Life to Order

The Sudden Emergence of Complex Life

(Genesis 1:20-25)

The gradual emergence of complex life-forms, central to the theory of evolution by natural selection, is called in question by the discovery that complex organisms arose with un-Darwinian suddenness in the Cambrian era, and by the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record. In this address, fifth in a series on ‘Beginnings’, given at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 19 March 2000, Rob Yule shows the growing agreement between the scientific and biblical accounts of the development of complex life on Earth.


Buried Fossils

Charles Walcott loved the Canadian Rockies. High on the Burgess Pass, he could see spectacular mountain scenery falling to the valley floor 1500 metres below. On a combined summer holiday and field trip, he was horse trekking across the shale ridges of eastern British Colombia, in search of fossils that would tell the story of how life-forms originated on Earth.

Using his geologist’s hammer, Walcott tapped a multi-layered slab on its edge. The layers fell apart. There, within, was the perfectly preserved imprint of a crustacean, a hard-shelled marine animal. ‘This is curious,’ he thought to himself. ‘This shale is too old to contain a fossil as complex as this. At the start of the Cambrian period, 550 million years ago,’ he mused, ‘the only life on Earth was the simplest of forms: one-celled bacteria, algae, protozoans, and a few multi-celled soft-bodied worm-like organisms called Ediacarans. There’s no way that evolution could have advanced from one-celled protozoans to a crustacean of this complexity in the mere twenty or so million years of the Cambrian era.’

As he worked away, other slabs of shale yielded an abundance of equally fantastic animal fossils. Walcott, always meticulous, recorded their details in his diary. Representatives of every animal phylum, the basic anatomies of all animals alive today, were present among those half-billion-year-old specimens. That he had made a major discovery is obvious from the vast number of fossils he gathered. During the next decade, Walcott collected and transported over sixty thousand of these specimens back to his institution in Washington, D.C.

The fossils from Burgess Pass revealed an extraordinary fact. Eyes and gills, jointed limbs and intestines, sponges, worms, insects and fish, had all appeared simultaneously. There was no sign of a gradual evolution of simple phyla such as sponges into the more complex phyla of worms and then on to other life-forms such as flying insects. From the evidence of these fossils, the dogma of classical Darwinism that animal life had evolved from the simple into the complex, from invertebrates into vertebrates, over a period of one to two hundred million years, was pure fantasy, not empirical fact. These fossils showed complex forms arising quickly and simultaneously, and coexisting side by side.

It was 1909 when Walcott made his discovery. Evolutionary fervour was at its height. German biologist Ernst Haeckel was propounding his view that the Roman Catholic Church promoted superstition and that the German Empire was the highest evolved form of human civilisation. Lenin was in Zurich plotting revolution in his homeland. The scholarly establishment in Europe and America had canonised Darwinian orthodoxy. It would have taken a courageous scientist to have swum against the tide, especially if that scientist was the director of the largest and most prestigious museum organisation of the day.

So Charles Doolittle Walcott, director of the Smithsonian Institution, did little to publicise his find. He printed a modest announcement in the Smithsonian Miscellanies, a publication of limited circulation. Then he reburied his fossils, all sixty thousand of them, in the drawers of his Smithsonian laboratory. They lay there for another seventy-five years, buried under the mental sediment of what psychologists now call ‘cognitive dissonance’ - humanity’s inbuilt desire to ignore unpleasant facts. They were not rediscovered until the mid-1980s, by a graduate student at the Smithsonian, Simon Conway Morris. (See Gerald Schroeder, The Science of God: the Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom [New York, Free Press, 1997], pp. 34-9.)


Evolution’s Big Bang

The rediscovery of Walcott’s fossils has challenged the very concept of evolution. The sudden burst of multi-cellular life that they revealed at the start of the Cambrian era, 550 million years ago, was so dramatic that the New York Times (23 April 1991) reported it in its science section under a page wide heading, ‘Spectacular Fossils Record Early Riot of Creation’, and said the fossils demonstrated ‘revolution more than evolution’. Time magazine (4 December 1995) featured them in a cover story entitled, ‘When Life Exploded: Evolution’s Big Bang’. In the light of mounting evidence that the classical concept of evolution is flawed, the prestigious journal Science (267 [1995], pp. 1421-2), featured a report entitled ‘Did Darwin Get It All Right?’ It says, ‘the most thorough study of species formation in the fossil record confirms that new species appear with a most un-Darwinian abruptness.’

