The Fossil Record

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The fossil record is a term used to refer to the sum total of fossils discovered in the bowels of the Earth.

Earth is composed of rock layers called strata, and the science of studying these layers is called stratigraphy. Usually occurring in layers of sedimentary rock distributed around the world, a fossil is any geological imprint of a once-living life form and the study of fossils is known as paleontology.

Familiarity with the geologic time scale is essential in studying the fossil record. Largely the result of eighteenth and nineteenth century European science, this time scale represents Earth’s natural history. Much like world history can be divided into both general and specific periods of time, geologic history is also divided into general periods of time called eons, and each eon further subdivides into eras, within which we find specific periods and epochs. The Law of Superposition assumes that lower strata are always older, thus the further down a fossil is discovered the older it is reasonably assumed to be.

The fossil record hardly conforms to our expectations and despite a certain degree of constancy there are all sorts of gaps, omissions and irregularities. For example, to my knowledge there are no known tetrapod fossils anywhere in the world from the Aalenian (mid-Jurassic) period. In spite of facts like this most scientists presuppose the record is sufficiently complete for research, and in theory its exposition should prove favorable to either one model or the other.

It would be fair to point out that there are at least two schools of thought on the fossil record itself and how it came to be. Uniformitarianism is the idea that geologic processes occurring at the same rate as presently observed can account for all of Earth’s geological features. Many people including scientists, students and lay researchers believe that the fossils in the record were laid down separately over hundreds of millions of years. Although certain Christian creationists may hold this view as well, others feel that all the specimens in the record were laid down simultaneously during the Noahic flood of Genesis, also referred to as flood geology. With either interpretation we would expect the fossil record to have preserved a substantial cross-section of various life forms, much less so in the Noahic flood interpretation, which was said to span a period of forty days.

The completeness of the fossil record is often mentioned in debates, and it's common to hear things like, "The fossil record is only half full." Like most blanket statements, this one contains a general truth but also disinformation. First we must clarify what we are talking about. If we are talking about preserved fossils of vertebrate taxa at the family level, then in this particular context the fossil record is about three-quarters complete. It is much less complete at the genus or species level.

Although not to be taken as out of context as denigrating to the theory of evolution, evolutionary scientists Niles Eldredge, George Simpson and Stephen J. Gould, of the American Museum of Natural History and Harvard University, respectively, noted that the fossil record does not support the traditional Darwinian idea of slow, gradual changes in organisms through time. As Mr. Eldredge explains, “Most families, orders, classes and phyla appear rather suddenly in the fossil record, often without anatomically intermediate forms smoothly interlinking evolutionarily derived descendant taxa with their presumed ancestors.” Evidence of gradualism between phyla, classes and even orders is generally non-existent and what little evidence does exist is heavily debated. George Simpson acknowledged this decades ago: "This is true of all thirty-two orders of mammals…The earliest and most primitive known members of every order already have the basic ordinal characters, and in no case is an approximately continuous sequence from one order to another known. In most cases the break is so sharp and the gap so large that the origin of the order is speculative and much disputed…” To this Mr. Gould adds, "We may acknowledge a central and surprising fact of life's history – marked decrease in disparity followed by an outstanding increase in diversity within the few surviving designs."

Contrary to the protestations of Bertram Cates in Inherit the Wind, the fossil record, Cambrian in particular, indeed does seem to indicate that life was stuck on Earth much like a flower in a geranium pot. This disparity has been referred to as the trade secret of paleontology. Although damning to gradualism, the facts of the fossil record alone do not lead to sustainable conclusions for either atheism or theism. That's because science cannot address a religious claim, and if science can address a religious claim, then that claim is not religious, but in accordance with some fact or observation of reality.

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