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Evolution vs. Creationist Pseudoscience

No contest when you know the facts

by Ward Nicholson
Copyright © 1997 by Ward Nicholson. All rights reserved.
Contact author for permission to republish.


This article debunking a fruitarian's assertions assailing the validity of evolution was originally composed as a posting to the Raw-Food listgroup in October of 1997, though it has been reformatted here for better readability on the web. The bulk of the post looks at the creationist assertions used in the fruitarian's posting (assertions necessary for them to be able to defend their idea of an originally frugivorous, non-evolving human species), plus the refutations based on the evidence. The refutations themselves comprise 7 sections, after a few preliminaries:

Brief Intro and Orientation to the Controversy

This detailed posting refuting a fruitarian's numerous assertions assailing the validity of evolution was originally made to the internet's Raw-Food listgroup. To avoid possible problems in the area of copyright infringement, passages from the individual's post that prompted this response have not been quoted here, other than a few unavoidable places where very brief phrases of just a few words each had been directly incorporated into the sentences of my own response. Also, since my own post reproduced here summarizes the major tenets of creationism before debunking them, I believe it stands well enough by itself.

However, as a brief synopsis, the fruitarian's post could be summarized as a last-ditch tactical adoption of creationist rhetoric to defend their idea of humanity's origin as a pristine frugivore. Creationism posits that species are created in their final form, which never changes, except--in this individual's conception, anyway--to possibly "degenerate" due to species-wide changes in behavior (rather than evolve). Thus, the fruitarian poster found a way, or so they thought ;-) , to make an "end run" around the voluminous evolutionary evidence to the contrary, and to characterize meat-eating as degenerate behavior no matter how long-lived in the species.

From our point of view, this extreme stance was something of an inevitability: Earlier on the Raw-Food listgroup, their erroneous assertions about primitive human diet as frugivorous had been debunked with the paleontological evidence for long-standing omnivorousness in humans. And their assertions that chimps--our closest living evolutionary "cousin"--who ate meat were weak, perverted, and short-lived had also been refuted on the listgroup by the field evidence documenting omnivorism in chimps. (See Going Ape Over Chimp Diets here on the site for this particular debunking.) Thus, they probably did not have much choice but to tackle evolution itself as erroneous if they were to maintain their position that long-standing meat-eating in the human line was "unnatural" or "degenerate."

A telling indication of the desperation in their attempt was made clear prior to the debunking post here, when it was demonstrated that their post had been extensively plagiarized. A painfully detailed point-by-point comparison online showed that roughly two-thirds of it had been taken--in numerous instances nearly word-for-word--without attribution from the recently popular 1993 book Darwin on Trial which has gained University of California-Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson considerable notoriety and acclaim in creationist circles. The claim of authorship and copyright that was made by the individual, once again, shows here the deceptive tactics often used by some fruitarians to make their points.

Since this posting is a polite one, and as much a refutation of the points made in Darwin on Trial as it is a rebuttal to the fruitarian poster, I have extended them anonymity here and referred to them as simply "Fruitarian XYZ." This posting has also been slightly re-edited due to anonymizing references to the other poster, and for continuity in this web version compared to the original version, which was serialized in 4 parts for posting on the Raw-Food listgroup.

Response on the issues to Fruitarian XYZ's attack on evolution based on Phillip Johnson's book Darwin on Trial


This posting is a response on the issues to Fruitarian XYZ's recent posting against evolution, on the Raw-Food listgroup, that was based on creationist Phillip Johnson's book Darwin On Trial. [For those interested in the book, here is the publishing info: Johnson, Phillip E. (1993) Darwin On Trial (2nd edition). InterVarsity Press: Downer's Grove, Illinois. Paperback, 220 pp. including index.]

This is a lengthy post--however, to thoroughly refute creationist claims requires going into the facts in at least some amount of detail, something creationists themselves often do not bother to do. I go into them here to show how clearly creationism fails the tests of the evidence.

The root of the conflict here between evolution/creationism--and the relevance to dietary questions--is that the extensive scientific evidence from evolution and paleontology directly refutes the idea that pure vegetarianism is humanity's "natural" diet, since it shows that humans are and always have been omnivores. While there may of course be other reasons for eating a vegetarian diet, continuing to promote it on the basis that it is humanity's "original" "natural" diet, when one is aware of what science and evolution have shown about the human past, is to do so under false pretenses. (Evolution does, however, support a raw or predominantly raw diet.) Wanting to promote vegetarianism and/or fruitarianism as "natural," therefore, leaves no option but to attack evolution directly, as Fruitarian XYZ's essay does.

