Access Research Network is a group that produces recordings of lectures and debates related to intelligent design. I noticed that on their Youtube channel they are releasing some of their older lectures and debates for FREE. So I decided to write a summary of one that I really like on the Cambrian explosion. This lecture features Dr. Stephen C. Meyer and Dr. Marcus Ross.
The lecture is about two hours. There are really nice slides with lots of illustrations to help you understand what the speakers are saying, even if you are not a scientist.
Here is a summary of the lecture from ARN:
The Cambrian explosion is a term often heard in origins debates, but seldom completely understood by the non-specialist. This lecture by Meyer and Ross is one of the best overviews available on the topic and clearly presents in verbal and pictorial summary the latest fossil data (including the recent finds from Chengjiang China). This lecture is based on a paper recently published by Meyer, Ross, Nelson and Chien “The Cambrian Explosion: Biology’s Big Bang” in Darwinism, Design and Public Education(2003, Michigan State University Press). This 80-page article includes 127 references and the book includes two additional appendices with 63 references documenting the current state of knowledge on the Cambrian explosion data.
The term Cambrian explosion describes the geologically sudden appearance of animals in the fossil record during the Cambrian period of geologic time. During this event, at least nineteen, and perhaps as many as thirty-five (of forty total) phyla made their first appearance on earth. Phyla constitute the highest biological categories in the animal kingdom, with each phylum exhibiting a unique architecture, blueprint, or structural body plan. The word explosion is used to communicate that fact that these life forms appear in an exceedingly narrow window of geologic time (no more than 5 million years). If the standard earth’s history is represented as a 100 yard football field, the Cambrian explosion would represent a four inch section of that field.
For a majority of earth’s life forms to appear so abruptly is completely contrary to the predictions of Neo-Darwinian and Punctuated Equilibrium evolutionary theory, including:
the gradual emergence of biological complexity and the existence of numerous transitional forms leading to new phylum-level body plans;
small-scale morphological diversity preceding the emergence of large-scale morphological disparity; and
a steady increase in the morphological distance between organic forms over time and, consequently, an overall steady increase in the number of phyla over time (taking into account factors such as extinction).
After reviewing how the evidence is completely contrary to evolutionary predictions, Meyer and Ross address three common objections: 1) the artifact hypothesis: Is the Cambrian explosion real?; 2) The Vendian Radiation (a late pre-Cambrian multicellular organism); and 3) the deep divergence hypothesis.
Finally Meyer and Ross argue why design is a better scientific explanation for the Cambrian explosion. They argue that this is not an argument from ignorance, but rather the best explanation of the evidence from our knowledge base of the world. We find in the fossil record distinctive features or hallmarks of designed systems, including:
a quantum or discontinuous increase in specified complexity or information
a top-down pattern of scale diversity
the persistence of structural (or “morphological”) disparities between separate organizational systems; and
the discrete or novel organizational body plans
When we encounter objects that manifest any of these several features and we know how they arose, we invariably find that a purposeful agent or intelligent designer played a causal role in their origin.
Recorded April 24, 2004. Approximately 2 hours including audience Q&A.
You can get a DVD of the lecture and other great lectures from Access Research Network. I recommend their origin of life lectures – I have watched the ones with Dean Kenyon and Charles Thaxton probably a dozen times each. Speaking as an engineer, you never get tired of seeing engineering principles applied to questions like the origin of life.
When people ask me whether the progress of science is more compatible with theism or atheism, I offer the following four basic pieces of scientific evidence that are more compatible with theism than atheism.
