I see this bumper sticker around town occasionally, and it always makes me shake my head. While I get a measure of amusement from such a blatant logical error (which I will explain below), I’m mildly frustrated by the apparent lack of education of those promoting such a slogan.
Now, what exactly is meant by the statement, “We have the fossils. We win.”? The implied claim is that the fossil record supports an evolutionary emergence life’s grand diversity, therefore, gradualistic evolution is the correct view of natural history. If you run a web search of this slogan, you will find that promoters of the bumper sticker (and of the meme graphic that floats around on social media) use it specifically against Intelligent Design theory (ID) and various forms of creationism. They often go even further, making the metaphysical claim that the fossil record disproves Christian theism and supports atheism. The little fish-with-legs symbolizes this far more extreme implication by making a mockery of the Christian ichthus symbol.
Now, whether or not the fossil record supports a gradualistic, branching emergence of species diversity has been hotly debated. Some (even some non-theists) have argued that what the record truly exhibits is a pattern of appearance–stasis–extinction of animal types. For the sake of the argument, I am going to grant the claim that the record exhibits some gradualistic change, an increase in the sophistication and diversity of life over time. Make no mistake; I am NOT granting that the record exhibits an unbroken biological genealogy from one or several ancestral life forms, because it cannot; this is an inherent limitation of paleontological records. Inferences to that effect may be drawn of course, but those inferences go beyond the actual fossil evidence.
The focus of this post is to demonstrate that the bumper sticker above and its promoters commit both the straw-man and the false dichotomy fallacies. The sticker’s intended implications cannot be used against ID theory or as a legitimate argument against Christianity.
Intelligent Design and the Fossil Record
First of all, Intelligent Design (ID) does not rule out common descent, the theory that the history of life followed a diverging pattern of descent that can be traced back to one or several original life forms. ID remains neutral on this point. To be clear, it is true that some ID proponents have expressed doubts about common descent, but those doubts are not part of formal ID theory. The chief claims ID is making are 1) that nature exhibits evidence of design (such as highly specified genetic coding, which is far more sophisticated than any computer software ever devised by man), and 2) that physics and chemistry alone are not sufficient to account for the origin and all complexities of life.
[Indeed, ID is compatible with, and lends evidential support to, theism. Or, if you're a particularly imaginative type, something akin to the film plot of Prometheus --though good luck dealing with the infinite regress problem.]
Simply put, granting a gradualistic pattern in the fossil record doesn’t affect ID theory one way or the other. Because of this, attempting to use the fossil record against a general theory of intelligent design commits the straw man fallacy by portraying ID incorrectly.
It should be noted that ID theory does not get one all the way to Christianity, because the theory does not, and cannot, speculate on the identity of the Designer. That’s the job of philosophical, historical, and theological investigation. ID is only concerned with the observable evidence, the capabilities (or lack thereof) of purely natural processes, and information theory as it applies to biochemistry.
Essential Christian Doctrine and the Fossil Record
We can now address the fish-with-legs and ask: If, for the sake of argument, we grant that the fossil record exhibits some form of gradualism, does that threaten the essential Christian doctrine of divine creation?
No, it doesn’t. Allow me to explain.
Genesis 1:11 reads:
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.”
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds–livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.”
What exactly are these verses saying? We should be careful not to read too much into the text. C. John Collins, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars, explains:
Some suggest that the word kind is roughly equivalent to ‘species’ and that the text is opposed to any notion of new species developing from old ones. There are two problems with such statements. First, the meaning of [the Hebrew word for 'kind'] does not support it; and second, it is not what Genesis actually says. As to the semantics of [the Hebrew word for 'kind'], the term here is not as technical as ‘species’; it rather means something like ‘category’ or ‘variety,’ and its basis for classification is the appearance…This does not say that these are the only ‘kinds’ that ever were or could be. (Pages 58-59, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary; Emphasis, mine.)
In other words, nothing about the biblical account of creation rules out species divergence during natural history, after the creation of the first plant and animal life. Rather, the text speaks of God causing the earth to bring forth categories of plants and animals, and those original life forms could have been created (at strategic points in history) with a great deal of latent potential for genetic variation. This idea accords very well with the “Cambrian explosion” fossil phenomenon. We are still being faithful to the biblical text and to the doctrine of God as Creator of all life whenever we infer that, in addition to creation events, potential genetic variation became realized over time to greatly diversify the plant and animal kingdom.
The bottom line is, even if the fossil record is interpreted as showing a gradualistic pattern with higher organisms appearing later than lower ones, and change of some species over time, this says nothing against the essential doctrine that God created all life and fully intended all of the organisms that have ever existed or will exist. (And, significantly, it also does not rule out successive acts of divine creation.) Because of this, the bumper sticker slogan and symbol commit the false dichotomy fallacy by (albeit indirectly) implying that one cannot embrace Christianity and also recognize a gradualistic pattern in the fossil record.
Sorry Mr. Pithy Bumper Sticker Writer; this one’s an epic failure.