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Fossils | A Window to God's Creation

A journey into the world of fossils and what they can teach us about God.


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holding fossil rock

A journey into the world of fossils and what they can teach us about God.

Description

Fossils open a window deep into the history of the earth. Through that window we learn about how whales evolved from four-legged creatures to the aquatic animals we know today, we learn about our own species and where we came from, and we learn more about God who made it all. Language of God producer, Colin Hoogerwerf, journeys into the world of fossils alongside paleontologist Ryan Bebej to explore some of these stories. Guest geologist and paleontologist Ralph Stearley introduces us to some of the early Christians who helped figure out what fossils really are and biological anthropologist Cara Wall-Scheffler joins to talk about what fossils can teach us about what it means to be human.

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Transcript

Jim:

Welcome to Language of God, a BioLogos podcast on science and Christian faith. 

I’m Jim Stump, and normally I’m the host. Most of our episodes are conversations with one person, and we talk about a range of things that person is involved in. On a few episodes, though, we take one topic and talk to a range of people about it. That’s what today’s episode is, and the topic is fossils. 

A few episodes back we interviewed Rick Potts, who is the director of the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian. He talked about going out fossil hunting every year and what we learn from the fossils we continue to find. It was fascinating stuff, and we got thinking that it might be fun to hear from other people in our network about fossils. Our producer, Colin Hoogerwerf talked to a number of these people and teased some stories out of them. 

It has only been fairly recently in human history that we understood fossils as a window to the past. That is partly because the world they reveal is so different from our own. There was a conceptual hurdle for people to understand the way things are now is not the way they have always been. More than 99% of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct. For some people of faith, their first reaction to this was, “no way; that can’t be”. Some even went so far as to suggest that Satan was responsible for putting these fossils in the ground to mislead us. But many of the prominent scientists who helped us understand the nature of fossils were driven by their faith. 

Of course you can find more information about fossils on our website, biologos.org. Just point to the resources tab, and select the fossil record tag under topics. And if you’ve enjoyed the podcast, would you help us get the word out to more people? Leave a review at Apple Podcasts, or share the link to an episode. Also, we’re happy to hear from listeners. Join the conversation about this and other episodes at the Forum, our online discussion group. Find a link in the show notes.

Now, here’s Colin with the story about fossils.

Section One

Colin:

Today’s episode begins underground in a place that is dark and compressed and quiet and has been that way for thousands for years. Until, one day, that underground world becomes exposed. And suddenly a small window is open deep into the history of the earth and the creatures that called this place home.

I find fossils fascinating. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I used to collect rocks and stones, and dig holes with dreams of coming across huge dinosaur fossils. I don’t think I’m the only kid with this story. 

And I remember the first time the world of dinosaurs crashed into the Sunday school lessons I had always been taught. I must have been about 12, I remember being in the basement at a friend’s house when it hit me. There were two stories I knew and I wasn’t sure they fit together. How did the biblical creation story miss all these creatures I knew from books and museums and The Land Before time series I grew up on. 

I can still put myself back in that mental spot, trying to sort of the different timelines in my head. I didn’t come to any conclusions that day, or for a long time. Instead the questions lingered. At some point the questions even fueled my curiosity to learn more about the science and theology that might eventually resolve my questions. 

And I wasn’t the only one with these questions either. The study of fossils has a history of confronting hard questions…some scientific, some theological. Who were these creatures that once lived? And why would they have gone away? How does this historical story fit with the Christian story of creation? And what about the fossils that so resemble ourselves? Who were these early humans and what were they like?

For those who found and studied fossils in past centuries, this information they learned sometimes required a major shift in thinking about the world and like many other major scientific discoveries, it took a long time to really understand what was going on. We’ll look at some of those historical figures a little later on in the episode. 

Ryan:

Yeah so my story is a little different than yours. A lot of the paleontologists that I know were the kinds of people who were into dinosaurs from the time they could recognize what a dinosaur was. But that was definitely not me. 

Colin:

Tell us who you are and what you do.

Ryan:

My name is Ryan Bebej and I’m a professor in the department of biology at Calvin University and I would consider myself a paleontologist. 

Colin:

Well your interest in fossils might have started later in life than mine, but it definitely has gone a lot further than mine since that time. So thanks for joining us here in the studio to talk about fossils and to be our guide through this episode. We’ll hear from some of your colleagues in the field a little bit, but first I wondered if we could start with your own story. Was there any place for fossils or dinosaurs in your childhood?

