Aug 15

Mendeleev and the Fossil Record

What can the history of chemistry teach us about the popular-level objection to evolution regarding the “gaps” in the fossil record? I think we can gain insight from Dmitri Mendeleev and the creation of the Periodic Table of Elements.

Mendeleev (1834 – 1907) sought to group the known elements in an organized and informative way. He arranged the elements into columns (groups) and rows (periods). These are based on certain properties of their atomic components. Based on these components, say, the number of protons in a nucleus, you can recognize a pattern. These days, we even understand how this came to be—the heavier elements were built inside the nuclear furnaces of stars. But here’s the part that may interest you concerning the fossil record. Mendeleev, once he could clearly see this pattern and how elements must have formed, could then postulate gaps in his table.


1871 version of the Periodic Table


His initial table only had roughly half the elements of a complete modern table. But it wasn’t just an incomplete table—it was a table that recognized where and how it was incomplete. It left spaces to be filled in later. Mendeleev recognized that his organization had an X _ Z, and he could postulate that a Y existed, but was not yet discovered. This indeed turned out to be the case.

There is a great irony that I think is lost on unscientific objectors to evolution. The gaps that we can recognize are evidence for, rather than against, evolution. The fact that we can pick out gaps at all tells us that we have found a pattern and have identified that there are missing pieces, just like Mendeleev. Those elements existed, but they awaited discovery. Mendeleev used atomic weight and other indicators to identify his own gaps. Biologists also have a variety of features to use, but we have one very similar to that of chemistry and highly accurate. Of course I mean DNA. We compare the DNA of humans and other animals and can see a relationship; we can see the structure of a family tree.

There is a lot we could say about the fossil record. I find the following all to be compelling:

  • Most animals don’t fossilize
  • Those that do fossilize tend to live in shallow water
  • The fossils we do have support evolution
  • Fossils are not our only way of knowing ancestry (DNA)

I think these are enough to dismiss the popular objection about gaps. But I love to think about how the only reason creationists can give that objection is because of the evidence that led us to realize there were gaps in the first place!

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