“Disciple Science” Videos and Podcast on Integrating Faith and Science

This is to call attention to a new organization which is making useful contributions to the faith-science dialog. “Disciple Science” is a crowd-funded nonprofit that is exploring the interface between science and faith, aiming to be faithful to both the core messages of the Bible and to what is discernable in the natural world. Their platforms include YouTube videos, a podcast, a blog, and interactions on Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. The key person driving this effort is Dale Gentry, who I met at the 2019 American Scientific Affiliation annual meeting. In my description of that meeting, I gave a short summary of his presentation there. Dale is an ecologist and professor of biology at a Christian liberal arts college in Minnesota.

DISCIPLE SCIENCE YOUTUBE VIDEOS

Dale notes that many young people drift away from the church because of a perceived conflict between modern science and their Christian upbringing. He also notes that his students often go first to YouTube for information, rather than reading books or articles. His vision in response was to make available a series of engaging videos on YouTube which explore the relation between science and faith. The format of these 5-6 minute animated videos is modeled after the wildly popular The Bible Project video series.

It takes time and money to produce videos to high standards, so there are only four videos to date in the Disciple Science YouTube channel. These brief videos cannot go into details, but they give a good overview of the key issues. These four titles, with their descriptive blurbs, are:

( 1) Is there tension between science and Christian faith?

Before we dig into science, scripture, history and philosophy, we need to address the nature of the relationship. Science approaches the world seeking cause and effect; religious traditions are a search for meaning. What is behind the tension between science and Christian faith?   Can they coexist?

( 2 ) The Two Books of God

Can you know an artist through their art? Scripture tells us that we can know the creator through creation. Hear more about the two books of God and consider what role science and nature can play in your journey of faith and your understanding of God.

A pervasive theme in Disciple Science, which has a long pedigree in Christian theology, is that that the physical creation is a second “book” of revelation about the Creator, complementing the Bible. Two screen shots from this video are shown below. The second shot shows Dale himself, on a chilly Minnesota day.

( 3 ) Christianity & Evolution

Evolution has been a topic of debate since long before Charles Darwin. This video introduces the issue and gives us a framework for how to move forward on our search for understanding of when and how God created.

( 4 ) The Gospel and the Environment  

As human activity continues to change the climate, drive mass extinctions, and degrade soil, water and air, human activity is needed to reduce and reverse these impacts. Christians could and should be deeply interested in mobilizing to help. But Christianity has a tense relationship with the environmental movement which has led some to question whether Christians should be involved in environmental stewardship at all. This video explores the Christian Gospel and considers if it informs environmental stewardship.

A list of proposed future videos is given here. Areas include further exploration of the general topic of discerning characteristics of God and his ways from nature (natural theology), the origins debate (Adam, the Flood, evolution, etc.), and how a biblical worldview should impact out treatment of the environment. Further productions naturally hinge on ongoing donations.

DISCIPLE SCIENCE PODCAST

Dale and his team are able to go into more depth on various topics in their podcast series. These episodes are typically around thirty minutes long. They invite interaction via the comments section on YouTube, on the Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter. The podcast episodes are accessible at the link above, and also on mobile devices.

The first thirteen or so episodes deal largely with general questions of how we might encounter God through observing and contemplating the physical world. They note that Jesus (e.g. in his parables) and Biblical authors commonly used analogies from the natural world to enhance our understanding of God and his ways. Further episodes continue these themes, but also deal more specifically with issues such as evolution and ecology.

The podcast includes interviews with a number of authors who have published in the faith/science area. These include Greg Cootsona, author of Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, and Gregg Davidson, who is professor and chair of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. I reviewed Gregg’s excellent book Friend of Science, Friend of Faith .

Two podcasts cover an interview with biochemist Sy Garte. Sy was raised in a militantly atheistic family, but eventually came to follow Jesus in part because his training in science led him to question his materialist worldview. He tells his story and describes his thinking in these episodes and in his recent book Works of His Hands.

The episode titled “Images of Divine Things: A conversation with Dr. Lisanne Winslow on her forthcoming book, A Great and Remarkable Analogy” draws on the writings of Jonathan Edwards to address questions of why God created a physical world at all, what are legitimate ways to discern the meanings or messages that God may have embedded in creation, and what is the place of death and catastrophe that we observe in nature. Dr. Winslow is something of a polymath, with a PhD and an active research program in cell/marine biology, and also a PhD and rich professional activity in systematic theology. She has published in these areas, plus authored nine books of poetry, and has served in pastoral roles.

A recent podcast episode, “Faith, Science and the Coronavirus”, addresses the coronavirus pandemic, and invites us to integrate science’s ability to understand how the world works and Christian faith’s framework for hope, meaning, purpose, ethics and relationship.

DISCIPLE SCIENCE BLOG

For those who prefer a quick read versus listening to podcasts, there are three short articles on the Disciple Science blog site.

MY TAKEAWAYS

I have been favorably impressed with all that I have heard and seen from Disciple Science. The tone is gracious, and the content addresses key points of controversy in helpful ways. They spend proportionately less time than, say, Biologos on what specific physical evidence may support evolution or an old earth, and give more attention to the basic questions of how God might reveal himself in nature. Their overall point of view, namely a high view of both the results of modern scientific investigations and of the New Testament teachings, is one that I share, so it is not hard to endorse their efforts.

I have been engaged in reading and writing about faith/science issues for over ten years now, and so I did not expect to run across much that was new to me. However, I got a lot out of several podcasts. In “Episode 11: What tools do you need to find God in nature?” Dale shares some questions he has wrestled with, such as: “If God embedded messages or meanings in nature that point to spiritual truths, why aren’t these truths more obvious to everyone?”     Dale notes that one can find a rich typology of Christian themes in the Old Testament scriptures, which may not be obvious in a simple, literal reading of the texts; maybe the same hermeneutical principles apply to discerning spiritual analogies in the natural world. The seeming obscurity invites us into intentional contemplation and relational encounter with the Creator. Those who seek will find, while those who don’t seek won’t find. This involves exercising our faculties of intuition and imagination, which is something that has been often devalued since the Enlightenment.

The January 31 podcast episode with Lisanne Winslow mentioned above (“Episode 13: Images of Divine Things: A conversation with Dr. Lisanne Winslow…”) covers these issues, plus much more. Listening to her is like drinking from a firehose. It would take a whole article to summarize the material in that one interview. If you want a strong, fresh perspective of how God is revealed in nature, I highly recommend listening to that episode.

Posted in American Scientific Affliliation, Bible Interpretation, Evolution, Natural Theology, Suffering | 2 Comments

Central Banks, Interest Rates, and Zombies

Preface: Most articles on this blog deal with the relation of faith and science – – see recent titles on the right side of the page. This article reflects a side interest of mine, in how the economy works (or sometimes doesn’t).

In 2013 I wrote an Overview of the U. S. Monetary System   describing what money is and how it is created; interactions of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and commercial banks; and government and trade deficits. Much of this also applies to Europe, Japan, and other countries or regions with central banks. At that time, the world was in the midst of a painfully slow recovery from the traumatic 2008-2009 Great Recession, and central banks were taking unprecedented measures to try to stabilize finances and help economies regain growth. It is interesting to look back to all the macroeconomic uncertainties seven years ago, and see how things have actually played out.

Europe was still in the throes of a sovereign debt crisis. As of 2013, Greek public finances were still shaky, with fears of default driving 10-year government bonds yields over 10% and Greek populist political parties fighting the austerity measures demanded by the EU as the price for a bailout. At that point, the fiscally-responsible Germans were preventing the European Central Bank (ECB) from simply underwriting the bonds issued by European countries like Greece. However, since then the ECB has devised ways to do stealth quantitative easing – – it provides money at very low interest rates to national banks to enable those banks to purchase government bonds. The ECB balance sheet now stands at over 4.5 trillion euros. This has driven government bond interest rates down and down, to zero and sometimes even negative. Because of the implicit ECB backstop, Greek bonds were recently issued with an interest rate of under 1%, which is lower than the rates for current US Government debt. No one could have imagined such a thing in 2013. Such is the power of central banks.

In Japan, the central bank has gone wild, buying anything and everything including stocks as well as bonds. The Japanese central bank routinely vacuums up a large fraction of the debt issued by the Japanese government. This has kept a Japanese interest rates near zero for decades. For some years, various finance commentators have warned that private bond buyers would rebel against the huge government debt and deficit spending, and would force Japanese rates back up. But all the experience of the last 10 years illustrates the truth that you cannot fight the central banks. They have for all practical purposes, infinite resources to execute their objectives, since they can create as much money as they want with the tap of a keyboard.

The Swiss national bank (SNB) currently engages in raw currency manipulation by creating billions of Swiss francs out of thin air, and using them to buy things like Euros and U.S. stocks. Dumping all these francs into foreign markets serves to reduce the foreign exchange value of the franc. This is done in order to make Swiss exports more competitive. A side effect of this currency war operation is that the SNB has come to own huge stakes in U.S. corporations, e.g. it owns more publically-traded shares of Facebook than Mark Zuckerberg.

In the U.S., the Fed intervened massively to stabilize the financial markets in the wake of the 2008-2009 meltdown, but those interventions were seen as extraordinary. But the extraordinary has since become the ordinary. The Fed balance sheet remains bloated at over $4 trillion, and there is no realistic prospect that it will ever shrink down low enough that the Fed can resume setting short term rates by open market operations, like it did before 2008.

In the U.S., the Fed under Chairman Powell tried to reduce its holdings and to increase (“normalize”) short term rates back up to 3-3.5% or so in 2018. That ended disastrously, with a stock market meltdown at the end of the year, and with the Fed quickly back-pedaling and ratcheting rates back down in 2019. In autumn of 2019, the commercial banks got overwhelmed with the flood of bills issued by the U.S. Treasury due to the ballooning federal deficit, and the “repo” market (which I will not try to explain here) froze up, so the Fed intervened by buying lots of Treasuries, in the process re-inflating its balance sheet.

The bottom line is that central banks have succeeded in enforcing extremely low interest rates over the past decade, and at this point it looks like low rates are here to stay. Private and public debt has ballooned to such enormous amounts, that any large increase in rates would probably crash the whole system, since so many parties simply could not keep going if they had to pay higher rates on their debt.

Here is a graph of nominal bond rates over the last 700 years:

Source: Article by author BDCBuzz, https://seekingalpha.com/article/4322926-dividend-stocks-are-new-bonds-for-retirement-portfolios , who credited it to VisualCapitalist.

The long term trend has been toward 0-2% nominal interest rates, or essentially 0% or negative real rates (i.e. after inflation). Billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign bonds now trade at negative nominal rates; you would do better stashing your money under your mattress. Corporate and other bonds of course trade at somewhat higher rates than this government debt. This is a novel global macroeconomic experiment, being run in real time. One wonders how economists a hundred years from now will assess it.

So, what are some of the effects of more or less permanent near-zero interest rates? One effect is to enable massive government deficit spending, in Japan and now in the US. It seems like neither major American political party cares about federal deficits any longer. One party used to at least posture about being concerned about it, but their reward was to be bashed as “heartless” by the other party for reining in domestic spending, so they seem to have given up that fight. Politicians now seem to assume that the Fed will step and buy government bonds (“monetize the debt”) as needed to keep interest rates down. It seems that in practice this plank of “Modern Monetary Theory” has become the new orthodoxy.

It used to be the case that the Fed was so independent that it would enforce financial discipline on federal government. If the federal deficit spending started getting high, with attendant inflation, the Fed would crank up interest rates to cool down the economy. This would (in theory, at least) punish the profligate president and Congress by essentially causing a recession on their watch, with all the human pain of job losses. If this punishment caused the stock market to crash, so be it. But now the Fed seems to be more or less hostage to the stock market. If the market swoons, the Fed has shown that it will quickly lower interest rates.

If Europe, the ECB sits above any one country, and is heavily influenced by the Germans, with their tradition of strict financial discipline. Although the ECB has provided cheap money to keep interest rates low in European countries, it demands in return from those countries that they meet certain austerity targets. This has to some extent forced those nations to keep their deficit spending under control. On the one hand, that may seem admirable, but in practice, European economic growth has lagged far behind that of the US in the past decade, perhaps because of all the austerity.

In the U.S., the more productive coastal states subsidize the poorer interior/southern regions via federal transfer payments such as Medicare and food stamps. This money recycling helps allow the folks in the poorer regions to keep purchasing goods and services produced by the wealthier regions, so it is a win-win. However, in Europe, the more-productive Germans and Dutch are reluctant to simply ship their hard-earned euros to Greece and Spain to subsidize the lifestyles there.

