Folding and Electric Scooters and Bikes for Commuting the Last Mile

Many urban rapid transit systems have stations about a mile apart. This leaves much of their service area a mile or more from the stations. Helping users to traverse this distance between the stations or bus stops and their homes or offices is termed the “Last Mile Problem”:

While a generally accepted rule-of-thumb is that people will walk 1/4 of a mile to a local bus stop, people are usually willing to walk up to a mile to a rapid transit station. Note that we cannot just draw a circle with a mile radius around a station and conclude that all locations within the circle are within walking distance, as non-contiguous street networks and cul-de-sacs may mean that while people may be within one mile of a station as the crow flies they are more than one mile in walking distance away from the station.

Some of this reluctance to walk is sheer laziness, but a lengthy outdoors hike in work attire may be impractical or uncomfortable in hot, cold, or wet weather. Having safe bike racks at the suburban transit station and bike sharing facilities downtown would allow users to ride their own bikes from home to the train or bus, then pick up another bike to get them to the office. A few cities in the U.S, and many more in Europe, make this option work.

An alternative would be to have some device to ride from home to the station, take on the train or bus with you, and then ride to the office. Some transit systems like New York’s will only allow you to take a regular bike aboard with you during off-peak hours, which doesn’t help you if you are commuting to work.

In a previous article, Fun Things to Ride: Stepper Bikes, Carving Scooters, Electric Unicycles, etc., we described a number of devices for recreational riding. These included bicycles where you stand upright, three-wheeled scooters powered by weight-shifting, stabilized electric unicycles, and the Onewheel skateboard which has a single large rubber electric-powered wheel in the middle

Of these devices discussed above, the Onewheel and the electric unicycles could reliably get you to the station and could be readily carried onto a train or bus. For the young, athletic folks who would be riding these devices, carrying their 25 pound (11 kg) weight down the stairs and onto the subway should not be a problem.

For the rest of us, a folding scooter or bike, perhaps with electric assist, is probably a more realistic solution.  Kick scooters only weigh about 10 lb. Electric scooters are often over 30 lb. Folding bikes can weigh 25-32 lb, but sometimes can be rolled like a piece of luggage. Adding electric boost adds another several pounds.

Folding Standing Scooters

The cheapest, lightest device is an adult “urban” kick scooter. They fold readily, and have larger wheels (6”-8”) than children’s scooters. The A5 Razor,  with 8” (200 mm) polyurethane wheels, is one of the lightest (8.5 lb) and cheapest ($80) models.

To soften the bumps, some of these scooters have softer tires or have springed suspensions. The Know-Ped  (made by Go-Ped) is a popular urban scooter. It has wide, solid rubber tires, a footboard wide enough to place both feet side by side, and brakes on both front and rear wheels. The last two features help provide safe and comfortable rides down long and/or steep hills.

Here is the saga of one man’s quest to choose the best kick scooter for commuting around New York City. After trying a number of scooters, he settled on a Know-Ped.

In considering these products, New York-based NYCewheels  (pronounced “NiceWheels”) is a good place to start. They have done a lot of selecting and testing to pick out the best solutions for urban users. Their site includes articles on how to choose scooters and bikes. They sell the “Kick-Ped” version of the Know-Ped, where the front brake is removed and the footboard is shaved narrower for easier kicking on level ground and to save weight.

NYCewheels carries several electric-powered, folding scooters that you stand on. At 24 lb, the E-Twow is the lightest model, and among the cheapest ($999). It has solid rubber tires and a springed suspension for a smooth ride. Its battery is on the small side, but the braking system helps to recharge the battery during braking. Its range is about 8 miles, which is probably adequate since reportedly it is tiresome to ride this type of narrow scooter (standing with one foot in front of the other) more than a few miles.

Earlier we described Trikke three-wheeled “carving” scooters, which you propel by leaning and turning. Trikke offers several electric-powered versions of these scooters. With their wide stance and their mechanism for tilting the wheels into a turn, these are comfortable and stable to stand on, even at higher speeds. They are also fun, since you can do as much as you want of the turning and leaning action to make it a workout. The Trikke  Pon-e has lithium batteries and approximately 10 inch pneumatic tires, and folds to a very small package to take onto a bus or train. The 36V Lite version (shown below), with a range of 10-18 miles costs about $1500, and goes up to 13 mph. The 48 V Pon-e version ($2100) weighs 46 lb, and has a top speed of 16 mph, a range of 15-24 miles, and a more powerful motor for climbing hills.

36V Lite Trikke Pon-e Electric Scooter   http://www.trikke.com/product/trikke-ev-36v-lite/

36V Lite Trikke Pon-e Electric Scooter http://www.trikke.com/product/trikke-ev-36v-lite/

Sit-Down Electric Scooters

For comparison, one of the least-expensive sit-down scooters is the Razor E300S (about $250).  It uses lead-acid batteries instead of Li-ion cells. It looks like a crude but capable adult scooter, with 10” pneumatic tires. It goes about 15 mph (you flick it on or off, no speed control) on level ground. It weighs about 54 lb (24.5 kg) and does not fold, so you’d have to lock it in a bike rack or roll it onto the train with you, if that is allowed. The seat can be unbolted to give a slightly lighter stand-up version.

Razor E300S Electric

Razor E300S Electric

The only really small, foldable sit-down electric scooters I am aware of are models that are not yet for sale, but should become available later in 2015 as inventors’ concepts get turned into production units.  The Urb-E goes up to 15 mph, with a range of 20 miles. Weighing only 27 lb and folding to 16″x16″x 36″, it is easy to roll or carry onto a bus or train. The cost is $1600.  (Early supporters of the Urb-E development on the crowdsourcing site Indigogo will get their scooters for less.) I’m guessing the cost will later come down if production is eventually shifted from the U.S. to China. The designers of the Urb-E tried to make it large enough to be a primary urban transportation vehicle (i.e. car replacement) as well as a carry-on device. It looks great for riding on sidewalks and empty residential streets, but with the short wheelbase and smallish tires I am not sure I’d be comfortable on this sharing the road with automobiles.

Urb-E Folding Electric Scooter     http://muted.com/urb-e-scooters/

Urb-E Folding Electric Scooter http://muted.com/urb-e-scooters/

A competing folding scooter is the Stigo. This was designed by a team of young Estonians, and is starting production by a French bicycle company. It should go on sale in some European countries in mid-2015 for 2000 euros (about $2300). It goes up to 25 km/h (15 mph), with a range of 20-40 km (12-24  mi), depending on battery option. It weighs 30 lb (13.5 kg). It folds in seconds to about the size of a wheeled golfbag, so it can easily go on a bus or train, or roll into the restaurant or office with you. It has a longer wheelbase and bigger wheels (12”) than the Urb-E. It looks like it is just large enough to go where most bicycles go, including traveling beside automobiles in city traffic.

Folding Bicycles

Most folks are accustomed to riding bicycles on sidewalks, in roadways, and on dirt trails. Folding bicycles are available which collapse small enough to be carried or rolled onto a train or bus. Again, NYCewheels offers a high-quality selection. Here  is their comparison of the major brands.

The Brompton is generally acknowledged as the premier small folding bike. Hand-made in London, it rides well and weighs about 24 lb. It double-folds into an amazingly small package with all the greasy parts inside, making it the most convenient folding bike to carry around or put in a suitcase. Because it has only 16” wheels, it looks a little spindly. For longer rides or rougher terrain, many cyclists prefer folding bikes with 20” wheels. Nevertheless, this user demonstrated that one can ride 150 mi (250 km) from New York to Philadelphia in a day on a Brompton.

Dahon  has sold the most folding bikes in the world. Most of their models have 20” wheels, and cost $500-1000. The Mariner D7, shown below, has special rust-resistant coating for use near the ocean.

Downtube bikes (around $500-700) are also well-regarded. Citizen folding bikes are mainly steel-framed, a little heavier (around 30 lb) than other brands, but less costly (around $200-400).

Electrified Bicycles

For riding more than a few miles or going up hills while commuting to a professional job, many users desire electric assist on their bicycle so as not to arrive sweaty. Essentially any bike can be modified for electric power by installing a front or rear wheel with a motor built into the hub. Conversion kits are available to do it yourself. Pro shops can modify your bike or provide you with a new folding bike with electric drive installed. The conversion kits sold on Amazon cost only around $250, but this does not include the battery.

As an example, for about $1300 NYCeWheels provides Li-ion battery conversion kits  for the Brompton and also for generic 20” wheel folding bikes. They also sell the Brompton with electric drive already installed for $2800.     This is one of the most versatile transportation packages available, since (as a bike) it goes anywhere, yet folds to a package roughly 1 ft x 2 ft x 2 ft in size. It goes up to 18 mph for 10-20 miles, depending on battery choice. The top speed of electric bikes is limited to keep them classified as bicycles as opposed to motorcycles, which need to be licensed and follow a different set of rules. The electric Brompton weighs 45 lb, which is hefty, but is still light for an electric folding bicycle. Electrified bikes have an advantage over plain electric scooters in that, if the battery dies or something else goes wrong with the power drive, the human legs can always take over and propel the vehicle with reasonable speed.

Adding Power To Bikes with the ShareRoller

Another means of adding electric power to a bike is the ShareRoller. The base model is a small (8″x 8″x2.7″) box, weighing 5.5 lb and costing $1250.  This box contains batteries. Out of it folds a motor connected to a polyurethane roller. The box attaches to a bracket below the handlebars. The roller presses down on the front wheel of the bike and drives it. It will propel a bike up to 20 mph, with a 12 mile range. A larger box (7.25 lb, $1550) is available with extended range (20 miles).

It was originally developed, using Kickstarter crowdsourcing, as a means to give electric assist to the heavy, clunky commercial rideshare bikes. These bikes have a triangular bracket in front, used for locking into a rack.  You can quickly clamp a ShareRoller onto this bracket, use it to power your ride, then detach it when you return the share bike. The developer then realized that he could use 3D printing technology to produce similar triangular brackets which would attach to other bikes to allow the ShareRoller box to clamp onto them as well.

First up for this treatment was the Brompton:

Brompton with prototype ShareRoller mounted on it.  http://www.shareroller.com/brompton

Brompton with prototype ShareRoller mounted on it. http://www.shareroller.com/brompton

This gives the lightest available electric assist to the Brompton: the bike plus ShareRoller weighs only about 31 pounds (14 kg), compared to 45 lb for the electrified Brompton discussed above. After you pop the main box off, the Bromption can fold as usual. ShareRoller can adapt to most of the leading folding bike models, so you may able to use your existing folding bike.