Also given here are many pointers to online sources where one can read further about evolution vs. creationism and access the scientific references in support of the refutations of creationism given here. Additionally, the possibility of maintaining belief in God (or "supreme being," "ground of being," etc.) while also accepting evolution is addressed, as a concluding consideration for those who have trouble with evolution for that reason.

Note On Source Material

Much of the information discussed and the pointers given here come from the encyclopedic "Talk.Origins" website. This is for several reasons. First, since everyone here is online (obviously :-) ), and most probably have access to a web browser, this should make it easy--if you have any interest of course (which I grant is probably debatable :-) )--to check out all the links given here to see for yourself just how much evidence there is for evolution and how badly creationists have ignored or distorted it.

If I could make one plea here, it would be that if you have an interest in the subject, you do not simply take my word for any of the summaries I'll give here, nor the word of Fruitarian XYZ in any rebuttal they may post to this. Again, if you have an interest, do the ol' point-and-click thing, and read about the evidence for yourself. Numerous links on the site document in considerable detail how the record of creationists as a whole is governed by the persistent tactical use of distortion, deception, and dishonesty, often considerably exacerbated by ignorance of the subject matter and refusal to face facts.

Second, the site is one of the best and most complete reference sources available anywhere on the evolution/creationism controversy, from what I can tell. Given that I did not have a lot of time to spend on researching and tracking down scientific references for what ought to be a dead-dodo issue among anybody even halfway knowledgeable on the science in the first place, it's the type of resource where you can quickly find scientific material tied to peer-reviewed references on just about any topic of interest relating to the controversy that you could possibly hope to find. The Talk.Origins site is completely indexed and overwhelmingly replete to the point of overflowing with references to the huge array of scientific source literature in meticulously documenting its rebuttals to creationist claims and distortions--references you can easily use to track down the primary peer-reviewed source literature yourself if you want.

Also, the Talk.Origins site is the result of the collective effort and work of numerous individuals--many of them working research scientists--who have been through the debating mill and flame wars over evolution/creationism on the Usenet newsgroup for years now. Much of the information and rebuttals given at the site are a result of cross-examination in the flame-war trenches. If there is anything relating to the evolution/creation controvery that has been argued or hypothesized anywhere, you can bet the regulars on the newsgroup who contributed to the website will have seen it many times before. The essays, FAQs, and other pieces (even including some by creationists) to be found on the site--or linked to it--have come from many rounds of debate on these issues.

A Very Brief Summary of the Creationist Assertions

Johnson's book Darwin on Trial makes several assertions about evolution [repeated by Fruitarian XYZ] that boil down to the following claims (all of which have been heard before, though Johnson's emphasis in the final point below is perhaps somewhat different):

1. There are no transitional forms between species in the fossil record as evolution predicts there should be. Or at least so few or so shakily supported by evidence as to be virtually none, and therefore meaningless against the overall backdrop of gaps between the "sudden" appearance of whole and complete new species seen in the fossil record.

2. Micromutation (exemplified by the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection) may exist, but it does not (and cannot in principle) explain the macromutational leaps required to create wholly different species or new types of organisms and structures. Therefore some "miracle factor" or unknowable "mystery factor" is required.

3. The idea that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" (that embryological development of an organism before birth should retrace its species' evolutionary development) has been shown to be in error; therefore evolution is in error.

4. Modern molecular genetics is nothing new in terms of what it actually allows us to determine with respect to the ancestry of fossils. It is just a newer methodology for classifying organisms by certain physical features (in this case genetic features). Therefore, measuring genetic distance between creatures cannot be used to impute ancestry any more than fossil forms can.

5. Evolution is not a fact, it is merely a theory.

6. Evolution contains certain axioms or tenets such as "survival of the fittest" which are framed as "tautologies"--statements that are true by definition in a way that makes them either meaningless or untestable/unfalsifiable.

7. Lastly, the "rules of science" are philosophically biased by "materialistic naturalism" and rigged at the outset against any other explanation than evolution.

It should be mentioned so we don't create a "straw man" of Johnson that he takes pains at the outset of the book to distinguish himself from the young-earth creationists who believe in a literal Genesis account of creation. Johnson takes the geological evidence for age of the earth and the existence of prehistoric fossils to be true. He just doesn't believe evolution explains how they got there, or is at least at best a partial explanation, with unspecified, mysterious, miraculous forces constituting the actual "driving force" behind major evolutionary changes.

SECTION 1: The supposed lack of transitional forms in the fossil record.

