In this post, I am going to explain a line of evidence that both convincingly supports evolution and refutes the notion of a world-wide flood. I am, of course, referring to the ordering of the fossil record. If you go to just about any country and dig a deep enough hole, you will find that the soil is organized into geological layers, each of which has distinct properties and contents. According to creationists, the majority of these layers formed during Noah’s flood; whereas scientists argue that these layers represent different time periods in earth’s history. Creationists would have you believe that both of these explanations are simply “interpretations” of the data, but as I will demonstrate, that statement is erroneous because the scientists’ explanation is a logical deduction that started with the evidence, then drew a conclusion, whereas the creationists’ explanation is ad hoc and is simply trying to make the evidence fit a preconceived view.
This post ended up being quite long, so you can use the links below to jump around to different sections.
- Contrasting the predictions of creationism and evolution
- The evidence
- Creationist responses
- Creationist counter arguments
- 1. There are sea shells on the highest mountains
- Many fossils look like they were formed by a flood
- 3. But we have fossils of human footprints next to dinosaurs
- 4. But what about living fossils that are in the fossil record from “millions” of years ago but are still alive today?
- 5. But we have found fossils that are out place
- 6. What about the cases where a single fossil stretches between several layers. How is that possible if one of those layers is millions of years older than the other?
- 7. Where are the missing links? If evolution is true, there should be lots of transitional fossils, so where are they?
- Conclusion: Ad hoc fallacies and Occam’s razor
Note: In this series, I am discussing science, not religion. There are many people who both believe the Bible and accept evolution. So I am not trying to disprove the Bible, turn people into atheists, etc. Rather, I am simply explaining the scientific evidence for evolution (see Part 1 for more details).
Note: in order to make this post as easily understandable as possible, I am going to try to limit the use of jargon and proper names for geological periods, eras, epochs, etc. I will instead use very crude terms like “dinosaur layers,” rather than “Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.” Although less precise, I think that this strategy will make it easier to convey my meaning without people getting lost in terminology.
Contrasting the predictions of creationism and evolution
Science is all about making and testing predictions, which is part of why it is so powerful. Before doing an experiment, we can state what we should observe if our hypothesis is true, then we can reject or fail to reject that hypothesis based on whether or not our predictions come true. So let’s apply that type of reasoning to this situation.
First, let’s look at the predictions of evolution. If evolution is true and life on earth has gradually evolved over billions of years, then we should see that reflected in the fossil record. The deepest layers should only contain fossils of microscopic organisms, and as we move up to more recent layers, we should eventually get multi-cellular marine invertebrates, then fish, then amphibians, then reptiles, then mammals and birds. Further, even within those major groups, we expect to see gradual changes, and most of the modern animals that we see today should only be represented in the uppermost levels (Figure 1A).
There are several important things to note about this prediction. First, it is quite an extraordinary prediction. To borrow a classic example, all that it would take is one Precambrian rabbit to completely refute our current understanding of evolution and the history of life on earth. In other words, if we found fossils that were out of order (e.g., birds before the first reptile layers, amphibians before fish, fish in the oldest layers etc.) that would shatter our understanding of evolution. By that same token, however, finding a very consistent order in all of the thousands of fossil beds from all around the world would provide exceptionally strong evidence for evolution, because we only expect that to occur if evolution is actually true. Think about this way, if God actually created all of the kinds of animals and they all lived at the same time (as creationists argue) what are the odds that we would never find a modern mammal in anything but the uppermost layers? Why is there such a distinct pattern in the fossil record if everything lived together?
The second thing to note about this prediction is that it was largely a priori. In other words, when Darwin and other early biologists first proposed the basic framework of evolution, they had an extremely incomplete fossil record. However, based on the limited fossils that they had, as well as comparisons of embryology, morphology, etc. they thought that the progression went from single-celled organisms to multi-cellular marine invertebrates, to fish, to amphibians, to reptiles, to birds and mammals. In other words, this evolutionary sequence was predicted before we had most of the fossils that we have today. Thus, this is not a situation where scientists are looking at the fossils and trying to make the patterns fit evolution. Rather, the patterns were predicted beforehand and scientists are simply seeing whether or not the patterns fit the predictions. Additionally, this same pattern has been confirmed by intermediate fossils, genetics, and multiple other lines of evidence. So, once again, this is an extraordinary prediction because everything rests on it. Finding just one fossil that was substantially out of place would force us to rethink everything.