Ryan:

I don’t know that I had any dinosaur books or toys growing up. I was not into that. I was into sports like as early as I can remember, I was into sports. And so I got to college and was interested in science and math because I had been good at it and I thought I would be a high school teacher.

That was what I decided to do initially. And I started to take a wide variety of science classes because I wanted to prepare myself to teach anything in high school. So chemistry, physics, biology, physical science, I wanted to be able to do it all. So I took a geology class for the first time and one of the things we covered there was radiometric dating. And just looking at the geological record as a sign of the history of the planet. And I was pretty overwhelmed by the evidence there was for an ancient universe. So that rocked me a little bit because I had grown up in a home and in a church where it was just, it was assumed that the universe was young. It wasn’t something we stressed a lot, what we didn’t bring in speakers at my church or anything or hear it from the pulpit. It was just the assumption.

And so that was the first really challenging thing that year was the age of the earth. And I’d had a little bit of the biology on evolution too, just this semester before that. And it was really questioning the veracity of what I’d been told growing up as well about evolution because there were things that were just really strong evidence I thought and things that I hadn’t considered for the reality of evolution on this planet. But my introduction to fossils wasn’t until I took a January term class on evolution from a Christian perspective and it was there that we actually read about some transitional fossils. And that was the thing that really rocked me because I’d been familiar with fossils, right? I’d been to museums, I’d seen dinosaurs and things like that, but I had always heard that there were these huge, huge gaps in the fossil record that evolution simply couldn’t account for.

And in this class that I took, we actually covered several different examples of transitional fossils. One of them was the origin of mammals from reptilian-like animals and looking at things like the evolution of the ear bones and the evolution of the jaw joint. And you find this series of fossils there that show you in almost stepwise succession how these bones that were used as a part of the jaw joint in reptiles became co-opted to be used for hearing bones in mammals. And it’s just this fascinating set of fossils that show this. But it’s also in this class where I read about whale evolution for the first time and it was an article written by Kate Wong in 2002 called “The Mammals that Conquered the Seas”. And it was a scientific American article where she was highlighting the work of a paleontologist named Phillip Gingrich and some of his former students who had worked on the origin of whales and um, it highlighted the discovery of these whales that had four legs, right? Four-legged whales. I mean, I had never considered something like that before. And in this article I was just sucked…I was sucked right in. Like I found this completely fascinating.

And I think if I had just read that article in and of itself, it might not have made me a paleontologist. I thought it was really interesting and cool. But as a part of this class, we actually took a field trip to the museum at University of Michigan where Phillip Gingrich worked, where they had these fossils, not only on display in the public part, but we got to go behind the scenes to the fossil prep lab and got to go in the research collections. And I literally got to hold some of these whale fossils in my hand. And I remember just thinking, these are real things. These are not something that somebody illustrated to put in a magazine that don’t exist. I mean, these are real objects, things people are finding in nature and we need to think really seriously about what that means.

Section 2: Ralph on Fossil History

[Sounds of drawers and Ralph listing fossil names]

Ralph:

My name is Ralph Stearley and I teach geology and paleontology at Calvin College.

Colin:

Recently I got a chance to ride down the street over to your home turf, Ryan, at Calvin to see the fossils collection there along with our digital content specialist, Hillary, who took some great pictures which are on our website linked in the show notes. 

Ralph showed us around and then I sat down with him to talk a bit more. But Ryan, you know Ralph well. 

Ryan:

Yeah, Ralph has not only been a colleague of mine at Calvin but also a teacher at the class I mentioned earlier and a really key mentor in my own personal and professional development. He is an expert on fossil fishes and has also become an expert on the history of paleontology as well. Over the years Ralph has collected scores of fossils not only for his research but also on field trips he has taken with students year after year.  

Colin: 

And people have been finding fossils for as long as people have been picking up interesting looking rocks. But until only a couple hundred years ago most people had no idea what these things were. 

Ralph:

That’s correct.

Colin:

Here’s Ralph. 

Ralph:

Well, you have to realize that when Aristotle’s works were translated in the 13th century and 14th century, there was a ready made answer for why fossils might’ve existed. And that is that, Aristotle had a doctrine that there were these fluids percolating through the ground, and those fluids might have all kinds of interesting powers and they could shape the stones and it might very likely have been possible that these fluids could have shaped the rock into things that looked very much like mimics of organic forms. And so you could see geometric shapes in the rocks. You could see little things that looked like stars or Rhomboids or circles or spirals and basically see geometry at work there.

