Science in Christian Perspective



Fossils And Their Occurrence

From JASA 9 (March 1957): 2-10.


Some years ago a man brought a rock into one of the famous museums of our country and asked to have one of the scientists in that place examine it. Having been directed to the proper office, he at once laid his rock down on the desk and announced with pride, "I've got a fossil potato here."

The curator was accustomed to this sort of interruption of his work. He smiled, picked up the rock and expressed his regret that it was nothing more exciting than a brown and rounded chunk of a very common mineral. The owner was somewhat crestfallen, but after a further bit of conversation he thought of an argument which for him established his position and closed the case.

"It must be a fossil potato," he insisted. "I found it right in my vegetable garden."

The man with his "potato" obviously did not understand very much about the subject of paleontology, which is the study of fossils For benefit of those readers who wish to be better informed than he, the first portion of this chapter will be devoted to basic considerations of the subject.

The remains of, or the record made by an ancient living thing, constitute a fossil. The catch in this definition is the word "ancient," which is a very flexible one. In this context it is generally conceded to mean "Originating before the time of written history." Thus the footprint of some prankster in a cement sidewalk is not a fossil, but the footprint of a dinosaur is one.

Ordinarily when an animal dies, its flesh is eaten by scavengers, its hide and bones crumble under the combined attack of sun, rain, bacteria and chemicals. Dead plant material also decomposes and vanishes quickly. Under these conditions no fossil could form. But if the dead organism were to be protected from such thorough destruction, there would be the possibility that some record of it might remain through the ages. Quick burial in a favorable medium affords such protection. The sedentary clam living in an estuary, and overwhelmed with mud during a spring flood; the hapless beast mired in an asphalt pool; the unwary insect trapped in a secretion of resin: all of these are potential fossils. Dry sand and cave deposits also may provide protective environments. Some fossils have been preserved in more rare media, such as ice and its opposite extreme, lava. This latter occurrence is almost incredible, but it happened at least once, for a Washington rhinoceros engulfed in molten rock left

*PreliminarY draft of one chapter In a forthcoming Sympodum to be published by the American scientific Affiliation.

behind some charred bones and the imprint of its skin in the cavity which marks where it once lay.

Those animals which possess hard parts stand the best chance of leaving behind some documentation of their existence. Fossils of entirely soft-bodied creatures have been discovered, but it is more surprising that any such animals have escaped total destruction than that so few of them have been preserved.

All fossils belong to one of two categories: they are either the direct remains of living things, or they are less direct evidence of this previous existence.

Remains.-The great museums of natural history in our country display reconstructions of many prehistoric animals. Often the animals have a setting which portrays the sort of enviroment in which they most probably lived. In order to make such scenes accurately it is necessary for scientists to study in detail every clue that the fossil record will yield. This is very painstaking work, and it would be a great convenience if more animals had been preserved in their natural condition. Unfortunately, actual remains are among the most rare of fossils. Perhaps the best known example is the hairy mammoths, ancient relatives of the elephant, which have been found in arctic countries with their very flesh perfectly preserved in ice and frozen soil.

By far the majority of fossils belong to the category of altered remains. These are the bones and shells which have been subjected to chemical processes in nature and have been slightly or entirely changed in composition. It is easiest to think of alteration as always involving either chemical addition or subtraction or a combination of these. What happens in any given situation depends upon the particular chemicals which waters moving through the ground carry to the potential fossil.

Bones seem to be particularly susceptible to chemical addition. This means that spaces in the bone become filled in with new material so that the end product weighs considerably more than the original, which it may otherwise resemble closely.

Shells, like bones, may remain chemically intact; but very often they are subject to "subtraction," which leaves a beautiful network of crystalline lace. Leaves and soft parts of animals, and sometimes even hard parts, may be subject to chemical subtraction which results in a thin film of carbon, often showing in faithful detail the structure of the original.

When subtraction and addition are combined, the resulting fossil is called a "replacement." The majority of direct remains exhibit some degree of this process.

The end result may show forth the details of the original, but it is not uncommon for the details to become obscured or obliterated.

Evidences.-A certain little-used trail in the Grand Canyon of Arizona leads the hiker across an area of great sloping slabs of cream colored sandstone. Here he discovers that he is not the first living thing to cross that sand. His feet make no imprint on the long-hardened rock, but impressed distinctly into its surfaces there are footprints, tiny impressions of scurrying four-footed animals, made when the sand was soft. Although the lizards responsible have long since vanished, so clear is the record of their presence here that one can almost imagine them hiding under a sheltering bush until the intruder passes by. Foot-prints, tracks and trails, baked by the sun and buried beneath new layers of sand and mud, reveal important information about animals of bygone days.

