Time, faith, and fossil whales
by Raúl Esperante
Time has been a big issue in most controversies related to science and faith since the first non-biblical models for the origin of the earth and its organisms were proposed in the early 19th century. Geologists and naturalists like Hutton, Lyell, and others saw long periods of time in many features in the geological record, including the deposition of sedimentary layers, cooling of igneous rocks, and succession of fauna and flora in past times. Darwin and Wallace were apparently successful in linking evolutionary lineages in organisms with long periods of time during which death of the weakest and survival of the fittest gave way to more complex, intricate, and adapted organisms. If changes (both in the biological and the geological realms) happen at the rate we see today, then Earth and life must be very old for the accumulated changes to bring forth new forms. This circular reasoning is reiterated by the concise expression “the present is the key to the past.” Long eras were further supported by the development of radiometric techniques in the mid-20th century, which allowed the calculation of decay rates of unstable elements present in igneous rocks.
A whale of time?
Over the past five decades, several techniques have been refined that repeatedly yield consistent ages of hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Carbon 14 (C-14) is widely known as yielding ages ranging from hundreds to 50,000 years, although the accuracy of the older ages is highly disputed. Series of unstable elements and their daughter products such as K/Ar (Potassium/Argon), U/Pb (Uranium/Lead), and Rb/Sr (Rubidium/Strontium) are commonly utilized to date older rocks and the fossils therein.
Radiometric dating is problematic for those who believe in the Genesis creation account because it sets the clock long before the time inferred from the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and Ellen White’s statements, which indicate that humankind has been on Earth for about 6,000 years. Indeed, radiometric dating is the major challenge that young-Earth creationists face as scientists, and many Christians believe that the scientific evidence is strong enough to challenge the validity of the biblical assertions regarding Creation, and therefore choose to believe in alternative models such as progressive creation or theistic evolution.1 Many go so far as to question the validity of the New Testament statements about Creation, including those by Jesus, Paul, and Peter. Consequently, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has taken special interest in scientific and biblical research that support the Creation story and the Flood. A number of scientists and biblical scholars endeavor to unravel the mysteries of time locked in the rocks and in the biblical genealogies, in order to bring light into the current controversy between science and Scripture.
Although radiometric dates are commonly assumed among geologists to be reliable throughout the geological column, across basins and continents, it is also true that sometimes they are inconsistent with other geological and paleontological evidence. The time spans obtained by using unstable isotopes may be far longer than the actual time needed for deposition of the sedimentary beds and/or fossil formation and preservation. One example of this is sedimentary beds that indicate rapid deposition of sediments and fossil turtles in the Bridger Formation, Wyoming. These turtles are inferred to have been accumulated and buried over long periods of time in a lake environment affected by occasional volcanic ash falls. However, research carried out by Loma Linda University paleontologist Leonard Brand and others has shown that the turtles more likely were rapidly buried by floods and volcanic ash in a short span of time.2
Time for the whales
Another example is the occurrence of fossil whales in diatomaceous siltstones and sandstones of the Pisco Formation in southern Peru. In this deposit, thousands of fossilized cetaceans have been found in sedimentary layers deposited in an ancient shallow marine embayment, which are now up to 30 kilometers away from the coast. These fossils are being studied by a multidisciplinary team of geologists and paleontologists from the United States, Spain, Peru, and Italy who have found multiple layers of well-preserved fossils of baleen whales, dolphins, sea lions, turtles, penguins, and other creatures. But before we go into detail about these fossils, we need to say a few words about the processes modern whales undergo after death.
Whales are actively swimming, air-breathing marine mammals that usually have a high fat content. When a whale dies, its body may immediately sink (low-fat species) or float (high-fat species) for a certain amount of time until it eventually sinks to the sea floor. Soon after death, bacterial decay and scavengers descend on the carcass and remove the flesh and fat until the bones are exposed. These processes may take several months, depending on the size of the whale and the fat content. A particular characteristic of many whales is that their bones are fat-rich (which helps with floatability), and that fat (also called blubber) is a source of food even long after the bones are clean of flesh. Modern observations of whale skeletons lying on the sea floor show that they are colonized by an abundant and diverse community of encrusting invertebrates like clams, snails, worms, crustaceans, etc., which settle on the bones and in the associated sea floor. They burrow into the sediment in search of nutrients that have leaked out of the decayed carcass, and bore into the bones to feed on the blubber. It is believed that these skeletons may hold a large community of small marine invertebrates for many years.3 The bones of these sunken whales are usually corroded, disarticulated, and sometimes removed by the action of water currents and/or scavengers. If the skeleton has been washed onto the beach, it is likely that the bones will become very scattered by the action of waves and storms.
In comparison to modern examples, what we see in the fossil whales of the Pisco Formation presents a rather different picture, although some similarities apply. Some skeletons appear partially or totally disarticulated as is the case with modern counterparts, but the bones are associated and clustered, indicating that little disturbance of bones occurred before burial. A large number of skeletons are entirely articulated with bones in life position. This feature clearly indicates rapid burial. Since the sediments were laid down in shallow water (<100 m depth), abundant mollusks, crustaceans, and worms would have bored into the bones in the attempt to feed on the blubber inside, had they been resting on the sea floor for many years. Also, water currents could have moved some bones. Instead, the preservation of the bones is excellent, with no evidence of damage by water currents, burrowing, and/or scavenging by invertebrates. Furthermore, there is no evidence of any invertebrates buried with the whale bones. It seems as though there was not enough time for the invertebrates to colonize the bare bones and leave their marks on them.
