Bill Nye and the Fossil Record

On February 4th at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, Ken Ham and Bill Nye debated the question, Is creation a viable model of origins?
On February 4th at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, Ken Ham and Bill Nye debated the question, Is creation a viable model of origins?

I already gave you my general thoughts on the debate that took place between Ken Ham and Bill Nye last week. However, I would like to address a few of the particular subjects that Bill Nye raised, because I don’t think Ken Ham did a great job of answering them. Of course, due to the debate structure, neither of the men had much time to address the other’s issues. Nevertheless, I do think they each could have done more than they actually did.

In this post, I want to concentrate on Nye’s contention that the fossil record neatly supports evolution. For example, in his presentation he described the geological column, claiming that the “higher” animals are found in more recent rock layers, while the “lower” animals are found in the older rock layers. Starting at 1:04:15 in the online video, he then says:

You never, ever find a higher animal mixed in with a lower one. You never find a lower one trying to swim its way to the higher one…Anyone here, really, if you can find one example of that – one example of that anywhere in the world – the scientists of the world challenge you – they would embrace you. You would be a hero. You would change the world if you could find one example of that anywhere.

Nye repeated a variation of this claim later in the debate, so it was clearly meaningful to him.

Of course, the fact is that you do find higher animals in rock layers with lower animals. Evolutionists have many ways of dealing with the problem, but none of them involve making the discoverer into a hero.

One of the ways evolutionists deal with the problem is to simply deny what the fossil clearly indicates. For example, in 2006 the journal Science published a paper entitled, “A Nearly Modern Amphibious Bird from the Early Cretaceous of Northwestern China.”1 It discusses several fossils of a bird named Gansus yumenensis. As the title of the article makes clear, the fossils look very much like modern ducks. There are a few features different from modern ducks, such as claws on the wings, but overall, they look like modern ducks. The problem is that they can’t be ducks, because they are supposed to be 105-115 million years old, which is long before ducks were supposed to have evolved. As a result, National Geographic says:

It may have looked like a duck and acted like a duck, but Gansus was no duck.

Because of its supposed age, then, it is considered to be a very primitive ancestor of ducks, despite the fact that it looks nearly modern.

Another way evolutionists deal with the problem of “higher” fossils found in rock layers that should contain only “lower” animals is to simply change the story of evolution to accommodate the new fossils. For example, when I was at university, I was taught as definitive fact that the vertebrates (animals with backbones) first appeared about 480 million years ago, when rock that has been assigned to the Ordovician era was being laid down. Here, for example, is what I read in anthropology class:2

The first vertebrates, which appeared about 480 million years ago, were water dwelling, for life originated in the waters of the earth, and it was only gradually that first plants, and later animals, appeared on land and made their ways inland.

Since then, of course, paleontologists have found vertebrate fossils in Cambrian rock, which is supposed to be older than Ordovician rock. As a result, they have just changed the story of evolution. Rather than appearing 480 million years ago, vertebrates are now thought to have appeared about 525 million years ago.3 If a vertebrate fossil is later found in rock that is supposedly older, that won’t be a problem. Evolutionists will simply say that vertebrates evolved even earlier.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such hypothesis adjustment is a bad thing. Obviously, if you want to believe that evolution occurred and you find a vertebrate fossil in rock that is supposed to be older than any previously-known vertebrate fossils, you will have to adjust your hypothesis to allow for vertebrates to have evolved earlier. Of course, the question of how such rapid evolution could take place becomes more of an issue, but that’s a separate question. My point is simply that evolutionists will never see a “higher” animal fossil mixed in with “lower” animal fossils to be a problem with their hypothesis. They will simply change the hypothesis to incorporate the new information.

Now, of course, when a fossil is found way out of order, something else must be done. Typically, a fantastic story is told in order to explain around the fossil. For example, not long ago, I discussed some amber that was found in Carboniferous rock that is supposed to be 320 million years old. This amber has all the chemical indications of being produced by a tree that belongs to the group of plants we call angiosperms (flower-making plants). The problem, of course, is that angiosperms weren’t supposed to have evolved until about 180 million years ago. Thus, the amber was found in rock that was 140 million years too old. Did that give evolutionists pause? Not at all.

They simply said that there must have been some kind of gymnosperm (a tree that produces uncovered seeds, like an evergreen) that just happened to produce amber that is chemically indistinguishable from the amber made by angiosperms. Gymnosperms were supposed to be around 320 million years ago, so if this amber came from a gymnosperm, there is no problem. It doesn’t matter that all known gymnosperms produce a resin (the stuff that makes amber) which is chemically quite distinct from the resin made by angiosperms. Because evolution must be true, there must have been a gymnosperm that lived 320 million years ago and made such resin. Of course, that gymnosperm is now conveniently extinct.

In the end, then, it’s not surprising that Nye thinks there is not a single example of a fossil found out of its supposed evolutionary order. When you are willing to ignore what the fossil looks like, redefine your evolutionary timeline, or make up an elaborate story that preserves the evolutionary timeline, you can make any fossil fit the evolutionary tale!


1. Hai-lu You, Matthew C. Lamanna, Jerald D. Harris, Luis M. Chiappe, Jingmai O’Connor, Shu-an Ji, Jun-chang Lü, Chong-xi Yuan, Da-qing Li, Xing Zhang, Kenneth J. Lacovara, Peter Dodson, and Qiang Ji, “A Nearly Modern Amphibious Bird from the Early Cretaceous of Northwestern China,” Science 312:1640-1643, 2006
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2. Victor Barnouw, An Introduction to Anthropology, Dorsey Press 1971, p. 44
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3. D-G. Shu, H-L. Luo, S. Conway Morris, X-L. Zhang, S-X. Hu, L. Chen, J. Han, M. Zhu, Y. Li, and L-Z. Chen, “Lower Cambrian vertebrates from south China,” Nature 402:42-46, 1999
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44 thoughts on “Bill Nye and the Fossil Record”

  1. I have often heard that good theories make predictions that are testable. However, it seems that the more pliable a theory is to fit whatever is thrown at it, the less you can say about its predictions. Since at any point, if a prediction is seemingly proved false there are adjustments made to the theory to accommodate the latest data. To me, it seems like there is a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for theories.

