What is the evidence for evolution in the fossil record?

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My “fun read” since the semester is over.

“Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years. Some find this deeply frightening, others ineffably thrilling… But it is more than just a good theory, or even a beautiful one. It also happens to be true.” These are just two statements from the introduction of Dr. Jerry Coyne‘s book, Why Evolution Is True. If the title of the book wasn’t clear enough, the introduction makes his position even clearer. In fact, his book is also an attack against creationism and anyone who believes that it should be taught in schools along with evolution. Coyne says, “Why teach a discredited, religiously based theory, even one widely believed, alongside a theory so obviously true?” So, is creationism discredited? Can it stand up against a theory so obviously true like evolution?

When I teach on evolution, I always make sure to emphasize the three Columbo questions from Greg Koukl‘s book, Tactics. It is always good to respond with questions instead of statements if someone comes up to you and says, “Evolution is a fact. Do you believe in it?” After this question you could say…

  1. What do you mean by evolution? Are they defending change over time, micro-evolution, or Darwinian evolution (macro-evolution)? Make sure you are both discussing the same definition of evolution.
  2. How did they come to that conclusion? What evidence do they have to support their view of evolution?
  3. Have you considered…? This is when we can answer their question by presenting another option that agrees with the evidence. The goal is to get them to think rather than simply stating facts that can be dismissed.

When I go through these questions with students, especially the second question, they almost always respond by saying that fossils are evidence for evolution. What is the evidence for evolution in the fossil record? This is the first question Dr. Coyne addresses in his book after defining evolution in the first chapter, and for this reason, it will be the first topic we discuss. Dr. Coyne says,

“There are several types [of evidence]. First, the big evolutionary picture: a scan through the entire sequence of rock strata should show early life to be quite simple, with more complex species appearing only after some time. Moreover, the youngest fossils we find should be those that are most similar to living species” (Why Evolution Is True, p. 25).

“Second, when we find transitional forms, they occur in the fossil record precisely where they should” (p. 53).

“Finally, evolutionary change, even of a major sort, nearly always involves remodeling the old into the new” (p. 54).

Dr. Coyne gives many examples to support his first piece of evidence that species move from simple to complex. He covers fossilized evolution and speciation, the “missing links,” evolution of fish to amphibians, the origin of birds, and the evolution of whales. Each example starts with an ancient species and shows a gradual evolution to what we have today. And when you begin to be overwhelmed by the amount of evidence, Coyne says, “If at this point you’re feeling overwhelmed with fossils, be consoled that I’ve omitted hundred of others that also show evolution” (p. 51). With hundreds examples proving evolution to be a fact, why am I not an evolutionist?

Why I’m not convinced

Dr. Coyne has given many examples of similar fossils that appear to be evolving slowly, but this doesn’t frighten me. Showing similar fossils moving from simple to complex does not prove that evolution is true. Within an atheistic or naturalistic framework I can see why this makes sense. It seems to line up so perfectly and is the only option. However, naturalism isn’t the only framework in which to understand the evidence. The Christian worldview presents another possibility; God created each of those species. Even Dr. Coyne admits that, “It is easier to document evolution in the fossil record than to understand what caused it” (p. 31). We see fossils that appear to be so similar, but we cannot know, from fossils alone, what caused them to be so similar. This still leaves two options on the table.

Have you considered that the fossil record could be the result of a common creator?

Fossils are always used to prove evolution, but couldn’t they be explained by both a common creator or a common ancestor? Dr. Coyne gives two answers as to why the common creator option doesn’t make sense. First, “No theory of special creation, or any theory other than evolution, can explain these patterns” (p. 29). This really confused me, and I was upset to see that this statement came without explanation at the end of the section. Why can’t special creation account for the simple to complex patterns we see? Why couldn’t God create different kinds of animals with similar body forms? If natural selection acting on random genetic mutations (a mindless process), can produce those results, why couldn’t an intelligent creator?

Second, Dr. Coyne says, “There is no reason why a celestial designer, fashioning organisms from scratch like an architect designs buildings, should make new species by remodeling the features of existing ones. Each species could be constructed from the ground up” (p. 54). It is true that God could construct each species from the ground up, but why would he have to do that? Genesis 1:25-26 tells us that God made the beasts of the earth, and then made man in His image. The Hebrew word meaning “to make” in these verses can describe the creation of a new form from preexisting materials. This is confirmed in that Genesis 2:7 tells us, “God formed the man of dust from the ground.” So, even though God could have created each animal kind completely different, it doesn’t appear that He did it this way. Similar bone structures and DNA show that God used similar “blueprints” when creating animals and humans in their present form. Evolution isn’t the only explanation for similar structures.

Special creation does explain the patterns we see in the fossil record. It explains the “transitional fossils,” the “missing links,” and the origin of life. Therefore, I am convinced that fossils don’t only point to evolution but can also be explained by creation. The creation account in Genesis 1-2 should not be thrown out as a religiously based and discredited theory.

What do you think? Why do you hold to creation or evolution? Leave your comments below and check back later as we dive into other issues on this topic!

rpauly@southlandscs.com
Ryan Pauly graduated in 2010 with a B.A. of Religion and an emphasis in Youth Leadership from Vanguard University of Southern California. After graduating he became a missionary in the Dominican Republic. During his four years of living in the Dominican Republic he taught English, Worldview, Apologetics, and Leadership to junior high and high school students. Ryan moved back to Southern California in 2015 and started teaching Historical Christian Doctrine, Apologetics, Comparative Religions and Worldviews, and Philosophy of Ethics at a Southern California Christian high school. In 2017, Ryan joined MAVEN as a field guide for their worldview missions experiences and became a trained volunteer apologist for the Reasons to Believe apologetics community. Ryan holds a certificate in Science Apologetics from the Reasons Institute and is currently working on his M.A. of Christian Apologetics at Biola University. His writing has been featured at crossexamined.org, seanmcdowell.org, thepoachedegg.net, and he is also a contributor for the updated version of the popular Apologetics Study Bible for Students which was released in 2017. Along with his writing, Ryan has appeared on Truth Matters TV and you can tune in to the Coffeehouse Questions radio show hosted by Ryan every Wednesday from 4:30-5 pm on Active Reliance Radio.

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