And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
— Genesis 1:20-23
According to the Bible (and creationists), all life on earth was created at the beginning of creation. Since then, many species have gone extinct, and a few have changed in minor ways, but all have remained of their same “kind.”
Evolutionists take a decidedly different view, where all life begins with single-celled organisms, and slowly evolves into more and more complex life over hundreds of millions of years.
With such widely opposing views, one would think the fossil evidence could only point in one direction, but both sides seem to use the same evidence to support their own conclusions.
One such piece of evidence comes from the (so-called) Cambrian fossil layers.
Creationists point to the “Cambrian explosion” as evidence for spontaneous creation. The Cambrian explosion represents a time when many forms of relatively complex multi-cellular life seem to suddenly burst onto the scene. This layer was preceded mostly by single-celled life, and less complex colonies of cells.
Scientists see the Cambrian explosion as a time when emerging evolutionary forces (e.g. predation and sexual reproduction) and unique opportunities (e.g. every environmental niche is unoccupied) helped to spark an explosion of diverse life over the course of “only” 20-25 million years (starting around 542 million years ago).
And while the Cambrian explosion is certainly a fascinating event, it doesn’t begin to explain one of the biggest mysteries of the Cambrian fossil layers.
The Burgess Shale
One of the most famous Cambrian fossil sites is the Burgess Shale. Located in the mountains of British Columbia, scientists claim this site represents a snapshot of late Cambrian life from about 505 million years ago (give or take a few million years).
Creationist claim the site represents a snapshot of Noah’s flood, from about 4,000-4,300 years ago (give or take a few weeks).
The sea creatures in the Burgess Shale were buried in turbulent sediments of the great Flood.
— Proud progress or cosmic casino?, Carl Wieland, M.B., B.S.
God’s Word contains His own eyewitness account of the origin of all kinds of animals in Genesis chapter 1. He created all kinds of animals on the 5th and 6th days of Creation week about 6,000 years ago. They have continued to vary and reproduce only within their created kinds as we would expect on the basis of biblical history. Biblical history also tells of the global Flood. Rapid burial of animals in water borne sediment during the violence of the global Flood explains the excellent preservation seen in deeper fossil layers like the Burgess Shale… buried… around 4,300 years ago during the Flood.
— Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, Thirty Million Years Didn’t Really Change China’s Jurassic Park, March 8, 2014
Since its discovery, the Burgess Shale has given up over a quarter-million fossils, representing over 150 different species. But strangely, out of all of those fossils, not one modern vertebrate has ever emerged — not one single modern fish, reptile, mammal, or bird.
If all life was created at the same time, shouldn’t we find both invertebrates and vertebrates in the same layers? Was this just an isolated incident?
The Chengjiang Maotianshan Shales
On the other side of the world, at the Chengjiang Maotianshan Shales in the Yunning Province of China, around 185 different species of Cambrian soft-bodied fossils have been unearthed. These fossils are believed to have come from an earlier time in the Cambrian, but just as in British Columbia, there are no signs of truly modern fish or vertebrates.
And as it turns out, the same is true for all Cambrian fossil sites around the world.
According to evolutionists, modern vertebrates don’t make an appearance because they wouldn’t exist for another 65 million years. But Creationists disagree, and are tasked with having to explain the mysterious absence of all modern vertebrates.
Few creationists even acknowledge this problem, but for those that do, their explanations fall into one of these three categories.
1. “Modern fish and vertebrates have been discovered in these ‘Cambrian’ deposits!”
Some creationists claim that the lack of vertebrates is no longer an issue, since vertebrates have been discovered at Cambrian sites. While it’s true that several vertebrates have been discovered (namely Pikaia, Haikouichthys, Myllokunmingia, and Metaspriggina), the evidence is greatly exaggerated, as these tiny creatures are a far cry from modern vertebrates.
While each of these “fish” had a basic notochord, they lacked the bony vertebrae column we would associate with most modern fish.
While Metaspriggina didn’t have any hard bones in its skeleton, it did grow a rod of cartilage from head to tail, called a notochord, to keep its body stiff. Human embryos develop a notochord, too, but it later turns into the disks of cartilage between the vertebrae in our spine.
— Carl Zimmer, New York Times, A Long-Ago Ancestor: A Little Fish, With Jaws to Come, June 11, 2014
When the creationist talks about fish fossils, we tend to imagine something like this:
But in reality, the “fish” looked more like this:
While these creatures may have been on their way to becoming fish, it’s deceptive to group them with modern vertebrates. Not only do they lack bony spines, they also lack jaws, and many of the fins seen on modern fish.
Bony fish (osteichthyes) are actually the most plentiful of all vertebrates, having around 28,000 species, so it’s odd that not one should make its way into any of the Cambrian fossil sites. Finding a marine reptile or mammal would be even more spectacular, since these animals are said to have evolved much later.