Footprints are in reality a type of mold, an impression produced in some receptive material so as to correspond to the contours of a particular object. However, there are other sorts of molds, such as impressions of the inner and outer surfaces of a shell. Internal impressions are particularly valuable in conveying information about the soft parts of long extinct animals.

Fossils are not equally distributed throughout the rocks of all time. The very oldest rocks, belonging to what is called the first era of geologic time, have never yielded any fossils. Those of the second era have scarcely more to contribute. But from the opening of the third era and onward the rocks bear testimony to the existence of abundant and diversified living things.

Fossils are found all over the world. Of course they are embedded for the most part in sandstone, shale and limestone layers, since such rocks were once sediment favorable for burying the organisms. However, the density of fossil distribution varies greatly from place to place, even within the same layer, and some sedimentary layers contain few or no fossils. There is a thick formation of sandstone which has been traced from Wisconsin to Missouri and studied rather thoroughly by experts, and yet in all that volume of rock only a meagre handful of fossils has turned up.

Down through the centuries men have regarded fossils as objects of special interest and have speculated with much imagination as to their origin. The ancient Greeks often attributed fossils to some sort of inorganic 11plasSc" force which had produced them in the rocks. However, some minds were ahead of their times. As early as the sixth century B. C. the philosopher Xenophanes, having seen shells and fish skeletons in mountains and quarries of Mediterranean islands, came to the conclusion that there must have been former advances of the sea over the region. Other thinkers independently attributed sea shells found far inland to periods of oceanic flooding. It is plain that such men regarded fossils as of organic origin, but their reasoning seems to have made little impact on others.

The notion of a plastic force persisted through the centuries and flourished during the Middle Ages when other similar ideas also gained favor. Many people thought that fossils were casualties of nature's struggle to produce living things by one method or another.

It was really Leonardo da Vinci, the artist and engineer, who touched off the great controversy whereby fossils came into their own. In the year 1500 while he was directing canal digging operations in northern Italy, he came across great quantities of ancient shells. These, he argued, must have belonged to animals once living there. Successive generations apparently had been overwhelmed by mud, and da Vinci described a process of replacement whereby the shells had been preserved. Perhaps because of the thorough consideration he gave these shells, the "organic theory" of fossils attracted attention as never before. Others began to write on the subject, and in 1565 a Swiss, Conrad Gesner, published * what has been called "the first account of 'fossils' in essentially the modern sense,"1 although he did include items which would not fall within the definition of fossils today.2

The times were ripe for scientific advance, but the new science of paleontology met head-on with the accepted teaching that the earth was but a few thousand years old, a span of time which apparently left no room for the slow process of fossilization. Many people clung to the old beliefs or invented new ones. Perhaps "God, Himself, while learning the trade of creating, first made models out of earth; those which satisfied Him were changed into living beings and the rest, or sketches, became stony foSSilS."3 Or perhaps fossils were the work of the Devil to delude man. At any rate, as late as 1696 a German medical faculty declared certain fossil bones to be merely a "freak of nature," and more than one hundred years later the same sort of opinion was being taken very seriously in the New World.

As facts of geology and paleontology were amassed, attention was focused upon the possibility of attributing all fossils (and thus their enclosing rocks) to the great flood described in Genesis. This was very acceptable, for each fossil discovery could now be hailed as confinnation of the Scriptures instead of as a threat to their integrity.

"Flood geology" has continued to find favor in some religious circles down to the present time, but it has long since been considered untenable by the great body of geologists, and by the students of Genesis, unwarranted.

                              Modern Period

The century from 1758 to 1859 (Linnaeus to Darwin) was crucial in the development of paleontology. It was the time of rapid accumulation of biological data, without which there could be no real understanding of fossils. The concept that living things fall into groups-within-groups was developing, and the Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, succeeded in crystallizing this into a workable system of classification which still stands today. The Linnaean classification proved to be equally applicable to both living and fossil forms, but it eventually pointed up the fact that in spite of over-all resemblances, fossils generally could not be placed in the same species as present-day types of life. In other words, the fact of the rise and extinction of species made its first impact on the scientific world and paved the way for an acceptance of evolutionary theory.

Geology, too, was advancing rapidly during this period. The discovery that the various layers of rock contain their own distinctive association of fossils raised legitimate doubt concerning the occurrence of a single chaotic period of drowning and burial as accounting for - all fossils. The new knowledge also meant that scattered outcrops of rock could be recognized as belonging to the same layer by their fossil content as well as by other features. This knowledge was first applied in 1815 for tracing cross country appearances and relationships of certain English, strata. With that particular study fossils passed from their old status as relics of judgment to that of valuable tools in building up the geologic picture of the world.


