Missing the point on missing links
The Paradox of Creationism
by Rikki Hall
Zeno’s Paradox says a runner can never finish a race because he first must go halfway, then half of what’s left and so on. Perhaps the solution is to never know where you are going so you’ll never know if you’re half way.
It’s the same with evolution and Creationism. No matter how many missing links we discover along the convoluted path from ape to human, there is always another missing link. Sometimes Creationists do seem like they are perpetually halfway there. History is imperfect, and it is a different beast than science. Science is a tool we use to understand history. Questions about origins—the origin of life or the origin of flight or of man—are historical questions, and if the answers are sketchy or inadequate, it is not a problem with the theory of evolution, but with the fossil record.
Fossilization is an unlikely fate. If an animal is not eaten by predators or scavengers, microbes will consume it, so most things leave no coherent trace of their body when they die. Only in exceptional circumstances, when the creature dies in a flood or gets trapped in tree sap or tar, for example, can the slow processes of fossilization compete with decay.
Fossil worms are almost non-existent because worms have no durable parts like bones or shells. Their scarcity in the fossil record obscures a billion years of history. Most early animals were soft-bodied and may have never fossilized. If they did fossilize, the rock would also need to survive hundreds of millions of years of weathering and earthquakes and the like.
The historical record of creatures like worms and jellyfish is so sparse as to be almost nothing but missing links, but this does not mean these creatures did not evolve. As much as Creationists might want to foist that illogic on us, missing links are a weakness of history, not science. If someone is adequately determined to never get where they are going, there are plenty of stopping points along the way. Missing links are just an excuse Creationists use to miss the point.
Though direct evidence of ancient soft-bodied creatures is rare, life leaves its signature in indirect ways, anomalous concentrations of carbon or phosphorus, for example. Paleontologists and geologists have devised ingenious ways to piece together clues about the distant past. Through such evidence we know cells existed four billion years ago and seas were productive for the last billion years, but we know only a little about the soft and fragile life forms that gave rise to creatures like clams and crabs and fish that are much more likely to leave traces in the fossil record.
Creationists seize on all this missing information as proof that there is no way to get from jellyfish to fish, but they are embracing a paradox. Science embraces the real world, the world where we can go places without getting hung up at every halfway point. In science, every answer generates another question, and a scientist never considers her journey complete. Since they don’t know where the journey ends, they never know whether they are halfway, so they just keep pressing ahead.
With evolution, scientists know the journey is not finished. We know far more about how living things reproduce and why there is so much variation within and among species than we did in Darwin’s time, but we don’t know everything. There is still plenty to learn about macroevolution and gene expression and ordering species into natural groups. The beauty of evolution, however, is that the core concept can be understood without knowing all the details about nucleic acids and transcription enzymes and ion channels.
Darwin knew none of those details because science did not arrive at those milestones until after his death. He did stumble on an exquisitely simple idea: Replication combined with variation naturally selects those variants best able to reproduce. Success breeds success. Through generations, plants and animals will gradually become better adapted and better designed through this fundamental process we call evolution.
Much like science follows the evidence wherever it might lead, evolution follows reproduction from one generation to the next. Evolution does not have goals. It gets where it gets not on purpose, but by changing and diversifying and persisting where that natural exploration proves fruitful. Even when you don’t know where you are going, you can find interesting places.
Creationists are like Zeno’s runner, never able to finish his race, but they are not trapped by mathematics. It is their own obstinance and refusal to distinguish between history and science that keeps them perpetually on the run from evolution and yet, paradoxically, going nowhere.
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.