Order in the fossil record
How can Noah’s Flood explain it?
First published: 30 May 2015 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 6 November 2021 (GMT+10)
Order in the fossil record is one of the most popular arguments for evolution. If the fossil record has a consistent vertical order it’s claimed the fossil record reflects eons of evolution. Evolutionists also think it’s a powerful argument against the Bible and young-earth creationism. If most of the fossils formed catastrophically during Noah’s Flood, then that supposedly means that the Flood would produce a random order in the fossil record.
However, flood geologists have long rejected this caricature of Noah’s Flood as physically unrealistic. Even large catastrophes need not produce completely random patterns. Creationists have developed several explanations for that order in the context of Noah’s Flood.
In today’s correspondence, CMI’s Shaun Doyle explores some of these factors to show how they might forge an explanation of fossil order consistent with the Bible.
C.N. from Canada writes:
I have a question regarding order in the fossil record. This site largely deals with fossil order by pointing out problems in it. However I find it unlikely that there is not some general order. I have read several explanations of the existing fossil order, but have not found explanations for some patterns. For instance why is it that the ‘first’ creatures to appear of a particular group (e.g. mammals, reptiles, amphibians) are usually of extinct taxa (usually on higher levels such as order). I have read that there may have been ecological zones, however I cannot see why angiosperms would occur largely at higher elevations. Also why would some insect orders not appear until higher in the fossil record (Lepidoptera, Diptera, Hymenoptera). This may be connected with the occurrence of flowers, but not all members of these orders need flowers (e.g. ants). Am I overestimating the accuracy of the fossil order? Thanks.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
The reason we deal with the problems with fossil succession is that the evolutionary/deep time framework depends not just on fossil succession, but on the precision and global extent of specific fossil successions to establish the fossil record as an evolutionary historical sequence. In other words, an abundance of index fossils that locate geologic ‘periods’ globally, reliably, and precisely would make the evolutionary scheme more plausible. On the other hand, if true index fossils are rare, then the fossil record is less likely to be a globally synchronous time sequence, and thus would not represent an evolutionary sequence.
The expansion of fossil ranges demonstrates that the order in the fossils is of a more general nature. This blurs the lines of fossil ‘dating’, which creates difficulties in extrapolating a definite timeline from the fossils. And since the timeline becomes blurred, the succession looks less like a timeline and more amenable to single-event explanations, such as ecological and biogeographical interpretations of the fossil succession. In other words, increased fossil ranges reveal the evolutionary ‘explanation’ to be little more than just-so storytelling.
Creationists agree there is a general order in the fossils
Nevertheless, most creationists would agree with you that there is a general order of fossil superposition that is consistent around the world. There is some disagreement among creationists on how global this pattern is, and how fossil succession patterns relate to the chronology of the Flood and the geologic column concept. For a discussion of the different views held among creationists, I recommend The Geologic Column: Perspectives within Diluvial Geology. Nonetheless, most creationists agree that there are a number of factors available that would create a general global order of fossil succession. This is despite debates over whether that successional order reflects a globally synchronous chronological order as well. Three well known mechanisms for stratigraphic differentiation commonly used by biblical creationists are:
- ecological zonation (such that different life-forms in different strata reflect the serial destruction, transport and burial of ecological life-zones during the Flood)
- differential escape (the smarter, more endothermic, and greater mobility an organism has, the higher in the fossil record it will tend to be)
- hydrodynamic sorting (i.e. the smaller, denser, and more spheroid organisms are, the quicker they will settle out of the Floodwaters into sediments)
Creation Geologist Andrew Snelling provides a good explanation of these factors in his book Earth’s Catastrophic Past, Vol. II, pp. 730–737.
Biological provincialism and fossil order
Another factor that is not as often noted, but has been discussed by creationists with different opinions on the utility of the geologic column concept, is something we could call ‘biogeographic provincialism’. This is distinct from ecological zonation. A biogeographic province can have several different ecological zones within it, but may also have similar ecological niches to other biogeographical provinces, but in each province the niche is filled by a different organism. For instance, in the present day, kangaroos have a similar ecological niche to deer, bison, and antelopes (large grazing animal), though they are geographically distinct.
