Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Small Note On Animal Fossils Before The Cambrian "Explosion"

Every now and then there appears a news story about metazoan fossil findings that expresses great astonishment and surprise that there is NOW... THIS TIME.. new evidence that multicellular animals evolved long before their celebrated preservation in the Chengjiang and Burgess shale Lagerstatte.

But we have known that for a long time.  The Neo-Proterozoic and early Cambrian fossil record is so much better and is improving and paleo-biologists and palaeontologists have recognized in it the gradual increase in complexity of metazoans over a 50-60 million year period before the exceptional preservation windows of Chengjiang and Burgess shale gives us a false impression of a sudden appearance of complex multicellular animals. This artifact has been exploited by creationists who claim that the fossil record actually supports their creation story of a sudden origin, under some intelligent guidance, of complex animals in the Cambrian, summarized in books like Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. The best rebuttal I have come across of the creationists many misunderstandings of early animal evolution is this excellent article by Nick Matzke.

Let me just post this invaluable figure below which summarizes the Neo-Protoerozic - Cambrian metazoan fossil record. This is from James Valentine's book On The Origin Of Phyla.  It shows clearly that metazoan complexity and diversity increased gradually over time. Molecular phylogeny which aims to reconstruct the last common ancestor of animals based on genetic similarities and differences also tells us that the origin of multicellular animals goes back at least 600 million years ago, maybe even more, a good 80-100 million years before the evolution of calcium carbonate skeletonization made their existence obvious in early Cambrian. Next time a news item appears that claims that somehow fossil embryos or fossil burrows from the Neo-Proterozoic times are some shocking new finding that will change our understanding of animal evolution - don't believe it.

Source: On The Origin Of Phyla


  1. Would you say Valentine's book is accessible to someone whose primary education is in geology, rather than biology. I'm not biologically naive, but the Amazon blurbs make it look as if it might get into some pretty technical biochem, which is not my thing.

  2. Lockwood- I don't have formal training in biology either, but still got a lot out of the book. I admit I skipped some biology intensive parts, but learned a lot about the fossil record, methods of analysis and the Phanerozoic history of phyla.