Feature Article - February 1999
by Do-While Jones

Death and Taxonomy

Evolutionists claim two kinds of evidence for evolution are inescapable--death and taxonomy. 1 First, there is the fossil record of dead things. Second, there is obvious similarity of most species, which they use to construct a taxonomy.

If evolution were true, then death and taxonomy should tell the same story of evolution. That is, if taxonomy shows that critter A evolved into critter B, which evolved into critter C, then the fossil record should show that same sequence. Since they don’t, evolutionists have been trying to find some way to reconcile them.

Rejection of the Fossil Record

It appears that evolutionists are beginning to reconcile the discrepancy by rejecting the fossil record completely. This is evident from an on-line debate sponsored by Nature magazine (Ev) last November. This debate ran for several weeks. Unfortunately, those web pages are no longer on-line. We did, however, have the foresight to download most of them and kept copies of them in our files.

Dr. Andrew Smith, the moderator of the debate, summarized the controversy in the quotation below. He used lots of jargon unfamiliar to people outside the field. So, we have translated what he said from academic English into plain English, sentence by sentence, inside square brackets.

Nowhere is argument over the adequacy of the fossil record thrown into sharper focus than over the question of reconstructing phylogenetic 2 relationships. [There is general disagreement over whether the fossil record is useful for anything. The greatest disagreement is whether or not the fossil record can be used to tell how species are related to each other.] That fossil taxa ought to be included in data matrices together with extant taxa for phylogenetic analysis is no longer contentious. [Everyone agrees that one should be able to create a family tree that includes both extinct species and living species.] However, opinion remains sharply divided as to how best to use associated temporal (stratigraphic 3) information. [But even the experts can’t agree upon how important the ages of the fossils, as determined by the location of fossils in various rock layers, should be when trying to construct an evolutionary family tree.]

Some think that the order of stratigraphic appearance of species in the fossil record should play a central role in phylogenetic tree-building. [Some think the location of fossils in the various rock layers is of primary importance when constructing the evolutionary tree.] In such cases stratigraphic order is used from the outset to influence and direct branching relationships by maximizing the congruence between the age of a species' first occurrence in the fossil record and how early it branches from a phylogenetic tree. [These experts believe you ought to start from the belief that the fossils in the deepest rock layers are the oldest, and therefore the most primitive ancestors. The fossils in the higher layers must have evolved from them. So, the deepest fossils should be near the base of the tree, and the higher fossils should come from some of the higher branches. The branches of the evolutionary tree should match the fossil data as closely as possible.]

Others see stratigraphy as irrelevant to phylogeny, and are happy to dismiss mismatches between the fossil record and cladistic hierarchy, no matter how striking, as a result of an inadequate fossil record. [Other experts say the fossil record is so incomplete and inadequate that it is entirely irrelevant. Whenever the evolutionary relationship suggested by the fossil record does not agree with the evolutionary relationship suggested by taxonomy, the fossil evidence should be ignored.] The role of stratigraphy is then restricted to post hoc dating of branching events. [If the fossil record is good for anything at all, it might be useful for determining when species diverged, provided you have already used similarity to determine which species diverged.]

After two weeks of debate, Peter Forey made this observation:

Smith, in his introduction to this debate, asked participants to direct their attention to two questions:

1. At what level of taxonomic and temporal resolution does the available fossil record provide a true and accurate record? [Is the fossil record accurate?]

2. When, if ever, should stratigraphic information be brought into play when reconstructing phylogenetic history? [Should the fossil record be used to build an evolutionary tree?]

The contributors have so far covered a wide spectrum, from those believing the record is accurate and should be used to reconstruct phylogeny, to those, like me, who totally disagree, believing the record to be distorted and of no use in reconstructing phylogenies. [Some experts say “yes” to both questions. Forey and others say “no” to both.]

These evolutionists would not even be having this debate if the evolutionary relationship suggested by the location of fossils in the rocks generally agreed with the process of evolution that one might presume simply by looking at the similarity of critters.