Here are the four pieces of evidence best explained by a Creator/Designer:
the kalam argument from the origin of the universe
the cosmic fine-tuning (habitability) argument
the biological information in the first replicator (origin of life)
the sudden origin of all of the different body plans in the fossil record (Cambrian explosion)
And I point to specific examples of recent discoveries that confirm those four arguments. Here are just a few of them:
Nature 302, 505 – 506 (07 April 1983); doi:10.1038/302505a0
The impossibility of a bouncing universe
ALAN H. GUTH* & MARC SHER†
*Center for Theoretical Physics, Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA
†Department of Physics, University of California, Irvine, California 92717, USA
Petrosian1 has recently discussed the possibility that the restoration of symmetry at grand unification in a closed contracting Robertson–Walker universe could slow down and halt the contraction, causing the universe to bounce. He then went on to discuss the possibility that our universe has undergone a series of such bounces. We disagree with this analysis. One of us (M.S.) has already shown2 that if a contracting universe is dominated by radiation, then a bounce is impossible. We will show here two further results: (1) entropy considerations imply that the quantity S (defined in ref. 1 and below), which must decrease by ~1075 to allow the present Universe to bounce, can in fact decrease by no more than a factor of ~2; (2) if the true vacuum state has zero energy density, then a universe which is contracting in its low temperature phase can never complete a phase transition soon enough to cause a bounce.
The universe is not only expanding, but that expansion appears to be speeding up. And as if that discovery alone weren’t strange enough, it implies that most of the energy in the cosmos is contained in empty space — a concept that Albert Einstein considered but discarded as his “biggest blunder.” The new findings have been recognized as 1998’s top scientific breakthrough by Science magazine.
[…]The flood of findings about the universe’s expansion rate is the result of about 10 years of study, said Saul Perlmutter, team leader of the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Perlmutter and others found such a yardstick in a particular kind of exploding star known as a Type 1A supernova. Over the course of several years, the astronomers developed a model to predict how bright such a supernova would appear at any given distance. Astronomers recorded dozens of Type 1A supernovae and anxiously matched them up with redshifts to find out how much the universe’s expansion was slowing down.
To their surprise, the redshift readings indicated that the expansion rate for distant supernovae was lower than the expansion rate for closer supernovae, Perlmutter said. On the largest scale imaginable, the universe’s galaxies appear to be flying away from each other faster and faster as time goes on.
“What we have found is that there is a ‘dark force’ that permeates the universe and that has overcome the force of gravity,” said Nicholas Suntzeff of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, who is the co-founder of another group called the High-z Supernova Search Team. “This result is so strange and unexpected that it perhaps is only believable because two independent international groups have found the same effect in their data.”
There has only been one creation of the universe, and the universe will never reverse its expansion, so that it could oscillate eternally. That view is popular, perhaps in part because many people watched videos of Carl Sagan speculating about it in public school classrooms, but all it was was idle naturalistic speculation, (Sagan was a naturalist, and held out hope that science would vindicate naturalism), and has been contradicted by good experimental science. You should be familiar with the 3 evidences for the Big Bang (redshift, light element abundances (helium/hydrogen) and the cosmic microwave background radiation. There are others, (radioactive element abundances, second law of thermodynamics, stellar lifecycle), but those are the big three. Point out how the experimental evidence for the Big Bang has piled up, making the problem even worse for the eternal-universe naturalists.
2) The multiverse has not been tested experimentally, it’s pure speculation.
Multiverse thinking or the belief in the existence of parallel universes is more philosophy or science fiction than science. ”Cosmology must seem odd to scientists in other fields”.
George Ellis, a well-known mathematician and cosmologist, who for instance has written a book with Stephen Hawking, is sceptical of the idea that our universe is just another universe among many others.
A few weeks ago, Ellis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town, reviewed Brian Greene’s book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (Knopf/Allen Lane, 2011) in the journal Nature. He is not at all convinced that the multiverse hypothesis is credible: ”Greene is not presenting aspects of a known reality; he is telling of unproven theoretical possibilities.”
According to professor Ellis, there is no evidence of multiverses, they cannot be tested and they are not science.
Ellis is not the only multiverse sceptic in this universe. A few months ago, science writer John Horgan wrote a column in Scientific American, expressing his doubt in multiverses.
When you get into a debate, you must never ever let the other side get away with asserting something they have no evidence for. Call them on it – point out that they have no evidence, and then hammer them with evidence for your point. Pile up cases of fine-tuning on top of each other and continuously point out that they have no experimental evidence for their speculations. Point out that more evidence we get, the more cases of fine-tuning we find, and the tougher the problem gets for naturalists. There is no evidence for a multiverse, but there is evidence for fine-tuning. TONS OF IT.
