21 Rain shadows

Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t provide a road map to the complex process that has produced biological diversity. We have to figure it out ourselves. But just because something is complex, this doesn’t mean  it can’t happen naturally. It just means that there is a greater number of variables that need to be ‘satisfied’ for it to occur. But so what? Satisfy those variables, and it will happen.

Many patterns that are complex and highly unlikely (or at least seemingly so, for as long as we are ignorant of the workings of their natural mechanisms) develop as a result of the interplay of natural variables. For example, if we didn’t know that a host of natural variables governs the formation of rain, we’d be at a loss to explain the existence of “rain shadows.” (That is, orographic precipitation, the phenomenon whereby a much greater volume of rain falls on the windward side of a mountain range than on its leeward side.)

In our state of meteorological ignorance, we might ask, “What are the chances that rain would, in its vast majority, only fall on one side of a mountain range?” I believe we’d conclude that it would be impossible for this phenomenon to happen without God’s direct involvement. No amount of time and chance could bring about that result.

However, if we knew and understood the specific meteorological conditions that must be satisfied for rain shadows to occur, that knowledge would dispel our ignorance, and we would no longer need to appeal to the mysterious workings of God to provide an answer. Consequently, and without deliberately rejecting God, we would come to realize that rain shadows are a natural result of the way the world works. One could still choose to believe that God was involved, but that belief would remain within the realm of faith, because scientifically, God’s involvement could never be proven scientifically.

From a scientific perspective, rain formation is ateleological. That is, the mechanisms that cause it to rain do not have the foresight to know that that is what they will accomplish. These forces of nature are not deliberately working towards a specific outcome, and yet highly distinctive and conspicuously non-random precipitation patterns develop.

But how can rain, without guidance from God, “know” to fall only on one side of the mountain? If the forces of nature that cause it to rain are blind, how then do they accomplish the will of God?   This is, of course, a meaningless question within the realm of science. A person of faith might claim that God is not frustrated by this kind of blindness. And so it is with evolution. Therefore, the rain analogy is a good argument against the need for teleology within the scientific realm when explaining the origins of biological diversity.

The northern reach of the Atacama Desert, in parts of which rainfall has never been recorded. An extreme example of a rain shadow. Photo by S. Godfrey.

From this analogy, on which I continued to meditate in the days and months that followed, I concluded that I was free to take seriously the thesis that life in all its complexity and historical diversity could be the result of the interaction of many variables and processes in nature. Evolution, in other words (contrary to what I was taught and believed while growing up), wasn’t devised specifically to deny the existence of God, any more than the science of meteorology was. It developed like any other branch of science, as biologists, paleontologists, and geologists sought to “subdue the earth,” that is, to make sense of it and provide a natural explanation for what they observed. I felt as though a huge field of study had opened up to me.

Over the past 200 years, the work of paleontologists has given us a much clearer picture of the many bizarre and wonderful organisms that have lived on earth over the course of its 4.5 billion year history. I now rejoice in being able to have a part in the study of fossils. For me, the question of the origin of biological diversity no longer necessarily carries with it any theological baggage. It is simply a scientific question. Put it another way, the question of origins is only as theological as is the origin of rain.

I have come to the end of my story without having said anything about the natural mechanisms of evolution. Clearly, an understanding of these mechanisms was not the stimulus for this endeavor, and quite frankly, I don’t really care one way or another what they might turn out to be. (I understand the broad strokes of the current theory of evolution. Whether the scientific understanding of the mechanisms within that theory will change is another story.)

Rather, my goal has been to highlight the evidence that convinced me that young-earth creationism was untenable, and that there was good reason to look for comprehensible natural mechanisms that could account for the diversity of life through time. The result of my pilgrimage in understanding is that I am at liberty to study organisms past and present with a view towards, among other things, adding to our understanding of how life’s diversity came to be.

If, however, after becoming engaged in the enterprise, I find that I am dissatisfied with the natural mechanisms that have been proposed to account for any aspect of the evolutionary process, science offers its practitioners the luxury of being able to propose a better suite of natural mechanisms to account for evolution or any other natural phenomenon. This dissatisfaction must always push a scientist to propose a better explanation; it would be intellectually lazy, and unscientific, to claim that it simply must have happened as a result of direct, supernatural intervention by God.