In the U.S., companies have taken advantage of low interest rates to issue staggering amounts of corporate debt. Rather than using this money to invest in new factories and hire more workers, a large fraction of it has gone into simply re-purchasing corporate shares. This in turn has driven U.S. stock prices higher and higher and higher. For a given company, the underlying business may not change, i.e. the total revenues and earnings may not grow much, but because fewer shares are in circulation, the earnings per-share continue to creep up. For such brilliant financial engineering, management rewards itself with fat compensation packages.

Looking at things from a more macroeconomic perspective, it seems that permanently low interest rates have a paradoxical “zombification” effect. Japan is a pioneering example of this, since low interest rates and slow economic growth have been a feature there for several decades now. Apparently, the low interest rates enable poorly-executing, walking-dead “zombie” companies to stay in business, whereas previously they would have gone bankrupt and disappeared. On the bright side, this tends to keep employment relatively high, which has been a general feature of many developed economies over the past decade. But on the other hand, this inhibits the “creative destruction” process whereby more productive companies replace less productive enterprises. So the real per capita economic growth remains subdued. Also, large companies seem able to better take advantage of low rates, so we see big companies getting bigger and more monopolistic, to the detriment of smaller firms which might otherwise be introducing new ways of doing things.

A zombified economy where nearly anyone who wants to work can get a job, even at low and stagnant real wages, seems like a fairly benign outcome. However, if young people see only a terminally dull future ahead for themselves, this may lead to dissatisfaction which could have political consequences. Moreover, if the real interest rate of investment grade bonds remains zero or even negative, that will challenge pension funds in meeting their commitments to pay pensioners in coming decades (many pension funds still assume they can obtain secure long-term returns of around 7% on their portfolios). It also calls into question the traditional 60/40 stock/bond portfolio for individual investors, if the 40% bond portion is earning practically nothing. This impelled me to look for, and actually find, some ways to earn reasonably high (6-8%) yields in the present environment (see High Yield Investments).

Every age has its reasons for uncertainties. As I post this, the Wuhan corona virus from China is spreading throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands are sick, and thousands have died. Whole cities have been put under quarantine. Here in the U.S., surgical masks (which are all made in China these days) are all sold out, and organizations are making contingency plans for scenarios where employees, teachers, and students are all confined to their homes for indefinite periods. Tourism and other travel will likely decline, all of which could take a real bite out of GDP. The upcoming election may pit an erratic incumbent against a socialist. Interesting times – – we will see if the Fed can keep working its magic.

 

UPDATE April 6, 2020

What a difference a month can make – – when I wrote this post in late February, the S&P 500 stock index was hovering near all-time highs, after a steady rise over the previous twelve months. Unemployment was at historic lows, and robust economic growth was forecast.

The “social distancing” implemented to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus has blown this rosy economic picture to bits. A huge fraction of money-generating activities, mainly in the service economy (dining out, cruises, travel, tourism, getting haircuts, working out at the gym, dentist visits, routine shopping) have been stopped cold, and will likely remain stopped for a number of months. The S&P lost about a third of its value in three weeks, though there has since been some recovery:

SandP500 1-Year chart

One-year price performance of Standard and Poors 500 large stock index. From Seeking Alpha website.

The main reason stocks have levitated over the past several years has been corporations taking advantage of low interest rates to issue debt and to use that money to buy up shares. Management usually has impeccable timing of buying shares when prices are high, and stopping when economic conditions drive prices low. Absent corporate buy-backs over the rest of the year, it may be some time before stocks regain their highs.

The unemployment numbers in the next few months will be staggering. While hospitals near New York City are on overload, in the community where I live in the Northeast U.S., hundreds of medical personnel are on furlough because all elective procedures have been cancelled while we wait for the wave of virus cases to come our way. The actual death toll so far is well below what the regular flu season can produce (which is ignored most years), but each case represents its own personal and family tragedy, and it remains to be seen what the ultimate body count will be.

Focusing just on the economic maneuverings – – I noted in the original article some of the powers of the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve. As the crisis unfolded in March, the Fed unleashed a barrage of programs aimed at keeping the financial system from imploding. Besides buying U.S. government bonds and government agency-backed mortgages (i.e. traditional “quantitative easing”), the Fed will buy (directly or indirectly) existing (already-issued) student loans, car loans, credit card loans, small business loans, etc., as well as municipal bonds and even (investment-grade) corporate bonds. I suspect the legality of some of this is questionable, but nobody is questioning at this point. The Fed creates “money” out of thin air to buy all this stuff, which in turn (a) provides “money” to desperate, cash-poor entities, and which (b) keeps the prices of these securities from plummeting, which in turn would drive interest rates to the moon.

A reason that organizations are desperate for cash is that many investing entities have borrowed money from banks to buy securities that they thought would rise in value, but now that everything has fallen in value, the banks are demanding that the investors sell off the securities for cash to partially repay their loans, in order to keep a stated margin of safety for the collateral for the loans. These “margin calls” create a vicious downward spiral, where the more forced selling there is, the more securities prices fall, which leads to more demands by banks for more selling. Forcing investment funds to sell their assets for a fraction of what they bought them for is ruinous for investors. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Complementing the Fed’s efforts, the U.S. government will be throwing trillions of dollars at citizens in the next several months, to mitigate the impact of mass unemployment. We shall see how this unfolds. Best wishes to all…

Posted in Economics, Investing | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 3: Minds Changed?

Preface for blog: This is the last in a series where I show my side of a dialogue with a young earth creationist who I will call Rachel. She had sent me links to some videos that she and her husband had made, where they presented scientific and exegetical arguments in favor of young earth (Y.E.) creationism, and invited my comments. In Part 1, I posted the cover email I sent her, which dealt with Bible interpretation. I attached a Word document to that email, which addressed many of the scientific claims made in her videos. I posted that document as Part 2 of this series.

My experience has been that it is nearly impossible to change the mind of someone who has intentionally embraced Y. E. creationism. But not totally impossible – – after all, I used to be an enthusiastic Y. E. creationist. There was some reason to hope that I might impact Rachel’s views, since there were several positive factors with her. From our prior encounters at church events, she knew me to be a devout evangelical Christian, so I think she was inclined to give me a serious hearing. Also, she has a background in the sciences, and is a courteous and careful listener in person. She gave every indication of simply wanting the truth.

So, I decided to run an experiment. I took a number of what seemed like the strongest scientific young earth points on her videos, and marshalled the facts to show that these claims were incorrect. I put a number of hours into this, trying to answer the specific claims, and also anticipating and answering the common Y. E. creationist rebuttals to the old earth evidence. I included a number of figures to illustrate fossil intermediates, and showed how her Y. E. creationist sources had twisted some scientists’ quotes to (dishonestly) make it seem like these scientists were admitting that the fossil record does not support evolution.

Alas, my efforts were in vain. Judging by her email reply, she clearly read what I wrote (i.e. Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series), but nothing seemed to penetrate. I post below my final response to her email reply. Her words are in italics.

I am sure that in her mind she was earnestly trying to engage with the facts. But it seems that she ignored the import of much of what I wrote, and simply repeated what she found on various Y. E. creationist web sites. What I found particularly disheartening were instances where she (with no basis) just reiterated the specific young earth claims that I had specifically disproven.

For instance, the annual sets of sediment layers (varves) that accumulate in certain lakes furnish very straightforward evidence for an earth much older than 6000 years. We know how these layers form; we can simply drill down in the lake bottom, pull up a core, and (carefully) count the layers. Moreover, these varve counts are corroborated via radioactive dating to local tree ring data and volcanic ashfalls. Naturally, the Y. E. creationists try to cast doubt on these straightforward results, typically by calling attention to instances where sediment layers can be non-annual. To forestall this, I wrote to Rachel (in Part 2 here) that scientists are well aware of this possibility, and so they take pains to distinguish between real annual varves and non-annual random layers:

As may be expected, YE creationist organizations make various objections to lake varves. For instance, they claim that more than one set of sediment layers per year can be laid down in lake sediments, and thus we cannot trust these deep cores of lake sediments. Of course multiple layers do form in some lakes – -that is obvious, and scientists are well aware of that and they are quite capable of distinguishing between real annual layers and other layers. Scientists specifically choose lakes that are relatively narrow and deep, to avoid issues with wind storms stirring the bottom sediments.”

Nevertheless, (as shown below) Rachel apparently ignored what I had written, and simply repeated a standard Y. E. creationist line: “…… I’ve seen experimentally how some conditions can produce layers that look like seasonal varves.  This can be generated with wave tanks…”.    Furthermore, though I gave additional answers to her responses as shown below as Part 3, there is no reason to believe she took this further information to heart, even though I took the effort to e.g. hunt down and show her the actual location of the leg genes in the whale genome.

Sigh.

But this is how most dialogs with Y. E. creationists go: these folks simply ignore the evidence that is against their position, and repeat and repeat the same old party lines. (Another common tactic is, when backed into a corner on some topic, to change the subject and bring up some other topic. And another, and another, till the scientist who is trying to educate them drops from sheer exhaustion. To Rachel’s credit, she did not do this).

How is this response possible, from a woman I know to be so generally reasonable and informed? I think it comes down to the human tendency of confirmation bias. Per Wikipedia, this is: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses….The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.”   We all do this, especially with “emotionally charged issues” like politics and religion.

Rachel noted in her email to me that she was in the past “not feeling confident about Genesis 1-11,” but now the Y. E. creation perspective has “helped me to be more convinced” about the authority of the Bible there. It is hard to compete with that sort of spiritual/emotional reinforcement given by Y. E. creationism.

So was our dialog a complete waste of my time? Maybe, but I don’t know whether Rachel and her husband might be open to reconsidering their position at a later time, and I don’t know who is reading these blog posts on the internet. My own journey out of Y. E. creationism took years, and multiple exposures to pro-science articles, especially ones by authors who were not hostile to my faith.

Anyway, Rachel and I have agreed to disagree in this area, and not let it cloud our fellowship. In the current climate of polarization, our small measure of civility here is something to be grateful for.

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

Hi Rachel,

I will offer some comments on the points you raised in your email, in order, except will deal first with point 6 because it is perhaps the most foundational. I will put your remarks in italics.

  1. 6.  Do you acknowledge any faith commitment to the idea that if scientists seek, they will figure it out and get things right?   If God stated Genesis 1-11 authoritatively, and correctly, and we seek some other explanation that is consistent with the reasonings of naturalistic scientists, might we get something wrong?

I do acknowledge that God stated Genesis 1-11 authoritatively and correctly, just as I acknowledge that God stated in I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”) authoritatively and correctly and Jesus referred to the mustard seed as the smallest of all the seeds of the earth authoritatively and correctly (and referred to Herod as a “fox” and himself as a “door”, etc.). This is entirely different than whether we should take each of these passages as literal statements about physical reality or not. We normally utilize the information provided by the physical world to make that determination. That is why, even though Protestant and Catholic alike vehemently affirmed that I Chron. 16:30 must be taken as giving information about the physical world, today we use the results of science to take a non-literal interpretation.

If someone chooses to eschew that normal procedure of using physical information, and instead make a command decision that Gen 1-11 must be taken literally, no matter what the physical evidence actually is, that’s OK, but that is elevating one’s interpretation over the physical evidence, not elevating the Bible itself over the physical evidence.

 

And, is it deceptive of YEC to say, “yes, we are committed to Scripture,” divulging their bias, and then argue according to their bias?  I do not find that to be deceptive.

I completely agree with you, that is not deceptive, as long as the subsequent arguing is done with integrity.

There are some YE creationists who do treat the physical evidence with integrity. Geologist Kurt Wise is an example of this. He is scrupulously fair in treating the evidence of the age of the earth and evolution. Even Richard Dawkins referred to him as an “honest creationist.” Wise wrote, “I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.”

Here, Wise indicates that no possible amount of scientific evidence can ever sway him from his YE position. I respect his clarity.

