Response to the PBS-TV series Evolution

Episode 3: Extinction!


This episode was rather strange. It hardly made any attempt to prove evolution per se. Rather, they talked a lot about species dying out, which is hardly news to anyone, but it doesn’t itself shed any light on how species arose in the first place. There were plenty of assertions about new species diversifying to take the place of the old ones, but no evidence of any mechanism how this could occur. It’s just another example of how vacuous words can become when survivors of extinctions are called ‘evolution’s big winners’. How exactly does the word ‘evolution’ explain anything here? The only purpose seems to be to further the indoctrination of the public with the idea that it does. But really, saying ‘history’s big winners’ or ‘winners of the lottery of life’ would be just as informative.

Have most species become extinct?

This program made a common claim, that 95–99% of species have become extinct. However, the known record of extinct and extant species does not support this. The number of fossil species is estimated to be about 250,000, while there are about 3 million living ‘species’, or even more, depending on who’s telling the story. But if this >95% claim were correct, we would expect many more fossil species than living ones.

The only plausible explanation is evolutionary bias. For evolution to be true, there would have been innumerable transitional forms between different types of creature. Therefore, for every known fossil species, many more must have existed to connect it to its ancestors and descendents. This is yet another example of evolutionary conclusions coming before the evidence. Really, the claim is an implicit admission that large numbers of transitional forms are predicted, which heightens the difficulty for evolutionists, given how few there are that even they could begin to claim were candidates.

Mass extinctions

Supposedly there were five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, caused by planet-wide catastrophes. The greatest was the Permian extinction about 250 million years ago, where 90% of species became extinct. The period allegedly represented by rock layers above the Permian, the Triassic, was almost void of life. But later, in the upper Triassic, the dinosaurs supposedly evolved. Alongside them were the mammal-like reptiles that supposedly evolved into mammals.

The best-known extinction was that of the dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous, dated at 65 million years ago. Supposedly the small mammals, who kept out of sight when dinosaurs were around, managed to survive the catastrophe by hiding in burrows, while dinosaurs couldn’t hide or protect their eggs. In the next period, the Tertiary, mammals are supposed to have diversified and filled the vacant niches. [In 2004, three years after this series was aired, the Tertiary was abolished as an official geological period and replaced by two periods, Paleogene and Neogene.]

The program presents the usual meteorite impact theory as fact, i.e. a chunk of rock the size of Mt Everest hit Earth at 25,000 mph. The many problems with this idea are ignored—see Did a meteor wipe out the dinosaurs? What about the iridium layer?

In general mass extinctions are explained as a house of cards collapsing, where each card represents a species. One species may collapse, but then all other species that depend on it, either directly or indirectly, will also collapse. Even without a catastrophe, there are many factors that can cause a ‘bottom card’ species to die out, e.g. a new predator or climatic change.

Creationist explanation

As elaborated in the Rebuttal to Episode 1, the Bible teaches that death is the ‘last enemy’, the result of Adam’s sin, and is an intruder into God’s very good creation. This is a problem for those who want to add millions of years to the Bible, and this program demonstrated just how much death is entailed by millions-of-years belief, because of the record of death (and disease, violence, etc) the fossils portray.

Biblical creationists would explain much of the fossil record by the global Flood of Noah’s day. However, this didn’t directly cause any land vertebrates to become extinct, because each kind was represented on the Ark (see How did all the animals fit on Noah’s Ark?). But many became extinct in subsequent centuries, because of factors already well known to conservationists. The article Did a meteor wipe out the dinosaurs? What about the iridium layer? also summarizes the history of the dinosaurs from a Biblical perspective. But the Flood probably did cause many marine species to become extinct.

Creationists and evolutionists interpret the geological layers differently because of our different axioms. Evolutionists interpret the sequence of layers as a sequence of ages with different types of creatures; creationists interpret them as a sequence of burial by a global Flood and its after-effects. This makes better sense of phenomena such as living fossils and finding creatures such as the coelacanth that isn’t found in rocks ‘dated’ younger than 70 million years.

