In his book, The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote: “I view all beings… as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited… All organic beings which have ever lived on this earth may be descended from some one primordial form.”
Darwin studied the fossil evidence of his day and came up with the idea that all living things came from one common ancestor (which, he believed, was somehow “birthed” from the primordial soup that we talked about two weeks ago). In the fossil evidence, Darwin observed significant changes occurring from the time of the older fossils to the newer. These adaptations within species gave birth to an idea. “What if we could go back to the very beginning of things… what kind of changes would we see?” Based on the evidence, it was a logical and valid question.
Darwin developed his theory of evolution based on an extrapolation of the observations he made from the fossil evidence available in his time. Darwin predicted, that if we could go back in time, we would witness the beginning of a single organism which would eventually (through millions of years) give rise to all the species of organisms that exist today.
In his book, was a single illustration that captured the essence of Darwin’s thinking. He called it the “great Tree of Life.” Darwin envisioned these gradual divergent changes and portrayed them as the branches of a great tree ascending from the “root” of an originating ancestor. In Darwin’s theory, all of life grew up from the “ground” of this original organism.
In all fairness, Darwin was working with fossil evidence that is far less extensive than what we have today. The earliest fossils of his day were dated from the Cambrian period (roughly 550 million years ago*). Fossils earlier than that had not yet been discovered. Darwin logically expected his theory to be validated as older fossils were discovered.
The problem is… no such validation occurred. As more and more research has been done (since Darwin’s time) new fossil bed discoveries in the pre-Cambrian periods have yielded startling results. Scientists have confirmed that the early fossil records show that there is no fossil evidence of organisms gradually and steadily evolving before the Cambrian period! NONE!
In fact, most paleontologists refer to the fossils from the Cambrian period as the “Cambrian explosion” (also called the biological Big Bang). This is because the vast number of species discovered in the Cambrian period just “exploded” onto the scene, with numerous classes of animals… fully formed.
According to paleontologists Valentine, Awramik, Signor, and Sadler: “The single most spectacular phenomenon evident in the fossil record is the abrupt appearance and diversification of many living and extinct phyla.” Biologist Jonathan Wells offers this summary: “Many paleontologists are now convinced that the major groups of animals really did appear abruptly in the early Cambrian… the highest levels of biological heirarchy appeared right at the start.”
So the earliest fossil evidence shows… No gradual divergence of species over millions of years. No biological “branching” from a common ancestor. Just all at once… hundreds of fully formed organisms.
Simply stated: what Darwin predicted has no corroborating evidence. His theory doesn’t line up with the facts.
Charles Darwin was right when he looked at the fossil evidence and saw descent with modification within species. No one has ever questioned that. He was even right to ask the question: “Could all this (that we know now) tell us that all life came from a common ancestor from millennia past?” Good science asks reasonable questions and seeks evidence to answer those questions. But when good science is applied and tells us the prediction/question is wrong… good science discards the question (or the theory) and moves on to other questions.
Surely that is what happened when the theory of Darwin’s Tree of Life failed to line up with the facts?
Not at all.
It is still displayed prominently in museums and textbooks across the land. It is still called a “scientific fact” even though actual science tells us it is false and misleading.
A reasonable person should want to know why?
* The date of the Cambrian period (550 million years ago) is a rough estimate of how much time it would take for the sediments of that period to collect (and how far back in time they collected). The significant problem with these estimates is that there is no actual way to verify the numbers. How do you date rocks? We will save discussion of the relevance of these numbers for another day… but for now, we will use the figures that are used most often by most paleontologists.