Wise has critiqued a lot of the Answers in Genesis presentations for being inaccurate. He does not deny the presence of impressive transitional fossils at the higher grouping levels:

“…Darwin’s third expectation – of higher-taxon stratomorphic intermediates – has been confirmed by such examples as the mammal-like reptile groups between the reptiles and the mammals, and the phenacdontids between the horses and their presumed ancestors. Darwin’s fourth expectation – of stratomorphic series – has been confirmed by such examples as the early bird series, the tetrapod series, the whale series, the various mammal series of the Cenozoic (for example, the horse series, the camel series, the elephant series, the pig series, the titanothere series, etc.), the Cantius and Plesiadapus primate series, and the hominid series. Evidence for not just one but for all three of the species level and above types of stratomorphic intermediates expected by macroevolutionary theory is surely strong evidence for macroevolutionary theory. Creationists therefore need to accept this fact. It certainly CANNOT said that traditional creation theory expected (predicted) any of these fossil finds.” [My italics added here]

Wise is willing to consider the “appearance of age” approach to interpretation of Genesis. That is, maybe God created everything 6000 years ago, but with the full appearance of being billions of years old.    This approach notes that if you came across Adam a minute after his creation, he would have looked as if he had been alive say 20 years already, and presumably with a navel, as if he had been born the usual way. This appearance-of-age approach then says that maybe this principle extends to the whole created order: the universe looks as if it has been around for 13.8 billion years, and genetics and fossils look as if God used evolution to shape the current biota. This approach allows a YE creationist to hold to a 6000 year old earth, while being comfortable with [instead of denying] all the evidence which, seems as if the earth is old. I have some philosophical reservations about this approach, but it is a self-consistent, honest approach, in contrast to the usual Answers in Genesis approach.

Wise’s protégé, Todd Wood, is also a committed YE creationist, who again tries to be honest with the data. He had this to say about the evidence for evolution:

“… Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

…Creationist students, listen to me very carefully: There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesn’t make it ultimately true, and it doesn’t mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God’s creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please don’t be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure. Please don’t idolize your own ability to reason.”

So those are honest YE creationists, with whom I have no problem. My problem is with Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, etc., who try to deceive laypeople into believing that there are no transitional fossils, that all lake varves are questionable, that the glacier core layers are unclear, etc. They accomplish this by ignoring the bulk of the physical findings, misrepresenting what scientists actually do, misrepresenting quotations, sometimes outright misstating the core facts, and above all issuing a continual stream of misleading distractors. I noted several instances in your slides where you presented some of these misleading distractors (rapid snow accumulation near coast of Greenland, no blowhole for Rodhocetus, doctored Colin Patterson quote, etc.) . Again, not blaming you at all, but just to note how plausible their presentations can be if you want to believe them.

These organizations continue to promote so-called evidences for a young earth, even after being clearly informed why their assertions are incorrect. This is plain dishonesty; it is not merely arguing from a clearly-stated bias. But it is successful in keeping gullible lay people energized. I have detailed several of these erroneous claims, e.g. salts in the ocean, earth magnetic field, helium in the atmosphere, and folded rocks here: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/evidences-for-a-young-earth/   (Sorry to be so blunt, but that is what I observe, unfortunately).

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  1. I definitely understand the point about the sun moving in the sky, that it can be a frame of reference that is the reason for the Scriptural words, and I do  acknowledge that I am convinced that the earth orbits the sun, and it was not necessary for God to go into this.

     However, when Genesis speaks of evening and morning, repetatively, that need not be poetic only.  It can point out 6 days, rather than periods.  Othewise, I don’t see it written as poetic, but the names of people are given that Jesus specifically references in geneologies.  

     I think this is a sign that it is not merely poetic.  I’m glad you have faith and love the testimony anyway.  I did have faith for years, not feeling confident about Genesis 1-11, and I am also glad that your daughters have faith.  For me, it helped me to be more convinced.

I understand what you are saying here. Just one main comment, which is that the age of the earth up till the creation of Adam is a different issue than the time since Adam. Many educated conservative Christians endorse an Old Earth creationism, which accepts the evidence for an old (billions of years) earth prior to Adam, while still taking the Genesis genealogies literally (so only 6000 years since Adam). Hugh Ross is a well-known exponent of this viewpoint. It’s not a view I share, but thought I’d mention it.

And a side comment, that one reason many   conservative Christian scholars think that six consecutive 24-hour days is not the meaning of Gen 1 is because of how these days are neatly structured into two triads (Days 1-3, Days 4-6) which correspondingly address the primordial conditions of formlessness and emptiness (Gen 1:2). Thus, it seems that the organization of Gen 1 is thematic, not necessarily chronological:

Six-Day Framework View of Genesis 1

Anyway, this is just FYI.

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  1. As for the sign of Jonah,  I feel that more signs are not necessarily given to a wicked and adulterous generation, but that there is still testimony given all around us, (Romans 1), and, I am also convinced there is flood evidence.  I think we have all seen answers to prayer, which are also signs.  

      Jesus also said that if every tongue were stilled, the rocks would cry out, and I see that as a continuing revelation, like the heavens declaring the glory of God.  What do the rocks cry out?  

      Isn’t the top of the Coconino formation flat? The ripple marks on the side could be perturbations by wind or water, no?  Isn’t there another layer of sediment right above it without much nonconformity?  Does that not speak more of water than of wind, if so?  

I wish it were true that there is Flood evidence, but I have looked carefully and found none.

As for the “rocks crying out”, this is from Luke 19:40 , “He answered, “I tell you, if these [cheering crowds] were silent, the very stones would cry out.” The context of this is the Triumphal Entry. Jesus said that if (for this particular event) the people had not cheered, the rocks would have cried out. However, the people did cheer, so the rocks did not cry out. This verse is not about geology.

As for the meaning of Psalm 19 and Romans 1 re revelation of God in nature, please see https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/a-survey-of-biblical-natural-theology/ .

Key point: Whatever aspect of nature Paul had in mind when he asserted in Romans 1 that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are displayed in nature, it had to be something that was readily accessible to everyone since ancient times, not requiring twentieth century observations of rock layers, measurements of salt in oceans, or lengthy explication by Answers in Genesis apologists. Presumably Paul was referring to the size and intricate functioning of the natural world as a whole, which demonstrates to everyone everywhere the power and skill and care of the Creator.

To my knowledge, the Coconino Sandstone is the only major Grand Canyon formation deposited as mainly dry, wind-sculpted material. Like any desert, there was likely some rain and some water present some of the time. All the other Grand Canyon layers, including the ones just above the Coconino, were deposited under water, as the sea level relative to the land rose and fell and rose and fell over millions of years – -driven partly by plate tectonics, but also by repeated glaciations at the poles which can cause sea levels to change by hundreds of feet. All indications are that the land of the Grand Canyon stayed fairly level over many millions of years, so if it got raised a little above sea level, the exposed land surface would erode a bit but stay fairly flat, like much of the US Gulf Coast today. And every time the sea advanced back in over this eroded land surface, the surf action would tend to level out most of the remaining humps and dips in the landscape (like we see in the fairly level sand at the surf-line today on the Gulf Coast), yielding a flat surface for depositing the next layer of under-sea sediment.

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  1. My husband looked up the translation of the small mustard seed, and he found not that it is the smallest seed, necessarily, but the small seed sown in the garden (possibly at the time).  Surely there are small seeds that blow around and drop, like dandelion, and basil.  

I agree that this is a reasonable interpretation of the text, but that is not what the text itself says.

Matthew 13:32 describes the mustard seed as “the smallest of all the seeds”, according to the Greek text shown in this interlinear translation:

Matthew 13:32 Interlinear, on mustard seed

And Mark 4:31 as “the smallest of all the seeds which are upon the earth [or ground]”:

Mark 4:31 Interlinear on mustard seed

Now, if you want to incorporate the physical observation that the mustard seed is not in fact the smallest of all the seeds on the earth, and hold that Jesus was speaking to a group of people at a particular time and place, with their understanding of seeds and so on, and thus depart from the literal interpretation of these verses, that is fine (and I think proper), but again please note that is what the majority of educated Christians do with Genesis 1.

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  1. I am not particularly convinced by the calibration methods of the Genesis 1-3 teacher.  Again, repeating “evening and morning” does not prove merely poetic thought to me.   

 

I understand. Though as noted above, there are reasons besides the repetition to indicate other than six 24-hour days – – e.g. on the first 3 days, there was no sun to mark the 24-hours.

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  1. The whale leg bone genes were particularly mystifying to me.  I saw two little bones in diagrams, and we thought they had something to do with reproduction.  

      Nevertheless, Carl Wieland, a physician, has gone to tremendous lengths to produce “Evolution : Grand Experiment” videos, likely available on youtube, where he examines the land mammal/whale  missing links. (I certainly understand your clear explanation about some missing links being understandably missing, and that most creatures are not fossilized, such as Colin Patterson went on to say).  Dr. Wieland has a fascinating story, worth hearing.  I think there must be quite a bit of info. on the genes that are not expressed as whale legs.  I have never heard that before, and perhaps those genes are for something else?  They clearly would not have identical coding to legs that we would recognize, but if this were true, it is curious.  Sounds “vestigial”.  How could they test this?  Surely they could not replace it for the genes on land animals in the lab and wait for legs to grow there?  Now, that would be something to see. It might be interesting for you to watch the Carl Wieland videos.  

Evolution requires that there would have been a long sequence of animals in between a four-footed mammal ancestor, and present whales (which includes dolphins) which have no visible hind legs. And the fossil record, especially as filled in during the past 3 decades, shows exactly that. YE creationists can mount all the peripheral objections they want, but the fact stands that the types of transitional fossils predicted by evolution are there.

I am rather familiar with the litany of YE creationist objections for whales. As I noted in my earlier note, they all tend to be like the one with the Rodhocetus blowhole: true factoids which do not obviate the actual fossil evidence.

One such objection is that shrunken hind legs in some of intermediate species may have some function in assisting alignment during copulation. Another is the remaining pelvis and inner tiny hind leg bones in today’s whales retain some function in anchoring organs, including sex organs. This all may well be true, but that does not in the slightest take away from the fact that these fossil species display the sequence of skeletal transitions predicted by evolution.

As I also mentioned, another thing that evolution predicts is that for parts and functions that have been lost in whales compared to regular land mammals, such as loss of exterior hind legs, loss of enameled teeth (for baleen whales), loss of olfactory lobes (no longer needed for smelling in air), etc., we should still find the original genes there, but deactivated (either inactivated by mutations, or down-regulated). The diagram below notes a number of such genes, as predicted by evolution. I marked with yellow highlighter the genes color-coded red, which is where the genes have been inactivated by mutations. These include the genes for the teeth and the olfactory lobes. And also highlighted the ones coded purple, where the genes are still functional but the degree to which they are expressed has changed. The relevant hind leg genes, called SonicHedgeHog (SHH) and HAND are still there in the genome and are still functional as genes, but they are no longer expressed as before.

Gene changes in whales compared to land mammal (hippo). Source: McGowen, et al., Molecular evolution tracks macroevolutionary transitions in Cetacea . Trends in Ecology and Evolution, May 2014

In case you are curious, here is where the leg-growing SHH gene (here coded as bmy_12671) sits in the bowhead whale genome:

Bowhead Whale Hind Leg SHH Gene Location
Source: http://www.bowhead-whale.org/annotations/results/?s=shh

 

YE creationists can always come up with rationalizations after these genetic observations have been made, such as, “Maybe the Creator decided to re-use similar genes” or “Maybe there is a use for these apparently non-functional teeth genes that we just haven’t discovered yet.” But YE creationism would not have predicted these specific genetic features, whereas evolution did. This is why evolution is a useful explanatory framework, and YE creationism is not.

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  1. The seasonal varves… I’ve seen experimentally how some conditions can produce layers that look like seasonal varves.  This can be generated with wave tanks. I saw it in a video.I could probably find a link to that video, though it is not always my favorite video.  All it takes is one set of conditions that produces “seasonal varves” that are not seasonal to show that they might not correspond directly with years.   

The fact that nature, and humans with wave tanks, can produce non-annual sets of light/dark layers is irrelevant. As I stated in my earlier note to you, scientists are completely aware of the possibility of spurious non-annual layers, which is why they take pains to analyze the lake core sediments to be sure they are in fact annual cycles. They observe the current sedimentation pattern in the lake (e.g. dark, fine organic matter in winter under the ice; mineral matter like sand and silt washed in the spring thaw; algal remains late spring/summer) in the lake, and analyze the chemical contents of the cored layers to verify that this annual progression of seasons is represented. Also, they know the current rate of sediment deposition, in mm/year, and would be suspicious if there were some sudden departure from that rate in the lake cores.

There are ways to further verify that these are not random/nonannual sets of layers. For instance, a volcanic eruption in southern Italy produced a distinctive layer of ash across southern and central Europe called the Neapolitan Yellow Tuff. This layer shows up in at least two lake sediments that I am aware of. In the German lake Meerfelder Maar, we count down the annual layers and find the ash layer at 14,230 BP (before 1950). For a lake in southern Italy (Lago Grande di Monticchio), we can count down the varves and get a date of 14,120 BP. That is less than a 1% difference in dating, for two lakes that are 600 miles apart, with varves counted by two different research teams. I have difficulty imagining clearer proof of the reliability of the annual nature of properly chosen lake varves.

