googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Estimating the number of extinct species: Voodoo science

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Estimating the number of extinct species: Voodoo science

For years, I've heard people reciting the statistic that 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct. I heard it often enough that I assumed it must have some merit but I never really bothered to look into it at first. When I did investigate the claim, I saw that, like most secular theories of our origins, it was mostly smoke and mirrors. It's sort of like the false claims that human and chimp DNA is 99% similar or that 99% of all scientists believe in evolution. There's an old joke that says 99% of all statistics are just made up on the spot! In this case, that's not far off.

For a while, I looked at the absurd estimates of the number of extinct species in the same light as the scientific evidence for Big Foot: namely, that it's junk science but there's really no harm in it. However, I've been coming around, lately, to the realization that the inflated number of species is being used as evolutionary propaganda. For example, I've heard more than one person ask what's the point of God creating all these species only to have 99% of them go extinct? Such questions seek to cast doubt on a belief in creation. However, there's a far more devious implication in the inflated number that had completely escaped my notice until now.

According to Wikipedia: More than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct. Estimates on the number of Earth's current species range from 10 million to 14 million, of which about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86 percent have not yet been described.

I'm not sure who is in charge of checking math at Wikipedia but he's slipping. 10 million is 1% of only 1 billion so I'm not sure where they are getting the 5 billion number. Actually, the whole passage is poorly worded. What do they mean, “... estimated to be extinct”? Are they extinct or not? They mean to say, “an estimated 99% of all species... are extinct.” I know I have misspellings and typos on my blog but jeez!

But I digress.

Anyway, did you notice how even the number of species living currently is only estimated to be 10-14 million? The number actually identified is only around 1.2 million. They're taking a guess – perhaps a reasonable guess but still a guess – as to how many other species haven't been discovered yet. It's almost certain there are species we haven't discovered but another 10 million or so of undiscovered species is probably a little generous. Even so, let's go with that number.

From another Wiki article, we find that, the number of species known through the fossil record is less than 5% of the number of known living species. From that sparse sentence, it's hard to estimate how many species we're talking about. Five percent of 1.2 million is only 60,000. Five percent of 10 million is 500,000. I've heard various estimates about the number of species identified in the fossil record and it's only around 250,000. Again, for the sake of argument, let's say it's more like the 500,000. So, we have 1.2 million named living species and another 500,000 species known from the fossil record. That totals only 1.7 million of species known to exist.

Here's where things start to get devious.

We have identified approximately 1.7 million species yet evolutionists estimate there have been as many as 5 billion that have lived. However, there is no fossil trace for 99.99966% of the species evolutionists have alleged. Why not? Evolutionists claim it's due to the extreme imperfection of the fossil record. In other words, since fossilization is such a rare event, most species that lived never left a fossil. Hmm. That could explain it... or maybe it could be that the other 99.99966% of species never even lived!

How do they get such a high estimate? It all has to do with their assumptions – primarily their assumptions about the age of the earth. It works sort of like this: if life began 1 billion years ago, and if the average species only appears during 5 million years in the geological record, then all species have been replaced around 200 times. If there are 10,000,000 identified species (an inflated number to begin with), that means there must have been 2 billion total species that have lived! Get it?

You might still be asking me what is so devious about this. Well, it's a couple of things. First, if creationists were to believe that 99% of all species have gone extinct, then we're tacitly conceding the long ages assumed by evolutionists. The earth is not billions or even millions of years old. An earth that's only thousands of years old means most of the species that have lived are still alive!

The other thing about the claim is that, if it were true, then the fossil record truly is imperfect and would only preserve less than 1% of the transitions between a modern species and its ancient ancestor. One weakness of evolution is the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. If we believe so few species are preserved as fossils, we're basically giving evolutionists an excuse for not having fossil evidence for a critical part of their theory.

There is no evidence that billions of species have existed. The belief they existed is merely a consequence of evolutionary theory. It's voodoo science.  The observable, testable evidence is better explained by creation: the earth is thousands of years old, most of the species that have ever lived are still alive, and the fossil record is remarkably complete yet shows a glaring lack of transitional forms.


Steven J. said...

I suspect that you're right that the numbers are softer than butter in a blast furnace, but still, the Wikipedia article did say more than 99% of species are extinct and 99.8% is more than 99%, so the statement could accurately apply if we assume ten million extant species and five billion extinct ones.

Note that known species refers to named and described ones, not to unknown species thought to exist because many environments have not been exhaustively inventoried. So the "less than 5 percent" figure should apply to the 1.2 million species figure.

Taxonomists have gone out into the Amazon jungle, surrounded a tree with plastic, and gassed the tree, then counted the number of species that fall out. Then they have gone a few miles away and done the same to another tree, and see how many different species are found there. In this and similar ways they get rough estimates of vicariance -- how many species are replaced by a different species of the same or very similar genus over a given distance, and use this to estimate how many species are on Earth. Since vicariance is going to be greatest for small, relatively immobile species (brown bears, Ursus arctos, after all, are found all over Eurasia and North America, but cottontail rabbits of the genus Silvilagus comprise five species just in North America), they're basically figuring out just how inordinately fond of beetles the Creator was. Again, the numbers are soft, but it's a bit more than just guessing, since there is data to base it on.

