Does evolution or creation better explain the rapid emergence of complex animals? If there’s one event in Earth’s fossil record history that garners more spirited discussion than any other, it would be the Cambrian explosion.

The Cambrian explosion refers to the sudden simultaneous appearance of a broad diversity of the first skeletal animals. These animals manifested, for the first time in Earth’s history, bilateral symmetry, hard body parts, digestive tracts, circulatory systems, and complex internal and external organs. They arrived not just in one or two phyla (basic body plans). Between 50 to 80% of all animal phyla known to exist in Earth’s history appeared within a few million years or less—a geological instant—after the beginning of the Cambrian geological period 543 million years ago. Now, thanks to a new fossil discovery by paleontologists John Paterson, Gregory Edgecombe, and Diego García-Bellido,1 it is evident that the Cambrian explosion is more complex and explosive than previously thought.

One of the phyla that appeared in the Cambrian explosion is Arthropoda, which persists to this day in the form of insects, arachnids (spiders, scorpions, ticks, etc.), myriapods (centipedes and millipedes), and crustaceans. An order within Arthropoda, Radiodonta, existed only during the Cambrian period and included the earliest known large predators. They possessed claws, jaws with rows of teeth, prominent eyes, gills for respiration, and limbs for swimming (see figure 1).

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Figure 1: Radiodont examples. Body sizes ranged from 2 centimeters to 2 meters. Image credit: Junnn11, Creative Commons Attribution.

The most famous species member of Radiodonta is Anomalocaris aff. canadensis (the reddish creature in the top right corner of figure 1). Fossils of this creature are

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Figure 2: Fossils of the claws of Anomalocaris aff. canadensis. Image credit: Hugh Ross.

abundant in the Burgess Shale fossil beds in British Columbia, the first discovered evidence of the Cambrian explosion. A few years ago, Reasons to Believe (RTB) took about 40 ministry supporters on an expedition conference to the Burgess Shale fossil beds. Figure 2 shows photos I took of fossils of A. aff. canadensis claws.

Other Burgess Shaletype fossil beds have since been discovered. The most notable one is located in Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island, South Australia (see figure 3).

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Figure 3: Location of Emu Bay (arrow) on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Map credit: Department of Health, Australian Government.

The Emu Bay Shale has yielded many A. aff. canadensis fossils. These remains reveal well-preserved details of the compound eyes of the species. What Paterson, Edgecombe, and García-Bellido discovered among the Emu Bay shale are new fossils of the compound eyes of another Anomalocaris species, ‘Anomalocaris’ briggsi.

What surprised the three paleontologists was how distinct the compound eyes of each species appeared to beThe two compound eyes of A. aff. canadensis appear on top of two stalks (see figure 1) and each eye measures a little more than 4 centimeters across. Each compound eye consists of 24,000 lenses (see figure 4). The eyes of A. aff. canadensis are optimally designed for hunting prey in well-lit waters.

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Figure 4: Fossil of part of the compound eye of Anomalocaris aff. canadensis. The white bar at lower left= 5 millimeters. Image credit: Paterson, Edgecombe, and García-Bellido, Science Advances 6, id. eabc6721.

By comparison, the compound eyes of ‘A.’ briggsi are not on stalks. Each eye measures 7–9 millimeters across and consists of 13,000 lenses (see figure 5). The eyes of ‘A.’ briggsi are optimally designed for detecting plankton in dimly lit waters.

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Figure 5: Fossil of parts of the compound eye of ‘Anomalocaris’ briggsi. The white bar at lower left = 5 millimeters. Image credit: Paterson, Edgecombe, and García-Bellido, Science Advances 6, id. eabc6721.

Paleontologists have known for several decades that every basic eye design present among animals today was present among the Cambrian explosion animals. This new find establishes that within a basic eye design, Cambrian explosion animals display both diversity and specialization. Paterson, Edgecombe, and García-Bellido’s discovery provides more evidence for biologist Andrew Parker’s 2011 statement on the Cambrian explosion:

At no other time in Earth’s history has there been such a profusion, such an exuberance, and such an overwhelming diversity in so short time, within one million years.2

RTB scholars maintain that such diversity and specialization speak of a Creator’s purposeful design. Moreover, this discovery and the Cambrian event demonstrate more forcibly what evolutionary biologists Kevin Peterson, Michael Dietrich, and Mark McPeek wrote in a review paper on the Cambrian explosion in 2009:

Elucidating the materialistic basis of the Cambrian explosion has become more elusive, not less, the more we know about the event itself.3

Featured Image: Emu Bay Shale Formation
Credit: David Simpson

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes

  1. John R. Paterson, Gregory D. Edgecombe, and Diego C. García-Bellido, “Disparate Compound Eyes of Cambrian Radiodonts Reveal Their Developmental Growth Mode and Diverse Visual Ecology,” Science Advances 6, no. 49 (December 2, 2020): id. eabc6721, doi:10.1126/sciadv.abc6721.
  2. Andrew R. Parker, “On the Origin of Optics,” Optics and Laser Technology 43, no. 2 (March 2011): 323, doi:10.1016/j.optlastec.2008.12.020.
  3. Kevin J. Peterson, Michael R. Dietrich, and Mark A. McPeek, “MicroRNAs and Metazoan Macroevolution: Insights into Canalization, Complexity, and the Cambrian Explosion,” BioEssays 31, no. 7 (July 2009): 737, doi:10.1002/bies.200900033.

About The Author

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. I also am eager to equip Christians to engage, rather than withdraw from or attack, educated non-Christians. One of the approaches I’ve developed, with the help of my RTB colleagues, is a biblical creation model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive. I enjoy constructively integrating all 66 books of the Bible with all the science disciplines as a way to discover and apply deeper truths. 1 Peter 3:15–16 sets my ministry goal, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or "quasars," some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe. Not all of Hugh's discoveries involved astrophysics. Prompted by curiosity, he studied the world’s religions and "holy books" and found only one book that proved scientifically and historically accurate: the Bible. Hugh started at religious "ground zero" and through scientific and historical reality-testing became convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God! When he went on to describe for others his journey to faith in Jesus Christ, he was surprised to discover how many people believed or disbelieved without checking the evidence. Hugh's unshakable confidence that God's revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict became his unique message. Wholeheartedly encouraged by family and friends, communicating that message as broadly and clearly as possible became his mission. Thus, in 1986, he founded science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB). He and his colleagues at RTB keep tabs on the frontiers of research to share with scientists and nonscientists alike the thrilling news of what's being discovered and how it connects with biblical theology. In this realm, he has written many books, including: The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos, Beyond the Cosmos, A Matter of Days, Creation as Science, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory. Between writing books and articles, recording podcasts, and taking interviews, Hugh travels the world challenging students and faculty, churches and professional groups, to consider what they believe and why. He presents a persuasive case for Christianity without applying pressure. Because he treats people's questions and comments with respect, he is in great demand as a speaker and as a talk-radio and television guest. Having grown up amid the splendor of Canada's mountains, wildlife, and waterways, Hugh loves the outdoors. Hiking, trail running, and photography are among his favorite recreational pursuits - in addition to stargazing. Hugh lives in Southern California with his wife, Kathy, and two sons.



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