So, people proposed that perhaps these were these strange shapes and the rocks were in reality the remains of things that had once been alive. But there was some resistance. 

Colin:

While many of the early scientists who were studying fossils were Christians, that resistance often came from the church and from the theology of the time. 

Ralph: 

Well, one of the major factors was the realization that was staring people in the face that if these things indeed had once been alive, then it was almost certain that there were whole categories of living creatures that must have gone extinct. And that was a very unnerving kind of an idea. In the 1600s, John Ray, who’s one of the fathers of modern botany, in many of his writings says that that proposal was tantamount to allowing the cosmos to become sort of unglued. It would disintegrate if God would allow one single category of his creation to go out of existence.

Colin:

There were other reasons to be resistant to the idea that fossils were actual remains of living things. For one, many of the sea creature fossils were being found in places that were nowhere near any kind of body of water: in the mountains, in the desert. If they were real creatures how could they have gotten there? 

But even with these major questions hovering. A few scientists starting in the seventeenth century put together evidence to show that fossils were actually the remnants of living things. Many of these people deeply committed Christians. Often it seemed like their faith was even a driving factor in their study. 

Ralph:

Yeah, that’s right.  

Colin:

Let’s Meet Nicolas Stenosis.

Ralph:

Right. Nicholas Steno. He started off his life in Denmark, became a medical doctor, and then as fortune would have it. He became the personal physician to the Duke of Tuscany, which took him to northern Italy while he was there at one point. Well, uh, along the way he converted to Roman Catholicism became a good friend of the Pope. During that time he undertook several really, really significant studies in anatomy. He became widely appreciated as an anatomist and at one point a bunch of fishermen brought him out of curiosity, this giant shark’s head. Steno got to looking at the shark’s head and realized that these teeth that were in the jaws were exactly like structures that were coming out of the rocks in that day and age, and that people were still puzzling over were these things really the remains of something once alive.

Colin:

Back at the fossils collection, Ralph showed us one of these teeth, about 8 inches long, but remarkably close to the small modern shark’s teeth you might find on a Florida beach. 

[drawer sounds, Calvin Fossils collection] 

These were problematic. In Steno’s day, people were finding these and for lack of a term they called the tongue stones. They supposedly looked like a tongue.  

Ralph:

He had the clear evidence in front of his eyes that these objects had once been living structures. And that prodded him to think about, well, how would you demonstrate to someone who wasn’t quite convinced that these things just hadn’t formed in the ground as an Aristotelian, would claim by liquids percolating through the Rock. So he took it on himself to construct an argument and he basically looked at the geometry of structures within rocks and how you could detect whether these structures would’ve formed in place or whether they would have just been part of the rock as it formed initially. 

So he’s given a lot of credit for deducing principles of figuring out what came first, what came second, what came third in the order of rock formation. Some of those principles we now call Steno’s laws or Steno’s principles and they’re foundational for the discipline of stratigraphy. Now, Steno never did finish his planned larger volume because eventually he decided that he wanted to be a missionary. 

He applied to the Pope to be able to go back to his native land, northern Germany, Denmark. And basically become a Catholic apostle to the Lutherans. So he ended his life as an apostolic vicar in northern Germany,

Colin:

Let’s meet one more of these early scientists. Robert Hooke was an Anglican and was a member of the Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world where he became, eventually, the curator of experiments.

Ralph:

And his charge, his official charge was to do an experiment a day. And Hooke investigated many, many things. His name is attached to a fundamental law of physics, Hooke’s law. He looked at springs, he looked at air pressure, but he also got entranced with the newly developed microscope. 

And he saw his life in natural history and the natural sciences as being part and parcel of his Christian worldview. And it was, in essence, his calling in life was to investigate the natural world that God had given him. And lo and behold, there was this brand new instrument which could, which could amplify our senses and help us discover things that nobody had ever seen before. And amongst those things that he saw were the microscopic structures of fossil wood, well that, that played into this larger argument of what was this stuff anyway? Was it, was it something that mimicked an organic form or was it something that truly was once alive? And I think anyone following Hooke’s lead would find it very difficult to think that the fossil wood that he was looking at was not, in fact the remains of things that once grew as a plant and functioned, had conductive tissues that we now call things like xylem and phloem. And there were functions underlying that that was part of this larger argument about whether things had once been alive or not.

