The first six days
For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day (Ex. 20:11).
LIKE MOST READERS, my first peep into the strange world of long-gone creatures occurred at a very early age. Unlike younger readers, whose first introduction to lost worlds of bygone ages invariably came while sitting in front of a television set, I first became aware of ages that preceded even my grandparents' while visiting our local museum. I remember well being scolded by museum caretakers for stomping loudly up the massive stairways (actually, I think it was my older brothers who created most of the din), being absorbed by the wheel with all the colors of the rainbow on it when still but that turned white when you pressed the button that made it spin. I also remember being happy to find that my hearing was perfectly fine according to the recorded voice in the test-your-hearing booth. I also remember being swallowed up in the atmosphere of reverence that seemed to embrace all who stood silently staring, like mourners gathered around a casket, at Phar Lap — Australia's most famous race horse — in his glass case. I'll never forget the sense of awe I felt when seeing the world's tiniest bird — a thumb-sized hummingbird from the Caribbean, I think. And who could forget the fading dioramas painted on walls behind a few stuffed lions and gazelles depicting life on the African savanna?
But it's the bone room I remember best. Glass cases along each wall held such things as a bone cast of the New Zealand elephant bird's huge thigh (with an artist's rendition of what it looked like in life, of course), a giant turtle carapace that, by memory, achieved Volkswagen size, and many other bones and skeletons of all conceivable shapes and sizes. Pride of place was held, hardly surprisingly, by the replica skeleton of some soaring dinosaur in the centre of the bone hall — rendered untouchable by one of those ubiquitous, child-frustrating barriers.
We know about these creatures because some of them kindly volunteered themselves for rapid burial, the circumstance most suitable for promoting the preservation of teeth and bones, the paleontologist's equivalent of gold to a prospector. These telling remains invariably are found embedded in layers of rock (known as strata) that formed from deposits of mud and sand laid down in shallow, water-filled basins. When, much later, the rock layers were uplifted and subjected to the corrosive effects of weathering over long periods, the fossils became exposed to the prying eyes of man.
Back when I was a mere urchin fifty years ago, paleontological discovery had only just begun. Oh sure, they knew about dinosaurs, trilobites, thunder beasts, and giant representatives of many, more familiar creatures, such as Megalodon, the giant shark.
What a story these finds tell us. An enthralling radio program a few days ago spoke about a large flightless duck that lived on the Hawaiian island of Kauai 400,000 years ago. The size of a turkey, this unducklike, forest-dwelling duck was equipped with pseudo-teeth for stripping and eating fern fronds and twigs! The same deposits have yielded remains of extinct bird-catching owls, numerous honeycreepers and a turtle-jawed something — I missed exactly what it was.
Not all creatures dead and gone had bones. Paleontologists are finding evidence of many non-bony animals, in spite of the simple truism of paleontology that soft tissues don't fossilize well at all. They even find fossils of sea urchin embryos. And let us not forget fossilized plant tissues, too. (Generally speaking, fossils of plants and animals are rarely found together for the simple reason that plant tissues fossilize better in acid conditions while animal tissues are more likely to be preserved under alkaline conditions.)
In spite of the never-ending new TV series about beasts of the past, the sheer mass of discoveries means that few of us common folk have but the slightest inkling of the diverse array of creatures that once jumped, hopped, waddled, crawled and ran across the face of the earth, climbed in its trees, cruised its shallow ponds or plied its ocean depths. I mean, how many of us have ever heard of multituberculates, mammal-like reptiles, conodonts, labyrinthodonts, wiwaxia, ostracoderms or placoderms? Those brave souls that peep through the keyhole are quickly put off when confronted with such unpronounceably unfamiliar terms as Indracotherium, euthycarcinoids and diprotodontids.
But you know something, it's worth persisting. We can see the invisible glory of God most effectively by studying the visible works of His hands. When you grasp the simple yet profound concept that God wrought endless wonders over many millions of years before Adam's creation, your life will never be the same. The more you learn, the more excited you will get about learning more.
Your joy of learning will really blossom if you discover a few fossils for yourself! The chances of finding something unknown or extremely old are pretty slim for us rank amateurs, but you never know. You may be surprised just how readily you can chance upon fossils if you are alert when “in the field”. A few years back our field naturalist group was on excursion about 15 miles from my home. We were looking for fungi, I think, on someone's private land. When somebody casually kicked a rock that was jutting above the surface it broke open, revealing a large bivalve (a shellfish with two shells joined at a hinge). Seized by fossil fever we set about cracking open many other rocks, and were rewarded with a small hoard of relics from the past, mostly bivalves but including a few lamp shells. Only yesterday, while digging for freshwater crayfish in streamside mud on another excursion, I picked up a stone from the stream. Lo and behold, it held a depression showing where the remains of a spiral-shelled creature had once lodged. And recently a beekeeper friend gave me a large chunk of soft sandstone jam-packed with fossil shells and colonial bryozoans that he had found in the bush while moving hives.
