Preface for blog: The first two-thirds of this essay deals with the rock formations of the Grand Canyon – what they are, and how and when they formed. This should be educational and understandable to readers without a science background. The last major section (“WHAT WERE THEY THINKING”) deals with the emotional issues and Bible interpretation regarding creation – some readers may want to go right to that section. This essay is long. To put it into Word for reading or printing out, copy and paste (as HTML) into Word. To see what other essays are in this blog, go to README.
GRAND CANYON GEOLOGY AND YOUNG EARTH PSYCHOLOGY
I. INTRODUCTION AND OUTLINE
The Grand Canyon in Arizona is a natural wonder, up to a mile deep and eighteen miles across. The low rainfall in the region reduces vegetative cover, so the colorful rock layers remain exposed to view. This deep gash in the earth provides a window into the geological past. Nearly all geologists understand these layers to have been deposited over the course of hundreds of millions of years. This essay starts with a tour of the Grand Canyon, noting evidence that shows the Canyon rocks are indeed very old.
An alternate point of view is Young Earth (YE) Creationism. YE creationists hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible, which does not adequately take into account the intent of the Scriptures or the historical circumstances of their authorship. YE creationists are convinced on religious grounds that the earth is only about 6000 years old, and that most of the sedimentary rock layers on earth (including those in the Grand Canyon) were laid down in the Noahic Flood around 2500 B.C. This view, also called Flood geology, is widely influential among conservative Christians in North America.
High school and college educators, especially in certain regions of the U.S., are likely to encounter students with strongly held YE beliefs. These young people are not willfully ignorant. They have significant reasons behind their beliefs. Understanding these reasons can help teachers treat these students in a helpful and respectful manner. These students have been taught that their faith requires a literal interpretation of Bible passages which portray both a young earth and a world-wide deluge that reshaped the earth’s surface. Further, they have been taught that the facts of nature actually support Flood geology. There is a cadre of YE creationists with scientific credentials who publish articles which claim that mainstream science is mistaken on matters such as the age of the earth.
As a window into current YE creationist thinking on the subject, we use a recent (September 11, 2010) article in WORLD magazine. WORLD is a biweekly news magazine with a Christian perspective. The author of this article, Marvin Olasky, accompanied 5 YE creationists on a rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and relays their views on the geological features. We march through this article, note the points made by the creationists, and show them to be at odds with reality.
Finally, we attempt to understand how intelligent, good-willed folks like these YE creationists can continue to believe that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong in interpreting the geology of the Grand Canyon. We find a consistent pattern of misrepresentation and withholding of information by the YE creationist scientists who have the training to know better. By presenting only partial truths, they have succeeded in misleading a large fraction of American evangelical Christians. On one level, this is dishonest and deceitful, yet these folks operate with apparently clear consciences. The cognitive dissonance factor appears to be a reasonable psychological explanation for their behavior.
The sections that follow are:
II. EVIDENCE FOR THE ANTIQUITY OF THE GRAND CANYON
(A) Description of Grand Canyon Rock Layers
(B) Radiometric Dating Of Rocks
(C) Limestone Deposits Slowly, Not From Flood
(D) The Coconino Sandstone – Deposited as Desert Sand Dunes
(E) Distribution of Fossils in the Rock Layers Doesn’t Match Flood Expectations
(F) Erosional Interfaces (“Unconformities”) Between Rock Layers
(G) Ancient Soils and Animal Burrows Preserved in the Rocks
III. TAKEN FOR A RIDE BY YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISTS: WORLD’S SEPT. 2010 GRAND CANYON ARTICLE
(A) Nautiloid Fossils and Uniformitarianism
(B) Interfaces Between Rock Layers
(C) Sedimentary Layers Beneath the “Great Unconformity”
(D) Bending Rocks
(E) Geocentrism and Evolution
(F) Overall Formation of the Grand Canyon
(G) WORLD’s Treatment of Science
IV. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING: YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISM. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
(A) Apparent Age, Old Earth Creationism, and Intelligent Design
(B) Psychology of Young Earth Creationism
(C) Biblical Interpretation and Inerrancy
(D) Were Paul and Jesus Mistaken About Creation and Evolution?
(E) Why This Matters
II. EVIDENCE FOR THE ANTIQUITY OF THE GRAND CANYON
(A) Description of Grand Canyon Rock Layers
Here is a photo [from fireflyforest.net] of the innermost part of the Grand Canyon, taken from a commercial jet. The Colorado River runs at the bottom of the inner gorge. The flats on either side are mainly the Tapeats Sandstone layer, with a gray slope of soft Bright Angel Shale showing at upper right. Note the side canyons coming in at roughly right angles to the main Canyon.
A schematic of the rock layers is shown above [from 1992 article by Andrew Snelling with answersingenesis.org]. The lowermost layer shown is the Vishnu Complex, consisting of rocks that have been deeply buried, heated, and transformed (metamorphosed). Atop that are a series of mainly sedimentary layers (Bass Limestone, Hakatai Shale, etc), along with the igneous Cardenas basalt. These now-tilted layers, collectively termed the Grand Canyon Supergroup, have a total thickness up to 12,000 ft. These rocks are relatively hard, and the lower part of the Grand Canyon which cuts into them (the “Inner Gorge”) is typically steep and narrow. These tilted layers were raised above sea level and eroded to a nearly flat surface before sinking beneath the waters again to receive further deposition.
The rock layers above the Vishnu Complex and Supergroup are fairly flat. The next layer up is the Tapeats Sandstone. The next up, not labeled in the figure above, is the Bright Angel Shale. This is relatively soft, so it crumbles back, leaving slopes of rocks trailing onto the Tapeats. Next up are the Muav, Temple Butte, and the cliff-forming Redwall limestones. The layers further up the Canyon wall are composed of a variety of rocks (shales, sandstone, limestone).
Below is a photograph (from public-domain-photos.com) of the Canyon, showing many of these layers. Starting from the top, there is a light-colored band of Kaibab Limestone. The slightly bigger light-colored band below that is the steep cliff of Coconino Sandstone. Below that is the slope of the soft Hermit Shale, dotted with green vegetation. A goodly stretch of the reddish ledge Supai formation then takes us down to the steep red cliffs of the Redwall Limestone, which are just above the middle of the photo. At the base of the Redwall is the Muav Limestone, and then the extensive gray slopes of Bright Angle Shale that spill onto the Tapeats Sandstone. The top of the Tapeats forms the “Tonto Platform” which is a flattish rim above the Inner Gorge.
Some additional on-line descriptions of Grand Canyon rock layers are listed here. This Answers in Creation link provides another diagram of the rock layers and brief descriptions of each sub-layer, including fossils. This Wikipedia article has discussions of how each layer was formed, along with photos of key layers. Jon Woolf provides another description of layers and their formation, with nice photos. He explicitly compares YE creationist vs. modern scientific interpretations of the evidence. The new book The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? (reviewed here) does a great job covering the geological and theological issues. Steve Moshier’s article summarizes some highlights of this book.
(B) Radiometric Dating of Rocks
Radiometric (radioisotopic) dating techniques are important, since they can give absolute ages of rocks. Only igneous rocks (solidified from molten magma or lava) can be dated with this method. Most other dating methods can only give relative or very imprecise estimates of rock ages. We will just skim the surface of this topic. A definitive treatment of the subject is given by evangelical scientist Roger Wiens. This Answers in Creation page has links to articles by Greg Neyman, Kevin Henke, etc., which touch many aspects of radiometric dating.
Physicists have determined the rates at which certain forms (isotopes) of elements decay into other isotopes. These nuclear transformations are often accompanied by emission of radioactive rays or particles. We can measure the relative amounts of the isotopes today; that means we can calculate how old a rock is if we can determine what the amounts of the various isotopes were when the rock was formed. For instance, it takes about 1.26 billion years for half of an initial amount of Potassium 40 to decay to Argon 40. Therefore, if we analyze a mineral which has as much Argon 40 as Potassium 40 (i.e. half the original Potassium 40 has decayed to Argon 40), this indicates the mineral solidified 1.26 billion years ago.
