Read Part 1
In part 1, I argued that Francis Collins' warnings against any "God of the gaps" argument are overdone. If God has ever acted in supernatural ways, there would be gaps. Also, secular science has it's own imaginary phenomena to explain gaps. This time we examine his work on the fossil record.
Macroevolution and the fossil record
Collins' rejection of the distinction between macro and microevolution (p. 132) is based on an overly narrow definition of microevolution. I agree that Christians often err here, by claiming that no new species have appeared through evolution. The evidence is good that many species are the result of evolution. I have always held that in the expression, "after its own kind," (Gen. 1) the word 'kind' is not defined. It could mean species, genus, family, or even phyla or something larger. I also agree with Collins that the idea of macroevolution has no clear definition and is therefore a somewhat vague concept. But I think it is still useful for declaring that evolution has some limits in what it can explain. "Reproducing after its own kind" has to mean something. The rules of exegesis say you can't just ignore language that doesn't fit your theory. If the amoeba gave rise to humans, then what does "reproducing after its own kind" mean? The phrase seems to be saying there were limits within which organisms reproduce. If not this, what does it mean?
Collins never adequately addresses the larger question of jumps in the fossil record. Even the discovery of some possible transitional forms (where formerly there were none) cannot be reasonably extrapolated to mean that all missing transitions will eventually be found, or that they once existed, but were never preserved in the fossil record. This is a faith position without observable backing. It fills the gaps with imagined fossils that have never actually been seen. It also fails to speak to the stability of species in the fossil record, where most species appear relatively suddenly, stay very stable throughout their history (except for minor changes like size) and then often disappear. This picture does not fit Darwinian assumptions. Think of the famous case of the horse. The changes seen in the fossil record are basically a change in size, which is qualitatively different than the kind of changes one would need to see in order to demonstrate macro-evolution.
Collins' proposition (that transitions may have occurred during periods when fossils were not deposited) means that such suspensions in fossil deposition would have to happen worldwide even in very different sedimentary strata, deposited in different ways. For instance, some are deposited by oceans, some by rivers, and some fossils come from animals trapped in tar pits or amber, to name a few. These would all have to suspend fossil making for many millions of years at the same time in order to explain why the discontinuous layers we have are really continuous and relatively constant in rate of change, as predicted by Darwin. Why would this happen? I think this is a huge leap of faith, and even atheist paleontologists like Gould use this same data to back up the need for punctuated equilibrium (which is leap of faith in itself).
The last research I did on this about three years ago indicated that only a handful of debatable links have been found, and that thousands of gaps remain as striking as ever. Robert Carroll observes recently in Nature, "What is missing are the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin, and the continual divergence of major lineages into the morphospace between distinct adaptive types." (Carroll, Robert L., "Towards a new evolutionary synthesis," in Trends in Evolution and Ecology 15(1):27-32, 2000, p. 27.) Even in cases where possible transition fossils have been discovered, they are usually far distant from either the parent line, or the line they are supposed to explain, and authorities disagree on whether many of them are really transitional forms at all.
His efforts to argue that fossils are rare and the record extremely fragmentary is unconvincing. At every geological period, millions and even billions of fossils survive. The problem (not acknowledged or discussed by Collins, except in the case of the Cambrian explosion) is that strata containing abundant fossil remains from entire new orders lie immediately adjacent to strata containing none of these organisms or anything similar. This widespread phenomenon remains a major problem for Darwinian theorists. Collins' general statements about the difficulty of making fossils did nothing to answer this problem. Of course only a minority of organisms are ever preserved in fossil form. But as anyone who has studied fossils knows, this minority still usually numbers in the millions for most categories.
I believe his claim that the former view (that there were huge gaps all over the place) has now been refuted, is wrong. Authorities writing recently still argue that most significant gaps remain. The sudden appearance of new phyla, genera, and families is remarkable today as it has been. The only place I have seen such sweeping claims that the problems with fossils are not in the past is on atheist websites with low credibility.
Collins does not demonstrate careful study of the fossil record (geology and paleontology are not his area of expertise), and this is a serious weakness in his argument. Fossils remain the only truly objective, empirical data we have for what actually happened. Mathematical extrapolations from genetics does not stand, in my view, at the same level of credibility as the actual history as seen in the fossil record.
I admit that an explanation could conceivably be found one day for the discontinuities in the fossil record. But I believe the evidence today still conforms to a picture of periodic dramatic changes in plant and animal populations, and these are used to date sedimentary strata, because other strata are missing these forms. This picture is not easily explained by pure natural selection, and could indeed represent creative episodes where God intervened.
Next time: Collins' work on interpreting DNA similarities and his biblical exegesis.