Why Do Creationists Place So Much Importance On A Prehistoric Mollusk?

Along the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River sits a canyon that was carved out of redwall limestone by flowing water. There, the rocks contain fossils of the orthocone nautioloid, which lived 500-200 million years ago. But a prominent young-Earth creationist says they're solid proof of Noah's flood.

[Image: British Geological Survey.]

The redwall limestone found throughout the Grand Canyon is a marine deposit that formed in a shallow sea millions of years ago. Among the sea's denizens were the orthocone nautiloid (above) — the ancestor of the modern chambered nautilus — which possessed elongated shells that tapered to a point.

Why Do Creationists Place So Much Importance On A Prehistoric Mollusk?

[Image: National Center for Science Education.]

Steve Austin, a prominent young-Earth creationist geologist, has examined these fossils (above), and sees profound significance in the fact that their tapered ends are aligned in the same direction. He argues that:

These [fossils] from Nautiloid Canyon do not appear to have fallen to the bottom with random orientations of their cigar-shaped shells; instead, the long axes of numerous shells appear to be aligned in a dominant direction, suggesting that a strong current was in force as they were embedded in fine-grained lime mud.

I believe the [nautiloid] bed was formed by an underwater mud flow… The water was full of mud, what we call a slurry, and so was much denser than the surrounding water. The slurry rushed down the steep slopes of the underwater mountains, gathering speed like an avalanche. And it careered across the ocean floor as fast as a semi on the freeway….As the avalanche swept past it trapped the nautiloids and carried them along.

They were deposited quickly, frozen in time. One in every seven is standing vertical in the bed. The others tend to point the same way indicating the direction of the slurry flow.

Long story short, Austin cites this as evidence as for a sudden mass killing that was the result of a massive flow of water, which caused the doomed mollusks to be aligned in the same direction, at which point they were rapidly buried and preserved as fossils. And that flow of water? Noah's Flood.

But, over at the blog of the National Center for Science Education, geology professor Steve Newton offers a point-by-point debunking:

Slurry deposits tend to be pretty poorly-sorted, with lots of big rocks and boulders mixed with little ones; the Redwall Limestone doesn't look like that at all. In fact, [other] delicate fossils like crinoids and bryozoans would have been annihilated in such a violent process. It is also easy to imagine a slurry moving "as fast as a semi on the freeway" being a roiling, chaotic mix so turbulent that rather than being neatly aligned, fossils entrained in it to be scattered every which way. We would also expect such fossils to be broken up and fractured, when in fact we find the orthocone nautiloid shells mostly intact.

Creationists imagine this mass kill nautiloid layer spreading across several states, containing, as one creationist website put it, "tens of millions of fossils with an average of one nautiloid per four square meters." (When pondering how they know the same density of fossils exists in broad expanses of buried rocks that no one has ever seen, one is tempted to ask, "Were you there?") The problem is that there are not that many fossils exposed in Grand Canyon. Yeah, you can find a few dozen examples of nautiloids—but not hundreds, certainly not millions. In fact….Austin supports his ideas by reporting on the orientations of just twelve nautiloid fossils.

And from the orientation of these scant dozen individuals over a few square meters of exposed rock, Austin extrapolates the flow dynamics over entire states and infers the existence of millions of identical fossils—evidence of a worldwide mass kill stretching from Grand Canyon to Las Vegas. These claims are, to say the least, a bit of a stretch.

A much simpler explanation is that the nautiloids lived, died, and settled to the ocean floor naturally, where typically mild, deep-ocean currents aligned their shells. We find this kind of pattern in innumerable fossil outcrops in uncountable locations around the world. There's nothing in these fossil locales that require extraordinary processes, and nothing that suggests a mass kill. The evidence just isn't there. And as Carl Sagan so frequently said, if you're making extraordinary claims, you better have extraordinary evidence.

Another point Newton makes: If the nautiloids are evidence for a Flood-induced extinction, then where are the fossils of all the other animals (and humans) who perished?

"Why no rabbits mixed in with the nautiloids?" he asks. "Easy. Rabbits didn't exist when the nautiloids lived and the rocks deposited."