Colin:

Both of these pioneers and many others in the field of geology and paleontology faced tensions, not only in religious communities, but internally as they worked to resolve the contradictions between what they saw in their study of the natural world and how they understood biblical texts. But they didn’t let the tension stop them. 

Ralph:

Yeah. They could clearly see that they had a lawful mandate from God to go out, study the natural world, actually use their eyes and use instruments like the new microscope to gain new kinds of knowledge. They saw that as something that was approved in the Christian worldview. And that actually in some senses was, if not quite demanded then sort of mandated, you know

[musical interlude]

BioLogos: 

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum where we discuss each podcast episode. You can find a link in the show notes. But the forum goes far beyond just discussing podcast episodes, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Section Three

Colin:

Back here in the studio with Ryan and I want to back up just a little bit. We’ve all seen pictures of fossils or seen fossils in museums. But what are fossils actually? 

Ryan:

Fossils are the remains of ancient living things. And there are actually a number of different types and different ways a creature can become fossilized. But what most people think of is when we have the hard parts, the shells, the skeletons, the scales, things like that, of an organism that have been permineralized. That have been preserved but had the minerals originally in the skeleton, in the tissue, etc, replaced by the minerals in the rock surrounding the fossil.

Colin:

Ok and what about things like fossil footprints?

Ryan:

Yeah. Fossil footprints would be a good example of what is called a trace fossil where you don’t actually have the remains of the creature itself but you have geological evidence of that creature’s activity. So it includes things like footprints. It might include things like burrows made by creatures that are living on the ocean floor, things like that. 

Colin:

Ok, so then to become a fossil?  

Ryan:

Yeah, so it’s actually really hard to become a fossil. Typically when something dies in the natural world today other organisms come along very quickly to capitalize on it. So you’ll have scavengers that come to feed on the creature’s body, you’ll have things like fungi and bacteria that come along and start to break down the body. And that’s actually a really crucial role to get the nutrients back into the ecosystem.

But there will be some cases, usually rarer cases when the organisms actually become buried, before they have the chance to be scavenged. And in those cases, at the bottom of a river at the bottom of a lake you actually have the possibility of preserving those bodies for a longer period of time. 

Colin:

So what that means we’re missing…

Ryan: 

Most of it. Paleontologists will often talk about how most of the organisms that have ever existed on planet earth will probably never be found as fossils.

Colin:

So this is a tiny window.

Ryan:

Absolutely. It’s like winning the lottery to get yourself preserved.

Colin:

And yet we’ve also found only a tiny fraction of the fossils that are out there? 

Ryan:

That’s the other piece of it, right? So you have these organisms that have been buried, have been preserved. Many cases permineralized or skeletons have been permineralized in the fossil record, but in order for us to find them, they have to be exposed, right? So we have to have had some sort of geological processes that have started to break down the rock that those fossils are encased within. And then we have to have somebody be able to see that. And so, and here’s kind of the rub to the fossils that are the most well exposed and easiest to find are generally going to be in the worst condition because they’ve been exposed to the environment. So when you’re out in the field as a paleontologist, what you’re hoping to see is just a hint of something showing and you have to have the eyes for that, which takes years and years of training and experience to really develop. And then you’ve got to dig right. And you are, you’ve got to expose the rest of the skeleton that you’re hoping is there.

Colin:

Ok, I’ve seen digs in movies and stuff, but what’s a dig actually like?

Ryan:

So one of my, I spent time when I was a graduate student in Egypt, in Wadi el Hatton, the Valley of Whales. I’m doing some field work with my Ph.D. advisor and some of his collaborators. And the best fossil we found when we were there was in a cliff, was in like a hillside. So it was mostly a shale shale hillside. And when you were walking along this hillside, you could see three little teeth sticking out and that’s it. You saw three teeth. And these are, these are pretty recognizable. They blended in with the shale a little bit, but you could see these three teeth just sticking out.

Colin:

Yeah. So being from Michigan, I think of walking on the ground and I, and you know it’s usually there’s vegetation,

Ryan:

There’s no vegetation here because we’re in the eastern part of the Sahara desert.

Colin:

So this is dry, dusty. What I mean what’s…

Ryan:

So we’re driving along what I might call a desert pavement. So things that have, so not sand dunes, not, not tatooine in the Star Wars universe, right? But it’s kind of pretty rocky. Okay. But pretty, pretty bare of vegetation. And there are these, these hills of, of shale that are just sort of popping out in the environment that are the vestiges of the sea floor from, from tens of millions of years ago.

Colin:

And then you’re just walking?