    In your opinion, is the Theory of Evolution too pliable to make substantial predictions? By which I mean that these predictions, if ever falsified would falsify the theory. Or is evolution too board to be fully falsified by one failed (foundational) prediction and would merely an aspect of the theory be changed? Resulting in an evolving theory of evolution.

    To expound so as to be more clear, do you think that there is a breaking point? For example, the geocentric theory: even when the data was fit by mathematical equations, there was a different model with simpler equations. While both models fit the data, one was exceedingly complex while the other was much simpler and thus “better.” Which resulted in the old theory being cast aside for the new, simpler theory.

    1. I would partly disagree with your analysis of the reason heliocentrism replaced geocentrism, D. Perrine. While you are right that heliocentrism wasn’t able to predict planetary positions better than geocentrism back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was able to explain other things that geocentrism couldn’t, such as the phases of Venus, why Venus and Mercury never appear in the eastern sky, and why Mars is always brightest when it is in the eastern sky at sunset.

      However, I do understand your question. I would say that evolution is not falsifiable; it is simply too pliable. In the end, the story can always be changed to explain around any contradictory data. Now…I do think there will be a breaking point, but it won’t be the result of a falsified prediction. That happens regularly in evolution, and it doesn’t seem to affect the opinions of very many. I think that over time, the weight of the evidence will simply crush the idea. As younger scientists who are not as heavily influenced by orthodoxy contemplate the weight of the data, more of them will be convinced that there needs to be a better explanation for the origin of species. I have no idea what shape that explanation will take. I just know that eventually, the only people who will continue to cling to evolution will be the ones who are emotionally invested in it.

  2. The concept of ghost lineages should completely destroy any notion that the theory of evolution is falsifiable with the fossil record. Basically, paleontologists create their phylogenies without regard to the position of the fossil in the geological record. Then, after the phylogeny is made, they map it onto the geological column. This sometimes makes sister taxa appear well out of sync with each other. The paleontologist then hypothesizes a ‘ghost lineage’ where the sister taxon that appears later didn’t leave any fossil evidence for a long period of time. This results in allowing the paleontologist being able to map any phylogeny onto the fossil record.

  3. Why do you think that there are so many scientist who are emotionally invested in evolution? Also, why do you see future generations as being less influenced by orthodoxy?

    I know that science has a way of self correcting itself, but often this has obstacles to overcome and the process can be very slow. Also, when dealing with the past, there is always speculation and a level of uncertainty. This would seem to delay any corrective forces for awhile if not indefinitely.

    1. D. Perrine, consider the words of Dr. Richard Dawkins. He said, “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” To me, that sounds like an emotional commitment. I think there are a lot of people who want evolution to be true so as to support their worldview.

      In terms of orthodoxy, consider the scientist who has spent her life developing phylogenies, trying to explain around discordant data, etc. It would be very hard for that scientist to decide that evolution isn’t true. It can happen. It’s just rare. However, the young scientist who is just starting out has not invested as much intellectual capital in any given hypothesis, so he will be more likely to be persuaded by the evidence.

      I agree that the self-correction process in science can be painfully slow, and for hypotheses that deal with history, the problem is exacerbated. However, I do think that in the long haul, the data do triumph, at least to some extent.

  4. Hi Dr. Wile!

    Thanks for the continuing review!

    A friend up mine brought up the debate with me today and mentioned how he thinks creationism is a joke. I talked with him a bit about young earth evidence and hopefully showed him that there are some rational folks that believe in a young earth.

    He mentioned the study that was done on the ice layers in Greenland. He felt that it disproved a young earth 100 percent(at least a young earth as young as 6000 years).

    I read about it here.

    I’m wondering how I should look at this kind of example. I know that earth strata can form very quickly. Is that true for ice strata as well?

  5. I am thankfully seeing a larger group of young individuals who have not been taught under the yoke of evolution. I have noticed on comments that deal with evolution in science, what was more like 80% who blindly believed it, today about 50% believe it.

    Of course, being a homeschooler I think both homeschools and Christian school education is make a huge dent in the evolution history of science. What is so great about homeschool is that parents as well as students are learning to approach science through sound observation, investigation and research.

    The best part of Ken Ham’s “debate” was how he solidly explained the difference between historical science versus observational science. I think he did clearly show that Creationist can be very serious scientist, and it is a myth that people who believe in creation do not love science. We love and want to encourage science as passionately, if not more so!

    1. That’s great to hear, Lindy. If you remember, the creationist microbiologist whose video was in Ham’s presentation said several of his colleagues viewed creationism sympathetically but were afraid to speak up because of fear of reprisal. I suspect they were younger scientists who had not yet received tenure.

  6. Hello again Dr. Wile,

    I greatly admire your blog posts and agree with everything you’ve written here, but I feel it still falls short of explaining the fossil record in terms of a global flood. It’s true that some species go hundreds of millions of years without any fossil record, but at least three whole classes: Birds, reptiles, and mammals (combined totaling tens of thousands of species) have no record record at all through the first half of the Phanerozoic. So I think your explanation still falls short?

    1. I am not sure what you mean, Joe. I wasn’t trying to explain the fossil record in terms of a global flood in this piece. I was just explaining how misplaced fossils can always be dealt with by evolutionists, which demonstrates that Nye’s assertion is incorrect.

      If you are looking for a discussion of fossils in the light of Flood geology, here is a good place to start:

  7. Jay — I thought Nye should have been more precise with his wording when he said that there is not a single fossil out of order in the geologic column. But overall, his reasoning regarding the fossil record is correct. We’ve been through this before (such as in the comments here), and I’ve written a longer response (here). The simple fact of the matter is that while there are discoveries from time to time that refine our understanding of the history of life on Earth, nothing has arisen that has challenged the overall outline given by the geologic column: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, etc.

