Science in Christian Perspective



An Evaluation Of The Fossil Record

From: JASA 11 (December 1959):

If you have ever sat in the shade of western yellow pines and tried to write about fossils you can feel how I felt when I wrote this. A vireo is singing his monotonous phrases, a flycatcher has failed to find the insects buzzing around me and a kingfisher rattles crosslots on his way to the creek. All I see is alive except the pre-Cambrian rocks on which I sit. They contain no fossil animals, or at least none that everybody agrees is a real fossil, although I read that "there is no serious dispute that algae do occur from at least the middle part of the long pre-Cambrian span onward."1

About a half mile from here is a cliff of redish brown standstone of Cambrian age. In this same Cambrian in various parts of the world are found fossils of all the major groups of animals, except backboned ones. There are single celled animals, brachiopods (which resemble clams which exchanged their side shells for top and bottom ones), starfish-like creatures, mollusks, and the jointed-leggers, of which the trilobites are an outstanding example. Do not think any of these appeared suddenly for the Cambrian period lasted a long time and these groups, which we call Phyla, came in at various times over some millions of years. It is striking that the jointed legged ones (called arthopods) are found in the same stratum as the single celled ones (which are called protozoa).

You readily notice that we have an abundance of fossils when we get any at all. We know nothing from the record of the rocks about the supposed progression from the first living thing up to the protozoan and this change "was probably the most complex that has occurred in evolution, and it may well have taken as long as the change from protozoan to man."2 But we have in the fossil record much information about what has been here after the first members of the major groups, or phyla, were fossilized.

Because you wish more detail than I can give you in this paper, you will read, "The Meaning of Evolution" by George Gaylord Simpson, who was chairman of the department of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and professor of vertebrate paleontology at Columbia University and is now at the Harvard Museum. He is a frequent contributor to the popular and technical literature dealing with

*This paper was first presented at the 1957 Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation but publication was delayed since the program chairman was holding it in an attempt to obtain a cross-section of critiques to accompany it. Not realizing this objective In full, It is felt desirable to publish It now to coincide with the A.S.A. Centennial Volume on Darwin.

the significance of fossils and he is obviously honest, for if there is any doubt about what he is saying, he will suggest the qualification of his belief on the spot. For example, he wrote, "I am trying to pursue a science that is beginning to have a good many practitioners but that has no name: the science of four-dimensional biology or of time and life. Fossils are pertinent to this field when they are treated as historical records (paleontologists do not always treat them So.")3 Another example:

You realize that he knows his own limitations as well as those of his co-workers.

As you read some of Simpson's books you will be impressed with two ideas. One is how much we do know about fossils and the other is how much we really do not know after all. Consider what seem to be fairly certain conclusions from paleontological observations.

First, species can change into other species. I quote Simpson and he can list for you many examples. "Among the examples are many in which, beyond the slightest doubt, a species or a genus has been gradually transformed into another."5 Also he writes, "Splitting and subsequent gradual divergence of species is also exemplified... "6 Some of you may still doubt this. If you wade through one of his books you will at least be less sure that your doubt is justified.

Second, the members of families and orders had their origin in a common ancestor. Consider the record of the horse along with the ass and the zebra It belongs to the family called Equidae. It is a reasonable belief that all these sprang from the same ancestral stock. If you do not accept this belief, you are holding to one which is less simple, that is, one which would demand more specific creations, and you would be saying that hereditary transformations cannot pro duce the changes required. Let us admit that no one ac tually knows what the hereditary sequence in the lineage of horses really was. We are dealing, not with precise facts, but with greater or lesser probabilities. Nevertheless, we should be willing to admit the possibility that the ancient horse (Eohippus) was the remote grandparent of the modern horse (Equus). We should admit it because there are so many stages and such gradual stages between Eohippus and Equus and the best explanation for slightly different stages is that they are related to one another by descent.

As more specimens accumulate, and more missing links are found, it may be more and more evident that whole families do arise from species.