I will remember my years in Drumheller as having marked that time in my life when I laid aside the anti-evolution tenets of young-earth creationism. However, there remained one major problem. If the Genesis creation account was not a literal telling of how things came to be the way they are, then what was it about? I had to know!

I was unwilling to leave that tension unresolved indefinitely, even though I had wrestled with it for nearly 10 years. Knowing that my brother-in-law, Chris Smith, had moved from a literalist interpretation to a new understanding of what the first chapters of Genesis were about, I went to him for help. As a result of his contribution to this book, many lengthy discussions, and a study of biblical cosmology, I now have a substantially different understanding of the intent and message of the Genesis creation account. But I will let him tell his part of the story, in the posts that follow.

20 Atheistic Meteorology or Divine Rain?

Most of my objections to the notion that biological diversity could have resulted from continuous, long-operating natural processes vanished while I was working on dinosaurs in Drumheller, Alberta. Ironically, the final vestiges of the old paradigm were not shed as a direct result of studying dinosaurs, but rather because a simple yet far-reaching analogy occurred to me.

The Bible states clearly that it was God who sent rain, at least in ancient times, on the land of Palestine. In other words, the Bible attributes to the action of God something that we currently understand to be the result of natural processes. This being the case, why would it be wrong to consider the possibility that biological diversity, which the Bible also attributes to the action of God, could similarly have come about as a result of naturally operating processes?

When this idea first came to me, I reached for my New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible one evening while seated at home in my basement office. As I perused the many references that attributed precipitation to the action of God, I wondered what part a person of faith should consider God to play in sending rain. Furthermore, what part, if not all, of meteorology should we not bother studying, because therein lies the domain of God, a realm beyond scientific scrutiny?

As I began to grasp the implications of this analogy and its logical conclusions, I realized that it would have as profound an impact upon my understanding of biological creation as had the discovery of fossilized trackways in Garnett, Kansas upon my understanding of the age of the earth. I had been deeply disappointed by young earthers when I realized the implications of trace fossils. As I contemplated the Bible’s claim that God sends rain, and the development of the science of meteorology, once again I became angry and frustrated, both with creationists and with myself, for our lack of consistency when it came to Biblical interpretation.

I realized at that time that we were content to let natural processes account for precipitation. But when it came to the origin of biological diversity, we were adamant that no natural processes could or would ever be found to account for something the Bible attributed to the actions of God.

When I espoused the creationist paradigm, I did not object to the science of meteorology! But I should have, because there can be no doubt that, according to the Bible, it is God who “sends rain upon the face of the earth.” (This claim is made in Gen. 7:4, Lev. 26:4, Deut. 11:14, I Kings 17:14, Job 5:10, and Ps. 147:8, among many other places.) Are these references to miraculous interventions by God to send rain, or are they descriptions of natural occurrences? The text in Deuteronomy 11:14, at least, seems to indicate that these are the expected, naturally caused rains that God is sending: “that He may give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil.”

Our observations indicate that rain formation in the Middle East does not differ in essence from rain formation elsewhere. So the Bible is not speaking of “divine” rains that are an exception to whatever we might learn about rain formation elsewhere. Not unexpectedly, therefore, we do not have to evoke the miraculous to account for rainfall in that small part of the world.

As observations and empirical meteorological data were collected in a systematic way over time and hypotheses were tested, then either accepted or rejected, an understanding of the natural mechanisms involved in the process of rain formation started to become known. We now understand that, among others, an interplay of the following factors contribute to the formation of rain: the influx and absorption of solar energy, the inclination of the earth’s axis and rate of rotation, patterns of atmospheric circulation, adiabatic processes, cloud formation, oceanic currents, positioning of continents, topography of land masses, bodies of water, and plant biomass.

Sky at sunset on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by S. Godfrey.

