There are also sack-shaped organisms interpreted as sea anemones. Although Seilacher has questioned the placement of many Ediacaran fossil forms in living phyla, he also recognizes the presence of a group of sand-filled cnidarian coelenterates he has called the Psammocorallia. The fossil record thus indicates that the Late Precambrian was dominated by solitary and colonial coelenterates that may have included all four living cnidarian classes. Recently spicules from sponges of the class Hexactinellida have been identified in Ediacaran age rocks. There is also evidence for the presence of arthropods as well as echinoderms before the beginning of the Cambrian.
The other major component of the ancient Ediacaran communities was burrowing and trail-making worms of unknown affinity. These trace fossils increase in abundance and diversity throughout the Latest Precambrian indicating both an increase in the diversity of organisms, and in the variety of feeding and locomotory behaviors. Annelid worms may be represented by the mineralized tubes of Cloudina and by multi-segmented forms such as Dickinsonia. Casts interpreted as echiurid worms have also been described from the Ediacaran. Nearly half of all living phyla are worms, and only a few phyla have a significant fossil record, so that it is clear that the phylum-level diversity of the Late Precambrian may have been much greater than I have indicated. Certainly some modern phyla appeared before the end of the Precambrian.
The Cambrian, particularly the Early Cambrian, was a time of amazing diversification among the metazoans. Two aspects of the Early Cambrian fossil record will be emphasized here. First, with important new fossil discoveries and the redescription of previously known forms, the many peculiar Cambrian taxa are now being grouped into coherent phyla. These phyla include living phyla and groups interpreted as ancestral to living phyla. Secondly, many Early Cambrian taxa have morphologies that bear similarities with more than one living phylum, that is, their morphologies are mosaics of phylum-level characters…
The above discussion shows that the presentation of the Precambrian to Cambrian fossil record given by Battson does not reflect our present understanding of the history of life. Many metazoan groups appeared before the Cambrian, including representatives of several living phyla. Furthermore, the many small scale, plate, and spine-bearing organisms of the earliest Cambrian, while sharing characteristics with several living phyla, are also similar enough to each other to be classified by some workers into a single phylum. Even when the metazoan fossil record for the entire Cambrian is considered, the morphological disparity cannot be equated with that of living organisms, unless the subsequent appearance of all vertebrate and insect life be ignored. In addition, many living phyla, including most worm phyla, are unknown from the fossil record until well into the Phanerozoic. Thus, to claim the near simultaneous appearance of virtually all living phlya in the Cambrian is not an objective statement of the fossil evidence but a highly speculative, and I believe unsupported, interpretation of it.
Third, because even within the Cambrian itself there are transitional forms (lobopods in between worms and arthropods, for example). Lastly, and most importantly, the claim that all extent phyla emerged in the Cambrian means something entirely different than it appears to mean. The average person would read that and think that this means that all of the kinds of life we see around us all were around in the Cambrian; in fact, the opposite is true. Almost all of the animals alive during the Cambrian were marine invertebrates. There were no land animals at all, and no plants at all, in the Cambrian. The earliest primitive fish appear toward the end of the Cambrian, but there are no amphibians, no reptiles, no birds, no mammals, no plants, not even any insects, alive for that 40 million year period. Even the first fish with jaws are nearly 100 million years in the future. The period was dominated by brachiopods, mollusks and trilobites – marine invertebrates with hard outer shells, which is exactly why they fossilized so well and why we find so many more specimens of such creatures than we do of animals and plants with soft parts that are more likely to deteriorate before mineralizing except under special conditions. That has led many to posit that the “cambrian explosion” is more likely an artifact of the differential fossilization of animals with hard parts, particularly exo-skeletons, than of a real explosion.
He then goes on to point to gaps in the fossil record, such as the lack of a record of transitional forms between marine invertebrates and early fish. Well yes, we have very few fossil forms to go by for that particular transition. But again, that is perfectly predictable and normal. And along the way, he has some juicy out-of-context quotations, some even cited from the wrong source and some including ellipses that are rather amusing to track down, which seems to be the stock in trade of creationists everywhere. To wit, this odd statement:
There is not even a single fossil verifying that a half-fish/half-amphibian creature ever existed. Robert L. Carroll, an evolutionary palaeontologist and authority on vertebrate palaeontology, is obliged to accept this. He has written in his classic work, Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, that:
“The early reptiles were very different from amphibians and their ancestors have not been found yet.”
