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Fossil Sorting

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Introduction: The Rise, Fall, Death, and Unholy Reanimation of Flood Geology

Note: This article makes liberal use of the names of geologic time periods and knowledge of their order is extremely helpful. You may want to open the article on the Geological Timescale up in another window and reference the chart.

As far back as the time of ancient Rome, geographic features led scholars to conclude that world had an extensive history, much older than the ~6,000 years that would become the de facto standard for determining world history with the rise of the Catholic Church. Throughout the middle ages, geologic evidence was largely shrugged off and ignored, in large part simply due to a lack of interest in secular investigation through the period. What explanations were put forward depended on Noah's Flood to account for any phenomena that seemed to require some history rather than simple creation.

As time passed and interest in the natural world returned, people found more and more troubles with the standard account of world history. In the 1600's, Nicolas Steno formulated the Law of Superposition encapsulating the relatively common sense concept that geologic layers needed to have been laid down in order, with the oldest layers on the bottom. (With the discovery of plate tectonics in the 20th century, this idea was modified somewhat.) The diversity of layers cried out for an explanation and the simplistic flood geology model was strained to breaking.

To replace the ailing flood model, scientists of the day proposed an idea called catastrophism, which held that the world had gone through a series of creation/destruction events, with God creating new flora and fauna, then destroying them with a major, global disaster, followed by a new creation (see Law of Faunal Succession). Noah's flood was reduced to merely the last of a long series of such. While catastrophism would be challenged on theological and evidentiary grounds, flood geology was dead long before Darwin wrote a word.

When evolutionary theory revolutionized biology, mainstream scientists abandoned classical catastrophism for an evolutionary paradigm. (In the 20th century, "catastrophism" would change meaning and come to represent a very different scientific theory.) The only people left espousing creationist ideas were the hard line Biblical literalists who had never been happy with the extra-Biblical nature of catastrophism, but rejecting both catastrophism and evolution left them with no functional explanations for geologic evidence.

In the early 20th century, George McCready Price resurrected Flood geology as the standard explanation for all things geological, but his ideas did not become popular until John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris used them (without credit) as the basis for their seminal work The Genesis Flood in 1961. From that time on, flood geology has become pervasive in modern creationism: the actions of Noah's flood being called in to account for all elements of geology not consistent with a simple creation event, including the sorting of the fossil record.

How the Fossil Record is Sorted

It wasn't immediately apparent that the fossil layers were sorted, but through the work of various scientists (most notably William Smith) it was noted that not all fauna were found together in any one layer, and further that the layering of one fauna over another followed a predictable pattern everywhere in the world. For instance, layers that contain only amphibians are covered by layers with a diversity of reptiles, above which are layers of dinosaurs, which are buried by layers of mammals in turn. Scientists divided these layers into eras, and then periods, and then even smaller blocks of time as they became more familiar with the shift over time. While few areas of the world present a complete set of layers from every period, the order of succession almost never varied. (And where it did vary, it does so in predictable patterns based on geologic deformation, see Geological column is sometimes out of order.)

The pattern of the fossil record is, however, largely not derivable from principles, rather it is just a pattern that is observed to occur over and over around the world. This is a particular problem for creationists, since a global flood would, as we'll see, sort fossils according to principles. For scientists, the order of the record records the history of evolution, which is a largely undirectional process. Nonetheless, some principles can be seen in examining the fossil record.

As we'll see, creationists can explain neither of these principles, nor can they explain the numerous other examples of sorted fossils.

Creationist Proposals for Flood-based Fossil-Sorting Mechanisms

Creationists say that they use all the same data that mainstream scientists do; they just interpret that data differently. The observed order in which fossils occur in the geologic column is some of that data, and Flood-believing YECs have indeed come up with their own Creationist interpretations to explain that order. Specifically, YECs invoke three main mechanisms to account for which fossils are found at what point(s) in the geological column:

Hydrodynamic Sorting

How objects (including living, or once-living, bodies) sink through water is determined by a variety of characteristics of said objects. Denser objects tend to sink faster than less-dense ones (which may even stay on the surface, depending on how light they are); objects with smoother surfaces, hence less drag, tend to sink faster than objects with rougher surfaces, hence more drag; streamlined objects tend to sink faster than objects with ungainly protrusions; and so on.

In short: The quicker a life-form's body sinks, the deeper its specimens will be found in the geologic column.

