Evolution of the Automobile: A Parable


Paleocarriageology is the science that deals with the macroevolution of carriages from ancient times to the present, based on fossil remains of the same.

Carriage Taxonomy is the science of naming and classifying carriages, both ancient and modern.

A carriage phylogeny is the (theoretical) evolutionary history of that particular species of carriage, and phylogenetic taxonomists try to classify carriages by their phylogenetic (sometimes shortened to phyletic) relationships.


The broad outlines of carriage macroevolution are very clear, and there is wide agreement among paleocarriageologists, especially as regards the taxonomy of carriages proposed by the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain and the Automobile Club de France. There is less agreement as regards the finer points of carriage phylogeny: precise details are obscure, and competing phylogenies based on different criteria are often contradictory and result in entirely different schemes. Perhaps with more time and the discovery of more carriage fossils these contradictions and ambiguities will be resolved. Recently proposed mechanisms, such as ``convergent evolution,'' may help to clarify some apparent discrepancies. For example, it is now widely accepted that the independent, sudden appearance of the phylogenetically advanced electric starter in five or six different classes of Phylum Gasolinophyta can only be accounted for by convergent evolution. The selective advantages for these convergent adaptations are, in most cases, obvious.


The taxa (hierarchical categories of classification) proposed by the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain and the Automobile Club de France, and ratified by the International Committee on Vehicular Nomenclature, are now universally recognized. In this scheme there are two kingdoms:

A. Kingdom Prokarriageota includes all carriages that are heterolocomotes, that is, those which depend on some external source of locomotion, e.g., donkeys, mules, oxen, horses, even humans. All of our earliest carriage fossils (Precambrian) are members of this kingdom, as are certain extant forms such as Amish buggies, Japanese rickshaws, and the more widely dispersed bicycles. As one would expect, the prokarriageotic specimens are comparatively primitive in the entire range of features.

B. Kingdom Eukarriageota includes all carriages that are autolocomotes, that is, those which are self-propelled. These more advanced carriages appear later in the fossil record, starting with the so-called ``Cambrian Auto Explosion,'' and they ultimately become not only far more sophisticated, but much more numerous and diverse than their prokarriageotic counterparts.


It is obvious that the eukarriageotes have evolved from the procarriageotes. No one questions this fact, except for a few religious Fundamentalists who invoke common design. The oldest, most primitive eukarriageotic autolocomotes look strikingly similar to the prokarriageotic heterolocomotes, except for their primitive little engines and drive trains. These, it is agreed, must have arisen by some sort of endosymbiotic association of several ancient heterolocomotes. The fossil record clearly reveals a steady progression and proliferation of increasingly complex and sophisticated eukarriageotic autolocomotes. Although a fair number of representative prokarriageotic heterolocomotes are still extant today, these have not evolved significantly since ancient times, but are strikingly similar to their oldest ancestors. On this much all carriage taxonomists and paleocarriageologists can agree.

Major Phyla of Eukarriageota:

A. Phylum Windmillophyta (c 1472-1714, all now extinct)

B. Phylum Clockworkophyta (c 1748, rare, now extinct)

C. Phylum Airpressureophyta (18th cen., now extinct)

D. Phylum Steamolophyta (earliest fossil, 1678, from China, but is disputed; very prolific at beginning of 20th cen., but now extinct)

E. Phylum Electrolophyta (also very prolific early 20th cen.; now extinct)

F. Phylum Gasolinolophyta (most recent and most phylogenetically advanced of all carriages; dominates the landscape today, but not until modern times: at beginning of 20th cen. numerous bizarre species [now extinct] of Phylum Steamolophyta and Electrolophyta dominated, with Phylum Gasolinolophyta in minority)

Proposed Criteria for Basing Phylogenies:

The following is only a small sampling of the numerous proposals in the paleocarriage literature.

A. Number of wheels: It has long been recognized that three-wheeled carriages are typically more primitive than four-wheeled carriages. For example, the earliest fossil of a steam powered carriage (Phylum Steamolophyta) was a tricycle, the Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, 1769. Likewise many early species in Gasolinolophyta, e.g., genus Benz, all species from 1885-1890. The problems with this criterion, however, are serious. (1) There are numerous two-wheeled autolocomotes extant today that are very sophisticated and evolutionarily advanced, e.g., the species Harley davidson, and numerous others, in the family Motorocyclidae. Yet it is generally assumed that the two-wheeled species must be more primitive than either three- or four-wheeled species. (2) To further complicate matters, the vast majority of the markedly primitive heterolocomotes in Kingdom Prokarriageota are four-wheeled (most of the simplest and oldest wagons)!

B. Open versus Closed Carriages: Another general assumption often seen in the literature is that an open carriage (with no roof, no or few windows, etc.) is a primitive condition, and that closed carriages represent a major phyletic advance. The problem here is that some members of Kingdom Prokarriageota, both extinct and extant, were or are closed (e.g., covered wagons, royal coaches of several cultures), and some modern carriages are open (e.g., subspecies convertibilis can be found in many if not most extant classes of Phylum Gasolinolophyta, especially in the family Sportscaridae.

