Recently, while researching the diversity of life found in the fossil record for a seminar I will be giving in a few weeks, I was drawn into the fascinating world of diatoms. Diatoms, which are single-celled organisms that live in glass-houses in almost any moist environment, are visually stunning, and so I thought I might use them to illustrate the typically unseen diversity of creation.
One fact in particular jumped out at me: diatom fossils are only found from the Jurassic period to the present day.
Well, why only the top portion of the fossil record, and what does this mean for Earth’s history, including young-earth creationism?
Before I get to that, I note that diatoms live in “glass houses.” Doesn’t sound safe at all, right? Yet diatoms are able to synthesize glass walls, which they erect around the outside of their cell, presumably for protection in the wild world of aquatic microscopic life. Interestingly, a number of organisms have learned to enjoy eating diatoms, glass and all.
Just how successful are the diatoms and their glass houses? There are more species of diatoms than there are of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians combined: about 100,000! There are so many shapes and sizes you can think of the as the snowflakes of the microbiological world. 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 organisms 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. Thick layers of nearly 100% diatoms are called diatomaceous earth, which is mined for a variety of commercial uses. So if diatoms are present in the water, one can expect that diatoms will be preserved in sediments produced under those water bodies.
Glass houses are a late comer to the microorganism bag of tricks
The lack of diatoms in any portion of the geological column lower than the Jurassic strongly suggests that glass-house diatoms did not exist prior to the Jurassic age. Non-glass producing species probably lived in the Triassic but they, not surprisingly, were not preserved. Yet as soon as any species obtained the ability to produce a glass exterior wall, those walls should have been readily preserved in the fossil record. The glass-producing novelty was a hit and soon diatoms filled the oceans and lakes. While dinosaurs could not maintain dominion 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.
But, again, they weren’t.
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.
Diatoms: Another Failed Test of Flood Geology for Young Earth Creationists
Diatoms are another embarrassment for young earth creationists (YECs). And yet rarely will you hear them talk about such things.
YECs explain the geological column as a form of hydraulic sorting and/or ecosystem sorting. The latter hypothesis says 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 even simulation data, it has a certain appeal to the evangelical audience that simply wants to know what happened to the dinosaurs. But ask 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, diatoms shells and living diatoms would be predicted to have become mixed up with the water and sediment column. When sediments were deposited, diatoms should have found themselves randomly distributed throughout the geological column.
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 for explaining 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 show at least local sorting into sizes and shapes but even this minor form of sorting is not observed in the fossil record. The hypothesis utterly fails to explain the observed distribution of diatom fossils.
If you search YEC literature, you will probably not find any acknowledgement that diatoms do not fit the flood-geology model. Nor will you find even a brief acknowledgment that diatoms are not found 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 this for 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 creation, and so he is saying that God created diatoms as glass-house makers. Therefore diatoms in the creation model 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 is a serious problem, as yet unaddressed by the YECs.
Featured image from: http://sarahjanemaki.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/800px-Diatom-529×270.jpg