Not being a paleontologist, I have no idea which epoch they are from1 (see Ages of Creation). What I do know is that these long-dead creatures attest to the changing face of our planet over time. When I hold a fossil in my hands I think of the Creator of them all; He could tell you not only what they are but when they lived, how long each one lived and what brought about their death and burial. He not only notices when each tiny bird drops off its perch and when each clam perishes, He remembers it forever!
Our changing world
Picturing in our mind's eye creatures we have never seen can be hard enough; harder still is the challenge of trying to imagine a world different in other ways, too. If you could turn the clock back gradually over millions of years and witness the terrain where you live changing before your eyes, you would find it hard to believe. Our house stands on the bed of an ancient lake; the soil contains numerous small stones testifying to its origin. What about where you live?
If we were to do the same thing while orbiting in space, we would be astonished; we would see the continents of the earth moving about at an average speed similar to the growth rate of fingernails, an inch or so per year. The continents are sliding around over the solid lower mantle at a partially molten, plastic shearing zone — a kind of lubricant — known as the asthenosphere. Some researchers believe that the movements are choreographed by a never-ending, orderly “supercontinent cycle” driven by heat:
A supercontinent can survive for about 80 million years before the accumulation of heat causes rifts to form, and for another 40 million years or so before it is torn apart into separate continents. The continents drift apart until they reach their greatest degree of dispersal, about 160 million years later. They then move back together, eventually reforming the supercontinent. The entire cycle takes about 440 million years (Nance, Worsley & Moody July 1988, p. 47).
Genesis One says nothing of such large-scale migrations of earth's continental crust. Nevertheless, its simple command, “Let the dry land appear” (vs. 9) suggests the operation of enormous dynamic forces at work behind the scenes. Scripture implies that the ground beneath our feet didn't appear “as is” in an instant, but was painstakingly put together over a long time span:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone? (Job 38:4-6).
This description smacks of subterranean complexity. Twentieth century geophysicists have learned a lot about what God knew millions of years ago. When, in the early twentieth century, Alfred Wegener and a few other brave souls first proposed that continents are continuously on the move they were almost shouted down. After all, who but God would ever have thought of such a thing? Opposition melted away in the 1960s and 1970s in the light of accumulated evidence, though a few diehards who explain the same evidence by recourse to a theory of an expanding earth continue to stir up some controversy.
The disposition of the continental “plates” (as they are called) in earliest times remains largely a matter of guesswork; their original shapes and positions after God raised the land above the void cannot be known. Suffice it to say that the evidence, usually based on animal distribution and comparison of rock strata from all around the world, suggests that all sorts of complex movements have occurred over time. Maps showing the distribution of continents during the Ordovician (about 500–430 million years ago), for example, show western Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Africa squished together way down in the south (!), together with Australia and Antarctica, with modern day Chad almost on the South Pole and with Florida sailing independently only a handshake away from Morocco! At the same time, the Americas and much of Eurasia were doing their own interesting thing.
The closer we get to today, the more confident geologists are about the disposition of land masses. They are fairly sure that tens of millions of years before the age of dinosaurs began — taking us back to about 300 million years ago — the various plates were moving towards each other. Just before dinosaurs first saw the light of day, the predictable “big crunch” occurred, with the plates amalgamating into one supercontinent called Pangea (map). Almost immediately it began to fracture again in obedience to the supercontinent cycle mentioned earlier into two supercontinents (map), one in the northern hemisphere, known as Laurasia, the other in the southern hemisphere called Gondwana. Towards the end of the age of dinosaurs, in the late Cretaceous (map) these in turn began to rupture and the resulting “pieces” drifted away from each other producing the continents we know today. Geologists believe that most of the continents as we know them attained their present independence through total separation of the big plates between 45 and 38 million years ago. Movement has never ceased, and since then connections have formed between some of the free-floating plates; North America and South America remained separated until, about three million years ago, their respective south and north projections were joined when a cluster of undersea humps in the area of Panama rose and formed a bridge between them.
Evidence of massive movement of land is everywhere to be found. For instance, when India broke away from Gondwana and finally collided with mainland Asia after sailing for a few thousand miles, the collision buckled the crust and raised the Himalayan range. When the South American and Nazca plates collided 15 million years ago, the impact blocked the Amazon River, causing it to flow westward into a vast inland sea whose existence is attested to by discoveries of giant fossil crocodiles and other creatures that once lived there. On and on goes the evidence and the staggering story it betrays. The world we know today is a very different place from what it was.
Further evidence of the massive changes that have occurred are found in a long, beaded necklace of mountains stretching from Europe, through Turkey, northern India, Indochina, Indonesia and the western coast of North America. Now thousands of feet in elevation, the composition of these mountains betrays their origin — composed of the remains of coral reefs later raised by uplifting, they obviously began their career as huge reefs ringing a now non-existent ancient sea (Stanley 11/87). The necklace has broken and stretched into a long string by the slipping and sliding of the plates.
