Do Evolutionists Have Extinctions Figured Out?
Stories of periodic mass extinctions millions of years ago sound like factual accounts, till you look at the details and ask some simple questions.
We read about them in textbooks. We see them on display in natural history museums. TV specials animate them: giant meteors hitting earth and wiping out nearly all life. Extinctions! They were a major factor in the evolution of life on earth, we are repeatedly told by the experts. In Cosmos 2.0, Neil deGrasse Tyson spent nearly a whole episode discussing them as he walked through a magnificent animated Hall of Extinction diorama. Some experts date the mass extinctions to three significant figures or more. They tell us what percentages of animals were wiped out, and what kinds. It all sounds very convincing.
Something happened, because most animals in the fossil record are no longer here. But how certain are the stories about when, why, and how they vanished? Are the causes of extinction known? What questions are still being asked? What about those dates? Extinctions have come up for discussion in several recent papers and science articles, particularly the well-known event that supposedly killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, often called the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) extinction. Let’s test the scientific hubris on this matter.
Whatever hit the dinosaurs didn’t affect a beaver-size mammal, because its teeth were found in New Mexico after the K-T extinction’s customary date. “Ancient Toothy Mammal Survived Dino Apocalypse” Live Science announces, with the BBC News joining the chorus. We find paleontologist Stephen Brusatte (U of Edinburgh) championing the tale of this survivor on The Conversation. Accompanied by artwork of a striped, alert animal looking something like a huge cat or raccoon, he warms up into storytelling mode, scaring the children with a tale fit for Halloween:
Sixty six million years ago the world changed in an instant. A huge asteroid, some ten kilometers in diameter, smashed into what is now Mexico. It arrived with the force of several million nuclear bombs, and unleashed a deadly cocktail of wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes.
It wasn’t a good time to be alive. Scientists estimate that about 75% of all species became extinct, most famously among them the dinosaurs. But some of our furry ancestors managed to make it through the apocalypse. With T. rex and Triceratops now out of the picture, gutsy little mammals had a new world to colonize.
One question that immediately pops up is why the new mammal, named Kimbetopsalis simmonsae, made it through the wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes alive while dinosaurs did not. Many dinosaurs were the same size as this ‘prehistoric beaver’ mammal. Were there no “gutsy little” dinosaurs? They lived in all kinds of habitats, including the cold of far northern Alaska (9/29/15). Any extinction theory needs to explain the remarkable selectivity of the asteroid.
K. simmonsae had good teeth. It belongs to an extinct group of mammals called multituberculates, possessing multiple cusps on its grinders. From the teeth, paleontologists infer it was a herbivore. What did it eat with all the plants burned up? Many dinosaurs also ate plants. Shush; we’re interrupting the story. Brusatte continues:
And Kimbetopsalis wasn’t some lonesome pioneer navigating the wreckage of a destroyed landscape, but one of many mammals flourishing in ancient New Mexico at this time. Mammals were clearly prospering in this brave new world, getting their first taste of evolutionary success and laying the foundation for a whole new era in which they, not dinosaurs, reigned supreme. This burst of evolution led to primates, which eventually led to us.
Kimbetopsalis is testament to how the history of life hinges on moments that can reset the course of evolution. T. rex and kin had ruled the Earth for over 100 million years. Then suddenly the world was thrown into chaos by rapid environmental change. Dinosaurs couldn’t cope and all of a sudden they were gone. Their size and strength couldn’t save them. Mammals fared better, and now one species of brainy ape occupies that dominant place in nature that was once held by the dinosaurs.
Oooh. The children ponder that we are the kings of the planet now, all descended from this kitty cat. Jason raises his wrists and growls, “I’ll be the new T. rex!” “I’m Triceratops!” Dylan says as they engage in a mock battle. Their imaginations supply the visuals of the teacher’s tale, till Heather raises her hand. “I’m confused,” she says. Weren’t some dinosaurs as small as this cat-like thing? Didn’t they eat plants, too?”
Those and other questions come to mind as we read more about the K-T extinction. Brusatte’s confidence in the asteroid scenario was recently called into question by a paper in Science Magazine by Renne et al., “State shift in Deccan volcanism at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, possibly induced by impact.” The story is changing. A long contest between the impact theory and the volcanism theory is apparently merging into a combo plate with two causes of extinction on opposite sides of the world: an impact that formed the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan, and volcanoes that formed the Deccan Traps in India. Were they related? That’s a new hypothesis: a “double whammy” did the dinosaurs in.
Sid Perkins says in Science that it’s not that simple. Argon dating of samples is leading the authors of the paper to postulate that the volcanoes began erupting 173,000 years before the impact, but then belched out lava faster after the impact. But then, the post-impact episodes were episodic, the new theory says. Most importantly, Perkins reveals big controversies between the scientists over what killed the dinosaurs.