Creationism makes radically different predictions. According to creationists, all of the major “kinds” of organisms were alive prior to the flood (possibly minus a few that went extinct between creation and the flood, but those most likely wouldn’t have fossilized; see Part 1 for an explanation of “kind” and why I am using that term). During the flood, essentially all of the land animals that weren’t on the ark were killed and many of them were buried and formed the fossil record. Thus, essentially all of the fossils and sedimentary rock layers that we see today are the result of the flood.
Most creationists seem to subscribe to one of two schools of thought about how the flood formed the fossil layers. One common idea is basically a flash flood model. This proposes that the water levels rose extremely quickly and rapidly buried animals. Thus, most of the fossils formed early during the flood. The second school of thought proposes that many animals tread water for a while rather than being immediately buried. These animals eventually drowned, then floated for a while, before sinking and being buried as sediments fell out of the water. In other words, the flood would have churned up all sorts of sediment, and that sediment would have then fallen out of suspension and formed layers, trapping the bodies of dead animals in those layers. More often than not, I hear these two ideas combined, and this notion of lots of animals slowly being buried seems common.
Now, let’s think about these situations for a minute and make some predictions. If all of the major groups of plants and animals were alive at the same time (Figure 1) and were buried by a wall of water and mud that swept across the land (the flash flood model), then we would expect the fossil record to be a jumbled mess (Figure 1B). Flash floods aren’t exactly known for neatly sorting their victims by taxonomy, so we shouldn’t see any sort of a pattern (taxonomy = the classifications of living things [e.g., canines and felines represent two different taxonomic groups]). Rather, we should see that dinosaurs, modern birds and mammals, early amphibians, etc. are all mixed in together. In contrast, if animals drowned, floated, and slowly sank, then they should either be randomly scattered throughout the sediment layers, or possibly sorted by size. They should not, however, be sorted by taxonomy (you would not, for example, expect all of the dinosaurs to sink and get buried at the same time, since dinosaurs ranged in size from being smaller than a chicken to larger than a school bus).
Note: For creationism, I am using the term “prediction” loosely, because creationism is entirely retroactive. So when I say “the predictions of creationism” I mean the patterns that we would intuitively expect from a flood.
It hopefully won’t surprise you to learn that the predictions of evolution passed with flying colors, while the predictions of creationism epically failed. No matter what fossil bed you go to anywhere in the world, you will find a consistent pattern and progression. This is an absolutely critical blow to creationism for a number of reasons.
First, really ask yourself how likely it is that you would see this pattern everywhere in the world if evolution isn’t true. Why, despite finding untold millions of fossils from thousands of sites from all over the world, have we never once found a mammal fossil in a layer that is older/deeper than the first reptile layer? For that matter, why do we never see modern mammal “kinds” fossilized alongside dinosaurs? Evolution tells that our modern families of mammals didn’t evolve until well after dinosaurs went extinct, but if they all lived at the same time (as creationists claim) then why were they never fossilized together? Why don’t we have birds in layers deeper than the dinosaur layers? We don’t we have reptiles in the same layers as early amphibians? Why do we have layers with nothing but marine invertebrates? etc. This pattern is so consistent and so remarkable that it is utterly inconceivable that it could have formed during a flood.
Second, there are other clues in these layers beyond simply the species that they contain. Look at the dinosaur layers, for example (Figure 1A). There are many places all around the world where you can dig below the dinosaur layers and find older sedimentary layers containing earlier reptiles, amphibians etc. According to creationists, most of those layers formed during the flood, but if you think about that for a second, a huge problem emerges. The dinosaur layers are on top of the other layers, which means that they should have formed after the lower layers, but the dinosaur layers are full of fossilized tracks, nests, and other things that make it clear that the dinosaurs were actually living when those layers formed. So how is that possible if those layers formed during the flood?
