Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils

Evolutionary theory asserts that today’s plants and animals developed from far different ancestral life-forms. The characteristics of populations have changed with time, to produce new species. These changes are believed to be relatively gradual. Scientists believe that a new species may take thousands of generations to become clearly differentiated from its original form. Major transitions, such as going from fish to amphibians, or reptiles to mammals, must have involved millions of years and a whole range of intermediate forms. We intuitively expect to see evidence of these intermediate forms in the fossil record.

Mainstream science says that plenty of such transitional fossils have been found. Young Earth (YE) creationists and Intelligent Design advocates disagree. They cite what Darwin himself wrote in the Origin of Species (6th Ed., pp. 341-342), “The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.”

Thus, transitional fossils are a significant part of the evidence for or against evolution. It is necessary to have a correct understanding of the nature of transitional fossils, in order to properly evaluate the physical evidence. Four factors which impact the nature of fossil intermediates are described below.

First, a little vocabulary: living organisms are grouped together in various levels. From highest level (most inclusive) to lowest, these are: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Below species there are strains or sub-species. All animals are grouped in one kingdom, and all plants in another. These are mainly human constructs forced onto the messy biological world, and scientists can legitimately differ on how any particular organism should be classified. A common definition for a plant or animal “species” is the largest group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

Four Key Factors Governing the Transitional Fossil Record

 (1) The fossil record is inherently very sparse. Very, very few of all the organisms that have died in past eons become fossilized.  As we can observe today, nearly all carcasses rot or are eaten by scavengers rather than being buried intact in rock layers. Of the remains that do get fossilized, many are later eroded away if the rocks in which they are embedded are raised above sea level.  If these rocks become deeply buried, the fossils can become smeared beyond recognition in metamorphic transformations. This is even more of an issue for older rock layers, such as the Paleozoic era (Cambrian through Permian periods), since they have had more time to be either raised up to the surface for erosion or to be buried more deeply.  Also, of all the potential fossil-bearing rocks, only a small fraction is available in surface exposures for paleontologists to examine.

As Wikipedia points out, “The number of species known through the fossil record is less than 5% of the number of known living species, suggesting that the number of species known through fossils must be far less than 1% of all the species that have ever lived.”    No fossils have yet been found for about a third of the 30+ phyla of living animals.  Occasionally (e.g. once every 15 million years or so) we find a rock formation such as the Burgess Shale where conditions were just right to preserve a rich assemblage of fossils (including many soft-bodied animals) in that locale at that snapshot in time.  These “Lagerstatte” are the exceptions which prove the rule: they confirm that the ancient seas were teeming with diverse life-forms, but in most times and in most places (i.e. apart from these very rare fossil-rich formations), these organisms simply did not become preserved as recognizable fossils.

The Coelacanth order of fishes furnishes a classic example of the fickleness of the fossil record. These fish were once widespread in the ancient seas. Coelacanths peaked in the fossil record about 240 million years ago, and then declined. The most recent known fossil dates back to about 80 million years ago. It was thought that they had become extinct. In 1938, however, a live coelacanth was discovered in the Indian Ocean. Since then a number of others have been caught.  Unless we are prepared to claim that an Intelligent Agent supernaturally re-created these modern coelacanths, we must acknowledge that some population of these fish has existed for the past 80 million years but without leaving a trace in the fossil record. 

We should expect to observe many gaps like this in the fossil record.  Here is a list of other “Lazarus taxa” which disappear from the fossil record for millions of years, but appear again later.

(2) New species tend to develop in small, isolated populations. The arithmetic of basic population genetics shows that it is more difficult for new genetic mutations to become established in very large populations, than in small populations. This is readily confirmed by laboratory studies. For instance, Perfeito et al. found that new beneficial mutations were much more readily established in small populations of bacteria than in large populations.

Thus, it is far more likely that a new species would develop within a small, isolated population, especially if that population is under some environmental stress that would favor genetic changes. The odds of us finding fossils from that small, localized population is are nearly zero.  If the new species becomes more fit than the old species, the new species will expand, and only then is likely to appear in the fossil record. But once a species is widespread and successful in its ecological niche, there will be diminished selection pressure for changes, so fossils of this now well-adapted species are likely to appear for perhaps million of years with showing little change.

(3) A given population can persist for many millions of years with little morphological change.  As demonstrated by the longevity of the coelacanth group, a specific type of organism can persist for tens of millions of years with only modest changes.  Thus, if we find a fossil of some species in rocks dated as being, say, 100 million years old, it is quite possible that a similar, related species (same genus or family) also existed 110 million years ago, and maybe even 150 million years ago, whether or not we have found these older fossils yet.  For instance, the past 80 million years would constitute such a “ghost” lineage for coelacanths.

 (4) Evolutionary lineages tend to be “branchy”.  Typically the organisms on the side branches show up in the fossil record, rather than the directly ancestral ones along the main “trunk” of the family tree.

Horse Evolution: Example of Branching Lineage

The evolution of today’s horse (genus “Equus”) from a tiny ancestor is well-supported in the

Source: Professor Donald Levin's course in BioEvolution at the University of Texas in Austin, copied from

Source: Professor Donald Levin’s course in BioEvolution at the University of Texas in Austin, copied from

fossil record.  Hyracotherium (sometimes called Eohippus, i.e. “Dawn Horse”) lived in the forests about 55 million years ago. It stood roughly 18 inches (50 cm) tall at the shoulder, resembling a small dog. Its teeth were adapted to eating fruit and soft foliage, and its feet and leg bones were quite different from today’s steeds that thunder across the plains and eat tough grass.  The graphic on the right depicts some of the changes in teeth, toes, and overall body size.






The picture below, from the Florida Museum of Natural History, shows how the size and shape of fossil horse skulls has changed with time:

Source: “Fossil Horses” on-line exhibit, by the Florida Museum of Natural History

Source: “Fossil Horses” on-line exhibit, by the Florida Museum of Natural History

In her article at TalkOrigins on horse evolution, Kathleen Hunt shows a more complete family tree (grouped at the level of genus), with even more branches than depicted in the figures above:

Source: “Horse Evolution” by Kathleen Hunt, at

Source: “Horse Evolution” by Kathleen Hunt, at

Hunt notes a number of clear, graduated changes that appear in this fossil series. For instance, Hyracotherium (“Eohippus”) had only three grinding molars on each side of its jaw, Orohippus had four, Epihippus had five, and Mesohippus had six grinding “cheek teeth.” That looks pretty “transitional” to me.  Although a clear line of descent can be drawn between Eohippus and today’s horses, Hunt cautions that the fossils show a complex pattern, not a unidirectional trend:

Horse species were constantly branching off the “evolutionary tree” and evolving along various unrelated routes. There’s no discernable “straight line” of horse evolution. Many horse species were usually present at the same time, with various numbers of toes, adapted to various different diets…Tracing a line of descent from Hyracotherium to Equus reveals several apparent trends: reduction of toe number, increase in size of cheek teeth, lengthening of the face, increase in body size. But these trends are not seen in all of the horse lines. On the whole, horses got larger, but some horses (Archeohippus, Calippus) then got smaller again. Many recent horses evolved complex facial pits, and then some of their descendants lost them again. Most of the recent (5-10 My) horses were three-toed, not one-toed, and we see a “trend” to one toe only because all the three-toed lines have recently become extinct.     

Expectations for Fossil Lineages

Figure 1 represents a naïve expectation of what the fossil record should look like for the evolutionary family tree encompassing some species A through D. In this figure, there is a single lineage, with the direct ancestors all appearing as fossils.  Each earlier form neatly disappears from the fossil record as the next one appears, so there are no overlaps. From the four factors discussed above, it is obvious why Figure 1 is not realistic, yet this is what YE creationists often demand to see.

Figure 1-Evol Lineage

Figure 2 shows a more realistic fossil lineage. The points of actual divergence (common ancestors) are relatively unlikely to have left fossils. It is more probable that we will find fossils of successful populations on the side branches of the family tree, such as B and C in this figure. This is not due to some weakness in evolution. Rather it is due to the intrinsic nature of speciation and fossil preservation (branching, new species arising in small populations, etc.).

Figure 2-Evol Lineage

While this diagram shows the branching which is characteristic of evolutionary lineages, it is unrealistic in depicting the rate of morphological change as being roughly constant with time. As noted above, evolutionary changes tend to happen relatively quickly in small populations that do not leave a trace in the fossil record, while large successful populations can continue with only modest changes for many millions of years. (By “relatively quickly” we mean that a new genus might develop in a million years or so for vertebrates, and of course in shorter times for organisms with faster reproductive rates.)

Figure 3 below better represents the type of fossil pattern we expect from what is known about speciation and fossilization:

Figure 3-Evol Lineage

The thick vertical lines denote the chronological extent of the fossil remains for the four species A-D.  There are fossils of B and C which display some characteristics which are intermediate between A and D. However, some of these fossils do not appear in strict morphological order.  All of the extant fossils of C predate all the fossils of B, even though the morphological progression suggests that B would be in some sense ancestral to C.  Some fossils of D appear at the same time as fossils of C.

YE creationists sometimes claim these “out of order” fossils represent some sort of dire problem for evolution. This claim is false. This type of pattern is exactly what is predicted by the four factors discussed above. Populations like A, B, C, and D that actually appear in the fossil record are likely to be large and stable. But there will always be an earlier time, before these populations expanded (or when geological conditions did not favor preservation), when each of these populations was present but was not represented among the known fossils. It is entirely plausible that a common ancestor between B and C existed sometime before the earliest fossils of C, even though the lineage from that ancestor up to the B fossils has not yet been observed in the rock layers.

Figure 4-Evol Lineage

A possible family tree for these fossils is shown above in Figure 4. The thick lines denote the observed fossils, with the thin lines denoting inferred lineage relationships.

Figure 5-Evol Lineage

Another potential family tree for the same fossils is shown above in Figure 5. It shows a slightly different pattern of splits from common ancestors. How can we determine which lineage pattern is a better fit to the fossil evidence?

Arthropods: Example of Fossil Family Tree

There is a whole field of study called cladistics  where scientists ponder these questions. They define and analyze various characteristics of physical features in fossils, and also genetic relations among living species. Here is an example of the type of thinking that goes into cladistics, centered on the evolution of arthropods (think: bugs) about 500 million years ago. Dennis Venema at Biologos writes:

All living arthropods have a suite of defining characteristics such as a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton), specialized body segments, and specialized appendages. While these characteristics are useful for defining modern arthropods, these criteria become less useful as we travel back through the evolutionary history of arthropods. The reason is simple – from an evolutionary point of view, one would not expect these different traits to arise as a unit in one fell swoop. Rather, one would expect that these traits would arise over time in the lineage leading to modern day arthropods. [Thus] we would expect to find species in the fossil record that do not have the full suite of “arthropod” characteristics, but only some:

Source: Dennis Venema, “Evolution Basics: The Cambrian Diversification and Assembling Animal Body Plans, Part 1”, at

Source: Dennis Venema, “Evolution Basics: The Cambrian Diversification and Assembling Animal Body Plans, Part 1”, at

For example, based on the above phylogeny we might expect to find two groups of “arthropod-like” organisms in the fossil record: species that have only (1) of the three traits (specialized appendages only), as well as a second group (2) with specialized appendages and segments. …these species would represent “transitional forms” in the sense that they have intermediate sets of characteristic features that indicate the steps the arthropod lineage took to achieve the “modern” suite of characteristics.

And in fact, this sort of pattern is reflected in the fossil record. The figure below, from Legg, et al., shows that the ancient fossils are consistent with sequential modifications in appendages and body segments as populations developed from early arthropod-like forms to full modern-type arthropods. Here, modern arthropods (e.g. Hexapoda [insects], and Crustacea [crabs, etc.]) are shown at the bottom, with the earliest evolutionary branching at the top.   For instance, Anomalocaris had large compound eyes and hardened specialized appendages, but it did not have a hardened exoskeleton over its whole body. It is considered a transitional “stem” arthropod, not a full-fledged “crown” arthropod.  Each point (1, 2, 3, etc.) represents the appearance of a key innovation, such as compound eyes, arthropodized limbs, arthrodization of the trunk exoskeleton, etc.

Source: D.A. Legg et al., Proc. Royal Soc. B, 2012: vol. 279 , pp. 4699-4704

Source: D.A. Legg et al., Proc. Royal Soc. B, 2012: vol. 279 , pp. 4699-4704

The cladistic relationships in this figure were not just randomly proposed to rationalize the fossils. Nick Matzke  described the rigor that went into constructing this diagram:

These researchers, and the previous researchers that they are building upon, identified 580 individual, variable characters, each of which has to be identified, defined, divided up into discrete character states, and encoded. This laborious process had to be repeated for (in this) case 173 fossil [or living] taxa… A lot of fossils are missing a lot of characters – typical and expected in paleontological analyses – but it is still a lot of work. After this, one runs a cladistic or other phylogenetic analysis… and calculates support statistics. …Almost any biological dataset typically has extremely statistically significant tree signal, and this is true whether or not it agrees precisely with other analyses, and whether or not all relationships of interest to the researcher are precisely resolved with high support.

Fish-To-Tetrapods: A Missing Link Is Found?

400 million years ago, the seas were teeming with various types of fish, most of which lived entirely underwater, and had fairly flimsy fins. By about 365 million years ago, fossil evidence exists for primitive tetrapods, such as Acanthostega and Ichthyostega. These creatures had four limbs which could support some weight and assist in moving around in shallow water, although they probably could not readily walk around on dry land. How did fish evolve into tetrapods? Besides the development of limbs, the bones of the head had to change from two parts to one, and the solid head/body connection in a fish was replaced by a flexible neck.

The leading candidates among fishes for tetrapod ancestry are the “lobe-finned” fishes. The bottom fins of these fishes are arranged in pairs and supported by internal bones, which would facilitate the evolution of these fins into legs. Also, the lobe-finned fishes of the Devonian period were already able to breathe air, when necessary, via “spiracles” in their skulls.

Various lobe-finned fish fossils have long been known, where the skeletal structures of the fins include primitive versions of the bones found in the limbs of later, terrestrial animals.  Examples include Eusthenopteron and Panderichthys, whose remains have been dated to about 380 million years ago.  While these fossils hint at evolutionary pathways toward tetrapods, these are still very much like regular fishes. It would be gratifying to discover a fossil species with more pronounced tetrapod-like features.

In 1999 a team of scientists led by Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago set out to find such a transitional fossil. Since the main fish-tetrapod fossil gap was in the 363-380 million year range, they decided to focus on an exposed formation of rocks in the Canadian Arctic which were of that age, and which had been deposited in a shallow freshwater environment. The team kept digging year after year. In 2004 they were rewarded with the discovery of remains of a fish they named Tiktaalik. While Tiktaalik is firmly on the fish side of the fish-tetrapod divide, it has an impressive suite of tetrapod-like features.

This was a dramatic vindication of evolutionary theory. A key test of any scientific theory is the ability to make novel predictions which can be experimentally verified. Operating within the conceptual framework of mainstream geology (an old earth) and biology (common ancestry), Shubin’s team picked one location to excavate, and found the type of fossil (previously unknown) that they had predicted. There is nothing in YE creationism or Intelligent Design which could produce such a precise and novel prediction.

According to Wikipedia, the mixture of both fish and tetrapod characteristics found in Tiktaalik include:

 Fish               - Fish gills, fish scales, fish fins

“Fishapod”        - Half-fish, half-tetrapod limb bones and joints, including a functional wrist    joint and radiating, fish-like fins instead of toes

- Half-fish, half-tetrapod ear region

 Tetrapod        - Tetrapod rib bones and lungs

- Tetrapod mobile neck with separate pectoral girdle

The figure below from Ahlberg and Clack  shows the differences in skeletal and other features among the fossils species discussed above. There is a gradual loss of the gill cover (blue), and a reshaping of the skull.

Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)

Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)

The following figure by Kevin Padian, reproduced by Anastasia Thanukos, shows more details in the fins and limbs of these transitional species. A progression is seen from 8 to 7 to 6 digits, as intermediates between fish fins and the 5 digits found in living tetrapods. No particular timescale is given for the ghost lineages that predate the fossil appearance of these species.

Source: K.  Padian, Integra Comp Biol 2008; 48: 175-88, reproduced in A. Thanukos, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2: 84-89.

Source: K. Padian, Integra Comp Biol 2008; 48: 175-88, reproduced in A. Thanukos, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2: 84-89.

The discovery of Tiktaalik does merit accolade, but there is a danger of overstating its role. Some science popularizers have referred to this fish as our “ancestor.” It bears repeating that all the species shown here are dead-end side-branches of evolutionary lineage. As indicated by a careful examination of the figures above, none of them is directly ancestral to living tetrapods. What they do show is that a variety of fishes with some tetrapod characteristics, and a number of early tetrapods with some fish-like features, were present in the geologic strata that predate the appearance of the fossils of modern-type tetrapods. This amount of transition fossil evidence is about what we would expect here, if tetrapods actually did evolve from lobe-finned fishes. This era was over 350 million years ago, which is a lot of time for continents to rise, fall, split, and crash, all of which could destroy early fossils or make them inaccessible.

To bring the tetrapod story up to date, in 2010 Niedźwiedzki et al. published on the discovery of what appear to be tracks of an unknown tetrapod in rocks in Poland that are dated to 397 million years ago.  This is about 30 million years before the earliest known primitive tetrapod fossils such as Acanthostega and Ichthyostega. Possible tetrapod tracks, dated to 385 million years ago, have also been found on Valentia Island, off the coast of Ireland. Debate remains over whether these trackways were made by genuine tetrapods. If they were, that pushes the transition from fish to tetrapods some 30 million years earlier than previously believed. YE creationists have claimed that this is a problem for evolution, but it is not. It merely extends the ranges of Tiktaalik, Acanthostega, etc. somewhat further than originally thought.

Below is shown a phylogram from Niedźwiedzki et al.  of selected lobe-finned fishes and stem tetrapods, which incorporates these trackway findings. Here Pan= Panderichthys,  Tik=Tiktaalik,  Aca= Acanthostega, Ich= Ichthyosteg, and  Tul = Tulerpeton.

Source:   G. Niedźwiedzki et al., Nature 463, 43-48 (2010)

Source: G. Niedźwiedzki et al., Nature 463, 43-48 (2010)

Reptiles to Mammals

The reptile-to-mammal evolution has an interesting twist. There are striking differences between the jaw and ear bone structures of reptiles and of mammals. Reptiles have at least four bones in the lower jaw , while mammals have only one;  but reptiles have only one middle ear bone, while mammals have three (the hammer, anvil, and stapes). Studies of developing embryos indicated that two of the bones which, in a reptile get incorporated into a reptilian jaw, in a mammal become part of the middle ear.

Source: Douglas Theobald, “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution”,; Figure based on K. V. Kardong, Vertebrates: Comparative Anatomy, Function, Evolution.  New York: McGraw Hill (2002).

Source: Douglas Theobald, “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution”,; Figure based on K. V. Kardong, Vertebrates: Comparative Anatomy, Function, Evolution. New York: McGraw Hill (2002).

This had scientists in the early twentieth century wondering what kind of evolutionary intermediate could possibly have maintained adequate hearing and jaw function as these two bones gradually moved from the jaw (in reptiles) to the ear (in mammals). The full story is found in the magisterial “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” article by Douglas Theobald at TalkOrigins.

In the course of the twentieth century a range of fossils were found which documented many stages of the migration of these bones. At one point, there were actually two independent pairs of jaw joints. This was an essential feature that allowed jaw movement while these bones were in intermediate positions.

On the right is one diagram from the TalkOrigins article which illustrates this transition. It shows a side view of three idealized skulls of mammals, therapsids (mammal-like reptiles), and pelycosaurs (early reptiles). The migration of the bones coded purple, yellow, and blue are clear. The location of the jaw joints is shown as black dots. For the therapsid intermediate form, there are two jointed bone interfaces for the jaw.

Do Transitional Fossils Prove Evolution?

We have shown for a number of cases, that the fossil record is consistent with evolution, given the four factors (sparse fossil preservation, speciation in small populations, etc.) discussed above. The little changes from one species to the next are not accessible, and direct lineal ancestors are typically not found. However, for a typical major transition a range of “cousin” fossils are found which manifest key intermediate characteristics, in the appropriate time range for that transition. For most objective observers, this constitutes strong supporting evidence for evolution.  It certainly shows that the fossil record is not a “problem” for evolution.

What do YE creationists make of these facts?  To grind through all the claims and debunking here would take a whole book, so I will just note a few issues. One YE creationist response is to put forth some “fact” which seems to disprove the evolutionary case. Since the horse evolution is so clearly evidenced in the fossils, this seems to call for extra effort by the anti-evolutionists. One such “fact” which has appeared on dozens of YE creationist sites is that the fossils of Hyracotherium (“Eohippus”) are not from an ancient horse ancestor, but are merely the bones of a form of the modern “hyrax” (which lives in the Middle East and looks like a rabbit). This claim is debunked on TalkOrigins here.

Another such “fact” promulgated by YE creationists is that fossils of Hyracotherium and modern Equus have been discovered in the same rock layer. This also is false.

Over the course of the last 150 years of fossil collection and classification, it is inevitable that some mistakes would be made by scientists along the way. For instance, a hundred years ago the figures in most science textbooks showed a single, clean, uniform lineage from little four-toed Hyracotherium to big, one-toed Equus.  As noted above, the full picture is more complex than that, with various branching, dead-end lineages, some of which co-existed with each other. Various scientists since 1950 have acknowledged that the earlier simplistic picture of horse evolution was not accurate. YE creationists have taken these statements out of context to make it seem like even “evolutionists” admit that the fossil record does not support evolution.

Deceitfully quoting real scientists is common among YE creationist writers. This “quote mining” enterprise takes statements out of context, and (often making generous use of ellipses) carefully carves out just the words that give the desired effect. There is a large section ( the “Quote Mine Project”) of the TalkOrigins site dedicated to exposing these misleading quotations.

That said, let us circle back to such a quote that we noted at the beginning of this essay: “”The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.”

This quote from Darwin’s Origin of Species is presented endlessly on YE creationist web sites as an admission by Darwin that the facts were against his theory. What the creationists typically fail to include is the very next sentence, in which Darwin tells why this is NOT a problem for his theory: “The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.”  This is exactly correct, as we have explained above.

In the next paragraph after these words, Darwin displays a subtle grasp of the nature of likely fossil lineages:

In the first place, it should always be borne in mind what sort of intermediate forms must, on the theory, have formerly existed. I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself forms DIRECTLY intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor. [emphasis in the original]

This “common but unknown progenitor” corresponds to the lineal common ancestors which, as noted above, are unlikely to be found as fossils.

These quotes of Darwin occur in the tenth chapter of The Origin of Species, which is appropriately titled “On The Imperfection Of The Geological Record” .  Darwin concluded this chapter:   “I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced. On this view the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished or even disappear.”   Right again.

Darwin acknowledged that there were not millions of finely-graded intermediate fossils lying everywhere, yet still a reasonable number of significant transitional fossils had been found. He wrote in Chapter 11 of the 6th edition:

As the accumulation of each formation has often been interrupted, and as long blank intervals have intervened between successive formations, we ought not to expect to find, as I attempted to show in the last chapter, in any one or in any two formations, all the intermediate varieties between the species which appeared at the commencement and close of these periods: but we ought to find after intervals, very long as measured by years, but only moderately long as measured geologically, closely allied forms, or, as they have been called by some authors, representative species; and these assuredly we do find. We find, in short, such evidence of the slow and scarcely sensible mutations of specific forms, as we have the right to expect.

… I have attempted to show that the geological record is extremely imperfect; … that only certain classes of organic beings have been largely preserved in a fossil state; … that, owing to subsidence being almost necessary for the accumulation of deposits rich in fossil species of many kinds, and thick enough to outlast future degradation, great intervals of time must have elapsed between most of our successive formations; …that varieties have at first been local; and lastly, although each species must have passed through numerous transitional stages, it is probable that the periods, during which each underwent modification, though many and long as measured by years, have been short in comparison with the periods during which each remained in an unchanged condition. These causes, taken conjointly, will to a large extent explain whythough we do find many linkswe do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all extinct and existing forms by the finest graduated steps. [emphases added]

These citations show that sound reasons for the relative paucity of intermediate fossils (i.e. the inherent sparseness of the fossil record, the likelihood that evolutionary changes mainly take place in small local populations, branching lineages, etc.) were clearly stated in The Origin of Species. My article here has merely fleshed out what Darwin wrote more than 150 years ago. There is therefore no excuse for opponents of evolution who assert or imply that Darwin was acknowledging an actual weakness in his theory.

Varieties of Skepticism

The fossil record is clearly compatible with evolution. Indeed, the same can be said for all physical observations, in geology, biology, chemistry, and genetics. The hard reality, though, is that a dedicated YE creationist will not be convinced of macroevolution by any physical evidence. No matter how many fossil intermediates he is presented with, he will always find a way to wiggle out.  He can say, “Yes, there is a sequence of fossils with gradually varying characteristics, but you can’t prove that one evolved into the next; you are just assuming evolutionary relationships among them.” Or, “How do you know that God did not miraculously create these species in this sequence?”

I had some critical things to say about YE creationist Ken Ham’s presentations during his recent debate with Bill Nye.  However, I appreciated Ham’s honesty about the basis of his convictions. When he was asked the question, “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”, he responded: “Well, the answer to that question is ‘I’m a Christian.’ And as a Christian, I can’t prove it to you but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his word and shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The bible is the word of God. I admit that that’s where I start from… And so as far as the word of God is concerned, no, no one’s ever gonna convince me that the word of God is not true.”  This exemplifies the attitude which renders YE creationists largely impervious to the evidence.

Most Intelligent Design (ID) advocates are motivated by the same sort of conservative Christian faith as YE creationists, but they are not as forthright about their methodology. They claim to be “detecting design”, driven solely by the scientific evidence, but in practice Intelligent Design reduces to the classic god-of-the-gaps.  Many Christians find it heartening to learn of various gaps in our current understanding of evolutionary history, as though that somehow demonstrates the necessity of God. Unfortunately, ID consistently overstates the magnitude of these knowledge gaps, relying on deceptive half-truths (e.g. with chimp and gorilla genomes, “junk” DNA, and the Cambrian explosion) to make its case.        

ID proponents generally accept the mainstream geological dating of the fossils, which puts them in a quandary: if all those intermediate horse fossils between 5 and 55 million years ago did not result from evolution, how did they get there?  If all those reptile-to-mammal transitional fossils back in the Mesozoic do not represent natural evolutionary development, how did they get there?  It seems that the Intelligent Agent must have poofed all these species into existence (in a sequence that would later deceive us humans into thinking they had evolved), or else the Agent reached in and physically tinkered with their DNA to make it mutate in unnatural ways. YE creationists may be OK with poofing, but ID advocates are stuck. Since they try to maintain a scientific façade, (ironically) they cannot credit their Intelligent Agent with any actual, specific agency.

Most authors at major YE creationist organizations have some depth exposure to the data of geology and genetics and paleontology. They must actively engage in deception in order to portray these data as compatible with a young earth and incompatible with naturalistic evolution (e.g. see here on Grand Canyon geology).

However, the bulk of the 46% (per recent Gallup poll) of Americans who believe that humans were specially created by God a few thousand years ago are simply going along with their traditional beliefs, reinforced by what they hear from the YE creationist mouthpieces.  Furthermore, the evidence for evolution is not as obvious to laymen as they would like to see.  We scientists can point to lots of circumstantial evidence, where evolution fits the observed patterns. However, we cannot show a new phylum evolving before their eyes, or even in the course of a 50-year experiment. Nature just does not provide that satisfying level of demonstration of the ability of unguided evolution to cause huge but viable changes in living things in a short time-frame.

What the layman sees with his eyes are animals reproducing “after their kind”, with only minor changes. Scientists can, of course, offer valid reasons for this state of affairs (“Evolution happens to be a really slow process”; “The fossil record is inherently sparse”), but these can come across as lame excuses to someone who is predisposed to doubt evolution.

For perspective, my wife (who is well-educated, but not as a scientist) has commented that, to her anyway, the evidence for evolution seems similar to the nature of the evidence for the Christian faith. By that she meant that there are sound documentary grounds (e.g. some of the letters of Paul) to believe that within a decade of the purported resurrection of Jesus there were people going around risking their lives proclaiming that they had encountered the risen Christ; we have a universe that came into existence at a certain point in time; millions of people today testify to a life-enhancing experience of God; there are videos of extraordinary healings in answer to prayers in the name of Jesus (some of which I have described here and here). These factors are all consistent with the gospel, but do not constitute mathematical proof. (I won’t delve into why God may have set things up such that people must come to Him freely, as opposed to being bludgeoned into faith by frequent miracles or apparitions).

I have read of atheists who sweep aside all the circumstantial evidence that exists in favor of God, and demand to see some miracle like an amputated limb growing back before their eyes. This is unreasonable, at least in relation to the Christian God, since Christ clearly stated that on-demand signs will not be given to unbelievers (Matthew 12:38-39).  It is thus similar to the demand of YE creationists to see some spectacular demonstration of accelerated macroevolution.  (I suspect that, if these demands were actually met, both the hardcore atheist and the hardcore YE creationist would find some way to discount their experience so as to maintain their previous positions.) My point here is not to justify YE intransigence, but to note that all of us to some degree fit the facts in around our existing opinions.

Addressing the Underlying Issues 

A key error of YE creationists is to hold that their interpretation of the Bible is the only valid one. They claim that the only faithful reading of the Genesis creation account is a wooden literalism, and that the six “days” of creation in Genesis 1 were necessarily 24-hour solar days. That is simply not true.

The 24-hour day interpretation was represented among the early church fathers, but it was not the only one. Cyprian (c. 250 A.D.) saw these days as 1000-year ages, Origen (c. 225 A.D.) saw them as figurative, and Augustine sagaciously averred that nobody knows for sure: “What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive” (City of God 11:6, c. 419 A.D.).

A broad swath of contemporary evangelical Christians (especially in the U.K.), as well as many Orthodox believers and a billion Roman Catholics, hold that a recent, six 24-hour-day creation is not the only faithful Christian view.  Evangelist Billy Graham has no problem with God using evolution to accomplish His creative purposes for mankind:

I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

For YE creationists to let go of their false beliefs on the age of the earth, they must either (a) renounce their Christian faith altogether, or (b) find a way to reconcile core Christian beliefs (e.g. those asserted in the Nicene Creed) with the facts of science.  Many young adults do reject their faith upon exposure to the evidence of geology and biology, after having been told by parents and pastors (and Ken Ham) that evolution and an old earth are flatly incompatible with the Bible.

Option (b) is, of course, less disruptive. If one is willing to acknowledge that the Bible regularly makes use of metaphor, story-telling, and other figurative language (e.g. Jesus’ parables and Nathan’s confrontation with David), that opens up various options for viewing the Genesis story as meaningful without being literal history.  I have outlined here the understanding of Scripture that I have come to, along with links to related resources.

While most YE creationists are driven by their peculiar Bible literalism, the key motivation for the Intelligent Design folks at the Design Institute is more cultural or philosophical. In their foundational “Wedge” document  they spell out their dismay over “materialism”, and blame Darwin (among others) for a range of modern problems, up to and including the abuses of communism:

…thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art…. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. …Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. … In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions….Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

There may be some valid points here, but attacking evolution is not going to fix the problem (“materialism”) that the Design Institute is worried about. Here is why: Every human alive today was conceived and grown by strictly materialistic processes. We can watch sperms fertilize eggs and see the egg cells divide; we can in large measure track the biochemical processes behind all this. The growth of neuronal networks in the fetal brain unfolds without supernatural invention. Every mental event corresponds to some array of physical events in the brain, which in turn are subject to the usual laws of physics. These are the key facts that anti-materialists have to deal with.

Whether or not scientists are able to explain every twist and turn of evolution does not touch these currently-observed facts. Thus, ID’s campaign of sowing doubt about evolution cannot possibly accomplish its avowed goal of unseating materialistic philosophies.

If ID supporters grasped this fundamental point, that could cause the ID movement to refocus in a constructive way. That would be a welcome development, since currently the Intelligent Design movement squanders financial and intellectual resources that might be employed in engaging the real issues with materialism. 


Various posts are listed on the right hand side of the main window. Longer essays or letters (e.g. STAN 3) dealing mainly with science/faith issues are accessed by clicking the tabs at the top of the page. Skim the README page to get an overview of what is in these letters. My personal journey of faith-and-science is told here.

Posted in Evolution, Fossils, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Great Debate of 2014: Creationist Ken Ham versus Bill Nye the Science Guy

On the evening of Tuesday, February 4  Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham debated Bill Nye at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, on the topic “Is creation a viable model of origins?”   This event was watched by at least 3 million viewers on line.

So, how did it go?  This NPR link gives a text summary (in reversed chronological order) of the phases of the debate, and a link to the complete 2:45 YouTube video of the debate.

Secular commentators seemed to come away pleased with Nye’s performance. For instance, Jennifer Welsh collected tweets which summarized Nye’s best lines, in a short article titled “Bill Nye Dominated His Debate Against Creationist Ken Ham.”

Rebecca Savastio provided a short synopsis of the debate which is a useful window into the affair, though her write-up is clearly biased against Ham. She concluded, “In the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate, the answer to those asking who won is: it’s clear Nye emerged the winner because he relied on a large amount of fossil and scientific evidence. Ham relied almost exclusively on the Bible and provided no fossil or scientific evidence whatsoever.”

I respectfully disagree with Welsh and Savastio as to whether Nye’s performance should be celebrated by those who care about science education. Here is why:   Although Nye did get in some good points (e.g.  Antarctic ice cores showing 680,000 summer/winter bands), he never really cornered Ham with contradictions that were glaring enough to make conservative Christian listeners start to question YE creationism.

These Christians are the crucial audience for this debate. The nonbelievers who tuned in are exceedingly unlikely to change their minds. The secularists have their own religious prejudices, plus the physical evidence on their side, so Ham had no leverage with them.  The Christians, however, are caught between what the scientists are showing them and what they hear from devout teachers and pastors, so they can go either way. Ham skillfully played to the Bible-believing Christians, basing his thinking on the inspired Word of God.

Some Things I Liked About the Debate

(1) Both men were polite and pleasant. The moderator did a good job keeping things brisk and fair.

(2) Nye was able to point out several evidences for an old earth, including the ice cores, tree rings over 6000 years old, thick layers of limestone, and the sequence of animal fossils in rock layers.  Ham’s response here (“We didn’t observe those tree rings growing, we didn’t see those ice layers forming in the Antarctic) was manifestly lame.  Nye noted that mainstream science is able to make significant predictions that can be tested. For instance, science predicted that animals with transitional features between fish and amphibians should have existed in a particular geological era. When scientists went digging in a fossil bed of that era to look for such transitional fossils, they found them.

(3) Ham’s spirituality seemed deep, sincere, and a clear source of moral grounding. He made his prior commitment to the Bible transparently clear, without ranting. He and his followers display moral courage in standing against the prevailing cultural views on origins. Nye’s motives seemed likewise honorable: though he has no use for religion himself, he was not trying to attack it. Rather, he is concerned about the large number of American youths who are being taught false views about science and physical reality, which can rob these youths of fully enjoying modern discoveries and which can inhibit their contributions to technical progress.

Some Things I Did Not Like About the Debate

(1) Nye’s biggest play to the audience, stated repeatedly, was that belief in YE creationism will hinder the progress in invention and innovation that the nation needs in order to remain competitive. Nye is simply wrong here.     As I know from personal experience , it is quite possible to hold false beliefs about what happened six thousand or six billion years ago and still be a productive engineer or scientist. (We men excel at compartmentalization). There are a few fields like geology, astronomy, biology and some aspects of drug discovery where willful ignorance of evolution and deep time would be a significant hindrance, but even there the occasional YE creationist can make valuable contributions. Ham masterfully showed short video clips of several world-class inventors/engineers/scientists who stated on tape that they hold to YE creationism. Ham also noted that pioneering scientists of centuries past were also creationists. This thoroughly undercut Nye’s claim of the perilous consequences of teaching YE creationism.

(2) Nye let Ham get away with claiming that there are “hundreds” of methods for dating the earth, and that these methods mainly disagree among themselves and many of them support a young earth. Letting Ham’s claim just hang out there unchallenged gave support to the YE creationist position.

The lists of evidences proffered for a young earth are well-known, and have been refuted in detail. I have refuted many of these bogus YE claims here.  More systematic debunkings are here, here, and here.

If Nye had been truly prepared for this debate, he would have combed through these lists ahead of time and maybe even had copies of these lists open on his computer. In order to defuse whatever YE evidence that Ham would present, Nye should have said in an early statement something like this:

Young earth creationists put forth several lines of evidence that are supposed to support a young earth and militate against an old earth.  These evidences include items like the decay of the earth’s magnetic field, rate of recession of the moon from the earth, amount of helium in the atmosphere, amount of salts in the ocean, and occasional discrepancies in radioactive dating.  Where these claims are amenable to outside investigation, they turn out to be false. In a few of these cases, such as the depth of dust on the moon, and human and dinosaur footprints allegedly found together, the young earth creationists have admitted their mistakes. In most other cases, they doggedly hang on, despite being shown that their claims are based on partial truths or outright falsehoods.

Radioactive dating is one of the clearest means to establish that the earth is billions of years old. This naturally makes it a target for young earth creationist denial. A number of attempts have been made by young earth workers using radioactive dating to produce results which refute the old earth understanding.  When competent scientists examine this work, they find it to be sloppy to the point of dishonesty. For instance, it is well-known that radioactive dating will likely give unreliable results when applied to a rock which has been re-heated after its initial solidification. Nevertheless, young earth researcher Andrew Snelling collected a set of metamorphosed (partially re-melted) whole rock samples from the base of the Grand Canyon, and sent them off for radioactive dating by different methods. The different dating methods, as expected for this circumstance, gave discordant results. Snelling claimed that this demonstrated deep problems with radioactive dating in general, when the reality was that he had deliberately chosen samples that guaranteed invalid results.

This is not to say that scientists know everything about everything. The reason scientists still have jobs is that most discoveries which answer current questions also uncover new questions.  Mainstream science explains, with predictive power, the vast majority of astronomical and geological evidence. It is unreasonable to ignore all that, and demand that science must be able to completely explain every single phenomenon in order to be considered trustworthy.

This sort of statement would have provided a global answer to Ham’s claims about many methods of dating which support a young earth, and also set Nye up to deal with whatever specific young earth claim made by Ham in the course of the debate.  Had Nye diligently studied the popular young earth arguments and why they fail, he could have provided suitable responses to the two specific radioactive dating instances cited by Ham.

For instance, Ham referred to creationist Steve Austin taking some recently-congealed lava from Mt St Helens, separating out some of its minerals, and sending the minerals and whole rock off for potassium-argon dating. The dates on these samples came back scattered between 0.34 million and 2.8 million years old.  Ham’s claim here seems damaging to the old earth cause, and Nye was unequipped to respond.

What Ham stated is true, but it is only a partial truth. The rest of the story (as stated in the various young-earth-debunking sites listed above) is that the radioactive decay of potassium to argon is a very slow process, so it was simply not possible for the laboratory to obtain valid dates for recent rocks by this method. It would be like trying to measure the width of a human hair using a yardstick. This was well-known to everyone, including Austin. The dating laboratory specifically stated on its website at the time that “We cannot analyze samples expected to be younger than 2 M.Y. [Million Years]“.  Thus, Austin sent his samples to be analyzed by a technique known to be inadequate for the age range of these samples. As with Snelling’s Grand Canyon rocks, the intent was to obtain scattered, erroneous results, not to properly date the rocks. This is typical of the deception which pervades young earth science.  (More on deception vs. truth here, regarding the features of the Grand Canyon).

Ham also cited a case where fossilized wood was supposedly encased in hardened basalt, down in a coal mine in Australia. When the samples were given to Andrew Snelling for radioactive dating, the wood was dated at about 45,000 years old by carbon dating, while the basalt was dated at some 45 million years by potassium-argon.  The proper response to this claim would be that 45,000 years is about the upper limit for carbon dating, where it is very sensitive to contamination, and there is no guarantee that nature or the coal miners or subsequent handling did not introduce trace modern carbon into these samples. Also, the actual discovery place for the wood samples is not accessible for independent examination, so this whole episode remains anecdotal. It is thus inconsequential compared to the vast numbers of radioactive datings that do agree with each other (e.g. see here). Again, Nye was unable to respond properly here.

And when Ham flashed this slide:

Ham Debate 100s Dating Methods

to substantiate his assertion that there are many dating methods that militate for a young earth, the proper response would be, “Please, Ken, we both know that this laundry list has been around since the 80’s, and was addressed and refuted at TalkOrigins back in the 90’s.” But Nye was clueless.

Not only was Nye unequipped to answer Ham’s examples, he did not present his own affirmative examples as effectively as he could have. For instance, he spent a lot of time expressing his personal incredulity that Noah’s family could have built a giant wooden boat, but his opinion here would carry little weight with Christian listeners. He briefly flashed the slide showing some rock layers in the Grand Canyon, muttering something about “one type of sediment [ i.e. the Temple Butte formation here ] has intruded on another type.”

Grand Canyon_Nye Debate_2

This all came and went too fast to have much impact on the audience. This was a wasted opportunity, because rock formations like this utterly disprove YE creationism. These “unconformities” are the key reason that European geologists concluded by 1830, long before Darwin or radioactive dating, that the earth must be far older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow. In the YE creationist scheme, all the horizontal layers that make up the upper 2/3 of the Grand Canyon must have been deposited during a one-year Flood.  If Nye had spent two minutes on this photo, explaining and listing the sequence of events that MUST have occurred to make this formation (multiple rounds of deposition, lithification, uplift, erosion of hundreds of feet of solid rock, etc., which could not possibly have all been packed into one year), the debate would have been over. A year ago I wrote an article ( “Unconformities” Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old)  on this very subject, using a photo of the same formation that Nye showed, so I was pained to see him fumble this.

(3) Ham asserted that the only proper interpretation of the Bible was that God created the world in six 24-hour days, 6000 years ago.  Nye, to his credit, noted that there are billions of religious folks in the world who do not hold that view of creation. But that was as far as Nye could take it, since he is admittedly ignorant of theology.

Ham’s assertion is refuted by a reading of the early church fathers: some held that the creation Days where the common 24-hour variety, others said that the Days represented thousand-year periods, Origen saw them as merely allegorical, and Augustine wisely observed that it wasn’t clear exactly what sort of days they were.

Turning to modern times, Reasons to Believe lists about 40 well-known conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Schofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield.  Billy Graham, the foremost representative of evangelical Christianity of recent decades, has no problem with evolution:

I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

The Bible is full of allegory and metaphor.  Jesus communicated mainly by telling stories that never really happened, and he directed his hearers away from blaming others (think: Adam) for their own sinful choices.  When the prophet Nathan wanted to get King David’s attention, Nathan told the king about a rich man who seized a poor man’s lamb. Nathan presented that story as though it actually happened, though in fact it didn’t. It is unbiblical to insist that every story told in the Bible is literally true. II Timothy 3:15-17 clearly spells out the purpose of the Scripture, and it has nothing to do with teaching geology or biology.  I have dealt with the treatment of Adam and the Fall in the New Testament  here.

Ham’s approach (that a literal six-day recent creation is the only faithful Christian viewpoint) dooms a generation of young Christians to disillusionment when they eventually find out that the earth is old, and that our genomes show the
unmistakable imprints of evolution.  There are also the thousands of science-literate folks who are repelled from consideration of the gospel by its association with Young Earth foolishness. Augustine (c. 408 A.D.) put it well:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn…. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? 

Professional versus Amateur

Ham has been writing and lecturing on his subject for decades. He has smooth answers for the common objections that folks have against YE creationism, and well-honed jabs against evolution. He thoroughly integrated his case with his reverence for the Bible and the God of the Bible, linking the YE creationist viewpoint with traditional morality and value for life. This is appealing to his evangelical Christian audience.

Nye was emphatically warned by his secular colleagues against entering into this debate. It is well-known that a typical debate format gives YE creationists the opportunity to spout untruths faster than a scientist can possibly correct them (the “Gish Gallup”).

Nye made some effort to prepare for the debate, but it was not nearly enough. He rambled at times, was incorrect on his biggest play to his audience (as explained above), and failed to exploit the errors in Ham’s claims.  Although I hold the same general views as he does on physical science, he had me cringing as he repeatedly failed to give the sharp, clear young-earth-refuting responses which were available.  It is hard to imagine that listening to this debate would give a single YE creationist the motivation to question the YE position.

Nye’s hubris gave the YE creationists all they could have hoped for: publicity for their position and website, a financial windfall, exposure for their personable spokesman, and surviving an encounter with a famous opponent essentially unscathed. I’ll bet attendance at the Creation Museum soars.  From the standpoint of truth in both science and theology, this debate started as a bad idea, and ended as a squandered opportunity.

Eugenie Scott pointed out that debating YE creationists is fine, as long as the format is shaped to focus in detail on a few key controversial, predetermined topics such as transitional fossil forms, radiometric dating, and the second law of thermodynamics. “Instead of the “Gish Gallop” format of most debates where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate, the debaters have limited topics and limited timeWith this format, the audience is given digestible bits of information and is not overwhelmed by a barrage of impossible-to- answer nonsense. The evolutionist at least has a fighting chance to teach something about science and evolution.”

I would be good with that, with the added proviso that the science advocate be well-schooled in creationism issues and preferably have a background in geology. For the purpose of helping Christians swallow the notion of an old earth, it would be better to have a fellow Christian like Ken Miller, rather than a (nice) pagan like Bill Nye, speaking for the side of science literacy.

Posted in Age of Earth, Bible Interpretation | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Adventures in High-Yield Investing

On a different topic than the usual science-and-faith…Over the New Year’s holiday I reflected on how ten years from now I will likely be retired and living largely off the returns of whatever I have been able to invest by then. So I decided to do some reading on investing.

The data I have seen indicates that if you don’t need to draw down your investment for fifteen years or more, you are usually best off to put it all in stock funds and just leave it alone. Studies show a long term average return (including reinvested dividends) in the stock market of 9.6%, or 6.2% after adjusting for the effects of inflation.

However, for later phases of life, financial advisors typically counsel investors to allocate some portion of their portfolio to fixed-income securities that generate cash to spend.  Also, after a 30% runup in stocks last year, the market may well muddle along flatter in 2014, making other investments more attractive this year.

For some time now, short-term money market funds have yielded essentially zero. Currently a one-year CD yields a little over 1%, a five-year CD about 2%, and a ten-year U.S Treasury note yields just under 3%. These are viewed as essentially risk-free yields.  These rates are near historic lows, so presumably they will be higher in coming year. Nevertheless, I’d like to get higher yields than the minimum. Therefore, I have been reading up to understand what types of higher-yielding investments exist out there. Naturally, with higher yields come higher risks. But I found a couple of investments that seem to have attractive fundamentals, and have made some small purchases to put some skin in the game.

Yahoo Finance  is a good starting place to check on basic data for a security, and gives links to recent articles. A lot of people spend a lot of time studying investments, and many of them share their learning on the internet. For instance, Bruce Saunders has presented a compact discussion of a number of income-generating investments, with great charts and links.

I have found the Seeking Alpha site to be very educational. Contributors are always posting short articles sharing information and touting some stock or fund; what really adds value is the comments on these articles. If the article’s thesis is bad, usually some reader will point it out.

Here I will note a resource I found particularly helpful for identifying investments that yield high income. A private investor named Tim McPartland, who has some finance background, has studied lots of high-yielding securities and put together a preferred list of them. His full list is here.

I have taken his master table, and trimmed away many rows and columns, and copied the remainder below. I removed several whole categories (e.g. Exchange Traded Debt and Master Limited Partnerships) to make it more digestible.

High Yield Table

The first category here is Preferred Stocks. Without going into all the details, a preferred stock should pay out a fixed dollar amount of dividend each year. Unlike with common stock, the dividends on preferreds do not rise from year to year. Thus, they usually perform much like long-term bonds.  If interest rates rise (which is likely to happen in 2014), the value of preferred stocks will drop. This may not matter to you if you plan to just hold them forever and collect their dividends.

However, the Dividend Hunter site pointed out several preferreds which have a special characteristic: the issuing company has committed to buy these shares back at fixed price, at a fixed date in the future. That removes much of the interest rate-related fluctuations in market price.

For instance, Oxford Lane Capital has issued two series of preferreds, one of which will be redeemed in 2023 (and is listed in the table above), and one in 2017. I checked the historical price of the 2017 issue and found it has traded in a range of about 26.0-26.4 for the last year. I bought some of this last week and now have a locked-in 8% yield for the next three years.  There is a low probability/high impact risk here of having Oxford Lane Capital’s earnings tank, making it unable to pay the dividend.

Instead of you personally buying an apartment complex and renting out, you can buy shares in an enterprise doing just that. A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) can buy and rent out properties, and is required to distribute nearly all the taxable income back to shareholders. A REIT (in general) does not pay tax at the corporate level, which is a huge advantage.

I looked at some of the REITs listed above, and decided to buy some shares of Realty Income (symbol “O”).  At 5.9% its yield was not the highest, but it is a very well established company and is likely to continue raising the dividend. Its share price has flopped around similar to a long bond.

The common stocks listed include some familiar names like AT&T, Proctor and Gamble, and the utility Southern Company. I got intrigued by the 9.25% dividend on Seadrill, read up on the company (they contract off-shore oil-drilling platforms), and decided to buy some shares. It’s riskier than some of the other choices in the list above, but offers a chance at capital growth in addition to plain income.

Closed end funds (CEFs) can trade higher or lower than the net asset value (NAV) of their holdings. The pros advise waiting to buy until the discount to NAV is deeper than whatever is the historic average for that fund, since the discount will likely later revert back to its long-term average. Four CEFs are listed above, which have various investing strategies.

These funds can employ leverage, e.g. Nuveen Preferred and Income (JPI) borrows low-interest short-term money to buy higher-yielding longer-term preferred stocks.  This gives a higher return for the fund, but also magnifies its value swings up and down.  JPI currently trades at about a 6% discount to its NAV, probably because investors are anticipating that the NAV will fall if interest rates continue to rise. For a non-leveraged, non-CEF play on high yield bonds, a highly-regarded high yield (“junk ”) bond fund is AdvisorShares Peritus High Yield ETF (HYLD). It yields around 7%, and has relatively low interest rate volatility since the average duration (time left till maturity) of its bond holdings is only about 3 years.

The Blackrock Global Opportunities (BOE) closed end fund listed above buys stocks, then sells (“writes”) call options on them. This is a pretty reliable way to generate 8-9% returns, though you have to ride out drops in share prices if the stock market dips. The fund values here do seem to come back after a correction.  I bought some ETV which is a buy-write fund like BOE but with better price stability, which yields around 9% and makes its distributions in tax-advantaged ways.

Instead of trying to choose among the hundreds of CEF’s out there, you could buy shares in an ETF which has selected a basket of CEF’s. You pay an extra 0.5%  or so in expenses for these ETF’s, but get expert picks and diversification. YieldShares High Income ETF   (YYY) and PowerShares CEF Income Composite Portfolio (PCEF) each yield about 8%.  YYY’s holdings are tilted towards stock CEF’s, including call-write funds, while PCEF holds more bonds than stocks.

One common high yield security is missing from this list. The REITs listed above are equity REITs, which buy and rent out physical properties. A different animal is the mortgage REIT, which borrows fistfuls of low-interest, short-term money to buy higher-interest mortgage loans. Annaly Capital Management (NLY) is a classic mREIT. It typically yields well over 10%, but with rising interest rates and other factors, its stock price is down to about half of what it was 18 months ago. Ouch. Most commentators agree that the worst is over for NLY and similar pure mREITs, but they may drop another 10% in 2014 if interest rates spike.

Two Harbors (TWO) is a hybrid mREIT, which has diversified and taken special steps to protect against the effects of rising interest rates. I am not competent to run the financials myself, but essentially every article I read agreed that TWO is pretty safe (unless we get another 2008-style meltdown), so I bought some. It currently yields 10.7%.

Another class of income securities that does not appear in this list is adjustable rate loans, which banks have made to companies.  Because the interest rates on these loans tend to ratchet up if general interest rates rise, their value does not gyrate as much as for bonds. (There is some complexity here involving the “LIBOR floor” which I won’t go into).  Also, secured bank loans have a higher priority on the assets of a bankrupt company than do bonds, so they are less at risk if a company fails.  Nevertheless, we can expect the prices here to dip during an economic slowdown as fears rise over loan repayments, leading to equity-like risks for these funds.

I am trying to decide whether to dip into this space. A leading exchange traded fund (ETF) in this area is PowerShares Senior Loan Portfolio (BKLN), currently yielding around 4.5%. As an ETF, its shares tend to track along with its NAV.  Invesco Senior Income Common (VVR) is a leveraged bank loan fund which yields about 6.5%. The higher yield is attractive here, but because this is a closed end fund as opposed to an ETF, the market share price can go considerably higher or lower than the NAV. This makes VVR about twice as volatile as BKLN. The Fidelity Floating Rate High Income (FFRHX) fund, currently yielding 3%, is renowned for low volatility. This is a regular Fidelity fund, which has a minimum purchase amount of $2500 and a redemption fee of 1% if held less than 60 days. I think it can be purchased through a stockbroker account. Ridgeworth Seix Floating Rate High Income Fund  (SAMBX) has volatility similar to FFRHX, with a slightly junkier portfolio and a yield of about 4%.

A reality check on this sort of high-yield investing is offered by Seeking Alpha contributor Steven Bavaria. He put together a portfolio of mainly closed-end funds for his IRA, listed and described here.  Most of these funds borrow cheap short-term money and buy higher-yielding bonds and preferreds. For 2013, his portfolio yielded 9% in cash dividends and distributions. So this is doable. Because of his long-term perspective, he does not worry if the share prices of his funds fluctuate.

Other useful sites for checking on various securities include QuantumMorningstar, CEFChannel (for closed-end funds), and PreferredStockChannel for preferreds.

Technical trading note: Some CEF’s and preferreds are thinly traded issues (maybe just a couple trades per day), which means the spread between bid (the price at which someone is currently offering to buy) and ask (the price that someone on the stock exchange is offering to sell for) can be large. Thus, it is recommended to place limit orders, rather than market orders, to buy or sell these securities at reasonable prices.

On taxes (U.S. federal; details omitted): Most dividends, and capital gains on assets held more than a year, are taxed at a special low rate of 15%, or even 0% for the lowest income brackets. Short-term capital gains, interest, and most dividends from REITs are taxed as ordinary income, at tax rates which can be over 30%.  The interest from most municipal bonds is not taxed, so for someone in a 28% tax bracket, a 5% yield on a muni is like 6.9% regular interest.

For my description of the overall workings of the modern monetary system, see here.  Happy investing…

[Boilerplate Disclaimer: This page should not be taken as advice to buy or sell anything].

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Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2

In Part 1, I described the trajectory of my thinking over the past four decades as an evangelical Christian on the scientific aspects of creation. Here I describe the personal and theological aspects of this journey. 

Hard Questions and Cold Shoulders

As I started to get closure on the scientific issues regarding the formation of the earth and its biosphere, this raised some disturbing questions.  If all Scripture is inspired by God, and God cannot lie or make a mistake, then it would seem that all Scripture must be inerrant. But then, how could the Genesis creation story, which is affirmed in the New Testament, be factually inaccurate? Was this a slippery slope, leading to the denial of the historicity of the Resurrection?

Besides my own inner turmoil, I had to contend with reactions of my family and friends. There were few people with whom I could usefully explore these issues. My non-Christian friends could not relate to my concerns over the Bible. Nearly all my Christian friends were so committed to biblical inerrancy that I could not readily talk with them about it. The few times I brought it up, the conversation got so chilly so fast that, for the sake of ongoing relationship, I had to quickly drop the subject. With some family members, as well, their response to my concerns was a reflexive affirmation of scriptural inerrancy which did not invite further dialogue. My undergraduate college roommate (the one I mentioned in Part 1, whom I had persuaded of young earth creationism), who has been a very dear friend for decades, now regards me as a sort of apostate. My wife and I get along quite well in general, but when the topic of Genesis came up, a defensive anger would rise up in her. (Her story is told here).

Perhaps my strongest supporter at that time was my mother. She was in her eighties, but still sharp. She studied geology in college in the 1940’s, long before she came to an evangelical faith, so she was under no illusion about the age of the earth. I have since found a friend at my church who reads and thinks broadly, with whom I can explore topics like evolution.

My wife eventually became reconciled to the fact that the Genesis depiction of creation is not scientifically accurate, after I was able to demonstrate to her satisfaction that this did not impugn the overall authority of the Bible.  The key points that helped her are discussed below.  I have shared with her my resolution of the matter, which is that we can still visualize and learn from the Genesis story, treating it as a parable rather than a literal chronicle.

My wife has a heart for all Bible-believing parents who struggle as she did with raising and teaching Bible to children in a way that produces life giving faith. She was impressed by an article in Christianity Today which addresses the key issues of Who created men and women in the image of God rather than getting blindsided by issues of how God did this. Carolyn Arends writes:

It demands a careful delineation between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is)…But there’s no point in hiding these difficulties from our children. The world—and our understanding of God’s ways within it—has always been full of mystery and challenge. Our task is to raise up believers willing to affirm the authority of the Bible in all its fascinating and culturally situated complexity. We need kids who are unafraid to ask the sorts of tough and exciting theological, philosophical, and scientific questions you can only ask when you know that, however this world came to be, God did it.

I live in the northeast United States, where fundamentalism is poorly-regarded on the whole. Most of the people who attend my church are college-educated professionals. Nevertheless, they are nearly all hostile towards evolution.  Since my wife and I assist in the ministry to youth, this has led to some difficulties.

Two years ago, the youth pastor started to show in Sunday school a series of videos from the “Truth Project“, which was produced by Focus on the Family. The intent of the Truth Project is to define and defend a “biblical worldview” to help Christians stand against the prevailing secular consensus.  The Truth Project makes a number of worthwhile points. Unfortunately, two of the biggest planks in its platform are that evolution is factually untrue, and it is necessarily anti-religious and thus is to blame for various social evils and unbelief. The evidence proffered for the untruth of evolution consisted mainly of obsolete and out of context quotes from scientists regarding transitional species in the fossil record. (see here and here  for critiques of the Truth Project). After I had seen a couple of these episodes shown in the class, I urged the youth pastor to drop this video series, since it was scientifically inaccurate and was setting kids up to lose their faith if they later realized evolution is true. To his credit, while he did not agree with me on evolution, he did stop showing these videos and moved on to something else.

Knowing the subject to be controversial, I generally avoided bringing up the subject of creation with the church youth.  However, there were times when I was leading small group discussions when a boy would confidently pass along some scornful remark about, say, the Big Bang origin of the universe, and the other young heads would nod in agreement. Presumably they had heard these anti-science comments at home. Since they were airing falsehoods, I felt obliged to let them know that there were differing  opinions on this subject among bible believing Christians, and that I found all the physical evidence to show that the Big Bang and evolution were the means through which God had chosen to form today’s world.

A few months ago the pastor of children’s ministries sat my wife and me down and told us that there had been complaints from some parents of these children; if we wanted to continue serving, we had to agree to not discuss the subject of evolution with the youth.  Under the circumstances, we did consent. By then I was accustomed to taking flak from my brethren on this subject, and I could sympathize with the pastors’ desire to avoid controversy over a non-core issue.

Ways to Deal with the Genesis Creation Story

A number of approaches are used to relate the Genesis creation account to the physical evidence. I cycled through several of them in my beliefs over the past forty years.

In mainstream Young Earth (YE) creationism, Genesis 1 is taken at face value. The universe was created in six, presumably 24-hour days, about 4000 B.C. as calculated from Biblical genealogies.  Most sedimentary rock layers were laid down in Noah’s Flood about 2500 B.C.  This event was a world-wide catastrophe in which all land was submerged, and all humans perished except for the eight members of Noah’s family on the Ark. This viewpoint is still widely-believed in the evangelical Christian community in the U.S. and elsewhere. YE creationism lost its appeal for me once I realized it was not true to the physical facts. A scriptural problem I see with YE creationism is that obvious evidence of a 6,000 year old creation, with rock layers from Noah’s Flood, would constitute a widely-accessible supernatural “sign”. This would contradict Matt. 16:4, where Jesus stated that, as a general rule, no sign would be granted unbelievers except the “sign of Jonah”, i.e. Jesus’ resurrection after several days in the “belly of the earth”. (Although the reports of the Resurrection are relatively well-attested historically, it still requires faith to embrace those reports.)

There are several varieties of “Old Earth” creationism, where it is accepted that the earth is billions of years old. These approaches may or may not accept evolution. The “Gap Theory” was popularized a century ago in the Scofield annotated Bible. Here, the Earth was created eons ago (Gen 1:1), but became “without form and void” (Gen 1:2) 6000 years ago, in a catastrophe associated with Satan’s activity. The fossils we find are mainly from this pre-Adamite world. The remainder of Genesis 1 describes God’s reconstruction of a habitable world in six days. Superficially, this allows for an old earth, but doesn’t fare much better than YE creationism in matching the physical evidence.

The Day-Age or Progressive approach has been highly developed by Hugh Ross as part of his Reasons To Believe  ministry. Here, each of the six “days” in Genesis 1 represents an age lasting millions or billions of years, in consecutive, chronological order. Noah’s Flood is seen as a local affair, not involving all mankind; this explains why we find no evidence of a recent global deluge. Ross rejects macro-evolution.

I bought into this point of view for over a decade. However, after I found that the physical evidence actually confirms macro-evolution, I re-evaluated the Day-Age approach. As noted earlier in Part 1, this form of Old Earth creationism cannot account satisfactorily for the nature of the fossil record.   If life did not develop over the ages by evolution according to ordinary physical laws, then the Day-Age proponent is forced to say that God supernaturally created species after species after species, millions of them over hundreds of millions of years, to populate the rock layers in an order that mimics evolutionary expectations. That is just not credible.

Furthermore, indefensible interpretations must be forced on the Genesis text in order to conform the Days to known physical chronology. For instance, in Genesis the sun and moon and stars were not made until Day 4, which in the Day-Age approach is millions of years after the earth’s atmosphere and dry land formed. That is not physically realistic. Day-Age proponents attempt to finesse this problem by proposing that for the first three Days the earth’s atmosphere was nearly opaque with thick clouds. During Day 4 the atmosphere cleared, such that for the first time the sun and moon became distinctly visible from the earth’s surface. However, that is not what the text says. The Hebrew words describing the events of Day 4 clearly mean that the sun and moon were “made” then, in the sense of formed or created, not that they “became visible.”

Also, the Day-Age attempt to minimize Noah’s Flood as a local incident does not comport with the Genesis account of the Flood and the subsequent re-population of the whole world, or at least the whole Middle East, from Noah’s three sons.  Old Earth Ministries, a fine source of geological facts that counter YE creationism,  presents a more flexible version of the Day-Age theory, and is agnostic about macro-evolution.

In the “Proclamation Days” approach to Genesis 1, the six Days are days (possibly before creation began) on which God proclaimed the next phase of creative activity; the actual outworkings may take place at some unspecified, possibly overlapping time after each proclamation. In the “Visionary Days” view, the Days of Genesis 1 are six days during which God showed visions of the creation to Moses. The ordering of these visions may or may not correspond to the chronology of the actual creation events. According to the “Literary Framework” approach (fleshed out here), the Days of Genesis 1 are organized thematically, not chronologically. Days 1-3 define realms formed by separations (day/night;  sky/sea;  dry land), and Days 4-6 describe the rulers or occupants (sun/moon;  birds/fish;  land animals) of these respective realms. There was no intention in Genesis of presenting a physically accurate order of creation events. This is the viewpoint that seems most realistic to me. All of these approaches can smooth away the differences between the order of events in Genesis 1 and physical reality, but leave open the interpretation of the Adam and Eve creation/fall story. However, folks who try this hard to protect Genesis 1 from the accusation of historical inaccuracy usually have difficulty in letting go of a special creation of Adam and Eve, since that is presented in such detail in Genesis 2.

Some interpreters accept the ancient, evolutionary origins of mankind, but still want to link Genesis 2-3 to some real historical events. Maybe Genesis 2-3 are referring to some real couple, perhaps in the early Neolithic Middle East. These were the first humans to whom God revealed Himself explicitly, as God later sovereignly revealed Himself to Abraham and made covenant with him. Abraham’s choices affected both his genealogical descendants and the rest of humanity, so the same sort of covenantal transaction might have transpired between the primal Selected Couple and God. This concept has some theological merit, but cannot readily be squared with the graphic descriptions of Eve being specially created from a bone excised from Adam’s body in Genesis 2, or the indication in Genesis 3 that prior to the Fall weeds did not compete with food crops.

The “Intelligent Design” position promulgated by the Design Institute falls into the Old Earth/anti-evolution category. Stephen Meyer and his colleagues generally accept an ancient earth, but typically do not proclaim that clearly and up-front (perhaps to avoid alienating their YE creationist allies), and do not propose any specific reconciliation between science and the Days of Genesis 1.

A common perspective among my evangelical friends is the “Appearance of Age.” The notion here is that the world was created only a few thousand years ago, but it was created in a mature or developed form, so it appears to be ancient. Thus, a star a million light-years away was created along with the starlight occupying the line of sight from that star to earth, so that we can see that star now instead of waiting a million years for its light to reach us. Adam and Eve were created looking as if they had been born twenty years earlier, with navels. The rock layers look as if they formed over the course of hundreds of millions of years.

What my friends fail to appreciate is that observations of rocks and stars show not just old-looking objects, but a whole detailed, interlocking history of events dating back billions of years. The fossil record shows a succession of species over the past half-billion years, as if they developed via evolution.  The human genome contains many chunks of DNA that look as if they were injected by viruses millions of years in the past; chimpanzees share some of these same retrovirus sequences with us, making it look as if humans and chimps had a common ancestor. A supernovae was observed in 1987 , from a star 186,000 light-years away. This looks as if a real star really exploded 186,000 years ago, with an expanding ring of gases now visible.

Also, the deception here would have to extend well past the initial “week” of creation. God would also have had to erase all traces of a world-engulfing Flood which killed all but eight humans and most terrestrial species and scoured the crust of the earth. This global cover-up would entail reworking all the surface rock layers to erase traces of the Flood; rejiggering the human genome to make it look as if the human race did not go through such a severe population bottleneck; transporting a bunch of marsupial mammals to Australia to make it look as if they evolved in place on that isolated continent; creating levels of apparently human artifacts, complete with sequential carbon dates, to make it look as if civilizations continued uninterrupted right through the Flood epoch (c. 2500 B.C.) in China, India, Egypt, and Mesopotamia; and thousands of other acts of duplicity.

This “apparent age” viewpoint seems to solve the any conflict between the Bible and science, since it allows for a literal interpretation of Genesis while not disputing the physical evidence that points to an old Earth. It appeals to Christians who want to minimize contention over the subject of origins, and is less harmful than some other creation views. However, it makes God the author of deception on such a cosmic scale that we are left not knowing what is real. Maybe the whole universe, including our underlined Bibles, and us with our scars and our memories of things that never really happened, was all created just last night – with the apparent age viewpoint, you cannot tell.

Christians who accept the findings of modern science, including evolution, typically view the Genesis creation story as being allegorical or pedagogical, rather than historical. This is technically a form of Old Earth creationism, but is usually broken out separately as “Evolutionary Creationism” or “Theistic Evolution.”  This is the main viewpoint within Roman Catholicism, and an accepted one in Eastern Orthodoxy.

However, one cannot just say, “The Genesis creation story is allegorical,” and walk away as if that has resolved all the difficulties. The New Testament writers refer to Adam and Noah as real individuals.  Furthermore, in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15, Paul links Christ’s redemptive work to the figure of a sinless, then fallen Adam. If humans as a group developed gradually from earlier primates, that seems to undercut Paul’s teaching on how the first man’s first sin set up the need for, and method of, redemption.

Thus, it is entirely understandable that most evangelical Christians have deep reservations over releasing the historicity of the Genesis creation story. I found a perspective that addressed my concerns in this area, but it took me a while to get there.

Reckoning with Ancient Science

By the time I engaged these issues (2008-2010), a number of recent, relevant books by evangelical Christians were available. These included Darrel Falk’s Coming to Peace with Science (2004), Gordon Glover’s Beyond the Firmament (2007), and Denis Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creationism (2008). Falk’s book has a particularly readable and thorough explanation of the evidence for evolution.  All of these books argue that we must recognize that the ancient Israelites had existing notions of the physical universe, and that God accommodated His revelation to the science of that day. Paul Seely’s Inerrant Wisdom (1987) explores in depth this divine accommodation, and exposes the fallacies involved in literal inerrancy.

People in the Middle East in the time of Moses “knew” that the earth was immovably fastened to its foundations, the sky overhead was a solid dome, and animals reproduced strictly after their kind (no evolution). God could have corrected this ancient science, but chose not to. This was not a mistake or “error.” Rather, God wisely and graciously accommodated His spiritual revelation to the existing physical understanding, in order to facilitate communication of vital spiritual and relational concepts. It would have been pointless and confusing if the Israelites had been given a creation account in terms of today’s science (Big Bang, supernovae, plate tectonics, dinosaurs, etc.).

I realized that I, like many Bible-believing Christians, had an unbiblical view of the scope of authority of the Bible.  All Scripture is inspired by God – but for what purpose?  The Scripture is inerrant, but in respect to what, exactly?  Paul spells it out very clearly in II Tim. 3:15-17 [NKJV]:

…from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.        All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Likewise, Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44). Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is all theology and morals. There is nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology. This is a biblical view of the Bible’s intent, which differs from some evangelical statements about inerrancy which mistakenly over-extend the Bible’s sphere of authority into general science or history.

The Genesis account provided a means to powerfully communicate key concepts about God, humans, and the world. While employing the categories of ancient Near Eastern “science”, it completely overturned the pagan theology.  In contrast to the quarrelling, needy gods of the pagans, the Genesis story depicts the Hebrew God as sovereign, calmly and freely choosing to create the universe, and delighting in his work.

In pagan thought, the celestial lights represented gods which held power over men. The Israelites themselves had a hard time shaking off worship of the sun and moon (Job 31:26-28). Genesis 1 thoroughly subverts this idolatry: the sun, moon and stars are totally demythologized, being mere created objects. Ironically, instead of humans serving them, the celestial luminaries are (in Genesis) to serve humans by providing light and marking off the days and seasons.

The closest parallel to the Genesis story is the Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish. There humans are created out of the blood of a slain god in order to be slaves, working so that the gods could be relieved of their labors and be at ease.  In Genesis, mankind has a far more dignified status. Adam is created from ordinary matter and then infused with the breath of life from God, being “in the image of God.” God does not need Adam’s labor or sacrifices. Instead, God works for the benefit of mankind, graciously giving them authority over the whole earth (Gen. 1), and making a fruitful garden and a suitable mate for Adam (Gen. 2). God does “rest” at the end of the Genesis creation epic, but this is because He is satisfied with what He has sovereignly spoken into being, not because some flunky is fanning Him with a palm leaf.

Thus, the pre-scientific Genesis creation account effectively accomplished what II Tim 3:15-17 says is the purpose of the Scriptures. It vividly conveyed a high doctrine of God’s goodness and power, and His authority to give moral direction to humankind. It was thus “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Retaining the ancient physical concepts (instead of trying to correct them) was essential in accomplishing this divine purpose for the people to whom this revelation was given.

It is unreasonable to demand that a creation story that spoke to a pre-scientific people in their familiar terms must also be amenable to modern readers with 21st century physics. To mediate between ancient and modern worldviews is a regular part of the task of translation. We do it with the views of women and slaves, covenants and kings, shepherds and sheep, and Hebrew and Greek idioms. It is thus faithful and appropriate for us to glean the essential teachings about God and nature from Genesis, without getting trapped into defending its physical details.

The Master Storyteller

Hollywood screenwriter Brian Godawa notes:

In the Bible the dominant means through which God communicates his truth is visually dramatic stories—not systematic theology, or doctrinal catechism or rational argument. A survey of the Scriptures reveals that roughly 30 percent of the Bible is expressed through rational propositional truth and laws, while 70 percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative. Sure, God uses words, rationality and propositions to communicate his message. But modern evangelicalism has not always recognized how important visual imagery, drama and storytelling are to God.

To really “get” the Bible requires an appreciation of the role of story in communicating worldview. Regarding Genesis, Falk writes,“There is no other way that God could tell the story of his love and desire for the church than to show us the imagery of his reaching into Adam’s side, removing it, and creating Eve. It points forward to the new creation, for this is exactly what he did to his own Son when he reached down into the Son’s bleeding body and at the expense of that body created the church….the bride of Christ.”  To provide covering for Adam and Eve’s nakedness, God Himself gives them animal skins. Presumably the former occupants of those skins were killed in the process, illustrating the principle of sacrifice to cover the transgressions of others.  The prediction (Gen 3:15) that the “seed of the woman” would crush the serpent’s head, yet be wounded in the heel, may have foreshadowed the day when a man born of woman would defeat the ancient tempter at the price of having spikes driven through his wrists and his heels.  The imagery and story-line here communicate more pungently than could a set of dry doctrinal statements.

Jesus’ primary mode of communication was to tell stories that never really happened:  “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:33-34, NIV).  To argue over whether there really was a Good Samaritan is to completely miss the point of the parable. The same goes for arguing over the historicity of Genesis.

I found that telling stories that didn’t really happen was a well-established device for the Israelites, especially when the occasion involves calling someone to account for their sin. For instance, in I Kings 20 a prophet wants to rebuke King Ahab for sparing an enemy king. The prophet does so by disguising himself with a headband and telling a made-up story about having let a captive escape. After he got the king to agree that that sort of irresponsibility deserved judgment, the prophet whipped off his headband and revealed that this story was really about the king’s actions. But note, the story itself, like the Genesis creation narrative, was not literally true.

When the prophet Nathan confronted David over killing Uriah and taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, Nathan started off with telling a story about a rich man robbing a poor man of a lamb. Nathan presented it as a true story, even though it was not. After David himself pronounced judgment on such behavior, Nathan rounded on him and said “You are the rich man in this story!”  It would have been inappropriate for David to brand Nathan as a false prophet for telling a story that was not literally true. Likewise, it is inappropriate to criticize Genesis for being factually inaccurate or to criticize evolutionary creationists for pointing out this inaccuracy.

For most of Jesus’ parables, the hearer is expected to figure out that the story is not really about some son who ran away and fed pigs or about some unfortunate traveler who got mugged on the way to Jericho. The hearer needs to enter into the story and see that he or she is represented by one or more of the characters in it; that was the point of the parable, not whether the story itself ever actually happened.

So it is with the Eden narrative.  After first reading it as a story about someone else, and clucking over the arrogance, faithlessness and blame-shifting exhibited by the First Couple (and maybe even blaming them for our failings), the alert reader should realize that “I am that man and that woman – I have done the same things, and I, too, am in need of divine covering.” We are all Adam (“Adam” in Hebrew means “man” or “mankind”), choosing to doubt God’s goodness and to blame others for our mistakes.

I have dealt with the theological implications of the Fall here:  Adam, the Fall, and Evolution.  That essay also deals with the “slippery slope” argument, by noting the fundamental differences between the Genesis story and the more or less eyewitness accounts of the New Testament events.

I won’t rehash all those arguments here. The bottom line is that a literal Adam and a literal Fall are not essential to the gospel. Paul develops the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. He moves from, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (1:18-21) to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) quite apart from Adam.  In all the gospel proclamations to both Jews and Gentiles recorded in the Book of Acts, there is not a single reference to Adam’s sin. The Fall is never mentioned in the sayings of Jesus.  On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards a consciousness of their own shortcomings and their personal need for mercy.

Another concern I had was whether evolution threatens our status as bearers of God’s image. I was offended at the thought that we came from apes, but I realized the biological reality is even more humiliating. You and I come, not from monkeys, but from single-celled eggs. We, today, are all made from chemicals, starting from egg and sperm. This is true of all humans now living, and their parents and grandparents. Therefore, how God physically made the first human bodies (whether from dust or from other primates) is completely irrelevant to the status of us today – – our humanity or value or image of God.

How a conscious, responsible soul becomes associated with the localized net of neurons in our skull remains mysterious. It cannot be the case that God simply assigns a soul to an egg as soon as it is fertilized:  identical twins result from the division of an egg after it is fertilized, yet presumably they each have their own soul. It seems wise to remain humbly non-dogmatic on this matter.

What Was I Thinking?

How was I persuaded as an undergraduate that the earth is only 6000 years old? Although I was a liberal arts major at that point, I had a decent grasp of general science and a techie bent. YE creationism was not a position I came to on my own steam. Rather, I was persuaded by the efforts of young earth advocates, who wage an energetic campaign for the hearts and minds of conservative Christians. Several YE creationist organizations (e.g. Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, Creation Science Ministries, etc.)  are still going strong, publishing magazines (often with some engaging animal photo on the cover), a “technical” journal, and daily features on their websites.

By insisting that a young earth perspective is the only faithful reading of the Bible, they set up in me a strong desire to believe in it. Also, they wove a comforting, inspiring meta-narrative around the details of a literal six-day special creation of a beautiful paradise which was later ruined by man’s sin. That was much warmer and fuzzier than the evolutionary picture of hundreds of millions of years of cold-blooded animals eating each other.

For physical evidence, the YE creationists presented a number of observations which supposedly could not be accounted for within mainstream science. These included fossilized trees poking through many feet of rock layers, the amount of salts in the ocean, the decay rate of the Earth’s magnetic field, the rate of recession of the moon, rock layers apparently out of order and discrepant radioactive dates of rocks. Today there are many books and websites that debunk, with precise detail, all these young earth science claims. You can google the subject and in minutes find these refutations conveniently tabulated on sites like TalkOrigins, the anti-pseudo-science RationalWiki  , and the Christian Old Earth Ministries. That was not the case in the 1970s. It was much more cumbersome back then to locate specialized information.

By the 1990s I had cooled towards the YE viewpoint, as a result of more science exposure and encounters in seminary that opened my mind to the plausibility of non-literal Bible interpretations. Nevertheless, it was bothersome that I did not have clear explanations for those purported young earth examples. In one of Hugh Ross’s books, he listed and debunked a set of leading evidences for a young earth. Reading that helped to settle my mind. It was particularly convincing coming from a fellow Christian, who offered an alternative Bible-honoring system of interpretation.

That still left me in the anti-evolution camp. By the mid-late 1990s, literature from Intelligent Design (ID) movement was available. Most of the ID proponents (e.g. Meyer, Behe, and Dembski) had legitimate academic credentials, seemed reasonable and sincere, and were telling me what I wanted to hear. The ID folks (centered in the Discovery Institute in Seattle) publish an ongoing series of books and on-line articles, packaged to appeal to educated Christians such as me. They motivate the faithful by claiming that belief in evolution is not only intellectually unfounded, but leads to various social and moral ills.

By failing to appreciate the historic doctrine of God’s providence in natural affairs, ID proponents actually buy into the atheist misconception that development of the earth and its life-forms according to natural laws excludes God or morality. This is why ID is driven to find gaps in evolutionary history that cannot be explained by natural processes, and can only be filled by some Intelligent Agent (who must be, for all practical purposes, eternal and omnipotent in order to be intervening with complex genomes at key points over geologic timescales).

The evidence for an old earth is obvious to anyone with an open mind. For instance, one good look at an angular unconformity in the rocks such as this , followed by a few moments of reflection on the physical steps it would take to produce such a formation, should be enough to dispel any notion of a one-year worldwide Flood being responsible for the sedimentary rock layers. Geologists (most of them Christians) had figured this out by the 1830′s, long before Darwin or radioactive dating. Ditto for contemplation of buried coral reefs or thousand-foot-thick limestone layers .

The evidence for evolution is just as pervasive, but it is more subtle. We don’t generally see radically new species, or radically new/improved genes, developing within the time-scale of human observations, and we typically don’t find a complete series of all the actual ancestral transitional forms in the fossil record. For a non-scientist audience, it may take many minutes of education on the fundamentals before an evolutionary explanation of a given issue can be developed. Because these explanations often involve chains of logic rather than a simple picture, they may come across as mealy-mouthed excuses rather than straightforward answers. Also, molecular biology is a much younger science than geology, tackling an arguably more complex subject, so there is much that is still unresolved. Thus, it is easy for ID proponents to seize on some recent journal article regarding some cutting-edge, controversial topic and claim, “See, even the mainstream scientists admit that evolutionary science is in hopeless disarray.” To unravel some of these controversies takes more than a 30-second sound bite.

For these reasons, the falsehood of the anti-evolution arguments was not apparent to me until relatively recently.  When I did decide (as described in Part 1) to dig down to the truth here, it took me hundreds of hours to gain some elementary knowledge of mutations and population genetics and the fossil record, then trace the back-and-forth arguments on particular issues.   In the end, I found that the Intelligent Design arguments against evolution are of the same general type as those for a young earth: they are all based on presenting partial truths. The success of these arguments depends on emphasizing a selected set of facts (or non-facts), while keeping the rest of the facts out of view. This is easy to do, since the ID audience consists mainly of non-scientists who are eager for grounds to support their skepticism towards evolution.

Every now and then, I get intrigued by some new ID argument against evolution, and work through the pros and cons to my satisfaction. This has led to some further blog posts here, such as Cambrian Contention: Disputing “Darwin’s Doubt” , Junk DNA, the ENCODE Project, and Intelligent Design: Facts, Hype, and Spin [debunking the ID claim that ENCODE results have overturned the notion of lots of "junk" in the human genome], and Gorilla, Orangutan, Chimp and Human Genomes: Population Genetics and Intelligent Design .

I’ll recap that last post here, as an example of how ID can be so effective at misleading its audience (including me, for many years). The sequence of chemical base pairs which make up human DNA was largely identified by 2003 as part of the Human Genome Project. Since then, the genomes of other animals have been sequenced. An analysis of the gorilla genome was published in Science by Scally, et al. in 2012. These researchers noted that about 70% of gorilla genes more closely resemble chimpanzees than humans, while 30% more closely resemble the forms of those genes in humans.

Using this study as a basis, Casey Luskin of the Design Institute published an article in Evolution News and Views titled “30% of the Gorilla Genome Contradicts the Supposed Evolutionary Phylogeny of Humans and Apes”. This article leads off “A whopping 30% of the gorilla genome — amounting to hundreds of millions of base pairs of gorilla DNA — contradicts the standard supposed evolutionary phylogeny of great apes and humans.”

He further states, “The standard evolutionary phylogeny of primates holds that humans and chimps are more closely related to one-another than to other great apes like gorillas. In practice, all that really means is that when we sequence human, chimp, and gorilla genes, human and chimp genes have a DNA sequence that is more similar to one-another’s genes than to the gorilla’s genes. But huge portions of the gorilla genome contradict that nice, neat tidy phylogeny.” In his article Luskin uses verbiage calculated to give the impression that something is deeply wrong with standard evolutionary theory: “contradicts”; “conflicts”; “discrepancies”; “fails to provide a consistent picture of common ancestry.”

The partial truth is that 30% of gorilla genes more closely resemble the forms of those genes in humans than in chimpanzees. The rest of the truth (as I explain in my post ) is that this 70/30 split is exactly the sort of ratio predicted by well-established genetics for speciations like gorilla/chimp/human, and thus confirms evolution rather than challenging it. However, Luskin’s readers are presented only with the partial truth (the 30% similarity to humans), which deceives them into thinking that this demonstrates some sort of failure for mainstream evolutionary theory. This is standard operating procedure for ID literature. Panda’s Thumb and the Christian site Biologos are reliable resources for correcting the inaccuracies in ID publications.

I continue to stay engaged in this area out of general interest, and because dispelling public misconceptions about science is a responsible contribution to society. I am also concerned about the effect on the church and its youth of inaccurate teachings about origins. Here is a telling lament from a missionary in the former Soviet Union:

The worst aspect of YECS [Young Earth Creation Science] teaching is that it creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church. .. How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture? How much have we dishonored our Lord by slandering scientists and their reputation? How much have we sinned against Christian brothers holding another opinion by naming them “dangerous” and “compromisers”? …Pastors need to rethink these issues as outlined above and teach a responsible Christian viewpoint with all humility…Christian radio and TV stations need to invite qualified speakers to wrestle with these issues in a responsible way…Finally, missionaries and evangelists need to get materials expressing other viewpoints translated to oppose the virtual monopoly YECS teaching has overseas. As I write this paper, I see YECS literature becoming more and more widely distributed in the growing churches in my corner of the former Soviet Union. We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already.

Perspective on Dealing with Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design

YE creationism and Intelligent Design engender strong passions. To some fundamentalists, only YE creationism can save the church and the nation from the abyss of amoral materialism. For instance, in his book Already Gone (critically reviewed here ) Ken Ham blames the lack of firm YE creationist teaching for the loss of teens from the church. To some secularists, YE creationism is holding the nation back on scientific progress.  I have read comments online by atheists suggesting that the government should prevent parents from brainwashing their children with YE creationism. Both extremes are, well, extreme. It’s really not so bad.

To my fellow science-literate citizens, I can offer this solace: the very compartmentalization that allows YE creationists to hold nonsensical views on origins despite all the contrary evidence also allows them to function as responsible, tax-paying, technology-using citizens despite holding those nonsensical views on origins. One can be productive in practically any position, and almost all branches of science and engineering, without believing that humans evolved from other primates. For instance, I was no less effective in chemical research a decade ago when I was skeptical about evolution than I am now. Also, the courts have consistently ruled against teaching of intelligent design in public schools, so the ongoing efforts to introduce ID into the schools should not survive legal challenge.

To my Christian brethren who are worried about the impact of evolution on their children I offer this observation: Evolution has only as much power to destroy faith as you give it. It is tempting to pressure your Bible-believing child to reject evolution by telling him, “If evolution is true, the Bible is false.” However, you will then bear some responsibility if he (taking you at your word) concludes the Bible is false when he eventually discovers that evolution is true. There are poignant stories on the web from mothers reliving the day their son came home and told them that he had found evolution to be true, and therefore he saw no place for God. That sort of tragedy is totally unnecessary.

Although I was skeptical of evolution during the years I was raising my children, I did not make that an article of faith and did not pit the Bible against modern science. I exposed my children to a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books by C.S. Lewis. Lewis does not argue against the fact of evolution, but against the myths of evolution; he arms believers against the propaganda from both fundamentalists and atheists which portrays evolution as a threat to Christianity. Today my adult children are vibrant believers who can deal fearlessly with any academic subject. I hope the discussion above on Bible interpretation can help you back away from a literalism which is actually an unfaithful reading of Genesis.

Although I have bashed young earth and ID publications for being deceitful, in fairness we should note that there is a lot of other communication that is just as one-sided. Practically all advertisements, newspaper editorials, and campaign speeches, and whole magazines and books on the left and on the right, present only the facts that support their narrow point of view.

Most of these ardent advocates (whether creationists, new atheists, or political conservatives/liberals) actually believe that what they are writing is a realistic representation of matters. We humans have a strong tendency towards confirmation bias, i.e. we attend more to facts and opinions which confirm what we already believe. This is not the same as conscious dishonesty. The YE creationist who engages in internet debates, and who is maddeningly impervious to the factors that refute his position, is genuinely unable to admit into his consciousness those contrary facts (in their full implications) which are thrown at him by his opponents.  This is a well-known psychological syndrome with YE creationists, known as “Morton’s demon”, which is discussed here.  This sounds like a bizarre and horrible characteristic – - until you go to someone that you clash with and ask them sincerely, “Do I have any blind spots?”

While there will always be holdouts, not everyone who currently holds to YE creationism or Intelligent Design is unreachable. There are plenty of people like me who sat under young earth teaching in their youth, but later got free. (Quick thanks to the folks who labor at Panda’s Thumb and TalkOrigins and similar sites for helping me along the way.)

My suggestion to secular biology educators is to find appropriate ways to ease the religious fears of your students who are resistant towards evolution. That will likely be more effective than trying to beat them down with yet more examples of congruent phylogenies or shared retroviruses. I hope this post may be a resource to that end. Another, more formal resource is this Biologos article, “Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation?” , which includes a number of good links to further testimonies and articles.

Posted in Age of Earth, Bible Interpretation, Evolution, Intelligent Design | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 1

As I read across the spectrum of writings on creation and evolution, I often find a certain level of demonization of one’s opponents. Some Young Earth (YE) creationists ascribe to evolutionists an agenda of tearing down all that is good. Charles Darwin is portrayed as a cunning atheist, who devised his theory of evolution as a means to attack Christianity (see Was Darwin an Atheist? for my treatment of this subject). On the other side, the effectiveness of pro-evolution responses to YE creationists is blunted by bashing them as idiots and failing to address their underlying concerns.  Since I have dwelt on both sides of this great divide, I hope by telling my own story here to provide some perspective on why YE creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, and evolutionists do what they do.

(A) Early Faith

My spiritual awakening began with a desire for wisdom, as distinct from knowledge. Acquiring plain knowledge was never a challenge for me. I was reading at an adult level by age 8, and was typically a top student in my classes. By age 12 I had a good grasp of applied science and was building electronic circuits and was making my own black gunpowder to fill my rockets.

My parents took me to church and Sunday school as a child, but I don’t recall much penetration from those teachings. I became basically an agnostic materialist, leavened by a bit of pagan feeling of being one with nature.  This started to change in my early teens. I got a sense that there was more to life than a narrow materialistic worldview could accommodate, and started thinking outside of the reductionistic box. I became interested in the bigger questions, and looked for wisdom on how to live life well.

This was a time when my family started attending an evangelical church. I began to read the Bible, and found a lot of profound wisdom in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. That pulled me into giving the Bible as a whole some serious consideration.  When I read the Gospels I was deeply impressed with Jesus’s wholeness and authority. At home one night, after hearing in a vacation Bible camp of God’s offer of forgiveness and fellowship through Jesus, I said “Yes” to him.

I can’t claim that I rigorously investigated many other religions or worldviews before deciding for Christ. It just seemed right at the time, and I have found no reason since to regret that decision. I later did some due diligence to check the historicity of Christianity.  Since the earliest extant physical manuscripts of the gospels date back only to about 200 A.D., that opens the question of whether people just made up miracle tales about Jesus many years after he was gone.   It turns out that Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth is well-attested as having been written around 56 A.D. (e.g., when Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians about 96 A.D., he refers to that letter as still being in their possession).  In I Cor. 15:3-8 Paul reminded the Corinthians that when he had first come to their city some years earlier, he had preached to them the same gospel about the atoning death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ that he had learned years before from the original apostles. If we work the numbers, we find that within 5-10 years of the Jesus-events of 30 A.D., Paul had met a diverse group of men who were all putting their lives on the line to testify that they had met with the risen Christ. While this will not convince a determined skeptic, it shows that the Resurrection was not some story devised decades later.

Another encouragement to my early faith came in the form of some dramatic answers to prayer. I will not elaborate on my own experiences, but on this blog I have posted links (here, here, and here) to reports or videos of similar episodes, where there appear to be rapid, significant healings.

In my first few years of being a Christian, I did not encounter any controversy over the Genesis creation story. Knowing what I did about science when I read Genesis 1, it seemed clear that it was not literally correct, but somehow that did not bother me.

I remember being impressed with how close the story came to what we now know of the epochs of the earth’s creation, despite being written millennia before modern science. In Genesis 1, the creation of the universe starts with a blast of light. Well, that sounded a lot like the Big Bang which started with mainly photons and particles that were too hot to form matter. The Genesis story progresses with the formation of the land and water, with life-forms being created thereafter. Classes of animals were formed in several stages, with the last stage being the creation of humans. That is pretty good. The creations of plants and of birds are out of order, but, all in all, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 seemed much more realistic than the creation stories of other ancient near Eastern religions. Thus, my original intuition was that it was no big deal if the Genesis story were not literally accurate. It was still majestic and inspiring.

(B)  Encounter with Young Earth Creationism

When I got to college in the early 1970’s  I was exposed to dogmatic young earth creationism. There was a strongly conservative Christian fellowship at my university. During my freshman or sophomore year they brought in Dr. John Whitcomb as a speaker. He was a co-author of The Genesis Flood, which was a hugely influential book in the 1960s and 1970s. This book made a case for the literal accuracy of the six 24-hour day Genesis creation, and for Flood geology.

In this view, the earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old and most of the sedimentary rock layers were laid down during Noah’s flood around 2500 BC. Adam was specially created starting with dust, and later Eve was also specially created, using a piece of Adam’s skeleton. In this original creation there was no sin, no pain, and no death. All animals were vegetarians. Adam’s sin led to drastic changes in biological functions, to yield today’s biosphere which includes carnivory, fear, and death.

I was impressed by Dr. Whitcomb. He was a devout and learned man, who was very serious about what he was teaching. In his lectures and his book  Dr. Whitcomb presented evidence which seem to show that the mainstream scientific understanding of the earth’s age was incorrect. This evidence included polystrate fossils, supposedly older rock layers resting atop supposedly younger rocks, and recent lava flows where radioactive dating methods gave spuriously old dates.

Regarding biological evolution, the young earth creationists pointed to a lack of transitional fossils, and also the lack of observed transformations from one major life form to another happening today.  Much was made of fossil mistakes such as “Piltdown man” and “Nebraska man”. (Piltdown man was later discovered to be a deliberate hoax, and Nebraska man was an imaginary construct based on the finding of a tooth which was actually from an extinct pig.)

As a young Christian it was naturally appealing to me to believe that the rock layers and indeed the whole universe confirmed and demonstrated the truth of God’s revelation in the Bible. It did not occur to me to be skeptical of this teaching. Also, I was surrounded by smart, competent students  (this was Princeton University) in the Christian fellowship who took all this to be completely true. Therefore I became a believer in YE creationism as an undergraduate. I did not make it a big focus of my faith, but I did persuade my Christian roommate at the time that Genesis was literally true.

(C) Different Views of the Bible

During those undergraduate years I planned to become a minister, so in my coursework I concentrated on ancient Near Eastern history and the Hebrew language. After graduation I attended a relatively conservative, academically rigorous seminary.

Two episodes in the seminary classroom impacted my views on the Genesis story. I took an Old Testament class under Meredith Klein. Prof. Klein spent quite a bit of time on Genesis 1-3, noting the parallels with typical covenants between kings and subjects in the ancient Middle East. He considered that the two triads of the six creation days in Genesis 1 indicate a thematic, rather than chronological framework for revealing the creative acts of God.  This “framework” view notes that days 1, 2, and 3 involve the formation/structuring of day/night, sky/sea, and finally water/land, while days 4, 5, and 6 provide occupants or rulers for these realms, in the same order: sun and moon (for day/night), birds and fish (for sky and sea), and land animals on day 6.   The earth was initially (Gen. 1:2) “formless and empty.” These two deficiencies are corrected in the next six days, as the earth is “formed” (structured) in days 1-3, then “filled” in days 4-6. There is a pleasing, symmetrical logic to all this. In this view, the sequencing of the accomplishments in Genesis 1 is not expected to correspond to the actual physical order of events. This point of view offered me a way to acknowledge that the Genesis account is not chronologically accurate, while maintaining a high view of Biblical inspiration.

Another significant classroom interaction occurred in a New Testament exegesis course. I was comparing two Gospels and noted some events that I could not reconcile between them. I went to the professor to try to get some help on this, and noted that he did not have a nice pat answer. I finally asked him point-blank, “Do you believe that there are actual discrepancies in the Bible?”  He looked at me and hesitated for a few seconds, weighing what to say. Finally he said, “Yes.”  At the time I was scandalized, and did not want to accept this. Later I calmed down and reflected that this professor seemed to be as good a Christian as I, and maybe he knew something that I didn’t. That helped released me from the fear that my whole faith would go down the drain if there were any inaccuracy in the Bible.

(D) Old Earth Creationism

After a year in seminary I changed my vocational plans. I went back to college for a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and went on for a PhD. I picked up enough hard science along the way to realize that the earth was in fact several billions years old, and that the rock layers were laid down over millions of years, not in a single global flood. I still could not stomach evolution.

By the 1990′s I was reading and agreeing with the publications of Hugh Ross, founder of the Reasons to Believe ministry. Ross staunchly defends the Big Bang as a singular, non-recurring event, seeing it as evidence for a Creator who lies outside of this universe. The Genesis creation story, more than most ancient creation narratives, is consistent with the Big Bang’s one-time (not cyclic) creation of the universe at some finite time in the past.

Ross also points out the many physical constants that are finely tuned to enable the survival of carbon-based life-forms like us, seeing this as evidence of purposeful design of the universe.  He teaches a form of “old earth creationism,” where the “days” of Genesis 1 represent long geological ages, which are in correct chronological order. He has to put non-traditional interpretations on the various elements of the Genesis story, in order to make it fit what is known of the geological history of the earth.  Given those interpretations, Ross can then claim that Genesis marvelously provides an accurate description of the formation of the earth and its biosphere.   While endorsing the conclusions of mainstream astronomy and geology, Ross rejects macro-evolution. He sees Adam and Eve as supernaturally created, not descended from other primates.

In the late 1990’s I also read Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, which highlighted apparent challenges to evolution, such as lack of transitional fossils and some putative quandaries in genetics, while not disputing an old earth. Johnson claims that Darwinism constitutes a naturalistic philosophy intrinsically opposed to religion. This book helped initiate the modern Intelligent Design movement. I found Johnson’s book convincing, since that is what I wanted to hear at the time. I was not motivated to do the hard work required (for a non-biologist) to dig into all the technical arguments for and against evolution, or even to search out and weigh critical reviews of Darwin on Trial such as that  written by Stephen Jay Gould.

A key question for the Old Earth/anti-evolution viewpoint is: If all those fossils in those old rock layers do not represent organisms that had slowly evolved over time, where exactly did they come from? The only consistent answer for this viewpoint is that God miraculously created hundreds of new species every million years or so, in a sequence which just happened to mesh with evolutionary expectations (then let them go extinct). That seems unpalatable.  This issue is so awkward that anti-evolutionary old earth creationists (including today’s Intelligent Design proponents) typically avoid addressing it at all. It just never occurred to me to ask this question.

(E) Into the Fray

Sometime around 2004 I had an impactful conversation with a colleague at work. I had conceived of all genetic mutations being merely point substitutions at various spots along the DNA strand. That seemed to offer no way for the increase in informational content in the genome which would be necessary if life evolved from simple bacteria to full-fledged animals. I offered this to my chemist friend as a reason that I was skeptical about evolution. He listened to me politely, then informed me that there are other types of mutations that are known to occur, including ones where whole sections of DNA can undergo extra duplication and get inserted into the new DNA strand. For instance, an extra copy of a gene may get added to the genome. (I did not know about this, since my last exposure to genetics was a high school biology class in 1970.)  It was immediately clear to me that gene duplication offered a viable pathway for an increase in genetic information. This dissolved my strongest mechanistic objection to evolution, though at the time I did not think very much about it.

I became more deeply engaged in the creation/evolution debate as a result of an encounter around 2008 at a church men’s retreat. A participant there offered a short workshop in creationism. He was a committed young earth creationist, with some knowledge of biology. He presented slides and handed out written material that claimed to show that all the evidence for the earth being very old was mistaken, and also that evolution was scientifically impossible. I was not prepared to counter the examples he gave, but I felt an obligation to stand up and say that there was more than one point of view among Christians on these issues.

This gentleman urged me to get on board with YE creationism. He recognized that I was a scientist and may have hoped that if I came around to his point of view, I could add my voice to the cause. We started corresponding back and forth, and sent each other some books.

With my background knowledge, and with a lot of help from web sites such as TalkOrigins and Old Earth Ministries (formerly Answers In Creation), I was able to point out where all the geological evidence being presented for a young earth was flawed. For instance, in The Genesis Flood is a photo of the “Lewis Overthrust”,  where supposedly ancient Precambrian rock layers are resting on top of supposedly younger rock layers. This order of rock layers seems to contradict the normal geological model, where younger sedimentary layers are deposited atop older, pre-existing layers. Mainstream science explains this formation by claiming that the Precambrian rock layers were pushed over on top of the younger rock layers in a nearly-horizontal thrust fault. However, The Genesis Flood showed a picture taken by Walter Lammerts of the fault interface, and in that photo there is no evidence of the deformation and abrasion you would expect if one heavy rock layer were slid across the top of another rock layer. This looked bad for mainstream science – - – until I found a TalkOrigins article with a photo of the overthrust fault, showing the expected deformation and abrasion, and explaining that Lammerts’ serene photo was not a picture of the actual fault line.

Radioactive dating is science’s key method for assigning absolute dates to rocks, so YE creationists attack its reliability. The young earth evidence that had seemed most compelling to me were cases where recent flows of volcanic lava which were known to be only a few hundred years old were submitted for radioactive dating. These dating methods mistakenly reported the lavas as being many thousands of years old. In one of these cases the lava from a 200-year-old flow from a Hawaiian volcano was dated to be over a million years old.  However, as I dug into the details I found that the YE creationists were not telling the whole truth on discrepant radioactive dating. For example, with that Hawaiian volcano, it turns out that it was little crystals of unmelted minerals within the lava that were dated as having solidified over a million years earlier, which is plausible; the main body of the lava itself was (accurately) dated as being very recently congealed. I later summarized many of my findings about the geological evidence for an old earth in this article on the Grand Canyon.   TalkOrigins and Old Earth Ministries  have collected rebuttals to most of the other YE claims.

Not having a current biology background, I was at a loss on how to respond to this gentleman’s claims that all known mutations are harmful, and that genomes are necessarily deteriorating with each generation. He sent me a detailed book, Genetic Entropy by retired Cornell professor John Sanford, which makes the case for the inexorable accumulation of deleterious mutations over time. The implication is that populations could not become more fit or even maintain their fitness for millions of years. Rather, all populations, especially humans, exhibit steady degradation from an earlier, better state. This fits with a perfect creation about 6000 years ago.

Having found that the panoply of arguments against an old earth were bogus and actually deceitful , I became motivated to settle, at least for myself, the question of evolution. In order to determine the truth about these matters, I spent hundreds of hours studying genetics and reading original papers in the field.  Some helpful general resources were the Biologos website,  “Evolution for Christians” by a professor at Berea College, and “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” at TalkOrigins.

I found that all the objections advanced against evolution were unfounded. There are plenty of examples of beneficial mutations, and plenty of evidence within our genomes of common ancestry with chimpanzees. Furthermore, the fossil record is broadly consistent with evolution, if one looks at the fossils that have been found instead of merely complaining about those that have not been yet found.  It is intrinsically unlikely to find fossils of the actual ancestral transitional forms, since (from elementary population genetics) a new species is most likely to develop in some small, isolated population.

I wrote up my findings on geology and genetics in the form of several long letters to my creationist correspondent in the 2008-2009 timeframe. Having put all that effort into these letters, I later published them as “STAN 1” through “STAN 4” as the initial content on this Letters to Creationists blog.

 [Continued in Part 2 , which describes the personal and theological aspects of working through the creation/evolution issue ]

Posted in Age of Earth, Evolution, Fossils, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 27 Comments

The Cambrian Explosion and Darwin’s Doubt

The “Cambrian explosion” refers to the initial appearance of the fossils of many major animal groups (“phyla”) within a period of about 10 million years, about half a billion years ago in the Cambrian period. If you consider only some of the relevant facts, this can appear as a challenge to the theory of evolution. If you consider more of the facts (e.g. known patterns of fossil preservation and discoveries of fossils immediately before the Cambrian explosion), this challenge fades considerably.

Stephen Meyer published Darwin’s Doubt in June, a heavily-researched and well-written book that powerfully presents part of the truth. Meyer argues that currently-understood natural causes cannot account for the Cambrian explosion, so we need to invoke the intervention of an Intelligent Agent.

This volume has called forth both attackers and defenders on the internet. I wrote up a description of this verbal jousting, and added a tutorial on fossils and the Cambrian period. This piece, “Cambrian Contention: Disputing Darwin’s Doubt,” got kind of long to put here as a regular post, so I placed it up at the top of the blog window along with other longer essays — it shows there as Darwins_Doubt. I hope some folks find it educational.

Posted in Cambrian explosion, Evolution, Fossils, Intelligent Design, Macro-Evolution | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

She Felt Like Shooting Me

Emily Ruppel  is Web Editor at Biologos and Associate Director of Communications for the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). My wife Grace met her at the 2012 ASA national meeting in San Diego.

Grace is intelligent and well-educated but was never interested in science. She became very dismayed for some years over the directions she saw me taking regarding creation and evolution. Grace recognized that the violent emotions provoked in her by the debate over the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 were representative of many others as well. She wrote up her experience for Emily’s review and then Emily talked with Grace. Emily wrote up the interview for publication in ASA’s God and Nature magazine. The article, entitled The Bible, Evolution, and Grace, was posted in the BioLogos Forum.

Did I mention violent emotions? The interview post starts out:

“I remember being so angry about it, I wanted to shoot him,” said Grace Buchanan over the phone.

Whether you are a theistic or non-theistic evolutionist, if you are going to engage constructively with anti-evolutionists you need to understand the depth and basis of these passions. The Biologos post describes my journey from YE creationism (anybody here old enough to remember The Genesis Flood ?) to evolutionary creation. This came through incremental realizations of what the scientific evidence is, as I read back and forth between pro- and anti-evolution sites, and dug into the primary literature.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

For ten years, Grace had been listening to Scott as he conducted his private research about geology and was expressing concerns about YEC. She recalls going through a process of denial and rage because he was disturbing what she felt she knew about the Bible. “I felt like the very basis of my faith was being challenged,” says Grace, “and I felt rage over someone taking away my comforting view of a personal God who downloaded the Bible without human partnership or error. I felt guilt because I had taught the Genesis story as literal fact to children for over 25 years. How could I be forgiven for deceiving them and/or possibly causing them to lose their faith when they got to science classes that convinced them they had been lied to in Sunday school?”

The post notes that what helped Grace was not being bludgeoned with physical facts, but realizing (initially through a graduate course) how high was the level of human involvement in writing of the Bible:

“I learned in that class that there was a great deal of human thought and planning involved in many biblical writings and stories. I learned that the parable of the prodigal son was crafted from a story that already existed in rabbinical teaching, for which Jesus changed the ending to show what his Father in heaven was really like. I also learned that many of the psalms and proverbs followed the elaborate literary devices of the Hebrew poetical forms of that day, including acrostics and very specific poetic patterns. Wait a minute!, I thought, that means that a human being filtered those thoughts through an educated mind and had to work hard over a long period of time to craft his writings! How did that fit with divine inspiration?”

….Grace says she learned that the people of ancient times very much studied nature and fully embraced the science of their day, including the concept that the world was capped by a rigid dome called the “firmament” which prevented celestial waters from deluging the earth, and in which the sun, moon, and stars were suspended. Their ancient biology observed that living things came from reproduction by their own kind, rather than branching off from the stalks of a long and complex evolutionary tree. Says Grace, “I learned that God faced a choice when choosing how to reveal God’s nature and purposes to mankind over the centuries: God could try to change the scientific understanding of the ancient peoples or God could use their current understandings to begin to reveal God’s nature through stories and lessons that complied with those understandings. It appears God chose the latter method.”

……“Finally, I could grasp the concept that the beginnings in Genesis are every bit as valid ‘parables’ as the other parables we read in the Bible,” recalls Grace. “Jesus told stories about realistic characters who were not actually real people. That does not make the stories less ‘true’—all parables contain a message of God’s truth, a revelation of the true natures of both God and man. The truth is the message or meaning that God wanted to convey, and the story is a vehicle for that truth.

Grace’s advice is to address the biblical issues first, and maintain an attitude of patience and respect:

“What I’ve said to my husband over and over is that those who want to change the thinking of the church in America on science must address the fear and guilt factor, first—because no human being who is invested in what they perceive to be loyalty to God can even consider rationally an idea that asks them to fly in the face of that loyalty. But there can also be no respectful debate unless those who are not still angry and threatened can kindly and patiently take the lead and speak with loving-kindness to those who are.”

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This is why the rants of Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers against religion are completely counterproductive in helping conservative believers to give consideration to the claims of biological evolution. (We won’t get into how the atheism of Dawkins and Myers is no more proven or objective than are the beliefs of the theists). Their sneers and jeers simply reinforce the suspicions of theists that “Darwinism” is some sort of godless conspiracy, a “universal acid” to dissolve away all that is good. I can hardly blame them, then, for circling the wagons and looking to the likes of Stephen Meyers and William Dembski as their champions.

The anti-evolutionists are not unique in this response of sticking fingers in ears and dismissing evidence which they have decided ahead of time cannot be correct. Humans have a well-documented propensity towards confirmation bias, which is the tendency to acknowledge and remember only the information which accords with a previously-formed opinion.

For instance, I get the same response to some of the links I have posted on this site which provide evidence of miraculous healings: some commenters have evidently made up their minds ahead of time that miracles simply cannot happen, and therefore are unwilling to consider the videos displayed right in front of their noses. (It’s fine if they detect some flaw in the specific evidence presented, but the fact that miracles rarely occur is not a valid basis for concluding they can never occur). Same with dedicated political liberals or conservatives – if I try to present a different point of view, I typically receive maybe 20 seconds of polite attention, after which my conversation partner breaks in with “Yes, but…” and interjects some anecdote which tars some opposing politician but which does not address the actual point at hand. From The Vampire Lestat:

Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world… On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds – justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on.

Most Panda’s Thumb and TalkOrigins articles (not true for the comments on PT!) tend to stick just to the facts.  I found those articles very helpful in sorting out the science, since with those I was not distracted by the noise of ill-informed metaphysical opinions or epithets such as “IDiots”.

Although I put most of my efforts into penetrating to the truth on the physical facts, Grace’s observation on the importance of addressing the worldview or theological aspects applied to me, as well. A key input in my journey towards accepting evolution was a book on biblical exegesis, Paul Seely’s classic (1989) Inerrant Wisdom. Seely examines the concept of literal, absolute inerrancy that many evangelical Christians feel they must hold in order to be faithful, and shows that this version of inerrancy is actually unbiblical. Go figure. Inerrant Wisdom is summarized chapter by chapter by Peter Enns.  A number of similar books have come out in the past decade that share a similar outlook on the Bible, but also treat the evidence for an old earth and for evolution in some detail. These books include Evolutionary Creation, Beyond the Firmament, and Coming to Peace With Science. Francis Collins’ The Language of God offers good science and personal anecdotes, but does not dig deeply enough into the exegetical issues to be of much help here.

A fear that needs to be addressed is the slippery slope: if, on the basis of physical evidence we deem the opening chapters of Genesis to be nonfactual, does this inevitably lead to jettisoning key elements of the gospel narratives such as the Resurrection as well? This panics believers into wholesale rejection of modern science. Whole books could be written on this issue. I’ll just note some key differences between Genesis 1-3 and the Gospels.   The Genesis creation story is at odds with known history, but we expect the writings of the Bible to reflect ancient views of origins, which includes some sort of special creation of humans as opposed to development from earlier species.  It is important to note that the Genesis creation account is not eyewitness attestation. The writer just starts right in telling the creation story. Many believe there is an authorial connection to Moses, but we don’t know how the book of Genesis took its final form.  The ordering of the 6 days of creation (Days 1-3 being creation/structuring of various domains, and Days 4-6 being creation of entities to fill or govern those domains) strongly suggests idealized or literary structuring.

In contrast, the New Testament presents the key Jesus-events as being well-known and well-grounded in history. Luke starts his gospel noting that he had made careful investigations before writing.  Paul notes in Acts 26:26 that these things were “not done in a corner,” and appeals in I Corinthians 15:6 to hundreds of witnesses of Christ’s resurrection.  Paul’s paradigm is that a credible spiritual message must comport with the physical facts, even though some inner enlightenment may be necessary to enable people to personally embrace that message.  In that passage in I Cor 15 Paul reminds his readers in Corinth that when he visited them some years earlier, he was passing along a narrative of Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection that he had in turn received from the original apostles yet more years before.  There is no reasonable doubt that Paul wrote I Corinthians in 55-60 A.D., so he heard the message from Jesus’s disciples within about 10 years of the events of ~ 30 A.D.

The apostles spent the rest of their lives spreading the Christian message, and in most cases suffered grisly deaths as a result of their proclamation of the Resurrection. The New Testament narrative is found to agree with known history in a plethora of details. All this stands on its own, regardless of whether the Eden story is literal or figurative.

If believers could grasp these distinctions between the Genesis story and the gospel story, they could more objectively consider the physical evidence for an old earth and for evolution, and let that be a separate issue from the truth of the Christian gospel.  Of course, the people best placed to make this case are evangelical Christians like myself. However, non-Christian evolutionists as well, if they want to be constructive in dealing with resistance to evolution, will recognize the underlying source of that resistance, and refer anxious believers to sites like BioLogos or to books like those mentioned above. My Adam, the Fall, and Evolution post tries to offer resolution on one of the most disturbing issues.

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