Trilobites and Creationism

by Richard Poe
Saturday, June 9, 2007

8:08 pm Eastern Time

René Descartes
Figure 1. “I think, therefore I am“, stated French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) in his influential 1637 treatise Discourse on Method. Descartes’ celebrated formulation, “Je pense, donc je suis” — better known in its Latin translation, Cogito ergo sum — gave rise to modern atheism, according to Pope John Paul II. (1)

When I penned my whimsical little piece about the resemblance between extinct trilobites and certain species of isopods still living in the Antarctic seas, little did I suspect that I was blundering into a philosophical minefield contested by warring armies of Biblical fundamentalists and Cartesian literalists. (2)

At issue is “creationism” — the notion that God created all life forms at roughly the safe time, as the Book of Genesis seemingly implies. Since writing my piece, I have learned that claims of a “living trilobite” often figure in the ideational kerfuffle surrounding life’s origins.

Many creationists argue that the existence of living creatures resembling trilobites casts doubt on the theory of evolution. Their argument goes something like this: Inasmuch as generations of paleontologists have insisted that the trilobite is extinct, and inasmuch as certain types of Antarctic isopods living today bear so close a resemblance to fossil trilobites that only a DNA test could disprove their kinship for sure, why then should we believe anything paleontologists tell us — including their insistence that the fossil record supports the theory of evolution?

So the argument goes, at any rate.

Figure 2. During three Antarctic voyages between 2002 and 2005, the German research vessel Polarstern discovered more than 700 new species living in the frigid Antarctic seas. Among them was this new type of serolid isopod, which strongly resembles the trilobite, believed extinct for more than 250 million years.

Figure 3. American chemistry professor Jacob Green, M.D. stunned scientists in 1832 with his announcement of the “discovery of some living Trilobites” near the Falkland Islands. Their discoverer, Dr. James Eights, ultimately concluded that the creatures were merely isopods which resembled trilobites, and named them serolis trilobitoides.

Figure 4. A serolid isopod, of the species Ceratoserolis meridionalis, which lives in the Antarctic seas

Figure 5. A trilobite fossil from the Ordovician period (roughly 510-439 million years ago)

Militant atheists and Cartesian literalists predictably bare their fangs at any mention of the “living trilobite” argument. God-deniers have filled many a blog post with angry fulminations against creationists who, they complain, cannot tell the difference between a trilobite and a sow bug. Take, for instance, this comment by University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, which he wrote after attending a lecture by creationist Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind. On his “Pharyngula” blog (which bears the polemical subtitle, “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal”), Myers writes of Kent Hovind’s lecture:

“His message was that science textbooks… were full of lies, and he, lover of science that he was, only wanted to see those lies removed. In order to do this, he gave a talk that was full of lies. … And the lies were just so painfully blatant: as an example, he claimed that trilobites weren’t old and they weren’t extinct, and to ‘prove’ his claim, he showed a picture of an arctic isopod and announced that there it was, alive and crawling, proof that the biology professors have all been lying to you.” (3)

The rancorous tone of this debate worries your faithful correspondent, who finds himself wondering what might befall some hapless marine biologist who might someday innocently produce from his nets a living, breathing and utterly unmistakable specimen of a trilobite. Would the discoverer be denounced as an evolution-denier? Would he lose his research funding? Would his living fossil be quietly shoe-horned into some obscure taxonomic cubbyhole, simply to avoid arousing the fury of the PZ Myers’s amongst us?

Figure 6. “Science and religion are totally separate pursuits”, remarks Father George V. Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer, who directs the Vatican Observatory. “…[T]he scientific theory of evolution, as all scientific theories, is completely neutral with respect to religious thinking”.

Gentle reader, rest assured that I take no part in these squabbles, nor did I have any inkling of the intellectual passions swirling around the issue of relict trilobites, when I wrote my earlier post on the topic. Really, I was just engaging in a bit of idle speculation. I do, however, wish the parties involved could approach the question a bit more objectively.

As a Roman Catholic, I am happily excused from the screeching catfight over evolution which nowadays so preoccupies Biblical and Cartesian fundamentalists alike.

