A paleobiologist’s response to Darwin’s Dilemma

I’ve posted twice (here and here) about the intelligent-design movie Darwin’s Dilemma, a DVD of which was sent to me by participant and young-earth creationist Paul Nelson.  When I was in the UK two weeks ago, I gave the DVD to a friend studying paleontology at Oxford University, who in turn showed it to a group of students and faculty.

As you might remember, “Darwin’s dilemma” referred to the Cambrian “explosion,” in which many extant phyla arose within a geologically brief period (around 10-15 million years) in the early Cambrian.  The film considers this sudden appearance, which it interprets not just as geologically instantaneous but chronologically instantaneous, to be evidence for intelligent design (ID) of life.  It also makes several other arguments for ID, including the supposed impossibility of acquiring new genetic information by Darwinian natural selection.

Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford kindly volunteered to write a brief response to the film.  Brasier and his students have done important work on the early Cambrian and Ediacaran fauna, and so he’s eminently qualified to judge the film. He’s also just published a popular book on early life, including the Precambrian, Darwin’s Lost World: The Hidden History of Animal Life, which is very good.

Brasier’s response to the film:

Darwin’s Dilemma

The latest Intelligent Design film, called ‘Darwin’s Dilemma’, attempts to examine a problem that vexed poor Charles Darwin in 1859 – the puzzle of what we now call the ‘Cambrian explosion’. As an Oxford palaeontologist who has been working on this problem since 1966, I have been asked for my opinion on the veracity of its claims. Below are outlined some of what I take to be its more laughable misunderstandings.

1. The film makes a familiar mistake. There is a misplaced fixation upon beasts of the Burgess Shale. So antiquated is this view that the screenplay for this film could have been written by teachers in 1954, or even by Mack Sennett at Keystone studios in 1912, just after the Burgess Shale biota was first reported by Walcott. It needs to be remembered that the Burgess Shale appears far too late in the fossil record to tell us much about emergence of animals. Modern data shows that the explosion of modern phyla was beginning by about 545 Ma ago, with forms like Cloudina and Sabellidites. Since the Burgess Shale is a mere 505 Ma old, this gives us palaeontologists some 40 million years to play with. What a gift!

2. A rich fossil record of early animal remains has been discovered from near the end of the Ediacaran period at about 545 Ma to the appearance of calcified trilobites and echinoderms in the Chengjiang biota, some 520 Ma ago. This transitional period, variously known as the Tommotian or Fortunian Stage, contains examples of transitional forms. For example, Halkieria and Maikhanella are probable stem group ‘molluscs’ with multi-element shells; Eccentrotheca and Camenella are taken to be stem group ‘brachiopods’ with multi-element shells. Dozens of scientists have been writing about these materials in recent years.  Some 20 million years of evolution has thereby been ignored. Or censored.

3. The first great mass extinction took place about 520 million years ago, during the Botomian and Toyonian Stages – well before the Burgess Shale. A rich diversity of reef building animals disappeared forever. These included archaeocyathan sponges and many small shelly fossils. But there is no mention of this. Did the film producers suffer amnesia at this point in the story? Or did that great prankster – the Intelligent Designer – make some big mistakes? If so, why call Her intelligent?

4. The film makes another common mistake. When Darwin referred to the need for many small steps in evolution, he did not say whether these steps had to be either fast or slow. Small steps can be made very quickly indeed – as with virus evolution today.

5. The film appears to have been shot within the walls of Cambridge University UK, with interviews taking place in the Sedgwick Museum, or around colleges such as St John’s and King’s College.  Some think they perceive some blue highlights around the faces here, suggesting blue-screen shots in which the Cambridge settings have been imposed later. Whether real or false, this gives to the film a wholly spurious authority; rhe impression of a forgery.

For those interested, some of these evolutionary developments can be followed in my recent book on Darwin’s Dilemma, called Darwin’s Lost World (OUP, 2009), which takes the reader back from the Burgess Shale to the earliest multicellular organisms. Research into this fascinating interval remains wide open and is only just beginning. The Cambrian explosion was a real and entirely natural event, as was the wave of extinctions that followed. What a wonderful world!


