Did We Evolve?
By Merle Hertzler
Years ago people began to dig into the earth and to study the rocks. They noticed something they did not expect. They found fossils in the rocks that were the remains of plants and animals that were quite different from the life that we know today. The deeper the rocks, the more unusual the fossils became. People began to identify different layers that they had observed in the ground. Each layer had distinct characteristics and distinct fossils. They discovered that the layers consistently appeared in the same order wherever they looked. It occurred to them that these layers might represent distinct time periods, with each being the result of the accumulation of sediments in a particular timeframe. The layers at the bottom must surely be the oldest, and the layers on top of them must be younger. These explorers identified the different layers, and put together what is known as the geologic column.
The geologic column troubled me when I was trying to defend young-earth creationism. Why do we find nothing close to a modern mammal in layers older than the Quaternary and Tertiary periods (65 million years ago)? Why are no trilobites ever found after the Permian period (248 million years ago)? Why does every dinosaur fossil date at least 60 million years older than every human fossil? How can a creationist explain it?
These men had developed a viewpoint known as Catastrophism. They believed that God had created a strange world system with strange life a long time ago. They called it the Cambrian period. It seemed to them that God must have wiped out the Cambrian life in a catastrophe, for the Cambrian life was no longer found in the layers above it. So perhaps Cambrian life hand been catastrophically wiped out, and God had re-created the world with different species. This they called the Ordovician period. But as one went up from the Ordovician layer, he would again find another distinct layer. Well then, these men concluded, another catastrophe must have ended the Ordovician period, and the Creator had produced yet another world, the Silurian. Each of the periods, in turn, was wiped out only to be replaced by something new. Finally the current time period--the Quaternary--was reached. After each catastrophe life was created that was somewhat different from the life in the previous world.
How could they fit this idea with the Bible? Well, folks "found" a convenient gap in Genesis 1. In Gen.1:1 we are told that God created the heavens and the earth. And people decided there was a large gap between verse 1 and verse 2. In this gap, the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, and all of the other ancient periods, took place. Finally, the last catastrophe occurred, wiping out the Tertiary period. As a result of this last catastrophe the earth was without form and void once again until God would re-create the earth one last time. So they saw that Genesis 1:2 picks up the story after the last period had been wiped out, making the earth void--"And the earth was without form and void"--and a new creation was ready to begin. The story of this last creation is supposedly told in the remainder of Genesis 1. So all of these periods and catastrophes were supposedly hidden between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Thus, people were able to make sense of the geological observations and to fit these observations with the Bible. (But I think that, perhaps, their creative insertion of a gap into Genesis 1 did not do justice to the text.)
Science has advanced since the early 1800's when this view was prevalent. Yes, science still believes there were catastrophes in the past, but these catastrophes did not actually wipe out all of life. We always find life forms that survived through the transition to the next period. We cannot explain the whole fossil record by resorting to catastrophes and new creations.
The discovery of radiometric dating has greatly increased our understanding of the geologic column. We are now able to determine the dates of rock layers that fossils are buried in, and are able to track when different life forms came into existence and when they died off. We discover that new creatures were not introduced all at once at the beginning of each period. Rather, new species have been continually introduced into the environment throughout time.
This last point is troubling for Creationists. For how did each of these new species emerge? How, for instance, did the Mesohippus--an early species of horse-- come into existence? Imagine that you are walking through a meadow when suddenly--BOOM--an adult Mesohippus pair materializes out of nowhere right in front of your eyes. Are we to believe that this is the way God created? And did God continually create millions of species throughout the ages, always resorting to this spectacular out-of-nothing creation? BOOM! There is a new species of horse right in front of you! BOOM! There is a new species of monkey. BOOM! God just decided to create a new kind of rat at your feet. BOOM! A new species of lion. BOOM! A watermelon plant. BOOM! The first T Rex. BOOM! Is this even plausible?
Such creation events violate the laws of nature including the laws of conservation of mass, thermodynamics, and biogenesis. Did God suspend these laws many millions of times in order to complete these many acts of creation?
The facts are beginning to get difficult for Creationists. Now, when earth history was thought to consist of a series of creations and catastrophes, one might be able to suggest that these were magical intervals where God stepped in and re-created the world. But are we to believe that God repeated these little acts of special creation many, many millions of times?
Not only do we find that new species have repeatedly been introduced into the world, but we find an interesting thing when we arrange the fossils in the order that they first appear. We find an uncanny consistency with evolution theory. At the bottom we find simple life forms. As we move up, the fossil record begins to diversify, and includes fish, then reptiles, then mammals, and finally, humans.
Years ago I was fighting the good fight of creation on the Internet. I argued that evolution was impossible, for it required that the genetic code had to be changed to make new kinds of animals. It did not seem feasible to me that evolution could do this. I argued in the CompuServe debate forum, basing my arguments on Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crises. My favorite illustration was the difference between mammals and reptiles. The differences between living mammals and reptiles are substantial. Mammals all have hair, mammary glands, a four-chambered heart, and the distinct mammalian ear, with three little bones inside. These features are found in no living reptiles. I argued that this is because there is no viable intermediate between the two, that an animal could have either the reptile genetic code or the mammal code but could not be in the middle.
An evolutionist disagreed with me. He told me that in the past there had been many intermediates. He said that there were animals that, for instance, had jaw and ear bones that were intermediate between reptiles and mammals. How did he know this? He gave a reference to an essay in Stephen Gould's Ten Little Piggies . I wrote back that since the local library had a large collection of children's book, I should be able to find that book. (I thought I was so funny). I borrowed the book, and found an interesting account of how bones in the reptile jaw evolved and changed through millions of years to become the mammals' ear. That sounded like such a clever tale. How could Gould believe it? Perhaps he made it up. But there was one little footnote, a footnote that would change my life. It said simply, "Allin, E. F. 1975. Evolution of the Mammalian Middle Ear. Journal of Morphology 147:403-38." That's it. That's all it said. But it was soon to have a huge impact on me. You see, I had developed this habit of looking things up, and had been making regular trips to the University of Pennsylvania library. I was getting involved in some serious discussions on the Internet, and was finding the scientific journals to be a reliable source of information. Well, I couldn't believe that a real scientific journal would take such a tale seriously, but, before I would declare victory, I needed to check it out.
On my next trip to the university, I found my way to the biomedical library and located the journal archives. I retrieved the specified journal, and started to read. I could not believe my eyes. There were detailed descriptions of many intermediate fossils. The article described in detail how the bones evolved from reptiles to mammals through a long series of mammal-like reptiles. I paged through the volume in my hand. There were hundreds of pages, all loaded with information. I looked at other journals. I found page after page describing transitional fossils. More significantly, there were all of those troublesome dates. If one arranged the fossils according to date, he could see how the bones changed with time. Each fossil species was dated at a specific time range. It all fit together. I didn't know what to think. Could all of these fossil drawings be fakes? Could all of these dates be pulled out of a hat? Did these articles consist of thousands of lies? All seemed to indicate that life evolved over many millions of years. Were all of these thousands of "facts" actually guesses? I looked around me. The room was filled with many bookshelves; each was filled with hundreds of bound journals. Were all of these journals drenched with lies? Several medical students were doing research there. Perhaps some day they would need to operate on my heart or fight some disease. Was I to believe that these medical students were in this room filled with misinformation, and that they were diligently sorting out the evolutionist lies while learning medical knowledge? How could so much error have entered this room? It made no sense.
How can you explain those mysterious mammal-like reptiles? Reptiles and mammals today are quite distinct from each other. Mammalian features include differentiated teeth (incisors, canines, premolars, molars), double rooted teeth, a distinct jaw joint, three bones in the ear (stapes, incus, malleus), the diaphragm, limbs under the body, a different arrangement of toe bones, and a braincase that is firmly attached to the skull. No reptile has these features. But when we look at fossils, we find a strange series of animals with features in the middle. They begin 300 Ma (million years ago) in the Pennsylvanian. It was a different world. There were no mammals, flowering plants, or even dinosaurs. According to the fossil record, these would all come later. The world belonged to amphibians and reptiles. Early Synapsids such as Haptodus appeared. Their dentary jaw bones rose in the place where later animals would have a new jaw joint--the mammalian joint. Then advanced pelycosaurs (270 Ma) like the Dimetrodon--those familiar sail-winged animals from your childhood dinosaur set--had signs of a bony prong for the eardrum. Later, cynodonts like the Procynosuchus (236 Ma) had jawbones more similar to mammals, but they still had the reptile's jaw hinge. The Probainognathus (238 Ma) and the Thrinaxodons (227 Ma) have signs of two distinct jaw joints, the reptilian and the mammalian. This allowed some of the bones that had been part of the reptile's jaw to transmit vibrations to the ear. This was the beginning of the special mammalian ear bones. By the time the Sinoconodon appears (208 Ma) the mammalian jaw joint predominates, and the reptilian jaw joint is small. The Morganucodon (205 Ma) has teeth like a mammal, a distinct mammalian jaw joint, and only a tiny remnant of the reptile's jaw. It's malleus and incus ear bones remain attached to the jaw. By the late Cretaceous period (80 Ma) early placental mammals like the Asioryctes had jaws and ears that were transformed to the mammalian type. Two of the reptile's jaw bones, the quadrate and the articular were no longer part of the jaw. Instead they had become the malleus and incus, and are functioning as parts of the mammal's ear.
This is only the briefest of overviews of these strange creatures. In reality, there are thousands of species that span many millions of years, with many intermediate stages of many different features.
Now what on earth was God doing? Why was he slowly introducing mammalian features into the fossil record? Why did he progressively change the design of the jaw, ear, teeth, and limbs until the animals look more and more like mammals? Should I just shrug my shoulders and say that God moves in mysterious ways? No, I shall ask why. Did God learn from past experience and introduce new creatures with improvement every several thousand years or so? Creationists would cringe at that suggestion. Then why do we find this progression? It is difficult to escape the all-too-obvious conclusion: God allowed the first mammal to evolve from reptiles through a process involving many millions of years. As a Creationist, I finally came to the point where I considered that possibility. It instantly become apparent that this would be a huge change in worldview. For if the first mammal evolved from reptiles, then where did the second mammal come from? If God used thousands of transitions to evolve the first mammal, did he then just copy that design to create the second and third mammals? That makes no sense. These mammals must have evolved also. In fact, we would need to conclude that all mammals have evolved from these mammal-like reptiles. Think for a minute of all of the varieties of mammals that you know--elephants, tigers, mice, dogs, and whales, to name a few. Did all of these descend from a sequence of mammal-like reptiles? Is there any other way to explain all of these intermediates?
The impact of that day in the library was truly stunning. I didn't know what to say. I could not argue against the overwhelming evidence for mammal evolution. But neither could I imagine believing it. Something had happened to me. My mind had begun to think. And it was not about to be stopped. Oh no. There is no stopping the mind set free. I went to the library and borrowed a few books on evolution and creation--diligently studying both sides of the argument. I started to read the evolutionist books with amazement. I had thought that evolutionists taught that floating cows had somehow turned into whales; that hopeful monsters had suddenly evolved without transitions; that one must have blind faith since transitional fossils did not exist; that one must simply guess at the dates for the fossils; and that one must ignore all of the evidence for young-earth creation. I was surprised to learn what these scientist actually knew about the Creationist teachings of flood geology, of the proposed young-earth proofs, and of the reported problems of evolution. And I was surprised at the answers that they had for these Creationist arguments. And I was surprised to see all the clear, logical arguments for evolution. I read with enthusiasm. I learned about isochrons, intermediate fossils, the geologic column, and much more.
I would never see the world in the same light. Several weeks later I found myself staring at the fossil of a large dinosaur in a museum. I stared with amazement. I looked at the details of every bone in the back. And I wondered if a design so marvelous could really have evolved. But I knew that someone could show me another animal that had lived earlier and was a likely predecessor of this dinosaur that I was observing. And I knew that one could trace bones back through the fossil record to illustrate the path through which this creature had evolved. I stared and I pondered. And then I pondered some more.
Within days, I had lost interest in fighting evolution. I began to read more and speak less. When I did debate, I confined my arguments to the origin of life issue. But I could no longer ignore what I had learned. Several months later I first sent out an email with probing questions to a Creationist who had arrived on the scene. He never responded. I have not stopped questioning.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the debate forum. I was asked to sit on the wrong side. By this time I was no longer identifying myself as a creation apologist, but as an explorer, a questioner, a fence sitter. That's when I met Jim. Jim arrived on the debate scene filled with his message, that of Intelligent Design (ID). The ID viewpoint concedes that the earth might be billions of years old, but stresses that life forms required specific design. I liked the concept--it was my only option beside evolution. I explained that I was sitting on the fence, and could not make up my mind. Jim informed me that evolution was believed only by people that had been biased by methodological naturalism (the scientific method of looking for natural causes for everything). Me? Biased by naturalism? I, who was grasping desperately for any option but evolution? I, who had invested so much of my time fighting evolution? I who had given thousands of dollars to creationist organizations? How could it be that I was biased for naturalism? No, I explained, it was not my bias that brought me where I was, it was the evidence that was bothering me. "What evidence?" Jim asked. And so I wrote back, explaining the strength of the evolutionary viewpoint. First there were all of those intermediate fossils. Then there was the evidence of embryology, comparative anatomy, and the geographic distribution of animals. The more I wrote, the more it all seemed to fit together. Jim disagreed.
The discussion quickly centered on the well-known horse series. According to evolutionary understanding, the modern horse, donkey, and zebra evolved from a small fox-like creature known as Hyracotherium. There are hundreds of intermediate horse fossils of dozens of species that have been found between these two extremes. Jim conceded that all of those intermediates might have indeed existed at the times claimed, but insisted that the horses did not evolve from one type to another. Instead, he stated that each new kind of horse was created unique. Apparently God kept rolling out a new horse model every million years or so. How did these new horses come into existence? Did a pair of adult horses suddenly materialize out of nowhere? Was God still creating horses this way today? Could I be walking through a meadow some day and suddenly have a new kind of adult horse materialize before my eyes? As a young-earth creationist, I would have envisioned creation something like that. But I would have seen it as a one-time miracle in which everything was created in one week. I could always argue that creation week was a magical week, and that things were very different then. But now I was being asked to see this as an ongoing process for millions of years. It seemed so implausible. Was Jim insisting that this is the way it happened? No, Jim had no comment on how new species came into existence. He just knew it wasn't by evolution.
But why couldn't it be by evolution? God could certainly do it that way, couldn't he? After all, don't you believe that he creates humans by allowing them to grow from a fertilized egg to a fetus to a baby to an adult? If he allows us to "evolve" from a fetus to an adult, perhaps that is the way he created animals in the first place. I could not conceive of another way of creating new creatures that made sense. Did God create an endless series of animals that popped up out of nowhere? It's not very likely. Could he have used organic material that was in the ground from previous life forms? After all, Genesis says that he used the dust of the ground to make man. Is it evil to suggest that God could have used organic material in the ground to form the next horse in the series? I didn't think so. And if we concede this, can we allow that God could have used the raw material of an existing horse embryo and modified it to make the next kind of horse inside a mare's womb? Could God have used a Mesohippus embryo to form the first Miohippus inside a Mesohippus? Would it be evil to suggest that? I didn't think so. Doesn't that make more sense than zapping it into existence out of nowhere? Could he have allowed the genetic material of one species of horse to become modified so that it became the next kind? Could he have made many small changes through many generations until the next species appeared? It seemed logical. I had just described (theistic) evolution.
Jim was with me to the last step, but he could not make that leap to evolution. But it did not seem evil to me to take that step. The best explanation for the horse series was that the modern horse evolved from the Hyracotherium. And the Hyracotherium evolved from the first mammals, which evolved from the mammal-like reptiles. And these must surely have evolved from reptiles, which evolved from primitive animals, which evolved from one-celled creatures. The first horse evolved from a microbe. I now believed in evolution.
Then there was that final hurdle, the hardest one. If God allowed a speck of life to evolve into a reptile, which evolved into mammals, which then evolved into apes, did he stop there? Where did humans come from? Is it possible that God evolved everything up to ape, and then instantly created man with the same organs that had evolved for years? Did he develop the mammal's ear over time, and then suddenly create a human from scratch with the same ear design that had taken millions of years to evolve? Somehow that didn't seem consistent. But it was hard to admit it. Martin Lubenow had written a book called Bones of Contention. It was my last hope. It argued that there was no evidence for the evolution of humans. His strongest argument, to my mind, was that fully human bones had been found which were more than 1.5 million years old, older than many of the reported transitional fossils between ape and man. This would have ruled out those creatures as direct ancestors of humans, for humans existed before them. I knew I had better not parrot what I had heard until I looked at the other side. I had seen postings on the web from a Harvard anthropology professor named Greg Laden. So I asked him what he thought about these ancient human fossils. "What fossils?" he wanted to know. I told him that Lubenow had listed fossil KNM-ER 1470 in his book as a very old human fossil. I didn't know what those numbers meant, but the instructor knew exactly what I was talking about. He told me that he had used a cast of that very fossil skull in his classroom, and explained in detail how the features were intermediate between humans and apes. The creationist argument evaporated. This supposed human fossil wasn't even human. It had many ape-like features. What was this strange creature, with characteristics of both man and ape? Many similar creatures have been found. Did God create a series of intermediate creatures between ape and man before he finally got it right? Or did he allow man to evolve? I could see only one option--that of evolution.
What about God?
We have come a long way. Did we eliminate God? Many people think not. They have found that they can believe in both evolution and God. Could not God have used evolution as his tool? If you believe that God allowed you to grow from a single fertilized egg to a fetus to an adult, why could he not have allowed the whole human race to evolve from a single cell? Some say that God did exactly this, that he started the process of evolution and let it proceed. Others say he nudged it along as it progressed. Many Christians think this is how he created. There is nothing within the concept of evolution that eliminates God.
I will hold off discussing the existence of God until later. First, we have a more pressing concern. Perhaps you understand the evidence for evolution, but your knowledge of the Bible makes it difficult for you to accept it. So we need to next take a close look at the Bible.
Copyright ÓMerle Hertzler 2002, 2005. All rights reserved.