Imagine a football game between two drastically mismatched teams. As the final seconds of the fourth quarter tick by, it’s obvious that the game is going to be a major shutout: 73-0. After the struggle is finished, the teams’ captains meet to shake hands. The team that triumphed is captained by a man named Chuck, and the non-victorious team leader is called Kent. The conversation goes like this:
CHUCK: Good game, Kent. No hard feelings about the runaway victory, right?
KENT: Of course not! We won, after all!
CHUCK: Say again? The score board shows that the final score was 73 to zip; our team.
KENT: You’re mistaken. All the touchdowns were scored by our team.
CHUCK: Look, Kent, I have the tape of the game right here. As we speak I’m preparing special slow-motion replays of all the key plays from various camera angles. You can see our players crossing the end zone time after time. We clearly won!
KENT: We both see the same tape, but we interpret it differently. Some of those men scoring touchdowns could have been our players.
CHUCK: But they’re wearing our jerseys! You can see the color patterns right there on the screen! Here, let me zoom in and use sophisticated image-enhancement software to sharpen the details! Yes, these are clearly all our players scoring touchdown after touchdown!
KENT: I just don’t see it. You’re trying to suppress my point of view, which means that I’m right.
CHUCK: I’m not trying to suppress your point of view, I’m just showing you the evidence! You can even see it on the scoreboard! Our team won!
KENT: Oh sure, but your people run the scoreboard. You can’t trust that. I want it taught in schools that there’s a controversy regarding who won this game.
CHUCK: (DIES from exasperation.)
KENT: (BELIEVES he has won, then goes to jail for tax fraud.)
Okay, I know it’s not fair to pick on Kent Hovind for being thrown in jail. His criminal activities have nothing to do with his bizarre belief system.
Fossils are the remains of long-dead organisms. Fossilization is a pretty rare process – in order for an organism to be represented in the fossil record, it must have hard body parts (such as bones or a shell), and it must die in exactly the right environment where it can be buried before its parts are consumed or scattered. The fossilization process is also incredibly slow. Fossils less than ten thousand years old are virtually unknown. We have remains of organisms that lived less than ten millennia ago, but they’re not mineralized yet so they don’t really count as fossils.
Very few organisms leave fossils, and even fewer will be discovered. Scientists estimate that the fossil record represents far less than one percent of the species that have ever existed.
Given the relative rarity of fossil remains, you might think that piecing together an accurate record of the past would be next to impossible. Here’s an analogy: What if somebody gave you a copy of War and Peace from which all but two pages had been ripped, then asked you to summarize the plot based on the two remaining pages? It is true that there is much we’ll never know about organisms living in the past, but that doesn’t mean paleontologists cannot glean some information from the fossil record.
For example, we know that dinosaurs existed and that they did not all live at the same time, nor did they live at the same time as humans. An Allosaurus fragilis and a Tyrannosaurus rex never had to compete with each other for food, because they were separated by more than eighty million years, and neither one of them ever chased a fur-bikini-clad Raquel Welch.
Not only do we know dinosaurs existed, but scientists can see their evolutionary precursors and successors in the fossil record. And these rungs on the evolutionary ladder all occur exactly where they’re supposed to occur. Scientists never find a fossilized rabbit in the same rock layer as a Velociraptor, nor would they expect to.
It’s not just that scientists think fossils are ancient. Numerous lines of evidence point to the same conclusion (radiometric dating1 (PDF) and relative dating, e.g.). Even the scant fossils nature has spared paint a picture of evolution in action: in the oldest rocks there are no vertebrates – just arthropods and mollusks. Then fish appear, then amphibians, then land vertebrates, then mammal-like reptiles, then true mammals, then primates, then apes, then homonids. The picture might not be complete, but it’s complete enough to make out what’s going on.
If you ask a Young-Earth Creationist to explain how fossils support the idea of special Creation, he might point you to a site like the Creation “Science” Network. According to the authors of this page, fossil evidence supports the Noachian flood. It does nothing of the sort. It would take a level of precision not normally seen in a devastating flood to deposit the remains of organisms so neatly, and so consistently, into layers based on increasing complexity.
According to a Creationist, gaps in the fossil record mean that no evolution took place. Actually, gaps in the fossil record mean that no fossilization took place. But it doesn’t matter to a Creationist. If you point out an obvious “transitional fossil”, like Tiktaalik, a lobe-finned fish which seems to perfectly fill in the evolutionary gap between ancient fish and four-legged animals, the seasoned Creationist will demand that you provide two new transitional fossils to fill in the gaps on either side of Tiktaalik. It’s the Creationist’s version of Zeno’s Paradox.
Even if scientists had never discovered fossils, there’s still plenty of evidence that life evolves over time. The fossil record just strengthens our understanding of evolution. To deny the evidence for evolution is one thing, but to actually claim that the evidence bolsters Creationism…well, that’s especially brazen. It still doesn’t make you right.
1. Beware of Creationists (and well-meaning but underinformed realists) who speak of using carbon dating to determine the age of dinosaur fossils and ancient rocks. Carbon-14 dating, or radiocarbon dating, is only used to find the ages of things that were alive within the past 50,000 years or so. Also, radiocarbon dating has some well-documented limitations of which scientists are highly aware.