Does the fossil record support evolution?
When people who believe in evolution are asked for evidence supporting their belief, they often refer to the fossil record. Many of these people, however, when pressed, cannot explain what it is about the fossil record that defends their view. They’ve just heard it stated over and over that “Evolution is a fact and the fossil record is proof!”
Hitler is claimed to have said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Don’t get me wrong… I am not equating those who believe in evolution with Hitler in any way. I am just drawing attention to the fact that when you hear something often enough, it typically becomes “unquestionably true” in your mind, independent of whether or not it actually is. Therefore, most people believe that it’s an absolute fact that the fossil record supports evolution.
Consider the following claims about the importance of the fossil record when it comes to the veracity of evolution.
“Although the comparative study of living animals and plants may give very convincing circumstantial evidence, fossils provide the only historical, documentary evidence that life has evolved from simpler to more and more complex forms.” [Dunbar, Carl, Historical Geology, John Wiley & Sons Inc., p. 47.]
“The most direct evidence that evolution has occurred is presented in the study of the fossils.” [Stephenson, W., Zoology, McGraw-Hill Companies, p. 249.]
“Naturalists must remember that the process of evolution is revealed only through fossil forms; only paleontology can provide them with the evidence of evolution and reveal its course or mechanisms.” [Grassé, Pierre, Evolution of Living Organisms, Academic Press, New York, p. 82.]
“It is doubtful whether, in the absence of fossils, the idea of evolution would represent anything more than an outrageous hypothesis... The fossil record and only the fossil record provides direct evidence of major sequential changes in the earth’s biota [regional life forms].” [Stanley, S.M., New Evolutionary Timetable, Basic Books, p.72]
It is very apparent from these sample quotes that the fossil record is indispensable for defending one’s belief in evolution.
Before we look at what we actually see in the fossil record, let’s examine very briefly what each opposing worldview (i.e. creation and evolution) would predict regarding this subject.
The evolutionary view posits that the first life form (a relatively “simple” single celled organism) slowly, gradually changed into every other life form on the planet, over millions and millions of years. If this is true, we should expect to see slow, gradual changes in the fossil record leading from one kind of creature into the next.
The biblical account of creation states that God created creatures fully formed and fully functional right from the beginning and that these creatures would reproduce “after their kind”. This would imply that while they might produce a nice variety, there would be definite limits as to how much change could occur and that one general kind of animal would never change into something completely different.
In examining what we actually observe, let’s start with a quote from Darwin himself:
“Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely-graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.” (The Origin of Species, 1859)
Lest you think that he doubted his own views, he attempted to explain away this problem by alluding to “the extreme imperfection of the geological record”. In other words, in his time, they just hadn’t uncovered enough fossils yet, but he assumed in the future, the “missing links” would be discovered.
Fast forwarding 140 years later (1999) Professor Steve Jones (University College London) published an updated version of Darwin’s Origin of Species and added the following commentary:
“The fossil record - in defiance of Darwin's whole idea of gradual change - often makes great leaps from one form to the next. Far from the display of intermediates to be expected from slow advance through natural selection many species appear without warning, persist in fixed form and disappear, leaving no descendants. Geology assuredly does not reveal any finely graduated organic chain, and this is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against the theory of evolution.” (Almost Like a Whale, p. 252)
Even Richard Dawkins (evolutionist, atheist, formerly at Oxford) makes reference to this dilemma:
"…the Cambrian strata of rocks, vintage about 600 million years, are the oldest ones in which we find most of the major invertebrate groups. And we find many of them already in an advanced state of evolution, the very first time they appear. It is as thought they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history. Needless to say, this appearance of sudden planting has delighted creationists.” [Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker, Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (1996) p. 229]
Stephen J. Gould (who was one of the world’s leading evolutionists until his death in 2002) said there were two major features of the fossil record: abrupt appearance and stasis. Abrupt appearance means that when you see a specific creature, it seems to have appeared on the scene suddenly, fully-formed, with no evidence of prior, simpler form. Stasis means “staying the same”. As it relates to the fossil record, it means that when you see a certain type of life form at different locations throughout the fossil record, it doesn’t seem to be changing into anything else… it basically stays the same. Here’s a direct quote:
“We have long known about stasis and abrupt appearance, but have chosen to fob it off upon an imperfect fossil record. [Gould, Stephen J., “The Paradox of the First Tier: An Agenda for Paleobiology,” Paleobiology, 1985, p. 7.]
Everybody knows the fossil record doesn’t provide much evidence for gradualism; it is full of gaps and discontinuities… most species don’t change. They may get a little bigger or bumpier, but they remain the same species. This remarkable stasis has generally been ignored. It if doesn’t agree with your ideas, you don’t talk about it… the fossil record doesn’t show gradual change, and every paleontologist has known that ever since Cuvier. [Gould, Stephen Jay, lecture at Hobart & William Smith College, 14/2/1980.]
On the other hand, these two features (abrupt appearance and stasis) are exactly what we would expect from the Genesis creation account and the flood (see “Is there any evidence of a global flood?”).
I can hardly do justice to this topic in a short article, but this will at least give you little better idea of how the fossil record relates to the creation/evolution controversy.
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Author: Jay Seegert (Co-Founder & Principal Lecturer, Creation Education Center)