Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How the truth of the fossil record lead me away from young earth creationism

Evolution says that millions, perhaps billions of years ago, somehow, somewhere, something happened and some sort of non-living something appeared. This may seem a little too strange, but no evolutionist can tell you more than this. —The author at age 14

In his book Refuting Evolution, Jonathan Sarfati says that when it comes to origins, "it's not really a question of who is biased, but which bias is the correct bias with which to be biased!" Unquestionably, Sarfati's choice of bias is towards twentieth-century-style young-earth creationism (YEC).

My convictions, like Sarfati's, were also once firmly rooted in YEC for the greater part of my life. As a product of a fundamentalist Christian home, I rarely heard evolution mentioned except in a negative light (usually in association with atheism and godless immorality). As a matter of fact, I first learned of evolution during a church youth group meeting when I was an early teenager.

The presentation of evolution I received continued to be biased by YEC thinking through my college years. Both my parents were passionate believers in YEC as were my childhood friends. Likewise, the two churches my family faithfully attended also taught YEC.

As a teenager, I took a special appreciation for the YEC debate after my slanted exposure to the issue in that youth group meeting. Ultimately, I read most of the YEC staple in books and viewed every available YEC video with keen interest. I attended a YEC-teaching Christian school and later was home schooled (an excellent education—though my biology textbook was from a YEC publisher). After high school, I attended Bob Jones University, the premier institution of fundamentalist education in America and a group particularly skewed towards YEC.

I became so convinced of YEC by my college years that I mostly lost interest in the subject. I had no doubts about the recent creation of the earth and the reality of Noah's flood.

I started with the bias which is "the correct bias with which to be biased"

If ever a college graduate was "biased with the correct bias with which to be biased," it was me. Never in the first twenty-one years of my life had I been confronted with a serious reason to doubt the authenticity of YEC or to suspect there was anything but deceit in the research of earth scientists.

I mention the issue of bias because it's one you'll hear ad nauseam from YEC defenders. My last discourse with a YEC proponent broke down in desperation when every scientific challenge of mine was met with a questioning of my presuppositions rather than a reasonable attempt to address the issues I raised.

YEC teachers like Sarfati will tell you that it's "a fallacy to believe that facts speak for themselves—they are always interpreted according to a framework." While I'll be the first to admit that bias and presupposition do impact the mind of a scientist, the existence of bias can't be used to justify every imaginable belief. What creationists are really trying to say with the "bias" argument is that it's okay for them to ignore the evidence because their worldview is the right one despite the any evidence to the contrary. I do believe scientists sometimes overlook evidence that doesn't "fit" their bias, but creationists admit to actively ignoring evidence that undermines their position:

By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. -Answers In Genesis

If you want to remain a YEC, don't investigate the geologic column

However important bias is to the interpretation of basic facts of natural history, it's my intention here to present facts—and not much evolution at all—and allow the reader to do his own interpretation. And in any case, it should be clear that my bias just a few years ago was overwhelmingly towards YEC interpretations. For this reason, when a YEC friend at BJU suggested the fossil record might be a potentially problematic area, I suspected and (thanks to my intense YEC bias) actively sought an easy solution.

In retrospect, I propose there are two easy steps to converting from YEC: 1.) Try to prove it wrong by gathering the facts about the fossil record. 2.) Eat the humble pie that those facts dish up for the YEC.

When my YEC friend (who 10 years later is still a creationist) mentioned possible trouble in the fossil record, he was referring to the apparent evolutionary sorting of fossils in the rocks of the earth. Remember I said I would not mention much about evolution? Well, I'm not. The statement just made—that there is an apparent evolutionary sorting of fossils in the earth's rocks—is a visible and measurable fact. If you don't agree with this claim, bear with me at least long enough to hear the evidence.

My own reaction to this comment was one of incredulity. I was certain I'd heard from trusted YEC scientists that fossils were deposited catastrophically by the flood and thus did not present any sort of evidence for an evolutionary progression. Further, what process in a destructive world-wide flood could possibly distribute fossils all at once in any sort of evolutionary-looking order?

In defense of YEC, I immediately recalled reading a book entitled Darwin's Enigma by Luther Sunderland. In that book I thought I'd seen a quote to the effect that scientists are often puzzled when they find dinosaur bones, only to dig further down and discover modern mammals.