The rediscovery of the Burgess Shale Fossils has underlined three things: firstly, that animate life began suddenly on Earth; secondly, that the broad phyla or classes of life also appear suddenly, without evolutionary transitions; and thirdly, that a comparison of existing life-forms with their fossil counterparts shows that they have not evolved significantly but are morphologically stable throughout their history.


God’s Orders

It is not just in astrophysics, with new discoveries about the origin of the universe, but also in biology, with the study of fossils and DNA, that we are witnessing in our day a growing convergence between science and the Bible, the book of Nature and the book of Scripture. We see this convergence in what science and Scripture tell us about life’s structure and life’s sequence.

1. Life’s structure: ordering the orders

In Genesis 1, God gives orders. He acts, as we would expect from an ancient Middle Eastern document, like an oriental monarch of the time giving orders from his throne, expecting to be obeyed. The phrase, ‘And God said’, is repeated nine times, followed by the words, ‘And it was so’, repeated seven times. Each major step in the origin and development of the universe and of life is introduced as a special creative act of God accomplished by his word or command.

Speech is how we convey what is in our minds to someone (a person) or something (a recording machine). By bringing things into existence by speech, God imparts information to what he creates. Through his word or speech (logos), God’s intelligence or rationality is embedded in the structure of the universe and of living things (cf. John 1:1-4). Genesis 1 describes ascending levels of ordered complexity. Living beings display increasing levels of information or intelligence, from the less complex to the increasingly complex, the inanimate to the animate, finally reaching the sophistication of human life and intelligence.

These biblical descriptions of embedded information and ordered complexity have been dramatically expanded by the scientific discovery that life is information. The structure of the double helix, and how it ‘unzips’ to replicate itself, was first identified by Francis Crick and James Watson at Cambridge University in 1953. Since then research on DNA has shown that it is a highly complex information code, an entire library or databank of information - in the case of a human genome bigger than ten Encyclopaedia Britannicas - that instructs each cell how play its part in forming a living organism.

Ten times Genesis 1 also tells us that God gave the phyla or classes of organisms the capacity to reproduce ‘according to their kinds’ (verses 11, 12, 21, 24 and 25 ). Each broad grouping of animals, from the simplest to the most complex, is distinct from every other, but each has the power to replicate itself within the potentiality of its genetic databank. What we might call micro-evolution - the power to adapt to the challenge of their environment - is possible for living organisms, because they can draw on all their genetic resources to respond to new or hazardous circumstances. But macro-evolution - the ability to change over time from one class or phyla to another - is not possible for living organisms, because what they can become is also limited by the constraints of their genetic endowment.

Most of the founders of the modern disciplines of biology and taxonomy, prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), rejected macro-evolution because it did not correspond to what they observed in nature. Swiss-American zoologist Louis Agassiz, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, French palaeontologist Georges Cuvier, British anatomist Richard Owen, and Scottish geologist Charles Lyell all opposed the idea of evolution, not primarily on religious grounds, but because they saw no evidence for the existence of transitional species between major morphological types as required by the theory (Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis [Chevy Chase, Maryland, Adler & Adler, 1986], pp. 93-105). Today inter-phylum or trans-phylum development, the crux of classical evolutionary theory, would also seem to be ruled out by the constraints imposed by the finite genetic potentiality of living organisms. The Creator, giving them existence ‘according to their kinds’, has set typological limits to their range of adaptability.


2. Life’s sequence: order of the orders

When we turn to the sequence in which animate life appeared on Earth, we find an even more remarkable agreement between science and Scripture. The opening chapter of the Bible tells us that the very earliest life on Earth, shortly after the appearance of dry land, was in the form of primitive algae (Genesis 1:11). The Hebrew word used here, deshe, is not ‘grass’ or ‘vegetation’ as often mistranslated, but ‘greenness’ (Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis [London, SCM Press, 1972], p. 55), referring to ‘green matter’, the most rudimentary form of vegetative life, single-celled organisms like bacteria and blue-green algae.

