Reasons to Believe

What Does the Discovery of Earth’s Oldest Fossils Mean for Evolutionary Models?

Communication can be a complex undertaking. Often, people don’t say what they really mean. And if they do, their meaning is often veiled in what they say. That’s why it’s important to learn how to read between the lines. Understanding the real meaning when something isn’t explicitly stated usually requires experience and some insider’s knowledge.

Thanks to my expertise in biochemistry and origin-of-life research and 20 years of experience as a Christian apologist, I can usually read between the lines when scientists respond to discoveries that challenge the evolutionary paradigm, such as the recently reported discovery of Earth’s oldest fossils. Because of their fear that intelligent design proponents and creationists will make use of these types of discoveries to advance the case for a Creator, scientists can be adept at masking their concern when they discuss the implications of these discoveries. But if you know how to read between the lines, their consternation is as plain as day.

Earth’s Oldest Fossils

An international team made up of scientists from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and Australia recently reported on the discovery of microfossils from a geological formation in the northern part of Quebec, Canada.1 Formed from ancient hydrothermal vents, this iron-rich geological system dates somewhere between 3.77 and 4.3 billion years in age.

The putative microfossils consist of microscopic hematite filaments and tubes, like those found in modern hydrothermal vents. Today, iron-oxidizing microbes produce hematite filaments and tubes when sheaths of extracellular materials become coated by iron oxyhydroxide. Added evidence for the biogenicity of these microfossils comes from carbonate and apatite associated with the hematite structures. These compounds can also be produced as by-products of the metabolic activity of microorganisms. The research team also discovered graphite inclusions enriched in carbon-12, a geochemical signature of life. Finally, the Raman spectrum of the carbonaceous deposits displays features that also point to the biological origin of this  material.

Matthew Dodd, one of the research team members, argues that “we can think of alternative explanations for each of these singular observations, but why all of these features occur together can really only be explained by one thing, which is a biological interpretation.”2

The discovery of these microfossils comes on the heels of the discovery of stromatolites in newly exposed rock outcroppings in Greenland, dating at 3.7 billion years.3 Both recent discoveries corroborate earlier work that yielded several different geochemical markers for biological activity. In short, an impressive weight of evidence points to the early appearance of complex and diverse microbial life on Earth.

Skepticism about Bioauthenticity

Despite this impressive collection of evidence, several scientists have expressed skepticism about the bioauthenticity of the fossils. Journalist Sarah Kaplan explains why: “Findings like these are subject to intense scrutiny because they have potentially far-reaching implications for the study of early organisms on Earth and other planets.”4

As I have discussed previously when the discovery of 3.7-billion-year-old stromatolite fossils were unearthed in Greenland, one of the implications of the early appearance of metabolically complex and diverse microbial life on Earth is that it calls into question evolutionary explanations for the origin of life. These discoveries indicate that life appeared suddenly on Earth, in a geological instant. Yet traditionally, origin-of-life researchers maintained that life’s origin via chemical evolution would have required hundreds of millions of years, perhaps even a billion years.

This concern can be read between the lines in the objections raised by scientists responding to this discovery.

Some argue that the research team hasn’t amassed enough evidence to convince them of the biogenicity of the fossils, pointing out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But the claim that life appeared early in Earth’s history is only extraordinary within the evolutionary paradigm. To view these microfossils as extraordinary highlights the trouble these fossil finds cause for an evolutionary approach to the origin-of-life question.

Others argue that iron-oxidizing microbes are too complex to have appeared this early in Earth’s history. Some assert that the rock layers containing the fossils are much younger than 3.77 billion years, raising concerns about the dating methods used to determine the age of the rocks harboring the microfossils. Again, both complaints reveal concerns about the impact that this fossil find has on the evolutionary explanation for life’s beginning. The hope is that by forcing the fossils to appear much later in Earth’s history, scientists can explain the metabolic complexity of the organisms that produced the hematite deposits by giving evolutionary processes more time. Yet there is no reason to dispute the dates for the rock formations in northern Canada, and the case for the biogenicity of the fossils is strong.

Some dismiss the bioauthenticity of the microfossils because it would require life to originate under hostile conditions, caused by the late heavy bombardment. These hostile conditions would have frustrated the origin-of-life process, potentially sterilizing Earth, making it difficult to imagine how life could have emerged, let alone diversified, at 3.77 billion years ago—at least from an evolutionary vantage point. If these fossils aren’t authentic, then scientists don’t have to confront the counterintuitive fact that life appeared under hostile conditions.

It seems to me that these scientists are dangerously close to evaluating the validity of the 3.77-billion-year-old microfossils based on how well they fit into the evolutionary paradigm, instead of evaluating evolutionary explanations for the origin of life based on the fossil evidence—a complete reversal of the way that the scientific method is supposed to work.

Nevertheless, a quick read between the lines reveals just how awkwardly this fossil find fits within the evolutionary paradigm.

Implications for Creation Models

Though the discovery of 3.77-billion-year-old microfossils confounds evolutionary origin-of-life models, it affirms RTB’s origin-of-life model. As described in Origins of Life, two key predictions of this model include (1) life appearing on Earth soon after the planet’s formation and (2) first life possessing intrinsic complexity. And these predictions are satisfied by this latest advance.

The writing is on the wall: the case for a Creator’s role in the origin of life is becoming more and more evident.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Matthew S. Dodd et al., “Evidence for Early Life in Earth’s Oldest Hydrothermal Vent Precipitates,” Nature 543 (March 2017): 60–64, doi:10.1038/nature21377.
  2. Sarah Kaplan, “Newfound 3.77-Billion-Year-Old Fossils Could Be Earliest Evidence of Life on Earth,” Washington Post, March 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/03/01/newfound-3-77-billion-year-old-fossils-could-be-earliest-evidence-of-life-on-earth.
  3. Allen P. Nutman et al., “Rapid Emergence of Life Shown by Discovery of 3,700-Million-Year-Old Microbial Structures,” Nature 537 (September 2016): 535–38, doi:10.1038/nature19355.
  4. Kaplan, “Newfound 3.77-Billion-Year-Old Fossils.”

Subjects: Origin of Life, RTB's Creation Model