Ryan:

We are walking and we are looking and you walk and your eyes are just like attuned to look for things that are standing out and these teeth sticking out of the ground will stand out to you. And these are not small teeth, right? So these are, you know, several inches wide. And when we see those sticking out, we think, well, maybe there’s a skull that those are attached to, right? And so we actually spent the better part of two weeks digging into this hill at the level just above where the teeth were and then slowly working our way down to the level where we thought the bone would be. And what did we find in there? Fully intact skull turned upside down, jaws turned on their side. We uncovered probably in the neighborhood of 20 vertebrae, a bunch of ribs, parts of the upper limb bones, all the way down into the wrist and hand and the like, the whole. And we were pretty certain the whole skeleton was in there, but we got to a point where we couldn’t remove the overburden anymore because we were digging too far into the hill. We would have had to remove, you know, 20 or 30 feet of overburden to keep going. But we basically uncovered the front half of a skeleton of a 50 foot-long whale and all we could see when we started were three teeth. 

Colin:

So when you’re digging, is that all hand tools? We have these ideas of what a dig is.

Ryan:

This was all hand tools. I remember the first day when we were trying to remove overburden, I was swinging a pickaxe for like six hours and my hands and shoulders were absolutely killing me. And this was all just to remove the overburden. So we’re cracking this stuff off and then just trying to push it to the side so it doesn’t fall on the layer where we think the fossils are. We were all tired and trying to figure out ways to accelerate this. And I remember one of our, one of the drivers, one of the Egyptian drivers got out a jack and stuck a jack sideways between two seams of rock, of the shale and started cranking that, the jack just to push the rocks apart to hopefully have this whole column of rock fall off. And we got, we got this on video and when it fell off like all the guys started cheering because it saved us like an hour of swinging the pickaxe.

But then, once you get down to the fossils it is hand tools. So you picture like the guys and Jurassic park with this little paintbrush, right? And just like brushing off a little sand in the skeleton is preserved perfectly underneath. And we were working in shale, not sand. So I’m using like an ice pick with a little hammer or just with my hand to get enough force to try and chip some of the rock off to expose what we have.

And the fossil itself is falling apart before your eyes, like the entire time. And so what you have then is we use something called PVA, Polyvinyl Acetate, which is you’re using like acetone and you dissolve plastic in it and you kind of pour or brush some of this onto the fossil and the acetone seeps into the bone and then evaporates really rapidly leaving the plastic behind.

So it’s a way to help consolidate the fossil help to hold it together. But even a lot of times that’s not good enough. So we’ve got like epoxy and different glues and stuff. So you are constantly fighting a losing battle. Everything you do is breaking the fossil and you’re trying to hold it together the entire time, like damage control. 

Section 4: The Story of Whales

Colin:

All right. So can we talk a little bit more about the evolutionary story of whales?

Ryan:

Sure. So modern whales, dolphins, and porpoises belonging collectively to a group that we call cetaceans and cetaceans are really interesting because there are one example of an aquatic mammal. And aquatic mammals are really interesting because most of the mammals that people think of are terrestrial mammals, meaning that they live on land. And we even know that the oldest mammal fossils that we know of were also mammals that were suited for life on land as well. Yet, if you sit and think about it for a minute, you can think of some other aquatic mammals as well. So we think about cetaceans, but we also think about seals and sea lions and walruses, otters, manatees and things like that. And this presents a really interesting evolutionary problem because if evolution by common descent is accurate, then that would imply that any of these aquatic mammals must have arisen, must have evolved from an ancestor that was adapted for life on land.

And that would involve a really drastic set of anatomical changes, physiological changes, and so on. And even Darwin, as he’s writing the first edition of The Origin of Species, recognized this and even speculated there about how a creature like a whale might have evolved. He was apparently ridiculed for that notion a little bit after that first edition and modified it and subsequent additions of the Origin. But he was thinking about it now after the Origin was published for well over a century, the origin of cetaceans was really a mystery. Even the best paleontologists of the early 20th century didn’t really have a good handle on where whales had come from. But today we’ve actually got a pretty good handle on it. Thanks in part to fossils that have been discovered in the past 40 plus years. Thanks in part to genetic information as well. We now know that the first whales evolved from artiodactyls. Artiodactyls are hoofed mammals with an even number of toes. So this includes things like cows, sheep, pigs, deer, and also the creatures that we think genetically at least are the most closely related to whales. And that’s hippos.