Emergence of the Theory

The Fixity of Species Concept.-

Before the eighteenth century, men were easily persuaded to believe in the frequent spontaneous generation of living things from non-living. Another favored idea of the time was that off-spring could be totally different in kind from the parental type. Not until scientific experimentation had advanced sufficiently to demonstrate, for example, that drops of water could not turn into "little green frogs" were such ideas overthrown. When it could no longer be doubted that plants and animals bred true to type, scientists rebounded to another extreme in their thinking and postulated that each of these types originally had come directly forth from the hands of God and had experienced no variation from that time to the present. This is the concept of fixity of species.

This doctrine seemed easily compatible with the Genesis record of Creation, and it was thus in a position to receive ardent support from devout men of science. Accordingly, it became very popular.

Linnaeus, whose system of classification we have mentioned above, was one of the outstanding advocates of fixity of species, and he "constantly endeavored to strengthen this opinion by his classification of fauna and flora, yet his work, in the end, had just the opposite effect."4 As more and more plants and animals were collected in newly up-springing museums, students found that it was no simple matter to determine what actually constituted one definite species. Strong resemblances and intergradations were found to occur frequently, necessitating the drawing of arbitrary lines of separation. This did not lend support to the idea that all kinds of living things had been created distinct and had persisted without change to the present.

Undaunted by these difficulties, Baron Cuvier, a most capable and outstanding French zoologist, continued to affirm faith in the fixity of species. He was thoroughly familiar with vertebrate animals, and although he could not deny that strong resemblances did exist among them, he refused to admit that resemblance was any indication of physical relationship between groups. He preferred to regard them as variations on a theme by the Creator. Under his forceful leadership the concept of fixity was slow to die, even though more and more evidence was accumulating which made it a highly vulnerable position.

Such a divided state of affairs could not continue indefinitely. There was great need for the appearance of some sort of unifying theory which might reasonably explain the intergradation of species, as well as their rise and extinction with the passage of time. The appearance of the theory of evolution was inevitable.

The Role of Fossils in Evolutionary Theory.-As applied to organisms, the term tievolution" may have various shades of meaning. In its simplest and most narrow sense it refers to any descent with modification, the development of variations from an ancestral type. "Organic evolution may be defined as orderly change among organisms, both plants and animals."S In its broadest sense evolution conveys the idea that "From some geologically remote, primitive form of life all the diverse kinds of plants and animals have developed by gradual and orderly change. All creatures are genetically related. . ."6

Since both of these definitions include a time element, it would seem that the natural starting point of the theory would have been the fossil record showing the stages which transpired from the past to the present. This was not the case. That it was not is probably due to the fact that geologic chronology was insufficiently formulated and the order in which new forms of life had appeared on the earth was imperfectly known. Under these conditions the gradual change exhibited by fossil forms with the passing of time would have been much less obvious than the intergradation between living types. Nevertheless, we should not think that the records of ancient life did not influence the early evolutionists at all, because as Louis T. More has pointed out, "If we had not found fossils which were different from existing species, our argument for evolution would be academic, to say the least."7

The first really significant work on evolution was that of J. B. Lamarck which reached the attention of the world in 1801. The monumental studies he carried out in seeking to apply the Linnaean classification to all the "animals without backbones" included fossils. Gradually there unfolded before him a panorama which led him to abandon his earlier view of fixity of species in favor of variations developing over long periods of time. But, "Though he studied fossils and used them to support his evolutionary views, that development came late in his life and was a consequence rather than a cause of his advocacy of evolution."8

Charles Darwin likewise was aware of fossils, but in his "Origin of Species" ". . his discussion of them is introduced by a chapter entitled, "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record," which seems to indicate that he felt the contradictions offered by fossils to his theory more keenly than he felt their support. Nevertheless he believed wholeheartedly that descent with modification had gone on throughout geologic time, for he wrote, "Hereafter we shall be compelled to acknowledge that the only distinction between species and wellmarked varieties is, that the latter are known, or believed, to be connected at the present day by intermediate gradations, whereas species were formerly thus connected."10

Intensive study of the fossil record during the past century has brought to light much new and more detailed information. There has been a corresponding increase in emphasis upon it as the most reliable evidence that evolution has actually taken place. Julian Huxley comments, "Primary and direct evidence in favour of evolution can be furnished only by palaeontology."11 One writer of a geology text book has said, "Although the comparative study of living animals and plants may give very convincing circumstantial evidence, fossils provide the only historical, documentary evidence that life has evolved from simpler to more and more complex forms."12

The Fossil Record

It is plain, then, that evolutionists feel that the fossil record validates their position. Only a thorough and impartial study of the facts can reveal the extent to which such a feeling is justified. However, in this chapter we shall only attempt to illustrate the sort of situations which are commonplace.

