donald_i_williamson's picture
biologist at the Port Erin Marine Station of the University of Liverpool (UK); Author, The Origins of Larvae
Biologist, University of Liverpool; Author, The Origins of Larvae

I believe I can explain the Cambrian explosion.

The Cambrian explosion refers to the first appearance in a relatively short space of geological time of a very wide assortment of animals more than 500 million years ago. I believe it came about through hybridization. 

Many well preserved Cambrian fossils occur in the Burgess shale, in the Canadian Rockies. These fossils include small and soft-bodied animals, several of which were planktonic but none were larvae. Compared with modern animals, some of them seem to have the front end of one animal and rear end of another. Modern larvae present a comparable set-up: larvae seem to be derived from animals in different groups from their corresponding adults. I have amassed a bookful of evidence that the basic forms of larvae did indeed originate as animals in other groups and that such forms were transferred by hybridization. Animals with larvae are "sequential chimeras", in which one body-form—the larva—is followed by another, distantly related form—the adult. I believe there were no Cambrian larvae, and Cambrian hybridizations produced "concurrent chimeras", in which two distantly related body-forms appeared together.

About 600 million years ago, shortly before the Cambrian, animals with tissues (metazoans) made their first appearance. I agree with Darwin that there were several different forms (Darwin suggested four or five), and I believe they resulted from hybridizations between different colonial protists. Protists are mostly single-celled, but colonial forms consist of many similar cells. All Cambrian animals were marine, and, like most modern marine animals, they shed their eggs and sperm into the water, where fertilization took place. Eggs of one species frequently encountered sperm of another, and there were only poorly developed mechanisms to prevent hybridization. Early animals had small genomes, leaving plenty of spare gene capacity. These factors led to many fruitful hybridizations, which resulted in concurrent chimeras. Not only did the original metazoans hybridize but the new animals resulting from these hybidizations also hybridized, and this produced the explosion in animal form.

The acquisition of larvae by hybridization came much later, when there was little spare genome capacity in recipes for single animals, and it is still going on. In the echinoderms (the group that includes sea-urchins and starfish) there is evidence that there were no larvae in either the Cambrian or the Ordovician (the following period), and this might well apply to other major groups. Acquiring parts, rather than larvae, by hybridization continued, I believe, throughout the Cambrian and Ordovician and probably later, but, as genomes became larger and filled most of the available space, later hybridizations led to smaller changes in adult form or to acquisitions of larvae. The gradual evolution of better mechanisms to prevent eggs being fertilized by foreign sperm resulted in fewer fruitful hybridizations, but occasional hybridizations still take place. 

Hybridogenesis, the generation of new organisms by hybridization, and symbiogenesis, the generation of new organisms by symbiosis, both involve fusion of lineages, whereas Darwinian "descent with modification" is entirely within separate lineages. These forms of evolution function in parallel, and "natural selection" works on the results.

I cannot prove that Cambrian animals had poorly developed specificity and spare gene capacity, but it makes sense.