Please welcome Lars Cade* as a guest blogger on Naturalis Historia.
I am a Christian currently studying to become a paleontologist. While I still have much more that I need to learn before I could properly consider myself one, I know enough of the discipline to know when it is being misrepresented. Unfortunately, the young-earth creationism (YEC) documentary-style film Is Genesis History? (IGH) portrays paleontology (and the other disciplines it highlights) extremely inaccurately, despite conducting interviews with (among others) two paleontologists.
Heterodontosaurus, one of the fossils featured in the film Is Genesis history
Consider this clip, which was shared on IGH’s Facebook page shortly after the release of the film, taken from a segment in which Del Tackett, the host of the film, interviews Dr. Art Chadwick, a taphonomist.
|A taphonomist is a paleontologist who studies the process of death and fossilization|
In just over two minutes, Del Tackett and Art Chadwick present no fewer than fourteen false and/or misleading ideas, either stated or implied, and not one that is both accurate and informative on the subject being discussed (the full interview in the film contains a few informative bits). While Tackett lacks formal scientific training and may thus be forgiven for being unaware of the nature of the evidence presented, Chadwick has such training and thus, his false statements take on a more blatantly dishonest tone. Whether or not the conclusions of a young earth, a global flood and largely unrelated species (and those that are related having diversified impossibly rapidly) put forward by the makers of IGH are correct (and I do not believe they are), trying to support them with false and misleading statements only serves to weaken their case and damage their Christian testimony. They are as follows:
|A paleontologist is a scientist who studies ancient life, using body fossils, trace fossils (trackways/footprints, burrows, etc.) and geochemistry to learn about ancient organisms and the environment they inhabited.|
- Beginning at 0:11, Tackett claims that paleontologists “look at [dinosaur paleontology] from the standpoint of early dinosaurs, middle dinosaurs and late dinosaurs.” However, this is not accurate. Rather than imposing ideas about age on the fossils they discover, they find that, consistently, certain species are confined to certain strata which are positioned below (i.e. older than) some strata and above (i.e. younger than) other strata. This fact has been established by over 150 years of observations by thousands of paleontologists and amateur collectors. It’s simply an observation that anyone examining the geological context of dinosaur fossils can repeat. So, rather than imposing a belief on the data, as Tackett implies, paleontologists—as all scientists should—make careful observations and draw conclusions from them.
- If, as the makers of IGH claim, dinosaur fossils were actually all (or nearly all) deposited in a single flood, they should all be distributed more or less uniformly, with no sorting except by density of the organism at death and with little disarticulation (separation of the bones) or weathering of the bones. However, this is not what is actually observed. In fact, the very fossils shown in situ in the film exhibit both disarticulation and weathering.
The explanation offered—that the observed bone bed was laid down rapidly—is not consistent with their claims elsewhere in the film where well-preserved, fully-articulated fossils are held up as evidence of rapid burial by a global flood, though is it consistent with observed local flooding today, specifically when such flooding occurs on a long-dead assemblage of bones where there was once a body of water that had dried up. While some well-preserved fossils were likely rapidly buried, others show signs of desiccation or slow burial in an anoxic environment (one with little free oxygen, which is necessary for most decay processes). If a global flood were an accurate explanation for most of the world’s fossils, then virtually all of them should show similar levels of preservation and burial conditions, and most crucially, evidence of having been buried nearly simultaneously with all other fossils. However, as even this film highlights, this is simply not the case.