Think about the progression of events that would have to take place here. Step 1: The flash flood buries countless organisms and kills pretty much everything. Step two: Sediment slowly settles out and forms the lower layers. Step three: The dead dinosaurs go scuba diving under hundreds of feet of water and walk around under water on this newly formed sediment layer and build nests and leave behind footprints. Do you see the problem? Further, I used dinosaurs as an example because most people are familiar with fossilized dinosaur footprints, but we have plenty of footprints, eggs, nests, burrows, etc. from the other organisms in other layers as well. Indeed, these layers are full of things that make it clear that animals were living on the substrate when they died. This makes it abundantly clear that these layers could not have formed from sediment settling out during a flood. Animals were clearly alive and walking around to make those tracks, nests, burrows, etc. which makes absolutely no sense if those layers were formed from sediment settling out under hundreds of feet of water after all of the animals had already drowned! Additionally, we find clear evidence of plants growing in the layers, consistent pollen patterns, etc. When you actually look at the details of the fossil record, it is abundantly clear that it couldn’t have formed during one massive storm (you can find more details with good sources at this post by talkoriginsorg).
Finally, realize that not only are the fossils in these layers consistent, but their dates are as well. In other words, when we radiometrically date these layers, the deepest layers are always the oldest. If they had all formed during the flood, however, then they should all be the same age. Now inevitably, someone is going to argue that radiometric dating isn’t reliable, but those arguments have no scientific merit. I explained this in more detail here and you can find a good essay at Answersinscience.org, but in short, scientists aren’t “assuming” that decay rates are constantly any more than we are “assuming” that the speed of light is constant. The decay rate is simply a physical property of the chemicals (in fact, there is this fun thing known as the “law of radioactive decay” which mathematically describes the decay rate). Similarly, the other “assumptions” that creationists accuse scientists of are actually logical inferences that are supported by numerous observations. Additionally, even if you choose to believe that radiometric decay rates are not reliable, doesn’t it seem a bit surprising to you that the deepest layers always yield the oldest dates? I mean, if they were all formed at the same time, why does that pattern exist? In other words, you not only need a cogent argument to support the notion that decay rates were faster in the past, but you also need an argument to explain why the rates were consistently faster in the deeper layers (note: please read this article by talkorigins.org before claiming that the dates from the top of the Grand Canyon are older than the dates from the bottom).
As should now be obvious, the evidence is overwhelmingly supportive of evolution and thoroughly refutes the notion of Noah’s flood, but that doesn’t stop creationists from trying to twist the evidence to make it fit their view. So, in the remainder of this post, I want to look at creationists’ responses and counter arguments. Before I do that though, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. For any explanation to actually be reasonable, it needs to not only explain why there are different layers, but also why they are consistently sorted into exactly the order that evolution predicted. Remember, embryology, genetics, transitional fossils, morphology, and physiology, all predict the pattern that we see. So how and why did a flood manage to not only sort animals, plants, etc., but also sort them into precisely the pattern that is predicted by evolution? Also, this explanation must be supported by actual observations and data. It cannot be some purely speculative made-up solution (otherwise it will commit an ad hoc fallacy).
1. But there are places where the geological column is out of order
This claim is only true if you cherry-pick and don’t look at the full data. There are lots of things that can cause layers to shift after they are formed. For example, layers may slide along fault lines, resulting in an old layer ending up on top of a young layer (e.g., if you dig down along the dashed lines of Figure 2B you would find that the layers are out of order). Folding is another process that can cause an old layer to move on top of a young layer. Importantly, however, both of these processes leave obvious signs behind, and when we look at sites as a whole, we find things like Figure 2B, which clearly shows that they layers were formed in their correct order, and they have just been shifted afterwards. These geological processes are extremely well understood and any introductory geology book will cover them.
To put this another way, when you look at things like faults and folds, it is very obvious that the layers shifted after they were formed. Indeed, most creationists say that these layers formed early in the flood, then shifted later in the flood, which means that creationists are still stuck explaining why the layers formed in such a precise order to being with. In other words, the layers are technically out of order at these sites, but they aren’t out of order in a way that conflicts with evolution or supports creationism.
2. The geological column isn’t real because we never see it all in one place.
The geological column simply refers to the column of sediment layers that I have been talking about throughout this post, and the argument is that there are no locations where we see the entire thing with every single layer in a single place, therefore it is not a real thing.
