Raup on evolution

From: Arthur V. Chadwick (chadwicka@swau.edu)
Date: Thu Jan 13 2000 - 22:51:31 EST

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    Evolution and the Fossil Record

    As the evolution-creation debate heats up, the amount of misinformation
    passed back and forth increases. An important example of general interest
    is contained in the letter by Robert Root-Bernstein 26 June, p. 1446). In
    discussing the power of evolutionary theory, Root-Bernstein says: "In the
    absence of evolutionary theories, any chronological ordering of the fossil
    record would seem to be a possibility, and no means would exist to choose
    one order over another." This statement expresses the common
    misconception that paleontologists arrange fossils in a theoretically
    reasonable order and then use this order to construct a chronology. In fact,
    no evolutionary theory at all is required to use fossils for geochronology.
    The best evidence is that the geological time scale in its modern form was
    fully developed by about 1840-before Darwin's Origin of Species. The time
    scale based on fossils was built by geologists who were creationists. Since
    1840, many details have been filled in, but the basic sequence has remained

    So, the geological time scale and the basic facts of biological change over
    time are totally independent of evolutionary theory. It follows that the
    documentation of evolution does not depend on Darwinian theory or any
    other theory. Darwinian theory is just one of several biological mechanisms
    proposed to explain the evolution we observe to have happened.

    This is part of a more general problem. A large number of well-trained
    scientists outside of evolutionary biology and paleontology have
    unfortunately gotten the idea that the fossil record is far more Darwinian
    than it is. This probably comes from the oversimplification inevitable in
    secondary sources: low-level textbooks semipopular articles, and so on.
    Also, there is probably some wishful thinking involved. In the years after
    Darwin, his advocates hoped to find predictable progressions. In general.
    these have not been found-yet the optimism has died hard and some pure
    fantasy has crept into textbooks. This is illustrated by other statements in
    the Root-Bernstein letter, such as: "Evolution postdicts certain immutable
    trends of progressive change that can be falsified." This is simply not the
    case! In the fossil record, we are faced with many sequences of change:
    modifications over time from A to B to C to D can be documented and a
    plausible Darwinian interpretation can often be made after seeing the
    sequence. But the predictive (or postdictive) power of theory in these cases
    is almost nil. The problem faced by the evolutionary paleontologist is not
    unlike that of the stock market analyst. Both the stock market record and
    the fossil record are complex Markovian time series wherein causal
    interpretations after the fact are often possible but the predictive value of
    theory is weak to nonexistent. In fact, the technical market analyst probably
    has a better record than the paleontologist. This does not disqualify
    evolutionary theory; it simply illustrates the difficulty of applying any
    statistical theory to actual cases.

    One of the ironies of the evolution-creation debate is that the creationists
    have accepted the mistaken notion that the fossil record shows a detailed
    and orderly progression and they have gone to great lengths to
    accommodate this "fact" in their Flood geology.

    Field Museum of Natural History,
    Chicago, Illinois 60605

    17 JULY 1981 289

    (Raup D.M., "Evolution and the Fossil Record", Science, Vol. 213, No.
    4505, 17 July 1981, p289)


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