Thanks to Martin for this analysis!


  1. Insightful Ape
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    It still bugles my mind how a young earth creationist can believe in the Cambrian explosion, but not the CAMBRIAN.
    The “designer” only knows to what depths their dishonesty will take them.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted February 13, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      If dishonest was the issue the creationists could be “saved”; however, but fanaticism is the problem. Consider their easy dismissal of Biblical facts contrary to scientific discoveries.

      Not too long ago they claimed dinosaurs never existed, God but them in the fossil record. Today the Creation Museum has kids playing with dinosaurs.

      They are the perfect example of Eric Hoffer’s Rue Believers.

  2. Posted February 13, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I trust Darwin’s Dilemma is a complete farce, but this quick review is dissatisfyingly light. I’d have to read his book for more complete info on the Cambrian, but a relatively short explanation of the basics of the Cambrian explosion would be great. Anybody have any sources for this?

    1. What amount of change can occur in 40 million years? That’s still a relatively short amount of time.

    3. What does a mass extinction mean for explaining the Cambrian explosion? Doesn’t that make it harder to account for?

    4. This is actually disingenuous. Virus evolution is completely irrelevant to the Cambrian explosion.

    5. Who cares if they super-imposed halos over their heads, focus on the arguments.

  3. Posted February 13, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Hey Norwegian Shooter,

    If you email me your regular mailing address (nelsonpa@alumni.uchicago.edu), I’ll send you the DVD, gratis. You can watch it and make up your own mind.

    A couple of comments on Brasier’s review:

    1. The film starts with the Burgess Shale, because the locale is visually spectacular and has a colorful history (Walcott’s work, etc.). But the film also covers earlier sites (e.g., Chengjiang), and mentions the global extent of the explosion.

    2. Yes, some metazoan groups (e.g., sponges) show up in the record before the main event. But to say that (for instance) halkierids are stem-group molluscs invites exactly the debate the movie encourages. “The purported homologies that permit coeloscleritophorans [Halkieria] such a central position in protostome evolution are quite speculative” (J. Valentine, Origin of the Phyla [2004, p. 335].

    3. Plenty of documentaries film their talking heads in front of green screens, and later insert backdrops that are more interesting than a wall. Standard practice.

    4. I’ll stop talking about the Cambrian Explosion if Jerry stops talking about theology. As that’s not going to happen in either case…the discussion continues.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 13, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink


      Thanks for this note. Two questions
      1. So it’s true that the people were filmed in front of a backdrop, with the academic setting inserted later?

      2. Do you agree, at least, that the Cambrian explosion occurred ca. 530 million years ago rather than, say, ten thousand years ago? That is, do you still adhere to young-earth creationism?

      • Posted February 13, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Hi Jerry,

        1. My interview was filmed in Los Angeles, in front of a green screen. The producers told me they would insert a backdrop later. (I don’t even know where it is — the Sedgwick Museum, apparently.)

        But it takes the primmest of virginal sensibilities to see this as relevant. When I watch a science documentary interview with someone placed in front of the spiral arms of Andromeda, I don’t assume the producers made special arrangements with NASA to get her out there and back.

        Concentrate on what I am saying, not the background.

        2. My position on the timing of the Cambrian Explosion (in Darwin’s Dilemma) is taken arguendo. That is, on the assumption of […the whole bundle of assumptions that go into radiometric dating, etc…] the Cambrian Explosion occurred ca. 530 million years ago. My YEC colleague Marcus Ross received his PhD in paleontology from the Univ. of Rhode Island, with the full knowledge of his dissertation committee, using the same principle of “Let’s assume.”

        I can’t see why people regard this as so puzzling. It’s simply the difference, in education or intellectual life generally, between understanding and belief. When I taught in the College at the U of C (1987-91), I expected my students to understand Nietzsche, or Plato, or Montaigne. I didn’t expect them to believe these authors, in the sense of holding their views as beyond reasonable doubt.