    Ken Ham likes to say, “If there really was a global Flood, you would expect to find billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth … which is exactly what you do find!” No! If the sedimentary rock record were deposited by a global flood—and the Bible says nothing about the formation of sedimentary rocks—then we should expect chaos, or certainly a lot more chaos than what we do see. If the flood formed the sedimentary rocks, somewhere we should see fossils that are grossly out of order, such as oaks in the Ordovician, or people in the Permian. This simply never happens. If you could show me a dog in the Devonian, I’d give flood geology another try.

    Nye was right on this one, and Ham was wrong. No amount of ecological zonation, floating vegetation mats, hydraulic sorting, or differential mobility can explain the order that is found in the geologic column.

    1. Kevin, I strongly disagree with you on this. As I showed you in that comment thread, you do not expect chaos from a global flood. Instead, you expect precisely what you find. I am certainly not a geologist, but I find the old-earth interpretation of the geological record filled with problems, while the young-earth interpretation is much more in line with the data. Lots of findings, such as the one you link to, strongly challenge the old-earth interpretation of the fossil record. Ham was mostly right on this one, while Nye was dead wrong.

  8. Jay — Every single example you have given of problems with the fossil record is just tinkering with the details. A global catastrophic flood, would be, well, catastrophic. There would certainly be some chaos, some noise, some serious out-of-order occurrences in the fossil record. Show me a monkey in the Mississippian!

    The link you gave Joe a few comments ago contains numerous examples of why most Christian geologists reject YEC flood geology. For example, in the section “Behavior and Higher Mobility of the Vertebrates,” Snelling writes, “the third factor to be considered is the mobility of land vertebrates. Once they become aware of the need to escape, how capable would they then have been of running, swimming, flying, or even riding on floating debris? Amphibians would have been the least mobile, with reptiles performing somewhat better, but not being equal to the mammals’ mobility, due largely to their low metabolic rates.” The best word for this is nonsense! Did field mice somehow outrun dinosaurs to end up higher in the fossil record? How many hundreds of kilometers did those little mice run to escape the rapidly rising flood waters? I’ll repeat, this is nonsense.

    Combining running mice with hydrodynamic sorting and/or ecological zonation doesn’t make the situation any better for placing mice and dinosaurs in their niche in the fossil record. The fossil record does not just contain fossils, but intact communities and ecosystems. Whatever suspended mice in the flood while dinosaurs were being deposited kept the mice together with other organisms they spent their lives with—other mammals, plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, invertebrates—to be deposited together as an ecological unit. The proposed YEC mechanisms won’t accomplish this.

    Flood geology does not work, it is not in the Bible, and it should not be used as Christian apologetics.

    With most sincere respect.

    1. Kevin, the examples I have given are more than just tinkering. How did dinosaurs eat plants that didn’t exist, according to the geological column? How did the amber from an angiosperm get in the fossil record 180 million years before angiosperms supposedly appear in the fossil record? How did coelacanths, tuataras, Laotian rock rats, and wollemi pines (to name a few) manage to avoid being fossilized for millions of years so that the geological column makes them look extinct, but they are alive today? These are serious problems, and it just isn’t good science to ignore them. I guarantee you that if a monkey fossil was found in the Mississippian, it would be explained away, as are all serious problems with old-earth geology. Besides, as you should be well aware, young-earth creationists don’t expect monkeys in the Mississippian, either.

      There is some noise in the fossil record – some serious out-of-order occurrences. You are simply trying to dismiss them as “tinkering with the details.” Of course, young-earth creationists don’t have to dismiss such data. While we expect a general order to the fossil record, we also expect some noise, and that’s exactly what we see.

      The link I gave Joe contains numerous examples of why young-earth geology is superior to old-earth geology. Unfortunately, as seems to be your style, you are mischaracterizing what it says. As the quote itself says, mobility includes many factors, including metabolism and body size. Yes, mice would have been better able to escape the rising Floodwaters than dinosaurs, because they can climb better than dinosaurs, can survive higher altitudes than dinosaurs, etc., etc. The only nonsense here is your continual mischaracterization of young-earth geology.

      The proposed YEC mechanisms do accomplish the fossilization of intact communities and ecosystems. Unlike your mischaracterization implies, YECs don’t think that animals floating in the Flood waters were fossilized. Floating animals, of course, would not be preserved. The Flood captures communities in sediment, and a combination of ecological zonation, animal mobility, and floating mats of vegetation explain the observed fossil record well. In my opinion, it explains the fossil record better than old-earth geology.

      I really appreciate your point of view, Kevin, but I have to say that old-earth geology does not work, and it is not in the Bible.

  9. Question for Kevin N.

    Why in the world do you persist in being a christian when you don’t take the bible for what it says?

    It is absolutley clear that it was meant to show that the earth was created in six days, the earth is young, Adam and Eve were real, The flood was global, the Exodus was historical, David was a king of a vast kingdom etc. Science and archeology kas completely demolished these accounts. They are no longer tenable to the point where you have to go back and read things into the text that was never meant to be there. They are now seen as metaphorical or figurative when they were meant to be literal.

    Why not stop the cognitive dissonance and give up your faith? Why do you continue to hold on to something that has been proven false?

    1. Luis, the young-earth view is supported by the majority of the data, and it is most certainly possible to believe the Bible and believe in an old earth. Kevin is an example of someone who believes both.

  10. Jay — I do not claim that old-Earth geology is in the Bible. But neither is young-Earth geology. My claim is that the Bible is silent on how old the Earth is and how sedimentary rocks formed.

  11. Dr. Wile, both you and Kevin are mistaken. You are wrong on your science and Kevin is wrong on his theology.

    One can’t read the bible the way it was meant to be read and reconcile it to science. I still find it curious that you claim to see both sides objectively but only cite creationist or ID science. I don’t think that you have cited anything else in our talks. Do you think that all mainstream geology, biology, cosmology, physics, paleontology, anthropology, genetics and botany are wrong? They all point to an old universe, old earth and evolution.

    I see Kevin is avoiding my question.

    1. Luis, it is you who are mistaken, as I have already shown. The evidence strongly supports the YEC case, but the Bible does not have to be understood that way. It is the best fit for science, but it is not the only possible means of interpreting Scripture. This is why alternative interpretations of the creation account have been around throughout history in both Judaism and Christianity.