That one left me scratching my head, since he’s talking about the fish to amphibian transition, then offers a quote from Carroll on the amphibian to reptile transition. But here’s the real problem, the next “quote”:
In his newer book, Patterns and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution, puslished in 1997, he admits that “The origin of the modern amphibian orders, (and) the transition between early tetrapods” are “still poorly known” along with the origins of many other major groups. R. L. Carroll, Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, New York: W. H. Freeman and Co. 1988, p. 4. (Also see Robert L. Carroll, Patterns and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 296-97).
Now let’s take a look at the full quote in context, with the words Gibbons picks out in capital letters:
“Although several of the major transitions have been extensively studied during the past fifty years, others remain nearly as mysterious as they were when Simpson wrote. We still have no fossil evidence of the nature of the transition between cephalochordates and craniates. The earliest adequately known vertebrates already exhibit all of the definitive features of craniates that we can expect to have preserved in fossils. No fossils are known that document the origin of jawed vertebrates. Only fragmentary remains are known of animals that may represent early stages in the
differentiation of placoderms, chondrichthyes, and osteichthyes. The specific lineage that links primitive chondrosteans with advanced neopterygian osteichthyes has yet to be recognized with assurance. Other important transitions and radiations STILL POORLY KNOWN include the radiation of advanced tetrapod groups in the lower Carboniferous, THE ORIGIN OF THE MODERN AMPHIBIAN ORDERS, the transition between early tetrapods and the earliest definitive amniotes, early stages in the radiation of diapsids, and the origin of pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, nothosaurs, turtles, and bats. …”
Now at first glance, that might seem to be even worse for evolution – a whole list of taxa for which we lack fossil evidence to document their origin! But let’s think about this. Carroll’s book is probably the most widely used vertebrate paleontology textbook in the world. What he is doing here is being honest about areas of that field where we have yet to discover fossil remains that would fill in the pieces and give us more detail on the origin of these types of animals, their ancestral relationships, and so forth. But his book is hundreds of pages long and devoted to detailing the volumes of fossil evidence we do have in other lineages. And remember, gaps are not only expected, but are inevitable. Specifically on the fish to amphibian transition, Carroll devotes a great deal of space to looking at the fossil evidence. He identifies dozens of traits that deal with adaptation to living on land and traces those adaptations through fossil forms that, by sheer coincidence no doubt, happen to appear in just the right temporal and anatomical sequence:
“Eusthenopteron and Acanthostega may be taken as end points in the transition between fish and amphibians. Of the 145 anatomical features that could be compared between these two genera, 91 showed changes associated with adaptation to life on land (Carroll 1995). … This is far more than the number of changes that occurred in any one of the transitions involving the origin of
of the fifteen major groups of Paleozoic tetrapods. …”
It should also be noted that every word of this, including the list of reasons why the fish to amphibian transition is “impossible”, is taken directly from the infamous and pseudonymous Muslim creationist Harun Yahya. Apparently all that is required to get a “Ph.D., in Creation Science Apologetics summa cum laude, Emmanuel College of Christian Studies, Springdale, Arkansas” is to learn how to plagiarize the words of others without giving them any attribution or credit for it. Incidentally, he stole all of the material on the Cambrian explosion from Yahya as well. He then goes on to crib a bunch of stuff about whales from the young earth creationist group Answers in Genesis. Gibbons “writes”:
When Thewissen, and colleagues unearthed some more bones of Pakicetus, and published their work in the journal Nature. The commentary on this paper states:
“All the postcranial bones indicate that pakicetids were land mammals, and … indicate that the animals were runners, with only their feet touching the ground.” Thewissen, J.G.M., Williams, E.M, Roe, L.J. and Hussain, S.T., Skeletons of terrestrial cetaceans and the relationship of whales to artiodactyls, Nature 413:277-281, 20 September 2001.