What my YEC friend said next at once amazed and irritated me. As an avid fossil collector, he said he had never witnessed nor ever once heard of modern mammals buried along side or underneath dinosaurs. Trying to disprove this statement, as it would turn out, lead me down a path toward rejecting YEC.

After returning to Sunderland's book, I did not find a quote that clearly stated modern mammals and dinosaurs were ever buried together (or that modern mammals are sometimes found below dinosaurs). Instead, on page 42 is a humorous—though shamefully misleading—illustration. The drawing depicts a rather artfully rendered rock face exhibiting some dramatic fossils. On the right is a tyrannosaurid dinosaur skeleton frozen in an aggressive pose. On the left side of the sketch is the subject of the meat-eater's aggression: a fossil human skeleton riding a horse (again a skeleton) caught in mid-gallop. A caption under the cartoon reads, "Some fossil assemblages are hard to explain."

No wonder I thought Sunderland said fossils are all mixed up in the geologic column. Sadly, this assertion (like the funny drawing with no real-world relevance) can't be substantiated. Horse and human fossils are not found in the same rock layers as dinosaurs.

I didn't know this at the time. Though Darwin's Enigma hadn't provided solid evidence confirming dinosaur and modern mammal bones are found jumbled together in the earth, I was nevertheless certain these animals must be found together. After all, the funny cartoon certainly implied they were so arranged. And the mass of YEC propaganda in my mind only confirmed this contention.

I immediately began looking for a case of modern mammal and dinosaur fossils together in the fossil record. This was a task I suspected I would complete in a day or two. Even though those sneaky evolutionists might try to hide finds of dinosaurs mixed with modern mammals, I reasoned such finds must be so common as to be impossible to hide from an inquisitive eye like my own. If all kinds of animals lived together in a Flintstonian world before the flood, they must also have been buried alongside one another during God's judgment of floodwaters. I was certain I would uncover a fossil find that would confirm this supposed truth.

It would not be so, however, and my YEC downfall was inevitable. I can now say with confidence that nowhere in the world do dinosaurs appear buried along side (or above) any modern mammals.

And this was just the beginning. After years of reading and collecting fossils for myself, I learned the truth about the fossil record. The layers of rock that make up the crust of the earth are a literal history book of life. In these layers we can see what animals lived first, followed by layer after layer of more and more modern animals. At the bottom layers all you find are primitive sea creatures. Only at the very top layers do you find modern animals.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule such as when very old layers are pushed up to the top. Imagine that the earth's crust is like a three-layer cake. We know the bottom layer is the oldest. Suppose a kid comes along and takes a big scoop of cake and removes the top two layers. The bottom layer will now be visible on the surface. However, a comparison of the disturbed area with the surrounding area reveals the context and relationship of the layers. In a similar way, mountains sometimes push young layers to the surface of the earth. Old (deep layer) fossils then become visible at the very surface. But a careful survey of a cross-section (side-view) of the rock formation in question resolves the puzzle.

Until you've witnessed this for yourself in the field or by studying geologic maps, the true impact of this reality isn't felt. But there's maybe an even easier reality to grasp: that of the associations of fossils found together.

Creationism says that all of earth's animals and plants were created at one time a few thousand years ago. Then Noah's flood consumed the planet and buried every living thing that wasn't on the ark. If this were true, we'd expect to find a jumbled-up mess of animal fossils at all layers of the earth's crust. Fossils of dinosaurs would be mixed with human remains--or at least with monkeys and deer. In fact, nowhere in the world has this observed even though millions of fossils of dinosaurs and mammals have been unearthed.

Here are just a few other dramatic facts about fossil groupings:

1. Flowering plant fossils are never found in rock layers older than the dinosaurs. This is amazing because "flowering plants" (angiosperms) includes every type of flower, but also every type of grass, and pretty much every kind of leafy tree. These are fast-growing, very common plants found all over the earth today. How is it that of the millions of plant fossils found under dinosaur fossil layers, nobody has found a single blade of grass? The only reasonable explanation is that grass (and flowers) had not evolved.

2. Bird fossils have never been found under dinosaur layers. The reason? Birds evolved from dinosaurs so there's no way a bird fossil could be deposited under the dinosaur layers.

