Their favorite target is the claim that vegetation proliferated on continental land masses by the end of creation day three. Skeptics point out that fossil evidence for land plants shows up between the events described on day four and the beginning of day five in Genesis 1. They chide that if the Bible is so obviously incorrect on a straightforward statement about natural history, then why trust anything else that it has to say on its succeeding pages.
Here skeptics present a serious challenge to Christian evangelists. How can we lead educated nonbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ if we cannot get them past the first page of the Bible?
Years ago, one of our responses to this particular challenge was to point out that absence of evidence did not qualify as proof of absence. Plants, after all, do not fossilize as easily as the bone and shell structures of animals. Nor are their structures as easily preserved. We also noted the evidence over Earth’s life history for the increasing oxygenation of the planet’s atmosphere. Such oxygen can only come from photosynthetic activity. It seemed doubtful, at least to us, that such aggressive oxygenation—which paved the way for the Cambrian explosion (circa 543 million years ago)1—could have been achieved without the prior existence of any vegetation upon the continental land masses. Finally, we observed that land animals need something to eat. Without some kind of vegetation on the land masses no foundation for the food chain would exist.
Thanks to a litany of new scientific discoveries, today we can offer skeptics and others positive direct evidence that vegetation indeed proliferated upon the continental land masses for hundreds of millions of years before the Cambrian explosion. We can also demonstrate that even the most advanced plant life-forms flourished on the land masses much earlier than what paleontologists once presumed. There is even new research support for Psalm 104’s claims that God packs Earth with as great a diversity of life as His chosen physical laws would permit.
In our 10 Breakthroughs of 2009 booklet2 we described a report published in Nature by two American biologists concerning the discovery of isotope evidence that established that photosynthetic life-forms were just as abundant on the continental land masses for the 200 million years previous to the Cambrian explosion as they were for the 400 million years that followed.3 Now, for the first time, a team of paleontologists uncovered extensive fossil evidence for non-marine eukaryote life-forms that date back as early as 1.2 billion years ago.4
Specifically, the team, led by Paul Strother, recovered from grey shales and phosphatic nodules throughout the Torridonian (see figures 1 and 2) era (1.0–1.2 billion years ago) three-dimensional assemblages that contained:
- multicellular structures;
- complex-walled cysts;
- asymmetric organic structures; and
- dorsiventral compressed organic thalli.
Many of these structures approached one millimeter in diameter. The team concluded that these fossils “offer direct evidence of eukaryotes living in freshwater aquatic and subaerially exposed habitats during the Proterozoic era.”5
Figure 1: Torridon Group Sandstones
Torridonian sandstone layers reside near the summit of this mountain that overlooks Lock Maree in Scotland.
Image credit: Mick Knapton, creative commons attribution
Figure 2: Exposed Torridonian Sandstone Layers
Image credit: Anne Burgess, creative commons attribution
Can all of these structures be attributed to vegetative parts? Probably not. Some may be the remains of primitive animals. The primary goal of the paleontology team was to present direct physical evidence that land life more complex than unicellular and colonies of unicellular life-forms existed more than one billion years ago. However, to be consistent with everything else known from the fossil record, wherever vegetation proliferates there also exists life-forms that feed upon it.
The discovery made by Strother’s team is wonderfully consistent with the creation accounts in Job and Psalms.6 These accounts describe God as aggressively creating as much life as His physical laws will permit in every conceivable locale upon the face of the Earth. Consequently, from a biblical perspective we would anticipate that scientists will continue to discover evidence for abundant, diverse, complex life upon the continental land masses as early as the physical and chemical conditions there would permit its existence.
For example, a Chinese-American team of paleontologists reported their discovery of a eudicot in the Lower Cretaceous Yixian Formation.7 Angiosperms, or flowering plants, fall into two categories: monocots and dicots. One major distinction is that monocots produce embryos (seeds) with a single cotyledon (rudimentary leaf) while dicots produce embryos with two cotyledons. With few exceptions dicots are more advanced than monocots. The most advanced of the dicots are eudicots (see figure 3). Eudicots produce pollen with three or more spores.
Figure 3: A Typical Eudicot Plant
Most of the plants that people choose to place in their gardens are eudicots.
Image credit: Hugh Ross
Before the publication of the report by the Chinese-American team, paleontologists had presumed that eudicots appeared only a few tens of millions of years ago. The report not only establishes that eudicots date back to at least 122.6–125.8 million years ago, but that “basal eudicots were already present and diverse by the latest Barremian and earliest Aptian”8 eras.
An experiment performed by ecologist Bradley Cardinale of the University of Michigan presents yet another example of the continually mounting evidence.9 Cardinale “manipulated the number of species of algae growing in the biofilms of 150 stream mesocosms that had been set up to mimic the variety of flow habitats and disturbance regimes that are typical of natural streams.”10 The results from his experiment yielded direct evidence that habitats with more species “capture a greater proportion of biologically available resources.”11 Cardinale also comments that greater biodiversity minimizes the impact of nutrient pollution.
Obviously the Creator revealed in the creation accounts of Job and Psalms would create life to make maximal use of available resources while at the same time minimizing nutrient pollution. Maximization and minimization for the benefit of all life are hallmarks of intention, of a mind, and a Designer, not the expected outcome of mindless, random, natural processes. In many marvelous ways scientists are making discoveries that confirm just how carefully and generously God designed Earth’s plant life throughout the past 1.2 billion years for animals and especially for the benefit of human beings.