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

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at www.letterstocreationistists.wordpress.com . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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17 Responses to 2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 2: Young Earth Evidence

  1. Once again, thanks. Two minor points.

    “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” and your equating everything along the dotted line with speeches in transition. I see it differently. We don’t initially know, and will perhaps never know, whether or not a transitional form is actually on the line of descent, or off to one side, and by how far. At each branching point, there will indeed generally be one smaller and more rapidly evolving group, but the other group may still be substantial. And of course, we don’t know which of those is ancestral to specific later groups.

    The Cambrian explosion; firstly, we now know that this has deep roots in the Ediacaran, and secondly (a point implicit in your quotation from Biologos) the differences that eventually became differences between phyla may have been quite minor, much as the well-separated mighty boughs of the tree outside my window were once closely spaced twigs. So the “explosion” is a trick of perspective, in morphological space as well as in time.

    • I don’t disagree with your points, but the most conservative assumption is usually made in drawing cladograms, i.e. that the fossils we find are not in the direct line of ancestry. And making that conservative assumption I think is rhetorically judicious, since it spikes that creationist claim that we must produce certified direct-ancestry fossils in order to claim that the fossils support evolution. (I did leave open the possibility of finding direct ancestors by throwing in the qualifier “Typically”).

  2. Fair enough. Except perhaps where we have extremely rich data, as in chalk cliffs, we can never know how close a given specimen is to the line of descent to any later species.

    A corollary: if new species form in small isolated groups, while the bulk of the population changes more slowly,I wonder whether we can tell, at any branching point, whether the line of descent to the ground species went by way of the smaller, or the larger, population. There are probably theoretical models that address this issue

  3. Pingback: 2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 3: Minds Changed? | Letters to Creationists

  4. Pingback: 2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 1: Bible Interpretation | Letters to Creationists

  5. Jeff B says:

    Scott. As a person very interested in this topic, I would very much like to be able to watch these individual’s original video. I understand your hesitance for their sake, and perhaps not wanting to promote the video. But perhaps you can send it to me personally. I sent one post asking this, but it didn’t get published. Not sure if it got deleted. If you don’t , I understand, but at a minimum, please give me some feedback so that I’m not wondering if this posts are getting through.
    -Jeff B

    • Jeff, I have been distracted and not tracking comments every day, but I did reply a few days ago regarding your request, to your original comment on Part 1 of this series ( https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2019/12/07/2019-letters-to-a-creationist-part-1/ ). I trust you will understand my response there .

      If after following up on the links I have provided you have some specific question on the scientific topics covered, please feel free to ask me for clarification.
      I don’t know where you are coming from in this controversial area. If you (like me) were taught young earth creationism by leaders you respect, and have been exposed to the sorts of evidences for a literal reading of Genesis provided by organizations like Answers in Genesis, it can be a long, emotionally painful process to get to the point of seeing the full scope of the evidence with objectivity. At least, it was that way for me.

      For what it is worth, my main motivation in publishing what I do is not so much to change the mind of committed YE creationists – – as this series with “Rachel” demonstrated, that is very difficult – – but to be there for genuine inquirers who have come or are coming to the point of realizing that that the warm, comforting young earth picture is simply not true. All too often, this leads to disillusionment with the whole biblical worldview. I hope to demonstrate that a rigorous, accurate assessment of the physical evidence for natural origins can coexist with a high view of the essentials of the gospel (see, e.g. https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/historicity-of-jesus/ and https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/jesus-on-seeing-god-in-nature-no-signs-no-justice-no-fear/ ).
      Best wishes, and stay well…

      • Jeff B says:

        Scott,
        Thank you for replying! Sorry for the multiple posts. I should have been more patient. I understand about business, and these items are generally more side-interests.

        Yes, I do understand about privacy concerns for someone who confided in you. Will certainly respect those.
        Full disclosure here: I was interested because I too am a biblical creationists interested in creating videos on both age and evolution. Was curious to see what they put together. But yes, I can derive it from your comments. And honestly those are move valuable to me anyway. I can WHOLE heatedly agree with you in wanting to, as you say:

        “bounce back and forth between proponents and opponents, following the arguments and counter-arguments, and counter-counter-arguments”

        I try to do that as best as I can. I certainly want to hear both sides and these topics.
        Thank you for the links, I will be reading through those, and others I’ve already started. I might have a few questions, but otherwise, I’ll just read what you have.