Triassic Eoraptor (top) and Postosuchus (bottom). The first is considered a “dinosaur”, while the second is a non-dinosaurian archosaur. – Image credits: Vlad Konstantinov; Jeff Martz
Starting at 0:28, Chadwick says that “The dinosaurs are already dinosaurs when they first appear. They look just like anyone would think a dinosaur looked.” This statement is trivially true, in that fossils are not taxonomically classified as “dinosaurs” unless they meet the taxonomic criteria necessary for such a classification, much as only those organisms bearing enough traits in common with other canids (wolves, foxes, coyotes, etc.) are called “canids,” and within family Canidae, every organism is identified with a particular genus and species (or occasionally as a hybrid), since we humans feel compelled to name and categorize everything we can. However, the earliest dinosaurs (i.e. those found in the lowest strata) looked very little like the latest dinosaurs (i.e. those found in the highest strata). They looked very similar to other archosaurs (of which dinosaurs are a subset), including those which are thought to be ancestral to crocodilians, just as expected within evolutionary theory.
- Despite what Chadwick then states, the appearance of dinosaurs in the fossil record is no “enigma” to paleontologists who note the changing trends in archosaur (including dinosaur) morphology through rock strata. While most YECs are unaware of this fact, many intermediate fossils between multiple entirely extinct lineages have been discovered, not only between extant organisms and their ancient putative ancestors. While there is certainly disagreement over the finer (and occasionally larger) points of dinosaur evolution, nobody (with the exception of those few who—like Chadwick—reject evolution on ideological grounds) well-versed in paleontology suggests that dinosaurs (as well as crocodilians, phytosaurs and probably pterosaurs) are not the descendants of the few archosaurs (or their near ancestors) that survived the end-Permian mass extinction.
- Interestingly, by recognizing that there are strata in which dinosaur fossils “first appear” and later acknowledging the validity of grouping various stratigraphic units (Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous in the case of dinosaurs—better known as geological “periods”), Chadwick inadvertently recognizes the fact that the fossil record does not appear as one would expect if most of it were the result of a single global flood, since dinosaurs of a given lineage should share stratigraphic depth with other animals of similar density, including all other dinosaurs, yet they do not. Elsewhere in IGH, another paleontologist refers to the various stratigraphic periods as “ecosystems,” each buried successively. However, this idea fails to stand up to even minor scrutiny, as each period is globally represented and has organisms representing all kinds of ecological niches, each restricted to their own strata. Grasses, for example, are not found at all prior to Cretaceous strata.
Transitional Fossil A “transitional” (or “intermediate”) fossil is any which exhibits traits intermediate between fossils found in stratigraphically earlier strata and those found in stratigraphically later strata. While relationships between lineages are inferred through careful study, and absolute ages may be assigned to strata using radiometric methods, these fossils fit the definition of “intermediate fossil” regardless of actual biological relationship or absolute age.
One minute in, after acknowledging that scientists have found fossils that are “challenging” to his view, Dr. Chadwick makes the bold—and completely false—claim that “The rule is there are no transitional fossils.” While it is true that many are not so obviously transitional as something like Tiktaalik, Microraptor, Maiacetus, Odontochelys or Australopithecus, any fossils that are not identical to any population alive today are transitional as long as they have traits that are intermediate between an earlier and later lineage.
One could say the real “rule” of the fossil record is that transitional fossils are the rule not the exception. One wonders what he thinks of post-flood speciation as proposed by Todd Wood later in the film? If two “cats” on the ark were ancestors of lions, jaguars, bobcats and house cats, were there no intermediates in the line leading to these species?
- He also claims that the relative paucity of obviously transitional fossils (as distinct from those which, while certainly transitional by definition, are less obviously so to the untrained eye) is “contra to Darwin’s hopes,” yet Darwin acknowledged that such fossils would be unlikely to be found, simply because of the “extreme imperfection of the geological record.” The fact that the fossil record has been substantially filled in since Darwin’s time with fossils matching the predictions of transitional species is strong confirmation of the predictions of evolutionary theory.
Since it is unlikely that any given organism will be preserved as a fossil and even less likely that a human will later discover it, the predictions of common ancestry according to evolutionary theory would be fulfilled if even one such fossil were found. In fact, thousands of fossils obviously meeting the predicted criteria of a transitional form have been found. Conversely, finding just one out-of-place fossil (i.e. significantly older than evolutionary theory would predict, such as the fabled “Precambrian rabbit” or even a Tyrannosaurus rex in Triassic strata) would pose a significant challenge to evolutionary theory, yet no such fossil has ever been found.