C. Number of cylinders: It has also been proposed that an increasing number of cylinders would be a useful criterion for working out phyletic relationships within Phylum Gasolinolophyta. This view has been greatly strengthened by the discovery of several species in Genus Benz, the oldest fossil dating to 1885, a fossil of Genus Lambert (1891), and two closely related species in Genus Duryea, species frank and species charles (c 1892-93), all of which had one-cylinder gasoline engines. A major problem with this proposal is that the number of cylinders seems to reach a peak in the Mesozoic Era of the ultralarge classic cars; it is not uncommon to find V-8's and straight-12's in the time frame 1925-1942 when the luxurious fast motorcar reached a level never to be achieved again in carriage history so far. Well-known species in this prolific category include Rolls royce from Great Britain, Hispano suiza from Spain and France, as well as representative species in the genera Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Talbot, and Voisin of France; Dusenberg, Cadillac, Packard and Pierce-Arrow of the United States; Horch, Maybach, and Mercedes-Benz of Germany; genus Minerva of Belgium, and Isotta-Fraschini of Italy. All of these specimens are believed by scientists to have been very fast (90 to 130 mph), comfortable, and exquisitely luxurious (e.g., some fossils have been found with remains of upholstery in matched ostrich hide with ivory buttons, dashboards in rosewood, etc.). The question of why these marvelous carriages went extinct is still a matter of much debate among paleocarraigeologists today, but one widely accepted theory is that a catastrophic collapse of the market in 1929 so altered the economic climate that many species of the Mesozoic Era simply could not survive. Another problem with the number-of-cylinders hypothesis is that many of our most modern species (since the Pleistocene began in the 1960's) have only four cylinders, and a few only three. This phenomenon of an evolutionary regression to smaller engines appears to be worldwide in its scope.

D. Type of carburetor: It has been suggested that a series of gradually more advanced features in the carburetor, clearly preserved in the fossil record, would prove to be the key to unravelling phyletic relationships in Phylum Gasolinolophyta. The most primitive carburetor ever described was found in a fossil near Allentown, Pennsylvania, and dated to the year 1899; this rare species relied on a wooden wick that delivered fuel to the cylinder by capillary action. Indeed, many other increasingly complex features can be documented in the fossil remains of carburetors, but these often emerge simultaneously in numerous distinct phyletic lines. The attempt to unravel the phylogeny of the Phylum Gasolinolophyta on the basis of carburetor evolution has been frustrated over and over again by parallel developments, a phenomenon known as ``convergent evolution.'' The most recent example in carriage history is the sudden appearance of fuel injection as a replacement for more conventional carburetion in numerous independent classes and families of Phylum Gasolinolophyta. This amazing evolutionary jump involves the precise metering of fuel for each cylinder and thus provides a means of insuring that the ideal air-fuel ratio is being burned in the engine. It also eliminates cylinder-to-cylinder variations and the tendency of cylinders more remote from the carburetor to receive less fuel than is desired. A variety of metering and control systems have evolved, with a continuous-flow system first appearing in a fossil from 1957. The selective advantages for all these parallel systems were evidently great enough to produce this striking example of convergent evolution, or, to word it slightly differently, the selection pressure was great enough to cause different classes and families of gasoline powered autolocomotes to all evolve in this direction.

E. Type of starter: Another striking evolutionary advance in the development of autolocomote fauna is the electric starter. No one quesitons that the primitive hand-crank type of starter at some point must have evolved into the far more sophisticated electrical starter, yet the origin of this device is obscure. The fossil Duryea crank has been dated to 1892-93, and it clearly shows a one-cylinder gasoline engine with electric ignition installed in a second-hand carriage. This fossil has caused quite a stir for its obviously endosymbiotic engine on the one hand, yet its totally anomalous occurrence with an electric starter long before such starters were thought to have evolved. The next fossil evidence for electrical ignition occurs in 1912, after which it rapidly proliferates throughout all classes of the Phylum Gasolinolophyta. Similar to the carburetor, the strong selection pressures evidently produced convergent evolution of the electric starter in at least five or six major classes initially, so that this feature has not proven to be a useful criterion in establishing a comprehensive phylogeny for the entire phylum.

The Parable Applied:

Doesn't the discussion above seem ludicrous? Isn't this because you already know that automobiles did not evolve in the sense that most biologists feel plants and animals did? For automobiles we know that the similarities between different models are the result of common design - whether using off-the-shelf components in new vehicles, or of adapting an existing feature to a different purpose, or even of maintaining a certain stylistic similarity within a particular make of auto for several years running. Thus similar structures sometimes appear in vehicles otherwise very different because they were put there by the designer.

What you may not realize is that this feature also occurs among living things. Again and again we find the same sort of problem (illustrated above for self-starters and number of wheels or cylinders) cropping up in the case of eyesight and flight among animals, or in photosynthesis and nutrient transport among plants, to name just a few cases. Evolutionists must repeatedly invoke the idea of "convergent evolution" to explain this - that somehow two or more independent, lengthy series of random mutations produced nearly identical designs. Is it really scientific to just assume that the rate and variety of mutation and the efficiency of natural selection is adequate to produce such parallel or repeated marvels, all the while leaving scarcely a trace in the fossil record?

We think the evidence points rather to a Designer behind it all, working sometimes by guiding natural processes and sometimes by intervening to produce results that would never happen by themselves. We think you would do well to investigate this alternative yourself (don't take our word for it!), since it may have a bearing on what life is all about and what you ought to do about it.

Besides the standard biology texts in your university library, why don't you have a look at the following:

Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler and Adler, 1985).

Gordon Rattray Taylor, The Great Evolution Mystery (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life's Origin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984).

Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991).

Alan Hayward, Creation and Evolution: the Facts and the Fallacies (London: Triangle, 1985).

Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People (Dallas, TX: Haughton, 1989).

Robert C. Newman and John L. Wiester, with Janet and Jonathan Moneymaker, What's Darwin Got to Do With It? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).

Tract written by John C. Studenroth, PhD, plant pathology, Cornell, with thanks to article ``Automobile'' in Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Copyright © 1991, 2001 by John C. Studenroth. All rights reserved.