1. What are Fossils?
Fossils are the remains or traces of once-living organisms. Some fossils are well known, such as trilobites (an extinct group of small marine arthropods) and dinosaurs (another extinct group of large, and sometimes giant, reptilian animals). We are very familiar with coal, which is composed largely of fossilised plant material.
In the early days of geology, there was some uncertainty about the strange objects that were to be found in rocks, and many very fanciful ideas. Significant contributions were made by Bible-believers towards understanding the true nature of fossils. Since fossils are found all over the globe, in high mountains as well as in sea cliffs, a number of early scientists who accepted the history of the Flood as recorded in the Bible (Genesis chapters 7 and 8) suggested that these fossils are the remains of organisms that perished in that great deluge.
2. What do fossils tell us about past life?
There are profound issues to consider about the nature of life in the past! Fossils witness to the discontinuity, the complexity and the stability of past life forms.
2.1 Fossils show discontinuities between body forms.
Today, we see major gaps between different types of living things. For example, cats are quite different from dogs, which in turn are different from sheep. These gaps are recognised by the way animals and plants are classified: clear boundaries can be identified. This is also the case with the fossils. There are no convincing examples of transitional forms.
Evolutionary theory maintains that all living things are related by common ancestry, such that presently-perceived boundaries have been crossed in the past. However, the lack of decisive evidence for `crossing boundaries'counts against the theory. Charles Darwin, whose name is forever associated with the theory of evolution by natural selection, was aware of this problem and acknowledged that the lack of evidences for gradual change constituted: `the most obvious and gravest objection . . . in my theory'.
Scientists who studied the fossil record (palaeontologists) in Darwin's day were generally opposed to Darwin's ideas - they saw suddenappearance, minor changes in form, and then extinction. In our own day, most palaeontologists still acknowledge this evidence for gaps or discontinuities. Most of them would say that the oldest identifiable population of a species is not preceded by any transitional series, or even a single representative of a transitional form from another species! There are perhaps 250,000 fossil species known, and no one has yet been able to disprove the claim for abrupt appearance in a convincing way.
A preliminary conclusion emerges from this analysis: if fossils are a witness to discontinuity between types of past life-forms, an explanatory theory of origins is needed which does justice to the evidence.
2.2 Fossils show the pervasive complexity of early life forms.
We can arrange organisms today in a sequence of `simple' to `complex'- but does this tell us anything about an evolutionary origin? Of course not! We can do the same with forms of human transport - from a sledge to a space shuttle. All are designed by man for a purpose: the existence of a `simple' to `complex' series does not demand an evolutionary explanation.
Organisms with simpler body plans appear earlier in the fossil record, but this in itself is not a proof of evolution. In any case, the order of appearance is not that predicted by evolutionary theory. Other explanations should be considered.
If we look at each basic body plan separately, we find that earlier types are not simple. They are full of structural and functional complexity! Evolutionists have made the wrong presumtion on this point, with their theory imposing itself on limited evidence. Examples of complexity are abundant: many trilobites from the lower levels of the geological column have amazingly complex eyes; fossil insects preserved in amber are essentially modern, perfectly adapted to a particular way of life (such as fleas) and some with highly organised social structures (such as termites); the earliest fossil bats are like those of today (and the presence of moths in the stomach of a fossil bat suggests that they have always possessed organs for echo-location); and so on.
The puzzle for Darwinians is - how could natural selection achieve this complexity without evidence for gradational steps? The evidence of design is strong, and points to an intelligent Designer.
2.3 Abundant `living fossils' witness to the stability of body form.
A living fossil is an animal or plant that is both living today and represented in the fossil record.
Organisms are classified in a hierarchical way: Phyla, Orders, Classes, Families, Genus, Species. Both fossil and living forms can be classified according to the same schemes. When similarities are close, sometimes at the Family level but more often at the Genus level, the animal or plant is called a `living fossil'. Examples of animals include: Limulus, Tuatara, Triops, Coelacanth, cockroach, ant, termite, springtail, and silvergfish. Some of the more familiar plants are: magnolia, Gingko, walnut, maple, grapevine, fig, fan palm, cycad, monkey puzzle tree, tassle fern, tree fern and horsetail.
A large number of organisms have come to be classed as `living fossils'. There are more of them around than we realise! As living things are investigated in the different corners of the Earth, more and more species are documented as belonging to this category. As a recent example, take the group of fossils known as Graptolites. These colonial marine animals are found frequently in rocks towards the bottom of the Geologic Column, and have always been considered totally extinct. However, a newly described living animal from the Pacific Ocean has been given the name Cephalodiscus graptolitoides(graptolite-like Cephalodiscus). The scientist making these discoveries considered that the similarities are so striking that there is little reason for not considering it a surviving member of the graptolites and a genuine living fossil.
`Living fossils' are a witness to the stability of body form over time. This is unwelcome news for evolutionary theorists, which visualise animals and plants as having a plasticity which responds continually to environmental forces. However, the evidences for stability should not be neglected. Any satisfactory theory of origins must provide a reasonable explanation of why so many organisms remain essentially unchanged with the passage of time.
3. What do fossils tell us about fossilisation?
The processes of fossilisation are not easily studied today, since special environmental conditions are required. Fossil-formation today is extremely rare. The processes of decay and destruction are so powerful that the remains of dead organisms soon disappear. Research in this area is in its infancy.
To form a fossil, there must be rapid burial and rapid chemical `fixing'. Many fossils show evidences for these factors: for example, fish and ammonites preserved in nodules have been fossilised before the surrounding mud has had time to compact; the delicate features of fossil plants reveal that little time for decay elapsed before the remains were permanently preserved. The list of similar technical indicators is long and includes: polystrate trees, articulated skeletons, whole insects, and bivalves buried alive.
Evidences such as these has led to a growing recognition in geology that each fossil is a testimony to some catastrophic event - triggering both burial and chemical reactions. However, the magnitude and scale of the catastrophic events must be determined by a detailed examination of the sediments containing the fossils. There are well-documented instances of modern-day mass mortality in the sea, by the phenomenon of waterbloom (the explosive production of plantonic organisms). This has the potential for the formation of modern fossil graveyards - although mechanisms to bury and fossilise the remains are still necessary. Other potential mechanisms relate to volcanism: consider for example the volcanic ash falls that destroyed the city of Pompei.
While conventional geology has moved towards catastrophism very cautiously, the Bible-believer has every reason for being radical! This is because the Flood in the days of Noah is presented to us as a real, historical event with global implications. Such a catastrophe must have been followed by extensive after-effects - also of a catastrophic nature. Events like these are ideal for fossil formation.
In summary, fossils are a witness to catastrophic events in Earth history. This has been hard for people to accept who are schooled in traditional geological concepts, where `the present is the key to the past'. Present day processes are normally non-catastrophic or incorporate small-scale events like storms. These processes do not readily or fully explain the fossiliferous rock record.
When we look at a fossil, it does not tell us where it came from, how it was formed or how old it is (unless we find it in a museum!). However, the very existence of the fossil allows us to ask questions about its origins and, by discovering circumstantial evidences, we can suggest answers. This article has highlighted three ways in which fossils inform us:
a systematic absence of evolutionary transitions and a clear indication
of discontinuity between different types of plants and animals;
evidence for complexity of all fossilised animals and plants, challenging the idea that complex features evolved from primitive characters;
numerous examples of stability of similar body forms from fossil form to the present day, with evidences of extinction but not of large-scale evolution.
David J. Tyler (1993)