Dr. Paul Chien was born in China and graduated from university in Hong Kong where he earned degrees in chemistry and botany. He completed his doctorate at the University of California, Irvine, and his post-doc at Cal Tech in marine biology. Presently he is the chairman of the biology department at the University of San Francisco.
Dr. Paul Chien, chairman of the biology department at the University of San Francisco, recently accepted a unique invitation to travel to China to study fossils of the Cambrian era. What Chien found at the Chengjiang site, and what he has since learned about the Cambrian fauna, has changed the focus of his career. Today, Chien concentrates on further exploring and promoting the mysteries of the Cambrian explosion of life. Subsequently, Chien possesses the largest collection of Chinese Cambrian fossils in North America.
Chien attended Mere Creation, a conference last November sponsored by Christian Leadership, which was featured in the previous Real Issue. The following is an interview with Paul Chien.
RI: Dr. Chien, what is your interest in the evolution/creation debate?
Chien: Even before I became a Christian, I had doubts about evolution. During my college years I was really interested in finding answers, but I got very little help. For a while I lost interest because I thought, one way or the other, it wasn't very important. But since I started teaching, many people ask me about that. In fact, I often speak at churches and youth groups and conferences, and I have been forced back to that question; it's pretty much my hobby now.
RI: Until recently, you have focused on the effects of pollution on marine organisms. How then did you come to study the Cambrian "explosion of Life"?
Chien: In studying marine organisms, and mainly the invertebrate groups, I have a clear vision of the distinct characteristics of each phyla. The theory of evolution never [seemed to] apply well in my field of marine invertebrates. When the news broke concerning [the discovery of] an explosion of animal life, it really excited me because that [had been] my position for many years. Also, Phil Johnson's chapter on fossils [Darwin on Trial, Intervarsity Press, 1991] really ignited my interest in that area.
When an opportunity came up to talk with Chinese paleontologists and to visit them and the original site of fossil discovery, it became something I had to do. So last March I organized an international group to make a visit there.
RI: So is the Chengjiang site a primary site for the Cambrian explosion?
Chien: Yes, it's the site of the first marine animal found in the early Cambrian timeswe don't count micro-organisms as animals.
RI: Are there other places in the world where you find the same organisms?
Chien: In some ways there are similarities between the China site and the other famous site, the Burgess Shale fauna in Canada. But it turns out that the China site is much older, and the preservation of the specimens is much, much finer. Even nerves, internal organs and other details can be seen that are not present in fossils in any other place.
RI: And I suppose many of these are probably soft-tissue marine-type animals?
Chien: Yes, including jellyfish-like organisms. They can even see water ducts in the jellyfish. They are all marine. That part of western China was under a shallow sea at the time.
RI: As you became more interested in this and discovered more about it, did you find it really was an "explosion of life"?
Chien: Yes. A simple way of putting it is that currently we have about 38 phyla of different groups of animals, but the total number of phyla discovered during that period of time (including those in China, Canada, and elsewhere) adds up to over 50 phyla. That means [there are] more phyla in the very, very beginning, where we found the first fossils [of animal life], than exist now.
Stephen J. Gould, [a Harvard University evolutionary biologist], has referred to this as the reverse cone of diversity. The theory of evolution implies that things get more and more complex and get more and more diverse from one single origin. But the whole thing turns out to be reversedwe have more diverse groups in the very beginning, and in fact more and more of them die off over time, and we have less and less now.
RI: What information is the public hearing or not hearing about the Cambrian explosion?
Chien: The general impression people get is that we began with micro-organisms, then came lowly animals that don't amount to much, and then came the birds, mammals and man. Scientists were looking at a very small branch of the whole animal kingdom, and they saw more complexity and advanced features in that group. But it turns out that this concept does not apply to the entire spectrum of animals or to the appearance or creation of different groups. Take all the different body plans of roundworms, flatworms, coral, jellyfish and whateverall those appeared at the very first instant.
Most textbooks will show a live tree of evolution with the groups evolving through a long period of time. If you take that tree and chop off 99 percent of it, [what is left] is closer to reality; it's the true beginning of every group of animals, all represented at the very beginning.
Since the Cambrian period, we have only die-off and no new groups coming about, ever. There's only one little exception citedthe group known as bryozoans, which are found in the fossil record a little later. However, most people think we just haven't found it yet; that group was probably also present in the Cambrian explosion.
Also, the animal explosion caught people's attention when the Chinese confirmed they found a genus now called Yunnanzoon that was present in the very beginning. This genus is considered a chordate, and the phylum Chordata includes fish, mammals and man. An evolutionist would say the ancestor of humans was present then. Looked at more objectively, you could say the most complex animal group, the chordates, were represented at the beginning, and they did not go through a slow gradual evolution to become a chordate.
RI: In the December 1995 issue of Time magazine in the article "When Life Exploded" the writer implied that there was nothing to get worked up aboutthe theory of evolution was not in any danger.
Chien: The scientists come out and say, "Oh yes, we've heard this before and it's very similar to the Burgess Shale," and so forth, but the Burgess Shale story was not told for many years. The Burgess Shale was first found by Charles Walcott in 1909why was the story not reported to the public until the late 1980's?
At the very beginning I thought it was a problem for them; they couldn't figure out what was going on because they found something that bears no resemblance to the present animal groups and phyla. Walcott originally tried to shoehorn those groups into existing ones, but [his attempt] was never satisfactory.
It was puzzling for a while because they refused to see that in the beginning there could be more complexity than we have now. What they are seeing are phyla that do not exist nowthat's more than 50 phyla compared to the 38 we have now. (Actually the number 50 was first quoted as over 100 for a while, but then the consensus became 50-plus.) But the point is, they saw something they didn't know what to do with; that's the scientifically honest position they're placed in. Later on, as they began to understand things are not the same as Darwinian expectations, they started shutting up.
RI: Now that the information is coming out, what are they saying?
Chien: We really don't have much of an explanation yet, although there are a few biological and environmental theories that have been kicked around. Stephen Gould was quoted by Phil Johnson [in Darwin on Trial] as saying that things like [the Cambrian explosion] are the trade secret of paleontology, and not many people know about it. And that includes Gould's own crusade for punctuated equilibrium as well.
I know of some people who teach evolution but do not mention Stephen Jay Gould or punctuated equilibrium. They know about it, but they are of the old school and can't accept it. So there's a lot of politics involved in this, even among themselves.
RI: Does the drift of evidence in the Cambrian Explosion lean toward speeded-up evolution?
Chien: There are two major camps on this explosion business. One is the good old Darwinian explanation that we simply haven't found the intermediates. For those who tend to think that way, they say the Cambrian period was just the best time to preserve a lot of fossils, and they refer to it as a "fossil explosion." They hope that by looking more they might find some evidence of evolution, or they simply say (like Gould), "Well, we'll never find it. Fossils are hard to form in the first place." This is called "artifact theory."
But a lot of younger scientists are turning to new ideas. The first idea put out was the oxygen theory. They say that maybe in Cambrian times the oxygen level in the atmosphere and in the oceans suddenly arose to a critical level which could support larger-sized animals. That theory is pretty much shut down because there should be geological evidence for a sudden increase in oxygen.
There are other theories, too, like that of Berkeley professor James Valentine. He is now working on something new that relates to Jonathan Wells' work. (Wells is the Berkeley biologist who spoke at the Mere Creation conference.) In developmental biologythe study of embryo developmentthere's been a big discovery of something called Hox genes. They are regulatory genes, and they turn on and off sequencesthe development of the eye and so on.
Valentine infers that primitive organisms accumulated enough Hox genes to suddenly make a different body plan. So he's trying to correlate Cambrian explosion with the development or accumulation of Hox genes. But I think there are many theoretical difficulties he's facing.
John Wells has the idea that Hox genes won't do it. He claims that Hox genes are only switches. You can put the switch on different systems and it just turns on and offyou're not getting new information out of Hox genes.
RI: So when they ask you about it, what do you say?
Chien: Well, it depends who is asking. In scientific dialogue I think I can be very honest with whatever present findings we have. We can all discuss objective data, but pretty soon we find out that whatever conclusion each draws is far from what the evidence says. In other words, I think every theory is still more belief than scientific fact. I wouldn't use scientific findings as evidence to support Biblical creation. All science does is begin to tell us what happened 540 million years ago, and we have just little bits and pieces. However, I think we can use the evidence to strongly show that Darwinian gradual evolution did not happen.