An early Cretaceous (nearly Jurassic) Psittacosaurus (top) is hardly “unchanged” when compared with a late Cretaceous Styracosaurus (bottom), even though both are classified as Ceratopsians. – Image credits: Robert Nicholls; Everything Dinosaur
Starting at 1:10, Dr. Chadwick makes the claim—accompanied by the above graphic—that “A form exists in the fossil record; it basically stays unchanged and it disappears from the fossil record.” The graphic shown is false. There are massive changes in each lineage throughout the specified strata. The earliest theropods looked very little like the latest ones. The same is true of ceratopsians, stegosaurs, ankylosaurs and sauropods. If Chadwick is merely referring to species, rather than orders, suborders and families (as shown in the graphic), the graphic is still false, as no individual dinosaur species is found throughout the specified strata (and sauropods are found through the end of the Cretaceous). Furthermore, this contradicts the assertion, made elsewhere in the film, that the different geological periods actually represent individual ecosystems, since separate ecosystems should preserve separate species.
- At 1:20, Chadwick states “We don’t ever see changes from this form to this form in the rocks themselves.” In fact, we do, that’s what transitional fossils are. That we have discovered any at all is fortunate, since it’s unlikely that an individual that’s part of a transitional population (i.e. one undergoing adaptation due to a change in environmental factors) will be preserved as a fossil because such changes, often being the result of strong environmental pressure, are usually relatively quick, small populations are more subject to rapid change, fossilization of any individual organism is a rare occurrence and human discovery of a specific fossil is even rarer. Alternatively, he may be insinuating that under evolutionary theory, one would expect a chimeric organism, literally half one species and half another. However, evolutionary theory predicts no such thing. In fact, despite the insinuations of YECs, evolutionary theory relies on organisms always reproducing “after their kind.”
- Ten seconds later, he says “It’s a paradigm that’s being imposed on the data rather than the data that’s providing the paradigm.” While this obviously echoes the film’s constant theme of “two paradigms,” it completely mischaracterizes how scientists work, as Chadwick, a scientist himself, ought to know. Scientists draw conclusions by testing hypotheses on existing data and new discoveries. It is by this very process that scientists have determined that the earth must be ancient and species must be related by common ancestry. Like many YECs, Chadwick apparently ignores or forgets the fact that geologists originally began their work with the assumption that the earth was on the order of thousands of years old and had experienced a global flood, while Linnaeus developed the nested hierarchy of organismal traits in Systema Naturae more than 70 years before Darwin was born, firmly believing in the fixity of species over time.
- Beginning at 1:40, the clip shows a montage of several fossil organisms. In order, they are Heterodontosaurus, Archaeopteryx, Wiwaxia, Marrella and Comura. Over these images, Dr. Chadwick says “The complexity is all there from the beginning.” Assuming he means the beginning of the fossil record, this is blatantly untrue. The Phanerozoic era (Cambrian-present; conventionally dated as the last 541 million years), in which all these complex fossils are found, only represents the most recent 1/6th or so of the fossil record, regardless of the absolute age of the fossils. Prior to that, even multicellularity is rare, and completely absent (as far as we currently know) in strata dated prior to 2.4 billion years ago.
- In addition to implying that these finds represent the beginning of the fossil record, the filmmakers omit the fact that of the fossils shown, only two might be found in the same strata—the Wiwaxia and Marrella, which can both be found in Cambrian strata dated between 520 and 505 million years ago. Heterodontosaurus (200–190 million years ago), Archaeopteryx (150.8–148.5 million years ago; ironically, a fantastic example of a transitional fossil—something this video claims does not exist) and Comura trilobites (~415 million years ago) are all confined to specifically dated strata, with gaps of tens to hundreds of millions of years (according to conventional dating techniques) separating them. While elsewhere in the film this is passed off as “separate ecosystems,” the fact that in this clip, the jumbled nature of the fossils in the Hell Creek formation is held up as evidence of a global flood means that these fossils should exhibit the same jumbling, yet they never do.