Here is Simpson's summary of the second point. "Gradual transformation is also fairly well exemplified for subfamilies and occassionally for families, as the groups are commonly ranked."7

Third, as Simpson states,

In spite of these examples, it remains true, as every paleontologist knows, that most new species, genera, and families and that nearly all new categories above the level of families appear in the record suddenly and are not led up to by known, gradual, completely continuous transitional sequences. When paleontological collecting was still in its infancy and no clear examples of transitional origin had been found, most paleontologists were anti-evolutionists. Darwin (1859) recognized the fact that paleontology then seemed to provide evidence against rather than for evolution in general or the gradual origin of taxonomic categories in particular. Now we do have many examples of transitional sequences. Almost all paleontologists recognize that the discovery of a complete transition is in any case unlikely. Most of them find it logical, if not scientifically required, to assume that the sudden appearance of new systematic groups is not evidence for special creation or for saltation, but simply means that a full transitional sequence more or less like those that are known did occur and simply has not been found in this instance.8

One view of the meaning of the gaps in the record is as follows. The gaps set the boundaries between groups of species which have descended from created kinds. Because the gaps were "systematic defficiencies of record" and occurred so regularly between orders, it was held that each order had a start with a created ~being. To illustrate. Between the first horse and the supposed ancestor of it (the condylarthra) there is a definite break in the continuity of successive forms. So it may be concluded that the first condylarthra are created, and that the first horse was created.9

But on the other hand the breaks may represent links which did live but were not fossilized, or forms which did live but have not been found or recorded in the literature. For instance, "Eohippus is more like some condylarths than it is like Equus." But in other words, there is not as much difference between the supposed ancestor of the horse and the horse as there is between the first horse and the latest horse. So, if there was a transition from the horse of ages ago to the one of today, which was a considerable change, there could well have been animals which were stages between the horse and its ancestors, which is a lesser amount of change. If there already is much change on the record, why believe that a little which is not documented did not occur?

In the 1944 treatise on Tempo and Mode in Evolution, Simpson said that the first horse was "an equid, which is a classificatory way of saying that the vast majority of its multitude of morphological characters were already the same as those preserved in Equus and in all equids as well as in many other more or less related animals."10 That is, the first horse was a genuine horse. In 1953 in The Major Features of Evolution, Simpson remarks, "eohippus is more like some condylarths than it is like Equus."11 Also he states,

"For instance, Matthew (1926) pointed out, but later students have mostly ignored, the fact that eohippus was not a horse, that it is about as good an ancestor for Rhinoceros as for Equus. In effect, there was no family Equidae when eohippus lived. The family and all its distinctive characters developed gradually as time went on. Eohippus is referred to the Equidae because we happen to have more nearly complete lines back to it from later members of this family than from other families. There is no particular time at which the Equidae became a family rather than a genus or a species; the whole process is gradual and we assign the categorical rank after the result is before US.12

Simpson has probably more lucidly and substantially stated the case for transformations from one order to another than any other recent writer.

It is not possible to study much of evolution experimentally.

When a genus in a steadily moving lineage like that of Equus has an average duration of 71/2 million years, nothing we can do to speed up experimental evolution is going to bring such events, let alone the longer spans of families and still higher categories, down to a period men can hope to follow in experimentation. Cross-breeding, essential for most genetical analyses, is almost never satisfactorily possible at the level of genera, and absolutely never above that level. Here, then, is a domain in which the observational approach and, when available, paleontological materials are the only ones possible.13

We should recall that it was possible to breed backwards to a horse that is now extinct, the tarpan. But we can never prove by producing eohippus again, that it was in the direct line of horse ancestry. We merely accept the plausible statement about its relationship to the horse.

What does Genesis really say? I take my clue from John Ockenga's statement in a book that discusses the first woman.14 Ockenga says that Genesis says there were three creations as shown by the use of the Hebrew word bara: the heavens and the earth; animal life; and man. "Between these stages," he writes, "there is room for evolution in our thinking when it is taken to mean under the power of God."

