00 Book to blog

You may have heard of blog-to-book publishing. This is going to be the opposite.

Book CoverIn 2005 we published our book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation. It tells the stories of our two journeys as a paleontologist and pastor/biblical scholar. It recounts how we were each taught a young-earth, ‘”scientific creationist” position in our younger years and how we eventually came to embrace understandings that are more modest, tentative and nuanced, but which we ultimately have also found more satisfying, durable and empowering. This was the result of a process that required years of study and reflection, and which included times of frustration and disillusionment as well as moments of liberating insight.

The book has now gone out of print and the rights have reverted to us. As a result, we are able to make the full text* available online to anyone who’s interested. We’ll be putting it out over the next several weeks in a series of blog posts of about 800-1200 words each. This will also give us the opportunity to present the photos and diagrams in digital form, and to add some new illustrations.

We invite your comments and questions on each post, and we will open things up for general Q&A and discussion about religion and science, faith and reason, after the whole book appears. (Comments may be edited for length, content, and tone.) Thanks for reading along, and we look forward to interacting with you!

Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey
Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith

*Because blogging is a more “popular” format, we won’t be including the footnotes from the book, which provide documentation especially for the scientific findings that Dr. Godfrey summarizes as he tells his story. If readers have questions about any of these findings, we’ll be happy to supply this documentation as part of the discussion.


01 Introduction: Why We Have Written This Book

An “earth rise” above the moon, photographed by the Apollo 8 astronauts, who read from the Genesis creation account even as they carried out the most advanced in-person scientific exploration of space to that date.

The controversy between evolutionary and creationist accounts of world and human origins has erupted with dependable regularity over the past several decades in churches, classrooms, school boards and legislatures across North America. At the same time, this controversy has also raged, more quietly but perhaps with more lingering and agonizing effects, within individual hearts and minds.   Many believing Christians have experienced crises of faith and personal rejections when they have chosen to accept an account of origins that is based on reasoned interpretation of centuries of scientific observation, because this account does not coincide with a literal interpretation of Genesis.

These crises and rejections do not have to occur. The two approaches to knowledge characteristic of faith and reason (or religion and science) can be reconciled and used in a complementary way. But unnecessary conflicts nevertheless arise because outspoken proponents of both approaches deny their inherent limitations and extended their claims into the proper realm of the other source of knowledge. This creates an “either/or” or “forced choice” situation in which one must either accept an entirely naturalistic account of origins, or else effectively deny that what our eyes see and our instruments measure is anything more than illusion. Neither of these choices will ultimately satisfy an honest intellectual inquirer.

There is a middle position, however. Faith and reason are each qualified to make their own contributions to our understanding of our origins, purpose and destiny, and these contributions can be recognized as complementary. But the way to this middle position has been made perilous by the bitter polarization between proponents of “either/or” positions on both sides. The two authors of this book have traveled this way, and wish to share with their fellow travelers how they have struggled and what they have learned.

The authors were both taught a young-earth, “scientific creationist” position in the Christian communities in which they were raised. This position required that the opening chapters of Genesis be interpreted literally, and it would not admit as valid any scientific discovery that did not conform to such an interpretation. But in subsequent years, as the authors pursued their respective vocations, they found it necessary repeatedly to modify and ultimately to abandon this position. In its place they have embraced understandings that are more modest, tentative and nuanced, but ultimately also more satisfying, durable and empowering. This has been the result of a process that has required years of study and reflection, and which has included times of frustration and disillusionment as well as moments of liberating insight. This book tells the story of our two journeys.

In the first part of the book, Dr. Stephen Godfrey describes his field work as a descriptive paleontologist and the successive paradigm shifts that his discoveries led him through as he sought new ways to understand the evidence he was uncovering.  In the second part, the Rev. Dr. Christopher Smith describes how the integration of his background and training in literary studies with his work in biblical interpretation similarly led him to move past the creationist position of his youth. The book concludes by revisiting the Genesis creation account to allow readers to see it through new eyes. After demonstrating that this account’s cosmology is indeed phenomenological (it describes how things appear, rather than how they actually are), the authors explore the implications of this demonstration for scientists and for students of the Bible.

We hope that this book will be of interest and practical use those who have evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds, who may be college students or college graduates, and who are seeking to understand how a desire to live a life of faith can be compatible with a commitment to academic inquiry. We hope that this book will also provide a useful resource within churches in such forums as adult Sunday School classes and midweek study groups, which have the time and the freedom to explore difficult and even controversial questions one piece at a time.

