Cambrian critter with neural complexity comparable to modern insects surprises evolutionary scientists.
The small invertebrate Fuxianhuia protensa had no need to sing, like the scarecrow in the The Wizard of Oz, “If I Only Had a Brain.” A well-preserved specimen of the 3-inch arthropod recovered from China’s Chengjiang Cambrian deposits in Yunnan province, conventionally dated at 520 million years, shows the species had a “fairly sophisticated brain” remarkably similar to modern insects. A multinational team, reporting in Nature, suggests the discovery has implications for the earliest evolutionary history of insects.
The darker central section seen on this specimen of Fuxianhuia protensa is the brain. Protruding from it on each side are peripheral nerve tracts and, more superiorly, the optic tracts. At the top, the eyes on their stalks are visible as well as the antennae. The eye stalks appear to contain remnants of the optic nerve fibers. Image credit Nicholas Strausfeld, from www.huffingtonpost.com
The sketch on the left is a diagram of Fuxianhuia protensa’s brain and neural tissue. Branching from the centrally located brain (from top to bottom on each side) are neural tracts to the eyes, to the antennae, and to some other part of the body. The dark material in the eye stalks represents remnants of neural fibers. Besides its similarity to the brains of modern insects, this extinct creature’s brain also resembles the modern land hermit crab’s brain, which is diagrammed on the right. Image credit Nicholas Strausfeld, from www.huffingtonpost.com Interpretative information on all illustrations obtained from the original paper: Xiaoya Ma et al., “Complex brain and optic lobes in an early Cambrian arthropod,” Nature 490:258–262 (11 October 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11495
“No one expected such an advanced brain would have evolved so early in the history of multicellular animals,” according to coauthor Nicholas Strausfeld of the University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science.1 “The rest of the animal is incredibly simple, so it's a big surprise to see a brain that is so advanced, as it were, in such a simple animal.”2
Obviously no one is suggesting the creature could actually think. But based on the connections between the three sections of the brain and the eyes, antennae, and body, the researchers suspect the creature could integrate and utilize sensory data from its environment as modern insects do. Some of the fossils show the eye stalks in a variety of orientations, suggesting they had the mobility to look around.3 The researchers believe well-developed visual connections would have made it a successful predator, naturally selected to survive and thrive early in evolutionary history. A similar species has been found with the remains of trilobites in the gut, lending credence to the idea that the creature ate its fellow invertebrates.
Brain and other soft tissues are not often preserved in arthropod fossils, and the neural material in this case consists of a red-brown pigment stain. Coauthor Gregory Edgecombe of London’s Natural History Museum says, “We recognize it as a brain because its size, outline and position are comparable to those of a small brain in a crustacean such as a glass shrimp.” The three sections of the brain are fused in front of the mouth instead of having only two fused sections as seen in simpler invertebrates.
Some experts have questioned the brainy interpretation of the brown pigment. For instance, Georg Mayer, expert in arthropod neuroanatomy at Germany’s Leipzig University, says, “The preservation of the material is excellent, but the dark stain most likely represents a mixture of remnants of the nervous, muscular and digestive systems.” However, Mayer doesn’t consider the finding of neural complexity in a Cambrian arthropod to be so astounding, saying, “Cambrian arthropods have complex body plans, so why shouldn't they have had complex brains?”
Insects were formerly thought to have evolved from a simpler-brained ancestor like today’s branchiopods, which are less complex crustaceans like water fleas. But evolutionists believe this fossilized evidence of Cambrian neuro-complexity demonstrates insect ancestors had evolved a complex brain half a billion years ago. Instead of being ancestral to modern insects, branchiopods may, the evolutionists suggest, have undergone an evolutionary regression from former complexity in order to reach their modern, simpler form.2
The “Cambrian explosion” refers to the “sudden” appearance of an abundance of complex organisms deep in the fossil record without significant fossil evidence of simpler evolutionary ancestors. Due to the complexity seen in many of these invertebrates, neurological complexity has been used to construct an evolutionary history for invertebrates. However, the rarity of fossilized evidence of neural development has resulted in speculation based on modern animals. As Uppsala University paleobiologist Graham Budd commented, this evident antiquity of complex brain tissue at the time of the Cambrian explosion “‘throws the cat amongst the pigeons’ in terms of previous hypotheses about how brains evolved.”
In reality, by presupposing that complex features must have evolved from simpler ones, evolutionists are overlooking the one answer that makes sense of all the fossil evidence. Much of the fossil record is a record of the order of burial of creatures during the global Flood, and the dates conventionally assigned to the geologic layers are based on unverifiable assumptions in the dating methods. The “Cambrian explosion” makes sense when we realize it represents a massive graveyard of marine invertebrates catastrophically buried early in the Flood. It is no surprise therefore to find Cambrian creatures with characteristics matching the complexity of modern animals. God created all kinds of creatures about 6,000 years ago fully mature and functional. These creatures included both simpler and more complex ones, and they were optimally designed for life without evolutionary predecessors.