An assumption here is that there was no Argon 40 at the start. That assumption is a decent place to start, since gaseous Argon will have largely been lost from a pool of melted rock before it cools and solidifies, but it is known to be not entirely correct. A little gaseous Argon (“excess Argon”) can be trapped in molten rock and get incorporated when it crystallizes. This can make the rock seem perhaps a few hundred thousand years older than it actually is. When dating rocks that are 100 million years old, this amounts to less than 1% error. Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) dating is a perfectly valid technique, but because of its slow decay rate, it is less accurate for very young rocks where the small amount of Argon formed by radioactive decay of Potassium 40 can be overwhelmed by the trapped excess Argon. This problem is well-known, and nowadays Argon-Argon dating, which is not fooled by excess Argon, is preferentially used to date young rocks such as recent lava flows.
For several important nuclear decay systems (e.g. Uranium-Lead, Rubidium-Strontium [Rb-Sr]), we cannot assume that there was none of the decay product in the rock when it solidified. In these cases, however, we can usually employ the “isochron” technique, where the ratios of isotopes are determined for several different types of minerals in the same rock. This gives enough information to determine the age of the rock.
For any of these methods to be properly applied, several common-sense conditions must be met. One is that the rock and its constituent minerals must not undergo loss or gain of the elemental reactants or products since the time of solidification. Significant heating of the rock can cause reshuffling of elements in the minerals, and thus introduce errors into the dating measurements. Also, if the isochron method is used, all the mineral samples must come from the same sample of rock (uniform composition, cooled at same time).
Radiometric dating is based on clear principles of physics, and when applied to rock samples that meet these conditions it yields precise and consistent results. For instance, in one study [see STAN 2] 55 laboratories were sent a mica standard for dating. The average Potassium/Argon date for the muscovite was 83.0 million years and the average Rubidium-Strontium date was reasonably close at 85.7 million years. Interlaboratory standard deviations were only 1.2% for the K-Ar dates and 2.8% for the Rb-Sr dates.
The Grand Canyon rocks are mainly sedimentary, so most of them cannot be dated radiometrically. One exception is the Cardenas basalt layer, way down in the Supergroup. This layer has been dated at around 1.1 billion years old. Therefore, the layers beneath the Cardenas basalt are older than that, and the layers above are younger.
After the Canyon was mainly formed, there was a series of lava eruptions to its north, with lava flowing down into the Canyon to form temporary dams. Different lava flows have been dated between about a million years ago and a thousand years ago, using Argon-Argon dating (per Crow, et al. in Geosphere, February 2008; v. 4; no. 1; p. 183-206). Thus, the main horizontal rock layers of the Grand Canyon were laid down between 1.1 billion and 1 million years ago, and the carving of the Canyon itself was largely completed by a million years ago.
This evidence alone would seem to torpedo the case for a young (6000 year old) earth and young (4500 year old) Grand Canyon. As might be expected, YE creationists have tried to attack radiometric dating. These attacks are based on ignorance, half-truths, and outright deceit. It is beyond the scope of this essay to describe and refute them all. See the STAN2 essay on this web site for a more extensive discussion. Here we will focus on two YE creationist attempts to discredit radiogenic dating using Grand Canyon rocks, that illustrate the bad faith involved.
In one case, YE creationist geologist Andrew Snelling collected a number of whole rock samples from several different outcrops of the Brahma Schist, a heavily metamorphosed layer in the Vishnu complex at the very bottom of the Inner Gorge. This layer is believed by mainstream geologists to have solidified around 1.75 billion years ago, and was then subjected to partial re-melting and other transformations around 1.7 billion years ago. Snelling sent these samples off to two laboratories for measurements of the concentrations of various isotopes, in order to apply several methods of radiometric dating.
When he plotted up the isochrons, they yielded estimates of 1.24 billion years for the Rb-Sr system, 1.65 billion years for Samarium-Neodymium, and 1.88 billion years for Lead-Lead. The Potassium-Argon dating results were all over the map, ranging from 0.4 to 2.6 billion years. Snelling trumpets these results as confirming that radiogenic dating does not work at all. He claims, “These results are a devastating ‘blow’ to the concept of long ages, foundational to uniformitarian geology and evolutionary biology.” The “inescapable conclusion ,” according to Snelling, is that “the radioisotope methods simply do not yield reliable ages.”
If you were paying attention a few paragraphs up, you, good reader, already know why Snelling’s work is bogus. By using whole rock samples (instead of individual minerals) from heavily metamorphosed (reheated) rocks, Snelling virtually guaranteed that he would get flaky results. Even so, apart from the most vulnerable Potassium-Argon results, the three isochron methods all gave results in the 1.2-1.9 billion year range, which is in the ballpark of the mainstream 1.7 billion year dating, and far from a 6000 year old earth. See here for further discussion of Snelling’s errors.
Snelling’s policy was to produce bad results, and thereby mislead the lay reader into thinking that radioisotopic dating is fundamentally unreliable. Snelling has been confronted with his error. One reader of his original article complained to the journal :
Andrew Snelling’s article in the June 2005 issue is irresponsible in that it uses technical jargon that an untrained lay-person would believe to be truth when he (as a PhD in Geology) should understand the fact that different radioisotope systems behave differently during different geologic processes. The worst system to use is K-Ar in a rock that has been metamorphosed. Ar is a noble gas that resides weakly in the crystal lattice of minerals. It has been shown many times that it is easy to lose Argon during metamorphism or subsequent disturbances and occasionally there is excess Argon that gives spuriously older ages for rocks. Rb-Sr is another method that is difficult to interpret when there is evidence of thermal events. These elements have been shown to be mobile (acting as an open system) during tectonic events. These are just two examples of the problems….there are many more!
Snelling’s response to this critique is informative. He did not repent in the least. He continued to maintain that his work demonstrated “problems” with radiogenic dating: “[this letter] has only confirmed what we already knew: that there are many problems in trying to use the different radioisotope systems to date rocks!”
Note the deceptive power of the half-truth here: it is true that he applied radiogenic dating methods to a set of rocks, and it is true that they gave flaky results. By not telling the rest of the story (that he chose methods that were known to be inappropriate for these samples), he sets the stage for deceiving the public as to the general reliability of radiogenic dating.
Another YE creationist, Stephen Austin, did radiometric dating in 1992 of some of the relatively recent (less than 1 million years) lava flows to the north of the Canyon. Like Snelling in the example above, the way he did his sampling guaranteed false results. Instead of sampling individual minerals in a single lava flow, he did mainly whole-rock measurements from four or five different (not co-genetic) lava flows. This approach could not possibly yield the times of the lava flows themselves. If it gave any meaningful results at all, it would yield a date for the most recent homogenization of the deep (mantle) source of the lava, which could well be more than a billion years ago. See here for discussion. The paper trail shows that Austin was completely aware ahead of time that the way he did his experiments would yield a false isochron and an excessively old age for the lavas.
Austin’s measurements yielded a date of 1.3 billion years, which is much older than 1 million years and even older than the deeply buried 1.1 billion year old Cardenas basalt layer. He then claims that this result somehow casts doubt on radiogenic dating as a whole: “The observation that obviously recent lava flows from the north rim of Grand Canyon give ages even older than the deeply buried lava flows, challenges the basic assumptions upon which the isochron dating method is based.”
Note again the deceptive partial truths. The partial truths are that he made radioisotopic measurements on some lavas, and the calculated date was much older than the expected dates of those lava flows. The “rest of the story” is that Austin’s flawed methodology guaranteed a date much older than the actual lava flows, so in reality his results do not pose any challenge to the assumptions of isochron dating.
The partial truths are all that get transmitted to the YE creationist blogosphere. Organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research, Creation Research Society, and Answers in Genesis have sponsored and publicized several such bogus studies of radiometric dating, whose purpose is to sow doubt. These studies are then passed along by eager believers who like the conclusions and who lack the training to critically evaluate them. These misleading studies by Snelling and Austin have served their purpose well; I have seen dozens and dozens of citations by YE creationists of these two studies, as part of the overall contention that radiogenic dating is unreliable.
(C) Limestone Deposits Slowly, Not From Flood
According to the Flood Geology model, the sedimentary layers of the middle and upper Grand Canyon were deposited from stuff (e.g. sand, mud) that was eroded off the nearby continents. However, hundreds of feet of the rock layers in the middle of the Grand Canyon formation are not terrestrial sediment that might have been scoured off the continents by a mighty flood. They are limestones, which form by slow deposition by the growth and death of marine creatures or by chemical precipitation. So these are layers that formed over many thousands or millions of years. You can’t hurry this up with a global flood. A flood could take some existing loose limy sediment on the sea floor and move it around, but it could not create the 1000+ ft average total thickness of limestone sediments that exists in the rock layers across the US landmass. For more details on slow limestone deposition see here and post 188 of this discussion.