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  1. The oldest civilization that we know (China) claims about 5000 years, and the oldest bristlecone pine tree they have found is about 5000 years (Methuselah), and recently a Harvard graduate has written a book called Replacing Darwin (Nate Jeanson?) which shows genetic pointers in mutation rates that point to 6000 years.  Is there something to look at there? 

Some chronological markers go back 5000 years, but some, as I noted earlier, go back much longer.

Re Replacing Darwin – as you can tell from my extensive blog articles, I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading and evaluating YE creationist literature. Every couple of years they come up with a new attempt to refute evolution. I wrote probably the most comprehensive review on the web (over 100 references) of John Sanford’s Genetic Entropy, which was 2005’s YE creationist bid to demolish evolution. Since in every case I have found that, when all the facts are on the table, the YE case fails, I don’t have the energy to read and analyze yet another such book.

So here is what I suggest: By all means read the book and the YE creationist positive reviews of this book, but also in fairness read a critique of the book by a practicing scientist, such as this examination of a key chapter: https://evograd.wordpress.com/2019/05/05/reviewing-replacing-darwin-part-7-a-nuclear-catastrophe/

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Well, you have raised some more interesting points here. I have tried to respond to them in the attached document. This exchange has been stimulating, but I need to close it out now. We will be traveling and occupied now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I hope it has been useful to you to receive some comments on your specific concerns. I am sure that there is room for a variety of viewpoints in this area.

I hope you all enjoy the summer!

Blessings,

Scott

Posted in Age of Earth, Bible Interpretation, Fossils | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 2: Young Earth Evidence

Preface for blog: As noted in Part 1, earlier this year I had a discussion with an evangelical Christian woman who I will call Rachel. She had recently learned that I endorse modern scientific findings such as an old earth and evolution, and that I have no problem squaring that with the Bible’s teachings. She sent me links to some videos that she and her husband had made, where they presented scientific and exegetical arguments in favor of young earth (Y.E.) creationism, and invited my comments.

In Part 1 of this series, I posted the cover email I sent her, which dealt with Bible interpretation. Below is shown the document I attached to that email letter, which addresses many of the scientific claims made in her videos. The topics I address here are: FALSIFYING THE FLOOD , LAYERS IN GLACIERS AND ICE CORES, MT SAINT HELENS ASH LAYERS AND UNIFORMITARIANISM, WIDESPREAD ROCK FORMATIONS ON CONTINENTS, ON FOSSILS, ARE THERE TRANSITIONAL FOSSILS?, WHALE EVOLUTION, MINING FOR QUOTES ON FOSSILS, and FINAL COMMENTS.  I try to anticipate and answer some common objections made by Y.E. proponents for these various evidences for an old earth.

Stay tuned for Part 3 to see what her reaction was to this correspondence.

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Dear Rachel,

Your videos mention a number of scientific issues. I will comment on some of them.

FALSIFYING THE FLOOD

In your video #2, you propose that the Flood (a recent, worldwide, flood which laid down most sedimentary layers) should be considered innocent till proven guilty, i.e. considered as true unless clearly falsified. I think that is a reasonable position.

However, the Flood and a young earth have in fact been fairly examined and clearly falsified. This link lists a couple of relatively simple evidences for an earth much older than 6000 years: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/some-simple-evidences-for-an-old-earth/

These evidences include angular unconformities, fossil soils with animal burrows, massive salt deposits, thick limestone layers including caves, annual layers (“varves”) in lake sediments, and annual layers in glaciers.

LAYERS IN GLACIERS AND ICE CORES

One of the most easily understood evidences for an older earth are the cores drilled down into lake bottoms and glaciers. In most cases, it is as clear as it can be that the layers are annual years, and we can count them down with visual and chemical analyses well past the 2400 B.C. date of the Flood, or 4000 B.C. date of Creation. There are no shaky “assumptions” involved. (For the deeper glacier layers, e.g. past 30,000 year or so, visual identification becomes impossible, so the counting gets less precise but it is still meaningful). As noted in the link above, there are multiple corroborating evidences that the glacier cores are indeed annual. For instance, I show a plot which shows that a Greenland glacier core layer counted back to 536 A.D. shows volcanic ash corresponding to a massive eruption known from historical sources to have occurred that year, causing darkened skies and unseasonable cold. That shows beyond all reasonable doubt that these glacial layers are in fact annual.

Since these annual layers are so clear, YE creationist writers make up all sorts of objections to them. But these objections all fall apart upon examination. For instance, you mentioned the “Lost Squadron”, where WWII planes were buried under some 75 meters of ice. Your slide states that this 75 meters of ice “would normally be read as 2000 years of ice, by standard methods.” That is completely wrong, and is known to be wrong. It is well known that the snowfall is much, much higher on the coast of Greenland where the planes were found, than in the deep interior where the ice cores are drilled and where conditions are more stable. The YE creationists (i.e. Answers in Genesis, Creation.com, etc.) have been informed of all this, but they persist in mounting this as an objection to the ice cores. This is not honest. Sadly, this deception is effective – -you are a reasonable person, but this took you in, since, of course, there was no way for you to know that the snowfalls are so different. (I am not blaming you AT ALL, you are just a victim of YE creationist literature). I note other failed objections for glacial layers in the link above.

 

I have a whole article on lake varves here, https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/annual-layers-varves-in-lake-sediments-show-the-earth-is-not-young/ .You can simply count down some of these layers for over 9000 years or more, with no disturbances from any Flood. This is about as straightforward as one can get. Here is how the varves in cold climates like Sweden form:

Schematic model explaining the sediment cycle of the seasonally deposited lamina in biogenic/clastic varves. Modified from: Zillén et al, Boreas, Vol 32, Issue 4 December 2003 Pages 612-626
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1502-3885.2003.tb01239.x

And here is what these varves look like (the dark/light winter/spring transition is nearly always very clear under the microscope):

Caption: A microphotograph of biogenic/clastic varves from Sarsjon, a lake in northern Sweden. The different layers (laminae), which constitute a general varve, are labelled as in the figure above.
(i) light-colored spring
(ii) light (brown) summer
(iii) light-colored autumn (not always visible)
(iv) dark brown winter
Source: Zillén et al, Boreas, Vol 32, Issue 4 December 2003 Pages 612-626 . Labels redrawn.

And here is the varve counting “age” (the thick solid black line), shown as years Before Present (where Present = 1950) versus sediment depth for a particular Swedish lake. Over 9000 annual layers accumulated regularly, with no disturbance for a worldwide Flood 4400 years ago. (The layers stop about 9000 years ago, since that is about when the last glaciers melted back from Sweden so this lake could form).

Caption: Sediment depth (y-axis) versus dates from varve counts and from carbon-14 dating of samples from sediment, for two Swedish lakes. Thick lines are the varve counts. Thin lines on either side of the thick lines represent the estimated cumulative uncertainty in the varve counts. “Isolation” is when each lake became isolated, as the Ice Age glaciers in Sweden receded. Modified from Zillén et al, Boreas, Vol 32, Issue 4 December 2003 Pages 612-626. Dashed “Flood” and Creation lines added.

As may be expected, YE creationist organizations make various objections to lake varves. For instance, they claim that more than one set of sediment layers per year can be laid down in lake sediments, and thus we cannot trust these deep cores of lake sediments. Of course multiple layers do form in some lakes – -that is obvious, and scientists are well aware of that and they are quite capable of distinguishing between real annual layers and other layers. Scientists specifically choose lakes that are relatively narrow and deep, to avoid issues with wind storms stirring the bottom sediments. And they err on the side of caution in this regard – no one wants to be embarrassed by publishing that certain layers are annual varves, only to be corrected by some sharp-eyed future researcher. For instance, in the figure above, the authors are careful to note that in two small segments the layers were not as clear, though they were still visible. So this is another example of typical YE creationist misleading tactics – – yes, it is true that multiple layers can form in one year in certain locations, but in reality that has nothing to do with the actual, serious observations of varves. However, this tactic serves to raise doubts in the minds of Christians about varve dating.

MT SAINT HELENS ASH LAYERS AND UNIFORMITARIANISM

You mention the recent Mt. Saint Helens eruption, ash deposits with layers and massive mud flows, and a canyon rapidly cut through the compacted ash layers, as though that canyon somehow disproves the views of geologists that the Grand Canyon took millions of years to form. Two comments: First, geologists do not blindly assume that every process is slow, so it is not true that “under naturalism” these layers would take a long time to form. Any decent geologist would look at those ash layers, immediate recognize that they were layers from a volcanic eruption, and assume that they were therefore laid down in hours or days, not in the course of a million years.

The old Lyell “uniformitarianism” (assuming that every event in the past could only take place at the slow rates usually observed, with no provision for catastrophes like eruptions, floods from glacial ice dams breaking, etc.) was long ago replaced by “actualism” — which assumes the laws of physics hold true across time and space, but recognizes the earth’s history includes both gradual and rapid processes. YE advocates have been informed of all this, but they still reach back 100-200 years to find examples of old uniformitarian thinking, in order to try to discredit geology. That is again misleading. Old-style uniformitarianism is not the reason why modern geologists reject the Flood. They reject it because there is zero evidence for it, and because there are many, many features of the earth which are clearly much older than 4400 or 6000 years.

Second comment on the ash layers: There is all the difference in the world between erosion in a layer of recent ash deposits even if it is somewhat compacted (this ash was not solidified into “solid rock”), and erosion in really hard rock. Try shooting a jet of water into a compacted dirt hillside versus at a concrete wall. For instance, the Colorado River is a very vigorous river, flowing 24/7 year round, but the rate of its erosion of the hard metamorphic rock in the base of the Grand Canyon is so slow it is almost imperceptible. So it is nonsensical for YE creationists to claim that Mt Saint Helens ash-field erosion shows the Grand Canyon could have been carved in a year.

FOLDED ROCKS

You showed a slide with a folded rock formation, suggesting that it might well have formed with wet rock layers. Actually, what you showed would not look like it does, if those large rock layers were wet when they were folded – the large layers would have smeared and mixed.

It is well known that solid rock, if buried under some thousands of feet of other rock or sediment, and thus at high temperature and pressure, can easily deform as shown in your slide, over millions of years. A piece of glass will shatter if you try to bend it at room temperature, but glass blowers heat it up till softens, in order to bend it. See here     https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/evidences-for-a-young-earth/             for my write-up of a bent rock formation in the Grand Canyon which Answers in Genesis claimed was formed when the rock was wet and soft, whereas the actual evidence of fractures shows the rock was hard when it was bent.

WIDESPREAD ROCK FORMATIONS ON CONTINENTS

If it weren’t for active plate tectonics, all the continents would erode down to nothing and be covered by shallow seas. Plate motion is driven by very slow convection currents in the earth’s mantle. Exactly what those currents are, and where they are relative to the position of the continental plates, varies with time. So in some geological eras (like the present) there is a lot of land mass at elevations high above sea level, while in other eras much more of the continents were covered by shallow seas. For instance, 385 million years ago, Michigan and Illinois, and the area of what is now the western Appalachians, was covered with water:

Paleogeographic reconstruction showing the Appalachian Basin area during the Middle Devonian period. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palaeogeography

So (contrary to what you suggested in your video) regular geology has no problem explaining widespread sedimentary formations on continents. Ironically, it is Flood geology that cannot readily account for the widespread rock layers we actually observe, as explained here: https://geochristian.com/2009/05/19/six-bad-arguments-from-answers-in-genesis-part-3/

Side comment: You may have gotten your figure from this AIG article, or something like it: https://answersingenesis.org/geology/rock-layers/transcontinental-rock-layers/ . That article claims, among other things, that the widespread Coconino sandstone formation was laid down in rapidly moving water. The reality is that this formation was not formed by water-born deposits. Rather, it is wind-sculpted desert sand dunes (later buried under marine sediments after sea level rose again). The angle of the bedding planes within the formation is much too high to be a marine deposit, and there are lots of terrestrial animal tracks (reptiles, scorpions, spiders, etc.). The frosted surface of the wind-blown grains (different from smooth beach sand) comports with a desert origin. Naturally, YE creationists don’t want to admit this desert origin, since it completely destroys their Flood geology (can’t have massive dry deserts forming in the middle of the Flood) so they try to spin facts to try to support a water deposition. See here for my discussion of this issue: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/grand-canyon-creation/   )

ON FOSSILS

I will pick just one area to mainly focus on for the rest of this document, which is fossils, and especially transitional or intermediate fossils. Some background is necessary in order to understand the fossil evidence.