      Not surprisingly, you are quite wrong about me only quoting only creationist sources. In this very post, all my sources are secular. In our previous discussions, I have cited all sorts of secular sources, such as the Pew Research Center, the journal Social Forces, the Harvard-published book Souls in Transition, the journal Quarterly Reviews of Biology, etc. etc. Of course, the reason you don’t know this is because you steadfastly refuse to look at the evidence. As a result, you have no idea what sources I cite.

      Once again, while I cite all evidence, regardless of the source, you won’t even look at evidence from a creationist source. As I have told you before, this is the classic genetic fallacy. Geology, biology, cosmology, physics, paleontology, anthropology, genetics and botany all point to a young earth. It’s not mainstream science that is wrong. It’s the interpretation of certain scientists that is wrong. Once again, science isn’t determined by majority vote. It is determined by the data, which strongly favor the YEC view.

      You are also wrong about Kevin. It’s too bad you jump to conclusions rather than thinking about looking for some evidence.

  12. Great article Dr Wile, thank you.

    Luis, with respect, nobody but Christ gets to dictate who is or isn’t a Christian. There are over 40000 different denominations of Christians in the world most of whom interpret the Bible differently, some more than others.

    I know a few theistic evolutionst Christians who are as faithful as they come. I obviously disagree with their views on evolution and I feel they are confused etc but I never doubt their loyalty or faith.

  13. Luis – I persist in being a Christian by the grace of God, the same as for any other Christian.

    I do accept the truthfulness of the Bible. I also look at some passages more “figuratively” than my young-Earth brothers and sisters. For instance, I don’t think God’s days in Genesis 1 are the same thing as our days, and I have biblical (not “scientific”) reasons for holding to my position. That has not put me on a path towards denying the faith or any core doctrines of the faith.

    Grace and Peace

  14. Luis — I misunderstood what you were getting at. I thought you were a YEC who couldn’t imagine that I could keep on being a Christian while accepting an old Earth. Now it looks like you are a skeptic who can’t imagine how I can keep on being a Christian while accepting an old Earth. Maybe I’m still confused as to where you are coming from.

    I persist in being a Christian because I believe that Christianity is true. Genesis gets it right on the topic of origins. The universe (or multiverse) is not eternal, nor did it form itself. Humans are both related to and distinct from animals. There really is such a thing as good and evil. The physical world matters, as God called it “good,” and even entered into the creation in the person of Jesus Christ. Humans, being created in the image of God, have great value, but being sinful, are persistent in being evil. All of this is consistent with a Christian worldview; none of it is consistent with an atheistic worldview.

  15. Kevin

    I would suggest going through some of the posts that Dr. Wile and I have been going through. I mention at least 10 different things that science has shown Genesis to be incorrect on not to mention the flood. These texts are meant to be literal and they are wrong. Evolution alone disproves the creation account and therefore can’t be the word of god. TE’s are just as foolish as YECs.

    1. Luis, I suggest that you actually read the link Kevin provided, as it shows just how wrong you are on the theology. Of course, if you ever looked at the evidence, you would know how wrong you are on the science as well.

  16. Kevin asked, “Did field mice somehow outrun dinosaurs to end up higher in the fossil record? How many hundreds of kilometers did those little mice run to escape the rapidly rising flood waters?” and added, “Whatever suspended mice in the flood while dinosaurs were being deposited kept the mice together with other organisms they spent their lives with—other mammals, plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, invertebrates—to be deposited together as an ecological unit.”

    I question whether fossil sites represent ecological life assemblages, but if they do, then it seems that a not insignificant amount of Mesozoic ecological units contained mammals, because there are plenty of examples of mammals being fossilized in Mesozoic strata.

    Support for this comes from the Paleobiology Database (, which is an online catalog of fossil collections that was started in 1998 by John Alroy of Macquarie University, and has been updated continually since then.

    Today, I downloaded all the Mammalia records from the Paleobiology Database, and selected for only those dated older than 65.3 million years (the youngest age of all the Dinosauria records that I downloaded in December for another project). The final tally was 2284 occurrences of mammal fossils divided among 558 separate collections dated older than 65.3 million years.

    For comparison, when I filtered out the Dinosauria records for footprints and birds (because I wanted to compare fossilization of body parts, and because birds are now classified with dinosaurs, so I had to get rid of them because they’re not uniquely Mesozoic), I found 4957 occurrences divided among 3195 collections. 224 of these collections, representing 600 dinosaur fossil occurrences, overlapped with the mammal records, meaning that 12% of the Database’s occurrences of dinosaur fossils are found with mammal fossils, and 7% of the total number of dinosaur collections also contain mammals.

    Conversely, 224 of the Mesozoic mammal collections, representing 1125 occurrences were coincident with the dinosaur collections, meaning 40% of the collections and almost half of occurrences of Mesozoic mammals were found with dinosaur fossils.

    When I combined the Mammalia and Dinosauria collections and cleaned up the duplicates, I ended up with 3529 unique collections. Given 558 mammal collections, that means that 16% of the Paleobiology Database’s combined mammalian and dinosaur Mesozoic collections contain mammals. Under the assumption that most of these fossil sites represent ecological units, that means that about 1/6 of the Paleobiology Database’s record of Mesozoic environments contain mammal fossils.

    That seems like a pretty high number to me. Anyone can go to the site and doublecheck these figures, and I welcome any correction if my figures are wrong. Obviously, the Paleobiology Database is not a catalog of all the fossils in the world, but the site has been operating since 1998 and has some big names in paleontology involved, so it’s reasonable to say that the database is a good representation of significant fossil sites.

  17. Luis — There are no real contradictions between the Bible and science. That does not mean everything has been figured out, but the “conflict” is much smaller than some would have you believe.

    Take a look at this summary: What the Bible says directly about biological evolution. It won’t take you very long to read.

    Not every portion of the Bible that some Christians say should be taken “literally” (or that Richard Dawkins says should be taken literally) really need to be taken literally. For example, “All the earth” doesn’t always mean “all the earth.