(D) The Coconino Sandstone – Deposited as Desert Sand Dunes
The Coconino sandstone layer, around ¾ of the way up the strata, is a formation of desert sand dunes, not a marine sand deposit. The angle of the bedding planes 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. From Carol Hill and Stephen Moshier’s comprehensive article [Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 61 ,pp. 99-115 (2009)], here is a picture of the steep cross-bedding, which is characteristic of desert dunes but not of underwater sand formations:
The Coconino footprints below were clearly formed on moist above-ground sand, not on the deep-underwater surfaces of raging-Flood-transported sand [photo courtesy of Wikipedia ]:
This all demolishes the case for Flood geology – -you can’t have an extensive desert develop in the middle of a year-long global flood. YE creationists have therefore tried to argue that the Coconino Sandstone was not really from desert dunes, attacking the evidence of the bedding angles and of the animal footprints. Andrew Snelling and Stephen Austin published an article purporting to show “evidence that casts grave doubts on the view that the Coconino Sandstone cross beds formed in desert dunes.” They state: The average angle of slope of the Coconino cross beds is about 25° from the horizontal, less than the average angle of slope of sand beds within most modern desert sand dunes. Those sand beds slope at an angle of more than 25°, with some beds inclined as much as 30° to 34°, the angle of ‘rest’ of dry sand.
These carefully chosen sentences would appear to make a case that the slopes of the beds in the Coconino are not typical of desert dunes. This is sheer deceit, as exposed by Greg Neyman :
Austin argues that the angle of the slope of the cross beds indicates an origin other than eolian. He claims the average angle for Coconino cross beds is about 25°, which is less than the average angle of slope observed in sand dunes today. He states that sand dunes today exhibit angles as much as 30°, and even up to 34° (notice he doesn’t actually give the average angle observed today). By contrast, oceanic sand waves are less. However, as one of my readers has noticed (thanks David), a casual reading of geologic literature shows records of wind-deposited cross beds which are as low as 10°. They have been found to range from 10° to 34°, but typically, they average between 25° and 28°.
Austin fails to tell the reader all the information (a typical young-earth tactic). By contrast, water deposited sand is rarely steeper than 10°. When he claims that water-deposited cross beds are less, he fails to tell the reader by how much. Since the Coconino’s cross-bedding is 25°, they are obviously wind-deposited. They fall within the average for eolian cross beds (25°-28°), but are far from the angle expected for water-deposited cross-beds (less than 10°). Had Austin included the actual cross-bed angles for water-deposition, it would have ruined his argument. Thus, we see the trickery that he has to resort to in order to deceive his readers.
In their article, Snelling and Austin also cite studies by Flood geologist Leonard Brand which noted that some features of some of the Coconino footprints which might be consistent with an underwater origin. Brand did experiments with live amphibians (newts) in a tank with sand and water. Brand’s works were valid scientific studies, published and debated in open scientific journals. It is perfectly fair for Snelling and Austin to mention them. But it is misleading to leave their readers with the impression that Brand’s studies were at all conclusive. The “rest of the story” is summarized here :
The evidence for footprints being made underwater comes from rather ambiguous statistical studies [by Brand], but is contradicted by evidence (Lockley 1992; Lockley and Hunt 1995; Loope 1992), including the following:
- “One of the most common observations is that the tracks have bulges or sand crescents on one side, thereby proving that they were made on inclined surfaces” (Lockley and Hunt 1995).
- Tracks showing possible loping, running, and galloping gaits are found throughout the Coconino Sandstone. These can only have been made on dry land.
- Tracks of small arthropods, attributable to spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and scorpions, occur abundantly in the Coconino Sandstone. (Schur  has some excellent pictures.) Some of these trackways can only be made on completely dry sand.
- Raindrop impressions also appear.
