What Does the Fossil Record Show?

You are here

What Does the Fossil Record Show?

Login or Create an Account

With a UCG.org account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


Can the theory of evolution be proven? After all, it is called the theory of evolution in acknowledgment of the fact that it is not a confirmed scientific law.

Where can we find evidence supporting evolution as an explanation for the teeming variety of life on earth?

Since evolutionists claim that the transition from one species to a new one takes place in tiny, incremental changes over millions of years, they acknowledge that we cannot observe the process taking place today. Our lifespans simply are too short to directly observe such a change. Instead, they say, we have to look at the past—the fossil record that shows the many life-forms that have existed over earth's history—to find transitions from one species to another.

Darwin's greatest challenge

When Charles Darwin proposed his theory in the mid-19th century, he was confident that fossil discoveries would provide clear and convincing evidence that his conjectures were correct. His theory predicted that countless transitional forms must have existed, all gradually blending almost imperceptibly from one tiny step to the next, as species progressively evolved to higher, better-adapted forms.

Indeed that would have to be the case. Well in excess of a million species are alive today. For all those to have evolved from common ancestors, we should be able to find millions, if not hundreds of millions, of intermediate forms gradually evolving into other species.

It was not only fossils of transitional species between apes and human beings that would have to be discovered to prove Darwin's theory. The gaps were enormous. Science writer Richard Milton notes that the missing links "included every part of the animal kingdom: from whelks to whales and from bacteria to bactrian camels. Darwin and his successors envisaged a process that would begin with simple marine organisms living in ancient seas, progressing through fishes, to amphibians—living partly in the sea and partly on land—and hence on to reptiles, mammals, and eventually the primates, including humans" (Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, 1997, p. 253).

However, even Darwin himself struggled with the fact that the fossil record failed to support his conclusions. "Why," he asked, "if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? . . . Why do we not find them imbedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?" (The Origin of Species, 1859, Masterpieces of Science edition, 1958, pp. 136-137).

"The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed, [must] be truly enormous," he wrote. "Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory" (Darwin, pp. 260-261).

Darwin acknowledged that the fossil record failed to support his conclusions. But, since he thought his theory obviously was the correct explanation for the earth's many and varied forms of life, he and others thought it only a matter of time before fossilized missing links would be found to fill in the many gaps. His answer for the lack of fossil evidence to support his theory was that scientists hadn't looked long enough and hadn't looked in the right places. Eventually they would find the predicted fossil remains that would prove his view. "The explanation lies, I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record," he wrote (p. 261).

He was convinced that later explorations and discoveries would fill in the abundant gaps where the transitional species on which his theory was based were missing. But now, a century and a half later, after literally hundreds of thousands of fossil plants and animals have been discovered and cataloged and with few corners of the globe unexplored, what does the fossil record show?

What the record reveals

David Raup is a firm believer in evolution and a respected paleontologist (a scientist who studies fossils) at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. However, he admits that the fossil record has been misinterpreted if not outright mischaracterized, stating: "A large number of well-trained scientists outside of evolutionary biology and paleontology have unfortunately gotten the idea that the fossil record is far more Darwinian than it is. This probably comes from the oversimplification inevitable in secondary sources: low-level textbooks, semi-popular articles, and so on. Also, there is probably some wishful thinking involved. In the years after Darwin, his advocates hoped to find predictable progressions. In general, these have not been found— yet the optimism has died hard, and some pure fantasy has crept into textbooks" (Science, Vol. 213, July 1981, p. 289, emphasis added).

Niles Eldredge, curator in the department of invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History and adjunct professor at the City University of New York, is another vigorous supporter of evolution. But he finds himself forced to admit that the fossil record fails to support the traditional evolutionary view.

"No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long," he writes. "It seems never to happen. Assiduous collecting up cliff faces yields zigzags, minor oscillations, and the very occasional slight accumulation of change—over millions of years, at a rate too slow to really account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history.

"When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere! Evolution cannot forever be going on someplace else. Yet that's how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution" (Reinventing Darwin: The Great Debate at the High Table of Evolutionary Theory, 1995, p. 95, emphasis added).

After an immense worldwide search by geologists and paleontologists, the "missing links" Darwin predicted would be found to bolster his theory are still missing.