I do believe in creation because of the Bible statement-and because of the argument from design. Arthur Holly Compton, Nobel prize winner in physics said, "The argument on the basis of design, through trite, has never been adequately refuted."15 In recent years it has been admirably presented by the Moody Science films. No one need apologize for believing in creation. But the question is, "How much was directly created and how much was left to hereditary processes, which were also created?"


1. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, p. 17.
2. Ibid., p. 16.
3. Ibid., P.
4. Ibid., pp. 351-352.
5. Ibid., p. 360.
6. Ibid., p. 360.
7. Ibid., p. 360.
8. Ibid., p. 360.
9. Mixter, Creation and Evolution.
10. Simpson, Tempo and Mode In Evolution, p. 159.
11. Simpson, The Major Features of Evolution, p. 352.
12. Ibid., p. 345.
13. Ibid., p. 340.
Ockenga, Have You Met These Women! pp. 80-83.
Compton, The Freedom of Man, p. 73.

Comments On Dr. Mixter's Paper

Zoology Department, University of New Hampshire

There are several basic problems indicated in Dr. Mixter's paper that have too often gone unanswered by evangelical Christians. The first of these is that "species can change into other species". To a Christian that has been brought up to defend the concept of fixity of species this may sound like a shocking statement. Actually, as we study the living world around us and the interpretation of that world in scientific writing it should be obvious that: 1) we are not really sure of exactly what a species is, and 2) no matter what definition we accept, we can find considerable evidence for a common origin of at least closely related species.

. The common ancestor of members of a family or order is not so directly observable but on the basis of the tendency of organisms to vary, the amount of time involved from the geological record, and the probable changes that have taken place in the environments during that time, it is not unreasonable to interpolate to to outdogmatize the the.recognition for the common ancestry of the members of these groups.

The origin of the major groups-phyla and classes -constitutes a more serious problem as any honest evolutionist will readily point out. The evidence for common ancestry at this level is based on analogy, interpolation, and an extremely incomplete fossil record. However, just as we criticize the materialistic evolutionist for reading too much into the inadequate record we too jump to hasty and ill advised conclusions every time we insist that such and such a gap "proves" a supernatural creative act. Then, as our gap gets filled in we are forced to contract the role of God. Our God is too great to become a synonym for our 'ignorance. Is He not the author of any natural laws ,that may be behind our puny theorizing? Let's not try

As Christians I think we could more profitably consider the role of God the Creator throughout the entire course of evolution instead of defending the God of the gaps. I personally am not convinced of the "entire course of evolution" but in answering the question "How did God create the physical and biological world"? I am not averse to considering the evolutionary hypothesis as a tentative working hypothesis until we can come up with something better.

It seems to me that this is the direction of Dr. Mixter's arguments. Certainly neither his paper nor my comments imply a blanket endorsement of "Theistic evolution" but the discussion would seem to indicate that we have arrived at a point where the differences between "Theistic evolution" and "progressive or step-wise creation" need to be calmly and thoughtfully considered. 

The Evolution of Evangelical Thinking on Evolution


North Dakota State College, Fargo, North Dakota

Over twenty years ago a group of zoology majors at a Christian college agreed in all seriousness that as part of his life's work each would take a certain phase of evolution, explore it carefully, and derive therefrom inherent data to refute the evolutionary concept. At that time these men had no question as to the refutability of the theory, but were dissatisfied with the kind and use of data (if any) then presented in refutation.

The viewpoint of this group was probably representative of that of many Christians of this period who were students of biology and was, no doubt, a reflection of the tenor of the times. The conflict between Fundamentalism and Modernism was at a whiteheat. Separationist groups were even dividing within themselves. To be right doctrinally was more to be desired than to show the love of the indwelling Christ in a regenerated life. One's status in a Christian fellowship seemed to depend as much upon the method, the place, or the person involved in one's conversion as upon the fact of it. In this climate much contending for the faith had become contentious and much standing fast in the faith had become reaction.