We are not aware of any similar books that have been published in the past. We are certain that this is not because of a lack of interest on the part of readers or publishers, but rather because of a lack of authors. It is unlikely that two people in complementary vocations such as ours have traced similar pilgrimages and have been in a position to write about them together. And so we wish to share our stories with all of you.

02 A personal word from each of the authors

Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey

S Godfrey, 2016, SF

We have undertaken this project in part for our own benefit, to record our intellectual pilgrimages from a young-earth creationist position to a place where we recognize that scientific observations and interpretations do not need to be accepted or rejected based on their conformity to a literal interpretation of Genesis. But we have also written for the benefit of others. We trust that this work will act a as stimulus to many who are asking how they should understand the Genesis account of creation in the light of more than 300 years of geological, biological, and astronomical data.

Our goal in this effort has been to show how each of us moved from a young-earth model of natural history and a literalist interpretation of Genesis to an ancient-universe model and a historical-contextual interpretation of Genesis. We believe that the evidence preserved in the fossil record demands conclusions that are at odds with the notion that the earth is young and that life has not changed substantially over time. Although it might seem to some, especially those who are now where we began, that we are trying to undermine Christianity, this was never our purpose. We have rather sought only to refute ideas and expectations that have no basis in reality.

Some of our readers may be among those who have rejected the claims of Christianity because the Bible’s cosmology appears to have no basis in reality, and who have therefore concluded that its moral and “religious” claims can also be rejected. Such people should consider, however, that if the account of creation in Genesis need not be understood as a literal description of actual processes, and need not be read with scientific expectations, then the moral message of the Bible may remain valid and applicable to everyone today, regardless of their scientific understanding.

There are many questions relating to the history of life on this planet for which we have no answer. This will not invalidate most of our observations. As a scientist, I am allowed to be wrong. It is the nature of the endeavor. However, as we contemplate the young-earth creationist literature, we recognize that within their paradigm, it is not possible for them to allow that they might be wrong on any particulars. This being the case, it is also not possible to effect change, to transform their paradigm into a dynamic, learning, growing one. How can this be? Their inerrant view of their paradigm is based on a selectively literalistic interpretation of Genesis. They make the claim that their interpretation is inerrant because the Bible is also inerrant. I know this from personal experience. Young-earthers believe that their interpretation must be free of error. But this is a very risky position. If the trustworthiness of the rest of the Bible depends on speculations which cannot ultimately be vindicated, sooner or later, you will have a rather unpleasant and rude awakening. I found my back got too sore bending over backwards trying to accommodate or deny new and existing evidence, or fearing potentially condemning discoveries. I have told you here how I finally began to walk upright.

Our desire is that you will be able to make an informed rational choice, not one based on emotion, lack of knowledge, or confusion. We hope that you will realize, as we have, that it’s time to stop trying to put the square peg into the round hole.


Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith

“Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” “Why am I here?” All of us ask these questions about our ultimate origin, ultimate destiny, and ultimate purpose because we seek to have meaning in our lives. Since these questions ask not just how things are, but why things are the way they are, they cannot be answered simply by observation and reasoned reflection. To answer them, we must move into the realm of faith.

This book tells how its two authors initially went about answering the first question—“Where did I come from?”—through one kind of faith response: accepting and believing the teachings of one particular part of the Christian community. At the same time, they went about answering the third question—“Why am I here?”—through a different kind of faith response: stirring up the gifts that God had placed within them. At a crucial point in each of their pilgrimages of faith, they had to admit that the answers they were finding via the second route had come into hopeless conflict with those they had received by the first route. Although it felt as if they were abandoning their faith, as a step of faith they began to trust the fruits of the vocations to which God had called them, rather than the dogmatic pronouncements that had always provided such security up to that point. The end result has been to trade security for adventure in a continuing life of faith.

One theme that emerges in the following pages is that supernatural results may come through what seem like “natural” processes. Several interconnected examples of this phenomenon are described in this book, but taken as a whole, it provides another example. Where cosmological affirmation and speculation failed to provide a solid grounding for a life with meaning, the slow, patient process of growing into our callings is succeeding. We’re still growing. But these are the results to date.

At the March for Science, April 22, 2017


03 The Dog Skeleton and My Grandmother’s Toothbrush


(This post begins Stephen Godfrey’s personal story.)

“We’ll make a scientist out of this one,” said “Pop-Pop,” my grandfather, to my mother shortly after I was born. And even though my marks hovered well below the class average throughout grade school and most of high school, this curious pronouncement never became a burden for me as an unattainable expectation. On the contrary, as I grew and the story was told to me, I was flattered by his remark. But I wondered why and how he had thought I would or could become a scientist. For me it was an honor that someone whom I admired deeply had desired this for me.

