Another comment too good to ignore from one of my dear readers: “I’ve heard lately that Fundies reject fossils as a trap, a test of believer’s faith that were planted in the earth, probably by the devil, 4,000 years ago. How do you argue with that kind of dismissive denial?”
I was an archeologist, once. And a paleontologist. Done a lot of digging in the ground. Whoever comes up with this kind of nonsense should be taken out forcibly to perhaps the Australian desert and given a pick and a shovel.
Let’s leave aside all the other problems with the ‘idea’ (I find myself whenever I write about fundamentalist religion using words in ways that I know don’t have the usual meaning attached to them – idea is just one such case). For example? Well, um, there is no devil. If there was how would he go about inserting fossils into rocks (do these people imagine, because hell, you know, is somewhere in the center of the Earth, that the devil is lurking around down there, his devilish helpers mass producing fossils which he then picks up and pushes upward through the ceiling of hell, into the ground above that, to lure unsuspecting scientists, chuckling, wickedly, all the time?)?
And not just into any old rocks. He has to, consistently, put the right fossil into rocks at the right relative depth, and do that all around the world. Or did he create different rocks with different characteristics at different depths as part of the test? No, just a minute, god created ‘heavens and earth’ didn’t he, so was this a conspiracy? And it gets worse, either god or the devil had to place the rocks in a sequence that seemed to make sense geologically, and then, in addition, had to play with physics and chemistry to ensure that the rocks when independently dated by such means, have ages that match their sequence.
And wait, there is more, the fossils themselves can often be dated chemically and by electron spin (two independent techniques) and when they can those dates match the layers they come from as do the compositions of rare earth elements. Phew, this is getting complicated isn’t it?
But wait, still more, the fossils have to not only be in different layers, but they have to appear to be related to living plants and animals, and, more, the way they appear to be related has to make sense, every time, with both the age of the rocks they are in, and with the evolutionary sequence worked out for the living animals. What a brain this devil must have eh?
But we are not at the end of the number of impossible things you have to believe. When fundies talk about ‘fossils’ I have no doubt that they are remembering some trip to a museum as a child where they saw the giant mounted complete skeleton of a T. rex or whatever. But complete skeletons of fossil animals, or plants, are very rare. Indeed complete bones are very rare. In most sites the small and large fragments of bone and teeth vastly outnumber any complete finds. But all of those fossils from pinhead size (tiny shells may form part of the fossil bed for example) complete, to microscopic fragments, up to almost complete bones, are always consistent in what they represent, and in their age, with the complete skeletons. Furthermore the way in which they are found, the breakage patterns, orientation, fragmentation statistics, surface erosion or decay, always presents a cohesive picture of their origins (for example, washed down in an ancient river). And there must have been many billions of fossil fragments now found around the world. This is getting very tricky isn’t it? That old devil must have done a lot of work on this – hard to see how he had time for any other devilry, eh?
And often scattered among the fossils, or even within the material filling the bones, or in layers nearby are the remains of fossilised pollen. Billions of grains too small to be seen by the naked eye, all either identical with living species pollen, or closely related, or from extinct species, also known by remains of leaves ad wood. Why would you sprinkle pollen around (in actually the right combinations and sequences) when your fundy friends who are being tested can’t see it?
And the complications go on. Fundies I think picture a fossil being found like a plum in a big bit of rock. And indeed, sometimes there are chance finds like this. But often, too, paleontologists actually dig down through layer after layer, starting at the top. And the layers at the top are often ones with the remains of human activity (and indeed the paleontologist may work with an archeologist on these layers). Up the top you might find pieces of glass, old car wheels, timber fence posts and the like. Then, below those layers, you begin finding evidence for Native American (in American excavations, but the same pattern occurs all round the world) activity – spear and arrow points for example, bones from butchered animals, the charcoal from campfires. And then you get down to layers before people where you find a mixture of still living animal species, combined with some that no longer survive, and finally you may come to layers with only extinct animals and plants (don’t forget the plants, not always found because harder to preserve, but when they are the story is the same as with animal fossils). In other words we can find sequences which match up with known human history (and we can take this back a very long way, particularly in the middle east, and relate the archeology to written records) blending gradually into much older material, with dates (and such features as climate change) that make sense. So we are not just finding plums here and there, but dated sequences, extending right back. We don’t always find every layer in every spot of course, but enough comparisons to make connections. So that old devil would have to carefully make sure that when he was putting in fossils, he stopped at the point where there were humans. And very often now of course, in the archaeological sites and the paleontological ones can be found remains of wood, which can be dated from tree ring sequences (begun from living individual trees). I mean this is fiendishly clever isn’t it? You allow dating for thousands of years using tree rings, and you can match this to dating using other chemical means. Doesn’t miss a trick the old devil does he?
And I forgot sand grains. We can work out how long they have been buried now (it’s a consequence of measuring how long since they were last exposed to the Sun). Another quite independent measure of age giving consistent results. Hard to imagine the Devil exposing all those individual sand grains to the Sun for just the right length of time before hurriedly burying them with the fossils. And I thought he lived down where the Sun don’t shine? Never mind.
And remember that none of these kinds of tests and analyses are available to your ordinary fundy. So the Devil must have invented the tests and the equipment, then made the appropriate additions of sand and pollen, then sat back and watched the scientists do the analyses on his equipment so they can report the results to fundies. Phew, what a test!
I could go on, but I am boring you all now. I suppose the ultimate question is ‘what kind of test do they imagine this is?’ Either the deception is perfect, in which case you could never know that it wasn’t true, or it was imperfect, in which case you would find inconsistencies. But if you could never know it wasn’t true (and let’s face it, the deception has been absolutely perfect, it seems) then the devil is ‘tempting’ us to deny all evidence of our own senses in order to what? And in that case, why not deceive us with gravity too? Fundies would, presumably, jump off tall buildings if someone told them that the devil was carefully pretending that gravity was real in order to test their faith. The only result of such testing that I can see is to ensure that only complete idiots and completely ignorant people become fundies. Think about it. Either the world and everything in it is just as it is as the end result of geological and evolutionary processes, or it is an exact facsimile of what it would be like if it was the end result of geological and evolutionary processes. Which one of those options will we choose? D’oh.
23 May 2006