A nice feature of ShareRoller is that you can move one unit around to use on different bikes, and even on kick scooters. For instance, below are shown two Hudora scooters with 8” pneumatic tires, each with a ShareRoller. Note the built-in LED headlights in the ShareRoller. The combined weight of the scooter (8 lb) and ShareRoller is less than 14 lb, making this by far the lightest approach for an adult electric scooter.

 Hudora Scooters with ShareRollers attached     http://www.shareroller.com/srblog

Hudora Scooters with ShareRollers attached http://www.shareroller.com/srblog

This all seems to point to ShareRoller as a strong contender in the electric scooter/electric bike field. The only small reservation I have about it is that on all the videos there seems to be a significant electromechanical noise in use. I don’t know how annoying this would be in practice, but it seems noisier than the electric bikes with motors in the wheel hubs.

Reality Check on Riding the Last Mile

Traversing a mile takes about 20 minutes walking at 3 mph, about 6 minutes on a kick or small electric scooter at 10 mph, and 4 minutes on a pedal or electric bike at 15 mph. These time and effort savings for a daily commute start to become appreciable when the combined walking distance from house to train and from train to office is more than about 2 miles for a daily round trip.

It seems that many of the devices discussed above could be effective in reducing this travel time, thereby making mass transit a more attractive alternative to driving into the city in a personal automobile. I don’t have data on this, but my concern is that most of these alternative vehicles will, realistically, be ridden only by men younger than about 35 years old. I am trying not to stereotype, but I have simply not observed many females older than 15 or males older than 30 standing on small scooters, even in casual clothes on weekends. When we focus on commuting into a professional job while wearing a suit, this becomes even more improbable.

I am guessing that only a stable sit-down electric vehicle has a chance of appealing to professional women or older men. Electrified bicycles probably fit this need the best: everyone remembers riding bicycles in their youth, so there is little familiarization required. Among all the vehicles discussed here, bikes probably feel the safest if one has to venture on the road next to moving cars. There is already a culture of adult bicycle usage in some European countries. I expect this to slowly spread in North American cities as a new generation of young adults takes up urban living with a heightened eco-ethic and less love of cars.

Weather conditions can discourage the use of scooters or bikes, even by intrepid twenty-somethings. Some areas of the world like southern California have a high percentage of dry, temperate days. Other places have a lot of steamy, cold, or wet weather.  Breathable waterproof raingear  can help with riding in the rain, but it is still not fun. In a downpour I’d rather walk a mile under a large umbrella than ride a bike wearing high-tech raingear. Driving, or being driven, to a transit station in an automobile will seem very attractive on days of inclement weather, so there will likely be an ongoing role for ridesharing and taxi-type services like Uber to travel that last mile.

Posted in Bikes and Scooters, Economics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Fun Things to Ride: Stepper Bikes, Carving Scooters, Electric Unicycles, etc.

Bicycles, kick-powered scooters, and motorcycles have been around for more than a century, but human ingenuity keeps devising more fun and useful machines to ride on. Some are mainly toys for kids, while others are enjoyable for adults as well. Here I describe several classes of these vehicles, which might serve as gifts to others or to yourself.

Stepper Bikes

For those who want a different experience than sitting on a seat and peddling, a number of bikes allow you to stand more or less upright, and use a stepping motion to power it. Think of a StairMaster on wheels. 3G  makes a line of youth and adult stepper bikes. Your upper body gets some workout as well. Here is the Hammer model ($ 649 )

Zike makes a less-expensive line of stepper bikes and scooters that are available in retail outlets and on Amazon. The Z-600 bike ($429), shown below,  is large enough for adults, yet is somewhat compact with 20” front and 16” rear tires. The Saber ($500)  is a more stylish teen model.

Zike also makes Z100 ($140,  for children) and Z150 ($200) Wingflyer scooter versions. The Z-150 gets good reviews as a kid’s scooter, as a low-impact adult workout, or as means to keep up with your children on their kick scooters. I almost got one for me, but decided against it after reading that folks taller than about 5’8” (173 cm) will feel hunched over using it.

A somewhat related product is the Rockboard scooter. You propel this by rocking back and forth on the footboard, which pivots in the middle like a see-saw. It is thoroughly described in this video. I found one for sale on Amazon for only $100, and could not resist getting it. It works as advertised. Kids really like it. It is a good balancing challenge to ride for the first time, and is an intriguing piece of machinery. It is fine for riding around the neighborhood, but I would not want to ride miles on it. It is well-built, and the handlebars adjust high enough for adults. The large wheels can handle pavement cracks.  It can fold down to a flatter configuration and be used as a regular kick scooter, although in that mode it is more difficult to propel than a regular Razor-type scooter, because your feet are higher off the ground and there is drag from the main drive mechanism. It folds down reasonably compact, but it is heavy (21 lb, 9.5 kg) for its size. For commuter usage (e.g. scooting 1-2 miles from your home to the bus, and carrying onto the bus), a plain Razor-type kick scooter with large wheels (about 10 lb) seems preferable.

Elliptical Bikes

Elliptical bikes are similar to stepper bikes, but use a more elaborate mechanism so your feet move around like they do on an elliptical trainer. Many people find this more enjoyable than the plain up and down steppers. These tend to be higher-end products, costing around upwards of $1500. The Elliptigo  is sized like a regular bike, but you stand erect and stride with the elliptical motion.

The StreetStrider    gives a full upper-body workout. It steers by leaning. A trainer stand is available so it can be used indoors as a stationary elliptical trainer.

Trikke Carving Scooters

The Trikke series of 3-wheeled scooters have a special joint mechanism that tilts all the wheels as you lean into a turn. Going downhill, you can “carve” back and forth, leaning into the curves. On level ground, you can generate forward motion by constantly turning side to side, with leaning and weight shifting. It engages the whole body and is easy on the knees. Here is a short video of former president Jimmy Carter at around age 80 demonstrating Trikke riding. Below is a photo of some happy folks carving away on their Trikkes:

The T7 model   (about $170) is good for for older children and medium sized adults. This has 7” (180 mm) polyurethane wheels.  As a taller man, I bought a T78 model ( $260), which has 7” (180 mm) wheels in back and an 8” pneumatic tire in front.  Larger models have up to 12” diameter pneumatic tires to handle the roughest pavement.

There is definitely a learning curve involved in riding a Trikke. The first time I mounted it, I could not get it to move forward at all. I went back and viewed the DVD that came with the vehicle, and found helpful training videos on YouTube. This site has a good set of written instructions.    Lowering the handlebar and inflating the front tire to a full 75 psi helped.

I can now go reasonably well on the level, shifting my weight side to side. On a slight downward incline I swoop back and forth, leaning hard into the turns like a slalom skier. It’s fun. With a slight upward incline, I can muscle the front wheel back and forth to inch upwards, getting a solid upper body workout. It is an enjoyable challenge to keep getting better at handling it. To get up a slope that is at all steep, I have to push along with my foot on the ground like a regular kick scooter. The Trikke has dual hand brakes, but is not meant for going straight down long steep hills. It is an engaging form of exercise for riding around in a parking lot, on wide, fairly level paved trails, or in residential streets, but I would not treat it as an efficient means of transportation.

Other Three-Wheeled Scooters

For children and young teens, the Razor Powerwing scooter gets high marks. The two back wheels are swiveling casters. It can be powered by wiggling the hips side to side. It is very easy to pull the front wheel off the ground (a “wheelie”), and to make the scooter spin completely around or drift sideways. A 7-12 year old might keep entertained doing tricks with this for hours in a small, smooth area like a driveway or playground.

The Y Fliker  ($160 for C5 model)series of scooters has some similarities to the Razorwing,  but Flickers have larger wheels and seem to go faster. Flikers are likewise powered by wagging one’s butt and feet, and can also perform tight spins and sideways motion. This looks like a good product for 9-15 year olds, especially boys.

The Ski-Motion Scooter ($170) is a sort of cross between the Trikke and the Fliker. It has castered rear wheels, and two sets of joints in the horizontal arms that join the rear wheels to the front steering column. This allows leaning turns like the Trikke, but also permits your feet to move in and out relative to each other. This allows a variety of foot and leg motions, somewhat like skating or skiing. It is very easy to get going, starting with the in/out scissoring motion. The Ski-Motion is better than the Trikke at navigating narrow, crowded walkways, and it has essentially no learning curve. Tall adults may feel hunched over with its short, non-adjustable handlebars, and its small rear wheels are best suited to fairly smooth surfaces.

Onewheel: Like snowboarding over pavement and grass

The Onewheel  was invented by a transplant from British Columbia to coastal California, who was homesick for snowboarding. It was developed and brought to market through Kickstarter crowdsourcing. It is a type of motorized skateboard, with one large rubber wheel in the middle of the board. It is battery-powered, and has sensors and smarts built into it. You go forward by leaning forward, and steer by leaning.

It is described and reviewed here. It can go up to 14 mph, with a 4-6 mile range, and weighs 25 lb (11 kg). Here is a video interview with, and demo by, its inventor and here is an impressive video of its capabilities. It can go over dirt, grass, bounce over small logs, etc. Everyone who sees one wants one – – until they learn it costs $1500.

Stabilized Electric Unicycles

The Segway technology has been scaled down to having a single wheel, with steps on either side that you stand on. These device is called an electric unicycle or electric wheel.  They are eye-catching and futuristic, and may be one of the cooler ways to cut across your university campus. Thanks to gyros, sensors and electronic smarts, the wheel will not easily tip over. It will go forward as you lean forward, and decelerate as you lean back. Steering is by twisting your feet. There is a substantial learning effort. It seems aimed at the agile, fast-healing 15-30 year old market segment. Tabular comparisons of the most popular models are given here and here. They weigh around 25 lb. Below is a snazzy Ninebot One E ($850), with a range of 14 miles (24 km) and a speed of 12 mph  (20 kph).  Airwheel has models priced down to about $550.

Ninebot One E Electric Unicycle    http://www.ninebotus.com/ninebot-one-e/

Ninebot One E Electric Unicycle http://www.ninebotus.com/ninebot-one-e/

You can find YouTube videos demonstrating the use of these devices. A skilled rider can maneuver through narrow, crowded areas. Here are some trendy 20-somethings on Airwheels:

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Comparison of Composting Toilets: Towards a Global Commode

SUMMARY

Three leading brands of self-contained composting toilets are Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet. These claim to convert human waste (with peat moss/wood shavings added) to a product resembling dirt, suitable for putting on a compost pile or even to be used directly on flower beds or trees. A comparison of the mechanics of these three toilets, along with on-line user feedback, indicates that Sun-Mar toilets are more likely to perform as expected. The Sun-Mar rotating drum seems to give better control of liquid contents than seen with Envirolet and Biolet devices. Non-electric versions of these toilets often cannot keep up with liquid evaporation, so a functioning liquid overflow tube is essential.

Highest user satisfaction seemed highest with “urine-diverting” toilets, such as Nature’s Head, Air Head, C-Head, and Separett. Urine is directed to a storage container or a grey-water drain. Solids drop into a bucket where they are typically covered with peat moss. Disposing of the relatively dry solids perhaps once a month is straightforward. This type of toilet may be useful in regions of the world that cannot afford plumbing and sewage systems: urine is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and is nearly sterile, and thus could be used directly as fertilizer, while disposal of the solids alone is easier than dealing with combined liquid and solids.

CONTENTS

Fully-Composting Small Toilets

– Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet

Customer Experiences with Biolet, Envirolet, and Sun-Mar Self-Contained Composting Toilets

Urine-Diverting Toilets

– Nature’s Head, Air Head, C-Head, and Separett

User Experiences with Urine-Diverting Toilets

Bucket/Compost System: Loveable Loo

Some Global Takeaways

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A key discovery of nineteenth century science was that diseases can be transmitted via pathogens in human waste.  In regions of high population density, this can lead to epidemics if adequate sanitation facilities are not available. A milestone in epidemiology was the 1854 cholera outbreak in London. A physician named John Snow analyzed the incidence of the disease and concluded that the Broad Street public water pump was the source of infection. Even though he had no explanation in terms of germ theory at that time, he persuaded the authorities to remove the handle of that pump. This stopped the cholera epidemic. The well from which this pump drew had been dug a few feet away from an infected cesspool. A replica of this pump still stands in London:

The replica Broad Street Pump in Soho. http://toilet-guru.com/cholera-pump.php

The replica Broad Street Pump in Soho. http://toilet-guru.com/cholera-pump.php

Improved sanitation in the West and in prosperous areas of the rest of the world led to a dramatic decrease in deaths by disease, especially among children. Using water to sluice wastes to a septic tank or to a central treatment plant has proven an effective means to handle these wastes, for single homes and for vast urban population centers.   However, an estimated 2.5 billion people, about a third of the world’s population, still lack access to basic sanitation. Those living in rural settings may cope by relieving themselves in the woods or fields, but many live in crowded urban slums and are too poor to install flush toilets with their requisite water supply and sewage piping and treatment facilities. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has attempted to address this problem. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has initiated the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, to support the development of a “next-generation” toilet which:

  • Removes germs from human waste and recovers valuable resources such as energy, clean water, and nutrients.
  • Operates “off the grid” without connections to water, sewer, or electrical lines.
  • Costs less than US$.05 cents per user per day.
  • Promotes sustainable and financially profitable sanitation services and businesses that operate in poor, urban settings.
  • Is a truly aspirational next-generation product that everyone will want to use—in developed as well as developing nations.

These are lofty goals for the humble commode. Some of the technologies put forward to meet this challenge involve high cost or high tech components whose maintenance could be problematic. For instance, here is one of the prototype sanitation units developed in response to the Gates challenge:

While I salute the enterprise and ingenuity embodied in this device, my guess is that any viable sanitation solution for the masses will likely involve some much lower-tech approach. Here we examine a suite of small composting toilets whose descriptions are available on the internet. In North America these devices are sold primarily for use in vacation homes or on boats. We will evaluate them for these purposes, based mainly on online comments. From an engineering point of view, we will examine the key materials-handling aspects of these different models, and attempt to predict which features might be most useful in a “global toilet”.

Fully-Composting Small Toilets

There are a number of composting toilets sold where the compositing unit is located on a floor below the actual throne. These “remote” composting toilets include the venerable Clivus Multrum and the newer Phoenix. These are large and fairly expensive (typically over $5000) units, sometimes servicing commercial establishments. Sun-Mar, Envirolet and EcoTech offer remote composting toilets for around $2500-3000 for full-time family use. (All prices here are approximate).

Several manufacturers offer compact or “self-contained” composting toilets where the composting chamber is built into the toilet itself. These toilets are the focus of this review. These units typically include apparatus for stirring the wastes to promote aeration. The higher-capacity models use electric heating and air flow to evaporate urine. To handle excess liquid accumulation, an emergency liquid overflow tube leads to some outside drainage spot such as a gravel-filled hole. These liquids are fecal-contaminated “black-water”, so they require careful disposition.

Forced-air ventilation to the outside serves to promote urine evaporation and mitigate odors. Final composted product is removed from a tray or drawer situated below the main chamber. This may or may not require further composting.

Some models are aimed at sites with only solar electricity. These toilets would have 12-volt motors for the ventilation fan, and no electric heating of the main toilet. Non-electric models are also made. These rely on natural convection up a vent stack to move air through the toilet.

Three leading manufacturers of these devices are Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet (Mulltoa). We will describe the workings of these devices, and note the positive and negative comments and reviews from the internet.

Sun-Mar Self-Contained Toilets ($1850 for Excel model)

The signature hardware feature of Sun-Mar units is their drum-shaped composting chamber, as shown in the figures below. Shown on the left is the Excel, which is their most popular model. This is claimed to service up to four people full-time. Like the other manufacturers, Sun-Mar makes units of varied sizes and capacities.

Exterior and innards of Sun-Mar composting toilet. http://toilet-composting.com/what-are-composting-toilets/

Exterior and innards of Sun-Mar composting toilet. http://toilet-composting.com/what-are-composting-toilets/

Components of Sun-Mar composting toilet. Source: http://sun-mar.com/tech_our.html

Components of Sun-Mar composting toilet. Source: http://sun-mar.com/tech_our.html

Waste drops into the drum through an inlet port on the top side. A bulking peat moss/ wood shaving mixture is also added daily. Liquid drains from the drum through a screen down to the evaporation tray, which can be electrically heated. Every few days the user turns a crank to rotate the drum, to aerate and distribute the contents. The unit is designed to maintain the optimal moisture content (40-60%) for composting. The door over the inlet port is automatically closed during rotation. Every few months, depending on usage, it is time to drop some material from the drum to the finishing tray. This is done by releasing a locking switch and rotating the drum backwards. The material then sits on the finishing tray for at least a month to finish composting and to dry off. If all goes well, the final product is dry and ready to be strewn upon flower beds:

Envirolet Self-Contained Toilets (e.g. MS-10 $2400)

Cutaway view of Envirolet composting toilet. http://www.envirolet.com/scienbehen.html

Cutaway view of Envirolet composting toilet. http://www.envirolet.com/scienbehen.html

Envirolet claims their main AC-powered MS-10 model can handle six full-time users. Their 12-volt and non-electric models have lower capacity, since they cannot evaporate liquids as fast.

With the Envirolet self-contained toilet, the user opens a trap door, does his business, and closes the trap. The waste drops onto a perforated holding tray. Warm air is blown across this tray to evaporate liquids. Peat moss (daily) and Compost Accelerator (weekly) are added to aid composting. About once a week the upper handle on the front is pulled back and forth to move “mulcherator” metal blades through the contents in the holding tray, for distribution and aeration. The contents are emptied several times a year. From the operation manual, the procedure for emptying is as follows: (a) Don’t use the toilet for 2-3 days. If contents still look wet, add dry peat moss and stir and wait. (b) Remove the bottom panel in front. (c) Work the lower handle (Rake Bar) back and forth a few inches to get material to drop down from the bottom of the main chamber to the emptying tray. Keep checking that the tray is not getting overfilled. (d) You may need to remove more than one tray-full. Ideally the product is dry and finished, similar to the Sun-Mar product. The material can be left for several weeks on the emptying tray within the toilet to dry further, as long as the material in the main chamber is not so wet that liquids drip onto the emptying tray below.

Biolet Composting Toilets ( $1800 for Biolet 10 [3 users],   $2800 for Biolet 65 [4 users] )

Figure of Biolet 10 or 20 toilet from owner’s manual. http://www.biolet.com/support/articles/BioLet-10-Standard-20-Deluxe-Manual.pdf

Figure of Biolet 10 or 20 toilet from owner’s manual. http://www.biolet.com/support/articles/BioLet-10-Standard-20-Deluxe-Manual.pdf

The Swedish Mulltoa toilets are sold as Biolet in the U.S. and Ecoethic in Canada. Waste drops into a main compost chamber. Warmed air is circulated across the top of the chamber to evaporate liquids. Mixing arms attached to a central shaft distribute and aerate the contents. The trapdoor sealing the opening down into this chamber is normally closed, but opens mechanically when the user sits down on the seat. Thus, the user typically does not see the contents of the chamber. The toilet is initially loaded with several gallons of a special mulch mixture sold by Biolet, and another half-cup is added after every fecal use. The user manual gives a recipe if you want to make your own mulch. It is mainly fine (peat moss) and coarse (wood shaving) fibrous material, plus a little soil, molasses, perlite, and grain hulls.

After each use of the toilet, the mixing shaft is rotated, by hand or automatically by electric power. With each mixing event, some material filters down through holes in the bottom of the composting chamber and onto the humus tray below. Excess liquid will also accumulate with the solid material on that tray. The user needs to monitor the dampness of the material in the chamber, and adjust the heater thermostat accordingly. If the heat setting is too low, the material will be too wet to compost well and be hard to stir, and fecal-contaminated liquids will make a sloppy mess on the bottom humus tray and possibly overflow the tray into the base of the toilet. If the heat setting is too high, the material will dry out and become too hard to turn the mixer.

Every six months, or sooner if needed, the humus tray is emptied. It is recommended to first spread out a plastic sheet on the floor. If the liquid level inside is high, the humus on the tray is likely to be wet, and it may be necessary to carry the toilet outside to empty it. Wet or merely moist, this product should be placed in a compost pile for further stabilizing.

Biolet also offers the BTS 33 ($1200), which seems to be the essentially the same as the EZ-Loo Air and the Biolet 30 NE. This has few moving parts, and is aimed at sites with no electricity. The human waste is deposited in a bin in the toilet. Mulch is added regularly. The bin is changed out or emptied when it gets full. Air is drawn through the unit and up a vent pipe by natural convection. Liquids that overflow the bin are drained through a drain nipple.

Customer Experiences with Biolet, Envirolet, and Sun-Mar Self-Contained Composting Toilets

The vendor websites provide plenty of testimonies from satisfied customers, so these devices do work for some people. However, there are a number of complaints to be found on more neutral sites like Amazon. (I will assume these comments are genuine, although they could be the work of trolls or shills).

A serious problem is that the liquid overflow drains are prone to plugging with goo and fine mulch material, which can lead to fecal liquids dripping out onto the floor: “When the drain clogs you never know it till you walk in the bathroom and the floor is covered with brown stinking pee/crap soup. Its horrible”.  The user might need to regularly reach deep inside the unit to proactively keep the entrance to the drain cleared. Also, it is important to ensure the drain tube is sloped downhill over its entire length.