3. Fossils of marine mammals like whales and seals are only found after the dinosaur layers. Whales evolved from mammals similar to hippos, so there's no way one could be buried before other mammals evolved.

Think of this: dig down through the top layers of the earth until you reach the dinosaur layers. You'll never again find a fossil from a monkey, a whale, a deer, or any other kind of modern mammal.

Of course, I haven't posted references to substantiate these claims. But what I've spelled out in this post is a brutal truth of geology. If you don't believe it's true, I challenge you to show me documented evidence that any of these fossils are found outside of an evolutionary arrangement. Show me a modern deer fossil buried with a dinosaur fossil. Or do one better: show me a whale fossil down in the deepest layers where only fish fossils are found. You won't. There simply aren't whale fossils down there. No amphibians either. No reptiles, no dinosaurs, birds or mammals. The easy answer is that none of them had evolved.

To me, there are lots of great arguments for evolution. But to this day, the most powerful one is that we can see for ourselves that plants and animals evolved by looking at the layers of the earth's crust.


Mi said...

Hi, here is the question. How many transitional species would take from completely land animal to hippo-kind animal to completely adopted to sea whale? Please indulge me. Are there any transitional fossils (with just one ore few organs developed)? Also could you roughly imagine how many positive mutations would it take for such transition and in what amount of time? And please include the chance factor of that positive mutation to catch on (not to be eaten/killed without procreation). Thanks.

David Board said...

Actually, I don't believe any of these questions are relevant to determining whether evolution happened. As I describe in my article, we know evolution happened because we have a clear progression of fossils in the rock layers of our planet. Near the bottom we find bacteria fossils, above those, we find worm-like creatures (I'm using simple terminology, of course), and then above those layers we find primitive fish, then more advanced fish, then amphibians, then reptiles, then dinosaurs, birds, mammals and eventually humans.

The question of whether evolution happened is not a mystery. It is a model (a scientific "theory") that perfectly explains how modern species exist, and fits the evidence.

Your questions relate to HOW evolution happened. And it's true we don't have all the answers or all the evidence. But we don't need ALL the evidence to know things happened in such a way.

Consider human history: we don't have a record of every single human that ever lived. We don't have artifacts from every single human population. There are huge gaps in our knowledge of even historical figures, but we don't need every human skeleton and every human artifact to know that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, and after them came the Greeks, and then Romans, and so on. We know enough to answer the big questions and certainly enough to know which civilizations preceded which and gave rise to others.

So maybe you can indulge me: how do you explain the overwhelming evidence for evolution in the fossil record? Why is it that the deeper you dig into the earth's rock layers, the more and more primitive fossils you find? Why is this also true for plants?

I may not be able to give you a "transitional fossil" for every living species (though I can give you MANY), but I can at least point to the fossil record and show that animals and plants all over the Earth were buried in a purely evolutionary order.

On the other hand, you can't begin to explain this evolutionary order in a non-evolutionary framework so you pick around the details instead of facing the brutal truth of the whole.

Mi said...

Hi, thanks for quick answer.
Let me first answer your question. It is true that there are no cows and Iguanodon sharing the same layer. As you said, I can't provide all the answers myself. But what you call "primitive" I just can't accept as such. If by "transitional" you mean Velociraptor with feathers and similar examples (archaeopteryx) I would propose you find another examples because those are completely functional and highly developed organs those and other species like them possess.
As for my question, I'm sorry you couldn't get even a rough estimate. I would like to know on what rate half developed whale organs would appear in such model. I think that it is a matter of belief to say evolution happened. Please notice that I'm not talking YEC now. I just think it is strange that fossil record offers fully developed life forms appearing in explosion of species that's all.
Peace :)

David Board said...

I think your questions may come from a misunderstanding of evolution, or from anatomy, or both.

In regards to evolution, it doesn't predict (or require) party-formed organs. All you need is for one fully-formed organ (a scale is an organ) to change in form (say to a feather) that provides some unique benefit. And yes, a partly-changed scale could easily provide an intermediate benefit (insulation, for example).

In regards to anatomy, I've alluded to the fact above that items such as scales and feathers are in fact organs. If you don't accept that dinosaurs with fuzzy scale-feathers show intermediate organs, I think you are being disingenuous or maybe don't understand the definition of an organ.

