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How Darwin Failed His Own Test

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What has the past 150 years shown us about Darwin's theory of evolution?

Like any good scientist, Charles Darwin made a prediction by which other scientists could test his theory in the future. In other words, he made Darwinism falsifiable—capable of being proved false. More than a century and a half later, we are in a position to judge whether his theory has indeed been falsified.1

Precursors vs. Sudden Appearances

Darwin packaged up his book On the Origin of Species shortly after its publication and sent it to the most renowned scientist of the time, Harvard geologist and paleontologist Louis Agassiz.2 After reading it, Agassiz informed Darwin that the fossil record did not support Darwin’s theory that all life began from a common ancestor and then proceeded through the process of natural selection, generating gradually more complex life-forms.

Agassiz pointed out that, instead, the fossil record was marked by the sudden appearance and disappearance of unrelated and different species. Moreover, many of the most complex life-forms appeared very early in the history of existence.

In a written response, Darwin acknowledged that if whole groups of species were to have indeed appeared suddenly, his theory would be proved false. Darwin wrote, “If numerous species belonging to the same genera or families have really started into life all at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of descent with slow modification through natural selection.”3

The most disturbing fossil evidence against Darwinism in the mid-nineteenth century was the sudden geological appearance of a whole range of complex sea creatures in the Cambrian formation of Scotland. The Cambrian fossils date back to 530 million years ago and have no apparent predecessors, only very simple life-forms like sponges and unicellular animals.

However, Darwin remained confident that with continued fossil collection, paleontologists would find the precursors his theory demanded.

So how has this dispute between two great intellects of nineteenth-century science played out to-date?

The Fossil Record Now

The fossil record has increased by orders of magnitude. In fact, Cambrian animals—with all of their rich disparity—have been found all over the world, notably in British Columbia, China, Australia, and Greenland. Yet precursors to the Cambrian animals—outside of single-celled life and simple sponges—remain undiscovered.

Two prominent twentieth-century paleontologists, Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould, have admitted that stasis (a period of little or no evolutionary change) is the dominant characteristic of the fossil record. Gould called it “paleontology’s trade secret,” and “an embarrassing one at that.”4

Gould and Eldridge postulated a non-Darwinian, but naturalistic process to account for what the fossil record shows. The sudden appearance of new higher-order life-forms needed an explanation; Gould and Eldridge provided one: what they called “punctuated equilibrium.” Those who hold fast to the notion of very gradual incremental changes use the term “punk eek” to ridicule the idea that somehow major changes can occur quickly and not be a form of creationism.5

One of the richest Cambrian fossil discoveries is in the southern Chinese province of Kunming. Chinese paleontologists seem to be convinced that the gradual incremental changes postulated by Darwin just do not explain the Kunming fossils. This led one Chinese paleontologist to say, “In China we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America you can criticize the government but not Darwin!”6

To be sure, Gould and Eldridge are not creationists, but they are part of a growing number of scientists who, like these Chinese paleontologists, are admitting that Darwin’s self-imposed test of his theory simply is not finding empirical support. Part of the reason that materialistic philosophy—which states that only the material or natural world is real and therefore everything can be explained in terms of molecules in motion—prevails in spite of the evidence is rooted in one definition of science. That definition allows no inference of non-materialistic causes to be considered.

Hence, when evidence from science points to a Creator, it is said to be “non-scientific” because it falls outside the bounds of the modern definition of “science.” This circular reasoning stands in contrast to the original impetus for science that follows the evidence wherever it leads.

Failing the Test

So how do the neo-Darwinists respond to the apparent failure of Darwin’s own test for his theory? 

Some still have faith that the fossil record will eventually yield support for Darwinism, in spite of the huge and uniform sampling that says otherwise. Others claim that the soft body parts of the predecessors could not fossilize, and therefore the evidence has not been preserved. This later claim has been laid bare by the discovery of Cambrian-era fossilized soft tissue.7

Darwin put forth a test to his theory—namely that the sudden appearance of most of life’s major body plans or phyla in the Cambrian era would in time be shown to be part of a gradual progression of life’s increasing complexity. However, the absence of his predicted precursors remains, despite the passage of more than 150 years of intense investigations on all continents.

Although not the only flaw in Darwin’s theory, it is the one that he himself set forth as a critical test. And so far his theory has failed that test.


  1. The story of this article can be explored in greater detail in Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt (New York: Harpers Collins Publishers, 2013).
  2. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (London: Murray Publishers, 1859).
  3. Meyer, 12.
  4. Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006).The full quote is found on page 263: “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches . . . in any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the gradual transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and fully formed.”
  5. Gould and Eldridge’s Punk Eek was said to be “evolution by jerks,” to which Gould replied that his opponents promoted “evolution by creeps.” This exchange is cited in Meyer, 137 and Gould, 6.
  6. “Review of ‘Icons of Evolution’ DVD,” Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society, November 18, 2006, accessed October 30, 2013.
  7. Perhaps one reason the Chinese paleontologists are abandoning Darwinism is that the fossils found in early Cambrian strata in China contain soft-bodied tissues that have been preserved. This counters the Darwinist claims that the absence of evidence of predecessors is due to the fact that soft body parts do not fossilize. J. Y. Chen, C. W. Li, Paul Chien, G. Q. Zhou, and Feng Gao, “Weng’an Biota—A Light Casting on the Precambrian World” paper presented at the Origin of Animal Body Plans and Their Fossil Records conference, Kunming, China, June 20–26, 1999, sponsored by the Early Life Research Center and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Paul Chien, J. Y. Chen, C. W. Li, and Frederick Leung, “SEM Observation of Precambrian Sponge Embryos from Southern China, Revealing Ultrastructures Including Yolk Granules, Secretion Granules, Cytoskeleton, and Nuclei,” paper presented at the North American Paleontological Convention, University of California, Berkeley, June 26–July 1, 2001).
  8. Photo Credit: In Green / Shutterstock.com.
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