The late Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is perhaps today's best-known popular writer on evolution. An ardent evolutionist, he collaborated with Professor Eldredge in proposing alternatives to the traditional view of Darwinism. Like Eldredge, he recognized that the fossil record fundamentally conflicted with Darwin's idea of gradualism.

"The history of most fossil species," he wrote, "includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism [gradual evolution from one species to another]:

"[1] Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional [evolutionary] change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking pretty much the same as when they disappear; morphological [anatomical or structural] change is usually limited and directionless.

"[2] Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors: it appears all at once and 'fully formed'" ("Evolution's Erratic Pace," Natural History, May 1977, pp. 13-14, emphasis added).

Fossils missing in crucial places

Francis Hitching, member of the Prehistoric Society and the Society for Physical Research, also sees problems in using the fossil record to support Darwinism.

"There are about 250,000 different species of fossil plants and animals in the world's museums," he writes. "This compares with about 1.5 million species known to be alive on Earth today. Given the known rates of evolutionary turnover, it has been estimated that at least 100 times more fossil species have lived than have been discovered . . . But the curious thing is that there is a consistency about the fossil gaps: the fossils go missing in all the important places.

"When you look for links between major groups of animals, they simply aren't there; at least, not in enough numbers to put their status beyond doubt. Either they don't exist at all, or they are so rare that endless argument goes on about whether a particular fossil is, or isn't, or might be, transitional between this group and that . . .

"There ought to be cabinets full of intermediates—indeed, one would expect the fossils to blend so gently into one another that it would be difficult to tell where the invertebrates ended and the vertebrates began. But this isn't the case. Instead, groups of well-defined, easily classifiable fish jump into the fossil record seemingly from nowhere: mysteriously, suddenly, full-formed, and in a most un-Darwinian way. And before them are maddening, illogical gaps where their ancestors should be" (The Neck of the Giraffe: Darwin, Evolution and the New Biology, 1982, pp. 9-10, emphasis added).

Acknowledging that the fossil record contradicts rather than supports Darwinism, professors Eldredge and Gould have proposed a radically different theory they call "punctuated equilibrium," maintaining that bursts of evolution occurred in small, isolated populations that then became dominant and showed no change over millions and millions of years. This, they say, is the only way to explain the lack of evidence for evolution in the fossil record.

As Newsweek explains: "In 1972 Gould and Niles Eldredge collaborated on a paper intended at the time merely to resolve a professional embarrassment for paleontologists: their inability to find the fossils of transitional forms between species, the so-called 'missing links.' Darwin, and most of those who followed him, believed that the work of evolution was slow, gradual and continuous and that a complete lineage of ancestors, shading imperceptibly one into the next, could in theory be reconstructed for all living animals . . . But a century of digging since then has only made their absence more glaring . . . It was Eldredge and Gould's notion to call off the search and accept the evidence of the fossil record on its own terms" ("Enigmas of Evolution," March 29, 1982, p. 39, emphasis added).

As some observers point out, this is an inherently unprovable theory for which the primary evidence to support it is lack of evidence in the fossil record to support transitional forms between species.

Fossil record no longer incomplete

The fossil record has been thoroughly explored and documented. Darwin's excuse of "extreme imperfection of the geological record" is no longer credible.

How complete is the fossil record? Michael Denton, a medical doctor and biological researcher, writes that "when estimates are made of the percentage of [now-] living forms found as fossils, the percentage turns out to be surprisingly high, suggesting that the fossil record may not be as bad as is often maintained" (Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, 1985, p. 189).

He explains that "of the 329 living families of terrestrial vertebrates [mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians] 261 or 79.1 percent have been found as fossils and, when birds (which are poorly fossilized) are excluded, the percentage rises to 87.8 percent" (Denton, p. 189).

In other words, almost 88 percent of the varieties of mammals, reptiles and amphibians populating earth have been found in the fossil record. How many transitional forms, then, have been found? ". . . Although each of these classes [fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and primates] is well represented in the fossil record, as of yet no one has discovered a fossil creature that is indisputably transitional between one species and another species.Not a single undisputed 'missing link' has been found in all the exposed rocks of the Earth's crust despite the most careful and extensive searches" (Milton, pp. 253-254, emphasis added).

If Darwin's theory were true, transitional creatures such as invertebrates with partially developed backbones, fish with rudimentary legs, reptiles with primitive wings and innumerable creatures with semievolved anatomical features should be the rule, scattered throughout the fossil strata. But they are nonexistent.

