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by John N. Clayton

The Nature of Fossils

I am a high school earth science teacher. I took my advanced degree work in a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation and, since it was government sponsored and involved locations all over the United States, I was able to see first-hand the geology of North America. I have been blessed by being able to travel throughout North America, Europe, and Australia and have been able to see major points of geologic interest in those areas. I also have been able to collect large numbers of fossils from all kinds of living things and all sorts of geologic formations. Any standard geology textbook, museum, or encyclopedia will show you pictures of fossils. The fossils have many stories to tell us about the past. A fossil can be defined as any evidence of life that has lived on the earth in the past. This means it can be a bone, a piece of skin, a footprint, the dung of an animal, a nest, an egg, or the imprint of one of these.

The lessons in the fossils are many and varied. We see animals that have lived in the past that are very different than animals living today, and we see that the conditions under which they lived were also very different. I have seen the fossils of tropical animals in Alaska. I have seen coal deposits with a dinosaur buried in the coal deep under the ground in several places. I have seen the eggs of dinosaurs with the fossilized babies still inside at various stages of embryonic development. Dinosaurs lived, and their fossilized remains tell us a great deal about them. Michigan's state rock is the Petosky Stone, a tropical coral that will not grow in water colder than 68° F. The tennis courts in Petosky, Michigan, have massive amounts of this material around them. Few of us would believe that Petosky, Michigan, is a tropical paradise today! I have seen drill cores from the north slopes in Alaska where there have been redwood deposits found. Today, the intense cold prevents any plant like that from growing there.

Another lesson that fossils teach us is that there is such a thing as factual evolution. On a trip in the Grand Canyon many years ago, a friend of mine named Alan Doty (who lives in Arizona and is an expert on the Grand Canyon) showed me a slab of brachiopod remains on an outcrop near the top of the Canyon. All of the fossils were the same creature. Some time later, Dr. John McDowell (a boatman for Hatch Expeditions and a geology professor from Tulane University) showed me a similar slab of brachiopods near the bottom of the Canyon. The brachiopod is an ocean creature that looks a little like a clam. These two slabs of brachiopods were about the same size, but the brachiopods were radically different and wear different names. One is called eospirifer and the other is called olenothyrus. They have different shapes, they have different grooves in their shells, and other cosmetic differences. It is obvious that they are as different one from the other as a Chihuahua is from a St. Bernard. These animals are different because of evolution. Evolutionary change like this can be seen in everything from horses to bacteria, and we see it taking place today in cattle, dogs, and even the races of men. The Bible also tells us about this kind of change when it records what Jacob did with Laban's flocks in Genesis chapter 30. This is evolution. There are many examples of evolution in the Bible. Some may say that this is variation, not evolution; but to invent your own vocabulary just confuses the issues. This is what the textbook from which I teach calls evolution. There is the fact of evolution which can be seen in the fossils or on any farm today and which the Bible teaches. There are the various theories of evolution which suggest that this kind of change can explain how every creature on the earth today came from a single cell in some distant ocean at a time long ago. The fossils show us the fact that animals have charged. The theoretical extrapolations made from this fact are the subject of debate among scientists and religionists, and the “in” theory changes from time to time. The fact that living things can change is indisputable. It might be useful to point out that the two brachiopod slabs could not have been produced by a flood. Floods do not put one kind of animal in one layer and a different kind of animal with the same size, mass, and density in another. Floods make a huge twisted mess of everything. This is one of the many problems with flood geology.

One of the major lessons that fossils have to tell us is the nature of the history of planet Earth. Evolution and much of geology has assumed that the nature of the history of the earth has been a constant history. The snappy way of saying this is “the present is the key to the past.” The idea is that, when we look at a rock or a fossil, we assume that the processes that produced what we are looking at have been processes that are still operational today. The processes may not have been functioning at the same rate that they are today, but that the processes are the same. That means that all of the earth has been shaped and molded by volcanoes, glaciers, earthquakes, landslides, flash floods, water erosion, wind erosion, weathering, etc. This assumption has been given the name uniformitarianism.