One application of this concept that I recommend to you is Studies in Flood Geology, which puts forward an innovative creationist hypothesis on the stratigraphic separation of fossils: Tectonically Associated Biological Provinces (TABs; see especially pp. 41–61). The basic idea is that God designed different ecological and biogeographical zones to maximize the diversity of life-forms, and that biogeographical zones are consistently associated with zones of a certain degree of tectonic instability.
For instance, Lower Paleozoic deposits represent pre-Flood biological provinces that were consistently associated with zones with the highest tendencies toward crustal downwarping, whereas Cenozoic formations represent pre-Flood biogeographical zones that were consistently associated with zones with the lowest tendencies toward crustal downwarping. This would mean that ‘Paleozoic’ biogeographical zones would be buried first, fastest, and under the most amount of sediment, which would allow the least opportunity for organisms within that biogeographical zone to survive the Flood. This would then make the chance of survival through the Flood directly proportional to the tectonic stability of the pre-Flood biogeographical zone an organism was found in—the more tectonically stable the pre-Flood biogeographical zone an organism was found in, the greater its chance of surviving the Flood outside the Ark.
And yet, why do we see the same basic trend for animals that were on the Ark? As Woodmorappe points out: “[T]he animals on the Ark were ecologically dependent on the organisms that went through the Flood! One manifestation of this was the food chain. … Since vegetation, being outside the Ark, was subject to immediate differential extinction, the animals released from the Ark were subject to differential extinction which necessarily paralleled the vegetation they were dependent upon. Thus the main reason why mammals survived at the expense of dinosaurs, ‘primitive’ reptiles, etc., was because mammals had such a great reproductive advantage due to the overwhelming predominance of TAB IV [i.e. the ‘Cenozoic’ TAB] vegetation.”
In terms of Woodmorappe’s TAB hypothesis, angiosperms and insects were likely “TAB IV organisms”—i.e. they are predominantly Cenozoic, and more rarely Mesozoic, and it also suggests they were most common in biological provinces which had a predominance of mammals and birds. In other words, insects and flowering plants were likely in the most tectonically stable biological provinces in the pre-Flood world, which is why they are high in the fossil record, and why they predominate the terrestrial invertebrate and plant life today.
Snelling, in Earth’s Catastrophic Past, pp. 730–731, suggests something similar to Woodmorappe’s hypothesis. The main difference is that Snelling distinguishes distinct biological provinces based on elevation rather than tectonic instability, but the sedimentological effect would largely be the same.
Multiple factors creating fossil order in the Flood
Now, it’s important to realize that there were likely differing combinations of these factors, as well as simple chance, at play in the stratigraphic separation of fossils. The fossil patterns produced by a global tectonic watery cataclysm such as Noah’s Flood are not likely to be explained by any one mechanism. It is more likely that numerous factors working with, independently of, and/or against each other are more likely to explain the situation. Where they all work together relatively well, we would not expect much overlap (e.g. between birds and trilobites), but where they do not, such organisms are more likely to appear in a greater portion of the fossil record. As such, I would suggest not vesting too much weight in any one hypothesis, but see it as a combination of factors contributing to a complex successional picture.
Why would God use biological provinces?
Finally, there is no naturalistic reason why flowers should appear in the most tectonically stable biological provinces, but since pre-Flood biogeography did not have a naturalistic origin, that’s not a problem. Rather, God designed pre-Flood biogeography. Ecological zonation serves to increase the diversity of life, but redundancy is not sufficient to explain why there are many different organisms that can fit the same ecological niche (e.g. kangaroos, deer, antelope, bison, and presumably even sauropods all fit the niche of ‘large grazing animal’). It would seem that biogeographical provincialism would further increase the capacity for biodiversity, since it allows for similar ecological niches in different locations to be filled by different organisms. Greater diversity is a blessing because no one creature reflects God’s glory entirely, but each reflects it in certain specific ways, such that a greater diversity increases the ways in which the creation can reflect the glory of its Creator (this train of thought could presumably go into infinity, but it doesn’t have to, especially since we don’t need an infinitely boundless diversity of creatures to recognize the manifold glory of God in diversity).
