A recent (March 2017) article claims that scientist have found the oldest fossils yet. Are they the traces of the first life forms to be preserved? Do they show the earliest known step in evolution? Do they show how long ago life began? Certainly, if our derived dating methods are correct, these are the oldest fossils. Even so, they raise a couple of questions about the story of the origin and evolution of life.
The article, based on research published in the journal NATURE, claims the fossils not only set the origin of life farther back than ever before, but also support the theory that life arose around deep-sea hydrothermal (hot water) vents. It also suggests that Mars might have had similar forms of life early in its history. The article claims that “It was primordial microbes like those described in the study that set in motion the evolutionary march toward complex life and, eventually, the appearance of humans 200,000 years ago.”
What do we actually know about these fossils? They were taken “from the Hudson Bay shoreline in northern Quebec” and consist of “Tiny filaments and tubes made of a form of iron oxide, or rust, formed by the microbes…encased in layers of quartz” within iron-rich sedimentary deposits. These deposits are estimated by experts to be about 4 billion (thousand million) years old.
Many evolutionists have said that the origin of life is not part of the theory of evolution, but clearly it is important to know about it. If the dates assigned to these deposits and the age of the Earth, and the theory of the formation of the Earth, are correct, they “suggest ‘an almost instantaneous emergence of life’ after ocean formation,” according to lead researcher Matthew S. Dodd. Of course, that also sets the stage for the story of the long march of evolution that just happened to include humans at the end, at least so far.
Or does it? Nobody is claiming that these were the first living things. One of the researchers, Dominic Papineau, said the find “shows microbial life diversified to specialized microbes very early in Earth history.” The early date assigned plus the time it would have taken to evolve to that point from the first life explain Dodd’s “almost instantaneous” estimate. There would not have been much evolutionary time between the first conditions necessary for life on Earth and these fossils. This should raise a question in the minds of properly-skeptical scientists: If life arose so soon from chance conditions, how hard should it be for highly-intelligent scientists to re-create the event? They have been trying to do so for decades, and have only produced a few relatively simple organic molecules that don’t do anything. The conditions that produce these chemicals also produce others that would interfere with the functions of biological molecules (poisons).
The reason for the confidence in identifying such tiny traces as showing early life raises another question. The report notes that the fossils’ “structure closely resembled modern bacteria that dwell near iron-rich hydrothermal vents.” If the very earliest traces of life look so much like those left by living things now, clearly there was nothing forcing the further evolution of life. Fossils assigned dates from hundreds of millions of years ago also appear very similar to living things. Clearly there is no environmental or biological imperative for life to evolve. Granting for the sake of argument that life did evolve from some early microbes into all the other forms, it must have been a process in which random mutations somehow just happened to produce changes that added up to all the new features needed to live in new conditions in new ways even while the population they came from was doing fine in the old conditions.
Some might say that this is where God stepped in, but that raises a couple of other questions. If we allow that God was actively involved, what else might he have done? Why not take the Bible’s creation account at face value, and question man’s ability to give dates to things supposedly long before humans existed? Why would God create by gradually nudging natural forces?
We should also consider the fossil record in this light. If we have traces left by tiny bacteria billions of years ago, where are all the traces showing the major steps of evolution? We find fossils dated around 500 million years old (3.5 billion years after these Canadian traces) showing all the major designs (phyla) of many-celled living things. Some of those, too, are very similar to living things. There is a great dearth of fossils assigned to the billions of years between. It’s not that there aren’t any traces. There are mysterious burrows and footprints, small bits of shells, and some strange forms that don’t seem closely related to any living things. So how is it that the major work of evolution has no evidence over all that time?
Creationists can look at the same data and come to different conclusions. We can’t rely on our ability to derive dates from current evidence. We see many distinct forms of life and distinct sets of fossils at various layers, without having to imagine lines of many more forms connecting them. In general, the oldest fossils are forms that lived on the bottom of the ocean. The most recent include forms that are the fastest, most agile swimmers; animals capable of living in the highest, driest, and coldest regions; and birds which can fly more powerfully and higher than any other living things. The general pattern of increasing altitude and mobility holds throughout the fossil record, with an understandable degree of overlap. This could fit within a global-Flood model of geology.
Fundamentalist science simply presents the facts: There is evidence that experts interpret as showing the age of these deposits is about 4 billion years. The traces appear to be very similar to those produced by bacteria living today near hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea today. Beyond that, if you want to believe that separately-created life forms were buried during the global Flood described in the Bible, that’s a matter of faith. If you want to believe that life evolved from microbes over billions of years, that’s a matter of faith, too.
Canadian bacteria-like fossils called oldest evidence of life, Reuters, By Will Dunham, March 1, 2017
Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates
Matthew S. Dodd, et al., NATURE, 543, 60–64 (02 March 2017), doi:10.1038/nature21377, Published online, 01 March 2017