Conflicts Between Darwin and Paleontology

Darwin saw evolution as a slow and stately process. He pictured organisms gradually transforming from one species into another over immense spans of time. Evolution, he believed, had to occur through "infinitely numerous transitional links" forming "the finest graduated steps." Darwin was a strict adherent of gradualism and the notion that "nature does not make leaps." He spelled this out very clearly in his Origin of Species:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down (Darwin, 1859, p. 219).

There was one major stumbling block to this view of life: the fossil evidence. In a chapter entitled "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record" he readily admits:

... The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, (must) be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory (Darwin, 1859, p. 292).

Despite the serious problems the geologic evidence presented, Darwin believed that the passage of time would reveal the enormous number of transitional forms his theory demanded. However, such was not to be the case. David Raup, former curator of geology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, put it this way:

Well, we are now about 120 years after Darwin, and knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded ... ironically, we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin's time. By this I mean that some of the classic cases of darwinian change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse in North America, have had to be discarded or modified as a result of more detailed information ... (Raup, 1979).

The paleontological case against gradualism was serious in Darwin's day and time has only made matters worse. Stephen Jay Gould, professor of geology and paleontology at Harvard University, explains:

The history of most fossil species include two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism:

1) Stasis - most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless;

2) Sudden appearance - in any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and 'fully formed' (Gould, 1977).

Gould honestly admits that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is not supported by the fossil evidence and
"is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy" (Gould, 1980).

Although stasis is the dominant feature of the history of life, exceptions to the general pattern of stasis can be cited. Examples of transitional series can be found at lower taxonomic levels. At higher taxonomic levels, however, transitional sequences range from scarce to non-existent. Evidence of gradualism between phyla, classes and even orders is either non-existent or is much disputed. Certainly, no pervasive pattern of gradualism exists. George Gaylord Simpson acknowledged this decades ago as he described the situation in these terms:

This is true of all thirty-two orders of mammals...The earliest and most primitive known members of every order already have the basic ordinal characters, and in no case is an approximately continuous sequence from one order to another known. In most cases the break is so sharp and the gap so large that the origin of the order is speculative and much disputed...

This regular absence of transitional forms is not confined to mammals, but is an almost universal phenomenon, as has long been noted by paleontologists. It is true of almost all classes of animals, both vertebrate and is true of the classes, and of the major animal phyla, and it is apparently also true of analogous categories of plants (Simpson, 1944).

Recent research on the origin of the higher taxa confirms what paleontologists have known for decades.

Taxa recognized as orders during the (Precambrian-Cambrian) transition chiefly appear without connection to an ancestral clade via a fossil intermediate. This situation is in fact true of most invertebrate orders during the remaining Phanerozoic as well. There are no chains of taxa leading gradually from an ancestral condition to the new ordinal body type. Orders thus appear as rather distinctive subdivisions of classes rather than as being segments in some sort of morphological continuum (Valentine, Awramik, Signor, and Sadler, 1991).

The origin of the phyla constitutes an even greater difficulty for Darwinian theory. In roughly the same period of time it has taken Darwinian processes to modify the beak of a finch virtually all of the major body plans appeared explosively at the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary in what has come to be known as "Biology's Big Bang." The results of recent research have squeezed the explosion down to a few million years. (See Kerr, 1993 and Bowring et al, 1993.)

Darwinian evolution predicts the regular presence of transitional forms. The fossil record reveals their regular absence. It also reveals a natural phenomenon which until recently was virtually ignored by paleontologists. That phenomenon is stasis. The tragedy of Darwinism is that it has impeded the progress of science by turning the attention of biologists and paleontologists away from the empirical data and distracting them from developing theories which explain the pervasive natural phenomenon of stasis. For over 130 years scientists working within the Darwinian paradigm have attempted to develop theories to explain data which, on the macro level, do not exist (See Figure 1).

FIGURE 1: Darwinian Theory vs. the Fossil Record

Darwinian theory attempts to explain the common ancestry of all species through the gradual transformation of major body plans. This theory is in opposition to the fossil evidence and the pervasive patterns of natural history.

An estimated 50 to 100 phyla appear explosively at the base of the Cambrian. Fossil evidence suggesting their common ancestry is not found in Precambrian rocks. A General Theory of Macrostasis is needed to explain the fossil data and the stability of the higher taxa.

Writing in the introduction to the 1956 reissue of the Origin of Species, W.R. Thompson commented:

The success of Darwinism was accompanied by a decline in scientific integrity. This is already evident in the reckless statements of Haeckel and in the shifty, devious and histrionic argumentation of T. H. Huxley...

To establish the continuity required by the theory, historical arguments are invoked even though historical evidence is lacking. Thus are engendered those fragile towers of hypotheses based on hypotheses, where fact and fiction intermingle in an inextricable confusion (Thompson, 1956).

The fossil data clearly show patterns of stasis rather than of major evolutionary sequences and it is this phenomenon to which scientists must turn their attention. As Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould put it:
"Stasis is data" (Gould, 1991)
. Scientists cannot afford to lose sight of this abundant historical evidence. Gould recently described the importance of understanding stasis in these terms:

...we must understand that nothing happens most of the time -- and we don't because our stories don't admit this theme -- if we hope to grasp the dynamics of evolutionary change. (This sentence may sound contradictory, but it isn't. To know the reasons for infrequent change, one must understand the ordinary rules of stability.) The Burgess Shale teaches us that, for the history of basic anatomical designs, almost everything happened in the geological moment just before, and almost nothing in more than 500 million years since (Gould, 1988).

It is entirely conceivable that natural processes alone are insufficient to overcome what Gould has referred to as "the ordinary rules of stability". Kurt Wise, a former doctoral student of Gould, has suggested that there might be at least four distinct levels of stasis: molecular-level, population-level, species-level, and higher taxon-level stasis. Although Wise believes that the first three levels of stasis are violable, he points out that there may be a mechanism preventing change in higher taxa which is inviolable. Rejecting Gould's metaphysical assumptions, Wise concludes that natural processes probably exist which prevent major evolutionary change from transforming the baramin, or originally created kinds, into significantly different body plans:

It is probably only the stasis on the level of higher taxa which is both valid and differs qualitatively from the other levels of stasis. Only higher taxa lack demonstrable evidence of change ... Higher taxon-level stasis could conceivably be the result of what might be called Baraminic Stasis -- the permanent constraint of organisms under natural conditions to stay within the bounds of their baramin (Wise, 1991).

The concept of the baramin is synonymous with the concept of the "created kind" and is anathema to scientists who believe that the origin and diversity of life must be attributed to purely mechanistic processes. The goal of science, however, should not be to develop a naturalistic "creation account" in an attempt to explain the origin and diversity of all life by purely materialistic means. Instead, the goal of science should be to most accurately describe the pervasive patterns and phenomena found in nature even if those natural processes prevent major evolutionary change from occurring. Science needs a diversity of ideas unencumbered by philosophical naturalism. Scientists need a theory to explain the phenomenon of higher taxon-level stasis and a theory to explain why species do not appear to gradually evolve into something substantially different.