Note also that a lot of creationists explicitly, not just tacitly, accept the idea that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old and has borne life for nigh four billion of those years. I have not checked, and they may not have specifically commented on this question, but I suspect that Hugh Ross or J.P. Moreland would find those figures more plausible than you do. While evolution certainly won't work as an explanation if the Earth is only several thousand years old, the idea that it was much, much older than that was proposed by geologists, based on stratigraphy and faunal succession, before common descent was proposed (and some of those 19th century geologists, such as Adam Sedgwick, never did embrace evolution).

Steven J. said...

Kurt Wise argued, in an Answers in Genesis article from November 23, 2009, that the fossil record is pretty complete, based on the fact that by 1968, 99% of modern mammalian species known from Europe (where there's a pretty complete count, unlike, say, the Congo or Amazon jungles) are known from the fossil record. His argument tacitly assumes the young Earth he's arguing for (that, e.g. the record for pre-Cenozoic species is not less complete because the relevant fossils were buried or eroded away over millions of years). I note that 1968 was the year before Deinonychus antirhopus was described; a lot of dinosaur species that were unknown then have been discovered since then, which implies to me that the record for pre-Cenozoic species was not as complete then, and is presumably not as complete now, as the record for modern species.

The notion of a fairly complete fossil record has dangers for creationism beyond such considerations. Answers in Genesis has another article (from March 1, 1996) pointing out that according to them, kangaroos must once have lived in the Middle East (assuming that "the mountains of Ararat" are somewhere near the modern Mt. Ararat). Generations of these kangaroos must have lived and marched through the Middle East and southeast Asia before going extinct there after migrating to Australia, all without leaving any fossil record that has been discovered. And this goes, of course, for various distinctive Australian and New World fauna, like big ceratopsids and chalicotheres; creationists need to invoke the imperfection of the fossil record also, and insist that absence of evidence is at best weakly evidence of absence. This is especially true when one considers the vast range of habitats that extant mammals inhabit, and then note that nonetheless fossils of modern mammal species, genera, and families are not found alongside fossils of dinosaurs and plesiosaurs, nor are human artifacts such as spearheads and hand axes. This is rather odd if humans and dinosaurs and Permian mammal-like reptiles were all contemporaries a mere five thousand or so years ago.

Note that even so, sometimes the paucity of transitional forms is not so glaring. Hominin fossils provide a number of skulls that straddle any dividing line you might wish to draw between "fully formed humans" and mere apes, and creationists argue among themselves about the proper placement of, e.g. KNM-ER1470 or D4500. Fossils like Anchiornis and Microraptor have obvious theropod dinosaur skeletons (scaled-down versions of velociraptors, basically) with obvious pennaceous feathers. Fossil whales have been found with hind limbs, some including the distinctive ankle bones characterizing even-toed hoofed mammals.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I just have time for a short reply.

You seem to agree with me that the high estimate of extinct animals is merely born out of a belief in evolution and the alleged old age of the earth. There certainly is no fossil evidence – or, frankly, any observable evidence – that billions of other species have lived. That leaves evolutionists free to suggest any number, as long as they can imagine a plausible enough story to support it. In the meantime, I'm free to continue characterizing their estimates as voodoo science.

You mentioned that creationists like Hugh Ross agree with evolutionists about the absurd estimates of extinct species and the old age of the earth. I've listened to Hugh Ross speak more than I've cared to. The man suffers from verbosity. I'm speaking from memory here but, concerning speciation, he says speciation could only happen in populations greater than 1 quadrillion with a body size less than a millimeter. In other words, he limits “evolution” to just germs and denies that speciation happens in larger animals. This effectively equates “kinds” and “species,” which means that God miraculously created new species as old species went extinct. It's an extremely tortured interpretation of Scripture and rather voodoo-like in its own regard as science.

Concerning the age of the earth, Dr. Ross cites secular estimates with the same confidence as Bishop Ussher. I can't say that I've heard him give the exact day and time of the Big Bang but he certainly touts 14.97 billion years as though it is an exact age. It's sad, really, that he so forcefully trumpets the date as though it's been proven because he will look rather foolish when a headline comes out saying something like, “New discovery shows universe is older than previously believed.”

It's not really my intention to bash Dr. Ross. I haven't heard him speak too much specifically on matters of faith but, from what I have heard, he is fairly orthodox in the area of salvation. It's just that his brand of creationism (“progressive creationism”) is a miserable failure in “reconciling” science and the Bible. It doesn't jibe with Scripture and his science is a joke to unbelievers.

Rant about Ross over.

In conclusion, let me make a couple of comments about the completeness of the fossil record. The record isn't complete in the sense that creatures are routinely preserved as fossils. Instead, the fossil record is a snapshot of the kinds of creatures that lived at the time of the Flood. Nearly all fossils are of marine animals but even the relatively few terrestrial animals found as fossils are the ANCESTORS of modern species. I wouldn't expect to find an abundance of fossils of modern species. Neither would I expect to find a trail of fossils of kangaroos leading from the middle east to Australia.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!