What about fossil proofs?

At times various fossil species have been presented as firm proof of evolution at work. Perhaps the most famous is the supposed evolution of the horse as presented in many biology textbooks. But is this portrayal really what it is claimed to be?

Notice what Professor Eldredge has to say about this classic "proof" of evolution: "George Gaylord Simpson spent a considerable segment of his career on horse evolution. His overall conclusion: Horse evolution was by no means the simple, linear and straightforward affair it was made out to be . . . Horse evolution did not proceed in one single series, from step A to step B and so forth, culminating in modern, single-toed large horses. Horse evolution, to Simpson, seemed much more bushy, with lots of species alive at any one time—species that differed quite a bit from one another, and which had variable numbers of toes, size of teeth, and so forth.

"In other words, it is easy, and all too tempting, to survey the fossil history of a group and select examples that seem best to exemplify linear change through time . . . But picking out just those species that exemplify intermediate stages along a trend, while ignoring all other species that don't seem to fit in as well, is something else again. The picture is distorted. The actual evolutionary pattern isn't fully represented" (p. 131).

Eldredge in effect admits that paleontologists picked and chose which species they thought fit best with their theory and ignored the rest. George Gaylord Simpson himself was more blunt: "The uniform continuous transformation of Hyracotherium [a fossil species thought to be the ancestor of the horse] into Equus [the modern horse], so dear to the hearts of generations of textbook writers, never happened in nature" (Life of the Past, 1953, p. 119).

Professor Raup elaborates on the problem paleontologists face in trying to demonstrate evolution from the fossil record: "We are now about 120 years after Darwin, and knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species but the situation hasn't changed much. The record of evolution is still surprisingly jerky and, ironically, we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin's time.

"By this I mean that some of the classic cases of Darwinian change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse in North America, have had to be discarded or modified as a result of more detailed information—what appeared to be a nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appears to be much more complex and much less gradualistic [evolutionary]" ("Conflicts Between Darwin and Paleontology," Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin 50, January 1979, pp. 22-25, emphasis added).

Paleontology's well-kept secret

What does all this mean? In plain language, if evolution means the gradual change of one kind of organism into another kind, the outstanding characteristic of the fossil record is the absence of evidence for evolution—and abundant evidence to the contrary. The only logical place to find proof for evolutionary theory is in the fossil record. But, rather than showing slow, gradual change over eons, with new species continually emerging, the fossils show the opposite.

Professor Eldredge touched on the magnitude of the problem when he admitted that Darwin "essentially invented a new field of scientific inquiry—what is now called 'taphonomy'—to explain why the fossil record is so deficient, so full of gaps, that the predicted patterns of gradual change simply do not emerge" (Reinventing Darwin, pp. 95-96, emphasis added).

Professor Gould similarly admitted that the "extreme rarity" of evidence for evolution in the fossil record is "the trade secret of paleontology." He went on to acknowledge that "the evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils" (Gould, p. 14, emphasis added).

But do paleontologists share this trade secret with others? Hardly. "Reading popular or even textbook introductions to evolution, . . . you might hardly guess that they [fossil gaps] exist, so glibly and confidently do most authors slide through them. In the absence of fossil evidence, they write what have been termed 'just so' stories. A suitable mutation just happened to take place at the crucial moment, and hey presto, a new stage of evolution was reached" (Hitching, pp. 12-13).

Regarding this misrepresentation of the evidence, Phillip Johnson writes: "Just about everyone who took a college biology course during the last sixty years or so has been led to believe that the fossil record was a bulwark of support for the classic Darwinian thesis, not a liability that had to be explained away . . .

"The fossil record shows a consistent pattern of sudden appearance followed by a stasis, that life's history is more a story of variation around a set of basic designs than one of accumulating improvement, that extinction has been predominantly by catastrophe rather than gradual obsolescence, and that orthodox interpretations of the fossil record often owe more to Darwinist preconception than to the evidence itself. Paleontologists seem to have thought it their duty to protect the rest of us from the erroneous conclusions we might have drawn if we had known the actual state of the evidence" (Darwin on Trial, pp. 58-59).

