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Henry Morris' Fossil Sorting Predictions in "Scientific Creationism"

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Henry Morris' book Scientific Creationism was first published in 1974 and has been through several editions since. It stands out as having some of the most extensive coverage of fossil sorting issues in creationist material. In the book, 14 predictions are made about how the fossil record would look if the flood theory were true and, perhaps not surprisingly, each of them is "shown" to be accurate with examples from the actual fossil record. Given its apparent depth of coverage, it's worth covering these predictions in detail. How well do these predictions actually stand up? And do the "confirming" examples actually support them?

Material in box quotes is taken from the 2000 edition of Scientific Creationism (pages 118-120), but there is little substantive differences between it and earlier versions.

Contents

Prediction #1: More Marine Invertebrates

1. As a rule, there would be many more marine invertebrate animals trapped and buried in the sediments than other types, since there are many more of them and, being relatively immobile, they would usually be unable to escape.

The prediction here is slightly confused and suffers from unwarranted extrapolation. The vast majority of animal life on Earth is both marine and invertebrate. Predicting that marine invertebrates will dominate the fossil record is like predicting there will be more Republicans than Democrats attending the GOP national convention: It is not an impressive act of foresight. Furthermore, instead of making this prediction because marine invertebrates outnumber all other types, he makes the prediction because they are more likely to be fixed to the bottom. To extend the metaphor, we could say he is predicting more Republicans than Democrats will attend a GOP national convention, not because it is for Republicans, but because it is in Texas. It is bizarre reasoning, to say the least.

This prediction has two more subtle mistakes. First, the extrapolation of “more marine invertebrates” is unnecessary. The prediction would be more logical and robust if it merely predicted “more fixed/buried species.” Second, his statement of “many more” implies “relatively more than would be expected,” but expected by whom? Standard evolutionary explanations already account for the same phenomena. Fossilization requires burial, and benthic (bottom-living) species bury more easily than pelagic (swimming) species.

Scientific theories are expected to make predictions that would identify the accuracy of competing theories. Morris’ prediction does not satisfy this requirement. One of the most important elements of science is objectivity. Consider another case from the annals of science vs. pseudoscience. Before scientists worked out how to measure the temperature of the planet Venus, there were two major hypotheses regarding how its atmosphere would work. From these two different ideas the scientists predicted how hot Venus would be if either idea was true. Each hypothesis predicted a very specific range of temperatures. Meanwhile, a psuedoscientist named Velikovsky had another idea. As part of his physics-defying “theory” that Venus was a comet that erupted out of Jupiter and played cosmic pinball with the solar system, he predicted that Venus would be “hot.” Considering that Venus is closer to the Sun, all of the theories predicted “hot” though they were more specific and objective. When scientists did measure the temperature of Venus, they found it matched one of the predictions rather nicely. Velikovsky supporters claim a great victory! He predicted it would be “hot” and it is! His prediction, however, lacked any meaning at all to scientists. Morris’ prediction has the same problem. There is no way to objectively identify whether his prediction is more accurate than those offered in evolutionary explanations.

It should also be noted that the fossil record is extremely biased towards marine fossils. This makes no sense in relation to the supposed occurrence of a world-wide flood. The terrestrial fixed species should also be strongly represented if everything was flooded. Because 30% of the Earth’s surface is covered by land one would expect the fossil record to contain at least 30% terrestrial fixed types as opposed to marine fixed types. This, however, is not what the fossil record shows. Marine fixed types outnumber terrestrial fixed types by much more than 70%. So, when an objective prediction from Morris’ vague one is made, creationism fails again.

(That is assuming, of course, a modern distribution of surface land and ocean. Many creationists argue that there was very little ocean in the world before the flood. That, however, makes the numbers even worse in relation to the fossil record. This creationism position is even more indefensible.)

Morris’ first prediction has another logical conclusion Morris didn’t mention. The fixed species should largely be restricted to the lower layers, but reefs and fixed species continue to the top of the fossil record. In fact, modern coral reefs aren’t even found until the Cretaceous period. What happened to all of them in the lower layers to which they are supposedly restricted?

Prediction #2: Animals that Live Together, Are Buried Together

2. Animals caught and buried would normally be buried with others living in the same region. In other words, fossil assemblages would tend to represent ecological communities of the pre-cataclysmic world.