Continental drift and animal distribution
If a thousand individuals of every vertebrate species from all over the world were dumped in, say, Africa, over the course of time many species would disappear, some very rapidly. Some would thrive, but they would do so at the expense of others. Predicting which species would thrive and which would vanish would not be easy. We would be wrong to suppose that the eaters would survive and the eaten would perish; population dynamics are far more complicated. Supreme intelligence is required to design communities in which the animals and plants not only don't destroy each other but do, in fact, contribute to each other's survival. In a finely-tuned, well-designed community, predators actually enhance the survival of the species they prey on! Perhaps we can feel sympathy for the wildebeest that is downed by a hungry lion; its surviving colleagues, however, thank the lion. Ecology is the study of such complex interactions, and the self-maintaining communities are known as ecosystems. The delicacy of such balanced systems is often admirably demonstrated when an exotic species is introduced, throwing the system out of kilter. Authorities are concerned that pet Burmese pythons released by owners into the Florida Everglades may spell disaster for alligators.
On a larger scale, ecosystems merge into each other to form what are known as zones, regions, provinces, or zoogeographic realms. The combined communities of plants and animals in one region are very different from those in other regions. Defining what constitutes a “real region” has been a source of contention among ecologists, with different ones using different criteria for defining them. For our purpose it is enough to state the obvious — landmasses separated from each other by oceanic, topographical, or climatic barriers carry unique communities of animals and plants. African communities are quite different from those in North America and Asia, for instance, though each realm has animals that would be considered, based on their lifestyle, analogues of animals elsewhere. For instance, most continents have a mammal that eats ants — the aardvark in Africa, pangolin in greater Asia and Africa, the ant bear in South America, and the echidna in Australia. Believers in creation see the ingenuity of God displayed in such variations on a theme; He can find many ways of solving a problem or of accomplishing the same task.
We should not be surprised to discover that in ancient times isolated landmasses each carried unique animal and plant societies. Significantly, the fossil record shows that the distribution of communities agrees with the theory of continental drift. For instance, trilobite fossils (see below) from the late Paelozoic era, the period before the age of dinosaurs, are found in sedimentary rocks from all around the world. This distribution fits the belief that all the continents were joined together at that time and enjoyed a fairly uniform climate. Closer inspection reveals that 400 million years ago the trilobites could be separated into two notably distinct groupings, one found in North America and the other in Europe, Africa and Asia. This division accords with other evidence that incipient Pangea was, roughly speaking, split down the centre along a north-south axis by a wide, deep, “proto-Atlantic” at that time. As these masses crashed into each other over about the next 75 million years, the differences between the two trilobite faunas grew less until, by the last gasp of the Paelozoic era, coinciding with the joining of the land masses, similar trilobites are found from all over Pangea. Not evolution, mind you — God at work, making new species for changing conditions. Genesis One, as a one chapter summary description of a protracted creation period with emphasis on the theology of creation, cannot possibly be expected to detail such amazing aspects of the creation event.
Fossils of Mesosaurus, a very late Paleozoic reptile from the time when Gondwana had begun to separate from Laurasia, are found on both sides of the South Atlantic — in the eastern part of South America and the western part of Africa, and nowhere else. This fact corroborates other evidence that these two continents were at that time components of the southern supercontinent, Gondwana.
Later, but still before the northern supercontinent, Laurasia, had broken up, some species enjoyed very wide distribution on the northern supercontinent, but not on the southern. Expeditions in the 1970s in Thailand uncovered the remains of creatures from the late Triassic (225–195 mya2) — turtles, reptiles and amphibians — that “have counterparts in the German late Triassic” (Buffetaut and Ingetat 1985, p. 82). Thai lungfish were similar to Chinese lungfish of the time, but not to Australian lungfish. At that time, the two supercontinents, Laurasia and Gondwana, were largely split through the middle, with a connection at their western end. The assemblages of creatures on the two were becoming less like each other as new creatures and plants were raised up for the new conditions gradually being generated by continental drift.
Dinosaur distribution throughout time by and large supports accepted scenarios and timetables for the configuration of continents; most orders of dinosaurs lived on both supercontinents, particularly in the early-middle part of the Mesozoic (225–65 mya) when Laurasia and Gondwana were still close together.
The distribution of the southern beech tree, Nothofagus, provides a good example of the kind of information species distribution can provide about the movements of continents in the past. Nothofagus is found today in southern South America, New Zealand, and Australia but not, say, in Africa. The seeds are too large to blow on the wind and long-distance rafting on ocean currents doesn't work. Could this distribution reflect an extensive ancient forest when the land masses were joined?
True, this anomalous distribution could be explained by recourse to fiat creation. Those who believe in “instant” creation might suggest that God created the same animal or plant in two or more separate parts of the world and that, therefore, animal distribution does not provide evidence for continental drift. Fair enough. However, the distribution of Nothofagus also fits independent evidence suggesting something else. In 1959, Nothofagus pollen was found on the Antarctic mainland, and then, in the 1970s, fossil leaves from the late Cretaceous (136–65 mya) were found on Seymour Island near Antarctica. These facts all match the theory that these continents were once joined. The absence of this plant in Africa also matches other evidence that by the time Nothofagus was created, Africa had long since split away from the Nothofagus-covered continents. Africa was adorned with its own brilliantly-designed suite of unique trees and plants.
