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How fast do fossils form, and how fast do rock layers get stacked up like we see in Grand Canyon?
All the courses I took concerning fossils were taught by professors who firmly believed in evolution. Yet, when it came to the kinds of life we studied, it seemed the actual evidence made it overwhelmingly difficult to believe in evolution and very easy to believe what the Bible says about Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, and Christ.
But even if you could accept my conclusion, or, at least, consider it reasonable, I’m sure you’d have another question:
How fast do fossils form, and how fast do rock layers get stacked up like we see in Grand Canyon? Believe me, those questions bothered me, too! I knew that some believed, for example, that even though God especially created the first of each kind, he “spaced out” His creative activity over a vast period of time, a sort of “progressive creation.”
Can science help us decide how fast fossils form, and how fast those sedimentary rock layers pile up? That’s what I wanted to know when I signed up for courses like Stratigraphy that deal in part with rates of sediment-layer formation.
Surprisingly enough, just about everybody—creationist, evolutionist, and everyone in between—agrees that individual fossil specimens themselves begin to form very, very rapidly! If a plant or animal just dies and falls to the ground or into the water, it’s quickly broken up and decomposed by scavengers, wind and water currents, even sunlight. Fallen logs, road kills, and dead aquarium fish don’t just become fossils, nor did the millions of bison slaughtered in America’s move west.
Most fossils are formed when a plant or animal is quickly and deeply buried, out of reach of scavengers and currents, usually in mud, lime, or sand sediment rich in cementing minerals that harden and preserve at least parts of the dead creatures. Evolutionists and creationists agree: the ideal conditions for forming most fossils and fossil-bearing rock layers are flood conditions. The debate is just whether it was many “little floods” over a long time, or mostly the one big Flood of Noah’s time. In fact, until Darwin’s theory came along, most educated laymen and scientists—including the founding fathers of geology—assumed that fossils were the remains of plants and animals buried in Noah’s Flood.
Although professionals understand how fast fossils begin to form under flood conditions, the general public often does not. I was on a radio talk show one time when a caller said he believed the earth had to be fantastically old because he’d seen (as I have) huge logs turned to stone in Arizona’s Petrified Forest. Surely, he said, it would take millions of years to turn a log six feet (2m) across into solid stone! So I asked him to think about it. If a tree fell over in a forest or into a lake or stream and just lay there for millions of years, wouldn’t it just rot away? Bugs, termites, fungus, chemical action would soon turn it back into dust. But if that tree got suddenly and deeply buried in mineral-rich sediment, then minerals could crystallize throughout the log and turn it to stone before it had time to decay. To my encouragement, he replied, “You know, I believe you’re right about that!”
A museum in central Tasmania has a “fossil hat” on display. A miner had dropped his felt hat, and the limey water had turned it into a “hard hat” (which the curator was kind enough to let me feel and photograph). That same process, mineral in-fill, can turn wood, bones, and shells into fossils in a short period of time. Indeed, fossils can be made in the laboratory!
Remember the Precambrian Australian jellyfish? Jellyfish often wash ashore, but in a matter of hours they have turned into nondescript “blobs” (although watch out—the stinging cells continue to work for quite a while!) To preserve the markings and detail of the Ediacara jellyfish, the organisms seem to have landed on a wet sand that acted as a natural cement. The sand turned to sandstone before the jellyfish had time to rot, preserving the jellyfish’s markings, somewhat as you can preserve your hand print if you push it into cement during that brief time when it’s neither too wet nor too dry. Indeed, the evolutionist who discovered the Ediacara jellyfish said the fossils must have formed in less than 24 hours. He didn’t mean one jellyfish in 24 hours; he meant millions of jellyfish and other forms had fossilized throughout the entire Ediacara formation, which stretches about 300 miles or 500 km from South Australia into the Northern Territory, in less than 24 hours! In short, floods form fossils fast! (See Fig. 31.)
Like most Americans, I was mis-taught in grade school that it takes millions of years and tremendous heat and pressure to turn sediments (like sand, lime, or clay) into rock (like sandstone, limestone, or shale). We all know better. Concrete is just artificial rock. Cement companies crush rock, separate the cementing minerals and large stones, then sell it to you. You add water to produce the chemical reaction (curing, not drying), and rock forms again—easily, naturally, and quickly, right before your very eyes. Indeed, you can make rock as a geology lab exercise, without using volcanic heat and pressure or waiting millions of years for the results. Time, heat, and pressure can and do alter the properties of rock (including “Flood rock”), but the initial formation of most rocks, like the setting of concrete, is quite rapid.
There are many areas where hordes of large animals are entombed in a thick rock layer, such as the dinosaurs preserved along the Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada. Once a plant or animal is buried deeply enough in the right kind of sediment, there’s no special trick involved in turning it into fossil, and no huge amount of time is required. Minerals simply accumulate in the specimen itself or in the cavity left by the specimen after it rots away. So, fossils can be formed in the laboratory, and they are probably forming here and there today.
But nowhere on earth today do we have fossils forming on the scale that we see in geologic deposits. The Karroo Beds in Africa, for example, contain the remains of perhaps 800 billion vertebrates! A million fish can be killed in red tides in the Gulf of Mexico today, but they simply decay away and do not become fossils. Similarly, debris from vegetation mats doesn’t become coal unless it is buried under a heavy load of sediment.
Some geologic formations are spread out over vast areas of a whole continent. For example, there’s the Morrison Formation, famous for its dinosaur remains, that covers much of the mountainous West, and there’s the St. Peter’s Sandstone, a glass sand that stretches from Canada to Texas and from the Rockies to the Appalachians. Sediment does build up slowly at the mouths of rivers, such as the Mississippi delta. But slow sediment build-up could not possibly produce such widespread deposits, such broadly consistent sedimentary and paleontological features, as we see in the Morrison and St. Peter’s formations. In this case, knowledge of the present tells us that something happened on a much larger scale in the past than we see it happening anywhere today. That’s not appealing to faith or fancy; that’s appealing to fact! For purely scientific reasons, evolutionists and creationists may both conclude these are flood deposits, even if the scale of the flood is something far beyond anything observed in historical times.36
Knowledgeable people readily agree that both fossils and rock layers can and do form very rapidly. But there’s a catch. Fossils and rock layers are not just found “one at a time.” Rocks chock full of fossils are buried in layers stacked on top of one another, in places about 2 miles (3 km) thick! Not only that, but there’s a tendency for fossils to be found together in certain groups, and a tendency for these groups to be found one after the other in a certain sequence called the “geologic column.”
According to evolution, the geologic column (Fig. 32) lays out the story of evolution chronologically, from bottom to top, right before our eyes. Maybe science hasn’t explained how evolution works yet, but the “fact of evolution” is plain to see in the “record in the rocks.” Life started with a few simple life forms (originally produced by time, chance, and chemistry), and we can chart its progress, the net increase in variety and complexity, as we move up through the rock layers. Only an ignorant, fundamentalist fanatic with his nose in the Bible could fail to see evidence so clear and convincing as the “rock-hard” geologic column!
Or at least that’s the way textbooks, television, museums, and magazines usually tell the story, and that’s the evolutionary story I used to teach, too. What is someone who believes the Bible going to say? There really are fossils out there; they really are in sedimentary rock layers; and those layers really are stacked on top of each other, over 1.5 miles (2 km) deep across the Arizona-Utah border, for example.
Now the geologic column is an idea, not an actual series of rock layers. Nowhere do we find the complete sequence. But, still, the geologic column does represent a tendency for fossils to be found in groups and for those groups to be found in a certain vertical order. Cambrian trilobites and Cretaceous dinosaurs aren’t usually found together. I found the trilobite I wear as a bolo tie, for instance, in Madison, Indiana, but our family’s collection of dinosaur bones came from Alberta, Canada.
Why aren’t trilobite and dinosaur fossils found together? According to evolution, the answer is easy. The Cambrian trilobites died out millions of years before the dinosaurs evolved. But there is another explanation that seems even more natural. After all, even if trilobites and dinosaurs were alive today, they still wouldn’t be found together. Why? Because they live in different ecological zones. Dinosaurs are land animals, but trilobites are bottom-dwelling sea creatures.
