Ghosts in the rocks

by and Paul Nethercott

iStockphoto Ghosts in the rocks

Contradictions between evolutionary fossil dating and the dating implied by evolutionary cladistic analyses are common. Therefore, one dating scheme must take precedence over the other. The vagaries of fossilization are well-known, with fossil ranges commonly being extended by tens and hundreds of millions of years by new discoveries.1 Consequently the ‘evolutionary history’ deduced from cladistics analyses takes precedence over fossils. This means many taxa are inferred to be much older than the evolutionary fossil dating indicates. To accommodate this, evolutionists have invented ‘ghost lineages’, which are lineages that have no fossil evidence.

The irony is that this auxiliary hypothesis (a hypothesis needed to explain some first-look contradiction to a core theory, such as evolution) is needed to plug a hole in another auxiliary hypothesis—cladistics. Cladistics was designed to support evolution despite the striking paucity of clear-cut lineages in the fossil record, which Darwin originally recognised but predicted would be filled with new finds. Because these dating discrepancies are common, ghost lineages are commonly invoked:

However, it is not an explanation per se; it is inherently an argument from silence—if there was evidence, ghost lineages wouldn’t need to be invoked.
“The sequence of branching events in a morphological cladistic hypothesis is often harmonized with the fossil record of the ingroup through the creation of ‘ghost lineages’, artificial extensions of a taxon’s range beyond its observed first appearance in the fossil record (Norell 1993). This approach essentially erases any discrepancy between the observed order of appearance events and the order implied by the hypothesis. Insofar as ghost lineages explain away discrepancies between (stratigraphic) observation and (cladistic) hypothesis, they may be considered appeals to ad hoc support, analogous to the way homoplasy is invoked to explain away morphological data that are incongruent with a cladistic hypothesis”.2

Some examples include:

Ordovician/Silurian trilobites:

“Phylogenetic work in progress, however (Adrain, unpublished data), suggests that a substantial number of Silurian ‘rebound’ genera had Ordovician sister taxa—many ghost lineages (Norell 1992), undetected and undetectable by taxic paleobiology, survived the event, and the taxic description of extinction is at best an overestimate.”3

sauropod dinosaurs:

“The early Middle Jurassic low point matches a particularly poor part of the sauropod fossil record according to Upchurch and Barrett (2005), who noted that ghost ranges are high relative to observed lineages for this time interval.”4

“In each case, ichnofossil and body fossil character and temporal distributions were non-overlapping, so hypotheses of character transformation required ad hoc hypotheses of character change (homoplasy) or of stratigraphic intervals in which taxa were not sampled (ghost lineages).”5


The minimum ghost lineage separating birds from their nearest dinosaurian relative is short. Based on the presence of dromaeosaurids in the Barremian (Kirkland et al., 1993), the minimum ghost lineage is only 20.9 my long”.6

and whales:

“Ghost lineages necessitated by the phylogenetic hypothesis extend the stratigraphic range of Cetacea into the middle Paleocene (Torrejonian), ten million years earlier than the oldest cetacean fossil currently known.”7

Long-lived ghosts

Severely out-of-place fossils are sometimes cited as evidence that would falsify evolution. But ghost lineages were invented to explain this very problem! So, is the issue the size of the age discrepancy? This raises the rather obvious question of what exactly constitutes a ‘large’ gap, since ‘large’ is a relative term.

How about 25 million years?

Captorhinus laticeps (the earliest member of the Saurorictus sister group) is Leonardian in age (Heaton, 1979), the Tatarian age of the Karoo captorhinid is suggestive of an extensive (approximately 25 million year long) ghost lineage for Saurorictus.”8

Still not long enough? What about 50 million years?

“It is not surprising that the relationships of post-Jurassic plesiosaurs cannot be better resolved considering the large gap in the Lower Cretaceous record (almost 50 million years), indicating a long ghost lineage leading to the Callawayasaurus, Libonectes, Hydrotherosaurus, and Aristonectes clade”.9

Or 60 million years for the supposed ‘dinobird’ fossil Mahakala omnogovae:

“The extant fossils for Mahakala are ‘dated’ at 80 Ma, but the split between dramaeosauridae and paraves supposedly occurred about 140 Ma. Moreover, there are many dramaeosaurs that fill in that chronological gap, but they are all ‘more advanced’ in their morphology than Mahakala. This is a ghost lineage 60 million years in the making!”10

These changes span numerous geologic ‘epochs’, while some even span times longer than whole geological periods! It seems that the scope of ghost lineages to explain time gaps is almost limitless.

Ghosts of ghosts

Usually, a ghost lineage is assumed to have undergone ‘evolutionary stasis’ during the period for which there is no fossil evidence for its existence. But evolutionary stasis is itself a vacuous oxymoron seemingly designed just to keep people thinking that evolution explains all change, including no change.11

Sometimes, however, some gaps are so large that filling it with one species is not enough. Though the concept of ‘ghost lineages’ is kept, the ‘evolutionary stasis’ assumption is thrown out. This constitutes inventing a whole ghost cladogram of unobserved species out of thin air when evolutionists think it is necessary:

“Short of extending the stratigraphic range of T. neglectus across this stretch of time, it is more likely that the gap represents a ghost lineage partitioned by successive, but yet undiscovered species. Given the species longevity values calculated by Dodson (1990) it is clear that there must be considerable species diversity masked by the ghost lineage leading to T. neglectus, perhaps much more than the known diversity of the entire hypsilophodontid clade as presently recognized [emphasis added]!”12

They seem to call not just for evidence of a taxa extending back millions of years, but the wholesale invention of species that supposedly lived and died that never left a trace in the fossil record. This shows that there need be little restraint on the use of ghost lineages to make cladistics analyses fit the stratigraphic record. As Geiger, et al said:

Any cladogram can be placed in a temporal framework that agrees with the stratigraphic record if sufficient ghost lineages are invoked [emphases added].”13

Auxiliary hypotheses and the need for evidence

Auxiliary hypotheses, a concept coined by philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, are an integral part of almost any core theory, such as evolution.14 They are used to explain evidence that at first blush appears contradictory to the core theory. Evolution, as a core theory, relies on many such auxiliary hypotheses to maintain its validity. This is not necessarily a problem, but one needs to look at the evidential validity of the auxiliary hypotheses to see if the core theory can survive the claim of contradiction.

