Fossils: A Window onto God’s Creation

Sharlene Jackson, www.freeimages.com
© Sharlene Jackson, http://www.freeimages.com

What can fossils teach us about God? This month’s guest post is from Lizzie Coyle, who recently earned a degree in natural sciences from Cambridge University and is currently working at The Faraday Institute. Lizzie spent much of her time at university studying geology and evolutionary biology, and she is passionate about using her science to help others explore questions of faith.

As a child, I was captivated by fossils. Whilst I spent my fair share of time playing with dolls, building dens and generally getting into mischief, I also spent many happy hours scouring beaches, gardens, car parks – anywhere that might yield these rock-clad treasures. This might seem a slightly strange way for a young child to spend her time, and it earned me a few comments over the years, but my fascination with fossils only grew. Eventually it contributed to my decision to study evolutionary biology at Cambridge.

Some fossils are really pretty, but that wasn’t the only aspect of them that caught my imagination. I was, and still am, enchanted by the idea that a shape preserved in a rock that I can pick up off the ground used to be a living creature – something that was part of a time and environment that are long gone.

Just as photos, paintings, letters and other artefacts give us glimpses of times when powdered wigs were in vogue, penny-farthings were the way to travel and anyone who was anyone was buried in a pyramid, fossils allow us glimpses into a far more distant history. They tell us of times when two-foot dragonflies swarmed through forests of giant moss, when plains were home to herds of dinosaurs and pterosaurs ruled the skies.

Fossils teach us what life used to look like, providing snapshots of a prehistory which would otherwise go unknown. From fossils we can piece together not only which creatures were around and what they looked like, but also what they ate, how they moved, where they lived and even, in some cases, how they behaved and interacted with each other.

For me, fossils open a window into the past that feeds directly into my appreciation of God as creator. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are sole point and purpose of creation – that God’s creative process was one-track, rushing towards the goal of humanity. I’m not denying that we are very special to God, but the picture of creation that the Bible paints celebrates each moment and stage of his creative process as a totally unique and beautiful expression of his glory and splendour in its own right.

So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:21-22

But that’s far from the only contribution of fossils to science and my appreciation of God’s creative process. Biologists have discovered some amazingly clever and complicated forms, structures and functions. By bringing fossils into the picture we can begin to trace their development through time, transforming awe and wonder at the unknown into awe and wonder at the incredible nature of living things.

This point can be illustrated by one of my favourite stories of development. The familiar hammer-anvil-stirrup arrangement of bones in our middle ear is a defining feature of all living mammals. What’s not so commonly known is that two of these bones haven’t always performed a hearing function in the ear.

The closest living relatives of mammals, birds and reptiles, have only one middle ear bone: the stirrup or ‘stapes’. So where do the two extra bones in our middle ear come from? Scientists have spent 200 years investigating in this question, and their work has revealed a spectacular example both of evolutionary change and the power of integrating scientific disciplines and techniques.

A combination of fossil data with comparative anatomy and developmental biology has revealed that the hammer and anvil bones in the mammalian ear are homologous to (the same bones as) the ‘quadrate’ and ‘articular’ bones in the jaws of birds and reptiles, and also the ancestors to modern mammals. Three main pieces of evidence support this idea.

The fossil record has allowed scientists to trace the development of the mammalian jaw from a composite structure similar to that still seen in birds and reptiles, to a single solid bone. The theory is that selection for factors such as more effective bite force, muscle attachment and tooth alignment may have allowed this change in function for the bones.

In mammalian foetuses the hammer and anvil bones begin their development near the jaw, forming in the same way as in birds and reptiles and later move to the ear region. We also know from studying living animals that the quadrate and articular bones of the jaw can be used to detect vibrations, so it’s not surprising that they have also become useful in the ear.

To me, scientific stories like this show astounding beauty. The knowledge that we gain through this kind of study informs, enhances and deepens my appreciation of the creative nature of God who designed and brought into being such amazing variety, both now and at every point throughout history.

9 thoughts on “Fossils: A Window onto God’s Creation

  1. michala May 30, 2014 / 12:57 am

    Fossil data only provides a snapshot into our pre history.evolutionary biology is based on forensic science and is open to interpretation.it amazes me that such intelligent, educated people still accept Darwinism and will not entertain other theories.Vestigial organs in the human body all have a function and are not merely remnants from past common ancestors.what about chemical evolution? Everything must work together like clockwork for evolution to be true.not in bits.or very slowly.if evolution was true and complete there should be life on mars as there was once an earth like atmosphere with water- but to date absolutely nothing!