If none of this came to us from a close reading of the Bible, but rather from a careful study of nature, then we should reasonably expect to have to study nature at least as closely to learn anything about the mechanisms that generated biological diversity, especially in light of the fact that the Bible is also silent on the natural mechanisms of evolution. And if life is more complex than weather, then we should further expect to have to study it a good bit longer to answer the many more questions it will pose.

Thanks to the science of meteorology, we now have a remarkable understanding of the natural processes involved in the formation of rain. But what has been the response of Fundamentalist Christianity to these findings, in view of the fact that the Bible claims that it is God who sends rain?

As far as I know, none! But aren’t meteorologists discovering the mechanisms by which we can account for the natural origin of rain in the same way biologists continue to work on resolving the mechanisms whereby we can also account for biological diversity?  It seemed to me, based on the expectation young-earth creationists place on the creation account in Genesis, that in order to be consistent in their interpretation, they ought to claim that no amount of study will ever yield the mechanisms to account for the natural formation of rain.

In fact, the collection of data or production of meteorological theories would constitute a denial, by meteorologists, that it is God who sends rain and ultimately that He exists.  I knew of no court battles over demands by “Biblical Meteorologists” for equal time in science classes to teach that God alone sends rain. I began to ask church friends if there would be any difference between a theistic or atheistic meteorologist, in terms of the mechanisms they could or would discover to account for the natural formation of precipitation. No one suggested that there would be.

So how have Christians reconciled meteorology with the Bible’s clear message that God is responsible for the production of rain? The Bible claims that God sends rain about as many times as it claims that He created the earth’s living creatures. So why would we take exception with attempts to discover and describe the natural processes by which God creates organisms, but not object to the study of the natural processes whereby He sends rain?

Is it that organisms are far too complex and varied anatomically for life to have evolved via natural means, unlike the (supposedly) less complex patterns and processes observed within the meteorological realm? If this claim is made, is it not fear in disguise, taking refuge in natural complexity, hoping that ignorance thereof will defend and protect the position?

In light of the fact that scientific inquiry continues at a feverish pace to dispel ignorance vis-à-vis natural complexity in all its forms, that would seem like a dangerous place to make a stand.  If the mechanisms of evolution are complex, it just means that we have to work harder at figuring them out. Once that’s done, it’s done!

19 What part of creation was still solely the domain of God?

So maybe no originally created “kind” boundaries had been bridged! Maybe paleontologists, in describing and naming different genera and/or species of closely similar fossils, were actually just describing different or extreme genetic variants within one of the original created kinds. If so, similar species should actually be expected to occur close together in the fossil record, because they would all belong to one so-called “Genesis kind” that had been specially created at a given time.

So I was left wondering: Did God really create similar species instantaneously at about the same time, geologically speaking. Or did He only create “kinds,” from which descendant species arose by way of a continuous genealogy, the result of descent with modification, the natural outcome of the processes we now call evolution?

As appealing as this second possibility was, I recognized that to embrace it would be to take another significant step away from my creationist origins. Arguing that what paleontologists describe as closely similar species or genera are really just variations within a created kind meant accepting both evolution within a species (micro-evolution) and the evolution of new species (macro-evolution). This meant, in turn, accepting the majority of the natural mechanisms by which evolutionists believe all of life developed. Grouping species and genera into an overarching “kind” did not change the reality of the natural mechanisms involved in their origins. A rose by any other name . . .

This position also posed many vexing questions as I thought about its practical implications. If, as I was now willing to grant, the earth was very old, how long might a given “kind” have existed? Could five million, or ten million, or a hundred million years of descent with modification all be grouped together within a single “kind”? If a kind admittedly displays anatomical variation, at what point does one decide that its descendants are now so unlike the purported originally created kind that they must be considered a different “kind”?

In other words, where does one kind end and the next kind begin? For example, what if there was greater anatomical variation between extreme members of a created kind than between anatomically similar kinds? Would this possibility not exist? If God had created some species instantaneously and others arose by natural processes, how could I distinguish between the two? Could I expect at some point to be able to document evolution within a biblical “kind,” but also recognize by some currently unknown means that the “dawn” members of a kind were sufficiently different to evidence their supernatural and instantaneous origin?