  18. Thank you for this, S.M. I didn’t even know fossilworks existed, and I’ll likely be using it in the future.

  19. S.M. said “I question whether fossil sites represent ecological life assemblages”

    I’ll answer your question with a description of the Eocene Green River Formation in Wyoming:

    “The Green River beds [include] a well-defined suite of freshwater fishes; lake-margin insects like flies and mosquitoes; freshwater aquatic vegetation like cattails and horsetails; freshwater clams and snails, crayfish, snakes, wading birds, turtles and bones of a few mammals that were washed into the lake where rivers entered. The assemblage contains no anomalous remains but represents an intact ecological assemblage that can be further subdivided into deep-basinal, lake margin and fluvial associations.” (from Young and Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time)

    This sounds like an ecosystem to me. It didn’t get carried by the flood and deposited all together in one place in a concentric pattern, with shoreline communities around the edges and deeper water communities more toward the center. Some YECs posit the Green River Formation is post-flood. I have read these, and it suffers from the same problem as many YEC geological explanations: too many events, too little time.

    This is but one of many ancient ecosystems that are preserved in the fossil record.

  20. S.M. — I do not question the correctness of your numbers about the number of Mesozoic mammal fossils you derived from the Paleobiology Database. But my response is, “So what?” That mammals were numerous and diverse in the Mesozoic is no big secret. But the mammals that lived in the Mesozoic were mostly in different orders than what have lived in the Cenozoic. Not just different species, not just different genera, not just different families, but different orders.

    What you need to do is go down to lower levels of taxonomy and re-calculate your numbers. This is because there were no artiodactyls or perissodactlys in the Mesozoic , and there are no multituberculates or eutriconodonts around today.

    Mesozoic mammals lived in complete, functional ecosystems with dinosaurs, and Cenozoic mammals lived in complete, functional ecosystems without dinosaurs.

    With this in mind, I really don’t see how your calculations challenge the concept of faunal succession (or the geologic column) in any way.

  21. ss, 1571 out of the 2284 occurrences weren’t classified by order, but of those that were, 344 were from orders that are still around: opossums (Didelphimorphia), monotremes (Monotremata, including echidnas and platypuses) and one from Xenartha, the same order as armadillos. The other orders are all extinct. Of the occurrences who were not classified by order, all were genera of extinct, smaller mammals.

    Overall, 15% of the total fossil occurrences were from orders that are still around. These were found in 197 of the 558 unique locations, meaning that mammals from extant orders were found in 35% of the locations in the Paleobiology Database.

    Kevin, I can see your point about the fossil data fitting the traditional evolutionary explanation of smaller mammals living in the Mesozoic and evolving to other larger mammals in the Cenozoic. However, that doesn’t mean the data doesn’t fit the YEC model as well. Under the flood model, all dinosaurs and “Mesozoic” mammals would have been on the Ark. And a post-Flood environment that grew progressively more unfriendly toward dinosaurs might be expected to have the same effect upon the mammals who lived in the same pre-Flood habitat as dinosaurs. Besides, some of those Mesozoic orders are still represented at the present.

    The point is that the data is equivocal, and can be interpreted in different ways depending upon the assumptions of the researcher

    I also question whether the Green River shales are the best example of an ancient preserved ecosystem, not because of the fossil assemblage, but because of the geologic context. The average thickness of the Green River shales is 600m (Roehler, 1992), but in the most famous locality, the fossils are only found in two layers, one about 6′ thick, and one only 18″ thick. Why, if the shale represents millions of years of quiet deposition, are there only 2 layers of preserved fossils–less than 2% of the average thickness of the formation?

    The problem is that the conventional interpretation of mudstones and shales depends upon them being laid down by continuous settling out from suspension over a long period of time, an argument that’s long been used against the young earth model. However, that paradigm is now being radically challenged by new observations and experimentation, starting with Jurgen Scheiber’s work at Indiana University.

    Recent quotes:

    Macquaker et al (2010): Recognition of these microstructures in these ancient mud-dominated successions demonstrates that sediment in these settings was commonly reworked and transported advectively downslope by high-energy events, contrasting with previous interpretations of these units that deposition was dominated by quiescent suspension settling. ( )

    Ghadeer et al. (2011) The extent to which persistent bottom-water anoxia and low energy suspension settling influenced lithofaces variability in the basinal parts of the succession has been overstated; these environments were more dynamic than most researchers have previously concluded.” ( )

    Alpin and Macquaker( 2011): Although some mud is indeed deposited by suspension settling out of low-energy buoyant plumes, textural analyses reveal that it is commonly dispersed by a combination of waves, gravity driven-processes, and unidirectional currents driven variously by storms and tides. ( )

    In August 2013, at a Society of Petroleum Engineers conference, Jeffrey A. May wrote, “Thus, the paradigm of grain-by-grain settling of mud onto a deep, quiet, stagnant sea floor is being revised.” (

    My point is, old earth evolutionists can look at the fossil assemblage and find a preserved ecosystem, and young earth creationists can look at the sedimentary context and see catastrophic deposition. It just depends on your assumptions and which data you want to privilege.

    When talking about scientific theory, I think it’s often more accurate to speak in terms of predictions. One prediction of the YEC model would be that C-14 should be found in coal and petroleum-bearing deposits, and that has been a problematic issue for conventional geologists for a long time. Another would be that there are limits to variation within created kinds, which is supported by the lack of strong contenders for transition fossils. Certainly the body of genetic research that currently exists does not support the wholesale genetic overhaul that would have been necessary to turn, for example, a four-legged land animal the size of a dog into a blue whale.

    However, there are some data that are unequivocably anomalous for the old earth position, in particular the existence of preserved soft tissue and C-14 in fossils presumed tens to hundreds of millions of years old, when such material should have disappeared long ago.

    On the converse side, U-Pb dating is problematic for young earth geologists, under the assumptions that are currently used. Also see Paul Garner’s list here:

    Obviously, different people will weight different pieces of evidence differently. Until we get to heaven and find out what really happened, however, it seems to me that there should be an acknowledgement on the part of both young earth and old earth Christian scientists that the other side does have some valid points.

    (1) Ref: Roehler, H.W., 1992, Correlation, composition, areal distribution, and thickness of Eocene stratigraphic units, Greater Green River Basin, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1506-E, 49 p

  22. Personally, I think Dr. Wile and Kevin N are presenting us with a more informative debate in this comments section than Ham and Nye could ever manage to put out.

