Reasons to Believe

Biodiversity Peaked Early

In 2001 an international “dream team” of twenty-five leading paleontologists representing more than fifteen institutions completed the first stage in assembling a massive database of fossils spanning the last 550 million years of Earth’s history.1 The goal: a comprehensive record of terrestrial and marine fossils for all geographical regions of Earth. These scientists anticipate that the paleobiology database will be an important resource for discerning trends in life’s history.

Already, the team’s hopes are being fulfilled. Their inaugural analysis of the preliminary data set for marine invertebrate fossils provided radical new insight into life’s early diversity.

For the past twenty years, scientists have interpreted the fossil record as indicating that life’s diversity exploded after the Permian extinction, around 250 million years ago. Presumably, evolutionary innovation drove the exponential increase in biodiversity. Paleontologists argued that increased biodiversity resulted from “snowballing” evolutionary processes driven by expanded life activities and predatory modes.

However, analysis of the marine invertebrate fossil record reveals a much different picture. Instead of exploding after the Permian extinction, biodiversity peaked soon after the onset of the Cambrian explosion—the time that complex animals first appeared on Earth—and has remained constant since then. Biodiversity appears to have reached a ceiling level almost immediately after complex animal life first appeared on the scene.

Though viewed as a preliminary finding, scientists think this new description of biodiversity more closely reflects the realities of life’s history. The traditional understanding of life’s diversity was based on a far less descriptive data set than the one contained in the paleobiology database, and it stemmed from analytical methods that could not adequately account for sampling biases. Paleontologists extracted the new picture of life’s diversity using eight independent statistical tools that corrected for sampling effects.

More confirmation comes from a University of Chicago research team.2 Based on a statistical analysis, they demonstrate that the “rise in biodiversity” after the Permian extinction results from a sampling bias. They find that biodiversity closely correlates with the number of sedimentary rocks available for study. There is a greater abundance of rocks from recent geological eras. More rocks means more fossils. More fossils leads to a greater apparent biodiversity in the fossil record after the Permian extinction.

Biodiversity’s apparent maximal constancy since the Cambrian explosion finds ready explanation in RTB’s biblical creation model. According to this model, God has exquisitely fine-tuned Earth’s conditions for the last 4 billion years to allow for maximum diversity of life. This scenario translates into a rich abundance of natural resources (biodeposits) for humanity.3 The RTB biblical creation model correctly accounts for maximal and unchanging biodiversity since the inception of complex animal life, as found in the fossil record.

References:

  1. Richard A. Kerr, “Evolution: Putting Limits on the Diversity of Life,” Science 292 (2001): 1481; Mark Newman, “A New Picture of Life’s History on Earth,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 98 (2001): 5955-56; J. Alroy et al., “Effects of Sampling Standardization on Estimates of Phanerozoic Marine Diversification,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 98 (2001): 6261-66.
  2. Shanan E. Peters and Michael Foote, “Biodiversity in the Phanerozoic: A Reinterpretation,” Paleobiology 27 (2001): 583-601.
  3. Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998), 44.

Subjects: Cambrian Explosion

Dr. Fazale Rana

In 1999, I left my position in R&D at a Fortune 500 company to join Reasons to Believe because I felt the most important thing I could do as a scientist is to communicate to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific evidence—evidence that is being uncovered day after day—for God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture. Read more about Dr. Fazale Rana