First, that claim isn’t true. There are places where we can see the whole thing (details and sources are in this article by noanswersingenesis.org.au). Indeed, even Answers in Genesis admits that is a real thing. Additionally, of course we don’t see the whole thing in most places, because we are talking about layers that are millions of even billions of years old and there are many factors that can prevent them from being persevered for that length of time. Erosion, for example, is quite good at removing layers. That’s not a problem, however, because we can piece together the pieces from sites all over the world and get a very consistent picture (Figure 3). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this argument completely ignores the problem of the order of the layers. In other words, it is true that there are places where there are gaps and missing layers, but it is equally true that there are no places where things are out of order (see #1 above for a qualifier). If you look at Figure 3 again, we can have a site where we find layers of single-celled organisms and layers of fish but not layers of marine invertebrates, and that is fine as long as the single-cell layer is still below the fish layer, which it always is.
Note: When I say that there are sites with every layer, I do not mean every species. In other words, there are layers which we know are from the dinosaur time periods because they contain index fossils that are only found from dinosaur time periods, but they may not actually contain dinosaur fossils at every site.
3. Different layers contain different species as a result of animals running from the flood.
This argument is so laughably absurd that it is tempting to ignore it entirely, but it is so common that I feel like I should deal with it. First, this proposes a cartoon-like scenario where animals are running from a wall of water, but that is not realistic. When a large storm starts, most animals respond by hiding, not running. So as soon as the rain started, animals would have hunkered down in their burrows, tree hollows, caves, etc. and once the tidal wave hit, they would have been buried right where they were.
Second, let’s assume that they did all try to outrun the flood. That still can’t explain the fossil record because its sorted by taxonomy, not speed. For example, this argument proposes that every single individual of every single modern mammal family was faster than every single individual of every single dinosaur species. Surely a velociraptor could have outrun a giant ground sloth, so why did raptors die out several million years before the first ground sloth fossils? Similarly, why don’t turtles show up until a bit over 200 million years ago? Why are sauropods (the giant long-necked dinosaurs) and tyrannosors found in the same layers together? Am I honestly supposed to believe that they could run at the same rate? What about babies and old individuals? Surely there would be lots of baby birds in nests, baby mammals in burrows, etc.
Third, even if everyone tried to run, and somehow new born puppies outran T-rex, there should still be evidence left behind. For example, if you go to just about any natural pond, you can find footprints of ducks, herons, and other birds all over the shallow areas. So why don’t we find those footprints around the ancient bodies of water where we find the fossils of the first amphibians? Those ponds should have been great places for birds to forage.
Fourth, although I have been talking about animals, we can clearly see the same type of progression in plants. Anyone care to explain to me how they ran from the flood?
Fifth, this argument makes absolutely no sense because we find these layers at the same sites. In other words, this isn’t a situation where at the most inland locations we find nothing but modern animals, and a near the coast we only early amphibians. Rather, you can go to locations all around the world, where you can start digging at a single site and see the progression as you dig. The Grand Canyon is a great example of this. As creationists readily admit, you can go there and see the progression of fossils as you hike down into it. So this clearly isn’t a matter of animals running, because if that was the case, they shouldn’t be fossilized at the same sites.
Finally, for most of these major groups (like dinosaurs) we have them from all over the world. So how exactly did modern mammals run to a location with no dinosaurs when dinosaurs were everywhere?
4. Different taxa lived in different geographical regions
There are two basic versions of this argument, but they both start with the same premise. Namely, they claim that the distinctions between the different taxa in the different layers are because they didn’t live in the same geographical regions. In other words, you had a region with nothing but marine invertebrates, a region with bony fish and early amphibians (but no reptiles, birds, or mammals), another region with dinosaurs, primitive birds, and small rodent-like mammals (but not modern birds or mammals), etc. (Figure 4A).
First, that’s just not how ecology works. If you go just about anywhere in the world you can find birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians (as well as fossils of extinct groups, like dinosaurs). The only exceptions are extremely cold areas and a handful of remote islands (also, most amphibians don’t like the ocean). However, even in those cold areas, you can still find birds and mammals, which is really important because they are the two groups that are the most restricted in the fossil record (with regards to the depth of the layers that they occur in). Indeed, you can find birds pretty much everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are on the coast, in the desert, in a rainforest, in Antarctica, or in the middle of the ocean, there are birds. So this notion that there were tons of massive areas that had absolutely no birds is utterly absurd. Similarly, how does one get tons of marine environments that are totally free of fish? That’s just not something that happens. Additionally, why would there have been tons of aquatic environments with amphibians but no reptiles? I could go on, but hopefully you get my point: the type of taxonomic separations that creationists are proposing here are ludicrous and conflict with everything that we know about ecology.