But why place flowers in the most tectonically stable biological province? We can never know for sure, since we are exploring the motives of a supremely free being. Nevertheless, a few reasons can be offered as food for thought. First, of all plant life, flowers are some of the most visually stunning, and thus arguably preserve the beauty of God in creation better than many other organisms. As such, an ecosystem that thrives on such plants would seem to be a great candidate for preservation even through a disaster such as the Flood. Why? If God’s world can still manifest much of the most striking beauty from the pre-Flood world, then it remains a powerful witness to God’s goodness, despite the damage that the biosphere suffered in the Fall and the Flood. Moreover, many of the animals in that biological province (i.e. birds and mammals) share the greatest biological affinity with us out of the animal kingdom, which would act as the best reminder to us of our stewardship responsibilities over the rest of the world (Genesis 1:28).
Fish fossil succession in the flood—preliminary remarks
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responded:
I trust that you have read my previous response, as this response builds on that to offer some preliminary thoughts on how we might go about explaining fish order in the fossil record. Now, let’s say that figure 1 provides a generalized yet reasonable representation of the fossil distribution of actinopterygians (ray-finned fishes—the wider the bar, the more fossils are associated with that ‘geologic period’):
The first thing to realize is that this has nothing to do with evolution; no ancestors are identified, and the cause-effect sequences that evolution requires to explain how the biological distance between each group is bridged are completely lacking. In other words, this is a general burial order, not an absolute chronology and evolutionary history. With that said, what patterns do we actually observe? There are two basic patterns here:
- Pretty much all actinopterygians are found in strata around or above the Permian-Triassic boundary.
- There is a massive shift in the orders most prevalent in the fossils through the upper Cretaceous, culminating in a reasonably sharp disjunction for a number of orders around K/T boundary.
Now, how might we explain this in a biblical scenario? Most of these orders seem to represent a vast array of ecological niches, and there may be fish in many of the orders found lower in the rocks that should be able to escape sedimentation faster than those found in above, since they could move faster. As such, ecological zonation and differential escape don’t seem to be the major factors dictating the fossil order of many, if not most, actinopterygian orders. Rather, the main factor appears to be biological provincialism. In terms of Woodmorappe’s Tectonically Associated Biological (TAB) provinces hypothesis (in his Studies in Flood Geology), actinopterygians seem to have populated Woodmorappe’s ‘Mesozoic’ and ‘Cenozoic’ pre-Flood biogeographical provinces, with most fish living today having populated the ‘Cenozoic’ province.
Again, this is only a very brief and preliminary analysis; much more research would be needed to validate this idea even in the most general way. For instance, I could be wrong in my assessment of the importance of both differential escape and ecological zonation in many instances. One instance that does seem to fit my assessment, at least on a first look, are deep sea teleosts—they are predominantly found in Cenozoic deposits, and they are not renowned for being fast movers, which suggests to me that ecological zonation and differential escape do not explain why these fish are consistently buried so high in the fossil record. Nor does post Flood fossilization seem to make sense of these fossils; how would deep sea fish get on land and get buried on land post-Flood? As such, Flood burial in Woodmorappe’s ‘Cenozoic’ TAB province seems to me the best explanation of these fossils. But again, this is all very preliminary; I haven’t investigated the specifics of these fossils, and I’m no expert on fish taphonomy. This is an area where further creationist research is sorely needed. However, hopefully these very rough and preliminary thoughts will offer you some viable ways in which we might sketch an explanation for the vertical order of fish fossils in the biblical framework.