        A parallel from your own recent work, Jerry:

        “What I mean by ‘bad design’ is the notion that if organisms were built from scratch by a designer — one who used the biological building blocks of nerves, muscles, bone, and so on — they would not have such imperfections.” (Why Evolution is True, p. 81)

        At the head of this chain of reasoning are theological assumptions. Indeed the passage could begin, “Assuming arguendo,” but the “if” is in there anywhere to indicate the contingent nature of the argument.

        You borrowed your theology from somewhere. (I happen to think it’s wrong, but that’s another discussion.) In any case, we do this all the time. Intellectual life depends on it.

        “Assuming arguendo…” An ordinary practice of the life of the mind.

        I still adhere to YEC for theological reasons. I’ll mail you the only thing I’ve ever published on the topic (a book chapter), so you’ll understand my position better.

      • Posted February 13, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        {Responding to Paul’s post below}

        Paul, when you say things like “…the whole bundle of assumptions that go into radiometric dating, etc…” do you take these assumptions to be necessary or absurd? To me there are different types of assumptions; there are simplifying assumptions that go into scientific models that we know to be incorrect but are nevertheless necessary based on the question at hand (e.g., if we are interested in the mechanical advantage of a pulley we can assume that a pulley–at first blush–operates without friction). The incorrectness of the assumption is generally irrelevant to the explanandum requiring an answer. And then there are assumptions-as-postulates; things we generally assume to be true (like the transitive property in geometry or the premises that comprise Price’s theorem in evolutionary biology). I don’t know the ins-n-outs of radiometric dating to know how many assumptions are incorrect-but-irrelevant simplifications and how many are assumptions-as-postulates. But in any case, the explanatory power of science doesn’t rest on the contingency of its assumptions. No one would question the scientific explanation for why pulleys increase mechanical advantage just because friction is a real phenomenon of nature.

        More strangely, it sounds as if you are saying you believe the earth to be young but you understand the earth to be old. I find the whole arguendo bit to be a strange epistemological commitment to impose to your senses. You can believe that gnomes lined up along the equator synchronously run in place and that’s what causes the earth to spin, but since there is no evidence for gnomes why persist in this belief when better explanations allow you to understand why the earth spins? It’s almost as if you are saying you know how science works but not why it works.

      • Posted February 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        Actually Paul’s post ABOVE (sorry).

      • Elminster
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

        So… the science is fake and the film too !

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 13, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      I’m just a layman, but that makes us even. But I note that your point about debate, not surprisingly, is reversed 180 degrees from the actual situation.

      There was and likely is a scientific debate about results and so on, because that is how science acts and must act to falsify false data and theory.

      The movie doesn’t even intrude on that debate, and in fact discourage it by “forgetting” such relevant facts. Not to mention the creationist world view in general, where a foregone conclusion is shored up by scattered pieces of data and debate and no falsification is allowed to happen. That perverse idea of how to reason about the unreasonable (the idea of religion, that is) is a debate killer, if anything.

      I’ll stop talking about the Cambrian Explosion if Jerry stops talking about theology.

      Totally different situations.

      Facts is when a hammer hits your head, religious belief is when you think Santa Claus used a hammer to hit your head. But in the first case you have a scare and an head ache to test against. In the second case all you have is a false accusation of what happened purely based on a pitiful fantasy.

      Of course Jerry, or anyone else, can authoritatively tell you your fantasy is a fantasy. But only a biologist can authoritatively discuss biological facts.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted February 13, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        “a scare”. He, maybe so, but moreover a scar of course.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted February 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      But you still haven’t told us, did the Cambrian exist or not? You cannot argue that the worl is 6000 years old and then “assume for the sake of argument” that something miraculous must have happened over 500 million years ago.
      Incidentally, “assuming” that the Cambrian explosion went on for over 40 million years, can you even call it an explosion?

    • Hansen
      Posted February 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      But it takes the primmest of virginal sensibilities to see this as relevant. When I watch a science documentary interview with someone placed in front of the spiral arms of Andromeda, I don’t assume the producers made special arrangements with NASA to get her out there and back.