Life assumes myriad forms upon the earth today. Nevertheless, it is possible, though not always easy, to fit these forms into groups, the members of which resemble one another more than they resemble the members of other groups. Thus we can discriminate between the plant and animal kingdoms, and within these kingdoms we can organize major subdivisions known as phyla. The phyla in turn are composed of smaller groups, on down to the level of species and their variations. Because of this grouping within groups, any individual plant or animal is simultaneously a member of a species, a genus, a family, an order, a class and a phylum.

The fossil record is the story of the rise and fall of species, Oldest known fossils are sketchy indications of sponges, worms, sea weeds and jelly fish, but beginning with the point in geologic time known as the Cambrian period (the opening of the third era) the aspect changes from one of scarcity to one of abundance. Not only have Cambrian rocks yielded a large number of individual specimens, but representatives of a large number of diverse groups. In fact, the majority of phyla of invertebrate animals and many of their classes make their first appearance here.

Sucessively younger rocks contain even more abundant fossils, but they are not identical with those of the Cambrian. Sometimes the differences are so great that the plant or animal is classified in a group not previously encountered in the record: it is a new species introducing a new phylum or a major sub-division of an already existing phylum. Sometimes the differences are small enough that the new type can be regarded as a new species within an already existing genus.

Animals with backbones accord a simple illustration. Such creatures are unknown among the fossils of Cambrian time, but in the rocks of the following period there are fragments of a peculiar type of fish. These fish constitute several new species, but the possession of a backbone is so distinctive a characteristic that these species must be placed in a phylum separate from any previously encountered in the record. Thus the Vertabrata have their origin.

In rocks of later periods of time, species of other types of vertebrates are found and require the erection of new classes within the phylum: amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals in that order. Although these classes have persisted from their time of origin to the present, there has been a procession of different species maintaining them. Early forms such as dinosaurs and toothed birds seem bizarre when viewed from the standpoint of the familiar reptiles and birds of today.

The many invertebrate phyla exhibit the same phenomenon of the appearance in post-Cambrian time of new species which require the erection of classes and orders to accommodate them. Conversely, many species have become extinct subsequent to their appearance, and sometimes even higher groups disappear from the record, though no phylum has been known to lose all of its constituent species.

For example we shall consider a portion of the Class Anthozoa of the Phylum Coelenterata. To this class belong the host of forms popularly called corals. No fossils of this class are known from Cambrian time, but they make their appearance in the layers of the next period. On the basis of their skeletal structure and manner of growth these early corals can be divided rather readily into two sub-classes which persisted through numerous geologic periods until all of the species comprising one of them (the Tabulata, according to the classification by Raymond C. Moore) died out. The other sub-class (Moore's Zoantharia) continued to the present time.

A study was made of certain of the corals (Sub-class Zoantharia.) which were distributed through a thickness of 4,000 feet of ancient strata in Scotland. Representative samples were taken from four successive horizons of the strata in order from older to younger. All of the corals studied belonged to one genus, but to four different species within that genus. For the sake of simplicity we shall refer to these species as A, B, C and D.

In the lower or older layers species A, B and C were present. However, 69% of the individuals were of species A and the rest were species B except f or one single specimen of species C.

At the next horizon A was virtually absent, B had dropped to 37% of the total individuals, C had risen to 69% and D made its first appearance with a strength of 28% of the total. 

At the third horizon A and B were insignificant, C dropped to 20% and D was not the dominant form.

At the fourth horizon the proportion was about 57o C to 95% D.

A living coral impresses its structure, and configuration very distinctly upon its skeleton. As the animal grows, new skeletal deposits faithfully reflect the changes which occur. This means that by careful sectioning of the skeleton, it is possible to reconstruct the stages through which any individual passed en route to maturity. Examination of the corals from the sequence we are citing shows that species B passed through growth stages which correspond to the later and mature stages of species A. Species C passed through stages nearly identical to the mature forms of species A and B, in that order before reaching its own distinctive mature stage. Likewise, species D incorporated the mature f orms of species B and C in its growth.