This is perhaps the biggest humdinger of all in Darwin on Trial (as it is throughout all of creationist literature), as well as in Fruitarian XYZ's essay. Johnson, though, makes it easy to swallow his smooth presentation with a dose of myopia which only manages to ignore--gee, I dunno--at least a measly one or two hundred or so examples of transitional fossils, such as those meticulously documented at the Talk.Origins website, at least. :-) With his well-practiced lawyerly tactics, Johnson ignores score upon score of examples of known transitional fossil forms (most of which he apparently isn't even aware of), while single-handledly managing to belittle, gloss over lightly, misrepresent, or damn with faint praise the mere handful of transitional fossils he does manage to address.

That shouldn't be surprising, however, because Johnson didn't bother to consult or list more than a similar mere handful of reference sources linked to primary peer-reviewed scientific source material in his "Research Notes," basing his book as he did mostly on popularized sources. I mean, gee, to consult the peer-reviewed literature--or sources (such as the Talk.Origins website we have available today) that themselves depend on direct citations of it--might bring up too many discomfiting details he'd have to consider. We can't do that, now, can we? Good heavens, it might make people's eyes glaze over from having to consider a few of those godawfully boring details that keep us honest. (One is reminded here of the saying upstanding theists ought to be expected to bear in mind, that "God is in the details." :-) )

For the most definitive and throughgoing summary of the known "transitional forms" in the fossil record available at, read the "Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ," by Kathleen Hunt. This is another link that is, again, replete with references to the scientific literature (approximately 80-90 refs in all). This particular FAQ is comprehensive enough in its depth and listing of transitional forms that the compilation quite easily and literally amounts to easily a hundred, and perhaps--without having done an exact count--even as many as two hundred or more. And it is a partial list at that. Kathleen mentions in her author's note to the FAQ that the original researching and compiling of it took three years (from 1991-1994), which was only possible as an extracurricular hobby project due to a fully paid fellowship as a new grad student in this field with lots of time on her hands.

If you have any lingering doubts planted by creationists or their supporters or hangers-on that there simply aren't any transitional fossil forms to be found, this compilation should easily crush such misconceptions. There is example after example after example here, in chronological order, that explode the creationist claims into the tiniest of pieces. (We'll be listing some of these shortly.)

Important to note here is that there are fossil transitions of both major types possible, that is: (1) general transitions linking "chain of genera," as Hunt puts it, i.e., the ones linking widely disparate fossil forms and that would be considered more "macroevolutionary" in nature showing a progression through large differences in form; as well as (2) the most direct and finest-grained type possible, that is, direct species-to-species transitions. And not only species-to-species transitions of the "microevolutionary" type that creationists admit only as meaningless micro-exceptions, but full-blown sequences of species transitions that, cumulatively, cross over complete genus and family lines. As Hunt quotes Stephen Jay Gould at the above link in observing: "The supposed lack of intermediary forms in the fossil record remains the fundamental canard of current antievolutionists." [Canard = "an unfounded or false, deliberately misleading story," sez The American Heritage Dictionary.]

There are also some good examples here of a few former "gaps" in the record that with further research and discovery have yielded transitional fossils after all. One of these is a recent dinosaur find in Montana that found circumstantial evidence fitting the theoretical picture for "punctuated equilibrium" as the mechanism by which several new dinosaur species arose in the relatively short geological timespan of just 500,000 years--following 5 million years of stasis--after they had become geographically isolated during an abrupt rise in sea level at the time. (See the "Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ, Part 1B" for a brief discussion.)

On this issue, Hunt notes that evolutionary examples of both "gradual evolution" and "punctuated equilibrium" are found in the fossil record--the current debate being not over which is the correct model of evolutionary change (in fact, both occur, rather than either/or), but how much of each occurs, why, and in what kinds of situations.

Hunt also notes--and I would interject, just as one would expect--that the gaps in the fossil record become fewer and fewer as one approaches the present day, since many more fossils in the more recent geological strata closer to the surface are likely to be (and have been) recovered. In this connection, Hunt mentions that in the fossil record of species-to-species transitional forms (the tightest linkages in transitional sequences possible), there are at least 25 mammal species from the latest geological period (the Pleistocene, from 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago) that can be tied to their ancestor species by observable transitions in the fossil record.

Examples of Transition Fossils

Here, then, is a condensed and summarized list of some of the known transitional fossils discussed on the site:

(An important note: What infrequent "gaps" there may be listed below in the fossil sequences are gaps in time--that is, gaps due merely to a lack of sufficient fossils to analyze in the first place from a certain time period--not gaps in the sense of "jumps" from one type of fossil form to another that occur closely together in chronological sequence. This is an important distinction, because what creationists mean by a "gap" is an actual "jump" in form from one fossil to the next when there is little to no intervening time period in between.)

