[asa] Gerald Schroeder and ID-type arguments

From: David Campbell <pleuronaia@gmail.com>
Date: Fri Jan 04 2008 - 18:27:03 EST

A missionary friend forwarded
http://www.geraldschroeder.com/evolution.html to me. Schroeder has
some background in planetary science, but the paleontological claims
are consistently inaccurate. Overall, his stuff is a curious mix of
fine-tuning type arguments, selected gaps in evolution (though the
origin of life seems attributed to fine-tuning in some places whereas
others claim a need for intervention), physics, and exegesis,
advocating concordism of the sort generally unpopular on the list
(i.e., specific scientific interpretations of various passages rather
than claims of general correspondence).

I'm particularly curious about the ridiculous slander that Walcott
realized that the Burgess fauna posed major problems for evolution and
so hid everything away in drawers at the Smithsonian, where they were
rediscovered in 1985. Has this claim been made elsewhere?

The website claims Walcott collected 60,000 specimens when the actual
total was more like 65,000. That's probably the least erroneous claim
about Walcott. I've been in the collection areas at the Smithsonian
and it is true that something could be overlooked there for a while.
However, in reality Walcott did not hide the material, nor did he have
any reason to do so.

Walcott described and published on what he found (even though merely
collecting and filing 65,000 specimens takes a while), although he had
plenty of other projects and the idea of hiring a phalanx of graduate
students (suggested on the site) reflects an unrealistic concept of
paleontology funding. However, Walcott clearly did not realize how
unusual many of the fossils were. He classified them into known
conventional groups of organisms. Walcott published nine technical
papers on the material, and even had a bit in National Geographic. A
few workers followed up, either by collecting more material or by
restudying Walcott's material in the Smithsonian. It wasn't hidden
away and Walcott had no cognitive dissonance about it. Beginning in
the 1960's, improved techniques and careful study revealed that
significantly more information could be gotten out of the collected
fossils, and that details sometimes didn't match with conventional
categories. In the late 1960's, a major project began, initiated by
Harry Whittington. Extensive restudy since then, along with further
exploration and collection and the discovery of many additional sites
around the world, have led to our current picture of Cambrian
diversification. In reality Cambrian fossils were known from around
the world by the time that Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale
fossils, but these were generally the ordinary shells and skeletons
that fossilize easily. The exceptional preservation seen in the
Burgess Shale deposits had not previously been recognized. Now that
we know to look for it, it is in fact not too uncommon in the
Cambrian, so even exceptionally preserved Cambrian faunas are known
from many more places than the author mentions (my father's MS thesis,
in the early 1970's, dealt with such material in Pennsylvania, though
he did not have the information from the intensive Burgess Shale
studies that were just beginning then that would have enabled him to
identify more of the stray mystery bits).
    Moreover, Walcott had no way of knowing that these would suggest
anything particularly rapid. Radiometric dates were only an idea at
the time and not well-worked out until the mid-1900's, so Walcott was
free to assume that a long period of time lay between his faunas and
the origin of the groups. In fact, up until the mid-1990's it was
thought that the Cambrian Period lasted 70 million years, placing the
mid-Cambrian Burgess well after the initial diversification. It was
the combination of improved radiometric dates (better techniques plus
datable rocks found closer to the boundary) that placed the
Cambrian-Precambrian boundary at 542 million and the discovery of
exceptionally preserved lower Cambrian fossils in China that
demonstrated that the diversification was extremely rapid.
     Ironically, the distortion of the Cambrian radiation as a
purported challenge to evolution owes much to Gould's popularized
accounts (particularly Wonderful Life). The fiction that Walcott's
material was hidden until 1985 may reflect Gould's first popular
article on the Burgess being published in that year. Gould tended to
overestimate the disparity in the faunas, reflecting his view that it
was all random and that, if one could run it all again, a totally
different set of organisms might have come to dominate the Earth. In
turn, exaggerated claims about the diversity play a key role in the
Intelligent Design-affiliated claims that the Cambrian radiation poses
a problem for evolution. Of course, some of Gould's prize exhibits of
weirdos deserving new phyla were mysteries then but have since been
recognized as members of known phyla, so he had some excuse. A
classic example is Hallucigenia, which in light of some of the Chinese
fossils turned out to be initially reconstructed upside down and
backwards. No wonder Gould thought it looked strange.

Dr. David Campbell
425 Scientific Collections
University of Alabama
"I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
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Received on Fri Jan 4 18:29:56 2008

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