        I appreciate your response,
        Jeff

      • Jeff,
        I thought something like that might be your situation.
        As far as videos on creation topics, you can find many, many on YouTube. Many from YEC viewpoint, and also a number that make it their business to debunk YEC. But many of those have a snarky attitude, being produced by folks that are anti-Christian as well as anti-YEC, so they are seemingly pleased to find that a literal interpretation of the Bible leads to falsifiable claims.

        There are fewer videos that would represent my viewpoint, of evangelicals trying to be faithful to the core of the gospel (e.g. I Corinthians 15:1-7) and treating the science honestly. the “Disciple Science” YouTube channel has just started up, with this viewpoint. I talked to the guy who founded this a year ago and encouraged him. You can search to find I think three YouTubes so far from him.

        Biologos is an evangelical Christian organization (founded by Dr Francis Collins, leader of Human Genome Project and now head of CDC) which promotes harmony between the faith and modern science. They have various YouTube videos, e.g. Origins Session 3: Genesis and Geology is part of a series of six short lessons.

        I am a slow thinker and typer these days (comes with age…) so I don’t want to offer to on-line debate a bunch of issues, but if after some weeks or months of perusal you settle on what seems to be the single best evidence for a young earth, feel free to bring it to me for my perspective.

        Blessings,
        Scott

      • Jeff B says:

        Scott,
        Well I’m starting to get old my self. My interest in this topic started in the early 90s, but only peaked about the last 10 years. I’ve been through enough on-line debates to say I’ve had my fill, and by the sound of it, you most likely have as well. I’d also say we’re both pretty strong in our stance, so debating would end a stalemate. It’s ok to recognize that now.

        I do welcome criticism though. If I get around to putting together an outline I might run it by you.

        But I do have one topic I’ve been interested in delving into further, if you have any background on it: folded rock-layers. I’ve seen the photo and brief description of the test instrument used by scientists to bend rock samples. But I’d like to learn more about it. If you have any good links on that, please pass them along (especially ones that show before-after photos). If you have more to write about it than you want to post here, I’m good with you emailing me. As I mentioned before, I’m not interested in online debating, but am looking for good information. So I promise not to turn it into a big discussion.

        Thank you for your time Scott,
        -Jeff

      • Jeff,
        My article on Evidences for a Young Earth , https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/evidences-for-a-young-earth/ ,
        which is referred to I think in Part 3 of this series with “Rachel”, has info and links on folded rocks. I have copied some of the text from that article below, but it does not have live links or photos, so you’ll need to go to the actual article which I gave the URL for. The Age of Rocks links there go into detail on the phenomena of folding (and fracturing!) in sedimentary rock formations, so you’ll want to follow up those.

        From my Evidences for a Young Earth:

        “……Sedimentary rocks like sandstone and limestone are not fully-densified ceramics, but retain microscopic porosity (this is why they can serve as petroleum reservoirs). These rocks consist of grains bound by tiny, imperfect crystals of materials like calcite or silica. With time, temperature, and the presence of water in the pores, the weaker cementing material can dissolve at pressure points and recrystallize, allowing the main grains to shift past each other during deformation. The high pressure deep in the earth suppresses the formation of major cracks as the rock deforms.

        This type of ductile deformation of sandstones (such as the Tapeats sandstone) and limestones can occur at temperatures low enough that no metamorphosis of the rock takes place. So these bent rock layers are not evidence of a young earth. Age of Rocks has two detailed articles on rock-bending, in 2011 and in 2014, in response to Snelling’s claims. There are plenty of examples of deformed rocks that do exhibit brittle fractures, but these fractures are often so thin that they would not show up in a panoramic photograph of a rock face.

        In the particular case of the folded Tapeats sandstone in the Grand Canyon which Snelling claims as evidence for a young earth, he is not being accurate even about obvious observations. Snelling’s caption for the photo of rock formation shown above reads, ”The whole sequence of sedimentary layers through which Grand Canyon cuts has been bent and folded without fracturing. This includes the Tapeats Sandstone, located at the bottom of the sequence. (A 90° fold in the eastern Grand Canyon is pictured here.)”. So he is stating explicitly that there is no fracturing at the right angle fold near the bottom of the photo.

        This, however, is simply not true. A higher resolution photo below from HowOldIsTheEarth shows a clear line of fracture at the sharpest bend in the rocks, right where Snelling said there was no fracture. …….
        ……..The Answers in Genesis photo (which we showed above; scroll up to see) for their “Best Evidences” article was in a low enough resolution that the main fracture cannot be seen in it, and if you look closely at that photo you will see that a person is seated precisely where he blocks the view of that shorter fracture.

        Snelling presumably knows perfectly well that these fractures are there, since he has repeatedly visited this site, and these fractures even show up in a different Answers in Genesis photo of this formation (I added red and green lines):……..”