Biolet and Envirolet products seem to come in for the most criticism. There are many passionate and seemingly well-grounded complaints about these units, e.g. at Compare The Brands , at The Poop Report , and (regarding the Biolet 30 NE)  at Amazon.  For instance, a commenter at The Poop Report wrote:

I also have an envirolet self-contained electric model. Two of my neighbors do as well. We all have frustrations with these units. Just as poop’n steve mentioned, you need to use a stick to move the poop around. The mulcherator doesn’t work well. The unit needs to be emptied frequently, and because it’s a continuous composter, you always get fresh, uncomposted poop mixed in with the stuff you’re trying to get rid of. Flies get in, but if you screen the vent to keep flies out, the unit leaks water back inside and makes a mess. The rake bar usually gets stuck, so you can’t use the nifty emptying tray, and instead you need to empty the unit with a trowel, mixing fresh poop in with your composted poop. I have a PhD in ecology, and I’ve been composting out in the garden for 20 years. But I still find this toilet incredibly fussy. Either it gets too dry, and the poop turns into rocks and stops composting, or else it gets too wet, and turns anaerobic. Toilet paper doesn’t break down. On and on. Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for composting toilets. But get a remote model! And get a batch model, so that your poop can compost separately before you empty the unit. Continuous, compact models don’t work.

Liquids management seems to be a key challenge. It may be that the users are not following all the instructions carefully. Just pulling out a product tray without taking care and time (up to several days of avoiding toilet use) will likely result in wet, nasty product. However, the design of the Envirolet and Biolet toilets allows liquids to easily get out of balance. These systems rely on warm air circulation to evaporate moisture from the solids. Perhaps these vendors should devise an electronic sensor for the moisture level in the compost in the chamber, which would then automatically adjust the heater to maintain the desired moisture.  Another problem seems to be unrealistically high claims for the number of full-time users; probably these units cannot actually evaporate the liquid fast enough for four to six people, even with electric power. The capacity of the non-electric versions will be even lower, especially in humid regions where liquids will not naturally evaporate well. These versions will be especially dependent on functioning overflow drains.

User satisfaction seems higher for Sun-Mar toilets than for the other two vendors. The drum design gives good aeration without trying to force mixer blades though the solids, and allows excess liquids to immediately drain away from the solids. Having a tray dedicated to liquid evaporation allows its heater setting to be automatically controlled. The isolated product tray allows material to sit there for weeks while finishing and drying out. Also, Sun-Mar seems to rate the capacity of its units more realistically. Nevertheless, even Sun-Mar units require attention and adjustments, are subject to occasional mechanical failures and insect infestations, and have a few deeply-dissatisfied customers (especially for the 12V or non-electric models).

A remote composting toilet allows a much bigger waste-handling unit to be located on a floor below. Most of these remote units have similar moving parts as the compact versions, but with greater capacity to evaporate liquids. Ecotech offers a batch “Carousel” model, which has four separate compartments into which the waste drops. When a compartment is filled, it is rotated away to quietly compost for several months, and a new compartment is positioned beneath the throne.

Regarding the compact units in general, Toilet-Composting.com  opines:

Because of their small size, self-contained composting units only have a limited capacity. If there are more than two individuals using the toilet year round, a self-contained composting toilet system is not for you. In fact, even two individuals may overburden many models, and you need to choose your model carefully if for more than one individual. Self-contained composting toilets are probably most ideal for occasional usage in cottages or seasonal and vacation homes, or for year around usage by a single individual.

Urine-Diverting Toilets

Another class of small waterless toilets solves the problem of liquids by separating them at the source. Part of the waste opening is occupied by an inclined tray which directs the urine to a different destination than the solids. The solids typically drop into a mulch-filled container, which is stirred with a crank to mix the solids with the mulch. Four such toilets are discussed here. The first three units were initially developed for use on boats, so they are compact.

Nature’s Head ($950)

Two views of the Nature’s Head toilet are shown above. The lower chamber is initially filled with 2 gallons (1 U.S. gallon= 3.8 liters) of composting material, such as dampened peat moss or similar material. Urine runs to the front of the toilet, and drains into the liquid waste vessel. Reportedly, the urine-diverting feature is not hard for users (men or women) to get used to. Some mindfulness is required regarding one’s positioning.

The trap door is opened with a lever for solids deposition into the lower chamber. After use, the crank is turned several times to mix the solids into the peat. The unit comes with an electric exhaust fan installed. The user runs the vent line to the outside as part of the installation. Air flow through the unit flow prevents smells, and provides fresh air for the composting process. Below is a view down into the lower chamber, showing the agitator which is turned with the crank.

View down into lower half of Nature’s Head, showing agitator and the composting mixture. http://natureshead.net/user_guide.html

View down into lower half of Nature’s Head, showing agitator and the composting mixture. http://natureshead.net/user_guide.html

For two people with full-time use, the liquid waste vessel (2.2 gallon capacity) is emptied about every two days and the solid waste needs to be emptied every 1-2 months. As feces dry down and decompose, their volume decreases considerably. After waiting at least 6 hours from the latest use of the toilet for solids, the top half of the toilet is removed and set aside. The bottom half is carried outside and emptied by inverting with a plastic bag over it. In use, the agitator mashes the solid waste in with the peat moss, so it is aerated, partly dried, and gets a good start on the composting process. The material inside the lower half of the unit appears much like plain peat moss, with an “earthy” smell. It should be dumped into an outdoors composting bin to finish it. On a boat, the product can be stored until landfall, then thrown in a dumpster, as one might dispose of soiled diapers. After emptying, the toilet is put back in its place (no need to specially clean it) and refilled with peat moss.

Air Head Toilet ($1000)

Air Head Urine-Diverting Toilet http://airheadtoilet.com/

Air Head Urine-Diverting Toilet http://airheadtoilet.com/

The Air Head toilet is very similar to Nature’s Head. The urine container is easier to remove. To prevent soiling the toilet bowl, many users put down a disk of paper (shaped like a coffee filter but flimsier material), make their solids deposit on that, and then open the trap door to let it all drop into the lower compartment.   A comparison of Air Head and Nature’s Head features appears on the Wooden Boat Forum . There is an Air Head vs. Nature’s Head vs. C-Head discussion at Cruiser Forums.

C-Head Toilet (About $600)

The C-Head has operational similarities to Nature’s Head and Air Head, but is constructed differently. It looks more like a piece of furniture and less like a marine head, and comes in several versions. Pictures of the C-Head are shown below. The black crank handle shown lying on the floor is inserted through the hole at the back of the toilet seat to rotate the compost agitator.

C-Head Urine-Diverting Toilet. Photos by Sandy Graves.

C-Head Urine-Diverting Toilet. Photos by Sandy Graves.

Urine is collected in a standard one-gallon plastic jug. Solids go into a 5-gallon bucket, partly filled with peat moss or similar material. The C-head is stirred after use, but the agitator action is different from the other two toilets. The agitator is a small, single-bladed sloped paddle rotating on a vertically-oriented shaft. Rather than mashing the feces, this agitator mainly stirs the peat moss and turns it over, coating the feces and forming them into 2-3 inch spheres whose surface quickly dries out to minimize odors. This form-factor of the solid waste can be advantageous in disposal. Unlike any of the other composting toilets discussed here, the C-Head does not need a ventilation hose hook-up. Thus, it can be easily moved around.

The liquid capacity is about half that of Nature’s Head or Air Head toilets, so for two people it may need emptying every day. This involves raising the top of the unit and lifting out the one-gallon jug. Filled jugs can be stored or emptied as appropriate. An external urine diverter can be installed to drain the urine to an external tank or to a gravel-filled pit, obviating the need to swap out jugs. For emptying the solids, the internal 5-gallon bucket is removed and dumped into a composting area or into a longer-term storage bucket.

Separett ($1400)

The Swedish-made Separett sends the urine to a drain tube. Forced ventilation of the toilet is required to eliminate smells and to aid solids drying, using AC or 12-volt power.

Normally a trap door covers the opening to the solid waste container, so the user is spared the sight of its contents. When the user sits down on the seat, this flap is automatically opened and the solid waste container below is incrementally rotated so it fills evenly. The user experience is like using a conventional toilet. There is no regular mulch addition and no working of levers before, or stirring of contents afterward.

The solid waste container is a bucket, lined with a biodegradable plastic bag. After perhaps two months (for two full-time users), the toilet is opened and the waste container is lifted out. It is taken outdoors, some dirt is added on top of the waste, and it sits for six months with a loose lid on it to inactivate any human pathogens. Then it can be added to a mulch pile for final composting or discarded elsewhere. Thus, there will always be several containers aging in the back yard.

Left: Looking down at Separatt. Liquid drain hole is in front. Blue trap door covers solid waste opening. Right: Removing solid waste container, after installing lid on it. http://www.separett.eu/villa-9000-en

Left: Looking down at Separatt. Liquid drain hole is in front. Blue trap door covers solid waste opening. Right: Removing solid waste container, after installing lid on it. http://www.separett.eu/villa-9000-en

User Experiences with Urine-Diverting Toilets

In on-line forums and reviews, user reports on all four of these devices have been overwhelmingly positive. They perform exactly as they claim. The handling of a clear liquid stream and of a fairly dry mulch/solids accumulation is straightforward. These toilets can handle visits from a beer-swilling crowd, as long as the host keeps up with emptying the urine collection vessel. For a fixed application like a vacation home, the chore of emptying the urine can be eliminated by installing a drain tube for the liquids. Because this stream is clear liquid with few pathogens, it can be hooked up to a gray-water drain system, or drained to a small gravel-filled pit. A heater for the outside portion of the drain line might be needed to prevent freezing in winter.

A fold-up urine-diverting toilet is available for camping or emergencies. With this Rescue Kit, liquids go into a tube which can drain into a jug or a hole in the ground, while solids go into compostable bags. A do-it-yourself kit is also available:

Rescue Kit folding urine-diverting toilet ($129) and Separett Privy Kit ($129) from Ecovita. http://www.ecovita.net/products.html

Rescue Kit folding urine-diverting toilet ($129) and Separett Privy Kit ($129) from Ecovita. http://www.ecovita.net/products.html

Urine-diverting toilets are also made for use in a squatting position, which is common in southeast Asia.

2-hole (pink) and 3-hole (blue) urine diversion ceramic squatting pan from Indian NGO EEDS. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urine-diverting_dry_toilet

2-hole (pink) and 3-hole (blue) urine diversion ceramic squatting pan from Indian NGO EEDS. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urine-diverting_dry_toilet

Bucket/Compost System: Loveable Loo ($50 – $300)

The “Loveable Loo” has a following among the ecologically conscious. Popularized by “humanure” apostle Joseph Jenkins, it consists of a wooden box with a toilet seat on top, and a large (e.g. five-gallon) plastic bucket within. There is a bin of sawdust nearby, with a scoop in it. After you do your business, you throw a scoop of sawdust on top of it. There is reportedly almost no odor, if sufficient sawdust is used. The use of peat moss is frowned upon, since that is not a sustainable material (peat is cut from bogs far faster than it can regrow).