But the evolutionary bias is still clear, describing Pakicetus as a ‘terrestrial cetacean’ and saying, ‘The first whales were fully terrestrial, and were even efficient runners.’ But the term ‘whale’ becomes meaningless if it can describe land mammals, and it provides no insight into how true marine whales supposedly evolved.
“Until now paleontologists thought whales had evolved from mesonychians, an extinct group of land-dwelling carnivores, while molecular scientists studying DNA were convinced they descended from artiodactyls [even-toed ungulate]. The paleontologists, and I am one of them, were wrong.” P.D. Gingerich, N.A. Wells, D.E. Russell, and S.M.I. Shah, Science 220(4595):403-6, 22 April 1983.
Such candor is commendable, and it shows the fallacy of trusting alleged ‘proofs’ of evolution. Pity that Gingerich is still committed to materialistic evolutionism.
Now compare that text to this page from Answers in Genesis (interesting to note, as an aside, that this AIG article also contains an illustration by Carl Buell, better known around these parts as OGeorge, a frequent commenter). Mr. Gibbons has simply cut and pasted from a creationist webpage (with the rest of the whale material coming from this AIG article, and managed in the process to get the cite completely wrong. Gingerich did not say that in the 1983 Science paper but in a 2001 Reuters article that reported on Thewissen’s recent finds that filled in the picture more completely. More importantly, what on earth does that quote purport to show? There was a controversy between paleontologists and molecular biologists over what group of tetropods was ancestral to whales, mesonychids (an extinct group of terrestrial mammals) or artiodactyls (cows, pigs and hippos), and both awaited more evidence to determine which answer was correct. That new evidence was found in the last few years, it favored the artiodactyl ancestry hypothesis favored by the molecular biologists, and the paleontologists did what honest scientists do, accepted the correction and moved on. Mr. Gibbons has found Gingerich and his fellow paleontologists guilty of flagrantly and wantonly doing science.
This is also true of his entire diatribe on Archaeopteryx, all of which he cut and pasted from creationist webpages (see here, here, and here). Along the way on that one, he manages to get a lot of facts plainly wrong as well. He “writes”:
However, the latest studies of Archæopteryx fossils indicate that this creature is absolutely not a transitional form, but an extinct species of bird, having some insignificant differences from modern birds.
But this is simply nonsense. The truth is that Archy has far more dinosaurian traits than avian traits. In fact, there are very few avian traits at all, and none, as near as I can tell, that are exclusively avian. The avian traits of Archy are: 1) Feathers – but we have now found several species of theropod dinosaurs that had feathers, including Protoarchaeopteryx and Caudipteryx; 2) an opposable big toe – but this may well simply be a function of poor preservation, and some dinosaurs do show a reversed big toe; 3) a wishbone formed by two fused clavicle bones – but here again, we have now found wishbones in at least 6 other theropod dinosaur species; 4) an elongated and reversed pubic girdle – and yet again, this has now been found in other theropod species. That’s it. On the other hand, there are nearly two dozen exclusively reptilian/dinosaurian traits that Archy has. It is not only wrong it is highly dishonest to chart the reptilian vs avian traits in Archy and claim that were just like modern birds with only “insignificant differences”. Archy did not have a single trait that modern birds have that was not also found in other theropod species, and it had nearly 2 dozen traits that modern birds do not have at all. So not only has Gibbons cut and pasted – without attribution – wholesale passages from others, but he has chosen passages which are highly distorted and dishonest in dealing with the facts.
Almost one year ago to the day, Mr. Gibbons objected when I made fun of the fact that one could get a “Ph.D., in Creation Science Apologetics summa cum laude, Emmanuel College of Christian Studies, Springdale, Arkansas.” He claimed that this degree was legitimate and the program of study was rigorous. I think his performance here has put that bit of nonsense to rest. One if left wondering why on earth it took him an entire year to reply to what I said. He could as easily have plagiarized the work of others without attribution a year ago. No one who has been involved in discussions with young earth creationists for any period of time can be the least bit surprised by the fact that Gibbons’ did not offer a single original thought in his reply, instead relying on stolen material that distorts the work of scientists that he has never bothered to read. But remember, he knows that not only is evolution false, it undermines our morality too. And never mind that dishonesty hiding behind the curtain.