10 Time for Me to Shift My World View

So if the presence of trace fossils proved that Noah’s Flood was not the agent responsible for the formation of fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks, then when were they deposited, and how old was the earth? Could it be as old as “evolutionary” geologists claimed it to be? These questions urgently demanded an answer. I realized that far more time than young-earthers had at their disposal would be needed to account for the existence of the many trace fossil layers within vast expanses of sedimentary rock such as those in the Colorado Plateau, through which the Grand Canyon runs.

Sedimentary rock layers within the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Photo by S. Godfrey.


Geologic units in the Colorado Plateau known to preserve footprint fossils of terrestrial animals. The important feature is that footprints made by land animals occur on many layers within the same pile of sedimentary stone. These geologic units comprise thousands of vertical feet of sedimentary accumulation over thousands of square miles. Different suites of footprint fossils characterize each of the geologic periods.

I remember thinking ironically at the time that young-earth creationists could not help me satisfy my new suspicions about the age of the earth and the formation of sedimentary rocks, any more than the Flat Earth Society could help someone calculate the spherical volume of the earth. Who was left to consult?

The discovery of fossilized footprints and the sudden exponential increase in the age I was willing to grant to the earth carried with them a flood of related questions. I could not but wonder which species of animals had not been in Noah’s ark. I had to entertain the possibility that some organisms had become extinct before the Flood. But how could I know which ones, given that I knew of no way to identify which sediments had been deposited during the Flood?

If the Flood had occurred within the past 6000 years, chances were very good that none of the prehistoric animals in which I was interested would have seen the inside of the ark. Oddly enough, finding answers to questions like this no longer had any impact on, or practical significance to, my doctoral thesis, although I did spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I might salvage my exploding paradigm.

Many years later, as I read more widely on the history of the development of geology, I discovered that some 19th-century geologists had suggested that the Flood had been a quiet one, leaving no significant geological effects. They had been pushed to suggest this alternative in an attempt to preserve the historical reality of the story, while admitting that they were unable to identify global effects of Noah’s Flood. Having never seen this alternative suggested in any creationist literature, I was impressed with the ingenuity of these 19th-century geologists.

Rev. Dr. John Fleming, 1785 – 1857. Professor of Natural Philosophy at Aberdeen University. Dr. Fleming proposed that Noah’s Flood had been a tranquil one. (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh Photographic Society Collection, gifted 1987)
More importantly, this alternative, “quiet” Flood scenario made me realize that much of what is often presented as Biblical teaching does not actually come from the pages of Holy Writ. Specifically, the Bible is silent with respect to the geological effects of the Flood. In other words, nowhere in the Bible is there any reference to Noah’s Flood having laid down any sedimentary rocks, or entombing any creatures which then became fossilized. Since the Bible does not describe fossil formation, I realized, there is no way a young-earth creationist could know from the Bible when fossils formed—whether this was before, during, or after the Flood—and whether it was the result of a cataclysm or of ordinary processes.

So how had Flood Geology become so central to the young-earth paradigm, which was supposed to be based on scriptural teachings? I wondered if this might be because creationists did not want to espouse either of the two alternative explanations for fossil formation: God had created the world with fossils already in the ground, or the earth was more than 6,000 years old.

But these realizations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say actually came later in my story. The main implication for me, as I thought about the fossilized footprints I was seeing in Kansas, was that if all fossils had not come from the flood, then the earth could indeed be more than 6,000 years old. Once I entertained the notion that the earth might be old, I had to call into question all the rest of the “scientific creationist” paradigm. Why? Because it was all based on a single linchpin claim about the age of the earth. Pull out that pin and the entire system crumbles. In my case, the pin had been pulled and it was time for me to shift my world view.

11 The Tree Stumps Lined Up

What made this paradigm shift most difficult was that, in my mind, matters of eternal importance were on the line. After all, the paradigm was based on the explicit statement that the truth of the entire Bible hinged on the scientific accuracy of a literal rendering of the first chapters of Genesis. I had to suspend firm belief on a number of critical issues.

When asked at church functions how, as a paleontologist, I had worked my way through the creation/evolution debate, I had very little to say.   I was disappointed with God, and angry with young-earthers, for overlooking a physical fact so simple, yet so compelling and far-reaching in its implications, as the existence of trace fossils.

I no longer felt that I had to defend a young age for the earth. At this point in my life, I likened time to the width of a river. My narrow creationist river of 10,000 years had broken its banks and time was spreading far, far out over the flood plain. There was no telling how far the water would go. All of a sudden it didn’t matter how old the earth was! What a remarkable sense of freedom. I now had the opportunity to sort out other problems.