To be clear, different species and groups of animals certainly have geographic and ecological restrictions. For example, you can’t find kangaroos anywhere but Australia, but that’s not what we are talking about here. We aren’t talking about limits to the ranges of species or families, rather we are talking about massive taxonomic units. In other words, we aren’t talking about never finding a kangaroo with a dinosaur, rather we are talking about never finding any modern mammal with a dinosaur. To give another example, there are families of birds that only live in rainforests, families that only live in deserts, etc. but the problem isn’t that we never find one specific family of birds in the early layers. Rather, the problem is that we never find any birds in the early layers, and that is a huge problem for creationism, because although certain families have restricted ranges, you can find some sort of bird anywhere in the world. In other words, creationists generally argue that these groups existed because of ecological differences, but that is nonsense because all of the major groups of animals have representatives in essentially all of the major ecosystems. Further, we can see that variation in the fossil record. Dinosaurs, for example, occupied an extremely diverse range of habits. Additionally, keep in mind that creationists are proposing not only that animals lived in these bizarre taxonomically constrained geographic groups, but also that these groups just happened to perfectly match the predictions of evolution (that’s quite a coincidence).
Second, creationists are generally adamant that the flood would have been extremely violent, with ridiculously strong currents that carried sediment and debris for hundreds or even thousands of miles. So even if we accept that animals were living in these taxonomic groups, surely some of them would have been swept up by the flood and deposited into a different group. How exactly did a flood as violent as the one that creationists describe preserve such a perfect order?
Third, we still have the problem that the fossils of these groups can be found at the same sites. Again, you can go to a site, dig a hole, and observe the changes as you go down. Indeed, we find fossils of all of the major groups that we have been talking about from all over the world. So we know that they lived in the same areas, because we find their fossils in the same areas.
This brings me to the next major problem. As I explained at the start of this post, we would expect a flood to either form a massive layer that contains most of the fossils (from a flash flood), or many stacked layers (from dead animals slowly settling out), but we know that the fossils weren’t formed from animals slowly settling out because of all the footprints, nests, etc. that could not have formed underwater. This leaves us with the flash flood model, but that model shouldn’t have formed stacks of fossils. So how do we get the stacks?
This is where creationists seem to split into two camps. One argument, as put forth by Andrew Snelling on Answers in Genesis, argues that the layers are simply the order that things were buried in. In other words, as the sea level rose and covered the land in water, the amphibians lived closest to the shore and were the first land animals to be buried, then the population of reptiles was hit next, etc. (Figure 4A). There are several problems with this (beyond the ones that I’ve already pointed out). First, for this to work, not only do we need to have all of the animals living in distinct and precise taxonomic groups, but those groups have to be carefully spaced in increasing order of complexity, and of course, this order and grouping has to be consistent every single place on the planet (that’s hardly a reasonable assumption). Second, this still doesn’t explain how you get layers. If animals were spaced like this, then you should still have once giant fossil layer, it should just vary from one region to the next (Figure 4B), and, in fact, there should be a lot of spill-over from one layer to the next as the flood would almost certainly have carried some carcases with it, rather than instantly burying them. As far as I can tell, creationists are envisioning a situation like Figure 4C-G, where the flood forms layers as it goes, and magically scoops up each successive layer and adds it onto the massive stack of layers that it is carrying (while still carefully preserving footprints, nests, burrows, etc.). Last time I checked, floods don’t do that.
