Abrupt Appearance of Biological Forms in the Fossil Record

“The rapid development as far as we can judge of all the higher plants within recent geological times is an abominable mystery.” (Darwin, and Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin, London, 1903, pp. 20-21.) “Although this abominable mystery is often cited today, and sometimes declared solved, few realize that the mystery is deeper today than it was for Darwin.” (Buggs, R.J.A., “The Deepening of Darwin’s Abominable Mystery,” Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2017, p. 169.)

[On the abrupt appearance of both cartilaginous and bony fish] “This divergence occurred in the Palaeozoic era, at least 423 million years ago (Ma), leaving a vast temporal and evolutionary gulf between modern lineages, with ample time for new innovations to overwrite primitive conditions. (Brazeau, M., Friedman, M., “The Origin and Early Phylogenetic History of Jawed Vertebrates,” Nature 520, 2015, pp. 490–497.)

“Since the time of Darwin it has been known that fossils of animal life seem to appear suddenly in the fossil record.” (Ward, Peter D., Out of Thin Air, 2006, p. 51.)

“Blind acceptance of the fossil record can lead to erroneous conclusions, but ignoring it can be more serious. The fossil evidence indirectly but overwhelming supports the hypothesis that birds suffered a late Cretaceous demise, with a probable bottleneck of a few morphological forms (possibly paleognaths and ‘transitional shorebirds’) that produced a reorganization, diversification and explosive Tertiary radiation…” (Feduccia, Alan, “‘Big Bang’ for Tertiary Birds?,” TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution 18:4, April 2003, p. 174.)

“The earliest turtles had teeth and a reduced shell, but were otherwise similar to those of today.” (Hickman, et. al., Integrated Principles of Zoology, 2014, p. 561.) “The early evolution of turtles continues to be a contentious issue in vertebrate paleontology.” (Li, C., Fraser, N.C., Rieppel, O., and Wu, X.C., A Triassic Stem Turtle with an Edentulous Beak, Nature 560:476, 2018.) “[S]cientists who study the evolution of these animals have a running joke: turtles might as well have come from space.” (Black, R., “How the Turtle Got its Shell: Evolutionary Puzzle Finally Cracked,” New Scientist, May 2–8 2020, pp. 37.)

“Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution. The cases in point include the origin of complex RNA molecules and protein folds; major groups of viruses; archaea and bacteria, and the principal lineages within each of these prokaryotic domains; eukaryotic supergroups; and animal phyla. In each of these pivotal nexuses in life’s history, the principal “types” seem to appear rapidly and fully equipped with the signature features of the respective new level of biological organization. No intermediate “grades” or intermediate forms between different types are detectable. Usually, this pattern is attributed to cladogenesis compressed in time, combined with the inevitable erosion of the phylogenetic signal. … There seems to be a striking commonality between all major transitions in the evolution of life. In each new class of biological objects, the principal types emerge abruptly, and intermediate grades (e.g., intermediates between the precellular stage of evolution and prokaryotic cells or between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells), typically, cannot be identified.” (Koonin, Eugene, “The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution,” Biology Direct, 2007, 2:21.)

“Darwin used the only illustration in the first edition of The Origin of Species to explain his hypothesis that the patterns of evolution over hundreds of millions of generations were the same as those at the level of populations and species. In fact, they are clearly distinct in all taxonomic groups. Evolution at the level of populations and species might, in some cases, appear as nearly continuous change accompanied by divergence to occupy much of the available morphospace. However, this is certainly not true for long-term, large-scale evolution, such as that of the metazoan phyla, which include most of the taxa that formed the basis for the evolutionary synthesis. The most striking features of large-scale evolution are the extremely rapid divergence of lineages near the time of their origin, followed by long periods in which basic body plans and ways of life are retained. What is missing are the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin, and the continual divergence of major lineages into the morphospace between distinct adaptive types. The most conspicuous event in metazoan evolution was the dramatic origin of major new structures and body plans documented by the Cambrian explosion. Until 530 million years ago, multicellular animals consisted primarily of simple, soft-bodied forms, most of which have been identified from the fossil record as cnidarians and sponges. Then, within less then 10 million years, almost all of the advanced phyla appeared, including echinoderms, chordates, annelids, brachiopods, molluscs and a host of arthropods. The extreme speed of anatomical change and adaptive radiation during this brief time period requires explanations that go beyond those proposed for the evolution of species within the modern biota.” (Carroll, Robert L. “Towards a New Evolutionary Synthesis,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 15, 2000, pp. 27-32.)

“No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It seems never to happen. Assiduous collecting up cliff faces yields zigzags, minor oscillations, and the very occasional slight accumulation of changeover millions of years, at a rate too slow to really account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere! Evolution cannot forever be going on someplace else. Yet that’s how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution.” (Eldredge, Niles, Reinventing Darwin: The Great Evolutionary Debate, 1996, p.95.)

