Monday, May 25, 2009

The True Facts on Fossil Dating

The fossil record is fundamental to an understanding of evolution. Fossils document the order of appearance of groups and they tell us about some of the amazing plants and animals that died out long ago. Fossils can also show us how major crises, such as mass extinctions, happened, and how life recovered after them. If the fossils, or the dating of the fossils, could be shown to be inaccurate, all such information would have to be rejected as unsafe. Geologists and paleontologists are highly self-critical, and they have worried for decades about these issues. Repeated, and tough, regimes of testing have confirmed the broad accuracy of the fossils and their dating, so we can read the history of life from the rocks with confidence.

Our understanding of the shape and pattern of the history of life depends on the accuracy of fossils and dating methods. Some critics, particularly religious fundamentalists, argue that neither fossils nor dating can be trusted, and that their interpretations are better. Other critics, perhaps more familiar with the data, question certain aspects of the quality of the fossil record and of its dating. These skeptics do not provide scientific evidence for their views. Current understanding of the history of life is probably close to the truth because it is based on repeated and careful testing and consideration of data.

On the other hand, the rejection of the validity of fossils and the dating of the fossils by religious fundamentalists creates a problem for them because their claims can be so easily discredited.

1. They cannot deny that hundreds of millions of fossils reside in display cases and drawers around the world. Perhaps some would argue that these specimens of huge skeletons of dinosaurs, blocks from ancient shell beds containing hundreds of specimens, delicately preserved fern fronds, have been manufactured by scientists to confuse the public. This is clearly ludicrous.
2. Otherwise, religious fundamentalists are forced to claim that all the fossils are of the same age, somehow buried in the rocks by some extraordinary catastrophe, perhaps Noah’s flood. How exactly they believe that all the dinosaurs, mammoths, early humans, heavily-armored fishes, trilobites, ammonites, and the rest could all live together has never been explained. Nor indeed why the marine creatures were somehow ‘drowned’ by the flood.
3. The rejection of dating by religious fundamentalists is easier for them to make, but harder for them to demonstrate. The fossils occur in regular sequences time after time; radioactive decay happens, and repeated cross testing of radiometric dates confirms their validity.

Below are the documented facts that will disprove the religious fundamentalist’s claims.

Fossils occur in sequences.
Fossil sequences were recognized and established in their broad outlines long before Charles Darwin had even thought of evolution. Early geologists, in the 1700s and 1800s, noticed how fossils seemed to occur in sequences: certain assemblages of fossils were always found below other assemblages.

Accuracy of the fossils.
Since 1859, paleontologists, or fossil experts, have searched the world for fossils. In the past 150 years they have not found any fossils that Darwin would not have expected. New discoveries have filled in the gaps, and shown us in unimaginable detail the shape of the great ‘tree of life’. Darwin and his contemporaries could never have imagined the improvements in resolution of stratigraphy that have come since 1859, nor guessed what fossils were to be found in the southern continents, nor predicted the huge increase in the number of amateur and professional paleontologists worldwide. All these labors have not led to a single unexpected finding such as a human fossil from the time of the dinosaurs, or a Jurassic dinosaur in the same rocks as Silurian trilobites.

Paleontologists now apply sophisticated mathematical techniques to assess the relative quality of particular fossil successions, as well as the entire fossil record. These demonstrate that, of course, we do not know everything (and clearly never will), but we know enough. Today, innovative techniques provide further confirmation and understanding of the history of life. Biologists actually have at their disposal several independent ways of looking at the history of life, not only from the order of fossils in the rocks, but also through phylogenetic trees.

Accuracy of dating.
Dating in geology may be relative or absolute. Relative dating is done by observing fossils, as described above, and recording which fossil is younger, which is older. The discovery of means for absolute dating in the early 1900s was a huge advance. The methods are all based on radioactive decay. To reiterate, Fossils may be dated by calculating the rate of decay of certain elements.

Certain naturally occurring elements are radioactive, and they decay, or break down, at predictable rates. Chemists measure the half-life of such elements, i.e., the time it takes for half of the radioactive parent element to break down to the stable daughter element. Sometimes, one isotope, or naturally occurring form, of an element decays into another, more stable form of the same element. By comparing the proportions of parent to daughter element in a rock sample, and knowing the half-life, the age can be calculated. Older fossils cannot be dated by carbon-14 methods and require radiometric dating.

Scientists can use different chemicals for absolute dating. The best-known absolute dating technique is carbon-14 dating, which archaeologists prefer to use. However, the half-life of carbon-14 is only 5730 years, so the method cannot be used for materials older than about 70,000 years.

Radiometric dating involves the use of isotope series, such as rubidium/strontium, thorium/lead, potassium/argon, argon/argon, or uranium/lead, all of which have very long half-lives, ranging from 0.7 to 48.6 billion years. Subtle differences in the relative proportions of the two isotopes can give good dates for rocks of any age.


  1. Have you ewer set foot in the Creationist Museum just south of Cincinnati? One display show a group of blond, blue-eyed children playing with baby dinosaurs.

    There's the truth.

    Now, tell me again about fossils?

    I'll bet you didn't know that God created these fossils when he/she created the world.

    Funny stuff. It's always a hoot when discussing fundamentalists.

  2. Hello Muddy,
    Thank you for visiting my site. I have always enjoyed yours.

    I have not seen the Creationist Museum but heard about it when it was built. I have no ideaa how can any educated mind really believe this crap. It is beyond me.

  3. I did a piece on the Creationist Museum when it opened and then I wanted to have a Creationist Anti-Science Fair.
    In my artical, I proved that dinosaurs and Chevrolets existed at the same time and that Cave Babes were much hotter than modern day Kentucky born Fundamentalist Babes, which in a way proves de-evolution.
    Your article is a very good resource for rebuttle and also very educational for anyone who needs hard facts.
    I think I have to have another Creationist Anti-Science Fair and bring out Elmo, the Creationist Anti-Science Robot again...

    I feel creationist "science" is a really great scam. There are Institutes of Creationist Scienc with real scientists with actual degrees from universities. The are funded and get huge grants to custom make factoids which resemble in a way "real science" which can be used by Creationists to impress each other and cause confusion by inserting them into an argument and then demanding that they be disproven.

    Lots of big bucks in this!

  4. By the way, Elmo escaped from his closet and posted on my blog! I'm sorry about the things he said about you, but he is a BAD ROBOT!
    I removed his battery pack and hid better it this time, but I am not responsible for idiots that Elmo sends over here!

  5. I am trying to find the evidence that makes up the "tree of life". I really have no hang ups on the traditional creationists views or evolutionists. Can you put it on your website?

    Seems like as I search there is a lot of posturing between sides. Sure would be nice to have just the facts in a concise area.

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