It is impossible for me to know how his hopes influenced my interests, but for as long as I can remember, I have had an insatiable fascination with the natural world. My telescope, microscope, and a large pair of binoculars borrowed from my Uncle Bill were essential tools through which I explored the natural world around me.

As a child growing up in Canada, I loved going to natural history museums, such as the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. I began my own collection of natural objects — pine cones, sea shells, fossils, and even animal skeletons — until my bedroom was transformed into a miniature natural history museum.

Sugar Pine Cone (Pinus lambertiana). Photo by S. Godfrey.

When I was 13 years old, I came upon a complete and undisturbed cat skeleton in the forest behind my grandparents’ farm just outside Ballston Spa in east-central New York State. I collected every bone, in the hopes that I could rebuild it, just as I had seen done in museums. With the help of my Uncle Bill’s copy of Sisson and Grossman’s The Anatomy of the Domestic Animals, I reassembled the skeleton using coat hanger wire and white wood glue.

A year or so later, on another visit to the farm, my uncle Bill told me of a road-kill dog. After boiling the maggot-infested bones for an afternoon over an open fire, I did the final cleaning of my prize indoors, in my grandmother’s bathroom. Lacking more specialized equipment to clean the slime and gristle off the bones, I used the best available instrument: the rattiest old toothbrush of those available. Once the bones were clean, I quickly rinsed the toothbrush and returned it to where I had found it. Later that evening, I watched in stunned silence as my grandmother scrubbed her teeth with the very same toothbrush (to have spoken up would have resulted in my sudden and immediate death). As far as I know, that brush had a long and useful life afterwards, as did the cleaned and mounted skeleton, which became the centerpiece of my museum.

Dog Skeleton, from Sisson and Grossman’s The Anatomy of the Domestic Animals. I pored over this illustration for hours in order to accurately reconstruct my dog skeleton.

Collecting continued throughout my childhood. Fishing trips turned into hunts for fossils; stops at rest areas along highways provided an excuse to gather pine cones or to scour rock outcrops for the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals. Trips to the ocean featured contests with my father and siblings to see who could find the niftiest natural object. At the end of our family summer vacations, black garbage bags in the back of our Volkswagen van more often than not contained a frozen critter or the pungent remains of some decomposing carcass.

I still marvel at how tolerant, yes, even encouraging my parents were of my pursuits.

04 Early training in creationism

My interest in biology predisposed me to take great interest in finding an explanation for the diversity and origin of life. The circumstances of my early life made it inevitable that I would seek to answer this question first by engaging the book of Genesis, rather than the theory of evolution. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home. We considered the concept of evolution a rival to the Bible’s explanation of the origins of biological diversity. We equated it with man’s attempt to deny the existence of God.

As I would explain it in adult terms today, we were taught that evolution proclaimed an “ateleology,” or absence of inherent purpose, in the created world. Therefore by implication and overt affirmation, anyone who espoused a belief in evolution necessarily had abandoned belief in the existence of God, and had a strictly naturalistic and mechanistic view of the universe. Within such a person’s paradigm, the universe and all living organisms had arisen simply by chance and natural selection. The appeal of evolutionary theory to the atheist, we were taught, lay in its apparent ability to absolve man of his moral responsibility to an almighty God who had created all that there is. For me and my family, God was the omnipotent creator of the world and its biological diversity.

My earliest personal encounter with an evolutionist came in grade one. One day while our class was in the library, a student teacher stated that we had evolved from apes. I was so shocked, I strongly voiced my objection to her claim. That evening around the family dinner table, after a discussion of the bizarre matter, we concluded that the teacher’s claim could not possibly be true, because if it were, then apes would be turning into humans today, and we knew that that was not happening. (This was, I recognize now, a misunderstanding of what the theory of evolution itself would have expected.)

My Dad also had an interest in biological origins and had a first-edition, hardbound copy of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’s book The Genesis Flood. I recall reading through some of the text and looking at the pictures and being very impressed with its claims and conclusions. While I was still in elementary school my Dad took me to a creation-evolution debate at McGill University. All I remember is a discussion that centered on whether moths on trees in Great Britain proved the theory of evolution. As I grew, I continued to read literature and books from Morris’s Institute for Creation Research, and I received the society’s newsletter, Acts, Facts and Impacts, for a number of years.