The secret that evolutionists don't want revealed is that, even by their own interpretations, the fossil record shows fully formed species appearing for a time and then disappearing with no change. Other species appeared at other times before they, too, disappeared with little or no change. The fossil record simply does not support the central thesis of Darwinism, that species slowly and gradually evolved from one form to another.

Fact or interesting speculation?

Professor Johnson notes that "Darwinists consider evolution to be a fact, not just a theory, because it provides a satisfying explanation for the pattern of relationship linking all living creatures—a pattern so identified in their minds with what they consider to be the necessary cause of the pattern—descent with modification—that, to them, biological relationship means evolutionary relationship" (p. 63, emphasis in original).

The deceptive, smoke-and-mirror language of evolution revolves largely around the classification of living species. Darwinists attempt to explain natural relationships they observe in the animal and plant world by categorizing animal and plant life according to physical similarities. It could be said that Darwin's theory is nothing more than educated observance of the obvious; that is, the conclusion that most animals appear to be related to one another because most animals have one or more characteristics in common.

For instance, you might have a superficial classification of whales, penguins and sharks in a group classified as aquatic animals. You might also have birds, bats and bees grouped as flying creatures. These are not the final classifications because there are many other obvious differences. The Darwinist approach, however, is to use the obvious general similarities to show, not that animals were merely alike in many ways, but that they were related to each other by descent from common ancestors.

Professor Johnson expresses it this way: "Darwin proposed a naturalistic explanation for the essentialist features of the living world that was so stunning in its logical appeal that it conquered the scientific world even while doubts remained about some important parts of his theory. He theorized that the discontinuous groups of the living world were the descendants of long-extinct common ancestors. Relatively closely related groups (like reptiles, birds, and mammals) shared a relatively recent common ancestor; all vertebrates shared a more ancient common ancestor; and all animals shared a still more ancient common ancestor. He then proposed that the ancestors must have been linked to their descendants by long chains of transitional intermediates, also extinct" (p. 64).

Evolutionists exercise selective perception when looking at the evidence—rather like deciding whether to view half a glass of water as half empty or half full. They choose to dwell on similarities rather than differences. By doing so they lead you away from the truth of the matter: that similarities are evidence of a common Designer behind the structure and function of the life-forms. Each species of animal was created and designed to exist and thrive in a particular way. Darwin and the subsequent proponents of the evolutionary view of life focused on similarities within the major classifications of animals and drew the assumption that those similarities prove that all animals are related to one another through common ancestors.

However, there are major differences in the life-forms on earth. If, as evolution supposes, all life-forms had common ancestors and chains of intermediates linking those ancestors, the fossil record should overflow with many such intermediate forms between species. But as we have already seen, paleontologists themselves admit it shows no such thing.

Simple life-forms?

Since the fossil record does not support the traditional evolutionary view, what does it show?

We have already seen how several well-known paleontologists admit that the fossil record shows the sudden appearance of life-forms. As Stephen Jay Gould puts it, "In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors: it appears all at once and 'fully formed'" (Gould, pp. 13-14).

When we sweep away the evolutionary bias inherent in most presentations of the fossil record, we find that the record does not show a gradual ascent from simple to complex. Consider some of the earliest fossils found, those of bacteria. What is interesting about bacteria is that they are not simple organisms at all.

In reality there are no simple life-forms. Modern technology has shown that even a single cell is extraordinarily complex.

Michael Behe is associate professor of biochemistry at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University. Noting scientists' changing perceptions of the most elementary forms of life, he writes: "We humans tend to have a rather exalted opinion of ourselves, and that attitude can color our perception of the biological world. In particular, our attitude about what is higher and lower in biology, what is an advanced organism and what is a primitive organism, starts with the presumption that the pinnacle of nature is ourselves . . . Nonetheless, other organisms, if they could talk, could argue strongly for their own superiority. This includes bacteria, which we often think of as the rudest forms of life" (Darwin's Black Box, 1996, pp. 69-70).

When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species about a century and a half ago, scientists did not know nearly as much about the cell (and single-celled organisms) as we do today. Darwin thought that single-celled organisms were quite primitive. In fact, at that time many still thought that life could arise naturally from nonliving matter—for example, that decaying meat spontaneously produced flies.

Years passed before French scientist Louis Pasteur demonstrated, through a series of meticulous experiments, the impossibility of the notion. Yet even Pasteur had quite a battle with scientists of his day in convincing them that life came only from preexisting life-forms.

