Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Fossil Record Similar to Today?

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.


  1. #1 tacitus
    April 26, 2006

    He’s probably a young-earth creationist trying to seem clever by parroting stuff he found on an IDist web site (ID the future). What’s really sad is that the newspaper saw fit to publish his letter (though perhaps it was the best missive from anti-evolutionists they had to work with).

  2. #2 tacitus
    April 26, 2006

    FWIW: After a few quick Googles, this is likely the Scott A. Chambers who wrote the letter (his name and home town are on a chemical engineering patent): Profile

    Also found this article from the same paper last year in which Chambers claims that ID is strong evidence that God exists:

    Group uses science to prove God’s existence

    Member Scott Chambers, a Kennewick research scientist, said followers of intelligent design don’t believe the theory is an absolute proof of God’s existence, but they do believe it proves the existence of God is much more likely than not.

    “You can’t prove God mathematically, but you can make a strong case for God,” Chambers said.

    And finally, surprise, surprise, he’s a member of Bethel Church which holds to the inerrancy of the Bible.

  3. #3 Shaggy Maniac
    April 26, 2006

    Isn’t the key word “discrete” and the “trade secret” is that morphological change in the fossil record often appears (geologically) abrubtly ala puctuated equilibrium? Of course his quote misrepresents what Gould really means.

  4. #4 dogscratcher
    April 26, 2006

    He may be a Yec, but this guy is actually a senior scientist at Pacific Northwest National Lab:


    and does really nice graphic design stuff:


  5. #5 mark
    April 26, 2006

    I don’t think what Chambers says makes any sense at all. In that respect, his letter is similar to a large number of letters to editors written by anti-evolutionists.

  6. #6 hogeb
    April 26, 2006

    I hate it when chemists go to the dark side. They seem so legitimate to the general public, but really don’t have any particular insights into evolutionary processes. It’s even worse than when a biologist like Behe makes fallacious claims about evolution and probability because they give the impression of being an indifferent outside observer. I’ve found the ability to conceptualize probability is the most important skill for historical science. Given the variability in any human trait, I wonder if scientists who support ID must lack this skill.

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