What You Can Never Know Based on a Fossil

From Issue: R&R – November 2012

Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution Is True, purports to be a compendium of a vast amount of evidence that proves evolution to be a “fact.” The book does not accomplish its purpose, but it does offer some clear insight into the flaws that riddle the theory of Darwinian evolution and the thinking of those who support it. One of the easiest errors to spot is the way that evolutionists “date” animals in the fossil record.

Although the millions-of-years time frame is inherently flawed (see DeYoung, 2005), I will use it in this article just as the evolutionists use it. I will do so to show that, even using their own thinking, their conclusions are illogical. First, evolutionists remind us of the fact that the record of the rocks and the fossils it contains are a mere scintilla of the animals that actually lived on the planet. Since the chances of a particular organism actually fossilizing are so low, Coyne concluded: “[W]e can estimate that we have fossil evidence of only 0.1 percent to 1 percent of all species—hardly a good sample of the history of life!” (2009, p. 22). Evolutionists often insert this kind of statement into their writings to explain away the billions of “transitional” fossils that should fill the record if Darwinian evolution were true. Yet, in spite of this admission, evolutionists such as Coyne treat the fossil record as a perfect representation of life when it is in their “best interests.” Then they proceed to use it to tell us when certain organisms arose or disappeared from our planet.

For instance, Coyne stated: “Until about 390 million years ago, the only vertebrates were fish. But, 30 million years later, we find creatures that are clearly tetrapods: four-footed vertebrates that walked on land” (p. 36). Coyne is alleging, based on when certain fossils “appear” in the record, that no tetrapods existed “390 million years ago.” The fossil record, however, could only be used to date the “appearance” of an organism if it were perfectly complete. Could it be that tetrapods lived much earlier but did not fossilize? Certainly. In fact, we discover on a regular basis that when a fossil “appears” or “disappears” in the fossil record tells us absolutely nothing about when it actually lived.

Take the coelacanth fish as an example. Supposedly, this lobe-finned fish “disappeared” from the Earth about 70 million years ago. This thinking was based on the idea that the fish did not appear in the fossil record that “dated” from 70 million years ago to the present. In 1938, however, fishermen found a living coelacanth (Lyons, 2007). Coyne stated: “Groups like whales and humans have evolved rapidly, while others, like the coelacanth ‘living fossils,’ look almost identical to ancestors that lived hundreds of millions of years ago” (2009, p. 4, emp. added). So, we have a fish that lived “70 million” years ago, is still alive today, and left no trace in the fossil record for “70 million” years. Thinking critically about this, could it also be that these fish lived “70 million” years before they appear in the fossil record? Absolutely.

In his discussion of lobe-finned fish and land living vertebrates, Coyne wrote: “If there were lobe-finned fishes but no terrestrial vertebrates 390 million years ago, and clearly terrestrial vertebrates 360 million years ago, where would you expect to find transitional forms? Somewhere in between” (p. 37). But wait, why does Coyne suggest there were no terrestrial vertebrates 390 million years ago? Because we have not found any in the fossil record. But that means nothing due to the limitations of the fossil record, which Coyne and host are quick to point out when they are explaining the lack of transitional fossils. Could it be that terrestrial vertebrates lived “70 million years” before we find them in the fossil record? Definitely. “When” we see an organism in the fossil records gives us zero understanding of when it actually appeared or disappeared from the Earth.

Again, Coyne suggests: “Humans are newcomers to the scene—our lineage branches off from that of other primates only about 7 million years ago, the merest sliver of evolutionary time” (p. 28). Yet in order to remain consistent, Coyne and others can tell us nothing about our lineage “branching off” based on the lack of human fossils in certain layers. In fact, from their admission about the incomplete fossil record, could we surmise that humans might have lived “millions of years” before we find them preserved in the record? Yes, indeed.

This flaw in evolutionary thinking manifests itself remarkably well in Coyne’s assessment of the Laotoli footprints. In 1976, Andrew Hill found an 80-foot trail of footprints that were “virtually identical to those made by modern humans walking on soft ground” (Coyne, 2009, p. 202). Even though these footprints match those of modern humans, they were attributed to Australopithecus afarensis. Coyne explained: “the trail dates from around 3.6 million years ago, a time when A. afarensis was the only hominin on record” (p. 202, emp. added). If the fossil record is so sketchy that lobe-finned fish can squeak by unnoticed for 70 million years, could it be that “modern humans” were around three or four “million” years earlier than their initial appearance in the fossil record? Yes. So, which makes more sense: (1) that modern humans lived “before” their first appearance in the fossil record, or (2) that a chimp-like creature such as A. afarensis made an 80-foot trail of footprints that is “virtually identical to those made by modern humans walking on soft ground”? Since we know that a creature’s appearance in the fossil record can tell us nothing about the time a creature appeared on Earth, the reasonable conclusion is that “modern” humans were around before evolutionists assert they were—and therefore are not relatives of the Australopithecines.

In February 2006, the media was awash with news about Castorocauda lutrasimilis, a beaver-like animal that supposedly lived 164 million years ago. The creature was so interesting because it was over 100 million years out of place. According to the evolutionary thinkers, such creatures did not exist until 64 million years ago based on their absence from the fossil record (Butt, 2006). Coyne stated: “Sixty million years ago there were plenty of fossil mammals, but no fossil whales. Creatures that resemble modern whales show up 30 million years later” (2009, p. 49). Of course, all this statement can mean is that whales don’t “show up” in the fossil record until 30 million years later. But that means absolutely nothing about when they lived. They could have been on the Earth “70 million years” before they show up in the fossil record (using their flawed millions-of-years scheme). For Coyne to state that he knows when they arose on Earth based on when they are found in the fossil record is nothing short of deception, based on his own acknowledgement that the fossil record is incomplete.

We see, then, that evolutionists cannot tell us one thing about when a creature arose on Earth—based on its fossils. Neither can evolutionists tell us one thing about when a creature went extinct—based on fossils. A fossil can never tell you a beginning “date” or extinction “date.” And yet the most educated and applauded evolutionists in the world, such as Jerry Coyne, persist in falsifying their information by stating that they know when a certain creature arose or disappeared—based on the fossil record.  For Coyne to assert: “all the evidence—both old and new—leads ineluctably to the conclusion that evolution is a fact,” but then use such irrational “evidence” as proof of evolution, shows a glaring misconception in his idea of what a “fact” is.


Butt, Kyle (2006), “One Little Beaver Demolishes 100 Million Years,”

Coyne, Jerry (2009), Why Evolution Is True (New York: Viking).

DeYoung, Don (2005), Thousands…Not Billions (Green Forest, AR: Master Books).

Lyons, Eric (2007), “What Else ‘Living Fossils’ Reveal,”


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→