Brand himself, in the conclusion to one of his papers, wrote that: “The data do suggest that the Coconino Sandstone fossil trackways may have been produced in either subaqueous sand or subaerial damp sand” (1996). So Brand’s own work, taken at face value, does not necessarily indicate that the footprints were made underwater.
Moreover, in the Flood geology model proposed by Snelling and Austin, the sands of what would become the Coconino Sandstone were being transported by mighty ocean currents from hundreds of miles away. Brand’s footprint experiments did not comprehend rapid currents and rapid sedimentation. All these air-breathing animals (scorpions, spiders, shallow-water amphibians, etc.) could not possibly be still around, scrambling to escape the rising flood waters, in a spot where the raging, rising worldwide Flood had already deposited thousands (!) of feet of sediment for hundreds of miles in every direction. And they would not be making these tracks deep under the ocean waves as the Flood currents were rapidly transporting the sand from hundreds of miles away and depositing it hundreds of feet deep, all within a week or two.
Tim Helble [PSCF, 63(1), pp. 25-40] has calculated the amount of sand that had to be transported horizontally from elsewhere and then dropped to form the Coconino and related formations in the American Southwest. He shows that, no matter what specific hydraulic mechanisms are proposed,
…it should be realized that the absurdly high sediment transport rates needed to deposit a regional-scale layer such as the Coconino Sandstone in a matter of days will always be at odds with the slow water velocities and gradual sediment transport rates needed to form even the most basic cross-bedding structures.
For those who just can’t get enough of Coconino geology, here Stephen Schimmrich exposes another maneuver of Stephen Austin’s, centering on his misuse of some 1970’s papers by Glen Vishner. This quote from Schimmrich sums it up with an observation on Austin’s tactics which should by now be familiar: “Once again, however, Austin only gives PART of the picture.” And here Matt Kuchta rebuts the claims in a 2009 YE creationist paper about the significance of some thin carbonate layers in the Coconino.
(E) Distribution of Fossils in the Rock Layers Doesn’t Match Flood Expectations
Canal-builders and geologists mapping the rocks of Europe in the first decades of the 1800’s started to recognize certain regularities in the sequences of fossilized plants and animals in the rock layers. They noted that some types of fossils appeared always above (never below) certain other fossils, whether or not there were intervening rock layers that contained yet different fossils.
By comparing the relative positions of many thousands of fossils in thousands of rock layers all over the earth, some universal patterns have been found. For instance, any rock layer that contains a trilobite (an extinct, buggy-looking citizen of the ocean floor) will lie below any layer with a dinosaur fossil, unless there is evidence for some unusual faulting (cracking and sliding of the earth’s crust) that might thrust a lower (older) rock layer atop a younger layer. Fossils of animals looking like today’s mammals always appear above (never below) fossils of dinosaurs. If we recognize that if there is a rock layer atop another, the layer on top is younger, it becomes possible to discern a long sequence of fossilized organisms that always appear in the same relative order. Species that were wide-spread but fairly short-lived can serve as “index fossils”, helping to give precise relative dating of rock layers all over the world.
Where an igneous rock layer amenable to radioisotopic dating lies above or below, or intrudes through, fossil-bearing sedimentary layers, this can help set absolute dates on the fossils. By comparing results from thousands of sites across the earth, a general picture has emerged of which fossils are found in layers of particular ages. In rocks that are 2 to 3 billion years old, only the remains of single-celled organisms such as cyanobacteria are found. There is evidence that these photosynthetic organisms gradually increased the oxygen concentration in the oceans and atmosphere. This likely enabled the survival of more complex cells (eukaryotes) and multicellular colonies which start to appear in the fossil record around 2 billion years ago. By 580 million years ago, remains are found of larger soft-bodied animals resembling sponges or jellyfish. Small shelly animal fossils and lots of burrows in the sea floor (indicating increased animal locomotion) appear around 550 million years ago. The Cambrian period runs from 542 to 488 million years ago. The fossil record there shows relatively rapid (though not instantaneous) development of a diverse suite of animals, many with legs and hard outer bodies. The insect-like trilobite is the iconic fossil of the Cambrian (though trilobites continued to flourish for another 200 million years). Here is a trilobite whose body parts were exceptionally well-preserved by being converted to the mineral pyrite, which accounts for the golden color.