There are three key principles to keep in mind:

1) Very, very, very few of all the organisms that have died in past eons became fossilized. As we can observe today, nearly all carcasses rot or are eaten by scavengers rather than being buried intact in rock layers and forming hard, detectable fossils. Of the remains that do get fossilized, many are later eroded away, or smeared beyond recognition in metamorphic transformations deep in the earth. Also, of all the potential fossil-bearing rocks, only a small fraction of them are available near the surface for paleontologists to examine. Thus, it is not surprising that we do not find actual fossils for many of the species, including intermediate species, that we believe to have existed.

The Coelacanth fishes furnish a classic example of the fickleness of the fossil record. The Coelacanth order of fishes was once widespread in the ancient seas. Coelacanths peaked in the fossil record about 240 million years ago, and then declined. The most recent known fossil dates back to about 80 million years ago. It was thought that they had become extinct. In 1938, however, a live coelacanth was discovered in the Indian Ocean. Since then a number of others have been caught. (As might be expected, these modern specimens are not precisely the same species or even genus as the fossil coelacanths, but they are clearly coelacanths). Unless we are prepared to claim that an Intelligent Agent supernaturally re-created these modern coelacanths, we must acknowledge that some population of these fish has existed for the past 80 million years but without leaving a trace in the fossil record.

(2) The basic arithmetic of population genetics shows that it is difficult for new genetic mutations to become established in very large populations. Thus, it is far more likely that a new species will develop within a small, isolated population, especially if that population is under some environmental stress that would favor genetic changes. Such a small, transient population is unlikely to leave a trace in the fossil record. If the new species becomes more fit than the old species, the new species will expand in numbers and only then is likely to appear in the fossil record. But once a species is widespread and successful in its ecological niche, there will be diminished selection pressure for changes, so fossils of this now well-adapted species may appear for perhaps millions of years with showing little change.

( 3) Evolutionary lineages tend to be “branchy”. Typically the organisms out on the side branches show up in the fossil record, rather than the transitional ones along the main “trunk” of the evolutional family tree. The transitional ones along the “trunk” would have existed in small, isolated populations whereas some of the organisms on the side branches will be the large, established, stable populations, which will leave appreciable fossils. This trend is illustrated below:

Expected Intermediate Fossil Finds

In this figure, living species are shown as solid black dots, and fossil (extinct) species as black circles. As noted, the species that actually leave appreciable amounts of fossil evidence will tend to be large, stable populations out on the ends of the “branches” (e.g. A, B, C, D, E), whereas the small, isolated, probably stressed populations in transition (i.e. along the dashed line of lineage) will likely not leave enough fossils to be found by us millions of years later.

Thus, we should expect many gaps in the observable fossil record. The fact that various transitional fossils have not yet been found is not a rational basis for believing that these transitional forms never existed. It is worth noting that as time goes by, more and more gaps do get filled in by additional fossil discoveries (as predicted from common descent). However, there will always be some gaps left.

ARE THERE TRANSITIONAL FOSSILS?

First we have to set reasonable expectations here. As noted above, we do not expect to find fossils of the species along the actual core lineage, or transitions between these species. (Again, these direct transitional species will be in small, stressed populations which will likely not show up in the fossil record).

However, we should find fossils of at least some of the more plentiful, successful species out on the “branches” of the family tree. Let’s call these “branched intermediates”, to distinguish them from “direct intermediates”. These branched intermediates will show most of the intermediate features that are developing along the main “trunk” of the family tree, and so they are validly referred to as intermediate or transitional species. They are what paleontologists typically mean when they talk about transitional fossils.

So, do such intermediate fossils exist? Yes, there are plenty of these transitional fossils. The National Academy of Sciences notes,

In Darwin’s time, paleontology was still a rudimentary science. Large parts of the geological succession of stratified rocks were unknown or inadequately studied.

Darwin, therefore, worried about the rarity of intermediate forms between some major groups of organisms.

Today, many of the gaps in the paleontological record have been filled by the research of paleontologists. Hundreds of thousands of fossil organisms, found in well-dated rock sequences, represent successions of forms through time and manifest many evolutionary transitions. As mentioned earlier, microbial life of the simplest type was already in existence 3.5 billion years ago. The oldest evidence of more complex organisms (that is, eucaryotic cells, which are more complex than bacteria) has been discovered in fossils sealed in rocks approximately 2 billion years old. Multicellular organisms, which are the familiar fungi, plants, and animals, have been found only in younger geological strata.

.. So many intermediate forms have been discovered between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, and along the primate lines of descent that it often is difficult to identify categorically when the transition occurs from one to another particular species. …The fossil record thus provides consistent evidence of systematic change through time—of descent with modification.

[Science, Evolution, and Creationism by the National Academy of Sciences,   http://www.nap.edu/read/6024/chapter/4#13]

Here is one figure showing some of the transitional fossils between fish and the first four-footed tetrapods (primitive amphibians):

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

In this figure above from Ahlberg and Clack  can be seen the differences in skeletal and other morphological features among the fossils species discussed above. There is a gradual loss of the gill cover (blue), and a reshaping of the skull. Note that the scientists in drawing this figure depict each of these fossil species as branches off the main lineage line. That is, they do not claim these species as direct ancestors of modern amphibians, but as closely-related “branched” intermediates, as we discussed above.

Here is another figure illustrating fish-tetrapod intermediate forms, which calls out the specific changes in limb structure between the fossils:

Evolution of Tetrapods, showing limbs. Source: https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evograms_04

 

YE creationists will always find something to complain about, but for the rest of the world, this fossil series provides a reasonably complete set of transitional fossils for the fish-to-tetrapod transition.

I have a whole article on transitional fossils, https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/realistic-expectations-for-transitional-fossils/ , which describes some other transitional series.

WHALE EVOLUTION

Since you brought up whale fossils, let’s look briefly at them.

Whale Evogram, showing bodies and skulls. Source: https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evograms_03

This figure describes some of the gradual changes in body parts. One of these trends is for the nasal opening in the skull to move from the front of the snout, to further back on the snout, and eventually to become a blow-hole on the top of the head:

 

Whale Blowhole Position Evolution

Again, this is about as complete a transitional series as one could ask for.

It gets even better when we factor in genetics. Modern whales have no exterior hind legs. But if they were actually descended from land mammals, they should still have the genes for making hind legs, even though these genes would be deactivated. We look in the whale genome…and there are the hind leg genes, as predicted.

There are two main classes of whales. One class has teeth (as do nearly all mammals), but the other class, the baleen whales have no hard teeth. Instead, they have a fibrous filter in their mouths to collect edible food bits from the water. However, if these baleen whales descended from land mammals that had teeth, they should still have (deactivated) genes for making enameled teeth. We look in the baleen whale genome…and there are the deactivated teeth genes, as predicted.

This illustrates the predictive power of evolutionary theory. Again and again, evolution predicts that a certain novel feature should be found, and as additional data is gathered, the predictions are fulfilled. This is a major reason why scientists are so sure that evolution is true. This is how science is done: take initial observations, propose a theory that explains them, use that theory to make novel predictions, then take more data to test whether the theory is valid. Evolution passes this test over and over and over again, whereas YE creationism does not.

Since the whale transitional series is so impressive, of course the YE creationists mount all kinds of objections. I have not seen the particular DVD you mentioned, but I have read numerous articles by YE creationists trying to attack this clear evidence for whale evolution. None of their objections actually amounts to anything. For instance, I saw in one of your slides the “admission” by researcher Gingerich that “the Rodhocetus fossil contained no evidence of whale tail (fluke) or blowhole.” The scientific response to this “admission” would be: “Of course Rodhocetus doesn’t have a tail fluke or a blowhole at the top of its head ! It is an intermediate species, not a final modern whale.” If you look on the figure above the figure above, you will see that all of its features are only maybe a third of the way along between the starting land mammal (Pakicetus) and modern whales (it still has hind legs). Its nostril hole has migrated about a quarter of the way back along its head, which is about where we expect it for that stage of evolution.

MINING FOR QUOTES ON FOSSILS

There are many fossil series which bridge important evolutionary transitions. A deceitful tactic which YE creationist authors practice to discredit this fact is to dig around in old, often outdated literature and “mine” for quotes that seem to say that there are no transitional fossils. Often they do this by pulling phrases out of context, or carefully editing away words to make the quote say something that the author did not really mean. There is a large section ( the “Quote Mine Project”) of the TalkOrigins site dedicated to exposing these misleading quotations.

I will deal with three such quotes that I saw on your slides. (Once again, I am not at all criticizing you for using these quotes – -the responsibility lies with those who foist these quotes onto unsuspecting lay people).

The Darwin “Admission”

In his Origin of Species Darwin wrote:

The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.

This quote from Darwin’s Origin of Species is presented frequently on YE creationist web sites as an admission by Darwin that the facts were against his theory. What the creationists typically fail to include is the very next sentence, in which Darwin tells why this is NOT a problem for his theory:

The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.

This is exactly correct, as we have explained above: very few organisms get fossilized and then found by us, and the few that do are far more likely to be members of a large, stable population than representatives of a small, stressed populations in transition.

Darwin acknowledged that there were not millions of finely-graded intermediate fossils lying everywhere, yet still a reasonable number of significant transitional fossils had been found, even in his day. He wrote:

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

The YE creationists don’t generally show you that quote, where Darwin notes that we do “assuredly” find transitional fossils of the type that “we have the right to expect”, given the realities of fossil formation.

The Colin Patterson “Admission”

Here is a quote from paleontologist Colin Patterson, which is often cited by YE creationist authors, and which appears on one of your slides:

I fully agree with your comments on the lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions in my book. If I knew of any, fossil or living, I would certainly have included them. . .I will lay it on the line, there is not one such fossil for which one might make a watertight argument.

This was from a letter Patterson wrote in 1979, in reply to an inquiry from YE creationist Luther Sunderland. It is emphatic, but what did Patterson actually mean here?

In Patterson’s 1979 letter to Sunderland, the full text continues:

The reason is that statements about ancestry and descent are not applicable in the fossil record. Is Archaeopteryx the ancestor of all birds? Perhaps yes, perhaps no: there is no way of answering the question. It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another, and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such stories are not part of science, for there is no way to put them to the test.

YE creationists do not show this full text, because it shows that Patterson was NOT denying the existence of the usual “branched” intermediate fossils. What he was saying is that we can’t be sure of the exact lineage relations among the various fossil animals, since there is not enough information to test whether a proposed ancestral relationship is correct or not.

In other words, if all we have are the branched-intermediate fossils A, B, C, D, and E in the figure below (which I showed earlier), that constitutes reasonable support for the notion that the current living species F and G evolved from earlier forms. However, we don’t have fossils of the species that lie right along the main dashed lineage line, and we cannot be absolutely sure of the exact relations among A, B, C, D, and E; we could have drawn other configurations of the dashed lineage line(s) that would also fit the fossil data we have. That is what Patterson meant by “lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions.”

Expected Intermediate Fossil Finds

In later correspondence, Patterson explicitly confirmed that what he meant by   “lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions” was lack of testable direct transitional fossils, not lack of credible branched intermediate fossils. YE creationists have been confronted with this later correspondence, but they continue to show the original, deceitfully edited quote. See http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/patterson.html for the full story here.

Patterson certainly acknowledged the usual “branched” fossil intermediates, as evidenced by this passage from his 1978 book Evolution (p 131-133):

In several animal and plant groups, enough fossils are known to bridge the wide gaps between existing types. In mammals, for example, the gap between horses, asses and zebras (genus Equus) and their closest living relatives, the rhinoceroses and tapirs, is filled by an extensive series of fossils extending back sixty-million years to a small animal, Hyracotherium, which can only be distinguished from therhinoceros-tapir group by one or two horse-like details of the skull. There are many other examples of fossil ‘missinglinks’, such as Archaeopteryx, the Jurassic bird which links birds with dinosaurs (Fig. 45), and Ichthyostega, the late Devonian amphibian which links land vertebrates and the extinct choanate (having internal nostrils) fishes. . .

You noted verbally that, “Naturalists don’t like it when creationists use this [Patterson] quote.” The reason naturalists “don’t like it” is that it is dishonest for creationists to keep citing a partial, out-of-context quote that is spun to convey the opposite of what Patterson actually meant.

Patterson on fossil gaps among Cambrian phyla

In your slides appears another quote from Colin Patterson (Evolution, 1999), “But there are still great gaps in the fossil record. Most of the major groups of animals (phyla) appear fully fledged in the early Cambrian rocks, and we know of no fossil forms linking them.”

That is actually fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go as far as it may appear. One needs to understand what is meant by “fully fledged” phyla. That means a fossil meets the core definitional criteria of membership in a phyla. It does not mean that modern-type animals like mammals or even modern fish were actually present. There were arthropods in the mid-Cambrian, but no insects (which are by far the most common arthropods today).

