Recently, I reviewed the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. In that debate, Bill Nye challenged Ken Ham to come up with just one fossil that was in the wrong place in the fossil sequence. In that review, I mentioned polystrate fossils as one possibility for the YEC rejoinder. Strictly speaking, these fossils are not “out of sequence” in a formal sense and so do not qualify as such evidence. Are there other possibilities? Michael J. Everhart’s fascinating look at the natural history of the Western Interior Sea brings up another possibility which may draw some looking for out-of-sequence fossils. After an introductory narrative about how a mosasaur (pictured on the cover of the book getting chomped by a shark) fossil could end up broken up in the middle of the sea, he wrote:
“Bloating and Floating” is certainly the case in many instances and is the only reasonable explanation for how the remains of large dinosaurs, such as Niobrarasaurus coleii…could have found their way into the middle of the Western Interior Sea… (48)
There have been, he noted, discoveries of dinosaurs in the middle of what should have been fossils of only aquatic creatures in the chalk and limestone that covers much of the central states–what was in ancient times the Western Interior Sea. His proposed explanation is that a dinosaur might die on the shore and get swept out to sea, bloated and floating until coming to rest at the bottom and becoming fossilized. Though not necessarily the “only reasonable” explanation, Everhart’s scenario provides an interesting test case for rival hypotheses.
Young Earth Creationists (YECs) tend to view evidences like these as proof of the Flood. That is, given a catastrophic global flood, one would expect that different life forms, all killed together by the flooding of the whole Earth, would be mixed together. Thus, a dinosaur in the middle of what should be sea creatures is alleged to provide evidence for the YEC Flood hypothesis.However, Everhart’s scenario does seem to be more plausible than a young earth account for several reasons.
First, Everhart’s proposed scenario is much simpler an explanation than the hypothesis that a global flood swept the dinosaur(s) into the position they are found among so many aquatic remains. This point is not to be understated; on a purely historical level, without any a priori assumptions of what should be the case given a specific reading of Genesis, it seems more reasonable to suppose that a dinosaur died and had its carcass swept out to sea before it was scavenged and sank to the bottom of the sea to be deposited than to suppose that a global catastrophe led to the dinosaur being found in its present location.
Second, and perhaps more problematic for the YEC position, is the fact that such finds as these are extremely rare, when, given a global flood, the expectation should be to constantly find such mixing of types of fossils. Simply finding one dinosaur fossil (or even several) among countless numbers of mosasaurs, icthyosaurs, fish, and of course limestone deposits from sea life (alongside shells of all sorts of varieties, etc.) does not actually provide sufficient evidence for the YEC account of the flood. We should instead find primates, dinosaurs, mosasaurs, trilobites, mammoths, and archaeopteryx fossils jumbled together. What we do find is a stunning uniformity of fossils such that the find of a dinosaur is means for speculation regarding how it got there rather than a commonality which demonstrates a planetwide flood.
Third, the dinosaur in question was contemporaneous with the aquatic life. That is, it lived at the same time as the creatures in the chalk in which it was deposited. Again, on a YEC scenario, one would expect instead to find all sorts of mixing of fossils from different time periods. The fact that these dinosaurs lived on land in the same time in which we find them at the bottom of the sea does not suggest a massive global flood which mixed all life (which all lived at the same time) together in one death pool; instead, it counts as direct evidence for the gradual diversification and extinction of life. The finds are consistent with what one would expect with longer periods of time instead of a global flood. Thus, it does not seem that fossils found in unexpected places may serve as evidence for Young Earth Creationism. Indeed, given the second point in particular (and in conjunction with the third), it seems that they serve as yet another evidence against the notion of a young earth and global flood. There are better options for Christians than Young Earth Creationism.
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What options are there in the origins debate? – A Taxonomy of Christian Origins Positions– I clarify the breadth of options available for Christians who want to interact on various levels with models of origins. I think this post is extremely important because it gives readers a chance to see the various positions explained briefly.
Shells and the Biomass of Earth: A serious problem for young earth creationists– I argue that the sheer amount of living organisms we can discover weighs against a young earth position.
Michael Everhart has written more on the specific find related to the dinosaur in the Smoky Hill Chalk at the Oceans of Kansas site.
My thanks to fellow blogger “The Natural Historian” for some comments on the topic of this post prior to publication.
Michael J. Everhart, Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea (Indiana University Press, 2005).
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J.W. — This was a fantastic analysis, especially being that you are not a geologist or paleontologist. This situation–a terrestrial dinosaur fossil found in shallow marine sediments–certainly does not fit the “out of place fossil” category for exactly the reasons you outline. Keep up the good work!
Wow! That’s really high praise! I appreciate the kind words. I thought the book was really interesting and when the comment came up I thought, “Hey! This ties into issues about out of place fossils!” Good to know I didn’t mess up the analysis as a lay person.
I learn something new every time I read your posts, J.W. Thanks!
Thanks for your comment and kind words! I’m glad to know you enjoy the posts! This one was a lot of fun to write.
Do YECs often cite marine occurrences of dinosaurs as out-of-sequence fossils? My impression is no. From my experience, their issue is rather with temporally out-of-sequence fossils, rather than geographically out-of-sequence fossils. Not that I’m sympathetic towards their arguments.
They do. See my discussion of Gregg Davidson vs. Andrew Snelling. Snelling explicitly cited terrestrial fossils in aquatic strata as evidence of a global flood. Given that Snelling is a pretty important name for YECs (an AiG staffer who is a geologist), I suspect such claims are not infrequent. In that same debate, Snelling also explicitly mentioned terrestrial fossils in aquatic layers of the Grand Canyon as evidence for a global flood and a young earth.
I should note Snelling didn’t explicitly cite dinosaurs in aquatic layers; he was more interested in aquatic fossils intermixed in possible terrestrial areas. However, his example of the Grand Canyon went the other way. Basically, any sort of out of sequence fossils (including geographically out of sequence) are taken to show the global flood.
A shame. I wonder whether they think the terrestrial debris that got washed out to sea following the recent tsunami on the east coast of Japan is also evidence of a global flood.