Here, then, is an intergraded series of adult corals which with the exception of species B, succeed one another as dominant forms in a sequence of populations. It is quite possible that all of these should be assigned to one species instead of four. Modern paleontologic practice would emphasize that although "species" D differs appreciably from "species" A, there is no real discontinuity from one to the other; "species" B and C are simply arbitrary units that only exist because samples were taken from four horizons in the strata instead of having one continuous sample.13 However, this is still a good example of the rise and fall of successive types such as is encountered repeatedly in the fossil record.

Similar, but on a larger scale, is the case of the order to which the corals just discussed belong. No new species of this order are known subsequent to the close of the third era of geologic time, nor was there any carry-over of the previously extantones. The sub-class to which the order belonged continued to be represented but by entirely new species which must be placed in a new order.

Interpretation of the Evidence

It is in the light of such evidence that the question of whether or not evolution has occurred must be faced. There are three alternatives: Either 1) all species and varieties, living and fossil, are totally unrelated to one another; or, 2) all species are related by descent from one ancestral form of life; or 3) there is a limited amout of relationship among species because there has been more than one ancestral type.

Total Lack of Relationship-The idea that no species are or ever have been related to one another has already been mentioned as "the fixity of species" concept. The implication of this position is that each separate species was a direct creation of God and has maintained its identity from the beginning of the existence of life on the earth. A vast amount of understanding has arisen from the proximity of the concepts of "God" and 4(no variation" in this viewpoint. Many have thus presumed that any belief in a special or supernatural creation of life carries as a necessary corollary the fixity of species. It is the equating of creative activity on God's part with a strict lack of relationship among living things that has often led well-meaning Christians into positions of dogmatism and made them a needless target for ridicule. An example of this confusion is found in a standard textbook of geology, which reads, ". . .(Special) Creation assumes that each kind of animal and plant was 'molded from the dust of the Earth' and 'given the breath of life' in its present form, each being a 'special' and independent creation."14 What the author has really defined is fixity of species. It is certainly possible to believe in a special creation without believing this.

It is easy to see that fixity of s pecies is an unsatisfactory explanation of the fossil record on many counts. For example, as pointed out above, even those who held rigidly to it encountered difficulty in the attempt to recognize the supposedly distinct species. Shall corals A to D be considered as four species, or one? The Linnaean practice was to classify plants and animals purely on the basis of similarities to and differences from an ideal (and generally non-existent) type. This would most probably favor the erection of four species at the cost of disregarding both the striking similarities of growth stages which all pass through and the progressive sequence exhibited by the dominant forms of the successive layers. These things must then be attributed to coincidence or to the whim of God, neither of which is particularly credible.

If corals A to D were regarded as one species, then it would be ridiculous to talk about fixity. The group would be exhibiting more internal variation than could be compatible with the idea of undeviating forms.set forth from the hand of the Creator.

The origin of such a form as coral D also presents a problem to proponents of fixity. Since D was not found in the lowest layer of the series, it is necessary to say that it immigrated from elsewhere. Again, the fact that it arrived just in time to become the dominant form culminating a progressive sequence must have been merely fortuitous.

Invoking immigration to account for the appearance of new forms was the idea to which the learned Cuvier clung. His pupil, Louis Agassiz, recognized some of the difficulties inherent in it, and he proposed that new forms were direct creations of God which came into being. subsequent to the original Creation. Both of these men believed in cataclysmic floods as accounting for the extinction of any group and thus preparing the way for immigration or re-creation.

Accumulation of geologic and paleontologic data made it obvious that a fantastic number of cataclysms and re-creations would be required to account for the facts, and this school of "catastrophism" fell into disrepute by the middle of the nineteenth century. Cuvier, Agassiz and their followers were the last scientists who made any serious attempt to champion the cause of fixity of species.

Ultimate Relationship of all Liz4ng Things.-Diametrically opposed to the concept of fixity of species is the belief that all things which have ever lived have been related to one another through a meshwork of common ancestry. This is the most comprehensive form of evolutionary theory and is what is usually meant by that term.

It is easy to understand why so many students of paleontology feel that the ultimate conclusion urged upon them by the facts is the relationship of all things. Considering the case cited of corals, even the most conservative person would have little hesitation about regarding members of species A to D as close relatives. The strong resemblances and the carry-over from one population to the next in this and other examples implies that the successive species had much in common genetically, so much so that "to decide where in a graded series to draw a specific boundary is a vexing if not insoluble problem."15

The original Linnaean concept of classification was essentially devoid of any idea of relationship through descent. The modern concept is that members of a group are similar to one another because they are related. If this makes sense for a sequence such as the corals, how far shall the principle be extended? If all the species of a given genus are related, and all the genera of a given family are related, where or why shall a line be drawn to say "This group is totally unrelated to that one."