The higher (more recent) rock layers show increasingly complex and modern life forms. In the vertebrate line, small jawless fish appear about 510 million years ago, and modern bony jawed fish around 416 million years ago. Around 400 million years ago, lobe-finned fish (almost-tetrapods) were mucking around in shallow water, and tracks of tetrapods appear on mud flats. Full-fledged amphibians appear around 350 million years ago, and reptiles around 310 million years ago. Early mammals appear about 200 million years ago, which is about when reptilian dinosaurs take over as the dominant land animals. Dinosaurs, and many other species, suddenly disappear from the fossil record about 65 million years ago, after a giant meteor impact. Thereafter, mammals diversify and dominate the land. Terrestrial plants first took hold around 420 million years ago, with flowering plants appearing around 200 million years ago.
After a major new grouping such as amphibians or reptiles first appears, some newer representatives of the pre-existing groups continue alongside the newer groups. Amphibians (e.g. frogs) and reptiles (but not dinosaurs) are still with us in the present Age of Mammals.
It should be noted that the fossil record is inherently sparse. Nearly all dead organisms rot or get eaten; very, very few of them get fossilized. And of all the fossils in all the rocks, only a tiny fraction of them get dug out and analyzed by humans. So we should expect lots of gaps in the known fossil record. A further complicating factor is that if a fossil of some species is discovered in a rock layer that is say 200 million years old, we do not know how long that species existed before or after that time – – it, or a similar species, could have existed millions of years before or after that date. Thus, it is common to find a fossil that has key missing-link features, yet appear to be evolutionarily “out of sequence” by a few million years.
Very few species-to-species transitions have been tracked in detail in the fossil record. This is an expected consequence of the sparseness of that record, and of the fact that evolutionary changes are likely to take place in isolated, small populations that have even less chance to leave fossil traces. Nevertheless, for big transitions like fish to amphibians, and reptiles to mammals, plenty of intermediate species have been found in the time frames where these transitions took place (e.g. see here). With each passing decade, paleontologists discover more of these fossil intermediates.
If we look at what HAS been found, rather than wringing our hands over what has NOT yet been found, the sequence of fossils in the rocks show a clear progression of forms with time. We do not find primate remains mixed with dinosaurs, or fossilized rabbits in the Precambrian. How can we explain this trend? Maybe God kept supernaturally creating (and then killing off) billions of species, one after the other, with gradual differences, over the last billion years. Or maybe He created the sedimentary rock layers 6000 years ago with all these ordered fossils in them to deceive us. It seems more likely that He providentially used evolution over the ages to prepare the biosphere for humans and eventually to produce them from other primates.
OK, so what sort of fossil sequence do we find in the rock of the Grand Canyon? First, let’s consider what we might expect if Flood geology were true. In that view, the first Flood layers are taken to be the Tapeats Sandstone. This layer is up to 300 feet thick, so it represents an enormous amount of eroded material. Being sand, rather than fine silt, it was likely deposited near the shoreline. We would expect that many of the hapless plants and animals living on land in the vicinity would be swept away in the first blast of Flood waters that deposited this layer. We would expect to find SOME dead rabbits, deer, mice, trees, modern fish and clams in the Tapeats. For the layers higher up the Canyon wall, after the Flood had gone on for months and months, scouring down the continents and depositing thousands of feet of sediment everywhere, we would expect the incidence of new fossils to drop to near zero.
On the other hand, if mainstream science is true, we expect the order of fossils in the Grand Canyon rock layers to be what they are in the rest of the world: single-celled organisms in the lowest layers, then trilobites and other now-extinct residents of the sea bottom, then fishes and more modern marine life-forms, and finally evidence of terrestrial plants and animals only in the higher layers.
And the answer is: In the very lowest sedimentary layers in the tilted Grand Canyon Supergroup, below the Cardenas Basalt layer, are found fossils of single-cell organisms like stromatolites and algae. Since the Cardenas can be dated to about 1.1 billion years old, these layers are older than that. The sedimentary layers immediately above the Cardenas are younger than 1.1 billion years old, though it’s not clear exactly how much younger. These layers continue to have single-celled fossils.