3) Naturalistic theories for the origin of life have two problems: can’t make the amino acids in an oxydized atmosphere and can’t make protein and DNA sequences by chance in the time available.
Estimating the prevalence of protein sequences adopting functional enzyme folds.
The Babraham Institute, Structural Biology Unit, Babraham Research Campus, Cambridge CB2 4AT, UK. email@example.com
Proteins employ a wide variety of folds to perform their biological functions. How are these folds first acquired? An important step toward answering this is to obtain an estimate of the overall prevalence of sequences adopting functional folds.
[…]Starting with a weakly functional sequence carrying this signature, clusters of ten side-chains within the fold are replaced randomly, within the boundaries of the signature, and tested for function. The prevalence of low-level function in four such experiments indicates that roughly one in 10(64) signature-consistent sequences forms a working domain. Combined with the estimated prevalence of plausible hydropathic patterns (for any fold) and of relevant folds for particular functions, this implies the overall prevalence of sequences performing a specific function by any domain-sized fold may be as low as 1 in 10(77), adding to the body of evidence that functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences.
So atheists are in double jeopardy here. They don’t have a way to build the Scrabble letters needed for life, and they don’t have a way to form the Scrabble letters into meaningful words and sentences. Point out that the more research we do, the tougher the problem gets to solve for naturalists, and the more it looks like an effect of intelligence. Write out the calculations for them.
4) The best candidate to explain the sudden origin of the Cambrian era fossils was the Ediacaran fauna, but those are now recognized as not being precursors to the Cambrian fossils.
Evidence of the single-celled ancestors of animals, dating from the interval in Earth’s history just before multicellular animals appeared, has been discovered in 570 million-year-old rocks from South China by researchers from the University of Bristol, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, the Paul Scherrer Institut and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.
[…]This X-ray microscopy revealed that the fossils had features that multicellular embryos do not, and this led the researchers to the conclusion that the fossils were neither animals nor embryos but rather the reproductive spore bodies of single-celled ancestors of animals.
Professor Philip Donoghue said: “We were very surprised by our results — we’ve been convinced for so long that these fossils represented the embryos of the earliest animals — much of what has been written about the fossils for the last ten years is flat wrong. Our colleagues are not going to like the result.”
Professor Stefan Bengtson said: “These fossils force us to rethink our ideas of how animals learned to make large bodies out of cells.”
The trend is that there is no evolutionary explanation for the body plans that emerged in the Cambrian era. If you want to make the claim that “evolution did it”, then you have to produce the data today. Not speculations about the future. The data we have today says no to naturalism. The only way to affirm naturalistic explanations for the evidence we have is by faith. But rational people know that we need to minimize our leaps of faith, and go with the simplest and most reasonable explanation – an intelligence is the best explanation responsible for rapid generation of biological information.
I do think it’s important for Christians to focus more on scientific apologetics and to focus their academic careers in scientific fields. So often I look at Christian blogs, and I see way too much G. K. Chesterton, Francis Chan and other untestable, ineffective jibber-jabber. We need to bring the hard science, and stop making excuses about not being able to understand it because it’s too hard. It’s not too hard. Everyone can understand Lee Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator“. That’s more than enough for the average Christian on science apologetics. We all have to do our best to learn what works. You don’t want to be anti-science and pro-speculation like atheists are. I recommend reading Uncommon Descent and Evolution News every day for a start.
How do you present theism as a rational belief to a person who thinks that the progress of science has removed the need for God?
Canadian science writer Denyse O’Leary writes about the history of cosmology at Evolution News.
What help has materialism been in understanding the universe’s beginnings?
Many in cosmology have never made any secret of their dislike of the Big Bang, the generally accepted start to our universe first suggested by Belgian priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966).
On the face of it, that is odd. The theory accounts well enough for the evidence. Nothing ever completely accounts for all the evidence, of course, because evidence is always changing a bit. But the Big Bang has enabled accurate prediction.