I believe passionately in creation; evolution has been falsified. Don't you thrill at the thought of sliding plates, changing climates and ongoing acts of creation and extinction all ultimately leading to today's end result — a world fit for man, conducive to human enjoyment and sustenance, a world of beauty, cuteness and loveliness that earlier ages would not have provided? I do.
So the evidence of animal and plant distribution by and large fits nicely with the notion of changing geography. Non-creationists see the spectrum of change and naturally cry “evolution”. But some examples of animal distribution that just can't be explained by proximity of continents give evolution theory a headache. “Disjunct endemism” is the name given to the phenomenon of the occurrence of the same species on different continents at a time when they were very distant from each other and separated by major barriers. During the late Cretaceous, South America and India were thousands of miles apart and, according to standard timetables of continental dispositions, India had been isolated by water for many millions of years. Yet three Cretaceous sauropods (plant-eating dinosaurs with small head and long neck) — Titanosaurus, Laplatosaurus, and Antarctosaurus — have left their fossilized remains on both. Perhaps some future finds or modifications of theory will give some relief to paleontologists embarrassed by such distribution. (In the meantime, anti-creationists will cry “God-of-the-gaps” at the likes of me.) Those who believe in creation cannot help but wonder if just perhaps these creatures were created on those two widely-separated chunks of rock.
Up she goes!
Not only have continental blocks slid around in controlled harmony but they have alternately risen and sunk in elevation. Books on earth history talk again and again of times when vast inland seas covered huge areas of continents, particularly during the Mesozoic era, the age of dinosaurs. Many, many parts of earth's terra firma were once terra wetter. The famous marine reptiles known as ichthyosaurs and mesosaurs once plied these shallow seas; when the seas vanished, so did the “lizards”. The earth was being slowly prepared for the age of man.
A key feature of the “modern” world, the Cainozoic [Cenozoic] era (65 mya to present), has been a reversal of this trend of shallow inland seas by progressive uplifting that began late in the age of dinosaurs. Colbert and others say,
Continental areas, which had been low and partially inundated by shallow seas during middle and late Mesozoic times, were lifted to new heights during late Cretaceous and early Cenozoic history. There were broad recessions of the shallow seas, and, what is particularly important, the modern mountain systems were born (2001, p. 496).
Dynamic change attests to the genius and purpose of the wise Changer.
Probably largely as a result of a combination of two factors — rearrangements of continents over time and variations in radiation from the sun — world climate has varied dramatically over the eons. At the dawn of the Mesozoic era, the planet was considerably warmer than at present, with the poles free of ice. Palm trees and breadfruit trees have been found in the fossil record of Greenland, for instance. When the dinosaurs reigned, earth seems to have basked in one long summer. By comparison, the icy world of the past few million years (see below) has been like one great long winter. Yet periods of massive glaciation mark earlier ages, too, even predating the Mesozoic summer. In other words, world climates have veered to and fro many times. As one author put it, “Our planet has experienced climate extremes as dramatic as any in science fiction” (Culotta 1993, p. 20).
At times, some regions experienced climatic conditions that we would find hard to imagine. During the middle Triassic period, for instance, much of the supercontinent of Laurasia experienced massive swings between exceedingly dry conditions and super wet conditions, possibly on an annual basis — a situation called a “mega-monsoon”. Likewise, most of Australia about 100 million years ago lay below the Antarctic Circle. Describing the climate found in southern Australia at that time, Vickers-Rich and Rich say,
At that time, the region hosted an assemblage of animals and plants that lived under climate conditions having no modern analogue. The average temperature, though low, appears to have been within the temperate range, yet the sun did not shine throughout the long winter (July 1993, p. 40).
If the experts are correct, in the past five million years alone the earth has experienced a number of ice ages interspersed with warmer periods; ice volumes have fluctuated with concomitant rising and falling of sea level. The cause of the oscillations may well be traced to dramatic changes in ocean circulation patterns forced on the planet by the severing of the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean when North and South America hooked up. Tusks and bones from many thousands of woolly mammoths have been dredged up from the depths about sixty kilometers off the coast of Britain, attesting to a recent ice age in which the volume of water locked up in the form of ice was so high that the sea level was hundreds of feet lower than at present.
Our modern arrangement in which you have clear distinctions between tropical and temperate regions coinciding with latitude appears to be exceptional and exclusive to the last five or so million years — just what is needed for the age of man.
All creatures dead and gone
Over millions of years, this planet has played host to numerous kinds of animals and plants that did their amazing, unique thing for some millions of years and then vanished off the face of the earth as a result of one of earth history's great mysteries — extinction. 97% of all creatures that have ever existed are now extinct. The fossil record, in spite of its patchiness, plainly depicts a rich passing parade of creatures. That different critters lived at different times is supported by the fossil record. You never find dinosaur bones mixed in with those of saber-toothed tigers or bizarre fish known as placoderms.