The evolutionist feels that such line drawing is artificial, even when it is not possible to demonstrate the intermediate forms whereby one group received its inheritance from another. Darwin wrote, ". . J cannot doubt that the theory of descent with modification embraces all the members of the same great class or kingdom. I believe that animals are descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step farther, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants are descended from some one prototype."16 Writing in 1951, G. G. Simpson states. "No one seriously doubts that the whole of life has factually been a continuum of populations when the whole sequence is considered, in spite of the innumerable discontinuities in the record."17

Limited Relationship. In spite of Simpson's sweep ing assertion, there are some who seriously doubt that the whole life has been a continuum of populations. Since the fossil record opens with the majority of phyla already in existence, it is at least permissible to question the assumption that in earlier ages these phyla con verged backward toward one primeval ancestor. Also, within the phyla there are many discontinuities between various groups of species. This is illustrated by the two orders of corals mentioned above, one becoming ex tinct at the close of the third era, the other appearing in the fourth era. The question then arises whether these groups had a common ancestor in Cambrian or Pro-Cambrian time and one group simply did not secrete skeletons capable of fossilization until late in its history; or whether species of the second group are descended from those of the first but the intermediate forms have not been found; or whether the two orders represent lineages which have always been genetically distinct but within which there has been ample variation. This latter interpretation. of course, would fall under the heading of "limited relationship," the hypoth esis that various groups arose independently of others and have undergone considerable internal modification.

Another example of discontinuity comes from the angiosperms or plants which bear covered seeds. This great group, which includes grasses, flowers and hardwood trees, appears very suddenly in the fossil record, late in the fourth era. Its ancestry is one of the puzzles of paleontology. A recent student has commented, "Answers might be found more readily if the ancestral group or groups were known within the gymnosperms, or if, within the record of the angiosperms themselves there were fossils which pointed to these groups. But it is now generally conceded that no known type, fossil or living, can fill this key position."18

Such discontinuities or gaps are frequent at the level of orders, more frequent at the level of classes and almost invariable between phyla. The thoroughgoing evolutionist will frankly admit that on the higher levels, "transitional sequences are not merely rare, but are virtually absent" and that this absence "does require some attempt at special explanation."19 The explanation takes the form that transitional types between major groups could not be expected as fossils, or at most would be very rare finds. This is attributed to the probability that transitional forms must have been few in number and undergoing very rapid change. Since fossilization is at best so fortuitous an event, it would be extremely unlikely that any but a very f ew of the transitional f orms would have been preserved, and still more unlikely that any would be found today.

In speaking of these who emphasize the sudden appearance of new forms, Simpson writes, "We know as a fact that change often occurred gradually through successive populations overlapping in variation. We know that this is a possible explanation for all changes shown in the fossil record. We also know as a fact that abrupt change often did not occur. We do not know positively that it ever occurred. Is it logical to conclude that the latter process was usual or important in evolution?"20 Although he has reference here to those evolutionists who do not agree with his conviction that life evolved always by gradual changes, his remarks also have pertinence for those who favor the concept of limited relationships.

The idea of limited relationship is not new. In the quotation given above Darwin indicated his feeling that this is where the facts led and that further relationship could only be inferred by analogy. He then admitted, "But analogy may be a deceitful guide."21 Nevertbeless, this possible deception apparently did not worry him much! 

It is possible, if not very edifying, to quibble extensively over whether the concept of limited relationship is not actually just a conservative form of the theory of organic evolution. The thorough-going evolutionist will declare that in the long run it makes little difference whether there was one original ancestor or several. In either case forces have been in operation which have modified the descendants and given rise to new species, which is the essential point. However, if evolution is so defined as to indicate that all living things have sprung from one type, then the concept of limited relationship cannot be considered an evolutionary theory. However, if evolution is so defined as to indicate that all living things have sprung from one type, then the concept of limited relationship cannot be considered an evolutionary theory.

It should be made clear that those who subscribe o limited relationship do not venture to say how many original types there may have been. This is, after all, rather immaterial to the position.

What Do Fossils Prove?

We have seen that evolutionists regard the fossil record as a final court of appeal in substantiation of theory. Whatever difficulties there may he in determining the how and why of evolution from the study of living things, always the evidence of the fossils stands to confirm the fact that multitudinous changes have occurred through the ages. It is in this light that fossils are often referred to as "the documents of evolution," as, for example, in the following quotation., "In the study of embryology and comparative anatomy we have only circumstantial evidence of evolution, but in the fossil remains of evolving series we have the actual documentary evidence that the changes have occurred."22 The logical fallacy of this particular statement is apparent, for the thing to be proved is already assumed, i. e.  you cannot appeal to "evolving series" of fossils as proof of evolution.