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    • michala May 30, 2014 / 10:23 am

      Its like saying the human feotus goes through stages in the womb cause it looks like its changing from a fish to reptile to eventually mammal.it does not evolve in the womb.things may look the same and of course the same material is used in all life forms.just because something looks comparatively the same does not make it related or common ancestor.

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      • Lizzie June 3, 2014 / 12:41 pm

        Hi again Michala,

        Thank you for picking up on this point about the parallel drawn between the process of development in the womb (ontogeny) and that seen in the fossil record (phylogeny). This is a concept that has undergone much discussion amongst biologists over the past 200 years or so but the central tenets have been, to a large degree, resolved. Ideas have certainly moved on a long way from the mostly discredited ‘recapitulation theory’. The basic concept rests on the joint ideas that more specific forms develop from more general forms and that the development of descendents, in some way, reflects the development of their ancestors (children grow like their parents, grandparents etc.). Over longer timescales, we expect (and see) changes that may add to (or in some cases take away from) the ancestral genetics and body plan. In some cases, we see those changes reflected in the development of the descendent. (Please take a look at this page for more on this idea: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_developmental_biology). The early formation of the inner ear bones on the jaw-forming cartilage can therefore be regarded as indicative of their ancestral role in the jaw. Again, this evidence alone can obviously be interpreted in a number of ways, but combined with the genetic and fossil evidence I cited, I feel it presents a compelling case.

        On your final point, certainly just because something looks the same as something else does not mean for certain that they have common ancestry, however it can stack up the evidence in favour of that conclusion. One only has to look at the classic example of the fore arm bone-structure of all mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and lobe-finned fish to see the developmental similarities. There are, of course, many more examples and even that one is far more involved than is often thought. The fossil record, genetic and developmental patterns, positions and roles of muscles and nerves, habitat specificity and more all add weight to the idea of common ancestry, not to mention the parallels in the rest of the body. I would also encourage you, again, to consider the comparative genetic evidence which very clearly indicates and describes a pattern of common ancestry for all living things on Earth. Again, all of this evidence could, of course, be interpreted as ‘special creation on a theme’, but I personally don’t find that to be as convincing an explanation as common descent. As I have said, I also find the evolutionary explanation to be fully compatible with my Christian faith in the creator God and my understanding of the Bible as truth.

        I hope you find this helpful. Thank you for reading.

        Lizzie

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    • Lizzie June 2, 2014 / 5:58 pm

      Hi Michala,

      Thank you for reading and for your response. I fully appreciate that the process of evolutionary development is not the only possible interpretation of the fossil record. However, having explored various ‘other theories’ I do find the evolutionary explanation to be by far the most compelling and convincing one. As I wrote, I also find it to be completely, and beautifully, compatible with my Christian faith.

      Your point about vestigial organs, or structures, is interesting. I am aware that they are often marketed as ‘apparently useless left-overs’ from an age-gone-by, and in some cases (such as vestigial limbs in snakes and whales) we do appear to see this kind of thing. However, it is also worth noting that the very process described by the principles of evolutionary development is a process of changing and adapting function and form over time. It is therefore fully expected that structures and organs which become partially or fully redundant may well take on other functions. In short, an organ or structure may be vestigial (‘a remnant from past common ancestors’) and yet perform a function. The process of bone development which I refer to in my post is an example of this kind of change in function over time. Another interesting area to explore in relation to this question is the evidence provided for common ancestry by the vestigial sequences we find in DNA. Take a look at this article for more information: http://biologos.org/blog/human-evolution-genes-genealogies-and-phylogenies.

      I’d also like to comment briefly on your assertions about the way in which evolution ‘should’ work: “Everything must work together like clockwork for evolution to be true… If evolution was true and complete there should be life on mars as there was once an earth like atmosphere with water…”. Please correct me if I’m wrong but I think that in this first comment you mean that for evolutionary theory to function as a explanatory description of the development of life on Earth, the evidence must all be shown to support its claims. If so, I agree with you. As with any scientific theory, such as those relating to the laws of motion or the principles of chemical bonding, evidence is tested against the principles of evolutionary biology (and any other prevailing theories) to see how well it fits. Should that evidence not fit with the central tenets of the theory, then alternative explanations are sought. Of course we do not know everything about the universe or the development of life yet, but with all of that in mind, I (and many others) find evolutionary biology to be the most convincing explanation we have for the development of life.

      Regarding your other point, “If evolution was true and complete there should be life on mars as there was once an earth like atmosphere with water…”, I feel it’s important to note that evolutionary theory does not claim at any point that ‘anything that can happen will happen’. Even if the atmosphere on Mars were, at some point, conducive to the development of life, there is no guarantee (or expectation) according to evolutionary principles, that life would develop there. If we do discover life on Mars (or anywhere else) I think it is entirely likely that evolutionary theory will provide a description for how it developed. However, there is no reason to assert from evolutionary principles that life ‘must’ have developed absolutely anywhere that it might be possible.

      Thank you again for reading. I hope this is helpful.

      Lizzie

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  2. Joe May 30, 2014 / 2:21 pm

    What a shame to reach the bottom of such a fascinating article to see such a Luddite comment. Michala you may notice that the author cites a number of excellent peer reviewed papers, this work is the product of thousands of hours of effort by very bright people, and rests on ideas built by consensus of the finest minds of every generation since the dawn of science. Please treat it with respect. It is, of course, open to question but you only enrich the discussion if you bring evidence and an open mind (neither of which, it appears, you possess).

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    • michala June 7, 2014 / 5:22 pm

      Thanks Lizzie.I try to be open minded about all scientific topics.I’ve read your comments and yes some have merit and some are on shaky grounds with respect to different interpretation.I like to keep up to date with latest fossils found – fossils found in Germany indicate one common ancestor of modern humans not many different ones.rethink? Or time to reassess the theory? Evolutionary is highly unpredictable and if there are signs of water on distant planets this does not guarantee life.I value your comments and Joe please look at other evidence which may suggest evolution isn’t 100% accurate.as scientists must see both sides of the argument and when evidence does not fit theory – critical thinking should activate reassessment / rethink..oh yes final comnent- how did the soul evolve?

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      • michala June 7, 2014 / 6:16 pm

        I say look to new and latest evidence not the theory! I respect educated scientists but I wouldn’t jump off a cliff if a very intelligent person said so! Lol!evolutionary theory has its merits and seems the most acceptable because there isn’t another theory to replace it currently.but is it time for a reassessment based on new findings?I wouldn’t rely on a theory which was so unpredictable.and I am educated( grammar school) but there are so many variables/ interpretations – enough to question its validity!

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        • michala June 9, 2014 / 12:22 am

          Further, you will find evolution theory cannot be proved/ disproved.you cannot observed it happening now and cannot test in a lab.so? Well these points are important and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.and if you really look at the physical evidence for evolution – there isn’t much- fragments of bones they try desperately to fit into the theory – based on speculation because no one knows which common ancestor relates to which! Lol! ??and there is no fossil proof that these ancient/ extinct ancestors ever existed – so is the theory built on sand & speculation? New evidence indicates a different version of human evolution- a global population of primitive man with 1 common ancestor 1 lineage 1 human race.able to adapt to different temps environments.could this apply to all species? And I’m not the only one to hold reservations! Follow the evidence…not the guy with the PhD

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  3. Lizzie June 18, 2014 / 2:40 pm

    Hi Michala,

    Thank you for your continued interest. Regarding the majority of your questions I would refer you to the writings of The Biologos Forum (http://biologos.org/). They have, in particular, a series of articles on “Evolution Basics” which approach many of the questions you have raised. I have listed below a few which I think might be interesting to you regarding the points you have raised but I would encourage you to take a look at their catalogue of resources to discover more about the evidence and interpretations to which your questions refer.

    Evolution Basics: http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-basics-a-new-introductory-course-on-evolutionary-biology

    Evolution: What We Know and What We Don’t: http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-what-we-know-and-what-we-dont-repost

    The Origin of Modern Humans: The Fossil Evidence: http://biologos.org/blog/the-origin-of-modern-humans-the-fossil-evidence-part-1

    How Could Humans Have Evolved and Still Be Created in the “Image of God”?: http://biologos.org/questions/image-of-god

    I agree with you that it is important to continue to explore the available evidence and to carefully weigh the information you read or hear. It is far better to take that approach rather than to hold ‘blindly’ to whichever scientific theory you ‘prefer’ whether that be descent from common ancestry or special creation. I would, however, stress the reliability of the peer-review system in mainstream science which ensures a high level of reliability and agreement as affirmed by those most deeply involved in the current research.

    I hope these articles are helpful to you as you continue to explore the evidence in this area.

    Best,

    Lizzie

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