These discoveries had very little impact on my research, which focused on the skeletal anatomy of a Mississippian-period tetrapod, Greererpeton, a one-meter-long, salamander-like animal whose fossils are found in West Virginia.

A skeletal restoration of the Paleozoic tetrapod Greererpeton burkemorani, in dorsal and left lateral views. The length of the tail remains unknown. The scale bar is approximately four inches. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

There was virtually no impact at the time because my research was not concerned with the age of the earth, nor was it dealing directly with the mechanisms of evolution. However, one aspect of my doctoral work would later have a great impact. Greererpeton is very similar to forms known from Mississippian and Pennsylvanian rocks in the British Isles and Ohio.  The importance and significance of this observation—that very similar forms generally occur close together chronologically or temporally within the geologic timescale—only became clear to me much later. These implications will be discussed in future posts.

The following summer, I went off to explore a number of classic Carboniferous localities in Nova Scotia with my wife Chrystal and Ingrid Birker, the Redpath Museum’s paleo-technician. Some of these sites had been yielding important vertebrate fossils for over 100 years. Much of the early paleontological work had been carried out by Sir John William Dawson in the late 19th century.

It was important for me to visit these fossil outcrops because some of the fossilized animals in Nova Scotia were similar to Greererpeton. Furthermore, these sites remain important to our understanding of the flora and fauna that characterized sediments deposited during this Paleozoic period. One of our goals was to collect vertebrate fossils (essentially animals with bony skeletons), but we came away empty-handed. (Expeditions in subsequent years were much more successful.) But in spite of that disappointment, because of something else I saw there, I returned to McGill with heightened confidence in the veracity and implications of the observations I had made in Garnet, Kansas.

Our first stop was Joggins, Nova Scotia, where part of a series of sea cliffs is exposed along 40 miles of Chignecto Bay at the head of the Bay of Fundy. This site preserves some approximately 14,000 feet of late Mississippian through to middle Pennsylvanian strata. The initial interest in Joggins was economic. The coal seams there were mined extensively during the 19th and early 20th century. The presence of coal ensured that these rocks were mapped and studied in great detail.

But for paleontologists, Joggins was and still is an exciting place to explore because the bones of ancient amphibians and the oldest known reptiles are most often preserved inside the fossilized stumps of prehistoric trees. The preservation of tetrapods within these once-hollow stumps is most unusual. Only at Joggins and Florence, Nova Scotia, have fossilized animals ever been found within upright fossilized stumps.

As I walked along the rocky beach at Joggins one foggy afternoon, I began to spot the stumps of several extinct types of plants standing upright in the sediments.

An upright fossilized tree stump exposed at the base of the sea cliffs at Joggins. This photo was taken in 1987, several years after my first visit there, when a fellow McGill paleontology graduate student and I returned to explore. We had a collecting permit issued by the Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, and we did not remove the stump. Photo by I. Birker.

This, in addition to the vastness of the sedimentary accumulation, was very impressive. Although I was looking for bones, ironically the discovery I made was an observation of much greater importance to me at that time.

Some young-earth creationists, like Harold Coffin, whom I went to hear years later, were claiming that places like Joggins, where fossilized trees were seen to pass upright through the surrounding sedimentary rocks, provided powerful evidence that the world had been overtaken suddenly by a global flood. I had once believed this to be true.

However, after visiting Joggins, I knew first hand that it could not be. The fossilized stumps were not randomly distributed in various positions throughout the now-tilted strata, as they would have been if they’d been caught up in a gigantic flood and dumped there. Rather, they were seen to occur at distinct horizons. The tree stumps lined up along clearly visible, once-horizontal, beds.

How we’d expect the stumps to look if they’d been swept in by a flood.
How the stumps actually look. Illustrations by S. Godfrey.

12 The Gloves Come Off

Random placement of fossilized tree stumps.
Fossilized tree stumps in life-position in successively drown forest horizons.

Had there been only one level at which fossilized stumps were found, a young-earth flood geologist might have been able to make the claim that these trees represented those that were growing at the time of the Deluge, and that they were entombed right where they were growing during the opening days of the calamity. (Although this claim could have been shown to be erroneous on the basis of other fossils, not to mention the problem of having to account for the origin of the thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks below the lower-most forest horizon.)

