Punching bags

Whenever creationists get hold of a legitimate scientific paper, I groan a little bit for at least two reasons. First, I know whatever they have to say, they’re going to mangle the science. We saw that with Jack Hudson last year (and, actually on literally every post about science he has ever made). And, of course, we also saw that with all the other creationist sites from which Jack stole his material. Second, I know I’m going to have to devote some time to reading and blogging on a paper I would have otherwise missed. It isn’t that I don’t like to read these things – I do. The problem is that it’s a time-suck when the blogging is factored in. You see, unlike creationists I actually research and verify what I have to say on any given piece of science.

Let’s start with the paper in question:

Here we report exceptionally preserved fossil eyes from the Early Cambrian (~515 million years ago) Emu Bay Shale of South Australia, revealing that some of the earliest arthropods possessed highly advanced compound eyes, each with over 3,000 large ommatidial lenses and a specialized ‘bright zone’. These are the oldest non-biomineralized eyes known in such detail, with preservation quality exceeding that found in the Burgess Shale and Chengjiang deposits. Non-biomineralized eyes of similar complexity are otherwise unknown until about 85 million years later6, 7. The arrangement and size of the lenses indicate that these eyes belonged to an active predator that was capable of seeing in low light. The eyes are more complex than those known from contemporaneous trilobites and are as advanced as those of many living forms. They provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event8.

The gist of the find is this. Researchers discovered very old fossils of arthropod eyes from the Early Cambrian. They do not predate complex eyes, but they do predate similar non-biomineralized eyes. That is, trilobite eyes are made of calcite, meaning the trilobites produce the minerals for their eyes themselves. In turn, their eyes are hardened (and thus more easily fossilized). So these new fossils show a different way in which eyes could become complex. Furthermore, they showed a tight packing in the lenses, much in the way that a fly’s lenses appear to be tightly packed. They also were curved to form binocular vision, meaning there was a visual overlap in front of the body. This helps for judging distances and discerning complicated backgrounds. This creature was a predator.

But here is where creationists draw issue:

Did you catch that? If you were a high school student who trusted your teachers, you’d think they had evidence for this unbelievably rapid amount of highly complex change. But they merely assume that it evolved, so it “had” to have been a great evolutionary event and another example of “rapid innovation.” [And is thus a tautology.]

This comes from Neil who, like many creationists, was taking his cue from another site. He believes that every paper that mentions evolution must provide a detailed description of why evolution is true.

His quote was a reference to this excerpt from the paper:

[The new fossils] provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event.

What this is referencing is the fact that until now advanced eye fossils were almost exclusively restricted to trilobites in the fossil record. These new fossils give evidence that, as suspected, there were other marine creatures swimming around with complex eyes. Furthermore, they show a quantitative change in the number of lenses, not the sudden appearance of these sort of lenses. (But note that we can’t expect to see a perfect fossil record. We can get a good outline, but it’s silly and really very ignorant for creationists to demand to see every intermediate organism. At some point things will have to “suddenly” appear. Of course, this is in geological terms, i.e., over millions of years.) These eyes are evidence that evolution was driven in part by the anatomical changes in vision during the Cambrian.

So it is clear that none of this is a tautology. This fossil find is further evidence of the nature of evolution and the role vision played in its creation of arms races. What we see from the creationist world, however, is an immature understanding of the science. There is no doubt that Neil never bothered to read the paper from Nature, nor have many of his creationist brethren. If any of these sort of non-academics bothered to look into the literature (or even take formal courses), they would see their obvious errors. Further, even if we are to understand this paper as Neil purports it to be, he’s still in error. That is, he believes the paper is a tautology because it assumes evolution without giving evidence for why evolution is true. This is like drawing issue with physics papers because they assume gravity is true without explaining general relativity. It’s a silly complaint to make and it only demonstrates how wildly over the head of creationists most scientific papers are.


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