“Science and religion are totally separate pursuits”, remarks Father George V. Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer, who directs the Vatican Observatory. In Father Coyne’s view, Scripture can no more provide solutions to scientific questions than can science shed light on the nature of God. (4) “[T]he scientific theory of evolution, as all scientific theories, is completely neutral with respect to religious thinking,” Father Coyne concludes.(4)

That seems obvious enough, doesn’t it?

by Richard Poe

June 9, 2007 08:08 pm ET


1. His Holiness John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 38, 51-2

2. Richard Poe, “Living Fossil?: Creature Resembling Long-Extinct Trilobite Found in Antarctic Seas“,, 19 May 2007, 09:54 am ET

3. PZ Myers, “Kent Hovind at St Cloud State University“, Pharyngula, 29 April 2006

4. Mark Lombard, “Intelligent Design Belittles God, Vatican Director Says“, Catholic Online, 30 January 2006

5. Father George V. Coyne, SJ, Text of talk by Vatican Observatory director on “Science Does Not Need God. Or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution“, Catholic Online, 1 February 2006


Figure 1. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons: portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hais, 1648

Figure 2. Photo by Wiebke Brokeland, LiveScience

Figure 3. Photo by C. Gronau

Figure 4. Photo by Jim Mastro

Figure 5. Photo courtesy East Midlands Geological Society

Figure 6. Photo courtesy CNS


8 Responses to “Trilobites and Creationism”
  1. Zmirak says:

    Hi from Dallas,

    It was great seeing your Confirmation, Richard. Congratulations again!

    You might enjoy the discussion of Descartes in two chapters of my The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song, which I know you have because I handed you a signed copy. Check out the entry on “Loreto,” which details Descartes’ errors, and on “Organic Wine,” which traces their implications.

    John Zmirak

  2. Richard Poe says:

    Thanks, John.

    Both of your “Bad Catholic” books are sitting on my desk, ready for action. I intend to read both, from cover to cover. What an excellent Confirmation gift they made!

    Many thanks to you and your lovely young lady for attending my long-overdue anointing.

  3. ScreamingBolshevik says:

    Confirmation? I thought you were already Catholic.

  4. Richard Poe says:

    Well, yes, I have always been Catholic… albeit a very imperfect one.

    Like all my brothers and sisters, I was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in infancy and was raised in the Catholic faith. However, when it came time for me to take my Confirmation classes, I fell ill with a prolonged bout of asthma and missed so many classes that my pastor decided I would have to be confirmed the following year, after repeating the whole course.

    Unfortunately, I formulated the notion in my silly adolescent brain that it would be embarrassing or humiliating to repeat the course with a younger group of kids. I imagined that I would be mocked and scorned as a flunk-out.

    And so, when the time came the following year for me to enroll in the classes again, I lay low and kept quiet, hoping that everyone would forget I was supposed to sign up. My plan worked. Everyone did forget. I was spared the indignity of being confirmed with a younger group of kids. However, I had only succeeded in outfoxing myself. The result of my subterfuge was that I denied myself full initiation into the Roman Catholic community — an error which haunted me for decades.

    I spent the next thirty-odd years drifting hither and thither on the winds of spiritual modernity, dabbling in everything from Buddhist meditation to Biblical fundamentalism (along with a goodly number of less wholesome pursuits in between).

    Fleeing from God can be tiring. You can run, but you can’t hide. By 2003, I had grown weary of it.

    Inspired partly by the story of Danny Thomas, I made a petition on July 5, 2003 to St. Jude — a saint known in Catholic lore as the “help of the hopeless”. Simultaneous with my petition, I made a pledge to St. Jude that I would finally receive the sacrament of Confirmation, and that, God-willing, I would remain faithful to the Church to the end of my life.

    St. Jude granted my petition, I am happy to say. Now I am working on my end of the bargain.

    I fulfilled a big part of my pledge when I received Confirmation this past May 27, on the Feast of Pentecost, after nearly four years of bureaucratic hurdles and other sorts of delays. The rest of my pledge will be the work of a lifetime. By its nature, it cannot be completed until the day I die.

    P.S. The upshot of all this is that you ended up being confirmed before I was! Congratulations. 🙂

  5. Richard Poe says:

    Thank you! Peace be with you.

    Or should I say… pax vobiscum?

  6. ScreamingBolshevik says:


    I can imagine what an ordeal it must have been. Most churches only require a profession of faith to join their fold, but those seeking confirmation in the Catholic church must submit themselves to a bureaucracy over a thousand years in the making.

    I can attest to the fact that it takes a great deal of commitment to become a Catholic, although at least in your case you already knew the rituals and responses necessary for the Mass (after two years I still don’t have all of that down).

    Peace to you, and best wishes.

  7. Mr. Beamish says:

    All trilobites are created equal.


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. Trilobites and Creationism…

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!