      The science documentary isn’t trying to deceive viewers into believing that the person is actually being interviewed in the vicinity of the Andromeda galaxy. If you really did use green screen tricks to give the impression of authority from a prestigious university, then it is very relevant when reviewing your film.

  4. Wayne Robinson
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I apologize to Norwegian Shooter; I hadn’t realised he was discussing points made by Professor Brasier, and point 2 wasn’t thought necessary to comment about.

    With regard to Paul Nelson’s “When I watch a science documentary interview with someone placed in front of the spiral arms of Andromeda, I don’t assume the producers made special arrangements with NASA to get her out there and back”.
    It actually offends my pedantry. Paul Nelson is apparently thinking of the Whirlpool Galaxy, which has the famous spiral arms, and which is a popular target for amateur and professional astronomers, and which is accessible to observation with binoculars. Andromeda Galaxy is more edge on, and not as striking. Both Andromeda (2,500,000 light years away) and Whirlpool (23 million light years away) would provide problems for a YEC less than 10,000 year age of the Universe.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted February 13, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      You don’t need astronomy in order to provide problems for a YEC.
      Simple intellectual honesty is quite beyond their crippled minds.

  5. anthrosciguy
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    When I watch a science documentary interview with someone placed in front of the spiral arms of Andromeda, I don’t assume the producers made special arrangements with NASA to get her out there and back.

    When I see people standing in front of a distant celestial object, I don’t expect them to have been there either, but when I see them in an earthbound library or hall, I kinda do, don’t you?

  6. Insightful Ape
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne: “Creationists tell you living things were made by an intelligent designer. Assuming there is a designer, we also have to look at bad design of living things. So, an “intelligent” designer does not exists”.
    Paul Nelson: “All living things were created by god 6000 years ago. But the oldest multicellular organisms, assuming they are about 100 times older than I first told you, appeared magically out of thin air. Therefore, you’ve got to admit I got the god thing right, even if you know I am a total moron otherwise”.

  7. Alex
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    To explain Nelson’s (rather elementary) point a bit more clearly – he believes in YEC, but thinks that the Cambrian explosion is an internal problem for somebody who accepts evolution, 4.5 billion year old earth, etc. There’s nothing wrong with Paul talking as if the Cambrian explosion was really there if his point is to point out a tension that is confined to somebody else’s beliefs. This is done all the time.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted February 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Oh. Paul Nelson the psychoanalyst?
      Well but he is not qualified to “measure the tension” in a system he doesn’t understand. Just as he obviously doesn’t realize that something going on for 40 million years is not exactly “explosive”-how could he, believing the world is just 6000 years old?

      • Alex
        Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

        Well, that’s the way to argue against such an argument. You have to show that the alleged tension in your framework doesn’t exist – that the Cambrian explosion doesn’t represent an insurmountable challenge to evolutionary theory. And I don’t think IDers have managed to show that there is such a challenge. But the point was that Nelson can’t be accused of arguing dishonestly when he tries to point out internal tensions in what evolutionary biologists think. Again, this is done all the time in arguments.

      • Insightful Ape
        Posted February 14, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        Speaking of mental tensions, there is a little point that Paul Nelson needs to clarify for us.
        I am not interested in the “assuming for the sake of argument” line of fallacy. I want to know what HE THINKS. He can’t have it both ways.
        If he is a young earth creationist he cannot believe it did. But if he doesn’t it is hypocritical on his part to distribute a film that says he did.
        Someone is having mental tensions. And it is not me.

      • Alex
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        He doesn’t believe it did. Look at his post, he believes in YEC. But please explain how exactly it is hypocritical of him (even if his argument is wrong) to argue that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to someone who accepts evolution, old earth, etc? To take an analogous example – should being an atheist disqualify someone from arguing that the problem of evil is a challenge to someone who believes in God? Your response is as silly as a theist replying, “well do you believe in God or not? You can’t have it both ways.” You don’t have to accept the existence of God to argue (whether rightly or wrongly) that God, if he existed, wouldn’t permit evils X, Y, and Z.