Upper left: Archaeopteryx; Upper Right: Wiwaxia; Lower Left: Marella; Lower Right: Comura. Heterodontosaurs pictured at top of article – Image credits: Is Genesis History
- Also implicit in the mention of “complexity” is the idea, often repeated by YECs, that evolution (and other non-“supernatural” processes) cannot produce complexity. However, there is simply no reason to think this is true. Complex patterns are visible at all levels in nature, from galaxies to clouds to snowflakes, each enabled by a transfer of energy. Additionally, if indeed predation, defense, natural selection and adaptation are solely the result of sin and were not part of the original creation, as IGH repeatedly asserts, then even YECs must acknowledge that evolutionary processes have brought about fantastically complex traits which aid in predation or defense. Even if God had “preprogrammed” genetic information into the original animals—as proposed, without genetic mechanism, by many modern YECs—natural selection has sorted out, among trillions of possible combinations, the combinations of genetic switches necessary to be best adapted to a particular environmental situation.
- Finally, at the end, Art Chadwick and Del Tackett go back to the “two paradigms” dichotomy that pervades this film; i.e. that one must accept YECism in its entirety or “reject the authority of scripture.” Chadwick refers to “blind faith” which he claims is required to “believe in evolution” because he “can’t even see how it could have happened.” In addition to the fallacious appeal to incredulity (assuming that something is false because one can’t imagine/understand it), he ignores the fact (of which he is likely aware, given his training) that evolutionary theory is built entirely on observed patterns of evidence, something at least a few YECs such as Todd Wood, interviewed elsewhere in IGH, are honest enough to recognize.
I fundamentally disagree with the “two paradigms” theme presented throughout the film. I do not, in any way, believe that recognizing evolutionary theory (or any other scientific discipline, for that matter) as an accurate explanation of observed trends in biology and related disciplines negates God as creator any more than the recognition of heliocentricity did in the 16th and 17th centuries. God, as sovereign, can use whatever means He chooses to accomplish His will. It seems as if YECists like Tackett and Chadwick think that God can only “act” within a cage of human ignorance, and so seek to avoid knowledge to “give God room to act.” This is not the God described in the Bible. The God I worship is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6) and one who is “always working.” (John 5:17) Recognizing evolution as correct does not take “faith.” “Faith,” the author of Hebrews tells us, is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) It is not unseeing the evidence.
- Eoraptor: Vlad Konstantinov
- Postosuchus: Jeff Martz
- Psittacosaurus: Robert Nicholls
- Styracosaurus: Everything Dinosaur
- Australopithecus sediba: Lee Berger
* This is Lars Cade’s first blog post anywhere. Growing up, he was fascinated by paleontology and built up a sizable fossil collection. His Church background was heavily influenced by YECism, and he even went to a “Back to Genesis” seminar and a Duane Gish debate in the 1990s. A strong interest in computers as a teen led him to major in computer science, a field in which he currently works full-time (a fear of having to study evolution put him off paleontology at the time). However, in internet debates while in college, he encountered evidence that he could not ignore that showed that at least some of the claims of YECism were false. Over the next several years, the scientific and scriptural shortcomings of YECism became ever more apparent. After coming to grips with the fact that the claims of YECism were false, his interest in paleontology has been sparked anew, and this has led him to start taking college courses in preparation for a doctorate in paleontology at North Carolina State University. With such training, not only will he be able to contribute valuable research to the field, but (he hopes), he will be able to help the Church from within to gain a more accurate appreciation of the creation, and to not fear where investigation of it may lead.