Dawkins’ Orthodoxy vs. Gould and Eldredge

With all honest evolutionists admitting that there have been no observed speciation events, but with neo-Darwinism hanging on the supposed fact that speciation events do occur, all eyes turn to the fossil record for the “fact of evolution” to be revealed there. There, we are told, we can observe the long time frames that evolution requires, and there we can observe “evolution in action” as the transitions are immortalized in rock strata.

There is just one big problem: Darwin’s hope that fossil excavation would continue and increase and ultimately confirm his theory with the discovery of a host of transitional fossils has been almost a complete bust (with the few exceptions being highly interpreted). Instead, as hoped, fossil excavation has indeed continued and hugely increased, so that virtually all corners of the globe have been systematically dug. However, not only has a host of “transitional forms” not been discovered, the actual fossil record is now well-known enough that it cannot be denied that it produces a number of serious difficulties for the neo-Darwinian picture:

* The so-called “Cambrian explosion” does not reveal a “tree of life” from single-celled, simple organisms “up the tree” to more complex forms. Instead, in so-called “Cambrian” era rock layers we see the sudden appearance of dozens of new, complex forms, with exactly zero “smooth linkages” to the single-celled, simple forms the preceded.

* The problem of the “Cambrian explosion” is really writ large all over the fossil record, as there are very few even possible “transitional forms” between “major lineages.” Instead of “smooth transitions,” we instead everywhere see long time periods of “stasis” or “equilibrium,” followed by sudden and large-scale jumps in morphology. But “nature makes no leaps,” so neo-Darwinism must account for the “fits and starts” in the fossil record.

* The appeal Darwin had to the relatively little excavation and investigation that had been done in his time can no longer be used to explain the fossil record. The breadth and consistency of our findings world-wide make the “appeal to ignorance” argument a non-starter. The record is what it is, and we now know quite well what it reveals. Now, evolutionists are left instead with the obviously lame argument: “Well, fossilization is a rare occurrence in general. It’s actually amazing that we have as good of a fossil record as we do have. But it should be expected that the record is hugely incomplete. So, we justifiably make much of the transitional forms we have discovered.”

In this and the following week, we will briefly examine what the fossil record does show, we will briefly examine a paradigm example of “transitional forms” that is highly touted, and we will look at how Gould and Eldredge (and evolutionary theory itself) are put to their last trumps to try to explain away the fact that the fossil record actually stands as dramatic evidence against evolutionary theory.

What we actually observe in the fossil record

Evolutionists perpetually paint the fossil record as a picture of endless “transitional forms” leading smoothly and neatly from one species to another, with major morphological changes all along the way. This fact is explained away using various tactics. Please view this post, which contains a short video clip and analysis of the argumentation presented in the video.

These explanatory tactics are quite obvious failures. Indeed, the problem of the fossil record, as it is seen even by evolutionists themselves, is revealed in the fact that Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge systematically responded to the widely-known problem with their theory of “punctuated equilibria.” The very fact that the evolutionary community both recognized the need of such a theory, and that such a theory was developed, is itself telling.

What Punctuated Equilibria is designed to solve

Gould’s and Eldredge’s theory has a very specific application. Let’s hear it from Gould’s own writing in the form of a quote that might well be his most famous (and infamous, if you are an evolutionist):

The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of the fossils.

This quote, from Natural History, May 1977 p. 14, in an article entitled “Evolution’s Erratic Pace,” simply revealed to the public what scientists had known since Darwin and which is as well-recognized today: The fossil record is worse for neo-Darwinism than just “incomplete.” Creationists have indeed leaped on this quote (and others) to incorrectly have Gould admitting that evolutionary theory is false, that the fossil record is inconsistent with Darwinian gradualism, and a host of other entirely incorrect conclusions.

The problem that Gould publicized, however, is real: the fossil record is not awash in “transitional forms.” In fact, even the putative ones are a mere handful, and they all suffer from the same problems as mentioned in the post above that focuses on purported whale evolution. Gould was simply more forthright about the implications of the problem, and he was honest about the fact that the “wait and dig and hope” approach was not going to produce a fossil record that could be sold to the public as consistent with Darwinian gradualism. A new interpretation of what the fossil record actually does contain was needed.

Even prior to the famous/infamous 1977 article, in 1972 Gould teamed up with Niles Eldredge in publishing the development of an interpretation of the fossil record called “Punctuated Equilibria.” (Eldredge, Niles and  S.J. Gould (1972). “Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism” In T.J.M. Schopf, ed.,  Models in Paleobiology. San Francisco: Freeman Cooper. pp. 82-115.)

This effort has been widely misunderstood and even misinterpreted by both scientists and creationists alike. It has been cited as an example of evolutionists losing faith in evolution. It has been called “evolutionists rejecting the Darwinian dogma.” By other scientists, it has been cited as “breaking faith” with the scientific community’s commitment to gradualism. And the litany of controversy goes on and on.

In actual fact, Gould and Eldredge were firmly committed to the neo-Darwinian camp, firmly believed in Darwinian gradualism, and were simply offering an explanation of why the fossil record appears to not support Darwinian gradualism while it really does. In short, Gould and Eldredge were trying to both be honest about the actual fossil record and provide a plausible means of interpreting it in accordance with Darwinian evolution. Far from abandoning neo-Darwinism, Gould and Eldredge were attempting to provide an account of the fossil record that could be viewed as consistent with it, if you will: in the face of the fact that the fossil record does not seem to support neo-Darwinism!

So, the first point that we must make clear is that it is a huge mistake to misread Gould and Eldredge as abandoning evolutionary theory or as claiming anything like that creationism is a better account of the fossil record than evolutionism!

The second point we must make clear is that Gould lived and died as a neo-Darwinian evolutionist. Punctuated Equilibria is Gould’s attempt to interpret the fossil record to see speciation in it despite the thoroughgoing “gaps.”

Finally, we are well within our rights to agree with Gould and Eldredge in their assessment that the fossil record is worse than merely “incomplete” and that it is no longer acceptable to pretend that we are finally going to discover the “proof” of neo-Darwinism in the discovery of countless “transitional forms.” The “transitional forms” are just not there, and it’s time to admit it. What the fossil record actually shows is unrelated “bushiness” rather than lineage. Gould and Eldredge tried to answer: Why? And they tried to provide an answer that would be consistent with evolutionary theory as a paradigm. In that sense, Gould and Eldredge could be viewed in Kuhnian terms as within the paradigm but acknowledging “anomalies” within the evidence. They were doing “normal science” while recognizing that some crucial evidence was pressing on some sore spots on the paradigm.

This excellent article on TalkOrigins explains the details of Punctuated Equilibria. For our purposes this week, we will simply note that the theory presupposes the problem it was designed to solve with effectively zero evidence of neo-Darwinian speciation.

So, what do we mean by “Dawkins’ orthodoxy?” Simply that Richard Dawkins, as we will quote extensively next week, is the leading exponent of the truly “gradualist” camp that sees no need of any “exotic” theory like that of Punctuated Equilibria to explain the fossil record.