Atlantis And The Precambrian Empire


The Cambrian Explosion is without a doubt the greatest paradox in the Fossil Record. Darwin himself noted this event in The Origin of Species (albeit with the terminology of his time). The Earth seems to have been populated by things like prokaryotes and sponges, and then in the blink of a geologic eye virtually every major animal phyla appeared.

One of the typical answers given to this paradox is the Artifact Hypothesis, the idea that animals from this time period were simply too small and soft-bodied to readily fossilize, yet there is evidence of Precambrian sponge embryos, which are clearly very small and soft-bodied. Perhaps the Artifact Hypothesis is part of the answer, making fossilization less common than scientists would have preferred, however, I think there is a better explanation.

Since the time of Darwin, several Precambrian “Ediacaran” sites have been discovered. Some people have claimed that these represent a bridge between the world of the Precambrian and the Cambrian, however, I’ve seen top experts who claim that this is not the case. Ediacaran fauna represent separate branches on the animal tree of life from what we see in the Cambrian (if indeed these are animals.)

Of course, some in the time of Darwin and some today view the Cambrian Explosion as being a unique act of creation.

Goal And Purpose

My goal for this article is not to give an in-depth technical analysis of what we observe in the Fossil Record or of any debates that might be going on, mainstream or otherwise. There are plenty of books and publications that have already been written on this topic. My goal is to propose a potential answer to this geologic riddle without appealing to either the Artifact Hypothesis or a special act of Creation. In my opinion, this is a solution that should be obvious but seems to have been overlooked. It may be that I am simply not as familiar with the literature as I could be, however, I did my fair share of reading on this topic before writing this article, and it would not be possible for me to read everything that has ever been written. Since my expertise is in molecular biology, not paleontology, I ask that experts in the later field forgive any ignorance on my part. I am a mere mortal after all, and I do not know everything.

While my writing here is admittedly speculation, I intend it to be speculation driven by logic. Sometimes in science, speculation predates hypothesis, and perhaps this speculation will lead other members of the scientific community to look for data in ways and places that were not previously considered.

The Ediacaran Empire and “Atlantis”

Perhaps the Precambrian Earth was covered by an Ediacaran “Empire” — the world was filled with early primitive experiments in animal body plans. And perhaps this was a very different environment from what we see today — perhaps with differences in oxygen levels, vegetation, and many other factors. If oxygen levels were low, then perhaps animals would be motile, but less so. In this type of environment, many animals could thrive that would be immediately eaten by today’s modern predators. A bizarre five-armed Ediacaran slug may not stand a chance against a small modern-day shark but may have been an apex predator in his own kingdom.

In a nutshell, primitive animals were free to evolve and experiment with different body plans, without competing with today’s highly developed organisms.

And perhaps in the midst of this diversity, there was one region where things were different. Perhaps oxygen was more abundant. In this region, what we consider to be the major animal phyla gradually evolved.

And then, something happened that changed conditions all over the Earth, perhaps it was an increase in oxygen content around the world, and “Atlantis” became free to conquer. This increase in oxygen could be due to different solar activity, a sudden lucky adaptation in plants or algae, or any number of other factors. Perhaps it was even a volcanic eruption that provided an abundant level of some resource that was scarce beforehand.

Even living things have to follow natural economic laws of supply and demand. And no ecosystem has infinite resources.

The Cambrian animals, the “Atlantians” began to spread and outcompete the less well-adapted Ediacarans. This is something that could perhaps have happened virtually overnight. Often we think of evolutionary events happening slowly and gradually, but evolution sometimes occurs very rapidly given the right conditions. That said, this event would have been more of an ecological event on a short timescale, rather than an event representing primarily a shift in allele frequency.

One way or the other, the “economy” of the ancient world had changed, and the primitive “kingdoms” reacted accordingly.

Photo Credit Here:

Perhaps this event took place over the course of a million years. Perhaps the core events took place over the course of centuries or decades.

We typically think of Evolution as being a slow and gradual watchmaker, but if the history of humanity has taught us one thing, it's that mighty empires can rise quickly, and fall overnight.

The Cambrian phyla had already evolved in Atlantis, but now they were free to spread across the planet’s oceans.

Finding A Lost City

A thousand permutations on this speculative scenario could be listed. Perhaps the change was not oxygen content, but pH, or temperature, or even disease or adaptation in the flora. Perhaps instead of one “Atlantis,” there were many smaller regions around the world where modern animal body plans evolved, and when the major environmental shift occurred.

I chose the name “Atlantis” here for a purpose. There have been historical cities once thought to be mythology but have since been discovered by archaeologists. Troy is one example, along with some cities mentioned in the Bible.

In the Precambrian “Atlantis” case, it may be that the remains of this “city” are under the ice of Antarctica, or deep under the ocean. It also needs to be considered that the majority of the Earth’s surface has not been excavated by paleontologists. And even if “Atlantis” were right there under a Paleontologists’ shovel, it may be buried too deep to be discovered.

It may also be the case that in the 500 million years since the time of the Cambrian Explosion, “Atlantis” has simply been destroyed. It may also be the case that “Atlantis” was a place where fossils rarely formed, and the natural history of evolution in this region was simply never properly recorded.

This may bother those of us in biochemistry and genetics who are used to being able to ask questions in real-time in a laboratory. But the reality is that we simply do not have access to the whole of Earth’s geologic record, let alone the full history of the planet.

Those who criticize Evolutionary Biology (such as religious fundamentalists) are right to point out that studying the past is very different from studying the present. However there is overlap, and science can still tell us much about the history of life on Earth. What we don’t know does not negate what we do know about the history of Evolution on Earth.

A Molecular Approach To Finding The Lost City

That said, one way we can explore this deep past is through molecular biology. There are those using phylogenetics to peer into the Earth’s Precambrian past, but the details of this research are beyond the scope of this article.

Perhaps molecular evidence can still detect a genetic record of “Atlantis.” Perhaps by comparing modern genomes, we can detect a period of evolutionary innovation, which would represent Atlantis, followed by an explosion of genetic diversity, which would represent an increase in population sizes during the Cambrian Explosion proper.

A research project like this would have to be conducted carefully, and researchers would have to be careful not to fudge generation times or mutation rates in a way that may bias results in favor of the Atlantis scenario (or any version thereof), and researchers would also have to be careful that assumptions are not made in a way that causes the genetic record to be overlooked.

Closing Thoughts

The Cambrian Explosion represents one of the most famous paradoxes in the history of life on Earth, but if we consider this observation to represent a primarily ecological event, rather than as an evolutionary leap, then much of the mystery would seem to make sense. (And much of the criticism towards science would seem to disappear.)

Perhaps these speculations are within the right ballpark. Or perhaps they are far from the reality of what actually happened. Either way, science is not about saying that we “know” all of the answers to life’s mysteries, but about curiously pursuing truth and seeking to understand the natural world around us on its own terms and as it really is.

Thank you for reading my article. My name is Gregory S Muhs. I am a graduate student going for a Master’s degree in Biotechnology with a focus in Bioinformatics. My goal is to one day earn a Ph.D. and do research that engages my passion for science and makes the world a better place.

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