Lamprey larval cough said to be a clue to the evolutionary origin of breathing.
The normal neurological stimulus that regulates how fast you breathe is extremely sensitive to carbon dioxide. Your brain generates a rhythmic signal to trigger breathing, but its rate is regulated by the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. Scientists searching for the evolutionary roots of this finely tuned regulatory mechanism have sought answers in the sea from which they believe air-breathing life emerged. Neuroscientist Michael Harris of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and colleagues believe that have discovered its evolutionary prototype in lamprey larvae.
“To breathe air with a lung you need more than a lung, you need neural circuitry that is sensitive to carbon dioxide,” says Harris. “It's the neural circuitry that allows air-breathing organisms to take in oxygen, which cells need to convert food into energy, and expel the waste carbon dioxide resulting from that process. I'm interested in where that carbon-dioxide-sensitive neural circuit, called a rhythm generator, came from.”
So, in the evolutionary view, which came first, the lung or the neural stimulation to breathe? Harris believes the carbon dioxide sensitive rhythmic breathing control evolved before lungs. However, he believes the neural control mechanism served a different purpose. Harris explains, “We try to find living examples of primitive non-air-breathing ancestors, like lamprey, and then look for evidence of a rhythm generator that did something other than air breathing.”
The lamprey is a cartilaginous vertebrate believed by evolutionists to be primitive. “For biologists, lampreys represent an opportunity to envision the evolutionary past, because of their status as ‘living fossils’ that haven't changed in millions of years. Lampreys are thought to be an early offshoot on the evolutionary tree, before sharks and fish. Their lack of jaws distinguishes them from sharks or other types of fish.”’4
Lamprey larvae live in tubes buried in mud and pump water through their bodies to obtain food and oxygen. When the tube gets clogged with debris, a cough-like reflex blows the debris out. “We thought the lamprey ‘cough’ closely resembled air breathing in amphibians,” Harris explains. “When we removed the brains from lampreys and measured nerve activity that would normally be associated with breathing, we found patterns that resemble breathing and found that the rhythm generator was sensitive to carbon dioxide.”
Harris and his colleagues conclude, “The evolution of lung breathing may be a repurposing of carbon dioxide sensitive cough that already existed in lungless vertebrates, like the lamprey.”
The discovery of carbon dioxide sensitive neural circuitry in lampreys does not demonstrate common evolutionary ancestry. Clearing the lamprey’s larval tube or reminding mammals to take a breath are both actions designed to replenish oxygen. In a world full of animals designed to utilize oxygen and release carbon dioxide as a cellular waste product, such a trigger to stimulate oxygen-replenishing behavior is a sensible design. Unlike oxygen, which is often carried on molecules like hemoglobin, carbon dioxide readily dissolves in body fluids to form chemicals that can be detected and responded to instantaneously. The ubiquitous presence of this sophisticated neural circuitry is consistent with a world in which a common Designer, God, created all kinds of living things equipped to live in the world He made.
DNA decay rate evaluated.
How long recognizable biomolecules can persist after death is relevant in fields ranging from forensics to paleontology. While a number of fossils believed by evolutionists to be millions of years old have yielded proteins such as collagen and keratin, DNA has been more elusive. DNA-bearing soft tissue found in fossils has generally been considered a contaminant, leaving the acquisition of DNA from the “deep time” of dinosaurs in the realm of science fiction such as Jurassic Park.
Harvard physicist Michio Kaku recently expressed hopes that evolutionary extrapolation might provide an alternative non-DNA requiring route to produce a DNA dino-likeness. He was thus acknowledging the unlikelihood of recovering DNA from ancient dinosaurs.5 But how long could sequenceable DNA last?
After death, the absence of cellular DNA-repair mechanisms allows unchecked cleavage of chemical bonds. Bacteria also destroy DNA. However, water is thought to be the greatest factor promoting DNA strand cleavage. Therefore, paleogeneticists led by Morten Allentoft and Michael Bunce set out to see whether DNA decays at a predictable rate. DNA decay does follow an exponential decay pattern in human tissues within twenty days after death, but does that pattern continue over decades, millennia, and millions of years?
