Monday, October 5, 2009

The Cambrian Explosion, the Discovery Institute, and Charles Doolittle Walcott (Part 2)

I intend to write a set of blog posts addressing the comments and thoughts on Darwin’s Dilemma from people who have seen the film. This is useful because people who do not have a background in the Cambrian Explosion or palaeontology are the people that the Discovery Institute is hoping to mislead. So what such people are taking away from the film, the messages that the Discovery Institute is hoping to instill, the questions raised in people’s minds, etc., are worth addressing.

Previous posts: The Cambrian Explosion, the Discovery Institute, and
James Valentine
Prof Paul Chien
Cambrian Ediacaran Extiction
Cambrian Diversity
Charles Doolittle Walcott

I wrote some initial comments on this topic here, but I’ve got a more detailed account of this particular piece and things make a little more sense. I’ll include the relevant sequence and add notes to expose the falsehood and deception.

Also, note that Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson (like Prof Paul Chien) have no background in palaeontology or palaeobiology, nor apparently in the history of geology.
Stephen Meyer:'Like Darwin, Walcott thought that the Cambrian explosion was an illusion. He was convinced that the fossils were there. They were just inaccessible to scientific discovery. And he expected that they would eventually be found someplace buried deep beneath the oceans.'
Wow, a correct summary by Stephen Meyer! Yes, Walcott thought that the Precambrian sediments with fossils would be found far out to sea for the reasons stated here. He named the period of non-deposition on the continents at this time the Lipalian.
Narration: 'For decades, Walcott’s hypothesis was widely accepted, but untestable. However, later in the 20th century, new technologies [ocean oil platform] led to empirical conclusions.'
Nice of Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson to pass the lie to the narrator rather than tell it themselves.

No, Walcott’s idea was not widely accepted at the time, let alone for decades. It was quietly forgotten:
He [walcott] suggested that a widespread unconformity at the top of the Proterozoic represented an interval oftime, the Lipalian, in which such an earlier fauna developed elsewhere, but was not recorded in any outcrop. The concept of naming a gap to represent a major missing segment of geologic time, did not result in any comment from the geologic community and the Lipalian Interval vanished (Yochelson 2006)
In the meantime people were finding Precambrian fossils right here on land, oblivious to the fact that they were supposed to be looking for them way out to sea:

Glaessner, M (1959) Precambrian Coelenterata from Australia, Africa and England. Nature. 183. P.1472-1473.

Ford T.D. (1958) Precambrian fossils from Charnwood Forest. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society. 31. P.211-217.
Stephen Meyer: ‘Once the oil companies started to drill offshore, they brought up what are called drill cores, and inside the core were hunks of sedimentary rock, and some of those rocks contained fossils. But none of them were made by animals that lived before the Cambrian explosion.’
This is an attempt to pretend that geologists were hoping to find Precambrian fossils in drill core. But the idea is nonsense, since it had been known for a long time that there were no Precambrian rocks out to sea and besides, people do not as a general rule drill Precambrian rocks for oil. Almost all offshore oil wells bottom out well before any Precambrian rocks are reached, so we wouldn’t expect to see Precambrian rocks, let alone fossils.

Besides, oil drilling is too close inshore to be useful. Real deep sea drilling didn’t take place until the 1980s, with the the Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling Ocean Drilling program.
Narration: ‘Since the 1960s, scientists have also used radioactive minerals and evidence of changes in the earth’s magnetic field to analyze and date undersea sediments. From extensive surveys they have created this digital map that defines the age of the sea floor.’
Correct, which is why geologists were not hanging out for drill core to find Precambrian fossils. They already knew that the sea floor was too young. The Discovery Institute can’t have it both ways – hanging out for drill core at the same time as knowing the sea floor was too young.
Stephen Meyer: ‘We now know that the oldest rocks on the bottom only date back to the Jurassic period, which means that on the standard geologic time scale, they’re hundreds of millions of years younger than the rocks below the Cambrian strata.’
"We now know"? "We NOW know"? Stephen, we knew 40 YEARS ago! Again, the Discovery Institute can’t have it both ways – hanging out for drill core at the same time as knowing the sea floor was too young.
Paul Nelson: ‘If you are looking for the ancestors to the Cambrian groups, the last place you would expect to find them is out somewhere on the sea floor. Those rocks are much too young.’
Well gee Paul, we’ve known that for 40 years, and have had Precambrian fossils on land for over 50 years, but thanks for pointing that out.

OK, it is clear now that the Discovery Institute is trying to lay the groundwork for Intelligent Design creationism by trying to paint geologists as holding onto Walcott’s Lipalian idea as the only hope to explain the lack of Precambrian fossils.

Their version of events does not tally with reality, but then this is the Discovery Institute.

Yochelson, E.L. (2006) The Lipalian interval: A forgotten, novel concept in the geologic column. Earth Science History. 26(2), p.251-269


  1. Chris,

    Good summaries! Forget the stupid Discovery Institure and write your own book!

  2. Good grief! Plate tectonics guys, plate tectonics. Most, if not all, of the Cambrian ocean floor would have long been subducted into the mantle. Maybe the Disco-toot needs to hire a geologist.

  3. In Walcott times (or a little before) it was commonly accepted that the shoreline used to vary considerably throughout geological times. It was one of the argument against the continental drift introduced by Wegener : geologists used to claim per example that the matches between african and south american coast line was just by chance.

    That's why it was a reasonable proposal, as you said, to say that precambrian fossils might be find offshore, considering the scientific knowledge they had on that times.

    Anyway, its a pity to see all the Discovery Institute lies, deformations and disinformations.

    What you say is correct, but do you really believe that just one little piece of good science can reach their brains (and stay there)?

    I don't. They're too obsessed with the idea that parts of the only bible shouldn't be read literally... It's just like they'd stop believing in god if the whole bible wasn't true. In fact, they lack faith, and that's the irony of creationism and so-called "intelligent design".


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