Ecological Zonation

The Earth is not a perfect sphere; some points of its surface are higher above 'sea level' than others. Environmental conditions vary for a number of reasons, and altitude is one of those reasons. Since any one life-form generally prefers a particular set of environmental conditions, it follows that life-forms will tend to live at a particular altitude.

In short: Creatures that lived at low altitudes will be found, in the geologic column, below creatures that lived at high altitudes.

Differential Escape

When the Floodwaters rose, all animals would naturally have attempted to escape their doom by fleeing to higher ground. This would have been a futile effort, since the Flood drowned all Earthly life except what was saved on Noah's ark, but some animals would have avoided their inevitable deaths longer than others.

In short: Creatures with greater mobility will be found higher in the geologic column than creatures with low mobility.

Miscellaneous Other Mechanisms

Creationists have two other proposed sorting schemes, less often invoked: Combinations of the above three main methods and invoking the sheer random chaos of the flood to account for anything still unexplained. When all else fails, creationists argue that the pre-flood world was different in some significant way.

Comparing the Actual Sorting to Creationist Proposals

At first glance, one might imagine that with the diversity of methods the creationists invoke, especially with randomness and combinations included, could account for a truly large diversity of potential sorting. However, none of them really address the fossil record as we see it. To show that this is true, we'll take a look at various examples of real fossil sorting and show how none of the three main creationist explanations accounts for them. If none of the individual explanations could account for getting these simple elements in the right order, it stands to reason that combinations of them cannot either.

The General Fossil Trends

As stated above, the single most undeniable element of fossil sorting is that the flora and fauna recorded in layers get progressively more like modern flora and fauna as you move up the record. It is fairly obvious that ecological zonation doesn't help as there is no reason why moving up through altitude should reflect increasingly modern species. This would require that cats, dogs, hammerhead sharks, ants, frogs, etc. all lived at the tops of mountains, while velociraptors and other dinosaurs lived half way up mountains. Creationism would be hard pressed to make a realistic case for this arrangement in the antediluvian world. Differential of escape does no better. Modern slow types, including types of snail, sloth, and even immobile species like trees, all made it to the top, but are different from both older slow types (snails, trees, etc.) and still sorted above older fast types (like velociraptors). Hydrodynamic sorting offers no help either.

Consider moles. Moles, by all the creationists sorting methods, should be very low. They are slow and cannot outrun rising flood waters. They live in the lowest possible terrestrial ecosystem and certainly cannot live on mountains. They are shaped like bullets and should sink like rocks. All of the proposed flood sorting methods would put them very low in the fossil record, but mole fossils are found only in the upper layers (Cenozoic).

The general trend towards increased complexity fares no better. None of the proposed creationist mechanisms can distinguish between "complex" and "simple" as concepts.

But if the great trends of the fossil record cannot be explained by creationist methods, what's left for them? Why, to fail, fail again.

Bacterial World

The lowest fossil layers consist of bacteria. In some places, the mats of bacteria extend for miles. There is not a trace of animal or plant life in these layers, not so much as a bird footprint or a windblown seed. How could the flood sort massive amounts of bacteria to the lowest layers? Some of these lowest of bacteria are cyanobacteria, which depend on photosynthesis, so must have been near the surface of the ocean, not the depths. Bacteria are incapable of trying to escape from the rising flood waters, and have no particular tendency to sink. Among these earliest layers are stromatolites, which can be compared to bacterial coral in structure. They should have sunk, but many are fossilized unbroken! And where are the encrusting algae and other life forms found on modern stromatolites?

Birds Above Pterosaurs

Birds appear late in the Mesozoic era. In contrast, Pterosaurs evolved in the late Triassic and died off at the end of the Mesozoic. Yet, according to creationist suppositions, they should have been sorted into the same layers. They have the same ability to escape rising flood waters, their fossils reflect the same environments (most pterosaur fossils are adapted for eating fish, just like most bird fossils are of the shore variety, see Fossilization Bias), and they are both usually very light creatures who wouldn't sink very quickly. Indeed, if anything, pterosaurs with their splayed bodies should have floated far more readily than, say, an eagle.

While we're on the subject of pterosaurs, it's noteworthy that creationism can't explain the sorting within the pterosaur group either. The Rhamphorhynchoidea were the first pterosaur group to evolve, then later in the Mesozoic the Pterodactyloidea appeared. Apparently, the flood could distinguish between fossils based on fine anatomic characters. Clever flood!

