The age of fossils
Frequently press reports describe the finding of bones and fossils of animals that existed millions of years ago. As a Bible-believing Christian and a creationist, my impression is that they can’t be that old. But I’m not sure. How can scientists determine the age of those specimens? How reliable are their dates?
It is true that newspapers, science journals, and textbooks, as well as most natural history museums, suggest that life evolved on earth over many millions of years. This is in sharp contrast to the biblical account of a recent creation by God in six days. Many wonder which is true.
Scientists determine the age of the fossils in a variety of ways, most commonly by their position in the rock layers and their relation to other fossils. The rocks themselves are dated, using a variety of complex methods, the most important being the radiometric dating methods such as uranium-lead or potassium-argon. Sometimes these methods give the dates expected by the scientists, and sometimes they don’t. The problem is that a variety of factors can change the concentration of the elements used in determining the dates. For instance, a recent lava flow in Hawaii that was dated historically at only 1801 A.D. gave a potassium-argon date of 1.1 million years because excess argon was trapped in the lava. Those who believe in a recent creation by God as described in the Bible usually explain the old radiometric dates obtained on the basis of changes expected during the upheaval of the flood described in Genesis.
Other scientists who believe in a recent Creation point out that very old rock material might have been here on an empty earth long before the creation of life during the Creation week, which took place a few thousand years ago. Some of those old rocks would have been incorporated into the fossil-bearing layers during the Genesis flood. Dating the fossils by these old rocks would give the false impression of an old age for young fossils.
There is some scientific data that suggests that the long geological ages of billions of years are erroneous. For instance, the present rate of erosion of our continents is very rapid—so rapid that our present continents would have been eroded down to sea level several hundred times over their assumed geological ages. Since they are still here, it does not appear that they have existed for the long time suggested by standard geological interpretations. Other evidence of rapid action can be seen in the lack of evidence for long time periods needed for erosion, soil formation, and growth of plants at the many localities in the geologic layers where parts are missing. At these localities the underlying layers should show the evidence of the long time implied by the missing layers. The lack of such evidence suggests that the long geological periods never occurred.
It is sometimes difficult to scientifically test evidences of the past because the conditions then could have been very different from present ones. The worldwide flood described in Genesis would alter many interpretations. One’s worldview can easily affect the interpretation of data. Furthermore, scientific theories often change, and what is considered dogma today, may be heresy tomorrow. Science used to teach that mountains were formed by the contraction of the earth as it cooled. Now the prevailing opinion is that they were formed by the movement of large plates over the surface of the planet.
Caution is warranted in interpreting scientific data. The scientific model of an evolutionary origin of life is in serious scientific trouble. There are many reasons to believe in the truthfulness of the Bible.
Ariel Roth, Ph.D., Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California, U.S.A.