The choirs of creatures that have made their music in the past underwent constant change; over and over today's stars became tomorrow's forgotten has-beens. One general principle is worthy of note:
The history of life on earth, as it is revealed in the fossil record, is characterized by intervals in which organisms of one type multiplied and diversified with extraordinary exuberance (Kurtén).
So, dinosaurs as a group lived for only about 215 million years of the roughly 1270 million years of known animal life!
Trilobites abounded for more than 300 million years, from roughly 570 to 250 million years ago. Paleontology journals probably have devoted more pages over the years to them than to any other creature. These ancient creatures exhibited astonishing diversity in living strategies, not to mention staggering sophistication of design. Some had eyes with lenses complex enough to have formed images, perceived depth and provided a large field of vision. Most were bottom dwellers, but others swam or floated.
Though they appear to have dominated marine faunal assemblages at times they were not forever alone. About 200 million years after the trilobites appeared, they were forced to share the waters with coiled, spiral-shaped, hard-shelled “relatives” of squids and octopods known as ammonites. The ammonite shell was partitioned into walled chambers with the living creature occupying only the outermost chamber. Ammonites, too, lived for a little over 300 million years; since they appeared on stage much later than trilobites, their demise obviously came later, too. They perished around the same time as the dinosaurs. As an aside, these facts demonstrate that even the phenomenon of extinction must not be oversimplified. Somehow the ammonites survived whatever it was that caused trilobites to perish — possibly a change in water chemistry.
Appearing in the fossil record at the same time as trilobites is another marine creature, the graptolite, that flourished alongside trilobites for about 70 million years then petered out gradually over the next 100 million years, disappearing completely from the rocks about 20 million years after the ammonites appeared. Tiny graptolites built group homes with a delicate but tough skeleton and with a spine extending from each home. In one of those classical cases of the discovery of a “living fossil”, living graptolites were discovered in 1989 by marine biologists while trawling in the South Pacific. Studies of the living species show that the spine is formed little by little each time the creature comes out of its little house and crawls to the tip of the spine to strain seawater for food. Each trip, they leave a trail of protein that hardens, gradually extending the spine.
Many other kinds of extinct creatures have no modern survivors. Organic-walled microfossils called Chitinozoans appear in deposits from the Ordovician, Silurian (430–395 mya) and Devonian (395–345 mya), but not since. (Intriguingly, some workers believe these are not creatures at all but are the eggs of unknown marine invertebrates.)
Facts such as these illustrate the point — the geological “ages”, like chapters in a James Michener blockbuster, were marked by certain colorful characters, like the dinosaur superstars, who have tended to hog the limelight; however, many supernumeraries, each of whom provides mute testimony to the literary genius of the Master Playwright (to use yet another metaphor) filled the stage, playing quieter yet vital roles.
Life's constantly changing parade
Few realize that the same grand truth about the permanence of change applies on a much smaller time scale as well. Different characters have come, dashed around the stage for a few minutes, and then bade farewell. Paleontologists will tell you that almost invariably, whenever fossil-bearing strata overlie one another, each stratum hosts a unique assemblage or “fauna” of creatures, even when the ages of the adjacent strata are not all that different from one another. Some colorful characters keep on popping up, but others make only a fleeting appearance.
Two small saltpans… bordered by high dunes yielded two fossil faunas, one above the other, and thus in direct geological superposition. The older, from green and dolomitic clays, contained strange little diprotodont marsupials of a previously unknown and primitive type. A younger stream channel cut through the red clays and into the green contained a variety a variety of animals more modern in appearance than those from the Woodard Quarry, yet more archaic than the widely known Late Pleistocene forms (1985, p. 44).
Such writers, totally imbued with evolutionary concepts, pounce on the simple truth that life forms have come and gone in an amazing sequential fashion as if it “proves” evolution. Whenever they see a succession of animals, the eye of faith invariably invests the earlier assemblage with “more primitive features”. In reality, the term “primitive” has become an almost completely meaningless word, as it tells us virtually nothing of a truly objective nature. It would be far more accurate to simply say that they are “different from one another”. The point is that the rise and fall of unbelievable arrays of bizarre creatures and strange plants provides no more support to evolution than it does to the Genesis account of a successive series of creative acts. No matter how circuitous the route, the creation symphony takes the form of a series of divine creative acts that have brought us to where we are today. Listen to the music; you will be awestruck.
Created, not descended
Indeed, the more they look, the decidedly less comfortable honest evolutionists are becoming. Take dinosaurs, for example. Were evolution theory true, the fossil record should provide a natural sequence of creatures — even if only sketchy — that clearly led from pre-dinosaurs to dinosaurs, and over a lengthy enough period of time for alleged evolutionary mechanisms to perform their magic. But look at the facts:
Rocks from before about 245 million years ago have been moderately well sampled around the world, but none of them has yet yielded dinosaurs. That means the search for the common ancestor of all dinosaurs must focus on a relatively poorly known and ever narrowing interval of Middle Triassic rocks, between about 240 million and 230 million years old (Flynn & Wyss 2002, p. 48).
Could dinosaurs have evolved from some pre-dinosaur condition in a mere 10 million years?