My family was already disposed, because of our church instruction, to read the creation account in Genesis literally, and under the influence of creationist teaching, we adopted a young-earth paradigm for natural history. According to this model, the earth and the universe were no more than 10,000 years old, and perhaps only 6,000. Our world was created in six consecutive 24-hour days, in a “mature, fully functional” state, its appearance of greater age notwithstanding. If objects looked old, that was only an illusion. God’s creation was, in effect, an instantaneous one. There was no possibility of the earth having been formed through currently operating natural processes, for there was insufficient time for this to have happened.

How, then, were the sedimentary rocks that held the fossilized remains of once-alive animals to be explained? We were taught, and believed, that since the earth was very young, they must have been deposited as a result of Noah’s Flood. This Flood was understood as worldwide in its scope and proportions, so that all terrestrial life was swept into the ocean, and vast quantities of churned-up sediments entombed the bodies of these creatures, both plant and animal, creating the fossils I loved to collect.

But how was the great diversity of life forms — my lifelong fascination — to be explained, if, given their recent creation, there was insufficient time for one sort or “kind” (the term used in Genesis 1) of creature to have evolved into another? The explanation was simple: “microevolutionary” changes could occur within so-called “Genesis kinds.” Dogs provided an example of such changes. Although there is considerable anatomical variation within dogs, our understanding of the natural world stipulated that those variations had always been limited to the original parameters of the “dog” kind. Once the original created genetic variation had been exhausted, no new permutations could or would appear. Furthermore, disparate kinds couldn’t interbreed to form new kinds. Mutations were the only possible source of “macroevolutionary” genetic variation, but they were always bad, and so could never result in the creation of a viable new kind. Mutations were, in fact, the result of man’s sin. They thus resulted in the degradation of the genome, causing much of the pain and suffering seen today.

But if all this were the case, how had the notion come to prevail that the earth and universe were ancient? This, we explained, was merely a fabrication of “evolutionary” astronomers and geologists. Their presumption of cosmic antiquity was a position they reached by default because it was vital to their atheistic-mechanistic-ateleological evolutionary theory. Without the intervention of God, a great deal of time would indeed have been needed for natural forces to have shaped the universe and life on this planet into its present state. We dismissed estimates of the earth’s age based on the decay of radioactive elements because such dating methods, we were assured by the Institute for Creation Research, were subject to so many liabilities that their results were of no value whatsoever. I believed that the only way to determine the age of the earth was to count the generations within the genealogies listed in the Bible.

05 The first cracks appear in my creationist belief system

I was content with the young-earth creationist view and its implications; it seemed very believable. Growing up, I had never seen any evidence of evolution within plants or animals, so it seemed reasonable that species were created instantaneously, fully formed and with the same appearance that they display today. As a youngster, I was impressed with the scientific credentials of those within the creationist camp. I remember thinking that even if they were wrong, at least I was in good company. But from time to time, cracks would appear in my otherwise solid belief system.

Winters in Quebec are long, and there is usually a lot of snow. Huge snow blowers are occasionally needed to widen the streets. In their wake, they leave clean vertical cuts through the piled snow on the sides of the roads. One winter day in my late teen years, as I walked home from school, I noticed that one could easily make out numerous horizontal layers within the larger accumulation of snow.

Having walked through many a storm to get home, I knew that not all of that snow had fallen in one storm. Days or weeks could pass between successive snowfalls. I also knew that at times between storms, some of the snow had even melted away. There was no question that the numerous horizontal laminations I was seeing represented snow that had fallen on many different occasions under differing conditions. Some storms dumped a lot of snow, others just a skiff; some during warmer conditions, others when it was much colder. The conditions under which the snow had accumulated affected its appearance.

Along the road, I could also see layers made up of snow that was packed hard and gray in color. Having watched huge snow blowers at work, I knew that these layers were the result of their exceedingly rapid and short term labor (certainly relative to the length of time it had taken to accumulate the other, non-man-made layers). Some of these snow-blower layers were very thick, but invariably they were nearly uniform in composition, occasionally displaying a jumbled stratigraphy.

A large snow blower cuts through layers of a winter’s worth of snow that accumulated at different times and under a variety of conditions. Some of the layers formed very rapidly under “catastrophic” conditions (those created by the snow blower), whereas at the other extreme, some layers accumulated slowly over much longer periods of time under calm environmental conditions. The characteristics of the layers attest to the conditions under which they formed. Therefore, snow accumulation is a good analogy for the great variety of ways in which sedimentary rocks are formed. Some form under catastrophic environmental conditions, whereas others accumulate very slowly under calm environmental conditions. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

The layers within the snow constituted, by analogy, a troubling counterexample to one of the claims of the creationists whose teachings I embraced. On the basis of my understanding of Noachian “Flood Geology”, I expected that if a flood had been global in its extent and had churned up untold trillions of tons of sediments, and that if they had been redeposited within a year or so, then the vast majority of rocks would be relatively uniform in composition — like the snow coming out of a snow blower.

