Living Fossils

Fossils are amazing objects to study. They’re the remains of once-living organisms that were buried and preserved over a period of time. They provide a glimpse into the past, leaving clues about the environment the organism lived, what the organism looked like, how it interacted with other organisms, how old it was, what it ate, and even how it died. Just about anything can be fossilized, including tracks, bones, indentations in the ground, feces, leaves, raindrops, soft tissue, and microscopic organisms.

This summer, while visiting family in Colorado, I had the opportunity to visit Dinosaur Ridge and observe dinosaur tracks and fossils, such as Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Iguanodon, Allosaurus and Apatosaurus. These fossils were contained in the Morrison Formation- a sequence of sedimentary rock named after the town of Morrison. It was fascinating to imagine what took place at the time these animals were still living and breathing: how they ran, hunted, fed, and so on. But as my wife and I took a bus tour, we were reminded of how these fossils have been used for something unfortunate- a tool for indoctrination. The tour-guide (a student of paleontology) told us stories about how these dinosaurs evolved, died out over 65 million years ago, and evolved into birds; he explained how it took millions of years for the fossils to form before the land was eroded enough for us to see what was hiding beneath. I felt troubled because there was no room for God and the creative work He did not so long ago.

Dinosaur footprint at Dinosaur Ridge

Checking out an Iguanodon footprint at Dinosaur Ridge

I suggest that these fossils are better explained by a catastrophic event known as Noah’s Flood: Footprints stretch for miles in all directions, and a global flood with rising tides could easily account for the quick formation of tracks left by fleeing dinosaurs beneath layers of sediment. The dinosaurs would eventually grow weary and drown in the currents; their bodies would go through a rapid burial, be mineralized, and preserved. There are many books providing greater detail, and one I’m interested in critiquing is The Genesis Flood, by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, written over fifty years ago. It’s a classic that has paved the way for modern Creationists, and would be fun to discuss.

Some scientists, as I alluded to, tend to use fossils as a tool for convincing others that the earth is millions and billions of years old. They almost make it sound as if fossils can speak the truth on their own. In fact one website asks, “What can fossils tell us”? And goes on to say, “They can tell us the age of the rocks in which they are found, what the environment was like when the fossilised organisms were alive, and even how the organisms functioned.” But the problem is that fossils don’t speak- they can’t tell us anything. Scientists, such as paleontologists, study fossils and draw conclusions based on their observations. The conclusions scientists draw depend entirely on their worldview and beliefs. If, for example, one believes the earth and universe are billions of years old, then their conclusions will reflect that. A Creationist scientist, however, will draw different conclusions based on the same fossil evidence and will explain how the evidence better fits a young earth destroyed during a global flood. Fossils are silent- they’re inanimate objects that need experts to interpret what they observe. These experts- or scientists- hope to reconstruct the past, shedding light on what it was like at the time the organism died, up until the time it was discovered. In other words fossils don’t come with nametags identifying themselves and indicating how old they are, or what the environment was like. All that must be pieced together from the various clues dug up at a particular sight. All this should sound obvious, but when I converse with evolutionists, they really do sound as though the evidence speaks for itself and cannot be wrong, and that scientists only report what the fossil evidence tells them without any bias.

This leads me to my main point: what evidence is there to suggest that we’re being misled? Well, one group of evidence is called “living fossils”. These are living organisms once thought to be extinct, such as the coelacanth [see-luh-kanth], a lobed-finned fish thought to have gone extinct in the Late Cretaceous period (about 65-75 million years ago). It was first only known through fossils until one was caught off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Before its discovery, however, scientists thought it was evolving into a land-dwelling amphibian, using its lobed fins to walk on the sea floor before eventually emerging onto land. But once a living coelacanth was found, we could finally put to rest the evolutionary myths; now scientists can actually observe a living specimen, and they’ve discovered that it didn’t use its lobed fins for walking on the sea floor after all; the fins were used for maneuvering while swimming. It wasn’t a transitional form evolving into something else; it was living in its environment as a fully functioning organism, just the way God intended when He created it on Day Five. The coelacanth was not what scientists claimed it was when all they had to go on was sketchy fossil evidence from the distant past; it didn’t die off with the dinosaurs. But when they were able to study a living coelacanth they finally had to admit their errors and draw different conclusions.

We now know that humans and coelacanths do exist together, even though their fossils have never been discovered together. It’s therefore important to understand how scientists can draw incorrect conclusions based on evolutionary assumptions about the past. We can see how scientists can be so certain about the past, even though they weren’t there to observe it, and then insist that others believe them without question or criticism simply because they’re experts. The public often goes along with it for various reasons; perhaps they don’t know any better or don’t want to appear unenlightened, or they choose to avoid controversy. But in this example we were able to demonstrate that the experts’ assumptions about the past, when brought to light, don’t hold up to scrutiny. I think we should always be ready to question evolutionary claims without fear of how we may be perceived or treated. If we value truth, then we must analyze those claims with great interest, and in light of scripture.

There are many other examples of living fossils, such as Comptonia peregrina (a deciduous shrub) from North America, Limulus (a horseshoe crab), Gingko trees (or Ginkgo), Neopilina mollusks, and the tuatara lizard. Most of these organisms have shown stasis- changing very little over the supposed millions of years recorded in the fossil record. Based on the information we know about these “living fossils”, we should be skeptical when scientists tell us they know what happened in the past even though they weren’t there to observe it.

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