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Fossil sorting

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Stratigraphic ranges of some major groups of animals and plants.

Fossil sorting is an observable characteristic of the fossil record wherein organisms present during the antediluvian period are commonly found only within a limited span of strata (layers of rock), and frequently above or below other specific fossils. Young earth creationists assert that fossiliferous rock is almost entirely the result of the Biblical flood described in Genesis 6-9, and the sorting explained by flood geologists as the result of several factors present during the flood, including ecological zonation, hydrological sorting and liquefaction, differential escape, biogeographic zonation, and tectonic activity.

In contrast, Uniformitarian geologists assert that the fossil record formed over hundreds of millions of years (geologic ages) and is a recording of the evolutionary history of life on earth with primitive organisms being buried first and thus deeper in the rock strata. During the 19th century, fossil sorting and the uniformitarian interpretation became a point of departure for many creationists who found the Biblical global flood unable to explain this observation. Today any old earth creationists accept the fossil record as proof of evolution over millions of years.



Main Article: Uniformitarianism

Within the uniformitarian model, the sequence of distinct layers, known as the geological column, has been interpreted to represent the history of life on earth over hundreds of millions of years, and illustrates the period when organism first evolved or then went extinct.

Problems with this model:

  • There is no way to confirm whether or not one fossil is older than another, because radiometric dating cannot place an age on rock strata or fossils. Instead, the "ages" of the fossils depends entirely on the assumption that the strata were laid down slowly over millions of years, which cannot be demonstrated to be true. When scientists state that fossils are "X million years old" they have no way to know how old they are; they are simply manufacturing facts from a theory: they assume that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago under the theory of evolution, and so assume that the fossils are millions of years old.
  • Uniformitarianism lacks a function model for fossilization.
  • There are an enormous number of anomalously occurring fossils[1], and living fossils that defy the conventional interpretation of the geological column.

As one scientist wrote in New Scientist:

A large number of well trained scientists outside of evolutionary biology and paleontology have unfortunately gotten the idea that the fossil record is far more Darwinian than it is. This probably comes from the oversimplification inevitable in secondary sources: lowlevel textbooks, semipopular articles, and so on. Also, there is probably some wishful thinking involved. In the years after Darwin, his advocates hoped to find predictable progressions. In general, these have not been found yet the optimism has died hard, and some pure fantasy has crept into textbooks...One of the ironies of the creation-evolution debate is that the creationists have accepted the mistaken notion that the fossil record shows a detailed and orderly progression and they have gone to great lengths to accommodate this 'fact' in their Flood Geology.[2]

Flood geology

Main Article: Flood Geology

Within the flood geology model, the rocks record the history of the one year Great flood, rather than millions of years. The flood was an extended event lasting an entire year, and the waters did not reach their peak elevation until 5 months following the beginning of the event. This allowed organisms time to avoid the event depending on their own abilities and tolerances.

Genesis 8:2 the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3.. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated;

There are many geological, behavioral, and physiological factors expected to affect the sorting of animals into strata during a flood as described in the Bible. For example; habitat elevation, mobility, environmental tolerance, and intelligence were probably the most significant influences upon relative times of death, and therefore, where the organism would be found in the geological column. The fossils in the geological column demonstrate this expected trend. The first organisms to be buried were the bottom dwelling creatures, followed by free-swimming marine life forms, cold blooded, then warm-blooded, and then humans. It is obvious that organisms possess varying abilities to survive environmental stress (i.e. cold blooded animals such as reptiles are extremely sensitive to temperature fluctuations, and amphibian will die upon contact with salt water). Jonathan Sarfati offers the following summary.

The ‘fountains of the great deep’ (Gen. 7:11) would logically have buried small seafloor creatures first. Water plants would generally be buried before coastal and mountain plants. Land creatures would be buried last, especially the mammals and birds that could escape to higher ground. The more intelligent creatures would find a way to escape until the very end, leaving their bodies nearer the surface, where post-Flood erosion would destroy most evidence of their existence. Humans would have been most resilient of all, clinging to debris and rafts, before they died of exposure; their floating bodies would have made easy meals for scavenging fish, so would not have fossilized as readily. Most mammal and human fossils are post-Flood.[3]

Although a sorting of fossils is expected to have occurred during the Biblical global deluge given the length of time involved (40 days), we would expect to find many fossils that do not conform to this trend, and indeed there are. Discoveries of out of place fossils force evolutionists to regularly revise their proposed evolutionary history. Frequent reports of findings revealing that organisms must have "evolved earlier than previously thought" is a disturbingly common theme in evolutionary paleontology, but these revelations are predicted by the flood geology model since all organisms in the fossil record are presumed to have been contemporaries that were all living before flood.[4] [5] [6] [7] A close investigation reveals a tremendous number of anomalously occurring fossils[1], and living fossils that defy the conventional interpretation of the geological column.

Sorting mechanisms

Ecological zonation

Fossil habitats.gif

This model is based on the logical consequence of habitats and their location on fossil distribution. Simply put, organisms living in the same habitat will tend to be buried together. Those in the same area and habitat would tend to be found in the same rock, while those nearby in a different habitat would tend to be found in different rock. Also organisms living at lower elevation habitats (on the bottom of a body of water) would tend to be buried before, and therefore found in lower strata than those living on hills on land, with shore dwellers being in the middle.

A number of examples from the geological column can be cited. For example, the Middle and Lower Pennsylvanian floras tend to be from the wetlands, while Upper Pennsylvanian one seem to be from drier habitats. Also, the Permian tends to be dry and most groups that first appear in the Upper Permian and Mesozoic tend to be dry.[8]

Hydrological sorting

Main Article: Hydrological sorting

This is the fact that the remains of animals; particularly invertebrates; would tend to get sorted like any other form in moving water. Buoyancy, size, and shape would all be factors. Buoyancy is one factor than can not be determined from fossils.


Hydrological sorting in flowing water results in stratification moving horizontally as seen above rather than vertically. A typical cross sectional of such deposits is the same as is seen in the strata seen in rocks. It also turns out that observed bed forms in sand stone; often attributed to desert conditions; result from a combination of water depth and velocity. The sedimentary rocks from Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico are consistent with formation beneath advancing floodwaters.[9]

Differential escape

This is the fact that more mobile and faster organisms would tend to seek higher ground. This separates organisms based on motility and at least in part intelligence. This would tend to separate men from trilobites, amphibians, and dinosaurs.

Scientists, when researching the so-called Permian mass extinction, noted that Paleozoic marine fossils are mainly sessile groups, such as articulate brachiopods, bryozoans and stalked echinoderms. While Mesozoic tend to be far more mobile then the Paleozoic fossils. This serves at evidence supporting differential escape being a sorting mechanism.[10]

More evidence supporting this as a mechanism for sorting is that if you compare the body mass of mammals to those of the same genera, but different periods, you will see a trend. The mass increases by about 9.1% as you go up the column.[11]

Biogeographic zonation

This is simply the fact that animals that lived in the same area would tend to be found together. Those from other parts of the world would not be found with them. For example if a global flood occurred today one would not expect to find elephants and opossums buried together. An example of this would be the fact that upper Triassic fossil vertebrates in southern continents tend to be different then that of northern continents.[12]

Tectonic activity

By itself tectonic activity would not affect fossil order, but rather their vertical position in relation to others. Furthermore, it could have pushed some fossils over others before the sediment hardened. There is evidence of this at the Ghadames Basin.

The Tectonically-Associated Biologic Provinces (TAB) concept is a theoretical model put forth in 1983 by John Woodmorappe. The model provides a mechanism for the stratigraphic separation of fossils following an exhaustive evaluation of distributions. It presumes that tectonic activity plays a major role in the vertical position of the sediment and links the flora and fauna of a pre-flood geographic area or province with sedimentary deposits existing today. The model is based on the observation that many periods share a great many fossil families between them. TAB 1 is the lower Paleozoic (Cambrian-Devonian), containing almost exclusively marine fossils. TAB 2 is the Upper Paleozoic (Carboniferous - Permian), TAB 3 is the Mesozoic (Triassic-Cretaceous) while TAB 4, usually the highest strata is the Cenozoic. It was observed that more than half of the earth's land surface has two or fewer of the four TABs superposed at any one locality. This fits in well with the TAB concept that the strata are more related to the ecology that they represent than with the time they are laid down.[13][14][15]

Criticism of tectonic mechanisms usually takes any one of them in isolation, while assuming that the geologic column perfectly reflects fossil distribution. When the above phenomena are combined they could produce the general trend claimed by evolutionists but there would be fossils found outside the usual pattern. The problem is that the geologic column so dominates the classification of fossils that it distorts the picture of global fossil distribution; as a result, we don't know the real fossil trend that needs to be explained.


The inconsistency of fossil sorting is made clear by anomalous fossils and repeated discoveries forcing revisions of evolutionary events. Plants and animals evolving earlier than previously thought is indeed a common theme in paleontology.[4][5][6][7] Living fossils also argue strongly against the uniformitarian interpretation of strata being hundreds of million of years old. When analyzed, the flood model offers a better explanation of the general pattern of distribution through hydrological sorting, liquefaction, ecological sorting, biogeographic zonation, and tectonic activity. While the uniformitarian model violates several known aspects about the fossil record, flood geology can be viewed as a superior model.

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  1. 1.0 1.1 Woodmorappe, J. 1982. Anomalously Occurring Fossils. Creation Research Society Quarterly, Volume 18(4).
  2. Fossil Progression? by David M. Raup. New Scientist, Vol. 90, p.832, 1981
  3. Sarfati, Jonathan. Refuting Evolution 2 Chapter 8 - Argument: The fossil record supports evolution. Greenforest AR: Master Books, 2002. (p129)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Oldest Known Wood Two newly described fossils suggest that wood is some 10 million years older than previous believed. The Scientist, August 12, 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Fossil 'is first pregnant lizard' Live birth in lizards developed earlier than thought. BBC Nature, July 21 2011.
  6. 6.0 6.1 World's oldest complex eye found in Australian fossil Eyes just like those of modern insects and crustaceans, with thousands of individual lenses were recently discovered in Cambrian strata, although previously thought not to have evolved for at least another 40 million years, Herald Sun, June 30, 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Come On In, the Water's Fresh Newly discovered fossils left by creatures burrowing in the sediments of an ancient riverbed push back the beginning of freshwater ecosystems by at least 85 million years. Science NOW May 17 2011.
  8. DiMichele, W. A. and R. B. Aronson. 1992. The Pennsylvanian-Permian vegetational transition: A terrestrial analogue to the onshore-offshore hypothesis. Evolution 46:807-824.
  9. Analysis of the Main Principles of Stratigraphy on the Basis of Experimental Data by Guy Berthault
  10. Erwin, D. H. 1989. The end-Permian mass extinction: what really happened and did it matter? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 4:225-229.
  11. Alroy J. 1998. Cope's Rule and the dynamics of body mass evolution in North American fossil mammals. Science 280:731-734.
  12. Sues, H-D and P. E. Olson. 1990. Triassic vertebrates of Gondwanan aspect from the Richmond Basin of Virginia. Science 249:1020-1023.
  13. A diluviological treatise on the stratigraphic separation of fossils. by John Woodmorappe. Creation Research Society Quarterly 20(3):133–185, 1983.
  14. An Evaluation of the John Woodmorappe Flood Geology Model-Part One by A. W. Melhert. Creation Research Society Quarterly 30(2), December 1993.
  15. An Evaluation of the John Woodmorappe Flood Geology Model-Part Two by A. W. Melhert. Creation Research Society Quarterly 30(3), December 1993, 30:149-159.