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Defining Evolution 16: Fossils

The video above will sum up the key points of this chapter- in this case, why similar features shared by species cannot be used as evidence of evolution The full chapter, which features Rent-A-Friend and his fellow Nacho-eating arm chair philosophers, can be read below. Enjoy! #JesusLovesYou

To read other parts of this series click here

Somewhere on the horizon, like a beacon of hope in a storm of copies in triplicate filed with accounts receivable and marketing and meetings about the GNP sway toward diversified demographics whose profiles are identical to previous markets save the range of diverse terminology mandated for categories of markets calculations (After this long, long Thursday, even I didn’t know what most of that meant. It was like drinking from a fire hose)… somewhere just beyond all of that was a huge pile of Nachos. But on that horizon (known by locals as Danny’s, and labeled by the signage above as Danny’s Bar, Grill, and House of Rabblerousing) sat an island of Nachos, gleaming like the setting sun only with far more jalapeños, which was our weekly escape from the storm. A port, surrounded by inlets of root beer.

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When I arrived at Danny’s, I didn’t really think that the conversation about evolution would continue this night. I’d already come up with a wonderfully clear and tremendously helpful definition for Darwinian Evolution (The world’s first). We had hashed out the details, debating why the definition said what it did, and then we examined a host of mechanisms of Darwinian Evolution to see that, when Evolution was understood more clearly than “Changes happening” it was obvious that it did not happen. Changes happen all of the time, but not one of them will grow that Darwinian Tree of Life, and thus there is no reason to think Evolution even COULD happen, let lone that it had been going on for billions of years, doing the work of a genetics bioengineer.

However, when I sat down and began to give attention to my root beer, the specter of Darwin arose to haunt our Thursday night once again.

“So I’ve been thinking,” said Captain Blue Beard. “We’ve sailed down the yellow brick road of Chuck D and seen that Evolution is less tangible than a Kraken in a Pilates class. Yet, I don’t think any of us has heard Carl change his mind about Evolution being a fact of science supported by a mountain of evidence, have we lads?”

“It IS supported by a mountain of evidence,” said Carl gruffly. “You religious fanatics simply don’t understand it.”

“Oh, sure,” said Blue Beard with a smirk. “I think that’s been made clear these past few weeks, eh?”

“I’m pretty sure we’ve swept away your mountain,” I said. “What’s still left Carl?”

“You may not understand the mechanisms of Darwinian Evolution,” said Carl in a classic fact-ignoring blanket statement, “but the fossil record shows clear evidence that Evolution has been happening for billions of years. If you knew anything about paleontology, you’d know that the fossils show gradual changes from one kind to another for billions of years.”

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“Can it be?” said Blue Beard with mock concern. “Has science finally raised the SS Darwin from the depths to haunt our shores once more?”

“Now, how do these fossils,” Bill asked, “that you talked about, show evolution happening?”

“How do you not know this?” asked Carl incredulously.

“I’m just a humble medical doctor,” said Bill. “We don’t dig into rocks all that often. I’m far more likely to dig into your chest cavity.”

“Well, it’s simple,” said Carl. “The oldest rock layers contain only simple things, like bacteria, and then above them come worms, and above that fishes, and above that lizards. The fossils show the exact kind of evolutionary progression which Darwin expected.”

“It’s too bad he didn’t live to see that become a reality,” I said.

“What do you mean?” asked Carl.

“I mean that Darwin knew the fossil record didn’t support his theory. Wait, let me find it.” I pulled out my personal electronic device and flipped through some recent bookmarks until I found Chuck D. I read the following to my friends;

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“Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.” Charles Darwin (1859), The Origin of Species, p. 280.

“I didn’t know Darwin said that,” said Tom. “I always thought Darwin built his theory in part on what was found in the fossils.”

“No such luck,” I said.

“That was the mid 1800’s!” Carl reminded us. “Darwin even tells you the explanation in that quote. The fossil record was largely unknown at the time. The fossil record has long since vindicated Darwin’s theory! Transitions and evolutionary gradualism are found in every layer of rock!”

“You’re a man of great faith,” I replied, “but sadly not of great information. Here’s a quote from famed Evolution true believer Stephen J Gould more than a hundred years after Darwin;

“The main problem with such phyletic gradualism is that the fossil record provides so little evidence for it. Very rarely can we trace the gradual transformation of one entire species into another through a finely graded sequence of intermediary forms.”
(Gould, S.J. Luria, S.E. & Singer, S., A View of Life, 1981, p. 641)

“Anyone can quote mine one quack who doesn’t know about fossils,” said Carl. “But paleontologists have told us for decades how Darwinian the fossil record is.”

