How Well Do Evolutionists Understand Extinctions?

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Posted on May 14, 2014 in Bible and Theology, Darwin and Evolution, Dating Methods, Dinosaurs, Fossils, Geology, Marine Biology, Philosophy of Science, Terrestrial Zoology

Earth history is littered with five mass extinctions, evolutionists claim.  How solid is their evidence?

Biblical creationists believe in one mass extinction: the Flood, just thousands of years ago.  Evolutionists spread death all along their belief in billions of years, but punctuate that continuum with major episodes of mass death.  Recent articles discuss three of “at least five” theorized extinctions in earth history, the Devonian (375 million years ago), the Permian (250 million years ago, which supposedly killed 90% of species), the Cretaceous (60 million years ago, that killed the dinosaurs and 80 to 85% of species), and Holocene extinctions, such as the Younger Dryas (12,800 years ago) that wiped out many North American mammals.  As these articles show, there are widely varied ideas about the causes of these extinctions, their extent, and their implications for evolution.  The subject provides observers a chance to evaluate the evidence.

Devonian Extinction

375 million years ago there was a massive decrease in marine diversity, evolutionists say.  A press release from the University of Ohio celebrates the life work of Alycia Stigal, a geologist at the university, who specializes in brachiopod fossils.  She speaks with typical evolutionary ethics: “There are always species going extinct and new species forming, but in the Earth’s past there have been a handful of events during which we lost a significant amount of diversity,” Stigall says. “Understanding what happened during these events may help us to be more proactive with our current conservation management plans.”

She describes a “burst of new species formation” 385 million years ago that ended in a “crash” 10 million years later, when species stopped diversifying.  Asked, “Is extinction to blame?” she responded that it was not extinction so much as a cessation of evolution.  “Generalists have much lower speciation rates than specialists,” is Stigal’s story. “So when the specialists were knocked out, speciation went down the drain.”  She claims a similar thing happened during the Ordovician, a hundred million years earlier—but that was caused by invasive species, she believes.  From there, the press release moralizes about what this all means for modern conservation efforts.

But how much of this story derives from the fossil evidence?  Assuming evolutionary dates, she sees sudden drops in diversification at certain periods.  Her answers, though provide no causal connection: “Somehow, the environment changed, and we see this massive loss of species diversity in the fossil record,” she says (see “Stuff Happens Law” in Darwin Dictionary).  Logically, “extinction” cannot be a cause of itself, nor can evolution, yet the article speaks of them as causes: “Even though extinction in the Late Devonian Period was higher than normal, it wasn’t the only cause for the decline. What was more important was a lack of new species formation.”

Permian Extinction

The causes of the so-called Permian Extinction event (252 million years ago in the evolutionary timeline) are still debated.  A new idea recently discussed is the possibility that microbes committed the dastardly act of wiping out 90% of multicellular animals.  “Pinpointing the culprit has been difficult,” Astrobiology Magazine says. “Now, a team of MIT researchers may have found enough evidence to convict the guilty parties — but you’ll need a microscope to see the killers.”  According to this new saga, methane belching microbes bloomed in the oceans, gassing everything to death (this might be called the microbe fart theory).  This new notion renders previous theories—volcanoes, asteroids, coal fires—as endangered species themselves.  But could methane-producing germs cause so much mass death?  Why didn’t animals quickly adapt by evolution?

The story relies on indirect evidence: carbon isotopes, nickel (presumably from volcanoes that went unusually active at the time), and the acquisition of rapid methane production ability by the microbe Methanosarcina, perhaps by lateral gene transfer from another microbe.  That begs the question, though, of why the other microbe didn’t cause the extinction earlier.  The story supplies an answer: volcanoes seeded the oceans with nickel that the microbes needed to make their methane.

Pleased with a new idea to run up the flagpole, other science news sites announced the microbe theory uncritically.  “A microbial feeding frenzy may have fueled the biggest extinction in earth history,” Live Science proclaimed, without realizing that this new idea renders everything the textbooks said up till now obsolete.  Nature News, calling it Archaegeddon, fell in line with “Methane-belching microbes may have been behind the ‘Great Dying’ … Researchers say that the organisms acquired the ability to consume previously untapped food sources and went into overdrive, causing catastrophic disruption to the climate.”  A little farther down, though, Nature considered some critiques.  “Even if methane was behind the Great Dying, it is still not clear what ultimately led to the demise of many species.”  And as to the supporting role for volcanoes, Douglas Erwin (Smithsonian) is not convinced: “he warns that the evidence is ‘hardly conclusive’.”

