To my mind, the ‘Cambrian explosion’ comes in second only to ‘survival of the fittest’ in terms of sheer evolution misrepresentation by young-earth creationists. As with most apologetic tactics utilized in the struggle against reality, the foundation of this misrepresentation is poured from an erroneous definition. It is atop this fallacy that their trembling shack of an argument is built. The most logical reaction to such a structure is, of course, to first examine the foundation, then set explosive charges in the cracks and watch gleefully as the wretched eyesore tumbles to the ground. Let’s begin, shall we?
The Cambrian Explosion: Creationist Edition
The crux of creationist claims in regards to the Cambrian explosion is a faulty interpretation of geologic time scale.
“How do these evolutionists know an event they call the ‘Cambrian explosion’ was so important? Because they cannot explain the abrupt ‘evolution’ of diverse life forms all over the world at about the same time. And since they maintain these organisms were the evolutionary ancestors of all other animal life and ultimately even humans, they really need to explain how Cambrian life popped into the fossil record so suddenly.” – Answers in Genesis
When speaking of the Cambrian explosion, creationists emphasize terms like ‘abrupt’, ‘popped’, and ‘suddenly’ to give the impression that the diversity recorded in Cambrian fossils occurred overnight, as if by magic. If this were the case, paleobiologists would, in fact, have a serious problem on their hands. Evolutionary speciation simply cannot occur that quickly; under normal conditions, it takes hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. So, when Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History paleontologist Paul Smith, as quoted in the article linked above, describes the Cambrian explosion as a period of time when, “animals appear very abruptly in the fossil record, and in great diversity”, it becomes important to understand just what he means by ‘abruptly’.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
When paleontologists describe periods of time, they don’t speak of years, decades, or even centuries; time frames that short are simply nonsensical. Paleontologists speak of time in geologic terms, and in geologic terms, 10 to 40 million years is ‘abrupt’. That’s the length of time over which the Cambrian explosion is estimated to have occurred. So, placing this understanding in context, how do evolutionary scientists “explain how Cambrian life popped into the fossil record so suddenly [over a period of 10 to 40 million years]”? Exactly the same way they explain how other forms of life “popped into the fossil record”, through natural evolutionary processes.
This isn’t to say that the Cambrian explosion isn’t special, it is. Skeletal structures appear to have evolved in the late Precambrian, and these skeletal structures allowed for a relative increase in fossilization. We do have evidence of Precambrian diversification, but much of that evidence is inferred through the adaptation of soft-bodied organisms, which simply don’t fossilize well. Unlike the eons which preceded it, the Cambrian period hosted a wide variety of organisms strong enough to resist decay until they were sufficiently buried to allow for exquisite fossilization. The Cambrian explosion is our first solid glimpse into the adaptations that resulted in the diversity we recognize throughout the rest of the fossil record and into the present. That said, more evidence of Precambrian diversification is discovered every year, and with each new discovery the Cambrian explosion becomes slightly less important as an evolutionary marker.
Not much. With the fallacious foundation destroyed, the rest of the young-earth creationist argument is, well… just as silly as it always was, only more noticeably so. Answers in Genesis concludes their article by claiming that the ‘sudden’ appearance of fossils in the Cambrian layer, and all of the fossils in successive layers, were actually laid down by the Noahic flood.
“As the Floodwaters rose catastrophically, habitats and ecosystems would have been engulfed. The first to be destroyed, churned, and dumped atop the ‘Precambrian’ rock of the pre-Flood world would have been the seabeds, where upheavals would have suddenly buried countless undersea organisms.”
Then, obviously, as the flood waters continued to rise, all of the other animals and plants were buried in order, according to the principle of faunal succession. Because… reasons. Yes, the entire purpose behind the young-earth creationist misrepresentation of the Cambrian explosion is to affirm the bizarre notion that fossilized organisms are the result of a mythical global flood. It’s almost pitiable when you think about it. Almost.
Tanya Higgins is a former young-earth creationist passionately engaged in a heroic effort to make up for lost time. Pursuing an advanced degree in Paleobiology, she is currently working as a double-major in Ecology/Evolutionary Biology and Geology, with a minor in Fine Arts; all of which she uses to combat the foolishness of fundamentalist religion. In her spare time, she hovers maternally over a captive colony of dermestid beetles, creating skeletal sculptures out of their leftovers and generally freaking out the neighbors.