Taxonomy and Evolution

In the 18th century, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus established the modern classification system of living things based on their resemblance to other organisms. For example, the bobcat, cheetah, domestic cat, jaguar, leopard, lion, lynx, ocelot, puma, and tiger, all share some common characteristics. So, they are all classified as members of the cat family. There are also families of bears, dogs, horses, and camels, etc.

Linnaeus grouped all these families into orders. The Bear family, Cat family, and Dog family were grouped in the Carnivore order. The Hamster, Mice, and Rat families were grouped in the Rodent order. These two orders, and 16 other orders, are grouped together in the Mammal class because all of them bear live young and nurse them with milk.

The Mammal class is grouped with the Fish, Amphibian, Bird, and Reptile classes in the Vertebrate phylum because they all have backbones. The Invertebrate phylum contains animals without backbones, such as worms, insects, and clams. The Vertebrate and Invertebrate phyla make up the Animal kingdom, which is a separate classification from the Vegetable kingdom.

Of course we’ve left out a lot of species, families, orders, classes, and even a couple of kingdoms (bacteria aren’t animal or vegetable) in this brief overview of taxonomy because there are so many species, families, etc. We hope we have presented enough detail, however, to show how biologists classify living things in a hierarchical structure (a taxonomy). (There is an excellent web site, www.animalweb.com/animalworld/index.html, which lets you navigate through the entire animal kingdom if you want more detail.)

When Linnaeus created this classification, he did not have evolution in mind. He simply created categories that organized things to make it easier to study similar creatures.

Nearly 100 years later, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species, which added a new significance to these categories. Taxonomists then began to recognize that taxonomic categories reflect the evolutionary relatedness of organisms. The more categories two or more organisms share, the closer their evolutionary relationship. 4

In other words, evolutionists believe that because the bobcat, cheetah, domestic cat, jaguar, leopard, lion, lynx, ocelot, puma, and tiger are so similar, they all must have evolved from an extinct common ancestor (the missing cat link). They also believe that the missing cat ancestor, and the missing bear ancestor, and the missing dog ancestor all evolved from a missing carnivore ancestor. The missing carnivore ancestor and the missing rodent ancestor, and the missing ancestors of the other 16 orders, all evolved from a missing mammal ancestor. The missing mammal ancestor, the missing fish ancestor, the missing amphibian ancestor, the missing bird ancestor, and the missing reptile ancestor, all evolved from the missing vertebrate ancestor. (Or, perhaps, the missing bird ancestor evolved from a reptile ancestor.) And all these missing vertebrate ancestors either evolved from an unknown invertebrate, or evolved from the missing common ancestor of vertebrates and invertebrates.

We have to be a little vague about which missing common ancestors evolved from which other missing common ancestors because evolutionists are a little vague, and don’t always agree. But what they did agree on, at least in the 19th century, was that the fossil record would provide the answer.

If the classification system correctly reflects evolutionary history, then the fossil record should reflect that same history. At the lowest fossil layer there should be fossils of the one common ancestor of all vertebrates and invertebrates. Or, there should be fossil invertebrates, some of which show the beginnings of backbones. As we go higher in the fossil record some of the invertebrates with primitive backbones should evolve into critters with fully-functional backbones. This creature with the backbone would be the common ancestor of all vertebrates. Then, one should see the fossils showing how the common vertebrate ancestor evolved into fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Or, you might see fish evolving into the common ancestor of amphibians and reptiles. Then this unknown common ancestor might evolve into birds and mammals, too. Or, maybe a reptile became the common ancestor of birds and mammals.

Regardless of the details, the general trend in the fossil record should agree with the accepted taxonomy. That is, the oldest fossils should represent just a couple of primitive species, which slowly diversify into the five kingdoms of life; each kingdom evolving into phyla, and classes, which then diversify into orders, and finally the families of species we see today.