In which case, its hostile reception might surprise you. British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) gave the theory its name in one of his papers — as a joke. Another noted astronomer, Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), exclaimed in 1933, “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it — except myself.” Why? Because “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”
One team of astrophysicists (1973) opined that it “involves a certain metaphysical aspect which may be either appealing or revolting.” Robert Jastrow (1925-2008), head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, initially remarked, “On both scientific and philosophical grounds, the concept of an eternal Universe seems more acceptable than the concept of a transient Universe that springs into being suddenly, and then fades slowly into darkness.” And Templeton Prize winner (2011) Martin Rees recalls his mentor Dennis Sciama’s dogged commitment to an eternal universe, no-Big Bang model:
For him, as for its inventors, it had a deep philosophical appeal — the universe existed, from everlasting to everlasting, in a uniquely self-consistent state. When conflicting evidence emerged, Sciama therefore sought a loophole (even an unlikely seeming one) rather as a defense lawyer clutches at any argument to rebut the prosecution case.
Evidence forced theorists to abandon their preferred eternal-universe model. From the mid 1940s, Hoyle attempted to disprove the theory he named. Until 1964, when his preferred theory, the Steady State, lost an evidence test.
Here is a quick summary of some of the experimental evidence that emerged in the last few decades that caused naturalists to abandon the eternal universe that they loved so much when they were younger.
The importance of having a narrative
Now I want to make a very, very important point about Christianity and the progress of science. And that point is that it is very important that Christians present the evidence in exactly the way that Denyse presented it in that article – in its historical context, featuring the conflict between naturalists and the experimental evidence.
All Christians should be familiar with the following basic pieces of evidence which fit the war between science and naturalism narrative:
The origin of the universe
The cosmic fine-tuning
The origin of life (biological information)
The sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla
The habitability/observability correlation
When you talk about these evidences as a Christian theist to non-Christians, you have to have cultivated a genuine interest in reconciling your beliefs with science. You have to accept that there are two books that reveal God’s character and attributes. The book of nature, and the book of Scripture. And you need to be flexible about getting these two books to fit together. The book of nature gives us natural theology (see Romans 1). It tells us that God is Creator and Designer. The book of Scripture tells us that God stepped into history as a man to save us by taking the punishment for our headlong rush away from God, which the Bible calls sin. Science is one way that humans can recover some of basic knowledge about God. Knowledge that is only possible because God created and designed the universe (and us) in such a way that we are capable of making discoveries, and that the universe is capable of being explored and understood.
It’s very important to present these five basic evidences to non-Christians in the historical context. And here is the story you must tell: “In the beginning, there was the naturalism, and the naturalism tried to argue from ignorance that God was not Creator and God was not Designer. And then came the science, and now people have to give up their naturalism in order to not be crazy and irrational”. That’s the narrative you use when talking to non-Christians about science.
In the beginning was the naturalism:
In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the universe was eternal
In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that a life-permitting universe was as likely as a life-prohibiting universe
In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the cell was a simple blob of jello that could spontaneously emerge in some warm pond
In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla would be explained by subsequent fossil discoveries
In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that there was nothing special about our galaxy, solar system, planet or moon
But then science progressed by doing experiments and making observations:
Scientists discovered redshift and the cosmic microwave background radiation (evidence for a cosmic beginning) and more!
Scientists discovered the fine-tuning of gravity and of the cosmological constant and more!
Scientists discovered protein sequencing and exposed the myth of “junk DNA” and more!
Scientists discovered an even shorter Cambrian explosion period and the absence of precursor fossils and more!
Scientists discovered galactic habitable zones and circumstellar habitable zones and more!
And now rational people – people who want to have true beliefs about reality – need to abandon a false religion (naturalism).
Now naturally, science is in a state of flux and things change. But you have to look at the trend of discoveries, and those trends are clearly going against naturalism, and in favor of Christian theism. No one is arguing for a deductive proof here, we are simply looking at the evidence we have today and proportioning our belief to the concrete evidence we have today. People who are guided by reason should not seek to construct a worldview by leveraging speculations about future discoveries and mere possibilities. We should instead believe what is more probable than not. That’s what a rational seeker of truth ought to do. Proportion belief to probabilities based on current, concrete knowledge.