Fossil patterns can’t give a history because they offer no description of themselves.

Ghost lineages (that is, lack of fossil evidence for lineages that evolutionists believe existed) are typically explained as resulting from the vagaries of fossilization and evolutionary stasis. Nobody denies that fossilization is fickle, and the fossils may create more gaps in our understanding of biology than they close. But we’ve seen that ghost lineages can be applied to essentially any discrepancy between the cladistics and stratigraphic ‘timelines’. Therefore, it is not an explanation per se; it is inherently an argument from silence—if there was evidence, ghost lineages wouldn’t need to be invoked. ‘Ghost lineages’ are nothing more than an ad hoc band-aid designed to deflect criticism of evolution.


Paleontology seeks to describe the distribution pattern of fossils observed in the rocks, both spatially and temporally. The spatial relationships can be described directly—it is observational science. However, the temporal distribution of fossils is inescapably tied up with the presuppositions one brings to the historical investigation. One’s axioms determine what types of evidence are relevant and thus admissible to the paleontological discussion. Fossil patterns can’t give a history because they offer no description of themselves.15 Within paleontology, molecules-to-man evolution is not a scientific theory but an axiom that guides and therefore constrains investigation. It’s not that evolution does explain everything; it’s that it can explain anything because the axiom dictates that it must. It is the only game allowed.

‘Ghost lineages’ are one of the more blatant examples of this problem. They are an ad hoc attempt to resolve incongruities between fossil dates and dates for evolutionary events derived from cladistics analyses. They explain away the problems by positing evolutionary stasis (yet another auxiliary hypothesis) for which they have no positive evidence. No single ghost lineage can be falsified as such, but it emphasizes how, in ReMine’s poignant words, evolution “adapts to data like a fog adapts to landscape.”16

Published: 14 July 2011


  1. E.g. Oard, M.J., Further expansion of evolutionary fossil time ranges, Journal of Creation 24(3):5–7, 2010. Return to text.
  2. Finarelli, J.A. and Clyde, W.C., Reassessing hominoid phylogeny: evaluating congruence in the morphological and temporal data, Paleobiology 30(4):614–651, 2004. Return to text.
  3. Adrain, J.M. and Westrop, S.R., Paleobiodiversity: we need new data, Paleobiology 29(1):22–25, 2003. Return to text.
  4. Mannion, P.D. and Upchurch, P., Completeness metrics and the quality of the sauropodomorph fossil record through geological and historical time, Paleobiology 36(2):283–302, 2010. Return to text.
  5. Wilson, J.A., Integrating ichnofossil and body fossil records to estimate locomotor posture and spatiotemporal distribution of early sauropod dinosaurs: a stratocladistic approach, Paleobiology 31(3):400–423, 2005. Return to text.
  6. Brochu, C.A. and Norell, M.A., Temporal congruence and the origin of birds, J. Vert. Paleontol. 20(1):197–200, 2000. Return to text.
  7. O’Leary, M.A and Uhen, M.D., The time of origin of whales and the role of behavioral changes in the terrestrial-aquatic transition, Paleobiology 25(4):534–556, 1999 Return to text.
  8. Modesto, S. and Smith, R.M.H., A new Late Permian captorhinid reptile: a first record from the South African Karoo, J. Vert. Paleontol. 21(3):405–409. 2001. Return to text.
  9. Gasparini, Z., Bardet, N., Martin, J.E. and Fernandez, M., The elasmosaurid plesiosaur Aristonectes cabrera from the latest Cretaceous of South America and Antarctica, J. Vert. Paleontol. 23(1):104–115, 2003. Return to text.
  10. Doyle, S., Cladistics, evolution and the fossils, J. Creation 25(2), in press, 2011. See also: Turner, A.H., Pol, D., Clarke, J.A., Erickson, G.M. and Norell M.A., A basal dromaeosaurid and size evolution preceding avian flight, Science 317:1378–1381, 7 September 2007. Return to text.
  11. Doyle, S., Oldest fossil shrimp? J. Creation 25(1):3–4, 2011. Return to text.
  12. Weishampel, D.B, Fossils, phylogeny, and discovery: a cladistic study of the history of tree topologies and ghost lineage durations, J. Vert. Paleontol. 16(2):191–197, 1996; p. 196. Return to text.
  13. Geiger, D.L., Fitzhugh, K. and Thacker, C.E., Timeless Characters: a response to Vermeij (1999), Paleobiology 27(1):177–178, 2001. Return to text.
  14. Lakatos, I., Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes; in: Lakatos I. & Musgrave A. (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970. Return to text.
  15. Reed, J.K., Cuvier’s analogy and its consequences: forensics vs testimony as historical evidence, J. Creation 22(3):115–120, 2008. Return to text.
  16. ReMine, W., The Biotic Message: Evolution versus Message Theory, St Paul Science, St Paul, MN, p.350, 1993. Return to text.

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