The Problem with the Fossil Record

The problem with the fossil record is that you don’t see anything at all like that general trend. There is the Cambrian Explosion of life right down at the bottom of the fossil record. The fossil record doesn’t support the sequence of evolution suggested by taxonomy--not by any stretch of the imagination--not in a million years (or hundreds of millions of years).

When I went to school, I was taught that fish were the first invertebrates, and that fish fossils did not appear until the Devonian era. Now we know that some fish fossils have been found in the Cambrian (lowest fossil-bearing) layer. I was taught that it took millions of years for complex organs, such as eyes, to evolve. But some of the trilobites in the Cambrian layer had eyes, which, as far as we can tell, were fully developed. The more we examine the fossil record, the more we find species that existed sooner than taxonomy says they should have.

That’s why evolutionists are now denigrating the fossil record. It doesn’t support gradual evolution consistent with taxonomy. There is no orderly division into phyla, classes, orders, and families. Instead, the fossil record supports the theory that all major life categories were present from the beginning of life, and that species started to go extinct shortly thereafter.

There is no question that there were more species alive in the past then there are now. Environmentalists keep reminding us that the trend is still continuing today. There is no evidence in the fossil record, or the present world, that new species spring up faster than old ones go extinct. Natural selection is eliminating some species, but it isn’t creating any new ones to take their places.

Taxonomy is Subjective

Paleontologists (people who study fossils) aren’t going to give up without a fight. They say the taxonomy is wrong. Taxonomy is easy to attack because its soft underbelly has long been exposed. Here’s what the biology textbook used at Cerro Coso Community College says about taxonomy in its “summary of key concepts.”

Taxonomy: An Inexact Science

Taxonomic categories are controversial and subject to revision, particularly in the case of asexually reproducing species. However, taxonomy is essential for precise communication and contributes to our understanding of the origins and diversity of species. 5

Categories are controversial because they are purely subjective. Is a bat a bird that learned how to give milk? or a mammal that learned how to fly? If classification is based on evolution, then the decision to classify a bat as a bird or a mammal depends upon whether you think mammary glands evolved twice, or the ability to fly evolved twice. It is all a matter of opinion.

The DNA inside a critter determines what the critter looks like on the outside, so DNA analysis can be used to determine similarity of critters. One can actually count the number of differences in the DNA molecules of two species, so DNA analysis is much less subjective than classification by outward appearance. DNA analysis might result in a more accurate taxonomy.

But even if we could determine the perfect taxonomy, it still doesn’t prove evolution. It merely shows that people can group things according to similarity, and that there is less argument about the classification when numerical methods are used.

Suppose someone asked you to paint 10,000 paintings, all so different that nobody could classify them. We don’t think you could do it. No matter what you paint, each painting could be divided into oil, acrylic, or watercolor. They could be divided into portraits, landscapes, geometric designs, and random patterns. Different people might classify them differently, depending upon what features those people think are most important, but they could be classified.

Just as it would be impossible for you to create paintings so diverse that someone could not put them in a logical hierarchy, even the most intelligent designer could not create a vast array of different creatures that could not be pigeonholed somehow. Classification does not imply evolution.

Escape from Death and Taxonomy

So death and taxonomy are not inescapable evidence of evolution. The fossil record does not show evolution. Taxonomy is merely man’s method of classifying critters. It doesn’t prove that those critters evolved any more than it proves they were created to be similar. Since death (as recorded in the fossil record) and taxonomy suggest different stories of evolutionary history, at least one, and probably both, are wrong.

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1 Webster defines “taxonomy” as “order classification of plants and animals according to their presumed natural relationships.” A “taxon” is a classification group. “Taxa” is the plural form of taxon.
2 Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate dictionary defines phylogenetic as “based on natural evolutionary relationships.” In other words, the phylogenetic relationship tells what critters evolved from other critters.
3 Stratigraphy is the geologic term for the study of rock layers. Here Dr. Smith is referring to the dating of fossils from the presumed age of the rock layers containing them.
4 Audesirk & Audesirk, Biology 4th edition (1996) page 388. (Ev)
5 Ibid. page 395