Temperature, the chemical conditions during fossilization and preservation, the presence of bacteria, and even duration of storage after excavation are all factors that could complicate this question. The researchers examined the DNA in 158 leg bones from moa, extinct giant birds. The bones were excavated over the past 70 years from three sites in New Zealand. The sites are close to each other, and the fossils are all believed to have been preserved under nearly identical conditions at a temperature of 13.1 ºC (55.6 ºF). Radiocarbon dates for the bones suggest ages ranging from about 600 to 8,000 years.’6
By measuring the length of remaining mitochondrial DNA fragments, the team calculated the half-life of meaningfully sequenceable DNA. DNA half-life for a 242 base pair strand was 521 years, indicating a decay rate about 400 times slower than predicted. The researchers suspect that nuclear DNA decays considerably faster. They also reported that despite the rough correlation to radiocarbon-determined ages, there was a great deal of variation, possibly due to varying conditions during the process of fossilization. Nevertheless, extrapolating their calculations to other possible scenarios, they suggest that soft tissue preserved at –5 ºC might harbor DNA fragments about 30 base pairs long for considerable lengths of time, possibly allowing preservation of a meaningful amount of DNA in million-year old specimens, but not 65–million-year-old ones.’7
DNA certainly can last as long as Neanderthals and Denisovans, for their DNA has been recovered and sequenced. Evolutionists are convinced that dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago and therefore never lived at the same time as humans. However, the Neanderthal and Denisovan teeth and bone that have yielded DNA for analysis represent Ice Age people preserved since the time of the global Flood. The dinosaur fossils we have typically were buried during the global Flood and thus were preserved under different conditions that those of the ancient humans. The conditions of preservation, as the authors note, can greatly affect the rate of degradation. Thus, even though biblical history tells us that animals (which include dinosaurs) and humans were created about 6,000 years ago, we would not be able to reasonably predict preservation of dino-DNA.
The calculation of a “half-life” for DNA, while a useful figure to keep in mind, is dependent on the assumptions affecting interpretation of radiocarbon dates. Extrapolation of that number backwards in time rests on the uncertain knowledge of the conditions of preservation as well as the assumptions affecting the radiometric dates by which future specimens are calculated. Thus, age estimates based on the degree of DNA preservation, sure to come in the future, will need to be taken with a grain of salt.
CERN summit seeks a “common ground” conclusion about the origin of everything.
A conference bringing together scientists, philosophers, and theologians gathered in Geneva this week to explore the implications of the Higgs boson (aka “the god particle”) on beliefs about the origin of all things. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, last July finally observed the elusive “missing cornerstone of particle physics.”8 This three-day event—“The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?”—was organized to enable “scientists from a range of disciplines to dialogue with philosophers and theologians from the world religions about the nature of the Big Bang Theory.”9 According to CERN director Rolf Heuer, CERN intended it as a forum to discuss the “deeper insight and understanding of the moments after the Big Bang” provided by the Higgs discovery.
“We might find new ways of talking to each other about the beginning of the world,” explained the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Brussels representative Gary Wilton, adding that the Higgs particle “raised lots of questions [about the origins of the universe] that scientists alone can’t answer. They need to explore them with theologians and philosophers.” He hopes that “scientists, theologians and philosophers alike might gain fresh insights from each other's disciplines.”
In particular, the presence of Oxford apologist John Lennox, an outspoken critic of atheism, was expected to inject a voice for God into the mix. In response to atheistic physicist Lawrence Krauss’s assertion that “the Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God,” Lennox recently published an essay “Not the God of the Gaps, But of the Whole Show”10 Lennox indicated that discovery of a scientific or natural explanation does not write God out of the picture—He’s the one that created the picture in the first place. God created all things—including the laws of physics. Lennox’s analysis mentioned the truly great physicists who honored the God whose creation they studied. Lennox is a committed Christian, and his writings have encouraged Christians to defend their faith. Unfortunately, Lennox’s own position on the historicity of the book of Genesis (e.g., age of the earth) compromises Scripture to fit mainstream scientific interpretations of origins that spring from an atheistic worldview. (See Review of John Lennox’s Book Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science for a thorough discussion.)
Many seem to believe that the Higgs discovery explains origins, proves the big bang happened, and eliminates the need for a Creator. However, the ability to produce, in a laboratory, conditions that supposedly existed after a theoretical big bang does not prove those conditions ever came about naturally or that the big bang produced the universe. The Higgs boson discovery deepens our understanding of the nature of matter and energy, but does not rule out a supernaturally created origin for that matter and energy.
So could this meeting of the minds arrive at genuine answers? No. While Wilton is correct that science cannot provide all the answers about origins—such as those raised by Lennox—the starting point for discussion at the CERN conference was the presumption that the big bang was an actual historical event, established unquestionably in the delegates’ minds. The corollary of this starting point is that the Word of God—with God’s eyewitness account of origins—cannot be trusted.