But at Joggins, there is not just one forest level, there are as many as 60 horizons on which erect fossil trees occur. The creationist explanation is that the trees were carried into the Joggins area by rising flood waters, and as the trees became water-logged and sank, they retained their vertical orientation as sediments piled up around them. The fatal flaw in this argument is that the stumps at Joggins are not randomly distributed throughout the vertical expanse of sedimentary rock. Rather, the exposed stumps are clustered into far fewer distinct forest horizons. How would waterlogged trees know to settle out of the floodwaters in a series of coordinated drops?

Furthermore, all the trees are preserved right side up. In addition to which, the vast majority preserve their root system within the sediments in which they were growing. If the single flood hypothesis were correct, then I would expect some of the trees to have been entombed upside down.   To my knowledge, no fossilized tree at Joggins has ever been found upside down!

The take-home message for me was that there was no possible way that these stumps had drifted into Joggins during a single, worldwide, Mount St. Helens-like catastrophe. All the stumps on one level represented the remnants of a forest that was drowned when it became flooded as sediments accumulated in this vast depositional basin. Following this rapid sedimentary deposition, and the return of dry ground, a new forest had taken root. In time, it, too, was flooded and killed by a ‘catastrophic’ accumulation of sediment. The cycle repeated itself many times.

A footprint trace fossil of the giant, millipede-like arthropod Arthropleura, preserved at Joggins. Photo by S. Godfrey.

I recall discussing the implications of these multiple forest levels with my wife, right there on the beach. As if the tree stumps were not enough, over the surface of a huge slab of sandstone that had fallen from the cliff I was able to trace the fossilized trackway of perhaps the largest terrestrial invertebrate living on earth at that time, a giant, millipede-like arthropod known as Arthropleura.

Life restoration of the six-foot-long Arthropleura.

I learned later that in 1894, Sir William Dawson had published a review of the different kinds of fossil footprints known from Joggins and elsewhere in Nova Scotia. The fossilized trackways at different levels within these strata were, for the most part, made when the land was not flooded. The varied composition of the sediments at Joggins attested to deposition under a wide variety of conditions, over a lengthy period of time. The non-random distribution of the stumps in the sedimentary rocks, the fact that no stump was preserved in an inverted position, and the presence of footprint fossils convinced me that this vast expanse of rock had not been deposited by one global flood.

After we had traveled southward across the peninsula to Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, and viewed the collection of trace fossils assembled by Eldon George, a local fossil hound and proprietor of the Parrsboro Rock and Fossil Shop, I had to conclude that we were in a place where trace fossils were truly abundant.

By this time, I was so disillusioned by the claims of young-earthers that I rejoiced in the forceful simplicity of the conclusions to which I had come. Up until this point, I, like any good young-earth creationist, did not believe in the ability of geochemists to determine the age of the earth using radioactive isotopes. However, once footprint fossils stepped into my life, I was willing to cut geochemists a lot of slack because I did not need to be persuaded by radioactive dating that the earth was an ancient body. Trace fossils had done that.

Trace fossils enabled me, for the first time, to know something because I had seen it with my own eyes, not because someone with impressive credentials believed it, nor because I was told I had to believe it, and not even because I had read it. Footprint fossils spoke to me personally as silent witnesses to the great antiquity of this planet.

Shortly afterwards, I attended a weekend creationist conference at the Word of Life Bible Institute in Schroon Lake, New York, led by John Morris. By this time I was ready for a fight with any young-earther. During the question and answer period, the gloves came off. My wife, mother-in-law, and mother, who had all accompanied me, looked genuinely sorry that they had taken their seats next to mine. I believe they were shocked at the intensity with which I was rocking the creationist boat—if not chopping away at it. Nowadays I find that a calm, rational approach proves much more effective. But at the time, I was indignant.

In addition to objecting to what I knew could no longer be true, I was distressed that on the one hand, creationists in general would highlight scientific discoveries when they suited their agenda, yet on the other hand they heaped scorn on the same scientific endeavor and were filled with contempt when scientific findings did not mesh precisely with their expectations. I found this disturbing because I had greater expectations of those who were “of the faith.” Science is like a two-edged sword; it cuts both ways. One must always be open to the possibility that a cherished hypothesis will be shown to be wrong and no longer worth clinging to. The young-earth dilemma was that a cherished hypothesis had become linked to a theological dogma, making it doubly difficult to discard. How truly fortunate I was that those fossilized footprints in Kansas had gotten in my way.

13 Paleontologists are not “fiddling with the evidence”

As I continued my work in paleontology, other observations I was making on the nature of the fossil record began to gnaw away at the foundation of creationist belief that had been laid in my youth. Although my doctoral research focused almost exclusively on the skeletal anatomy of Greererpeton, an interesting pattern began to emerge as I compared it with similar tetrapods.