Composite restoration of the skeleton of a paddling Rodhocetus kasrani. This early protocetid whale is intermediate in its skeletal morphology between fully terrestrial hoofed animals and fully aquatic whales. What created kind did it belong to? The terrestrial artiodactyl kind or the aquatic cetacean kind? (Illustration by Doug Boyer in “Origin of Whales from Early Artiodactyls,” Science, 21 Sep 2001.)

Could we identify these created “mother-kinds” and the approximate time of their supernatural origin? If there was a point in the fossil record at which I believed God had created a “mother-kind” instantaneously, and I published that belief, how would I respond if, subsequent to my publication, an intermediate form or an older, closely similar species was discovered? How would I then describe God’s involvement in that creative process?

If I accepted that there could be evolution within a species (so-called micro-evolution), and also that new species could arise within the limits of a created kind (macro-evolution), had I not already accepted the central tenets of evolutionary biology? What part of creation was still solely the domain of God, if everything required by evolution could have happened naturally? What part of evolutionary theory did I really object to? Was it that evolutionary theory proposed that entirely new genetic information could be introduced into a species, thus extending its morphological boundaries? Would I object to this because it seemingly removed God from being a necessary link in the creative process?

In addition to these scientific questions, there were many questions of biblical interpretation. On what basis could one claim, from a reading of the Bible, that there were limits to genetic variability? Were there really Biblical prohibitions of genetic change over time beyond that within a “kind”? Why was the phrase “according to its own kind” understood as a prohibition of change in the morphology of a kind? Was this simply to keep including God in the process by which new creatures were introduced? Could new genetic variability only come about miraculously? Could it not come about by what a scientist would consider as having happened naturally?

As I read Genesis, it seemed to say not that God had created “kinds” with a certain but unspecified degree of genetic variability, but rather that God was very pleased with everything He had made, just as He had made it. So was this really a biblical position?

No matter how I explained them, I had to acknowledge two indisputable characteristics of the fossil record. First, there were bridging morphologies between major groups of organisms, such as dinosaurs and birds. Second, it was also true that similar organisms were more likely to occur close together in geologic time than they were to be separated by vast amounts of time. These two realities were pushing me in the direction of admitting that there was reasonable cause to look for natural mechanisms that could account for the patterns I was seeing in the fossil record. Even if these patterns were not the result of evolution, I now had to admit that their evolutionary flavor was so strong that I could no longer fault anyone for trying to discover whether natural mechanisms could account for these observations.

The idea that the origin/creation of life and its diversity could have come about naturally, even if that meant natural processes superintended by God, had never been presented to me as a credible option. Therefore, and much to my chagrin, I felt as though God, as proximal agent in the creation of life, was being removed from the creative process. This belief was too fundamental a conviction for me to waltz away from without emotional consequences. Nevertheless, there came a time when I decided to see how far I could take this natural mechanism idea.

These two characteristics of the fossil record became the third stepping-stone in my pilgrimage. (Not that I had wanted to go anywhere to begin with!) Fossil footprint and trace fossils in general had forced me to concede that the Earth was very much older that 10,000 years. Changing suites of organisms through time had forced me to acknowledge that not every “created kind” had lived at the same time, and that no “kind” had lived on Earth for as long as life had existed on this planet. And thirdly, bridging morphologies and adaptive radiations had forced me to admit that life looked evolutionary in its overall expression.

If God had not created every species ex nihilo, then clearly He had limited His creative potential by working with what He had at hand and not doing whatever whenever. On the other hand, if God had created every species ex nihilo, then here too, He had not allowed them to live on earth for as long as they could have existed on this planet! Furthermore, He had not made organisms using every possible anatomically functional permutation.

So maybe there were other self-imposed constraints within which God had decided to work. Did these include creating by way of naturally operating mechanisms, such as natural selection acting on genetic variation within a species?