The major animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion did not include the appearance of modern animal groups such as: starfish, crabs, insects, fish, lizards, birds and mammals. These animal groups all appeared at various times much later in the fossil record. The forms that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion were more primitive than these later groups, and many of them were soft-bodied organisms. However, they did include the basic features that define the major branches of the tree of life to which later life forms belong.
— Does the Cambrian Explosion pose a challenge to evolution?, BioLogos.com
2. “All fossils were buried around the same time, but the invertebrates were buried first.”
If the world was once flooded over the course of 40 days, we might expect to find all animals buried in a single layer of sediment.
We should be able to dig in various locations around the world, and find a singular “flood layer,” which would contain the fossils of dogs, cats, dinosaurs, giraffes, kangaroos, moose, deer, cows, people, primates, humans, unicorns, fish — all animals — all mixed together. And up until a couple hundred years ago, this is exactly what Christians expected to find.
But instead of finding one layer containing all known animals, scientists discovered hundreds of layers, each with varying types of animals (like our Cambrian layers, which only contain invertebrates).
Until recently, creationists simply denied that these layers represented any sort of evolutionary geologic column.
The fossil column (or similar figure) is presented without question as if it were true—as if it were real data.
— John D. Morris, Ph.D. 2003. Don’t the Fossils Prove Evolution?. Acts & Facts. 32 (4).
But more recent creationists have succumb to the evidence, and they discount the denials of their predecessors.
To the contrary, we can walk across various regions of the earth and observe that the rock layers and the fossils contained therein generally match what is depicted in the widely accepted geologic column diagrams. … These rock layers are observable data, so the diagram is not some figment of evolutionary bias based on “the fossil content of their rocks.”
— Dr. Andrew Snelling, Order in the Fossil Record, Nov. 23, 2009
While some creationists are finally agreeing with scientists about the geologic column, they still insist that most fossil layers were laid down during Noah’s flood. But if that’s true, why are there no modern vertebrates found in the Cambrian layers?
According to creationists, it’s not because the fossil layers represent various stages of evolution, it’s because different types of animals were buried at different times during a single flood.
The fossils simply record the order in which plants and animals were buried about 4,500 years ago during the one-year Flood described in Genesis chapters 6–8.
— Tas Walker, Slow fish in China, Creation 22(3):38–39, June 2000
According to Dr. Snelling, these fossils were buried in the order of single-celled organisms, then marine invertebrates, then fish, amphibians, reptiles, land vertebrates, dinosaurs, and finally mammals. (I can only imagine what an inconvenient truth this is, for the creationist to have to admit that the flood just happened to bury these animals in the exact same order that evolutionists claim evolution occurred!)
Dr. Snelling claims that the single-celled organisms were probably fossilized first, prior to the flood, since they’re small and easily buried. Once the flood waters began to rise, the invertebrates became the first flood victims.
Interestingly, the flood’s turbulent water-borne sediments were just bad enough to capture invertebrates, but not so bad as to impede the escape of all modern vertebrates. Oddly enough, even large invertebrates were trapped by the sediments, while tiny boned fish were able to escape. Stranger still, even all the dead vertebrates that perished prior to the flood somehow managed to escape. (Whale bones, for example, can take up to a decade to decompose on the sea floor.)
Next came the fish, which is a bit odd. Killing fish by adding water is like trying to kill a man by giving him more land. I have to assume these fish were buried in thick sediment, because if they simply died from a change in salinity, they would’ve likely floated to the surface, and would’ve come to rest on top of all the other dead animals. Once again, strangely, the sediments were just bad enough to capture these fish, but not so bad as to impede the escape of all modern marine reptiles and mammals.
Next were the land plants, amphibians, and lizards. These weren’t fast enough to keep up with the larger vertebrates that were now heading for the hills, or smart enough to run for the hills like all the mammals and dinosaurs.
As the waters continued to rise, they eventually covered the larger land vertebrates.
A few days later, all the dinosaurs had run out of energy, and cried out to the mammals, “F**k it, save yourselves!”
All the mammals (dogs, puppies, cats, kittens, deer, fawn, etc.), regardless of their size, managed to make it to higher elevations, before they too were buried in sediment.
This flood hypothesis raises many questions. Why were the animals sorted by their various classes, instead of by their size and speed? Why are there hundreds of rock layers instead of just one? Why didn’t velociraptors, which had an estimated running speed of 40 mph, make it to the higher elevations? What happened to the thousands of different types of flying pterosaurs? Wouldn’t they have all made it to higher ground? Shouldn’t we find their bones in the top layer of animals, along with fish and birds (which would’ve floated)?
While evolution may take millions of years, the flood only took one, so I don’t see why we can’t prove the creationist hypothesis through experimentation. For example, imagine if we were to place a variety of animals in a large, walled-off, graded area, and then simulated the flood (sorry PETA, it’s for science). What would be the result? When we drained the water a year later, would we find these animals neatly separated by distinct layers like in the geologic column? Or would they settle into a single mixed layer? What if we simulated the turbulent sedimentary deposits suggested by creationists? Could we recreate what we see in the fossil layers? Could we first trap all the invertebrates without killing any fish? Would the animals be sorted by class in each layer? Or would there be a mix of whatever animals just happened to be in each area at the time of each sedimentary incident?