At localities elsewhere in the world where Greererpeton-like animals were known, the fossil fauna included a suite of extinct animals similar to those that had been found with Greererpeton near Greer, West Virginia. (These included acanthodians, palaeoniscoid fish, rhizodonts, lungfish, and other basal tetrapods). Beginning with this observation, I recognized a more general pattern. Wherever one Carboniferous fossil was found, one could also expect to find a whole suite of plant and/or animal fossils typical of that point in the geologic column. However, one would not find the remains of other kinds of species.

Body restorations of a very small sample of extinct animals (not to scale). One of the fundamental observations of the fossil record is that similar suites of plants and animals characterize sedimentary rocks of the same age in different places around the world. Both large and small organisms occur throughout the fossil record. Additionally, species of both fresh-water and marine communities are also preserved throughout the geologic column. (Most of these animal icons are courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada.)

For example, when collecting fossils from Carboniferous localities in Nova Scotia, we only found the remains of plants and animals, both large and small, that were typically Carboniferous. We did not find fossilized frogs, dinosaurs, elephants, or human bones. These are found only at different points in the geologic column.

In other words, what I was beginning to discover was that all different kinds of organisms are not scattered uniformly throughout the various strata of the fossil record. Any given organism will only be found with certain other organisms, and only in certain strata.

I had been led to expect otherwise. I believed, based on creationist teaching, that all of the organisms that had ever lived (or at least all of the “Genesis kinds”) were together on earth right up until Noah’s Flood. I therefore expected that, due to the intensity of the deluge, at least some fossiliferous horizons would include a host of organisms whose co-occurrence would be completely incompatible with evolutionary expectations.

I knew roughly what these expectations were. I knew that paleontologists and geologists claimed, for example, that whale and dolphin remains are known only from sedimentary rocks of the Cenozoic Era, and that they are never mixed in with marine reptiles from the Mesozoic Era, such as plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and mosasaurs. I had also heard that fossilized elephant and giraffe bones, which are also known only from the Cenozoic Era, were never found with giant sauropod dinosaur bones, which were restricted to Mesozoic strata.

Never found together? I wondered if this were true, or whether paleontologists might instead be fiddling with the evidence. Perhaps they were suppressing the knowledge of the presence of some kinds of fossils from any given locality, if those fossils posed a threat to evolutionary theory. I was therefore on the lookout for any fossils that might be conspicuously out of place with respect to their expected evolutionary time of origin and appearance within the fossil record.

Early on at McGill, I became interested in the isolated and fragmentary remains of some other vertebrates that had been collected from the quarry near Greer, West Virginia by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. These finds were too incomplete to be given formal scientific names, and remain so to this day. As I carefully removed the stone from around one of these isolated but interesting bones, it began to look more and more like the top end of a mammalian thighbone. The head of this mysterious bone had a rounded ball-like joint surface, beyond which lay several enlarged ridges for the attachment of leg muscles (so I thought), but a flattened shaft that remained embedded in the sandstone.

Left: The specimen I was extracting from the stone. Right: The hip-joint end of a typical mammalian femur (thigh bone). Illustration by S. Godfrey.

When my advisor, Dr. Carroll, saw what I was extracting from the stone, he knew what I was thinking, that I had found a mammalian femur in Carboniferous rocks. The fossilized remains of mammals were not supposed to occur in rocks that geologists and paleontologists identify as belonging to the Carboniferous Period. Fully mammalian critters were to that point known only from the Triassic Period, many, many millions of years after the end of the Carboniferous.

Needless to say, I was quite excited and began to keep detailed notes of the events leading to the discovery of this isolated yet important bone. I thought that I might have found evidence that would cause evolutionary biologists to question current theories on the origin of mammals and their supposed stratigraphic distribution. Realistically, I did not expect to upset the whole evolutionary apple cart with this revelation; nevertheless, I dearly wanted to throw a wrench into the works.

Of course I knew that to make such a claim, I would have to be absolutely certain that I did in fact have the hip-end of a mammalian femur! An error of this magnitude could end one’s paleontological career. And so I did some careful research to determine whether this bone might not belong after all to a creature that is typically found with Greererpeton-like tetrapods.

As I began to accumulate literature describing Carboniferous vertebrates, some of which are very poorly known, I soon discovered that the bone in question was derived from an enigmatic group of large-bodied predaceous fish known from other Carboniferous localities in the British Isles, Australia, and North America. This “mammalian” femur-like bone was in fact an upper arm bone (the humerus) of a rhizodontid fish.   This curious element was correctly identified once it was freed of stone and compared with more complete fossil rhizodonts in which the humerus was still attached to the “shoulder” bones.