        It is really quite damning for the YEC case that there obviously ARE fractures right where Answers in Genesis say there are none…and quite suspicious that the photo they present claiming no fractures is just fuzzy enough to not show the fractures (which ARE visible in another AiG photo of the same formation), and that photo has a person seated so his head somewhat obscures the most prominent fracture. Sad to say, that is fairly typical of the integrity of much of the evidence for YEC.

        I know I am dumping a lot of reading material on you, but if you are most interested in the geological angle, allow me to recommend an essay I wrote on how modern YE creationism got started:
        https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/exposing-the-roots-of-young-earth-creationism/

        It was a surprise to me to learn that YE creationism / Flood Geology was almost unheard of among conservative Christians prior to 1960.
        A lot of the drama there involves the significance of some rock layers which appear to be out of expected geological order.

      • Jeff B says:

        Scott,
        Thank you for the info. As busy as I am, it takes me some time to get through them. But I am reading them (BTW, I’ve read some of Age of Rocks articles previously, and have even dialog-ed with that author a while ago).

        There’s one key question I’ve been trying to get an answer to, and I believe I’ve gotten my answer. Here it is in a nutshell: We’ve been told that high pressure and temperatures deformation experiments have been performed on rock samples, and (supposedly) that shows that folding can occur. However, after reading through the sub-linked articles which describe the experiments in detail, I’ve gained more confidence that these experiments do not scale up to the kind of large-scale folds we see.

        Although I’m interested in pursing this topic further in depth, I’m not interested in doing that here. Perhaps I’ll take up this topic again with the Age of Rocks author.

        Scott, Thank you for your time. If you’re interested, you can email me if you’d like to discuss this more (TOTALLY up to you), but otherwise, I’ll probably continue reading a few more of your articles, then move on.
        -Jeff

      • OK. Age of Rocks would have more specific expertise than me. I have seen recrystallization of solids, as an important and sometime non-intuitive phenomenon in the lab, but a geologist or geo-physicist would be better able to put some numbers to all this.
        Peace…

      • A question here ready for both Scott and JeffB; JeffB is assuming that if the rocks had been deformed by lateral compression before being lithified, they would have bent rather than crumbled. This might well have been true if they had been soft like chewing gum; they would then have undergone easy plastic deformation.

        But I do not think any rocks ever were soft in that sense, except perhaps igneous rocks at a certain stage of solidification, or metamorphic rocks at a certain stage of processing. Generally speaking, sediments lithify by cementation between existing particles. I would expect such material to fracture and brecciate, rather than smoothly deform, if stressed before lithitiation. This is actually the kind of thing that could be determined quite readily by experiment. Is there any relevant work?

      • Paul, I am sure there are sedimentology experts somewhere who could point to experiments on the early stages of lithification, but I am not familiar with them.
        My impression would be normally (one can always find exceptions) sediments get buried and lithified, in say a couple of thousand years, ( much faster for limestones) but time scales of deformation are orders of magnitude longer…typically due to plate tectonics.
        But I suppose there could be a large faulting episode transecting an unconsolidated bed….

  6. By chance, a creationist recently mentioned the extent of the Tapeats Sandstone as evidence for deposition by a global flood (don’t ask me to explain the logic). So I was amused to see it mentioned again here. The way that this sandstone lies the unconformably over the Vishnu formation, the fact that the Vishnu dips whereas the Tapeats is near horizontal, and the presence, within the lower parts of the Tapeats, of granite and schist clasts from the eroded Vishnu, is in itself convincing evidence, on a parallel with the evidence from Siccar Point, for an ancient Earth and for the passage of great lengths of time between upper and lower layers: http://grandcanyonnaturalhistory.com/pages_nature/geology/9-tapeats.html

    • All good points.
      The base of the Tapeats is where the “Great Unconformity”, i.e. significant unconformity between Cambrian and pre-Cambrian, show up in the Great Canyon area.

      I think the YEC movie Is Genesis History made the claim that the “Great Unconformity” is found worldwide. I can’t lay hands on reference at the moment, but when I looked into it, it is not true that such an unconformity for every square mile of exposed Cambrian/pre-C. But it does appear on every continent, and is widespread in North America. So that seems to be the kernel of their claims. As usual, there is some truth mixed in with the untruths.

      What I found was that geologist agree there was a general worldwide rise in sea level in the Cambrian, so beach sand (which the Tapeats is, mainly) deposition marched from west to east across the U.S. area, followed by deeper watermarine deposits (shales and limestones)

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