The alternative to this view would be that processes we do not see operational today have worked in the past and have been major players in shaping the earth. The biblical flood of Noah would certainly not be a uniformitarian event. The Bible actually tells us that God has created with consistency and uniformity (Numbers 23:19-20; Psalm 33:11; Psalm 119:89-91; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Deuteronomy 33:15; Psalm 104:5). The Bible also tells us that, on rare occasions, God has punctuated history with catastrophic events that have an effect on large sections of this planet or even on the entire earth. The flood of Noah is an example, as are the plagues in Egypt, the events when Jesus died, and certainly what will happen when He comes again.

What does the fossil record tell us about this question? There are many illustrations that can be given on this question, but the best, in this writer's opinion, is the extinction of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were wiped out along with numerous other plants and animals, by an event that is not taking place today. When studies were made of the deposits in which the last remains of the dinosaurs are found, it was discovered that there were large amounts of the elements iridium, osmium, and rhenium in the deposits. These elements are found on the earth in trace amounts, but they are found in the deposits of the rocks that contain evidence of the dinosaurs' destruction in concentrations 500 times higher than normal earth rocks. These elements are found in asteroids — large chunks of rocks from outer space. Most scientists now agree that, at the end of the time when the dinosaurs lived on the earth, a large asteroid hit the earth — perhaps off the Yucatan Peninsula. There are a number of facts that support this event, and the event would explain the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and other things that disappeared from the earth.

Here is a case where the Bible was thought to have been in error about the nature of events that have occurred in the past. As the evidence has become stronger, the integrity of the biblical record has been proven. Most fossils show us a past with conditions like what we see happening today, but God has interrupted his normally hospitable conditions with an occasional catastrophe which does have a significant affect upon life. The fossil record also shows that animals very different than animals living today have existed in the past — animals that we call dinosaurs. I have met people who wanted to deny that dinosaurs ever lived on this planet, but I have seen dried out specimens in the ground with skin on their bodies. I have looked at the dung of dinosaurs and I have seen how easy it is to tell what they ate — some of the dung being full of plant material, and some of it being full of the remains of the bodies of other animals. Most of the dinosaurs were very small animals being no larger than a collie, but I have seen the remains of huge animals dwarfing most land animals of today. It is interesting to note that the largest animal ever to have lived on this planet still lives on the earth today — the blue whale. The aorta of this giant animal is so large that you could swim through it. For land animals as large as a brontosaurus to have lived on the earth, the land must have been very different than it is today. Land plants that we know today would have a hard time reproducing and growing fast enough to satisfy these animals' food needs. The plants that the dinosaurs ate were gymnosperms — fast-growing plants like ferns and conifers. Temperatures must have been high to minimize metabolic problems in the animals.

In spite of these obvious problems, there have been those who have tried to maintain that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. The first time I heard of any claims like this was in reference to a park in Glen Rose, Texas. A man named Jake McFall who lived near the state park just outside of Glen Rose had been involved in a film titled Footprints in Stone in which human and dinosaur tracks were claimed to have been found in the same rock. For a nominal fee, Jake took me to the tracks and to a number of other tracks on his farm. The tracks were sandal shaped tracks some 16 inches long, with a few of them having erosion grooves in the front that looked a little like toes. The tracks were obviously not human tracks to me, but I went on to town and the Somerville County Museum where other materials were displayed. A local man who spent a great deal of time in the museum assured me the human tracks were not real.

During the next several years, I made many more trips to Glen Rose looking at other claimed tracks and even had contact with Carl Baugh who has attempted to keep this story alive. Gene Kuban, a science teacher in Waxahatche, Texas, released a study of the tracks in 1986 in which he demonstrated that, if one cut the rocks parallel to the surface of the ground, one could see that the tracks were clearly dinosaur tracks with a three-toed imprint at the bottom. The soft mud had fallen into the track leaving a sandal shaped impression that looked like a human footprint, but clearly was not. Everyone associated with the situation seemed to be in agreement. John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research was quoted in Time (June 30, 1986, page 75) as agreeing that there were no human tracks at Glen Rose and the film Footprints in Stone was withdrawn from circulation. There are still people today who are trying to maintain that humans and dinosaurs lived together, and films like Jurassic Park have not changed that view any. I believe that the major problem is that the only way certain religious views can be seriously entertained is to refuse to admit that the earth is much more than 6,000 years old, and that view requires dinosaurs and humans to be contemporaries.


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©1998, 2015 by John N. Clayton. All rights reserved.