A golden fossil turned to dross?
According to Natural Resources Canada:
To many mid-Victorian geologists and paleontologists these laminated green and grey rock specimens from altered limestones of the Canadian Shield of Ontario and Quebec were the most important fossils ever found because they constituted evidence of the existence of complex life forms deep in the Precambrian. J. William Dawson, the Principal of McGill University and one of the foremost geologists in Canada, named the fossil Eozoon canadense — the Canadian dawn animal. In his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1864, Sir Charles Lyell singled out this fossil as “one of the greatest geological discoveries of his time”. Charles Darwin, in the fourth edition of Origin of Species in 1866, was relieved to be able to cite the first fossil evidence that the succession of life on earth proceeded from simple unicellular organisms to complex multicellular animals and plants.
But what happened thereafter is a cautionary tale.
British physicist David Tyler, whose work I have been profiling recently, tells the story here, of how the fossil was greeted with tidings of great joy.
Charles Darwin welcomed the find and brought it into the 4th edition of the Origin in 1866. He wrote: “After reading Dr Carpenter’s description of this remarkable fossil, it is impossible to feel any doubt regarding its organic nature”. The problem for Darwin was that the earliest known fossils were complex, and his theory required something much simpler to precede the forms of the Cambrian Explosion. It was a relief when Eozoon appeared to provide evidence supporting gradualism.
In the 6th edition, Darwin modified the text to read: “The existence of the Eozoon in the Laurentian formation of Canada is generally admitted”.
But there was dissent. In this case, from geologist Professor William King and chemist Thomas Rowney at Queen’s College, Galway.
They did not think that Eozoon was in fact a fossil. And they had good reasons for thinking it wasn’t. They knew how it could have been formed without any input from a life form at all.
So what happened between 1866, when those Galway men were basically a problem to be seen off, and 1879 when the truth was eventually revealed?
As Tyler explains,
The characteristics of the ensuing controversy are the subject of an interesting paper by Adelman.* She points out that the Canadian geologists adopted a “diffusion” model of communication: “scientific facts were confirmed within the scientific community and then presented to the public.” London was the focus of their attention, because the opinion-formers were located there. “The ‘Eozoonists’ felt that the fossil’s credibility was established once the leaders of the scientific community in London had accepted it.” The dissenters, however, chose not to play this game.
And the Galway dissenters were treated with contempt, their credibility under severe question, for years. Their crime? Raising entirely reasonable objections against Darwinism.
The Canadian government explains it all quite decorously as follows:
Dawson concluded that Eozoon was the shell of a foraminiferan, a single-celled protistan complete with chambers and canal systems, but one hundreds of times larger than any of the living forms which are all microscopic. This view was almost immediately challenged by a pair of Irish geologists who claimed that Eozoon was not organic, but a metamorphic feature formed from the segregation of minerals in marble through the influence of great heat and pressure. For the next ten years, increasingly acrimonious debates on the nature of Eozoon appeared in British and American journals. An exhaustive analysis by a German professor of zoology, Karl Möbius in 1879 demonstrated that Eozoon displayed not a single characteristic trait of foraminiferans. This settled the matter for virtually all geologists and paleontologists, but not Dawson.
In case it needs saying, Eozoon was not a fossil and the dissenters were correct to challenge the consensus. Clearly there are parallels with today: the role of scientific elites, the status of peer publication, the protocols required to be accepted as members of the scientific community, the way debated issues can be presented as fact to the public, the disdain shown to dissenters, the lobbying of editors to restrict access by critics of the Establishment, and the exploration of alternative ways of communicating minority views to peers and the public. This is the very human face of science. We are seeing these characteristics today in numerous areas where scientists have reached different conclusions.
Yes, we are indeed seeing that.
The takeaway point is that, in the 19th century, the new caste of elite materialists that had begun to form around Charles Darwin NEEDED Eozoon to be a fossil, whether it was or not. Those two nerds from Galway had – in their view – NO business challenging the elite consensus. What difference did it make if the cabbage-heads who pay to keep the system going were told that Eozoon (or “Schmeozoon”) proved that a materialist account of origins was true? The exact fossil would be found eventually (because materialism is true, right?), and the main thing in the meantime is always to keep the stupid hordes docile while their world is reworked along materialist lines.
And how different is it today?
Perhaps some will choose to write in here to insist that “science is self-correcting”. Maybe, but – if we are talking about materialist science, specifically – it won’t self-correct very often, very quickly, or very willingly. Not when, as a consequence, an icon of materialism must cease to be venerated.
Remember, as Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I stressed in The Spiritual Brain, because materialism is a monistic system, it cannot tolerate ANY deviations at all. Its icons are defended all the more strenuously on that account.
*Eozoon: debunking the dawn animal Juliana Adelman Endeavour, 31(3), September 2007, 94-98 | doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2007.07.002