We vertebrates are considered members of the phylum Chordata. By definition, chordates possess (at some point in their life-cycle) a notochord, a dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, an endostyle, and a post-anal tail. There are organisms which meet these criteria in the Cambrian fossils, but these earliest “chordates” are basically swimming worms. The crudest fish don’t appear in the fossil record for millions of years afterward, and modern type fish after more millions of years, and the first amphibians after more millions of years, then reptiles appear in the fossil record and still later, mammals. That pattern is consistent with evolution, not with a worldwide Flood raging across the earth and mixing and burying things.

Biologos notes:

The major animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion did not include the appearance of modern animal groups such as: starfish, crabs, insects, fish, lizards, birds and mammals. These animal groups all appeared at various times much later in the fossil record. The forms that appeared in the Cambrian Explosion were more primitive than these later groups, and many of them were soft-bodied organisms. However, they did include the basic features that define the major branches of the tree of life to which later life forms belong. For example, vertebrates are part of the Chordata group. The chordates are characterized by a nerve cord, gill pouches and a support rod called the notochord. In the Cambrian fauna, we first see fossils of soft-bodied creatures with these characteristics. However, the living groups of vertebrates appeared much later. It is also important to realize that many of the Cambrian organisms, although likely near the base of major branches of the tree of life, did not possess all of the defining characteristics of modern animal body plans. These defining characteristics appeared progressively over a much longer period of time.

The further back we go in time, e.g. back the Cambrian period some half-billion years ago, the less likely it is that whatever fossils were formed would survive being buried beyond our reach in further sediment or squashed beyond recognition or elevated and eroded away. So our access to Cambrian fossils is limited. Also, the organisms in the Cambrian tended to be soft-bodied, worm-like or slug-like animals that would not generally fossilize well. There are a few spots like the Burgess shale with exceptionally fine conditions for preserving these fragile creatures, but these few spots can only give us brief snapshots in time of the progress of evolution, not the full movie. As hard body parts evolved later in the Cambrian, we find more abundant fossils, but by then the different phyla were already defined. There is plenty of evidence of worm-like activity in the earliest Cambrian in the form of worm burrows in sea floor sediment, but the animals that made those burrows are not generally preserved. So it is not too surprising that soft-bodied fossils from the earliest Cambrian/late pre-Cambrian aren’t available to trace the earliest differentiation of the animal phyla.

ARCHAEOPTERYX

From Wikipedia:

Despite their small size, broad wings, and inferred ability to fly or glide, Archaeopteryx had more in common with other small Mesozoic dinosaurs than with modern birds. In particular, they shared the following features with the dromaeosaurids and troodontids: jaws with sharp teeth [in the adult stage, unlike the few modern birds which can display teeth as chicks] , three fingers with claws, a long bony tail, hyperextensible second toes (“killing claw”), feathers (which also suggest warm-bloodedness), and various features of the skeleton.   These features make Archaeopteryx a clear candidate for a transitional fossil between non-avian dinosaurs and birds.

Archaeopteryx is such a mix of bird and dinosaur characteristics that paleontologists go back and forth on whether to classify it as a bird or as a dinosaur. The current opinion is to classify it with dinosaurs. At any rate, it has a number of skeletal characteristics (e.g. long, bony tail) that are clearly like dinosaurs, not like any modern birds. It was probably a branched intermediate, not a direct ancestor of modern birds.

YE creationists dive into old literature and pull quotes out of context to try to show Archaeopteryx was “just a bird”. These spin efforts are discussed here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/archaeopteryx/info.html

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FINAL COMMENTS

If you want my comments on more of your science slides, I am happy to give them, but this should suffice to show why practicing scientists find YE creationism to be untenable.

I realize I have used harsh words like “deceptive” and “dishonest”, but I am just calling it the way I see it. I recognize that YE creationist authors do not intend to be dishonest. Rather, they are being consistent with their approach that the literal interpretation of the Genesis narrative must be true, and therefore any evidence that seems to contradict that must be wrong and can therefore can and should be denied. Their underlying motive, to honor God’s word, is commendable. Unfortunately, as with defenders of Old Testament literalism in Paul’s day, this is an instance of “zeal not according to knowledge” ( Rom 10:2).

However pure the underlying motives, YE creationism creates a poor witness. Scientists wryly refer to it as “Lying for Jesus”. In the words of one missionary, “It creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church… How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture? …We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already.”

Long ago Saint Augustine warned of the consequences of having Christians “talking nonsense” about the physical world, based on some interpretation of the Scripture:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? – St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (408 A.D) Book 1, ch.19.

I know that young earth creationist organizations mean well, and think they are defending the truth of the Scripture against the biased infidels, but it seems to me that (1) they are not being true to the facts of creation or to the intent of the Bible, (2) they bring discredit on the gospel, making it harder for a scientifically literate person to take it seriously, (3) they divert Christian resources from more worthy works, (4) they furnish ammunition to aggressive atheists who would like to shut down Christian schools and home schooling, and (5) they cause many Christian young people to lose their faith when they find out YE creationism is not true.

If some adult doesn’t accept an old earth or evolution, I don’t see that as a big problem. But in many churches and Christian families, young people are told that a literal interpretation of Genesis is the only acceptable one, and there is no natural explanation for things like babies and flowers. These young people are then set up to lose their faith when they discover the earth is old, and evolution is how we got here. Sadly, this happens all the time. On the internet one can find anguished mothers telling of the day their son came home and told them that he had found evolution to be true, and therefore (since he was told that evolution is incompatible with the Bible) he had given up on Christianity.

In my opinion, the way for Christians to teach their kids to deal with evolution is not to deny it, but point out that God often works through extended processes (think: sanctification and parables of seeds growing). My daughters are now adults, with vibrant Christian faith. As they were growing up, we exposed them to the full range of writings by C. S. Lewis. He (at least provisionally) did not dispute biological evolution. What he did was refute the ungodly implications that unbelieving naturalists tried to draw from evolution. That was the spirit in which I addressed the subject in my talk at the ISI dinner.

I have been very frank here. I hope that is what you wanted. I understand if you want to stick with YE creationism, and I don’t consider it something that needs to cause any friction among us.

Best regards,

Scott

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2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 1: Bible Interpretation

Preface for blog: Earlier this year I had a discussion with an evangelical Christian woman who I will call Rachel (not her real name). She had recently learned that I endorse modern scientific findings in geology (the earth is old) and biology (today’s fauna, including humans, physically evolved from earlier life-forms), and that I have no problem squaring that with the Bible’s teachings. She sent me links to some videos that she and her husband had made, where they presented scientific and exegetical arguments in favor of young earth (Y.E.) creationism, and invited my comments.

It has been experience that once someone gets committed to Y.E. creationism, it is usually impossible to have them change their mind. No matter how much of their best evidence for a young earth that I refute, and no matter how much evidence for an old earth I present, they end up waving it all away. Nevertheless, I decided to run an experiment with Rachel. She is intelligent and good-willed, with some familiarity with science, and (unlike my typical encounters on the internet) she knew me personally to be a devout, Bible-honoring Christian.

So I took some time to compose this email (reproduced below, with a few wording changes) to address the issue of Bible interpretation, and also another document addressing many of the scientific claims made in her videos. I will share that other document as my next post here (“2019 Letters to a Creationist,Part 2”). I hoped that by showing that these “evidences” she relied on for a young earth do not hold up upon inspection, I might get her to reconsider her commitment to Y.E. creationism.

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Hi Rachel,
I did listen to all three of your video presentations. You did a fine job presenting many of the relevant scriptures, and also sharing young earth perspectives on some scientific issues.

It seems like you are interested in my comments, so I will share some thoughts here. This is not in the spirit of who is right and who wrong, but to perhaps help you understand how another devout Christian can have a very different opinion on some of these matters.

First, I’d like to make it clear that I am not criticizing anyone who holds to Young Earth (YE) creationism. When I refer to “YE creationists”, I mean YE advocate groups like Answers in Genesis and Institute for Creation Research who promote this viewpoint, not the millions of lay people who go along with what these organizations promote.

There are some picky details involved with the scientific issues, so I will address those in a separate word document. In this email, I will share some of my thoughts on the Bible interpretation issue.

I think a key issue is the extent to which it is appropriate to use observations of the physical world to influence our interpretation of the scripture. I think somewhere in the videos the question was asked whether science can trump the plain sense of the scripture. I will note that this is not an issue of whether the Bible is inspired and authoritative, but an issue of how to interpret it.

The approach taken by YE creationism is to elevate their particular literal interpretation of Genesis over any possible physical evidence. This is stated, for instance, in the preface to the book that launched modern YE creationism, The Genesis Flood, authors Whitcomb and Morris reveal the basis of their thinking:

We believe that the Bible, as the verbally inspired and completely inerrant Word of God, gives us a true framework of historical and scientific interpretation, as well as of so-called religious truth. This framework is one of special creation of all things, complete and perfect in the beginning, followed by the introduction of a universal principle of decay and death into the world after man’s sin, culminating in a worldwide cataclysmic destruction of the “world that then was” by the Genesis Flood. We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context…the real issue is not the correctness of the interpretation of various details of the geological data, but simply what God has revealed in His Word concerning these matters.

On this telling, the authors hold that the earth was recently created, that decay and death only entered the world following Adam’s apple, and all terrestrial life was drowned apart from the humans and animals on Noah’s ark. Knowing this to be the case, they feel justified in distorting or ignoring whatever physical evidence points to an old earth – they know that old-earth evidence must be invalid, so they need give it no credence: “We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.”

Their fundamental mistake is assuming that a verbally inspired, authoritative Word of God must always be correct in its statements concerning the physical world. This assumption drives the whole agenda of YE creationism. I respect the pious motivations behind this approach, but it is simply wrong. That is not the way hermeneutics actually works. Various examples can be adduced which demonstrate that Scriptural statements about the physical world, which were appropriate and meaningful for the original audience, can be incorrect according to modern knowledge. To take a simple example, Jesus taught:

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” [Mark 4:30-32 NIV].

The literal statement here is that the mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds on earth”. The mustard seed was indeed the smallest seed that ancient Galilean farmers were familiar with, so this was a useful illustration for that audience for the growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings. Modern naturalists have found other plant seeds which smaller than the mustard seed. If a Bible literalist were truly consistent, he should respond, “I don’t care what those godless scientists say, Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest seed, and that’s that. This is the infallible Word of God, so every statement regarding the natural world must be correct.” (That is what YE creationists do with Genesis). Most Christians understand that this parable was not really intended to teach horticultural facts; to obsess over whether Jesus taught “error” here would be to entirely miss the point of the passage.

The Bible often presents spiritual or moral teachings in the form of stories or imagery which are not literally true. It is true that the simplest, most literal readings of Genesis 1-3 and other passages point to a recent creation. However, it is also true that the simple, literal meanings of many Biblical passages show that the earth is stationary, and the sun and other celestial objects revolve around the earth. These verses include Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”), Ps. 93:1 (“Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved”), I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”), the philosophical discourse of Eccl.1:5 (“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose”), and also the historical chronicle of Josh. 10:13:

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the literal interpretation of these passages was seen as an essential element of Christian belief. Here is what John Calvin in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10-11 had to say about those monstrous, malicious, devil-possessed people who claim that the earth “shifts and turns”:

We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence.

This is the sort of accusation that today’s YE creationists make against those who teach that evolution is compatible with biblical Christianity.

Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, a prosecutor of Galileo, stated in 1615: “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” Note the words: “…injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” That is what today’s YE creationists say about an old earth and evolution, i.e. that these concepts injure our faith and make the sacred scripture false.

Galileo did not dispute that the literal teaching of the Bible was of a stationary earth; he just argued that we need to take a non-literal interpretation, in order to remove the apparent conflict with science. As he put it, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Practically every Bible commentary since 1800 offers explanations of why these passages which depict a stationary earth need not be taken literally. Is this because our exegetical skills or our command of the Hebrew language are superior to everyone living before that time? No, it is because by 1800 nearly everyone accepted what the scientists had been telling them about these aspects of the physical world. Once this physical picture was accepted, the theologians took a fresh look at the issue and found that, lo and behold, a literal acceptance of a stationary earth was not essential to the Christian faith after all.

Nowadays most evangelical Christians will say, obviously these verses were not supposed to be taken literally. Obviously, these passages reflect the thinking and language of ancient times, and obviously were not intended for making authoritative statements about the physical world. But that is only “obvious” after one has accepted the physical evidence that the earth moves, and has recognized that it is proper to use the information we get from God’s creation to help interpret the meaning of the scriptural texts.