Colin:

Okay. So we have these creatures evolving from four-legged land mammals to the totally aquatic mammals we know today, which is fascinating and what got you interested in paleontology in the first place. So how we actually came to know that story is pretty interesting too. Can you shed some light on the scientific process that got us here?

Ryan:

Sure. The first real hints that whales were closely related to artiodactyls came from molecular biologists in the 1950s when they were just looking at how similar the blood proteins were in all these different groups of animals and they found that the blood proteins in whales were most similar to those of already artiodactyls. But paleontologists didn’t really agree with that. They thought, well, maybe among just living mammals, artiodactyls and whales are the most closely related. But paleontologists favored a group of extinct mammals called mesonychids as a group from which cetaceans came from. And this was mainly based on very similar skulls, very similar tooth morphology. And even the age of the fossils help to sort of line things up a little bit. At the time when we look at the whale fossils that were known in the 1950s, 60s and early 1970s, all the whale fossils known were very aquatic.

And these were not creatures that could have supported their weight on land, though we did have some hind limb bones that had been preserved with some of these ancient whales as well as sort of giving hints at that terrestrial ancestry. But all of this changed really beginning in the late 1970s early 1980s through the work of Phillip Gingrich at the University of Michigan, who I talked about before. He actually ended up being my doctoral advisor when I was a student at the University of Michigan, and he discovered a partial skull and some teeth from what at the time was the oldest known cetacean. And it was a creature that he named pakicetus based on where it was found within Pakistan. And this was a small wolf sized skull. Oh, wow. And at first he wouldn’t recognize it as a cetacean, but when you look at details of its ear anatomy, how it would have been able to hear, it was adapted for hearing underwater and had some traits that we only see in the skulls of whales, either modern or fossil.

And so at this point he had whales on the brain and knew that this was a really important find, but it was just the skull and some teeth and he wanted to go back and find a full skeleton. So we knew what this creature would be like. And unfortunately, like geopolitical things happen. This was early 1980s, height of the Cold War, and it became unsafe for Americans to be in the field in Pakistan doing fieldwork. But he really wanted to look at whale evolution now. And so he delved into the literature and found fossils in Egypt, ancient whale fossils that had been discovered by German paleontologists in the late 1800’s and early 1900s. And so he decided to try to do some field work there. So no one had really been back there for much of the 20th century because it was a pretty remote location.

But he was able to get out there, due to roads being built and things like that. And there, after several field seasons, he uncovered a skeleton of a large whale called basilosaurus, over 50 feet long that actually retained fully formed hind limbs, had a pelvis, femur, tibia, fibula, ankle bones, toes even a tiny little kneecap. Yet these were legs that were very tiny compared to a 50 foot whale. And he was just astounded by the fact that you still had fully formed hind limbs present in this creature. And what he recognized was this creature in Egypt was about 10 million years younger than the skull he had found in Pakistan. And so this allowed him to set up some hypotheses, right? If we could look at rocks in this 10 million year window and you’re looking in the right sediments where you would expect creatures like this to live and you’re looking in the right locations in the world, then you can predict what kind of fossils you might be able to find.

And so by the time the Cold War was over getting into the early 1990s he was able to resume fieldwork in Pakistan and since then he, his collaborators, his former students have been able to unearth just a wealth of amazing fossils, including body fossils that document this change from being a four legged animal that’s well suited for moving around on land to being a creature that is well suited for living in water. We’ve got over 60 different species of these fossils now, most of which had been discovered in the past 30 to 40 years that help to bridge that gap.

Colin:

And so these new finds just continue to confirm this story that was being pieced together?

Ryan:

Yeah, we can document things like the evolution of the blowhole from nostrils on the end of the snout. We can look at the neck and see the next shortening of these creatures to help with streamlining.

I’m really interested in aquatic locomotion and how you go from four legged foot-powered swimmers into animals that have a specialized tail they use for swimming and we can look at different aspects of the anatomy to uncover that. 

And even we’ve resolved this disagreement with the molecular biologists because in 2001 there was a discovery of the first definitive whale with well identifiable associated ankle bones and you might think, well, ankle bones, what do those have to do with anything? Well, these artiodactyl creatures actually have very specialized ankle bones. A particular one called the astragalus and it has a shape where there’s a pulley-like surface on either end of the bone. We often call it the double pulley astragalus and artiodactyls are the only creatures living or extinct that have ever had ankles like that. And once we found that ankle bone preserved with multiple species of fossil whales, it led the paleontologist to give in and say, okay, you molecular biologists were right all along. It looks like whales are most closely related to artiodactyls even in some sense you could say that whales are highly derived artiodactyls.