In all honesty it must be conceded that fossil series, too, are circumstantial evidence which permit an evolutionary interpretation-and many feel even demand it-but cannot in and of themselves close the issue. To a large extent the basic philosophy of an individual will enter into his consideration of the fossil record. As one professor of paleontology remarked, "You can 'prove' almost anything you want to from fossils."

The paleontologist cannot experiment with his data as can the biologist He is limited to observing that certain forms occurred at such a time and place, subsequently they were joined or replaced by other similar or dissimilar forms. He can and does analyze populations of fossils statistically; he can examine fossil progressions in the light of modern genetic knowledge; he can study the relationship of newly appearing forms to the environment in which they flourished; he can decide what interpretations and conclusions seem most compatible with the data and most reasonable to him. But in the last analysis he is still dealing with probabilities, not with empirical evidence.

We turn to Shull, a modern defender of evolution, for an appraisal of the situation. He declares, after reviewing the fossil record for his readers, "Biologists have assumed genetic continuity because the alternative explanations have seemed incredible or impossible."23 (Italics ours). This is as fair a statement as one will find anywhere on this subject.

Fossils do not prove evolution. Neither do they disprove it. They certainly strongly suggest that a considerable amount of descent with modification has transpired. They also exhibit a lack of transitional forms which may or may not be significant of limits of relationship.

Fossils And Special Revelation

It is commonplace in geologic and paleontologic literature for the authors to mention the supposed futility of seeking correlation between the fossil record and the scriptural record of life's origin. For them modern geologic knowledge has consigned all such investigation to the level of medieval thinking and those who accept the Biblical account are dismissed with sarcastic comment, or at best pity.

It is safe to assert that the majority of those who thus scoff do so because they believe in evolution, and on the other hand, regard Genesis as teaching the fixity of species which were created in six days some 6,000 years ago. Louis T. More in his critique of evolution says Genesis presents "an undoubted denial of the transmutation of species."24

A careful and unprejudiced study of Genesis, chapter one is essential to establish what actually is said and, equally important, what is not said, as it has bearing upon the fossil record.

On the positive side, Genesis primarily points out that God is the Initiator of the myriad forms of life on earth in their original condition. The account of this activity of His is general, not specific. A few representative groups of plants and animals are mentioned. They are presented as appearing successively, not contemporaneously. There is progress from plant life through to those forms of animal life which we regard as "higher," culminating in man. They are fashioned so as to reproduce "after their kind."

There are strong hints in the account that God's creative activity was a process involving time and materials. In the case of man this is definitely indicated, but literal translation also points to it in the other phases of creation. In connection with plants the words say literally, "the earth caused to go forth grass of herbage," etc.25 In connection with land animals we are shown the interaction of God's activity with the process which He ordained: God said, "The earth shall cause to go forth living soul ... and God made the beast of the earth."26

Certainly none of this is at variance with the testimony of fossils.

There is much left unsaid in the Genesis account. In its grand outlines we are not told how long ago God began His creative activity, but merely that it was "in the beginning."

The account does not state that the various groups mentioned appeared with their full complement of constituent types and members, nor is any indication given of the time involved in attaining this complement. For example, although the "beasts of the earth" were caused to appear at some specific point in time, there is nothing which demands the belief that all types of animals which ever fit this general category appeared at that very time. Again, when God finished creating the group "mankind" there were only two individuals in it. The many races of mankind which exist today must have developed subsequently.

The possible degree of variation within the groups mentioned is not discussed, but the injunction to reproduce according to kind could not possibly indicate fixity of species. The word translated "kind" is a very broad one and is not the equivalent of the modern technical term "species."

The record does not even mention sea plants nor invertebrate animals. These striking omissions certainly indicate that Genesis One was not intended to be a comprehensive survey but only a suggestive outline.

On all of these points there is no lack of harmony between fossils and the sacred revelation. What is unequivocal in each can be accepted freely without undermining or detracting from the other. The points of friction between them are thus reduced to two considerations which can be presented in the forin of questions: 1) What is the meaning of the six days of Genesis One? 2) How much, if any, descent with modification is implicit in the phrase, "after its kind"?