About once a week, a new bucket is swapped in. The full bucket is covered with a lid and carried to an on-site composting station. A typical composting station might occupy about 4 feet by 13 feet, consisting of two composting bins (one for this year’s waste, the other digesting last year’s waste) with a roofed sawdust pile in the middle. The bucket’s contents are dumped on the active pile, and more sawdust is added on top. The bucket is then rinsed out. After sitting for a year, the humanure is transformed to clean, fertile compost.

For $299, including shipping, all this can be yours:

Many users make their own toilet box, and just purchase a toilet seat and some buckets. Most user comments for this toilet are enthusiastic. The folks who install this system are typically self-reliant and are proud of living out a commitment to sustainability. The danger of spreading infections is low if humanure compost is used only on one’s own family garden.

However, the carrying and emptying of the filled buckets is not a task that a small or frail person can do comfortably and safely. Many people are averse to handling the waste of non-family members. A writer at Toilet-Composting.com recounts his experience with this system in an eco-village in Missouri:

A rotational system was put in place whereby each member had a shift for emptying and cleaning the five gallon buckets into the humanure compost bins. It is probably no surprise that this rotation was not very popular in the village. Many members came up with often quite elaborate excuses to get out of the humanure rotation when their turn came up, and it was a source of considerable tension in the village…During the hot summer months, the compost buckets became quite foul smelling and also very liquid in nature, so it was difficult to empty them into the bins without having quite a bit of fecal matter splashing onto your clothes and body.

The basic bucket can be used with an even smaller footprint, by placing a toilet seat directly atop it. For short-term use, the Luggable Loo  (about $30) gets favorable reviews. Users typically line it with a plastic bag and add material which absorbs essentially all the liquids. The used bags are often thrown in the trash, although they could be emptied onto a compost heap. This is not meant for extended use by large families.

Luggable Loo

Luggable Loo

Some Global Takeaways

Even gadget-savvy North Americans can be challenged to make in-situ composting toilets work for them. This suggests that these devices would not translate well to more traditional cultures. It remains to be seen whether a novel, more fool-proof small device can be developed which economically performs desired transformations on human waste within a user’s home. Positive results for Latin America are claimed for larger, remote-type composting toilets built to serve large families or small neighborhoods, and serviced by professionals.

Collection of combined (liquid and solid) waste by low-wage workers, and careful composting at central locations by highly-trained workers, seems like a viable model for sanitation in very low-income areas. To kill off all pathogens in human waste requires certain combinations of temperature and time for the compost, and care to not mix fresh waste in with aged material. Because of the high nitrogen content of urine, additional cellulosic mulch must be added to achieve the optimal carbon:nitrogen ratio for composting.

If the users can adapt to them, urine-diverting toilets offer some advantages. This Wikipedia article describes projects using urine-diverting toilets in Haiti, South Africa, and elsewhere. The urine is typically directed to a pit, leaving a greatly reduced volume of the solid waste to deal with. The solids are collected to be composted, or to be dried down to kill pathogens.

The major nutrients in plant fertilizer components are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Urine contains most of the nitrogen and potassium, and about half of the phosphorus, produced in human waste. Urine is relatively sterile, although this is not guaranteed. With proper precautions, the separated urine can be directly applied as fertilizer, as described in Scientific American (“Gee Whiz: Human Urine Is Shown to Be an Effective Agricultural Fertilizer”). This usage would accomplish at least some of the goals set out in the Gates Toilet Challenge.

Posted in Sustainability | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Soft Tissue” Found in Dinosaur Bones

For fossils as old as dinosaurs (over 65 million years), the conventional wisdom has been that no original organic material could remain. If the delicate structure of soft body parts is discernable, that is only because these parts were converted to some type of inorganic mineral in the fossilization process. However, over the past two decades, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer has rocked our world by presenting visual evidence of soft tissues recovered from the interior of dinosaur bones, and biochemical evidence indicating that these are in fact the remnants of the original cells and structures from within the dinosaur bone pores. For instance, here is a network of blood vessels, containing little round red things that look like red blood cells:

High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer, et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex”, Science, 307 (2005) 1952 [6].

High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer, et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex”, Science, 307 (2005) 1952 [6].

Young earth creationists have widely cited these findings as evidence that dinosaur fossils cannot really be millions of years old, and so the rock layers (radioactively dated to more than 65 million years of age) cannot really be millions of years old – – and so the whole old-earth dating edifice collapses. There have been some responses to these young earth claims by mainstream scientists, but many of these responses are sketchy or outdated. I read through most of Schweitzer’s papers on this topic, and reviewed the key findings from them in a 25-page article, which I posted as “Dinosaur Soft Tissue”, along with other long essays at the top of this blog window.  If you want lots of facts and literature references, that is the place to go. For those who do not want to wade through all that information, here are some key takeaways:

TISSUES AND PROTEINS IDENTIFIED IN DINOSAUR BONES

These remarks pertain mainly to thighbones from two dinosaur specimens, a T. rex (approx. 68 million years old) and a duckbill hadrosaur (approx. 80 million years old). In both cases, the fossils had been buried in sandstone (which may help wick away destructive enzymes from the corpse) and the fossils were analyzed within a relatively short time after excavation, which minimized degradation from sudden exposure to a new set of environmental conditions.

After dissolving away the mineral portion of the bone with weak acid, various types of flexible structures have been recovered. They conform to the microscopic pores of the bone in which they had resided, so they are mainly viewed under a microscope. These structures include transparent, branching hollow vessels corresponding to the blood vessels found in modern animals (e.g. ostriches), and also what look like modern osteocyte cells. Various biochemical tests have indicated that these structures are composed of animal protein, showing that they derive from the original dinosaur tissue, as opposed to being merely biofilms produced by microbes which invaded the bone pores.

What look like red blood cells in the dinosaur blood vessels under the microscope are not cells at all. They are little clusters of iron oxide.

The proteins which have been identified include collagen, actin, and tubulin. These are known to have structures which are resistant to degradation, especially when they are crosslinked. Tests indicate that these proteins from the dinosaur bones are indeed highly crosslinked, which appears to be a key aspect of their longevity.

Iron from blood hemoglobin can be highly effective in promoting this crosslinking and in general passivating the reactive groups on the proteins. Schweitzer’s group performed a dramatic experiment to demonstrate this effect, using modern ostrich blood vessels: the blood vessels which were incubated in a solution of hemoglobin (extracted from the red blood cells of chicken and ostrich) showed no signs of degradation for more than two years. In contrast, the ostrich vessels in plain water showed significant degradation within three days, which is more than 240 times faster degradation than with the hemoglobin. The osteocyte cell remnants from dinosaur fossils are essentially coated with iron-rich nanoparticles.

Beside the effect of iron, being in contact with the mineral walls of the pores, and being sealed in tiny pores, away from the enzymes and other body chemicals, can act to preserve remnants of the original proteins. Also, if soft tissue is initially dried out before it decays, it undergoes changes that make it more stable even if it is later rehydrated. Thus,  several plausible mechanisms are known to help explain the preservation of these flexible tissues, and there are likely other factors yet to be discovered.

WIDE VARIATIONS IN TISSUE DECAY RATES

There are plenty of other examples of wide difference in the rates of tissue degradation, besides the ostrich blood vessels cited above. For instance, raw meat may spoil in a few days at room temperature, but will keep for weeks in a refrigerator, and for years if it is frozen or (in the case of country hams) if it is treated with salt and smoke. All the flesh can decay off a human face within a month if a body is left outside. However, this chap found in a Danish peat bog looks pretty fresh after more than 2200 years, demonstrating a difference of more than 25,000 (1 month versus 2200 years) in decay rates:

Tollund bog-man. Source: Wikipedia, “Tollund Man”

Tollund bog-man. Source: Wikipedia, “Tollund Man”

Thus, protein and soft tissue decomposition rates vary enormously, depending on the conditions. Some academics have done lab studies of protein degradation using accelerated conditions of high temperature and high acidity, but it is not valid to extrapolate those results to proteins locked in the pores of dinosaur bones. The reality is that we don’t know, with any precision, how fast proteins degrade under the conditions found in dinosaur fossil bones. So it is incorrect to claim that we know that it is impossible for soft tissue to survive in any form for 80 million years. And so the whole young earth case here falls apart.

In contrast, the rates of nuclear decomposition of elements have been measured over and over again, and found to be essentially invariant. As discussed in the main article there are a few conditions where nuclear decay can be accelerated, but these conditions are known and predictable, and do not apply to the rock layers in Montana where these dinosaur fossils were found.

Thus, it is absurd and insupportable to set aside the radioactive dating of these rock layers because some partly degraded soft tissue has been found in dinosaur fossils from those layers. That is probably the key conclusion from that long article on soft tissue in dinosaur fossils.

Some other topics covered there include the dinosaur-bird connection, the significance of trace indications of DNA, and Mary Schweitzer’s views on this controversy. She happens to be a devout evangelical Christian, who weathers defamatory emails from her young-earth brethren. She seems to handle that with grace, and finds that her view of the Creator has been enriched, not diminished, as she learns more about the complexities of the natural world.

The main driver for folks to hold to a young earth perspective is that they have been taught that this is the only faithful way to handle the Bible creation story. However, that is not the case:   the Reasons to Believe site here lists about 40 well-known, impeccably 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 wrote, 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.” A hermeneutical case for an old earth interpretation of Genesis is made by Reasons to Believe, and by the Christian geologists at Old Earth Ministries.

Posted in Age of Earth, Dinosaurs, Fossils | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Evidences for a Young Earth

Mainstream science holds the earth to be about 4.5 billion years old, with a surface sculpted by geologic processes such as plate tectonics and erosion and sediment deposition operating over many millions of years. In contrast, Young Earth (YE) creationism holds the earth to have been created only about 6,000 years ago, as indicated by a literal interpretation of Genesis. The worldwide Noahic Flood was responsible for laying down most of the earth’s sedimentary rock layers in the span about of one year.

Those who believe the earth to be very old can present observations such as 50,000 annual layers in lake sediments and in glacier ice cores, which appear to be incompatible with a young earth, as we  described earlier in “ Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth “.

Young Earth creationist organizations such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research counter by presenting various evidences for a young earth. These evidences take the form of observations which, it is claimed, cannot be reconciled with long ages.