I could not help wondering, therefore, why there were such a great variety of sedimentary rocks in the world, analogous to the differentiated snow layers left on the sides of the road. It seemed more likely that sedimentary rocks had been deposited the way the snow had been: on many different occasions, under differing conditions.

Several years later, still bothered by these observations, I described them in a letter to Dr. Duane T. Gish at ICR. Although I was delighted that he responded, I was not entirely satisfied with his explanation, which read as follows:

Assuming that a vast, worldwide flood took place with erosion and sedimentation occurring at intense rates, one can visualize how these vast sedimentary deposits could have been deposited quite rapidly. Dr. Henry Morris, the Director of our Institute, obtained his Ph.D. in hydraulics and he has written much on this subject including a textbook in this field.

The load that can be carried by moving water is proportional, I believe, to the fourth power of the velocity and so you can see that the load carried is critically determined by the velocity of the moving water. It is visualized that during the great flood, vast tides were sweeping back and forth across the earth. At any time when the moving waters slowed down, sediment would be deposited, of course. After a layer of sediment had been deposited, the next movement of water would carry its own load of sediment, perhaps from a different area and of a different nature, and this would be deposited once again as the water slowed down.

In this way, successive sedimentary layers could be deposited in a relatively short time. The depth of the sediment and the number of the sedimentary layers would be dependent upon the intensity of erosion and the intensity volume of the movement of the water. Dr. Morris feels that most of the present sedimentary deposits could be explained in that way.

(Dr. Duane T. Gish, personal communication, June 15, 1982.)

06 Why did animals seem designed for conditions after the fall if they were created for a perfect world?

After high school and college I enrolled at Bishop’s University to pursue my interests in biology. To my great surprise, I did well academically for the first time in my life. But I also found that my studies in biology created a continual tension in my mind. An important part of the creationist program was to discredit research related to the possibility of change through time. So when, as was inevitable, I took courses where evolutionary concepts were treated, I regarded them with great suspicion, and I was very critical.

This criticism, I recognize now, was not aimed at improving the paradigm by which biologists understood the natural world, but simply at destroying its credibility so as to replace it with strict creationist doctrine. Outside of class I would occasionally argue with students, championing the creationist view.

One of the other major fissures in the creationist foundation, which grew as I became more sensitive to the functional anatomies of organisms, centered largely on the differences that exist between predators and prey, carnivores and herbivores.   Why were predatory organisms so well suited for hunting, capturing and killing their prey, whereas prey organisms, on the other hand, were frequently remarkably well designed for avoiding, hiding, or running from predators?   These were not just behavioral differences, they were fundamental differences in anatomy and physiology.

This question troubled me because I knew from my creationist readings that prior to Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, no animal had ever died on earth. Before the fall, organisms must have been either autotrophs, which made their own food (like green plants), or herbivores, that is, plant-eaters. (The death of plant cells did not count as real death.)   It was far easier for me to accept that evolution had not occurred than for me to believe that there had been no death prior to the “Fall of Man.”

Huge killer dinosaurs, sharp-toothed sharks, cats, and web-spinning spiders: I could fill this post and many more with the amazing designs which enable animals to kill. Had God not designed these amazing killers? But perhaps they had not been created that way originally. If not, then what had they looked like prior to “the Fall?”

Reconstructed skeleton of the extinct giant shark, Carcharocles megalodon, at the Calvert Marine Museum on Solomons, Maryland. Sharks have never been herbivorous. Photo by S. Godfrey.

And why would an animal need to have an immune system? No microorganism could have killed it by way of infection. Why would so many animals be camouflaged, or why would so many non-poisonous animals mimic toxic or poisonous ones, if they could not die?   Why would there be animals with toxic stings or bites? These would not have been needed as part of the original creation.

What would animals look like if they could not die? Certainly not like the ones we know today, whose organismal anatomy is largely, if not entirely, geared to avoiding death and sustaining life. What did carnivorous plants look like before the Fall? Where did these remarkable designs come from, and when were they created? One question led to another, but I could find no credible answers in creationist literature.

Organisms are carnivorous not because of a choice they made at some point in life but because their fundamental design enables them to be. There is an incredible array of carnivorous designs. Many of them employ one or more of the following features to capture and kill prey: greater speed, pointed teeth, sharp claws, higher intelligence, and the ability to build traps, display lures, ambush, or inject venoms and toxins. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

At about this time, I attended a creationist seminar series hosted by a Baptist extension seminary in Montreal, Quebec. Dr. Duane T. Gish, the young-earth creationist whom I greatly admired, was the speaker. During one of our corridor conversations, he mentioned that many organisms may have been converted by God from eating plants to eating meat when Adam and Eve sinned. However, he had to admit that the Bible was silent on this matter.

