Darwin’s Doubt – Chapter 1 – Part 7
A discussion of Agassiz will take up the next two sections of Chapter 1.
Meyer spends an entire section (Agassiz Under the Microscope) and most of a second section (An Old Fossil Recovered) talking about how Agassiz was a real scientist. (As I type this, all I can hear is Perfect Tommy saying “Mr Wizard is a great scientist.”) Meyer seems to be under the mistaken assumption that he must promote the virtues of his relatively unknown anti-Darwin brother. He needn’t have bothered.
Here’s the thing. A real scientist, a real skeptic, looks at the quality of the argument. One can spend entire books talking about how great a particular scientist is, how respected by their colleagues, how many papers and how much work they have done. None of that makes one of their arguments correct.
This is called an “appeal to authority“. This is basically the argument of an ad homenim logical fallacy. Instead of “so-in-so is wrong because he’s a Republican”, it’s “so-in-so is right because he’s a well respected scientist”. Insert whatever descriptive terms you like in place of “Republican” and “well respected scientist”. It doesn’t matter. Neither of those are valid arguments.
What does the person claim, does he have support for those claims, and are those claims correct? That’s all that matters. Now, in general, a well respected scientist will tend to make good arguments. But not always. And depending on the opinion of a well-respected scientist, who we know disliked a particular idea (which we know to be correct), and who doesn’t (and never did) have the kind of information we have now… well, that’s just not the best way to go.
It’s like going to up to a group of aeronautical engineers at Atlanta airport and telling them, “You know, Voltaire thought that humans flying was impossible.” They will look at you like you’re an idiot. One of them may, point out the window at the hordes of aircraft, but most will ignore you.
All of Agassiz Under the Microscope is talking about his work, his skills, and his knowledge. That’s fine. I honestly don’t care. I didn’t know about Agassiz before reading this book and I have no desire to spend the time to learn about him.
The first half of “An Old Fossil [Agassiz] Recovered” continues with how great guy and scientist he was… in spite of rejected methodological naturalism!
At location 560 (Kindle e-book edition) is were we start to get to the argument.
There is a far more obvious solution to the historical puzzle posed by the great Agassiz’s objection to Darwin’s theory: the fossils of the Cambrian strata do, in fact, arise abruptly in the geological record, in clear defiance of what Darwin’s theory would lead us to expect. In short, a genuine mystery is at hand.
I continue to be confused by Meyer’s writing style in this chapter. I’ve read a number of science books over the last few decades and most, if not all, had some kind of historical context for the subject in the first chapter or three. However, these were clearly labeled as historical. The authors would say what people thought at the time, why they thought it and then briefly mention how things changed over time.
Meyer doesn’t really do that. I can’t decipher his code. In one section I previously talked about, he mentions Sedgewick ( a historical figure) in both the beginning sentence and the final sentence of a paragraph, but the supporting claims in that paragraph are are referenced by modern works of still living authors. So, he can’t be talking about Sedgewick’s claims, but he doesn’t state whether these words are his, someone else’s, or historical thought.
It’s a major failure as a writer.
Although, as I’ve mentioned, I think that this is written this way purposefully. The whole point isn’t to provide information, but to promote a particular thought (i.e. evolution is wrong).
Look at the claim in the text above. That’s not Agassiz writing, that’s Meyer writing. He’s making a very specific claim and he doesn’t back it up in any way.
I need to try and make this clear. There are lots and lots of fossils before the Cambrian. This is an interesting discussion of the history of Precambrian research. Let me quote from the conclusion.
Measured by virtually any criterion one might propose (Fig. 5), studies of Precambrian life have burst forth since the mid-1960s to culminate in recent years in discovery of the oldest fossils known, petrified cellular microbes nearly 3,500 million years old, more than three-quarters the age of the Earth (36). Precambrian paleobiology is thriving—the vast majority of all scientists who have ever investigated the early fossil record are alive and working today; new discoveries are being made at an ever quickening clip—progress set in motion by the few bold scientists who blazed this trail in the 1950s and 1960s, just as their course was charted by the Dawsons, Walcotts, and Sewards, the pioneering pathfinders of the field. And the collective legacy of all who have played a role dates to Darwin and the dilemma of the missing Precambrian fossil record he first posed. After more than a century of trial and error, of search and final discovery, those of us who wonder about life’s early history can be thankful that what was once “inexplicable” to Darwin is no longer so to us.
The entire first chapter of Meyer’s latest book, refuted in a single paragraph.
Meyer claims that Darwin “accepted the validity of Agassiz’s objection”. OK, so what. At the time, it was a valid objection. It’s not anymore.