How the asteroid impact half a world away from India bumped up lava production is a mystery, Renne says. He speculates that its effects rippled along the boundaries of nearby tectonic plates until they reached the volcanoes, expanding the size of subterranean magma chambers and thus increasing the volume of magma they could spew during any given eruption.
Not all scientists are convinced. “This is a wonderful piece of work, but I don’t think it will solve the problem” of what killed the dinosaurs, says Jay Melosh, an impact crater expert at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. According to Melosh, several studies have suggested that ecosystems largely remained intact until the time of impact. To him, that diminishes the effect of Deccan volcanism, which had been chugging along at that point for well over 100,000 years.
Brian Huber (Smithsonian) is unconvinced, too. Dinosaur fossils near the K-T boundary are rare, but phytoplankton are not, and they show no decrease from the period of volcanism. The double-whammy hypothesis is hurting, not helping:
“Ironically, by more closely linking the date of the impact with the increase in Deccan volcanism, Renne and his team may have made it more difficult to tease out the relative contribution of each phenomenon to the die-offs, Melosh says. “These findings will add greatly to the controversy of volcanism versus impact.”
New Scientist points to another problem: “other impact craters as big as the Chicxulub one have been found, but they don’t seem to match with extinction events.” The pro-volcano lobby thinks that lava flows were implicated in an earlier mass extinction, the Permian event that supposedly killed off 90% of species 252 million years ago.
That support, however, was knocked off equilibrium by a different paper in Science Magazine by Roopnarine and Angielczyk, “Community stability and selective extinction during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction.” Selective extinction is the operative phrase. These guys don’t even mention lava or impacts, but talk about the collapse of food webs during the mass extinction. Moreover, they believe that the current extinction (supposedly human-caused) is fundamentally different from the Permian mass extinction. Commenting on this paper in Science, paleontologist Charles Marshall wonders why food webs were stable during a two-phase extinction interval, which lasted ” ∼120,000 years or possibly much longer.” Do Roopnarine and Angielczyk solve the problem? “The study raises some fundamental questions,” he ends, leaving 4 unresolved issues for further research.
Each extinction event seems to have a different cause. Astrobiology Magazine ponders “Evidence that Earth’s first mass extinction was caused by critters, not catastrophe.” That first extinction was the loss of the Ediacarans, mysterious colonial organisms that vanished before the Cambrian explosion. The opening sentences are revealing:
In the popular mind, mass extinctions are associated with catastrophic events, like giant meteorite impacts and volcanic super-eruptions.
But the world’s first known mass extinction, which took place about 540 million years ago, now appears to have had a more subtle cause: evolution itself.
Here we see evolutionists using their theory to account for the origin and disappearance of species. How can that be? The “Garden of Ediacara,” we are told, lost out to a burst of evolutionary innovation:
After 60 million years, evolution gave birth to another major innovation: animals. All animals share the characteristics that they can move spontaneously and independently, at least during some point in their lives, and sustain themselves by eating other organisms or what they produce. Animals burst onto the scene in a frenzy of diversification that paleontologists have labeled the Cambrian explosion, a 25-million-year period when most of the modern animal families – vertebrates, molluscs, arthropods, annelids, sponges and jellyfish – came into being.
How one gets animals to “burst on the scene” by mutation and selection is not explained. This explanation raises bigger questions than the one it tries to solve.
“Life in the Aftermath of Extinctions” is Pincelli Hull’s offering in a special issue of Current Biology about the History of Life on Earth (16 articles, open access). The Yale geophysicist proposes “earth system succession” as a driver of evolution: “Earth system succession occurs when global environmental or biotic change, as occurs across extinction boundaries, pushes the biosphere and geosphere out of equilibrium.” Knock earth off its balance, she thinks, and evolution will take over from there. “For mass extinctions, earth system succession may drive the ever-changing ecological stage on which species evolve, restructuring ecosystems and setting long-term evolutionary trajectories as they do.”
The K-T controversy apparently didn’t reach her ears, because she repeats the children’s version: “the KPg mass extinction is tied to the impact of a massive bolide, likely an asteroid, into the Yucatan Peninsula — a geologically instantaneous event.” What, no lava? No matter; her scenarios are broad and sweeping, tetrapods invading and radiating onto the land, then returning to the water as whales and sea lions. Simple. “This discussion is not meant to demote mass extinctions as important drivers of the evolution of life, but rather to question how truly unique they are in their evolutionary effects.” Most species that went extinct, she says, did not die off in the big mass extinctions. But who really knows?