The second school of thought tries to solve this problem by basically arguing that everything initially formed one fossil layer, but then that layer got broken up and shifted on top of itself multiple times, resulting in the layers that we see now. There are several things to note here. First, although layers can shift around (see #1 above), they don’t do so in the type of massive, full scale way that creationists are proposing. They simply fold on top of each other or slide along fault lines, but creationists are proposing that everywhere in the world, hundreds of layers managed to neatly slide on top of each other, without leaving behind any evidence of having done so, and while perfectly preserving the order predicted by evolution. Just the idea that pretty much every layer everywhere in the world was shifting over or under multiple other layers is pretty far-fetched. Given that we find layers pretty much everywhere, it seems like that would cause a huge deficit of layers (e.g., if the Grand Canyon formed from hundreds of layers shifting on top of each other, then surely there would be massive lowlands all around it where those layers used to be). Also, realize that we aren’t talking about small shifts. In cases like the Grand Canyon, we have hundreds of layers, each of which stretches for hundreds of miles.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly this still hasn’t explained the order of the fossil record. This argument expects me to believe not only that animals lived in these ridiculous taxonomic groups that are completely unlike anything that we have ever actually observed, but also that every single time that plates shifted, they did so in precisely the order that evolution predicted. Think about for a second. Even if you believe everything up to the point of the shifting layers, how likely do you actually think it is that there was never a case of a mammal or bird layer shifting under a dinosaur layer, a reptile layer shifting under an amphibian layer, an amphibian layer shifting under a fish layer, etc. (again, see #1 for a qualifier)? This argument is nothing more than a series of utterly ridiculous assumptions. You might as well say that aliens did it, because that argument would be just as plausible.
Finally, let’s apply our tests for ad hoc fallacies to these arguments. Is there any reason to think that animals lived in these amazingly consistent taxonomic groups other than a desire to believe in the flood? No! There is absolutely no scientific basis for this claim. Similarly, is there any reason to think that all of the fossil layers shifted over top of each other in exactly the order predicted by evolution other than a desire to believe in the flood? Again, no! The only way that anyone would ever believe either of those claims is if they were already convinced that the flood was true. These arguments perfect examples of ad hoc fallacies. They are logically invalid and must be rejected.
Creationist counter arguments
Not to be outdone, creationists try to fall back on “problems” with the fossil record, or “inconsistencies” with the predictions of evolution. So let’s briefly look at some of those.
1. There are sea shells on the highest mountains
It is true that you can find fossils of marine organisms on many of the highest mountains, and creationists would have you believe that this is evidence that those fossils were put there by the flood. In reality, however, our understanding of the history of planet earth suggests that many of our current continents were once submerged beneath giant oceans, and mountains rose as the earth’s plates moved and pushed together. Thus, we expect those fossils to be there.
The argument that creationists are making here is actually an example of a logical fallacy known as affirming the consequent. It takes the form:
- If A then B
- B therefore A
The problem is that B can have multiple causes. In this case, creationists are saying:
- If the flood is true (A) there should be shells on mountains (B)
- There are shells on mountains (B) therefore the flood is true (A)
The problem is that scientists could make the following identical argument:
- If our understanding of earth’s history is true (A) there should be shells on mountains (B)
- There are shells on mountains (B) therefore our understanding of earth’s history is true (A)
Note: affirming the consequent fallacies can be avoided by making exclusive predictions. For example, evolution’s prediction that we should see the gradual progression of fossils is an exclusive prediction, because it is not something that we expect to see under any circumstance other than evolution. Thus, the argument takes the form:
1. If and only if A then B
2. B therefore A is the most likely solution
As such, no fallacy is committed.
2. Many fossils look like they were formed by a flood
It is true that many fossils appear to have been formed in floods, but that doesn’t mean that they were formed in one massive flood (regional floods are certainly a real thing). Indeed, if you understand even the basics of how fossils form, then you should realize that floods are one of the best ways to form fossils. So we expect that many fossils will have been formed during floods, because that’s how fossils form! To put this another way, Ken Ham is very fond of saying that if the flood was true, we should see “millions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth” and we see “millions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth.” Therefore, the flood is true. However, if evolution was true, then we should also see “millions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth.” Can you spot the logical fallacy that creationists are committing? (hint: it’s the same fallacy that was in #1 above).
3. But we have fossils of human footprints next to dinosaurs
No we don’t. All of those have either been hoaxes or miss-identifications. Even major creationist organizations admit this.
4. But what about living fossils that are in the fossil record from “millions” of years ago but are still alive today?
First, just to get definitions straight, a living fossil is an organism that is present today and is almost identical to ancient fossils (the exact age required isn’t precisely defined). We actually have multiple examples of these (horseshoe crabs and coelacanths are probably the two most famous), but I don’t understand why creationists think that these are a problem for evolution. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that states that an organism can’t evolve a very good body plan, then maintain that plan for millions of years. To be clear, if a huge portion of today’s animals were living fossils, that would be different from the expectations of evolution, but it still wouldn’t refute it, and the few dozen living fossils that we have simply aren’t a problem for evolution. Quite simply, they don’t contradict evolution in any way shape or form, because the theory of evolution never states that species can’t exist for hundreds of millions of years. So this is a strawman fallacy.