Next we have another quote from Origin of the Species to support Meyer’s claim.
As he acknowledged elsewhere in the Origin, “To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer…. The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.
That’s a stunning admission from Darwin. Oh wait… there’s those ellipses again. I wonder what Meyer left out this time. The following is from the Literature.org sixth edition of On the Origin of Species chapter 10. (And I’m sorry that this is such a huge chunk of text.)
To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer. Several eminent geologists, with Sir R. Murchison at their head, were until recently convinced that we beheld in the organic remains of the lowest Silurian stratum the first dawn of life. Other highly competent judges, as Lyell and E. Forbes, have disputed this conclusion. We should not forget that only a small portion of the world is known with accuracy. Not very long ago M. Barrande added another and lower stage, abounding with new and peculiar species, beneath the then known Silurian system; and now, still lower down in the Lower Cambrian formation, Mr Hicks has found South Wales beds rich in trilobites, and containing various molluscs and annelids. The presence of phosphatic nodules and bituminous matter, even in some of the lowest azotic rocks, probably indicates life at these periods; and the existence of the Eozoon in the Laurentian formation of Canada is generally admitted. There are three great series of strata beneath the Silurian system in Canada, in the lowest of which the Eozoon is found. Sir W. Logan states that their “united thickness may possibly far surpass that of all the succeeding rocks, from the base of the palaeozoic series to the present time. We are thus carried back to a period so remote, that the appearance of the so-called primordial fauna (of Barrande) may by some be considered as a comparatively modern event.” The Eozoon belongs to the most lowly organised of all classes of animals, but is highly organised for its class; it existed in countless numbers, and, as Dr. Dawson has remarked, certainly preyed on other minute organic beings, which must have lived in great numbers. Thus the words, which I wrote in 1859, about the existence of living beings long before the Cambrian period, and which are almost the same with those since used by Sir W. Logan, have proved true. Nevertheless, the difficulty of assigning any good reason for the absence of vast piles of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian system is very great. It does not seem probable that the most ancient beds have been quite worn away by denudation, or that their fossils have been wholly obliterated by metamorphic action, for if this had been the case we should have found only small remnants of the formations next succeeding them in age, and these would always have existed in a partially metamorphosed condition. But the descriptions which we possess of the Silurian deposits over immense territories in Russia and in North America, do not support the view that the older a formation is the more invariably it has suffered extreme denudation and metamorphism.
The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained. To show that it may hereafter receive some explanation, I will give the following hypothesis. >From the nature of the organic remains which do not appear to have inhabited profound depths, in the several formations of Europe and of the United States; and from the amount of sediment, miles in thickness, of which the formations are composed, we may infer that from first to last large islands or tracts of land, whence the sediment was derived, occurred in the neighbourhood of the now existing continents of Europe and North America. This same view has since been maintained by Agassiz and others. But we do not know what was the state of things in the intervals between the several successive formations; whether Europe and the United States during these intervals existed as dry land, or as a submarine surface near land, on which sediment was not deposited, or as the bed of an open and unfathomable sea.
Looking to the existing oceans, which are thrice as extensive as the land, we see them studded with many islands; but hardly one truly oceanic island (with the exception of New Zealand, if this can be called a truly oceanic island) is as yet known to afford even a remnant of any palaeozoic or secondary formation. Hence, we may perhaps infer, that during the palaeozoic and secondary periods, neither continents nor continental islands existed where our oceans now extend; for had they existed, palaeozoic and secondary formations would in all probability have been accumulated from sediment derived from their wear and tear; and would have been at least partially upheaved by the oscillations of level, which must have intervened during these enormously long periods.
The bolding indicates the words that Meyer stitches together to form his quote.
There’s a whole paragraph missing in those ellipses. And what Darwin says that has been covered by ellipses is this “Thus the words, which I wrote in 1859, about the existence of living beings long before the Cambrian period, and which are almost the same with those since used by Sir W. Logan, have proved true.”
Darwin, using his theory of evolution as a starting point, predicted the existence of fossils prior to the Cambrian. This is true. Now, we have much more extensive evidence of fossils before the Cambrian period.
Further, Darwin even offered an explanation for why the Precambrian strata are so sparse. That is, the Earth has changed. What was once ocean is now buried under mountains. Again, we know this to be the case. The finding of shark fossils in the badlands of Montana is evidence supporting this.
I think that Meyer is offering these statements from Darwin as truth of the status of science today. And he’s wrong.
Meyer has another point in this section, but that’s going to take an entire other post. He makes a fundamental mistake in what is expected by the evolution and the fossil record. Now, this may be Agassiz’s mistake, but I think that Meyer promotes it for truth as well. More in the next post.