According to creationists, the geological systems represent different ecological zones, the buried remains of plants and animals that once lived together in the same environment. A walk through Grand Canyon, then, is not like a walk through evolutionary time; instead, it’s like a walk from the bottom of the ocean, across the tidal zone, over the shore, across the lowlands, and into the upland regions. Several lines of evidence seem to favor this ecological view.
First, there’s the matter of “misplaced fossils.” Evolutionists believe, for example, that the land plants did not appear until over 100 million years after the Cambrian trilobites died out. Yet, over sixty genera of woody-plant spores, pollen, and wood itself have been recovered from lowest “trilobite rock” (Cambrian) throughout the world. The evidence is so well known that it’s even in standard college biology textbooks. The secular botany textbook by Weier, Stocking, and Barbour37 that my students once used puts it this way: “Despite tempting fragments of evidence, such as cutinized [waxy] spores and bits of xylem [wood] dating back to the Cambrian period …,” most evolutionists still believe that land plants did not evolve until much later. But notice, the evolutionist argues “in spite of the evidence.”
The creationist does not argue “in spite of the evidence.” Rather, “because of the evidence,” the creationist says, “We think that land plants and Cambrian trilobites lived at the same time in different places. Normally, these sea animals and land plants would not be preserved together for ecological reasons. But a few plant specimens, escaping decay, could occasionally be entombed with trilobites in ocean sediment, and that’s what we see.”
Misplaced fossils are common enough that evolutionists have a vocabulary to deal with them. A specimen found “too low” in the geologic column (before it was supposed to have evolved) is called a “stratigraphic leak,” and a specimen found “too high” is called a “re-worked specimen.” Often, of course, there is actual physical evidence for mixing of strata from two different sources. But sometimes, such evidence is lacking. With such a handy vocabulary available, it’s quite likely that the number of misplaced fossils found—without evidence of disturbance—is far greater than the number actually recorded (which is considerable anyway).
Sometimes whole geologic systems are misplaced. While I was a graduate student in stratigraphy class still trying to decide between the Bible and evolution, we went on a field trip to find the missing 25 million years of the Silurian. We went to a quarry in southern Indiana that was famous for building-quality limestone. The massive gray limestone was quite thick and exposed over many hundreds of yards. In the lower part of the formation, we found corals belonging to system No. 2, the Ordovician. But as we worked our way up the quarry wall, suddenly we began to find Devonian corals, those belonging to system No. 4. Where were the missing corals of system No. 3, the Silurian?
For an evolutionist, that’s a crucial question. Evolutionists believe that Ordovician corals evolved into Silurian corals, which evolved into Devonian corals. Skipping the Silurian would break the evolutionary chain, and for an evolutionist would be impossible!
What was there between the Ordovician and Devonian corals in that limestone quarry in Indiana? Only millimeters separated them, and there was no change in color, no change in texture, not even a bedding plane. There was no physical evidence at all for those hypothetical 25 million years of evolutionary time. As the professor emphasized, such a situation is a serious problem for evolution. We simply can’t imagine land just lying there for 25 million years, he said, neither eroding nor depositing, then picking up exactly where it left off!
Evolutionists have coined a term to deal with the problem: paraconformity. A contact line between two rock strata is called a “conformity” if the physical evidence indicates smooth continuous deposition with no time break. “Disconformity” is used where the physical evidence indicates erosion has removed part of the rock sequence. Disconformities are often represented by wavy lines in geologic diagrams, and they often appear in the field as real “wavy lines” in which erosion channels and stream beds can be seen cutting into the eroded rock layer. But in the case of a paraconformity, there is no evidence of erosion, nor any other physical evidence of a break in time, only fossils “out of place.” The name even means that it looks like a conformity. In fact, the only way to recognize a paraconformity is by prior commitment to evolutionary theory. There is no physical evidence! But if you believe in evolution, then you must believe there was some gap in the sequence, or else the evolutionary chain would be broken.