Science tells us that the Earth formed through meteorite accretion, and only began to cool, some 4.5 billion years ago, as meteorite bombardment abated (Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe [New York, Copernicus, 2000], pp. 43-54). Liquid water began to appear on Earth, initially through outgassing from the Earth’s interior, forming oceans and an initially hot, steamy atmosphere. At this stage Earth was a single landmass or super-continent, ‘Pangaea’, which later separated to form our present continents. The first tenacious microbial life-forms appear early in this period, around 4 billion years ago (Ward and Brownlee, op. cit., pp. 55-60): single-celled prokaryotic organisms, lacking a cell nucleus and DNA - stromatolites and algae, later protozoans and Ediacarans. This was the time when Earth’s dense early atmosphere became transparent, when - according to Genesis 1:14-19 - the sun, moon and stars became visible. The resultant sunshine caused photosynthesis, oxygenating the atmosphere for the first time, making Earth suitable for complex plant and animate life.

When a habitable Earth was ready, the Genesis account then tells us that ‘swarms’ of animate life appeared, suddenly and prolifically (Genesis 1:20-21). The use of the Hebrew verb sharats, ‘to swarm’ or ‘teem’, underlines the capacity of primitive life-forms to multiply or increase rapidly, explaining their proliferation in what is now described as the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ of complex organisms. The succession of animal life described in Genesis 1 begins with soft-bodied marine animals (sherets) that teem in lakes and waterways, and winged creatures that hover above them (the Hebrew is not tsipporim, ‘birds’, but hoaphim, ‘winged insects’). Special reference is made to God creating tanninim, ‘sea monsters’, referring to large marine and river animals, including reptiles and perhaps the now extinct dinosaurs. Then come land animals, mammals and last of all, as a special creation, humans.

Science agrees with the biblical sequence. Scientists now tell us that much later than prokaryotic life, and very suddenly, 550 million years ago in the Cambrian Period, appear the first eukaryotic life-forms, containing a cell nucleus and DNA (Ward and Brownlee, op. cit., pp. 125-56). It appears to be the presence of DNA that accounts for the sudden explosion of life-forms. First come multi-cellular organisms: soft-bodied, invertebrate, aquatic animals, living in the oceans. 150 million years later appear, simultaneously, the first vertebrates, backboned fish, and soon after, flying above the swamps and lakes, myriads of winged insects, some with 30 centimetre wing spans. Then, another 100 million years later, amphibians, capable of living in water or on land. Another 70 million years later appear land reptiles, with scales, and the great dinosaurs. Later still, some 200 million years ago, appear mammals, suckling their young. 40 million years after appear the apes, walking on all fours and swinging on all five. Last of all appear humans, walking upright (except when drunk) and swinging to music.


Fossils, Frauds, and Falsification

For a hundred and forty years since Darwin evolutionists have tried to find evidence of intermediate forms between these successive orders of life. Hundreds of thousands more fossils have been found since his day, but the lack of transitional forms becomes increasingly apparent. Fossils discoveries are not bridging gaps between phyla, only adding to our knowledge of them. It is this paucity of links which has lead to sophisticated hoaxes like Piltdown Man, a supposed link between apes and humans, or Archaeopteryx, a transitional form between reptiles and birds.

Archaeopteryx was long a puzzle to zoologists, because the flying reptile was obviously a reptile, but its feathers were like those of modern birds. It was leading Cambridge scientist, Sir Fred Hoyle, who solved the riddle of Archaeopteryx. He examined the fossil under a microscope, and discovered that birds’ feathers had been stuck on with glue. So Archaeopteryx, prime exhibit of the British Natural History Museum, joins a long list of evolutionist frauds. There is no evidence in the fossil record of scales forming into feathers, or of reptiles evolving into birds. Hoyle, once an ardent atheist, has come to believe in a Creator, and says that his student generation ‘was brainwashed into accounting for origins without God.’ (Victor Pearce, Evidence for Truth: Science [Eagle, Guildford, 1998], pp. 135-6, 120.)

In Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin dealt with objections to his theory, admitting the lack of ‘transitional forms’ in the fossil record of his day. He said, ‘if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed.’ In a genuinely scientific manner he invited empirical confirmation, saying that ‘evidence of their former existence could only be found among the fossil remains.’ The lack of intermediate forms therefore counts heavily against his theory. One hundred and forty years after the Origin of Species, the fossil record more than ever bears witness to the differences between the main orders of animal life, the suddenness with which they appeared, and their continuity throughout subsequent zoological history. Is it not time to admit, for the good of science, that his theory has been falsified?


© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church