It is not within the scope of this chapter to discuss the already much-discussed word "day," with all of its possible meanings. Suffice it to point out that the Scripture does not say there were six immediately consecutive days on which instantaneous and complete creation occurred. Therefore there is no real conflict with the appearance of different fossil forms at different times throughout long ages: To the present authoe a plausible view is that the days in question were literal ones upon which God revealed some phase of His creative activity to a particular individual who presented them arranged according to topic and in poetic form, Others deplore this viewpoint, and it is certainly not the only acceptable one.27

In connection with the phrase "after its kind" we have emphasized that this cannot refer to species as we regard them. Therefore it must describe some other sort of genetic boundary or situation. Since the fossil record does contain profound and persistent gaps between otherwise reasonably complete sequences, it is an easy step to equate the genetic boundaries (if such they be) with these gaps. Then Scripture allows and fossils show considerable descent with modifidation. In this view, which will be recognized as an adaptation of "limited relationship," each gap indicates a point where God intervened directly to start a new group on its way.

The chief objection to this view is that it is based on negative evidence, that is, absence of fossils. However, not even the most ardent evolutionary paleontologist anticipates that more than a few of the missing forms will ever be filled in by further discoveries. He crosses the gaps by faith in the principle of evolution because that seems a more realistic recourse to him than to invoke direct intervention from God.

We can never be entirely certain just which gaps or discontinuities of record are real and which reflect the insufficiency of fossil collections. Likewise, one can never be dogmatic concerning just where the various groups of Genesis One fit into modern classification.

It is entirely possible that the phrase "after its kind" refers to some laws of reproduction whose functioning is not necessarily discernible from the fossil record. If this is the case, there is no limitation at all upon the amount of evolution which could be compatible with the Genesis account. The phrases "God said .. the earth caused and God made" may well refer to evolutionary processes with the emphasis upon the fact that "without Him was not anything made that was made."28

In conclusion we may state that fossils give absolutely no ground for losing faith in the inspired character of the Genesis chronicle. Neither do they provide startling confirmation of it. Perhaps the most that can be said is that these two are complementary aspects of the same truths.


1. Carey Croneis and William C. Krumbein, Down to Earth, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1937, p. 222.

2. George Gaylord Simpson, Life of the Past, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1953, p. 7.

3. Louis T. More, The Dogmas of Evolution, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1925, p. 132.

4 * Ibid. p. 134.

5. William J. Miller, An Introduction to Historical Geology, New York, D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., 1952, p. 25.

6. Carl 0. Dunbar, Historical Geology, New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1949, p. 58.

7. Louis T. More, op. cit. p. 13.

8. A. Franklin Shull, Evolution, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1936, p. 43.

9. Ibid. p. 43.

10. Julian Huxley, The Living Thoughts of Darwin, Philadelphia, David McKay Co., p. 25-26.

11. Collected Essays, vol. VIII, "Discourses Bio logical and Geological," p. 297, quoted by Louis T. More, op. cit.

12. Carl 0. Dunbar, op. cit., p. 52.

13. For a simplified discussion of this problem see Simpson, op. cit. chapter 7.

14. Carl 0. Dunbar, op. cit., p. 58.

15._____The Species Concept: Further Discussion," Evolution, Vol. IV, No. Z June 1950, p. 175.

16. Julian Huxley, Living Thoughts, p. 52.

17. George Gaylord Simpson, "The Species Concept," Evolution, Vol. V, No. 4. Dec., 1951, p. 292.

18. Daniel 1. Axelrod, "A Theory of Angiosperm Evolution," Evolution, Vol. VI, No. 1, March, 1952, p. 29,

19. George Gaylord Simpson, Tempo and Mode in Evolution, New York, Columbia University Press, 1944, p. 106.

20. ____, Life of the Past, P. 124.

21. Julian Huxley, Living Thoughts, p. 52.

22. Carl 0. Dunbar, Historical Geology, p. 63.

23. A. Franklin Shull, op. cit. p. 65.

24. Louise T. More, op. cit., p. 87.

25. P. J. Wiseman, Creation Revealed in Six Days, London, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, Ltd., 1949, p. 122,

26. Ibid. p. 118, 122.

27. For a discussion of various interpretations see Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, and Wiseman, op. cit.

Z8. The Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 3.


Carruthers, R. G., On the Evolution of zaphrentis delanouei in Lower Carboniferous Times. Geological Society of London Quarterly journal, vol. 66, pp. 523-53&

Clark, Robert E. D., Darwin: Before and After, London, The Paternoster Press, 1950.

Moore, R. C., Lalicker, Cecil G., and Fischer, Alfred G., Invertebrate Fossils, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1952.