There was an earlier, lesser-known controversy over the “firmament” in Genesis 1. The simple, straightforward meaning of Genesis 1:6-7 and 1:14-18….

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault [Hebrew raqia ]between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. …. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.

….is that God created some sort of thin, solid dome (raqia) in the midst of the primeval waters. This separated the waters below, the oceans, from a great mass of liquid water (not vapor) up above the dome of the sky. God then set the sun and moon into this dome. The Hebrew root for raqia (often translated “firmament” or “expanse”) is the verb raqa. According to the standard Hebrew lexicon of Brown, Driver, and Briggs, raqa means to “beat, stamp, beat out, stamp out”. It is typically applied to metal being beaten out into a thin sheet (e.g. Is. 40:19, Ex. 39:3, Num. 17:4, Jer. 10:9; cf. Num 17:3). Thus, raqia (“firmament”) denotes something which has been beaten out or spread out, like a sheet of metal. Brown, Driver, and Briggs define raqia as, “extended surface, (solid) expanse.” This was not empty space or atmosphere.

The folks best placed to understand the meaning of the ancient Hebrew text would be the ancient Hebrews themselves. The Septuagint translation of Genesis into Greek was done by Jewish scholars around 300 B.C. The Septuagint translators rendered raqia as “stereoma” which connotes solidity, not an empty space. The Latin translations of this passage followed the Septuagint’s lead in rendering this word as “firmamentum,” which again connotes solidity. The King James version retained this usage (“firmament”), while modern translations render it as “expanse” to better mesh with today’s science.

The Jews of the Second Temple period, followed by practically everyone up through the Renaissance, understood the raqia to denote a solid dome above the earth. The Jewish literature of that era includes discussions, for instance, of whether this dome was made of clay or of copper or of iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7-8).

This was not some bizarre concept unique to the Old Testament. Practically everyone in the ancient Middle East believed that the sky was a solid dome. How that dome got created calls for an explanation, which the Genesis story provides. The Genesis creation narrative is an example of God wisely and graciously accommodating to the “science” of that day (rather than trying to correct it), as an effective means to convey the essential and novel message that Yahweh is the sole, sovereign creator.

Martin Luther clearly understood the meaning of this term, and he was greatly annoyed when the scientists (“philosophers”) of his day were questioning the existence of such a solid dome. Luther took a firm stand on defending the plain, literal meaning of the Bible:

Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.

[ Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan, Concordia Pub. House, St. Louis, Missouri, 1958, pp. 30, 42, 43 ]

A woodcut illustration in the 1534 Luther Bible shows the firmament containing the sun, moon, and stars, with the liquid waters up above the heavens, just like Genesis says. Luther’s stand on the firmament is like of today’s YE creationists regarding a literal Adam and a six 24-hour day creation: “the Bible says it, I believe it, phooey on the scientists, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wicked or presumptuous”. ( see https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/was-the-expanse-overhead-in-genesis-1-a-solid-dome/ for more on this controversy over the firmament).

Sorry if this has gotten kind of long-winded. I just wanted to make it clear that the reason that I and millions of other science-literate evangelicals reject automatic Bible literalism is not a “low” view of scripture, but rather a balanced view of how God has provided revelation in both his Word and his works. The devout Christian scholar Francis Bacon commended study of both God’s word and God’s works:

Let no man … think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling [pride]; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together. – – The Advancement of Learning (1605)

His warning against unwisely mingling or confounding these two areas has been, unfortunately, neglected by YE creationists.

Now, you may wonder what practicing scientists, who understand the evidence for the age of the earth and for evolution, do with Genesis and related scriptures, if they don’t hold it to a literal interpretation. I can’t speak for anyone else, and I won’t try to spell it all out in this email, but I have sketched out my approach in two articles on my blog. The first one to look at, if you’re interested, is https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/adam-the-fall-and-evolution-christianity-today-and-world-get-it-wrong/ .That gives an overview. Among other things, it answers the question that was asked in your video, what is the purpose of the Genesis creation story if it is not literally true. (It might help to first read the prequel to that article, Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 1 ).

The second article deals specifically with Adam and the Fall, including Romans 5, etc. : https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/adam-the-fall-and-evolution-christianity-today-and-world-get-it-wrong/ . You might also be interested in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology and Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear . These are not primarily about creationism, but they do note that if there were widely-available physical evidence of the Flood, that would seem to contradict Jesus’s teaching that no sign would be given to the world in general, apart from his resurrection.

I’ll say it again to be clear: In the interest of time, I am being pretty blunt here, but I am just stating my point of view here, not meaning to call into question anyone else’s motives. You two are both wonderful believers, and I trust we can just agree to disagree here.

Blessings,

Scott

Posted in Bible Interpretation | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

“Friend of Science, Friend of Faith” by Gregg Davidson: A Comprehensive Treatment of Bible and Science

Greg Davidson is chair of geology and geological engineering in at the University of Mississippi. He is a co-author of The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth, which I reviewed here. (He has also authored a science fiction trilogy). He has just come out with a new book, Friend of Science, Friend of Faith, which does a thorough job addressing diverse issues concerning the Bible and creation science. It is a meaty book, with some 270 pages of text, plus a lengthy bibliography and two indices.

In discussing the scientific issues, the author focuses heavily on geology, which is his area of professional expertise. There are also sections of the book which deal with cosmology and evolutionary genetics. As he notes in the Acknowledgments, he sought input from experts in these other disciplines, to ensure accuracy in those areas.

Interpreting the Bible

The first third of the book deals mainly with interpreting the Bible, which is a key area in this controversy. A basic premise of the book (which is supported with theological arguments) is that God is not a massive deceiver, and so we can trust that the physical evidence we find for the great age of the universe, and the evidence for biological evolution, give valid information on what really happened. However, for sincere believers who value God’s opinion over man’s opinion on matters, it makes perfect sense to reject any scientific conclusion if it truly conflicts with the teaching of the Bible. What Professor Davidson does, clearly and thoroughly, is to help readers distinguish between the actual words of the Bible, and our interpretation of those words.

He notes that we have the “tendency to conflate God’s word with our own interpretation of his word.” He goes on to say, “God‘s word is immutable and true; our interpretation is not always so. Failure to recognize this has the potential to cause tremendous personal upheaval. If the weight of evidence begins to accumulate that my interpretation is an error, but I am unable to differentiate my interpretation from scripture itself, I will begin to retreat into a world of contradictions where some truths must be ignored in order to cling to others. “

As an opening illustration, Professor Davidson uses the controversy in the 16th and 17th centuries over whether the earth moves or not. There are a number of Bible passages, which, taken literally, state unequivocally that the earth is stationary, fixed on its foundations, while it is the sun that moves past the earth. A few centuries ago, both Catholic and Protestant theologians asserted that the literal interpretation here was correct. He goes on to list a number of other passages which, taken literally, make physical statements that we know to be untrue. Nearly all modern believers, no matter how conservative, accept that these passages were not intended to teach truth about the physical universe, and thus do not interpret these verses literally.

From there, Professor Davidson argues that we should take what we have learned from these issues, and apply it to more recent scientific findings, including the age of the earth and evolution. Opponents of evolution and of an old earth naturally mount a variety of objections against a nonliteral interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative. Here is where Professor Davidson shows he has really done his homework. He acknowledges a number of these objections fairly, without caricaturing them, and answers them clearly. The overall tone of the book is patient, and sympathetic toward those who are influenced by the young earth creationist point of view.

The book notes that even within the first three chapters of Genesis, there are numerous outright contradictions, if you take each verse literally. Thus, “a great deal of interpretation underlies a superficial, literalist reading of the creation story. In fact, few if any at all truly believe the supposed ‘plain sense’ meaning of the words, for a host of non-literal explanations are required to buttress the purported literal view.”

A Wealth of Illustrations

The book sets forth a number of examples to clarify the underlying issues. For instance, it notes that arguing over whether identification of mechanisms for evolution (e.g. mutations and natural selection) excludes God is as nonsensical as arguing whether gravity excludes God:

Consider a hypothetical God-versus-gravity debate. A ball is released at the top of an incline rolls down the slope. Scientists studying the phenomenon discover that the behavior of the rolling ball is predictable, and develop a theory that the behavior is controlled by something they call gravity. Some of the scientist go so far as to say that God is not necessary to account for the behavior of the ball because they have a good naturalistic explanation for the observed phenomenon. In reaction, some Christians insist that God is the driving force behind all of creation, therefore gravity cannot be true. [pp. 83-84]

Another line of discussion points out some of the flaws of the “baramin-kinds” approach that is currently popular within young earth creationism:

As each group of organisms is created in Genesis 1, a repeated phrase is used that organisms were made and then reproduced, each “after their own kind”.… Israel’s neighbors believed nature to be the chaotic, unpredictable outgrowth of the actions of the precious gods.… But the God of Genesis is not capricious. There is an order to the creation. In human experience, sparrows will give rise to sparrows and sheep will give rise to sheep.

This is not a statement against evolution. Quite to the contrary, evolutionary theory affirms that nature is not controlled by mercurial gods, but acts in an orderly and logical fashion. That orderliness is what allows us to selectively breed to enhance desirable traits in crops or livestock, and even to manipulate the genetic code with reasonable foreknowledge of what it will produce.


Ironically, young-earth creationist have turned the traditional interpretation of this text upside down. Realizing that representative species from the entire earth could not fit on the ark, leading young earth advocates now claim that creatures we would not recognize today entered the ark, with offspring evolving at hyperspeed after exiting to a dramatically changed environment. As an example, a single cat-kind pair leaving the ark gave rise, in a matter of a few generations, to all of today’s lions, tigers, cougars, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, bobcats, panthers, lynx, ocelots, and house cats, as well as the many extinct varieties of saber-tooth cats. With a biblical
kind defined closer to a biological family, not even sheep, goats, and cows would have been on the ark in forms recognized today, for they are all part of the bovind family.… Noah presumably brought on pairs of a bovind kind, which soon gave rise to goats, sheep, and cows…All this departs radically from a literal/traditional understanding of Genesis. [pp. 84-85]

I will not to try to summarize it here, but I appreciated the discussion on animal suffering and the possible role of human sin in the corruption of the physical universe, relative to the sovereignty of God.

There are many figures in the book, which were carefully chosen to illustrate particular points. These figures are all in black and white or grayscale. These include nice sketches of key fossil intermediates for the evolution of whales and for the reptile-to-mammal transition. Some of my favorite figures are those which compared the expected sequence of fossils for various flood geology scenarios compared to what we actually observe in the sedimentary rock layers.

For instance, young earth creationist sometimes claim that the reason that humans and other modern mammals are not found in the lower rock layers is that they were able to run to higher ground as the floodwaters rose. The figure below illustrates a representative fossil sequence if “fleeing to higher ground” was a dominant mechanism for fossil sorting. (I just snapped a photo of the figure with my cell phone, so it is a bit distorted here).

Cell phone photo of Figure 18 from Friend of Science, Friend of Faith. Copyright Gregg Davidson. Original caption: “Expected fossil sequence if based on the ability to flee rising flood waters, and the sequence as actually found. Horizontal lines represent borders between lower/older layers and higher/younger layers.”

It depicts various slow moving animals like shrews, plus both ferns and flowering plants, appearing in the lower sedimentary rock layers. These plants and animals would not have been able to flee the lowlands, and thus would have been swept away early and buried in the lower sedimentary deposits. Meanwhile, more mobile animals like giraffes and predatory dinosaurs and elephants would be able to escape to higher ground. Of course, there would be both ferns and flowering plants in higher as well as lower elevations, and so these plants would be buried in the higher sedimentary layers along with the elephants and therapod dinosaurs. Flying creatures like birds and pterodactyls would take refuge in the tops of the highest trees on the highest hills and mountains, before they were finally swept away to be buried together in the very highest rock layers from the Flood.

The figure plainly shows that that is not what we actually observe. In reality, pterodactyls and dinosaurs of all kinds are found only in the lower, “Mesozoic” rock layers. There are little or no flowering plant remains there. In the “Cenozoic” rock layers which lie above the Mesozoic are found all kinds of modern-type mammals, including very sluggish ones, and only in those layers do we find a large variety of flowering plants.

The book includes similar figures showing an expected fossil sequence for hydrodynamic or vibrational sorting of animal remains of various shapes and sizes by the moving floodwaters and also an expected fossil sequence for sedimentary rock layers attributed to the global Flood versus post-Flood deposits; again it is shown that these “Flood geology” sequences do not match what we actually find in the sedimentary rock layers.  Hydrodynamic sorting would tend to result in similar size/shape/density animals being grouped together in the same layers (e.g. elephants grouped with medium sized dinosaurs).  But that is not observed in the rock layers.

