Evolution: The Fossils Say Yes!

By Dr. Donald R. Prothero

It was very interesting to see the Nova broadcast recounting the Dover “intelligent design” trial of two years ago. The furor over the Dover trial may have died down, but by no means is creationism dead in this country. Each time they are beaten in court, they find another way to disguise their religious motives and try to get around the separation of church and state. Legally, they can’t win, but they are still very powerful in the local communities, where school boards are easily swayed by their phony arguments and ability to mobilize lots of church-going folks to attend school board meetings and vote for their candidates.

Both the old-fashioned “young-earth” creationists, i.e. people who believe the earth is only 10,000 years old, and the newer ID creationists push their cases largely by making demonstrably false claims about evolution and the fossil record. Their lies about the fossil record are particularly irritating to geologists and paleontologists because creationists make these claims without any formal training in paleontology, and without any first-hand experience with fossils, or publications in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. They wave their PhDs on the covers of their books, but almost none of them have any relevant training in fossils. Some of the claims you might still find in their books and blogs:

  • The “Cambrian explosion” was an instantaneous creation event. Not true—in the past 40 years, paleontologists have documented a 3.5-billion-year history of life from single-celled organisms to multicellular soft-bodied fossils to animals with small shells and culminating with the trilobites and other fossils that mark the early Cambrian Period. Modern dating techniques show this transition took at least 20 million years, and probably longer—hardly an “explosion” in anyone’s sense of the word! Yet creationists of all stripes wave this red herring and ignore the past 40 years’ worth of research.
  • There are no transitional fossils. Not true—in my new book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, I document dozens of transitional sequences of fossils, showing the evolution not only of individual lineages, but also of transitional forms that span the gaps between major groups—the “macroevolution” that creationists deny.
  • Humans did not evolve from ape-like ancestors. Not true—the past 50 years have yielded an amazing array of hominid fossils that provide more than enough “missing links.” Even if there were no fossils, your own genome is 98% identical with that of a chimpanzee. Every one of your cells is testimony to the fact that humans are a product of evolution!

As poll after poll shows, most Americans do not know much about evolution (or science in general), and at least 40% of Americans still believe in the creation myths of the Bible. This is in striking contrast to nearly every other country in the industrialized world, which long ago came to terms with evolution, and have much higher rate of science literacy than Americans do. Our poor science literacy is a national shame, especially in a country where science and technology are so essential and still world-class (at the moment). If these trends continue, however, will we soon be outsourcing many of our science and technology to other countries, as we do our white-collar and blue-collar jobs?

Dr. Donald R. Prothero is a Lecturer in Geobiology at Cal Tech and a Professor of Geology at Occidental College. His new book, published by Columbia University Press is Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.