Furthermore, gradual accumulation of small changes simply can't produce a new creature. A non-dinosaur aspiring to become a dinosaur would have to take on an entire suite of advantageous changes at once — semi-designed new characters simply won't work. Further, the mass of instantaneous changes required to turn a dinosaur-wannabe into a fully qualified proto-dinosaur must not be so dramatic that the poor individual that experiences them is rendered genetically incompatible with or unattractive to an old-fashioned potential mate. After all, the beneficial genetic modifications — the stuff of evolutionists' wistful dreams — must be able to reach the next generation. The whole idea is impossible.
The story of life in a nutshell
Most earth scientists believe that our planet is about 4500 million (4.5 billion) years old. Blue-green algae and stromatolites appeared about 700 million years later. Though often described as “simple”, nothing could be further from the truth — they betray all the signs of brilliant design. For the next 3200 million years, these bacteria-cum-algae kept a lonely vigil, gradually turning the noxious gases of earth's early atmosphere into the oxygen so critical for most living things. (Remember the chef metaphor.) While that was happening, the earth's uniform crust was being transformed into two distinctly different forms — continental crust and oceanic crust — which are spread around the earth like misshapen saucers, some upright and others overturned, on the outside of a basketball.
Earliest multi-celled life
Experts differ on the timing of the earliest multi-celled life forms, known technically as metazoans. As recently as 2005, one author puts the origin of multi-celled creatures “only” as far back as 600 million years ago (Bottjer August 2005, p. 32). Mark McMenamin, by contrast, talks of the emergence of shelly creatures and of strange, flat, soft-bodied creatures unearthed from the Ediacara Hills of South Australia at “between about 700 and 570 million years ago” (April 1987, p. 84). In 1999, New Scientist magazine suggested a much more ancient origin for multi-celled animals:
The ancestors of major animal groups may have existed 700 million years earlier than biologists realized… a team led by Blair Hedges of Pennsylvania State University has traced the origins of nematode worms to 1.2 billion years ago (30 th January, p. 23).
Whatever the truth, one thing is for sure — animals go back a long way! By shortly after 600 million years ago at the latest, shelled creatures, vase-shaped archaeocyathans, brachiopods, tube-dwelling worms, the first trilobites the Ediacaran fauna, and a miscellany of other creatures had arrived on stage. Some tusk-shaped fragments frequently found are believed to have served some creature as grasping spines, suggesting the existence of predators. Scales have been found which, when put together jigsaw-puzzle style, suggest an armored “something” known as Lapworthella. Complex tracks suggest the activity of arthropods — creatures such as lobsters with jointed appendages.
Shockingly, a few of these earliest fossils show unmistakable signs of healing after being attacked by a predator. Anyone who has read about the physiology of healing knows just how complicated the process is. Evolution? No way!
Twenty or thirty million years later, around 570 million years ago, a second eruption of marine life forms occurred — the famous “Cambrian explosion”. Recent studies of fossils of these creatures found in the Burgess Shale of Canada have yielded inspiring insights into the strange creatures which suddenly popped up on life's stage, many of which were quite unlike anything we know today along with representatives of many modern invertebrate phyla (highest groups in the hierarchy of classification).
The age of fish and early land animals
Interposed between the Cambrian period and the age of the dinosaurs are five periods: Ordovician (500–430 mya), Silurian (430–395 mya), Devonian (395–345 mya), Carboniferous (345–280 mya), and Permian (280–225 mya) — a total of about 275 million years compared with about 160 for the age of dinosaurs. During this time, all sorts of fish came and went. Though many were similar to today's bony fishes, a huge number of bizarre, armored, jawless fishes thrived, both in salt and fresh water.
Many invertebrates also graced our planet. Some, such as dragonflies with huge wing spans would look very familiar to us. Others, such as the eurypterids, or water scorpions, that
Enormous controversy has surrounded the supposed evolutionary origin of tetrapods — beasts with “walk-ready” limbs. In the mid-twentieth century, expeditions to Greenland unearthed material of such animals from the late Devonian, of which the best known is called Ichthyostega. (The fossil record shows little indication of the existence of any land-dwelling creatures before then.) Trackways of similar creatures of about the same time have been found in Genoa, Australia, showing how widespread they were. In the last years of the twentieth century, specimens that had long been gathering dust in museums were rediscovered; they are supposedly from earlier in the Devonian. They and hundreds of other species having a vague anatomical similarity have been found in sediments all the way through to the late Mesozoic. For a long time they have been somewhat artificially lumped together under the name “labyrinthodont”. General description: big amphibians.
Without anywhere near enough time for these amphibians to evolve into reptiles, reptiles appeared during the Carboniferous period and thrived forever. One author says this of the reptiles:
Indeed, the popularly termed “Age of Reptiles” consisted of two distinct phases. The first phase was very largely the mammal-like reptiles and it lasted throughout the later part of the Carboniferous and the Permian. During the succeeding Triassic Period, they were gradually replaced by the more familiar dinosaur reptiles of the Mesozoic… (Kemp 1982, p. 1).