So if the Bible was silent on this purported divinely-orchestrated transformation, what other literary source was I to turn to, to shed light on this fantastic and profound change in the biology of life? I knew of none.

07 My college honors project on dinosaurs and birds

In my final year at Bishop’s University, I decided I would study vertebrate paleontology in graduate school, to find out first-hand if the paleontological evidence was reliable. I really wanted to know if there was some conspiracy to “fix” the fossils so as to give the appearance of an evolutionary sequence. I also honestly believed that I might be able to discover evidence that would bolster the creationist position, or otherwise contribute to refuting the evolutionists.

This goal was of crucial importance because my confidence in the reliability of the Christian faith rested at that time on my acceptance of a literal reading of the Genesis creation account. I fully believed that my faith would be solidified by the discoveries I would make in the field of vertebrate paleontology.

As I came to understand much later, my trust in the Bible as a book of divine origin hinged at that time upon the expectation that when it spoke on matters relating to science, its statements would be accurate by today’s standards, rather than reflecting the observational perspective of the culture in which it was composed. Establishing objective scientific accuracy in a book from ancient times would prove that the author had been given some supernatural or divine insight within the natural realm, and this would be a sign to indicate that when the Bible spoke on matters relating to morality, it drew on the same supernatural, authoritative source. After all, if the Bible were inaccurate on natural-scientific matters, on what basis was I to accept its divine authority on matters of morality?

Early on in my final year at Bishop’s University, I received from Chris Smith, a camp friend (and my future brother-in-law), a photocopy of the senior thesis in biology his Harvard roommate had written. The paper presented the essentials of young-earth creationism, and, to my mind at the time, did so very well. I was impressed that someone had had the nerve to submit such a forcefully creationist document to the Harvard Biology Department. It contributed to the confidence I had in creationism, despite my growing misgivings.

As part of my final year honors project at Bishop’s, I completed a literature review on Archaeopteryx, a creature known to us only through fossils, and which is often described as the “first bird.” (Several more feathered dinosaurs are now known.) My initial goal was to show the impossibility of birds having evolved from dinosaurs. In spite of the fact that I did not believe evolution had occurred, I was nevertheless impressed with how similar the skeletal anatomy of Archaeopteryx was to that of some small theropod dinosaurs, such as Compsognathus.


The entire length of Compsognathus (center), a small Jurassic dinosaur, is only as long as the skull of Brachiosaurus (background), a huge sauropod dinosaur. In the foreground, the skeletal silhouette of Archaeopteryx displays numerous dinosaurian skeletal features. But it would be difficult for creationists to refer to Archaeopteryx as both a bird and a dinosaur because to do so would be to admit that it bridges the morphological gap between these two groups. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

In fact, I discovered that Archaeopteryx was much more similar to many of the meat-eating dinosaurs than these meat-eating dinosaurs were to other dinosaurs. In other words, the anatomical variations within dinosaurs were greater than those between some dinosaurs and birds. I began to wonder whether our taxonomic system, i.e. the names we give to groups of animals (specifically the Linnaean hierarchical system of classification), might be obscuring close relationships, artificially creating groups of more dissimilar creatures and separating ones which were really very similar anatomically.

Creationists had no problem recognizing tiny Compsognathus and the huge sauropod Brachiosaurus as dinosaurs, but Archaeopteryx had to be referred to as a bird because it had feathers, even though Compsognathus was much more similar to it than to Brachiosaurus. (In other words, the “bird” resembled the small dinosaur much more than the small dinosaur resembled the large dinosaur. I originally chose Compsognathus for this illustration based on the knowledge I had of dinosaurs at the time. More recently, beautifully preserved feathered dinosaurs have been discovered in China that are even more like Archaeopteryx.)

These were disturbing yet fascinating questions, but I did not pursue them in depth at that time. Rather, I simply completed my literature review and presented my findings as a departmental seminar.

The instant I finished my seminar, there was a university-wide power failure, leaving all of us in total darkness. Many in the audience knew what I was up to, so in spite of the power failure, the atmosphere was electric. Unfortunately, the question and answer segment had to be canceled and I was unable to lecture the department on the impossibility of evolution. As we filed out into corridors lit only by emergency lighting, one of my fellow students asked if God had turned out the lights. I did not know how to answer his question.