Colin:

So at this point we’re pretty confident about this evolutionary story of whales? 

Ryan:

I would say we’re pretty confident about that, especially when we have fossils, genetics now, because we weren’t even talking about genetics before with the molecular biologists. But the genetics have confirmed that as well. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t still some interesting questions that are still there. But sort of the big picture of how cetaceans evolved is pretty, pretty sound. And we could look at other lines of evidence too, we could look at developmental biology, we could look at comparative anatomy, we could look at biogeography and where these fossils are found. And what’s so fascinating is all these different independent lines of evidence converge on the same story. And I think that’s one of the things that I find the most compelling about this example.

Section 5: Humans and what human fossils tell us about who we are. 

Colin:

Whales and dinosaurs and sea creatures aren’t the only things to be fossilized though. A lot of what we know about the history of humans comes from fossils too. For that we turn to an anthropologist. 

Cara:

My name is Cara Wall-Scheffler and I am a biological anthropologist.

Colin:

The best way to get to know someone new is to delve into their past. When we meet someone new we ask for stories to better understand how a person has come to be the way they are. In that same way, our knowledge about ourselves as a species depends greatly on what we know about who we used to be, where we have come from. This is easy looking back just a couple hundred years, or even a thousand years because we have ancestors who can tell us using language and art which they so conveniently left behind. It gets harder when we look back several thousand years or a million years. In this case we turn to the fossil record and archeological findings which give us some clues into where we came from. Fortunately, the bones of early humans can tell us quite a bit.  

Cara:

I think that when your only perspective on bone is the sort of hard and dead white lifeless material that you saw in a museum when you were seven, I think that it can be really difficult to understand what people can learn about it and how people can make claims about it. Talking to a doctor who has done hip surgeries, and thinking about like putting an implant of a hip into a body and sort of going, and I’m thinking about how it’s red and bloody during that kind of surgery and that you’re hoping the bone partially, you know, molds itself over this piece of metal that you’re inserting into it and just how flexible the bone has to be in order to do that, to actually grow around something. I don’t think people can be reminded enough about how amazing that tissue is and thus why we feel we’re able to learn so much about the past from it.

Colin:

The field of paleoanthropology—the study of fossils of humans—has greatly changed our thinking about how we as a human species have come to the place we are today. And it continues to ask questions that confront our thinking about the development of our species. Let’s look at an interesting example of fossil evidence being found in South Africa. 

Cara:

We have creatures that we are uncovering from cave deposits there that show some characteristics that we would generally assume relate to climbing. But the reconstruction of the environment from plant remains suggests that there weren’t really any trees there. 

Colin:

If these early human ancestors weren’t climbing trees as had been thought, why did they have traits for climbing? To solve this problem, scientists looked around at some of the mammals that currently live in the region and realized a lot of them are adapted to climb rock and to scale cliffs.

Cara:

And so it, and so putting together this idea that we might actually have ancient bipeds within our lineage, probably not obviously leading to us, but definitely cousins actually have as a population boney traits suggesting that they rock climbed all the time as part of their daily subsistence is just something that we haven’t really seen yet and is pretty fun and interesting.

Colin:

These fossils open up to us a story from the deep past that would not be available to us otherwise. It allows us to reconstruct what life would have been like for our ancient ancestors. Which is pretty amazing and helps us to answer important questions about what it means to be human today.  

Cara:

What we see in a lot of extinct bipeds is a keen observation of the world around them, just really advanced hunting techniques, foraging techniques, creation of stone tools that requires intense knowledge of the organism that’s being hunted, the tool, the stone, the geological setting of an environment, the access to water and routes through particular geographic areas. So we know that organisms…bipedal organisms that are now dead really understood their environment.

And so it isn’t just knowledge or application of knowledge in order to hunt and forage and walk that makes us special because almost all bipeds can do that. But what makes us interesting just straight from a paleontological and archeological record, is that we create ornaments and sculptures of things that we haven’t seen before, of things that really only exist in our imagination.

You have the fossil record that shows that this imagination emerges with fossils with a morphology of body shape that you know is homo sapiens. And then you have this archeological evidence that gives you evidence for increased sociality, increased imagination in just creating, creating physical structures that you have never seen before. So that is definitely a way to use the evidence to make claims about what it means to be, what it means to be a person.