This is part one of the ecological zonation argument dealt with in the main fossil sorting article. For the moment, it's enough to point out that animals that live in the same environments are frequently not fossilized with each other. Dolphins and Ichthyosaurs lived in identical environments, but never fossilize together. The placoderm Gemuendina and modern flatfish lived in identical environments, but never fossilize together.

Prediction #3: Animals Sorted by Elevation

3. In general, animals living at the lowest elevations would tend to be buried at the lowest elevations, and so on, with elevations in the strata thus representing relative elevations of habitat or ecological zones.

This is ecological zonation, part two. Of course, this claim rather contradicts the earlier claim about mobility of moving forms keeping them away from their fixed ecological mates. Is mobility a concern, or are species assumed to have just stood there and gotten fossilized where they lived? Creationist answer: Whichever we need to get around the current example. Again, see Fossil Sorting for a more in-depth refutation.

Prediction #4: Marine Invertebrates at the Bottom

4. Marine invertebrates would normally be found in the bottom rocks of any local geologic column, since they live on the sea bottom.

This is ecological zonation again. Oh, and it's also dead wrong.

While it's true that marine invertebrates are found in the bottom layers, that's not saying much. Marine invertebrates are found in all layers since the Upper Precambrian and above.

Worse, lots of non-invertebrates are also found on the sea bottoms: Garden eels, flatfish, batfish, etc. None of these are found at the bottom of the geological column. Neither of their other explanations will get flatfish or batfish far away from the base either. Why isn't their occurrence at the bottom of "any local geologic column" also a prediction here? Oh, because Morris knows that this isn't true and if he admits that this is a logical consequence of creationism, he'll have to admit that creationism is false. He's only interested in things he can pretend are true.

Prediction #5: Fish Higher than Bottom-Dwelling Invertebrates

5. Marine vertebrates (fishes) would be found in higher rocks than the bottom-dwelling invertebrates. They live at higher elevations and also could escape burial longer.

This is ecological zonation AGAIN, and still wrong.

Both parts of the last sentence are lies, the first so obviously that it boggles the mind that Morris thought he could get away with it. Either he's incredibly ignorant of biology, or he simply has no concern at all about accuracy. Morris is forgetting that many fish respond to danger by burying themselves. That would hardly make them able to escape burial longer! Flatfish, rays, and garden eels all respond to danger by heading under, and so would be expected to be found in the lowest of fossil layers.

Meanwhile, how to explain the sorting within the fish? Most modern fish belong to a group called the Teleost fishes. They dominate all ecological regions in the ocean, in freshwater, everywhere. But they don't even appear in the fossil record until the Mesozoic, well after the appearance of amphibians and reptiles!

Prediction #6: Amphibians & Reptiles above Fish

6. Amphibians and reptiles would tend to be found at still higher elevations, in the commingled sediments at the interface between land and water.

Again, then it's really too bad that they are found all the way to the top, isn't it? Funny how they start beneath all those teleost fish.

(I note in passing that Morris is rather badly padding his predictions. All the predictions thus far relate to ecological zonation (with a hint of differential escape), but he mixes generic formulations of the EZ claim with specific ones.)

Prediction #7: Few Terrestrial Plants or Animals in the Lower Column

7. There would be few if any terrestrial sediments or land plants or animals in the lower strata of the column.

Fair enough. But the other side of this prediction is that there should be few, if any, fixed aquatic species in the higher strata. As such, Morris and other creationists can not explain why we find fossils of scorpions, like Paleophonus, and reptiles like Hylonomus, far below fossils of bivalves, such as those of fingernail clams (Sphaerium), or Inoceramus, and Exogyra. Again, Morris wants to avoid the logical consequences of his claim that even he knows are wrong. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! Creationists, please, only look at the places where creationism is sort of right! This "prediction" makes no sense at all, because if all different forms of life existed at the same time before the Flood and some were made extinct, all plant species would have sunk to the bottom of the water. According to Morris, the reason that the fossil record shows "higher" animals towards the top is because they were the ones who were most successful in getting to higher ground in the Flood. First of all, it seems strange that all "higher" fossils have been found in the top layers--they all must have tread water for 39 days, so to speak, including the elderly and infirm. Aside from this, this claim ignores the fact that plants can't run for higher ground. If there really were such a worldwide flood, all plant matter in the world would have been crushed and forced together in one part of the sediment layers. Instead, we find plants distributed in very different layers all throughout the fossil record.

