January 21, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Impossible Fossil Soft Tissue Stuns Evolutionists

The only reason evolutionists think this soft tissue is 520 million years old is because they have to.

A fossil arthropod from the Cambrian explosion retains carbonized residues from its brain. How could that be? How could any original material remain after 520 million years? That’s the subject of a fascinating article by Karen Zusi in The Scientist, “To Retain a Brain: Exceptional neural fossil preservation helps answer questions about ancient arthropod evolution.”

The opening photo shows dark marks in the rock, with the caption, “This fossil of a Cambrian euarthropod [“true arthropod” or “good arthropod”], Fuxianhuia protensa, shows black traces of preserved neural tissue.” The story of its discovery 13 years ago woke up a sleeping paleontology community.

In 2002, Xiaoya Ma spent most of her days at Yunnan University in China freeing fossilized arthropods from their rocky tombs. Under a microscope, she scraped away sediment with a needle to reveal parts of the fossils that weren’t exposed during field collection. For one particular specimen, a wormlike arthropod ancestor called Paucipodia inermis, Ma saw some unusual shapes as she removed extraneous material from around the head—they resembled ganglia and nerve cords. “I didn’t initially realize what they were,” Ma says. “Slowly, slowly, it came to me that these might be brain structures.

Little did she know, Ma was about to galvanize the field of neuropaleontology—the study of fossilized brains and their evolutionary context. Researchers had published brief descriptions of fossilized neural tissue remnants as early as the 1970s, but these parenthetical notes flew under the radar, considered by most paleontologists to be curiosities at best. Ma published her manuscript describing the P. inermis fossil in 2004, and included only a small paragraph on the neural tissue (Lethaia, 37:235-44, 2004). But this time, it caught someone’s eye.

That eye belonged to Nicholas Strausfeld (U of Arizona), who was working on a book on brain evolution. He shared it with Gregory Edgecombe, a paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum. Since then, more examples surfaced. Ma and Strausfeld returned in 2012 to China where the original specimen was found, and behold:

On their last day there, Ma and Strausfeld tracked down the fossil. “I looked at it under the microscope and said, ‘Holy sh**, this is the perfect brain, and it’s wonderful,’” Strausfeld says.

The team published a new description of the F. protensa fossil in 2012, dedicating the entire manuscript to the specimen’s brain (Nature, 490:258-61, 2012). The F. protensa nervous system closely resembled that of modern mandibulates, which include insects and crustaceans; these similarities, the researchers claimed, suggested that the key characteristics of the group’s nervous system developed much earlier than previously thought.

(See 10/11/12 entry on this.) Most interesting was the initial reaction of evolutionary scientists to the discovery.

The paper incited the larger scientific community to comment on fossilized brains substantially for the first time—but not all of the attention was positive. A half hour after the paper was published, says Ma, she had already received an email from a few of her US colleagues. “They basically said, ‘It’s impossible for neural tissue to be preserved in fossils.’” She also received a mixed reception when presenting her results at conferences later in the year. “We got a lot of flak,” Strausfeld remembers.

Neural tissue fossilization was rare enough for skepticism to run rampant. “The reality of these collections is that 99 percent will not preserve the nervous system,” says Edgecombe. To get the nervous system to fossilize, animals have to be buried in a series of sediment layers that slowly compress their bodies. The sediment forces water out of the tissue layers and seals out oxygen, preventing most bacteria from decaying the organic material. If everything goes well, what remains is a dewatered, flattened specimen, with some soft tissues preserved as thin films of carbon.

Another evolutionist became convinced it was real, and found more Cambrian arthropods with preserved brains:

This growing body of literature prompted Javier Ortega-Hernández, a paleobiologist at the University Cambridge, to comb through collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the Royal Ontario Museum for fossilized neural tissue in 2014. “I thought their argument for identifying the brain, though I didn’t agree with every single interpretation, was convincing enough,” says Ortega-Hernández. “It really sold me on the idea that neural tissue could be preserved.” Ortega-Hernández published work in 2015 describing Helmetia expansa, a trilobite, and Odaraia alata, a crustacean, using fossilized brain tissue to clarify the evolution of their heads (Curr Biol, 25:1625-31, 2015).