At this point, I'll dispense with listing of genus names for the sake of brevity, now that the point has been made above that paleontologists can identify transitional forms with considerable precision.

And there are so many more examples of transitional sequences in the fossil record that I won't bore any of us further with them here. But the foregoing should give a good enough idea of how dismal the record of Phillip Johnson and Fruitarian XYZ is in seeking out the evidence. In the next section on micro vs. macroevolution, I'll give a few more examples of fossil transition sequences at the species-to-species level that demonstrate microevolutionary changes can indeed lead to macroevolutionary change.

But for more examples than that, and there are an incredible number more, if you are a real glutton for punishment just go to the "Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ" link yourself and follow through from beginning to end--it's been work enough just summarizing what I have here. :-\ :-) Without doing an actual count, one would have to estimate that Hunt's listing easily goes into the 100-200 range of detailed enumerations of transitional forms--and the characteristics that make them so--and it is, at that, only a partial listing. Again: See for yourself, and note the meticulous attention to detail in terms of Hunt's referencing of the evidence to the primary scientific literature.

What About the Remaining Gaps in the Fossil Record?

In addition to the numerous transitional fossil forms listed and discussed here, Hunt also discusses the gaps in the fossil record, the differences between transitions that document sequences between general lineages as opposed to those documenting individual, species-to-species transitions; why the gaps are there; what they really signify (not what the creationists infer), and so on. One of the most telling pieces of information Kathleen touches on that the creationists almost never seem to mention is just how frequent the sampling rate in the fossil record has to be before you can eliminate all the gaps:

To demonstrate anything about how a species arose, whether it arose gradually or suddenly, you need exceptionally complete strata, with many dead animals buried under constant, rapid sedimentation. This is rare for terrestrial animals. Even the famous Clark's Fork (Wyoming) site, known for its fine Eocene mammal transitions, only has about one fossil per lineage about every 27,000 years. Luckily, this is enough to record most episodes of evolutionary change (provided that they occurred at Clark's Fork Basin and not somewhere else), though it misses the rapidest evolutionary bursts. [NOTE: One estimate given by Niles Eldgredge, co-creator with Stephen Jay Gould of the "punctuated equilibrium" theory--on pp. 99-100 of his 1995 book Reinventing Darwin (John Wiley & Sons: N.Y.) is that evidence from the fossil record suggests a timespan of anywhere from "5,000 to 50,000 years" to be all that is necessary for rapid macroevolutionary speciation events, and some molecular geneticists think even that estimate may be "overly generous." --W.N.]

In general, in order to document transitions between species, you need specimens separated by only tens of thousands of years (e.g. every 20,000-80,000 years). If you have only one specimen for hundreds of thousands of years (e.g. every 500,000 years), you can usually determine the order of species, but not the transitions between species. If you have a specimen every million years, you can get the order of genera, but not which species were involved. And so on. These are rough estimates (from Gingerich, 1976, 1980) but should give an idea of the completeness required.

Note that fossils separated by more than about a hundred thousand years cannot show anything about how a species arose. Think about it: there could have been a smooth transition, or the species could have appeared suddenly, but either way, if there aren't enough fossils, we can't tell which way it happened.

There is much misunderstanding about these issues on the part of creationists about just what constitutes a "gap" in the fossil record, and just how "sudden" macroevolutionary events responsible for them actually are or not. Creationists also have an irascible tendency to skate away from the evidence by taking the impossible-to-reason-with position that no matter how close the resemblance is between two successive forms in the fossil record, it's still a "gap."

Although in whatever number of instances evolutionary changes may be rapid, they are certainly not instantaneous in the way the creationists' use of the term "sudden" tends to imply. Where uninterrupted and complete time-slices of fossil sequences have been found in fine-grained-enough resolution as Hunt outlines above, you do not see "sudden," or at least absolutely "sudden," "jumps" or "gaps" in fossil forms. Instead you see very rapid changes that are, however, graduated enough to be able to see the transitions between forms.

It also needs to be pointed out that "gaps" or instances of so-called "sudden" macroevolution are "seen" far more often in older geological strata where the numbers of fossils recovered are spotty to begin with. The closer one gets to the present with more and more complete time-slices of fossils available for examination, the fewer "sudden" macroevolutionary events one sees--again, one sees rapid gradations instead. (See Kathleen's "Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ, Part 2A" near the top of the page for a chart titled "Timescale" to illustrate the varying quality of the fossil record over more recent evolutionary time.)

Hunt also has a nice, albeit brief, discussion of why certain geological time periods--due to the geological history of the earth--leave behind fewer fossil remains than others.)


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