Although most of the book’s arguments are aimed at young earth creationism and its Flood geology, there is a chapter on Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design proponents often accept an old earth, and the appearance of new plants and animals over time as indicated by the fossil record, but they claim that natural processes such as mutation and natural selection cannot produce significantly new forms. Intelligent Design proponents energetically point out the many instances where we do not yet have a complete natural explanation of this or that evolutionary step, and thus (they claim) the frequent intervention of some (supernatural) Intelligent Agent is required. The book notes that, despite its protestations to the contrary, Intelligent Design is for all practical purposes just a sophisticated god-of-the-gaps exercise, and cites a classic passage by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of our 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 Stakes Are High

The book opens with a fictitious but representative scenario of a college student named Riley who comes from a conservative Christian home. Her parents and youth minister had told her that the evidence for evolution and an old earth were flimsy, and easily overturned. In her studies, however, she found there is a wealth of transitional fossils which support evolution, as well as geological evidence that the earth is old. When she looked to the campus minister for guidance on this, he handed her a young earth creationist book, filled with scientific assertions which she could immediately see were false. Riley naturally concluded that if the veracity of the Bible depends on the validity of young earth creationism, then the Bible cannot be considered reliable, and that “her family and church had unwittingly indoctrinated her with fairy tales”.

The author’s reverence for God and his word come through in the concluding chapter, where he revisits the type of dilemma faced by “Riley” and he expresses the hope that believers in the future will realize “how much deeper Genesis 1 is than a mere sequence of days, how Scripture and science both speak of a beginning to the universe and of the earth bringing forth life, the incredible artistry of life adapted through time, that nature continues to proclaim the glory of its Author, and that God delights in giving us amazing tools to explore the wonders of his creation long before humans walked the earth.”

He further notes that as a professor, he has personally had the experience of talking with students who were on the verge of giving up their faith because of the impossibility of retaining the literal interpretation of Genesis which they had been taught, and has helped them to see “how much deeper Genesis 1 is than a mere sequence of days”.

Prospective Audience

Because young earth creationists are so energetic and creative in their objections to modern science and to nonliteral interpretations, this controversy has many arms and legs to it. Thus, any book which (like this one) tries to address the majority of the contested points will necessarily be long and involved. I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone who is deeply engaged in the Bible/science controversies or who has had depth exposure to geology or biology. Anyone who had read a number of young earth creationist articles or books has probably picked up many erroneous beliefs, which would be addressed in Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.

On the other hand, if someone is only casually interested in the topic, or if they have not been previously exposed to many young earth arguments and counter-arguments, the length and depth of this book may be off-putting. There is probably some 5-10 page tract which treats Bible interpretation and key physical evidences, which could serve as a standalone introduction to the subject for a nontechnical conservative Christian who is considering the claims of modern science for the first time. (I don’t have a favorite article or pamphlet here – if any readers have a recommendation, I’d be interested to hear about it.) Friend of Science, Friend of Faith would be a good back-up reference for such an introductory tract.

Posted in Age of Earth, American Scientific Affliliation, Bible Interpretation, Fossils | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Evograd Blog Debunks YE Creationist Genetics Claims in Depth

The Internet debate between those who affirm and those who deny the evidence for evolution and an old earth usually takes place on the scale of fairly short articles which are accessible to the average reader. Some supposed evidences for a young earth, such as the changing magnetic field of the earth, or the amount of helium in the atmosphere, can be readily disposed of in just a few pages.

On the other hand, there are topics where the scientific issues are more complex and subtle. In such cases, it seems useful to present a comprehensive examination of all the main points in one write-up. For instance, one of the top 10 evidences for a young earth claimed by Answers in Genesis is the observation of soft tissue in some dinosaur fossil bones. To the layman, this seems to indicate that that these bones cannot be tens of millions of years old as mainstream science says. Rather than trying to address just a few of the scientific issues with soft tissue in a piecemeal manner, I decided to write a fairly long essay which discussed all of the key scientific findings up to that point. This enabled the efficiently addressing of all the substantive young earth claims associated with this topic, and provided a single reference to which readers could be directed.

Every few years some seemingly well-credentialed Young Earth (YE) creationist publishes a new book which is touted as the final demolition of evolution. The sweeping claims in such a book are then regarded as established facts by the consumers of YE creationist literature. It seems helpful in such cases to systematically work through such a book, and compare what the author claims to what the full data actually show. This sort of fair and thorough rebuttal will typically make no impression on dedicated YE creationists (since they rigorously filter everything through their particular interpretation of the Bible), but it can prove enlightening to someone who is on the fence, trying to sort out what the truth really is.

For instance, when John Sanford’s book, Genetic Entropy, was first published in 2005 it was hailed as the definitive proof that modern evolutionary theory is a complete failure. The central claim of that work is that all genomes are (and have been since The Fall) relentlessly deteriorating due to the buildup of unselectable harmful mutations. Jubilant YE creationists widely referred to that book to bolster their beliefs. The author was a respected retired botanist from Cornell. In my own case, a fellow evangelical Christian handed me a copy of that book in 2008, assuming that it would bring me over to the anti-evolution camp. At that point I had not made up my mind about the scientific case for or against evolution, and Genetic Entropy seemed convincing at first reading. Being a professional researcher, I wanted to read some in-depth critical review of the book, and then balance the pros and cons in my own mind.

However, I could not find a thorough critical review. In the end, I wrote my own chapter by chapter review of Genetic Entropy, as a means of clarifying issues for myself and to respond to my well-meaning YE creationist friend. The net result for me personally was to conclude that the evidences presented against evolution were complete failures, if all the facts (not some cherry-picked subset) are laid on the table. (It happens that writing that review of Genetic Entropy  was what launched me into blogging on faith and science – – since no other thorough scientific review of this controversial book seemed to be available, I decided to implement a WordPress blog to put it, and some other material I had drafted, out on the internet for the benefit of others.)

All of this goes to show why I am highlighting here the Evograd blog. The proprietor of this blog, a graduate student in evolutionary biology who prefers to remain anonymous, has produced a relatively few but very weighty studies which treat timely, highly technical subjects. I don’t think his work is as well known as it should be, considering how it directly and thoroughly confronts some key YE creationist claims.

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I first became aware of this blog when looking for commentary on Replacing Darwin, by Answers in Genesis’s Nathaniel Jeanson. This book appears to be the latest, greatest “demolition of evolution” touted by YE creationists. Jeanson has a PhD from Harvard, which is supposed to lend credibility to his work.

The only in-depth critique of this book I was able to find was by Evograd. He systematically exposes Jeanson’s erroneous assumptions and faulty logic. The first seven out of planned ten posts on the blog have been completed. (Evograd’s fans are waiting for the last three installments to appear, but more pressing matters have taken up his time). Replacing Darwin is a long, sprawling, and dense treatise, and so Evograd’s responses are likewise lengthy, diverse, and detailed. I’ll mention a few points here, but won’t try to summarize all the issues.

Part 6: Jeanson’s Fulcrum Fails” treats chapter 7 of Replacing Darwin. In that chapter Jeanson claimed that the actual, observed amount of mitochondrial mutational differences between various species is much, much lower than predicted by standard evolutionary timescales – – and therefore, the biosphere (and indeed the earth) must be much, much younger than posited by mainstream science. But…the Evograd blogger notes that Jeanson used a mutation rate for mitochondria that is about ten times too high, and also did not take into account the elementary math of how the apparent rate of substitutions will tend to slow down for more ancient lineages even if the actual rate is/was constant. These errors (and others) led Jeanson to grossly overestimate the mitochondrial mutations entailed by “standard” evolutionary theory. When those errors are corrected, the data are in fact consistent with evolution.

The seventh and latest installment, “Part 7: A Nuclear Catastrophe“ has links to all the previous posts in the series on Replacing Darwin. In this technically dense post which cites a wide range of relevant literature results, Evograd debunks a number of Jeanson’s claims concerning DNA in the cell nucleus.

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Tomkins on the Human Vitellogenin Pseudogene: Who Needs Signal When You Have Noise? – – Reptiles and birds produce eggs with substantial yolks. The yolk nourishes the embryo as it grows and matures in the egg, prior to hatching. The vitellogenin gene is involved in producing the yolk. That is its function in birds and reptiles, as can be clearly demonstrated. (In some species, this gene has been duplicated, so there is more than one copy of it in the genome, but the function is the same). In modern placental mammals like humans, there is no need for the function of the vitellogenin gene. Human embryos get their nourishment from the placenta, not from an egg yolk, so they have no need of the protein product of the vitellogenin gene. Thus, over the tens of millions of years since the emergence of modern placental mammals, most of this gene has mutated away. However, some mutated, nonfunctional fragments of the vitellogenin gene still appear in the human genome, in a location corresponding to the locus of the functional gene in chickens. Standard evolutionary science holds that mammals descended from egg-laying common ancestors with reptiles, and so finding these deactivated “pseudogene” fragments in this location is a confirmation of evolution. [1]

In response to this evidence for common ancestry, a YE creationist scientist, Jeffrey Tomkins, published an article in an Answers in Genesis journal, claiming that one of these gene fragments is in fact functional. Tomkins identifies it as a key part of a gene that affects neurological processes in the human brain. This claim has been cited as fact by YE creationists all across the internet, and used to deflect the evolutionary evidence of the vitellogenin gene. Enter Evograd: in this article linked above, he eviscerates Tomkins’ contention of functionality, showing that each of Tomkins’ seven lines of argument is utterly worthless. This is another virtuoso performance by the Evograd blogger, showing a keen grasp of subtle technical points and wide command of the relevant literature, combined with clear writing style and ability to focus on the most important issues.

More Evograd articles on the evolutionary significance of pseudogenes:

Dating Shared Processed Pseudogenes in Primates

Pseudogenes Testify to the Evolutionary History of Animals

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Articles dealing with human chromosome number 2.

This chromosome 2seems to represent a fusion of what in all other higher primates are two separate chromosomes (typically called 2A and 2B). In the human chromosome, the actual point of the fusion of the two original chromosomes can be discerned, pointing to common ancestry between humans and other primates.

Chromosome 2 Fusion and Bayes Theorem: Support for Common Ancestry After All

Chromosome 2 Fusion and Bayes Theorem: Addendum

[and also, in   Part 7: A Nuclear Catastrophe , Evograd demolishes Tomkins’ claim (retailed by Jeanson) that a functional gene spans the fusion site in Chromosome 2]

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Some other excellent reads on the Evograd blog:

Testing a Strong Prediction of Universal Common Ancestry

Human Genetics Confirms Mutations as the Drivers of Diversity and Evolution

 

Endnote

[1] A “pseudogene” is a recognizable DNA sequence derived from some functional gene, but which no longer expresses the original protein. For instance, humans have many nonfunctional genes (i.e. pseudogenes), which in other animals are functional genes involved for odor recognition. (Presumably as humans developed higher visual acuity, they became less dependent on sense of smell, and so natural selection was relaxed for retaining these olfactory genes). These pseudogenes, both the coding DNA and related regulatory regions, were originally fully functional (prior to accumulating disabling mutations), so it is not surprising to find that some bits of some pseudogenes have become used in the regulation of some other, still-functional genes in the genome. Opponents of evolution cite these discoveries of functionality as though they overturn the status of pseudogenes as pseudogenes, but that is misleading nonsense.

Per Wikipedia on the definition of pseudogenes:

Pseudogenes are segments of DNA that are related to real genes. Pseudogenes have lost at least some functionality, relative to the complete gene, in cellular gene expression or protein-coding ability. Pseudogenes often result from the accumulation of multiple mutations within a gene whose product is not required for the survival of the organism, but can also be caused by genomic copy number variation (CNV) where segments of 1+ kb are duplicated or deleted.[4] Although not fully functional, pseudogenes may be functional, similar to other kinds of noncoding DNA, which can perform regulatory functions. The “pseudo” in “pseudogene” implies a variation in sequence relative to the parent coding gene, but does not necessarily indicate pseudo-function. Despite being non-coding, many pseudogenes have important roles in normal physiology and abnormal pathology… Pseudogenes are usually characterized by a combination of homology to a known gene and loss of some functionality. That is, although every pseudogene has a DNA sequence that is similar to some functional gene, they are usually unable to produce functional final protein products.

[Housekeeping note: in deference to the primacy of his work, if a reader here is unhappy with some of the technical conclusions of the Evograd blogger cited above, please leave your comments on his blog, not mine]

Posted in Evolution, Genome, Mutations | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments