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Paleontology (also spelled palaeontology) is the study of fossils, which are the mineralised remains of living things, although a few remains have been preserved relatively intact by natural processes. Paleontologists also get useful information from ichnofossils or trace fossils, which are the marks left behind in rocks by living things (tracks or footprints), and from fossil faeces (coprolites), worm trails etc.

Academic circles generally regard palaeontology as a specialist school of geology and/or the intersection of geology and biology. Palaeontology is often practiced as an "amateur" science, meaning that people can pick up fossils from the ground without writing papers on them, often selling them in shops. This makes academic palaeontologists unhappy, so they often call themselves even longer and more specific names (like "palaeobotanists" or "palaeobehaviourists") to distinguish themselves from the amateurs.

Young-earth creationists don't like paleontology because (like many real sciences) it provides hard evidence that life evolved over billions of years, and makes a laughingstock of the idea that the Earth was created over the course of six days, approximately six to ten thousand years ago. Paleontology is one of the most common targets for attacks from creationists, because they don't understand the genetic evidence for evolution or the theory of common descent, but they have watched Jurassic Park. Astute observers of the Creation Museum will notice that, out of all the different sciences which provide evidence for evolution, paleontology is almost the only one they bother to attack.

According to Richard Dawkins, we don't need palaeontology to prove evolution any more, because we have plenty of other evidence for evolution, although palaeontologists (as one might expect) disagree with this statement.[1] One certainly cannot deny that the fossil record has been extremely relevant in the history of evolutionary theory; it provided very strong evidence for early pioneers in the field (particularly because fossils make comparative anatomy much, much easier).


Although observations of fossils were documented for centuries beforehand, paleontology became a useful scientific branch in the late 1700's when Georges Cuvier utilized comparative anatomy to demonstrate that some fossil species did not resemble modern ones. Fossil evidence has helped define the geological time scale and contributed to our understanding of evolutionary paths. The word "paleontology" was coined in 1822.

Radiometric dating, invented in 1905, allowed paleontologists to more accurately date fossil finds.[note 1] In about the 1960's paleontologists began using molecular phylogenetics to aid in their understanding of historical evolution.

Significant paleontological discoveries[edit]

  • Gunflint Chert stromatolites--Minnesota, cyanobacterial accretionary structures, 1.9 to 2.3 billion years ago (BYA)
  • Ediacaran biota--worldwide, trace fossils of earliest known Pre-Cambrian multicellular organisms, 635 to 542 MYA
  • Chengjiang Maotianshan shales--Yunnan Province (China), rare soft tissue fossils from middle Lower Cambrian, 525 to 520 MYA
  • Burgess Shale--British Columbia, early soft-parts fossils from middle Cambrian, 505 MYA
  • Tiktaalik--northern Canada, a transitional fossil between fish and early tetrapods from the Late Devonian, about 375 MYA
  • Archaeopteryx--southern Germany, a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds from the Late Jurassic, 150 to 145 MYA
  • Laetoli footprints--Tanzania, preserved upright-walking hominid footprints discovered in 1976 by Mary Leakey, 3.5 MYA
  • Lucy--Ethiopia, an Australopithecus afarensis fossil found in 1974 by Donald Johanson, about 3.2 MYA

Careers in paleontology[edit]

Industrial paleontologists can be found conducting research for the petroleum industry. Academic paleontologists typically work as college or university professors. Paleontologists can work as museum preparators or on government surveys. They can work in the fields of climate change or historical biology.

Paleontology is a broad science requiring knowledge of geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, zoology, genetics, ecology, and systematics. It uses techniques drawn from biochemistry, mathematics, and engineering.

Paleontology is an unusual field in that amateurs also may make important contributions.

Noted paleontologists[edit]

Paleontological organizations[edit]

Paleontology and creationists[edit]

In order to reconcile paleontological discoveries with their belief in biblical inerrancy, creationists have misrepresented facts about the fossil record. Creationists claim that the fact of gradual evolution would have resulted in the presence of innumerable transitional forms in the fossil record. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses publication Life--How did it get here? By evolution or by creation? notes:

Millions of bones and other evidence of past life have been unearthed by scientists, and these are called fossils. If evolution were a fact, surely in all of this there should be ample evidence of one kind of living thing evolving into another kind. (p. 19)

The claim explicitly assumes that fossilization is a common event and that all past evolutionary activity is recorded by it. This assumption is demonstrably false. [3] Additionally the claim makes the assumption that evolution is gradual. Although the fact of evolution is nearly universally accepted among paleontologists, there are disagreements as to the mode and tempo of evolution. Note that a punctuational model of evolution would explain the rarity of transitional forms.

Contrary to the claim there are transitional fossils. See our list of transitional forms. When such transitional fossils are identified, creationists have then attempted to suggest that they are not sufficiently transitional or even that they are fraudulent, as for example Australopithecus or Archaeopteryx.

Similarly, creationists claim that the fossil record reveals that species appear suddenly, as in the Cambrian explosion, and do not change much during their lifespan, and that this observation is not consistent with predictions generated from the tenets of evolution. In reality the degree of suddenness in these cases is overstated, and species do in fact change over long periods of time.[4] This claim also depends on the assumption that evolution occurs at a consistent and gradual rate.

Creationists claim that patterns in the fossil record can be better explained as being the results of Noah's flood. [5] However, this claim requires the denial of many observations of the fossil record, such as geographic and stratigraphic distribution of species.

Thus paleontology is one of several branches of science you have to ignore to believe in young Earth creationism.

Quote mining[edit]

To support their claim that paleontologists themselves believe the fossil record fails to provide evidence for the theory of evolution, creationists cite quotes taken out of context. See for example the many misquotes of evolutionary biologist Steven M. Stanley.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Strictly speaking, you can't put a radiometric date on a fossil, because the vast majority of fossils are found in sedimentary rocks, and radiocarbon dating is only practical when used on igneous rocks. However, comparative stratigraphy fills that gap.


  1. In defense of paleontology, Science Blogs, April 27, 2010
  2. Tempo and Mode in Evolution, Simpson, George Gaylord, pub. 1942
  3. See Talk Origins' response to the claim that transitional fossils are lacking. [1]
  4. See Talk Origins' response to the claim that the Cambrian explosion shows all kinds of life appearing suddenly. [2]
  5. Woodmorappe, John (April 1, 2000). "The fossil record: Becoming more random all the time". Answers in Genesis.