By: Jim Virkler
In 1972 a new concept became popular among evolutionists. It was called punctuated equilibrium (PE). Niles Eldredge and Stephen Gould popularized the term. This revolutionary idea was a surprise to many in the public who had become accustomed to the concept that gradual change within species and a slow transition to other species was a centerpiece of the paradigm of evolution. Punctuated connotes rapid change. Punctuated equilibrium defines the well known modern knowledge that the sequential appearance of new species on Earth is step-like and sudden. Part of the theory provides, moreover, that a consistent pattern of stasis—no change—is ubiquitous and dominates the fossil record of earth species after their appearance.
Equilibrium in the term PE is more difficult to explain. We will define it as “a pattern of ongoing, continual development.” Planet Earth has been blessed with the continual sequential appearance of millions of unique species as the timeline of earth history has unfolded. Earth’s species appear suddenly, experience stasis for long periods, may go extinct, and are replaced by new species. Charles Darwin noticed this feature of the fossil record and was troubled by it.
It is doubtful that Eldredge and Gould had the phenomenon of the initial appearance of life on our planet in mind when they coined the famous term PE, now a staple of evolutionary literacy. J. William Schopf discovered the oldest microfossils on Earth in 1993 in Australia, consisting of primitive cyanobacteria. They are found in rocks 3.8 billion years old. Biochemist Fazale Rana in Origins of Life posits that “Earth’s first life is no different qualitatively from photosynthetic and chemoautotrophic microbes alive today (which) strongly indicates that a remarkable degree of biochemical complexity appeared simultaneously with life’s first occurrence on Earth.” Schopf states in The Cradle of Life, “No one had foreseen that the beginning of life occurred so astonishingly early.” Schopf’s Australian microfossils might be considered the original punctuation—the startling sudden appearance of biochemically complex life with no precursors.
The next punctuation we address is the famous Cambrian Explosion which began about 540 mya. The Cambrian Explosion may be regarded as the premier punctuation episode in all of biology. One writer colorfully described the event as a “riotous biological bash.” Several dozen new phyla (unique body plans) appeared suddenly within the narrow geological window of only several million years. The new phyla included countless hundreds of species. Phylum evolution would be far more spectacular and significant than species evolution. Evolution and diversification of phyla is not as frequently considered in writings on evolution as is species evolution. Some writers claim the Cambrian Explosion may have consumed up to 100 million years, or that the Pre-Cambrian era supplies a few precursors sufficient to generate the profusion of Cambrian phyla and far more numerous Cambrian species. Evidence for these proposals is weak.
With respect to speciation (the production of a new species) which evolutionists must explain, we quote Stephen C. Meyer who describes the highly unlikely scenario of transition from one species to another. He claims speciation, the transition of one species to another, involves an incredible sequence of biological changes: the simultaneous production of (1) new proteins, then (2) new cell types, followed by (3) new tissues, (4) new organs, (5) new body parts and finally, (6) a new organism. The evolutionary sequence of changes necessary for the evolutionary transition from one species to another stretches belief. Transition from one phylum to another becomes even more implausible.
The transition of post-Cambrian animals in the ensuing millions of years to fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and more recently, to mammals has the imprint of Eldredge and Gould’s concept of punctuated equilibrium. Life emerged step-like: original appearance, stasis, and often followed by extinction. In some cases, life forms persist for many millions of years virtually unchanged. The famous coelacanth, a fish found deep in Indian Ocean waters is an example. It was believed to have gone extinct 66 mya.
Traditional explanations of speciation explained by mutations and natural selection have retreated in favor of cladogenesis, allopatric speciation, peripatric speciation, anagenesis, and phylogenetics. We make no effort to describe these terms. They are subjects of lifetime study in the field of origins science. Many explanations of species transitions relate to isolation of the original species owing to introduction of geographic barriers or environmental changes due to climate alteration or natural disasters. Explanations of how such changes trigger and support speciation, however, are speculative and uncertain, even imaginative. Inference becomes the evolutionary theorist’s best friend.
We do not wish to ridicule or disparage bioscientists’ efforts to study the complex question of origins. Our blog favors periodic divine acts of creation. Non-creationist researchers are sincerely committed to their paradigm of evolution and in many cases devote a lifetime of research to their project. A minority of professional biologists approach the fossil record of life on earth as believers in acts of a Creator to explain the punctuations of the now-famous proposal of punctuated equilibrium. Scientific research by theistic creationist scientists is appropriate to propose and infer acts of supernatural creation, especially in the field of origins science. Attempts to answer the how and when questions is important for both naturalistic and creationist scientists. Both groups are intent on discovering truth in the arena of life’s origins.
We close with a discussion of only one of the approximately ten million extant living species on Earth. That species is man, described in Scripture as having been created in the Image of God. The modern human species is widely set apart from lower hominid species in intelligence, ability, and presence of soul and spirit. Historians identify a cultural explosion in recent tens of thousands of years. It was characterized by symbolism in art, language, rituals such as funerals, and other behavioral changes. This cultural explosion sets modern man, known today as homo sapiens sapiens—anatomically modern humans—apart from the confusing hodgepodge of hominids predating humanity in the last several hundreds of thousands of years on Earth.
Could the punctuated equilibrium of Eldredge and Gould be applied to the relatively rapid appearance of modern man? Many questions remain unanswered, but we consider modern man’s sudden appearance on Planet Earth as the premier creative punctuation initiated by God.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.