Dolphins Above Ichthyosaurs

Perhaps the single most iconic example of the failure of the creationist explanations is the sorting of the dolphins and the Ichthyosaurs. Ichthyosaurs are, essentially, Mesozoic, reptilian dolphins. They have the same habitat (unless you can picture a marine air-breather in a habitat other than the ocean surface!), and the amazing similarity in their gross anatomy would give them the same differential escape (if the concept even applies to marine life) and the same hydrodynamic properties. Simply put, there is not a thing that would allow a flood to sort these two groups apart.

And yet apart they are. Dolphins and Ichthyosaurs are never found together. Ichthyosaurs are found in Mesozoic layers, but dolphins don't appear until midway through the Cenozoic. The degree of separation is pronounced and not rationally deniable. Creationism has no explanation for this sorting, which probably explains why creationists avoid discussing it entirely.

Flowering Plants

In the fossil record, flowering plants are found at from the Cretaceous at the end of the Mesozoic right up to the most modern layers. Science interprets this as flowering plants having evolved from the non-flowering plants common in the lower layers. How well do creationist explanations fare?

Not well at all. Differential of escape is obviously preposterous for plants (though this hasn't stopped some creationists from suggesting it). Ecological zonation is a non-starter because flowering plants are the dominant plant type found in all plant-containing environments today. They extend from beneath the ocean (eel grasses) to as high up mountains as plants extend. Some plants, like mangroves and eel grasses, are even clearly set for a specific "environmental height" that would place them in the depths of the fossil record. What about hydrodynamic sorting? Again, there's nothing here to help creationism. Flowering plants would have no different sorting properties than their non-flowering cousins of similar structure.

Consider just one pair of plants. Mangroves are trees specially adapted for the ocean shore. Their platform roots (designed to resist powerful hurricanes) and salt-extraction glands make no sense for a plant living anywhere else. Rhynia in contrast, is the among the lowest vascular plants (that is, plants with internal tubes for water transport) in the fossil record. It has almost no root to speak of. Why are they sorted to opposite ends of the fossil record? Ecological zonation fails as mangroves must be with the lowest of plants. Hydrodynamic sorting? Well, if anything could resist the flood, it would be mangroves. Tiny, nearly rootless Rhynia would have been easily blasted free and sorted at the mercy of flood currents. But we see the exact opposite order! Rhynia aren't sorted randomly about where the flood dumped them, but in the lowest plant layers. Mangroves aren't stolidly at the bottom (as they would be if they could resist the flood) or scattered randomly through the fossil record (as they and all plants would be were they unable to resist).

Mangrove, notably, is a lifestyle of several unrelated groups of flowering plants. Some non-flowering plants adopted the mangrove lifestyle during the Mesozoic, but died out before the modern mangroves evolved. Whatever creationist sorting mechanism places modern mangroves at the top also has to figure out why plants of identical environment and adaptations were also sorted so differently!

It's easy to understand why, when discussing fossil sorting, creationists prefer to avoid discussing plants.

Ammonites and Nautilus

Ammonites and nautiloids (including modern day Nautilus) are both types of shelled-cephalopod, animals related to octopus and squid. While the ammonites are now extinct and the nautiloids are reduced to about eleven species in 2 genera, their fossil record was extensive and varied, so much so that they are used as index fossils.

Nautiloids first appear in the late Cambrian and become extremely diverse, ranging from long, straight shells to the more familiar coiled form that survives today, but also including a variety of almost surreal forms built like little submarines or that dropped off part of their shell after developing it. They are the dominant predatory marine life before the appearance of fish and compete effectively with fish throughout the Paleozoic. Their shells are chambered and characterized by simple, flat walls between the chambers. Nautiloids suffer badly at the Permian-Triassic extinction, but a few forms persist through the Mesozoic and right up through to the modern day.

Ammonites diverged from the nautiloids during the Devonian period of the Paleozoic. They are characterized by very complicated chamber walls, with a diversity of curves, hoops, pockets, etc. They were the dominant shelled-cephalopod, surpassing the nautiloids in a dramatic diversification after the Permian-Triassic extinction to become an important feature of most marine communities until the end of the Mesozoic, where they became extinct along with the dinosaurs.