Earlier articles, such as this one on Live Science, claim that the die-off took 60,000 years (more than six times all recorded human history).  While that seems a long time, in evolutionary geology terms, it is “a blink of an eye.”  The story, based on a press release from MIT, does not “reveal the culprit” of the extinction, but just tries to narrow down its time interval in order to find the culprit.  MIT scientists base their timeline on radiometric dating of zircons in China.  The uncertainty is 48,000 years plus or minus, they say, but they feel they are “spiraling in toward the truth.”  This story, released a month before the microbe hypothesis, was still invoking volcanic eruptions as the culprit.  Volcanoes supposedly acidified the oceans and heated the climate: “With such a short extinction timeline, Bowring says it is possible that a single, catastrophic pulse of magmatic activity triggered an almost instantaneous collapse of all global ecosystems.”  Curiously, that’s what the creationists’ Flood hypothesis proposes, too—just more instantaneously, and not that long ago.  To many creation geologists, the opening of the “fountains of the great deep” on a single day (Genesis 7:11) pictures widespread volcanism, probably along (although not limited to) the mid-oceanic ridges.

Cretaceous Extinction

The extinction event most lay people think of from TV shows is the death of the dinosaurs by an asteroid.  Usually, the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula is portrayed as the smoking gun of the impact that supposedly occurred 65.5 million years ago.  Live Science says that the death of some 80% of species of land plants and animals was not due to the heat of impact, but to acid rain that resulted.  This theory presumably accounts for the low impact on ocean life that was not exposed to the toxic rain of sulfur trioxide as much.  Still, it’s been a mystery why some marine species, such as planktonic forams and marine reptiles, disappeared while others thrived.  It’s just as much a mystery why mammals, birds and many insects lived right through the extinction that eliminated all the dinosaurs, according to the evolutionary story.

Acid rain?  No; National Geographic says it was “impact winter” (that’s like nuclear winter, but with asteroid, not nuclear, bombs).  If you thought the Permian extinction was short, NG says the global winter performed its dastardly deeds in just a century or a few decades.  This idea, published in PNAS, comes from a study of ancient sediment surrounding the Chicxulub site which the scientists believe represent aerosols lofted into the stratosphere.  The authors of the paper believe “This impact winter was likely a major driver of mass extinction because of the resulting global decimation of marine and continental photosynthesis.”  No salad, no saw lad.  How, though, did pollinating insects and many other species that need plants get along?  The authors seem to have selective memory: “Our study reveals a combination of environmental and climatological events that is compatible with the pattern of extinction of many biological clades, including most species of planktic foraminifera and many coccolithophorids but also larger marine taxa like ammonites and marine reptiles, in addition to the dinosaurs and flying reptiles,” their paper ends.  Birds fly, too; why did they survive?  Fish swim, too; why did they survive?

Holocene Extinctions

Another, more recent extinction in the evolutionary timeline concerns the loss of many North American mammals during the “Younger Dryas” period 12,800 years ago.  Some researchers, apparently attracted to the popularity of the impact hypothesis for the Cretaceous extinction, conjured up an impact for this event, too.  They thought they had found geological evidence for dust from such an impact.  Not so, a new paper in PNAS says; it didn’t happen; “Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago.”  Either there were several impacts earlier on, or “far more likely, these are not extraterrestrial impact markers.”  Southern Methodist University stands by its expert, David Meltzer, lead author of the paper: “Comet theory false; doesn’t explain cold snap at the end of the Ice Age, Clovis changes or mass animal extinction.”  Some evolutionists prefer blaming early humans for the extinction.  According to Nature, though, the impact believers are not giving up, even after the “impact idea” has been “smacked down.”  Science Now seems to be voting for the smackdown, but also indicates the impact party is sticking to its tale.  “Radiocarbon dating is a perilous process,” one of its defenders said.

What about more recent die-offs in Australia?  In Live Science Matthew McDowell of Flinders University fingers humans as culprits.  When Europeans settled the continent, they radically changed the environment with their farms, ranches and land clearing practices.  They “introduced exotic livestock, pests and predators and generally made a mess of the place,” McDowell says; “They also hunted native mammals for their fur and meat, to get rid of ‘pests’ — and, sometimes, just for fun.”  One thing is clear, though; bigger extinctions millions of years ago cannot be blamed on humans who hadn’t evolved yet.  Fellow Aussies may not take a liking to one of their own calling their home a “mess”.

Extinction and Evolution

Extinction would appear at first glance to be the opposite of evolution, destroying what natural selection “created” by its blind watchmaker.  Many evolutionists, though, incorporate extinction as a backhanded creative force – either by clearing the ground for new innovations, or driving survivors to evolve to fill devastated ecological niches.  Charles Q. Choi sings this tune in Live Science: “Mass extinctions are often followed by an explosion in diversity, as survivors evolve to fill the niches or roles that dead groups of life once held in their communities,” he says with confidence.  “For instance, after the end-Permian die-off, the predecessors of modern burrowing clams, grazing and carnivorous snails, and predatory crustaceans emerged.”  The point in his article, though, is counterintuitive: his headline is, “Earth’s Greatest Extinction Hardly Changed Ocean Ways of Life.”  He quotes researchers who conclude from the record that few lifestyles were lost, and only one new one emerged.  So is extinction a driver of innovation, or not?  Choi swerves past this question into a discussion of “climate change” and warming.  Those evil humans: “Some scientists have warned that human-related impacts could cause a sixth major mass-extinction event.

Dinos up, dinos down: Richard Butler, writing for The Conversation, claims that the Permian extinction “drove the evolution” of dinosaurs.  “This extinction decimated many of the earlier reptile and amphibian groups, and may have created environmental space for dinosaurs and other new groups to evolve.”  This is a kind of Wild West theory of evolution: open up the space, and settlers will come fill it.  One envisions dinosaurs were waiting in the wings for the pre-dinosaurian reptiles to finish their act so they could perform on Darwin’s Got Talent.  “Why dinosaurs survived this extinction, but other groups of reptiles did not, is still poorly understood,” he admits.  “However, as palaeontologists understand more about dinosaur biology, we are beginning to recognise that unique features such as rapid growth rates or highly efficient bird-like lungs may have helped dinosaurs prosper as others died out.”  Two extinctions helped them prosper, he says, while the third did them in.  He didn’t explain why dinosaurs with bird-like lungs died, but birds with bird-like lungs survived.  Apparently extinction helps Darwin except when it doesn’t.  Butler ends with a politically-correct diatribe against humans: “As we head into another mass extinction, this time driven by humans, the fossil record, including that of dinosaurs, provides unique insights into the role of mass extinction in shaping and altering the course of evolutionary history.

If extinction shapes evolutionary history, what evolutionist can say man-caused global warming is wrong?  Why all the rush to stop it, if evolutionists are convinced another extinction is coming?  Extinction is good!  It brought us dinosaurs.  It brought us elephants, giraffes, and whales.  Extinction drives explosions in diversity.  Aren’t evolutionists concerned with the loss of biodiversity?  Then bring it on!  Global warming is what we need to replenish the earth and fill it.  Extinction is the great Savior of evolution.  They should be praying for an asteroid or supervolcano.  Since extinctions are selective, they can pray it will make the creationists extinct but allow the Darwinians to diversify, perhaps into the creatures in the Planet of the Apes.  That’s all they are, anyway; evolved apes.

It should be clear from these articles what a complete racket evolutionary theory is.  This is not science; it is storytelling looking for evidential props.  The millions of years came first when followers of Buffon, Hutton and Lyell were determined to rid geology of Moses.  Darwin, needing the time, made the moyboys his lifetime employees.  The play is the thing; the story must survive all evidence.  It’s nice when some evidence seems to fit (see “How Not to Work a Puzzle,” 5/01/08 commentary), but it’s not essential.  Alternative hypotheses (volcanoes, impacts, microbes) are allowed, too, as long as they do not threaten the ideology.  Millions of years becomes a vast warehouse to store their skeletons, and a huge auditorium in which to practice their storytelling skills.

You can even insert instantaneous events in this game.  But a global Flood?  That’s religion.  It must be expelled.

Until critics of Darwin recognize how evolutionists use millions of years as an escape hatch to avoid falsification, evolutionists will continue to get away with their game.  Brian Thomas at ICR may have found the proverbial Precambrian rabbit to bring the moyboys’ house down.








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