    Kevin N – I have a question for you. I’m curious how Old-Earth Creationists explain the fact that there is representation in the fossil record for 97.7% percent of orders of extant land vertabres, but there aren’t any abundant fossil finds for the hypothesized transitions that Evolution would expect. I don’t see how all the transitional species of those orders didn’t fossilize, while the species we observe today do. Do you have a hypothesis to justify this?

  23. S.M. — Now that you have looked down to the level of orders rather than just class Mammalia, I think it would be helpful to go deeper into the database. The deeper you go, the more you will see that the mammals in the Cretaceous are quite distinct from the mammals in the Cenozoic, and especially from the mammals found in upper Cenozoic rocks.

    The primary issue is not that Mesozoic mammals were small, while many Cenozoic mammals were large, but that they are in distinct taxonomic groups. Nor is it that Mesozoic mammals were adapted to the the same environments as dinosaurs, so they could not compete in the post-flood world. Mesozoic mammals adapted to the same warm climates as dinosaurs would have found plenty of niches in which they could have thrived in the post-flood world.

    A primary problem for YECs in regards to the fossil record is how in the world these things were kept together in coherent packages (Campanian dinosaurs with Campanian mammals (the Campanian is a subdivision of the Late Cretaceous)), while excluding any outsider fossils from drifting in. It is almost as if each assemblage had a protective bubble around it in the flood, with just the right density to get deposited at just the right time.

    I don’t the issue is one of equivocation, with the interpretation being dependent on the assumptions of the researcher. There are interpretations that are a good fit with the data, and interpretations that are a bad fit with the data.

    Which brings us back to the Green River Formation.

    Some YEC scientists, such as Austin and Brand, have recognized the clear geological and paleontological evidence that the Green River Formation preserves an ancient lacustrine (lake) environment (or better yet, a group of related lacustrine environments). They advocate that the Green River Formation was deposited in lakes that existed after the flood. However, this sort of reasoning opens up a whole new can of worms for YEC geologists. If one pushes the flood-post flood boundary deeper into the rock record—some YECs have suggested the K-T boundary—then one has to squeeze more and more into just a few centuries after the flood. In this case, one would have the flood, then rapid diversification and migration of flora and fauna (fast swimming crocodiles carried mice on their backs or something like that) at the same time that the Green River lakes were forming, drying up of the lakes to form evaporites, a whole bunch of volcanism (Absaroka volcanics), burial of the Green River lake sediments by later sediments, more volcanism (Yellowstone, just a bit to the north), then glaciation and deglaciation, all in a few centuries. And I have grossly oversimplified the geologic history of the area.

    But if you include the Green River Formation as part of Noah’s flood—as most YECs still seem to do—then you have the problem of a well-preserved ecosystem staying intact throughout the flood, and somehow getting deposited with the members of the community and the distribution of environments all laid out to look like the sediments of an ancient lake. This is a lacustrine community: It didn’t get carried along on a vegetation mat. It didn’t, as a community, have a certain hydrodynamic quality to it. It didn’t outrun the rising floodwaters.

    None of the papers you quote from address the Green River Formation specifically or lake sediments in general. There is a growing understanding that not all mudstones represent slow accumulation of clay-sized particles. Some of them were emplaced as part of sedimentary gravity flows. My question, once again, is “So what?” There are plenty of mudstones that do require quiet environments, such as those that contain abundant trace fossils (tracks, burrows, etc.). If some muds can be emplaced rapidly, there are still plenty that cannot.

    I appreciate Paul Garner’s “top five challenges for creationist geology.” I could add to the list. There are two that pertain to the present discussion: “Explaining biostratigraphy” and “In situ structures apparently requiring time.” Most of what has been discussed and debated here has had to do with biostratigraphy. Garner recognizes that there are still problems with YEC attempts to explain “the sequential preservation of ecological communities during the flood.” Note that he recognizes that the presence of ecological communities in the fossil record is real, not just a construction of naturalistic evolutionists. The presence of these communities, in a consistent order in the rock record, is the rule, not the exception.

    As an example of in situ structures, I have presented the entire Green River Formation. The flood did not created side-by-side ecological zones with the right flora and fauna in the right sedimentary environments, with no stray organisms getting thrown into the mix.

    I am thankful the Bible does not require me to believe YEC flood geology.

    Grace and Peace

  24. Jacob — Some old-Earthers (e.g. Hugh Ross) are every bit as much anti-evolutionists as young-Earthers, holding to creation of “kinds” followed by microevolution. They would not expect there to be fossils to fill in every gap in the fossil record, because, like YECs, they believe that “kinds” has some sort of taxonomic meaning.

    The difference between these OECs and YECs would be one of time scale. OECs would allow that diversification to be carried out over time spans of millions of years, whereas YECs would squeeze an incredible amount of “microevolution” into a few hundred years after the flood.

    Theistic evolutionists for the most part believe that evolution gave us the whole range of biological diversity, and so would expect there to be transitional forms out there somewhere. They would use the same explanations that naturalistic evolutionists would use to explain the existence of gaps. One common explanation is that larger scale evolution can only occur in small, isolated populations, because biological innovations would be far more likely to spread through a small population than through a large population. Because the range of these groups is small compared to the range of the overall species, one would expect their fossils to be uncommon.

    I declare myself to be an agnostic as to which position is more correct. Maybe it is a bit of both. But I believe that the degree to which evolution can occur is primarily a scientific question, not a biblical one. To say that “reproducing after their kinds” places a limit on speciation is stretching the text of Genesis. The most straight forward way to understand the text is that Genesis is saying that horses produce horses, and petunias produce petunias. Horses do not produce cows, and petunias do not produce palm trees. It does not mean that the genetic makeup of the daughter generation has to be identical to that of the parent generation. At what point does this generation-to-generation evolution, repeated through many iterations, cross some imaginary line where it is no longer “reproduction after one’s kind?” The Bible does not say.