"Evolution" was a dirty word, and hence to be dealt with by invective and shunned as sin. Under the guise of scholarship, a few crusaders stumped the country building up straw men to knock down as they "warned true Christians" of the evils perpetrated in the name of science. And small wonder, for had not the deism of Darwin been replaced by the mechanism of Spencer and Haeckel as biologists strove to grasp the significance of nature's laws? And was this not the sperm which fertilized the egg of Natural Philosophy giving rise to "higher criticism"-the father of Modernism?

The basic ("fundamental") beliefs of the Bible-believing Christian were being challenged from within and from without by scholarship, and orthodox scholars were slow to meet the challenge on its own ground. But this group of well-meaning college kids is an example of the awakening to the need for Christian scholarship. As the recognition of this need developed, a few Christian men of science realized that effectiveness of scholarship can be enhanced by an organization providing for the stimulation of the exchange of views and for the publication of results of investigation; and the A. S. A. was born.

Although the contribution of an A. S. A.-inspired scholar to either his discipline or to the synthesis of the Christian view has only rarely been startling, certain trends can be seen to have been developing, Perhaps the lack of original contributions can be attributed (at least to some extent) to the personal stress on each individual who has dug at all deeply into the data. of evolution. First to be overcome was the onus of dealing with a "verboten" term and in a "non-existent" area. Then, as each made an honest and objective consideration of the data, he was struck with the validity and undeniability of datum after datum. As he strove to incorporate each of these facts into his Biblico-scientific frame of reference, be found that-while the frame became more complete and satisfying-he began to question first the feasibility and then the desirability of an effort to refute the total evolutionary concept, and finally he became impressed by its impossibility on the basis of existing data. This has been a heart-rending, soul-searching experience for the committed Christian as he has seen what he had long considered the raison detre of God's call for his life endeavor fade away, and as he has struggled to release strongly held convictions as to the close limitations of Creationism.

This struggle is made no easier by the lack of approbation (much less acceptance) of some of his less well-informed colleagues, some of whom seem to question motives or even to imply heresy. To watch the still eager acceptance of views he has been forced to reject and the stolid rejections of views he feels clearly supported by evidence while having his own character brought into question at the same time often makes him question the worth of the whole effort.

Some have reacted by lessening their activities or at least their pronouncements in the field, others by becoming less active in the Affiliation, while a few hardy souls (to which the paper under discussion gives witness) continue to give forth their God-given convictions and with them perhaps a simple challenge -"If you have a better approach please tell me quickly for this one of mine has been bought at great price to my peace of mind."

Xly acceptance or rejection of Dr. Mixter's conclusions depends upon (indeed, demands) my honest exploration and consideration of the data and references he presents. Whether or not I agree or disagree with him has no bearing upon his right to be beard. His contribution is of real significance to A.S.A.; and his presentation needs to be cloaked in the dignity comensurate with the significance of his pronouncement -a pronouncement in essence that:

I, an evangelical Christian, can accept the basic concepts of evolution. Although not exclusively de manded by the data involved, it is certainly allowed, and in fact I can see no better or more logical way to handle the data. I believe in Creation, and simply affirm that in the light of the evidence now available, I think some evolution-that is, development of present-day forms by differentiation of previously existing forms-the most likely way God accomplished much of His Creation.

Thus, in fifteen years we have seen develop within A. S. A. a spectrum of belief in evolution that would have shocked all of us at the inception of our organization. Many still reserve judgment but few, I believe, are able to meet Dr. Mixter's challenge of, "Show me a better explanation." Some may see in this developing view the demise of our organization, but it seems to me that we only now are ready to move into the field of real potential of contribution-that in releasing Truth from the restrictions we have been prone to place upon it, we can really view it in the true fullness which the Christian perspective gives us.