An Incomplete Picture
You are about to make a huge jigsaw. You start with a jumble of pieces, each holding a tiny part of a bigger picture, but you have yet to put them together, so you don’t know what the final image looks like. Slowly, using the shapes of the pieces to decipher which ones fit together, you begin to build a complete picture from the individual components. Eventually, the jigsaw is nearly finished. You haven’t put all the pieces in yet, but it’s mostly done; you can now see what a beautiful picture it is. The picture itself doesn’t really matter, so imagine whatever you like. Maybe the image is a puppy or a big cake; it’s up to you. Finally, you put in your last piece, but you notice that the jigsaw isn’t finished. You’re missing a few pieces!
There are two conclusions you could draw from this. The first conclusion is the one you’d probably settle on in this situation: you’ve simply lost some of the pieces. It may be possible to find those pieces, but for now, those pieces are nowhere to be seen. The other conclusion is quite different. You might assume that there are no missing pieces - the reason for the holes is that the pieces you do have don’t actually belong to the jigsaw and are just some random puzzle pieces. The fact that they fit together perfectly and form an otherwise flawless picture minus one or two gaps is sheer coincidence.
Creationists Bet Against the Odds
I’m sure the second conclusion sounds absurd to you. Any sensible person would simply assume there were a few missing pieces. So, what does this all mean? What is this an analogy for? Your jigsaw, the one with the puppy on it, is a fossil record. You were a biologist, or rather many biologists, who over time have been constructing the fossil record (the jigsaw) according to similarities in DNA and physiological features (puzzle pieces fitting together). Finally, the two conclusions are the claims of evolutionary biologists and creationists, respectively. This is the point where any creationists reading this may scoff at the idea, but the parallel I’ve drawn is a good demonstration of just how awful the argument about ‘holes in the fossil record’ is, and it doesn’t even stop here, something I’ll revisit later. Biologists propose that the gaps in the fossil records are present because the fossils of that generation of a species remain undiscovered. Creationists, on the other hand, point at the gaps and call bullshit on the entire evolutionary theory, and then won’t let biologists explain why the gaps exist.
It reminds me of a child putting their fingers in their ears and shouting “I’m not listening” until you give up and leave. Different creationists I’ve spoken to give various reasons for why the fossils that do exist are there, but nothing I’ve heard amounts to anything more than ‘the ancestral picture they build up is a mere coincidence.’ Clearly, this assumption is far less likely than there being some pieces eroded and decayed away by the inexorable passage of time.
It's Just Not that Simple
Though it provides a good starting illustration, the jigsaw analogy is, of course, a huge oversimplification, and the analogy soon breaks down if you look more deeply into it. The thing is, though, the analogy’s simplifications actually favour creationists more than the fossil record does in reality. That’s right - if you study the fossil record, it shows that the ‘gaps in the fossils’ argument against evolution is even more irrational than the jigsaw analogy makes it seem! The two main areas that the jigsaw ignores are as follows: defining gaps leads to an infinite regression of smaller and smaller gaps, and biologists don’t start with most of the pieces like you did with the jigsaw. I’ll explain both in more detail.
What constitutes a ‘gap’? A fossil record for any given species would ideally contain a fossil that shows each new major evolutionary trait since the previous one. And this is something we have accomplished for many species. Of course, that would mean that the creationists were defeated, and they don’t give up easily, so they pointed at the gaps between these landmarks in a species’ evolution. Over time, new remains are discovered and the fossil records are updated and develop ever increasing detail. Just in the last few weeks, a fossil discovery in the East African Rift has allowed us to determine that the most recent common ancestor of Old World Monkeys and apes was around at least 25 million years ago. Despite such discoveries, creationists still point to the ‘gaps’. What do they want next, a fossil for every single generation of a species? A fossil for every single member of a species that ever lived? For reasons I will soon explain, we will never have a fossil record as complete as that, but if we did, it would be amusing to hear what argument creationists would carry on with. Would they point to a chip or fracture in the bones of one fossil and call that a gap in the record? The jigsaw doesn’t show this, but even though we keep filling gaps in the record with new evidence, creationists will point to the smaller gaps that have just been made. It’s a process that could go on almost indefinitely.
The other point is that biologists have a difficult time finding fossils. For fossilization to occur, highly specific conditions must be met. On average, only one in every billion bones is fossilized! For the entire population of North America, roughly a quarter of a skeleton’s worth of bones would be fossilized. It’s amazing we’ve actually found as many as we have. Unlike your jigsaw, biologists don’t start with all of the pieces (or even the majority of them for that matter) - they also have to find the pieces to begin with. So by understanding how rare it is to find a fossil, it’s obvious that we’re always going to have missing pieces. Attributing that fact to anything else is illogical.
Creationists - stop telling us that gaps in the fossil record show evolution isn’t real. The amount of evidence for it is vast and easily accessible... Even most Christians agree that evolution exists. It’s time to stop ignoring the truth in order to preserve your faith; there’s no shame in changing your beliefs.