18 Were natural mechanisms at work within the creative process?

I knew first hand, as a result of my own thesis research, that the oldest four-legged vertebrates, those from the Devonian Period, were more fish-like than any other known tetrapod. But were the most ancient tetrapods really more similar than more recent tetrapods to an entirely extinct group of Devonian fish (called elpistostegid fish) that evolutionists consider to be their ancestors? Or had I been duped by the power of suggestion?

I came to the conclusion that they really were more similar when I realized that if tetrapods had become extinct at the end of the Devonian Period, and if God had not introduced any others (except humans to ponder such things), then we would group Devonian tetrapods together with elpistostegid fish in a system of classification based on overall similarity.*

The same can be said for the earliest birds. If birds had become extinct at the end of the Jurassic Period, they would never have attained the anatomical diversity and thus the taxonomic stature that this amazing group of vertebrates presently commands. The oldest birds are nothing more than variations on the small carnivorous dinosaurian theme and should be grouped with these animals accordingly.

I did not intend to sound blasphemous, but I could not help but think that if all species had been created instantaneously, but at different times in Earth’s long geologic past, it would have appeared as though God lacked imagination, because the anatomies of “new” species could be observed to be simply modified versions of existing ones. At the very least, one would have to agree that when God started to create tetrapod species instantaneously in the Devonian, He created them with a remarkable number of elpistostegalian fish-like features. Later, as He continued to create different species of tetrapods throughout the Carboniferous Period, they increasingly lost their fish-like characteristics.

From my waning creationist perspective, I could not think of any reason why the oldest known tetrapods would have had to appear when they did in the fossil record, resembling in so many ways a contemporaneous group of fish. God could have introduced tetrapods at a time and with an anatomy so unlike any other living organism that no one would ever have dreamed of an evolutionary connection between these two groups.

Toothed birds and ancient fish-like tetrapods were not exceptions, but rather good examples of a pattern clearly displayed by the fossil record, once an individual was ready to accept that this record had been laid down over a very long period of time. These kinds of quandaries stayed with me and started pecking away at my conviction that there were no bridging anatomies between major groups of organisms and that all species that had ever lived had been created instantaneously by divine fiat.

I am always amazed how the full impact of some knowledge can be shrouded for years until one day, triggered by who knows what, wham! it hits ya right between the eyes. I had come to realize that different species of organisms characterized different sections of the stratigraphic column (illustrated in this post). But the pattern within the fossil record is even more telling, thought it took me very much longer to appreciate the significance of the fact that two anatomically similar species are much more likely to occur close together in time than they are to be far removed from each other in the geologic column. The non-random distribution of anatomically similar organisms in time was an observation so obvious I could but wonder why it had taken me so long to see it.

For example, we only find Greererpeton living on Earth during the Carboniferous Period. Animals anatomically very similar to Greererpeton, such as Colosteus and Pholidogaster (all three genera are grouped together in the Family Colosteidae), also occur close by in geological time. We do not find colosteids evenly spaced throughout the geologic column.

Anatomically similar species, much more often than not, appear in the fossil record at about the same time, or in rapid and sometimes overlapping succession. The rapid appearance and close clustering in time of similar organisms is referred to as adaptive radiation. The diversity of duck-billed dinosaurs, a good number of which I had seen in Alberta, is known only from the Cretaceous Period. There have been two species of elephants on the earth, and anatomically they are very similar. But they both live in modern times, one in Africa and the other in Asia. God could have created one of them to live during the Triassic period and saved one for today. But He did not. And fossil hominids—why are they only found in rocks deposited relatively recently? I could list hundreds of other groups of organisms that match this non-random distribution in geologic time.**

If, as the fossil record shows, anatomically similar species may overlap or closely succeed each other in time, then if God was creating every species individually, He preferred grouping similar species together in time. Obviously, God could have created anatomically similar species ex nihilo close together in time. But why do it with such consistency?

But perhaps what I was seeing in the fossil record, at least in the case of closely similar species, was not really “evolution,” but just variation within a created “kind.” If this was true, then maybe God had not created each species separately, but had rather seeded Earth with a smaller number of “kinds” at different times, from which all varieties later sprung.