In terms of creation I think we still need to figure out what we mean by natural processes, and we need to ask ourselves if all natural processes have an author or creator behind them. Creation itself is a concept about design involvement, and all these fossils are just the physical evidence that is left over; it still has no direct application to a single creator and how He worked.
But when I read Genesis chapter one, the fifth day seems to read very much like the fossil record we see now because it talks about all the creatures teeming in the oceans. Now, to me that sounds like the Cambrian explosionin a very short period of time, [the animals] are all there.
RI: Where do we, as Christians, go from here with respect to the fossil record?
Chien: I think the Christian community should get into this and do more study on it. I remember meeting a linguist, and he told me that Christians pretty much dominate the field of linguistics because of their interest in translating the Bible. In the same way I would like to see Christians get into paleontology and take an interest in doing good scienceI think that's at least one way to reverse the church's withdrawal from science. Personally, I have an urge to popularize these ideas because although scientists are beginning to talk about the Cambrian explosion, and while a few people in the inner circle know about it, the general public isn't aware of it.
In fact, I have now in my hands a Chinese book on the Cambrian explosion that I would like to have translated into English and published in the United States. It's mainly a picture bookthere are about two hundred color photographs and some line drawings showing all the different animals from the Chinese Cambrian site. I believe Christians can publish such books in a context that has little to do with religionthis is the truth, and the truth will speak for itself.
In fact, [the Chinese scientists and I] were planning to work together further on algae from the Cambrian period. They have collected thousands and thousands of fossils, and they have a lot of fossil algae that nobody is working on.
RI: What were the circumstances which led you to become a Christian?
Chien: It began in high school; my parents sent me to a Christian school in Hong Kongonly because the school has a very good educational reputation. After six years of studying the Bible, I finally accepted the Lord just before graduating from high school.
It was a struggle for many years before that. I thought I wanted to be a scientist, but I didn't want to be a superstitious person. But I was really attracted to Jesus ChristHis life and His teaching. In many respects I thought His teaching was deeper than much of the Chinese moral teaching. So in some ways I was converted in my heart, but I refused to become a Christian.
I tried to imitate Christians and I understood what salvation was all about, but I didn't accept it until the final senior trip our class made. We went to the highest mountains in the Hong Kong area, and we had no other place to stay than in a Buddhist monastery. That [experience] gave me a good contrast to compare the religious effort of the Buddhists, which I admired, with Christianity. When I looked at nature, which I was deeply in love with, I suddenly realized that I had to worship the Creator of nature. So during a prayer meeting I came face-to-face with the Lord, and there was no way I could avoid Him any more. So I confessed my sins and accepted Him as Lord and Savior. That was one of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life.
RI: Did you ever have any Christian professors come along side you in your higher education?
Chien: No. I struggled for a long time, and I really needed some guidance there. I tried to read every book available to me on science and Christianity, but they were not very helpful. That's another reason I would like to work on more books in that area.
RI: Do you intend to go back to Chengjiang, the Chinese Cambrian site?
Chien: I would very much like to do that. Somehow I would like to get more involved in fossil work. Although I have lectured so many years in my own area of marine biology and pollution, I think I would like to concentrate on this aspect. This was an opportunity presented to me which nobody else has.
RI: Perhaps you could add "paleontologist" to your credentials.
Chien: Not really; that's not my purpose. I am more interested in working on the popular level. I know of less than a handful of Christian paleontologists, and I always like to establish dialogue with them. In one sense, biologists, geologists, and paleontologists are put in a pretty difficult position: we are in the middle between the Christians and the atheistic scientistswe're really between a rock and a hard place. That's a big battle for the church to look at. Whenever I speak to young people, I encourage them to become scientists.
RI: Do you think perhaps young Christians are going into these areas, but many of them lose their faith?
Chien: Yes, either that or they get so discouraged that they opt out. When I was in grad school and expressed my doubts about Darwinism, my friends would tell me that I was either ignorant or crazy; they probably thought the "Chinese guy" was not very well educated. They would try to convince me on "scientific" grounds, but I would just say, "Well, it just doesn't seem to be very convincing to me."