Mammal-like reptiles? Yes, you read correctly. Unlike dinosaurs, many of which walked on two legs, synapsids, as they are called, respected gravity more by staying faithful to all fours.
The age of reptiles
About 225 million years ago, when Eoraptor appeared in what is now Argentina, until 65 million years ago, when extinction struck down the last of the kind, dinosaurs, dinosaurs and more dinosaurs flourished. Discoveries between about 1985 and 2005 doubled the number of known genera, and new species are being described every month. Some discoveries take the breath away; the January 23, 2003, edition of Nature describes four-winged dinosaurs from China that could probably glide. As an aside, the article makes the bold claim that, “The new discovery conforms to the early predictions of early hypotheses that proavians [pre-birds] passed through a tetrapteryx [four-winged] stage.” Problem is, these dinosaurs come from the Cretaceous period, while full-fledged bird remains come from the earlier Jurassic period (195–136 mya) (Colbert p. 9)! Of greater embarrassment to preachers of dinosaur-to-bird evolution, we are told that, even though dinosaurs were divided into two groups, bird-hipped and reptile-hipped, birds evolved from the reptile-hipped line! But that's another story.
The age of dinosaurs is known as the Mesozoic in paleontological parlance, and is divided into three periods — Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. But few people understand that a vital theme of this article — that life's parade has been constantly changing — can be applied to dinosaurs. Bearing in mind the limitations of the fossil record, it would seem that many dinos, like so many other creatures in their periods, crossed the Mesozoic stage rapidly, making cameo appearances only. Further, dinosaurs were not the only reptilian-like creatures of the Mesozoic. Numerous other reptiles that we have no familiarity with flourished, as did more familiar crocodilians, snakes and lizards later in the Mesozoic.
How could we pass on without doffing the cap to one reptilian line that has captured popular imagination so strongly — the winged reptiles known as pterosaurs or pterodactyls? Appearing abruptly (surprise, surprise) in 200 million year old limestone in northern Italy, they continued to the end of the Cretaceous. About 100 species have been unearthed. Experts long theorized that the maximum possible wingspan for a flying animal was eight meters. God had other ideas: in 1972 bones were found in Texas that belonged to a pterosaur with a wingspan of 11 to 12 meters! A smaller kind, Pterodaustro, had baleen-like plates in its bill for filtering water flamingo-style.
Dinosaurs' furry friends
Dinosaurs have hogged the limelight so overwhelmingly that few people realize that many other wild and wonderful creatures shared our planet at different times with the dinosaurs and other reptiles. According to available evidence, and depending on one's definition, mammals first appeared on the scene somewhere between 210 and 180 million years ago. Until the mid-1980s, fossil mammal remains from the age of dinosaurs were so rare they could, as paleontologist Farish Jenkins Jr. of Harvard University put it, “fit in half a shoe box”.
In fact, until midway through the nineteenth century, experts believed that no mammals lived during the Mesozoic Era. When two lower jaw bones looking suspiciously like those of modern mammals were retrieved from “dinosaur strata”, the notion that they came from mammals living at the same time as dinosaurs was dismissed by some experts. Even after scientists acknowledged the antiquity of mammals, lack of fossil material hampered the study of the most ancient kinds for many years. But now, thanks to a combination of amazing good luck and dogged determination, the shoe box is filling up fast. National Geographic of August, 2005, reports the discovery of mammals that ate dinosaurs!
Scientists, who have long known that dinosaurs preyed on mammals, were stunned by the discovery of a fossil that turned the tables. Found by villagers [in China], the cat-sized mammal's skeleton contains the remains of its last meal: a young beaked dinosaur… Most Mesozoic mammals were previously thought to be nocturnal insect-eaters no bigger than rats (p. 94).
The writer went on to say that the remains of a similar mammal twice the size of this one have been found. You are talking about fair-sized mammals now.
In early 2006, the journal "Science" reported that studies of mammalian remains found in China in 2004 had produced a most surprising result. The fossils proved to be those of a 20-inch long (50 centimeter) swimming, fish-eating mammal that lived about 165 million years ago during the Jurassic period. It had a beaver-like tail for propulsion in water, and sharp, otter-like teeth for eating fish. Scientists of course are puzzled, since this find proves that mammals occupied a more diverse range of ecological niches than evolutionary theory would predict so soon after they supposedly evolved into existence. The find pushes back mammalian "waterbabies" by more than 100 million years. Mammal life way back then is proving to be much more varied and complex than anybody could have guessed.
Until the 1980s, mammalian remains from the early age of dinosaurs had been found only in Britain and China. Since then, mammalian relics of the distant past have popped up in numerous other locations. In recent years, knowledge of Mesozoic mammals has escalated so that Long and others were able to say, “The Mesozoic era… saw a great diversity of early, small mammalian groups come and go. These included the morganucodontids, docodontids, sphalacotheriids, dryolestoids, amphitheriids and many others” (p. 18). The oldest known mammal is Adelobasileus cromptoni, a partial skull of which has been found in Texas. Dated at about 225 million years old it lived alongside (or underneath) with the very first dinosaurs. One expert says, “details of its skull morphology suggest this creature would have qualified as a very archaic animal” (Long and others 2002, p. 18). This is not the time or place to launch into a soliloquy on the whole notion of primitive vs. advanced animals. Let us just say that Adelobasileus is different from any known mammals, and was perfectly adapted to its life-style and its world.
