07 My college honors project on dinosaurs and birds

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 Summer field work and the start of graduate school

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

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

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

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

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


Sir William Dawson. Artist presently unknown.

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

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

09 Those Fossilized Footprints in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.