Years earlier, when I attended the creationist conference in Montreal at which Dr. Gish spoke, it was suggested that the created kinds described in Genesis might not be synonymous with today’s definition of a species, and that our present notion of a species might thus be too restrictive. Perhaps a created kind could encompass all the species that we currently place within a genus, or even all the species and genera within a taxonomic family.

There was a certain appeal for me in the idea that some species could have evolved, because it reduced some of the strain between creationists and evolutionists by introducing natural mechanisms into the creative process. Furthermore, the notion that there were limits to “evolution,” that created “kind” boundaries could not be crossed (organisms could only reproduce “according to their kind”), was also comforting, because it demanded the existence of God to account for the origin of new “kinds” or organisms.

*I will often refer to anatomical similarities between organisms. Historically, overall anatomical similarity was used to classify organisms into the Linnaean hierarchical taxonomic system. However, classifying organisms this way does not necessarily match the hierarchical pattern seen if evolution occurred. Evolutionary biologists now group organisms together on the basis of shared derived characteristics. However, without first showing that there is good reason to look for evolutionary mechanisms to account for overall anatomical similarity, it would be pointless to speak of shared derived characteristics to a creationist, since they imply descent with modification. Creationists do however recognize overall similarity, so that is as far as I will get in this book.

**So-called “living fossils” do not invalidate this fundamental and overwhelming pattern of the fossil record. So-called “living fossils” are simply extant organisms, such as Limulus (the horseshoe crab) or Latimeria (the coelacanth), which are very conservative in their anatomy and have changed little over geologic time. Proof of this slow rate of change is found in the specimens that occur at different times in the fossil record. But these organisms first occur close together with anatomically similar species. (Incidentally, whereas other living fossils are known from fossils, neither Limulus nor Latimeria are known from the fossil record.)

Although it’s impossible to reduce the complex morphologies of organisms to one dimension (horizontal axis), the intent of this illustration is to show that anatomically similar species are much more likely to occur close together in time (vertical axis) than they are to be separated by vast blocks of geologic time (of which only a short segment is shown). Numbers 1 through 5 represent five different groups of similar species. Each line segment represents one species. Group 1, for example, includes four similar but extinct species that are known from roughly the same geologic time (like the exclusively Cretaceous Period duck-billed dinosaurs, of which there are many more than four extinct species). Group 5 also includes four similar species, but they are all far removed, both in time and morphologically, from those in Group 1. Recognizing this pattern in the fossil record, a clever paleontologist interested in finding new fossil species belonging to any group will search in fossiliferous rocks both in and around the geologic time in which other members of the given group have been found!


17 Why did the oldest birds have teeth?

Now that I accepted that the Earth was old, the domino effect of a crumbling paradigm brought to me another problem. How many times had God created new kinds of organisms, and when had He done so? Was the creation account in Genesis actually describing a re-creation after one or more previous cataclysms, as some old-earth creationists suppose, following the “Gap Theory”? (A future post will offer a discussion of that theory.) If so, did it matter theologically how many re-creations there had been?

On the basis of what I knew of the fossil record, there had never been a time when all living things had become extinct, followed by the introduction of an entirely new suite of hitherto unknown species everywhere on Earth. Even during those times of mass extinction, such as at the end of the Permian Period (225 million years ago) and the Cretaceous Period (65 million years ago), there were some species that had clearly survived, because their fossilized remains were found both below and above the time of the mass extinction event.

I did not entertain for long the only alternative explanation: that there had been a total extinction of life on Earth, but that God had immediately made identical re-creations of some of the creatures that had been there before the extinction event. In other words, I reasoned that when two organisms assigned to the same species were encountered at different horizons in the stratigraphic column, it was more likely that they were related by genealogy (they were homologous) than that they had been created independently at different times (that is, only analogous). Therefore, I concluded that no matter how great the catastrophe, life in one form or another had been on our planet continuously from the day God had first introduced it to the present.