Until recently, mammal remains from the Mesozoic consisted almost entirely of teeth alone. Believe it or not, teeth can provide a wealth of information about their owners because each kind of mammal sports extremely specialized batteries of incisors, molars and premolars. Even a single tooth can reveal the identity of the group to which an ancient animal belonged (Monastersky, The Lost Tribe of the Mammals, Science News 14.12.96, p. 378).
The most ancient, abundant and widespread of early mammals of the Mesozoic are called — prepare yourself — multituberculates, the name being based on the large number of tubercles, or cusps, on their molar teeth. Being playful folk, paleontologists have shortened their name to “multis”. They first appear in the fossil record of 210 million years ago, and lasted until a mere 30 million years ago. Guillermo Rougier, a paleontologist at the American Museum calls them “the most interesting group of mammals that ever lived” (Science News). The shape of their skulls leads experts to believe they looked vaguely like rodents.
From the number of their fossil remains, it is clear that multis thrived on the northern half of earth's landmasses throughout their reign. By contrast, only three sites from what were originally southern lands (in Argentina, Morocco and Madagascar) have yielded evidence of their existence.
By the early Cretaceous, all three of today's groups of mammals — the egg-laying monotremes, the pouched marsupials and the placentals (mammals in which the foetus develops while attached to a placenta) — had appeared (Long, p. 18). The oldest fossils for each group suggest that monotremes appeared as early as 120 mya, placentals around 100 mya and marsupials around 95 mya.
The Cainozoic: the age of mammals
The end of the Mesozoic 65 million years ago marked an explosion of mammal diversity. By contrast with the half shoebox of dinosaur-era mammal remains, untold trucksfull of teeth and bones have been unearthed from strata that have formed in the 65 million years since dinosaurs expired. This era, the Age of Mammals, is termed the Cainozoic (Cenozoic) or, as an approximation, the Tertiary, by paleontologists. Of the approximately thirty orders of mammals that have ever existed, ten have gone forever, their candle of life snuffed out. If you love God, you will surely want to know more about the passing parade of Cainozoic life, about thunder beasts, about the numerous species of rhinoceros that once chewed the grasses and browsed the leaves of North American prairies and woodlands, about aquatic sloths, legged whales, terror birds of South America, “demon ducks of doom” and… and… on and on it goes. Who could not want to know as much as possible about the works of their Creator's hands? Of the One who gave His life for their atonement? His power and genius know no limits.
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Notes and References
1 "Epoch" is a technical term used by geologists and paleontologists for some of the ages of the past. See Ages of Creation
2 Million years ago
Bottjer, D. J. August 2005, The Early Evolution of Animals, Scientific American
Buffetaut, E. and Ingavat, R. The Mesozoic Vertebrates of Thailand, Scientific American
Colbert. E. H., Morales, M. and Minkoff, E. C. 2001, Colbert's Evolution of the Vertebrates: A History of the Backboned Animals Through Time, Fifth Edition, Wiley-Liss, New York
Culotta, E. September 1993, Past climates hold clues to global warming, Earth
Flynn, J. J., and Wyss, A. R. February 2002, Madagascar's Mesozoic Secrets, Scientific American
Kemp, T. S. 1982, Mammal-like Reptiles and the Origin of Mammals, Academic Press, London
Kurtén, Björn March 1969, Continental Drift and Evolution, Scientific American
Long, J., Archer, M., Flannery, T., and Hand, S. 2002, Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London
McMenamin, M. A. S. April 1987, The Emergence of Animals, Scientific American
Nance, R. D., Worsley, T. R., and Moody, J. B. July 1988, The Supercontinent Cycle, Scientific American
Rich, P. V., van Tets, G. F., and Knight, Frank 1985, Kadimakara: Extinct Vertebrates of Australia, Princeton University Press, Princeton
Stanley, G. D. Jr. 11/87, Travels of an Ancient Reef, Natural History
Vickers-Rich, P. and Rich, T. H. July 1993, Australia's Polar Dinosaurs, Scientific American
Dawn to Dusk publications
Other printed material
The following books all preach evolution, unfortunately. However, they contain so much valuable material they are worth reading.
Stephen Jay Gould: Wonderful Life (an amazing account of the Cambrian creatures discovered in Canada's Burgess Shale)
Dr. David Norman: Prehistoric Life: The Rise of the Vertebrates (lots of information, but easy to read)
John Reader: The Rise of Life (non-technical basic account)
Jennifer Clack: Gaining Ground (a more technical yet still readable account of what is known about early tetrapods)
Simon Winchester: The Map that Changed the World (fast-reading historical account of the work of William Smith and the science of stratigraphy — the study of rock strata)
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