“Let me see if I can find a quote from someone who works with fossils,” I said, scrolling again through my research. “How about a Professor of Geology from the University of Chicago, also a Dean of Science at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago?” I read the following.

“A large number of well-trained scientists outside of evolutionary biology and paleontology have unfortunately gotten the idea that the fossil record is far more Darwinian than it is. This probably comes from the oversimplification inevitable in secondary sources: low-level textbooks, semipopular articles, and so on. Also, there is probably some wishful thinking involved. In the years after Darwin, his advocates hoped to find predictable progressions. In general, these have not been found. Yet the optimism has died hard, and some pure fantasy has crept into textbooks.”

DAVID M. RAUP, New Scientist, Vol. 90, p.832, 1981

“You’re obviously just taking him out of context!” Carl insisted. “No one in the field, no REAL scientists, would ever say that about the fossil record.”

“Oh no?” I asked. “Well, let’s see what else he said, to see if maybe it changes his tune. Here he is saying something completely different:”

“There were several problems, but the principle one was that the geologic record did not then and still does not yield a finely graduated chain of slow and progressive evolution. In other words, there are not enough intermediates. There are very few cases where one can find a gradual transition from one species to another. . . (p. 23)

“That’s no good,” I conceded. “Wait, here’s an evolutionary website which provides more of his quotes and context in an effort to explain why people like me are morons.”

“Well, we are now about 120 years after Darwin and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species but the situation hasn’t changed much. The record of evolution is still surprisingly jerky and, ironically, we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transitions than we had in Darwin‘s time. By this I mean that some of the classic cases of darwinian change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse in North America, have had to be discarded or modified as a result of more detailed information — what appeared to be a nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appear to be much more complex and much less gradualistic. So Darwin’s problem has not been alleviated in the last 120 years and we still have a record which does show change but one that can hardly be looked upon as the most reasonable consequence of natural selection.”

“Conflicts between Darwin and Paleontology”, Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin Jan. 1979, Vol. 50 No. 1 p. 22-29)

“Obviously he’s some Creationist nut who somehow made it into the Field Museum,” said Carl. “Anyone can find Darwin deniers who say similar things, but that doesn’t make them true.”

“Obviously a Creationist Darwin Denier, eh?” I said. “Then perhaps you’ll be able to explain why he said this:

“Darwin’s theory of natural selection has always been closely linked to evidence form fossils, and probably most people assume that fossils provide a very important part of the general argument that is made in favor of darwinian interpretations of the history of life. Unfortunately, this is not strictly true. We must distinguish between the fact of evolution — defined as change in organisms over time — and the explanation of this change. Darwin’s contribution, through his theory of natural selection, was to suggest how the evolutionary change took place. The evidence we find in the geologic record is not nearly as compatible with darwinian natural selection as we would like it to be.” (p. 22)*

“As one such Darwin denier,” I said, “we don’t tend to refer to the “fact” of evolution in this manner. We tend to use words like, “Myth,” “religion,” or “Stupid.”

“Here’s my favorite,” said Bill holding up his own personal computation device.

“Oh, not you too,” said Carl.

“Sorry,” said Bill. “But even a humble suburban doctor likes to see what other experts in their field have to say.”

“Paleontologists have paid an enormous price for Darwin’s argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we almost never see the very process we profess to study. …The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless. 2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and ‘fully formed.'”

Gould, Stephen J. The Panda’s Thumb, 1980, p. 181-182

“Now, if I recall correctly,” said Bill, “the things we all agreed had to be true of evolution according to those trees of life, you remember? We said evolution needed to be about living things changing over time, where as Stephen, here, has said the fossils show stasis, meaning things NOT changing for long periods of time, and sudden appearance, which also isn’t changing over time.”

“Sounds like special creation to me,” I said. “Animal and plant kinds coming into being suddenly and staying the same for long periods of time? Blue Beard, didn’t you say both of these were features of Biblical Creation?”

“That’s right. These fossils doesn’t sound very Darwinian,” said Blue Beard, with no surprise at all. “Are you sure you’re wise to consider the fossil record to be evidence FOR Evolution?”

“Of course!” said Carl. “Everyone knows that the fossil record has shown evolution. Modern NeoDarwinian evolution is built on the fossil record!”

“Is that so?” said Blue Beard, looking to his own personal computational device. “Then perhaps you can explain this quote from Mark Ridley in New Scientist.”

“In any case, no real evolutionist, whether gradualist or punctuationist, uses the fossil record as evidence in favour of the theory of evolution as opposed to special creation.”

Ridley, Mark, “Who doubts evolution?” “New Scientist”, vol. 90, 25 June 1981, p. 831

“You’re just quote mining!” Carl shouted. “None of this means anything!”

“Even if all of these quotes are wrong,” I said, “it wouldn’t help evolution, since the fossil record can’t be relied on to be complete.”

“”What does that mean?” asked Carl.

“It means,” I said, “that even if we find things in the order you suggest we do, it wouldn’t matter because we know things can live without leaving fossils when they die. If we found only worms in the lowest rock layers, that wouldn’t prove that fish weren’t already there at the same time. It would only prove that they didn’t get fossilized.”

“Nonsense,” Carl replied. “The fossil record was fairly incomplete in Darwin’s time, but we’ve found billions of fossils since then. You can’t appeal to a lack of fossils to say the record isn’t Darwinian.”

“Have you ever heard of the coelacanth?” I asked. The boys indicated that they had not, and so I continued. “It is a wide, fat flippered fish which shows up in rocks dated by evolutionists as 80 million years old, and then they don’t show up in any rocks more recent.”

“So it either went extinct or evolved into another kind of animal,” suggested Carl.

“Or, it simply failed to leave any fossils for 80 MILLION years,” I replied.

“That’s pure speculation. The only way you could know that is if we found one still swimming around in the ocean today.”

“Funny you would say that,” I said pulling out my personal computation device. “Here’s a picture of one. We’ve been finding them for decades, swimming around in the ocean.”

“That fish is a…a living fossil?” Tom murmured.

“And he’s not alone,” I said. “There is a long and growing list of plants and animals which evolutionists say went extinct millions of years ago which we find living on earth today.”

“Just because Natural Selection didn’t cause them to change or go extinct,” interjected Carl, “doesn’t mean this is evidence for your religious mythology.”

“What it proves,” I said to him, “is that, if we accept your dating methods, something can live for 80 MILLION years without leaving a fossil. If he was here for 80 Million years AFTER his LAST fossil, how can we possibly say he wasn’t around BEFORE the FIRST fossil? Very simply we can’t.”

“Oh my goodness,” said Tom, the light bulb in his head illuminating. “That’s true! The fossil sequence assumes that the earliest fossil marks when the species evolved- first came into being, and the last fossil tells us when they went extinct. But how can we know that? All things being equal, this fish could have lived 80 million years BEFORE his first fossil. Or more!”

“Well, that would be true,” I said, “if there were millions of years in which to live. But I suggest we make that a topic of another night. Right now I think we just need to face the fact that the fossils can’t give an evolutionary progression because they are not found in any Darwinian order, and even if they were, we can’t know merely from fossils if a species existed when a rock layer was laid down.”

“The rock layers,” continued Carl, undaunted by information, “are found in ascending ages from billions of years old to modern rock, with the Darwinian progression we expect found in the rocks of the appropriate ages!”

“And how do we determine the age of those rocks?” I asked. “The ones with the fossils in them.”

“With science,” said Carl, being as specific as I had become accustomed to him being. “Radiometric dating is a fail proof method of determining the age of rock layers. Many different radio dating methods can be used, from Carbon 14 dating to Potassium Argon dating, and they all agree, and support the Evolutionary timeline.”

“Carl, you make me sad,” I said.

“Because you’re starting to see that science disproves this silly religious view of yours?” Carl said smugly.

“No,” I said, gazing into my nearly empty root beer mug. “Because you show how very badly public schools have failed.”

“Typical,” said Carl with a dramatic eye roll. “I show the gaping hole in your theory and you turn to name calling.”

“What name did I call you?” I asked.

“Well… it was implied.”

“What I said was meant to imply that your time in what I am certain was an expensive university failed to teach you the simplest truths about radio dating techniques or geology.”

“I took an overpriced Geology class in college too,” said Tom, “and I believe that I was taught the same things Carl was taught.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I said. “I took similar classes. But what you learned was incomplete. Or simply wrong.”

“Oh, once again,” said Carl, revving up to what was certain to be a rant, were he given long enough time to accelerate, “Rent-A-Friend is going to explain to us how he knows more about science than all of the college professors teaching in their field at all the schools in the country.”

“Don’t forget to demand my transcripts,” I reminded him. “And of course you’ll need to see several science papers supporting my position which are published in peer reviewed journals, since, as we all know, science which isn’t initially printed in peer reviewed science journals isn’t real science.”

“Finally, you’ve said something true!” exclaimed Carl.

“Something true about Darwin’s Origin of Species,” I said. “So, I suppose then you’ll concede that it isn’t real science? Since Darwin didn’t go through that whole peer review process? Or get a degree in a science field from an accredited college?”

Carl stammered for just a moment and then replied, “Oh, well, I see that we’re going to go off on a rabbit trail about history now that I’ve shown your ignorance about science itself, eh?”

“Carl is absolutely right,” I agreed. “What was I saying?”

“You were saying, “said Tom, “that we can’t date fossils using radio methods? Was that your point?”

“Almost,” I said. Wendy was in the process of dropping off a root beer for me. “Thank you my dear,” I said. “Say, Wendy? You took Geology in college, yes?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she said.

“What kind of rock are fossils found in?”

She thought for a moment, fiddling with one of her braids and then replied, “Mostly sedimentary but also some conglomerate.”

“And what is common about both types of rock?” I asked.

“They are formed in water,” she replied. “Most rock layers are sedimentary rock, which means they were laid down in water.”

“And can you use radiometric dating to determine their ages?” I asked.

“Yes… well, not directly,” Wendy said. “See, Radio dating methods are primarily used on volcanic rock. So you can’t determine the age of sedimentary rock directly with those methods. If you find sedimentary rock between two layers of volcanic rock, you could date those volcanic layers using radio methods and then assume the layers between to be somewhere in the middle.”

“So you can’t use ANY radio dating methods on fossils?” I asked.

“Well, you could use Carbon 14 dating,” Wendy explained. “But since that method is only good for once living things which died no more than, oh, a hundred thousand years ago, you wouldn’t expect to find any C14 in most fossils.”

“What would it mean if you were to find C14 in a fossil?” I asked.

“Well, simply it would mean that the plant or animal you were testing must have died less than one hundred thousand years ago. Otherwise all of the C14 would have decayed and there would be none to find.”

“So if we tested dinosaur fossils, coal, or diamonds?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Those are all supposed to be millions of years old. Finding C14 in those would be like finding a still burning candle in a sealed Egyptian tomb.”

“What about soft tissue?” I asked. “Skin, bones, and blood? Not impressions of them, but the real thing?”

Wendy shook her head. “That’s out of my pay scale. Bill, how long does flesh last?”

“When you cover it in buffalo sauce,” said Bill, “About twelve seconds!” Wendy laughed.

“That reminds me,” she said, “I need to check with the kitchen. I’ll be right back.”

“And when it’s not covered in buffalo sauce?” I asked.

“Well, in the best conditions,” Bill explained, “any living matter will decay in less than 50,000 years. Collagen will last less than a million years. Those mummies they have in the museum, for example, are only a few thousand years old. But the museums still have to work hard to keep them from falling apart.”

“Fascinating,” said Carl, “but I can’t help but feel that Frendius Renticus is leading us away from his intellectual failure.”

“Did you not hear what Wendy said?” I asked. “You can’t date fossils with radio dating methods. Except carbon 14 dating, which in fact shows they cannot be older than a hundred K.”

“You can’t use C14 dating on rock!” said Carl. “Don’t you know anything?”

“I know that,” I said. “I didn’t say rock. I said fossils, which, in those cases, are not made of rock but are made of plant and animal. Skin, bone, blood, wood, ink. Dinosaur skin, bone, and blood just to name one example.”


“That’s what Mary Schweitzer said when she discovered it,” I told him. “But it’s not uncommon. It’s just been kept under wraps. Dinosaur soft tissue has been found multiple times over the past century.”

“Hold on,” said Tom. “How do we determine the age of fossils if you can’t use radio dating methods?”

“Simple,” I said. “With evolution.” The look on Tom’s face told me he had registered my reply as nonsense, so I continued. “The rock layers- the geological column- as you find in your geology textbook are not found in that order in more than one percent of locations on earth. This, of course means that 99% of the rocks on earth are, according to deep time, evolutionary geology, in the “wrong” order. Sometimes they are entirely reversed, in which case it’s called an Overthrust. Sometimes GREAT amounts of time are missing- hundreds of millions of years. Those are called an unconformity.”

“Hold on now,” said Blue Beard. “How does one know that layers are in the wrong order, or that millions of years are missing? If you can’t radio date them I mean.”

“The way we determine the age of those rocks is with Index Fossils” I replied.

“What is that?” asked Tom.

“That’s when we use the common fossils in a rock layer,” explained Carl, eager to interrupt, “to determine the age of the rock.”

“So if you find a fossil in a rock layer which is a 300 million year old fossil?” I prompted.

“Then obviously you are looking at a rock layer which is 300 million years old,” said Carl. “It’s not rocket science.”

“And how does one determine the age of a fossil?” I asked. “As we cannot radio date them?”

“There’s a chart of index fossils in any Geology Textbook,” Carl explained. “You check the chart and see when your fossil lived.”

“And how did we create this chart?” I asked, wishing Carl would do more of the leg work for me. I don’t mind prompting him, but he so often seems like he’s happy with a bumper sticker’s worth of information.

“It was created,” he said annoyed, “by putting living things in the proper evolutionary sequence. Marine invertebrates at the bottom, mammals at the top.”

“But, that means you are using evolutionary theory to build the list of index fossils,” said Tom.

“That’s right,” said Carl.

“And then you use that chart to determine the age of rock layers, based on what fossils are found in the layers.”

“Yes?” replied Carl, not seeing what the problem was.

“And then you label the fossils based on what rock layer they are found in.” Tom paused thoughtfully for a moment. “If I find a fossil in a layer which I know to be 300 million years old, I know the fossil is 300 million years old.”

“Naturally,” said Carl, beginning to grow suspicious.

“And you claim that the fossils show evolutionary gradualism?” Tom asked. “That the fossils, when put in order according to these dating methods, show a progression consistent with Darwinian Evolution?”

“Now you’ve got it!” said Carl, and he drank to his own great success.

“But,” said Tom, his little grey cells popping into light as the pieces came together, “that means you use evolution to determine the age of the fossils, and then use the fossils to date the rocks, and the rocks to date the fossils, and then use the rocks and fossils as evidence of the evolution which you had to assume to begin this process in the first place.”

“What are you saying?” asked Carl. Sometimes it really seems like he doesn’t have a native language.

“I’m saying this whole thing is circular reasoning!” exclaimed Tom. “Fossils date the rocks and the rocks date the fossils! This is like using two inch-rulers to measure the other for accuracy. First one is right, because the second one says so. How do we know the second one is accurate? We measure it with the first one!”

“Hey! That’s good right there!” said Blue Beard.

“And you are using the fossils as evidence for evolution, when the only reason you can is because you interpret the fossils using the evolutionary assumptions to start with!”

“No,” said Carl. “That’s not… I mean there are lots of… Look…”

“If the rock layers are found out of order,” Tom continued, his eyes wide, “then the fossils aren’t found in the evolutionary sequence, are they?”

“Well, no” said Carl. “But that’s because of geological processes which can invert those layers…”

“Which means that, unless we began with the evolutionary assumptions, we’d never conclude the evolutionary sequence from the actual fossils, would we?” demanded Tom. “We’d never even determine those layers to BE out of order, would we?”

“Of course we would!” shouted Carl.

“Why? Why would the fossils, found as we find them point toward Darwinian Evolution?”

“Well, because we could arrange them…” Carl’s voice trailed off and for a moment it looked like he was thinking. “Look, you just show me some peer reviewed scientific journals which say the same thing these religious fanatics are saying and I’ll listen to it, but otherwise, this conversation is over!”

I’ve got to give it to Carl. He is reliable. By which I mean predictable. By which I mean embarrassing.

Also reliable is our affable waitress, Wendy. She brought the conversation to a close with the intrusion of a huge pile of nachos, placed in our midst like a tropical isle in a vast sea of Thursday nightness.

Except for the occasional giggle from Blue Beard, the next few minutes were smothered in the sound of Nachos being consumed. Tom maintained the look of deep thought which he had, and over the next couple of days I would receive a handful of emails from him asking for sources supporting the position he had begun to see. Thankfully, that was not hard to do. The easy thing about stating the truth is, it’s a lot easier to defend.

Happy Nachos! And thanks for letting me be your Rent-A-Friend.

* Quoted from

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Written by Bryan Melugin

Bryan runs, teaches science and theatre, makes cartoons and puppets, and wants everyone to know and love Jesus.

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