Missing Link? What Do You Mean, ‘Missing’? (an excerpt)

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for E...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a couple posts I’m working on at the moment, but don’t feel either are quite ready for publication. That being the case, please enjoy this excerpt from Richard DawkinsThe Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. This is the particular excerpt to which I was referring in yesterday’s post; the one which introduced me to the writing of Richard Dawkins and ultimately led to my “coming out” as an atheist, as well as to my particularly anti-religious viewpoint:

Creationists are deeply enamoured of the fossil record, because they have been taught (by each other) to repeat, over and over, the mantra that it is full of ‘gaps’: ‘Show me your “intermediates”!’ They fondly (very fondly) imagine that these ‘gaps’ are an embarrassment to evolutionists. Actually, we are lucky to have any fossils at all, let alone the massive numbers that we now do have to document evolutionary history – large numbers of which, by any standards, constitute beautiful ‘intermediates.’ I shall emphasize in Chapters 9 and 10 that we don’t need fossils in order to demonstrate that evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized. It is a bonus that we do actually have rich seams of fossils to mine, and more are discovered every day. The fossil evidence for evolution in many major animal groups is wonderfully strong. Nevertheless there are, of course, gaps, and creationists love them obsessively.

Let’s again make use of our analogy of the detective coming to the scene of a crime to which there were no eye witnesses. The baronet has been shot. Fingerprints, footprints, DNA from a sweat stain on the pistol, and a strong motive all point towards the butler. It’s pretty much an open and shut case, and the jury and everybody in the court is convinced that the butler did it. But a last-minute piece of evidence is discovered, in the nick of time before the jury retires to consider what had seemed to be their inevitable verdict of guilty: somebody remembers that the baronet had installed spy cameras against burglars. With bated breath, the court watches the films. One of them shows the butler in the act of opening the drawer in his pantry, taking out a pistol, loading it, and creeping stealthily out of the room with a malevolent gleam in his eye. You might think that this solidifies the case against the butler even further. Mark the sequel, however. The butler’s defence lawyer astutely points out that there was no spy camera in the library where the murder took place, and no spy camera in the corridor leading from the butler’s pantry. He wags his finger, in that compelling way that lawyers have made their own. ‘There’s a gap in the video record! We don’t know what happened after the butler left the pantry. There is clearly insufficient evidence to convict my client.’

In vain the prosecution lawyer points out that there was a second camera in the billiard room, and this shows, through the open door, the butler, gun at the ready, creeping on tiptoe along the passage towards the library. Surely this plugs the gap in the video record? Surely the case against the butler is now unassailable? But no. Triumphantly the defence lawyer plays his ace. ‘We don’t know what happened before or after the butler passed the open door of the billiard room. There are now two gaps in the video record. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my case rests. There is now even less evidence against my client than there was before.’

The fossil record, like the spy camera in the murder story, is a bonus, something that we had no right to expect as a matter of entitlement. There is already more than enough evidence to convict the butler without the spy camera, and the jury were about to deliver a guilty verdict before the spy camera was discovered. Similarly, there is more than enough evidence for the fact of evolution in the comparative study of modern species (Chapter 10) and their geographical distribution (Chapter 9). We don’t need fossils – the case for evolution is watertight without them; so it is paradoxical to use gaps in the fossil record as though they were evidence against evolution. We are, as I say, lucky to have fossils at all.

–Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution