Biologists actually have at their disposal several independent ways of looking at the history of life - not only from the order of fossils in the rocks, but also through phylogenetic trees. Relative dating is done by observing fossils, as described above, and recording which fossil is younger, which is older.
A key point is that it is no longer necessary simply to accept one chemical determination of a rock’s age.
Age estimates can be cross-tested by using different isotope pairs.
Our understanding of the shape and pattern of the history of life depends on the accuracy of fossils and dating methods.
Some critics, particularly religious fundamentalists, argue that neither fossils nor dating can be trusted, and that their interpretations are better.
The methods are all based on radioactive decay: The first radiometric dates, generated about 1920, showed that the Earth was hundreds of millions, or billions, of years old.
Since then, geologists have made many tens of thousands of radiometric age determinations, and they have refined the earlier estimates.
All these labors have not led to a single unexpected finding such as a human fossil from the time of the dinosaurs, or a Jurassic dinosaur in the same rocks as Silurian trilobites.
Paleontologists now apply sophisticated mathematical techniques to assess the relative quality of particular fossil successions, as well as the entire fossil record.
Repeated recalibrations and retests, using ever more sophisticated techniques and equipment, cannot shift that date. With modern, extremely precise, methods, error bars are often only 1% or so.
The fossil record is fundamental to an understanding of evolution.
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