Life-restoration of a small rhizodont fish from Scotland. The bone I extracted actually came from such a fish, not from a mammal.

I quietly destroyed my notes and breathed a huge sigh of relief. (I described this bone, along with other isolated remains of rhizodontid fish from Greer, in a paper that I presented and then published as part of a symposium devoted to the study of Carboniferous faunas worldwide, which was held in Hradets Kralove, then in Czechoslovakia, now within the Czech Republic.)

Since those early days I have done a great deal more paleontological research, both in the field and in the literature, but I have yet to find a fossil that would be even remotely out of place in the stratigraphic column. So paleontologists are not “fiddling with the evidence.” Any given organism will indeed appear in the fossil record only with certain other kinds of organisms, and not with any others.

14 “Same time, different places” or “same place, different times”?

Even after I first came to the realization that any given organism will  appear in the fossil record only with certain other kinds of organisms, I still tried to account for it within a creationist paradigm. I next asked myself whether the Flood might have been responsible for sorting all the creatures that had been alive on earth into the “suite” pattern that is observable worldwide today.

The first possibility that occurred to me was a hydrodynamic sort—that is, that the churning and flow of the flood waters had sorted the animals into this pattern. But I quickly ruled this out. A hydrodynamic sort would have grouped organisms together according to characteristics such as size, buoyancy, etc. I had seen enough in the fossil beds to realize that this had not taken place. Organisms with widely varying hydrodynamic characteristics were to be found together, while organisms with similar characteristics were consistently kept apart.

But there was another possibility, another means by which the Flood could have been responsible for the character of the fossil record. As one moves up the geologic column in any given geographic area, the fossilized floras and faunas change repeatedly. Paleontologists interpret these changes as evidence that different suites of organisms all lived in this same place, but at different times in Earth’s history.

But what if, instead, all the different kinds of organism had been alive on earth at the same time, but they had lived in different places, in distinct groups? The deluge might have buried all the members of each group together with one another, but separately from the groups of animals that lived elsewhere. It could then have picked up these groups and piled them on top of one another in one area to form a vertical column. Paleontologists would have misunderstood this column to have been formed over millions of years, when it had actually been formed in just one year.

The top drawing shows “same place, different times”: The various suites of animals all lived in the same place and their remains were deposited on top of one another as they died and were buried at different times. The bottom drawing shows “same time, different places”: The various suites of animals lived together in different places and they were all carried, as distinct groups, to a single place by the Flood, where they were deposited one on top of the other.

So these were the two paradigms that were competing in my mind: the different ecological groupings of animals found at different levels of the geologic column had either lived at the same time (the several thousand years from creation to the Flood), but in different places—a creationist explanation—or else they had lived in the same place, but at different times—an evolutionary explanation.

“Same time, different places” or “same place, different times”? How could I determine which of these explanations was correct? Logically, I had to admit that there were real problems with the “same time, different places” scenario. On a practical level, even if multiple suites of organisms could all have been carried intact, one after another, to individual areas around the world, how was it that they were buried one on top of another in the same pattern everywhere? Paleozoic biotas never occur above Mesozoic ones. Cenozoic biotas always top the stratigraphic column. Were animals and plants of all different sizes somehow gathered up by the same Flood from separate habitats, carried to different places around the globe, and then always layered in exactly the same order? This seemed improbable.

There was also a problem squaring this scenario with the biblical account, which creationists would include in the evidence. The Bible does not say that the creatures divided themselves up into separate, localized ecological groupings prior to the Flood. Rather, according to Genesis, every kind of terrestrial organism was present both in the Garden of Eden and when the Ark was loaded. It would therefore seem more biblical to believe that there were no established ecological suites of organisms. In other words, there would not have been indigenous floras and fauna in disparate parts of the globe, there would only have been one global biota.

Finally, the trace fossils that had already convinced me that the entire fossil record could not have been laid down in the Flood presented a nearly insurmountable problem for this “same time, different places” scenario. How could the floodwaters have picked up footprints, tail marks, and other soft impressions in the ground, carried them to another part of the globe, and deposited them with just the right kinds of animals? Trace fossils simply do not sort either hydrodynamically or by ecological zonation. Nevertheless, they had all ended up in the right places.

It was far more likely, therefore, that this was evidence that the animals that made them had lived in the same place at successive times, and that they and their traces had been preserved in that place.

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.

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?

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.

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!


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?