    Is there a limit to biological change (i.e. evolution)? Perhaps there is, but this is more of a scientific question than a biblical one, and it is fine if Christians disagree with each other on how they answer.

  25. Kevin N – This is moving on from the subject of fossilization, but the explanation you mentioned, where you relayed the hypothesis that, perhaps, “larger scale evolution can only occur in small, isolated populations,”, has begged a question. I am only an amateur on this subject, so I will ask in advance for you to please correct me if anything I say is false. Anyway, from what I have read, it seems that many scientists who posit an evolutionary perspective believe that there are no extant species who are the predecessors of another extant species. In other words, when a species has hit a point where it is more or less a new creature, its initial form will most likely be extinct by then. If evolution only occurred in small, isolated populations, than one would expect for the new species” initial stage to still live in the areas where it had a larger population concentration, because the evolving that occurred in the small group would be unlikely to effect it. Once again, please inform me if I do not have my stories straight, but in the event I do, this theory doesn’t seem to be plausible under scrutiny.

  26. Kevin, I appreciate your responses, and will leave the last word to you after this—thanks, Dr. Wile, for your patience with these long posts!

    Your original statement was, “But the mammals that lived in the Mesozoic were mostly in different orders than what have lived in the Cenozoic. Not just different species, not just different genera, not just different families, but different orders.”

    The data show that 35% of the Mesozoic mammal locations dated older than 65.3 Ma contain extant orders, and 15% of all the fossil mammal occurrences were extant orders. I agree that if you drill down, you will find more differences. However, if the main body of your evidence is the preservation of coherent packages of organisms in the fossil record, there are still significant problems from an old earth point of view. You stated that “The flood did not create side-by-side ecological zones with the right flora and fauna in the right sedimentary environments, with no stray organisms getting thrown into the mix.”

    If not the Flood, then what did? If fossilized ecological zones with the right flora and fauna in the right sedimentary environments are a problem for YEC scientists, they are equally so, if not more, for old earth evolutionists, as are tracks, traces and burrows, which are the most ephemeral of features. How were these life assemblages all fossilized together? The primary order of the present is erosion and decay, not deposition and preservation. You can postulate separate catastrophic events for every one of the fossil locations, but that’s a lot of special pleading.

    “There is a growing understanding that not all mudstones represent slow accumulation of clay-sized particles. Some of them were emplaced as part of sedimentary gravity flows. My question, once again, is “So what?” “

    The “so what” is that the new paradigm should be shaking up the stratigraphic community, because the key assumption in determining the stratotype of stage boundary markers of the geologic column is that they should be ”chosen within sequences of continuous sedimentation.”(1) The vast majority of the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSPs) in the current stratigraphic chart of the International Commission on Stratigraphy are in shales, marls, clays or siltstones that are assumed to have been products of slow, continuous deposition (
    The whole assumption of the GSSP system is that the vertical differences in in fossil assemblages at the GSSP sites are due to evolutionary changes over time, which requires a direct transformation of vertical distance in the outcrop to time.

    For example, from the article confirming the Zanclean GSSP: “All of Pliocene time, without a gap, is physically represented in the three stages of which it is composed, in a single demonstrably uninterrupted sequence of highly fossiliferous Upper Cenozoic deep-water strata on the southern coast of Sicily.”

    But if shales, marls and siltstones cannot be assumed to be laid down slowly in vertical association over time, what does that say about the evolutionary story of the fossils they contain, which currently form the basis of the geologic column?

    And these are not subaerial layers with tracks, traces or burrows, The exception is the base of the Cambrian, which is a trace fossil. And again, tracks, traces and burrows are the most transient of features—why are they preserved at all?

    “Is there a limit to biological change (i.e. evolution)? Perhaps there is, but this is more of a scientific question than a biblical one, and it is fine if Christians disagree with each other on how they answer.“

    In terms of science, this is the key question, and science, to be blunt, is stumped. Common descent requires that there be essentially no limits to biologic change. How else do you get from a single cell to a Supersaurus? And punctuated equilibrium doesn’t solve the problem of transition fossils. It’s an ad hoc response that relies upon unprovable assumptions about speciation rates.

    I agree that there are interpretations that are a good fit with the data, and interpretations that are a bad fit with the data, but the fossil record, as demonstrated above, while not a perfect fit with the YEC model, presents significant problems for the old age model as well.

    There’s also the problem of data that are mutually exclusive. Fossil ages of tens to hundreds of millions of years that are derived from U-Pb and Ar-Ar dates are contradicted by the increasing discoveries of fossils with preserved biomolecules and even C-14. Erosional forms like continent-wide planation surfaces and large scale water gaps don’t square with the scale of erosion that we presently observe, or the fact that water wants to follow the path of least resistance.

    What do you do when data sets contradict each other? The least that can be said is that the old age paradigm has significant challenges.

    “I am thankful the Bible does not require me to believe YEC flood geology.”

    I’m Catholic, and I’m not required to believe YEC flood geology either. But when I look at faith and reason together, I see this:

    From the viewpoint of faith, nothing could be less scientific than the idea that a man was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, yet that is what Christians are required to believe. If the supernatural events of the New Testament are true history, then it is not unreasonable to believe that the supernatural events of Genesis could be true history as well. God, by His very nature, could have created the world in any manner He so desired, including that described literally in the Book of Genesis.

    From the point of view of reason, radiometric dating is contradicted by the preservation of soft tissue and the presence of Carbon-14, and is regarded by its own proponents as subordinate to fossil assemblages for marking the divisions of the Geologic Time Scale.
    Evidence of geologic catastrophism rebuts gradualism and reduces the ability of geologists to extrapolate currently observed processes into the past. The quantity and preservation of fossils are difficult to explain in a gradualistic scenario, transition fossil candidates are few and problematic, and the existence of biologic discontinuities and deleterious mutations are problematic for descent through genetic mutation.

    To me, the explanations that best satisfy the principle of parsimony are: 1) a young age for the earth, 2) the one-time appearance of all living kinds, with a built-in but limited capacity for variation, and 3) and the reshaping of the earth by a global catastrophic marine transgression.