Prediction #8: First Appearance of Land Plants same as Amphibians and Reptiles

8. The first evidence of land plants in the column would be essentially the same as that for amphibians and reptiles, when the rafts of lowland vegetation were brought down to the seashore by the swollen rivers.

Again, this is so utterly and totally wrong it's hard to understand how Morris thinks he can get away with it. The first land plants appear in the Ordovician, significantly preceding the first amphibians (late Devonian) and greatly preceding the first reptiles (Carboniferous)! Morris can't even be bothered to check to see if his predictions are accurate, or he cynically (but probably accurately) assumes his readership will just assume whatever he says is true and not investigate further.

We also need to remind Morris of a previously mentioned logical consequence, namely mangroves and sea grasses should be the lowest plants in the fossil record, since they're found at and below water level. Too bad then that they aren't found until well after the dinosaurs are established. Gee, at this rate, I'm going to need some sort of quick way to say, "Morris is again avoiding a logical consequence of his ideas that even he knows to be false."

Prediction #9: Hydrodynamic Sorting

9. In the marine strata, where invertebrates were fossilized, these would tend locally to be sorted hydrodynamically into assemblages of similar size and shape. Furthermore, as the turbulently upwelling waters and sediments settled back down, the simpler animals, more nearly spherical or streamlined in shape, would tend to settle out first because of lower hydraulic drag. Thus each kind of marine invertebrate would tend to appear in its simplest form at the lowest elevation, and so on.

Morris seems to think the spherical means simpler. Does the man know anything about biology at all? Apparently not.

Fact: Marine invertebrates that float are found in the lowest layers. Worse, these floating animals are sorted quite well, and not by hydrological processes. Ammonites are sorted based on the complexity of the sutures internal to their shells. How in the world is the flood supposed to sort fossils based on internal features of the shell is beyond me. Worse, externally identical nautilus are NOT sorted by the internal features of their shells (which didn't really change that much once the straight-shelled species became extinct). Ecological zonation and differential of escape won't explain these either, so creationism appears completely lost.

The simple fact is that this prediction is dead wrong. Groups are *not* sorted hydrodynamically.

Prediction #10: Mammals and Birds at the Top

10. Mammals and birds would be found in general at higher elevations than reptiles and amphibians, both because of their habitat and because of their greater mobility. However, few birds would be found at all, only occasional exhausted birds being trapped and buried in sediments.

Er, huh? The world is covered for over a year, but only a few birds will get exhausted and fall dead? Perhaps pre-flood birds had far greater energy capacities than modern birds!

Of course, some birds don't have a great deal of mobility. Why is it, then that the fossil moas are found in higher strata than Pterodactylus? Perhaps pre-flood moas could fly on vestigial wings, or they lived on mountains instead of lowland forests! Or maybe prediction #10 is refuted.

Likewise, mammals don't fit when you look at the details. Morris can hardly pretend that moles have greater mobility than your average velociraptor, but, too bad for Morris, moles are found in layers well above velociraptors. Either we have to postulate pre-flood moles that were very fast, really slow velociraptors, or accept that prediction #10 doesn't work for mammals either. Maybe he'll claim that all moles lived in mountains before the flood!

Prediction #11: Higher Animals in Herds

11. Because of the instinctive tendency of the higher animals to congregate in herds, particularly in times of danger, fossils of these animals would often be found in large numbers if found at all.

This isn't much of a prediction. Evolutionary explanations would expect much the same thing to whatever extent that creationism does. Further, one would expect, since the rising flood would stimulate panic, the animals would be fleeing. Shouldn't it then be expected that animals would not be sorted into generic herds? Shouldn't older, weaker animals be found in lower layers along with the very young, while the healthy adults are found at still higher levels? Shouldn't most herds be scattered simply by the mass panic?

Prediction #12: "Higher" Animals Sorted by Size and Complexity

12. Similarly these higher animals (land vertebrates) would tend to be found segregated vertically in the column in order of size and complexity, because of the greater ability of the larger, more diversified animals to escape burial for longer periods of time.