Further, in the case of whales, for example, did you know they share nearly all their organs in common with other mammals, including humans? There skeleton is nearly the same (albeit the bones of the skull are stretched out so the nostril is near the top of the skull) and even some living whales have tiny non-functioning hind leg bones! Some fossil whales have complete hind legs.

Whale internal organs are mostly the same as other mammals: brain, heart, lungs, stomach, etc. Their blood, nervous, muscles are almost the same as land-living mammals, and on and on it goes.

What is different about whales from other mammals is not so much the presence of new organs, but the change in morphology (shape) and function of existing organs. Whales use their front legs as flippers (the bones are mostly the same but changed in shape and function). As I said, the skull is mostly the same bones, but twisted into a new shape that allows the nose (same organ as in other mammals) to point up. The lungs are the same, but changed to allow holding their breath for long periods. The tail is a tail, but a new shape and function as well. And so on.

I'm glad you are not supporting YEC and I understand your question about transitional forms, but the problem is not so much in the answer as in the question. In a sense, all fossil animals are transitional in form to some other animal. Not since the Cambrian has there been many truly "new" organs. Instead, organs that existed in the first fish have slowly changed over time to serve new functions to suit animals to new environments. This is evolution.

Mi said...

OK, I see your point but please see mine. You are pointing out to similarities of whale with land mammals but still it is a completely functioning fully developed whale. You are giving too much credit to mutation I think. Just imagine (it takes a lot of it).... one day a doglike animal that really loves to swim produces the offspring with a sonar... Sorry friend, to stretchy. It is like saying that brits didn't invent radar, it just appear on the cliffs of Dower :)
Anyways, bottom line, since there is a lot of faith involved in evolution (even the production of one single feather from would take a LOT of time and mutations ant those would be shoved in Velociraptor ancestry) I choose to believe in ID just as I would choose to believe that your blog have actually a author and is not randomly typed by a group of happy typing chimps.
Designing stuff today by man can be seen around us, a submarine could have a diesel motor inside it but it is designed, not evolved.
But I guess you know already all of this, and believe me, I was raised in communist evolutionist environment, and most part of my education I am somewhat familiar to evolution side.

David Board said...

"Just imagine (it takes a lot of it).... one day a doglike animal that really loves to swim produces the offspring with a sonar... Sorry friend, to[o] stretchy."

Yes, I agree, but this is called a straw-man argument. Evolution doesn't say that one day a dog-like animal that loved to swim produced offspring with sonar. It's easy to attack stories like this--even laugh at them--but you are just making yourself feel better because this is not a claim of evolutionary theory. All you are undermining is your own invented wacky version of evolution.

I don't agree it takes a lot of faith to believe evolution. What it takes is a lot of knowledge. I hate to say that but it's true. As much as evolution makes so much sense to me now, I remember when it seemed like the most idiotic concept to me. But I didn't actually know very much about biology, geology, anatomy, genetics, or any of the other fields of science that relate to evolution.

The reason I hate that evolution takes knowledge to understand is because knowledge about science is just what so many people lack. I'm not saying they're dumb. You don't have to be a genius to understand evolution. You don't have to be a scientist (I am not). But you do need to have a relatively good understanding of a relatively large range of scientific facts.

Again, like you I was once completely blown away that people could believe "mutations" could produce complex change in organisms. Only after I began to truly study fossils and anatomy and geology for myself did I begin to understand that this was in fact possible, and not only possible but probable. And not only probable, but the only truly valid theory.

The problem is (and again, the thing I hate) is that I can't give you or anyone that knowledge. You have to study it for yourself and be willing to consider new ideas based on the facts you uncover. The facts (fossils, in this case) point to land mammals similar to hippos (but not hippos), followed by sea animals with the same kinds of teeth, very similar skulls, but toes that look more like paddles. And those creatures (again, we see this in the fossil record) are followed by more whale-like animals with tiny hind legs, front legs shaped like big fins (with mostly the same bones, but stretched out), and unusually shaped ear bones, but still mostly the same teeth and skull bones, etc.

Are there gaps? Yes! But gaps are not an argument for or against a theory--they are gaps in our knowledge. The quality of the fossil record is a bit like this number sequence:

2 4 6 - 10 - 14 - - 20 - 24 26...