Additionally, I would argue that the relative scarcity of living fossils is an enormous problem for creationism. Think about it, if animals can’t evolve beyond their “kind,” and all “kinds” were both present before the flood and were carried on the ark, then should almost all of our animals be living fossils? In other words, if almost the entire fossil record formed during the flood, and all of the “kinds” of land animals in that record were on the ark, then most of our current animals should be living fossils. Sure, some will have gone extinct since the flood, but only a very tiny portion of our current species are living fossils, which is exactly the opposite of what we would expect if creationism was true.
5. But we have found fossils that are out place
Creationists often like to cite examples of fossils that were found outside of their usual layers, but there are several important things to note about that claim. First, many of the examples that they cite are incorrect. For example, they often claim that pollen can be found in fossils that date to time periods before pollen producing plants existed. Although technically true, an examination of those fossils makes it really obvious that the original fossils were exposed to the pollen long after they had formed. In other words, the fossils were contaminated with pollen from a later time period. Even many creationists admit this. So whenever you hear these claims, you should carefully fact check them to make sure that they add up.
Second, the claims that do actually stack up are always off by just a few million years, which once again, isn’t a problem for evolution. For example, finding out that an animal actually evolved ten million years earlier than we had previously thought it did is not a problem for evolution. That just means that our dates were slightly off (and yes, when we are dealing with timescales of billions of years, a few million is “slightly off”).
The only way that these fossils would be a serious problem for evolution is if they were actually out of order. In other words, you need something like a fully developed bird before the first proto-bird fossils (no, Confuciusornis is not an example of that, it had fossil predecessors). You need a turtle that was swimming with the first amphibians or a modern mammal that was chilling with the dinosaurs. Once again, all it would take is one Precambrian rabbit to bring our understanding of evolution to its knees, but no fossils like that have ever been found.
Just to be 100% clear here, this isn’t an argument from ignorance fallacy. Rather, if the flood was true, then finding these fossils mixed together should be the norm not the exception. In other words, if all of these organisms lived and died at the same time, then we shouldn’t find a pattern that perfectly matches evolution other than a handful of exceptions. Rather, we should find a complete and total lack of a pattern. There should be no correlation between the predictions of evolution and our observations in the fossil record. So that fact that we have never once found a fossil that was significantly out of order (despite having millions of fossils from thousands of fossil beds from all over the world) provides extremely clear evidence that the flood is false. Think again about the fact that all of the pre-reptile layers are completely free from any birds or mammals, and even within the reptile layers, there is a clear gradual progression. That makes absolutely no sense if the flood is true.
6. What about the cases where a single fossil stretches between several layers. How is that possible if one of those layers is millions of years older than the other?
This argument refers to “polystrate fossils” which are fossils that are found upright, sticking through several levels. Usually these are trees, and there are several important things to note about them. First, the layers with these trees aren’t actually millions of years apart. Second, we have understood how they form for well over 100 years. For the sake of time, I won’t go into the details, but the short version is that these trees were rapidly buried by local floods. (regional floods obviously do happen).
Additionally, when we look at these trees, we can see that one of the layers is simply the clay layer that the roots are sticking into (i.e., the layer it was growing on), and the next layer up is often a coal layer (which could have been formed when the plants around the tree were buried). The third layer is then simply the layer the buried the tree and surrounding vegetation. Finally, despite creationists’ claims, for some tree species, having the trunk partially buried is not a death sentence. Indeed, we have examples where trees were partially buried, but continued to grow for years before being fully buried in a second regional flooding event. We can tell this because of the formation of new roots growing out of what was previously the trunk. So in fact, these fossils are a huge problem for creationists, because if these trees were actually buried rapidly in a global flood (as creationists claim), then how did the trees form that second root layer?
