Fossils, Fundamentalism and the Closing of the Christadelphian Mind

Another puuuuurfect
article by the Ken-Cat
By Ken Gilmore    Source

Over a century ago, C.C. Walker, the second editor of The Christadelphian, on contemplating the continuity in the fossil record between extinct large birds, and contemporary birds, did what many in our community today would regard as unthinkable. He admitted that if this was proven, then our understanding of the creation narrative would have to change.
 
In 1910, Walker remarked:
‘If we suppose a sudden and absolute break some 6,000 years ago, or before, resulting in the destruction of all life, and that the creation account of Genesis describes a new creation following, we ought to find some evidence of the break, and we cannot well account for the apparently close relationship that obtains between extinct and existing forms. There are forms becoming extinct in our own day from slow and natural causes. May it not have been so in pre-Adamic times? The professors tell us for instance that some of these ancient birds, whose strides we can see for ourselves from their footprints were from four to six feet long, were like gigantic ostriches.’

 
Supposing that it were ever established that they were the actual progenitors of our smaller forms (“There were giants in the earth in those days” might apply to birds and beasts), would the credibility of the Mosaic narrative suffer? Not at all, in our estimation. We should indeed have to revise somewhat our interpretation of the brief cosmogony of Gen. 1.; but should not waver as concerning its divinity. [1]

In the intervening 114 years, palaeontology has confirmed the fact of large-scale evolutionary change in the fossil record [2] with the evolution of tetrapods, mammals, birds, and whales being particularly well documented in the fossil record. Vertebrate palaeontologist Donald Prothero's comments on the evolutionary history of terrestrial hoofed mammals alone show that the contingency contemplated by Walker arrived long ago:
In short, the fossil record of hoofed mammals is full of transitional fossils and even longer transitional sequences that demonstrate the origins of nearly all the living ungulates and tethytheres from ancestors that looked almost completely unlike their descendants. We now have the fossils that show where the perissodactyls came from (phenacodonts, Radinskya) and that document the radiation of the earliest horses, tapirs, rhinos, and brontotheres when they were almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye. We have the fossils that demonstrate the evolution of the horse family, the rhinoceroses, the tapirs, and the brontotheres, along with other examples not covered in this article. Their phylogenies are now much more bushy and branching, but otherwise, the general trends are the same that were observed over a century ago.
[…]
Likewise, we now have the fossils to document the early stages of the radiation of the artiodactyls and especially the bushy branching history of camels and giraffes, both of which lacked humps or long necks in their respective early histories. Finally, the fossil record of transitions within the Proboscidea is excellent, from pig- or tapir-like beasts like Moeritherium that creationists would never place in the “elephant kind” to a variety of mastodonts leading up to modern elephants. One of the best transitional fossils of all is Pezosiren portelli, a perfect intermediate form that shows how the aquatic manatees evolved from walking ancestors. [3]
Sixty years after Walker's remarkable article was printed, the fossil evidence for large-scale evolutionary change was impressive, with the transition from reptiles to mammals already well documented.  Certainly, by the early 1970s, Crompton and Jenkins, in a classic review paper on mammalian evolution noted that not only was the fossil evidence of mammalian evolution well established, it was hard to draw a line between mammal, and mammal-like reptile:
During the last twenty years, however, many late Triassic mammalian and middle to late Triassic therapsid remains have been collected….Clearly, advanced therapsids, such as cynodonts…gradually acquired many mammalian skeletal features…Thus, within a single phylogenetic lineage leading from a primitive mammal-like reptile to an undoubted mammal, it might be theoretically difficult to draw a sharp dividing line between a mammal and a mammal-like reptile. [4]
Unfortunately, by this time, the mood in our community had degenerated from open-minded engagement with the evidence, to a resolute ignorance. In 1969, Elwyn Humphreys, writing in the aftermath of the Ralph Lovelock affair, piously informed his readers to close their minds to any evidence that threatened a fundamentalist reading of the Bible:
In the last twenty years the pressure from the scientific view of origins has been increasingly felt among us. Attempts are made to reconcile the Bible view with that of modern science. It is the writer's opinion that in such a compromise it is possible for certain important aspects of truth to be overlooked. Particularly, it is important to remember that the origin of sin, in a universe created bya holy God, calls for explanation. The Bible provides that explanation; consequently, any attempt at reconciliation with modern science which ignores this factor, is bound to clash with Scriptural doctrines. As servants of God it is not possible for us to investigate the claims of science experimentally. What we can do, however, is to discover whether tension exists between God's Word and the theories of science. If such is discovered then the servants of God must reject immediately and without question the conclusions of men. (Emphasis mine) [5]
The irony of course is that Humphreys - like the appallingly ignorant fundamentalists who commented a few days earlier on this website - in confusing his fundamentalist reading of the Bible with the inspired message itself was rejecting the witness of creation with the uninspired words of men. The tragedy here is that at least three generations of Christadelphians have been infected by this pernicious fundamentalism. That Christadelphian laypeople can seriously champion the demonstrably flawed AV over superior modern versions, or arrogantly dismiss scholarly opinion and privilege evidence-free speculation and call it scholarship, is an indictment of a community which once observed that:
‘It is both amusing and painful to behold the contortions of the so-called “clergy” over the discoveries of geological and paleontological research in the crust repositories of old mother earth. They seem to have a pious dread of science contradicting the Bible; and, finally, believing that it has, they are busy heaping their maledictions upon science, or else twisting the Bible-teaching into a supposed harmony with science, in either event very much hampering the geologist in his search after Nature’s truth’s.’ [6]
We have become what an earlier generation of Christadelphians warned against. We can take no pride in that.
 

References

1.  Walker C.C. "Genesis", The Christadelphian (1910) 47:501
2. Prothero D "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters" (2007: Columbia University Press)
3. Prothero D.R.. "Evolutionary Transitions in the Fossil Record of Terrestrial Hoofed Mammals" Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:289-302
4. Crompton, A. W. & Jenkins, F. A., Jr. "Mammals from Reptiles: a Review of Mammalian Origins" Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences (1973) 1: 131–155.
5. Humphreys, E "The Problem of Sin's Origin" (1969: D Bedson, D. Manton; Coventry)
6. Welch L.B., ‘Knowledge.- No., 12 Geology’, The Christadelphian (1891) 28:344

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