“The very first fishes undoubtedly arose from invertebrate protochordates, perhaps a urochordate or cephalochordate. However, the first fishes left no fossil record and their form and relationships are a mystery.” (Hickman, C.P., L.S. Roberts and A. Larson, Integrated Principles of Zoology, 2001, p. 151.)

“We are still in the dark about the origin of most major groups of organisms. They appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus—full blown and raring to go, in contradiction to Darwin’s depiction of evolution as resulting from the gradual accumulation of countless infinitesimally minute variations.” (Schwartz, Jeffrey H., Sudden Origins, 1999, p. 3.)

“For use in understanding the evolution of vertebrate flight, the early record of pterosaurs and bats is disappointing: Their most primitive representatives are fully transformed as capable fliers.” (Sereno, Paul C., “The Evolution of Dinosaurs, Science 284(5423), June 25, 1999, p. 2143.)

“Each species of mammal-like reptile that has been found appears suddenly in the fossil record and is not preceded by the species that is directly ancestral to it. It disappears some time later, equally abruptly, without leaving a directly descended species although we usually find that it has been replaced by some new, related species.” (Kemp, Tom, “The Reptiles that Became Mammals,” New Scientist, Vol. 92, 1982, p.583.)

“At the core of punctuated equilibria lies an empirical observation: once evolved, species tend to remain remarkably stable, recognizable entities for millions of years. The observation is by no means new, nearly every paleontologist who reviewed Darwin’s Origin of Species pointed to his evasion of this salient feature of the fossil record. But stasis was conveniently dropped as a feature of life’s history to he reckoned with in evolutionary biology.” (Eldredge, Niles, Time Frames: The Rethinking of Darwinian Evolution and the Theory of Punctuated Equilibria, 1985, p.188.)

“It is, indeed, a very curious state of affairs, I think, that paleontologists have been insisting that their record is consistent with slow, steady, gradual evolution where I think that privately, they’ve known for over a hundred years that such is not the case. …It’s the only reason why they can correlate rocks with their fossils, for instance. …They’ve ignored the question completely.” (Eldredge, Niles, “Did Darwin Get It Wrong?” Nova (November 1, 1981), 22 p. 6.)

“The record certainly did not reveal gradual transformations of structure in the course of time. On the contrary, it showed that species generally remained constant throughout their history and were replaced quite suddenly by significantly different forms. New types or classes seemed to appear fully formed, with no sign of an evolutionary trend by which they could have emerged from an earlier type.” (Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea, 1984, p. 187.)

Anti-creationist Arthur Strahler of Columbia University wrote, “This is one count in the creationists’ charge that can only evoke in unison from paleontologists a plea of nolo contendere [no contest].” (Arthur N. Strahler, Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy, 1987, pp. 408-409.)

“Paleontologists have paid an enormous price for Darwin’s argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we almost never see the very process we profess to study. …The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless. 2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and ‘fully formed.’” (Gould, Stephen J. The Panda’s Thumb, 1980, p. 181-182.)

“Paleontologists are traditionally famous (or infamous) for reconstructing whole animals from the debris of death. Mostly they cheat. …If any event in life’s history resembles man’s creation myths, it is this sudden diversification of marine life when multicellular organisms took over as the dominant actors in ecology and evolution. Baffling (and embarrassing) to Darwin, this event still dazzles us and stands as a major biological revolution on a par with the invention of self-replication and the origin of the eukaryotic cell. The animal phyla emerged out of the Precambrian mists with most of the attributes of their modern descendants.” (Bengtson, Stefan, “The Solution to a Jigsaw Puzzle,” Nature, vol. 345 (June 28, 1990), pp. 765-766.)

“Beginning at the base of the Cambrian period and extending for about 10 million years, all the major groups of skeletonized invertebrates made their first appearance in the most spectacular rise in diversity ever recorded on our planet.” (Salvador E. Luria, Stephen Jay Gould, Sam Singer, A View of Life, 1981, p.649.)

“And it has been the paleontologist my own breed who have been most responsible for letting ideas dominate reality: …. We paleontologist have said that the history of life supports that interpretation [gradual adaptive change], all the while knowing that it does not.” (Niles Eldredge, Columbia Univ., American Museum Of Natural History, Time Frames, 1986, p.144.)

“Paleontologists had long been aware of a seeming contradiction between Darwin’s post ulate of gradualism…and the actual findings of paleontology. Following phyletic lines through time seemed to reveal only minimal gradual changes but no clear evidence for any change of a species into a different genus or for the gradual origin of an evolutionary novelty. Anything truly novel always seemed to appear quite abruptly in the fossil record.” (Mayr, E. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought, 1991, p. 138.)