What is it even more striking is the preservation of baleen (the filtering apparatus) and, in a few cases, the mineralization of the spinal cord, because both are soft tissues and tend to detach and decay much faster than bone. Baleen is made of keratin (the same kind of tissue that makes up hair and nails) and is not rooted into the whale’s mandible, but only glued to it by means of the gums. It is known from modern observations that the baleen detaches from the upper mandible in a matter of a few hours or days after death, making preservation of the skeleton along with its feeding apparatus extremely unlikely, unless very rapid sedimentation occurs. Surprisingly, numerous fossil whales in the Pisco Formation have been found with their baleen preserved, and many of them with this filtering organ in life position. The conditions of these fossil whales suggests rapid burial and fossilization.
Several other lines of evidence suggest that sedimentation rates in the Pisco Formation were much higher than those observed elsewhere in modern times and considerably higher than the ones inferred from radiometric dates available for the area.4 Radiometric dates obtained using K-Ar isotopes indicate a span of time of 10-12 million years for the deposition of the whale-bearing deposits, which have a thickness of up to 1000 m.5 Assuming 10 million years for the deposition of a whole sequence of 500 m thickness, it would take 20,000 years to accumulate 1 m of sediment thickness on the sea floor in that area. Studies carried out in several oceans indicate that rates of deposition in the present for sediments similar to the ones of the Pisco Formation are in the range of 2-260 cm/1,000 years (with averages of 15-50 cm/1,000 years, and 2-16 cm/1,000 years for the Peruvian marine platform), which are over an order of magnitude higher than the rates obtained from radiometric dates.
Therefore even with a modern average rate of sedimentation of 40 cm/1,000 years it would take a millennium to completely bury a 40-cm thick whale skeleton, to prevent any disarticulation or deterioration of the skeleton originated by the action of water currents, scavengers, or chemical reactions. It seems unreasonable to think that a large skeleton could rest on the seafloor for several centuries in shallow water without being disturbed by physical and biological agents that would cause disarticulation, burrowing, and removal of the bones. Even if the bones and baleen had undergone rapid mineralization after the death of the animal, it is unlikely that the carcass would have endured so long without any deterioration, let alone with baleen in living position.
The implications of these figures of rates of sedimentation of fine deposits on the seafloor are twofold. On the one hand, the excellent preservation of the fossil whales indicates that in the Pisco Basin sediment accumulated much faster in the past than at the present in similar geologic settings (such as the shallow ocean along the Peruvian coast, which is a good example of this kind of depositional setting). Certainly the sediment containing fossil whales must have been deposited very rapidly. As more of this type of evidence accumulates, it calls into question radiometric dating because there is not enough sedimentary activity to occupy such a long period of time.
On the other hand, the occurrence of these well-preserved fossils exposes serious shortcomings of the commonly accepted assumption among evolutionist geologists that “the present is the key to the past.” If, as we have seen with modern whales, the rate at which processes occurring today (i.e. sedimentation and burial, in oceans and lakes) do not satisfactorily explain the occurrence of finely preserved fossils, we need to conclude that the past must have been very different in some way.
More research and study need to be done to ascertain why radiometric dating methods yield long ages as opposed to the catastrophic, rapid changes inferred from many paleontological features. Currently evolutionary geology explains the fossil record as the result of slow processes and change occurring over long periods of time. However, an increasing number of rock formations and fossil occurrences previously interpreted within such an evolutionary framework must be reinterpreted as the result of rapid, or even catastrophic, processes operating on a different time scale.
Things may have been different in the past.
Raúl Esperante (Ph.D., Loma Linda University) is a paleontologist at the Geoscience Research Institute, in Loma Linda, California, U.S.A. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. These two models are indeed similar in their assumptions. While theistic evolutionists believe that God created the first organic molecules, cells, or simple organisms, and let them naturally evolve to more complex beings, progressive creationists suggest that God was active in creating new forms of life along this long evolutionary path.
2. Leonard R. Brand, 2003. Personal communication.
3. P. A. Allison, C. R. Smith, H. Kukert, J. W. Deming, and B. A. Bennet, “Deep-water Taphonomy of Vertebrate Carcasses: A Wale Skeleton in the Bthyal Santa Catalina Basin,” Paleobiology 17(1991), pp. 78-89.
4. L. R. Brand, R. Esperante, C. Carvajal, A. Chadwick, O. Poma, and M. Alomía, “Fossil Whale Preservation Implies High Diatom Accumulation Rate, Miocene/Pliocene Pisco Formation, Peru,” Geology 32 (2004) 2:165-168.
5. R. B. Dunbar , R. C. Marty, and P. A. Baker, “Cenozoic Marine Sedimentation in the Sechura and Pisco Basins, Peru,” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 77 (1990), pp. 235-261.