There are some definite gaps there, but there is still more than enough data to guess that we are dealing with a string of even numbers spaced in 2s. Also, it would be crazy for me to claim that these gaps in the number sequence mean there is no sequence at all: that some designer picked out numbers totally unrelated to the other numbers. Now, is that possible? Sure! Maybe the designer just happened to like those numbers above but his other favs are 13 17 and 101.

But "possible" doesn't mean "likely" and the evidence for evolution is far more likely than even my number sequence above suggests. Why? Because in the case of evolution you have more than just a fossil record full of plant and animal forms apparently transitioning to other forms.

continued below...

David Board said...

You have genetics that tells us that every animal or plant on the planet comes from some other animal or plant. This is huge! Every living in thing on the planet is created by reproduction from some other living thing. Evolution fits perfectly with a system in which all life on earth comes by reproduction when animals pass on a code called DNA--a code sometimes changes slightly (about 1 mutation in every human, for example). These are just some of the facts of genetics, but they point us to evolution.

And there's biogeography wherein animals of certain types are typically found in places around the earth with animals of that same type. Again, this makes sense in light of evolution just as it makes sense than most blacks live in Africa and most Chinese live in China: ethnic distribution is mostly a result of lineage. So too, animal distribution is mostly a result of lineage. So we have marsupials largely in Australia, monkeys with grasping tails are found only in the Americas, whereas African/Asian monkeys have limp tails. All of the species of penguins are found in Antarctica, and none in the Arctic. These facts point to evolution.

And so many other fields of science make sense in light of evolution, but not otherwise.

So again, yes, it's hard to believe, but it's not as hard to believe when you learn more about the natural world and how animals relate in terms of their anatomy, genes, chemistry, etc.

Mi said...

Yes it is hard to believe :)
60 million yrs ago you still have a penguin, not some different half penguin half albatross animal.
I'm not saying that microevolution is impossible, mutations does happen, but macroevolution, sorry, I don't buy that one.
Take a feather, on first birds you already have modern feathers (the birds themselves looked quite modern too), so please think about the lack of evidence for your theory. No transitions from scales to feathers. There should be numerous fossils of these transitional animals with half developed feathers and numerous other features that make birds fly. But we just have Iberomesornis, Ichthyornis and Confuciusornis. No mutants with half developed scale-feathers...

David Board said...

"60 million yrs ago you still have a penguin, not some different half penguin half albatross animal."

Again with the straw-man arguments. Evolution does not suggest there was ever a half penguin, half albatross. Yes, they may be related because they actually (believe it or not) share some common features, but you oversimplify to say the one came from the other.

On the other hand, the oldest penguin fossils we know of (from around the end of the dinosaur age) show many non-penguin features. They had long beaks and long (for a penguin) wings. This makes sense if they evolved from a flying bird, but is hard to explain otherwise.

And then there's the whole notion of why a designer would create a bird that doesn't fly, uses it's stubby wings to swim, etc. Evolution can explain this, ID can't. Nothing seems "intelligent" about the way all the animals on the planet share the same basic bones and organs yet in so many odd twisted shapes serving different duties. As I say in my post about homologies, this is now how a designer creates.

"mutations does happen, but macroevolution, sorry, I don't buy that one."

Sorry, but this is not a sound argument, just opinion. I understand where you are coming from (as I say, I was in disbelief once), but all you're really saying is you have trouble believing it, and that's not an argument.

There's so much great info out there and every day more facts support evolution, but if you just say, "I can't believe it" and don't look at the facts then you'll never change your opinion.

In regards to feathers, I believe we do have transitions from scales to feathers. A Google search will turn up many references to primitive downy feathers on theropod dinosaurs, for example. Whether or not birds were direct descendants of dinosaurs, the very existence of dinosaur feathers illustrates the possibility of scales-to-feathers evolution.

Why don't we have more fossils of early birds? Same reason we don't have many fossils of modern birds. Birds as a rule don't live in the water and so they are not as commonly preserved. Their skeletons are small and fragile, in general, and their remains are typically destroyed before they can be preserved.

But again, lack of evidence doesn't mean it didn't happen-- especially considering that the overwhelming evidence we do have points to a reptile-to-bird line of ancestry. For example, the birds you mention are very primitive and dinosaur-like in many ways, so I'm not sure I see your point.

joeyt56 said...
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