Again, this isn't what we see. Even assuming that this is a legitimate prediction of creationism (which is doubtful), it's not at all what we see. The size of "higher animals" rises steadily through the Paleozoic, then falls. It rises steadily through the Mesozoic, reaching a pinnacle never reached again, and then falls. It then rises steadily through the Cenozoic, falls a bit, and then starts rising again, only to collapse rapidly at the highest layers.

Again, he seems to think that "complexity" is somehow something a flood can detect and sort organisms by. Perhaps he thinks velociraptors are more spherical than moles.

Prediction #13: Few Human Fossils/Artifacts

13. Very few human fossils or artifacts would be found at all. Men would escape burial for the most part and, after the waters receded, their bodies would lie on the ground until decomposed. The same would apply to their lighter structures and implements, whereas heavier metallic objects would sink to the bottom and be buried so deeply in the sediments they would probably never be discovered.

Ah, so humans run faster than gazelles? Even old, sick, or crippled humans? Pre-flood humans didn't bury their dead? It seems highly unlikely that we'd find early layers with moles, but not any early layers with humans. And human heavy tools bury themselves even deeper than fossils from the bottom of the ocean!

This prediction is simply a tapestry of the ridiculous. The idea that men (all men!) are better able to escape than so many so very quick animals is just preposterous. Keep in mind, ecological zonation is no help, humans prefer to live in lowlands near water. They don't float particularly well, so humans wouldn't have been sorted to the top hydrologically. Differential escape is their only hope, and that is just silly. Humans (all humans!) would have to be able to outrun velociraptors and pterosaurs, just to name two of the many types found beneath us.

The idea that all their artifacts would just miraculously go away and not get sorted by the same ecological zonation and hydrological factors Morris has vaguely invoked all the way up until now is similarly derisible. Is Morris even taking this seriously? Does Morris really think anyone is going to fall for this? Oh, wait, they do all the time.

Prediction #14: Emergency Escape Switch! Floods are Also Random!

14. All the above predictions would be expected statistically but, because of the cataclysmic nature of the phenomena, would also admit of many exceptions in every case. In other words, the cataclysmic model predicts the general order and character of the deposits but also allows for occasional exceptions.

Ah, the all purpose escape clause. Can't have a creationist theory without it! "And, if you find something that contradicts this, well, it really doesn't!" Gee, thanks, Morris.

Actually, I guess it isn't an all-purpose escape clause, since it most notably does not work!

Note that #14 contradicts #13 rather badly. Humans, all of them, escape to the top, so no cataclysmic nature of the phenomena is found here! Morris wants to have his cake and eat it too, but that's not the way the science game is played. If there are exceptions caused by the cataclysmic nature, then we should expect to see them consistently. So, where are the lower level humans? Where are the mammals swept down to the Precambrian? Where are the Rhynia accidentally sorted high?

Also, the examples given show that even statistically, Morris' predictions (except #11!) are all dead wrong. Ammonites aren't some exception caused by the cataclysm. Every single one of them is placed to contradict creationism, and they are among the most common of all fossils! Where is the statistical validation here? Answer: In the imagination of creationists, and no place else.

So, despite being intended as a way of getting around any last piece of evidence, #14 fails to save creationism.

Summary

One gets the sense that Morris had no idea or simply forgot that most major taxa are found contemporaneously with all other major taxa that had evolved up to that point. The geologic column does not go like "invertebrates — plants — shelled things — fish — reptiles — birds — mammals!" but rather "invertebrates, plants PLUS invertebrates, shelled things PLUS plants PLUS invertebrates… mammals PLUS fish PLUS reptiles PLUS…"

From a Flood-model perspective, it's as though there were some series of walls or gateways which each somehow prevented arbitrary groups from sinking too low. (All mammals below this point must be egg-laying only.) If marine invertebrates are "predicted" to sink to the bottom, why are just as many found all the way to the top? Plus, these "gateways" have a perfect record. Not a single rabbit, or single whale, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, even though dead bodies do that all the time in the modern world. Is it something to do with the absence of the vapor canopy?

Conclusion

None of Morris' predictions work. Some of them are so preposterously bad it boggles the mind that he even thought about using them. And yet, this is still creationism's best addressing of fossil sorting issues.

See Also

Acknowledgements

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