Creationists don’t need the term paraconformity. Creationists can simply accept the physical evidence as it’s found: smooth, continuous deposition with no time break. Suppose the Ordovician and Devonian geologic systems represent different ecological zones of creatures living at the same time. Then a change in some ecological factor, such as saltiness or temperature, could cause one group of corals to replace the other ecologically, smoothly, and continuously. Or sediment from one ecological zone could be deposited immediately on top of sediment from another zone as currents changed direction, again producing smooth continuous deposition with no time break. I included an explanation like that in my answer to an exam question about paraconformities. I got an “A” on the essay (and on the test), and the professor was intrigued with the possibility—but said he couldn’t accept it because of the time span involved.
Many people think that if Christians could only accept great age, they’d have no problem with science. Actually, they would have no problem with evolution, but lots of problems with science! Gould38 laments that geologists are constantly reporting ecological interpretations of fossil deposits, but he says they should quit doing that, because the time scale is all wrong for evolution. Perhaps the ecological interpretations—based on actual physical evidence—are correct, and it’s the evolutionary time scale—based on faith in evolution—that’s wrong! Belief in great age and slow change make it very difficult to understand many physical features of our earth.
Consider polystratic fossils. As the name implies, polystrates are fossils that extend through many rock layers or strata. I first heard of polystratic fossils as a geology student. The professor, an evolutionist, was talking about zoning rocks on the basis of the microscopic fossils they contain. The usual assumption, of course, is that one microfossil evolved into another, which evolved into another, and so on. The rock unit he zoned was presumed to involve about 20 million years of evolutionary time. But then the professor told us he followed the rock unit down the creek bed, and found a shellfish, with a shell shaped like an ice cream cone, perched on its tip through the whole 20 million years! How could that be, he wondered. It couldn’t perch on its tip for 20 million years waiting for sediment to accumulate, and it couldn’t stab itself down through rock hardened over that time.
Polystrates are indeed a mystery for an evolutionist! But they would be no mystery at all, if the whole rock unit were deposited rapidly. Some things, like trees washed out in vegetation mats after a tropical storm, may float upright for a while, and they could be entombed in that upright position if burial occurred quickly enough (Fig. 33).
Polystrates are especially common in coal formations. For years and years, students have been taught that coal represents the remains of swamp plants slowly accumulated as peat and then even more slowly changed into coal. But there are many reasons that this swamp-idea simply cannot be true: the type of plants involved, texture of deposits, and state of preservation are all wrong; the action of flowing water, not stagnation, is evident.39
A new concept of coal formation is being developed, thanks in part to the work of creationist geologists. One of the leaders in this field is Dr. Steven Austin. In his dissertation for the Ph.D. in coal geology from Penn State, Dr. Austin40 suggests that coal was formed from plant debris deposited under mats of vegetation floating in sea water. His model already explains many features of coal that the swamp-model cannot explain. Even more importantly, his theory—a real scientific breakthrough—is the first ever to be used to predict the location and quality of coal.
Dramatic confirmation of the processes postulated by Dr. Austin was provided by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The volcano sent mud and debris hurtling down into Spirit Lake, sloshing a wave nearly 900 feet (300 m) up its initially tree-studded slopes. The wave sheared off trees with enough lumber to make all the houses in a large city! The trees were sheared off their roots and stripped of their leaves, branches, and bark. The “forest” of denuded logs floated out over the huge lake. As they water-logged, many sank vertically down into and through several layers of mud on the lake bottom. Many features of the lake-bottom deposits are reminiscent of coal deposits. A fantastic video describing both the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and his original research has been prepared by Dr. Austin41 and ought to be seen!
On a small scale, you can see the process that may have started the formation of coal deposits when a typhoon rips up mats of vegetation and floats them out to sea. But some coal seams run from Pennsylvania out across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois into Iowa and down to Oklahoma! What kind of storm could be involved in the formation of that kind of coal seam? Answer: Catastrophic flooding on a scale like that described in the Bible for Noah’s Flood!
Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.