        • Posted October 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

          Good point, Alex. “Assuming your whole argument were true, you still have problem X” is a line of argument I often use myself against creationism or intelligent design because lack of internal consistency does affect arguments based on either inconsistent basis.

          You don’t have to actually believe the system is true to argue within its postulates, despite what detractors might say.

          (Particularly silly detractors indicate that the presence of a WORD for a being or the like indicates that it therefore must actually exist. Ugh!)

          Of course, misunderstanding the postulates, their implications or their derivations does not help one’s case, as in Paul’s case here.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t be distributing a movie, the main point of which I disagree with and think is false, just to undercut the credibility of people I don’t like.
      Because it would hurt my own credibility even more.

  8. MadScientist
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    That reminds me of a news article a few weeks ago in which dinosaurs from the Cambrian era were wiped out by volcanoes which erupted coal. I was wondering whether the journalist’s primary source was Wikipedia or Answers in Genesis. I suspect there are a few 8-year-olds who could have educated the journalist about dinosaurs and volcanoes.

  9. Col
    Posted February 14, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry! I recently went to see a cretonist propaganda event in a local hotel after getting an invite dropped through my door. A Mr Ian Campbell from Newcastle (England) was the “speaker”. Tons of slides with the usual eye complexity, Behe as the Authority on cells blah blah blah and Darwin quote mined. There was even one quote mined slide of your good self! The dishonesty of it all was easily apparent to me but not the rest of the audience, including some children who were the congregation of the local church which had organized the event.

    • Gary Bates
      Posted March 7, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      I’m very interested in the talk of Mr Ian Campbell as I’ve just had the very same creationist propaganda nonsense through my front door. Was there an opportunity to ask questions at the end? And what were the nature of the quote mines that he used?

      I’d like to go along, but only if I get the chance to reply to the nonsense being spouted.

  10. Col
    Posted February 14, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Since when has being blatantly dishonest about evolution been classified as a discussion.

  11. krissmith777
    Posted June 25, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I posted on this film here:


  12. John
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Just realised viruses mentioned in evolution explanation as measure of how quick evolution happens. can someone out there explaining macro evolution perharps tell us…. What came first in the evolutionary process….. viruses? DNA? cells?….. and from what?

  13. Dan mason
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    The way both sides argue,you’d think that one side or the other was going to throw up their arms in surrender,and say”of course!why didn’t I see that before?”we both know that’s not going to happen.I am a born-again Christian who is also a student of science.while I don’t believe in a”young earth”I’m not convinced that evolution is true,and all I’ve read has not convinced me.Insults and ridicule will not work.intelligent discourse is welcome.

  14. steve
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    ….now.if.these.viruses ever evolve into protozoa,Doc, you might have something.
    One day we will ALL know the Truth….

  15. Lee Fitzpatrick
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    I don’t completely understand either side of this debate. I really don’t think it is relevant how young or old the earth is. I think the question is, “How does something, comes from nothing?” Every time I have asked this question, I get a detailed explanation of evolution or creation, but I never get an answer. So go back as many billions or years as you want, or just a few thousand years, and tell me where did matter of any kind start and how? Don’t tell me about a cosmic explosion; where did the matter come from that exploded. Don’t tell me about a designer, tell where the designer came from. Now those are answers I want to hear.

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/02/13/a-paleobiologists-response-to-darwins-dilemma/ […]

  2. […] H/T to Jerry Coyne […]

  3. […] hates facts, and hate reality. Get a bunch of creationists together to make a crappy movie and ithe smackdowns get even better. The latest Intelligent Design film, called ‘Darwin’s Dilemma’, attempts to examine a problem […]

  4. […] Prof. Martin Brasier: A rich fossil record of early animal remains has been discovered from near the end of the Ediacaran period at about 545 Ma to the appearance of calcified trilobites and echinoderms in the Chengjiang biota, some 520 Ma ago. This transitional period, variously known as the Tommotian or Fortunian Stage, contains examples of transitional forms. For example, Halkieria and Maikhanella are probable stem group ‘molluscs’ with multi-element shells; Eccentrotheca and Camenella are taken to be stem group ‘brachiopods’ […]

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