16 I let go of my belief in a young Earth

This post continues the description of the fossil-bearing formations near Drumheller, Alberta.

Beginning approximately 350 feet above the Devonian marine reefs are sedimentary rocks from the Cretaceous Period. Because the Red Deer River cuts down through some of the Cretaceous Formations known in southern Alberta, I was able to see on many occasions magnificent badland exposures of the Dinosaur Park Formation, the Bearpaw Formation, and the Horseshoe Canyon Formation.

Sedimentary rocks of the Dinosaur Park and Horseshoe Canyon Formations were deposited predominantly by fresh-water systems, whereas those of the intervening Bearpaw Formation came about as a result of sedimentary accumulations within shallow marine environments. The kinds of fossils preserved give the clearest indication of whether the sediments accumulated in freshwater, brackish, or saltwater environments.

The predominantly freshwater formations preserve the fossilized remains and trace fossils of both terrestrial and freshwater animals; mammals, dinosaurs, birds, pterosaurs (i.e. flying reptiles), champsosaurs (long-snout crocodile-like animals), lizards, turtles, frogs, salamanders, fresh water fish, clams and snails, as well as dinosaur nests and other trace fossils. The plant fossils include pollen and seeds, cones, and leaf impressions. All of these extinct species are preserved in sediments that were laid down either by rivers, some of which were wide and meandering, or else in swamps and estuaries, as evidenced by the characteristic way in which sediments are deposited in each of these environments.

The Bearpaw Formation is sandwiched between the Dinosaur Park and the Horseshoe Canyon Formations. The biota of the Bearpaw Formation is conspicuously different from either of these other two formations, which also differ from each other, but to a lesser degree. In the Bearpaw Formation, fossils of terrestrial plants and animals and those of freshwater organisms are exceedingly rare. Rather, the vast majority of its fossil constituents include dinoflagellates, foraminiferans, and mollusks, all typical of marine communities.

As in the case of the Devonian formation far below, many of the fossils in these three Cretaceous formations are preserved right where the organisms lived. Around Drumheller, oyster beds are probably the easiest fossils to find in life position. Oysters have a free-swimming larval stage. However, once an oyster spat settles down and begins to grow, its bivalve shell is permanently fixed to the substrate. Finding thick oyster beds at several different levels in the Drumheller area means that generations of oysters lived in these beds before they were entombed by sediments and changing environments precluded their continued prosperity.

Oyster beds at different stratigraphic levels elsewhere in southern Alberta tell the same story. They are not the result of oysters being scoured up, being carried in from a distance while being kept together, and then being redeposited into this area during the Flood. Rather, the oysters were living in the same geographic area, but at different times, thousands of feet above the Devonian reefs.

Nests containing clutches of fossilized eggs that had embryonic duck-billed dinosaur bones inside were found in southern Alberta only a few years before my arrival. They were preserved in rocks of the Oldman Formation, the formation that lies immediately below the Dinosaur Park Formation. The fact that the nests and eggs were preserved intact proved they had not moved any distance from where they had been originally constructed. Nor was there any reason to believe that a huge block of the Earth’s crust consisting of the stratified sediments on which these eggs were found had been picked up, carried some distance, and redeposited intact by the Flood on top of the Devonian coral reefs.

Here I’m standing in Devil’s Coulee, where the first intact dinosaur eggs were found in southern Alberta. These eggs lie in the nests in which they were originally laid. Some of the eggs preserve the bones of duckbilled-dinosaur embryos. Photo by J. Peterson.

Thus, shortly after my arrival in Drumheller, I stopped trying to convince myself that the numerous distinct biotas stacked one on top of another were somehow the product of one gargantuan flood. These fossil assemblages were not the remains of plants and animals that were washed into southern Alberta from the immediate area, or from elsewhere in North America, or from anywhere beyond, at different times during the Flood. Rather, they were the remains of different suites of plants and animals that had lived in southern Alberta at different times. In other words, the right answer was “same place, different times.”

The fossil beds that I had seen in Canada and the United States were very small parts of the horizontal and vertical axes of the global geologic column. (“Horizontal” refers to geographic variability in fossil biotas, while “vertical” refers to temporal variability, or change over time.) For me, at this point, the vertical variability in the geologic column was its most important characteristic. Vertical changes in biotas throughout the geologic column were not due to the vicissitudes of Noah’s Flood. Cenozoic plant and animal species do not appear at a higher level in the geologic column than Paleozoic organisms because they were able to tread water longer than Paleozoic ones! It is because they were not anywhere on Earth during Paleozoic times.

Trace fossils had convinced me that Noah’s Flood could not be credited with forming the vast majority of the geologic column and the fossil record therein. Now, I knew that in their vast majority, different kinds of organisms have lived at different times on earth. Within the context of the creation/evolution quandary, this became the second “geological” fact of which I was really certain. These simple yet powerful observations forced me to conclude that the Earth was more than six to ten thousand years old.

But how much older? Who would decide, and how? If, as I had determined, it was older, did it matter theologically that the Earth was very old? If the geologic column had not formed as a result of Noah’s Flood, and no other catastrophes are mentioned in the Bible that could account for its formation, then maybe it had been deposited in a great variety of ways, under the influence of a host of environmental conditions, from peaceful to catastrophic, as geologists had said.

So, I was happy to let go of my belief in a young Earth. I realized that it was not the theory of evolution that had forced me to accept a great age for the Earth. The age of the Earth and evolution were two distinct things; they were not inextricably linked. In spite of my acceptance of the Earth’s great age, I was not ready to admit that the diversity of life throughout successive geologic periods was the product of evolution. To my thinking, this would have removed God from the creative loop. And further, many Christian scholars, both past and present, accepted that the Earth was ancient but insisted that God had, at unknown intervals throughout these vast expanses of time, created specific kinds ex nihilo. Or had He?

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