If some species had survived extinction events, then it seemed reasonable to me that at least some of these species had been around longer than those that had become extinct. Unless, of course, God, knowing when they would become extinct, had staggered the times of their creation so as to ensure that each species spent equal time on Earth before becoming extinct. Having never met anyone willing to defend this hypothesis, and having no reason to accept it myself, I opted to believe that different species had indeed survived for differing lengths of time.

Although some species may have coincidentally existed for exactly the same length of time, there was no a priori reason to believe that any should have lasted equally long. Unwilling to accept the origin of a species by natural means, I concluded that God had introduced new species ex nihilo into suitable geographic areas throughout the ages, the timing of which had not necessarily followed the even meter of a metronome. But the fossil record did not support the notion of multiple complete extinctions followed by unknown lengths of time after which God introduced entirely new global biotas. I would have been content to believe that God had miraculously created every species instantaneously at different times in the geologic past, except that I could not help but notice the lines paleontologists were drawing connecting fossils so as to describe evolutionary lineages.

My sojourn at McGill in the early-to-mid 1980’s coincided with a number of court battles in the United States over the teaching of evolution in schools and the demands for equal time for creationism in science curricula. At a public lecture given at Concordia University in Montreal, Stephen Jay Gould described some of the courtroom “debates” he’d had with Duane T. Gish and other young-earth creationists. One of the questions Gould had asked the creationists was, “Why did the oldest birds have teeth?” His implication was that they had inherited teeth from their dinosaurian ancestors. Was this not a powerful argument for the truth of evolution?

A Mesozoic toothed bird, Ichthyornis first described by 19th century vertebrate paleontologist O. C. Marsh. (Public domain: F. Berger, illustrator; E. Chrisand, lithographer; 1880)

Because I understood the young-earth creationist paradigm, I knew that this argument would not hold much sway over someone who believed that all organisms that had ever lived on Earth were here together only about 6000 years ago. A young-earth creationist would deny that the fossils in question were old in the first place. They would claim that birds with and without teeth had all lived at the same time, so it was meaningless within their paradigm for Gould to ask them this question.

However, now that I knew of the great age of the Earth, and that the earliest birds did have teeth, I could no longer easily dismiss such questions. Why were the oldest birds so much more like some small theropod dinosaurs in their anatomy than they were to living birds? (I knew this was true from the literature I had gathered on Archaeopteryx a few years earlier at Bishop’s University.)

Perhaps paleontologists were wrong in describing as evolutionary what was really the result of the fortuitous burial of similar-looking animals at about the same stratigraphic level in the geologic column. In their desperation to link disparate groups of organisms together in illusory evolutionary lineages, paleontologists may just have been deceived into making the dinosaur-bird connection. Or perhaps the similarities and differences in these so-called Mesozoic feathered dinosaurs were just extreme variations within a dinosaur-bird-like created “kind.” Maybe the breadth of genetic variability within a Mesozoic toothed bird-kind included varieties that were toothless.

These were the possibilities that occurred to me as I tried to come to grips with Gould’s question and the larger phenomenon it illustrated.

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?

15 I wanted to see proof in the ground for myself

I was now willing to believe that the different suites of fossilized organisms to be found in a given place had indeed lived at distinct times in the geologic past. But determining that one of two scenarios (“same place, different times”) is much more probable, or even that one of them (“same time, different places”) is highly improbable, still does not prove what actually happened. This can only be determined from field observations.

In other words, I wanted to see proof in the ground for myself. It would not suffice to observe that different suites of fossils characterize sedimentary rocks in geographically separate areas; after all, we see different assemblages of plants and animals living in different areas today. Rather, I needed to see differing suites of fossils stacked one on top of another in the same area, preferably somewhere without complex faulting and folding induced by mountain building.

In addition to seeing several distinct suites of organisms preserved in one place, the icing on this geologic cake for me would consist of finding fossils preserved in different layers right where they had once lived and died. Paleontologists refer to these kinds of fossils as being preserved in a “life position.” Coral reefs, clams in their feeding burrows, plants rooted in paleo-soils, clutches of eggs preserved in their nests, and very delicate fossils too fragile to have moved any distance from where they lived are good examples of organisms preserved in a life position.