Ecology and evolution?


The program discusses how a healthy forest ecosystem has a large carnivore at the top of the food chain. It takes 100 pounds of plant to feed 10 pounds of herbivore, which in turn feeds 1 pound of carnivore. So the existence of carnivores indicates the health of the supporting animals and plants. Later on, Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Alan Rabinowitz claims that this forest exhibits ‘Evolution going on around us’, but all he means is the replacement of one species with another. Of course, already-existing species replacing other already-existing species has nothing to do with the origin of new species with new genetic information. Once again, ‘evolution’ is a vacuous catch-all term, with any change in population numbers grouped with the goo-to-you theory.

Founder effect

Then they move on to isolated habitats and the ‘founder effect’. This is where a single breeding pair or pregnant female colonizes a new niche, and carries only a fraction of the gene pool. Therefore its descendants also contain a small fraction, so the new population can be very different from the old. This also offers no comfort or support to the notion of evolution, because the new population has less information than the old.


Another topic is biological invaders, the bane of all countries that depend on agriculture and livestock to feed their people and earn export dollars. The invaders are often more mobile and adaptive, so out-compete native species. Humans have enabled far more invasions as animals stow away on ships and in the undercarriage of airplanes, and some species have been introduced deliberately. Fordham University paleoecologist David Burney investigated what happened in Hawaii when Polynesians and then Europeans introduced new species. He claimed:

Evolution has now entered a new mode. Something altogether new is happening, and it has to do with what humans do to the evolutionary process.

Ho hum, this is just another example of replacement of one species with another, which again has nothing to do with showing how particles could have turned into people.

Leafy Spurge

Pioneers introduced this weed to North Dakota from Russia, and it ‘threatens to kill off all native grasses.’ A cattle rancher claims that ‘it is a cancer to the land … it makes the land just totally useless’. Actually, the first claim is an exaggeration, and the second is a matter of perspective—sheep and goat farmers would have no problems.

But the rancher said that herbicides were very expensive, so the narrator asks:

‘… what’s left? … The solution may be another invader—discovered when scientists learned what kept Leafy Spurge in check in its native Russia. It’s the flea beetle—a case of fighting evolutionary fire with fire.’

Canisters of flea beetles are dropped from airplanes, then the narrator says:

‘So now we’re in a race most of us don’t even know we’re running—to learn as much as possible about evolution before it’s too late.’

Huh? Using already-existing enemies of the leafy spurge requires ‘evolution’? This must be the nadir of the contentless nature of this word, even by the pathetic standards of the series. Farmers have used such commonsense biological controls for centuries, well before Darwin. Interestingly, one of the classic cases of successful biological control was the defeat of Australia’s cactus invader, the Prickly Pear, through the introduction of the Cactoblastis organism. John Mann, the scientist responsible for saving Australia from ecological and economic ruin in this way, was heaped with accolades and honours for his feat. Mann was a convinced Biblical creationist, who was interviewed before his death by our Creation magazine in this article.

Why bother preserving species?

This episode has a problem: first, it asserts that humans are just another species, then it insists that extinction is simply part of Earth’s history, and finally it moralizes that humans should try to preserve other species. The narrator says that humans ‘may be the asteroid that brings about the next mass extinction’, and that we ‘competed with other species and won.’

But if we’re just another species, then why shouldn’t we act like one? Why should we aid our competitors for survival, when other species act in self-interest? The only reason might be a practical one, that we might lose some species that are beneficial to us. But this is very different from a moral obligation to care for them. If we are all rearranged pond scum, then talk of moral obligation is meaningless. Under a consistent evolutionary worldview, our moral sentiments are merely chemical motions in the brain that happened to confer a survival advantage in our alleged ape-like ancestors.

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Published: 14 February 2006