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The Fossil Record is the set of fossils uncovered from previous geologic ages by paleontology in the present. Based on the physical remains of organisms left behind in the geologic column, we can infer the existence of extinct species and piece together the history of Earth's biosphere.
As with the geologic column, the nature of the processes that generate the fossil record essentially guarantee that periods of time will be unrepresented in certain parts of the world (see Taphonomy). Only "snapshots" will be preserved. While these snapshots almost certainly didn't capture more than a small fraction of past organisms, they still provide valuable evidence for scientists to study.
The Fossil Record and Evolution
The general evidence of the fossil record confirms a basic evolutionary prediction: past organisms were quite different from present ones. Furthermore, the farther back one looks, the less the creatures resemble modern life. This is, of course, precisely what one would expect if universal common descent were true.
If common descent is true, other features should be observed in the fossil record as well, for example:
- Larger taxonomic groups should become more morphologically similar as one looks farther into the past.
- Homologues and Analogues of past organisms should build a consistent hierarchy.
- Transitional fossils should be found which bridge ancient species with more modern ones.
- Biogeographic data for past organisms should show that proposed descendants appear in the same general area as the predecessors.
The Fossil Record and Creationism
While the general nature of the fossil record is a good evidence for evolution, it tends to exclude certain forms of creationism (particularly essentialist ones). Perhaps this is why geologists of the early 19th century were often progressive creationists, interpreting successive life forms as separate creative acts.
Although progressive creation "predicts" life changing over time in the fossil record, most of the other predictions made by evolution can't be replicated by creationism without additional ad hoc assumptions. For example, nothing inherent in progressive creation requires the existence of transitional forms, a nested hierarchy of homologues or greater past similarity between taxonomic groups. Young earth creationists in particular tend to have biogeography problems due to their belief that all life on earth descends from the creatures on Noah's Ark, which were released at one point in the recent past.
See also: Fossil Sorting
- Theobald, Douglas, 1999. 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for the Theory of Common Descent with Gradual Modification 
- Wikipedia's article on the Fossil Record