To find these kinds of fossils at several different levels within the geologic column would establish definitively that fossilized organisms are found in distinct groups because they lived at different times. There would simply have been insufficient time during the one-year-long flood for organisms to be preserved in life positions at many different levels in one area.

Even if they survived being carried into the depositional basin, they would then have to have re-established themselves and lived for a while before becoming entombed by the next sediment-laden wave. This process would have to have repeated itself over and over again. But the accumulations of sedimentary rock in the earth are a mile deep in many places, and in some places even deeper. For 5280 feet of sediment to pile up in one year, an average depth of over 14 feet of sediment has to be added to the pile every day. (The thickness of Carboniferous strata at Joggins, Nova Scotia would require over twice that daily rate of sedimentary accumulation.) A rate of even 14 feet of sediment per day is astronomically too fast for any organism therein to be found in a true life position.

So if I could find differing suites of fossils, many of them in life position, stacked several layers high, this would prove that these organisms had lived in this same place at different times. I was aware of numerous published accounts of fossil deposits that would confirm the “same place, different times” hypothesis, including the work by George Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart on the Paris Basin, published in 1811. But I wanted to see one of these deposits first hand.

My opportunity came quite unexpectedly when, in the spring of 1989, I accepted a one-year contract position at the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology (now known as the Royal Tyrrell Museum) in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. There I became a member of the museum’s team commissioned by the Gakken and Hitachi corporations of Japan to assemble a large dinosaur exhibit.

The museum is nestled in the badlands along the Red Deer River where sediments laid down during the Late Cretaceous epoch are exposed—a dinosaur paleontologist’s dream come true.  The fossilized remains of dinosaurs continue to come to light as the relatively soft strata weather.

But while the abundance of dinosaur fossils in this area commands popular attention, there are actually many more non-dinosaurian fossils to be found there. In southern Alberta, I found a place where I could view a number of different suites of fossilized organisms buried in one vertical sequence, many of which were preserved in life positions.

The strata below Drumheller, Alberta, preserve several distinct suites of organisms that lived in this area at different times in earth’s distant past. At countless levels throughout this mile-thick accumulation of sedimentary rock, fossils are preserved right where they lived.

Approximately one mile below Drumheller, as elsewhere throughout much of southern Alberta, the fossil-bearing strata record a marine reef community from the Devonian Period. These Devonian reefs were formed by stromatoporoids (extinct sponges with massive calcareous skeletons), corals, and other marine organisms.

Although rocks from the Devonian do not surface anywhere near Drumheller, the presence of reefs is confirmed by the hundreds of exploration cores that have been drilled by resource companies searching for crude oil and natural gas. (Hundreds of producing wells encircle Drumheller.) The fossils present in these test cores indicate that at one time there were reef communities living in a shallow marine sea that covered much of southern Alberta.

Just three hours’ drive to the west of Drumheller, Devonian reefs are exposed in the Rocky Mountains. Seismic profiles and innumerable core samples taken in the search for fossil fuels have confirmed that the reef rocks one mile below Drumheller were once part of an unbroken sequence of sedimentary rocks extending to those currently exposed in the mountains.

For me, the most important feature of the fossilized reefs below Drumheller was that they were preserved in life position. That is, the organisms making up this community were preserved right where they had once lived. Reefs are massive carbonate structures that are not moved about very easily. No reef is preserved upside down, sideways, or end-on within the strata. Relative to the rocks around them, the reefs give no indication that they were picked up, moved, and redeposited in their current location.

Therefore, the sponges and corals must have lived, died, and become fossilized in one place. There are, to be sure, the fossilized remains of other marine organisms such as cephalopods and fishes that were capable of movement, and which are thus not preserved in a life position as are sessile or very slow-moving organisms. Nevertheless, these are Devonian marine organisms typically associated with the species of sponges and corals making up the reefs. Furthermore, the fossilized remains of terrestrial plants or animals are nowhere to be found in these marine fossil beds. They only preserve extinct, marine species.

The description of the various fossil-bearing formations in this area continues in the next post.