I can’t imagine any experiment ever adequately recreating the kind of “ordered chaos” theorized by creationists, but if this kind of order occurred naturally all over the world, then it should be easy to prove.
3. “All fish micro-evolved from an earlier kind of fish.”
A small number of creationists admit that the Cambrian deposits do not contain modern vertebrates, and that the fossil layers could not have been laid down by a single flood. Recognizing this, some have suggested that all fish may have evolved from an earlier fish kind, like those early fish found in the Cambrian deposits.
This is similar to the creationist argument for dogs. Some creationists claim that only one kind of dog boarded the ark (to conserve space), and that all dog breeds have micro-evolved from this pair over the last 4,000 years. Likewise, God may have only created fish “kind,” and those fish micro-evolved into all the fish we have today.
It’s ironic that a group that denies the power of evolution should place the biggest demands upon it, while still denying macro-evolution. As long as the kind never changes, the creationist doesn’t seem to care how much rapid micro-evolution is required.
Many creationists will accept fish as one kind totally. Henry Morris, for example, once suggested that all fish, ALL FISH, could have microevolved from salmon in less than 500 years. Anyone who can swallow batfish, sharks, rays, guppies, flounder, and piranha all being one kind, but finding evolution between chimps and humans impossible is in serious denial.
— Mike Dunford, Microevolution, Macroevolution, and our Species, July 3, 2007
Indeed. If micro-evolution can account for boneless, jawless fish evolving into fish with bones, jaws, lungs, and even wings, why can’t micro-evolution account for a apes developing a larger brain and upright posture?
So we have Genesis telling us one story, and the Cambrian fossil record telling us another. While the complete lack of modern vertebrates in Cambrian fossil layers should present a serious problem for creationists, they refuse to admit it. Why?
Although there is much discussion among creationists about the details relating the Flood and creation to the geologic column, all agree that the majority of the fossil-bearing rock record is a product of the Genesis Flood and that any model must first be aligned with Scripture.
— AnswersInGenesis.org, Roger Patterson, Evolution Exposed: Earth Science, Chapter 6, Geologic Column, January 20, 2011
This statement is indicative of the larger problem: the creationist doesn’t need science to help him find truth, because he already believes he has the truth. If the evidence doesn’t point to creationism, then the evidence needs to be reinterpreted. But is this a reliable way of thinking? And has the creationist earned the right to dismiss any and all ideas that don’t align with scripture?
While the creationist may feel quite strongly about his convictions, there’s no shortage of conviction in other religions, cults, or psychiatric hospitals. Convictions are not as reliable as evidence, because they can lead us to so many different conclusions.
For example, if we allowed every religion to interpret historical evidence to support their own conclusions, the evidence would point in a thousand different directions! If we want to get to the truth, our best hope is to let the evidence speak for itself as much as possible.
Following the evidence is a bit like following a bloodhound: if we let it lead the way, it should guide us — and everyone else — to the same conclusion; but if we lead it, we will only end up wherever we want to go.
Religious convictions lead us to many conclusions, evidence (hopefully) only leads us to one. If that evidence just happens to lead to a religious conclusion, great! But it should do so on its own, we should not “drag the bloodhound” to that destination and proclaim, “The evidence leads here!”
Creationists will often admit that they have a strong Biblical bias, and will try to rationalize it by saying, “Evolutionists are also biased by evolutionary teachings!” To some extent, this is true, everyone is biased. The question is, is the biased individual willing to change his mind with new evidence? And what evidence is his bias based upon?
Keep in mind that most early scientists started out as creationists, but new discoveries forced them to question their earlier assumptions.
Maybe if things were different — if scientists had discovered an obvious global flood layer; or if we found that human DNA was completely different from the animals; or if stars were only visible up to 6,000 light years away — then there would’ve been little reason to question the Bible, but that’s not what was discovered.
As we’ve seen previously, Christians have a history of reading their own ideas into the Bible, instead of letting the text speak for itself. Likewise, they also seem to be reading ideas into the fossil record, instead of letting it speak for itself.
In getting back to the question, where does this evidence lead us? It seems to be saying that there was a time when invertebrates existed, but vertebrates did not. This is inconsistent with the Genesis account; God has made a claim, but the evidence here does not substantiate that claim.
But how do we know we have followed the evidence correctly? If all human knowledge were suddenly lost, I believe that future generations could use the same evidence to draw the same conclusions. If they discovered the same fossils, the same geologic column, the same homologies, and the same genes, they would likely conclude that all living things appear related. It’s almost unthinkable that they would look at the evidence and conclude that all life was created simultaneously, about six to ten thousand years ago, before being wiped out by a single cataclysmic global flood, except for a handful of animals, which inexplicably survived in the Middle East, and radiated out from there. The former conclusion comes from following the evidence, and the latter from leading it.