As an example of these young earth evidences, here is a slide shown by Ken Ham as part of his debate with Bill Nye in February, 2014:

Ken Ham slide from Bill Nye Debate Feb 2014

Ken Ham slide from Bill Nye Debate Feb 2014

The claim is that the physical evidences for the processes listed in this slide are not consistent with a very old earth.   For instance, item #1 in this list refers to the claim that helium is accumulating so fast in the atmosphere that if the earth were really billions of years old, the helium level would be much higher than we see today. Item #26 claims that the amount of uranium in the oceans, given the amount of uranium being washed in by rivers, is so low that the earth cannot be more than a few million years old.  We will examine these particular claims below.

Henry Morris’s Lists of “Uniformitarian Estimates” of the Age of the Earth

Where do YE creationists come up with their lists of evidence for a young earth? Henry Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood (1961), is widely acknowledged as the father of the modern young earth creationist movement. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he published various versions of a table titled “Uniformitarian Estimates – Age of the Earth”. This table had typically 68 to 76 entries, each one purporting to represent a physical “Process” which yielded an “Estimated Age of the Earth”.

Before diving into this list, consider the following: Lake Erie is one of several large lakes lying between the U.S. and Canada. If you divide the volume of the lake by the volumetric flow of all the rivers entering it, you come up with 2.6 years as the average residence time of water in the lake. In other words, if Lake Erie was initially a big empty hole in the ground, and its tributaries suddenly began flowing into it, it would take 2.6 years to fill it to its present size. Does this mean that Lake Erie has only existed for 2.6 years? Of course not: there is an outlet (the Niagara River) that balances the water that is entering Lake Erie, so the lake has existed in its present form for thousands of years with the water at roughly the same level as today.  It would be absurd to ignore the outlet from the lake, and to insist that Lake Erie cannot not be more than 2.6 years old since it has not yet overflowed its basin. As we shall see, this type of absurd reasoning underlies many of the items in Morris’s table.

One version of the Henry Morris “Uniformitarian Estimates” table with 76 entries is here, as part of an article by Morris describing his methodology.   Another Morris table with 70 entries is here . Here are the first 17 and the last 11 entries from that table (we skip the middle entries for compactness):

Uniformitarian Est Age Earth Table Part 1 Uniformitarian Est Age Earth Table Part 2

Morris claims that these estimates of the maximum age of the earth all are much less than the 4.5 billion years posited by mainstream science, and thus the earth cannot be as old as the scientists say.

Misrepresenting Elements Dissolved in the Ocean

Nearly half of these “Uniformitarian Estimates” deal with influx of elements to the ocean. These “Estimates” are all utterly bogus. The numbers cited here are simply the amount of each element in the ocean divided by the current influx rate of that element, i.e. the residence time. As with the 2.6 year residence time of the water in Lake Erie, this says nothing about the age of the ocean. Morris is assuming that there is no mechanism of removal of these elements from the ocean, so that (for instance) the current level of strontium would build up (starting from zero) in a mere 19 million (not 4.5 billion) years. But this assumption of no removal of the elements is dead wrong.  The rates of removal of most of the elements from the ocean water by various types of deposition in the ocean sediments is in well-understood, and matches the rates of their influx via rivers within experimental accuracy. This can be seen easily with the 100-year residency of aluminum and the 140-year residency of iron (entry 60 in the table excerpt above). Clearly, there are processes by which iron and aluminum are being removed from the water column, since their seawater concentrations are NOT doubling every century. The figure below illustrates what Morris omitted:

Elements In Out Ocean Fig

The same is true for the other elements. For instance, in the case of uranium, a 2002 study of the Holocene oceans by Dunk, et al. quantified the specific processes involved with removal of uranium from seawater (removal to oxygen-depleted sediments, incorporation into biogenic carbonate,  crustal sequestration during hydrothermal alteration and seafloor weathering, etc.), and found that that “the input and output fluxes balance within the calculated errors.”

It is gross deception to present these residency times as estimates of the maximum age of the earth. It is obvious that there are removal processes which largely balance the addition of the elements to the ocean. This has been pointed out to YE creationists for decades, but they persist in referring to these Morris tables when they wish to pad their list of young earth evidences. For instance, if you inspect Ken Ham’s slide (“HUNDREDS OF PHYSICAL PROCESSES SET LIMITS ON THE AGE OF THE UNIVERSE” – shown above) from his 2014 debate with Bill Nye, you will see many known-to-be-bogus items recycled from this old Henry Morris list, including “Uranium in Sea” and “Potassium in Sea”.

In 1990, YE creationists Steven Austin and Russell Humphreys updated the YE case regarding sodium in the oceans by listing processes that both add sodium and remove sodium. They chose their lists such that the sodium additions outpaced removals, allowing them to conclude that the oceans could be no more than 62 million years old.

In 1996 Glenn Morton (who had been a YE creationist until contact with geological data forced him to change his mind) wrote Austin and Humphreys an open letter, pointing out several key sodium removal processes which they had ignored or underestimated; when those processes were included, there was a reasonably close balance between sodium addition and removal, and thus the young earth case fails. In the regular scientific literature over the past two decades, there has been on-going progress in understanding the complex oceanic life-cycle of sodium. For instance, a 2005 study by Holland  found no long-term imbalance between sodium input and removal.

Nevertheless, in 2012 Andrew Snelling of Answers in Genesis recycled the 1990 YE claims on sodium in the ocean (“Very Little Salt in the Sea”) as one of the “10 Best Evidences From Science That Confirm a Young Earth”.  Snelling declined to correct the known errors in the 1990 article, as the Age of Rocks blog revealed in a series of three articles  here, here , and here .

Declining Magnetic Field and Helium in the Atmosphere

There are many other YE claims that the YE creationists continue to press, even after they have been shown to be false. For instance, measurements of the strength of the earth’s magnetic field show that it has been decaying for the last several hundred years.  If you assume a constant rate of decline and extrapolate backwards in time, these calculations give impossibly high values by say 10,000 years ago. The claim is therefore made that the earth must be younger than that.

The key, fatal flaw in this argument is the assumption of a constant rate of decline. There is no reason to believe that the rate of change in the magnetic field a thousand years ago or ten thousand years ago was the same as observed in the last two centuries. On the contrary, there is abundant evidence  that the strength of the earth’s magnetic field fluctuates up and down with time, and even completely reverses after thousands of years.

This is illustrated below, in the form of the symmetric stripes of reversed magnetic polarity which appear on either side of a mid-ocean ridge where liquid magma is injected from the mantle below. As the magma cools and solidifies to form solid sea-floor rock, it locks in the current orientation of the earth’s magnetic field. The newly-formed sea-floor moves away on either side of the ridge like a conveyer belt, showing the matching magnetic stripes on both sides. This all has been known since the 1960’s.

Seafloor Magnetic Reversals. Source: Wikipedia article “Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis”    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vine%E2%80%93Matthews%E2%80%93Morley_hypothesis

Seafloor Magnetic Reversals. Source: Wikipedia article “Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vine%E2%80%93Matthews%E2%80%93Morley_hypothesis

Therefore we would expect the magnetic field to be routinely increasing or decreasing in strength at any given time, and so the recent decline is not evidence for a young earth. Nevertheless, YE creationists erroneously continue to claim that it is (e.g. item 1 in the Morris table above, and item 10 in the Ham slide). In 2012, “Rapidly Decaying Magnetic Field“  was listed by Answers in Genesis as one of the “10 Best Evidences From Science That Confirm a Young Earth”.

“Helium in the atmosphere” is item 1 in the Ham slide and item 4 in the Morris table.  A certain amount of helium enters the atmosphere every year as a product of the natural decay of uranium in crustal rocks.  If there were no mechanism for removal of helium from the atmosphere, helium would build up to very high levels over 4.5 billion years. Because the actual helium level is low, the YE creationists claim this shows the earth cannot be very old.  Again, denial of the facts is involved here. Helium is lost to outer space via ionization near the poles, and this loss balances (within experimental uncertainty) the input from uranium decay and explains the current low concentration of helium. This has been known at least since 1996 and has been forcefully pointed out to YE creationists, yet this item still appeared on Ken Ham’s list in 2014.

Out With the Old and In With the New

Although the majority of proven-to-be false arguments for a young earth are retained by YE creationists, in a few cases they have acknowledged that their arguments were incorrect and should no longer be employed. Starting in the 1950’s, YE creationists claimed that human footprints were found among dinosaur footprints in the Paluxy River valley, thus showing that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. After vigilant skeptics like Glen Kuban in the 1980’s demonstrated this to be incorrect, the Institute for Creation Research acknowledged in 1986 that the footprints there were likely not human.

Also, Answers in Genesis has advised abandoning the YE arguments that shrinkage of the sun, or the thinness of the dust layer on the moon, imply a young universe.  (This moon dust claim still resurfaces, however, among internet YE creationists). Creation Ministries International has posted a similar list of “Arguments we think creationists should NOT use“.

As I read these YE creationist retractions, it is clear that they are trying in their own minds to operate with integrity. They carefully sift the most recent evidence, and find that it does not support these particular arguments. Many of these YE authors have some scientific training, and all are devoted believers in a God who commands truthfulness in His followers. It is therefore bizarre that these authors can, in many other instances, promulgate obvious falsehoods. It appears that they are genuinely unable to perceive the vast array of evidence which militates against their young earth worldview. This is an example of the brain’s vigorous effort to avoid cognitive dissonance. This sort of confirmation bias is not a unique failing of YE creationists, but is widely observed in human behavior. As the Wikipedia article on Confirmation Bias notes,  “The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”

(I might add that I was a YE creationist for some years, so I can honor their desire to be faithful to the Word of God despite all that the skeptics throw at them, and I sympathize with the anxiety aroused by considering that perhaps the familiar literal interpretation of Genesis is not correct. My own journey as an evangelical Christian towards finding a hermeneutical approach which comprehends the core teachings of the New Testament and also what science reveals about the history of the physical world is described here: Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2  . )

Even as some YE evidences are formally renounced or just quietly abandoned, new YE arguments are periodically brought forth. As science marches on, there are always some observations at the leading edge of discovery which cannot immediately be accounted for within existing scientific models. YE creationists scan the academic literature and seize on such opportunities to proclaim the failure of old earth science. In most cases, however, it doesn’t take long for scientists to discern how these new discoveries fit seamlessly into the web of natural laws which have been operating for billions of years. Then the YE creationists have the option of deceitfully continuing to claim there is a problem, or abandoning that claim and moving on to some other new, unexplained observation.

Polonium Halos, Folded Rocks, and Soft Dinosaur Tissue

Polonium Halos

For instance, in the late 1970’s YE creationist Robert Gentry claimed that “polonium halos” were inexplicable within an old earth framework. Polonium halos are tiny concentric spheres of coloration in rocks, which seem to result from the radioactive decay of a bit of polonium which was concentrated in that spot. These halos are often found in granite. The apparent dilemma for an old earth is this: in conventional scientific understanding, it takes granite many thousands of years to crystalize from liquid magma. But polonium decays so rapidly that it is essentially gone in a few years. So if there was some polonium in the magma, it would be gone long before the granite solidified enough to register the effects of the polonium decay in the form of halos. Gentry elaborated his views in his 1986 book Creation’s Tiny Mystery, claiming that these halos proved that solid Precambrian granite was formed instantaneously by God on the first Day of creation, with little bits of polonium which decayed in place in a few days or months.

Polonium halos actually did have scientists flummoxed for a few years, and of course the YE creationists were jubilant. In 1988, however, it was noted that some of the granites in which Gentry found polonium halos were formed from magma intrusions into sedimentary rocks. Sedimentary rocks result from processes of erosion and deposition which could only take place after the original Creation. This means that these intrusive granites which contained the halos could not possibly be “primordial creation rocks”. In YE creationist geology, these particular granites must be younger than the Flood.

More recent studies have explained these halos in terms of conventional science by noting that polonium and other radioactive decay intermediates are continually produced from the slow decay of uranium in granite, and so radioactive precursor elements can migrate along microscopic cracks in solidified rocks, and accumulate in one spot long enough for the decay process to produce a halo. Although Gentry himself has never recanted, this evidence has been conclusive enough that most YE creationists have backed away from Gentry’s claims for polonium halos.

Folded Rocks

Another one of Answers in Genesis’s “10 Best Evidences From Science That Confirm a Young Earth” are “Bent Rock Layers”. In this article Andrew Snelling shows photos of bent sedimentary rock layers like this:

Folded Tapeats Sandstone in Carbon Canyon.  Photo by Andrew Snelling. Source: https://answersingenesis.org/geology/rock-layers/2-bent-rock-layers/

Folded Tapeats Sandstone in Carbon Canyon. Photo by Andrew Snelling. Source: https://answersingenesis.org/geology/rock-layers/2-bent-rock-layers/

Snelling states that these layers could only have been thus deformed if they were still in a soft, unconsolidated state immediately following their deposition during the Flood. As Snelling has stated elsewhere,“When solid, hard rock is bent (or folded) it invariably fractures and breaks because it is brittle. Rock will bend only if it is still soft and pliable”.

The uninformed layman may be impressed by this argument, but it is shameful for a PhD geologist like Snelling to make this claim. Obviously, solid rocks at atmospheric pressure and temperature will fracture if you try to bend them. But every geologist knows that since the 1960s geophysicists have been able to attain high temperatures and high pressures in the laboratory which mimic conditions several miles deep in the earth, and have demonstrated that at these conditions and with slow deformation, rocks can easily bend without major fracturing. Here is a picture of this sort of laboratory rock-deforming apparatus:

Rock Deform Apparatus -Pamela Burnley

Source: High Pressure Deformation Experiments   by Pamela C. Burnley

Sedimentary rocks like sandstone and limestone are not fully-densified ceramics, but retain microscopic porosity (this is why they can serve as petroleum reservoirs). These rocks consist of grains bound by tiny, imperfect crystals of materials like calcite or silica. With time, temperature, and the presence of water in the pores, the weaker cementing material can dissolve at pressure points and recrystallize, allowing the main grains to shift past each other during deformation. The high pressure deep in the earth suppresses the formation of major cracks as the rock deforms.  So these bent rock layers are no evidence of a young earth. Age of Rocks has two detailed articles on rock-bending, in 2011 and in 2014, in response to Snelling’s claims.

 

Soft Tissue Found in Dinosaur Bones

Paleontologist Mary Schweitzer has found soft tissue preserved inside the bones of T. Rex and other dinosaurs believed to be over 65 million years old. YE advocates claim that soft tissue could not possibly survive that long, and therefore these dinosaur fossils, and the rock layers they were found in, must be much, much younger than scientists claim.

The short answer here is that the “soft” tissue in the bones is flexible, but it is considerably crosslinked and otherwise altered chemically from its original state. Furthermore, the rate of biological degradation varies enormously, depending on conditions. There is no actual evidence that altered flexible organic matter cannot endure for tens of millions of years.

All this is described in a few pages here: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/soft-tissue-found-in-dinosaur-bones/                     and in more detail here:  https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/dinosaur-soft-tissue/      .

 On-Line Resources To Assess Young Earth Evidences

Hopefully the sampling above suffices to illustrate the quality of the evidence proffered on behalf of the young earth viewpoint. It would be tedious here to grind through all the hundred or so current YE evidences. Although every one of them can be shown to be false, it takes some time in each case to give the necessary background and then to do the debunking. Thus, in a debate format a YE advocate can spew forth dozens of these claims (e.g. with the Ken Ham debate slide above) much faster than a scientist can possibly refute them in the allotted time.

Lists of young earth evidence have been around for many decades. This has given old earth proponents ample time to respond, explaining why these arguments for a young earth are based on incomplete or false information.  The TalkOrigins Archive has been present on the internet since 1995, providing detailed answers to most of these young earth claims. You can use the Search facility within that site to locate answers to the majority of YE claims.

New articles on TalkOrigins  have tapered off since about 2008, but other web sites have continued providing current critical assessments of YE evidences. These include old-earth evangelical Christian sites such as  Old Earth Ministries  ,  Age of Rocks  ,  GodAndScience  ,  the American Scientific Affiliation  , and Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe  . The secular RationalWiki site has a section devoted to answering all 101 evidences for a young earth and universe presented by Don Batten of  Creation Ministries International.

The reader is encouraged to evaluate the old earth explanations given on these sites, as compared to the original young earth articles to which they refer.

Posted in Age of Earth | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution

On October 27, Pope Francis inaugurated a bronze bust in honor of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and gave a talk to the assembled members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. After saying some nice things about Benedict, Francis spoke about science and faith.

The sound bites that got picked up by the press were mainly these:

When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to make everything. However, it was not like that.  He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive at their fullness of being.   He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality. And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all things.

And:

The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature is not opposed to the notion of creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

Pope Evol Speech Oct2014

These quotes by Francis were rightly taken as support of modern cosmology and of evolution. He also noted a distinction between humans and the rest of creation:

With regard to man, however, there is a change and something new. When, on the sixth day of the account in Genesis, man is created, God gives the human being another autonomy, an autonomy that is different from that of nature, which is freedom.

With privilege comes responsibility; on some level God holds man responsible for managing the rest of creation, so man is called to use his faculties to do good science in the service of all humanity:

…this makes him responsible for creation, so that he might steward it in order to develop it until the end of time.   Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the earth, and, of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature.   But, at the same time, the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realize, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the creator.       Then, although limited, man’s action participates in the power of God and is able to build a world suited to his dual corporal and spiritual life; to build a human world for all human beings and not for a group or a class of privileged persons.  This hope and trust in God, the Creator of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit can offer the researcher a new energy and profound serenity.

A less polished English version of his whole speech is given here.  You can watch about a minute of this talk (in Italian, with English subtitles) here.

Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century

This speech was not a radical departure from previous Catholic teachings. The Roman Catholic church has cautiously endorsed Big Bang cosmology and evolution for many decades. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical of 1950, Humani Generis, took a neutral position on human evolution:

The Church does not forbid that … research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.

However, an individual Adam was stipulated as the progenitor of the whole human race. This is not really compatible with normal evolution, which operates on whole populations.   We know from the study of human genomes that there was never a time in the lineage of Homo sapiens when it bottlenecked down to just one man and one woman.

Pope John Paul II gave a more robust endorsement of evolution. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, he referred to developments in science in the decades since Pope Pius’s encyclical:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

While acknowledging the weight of evidence (“more than a hypothesis”) in favor of the physical evolution of living beings, John Paul critiqued the reductionistic view of humans which flows from purely materialistic world-views:

The theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.

John Paul distinguished among different approaches in the study of what it means to be human. While acknowledging the value of detailed physical observations, he noted that philosophical reflection is needed to analyze the bigger questions:

With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.

Of Catholics and Protestants

The Roman Catholic church got off to a bad start at the dawn of the scientific era with burning Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 (mainly for dodgy theology, but that was partly tied to his scientific view of an infinite universe containing other worlds), and then with forcing Galileo to abjure the heliocentric system under threat of imprisonment or worse. The Protestants of that era appeared to be less prone to suppress scientific findings on the basis of dogma.

In the 1500’s, the reformer John Calvin wrote that, in the Genesis creation narrative, God accommodated the story to the limited understanding of common people, rather than giving a scientifically precise account. “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” – – meaning, the Bible was not written for the purpose of telling us about the physical universe. In Calvin’s view, the way to understand the stars and the planets was to go scientifically study them, not to rely on Biblical pronouncements:

Astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend… For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise.

Four centuries later, the tables have turned: the Roman Catholic magisterium is fully cognizant of the physical evidence for the long history of life and of the universe, while the most fervent Protestants are mired in denial of reality, in the forms of young earth creationism and anti-evolution Intelligent Design.

Posted in Evolution, Natural Theology | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Biology Professor Brags About Bullying Religious Students

An Astrophysicist Declaims on Religion

In the opening lecture for his course in cosmology, Professor Gordon Smalley at Mooretown State University routinely includes the following speech:

And now, it is time to share with you The Talk about how atheism and astrophysics get along. More to the point, how they don’t. Some folks believe that religious beliefs and science can be maintained as separate spheres, as “non-overlapping magisteria.” However, these magisteria are not nearly as non-overlapping as some of you might wish.

Theism is comfortable with the sudden creation of the universe. However, a pillar of atheism for centuries has been the notion that the material universe has always existed – – that the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there will ever be. This belief dates back at least to 400 B.C. with the atomistic theory of Democritus, and was carried forward by other classical philosophers such as Epicurus and Lucretius.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it did appear that the universe was a closed mechanical system which had been going on forever. The discoveries of the twentieth century, however, smashed that static picture and sent atheists reeling. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published in 1916, implied that the universe was not static and eternal, but either  expanding or collapsing. To try to maintain an eternally-old universe, Einstein added an arbitrary cosmological constant, which he later admitted to be his “biggest blunder.”

In the 1920’s, Edwin Hubble observed that the light from more-distant galaxies was “red-shifted” to longer wavelengths, indicating that galaxies are all moving away from each other. Georges Lemaitre took these findings as evidence that the universe was expanding from a tiny initial point, which came into being at a point in time some billions of years earlier. This was resoundingly confirmed by the discovery in 1964 of cosmic background radiation predicted by this “Big Bang” theory.

The sudden creation of our entire universe suggests the agency of a very powerful something or someone existing beyond our space-time world. Non-theists have been driven to varying degrees of desperation in order to maintain an eternal, uncreated cosmos. Fred Hoyle maintained a steady-state universe, long after the evidence had turned against it. Bondi and Gold proposed an infinitely-old expanding universe, with matter continually being created out of nothing. Several oscillating universe models have been proposed, involving an endless series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches.  These models all fail, for reasons we shall discuss. Stephen Hawking has tried to obviate a Creator by formulating the Beginning in imaginary numbers, in order to paper over the singularity there. This is merely sleight of hand, since in the real world, in real time, that embarrassing singularity remains.

A few of his students shift uncomfortably in their seats, but he continues:

Today’s atheists largely cling to the notion of an eternal “multiverse”, which burps out an infinite number of expanding universes. While this is consistent with some fashionable physics theories, these parallel universes are inherently undetectable, so believing in them is an act of raw faith.

Moving from desperation to prevarication, we have the spectacle of Lawrence Krauss on the book and lecture circuit, proclaiming that whole universes can pop out of nothing, such that no Creator is needed. It turns out that Krauss gets all his mileage by equivocating on the definition of “nothing.” We have known for many decades that a vacuum which is devoid of detectable particles is not really empty. There are always fluctuating quantum fields, leading to the appearance and rapid disappearance of pairs of virtual particles. The vacuum is also permeated with “dark energy”, which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Even if it were reasonable to extrapolate from the appearance of pairs of particles to the production of a whole universe from the vacuum state, the quantum vacuum is not “nothing.” True “nothing” would involve the absence of the pre-existing quantum fields. This is pretty basic, and a number of scholars have taken Krauss to task here. Krauss also tries to appeal to the Wheeler-Dewitt equation to invoke an even deeper form of “nothing”, but this also fails: this equation deals with a whole collection of spaces, which again are not “nothing.”

Although you atheists don’t have to discard your beliefs in order to inform yourselves about cosmology (or even to pass my course), if you insist on retaining and respecting both, you will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.

“Wait a minute!” you may say, “Is that a fair representation of atheist views of cosmology?”  Or, “Why is an astrophysics professor attacking students’ religious beliefs?” Or, “There must be some mistake; this abuse of professorial power does not really happen!” Or, “I’m going to call an advocacy group to put a stop to this!”

A Biologist Declaims on Religion

The example above is fictional, but the scenario below is not. University of Washington biology professor David Barash recently published an Op Ed in the New York Times, “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class”, in which he describes how he bullies the religious students in his classes in the same manner as the contrived Professor Smalley above. Here are some excerpts:

Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

…There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values… If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms …But here’s the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of [my students] might wish.

…As evolutionary science has progressed… it has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God…. A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on

Barash is annoyed that most of his academic colleagues, like Gould, believe that there is no fundamental conflict between science and religion. He fails to mention that far more eminent scientists than he, such as chemist Henry Schaefer and geneticist Francis Collins, are evangelical Christians. Perhaps the looniest paragraph in his essay is:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

The last sentence is completely delusional. What are the “mental gymnastic routines” which “science” is being asked to do here? Is Professor Gould asking that biologists withhold experimental data which might offend religious sensibilities? Are pastors coming to Professor Barash and asking him to do their thinking for them and provide a theodicy?

In a moment, I will note that his “demolitions” of religion are illusory. But a more basic issue is, why is Barash ranting on theological matters in a biology classroom? As a biologist, he has no special metaphysical insights. He is merely spouting his opinion and using his position of power to cram his religious views down the throats of his students. If they wanted to hear a professor hold forth on theodicy, they would have signed up for a philosophy or theology course.

Obviously there are some students who disagree with him, “shifting uncomfortably in their seats”, but they will not dare challenge the master blowhard in his domain. This is hardly the stuff of liberal education. Among his reviews at Rate My Professors we find this acknowledgement that he does indeed push an atheist agenda in class, from a student who seems to find it entertaining:

He is definitely an atheist and has an agenda to push, but he has some great points and is overall interesting.

Other students are less amused:

…Does not have any sympathy for any other beliefs and tries to throw dirt on those who believe in anything other than his “marvelous” theories.

and

He has a clear agenda to push, as he’s always rambling off topic about how biology proves that God doesn’t exist and requires his books as reading but are useless.

University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne is an atheist who takes every legitimate opportunity to trash theism. However, even he recognizes that what Barash is doing is not legitimate. While Coyne agrees with the content of Barash’s talk, he writes:

…There’s one thing about his piece that bothers me: Barash’s article is about how he tells his animal behavior class that science and religion are incompatible. In other words, he’s making theological arguments at a public university….

But in fact, and this is my beef (a small one, like a filet mignon): Barash may not be accomodating science with religion, but he’s still discussing their relationship, and his view of their incompatibility—in a science class. I wouldn’t do that, especially in a public university. One could even make the argument that he’s skirting the First Amendment here, mixing government (a state university) and religion. After all, if Eric Hedin can’t tell his students in a Ball State University science class that biology and cosmology are compatible with belief in God, why is it okay to say that they’re incompatible with God?

The Crude Ideas blogger is more pointed in his critique:

My understanding is that David Barash works at a public university. Splendid.

Then David Barash should be fired.

 More than that: David Barash’s firing should be demanded by anyone who insists that religion and religious claims must be kept out of the (public) classroom and out of science. He can believe whatever he wants about religion, God, science, theodicy, philosophy, metaphysics and more. What he cannot do is take on the role of a teacher on the public dole, inserting his religious beliefs into a science class.

Both Coyne and Crude point out that if Barash is allowed to present his arguments against religion in science classrooms, then surely Intelligent Design proponents, or more credible theists, should be allowed to present their arguments for religion in those same science classrooms. However, if Intelligent Design or anthropic fine-tuning is discussed favorably by a college science instructor, a lawsuit is often filed against him, or he may face dismissal, denial of tenure, or other harassment. A number of cases could be cited here.  On the other hand, in recent years I am not aware of atheist professors being reined in from pushing their views on students. There appears to be a double standard in academe.

Assessing Barash’s Claims That Evolution Has Demolished Pillars of Faith

We now turn to the three devastating blows to traditional religion delivered by evolution to traditional religion, according to Barash.

(1) Defeat of the Argument from Complexity

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

(2) Dispelling the Illusion That Humans Are Not Part of the Natural World

Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

These are examples of debating trickery, of putting up weak “straw man” versions of your opponent’s position and then knocking them down. Most scholarly theologians long ago forsook the God-of-the-gaps argument exemplified by Paley and by today’s Intelligent Design proponents. For example, while in a Nazi prison in 1944, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of “…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

The Roman Catholic Church, representing some 1.2 billion Christians, has been on board with evolution for decades. In Christian Belief in a Postmodern World Princeton Seminary philosopher Diogenes Allen explained why inserting God into physical gaps is not only bad science, but bad theology: “This is theologically improper because God, as creator of the universe, is not a member of the universe. God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature. According to a Christian conception of God as creator of a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature.”

As we have learned more about the nature of the universe, our appreciation for the wonders of God’s creation has increased, not decreased. What seems like solid matter is found to be mainly empty space, a product of the interaction of probabilistic quantum fields. We now know that this universe had a creation point some 13 billion years ago, with exquisitely tailored physical constants that allow the existence of matter and life, including the intricate story of evolution. More glory for the Creator: A billiard player who can rack up the balls up at the start, give one mighty crack of the cue, and have all the balls ricochet around and then sink in order is far more impressive than the player who works by sinking the balls one at a time.

Barash claims this evolutionary process to be “undirected”, but his biology lab has no instruments for detecting “directedness”. That claim is metaphysical speculation, unconnected to physical science.

Dialing back to New Testament times, Jesus himself stated that “no miraculous sign” would be given to skeptics, apart from his resurrection. An implication of this statement is that the fabric of operations of the physical universe will appear to be seamless. Thus, thoughtful Christians would expect that the development of organisms will occur in conformance with natural regularities.

But Barash ignores this serious theistic position on creation, and instead bashes the uninformed type of design argument held by many lay folk who have been misinformed by the Young Earth creationist and Intelligent Design organizations. In this view, naturalistic processes cannot account for the development of today’s diverse life-forms from primeval cells, and so God (or a comparably capable Intelligent Agent) may be invoked to fill in this apparent gap. Barash is correct that the findings of evolutionary science show this argument to be untenable. But, as explained above, the God-of-the-gaps design argument is not a “potent pillar of religious faith” for most educated theists in the West.

Similarly, the finding of evolutionary science that humans are physically related to other species does nothing to threaten belief in God. All it threatens is the simplistic interpretation of the Genesis narrative which was known from geology by 1840 to be incorrect. Humans were categorized by classical philosophers and Christian scholastics as “animals”, long before modern science. The “image of God” in humans was not thought to be located in some alternate bodily metabolic pathway which could be discoverable by biologists. Human exceptionalism is alive and well, though of course its boundaries shift with time as our knowledge grows of humans and other animals. No other species, for instance, has been observed to write Times op-eds.

Barash’s announcement that, “no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens” is just silly. Christians who reflect on the rationality of nature and on Jesus’ saying about “no signs” were not expecting some supernatural trait to be exhibited in humans. Even if some rare miracles did occur in the human body or brain, they would fall outside the sphere of detection of science, which is concerned with repeatable regularities.

(3) The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Barash’s third big blow against religion is:

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.

Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

This, too, is ridiculous. Theists have known about “predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death” for thousands of years before Darwin. Evolution adds nothing of significance here. Modern science tells us merely that this state of affairs has been going on for millions, not thousands of years.

So, how does a theist cope with the suffering that is “built into the nature of things”? On one level, it is elementary: From the propositions (a) that God is all-good and (b) that God is all-powerful, it is straightforward to infer that He has a morally sufficient reason for the evil and suffering that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. So the alleged “problem of evil” poses no logical challenge to theism at all.

Unbelievers may complain that God has not explained His purposes to their personal satisfaction, or they may try to embarrass theism by calling attention to particularly distressing instances of suffering, but that is emotional propaganda, not rational argument.

This intellectual resolution does not, of course, experientially remove our suffering and our distress over the pain of others. Pain still hurts. That said, for the believer it is comforting and centering to know that beneath all the random, scary, and painful events of life run the good purposes of Almighty God.

The extent to which God is revealed in the natural world is discussed at length in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology . Without trying to summarize that whole article, it is worth noting that in the New Testament perspective this physical world is indeed a place of seemingly unmerited suffering, where nice things and nasty things happen to good people and to evil people with about the same probability. However, all the experiences in this world, which press so heavily on our current perception, are like a blink of an eye or a puff of vapor compared to the intensity and duration of the afterlife.

Nothing in life makes sense, except in the light of eternity. If a man chooses to cut himself off from the hope of a future transformed life and from the current comfort of God’s presence, it is not surprising if he views reality as inconsistent with a good Creator. But this is as much a statement about this man’s presuppositions as it is about the world itself.

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