So Darwin's idea—that single-celled meant simple—was not questioned at the time. Later discoveries have shown that even the single-celled organisms found early in the fossil record are far more complex than Darwin and others could have imagined.

An explosion of life-forms

Paleontologists widely consider the Cambrian Period, one of the oldest in their view, to be the earliest in which extensive life-forms are preserved. Since only the remains of marine life are found in Cambrian strata, paleontologists interpret these deposits as dating to a time before land animals had evolved.

The Encarta Encyclopedia says of this time: "By the beginning of the Paleozoic Era, the steadily increasing oxygen content of the atmosphere and oceans . . . had made it possible for the marine environment to support new forms of life that could derive energy from respiration. Although life had not yet invaded dry land or the air, the seas of the Cambrian Period teemed with a great variety of marine invertebrates, including sponges, worms, bryozoans ('moss animals'), hydrozoans, brachiopods, mollusks (among them the gastropods and species ancestral to the nautilus), primitive arthropods such as the trilobite, and a few species of stalked echinoderms.

"The only plant life of the time consisted of marine algae. Because many of these new organisms were relatively large, complex marine invertebrates with hard shells and skeletons of chitin or lime, they had a far better chance of fossil preservation than the soft-bodied creatures of the previous Precambrian Era" (1997, "Cambrian Period," emphasis added).

Notice that complex marine invertebrates are found in fossil deposits from the Cambrian Period. Many don't realize it, but even paleontologists acknowledge that life does not start with only a few simple creatures. At the lowest levels of the geologic strata, the fossil record consists of complex creatures such as trilobites.

Time magazine said in a lengthy cover story describing fossilized creatures found in Cambrian strata: "In a burst of creativity like nothing before or since, nature appears to have sketched out the blueprints for virtually the whole of the animal kingdom. This explosion of biological diversity is described by scientists as biology's Big Bang" (Madeleine Nash, "When Life Exploded," Dec. 4, 1995, p. 68).

Contrary to the assumptions of early evolutionists, life does not start with only a few rudimentary species. Even those who hold to the traditional interpretation of the fossil record admit that it begins with many life-forms similar to those we find today. At the same time, they cannot explain such a vast "explosion" of life-forms in such a short amount of geologic time, which evolutionary theory predicts would take far longer.

Unanswered questions

Supporters of evolution have had to back down from the claims of Darwin and others. "Over the decades, evolutionary theorists beginning with Charles Darwin have tried to argue that the appearance of multicelled animals during the Cambrian merely seemed sudden, and in fact had been preceded by a lengthy period of evolution for which the geological record was missing. But this explanation, while it patched over a hole in an otherwise masterly theory, now seems increasingly unsatisfactory" (ibid.).

Again, the facts etched in stone do not match the assumptions and predictions of evolutionary thought. Even if we accept the evolutionists' interpretation of the fossil record, we see life beginning at the lowest levels with complex creatures, with elaborate organs and other features—but with no known ancestors. Life does not start as predicted by evolution, with simple forms gradually changing into more-complex species.

Although toeing the evolutionary line, the Time magazine article admits: "Of course, understanding what made the Cambrian explosion possible doesn't address the larger question of what made it happen so fast. Here scientists delicately slide across data-thin ice, suggesting scenarios that are based on intuition rather than solid evidence" (Time, p. 73).

Evolutionists have been known to pointedly criticize Christians because they don't have scientific proof of miracles recorded in the Bible. Yet here is a supremely important geological event with far-reaching implications for the theory of evolution—but one for which scientists have no explanation. Of course, they must assume that life came from nonlife—in violation of the laws of biogenesis. Don't their fundamental assumptions, then, also amount to faith?

A reasonable explanation is that the life-forms found in the Cambrian strata were created by God, who did not work by chance but by design.

The fossil record is the only objective evidence we can examine to see whether evolution is true. But, rather than supporting Darwinism, it shows exceedingly complex organisms in what evolutionists interpret as the oldest fossil strata, no intermediate forms between species, little if any change in species over their entire span in the fossil record, and the sudden appearance of new life-forms rather than the gradual change expected by Darwin and his followers.

If we look at the evidence objectively, we realize that the creation story in Genesis 1—describing the sudden appearance of life-forms—is a credible explanation.

You might also be interested in...

How did life begin? How did our planet's amazing variety of animals and plants...