It is clear that mass extinctions have profound ecological and evolutionary effects through the mass death of taxa and by allowing state changes in macroevolutionary dynamics and ecosystem structure. In their aftermaths, a large number of evolutionary events also occur over a relatively short time as clades re-diversify, but how important (or distinct) these times are for macroevolution relative to the intervals between them is still an outstanding issue. Does the unique selective regime suggested by earth system succession in the aftermath really matter for macroevolution? This is a question for future studies to address.
This leads to a quizzical thought: “Macroevolution is shaped as much by those who survive as those who did not.” Can the dead tell the living how to evolve? Maybe she means that it opens up a new wild west where innovators can invade the graveyard. “As such, mass extinctions should not be considered as macroevolutionary point events, but rather as prolonged intervals of varying selection spanning the mass death and subsequent radiation of taxa.”
Her ending paragraph is remarkable for its hubris in spite of profound ignorance.
Beyond this, a general macroevolutionary understanding of the importance of mass extinctions relative to other events in earth history will require an understanding of why innovations and radiations characterize the intervals in between extinctions perhaps even more so than the aftermaths of the extinctions themselves. This is an exciting area of research as detailed paleontological, geochemical, geological and phylogenetic datasets are just now becoming available to compare between them. Only an estimated 4% of species extinctions in the last half billion years of life coincided with one of the Big Five mass extinctions, but most species that have ever existed are now dead and those losses have shaped the history of life. An integrative understanding of the role of extinction and speciation in macroevolution has yet to be achieved but is central to understanding the evolution of life.
Perhaps the best recent description of evolution is given by Mark Buchanan in Nature, where he swoons over a new book by Matt Ridley entitled, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. Entranced, he sees the big picture. Evolution is all, and all is evolution.
Evolution is an almost magical idea. First proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859 as an explanation for the manifold diversity of biology, the concept has turned out to be much more profound than its inventor could have imagined. Evolution is a general strategy, or class of strategies, for finding solutions to very difficult problems through iterative, combinatorial exploration in high-dimensional spaces of possibilities. Organisms evolve, and so do algorithms for image recognition or for financial trading.
So what do evolutionists really know about the history of life on earth? Not a whole lot, but keep the funding flowing and the experts employed as teachers of the unwashed masses. We’re much better off than ancient peoples, after all, who believed that old myth that a worldwide flood killed off the animals. Incidentally, a new chapter of the Epic of Gilgamesh surfaced, Live Science reports. The heroes appear to have the first known appreciation for ecology, in that they feel remorse for cutting down the forest, worrying that “reducing the forest to a wasteland is a bad thing to have done, and will upset the gods.” An expert says “this kind of ecological awareness is very rare in ancient poetry”.
Now we know. The Epic of Darwin destroys the ecology and recreates it over and over, like magic. Just don’t ask for details.
The whole Darwinian amusement park, with all its props teaching millions of years, five mass extinctions and bursts of magical innovation comes crashing down with one inconvenient truth: the bones of T. rex, Triceratops and many other dinosaur species, found in thick mass graves deposited by a flood, still contain their original soft tissue.
Those ancient clay tablets had parts of the truth hidden amid the embellishments and fanciful additions. The straight story of earth history was recorded by eyewitnesses who left records compiled by Moses. In straightforward narrative, we read, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened…. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died…. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.”
We’re given the exact day this happened. It’s a plausible account of mass extinction passed on by survivors. Why would a myth-maker tell you it was the 17th day of a particular month in an exact year of a man’s life? This has the ring of truth, not myth. Why would the record provide a plausible geological and atmospheric cause? There’s no fanciful tale of gods partying in the clouds, upset with people making noise and capriciously deciding to punish them with a flood. There is one omnipotent Creator grieving that the Earth was filled with violence, rewarding a righteous man and his family, giving the world a fresh start.
A global flood explains the fact of extinction and soft tissue in the dinosaur bones. The post-flood migration of peoples and languages fits what we see in the archaeological record. Genesis doesn’t require evolutionary “magic” inventing animals by blind chance. It explains the intelligent design of life, the free choice of man to choose sin, the consequences, and the purposes of a wise, just, loving God to bring restoration and salvation after mankind chose evil. Flood layers and fossils around the world bear silent witness to the watery catastrophe. Cultures around the world retain memories, often corrupted, of people saved in a floating vessel to repopulate the world after a global flood. Dragon legends around the world retain memories that dinosaurs were seen by humans recently, not millions of years before man evolved from some beaver-like mammal. If Occam’s Razor has any value, apply it here! One cause, not multiple magical events, explains it all.
Jesus confirmed the truth of Noah and the ark, as did Peter and the other Bible writers. The evidence is there. The record is there. If you agree the Darwinians are clueless, ever changing their story, filled with unanswered questions, prone to making up magical myths, you have an alternative that fits the evidence and makes sense.