How can creationism explain the sorting that limits the ammonites to the Mesozoic layers and a little before? Differential of escape makes no sense, they weren't faster than nautiloids and "outrunning rising flood waters" makes little sense of a marine species anyway. Ecological zonation is no help, they all lived in the same basic environments. But hydrodynamic sorting is the final killer. One thing nautiloids and ammonites share in common is that vast majority of species (except for some bottom-dwelling species like Gonioceras, Cyrtoceras, or Cooperoceras) have shells that float, due to their gas-filled chambers. This is why we have such an extensive fossil record for those groups, their shells floated to the surface of the ocean where they were easily caught in fossil forming environments. Hydrodynamic sorting should be the dominant mode of sorting these into the fossil record, if the flood story were true, and it should result in the ammonites and nautilus fossils being found in the uppermost layers in a huge jumble with almost none found in any earlier layers!

As ammonites and nautiloids are among the most important index fossils, they are some of the best indicators of fossil sorting. As prime examples of fossil sorting, anyone seeking to explain fossil sorting by an alternate system than evolution who wanted to be taken seriously as scientists should focus a large amount of their effort on these most prized of index fossils. So, how much effort do creationists spend on them? None. A perusal of creationist websites turned up not a single reference to ammonite/nautilus fossil sorting issues. Not even one. As usual, creationists address particularly important problems by adopting a policy of tabula rasa.

The Randomness Ploy

The creationist last ditch effort of invoking the randomness of the flood actually backfires on creationism. A global flood would be highly random. While there would be some general patterns (resulting from the proposed mechanisms) there should be a ton of exceptions caused by eddies, riptides, and other flood phenomena. But these exceptions should occur at random, and the fossil record is stunningly consistent in its order. If a few random ichthyosaurs were sorted beneath dolphins, fine, but every single ichthyosaur is Mesozoic. It isn't the occasional exceptional single fossil that's boggling creationism, it's entire arrays of creatures consistently failing to be in the order creationism needs.

It's a Different World

When all else fails, creationists frequently invoke the claim that the world was different in some significant aspect. A comprehensive review of this claim is impossible in a short space as one would need to list every single element creationists claim might be different.

A few representitive differences in the pre-flood world:

These vary between creationists and frequently one creationist will contradict another or even himself at another point. For instance, creationists will argue there was less ocean in the pre-flood world to fit all the species of large dinosaur on the planet at once, but then argue there was more pre-flood oceans to account for the preponderance of marine fossils.

Use of this argument is its own punishment, however. It doesn't take much of this kind of argumentation before creationists seem to be what they are: desperately grasping at straws.

Abject Denial

It's worth mentioning in passing that some creationists deny that there is any fossil sorting at all. The claim is made that the only "order" in the fossil record consists of evolutionary assumptions. This argument is easily disposed of by noting that the patterns in the fossil record were noted by creationists over a century before Darwin wrote a word. That's why they abandoned flood geology and moved on to catastrophism. Why creationists of centuries past would be laboring under "evolutionist assumptions" is unclear, but if you believe the deniers, you'll have to accept this as well!

Conclusions

There are several conclusions that must be reached from the above facts.

  1. Creationists have no explanation for the sorting of the fossil record. Noah's Flood would have produced quite different sorting to that which is seen and no other creationist sorting mechanism has even been offered.
  2. Creationists have displayed no interest in dealing with the problems fossil sorting poses to their claims. Indeed, decades after they first began using the flood apologetic, they have made no further progress, even though they have nothing at all to address some of the most important of all index fossils.

The order of the fossils constitutes serious evidence against the creationist models. The fact that they have no interest in dealing with these problems cuts to the heart of the entire debate. Scientists are fundamentally driven by curiosity. For real scientists, problems or gaps in theory are the most worked on areas for research. Scientists want to know. Is the theory wrong? Is there an unconsidered ramification of the theory that will clear up the problem? Is there an unknown factor happening at the same time as what the theory covers? You can guarantee that in any science, the flaws will be the most discussed, most experimented upon, most examined areas of all.

Creationism has forwarded the same failed hypothesis to account for fossil sorting for almost five decades. Nothing has been added to the canon of creationist claims about fossil sorting in that time. No significant new research is being done, no new hypotheses are being proposed, no new papers are being published. All they do is rehash the same failed claims as accounting for a small subset of examples that their claims actually work for. Where is the curiosity? Where is the drive to discover? Not in creationism. The drive to discover is suffocated by the insistence that they already know.

See Also

Acknowledgements

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