Atheism, as a worldview, is not rooted in an honest assessment about what science tells us about reality. Atheism is rooted in a religion: naturalism. And the troubling thing we learn from looking at the history of science is that this religion of naturalism is insulated from correction from the progress of science. Nothing that science reveals about nature seems to be able to put a dent in the religion of naturalism, at least for most atheists.
It falls to us Christian theists, then, to hold them accountable for their abuse and misrepresentation of science. And that means telling the story of the progress of science accurately, and accurately calling out the religion of naturalism for what it is – a religion rooted in blind faith and ignorance that has been repeatedly and convincingly falsified by the progress of science in the modern era.
The Cambrian explosion refers to the sudden appearance of new body plans in the fossil record. ID proponents think that the period is between 5-10 million years at the most. Naturalists want to stretch out the period in which the body plans appear to tens of millions of years. The two sides can’t both be right. What’s the truth?
To establish the length of the most explosive period of innovation within the Cambrian explosion itself, Meyer cites the work of MIT geochronologist Samuel Bowring and his colleagues as well the work of another group led by Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin. The Bowring-led study showed that (in their words) “the main period of exponential diversification” within the Cambrian lasted “only 5-6 million years” (emphasis added). Meyer explains:
An analysis by MIT geochronologist Samuel Bowring has shown that the main pulse of Cambrian morphological innovation occurred in a sedimentary sequence spanning no more than 6 million years. Yet during this time representatives of at least sixteen completely novel phyla and about thirty classes first appeared in the rock record. In a more recent paper using a slightly different dating scheme, Douglas Erwin and colleagues similarly show that thirteen new phyla appear in a roughly 6-million-year window. (p. 73)
[…][T]ake a look first at the following figure that Bowring and his colleagues included in their definitive 1993 article, published in the journal Science. They use radiometric methods to date the different stages of the Cambrian period, including the crucial Tommotian and Atdabanian stages in which the greatest number of new animal phyla and classes arise. Note that the so-called Manykaian stage of the Cambrian period lasts about 10-14 million years. Note also that the main pulse of morphological innovation didn’t begin during this stage but rather during the Tommotian and Atdabanian — a period that they describe as taking between “5 to 10 million years,” and in a more detailed passage as taking about 5-6 million years.
[…]In the figure above, the Tommotian and Atdabanian stages of the Cambrian period together span only about 5 million years, starting at about 530 and ending about 525 million years ago. Bowring’s figure also depicts the total number of classes and orders present at any given time during the Cambrian period. The biggest increases in morphological innovation occur during the Tommotian and Atdabanian stages. Indeed, during this period the number of known orders nearly quadruples. Moreover, Bowring and his colleagues also make clear that this period corresponds to the main pulse of Cambrian morphological innovation as measured by the number of new phyla and classes that first appear. They note that, while a few groups of animals do arise in the earliest Manykaian stage of the Cambrian, the most rapid period of “exponential increase of diversification,” corresponding to the Tommotian and Atdabanian stages, “lasted only 5 to 6 m.y.”
You can see the figure they are reference in the Evolution News article.
Also, check out these clips that explain the Cambrian explosion:
The first clip features James Valentine, a professor of biology at the University of California who just co-authored a new book on the Cambrian explosion and is not a proponent of intelligent design.
The consensus among scientists regarding the period of time in which the new body plans appear is 5-6 million years. Biologically speaking, that’s a blink of an eye. You aren’t going that kind of complexity and innovation in such a short period of time any more than you can expect to win the lottery by buying 5-6 million tickets when the odds of winning are 1 in a googol (10 to the 100th power – 1, followed by 100 zeroes). You don’t have enough lottery tickets to make winning the lottery likely. Similarly, 5-6 million years is not enough time for naturalistic mechanisms to code brand new body plans from scratch. It would be like trying to research and write a Ph.D thesis during a single lunch hour. It’s just not enough time to produce the amount of information that’s required.