“Stepping way back and looking at too broad a scale, one might discern some sort of progress in life’s history. …But the pattern dissolves upon close inspection. Most structural complexity entered in a grand burst at the Cambrian explosion, and the history of Phanerozoic life since then has largely been a tale of endless variation upon a set Bauplane. We may discern a few ‘vectors’ of directional change – thickening and ornamentation of shells…–but these are scarcely the stuff of progress in its usual sense. …I believe our inability to find any clear vector of fitfully accumulating progress…represents our greatest dilemma for a study of pattern in life’s history.” (Gould, Stephen J., “The Paradox of the First Tier: an Agenda for Paleobiology,” Paleobiology, 1985, p. 3.)

“Perhaps we should not be surprised that vertebrate paleontologists did not support the prevailing view of slow, progressive evolution but tended to elaborate theories involving saltation, orthogenesis, or other vitalistic hypotheses. Most of the evidence provided by the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic interpretation, as pointed out by Eldridge and Gould…” (Carroll, Robert, Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, W. H. Freeman and Co., 1988, p 4.)

“The fossil record is much less incomplete than is generally accepted.” (Paul, C.R.C, “The Adequacy of the Fossil Record,” 1982, p. 75.)

“Enthusiastic paleontologists in several countries have claimed pieces of this missing record, but the claims have all been disputed and in any case do not provide real connections. That brings me to the second most surprising feature of the fossil record…the abruptness of some of the major changes in the history of life.” (Ager, D., The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record, 1981, p. 20.)

“The fossil record had caused Darwin more grief than joy. Nothing distressed him more than the Cambrian explosion, the coincident appearance of almost all complex organic designs…” (Gould, Stephen J., The Panda’s Thumb, 1980, p. 238-239.)

“Most families, orders, classes, and phyla appear rather suddenly in the fossil record, often without anatomically intermediate forms smoothly interlinking evolutionarily derived descendant taxa with their presumed ancestors.” (Eldredge, Niles, Macro-Evolutionary Dynamics: Species, Niches, and Adaptive Peaks, 1989, p. 22.)

“If evolution could produce ten new Cambrian phyla and then wipe them out just as quickly, then what about the surviving Cambrian groups? Why should they have had a long and honorable Pre-cambrian pedigree? Why should they not have originated just before the Cambrian, as the fossil record, read literally, seems to indicate, and as the fast-transition theory proposes? This argument, of course, is a death knell for the artifact theory.” (Gould, Stephen J., Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, 1989, p. 273.)

“…one of the most striking and potentially embarrassing features of the fossil record. The majority of major groups appear suddenly in the rocks, with virtually no evidence of transition from their ancestors.” (Futuyma, D., Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution, 1983, p. 82.)

“Modern multicellular animals make their first uncontested appearance in the fossil record some 570 million years ago – and with a bang, not a protracted crescendo. This ‘Cambrian explosion’ marks the advent (at least into direct evidence) of virtually all major groups of modern animals – and all within the minuscule span, geologically speaking, of a few million years.” (Gould, Stephen J.,Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, 1989, p. 23-24.)

“All through the fossil record, groups – both large and small – abruptly appear and disappear. …The earliest phase of rapid change usually is undiscovered, and must be inferred by comparison with its probable relatives.” (Newell, N. D., Creation and Evolution: Myth or Reality, 1984, p. 10.)

“The gaps in the record are real, however. The absence of any record of any important branching is quite phenomenal. Species are usually static, or nearly so, for long periods, species seldom and genera never show evolution into new species or genera but replacement or one by another, and change is more or less abrupt.” (Wesson, R., Beyond Natural Selection, 1991, p. 45.)

“The point emerges that if we examine the fossil record in detail, whether at the level of orders or of species, we find – over and over again – not gradual evolution, but the sudden explosion of one group at the expense of another.” (Ager, Derek V., “The Nature of the Fossil Record,” Proceedings of the British Geological Association, Vol. 87, 1976, p. 133.)

“A major problem in proving the theory has been the fossil record; the imprints of vanished species preserved in the Earth’s geological formations. This record has never revealed traces of Darwin’s hypothetical intermediate variants – instead species appear and disappear abruptly, and this anomaly has fueled the creationist argument that each species was created by God.” (Czarnecki, Mark, “The Revival of the Creationist Crusade,” MacLean’s, January 19, 1981, p. 56.)

“No truly satisfactory explanation has yet been given for the origins of segmentation and the coelom, although the subject has stimulated much speculation and debate.” (Hickman, et. al., Integrated Principles of Zoology, 2011, p. 383.)