Origin Ch.11: Where the fossil record went right

This post is part of a series on The Origin Of Species.  It was originally posted on the old blog in feb 2009, during the Darwin 200 celebrations.

The creationist site that I briefly reviewed yesterday repeated the claim that the fossil record does not support descent with modification, and that Darwin could only handwave about the imperfection of the fossil record. Clearly the author got to chapter ten of The Origin but had difficulty getting any further, because chapter eleven is exactly where Darwin addresses this question: “that the extinct forms of life help to fill up the intervals between existing genera, families, and orders, is certainly true; but as this statement has often been ignored or even denied, it may be well to make some remarks on the subject, and to give some instances.” Far from desperately covering up an embarrassment, Darwin is embracing the rich evidence provided by the fossil record.

In a few cases, history shows that Darwin made some relatively minor mistakes. In his response to geological catastrophism, for example, Darwin could perhaps be charged with going too far the other way, and denying that mass extinctions occur (though such events present no problem for the theory). But generally, Darwin presents a good introduction to why the fossil record is firmly on his side, listing for several pages groups for which interesting ancestral and “intermediate” fossils were already known. More importantly, in chapters 10 and 11 he turns the fossil-record burden back on his detractors. For their objection to hold, the creationists must believe either in the absurd proposition that our knowledge of the fossil-record is already complete, or must constantly divide their God over ever smaller gaps of incredulity.

Darwin is not the prophet of evolution. Attacking his character is irrelevant, and pointing out that he could not answer every objection in The Origin does not mean that those objections hold up today. And yet, reading The Origin one is struck repeatedly by how relevant the book remains in the context of creationism — not just because the creationists still attack it, but because Darwin had already answered so many of their objections in the book. The fossil record objection is as old as the theory of evolution, and is still parroted by the unimaginative, yet even with the limited resources of 150 years ago, Darwin was able to pretty conclusively trash this and so many of the other familiar canards that creationists just won’t allow to die.

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