    I also appreciate Paul Garner’s list of “top five challenges for creationist geology, and the admissions of problems by other YEC scientists like Mike Oard. It would be nice to see a similar list from an old earth geologist.

    (1) Miall, Andrew D. “Sophisticated stratigraphy.” Geological Society of America Special Papers 500 (2013): 169-190.

  27. S.M. — I also appreciate your well-thought out and well-written responses. I will stop after this comment as well, unless someone has a specific question for me.

    I’m fine with the numbers you give—that 15% of Mesozoic fossil mammals are from orders that still exist (e.g. Monotremata) and 85% are from orders that are extinct. Most of those fossils that are from extant orders will only be found in upper Cretaceous rocks; the deeper you go, the more un-Cenozoic the taxonomy becomes.

    I am bewildered by your statement that “If fossilized ecological zones with the right flora and fauna in the right sedimentary environments are a problem for YEC scientists, they are equally so, if not more, for old earth evolutionists.” How is an intact ecosystem in ancient rocks, such as a reef environment with fore reef, reef core, and back reef—all with correct sediment types and organisms—a problem for old-Earthers but not a problem for YECs?

    You also brought up trace fossils, such as tracks and burrows. These are not at all a problem for old-Earthers. One can dig down in recent sediments on a beach or tidal flat and find abundant feeding and nesting burrows of various organisms, so it is not difficult to picture them being preserved in ancient rocks. For the most part, these are not ephemeral features. There are burrows in terrestrial sediments, in solid rock (rocky coastline environments), in sandy shoreline sediments, mud flat sediments, continental shelf environments, and abyssal environments. My favorite is Diplocraterion, a U-shaped feeding burrow which shows that the organism could respond upward or downward to erosion or deposition at the sediment surface.

    One can observe burrows in the present, and one can observe them in rocks. They are indicators that organisms once lived normal lives in the sediments. They nested, they fed, they moved, and so forth.

    How in the world are these activities consistent with YEC flood geology? Were there frequent pauses in sedimentation so that the organism that formed Diplocraterion burrows was able to settle from the flood waters, dig into the sand, and start filter feeding (from relatively clear water), and respond to erosion and deposition at the top of the sediment? Or do various traces and burrows in marine rocks only look like traces and burrows (a common YEC tactic)?

    You ask, How were these life assemblages all fossilized together?. The easy answer: they lived together in a place, they died together in a place. They made trace fossils together in that same place, and those trace fossils were preserved in that same place. I don’t see how this is difficult. The YEC explanations, on the other hand, get more and more preposterous the more closely one looks at them. Not only does an entire community need to be preserved intact throughout the flood, it needs to carry along its trace fossils with it (Jay will accuse me of distorting YEC explanations here, but I am not). For example, a near-shore marine community will be preserved in its YEC bubble throughout the flood, to be deposited in a well-sorted sand with near-shore sedimentary structures, with near-shore sandy trace fossils that show every indication that organisms went through normal life activities such as nesting and feeding.

    You also stated, The primary order of the present is erosion and decay, not deposition and preservation. For the most part, only depositional environments are preserved from the past, whether one looks at things from a young-Earth or old-Earth perspective. Either way, when we look at the rock record, we expect to see a record of deposition, not one of erosion.

    Your next statement was, You can postulate separate catastrophic events for every one of the fossil locations, but that’s a lot of special pleading. You stated this in the context of discussing trace fossils, which are clearly in non-catastrophic sediments. They did not form rapidly—things like bioturbation indicate a passage of time—nor were they necessarily buried rapidly. A nesting burrow can be preserved whether buried rapidly by a turbidity current (a micro-catastrophe) or by one sediment grain at a time. Surface trace fossils, such as tracks and traces, might require “sudden” covering, but this burial must be non-scouring, and doesn’t have to be comprised of a thick layer of sediments; a millimeter would often do (I’m thinking of marine invertebrate trace fossils, which far outnumber terrestrial tracks).

    In regards to mudstones, I can see hills made of one of those thick Cretaceous mudstones (the Belle Fourche Shale) down my street. It is over 100 meters thick. The “new paradigm” of mudstones doesn’t postulate that a hundred meters of mud was deposited all at once, only that it wasn’t necessarily the slow, one clay particle at a time type of deposition either. To have an “uninterrupted sequence” doesn’t require deposition one grain at a time either; only that there be no significant interruptions in deposition, which most would be willing to admit is difficult to prove conclusively. (That the Belle Fourche Shale wasn’t deposited catastrophically is evidenced by the presence of several thick, distinct bentonite layers, which are the altered remains of volcanic ash. If the Belle Fourche had formed in a turbulent cataclysmic slurry, there would be ash mixed in with the clay, and clay mixed in with the ash. There would not be distinct, continuous layers.).

    You then discussed standard YEC arguments about radiometric dating. I was starting to write a long paragraph here about the YEC RATE project, but I’ll summarize by saying that RATE was an implicit admission on the part of YECs that radiometric dating, for the most part, works. All they had to fall back on was accelerated nuclear decay (which leads to Paul Garner’s YEC challenge #1).

    For C-14 and preservation of soft tissue, I’ll point you to two better sources than anything I have written.
    45 thousand-year-old fossil wood encased in 45 million-year-old basalt: Conflict Revisited — A response to one of Ken Ham’s arguments in his debate with Nye, from Questioning Answers in Genesis, written by a Christian geologist.
    Rapid Burial Allows Preservation of a Hadrosaur Fleshy Head Comb — from Naturalis Historia, written by a Christian biologist. The author turns the YEC “soft tissues” argument on its head, showing that it is more of a problem for YECs than for old-Earthers. He does the same with Young Earth Creationism and Ancient DNA. If DNA can be preserved in samples that are many thousands of years old, why isn’t DNA preservation common in the fossil record?

    YEC geology has two main arguments: that the Earth is young, and that most rocks in Earth’s upper crust were formed during Noah’s flood. YECs have not given sound arguments in support of either.

  28. Jacob — The punctuated equilibrium evolutionary scientists would teach just the opposite; that when a new species forms (in isolation), the old species still exists somewhere else. I don’t see this to be inconsistent with what we observe today, or even with YEC hyper-rapid speciation after the flood.

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