A final example that creationists like to cite is a “kamikaze” ichthyosaur. This argument refers to a single fossil of an ancient marine reptile, where the skull sticks straight down through three layers. You can read the science of how this happened in the original article (Wetzel and Reisdorf 2007), but a big part of what happened was simply that the creature sank nose-first because of its canter of gravity, and its pointy noise sank deeply into the soft substrate (bodies of water often have incredibly soft, muddy bottoms that are easy to sink into). Also, many of the claims that creationists make (such as the idea that the layers are millions of years apart) are not in the original article, so they seem to be straw men. Finally, let’s flip this thing around and ask a different question. If the flood was true, and thousands of animals slowly sank and were buried in sediment, then why aren’t fossils like this the norm? Shouldn’t fossilized animals that stick through multiple layers be everywhere? Indeed, if the fossils and sediment layers came from the flood, then it is quite surprising that it is so rare to find fossils that stick through multiple layers.
7. Where are the missing links? If evolution is true, there should be lots of transitional fossils, so where are they?
They are everywhere! We have hundreds of clear transitional fossils; creationists just refuse to accept them as such (see this post for details). Further, these fossils show up exactly where we would expect them to. In other words, we see early fish-like amphibians before the modern amphibians that we have today, we see early dinosaur-birds before finding the modern birds that we have today, we find early reptile-like mammals before finding fossils of the modern mammals that we see today, etc.
Conclusion: Ad hoc fallacies and Occam’s razor
As I have shown in this post, the fossil record perfectly matches the predictions of evolution. Well over 100 years ago, evolutionary biologists predicted that all over the earth we should see a consistent pattern with the oldest/deepest layers containing single celled organisms, followed by multi-cellular marine invertebrates, followed by fish, followed by amphibians, followed by reptiles, and ultimately birds and mammals. That prediction has held remarkably true and provides extremely powerful evidence for evolution. In contrast to the predictions of evolution, creationists are retroactively trying to make the data fit their view, but in order to do that, they have to invent ridiculous solutions like proposing that the major groups of animals where geographically constricted and lived in taxonomic units. Given what we know about these animals today (e.g., birds are found everywhere, even Antarctica), and the fact that we find fossils of all of these groups from all over the world, this assumption is ridiculous. Additionally, they also have to assume that countless layers not only managed to shift over-top of one another without leaving behind the typical geological hallmarks of having done so, but also that every single time that this happened, the layers shifted such that the order predicted by evolution was maintained. These arguments are classic ad hoc fallacies. They are ridiculous “solutions” that have no evidence to support them and would never be accepted by anyone who wasn’t already convinced that the flood was true. They are nothing more than baseless speculation and wishful thinking. To put this another way, creationists aren’t looking at the evidence and drawing a logical conclusion. Rather, they are starting with the conclusion that the flood is true, then they are inventing fanciful “solutions” to try to make the evidence fit that conclusion.
In closing, I want to remind everyone of one of the golden principles of both logic and science: Occam’s razor. This states both that you should always limit your assumptions and that the solution with the fewest assumptions is the most likely to be true. In this case, evolution is not making any assumptions. Rather, it made an extraordinary prediction that came true. In contrast, creationism is making a series of increasingly ridiculous assumptions. If you are a creationist, I want you to really think about whether or not the creationists’ arguments make sense. How likely do you really think it is that not only were all animals living in taxonomic groups that exactly matched the predictions of evolution, but their fossil layers also managed to get sorted into an order that perfectly matched evolution’s predictions? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just admit that evolution is correct?
Gastaldo. 1992. Regenerative growth in fossil horsetails following burial by alluvium. Historical Biology 6:203–219.
Isaak. 1998. Problems with a global flood 2nd ed. talkorigins.org. Accessed 12-July-16.
Issak (ed) 2003. The Talk Origins Archive: Claim CC341. Talkorigins.org. Accessed 18-July-16.
MacRae. 1997. “Polystrate” tree fossils. Ralkorigins.org. Accessed 12-July-16
Morton. 1996. The geological column and its implications to the flood. noanswersingenesis.org.au. Accessed 11-July-16
Snelling. 2010. Order in the fossil record. Answer Magazine. Answersingenesis.org. Accessed 12-July-16.
Stassen. 2003. A criticism of the ICR’s Grand Canyon dating project. talkorigins.org. Accessed 12-July-16
Wetzel and Reisdorf. 2007. Ichnofabrics elucidate the accumulation history of a condensed interval containing a vertically emplaced ichthyosaur skull. SEPM 88:241–251.
Woolf. An essay on radiometric dating. Answersinscience.org. Accessed 10-July-16