A few weeks later, I was given an opportunity to answer questions that may have arisen as a result of my seminar. Since there weren’t any initially, I took the opportunity to inform the department that I did not believe in evolution or theistic evolution and started to detail the creationist position. The experience was an awkward one, however, because I soon discovered that I really didn’t know very much about the details of Flood Geology. What was there to know about a divinely ordained event, the geologic results of which are nowhere to be found in the Bible?

The wind was taken out of my sails when I was asked by my advisor, Dr. Donald F.J. Hilton, how I might explain multiple fossilized forest layers. How could these multiple layers have formed during one world-wide flood?   I was speechless. (Years later, I had a chance to see first-hand multiple fossilized forest layers at Joggins, Nova Scotia, Canada. I shall relate this experience, and its significance for my thinking, in a later post.)

08 Summer field work and the start of graduate school

In the summer of 1981, upon completion of my Bachelor of Science degree at Bishop’s University, I worked for Dr. Richard C. Fox at the University of Alberta, prospecting for and collecting Paleocene mammals in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. (Various epoch and era names, such as “Paleocene,” will be used throughout the book to refer to fossils and fossil beds. While paleontolgists understand these names to refer to specific geologic times, readers who, at this early point in the book, are unsure about an ancient earth can conveniently think of them simply as referring to groups of fossils that tend to occur together.)

Dr. Fox had debated Dr. Gish only a few months earlier in Edmonton, Alberta, so there was tension between the two of us, as he had been told of my creationist views. Coming on the heels of my humiliation at Bishop’s, I made every effort to avoid engaging him in a debate. Although questions were beginning to arise in my mind, nothing I saw or collected that summer caused me to have any further doubts about the position I held.

Nevertheless, Dr. Fox did give me two books to read which continued to cause me to think about the length of the creation “days” in Genesis 1. One was God’s Time Record in Ancient Sediments by Dan Wonderly; the other was Creation and the Flood by Davis A. Young. Both of these were of “concordist” character, that is, they sought to harmonize the “days” of Genesis with geologic ages. During one of our discussions, Dr. Fox mentioned that a book on biological evolution for Christians was greatly needed. The two aforementioned books were written to accommodate geological evidence within the Christian world view; why couldn’t a biologist do the same for the biological sciences?

That fall I began my doctoral research in the Redpath Museum at McGill University, a natural history museum that had been opened 100 years earlier with Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899) as its first director. Dawson was an influential and well-known paleontologist, but also a staunch Presbyterian. Initially, he was very much opposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, but later he became more favorable towards the notion. Even as a creationist, Dawson believed that the earth was considerably older than 6,000-10,000 years.

Redpath Museum, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


Sir William Dawson. Artist presently unknown.

On the public recommendation of Dr. Gish that creationists at the graduate level should keep quiet for fear of dismissal, I kept my creationist views to myself while at McGill. Years later, however, I discovered that my graduate committee had been informed of my position even before I began. Perhaps my claim to have the same zeal Dawson had had for the truth of fossils helped secure my admission. Whatever the reason, I have Dr. Robert L. Carroll, my supervisor, to thank.

At the height of my interest in young-earth creationism, I remember my Dad telling me that I would not become another Duane T. Gish. What he meant was that I did not have his ability to communicate effectively with an audience and that I therefore would not become a star creationist. I don’t think he realized at the time how accurate this statement would prove to be (in more ways than one).

09 Those Fossilized Footprints in Kansas

Historically, geologists and paleontologists have named individual units of rock based in part on the distinct groupings of fossils they contain. These names are used here initially for descriptive purposes, without assuming any specific interpretation of the age of the earth.

My strict young-earth creationist position began seriously to unravel in the summer of 1982.   A year into my graduate studies, I was invited by Dr. Robert R. Reisz at the University of Toronto to join his field crew quarrying in Pennsylvanian-Period sedimentary rocks near Garnett, Kansas.

We were searching for the fossilized remains of pelycosaurs (mammal-like reptiles, a group to which the well-known sail-backed Dimetrodon belongs). Their skeletons were preserved in fine-grained and very thinly laminated (bedded) siltstones.

The Pennsylvanian-period pelycosaur quarry near Garnett, Kansas as it appeared in May of 1982. Photo courtesy of R. R. Reisz.

As we chiseled and split our way down through the layers, we found the fossilized remains of both plants and fish. In addition to these, we exposed many layers that preserved the fossilized footprints and trackways of both large and small tetrapods, i.e. four-footed animals.