The delegates’ conclusions may satisfy some, but with the unverifiable “truth” of the big bang as their starting point and their predetermination to deny Scriptural truth, they must inevitably draw untrue conclusions. “Common ground” with those who maintain the big bang occurred can only be reached through Scriptural compromise. Indeed, why would any secular scientist give heed to the claims that a divine Creator exists when those who represent Him distort His own eyewitness account of creation?
National Center for Science Education weighs in on the Bill Nye story.
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is primarily concerned with promoting evolutionary teaching and aggressively opposing creationist initiatives. Commenting on creationist responses to Bill Nye’s video crusade against teaching creationist beliefs to children,11 NCSE’s programs and policy director Steven Newton has written a column reiterating the NCSE’s dogmatic positions and claims.
“Evolution should not—in the year 2012, after a century and a half of scientific verification from multiple independent lines of evidence—be the subject of controversy,” according to Newton. By claiming the evidential support for evolution comes from “independent” lines of reasoning, Newton misrepresents the facts. Each “line of evidence” is interpreted on the basis of the same unverifiable assumptions. Resulting conclusions are used to support each other. This sort of reasoning is circular. And “verification” is also a deceptive word, since scientific “verification” requires controlled, repeatable scientific tests. Such tests to verify evolution are not possible, because the time of origins is long past and cannot be observed. Tests performed in the present to determine facts about the time long past are based on the unverifiable conditions presumed to have existed.
Several times Newton makes the usual NCSE assertion that no scientific controversy about evolution even exists. He says the “fierce, emotional response” is a “social (not scientific) controversy.” However, discerning between historical and experimental science is relevant to understanding how science works. And historical (origins) science depends upon worldview-based interpretations. By claiming no legitimate controversy exists, the NCSE is discouraging teachers from teaching children to be scientifically literate, discerning individuals.
To support his point that the debate over teaching evolution has nothing to do with science, Newton cites the Scopes trial and Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act, which legislated against teaching “that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Newton writes, “The Tennessee legislature of the 1920s simply was unwilling to accept the reality of common descent with modification for all organisms, including humans, from earlier ancestors.” As usual, Newton is putting forth molecules-to-man evolution as if it were incontrovertibly factual when in reality those lines of common descent are imaginary lines in the minds of evolutionists. Transitional forms are notoriously lacking, and no mechanism has ever been found to provide for the acquisition of new genetic material to fuel upward evolution through random natural processes. Second, the Butler Act did not, as is commonly believed, outlaw evolution in Tennessee. The teaching of the evolution of all organisms was still permitted in the state, save human evolution.
Ironically, Newton’s Scopes example is a particularly poor choice to challenge the Tennessee legislature’s grasp of reality. The “scientific evidence” Darrow had entered into the court record consisted of an array of now-discredited “proofs” of evolution. Furthermore, Hunter’s A Civic Biology, the textbook Darrow championed as “enlightened science,” promoted an extremely racist view on an evolutionary basis and even advocated Darwinian eugenics.12
Of course the NCSE spokesman says Nye was correct in his assertion that evolutionary theory is fundamental to all life science. Rebutting this notion, evolutionist Adam Wilkins in the year 2000 published an article pointing to the paradoxical place of evolution in modern biology. He wrote, “While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,’ most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas. ‘Evolution’ would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”13
Newton accuses creationists of holding “grotesque assumptions about science.” He doesn’t specify. Creation scientists maintain that the scientific method involves controlled, testable, repeatable observations. Does the NCSE thinks the scientific method is “grotesque”?
NCSE spokesman Steven Newton also seems to be ignorant of Nye’s background. Newton claimed, “AiG has a long history of attacking Nye, mockingly awarding him their 2010 ‘Humanist of the Year’ award.” In fact, Mr. Nye did receive the 2010 “Humanist of the Year” award, but not from Answers in Genesis! The American Humanist Association has been giving out the award since 1953. Nye, in his acceptance speech, said that, to deal with the problem of people not believing in evolution, “what we have to do is find a story that is more compelling, and I think we can plan that easily because instead of focusing on the truth we focus on the pursuit of it. We focus on the scientific method as a way to find the truth.”14 However, the scientific method cannot objectively provide the truth about origins because the long past time of origins is not amenable to experimental testing.
The NCSE praises Nye’s stand on the necessity of accepting evolution in order to make technological and economic progress and even to be scientifically literate. However, evolutionary dogma does not contribute to the “here-and-now” science used to probe the secrets of the present and to develop new technologies. And when it comes to scientific literacy, our nation’s children will be far more literate if they can discern the difference between what can be seen and tested and what can only be imagined.
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