Seeking more evidence, Ma returned in 2014 and found 10 more fossils with preserved brain soft tissue, even with optic nerves.

“We showed really solid evidence that multiple specimens preserved neural structures,” Ma says (Curr Biol, 25:2969-75, 2015). The group also conducted experiments to simulate fossilization in clay, demonstrating the mechanisms by which neural tissue can be retained (Philos Trans. R. Soc Lond Biol Sci, 370:doi:10.1098/rstb.2015.0286, 2015). They published both results last year—and Strausfeld thinks it’s made a difference. “People are beginning to accept that brains can fossilize.”

Ortega-Hernández agrees. “[Neural preservation] is exceptional and rare, but so are feathered dinosaurs,” he says. “There is no logical reason why it should be impossible.”

The evidence is in. What will evolutionists do with it?

Several themes are in play here that illuminate the bias of materialist evolutionary scientists. For one, the discoveries date back to the 1970s, over 40 years ago, but they flew “under the radar” because none of them were looking for soft tissue; it was outside their realm of possibility. Second, the fossils appear to have been buried by a flood, such that multiple layers instantly crushed the creatures and squeezed out any oxygen, preventing bacteria from entering the entombed animals—and yet since these strata are now exposed, they should have been subject to destructive powers for a significant amount of time. Third, when the evidence became conclusive, their first reaction was, “It’s impossible.” Emails started flooding Ma’s inbox within half an hour of publication, instructing her on what is possible and what is not, as if she should not believe her own eyes.

Fourth, and most interesting, is that evolutionists cannot see or tolerate a falsification of their worldview structure. To any rational scientist who understands the destructive powers of bioturbation, oxygen and bacteria to disrupt fossils, it should be impossible to believe that soft tissue can survive 520 million years! Even a few thousand years of preservation should seem astonishing. So what do they do with the evidence? They just incorporate the anomaly into their web of belief. It’s like the joke about the man who thought he was dead. “Do dead men bleed?” his doctor asked. “No, dead men do not bleed,” he replied—upon which, the doctor poked him with a needle and they both witnessed blood oozing out. “Well, I’ll be, the mentally ill patient remarked. “I guess dead men do bleed!” We could supplement this joke with a story about the patient subsequently going out and publishing a research paper on the hematological exudations of ambulatory dead people, which the consensus Big Science journals happily publish.

We see a similar reaction here. This evidence flies right in the face of everything these evolutionists believe. For one, the carbonized tissue really cannot be in the same place for hundreds of millions of years! That should be obvious. Second, the fossils show the same neural structure as in living arthropods, so where is the evolution in all that time? Reasonably from well-accepted principles of philosophy of science, Darwinian evolution and the geological column are falsified by even one of these specimens. But what do the evolutionists do? First, they ignore it. Then, they say it’s impossible. Finally, they get all excited about what these fossils can teach them about “the evolution of the arthropod brain.” You can see why normal people can get exasperated with “consensus science.”

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  • far2right says:

    Your tautology is showing, glaringly.

    Can brains last for 520 Ma?

    Well, obviously the arthropod is 520 Ma so, yes, brains do last 520 Ma.

    Evolution is unfalsifiable to the true believer. It is their religion.

    Evolution will be dead in my lifetime.

  • YEClol says:

    The vast majority of creationist claims about soft tissue in the fossil record is actually authigenic mineral replacement. That means the fine structure of the soft tissue was preserved by phosphatization, sulfurization, carbonization, pyritization, etc. Alternatively, creationists also breathlessly report the preservation of imprints or even stable organometallics that are indicative of past soft tissue.

    In the case of this neural tissue, the paper spells it out in plain detail. The tissue was first carbonized and the pyritized. It is not actual soft tissue, but authigenic mineral replacement.

    • Editor says:

      Not all of it was pyritized. If you read the paper, it says that there was a spectrum in the degree of pyritization from none to complete. Some of the remains were pure carbon with no pyritization or other forms of mineralization. That this was completely unexpected can be seen by the reactions of other scientists who immediately declared it impossible and refused to believe it. It should also be unexpected (from the long age view) that such delicate preservation that allowed the researchers to trace the neural pathways in detail would persist for half a billion years in a world of tectonics, catastrophic events and bioturbation.

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