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No. 90: Nov-Dec 1993

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The shorter, the stranger

Just a few months ago (in SF#85), we held forth on biology's Big Bang: that Cambrian paroxysm of biological creativity about 570 million years ago. Until now, biologists had opined that this "explosion" required a rather leisurely 20-40 million years (still very short in geological terms). After all, biological creativity must take time if it is powered only by stepwise random mutations. But the recent dating of Cambrian formations in northeastern Siberia (which was previously off limits to Western scientists because of its Soviet radar installations) has now compressed this great event to a veritable flash. S.A. Bowring et al, in their startling report in Science, have measured the length of this period of unparalleled biological diversification at only 5-10 million years, possibly as short as a mere 1 million years! What wand of biological creativity was waved at this magical moment? It had to be something that has not happened again down the long eons that followed, for never again has nature favored our planet in this way. Never again were any more of life's major body plans (the phyla) synthesized. Even ardent evolutionists marvel at the newly measured intensity of this moment. For example, S.J. Gould has remarked:

"You've taken the most accelerated period of evolutionary rates and made it a whole lot shorter. The degree of speed is so fast, it's downright peculiar. The strange gets stranger, the fast gets faster."

(Bowring, Samuel A., et al; "Calibrating Rates of Early Cambrian Evolution," Science, 261:1293, 1993. Kerr, Richard A.; "Evolution's Big Bang Gets Even More Explosive," Science, 261:1274, 1993. Monastersky, R.; "Siberian Rocks Clock Biological Big Bang," Science News, 144:142, 1993. Yoon, Carol Kaesuk; "Biology's 'Big Bang' Took a Mere Blink of the Eye," New York Times, September 7, 1993. Cr. P. Gunkel.)

Comment. It hardly seems necessary to ask (as we often do in SF) whether the prevailing theory of evolution can account for such a flash of creativity.

Reference. Biological explosions are cataloged in ESB2 in our catalog: Anomalies in Geology. To order, visit: here.

From Science Frontiers #90, NOV-DEC 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss