When I first meet people, most are surprised to discover that I am a palaeontologist. A palaeontologist is someone who studies fossils. Palaeontologists are a somewhat rare species of professional, and especially within the Christian community. Many falsely believe that fossils and the fossil record are evidence that runs counter to the biblical narrative of Creation and a short history of Earth and a worldwide Flood, because they point to an evolutionary history of millions of years.
There are two reasons given for a long history of life on Earth. First, various groups of organisms appear in an ascending order of complexity within the geological strata (or layers of rock), with “simpler” organisms occurring in lower strata and more “complex” organisms in higher strata. This appears to contradict the biblical record of Creation. Second, some dating techniques give long ages for those strata in the order of hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of years. So the argument is made that the earth and fossils must be cast as much older than the few thousand years of the biblical chronology.
Fossils record organisms—plants, animals and microorganisms—that lived in the past and are now preserved in the rocks. Common fossils are body parts like bones of animals, mollusc shells, exoskeletons of marine and terrestrial animals, wood and leaves of plants, and microorganisms such as diatoms (algae). But there are more types of fossils than these preserved remains of formerly living things. There are also trace fossils, like trackways and burrows that record the activities of organisms.
Studying fossils gives us information about organisms of the past—where they lived and how they behaved. The work of a palaeontologist is to discern, interpret and weigh the evidence in a process similar to that of a detective looking to solve a murder. The questions we ask include: What are they? How did they die? When did they die? How were they buried and preserved? As a Christian and Bible believer, I find that my biblical worldview allows more insight—more angles of enquiry, in detective speak—than more inhibited enquirers and can come up with answers that account for the facts and biblical view of a world that is much younger than scientific orthodoxy that views these fossils as evidence of evolution allows for.
So with this in mind, let’s consider some aspects of the fossil record and evaluate if fossils can be reasonably interpreted in a way compatible with the biblical record of a short earth age.
To begin, come with me to a motor museum. As we walk the halls, we view more advanced models of the 1920s, 1930s, and so on up to the highly complex cars of the twenty-first century, with their electronic gear shifting, anti-lock braking systems, and Bluetooth communication devices. Note, besides an increase in complexity, we also find an increase in diversityalong with specialisation—passenger, cargo carrying, racing etc—a gradual evolution of automobiles from less complex, diverse and specialised into diverse highly complex engineering marvels over time. We might even pinpoint the common “ancestor” of all autos, though there would be some hot discussion as to where it was developed. The first autos were made in France and Germany, later in the United States and Britain, Italy, Russia, Spain, Japan and Korea. That means that the first car was made in one country, then production began in other geographic places, all using similar ideas but developing diverse designs, technologies and exclusive components.
Now, let’s compare that with the fossil record. We begin at the layers from the Cambrian period—the lowest geological strata containing abundant fossils and considered among the “oldest” fossils of many organisms. Palaeontologists call the appearance of diverse fossils that are not present in lower rocks the Cambrian Explosion. According to Simon Conway Morris’ Darwin‘s Dilemma: The Realities of the Cambrian ‘Explosion’, most major forms of animal life we’re familiar with appear suddenly in those strata, fully formed, highly specialised and diversified. In The Ecology of the Cambrian Radiation, Andrey Zhuravlev states the Cambrian fossils also appear simultaneously in multiple locations in the world in different ecosystems. But that is not what would be expected in a model of gradual appearance of life with increasing complexity and diversity over a long period. It’s as if in the automobile museum, the room displaying the first automobile has 23 “firsts” instead of just one, and all of them already quite complex and diverse, and none clearly the model ancestor of the others. Moreover, those “firsts” would have appeared in multiple geographic places simultaneously. If this were the case in the museum, we would be tempted to think that the belief that automobiles were invented in Western Europe and not North America is wrong.
The biblical view of the creation of all life forms and a sudden burial that turned them into fossils during a global flood actually fits better with the sudden appearance of diverse fossils as apparent in the Cambrian Explosion. During the biblical Creation week, God created multiple groups of organisms (diversity), all of them very complex. According to Genesis 3, the environment Adam and Eve encountered outside Eden was rather different from the one inside the garden, suggesting that God had placed animals and plants in many parts of the world. Based on the type of sediment that makes up the Cambrian layer, the type of organisms and the trace fossils like burrows and trail marks, palaeontologists interpret the Cambrian fossils as representing fauna that lived on the bottom of ancient seas. This is compatible with a worldwide flood washing sedimentary rock into the pre-flood oceans and burying organisms living on the bottom.
Marine animals appear in the lower layers of the fossil record. Such include sponges, trilobites and other arthropods, molluscs and many kinds of sea worm among others. Those organisms are called invertebratesbecause they lack a backbone. Fossils of vertebrates (animals with a backbone) like fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals occur in layers above in a succession that—according to palaeontology—suggests a gradual appearance over many millions of years. However, a closer look at both the fossils and the characteristics of the layers where they are found suggests an interpretation that doesn’t invoke millions of years may better explain how they were formed.
The different groups of vertebrate appear in succession but each group appears abruptly, not gradually. A gradual appearance would show intermediate forms between, for example, fish and amphibians, or reptiles and mammals, and between different groups of invertebrates. Also, the different groups of plants appear without gradual variation or connections among them. Sudden appearance is better explained in the biblical model of Creation in which multiple forms of animals and plants were created “according to their kind,” without intermediate or transitional forms.
Looking at media from the present-day, television documentaries, academia and textbooks all regularly assert that fossil formation takes millions of years. In fact, the opposite must be true in order for fossils to even exist. Three conditions are needed for fossil formation: first, the possession of hard parts (although there are exceptional cases of soft tissue preservation), second, rapid burial in sediment, and third, mineral exchange within the sediment facilitated by percolating water. Given those conditions, fossilisation may occur in a span of time between a few hours and a few years, but however long it takes must be less than the time that an organism’s body lasts after death. Thus, millions of animals and plants could have been buried during the worldwide Genesis flood and rapidly fossilised in the wet sediment.
In the past two decades, there have been numerous reports of soft tissue occurring in fossilised bones and other fossils, many of them thought to be millions of years old. This is puzzling because soft tissue doesn’t last long after an organism dies. Some resistant organic molecules, like collagen, may last a few hundred or even a thousand years under ideal conditions, but not 65 million years, as have blood vessels and cells found in some dinosaur bones, some even with preserved elasticity and colour. A better explanation is that those fossils are not that old, as the biblical chronology implies.
Granted, certain aspects of the geological record are problematic for a short chronology, such as the biblical Creation and flood narrative. For example, radiometric dating suggests that rocks associated with fossils are millions of years old. Coral reefs and other biological constructions that require thousands of years to form occur at various levels in the geological column, and they are hard to interpret in a worldwide flood model.
Both fossils and the rocks give a dual set of features that lead to opposite interpretation: hundreds of millions of years during which various groups of organisms appear successively, versus thousands of years at the beginning of which different groups of organisms were created that were later buried during the great flood of the Bible. There are problems with a short-age chronology, but the long-age chronology also faces significant drawbacks. No-one has all the answers, but the biblical model of Creation and the Flood is not incompatible with many features observed in the geological and fossil record. In fact, many features suggest the biblical model is superior to other models.
Raul Esperante is a research professor at the Geoscience Research Institute. He has led palaeontology research teams in the United States, Peru, Bolivia and Spain.