Diatoms are single-celled organisms that live in almost any moist environment. They are found by the millions in a cup of sea water or a puddle in your back yard. They play a critical role in the environment as oxygen producers. But they are best known for their visually stunning homes constructed of glass.
I was reading about diatoms as part of my preparation for a seminar on biological diversity. One fact in particular jumped out at me: fossils of diatoms are only found from the Jurassic Period to the present day.
Diatom fossils are found in just the upper-third of the fossil record. This pattern of fossils struck me as one that clearly discredits the young-earth creationists (YECs) chronology of earth history. How? Let’s explore the world of diatoms and what they might be telling us about Earth’s history.
Before I explore the connection with young-earth creationism, I noted that diatoms live in “glass houses.” Doesn’t sound safe at all, right? However, diatoms are able to synthesize glass walls, which they erect around the outside of their cell, presumably for protection in the wild world of hungry aquatic microscopic life. Despite their work to product themselves, a number of organisms have learned to enjoy eating diatoms, glass and all.
Just how successful are diatoms and their glass houses? There are more species of diatoms than there are of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians combined: an estimated 100,000! They come in so many shapes and sizes they are like the snowflakes of the microbiological world. In addition, diatoms are photosynthetic organisms, like plants, and therefore are able to use the energy from the sun to produce chemical bond in sugar molecules. By most estimates they account for one quarter of the oxygen produced on Earth. They also account for 40 to 50% of the primary food production in the oceans. Clearly, diatoms are essential components of the Earth’s ecosystem as it functions today.
As you might imagine, glass cases are readily preserved in the fossil record compared to an organisms made solely of soft parts. Vast quantities of glass shells of dead diatoms are found on the bottoms of the oceans and lakes of the Earth today. Deposits of diatoms, sometimes hundreds of feet thick, are found in the geological column.(1) These thick layers of nearly 100% diatoms are called diatomaceous earth, which is mined for a variety of commercial uses.
We can expect that if diatoms are present in the water, one can expect that diatoms will be preserved in sediments produced under those water bodies.
Glass-house-diatoms are a late comer to the microorganism bag of tricks
The lack of diatoms in any portion of the geological column below the Jurassic is most easily understood as evidence that glass-house diatoms did not exist prior to the Jurassic age.(2) Non-glass producing species probably lived in the Triassic but their soft bodies, not surprisingly, were not preserved. Yet as soon as a species of diatom obtained the ability to produce a glass exterior wall, those walls would have been readily preserved in the fossil record. The glass-producing novelty was apparently a huge success and soon new diatom species filled the oceans and fresh water systems. While dinosaurs were unable to maintain their dominant status over the land the diatoms not only outlived the dinosaurs but have become one of the most common organisms on Earth.
Prior to the Jurassic, there were hundreds of thousands of species of single-celled organisms that produced other types of external cells walls. For example, the coccoliths produce a calcium carbonate shell, which are well-preserved in the fossil record. These still exist today. So we know that glass-walled organisms could have been preserved during this time had they existed. However, we have no evidence that they did exist at this time.
Since diatoms today are so abundant, and since they are such an important member of the food chain, the lack of diatoms in the past allows us to infer that other organisms must have once played a much more dominant role in the food chain. In fact, there was a much greater abundance of other organisms such as foraminiferans and coccoliths and others.
Diatoms: Another Failed Test of Flood Geology for Young Earth Creationists
Diatoms are another embarrassment for young earth creationists (YECs). Rarely will you hear them mention the fossil record of diatoms.
YECs explain the geological column as the product of massive world-wide hydraulic sorting and/or ecosystem sorting. The latter hypothesis proposes that the global flood first covered deep-ocean environments, then covered shallow seas, and finally the lowland tropics. All the while, large animals were running away from the global flood to higher ground, only to be swallowed up later.
While this scenario is fanciful and unsupported by experimental or simulation data, it has a certain appeal to the evangelical audience that simply wants to know what happened to the dinosaurs. But ask serious questions about other organisms, especially small organisms, and the flood-geology hypothesis is confronted with grave inconsistencies. For example, what about the diatoms?
What would the flood-geology hypothesis predict about the distribution of diatoms in the fossil record? The obvious prediction would be that if diatoms have existed since the creation week, then they should have been widespread prior to Noah’s flood. At the onset of Noah’s flood, when much of the sediment of the earth was dissolved in water, diatom shells and living diatoms should have become mixed up with the water and sediment column. When sediments were deposited, diatoms would have found themselves randomly distributed throughout the geological column.
The problem is, there is no a priori reason to expect that diatoms should have sorted out into just the upper layers of the geological record, which is what we see today. In addition, there is no explanation, that I know of, to explain the lack of diatoms in the early rock record within a flood-geology model. In a flood geology sorting model diatoms might be expected to exhibit at least local sorting into sizes and shapes but even this minor amount of sorting is not observed in the fossil record. The YEC flood geology hypothesis utterly fails to explain the observed distribution of diatom fossils.
Searching the YEC literature, you will find no acknowledgement that diatoms do not fit the flood-geology model. Nor will you find even an acknowledgment that diatoms are not observed throughout the geological column. The closest I could come finding a quotation in YEC literature about the origins of diatoms appears in a 2010 Answers in Genesis article, “Diatoms: Living in Glass Houses” by Don DeYoung. In it, he states that:
“Diatoms are said by evolutionists to have originated 180 million years ago, yet their fossils reveal the same intricate designs as living examples. In truth, they first appeared during Creation Week just thousands of years ago, and they have not improved over time. Instead, diatoms display master craftsmanship with unlimited potential”
The 180-million-year date is correct, but DeYoung doesn’t point out the significance of their appearance so late in the fossil record. He attributes the origins of diatoms to the creation week, thus placing them as part of Earth’s biota from the very beginning. The article is about the intricate designs and uses of the glass houses of diatoms. He attributes their designs to an immediate vs providential creation. He is claiming that God created diatoms as glass-house makers from the beginning. Therefore in the creation model diatoms should be ubiquitous in the fossil record. Diatoms should be found in the oldest rocks attributed to natural processed after creation. This would include the Precambrian through the present.
The lack of diatoms in more than 50% of the geological column directly contradicts the flood geology model. This observation remains unaddressed by young-earth creationists.
Sometimes the biggest problems come in the tiniest packages.
(1) The very existence of thick layers of diatoms in the fossil record can’t be explained by flood geology. Scientists have studied the time it takes for diatoms to sink in a body of water and they have observed rates of accumulation of diatoms at the bottom of lakes and oceans. At best the rates of accumulation are only a few centimeters per 1000 years. To have meters of diatoms deposited to the exclusion of other sources of sediments would require a constant environment for tens of thousands of years and yet the YEC must believe that these thick layers of diatoms were deposited during a chaotic global event over a period of a few days, weeks or at most months.
(2) There is one report of diatom fossils from the upper Jurassic period but that report is debated so it is not clear that diatoms with glass walls were present before the Cretaceous Period which is near the end of the dinosaurs. I should also point that the silica of the glass walls will recrystallize under high pressure so many diatoms from deep in the fossil could have been destroyed. However, this would not explain the complete absence of any diatoms. There are many fossils of single celled and soft-bodied organisms preserved in very old rocks which should also contain diatoms had they existed at the time and yet they do not.
– Featured image from: http://sarahjanemaki.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/800px-Diatom-529×270.jpg