A stylized representation of seven thin layers of sedimentary rock preserved near Garnett, Kansas. In addition to plant remains, fossilized footprints and trackways of both small and large terrestrial animals are common and preserved on many layers. The largest footprints are approximately four inches wide. The layers are fine-grained and thinly laminated, attesting to the calm environmental conditions that prevailed during their deposition. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

Fossilized trackways, impressions, footprints, burrows or other markings left by once-living organisms are referred to as trace fossils. We collected many of these trace fossils, since much can be learned about how an animal moves, among other things, by studying the traces it leaves behind.

A series of small footprints crosses this small slab of sedimentary rock from Garnett. Each footprint is about one inch long. The weight of the small lizard-like animals was sufficient to deform the soft mud, indicating that they were not submerged under water when the tracks were made. Photo by. S. Godfrey.

These trace fossils really got in our way, however, because they slowed down our efforts to reach for the fossils Dr. Reisz was really after. They got in my way personally as well. It would be difficult for me to overstate the impact these simple fossilized footprint impressions had upon me. In retrospect, I don’t think anything else I have ever seen has so profoundly changed my life.

If all sedimentary rocks, and the fossils within them, were the result of the Flood, how, I wondered, could these fossil footprints have been made? All living land-dwelling animals were supposed to have been drowned in the Flood (except those on the ark, of course). Certainly none were walking around underwater leaving footprints! The trace fossils I was seeing had to have been made after the Flood, or perhaps even before it. It was forcefully obvious to me that not all sedimentary rocks came about as a result of the Flood.

How, then, could anyone know which sedimentary layers were the result of a world-wide deluge, and which resulted from local or global pre- or post-flood phenomena? Posed with this quandary, I began to accumulate literature back at McGill on the occurrence of track or trace fossils in other parts of the world. One of the final nails in the coffin of “flood geology” came for me when I realized that fossil tracks and traces made by terrestrial animals occur at countless levels throughout sedimentary rock formations all around the world.

There was no conceivable way to account for the occurrence of all of these animal trackways in rocks that had been deposited by a Flood which was supposed to have killed all the animals capable of making the trackways. Trace fossils don’t sort hydrodynamically or by ecological zonations! Footprints of terrestrial animals are made when the mud or other soft sediments they are stepping in form the outer-most layer of the earth’s surface. To be preserved and incorporated into the fossil record, an existing footprint must be covered very “carefully” under calm environmental conditions, not those characterizing a global flood.

The existence of multiple footprint layers in one location would demand the fortuitous combination of animals walking over plastic (soft deformable) sediments, followed by the burial of those footprints by sediments under conditions that would not destroy them in the process of burial. This process would have to have repeated itself at least as many times are there were distinct layers of footprints in one area.

Animal trackways are preserved by the fortuitous combination of live animals walking over soft sediments, followed by the burial of the footprints by additional sediments under conditions that will not destroy the delicate footprints in the process. These conditions exist on muddy tidal flats or meandering riverbanks, where rising and falling water levels with little or no wave action can cover the footprints with thin layers of sediment. Here an amphibian sprawls its way across a mud flat.
A pelycosaur makes another trackway in the same area as the earlier amphibian. The pelycosaur’s footprints are separated from the buried amphibian trackway by the amount of time it took to deposit the intervening layers of sediment.
A dinosaur crosses the same area after the pelycosaur trackway has similarly been buried, leaving ephemeral footprints that may or may not be preserved. Illustrations by S. Godfrey.

Furthermore, different kinds of animal tracks appear at different levels in the geologic column. For example, we don’t find moose tracks running all the way up through the geologic column, as we might expect if these trace fossils were made as these animals ran for higher ground during the opening days of Noah’s Flood.

If I knew only about trace fossils and had no other evidence for the great antiquity of the earth, I would still be able to conclude confidently that the world’s sedimentary rocks were not the product of one gigantic, year-long flood. The presence of these delicate footprint fossils also proved to me that fossilization was not necessarily the result of a catastrophic event.

I often thought in those days of the analogy that had come to me years earlier between layers of snow along the side of the road and layers of sedimentary rock. Years later, I observed footprint fossils on layers that also preserved fossil mud cracks. The cracks proved that these were sun-baked sediments, which could hardly have been formed during Noah’s Flood!

Footprint fossils from Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, Canada. Mud cracks crisscross the surface of this sample. Fossilized footprints of land animals on mud-cracked sediments are incompatible with the conditions demanded by a single global flood. To suggest that these kinds of fossils must therefore have formed either before or after Noah’s Flood is to ignore the fact that they occur throughout the portion of the geologic column that preserves the remains of all multi-cellular land animals. Photo by S. Godfrey.