A reader alerted me to this letter to the editor in a St. Louis newspaper (correction: the op-ed piece that the letter responded to was originally printed in a St. Louis newspaper, but the letter itself was in a Kennewick, Washington paper) that contains one of the most bizarre statements I’ve ever seen about paleontology. The writer, someone named Scott Chambers, said:
The discrete, hierarchical nature of the fossil record, and its similarity to the existing biological kingdom, still is what Stephen Jay Gould once referred to as “the trade secret of paleontology,” and is hardly supportive of Darwinian claims.
I don’t know how someone could get a statement so wrong even if they were intentionally trying to come up with an absurd statement. The heirarchical nature of the fossil record is a very powerful argument for evolution; indeed, if it did not exhibit such nested heirarchies, evolution could not possibly explain its lack. As for the alleged similarity of the fossil record to the “existing biological kingdom”, this is a bit like someone declaring that the sky is pink with a straight face – it’s simply false, in every imaginable way.
If you compared the fauna of, say, the Devonian to the fauna that exists on Earth today, “similarity” is hardly the word that would come to mind. Staggering dissimilarity is a much more apt description. During the Devonian, you still had thousands of species of trilobites all over the world (though far less than had existed in earlier periods). On land, there was virtually nothing of the diversity that we see today. You had early arthropods (mites, scorpions, etc) appear in the Devonian, but virtually none of the land animals that exist today existed then – no mammals, no reptiles, very few amphibians except in the late Devonian, no birds, and so forth.
When you look at flora, the case might be even worse. In the early Devonian you had primitive land plants appear, but without roots or leaves like modern plants; by the late Devonian, some plants had roots and leaves but seed-bearing plants had just begun to appear at the end of the period. Flowering plants, the most numerous of all floral groups today, were still nearly 200 million years in the future at the end of the Devonian.
By the end of the Devonian, there was still over 100 million years to go before the Permian extinction that killed off 90% of all marine organisms and about 70% of all land-dwelling species. And this guy thinks the fossil record shows a “similarity to the existing biological kingdom” that is problematic for evolution? I can scarcely imagine a more ridiculous claim.