Conclusion

Colin:

We’ve heard a ton of really fascinating stories about fossils and there’s obviously a lot of value there in helping us understand the history of the world and even our own history. How does the study of fossils help us to be better Christians? Or maybe better understand God? 

Ryan:

Sure that’s a great question. I think the study of fossils provides us with a lot broader of a context. When we look at humanity we can see in the fossil record that we are very recent arrivals. We can see that the world has been changing for eons before we were ever on the scene. And fossils provide us with a lot of insights about how that happened.  

In terms of what fossils can tell us about God, I think that they show us that God is patient, that God can work over these incredibly long time spans to achieve his purposes. I think they show us that God is a God of abundance, that he endowed this planet with hosts of species of all different types and varieties, and most of those creatures we’ll never know anything about. So God was the only one sort of present to enjoy them, if you will. And I think they show us that God is a God of majesty. When we look at the details of what these creatures were like, these big ancient dinosaurs, these four legged whales, I think looking at the details of how those creatures lived increases my awe of the creator. 

I think that studying fossils tells us about us as well. I think it shows how connected we are to the rest of creation in a really rich and complex way. And I think also it really accentuates our call to tend and care for the creation around us as God’s image bearers here. 

Colin:

The processes that allow for fossils to be made were built into the created order from the beginning of time. I’ve never heard prayer of thanksgiving for permineralization, but as Christians we are called to praise the creator God and so I think it’s worth taking a moment to give our thanks for these clues that have been left for us that we might have a glimpse into the past, and for the fields of study that helps us to decode the rock and the stone, and for those strange and marvelous creatures that once roamed the earth. We might even praise him for those creatures which never became fossils and which we will never know of. 

And as we learn about fossils we can also recognize the grandness of this creation, of the incomprehensible timescales that have come before us and the minute details of the natural world that are happening all around us. 

And below us, deep down into the earth, in a place that is dark and compressed and quiet.

Credits 

Colin:

Thanks for joining us here and being our guide.

Ryan:

Yeah, it’s been my pleasure.

Colin:

Thanks also to Ralph Stearley for showing us around the Calvin Fossils Collection and to Cara Wall-Scheffler for a window into the human side of fossils. 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf (that’s me). Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you’ll find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening!


Photos

Calvin Fossil Collection Photos

Fossil Fish
Drawer of fossils
Fossil Shark’s Tooth
Colin looks at Fossils with Ralph Stearley
Drawer of Fossils
Scale Fossil
Series of Mammal Ankle Bone Fossils
Invertebrate Fossil
Fossil Fish in Limestone

Featured guests

Ryan Bebej

Ryan Bebej

Ryan Bebej is a professor in the Department of Biology at Calvin University, where he was selected as professor of the year in 2017. He earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology with a focus in paleontology from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the evolution of aquatic mammals from terrestrial ancestors, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses). He is especially interested in the earliest stages of these large-scale evolutionary transitions and the anatomical modifications that facilitate changes in swimming mode. He has excavated skeletons of fossil whales at Wadi Al-Hitan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Egypt’s western desert, and he routinely spends time working in collections at world-renowned museums. Ryan is also deeply interested in the relationship between science and Christian faith. In addition to being a member of BioLogos Voices since 2016, he has been a Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO) visiting scholar in science and religion and a participant in SCIO's Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II program. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and two sons, playing German tabletop games, and rooting for the Michigan Wolverines and St. Louis Cardinals.
Image

Cara Wall-Scheffler

Cara Wall-Scheffler’s is a biological anthropologist and works in the Biology Department at Seattle Pacific University. Her research focuses on the evolution of human sexual dimorphism, particularly in the context of balancing the pressures of thermoregulation and long-distance locomotion. She has been working on this problem for over 10 years and has published numerous papers along with her students including in the Journal of Human Evolution, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Journal of Archaeological Science, and the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Ralph Stearley

Ralph Stearley

Ralph Stearley is a paleontologist with broad interests in the history of life and in biogeography. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in geological sciences, with an emphasis on vertebrate paleontology. He is professor of geology at Calvin College, where he has taught since 1992. His published research has included work on marine invertebrate ecology and paleoecology in the northern Gulf of California; fluvial taphonomy; the systematics and evolution of salmonid fishes; Pleistocene mammalian biogeography; and zooarchaeology of fish remains from sites in Michigan and New Mexico. He was privileged to be able to co-author, with former Calvin College colleague Davis Young, The Bible, Rocks and Time, published by InterVarsity Press in 2008.

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