Trilobites and other complex marine life-forms first appear in the Tapeats, and continue in the layers above. Fossil fishes first appear in the Temple Butte formation. Continuing upward, fossil evidence of land plants is first found in the Surprise Canyon formation, between the Redwall Limestone and the Supai. Fossilized terrestrial amphibian and reptile footprints, along with abundant plant material, appear in the Supai. Alternating terrestrial and marine fossils continue to appear in higher layers, depending on whether the deposition of sediments for those layers was underwater or in a coastal plain or desert.
To the north of the Grand Canyon, additional rock formations are superposed atop the Kaibab and other layers that are exposed in the Grand Canyon. In some of these higher (younger) formations like the Morrison and the Navaho Sandstone are found tracks, eggs, feces and fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs. These big land animals could not be walking, nesting, and pooping in areas where the raging flood has been depositing thousands of feet of sediment during the preceding months.
The reader can decide whether this fossil sequence best comports with Flood geology or mainstream science. More detailed discussions of how these two interpretive frameworks compare for Grand Canyon geology are offered by Answers in Creation , Jon Woolf , and Hill and Moshier . The Answers in Creation site includes a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal of the classic YE creationist book, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Hill and Moshier address some of the claims in another YE creationist book, Grand Canyon: A Different View. Hill and Moshier’s findings on both geology and Bible interpretation are clearly stated:
We conclude that Young Earth Creationism promotes an erroneous and misleading interpretation of the geology of the Grand Canyon. We also conclude that the claim that all (or almost all) of the sedimentary rock in the Grand Canyon and on planet Earth was formed during Noah’s Flood is not supported by the Bible.
(F) Erosional Interfaces (“Unconformities”) Between Rock Layers
The rock layers above the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon are generally quite flat. In most cases, it appears to the casual observer that each layer has been deposited atop the layer below with no obvious break. But closer examination shows that, between some layers, thousands or millions of years must have elapsed. There are features at the interface that show after the lower layer was deposited, it turned to hard rock, then was raised up out of the water and eroded down, then sank beneath the water to be covered with the sediments of the upper layer. And after the upper layer had turned to hard rock, it was also raised out of the water for more erosion to take place. All of this takes lots of time, and is not compatible with a one-year Flood origin.
Davis Young describes evidence for erosional surfaces below and also above the Redwall Limestone:
The Muav is separated from the Redwall by a distinct surface of erosion. This erosional surface includes small channels that were scoured into the upper surface of the Muav and filled with Redwall sediments containing small pebbles of eroded Muav. These features indicate that before deposition of the Redwall, the Muav sediments had hardened into rock, risen above sea level, and been weathered to form pebbles and boulders that could be incorporated into the overlying sediments once the sea returned to the area. A global flood would have provided neither time for the sediments to be consolidated nor opportunity for the materials to be weathered by exposure to air.
Another important example of an unconformity is the contact between the Redwall Limestone and the overlying Supai Group. Observations by professional geologists indicate the upper surface of the Redwall Limestone, though generally horizontal and conformable with the base of the overlying Supai, has many deep channels scoured into its upper surface – some as much as 400 feet deep. The channels are filled with layered mudstones, sandstones, and limestones and commonly contain pebbles derived from the Redwall. These features indicate that the Redwall lime deposits were hardened into solid rock, lifted up from the seafloor to at least 400 feet above sea level, and there cut by flowing streams that dislodged pebbles from the exposed Redwall land surface and redeposited them in the channels. Still another indication that the Redwall was exposed to the atmosphere for a lengthy period of time – far more than a year – is the existence of caverns beneath, and of sinkholes in, its upper surface. The caverns and sinkholes are commonly filled with red shales from the overlying Supai Group or with angular blocks of fragmented Redwall…The upper surface of the Redwall must have been exposed as land surface for a considerably long time to develop karst topography with sinkholes and caves. (Davis A. Young, Portraits of Creation, 1990, ed. Howard J. van Till, pp. 68-69).
A photo [Wikipedia] of the Muav-Redwall interface is shown below, with lines added to denote the formations. Note the eroded surface of the Muav, which was filled in with the Temple Butte; later the Muav/Temple Butte was eroded flat before the subsequent deposition of the Redwall.
The time gaps indicated by the erosional surfaces are supported by changes in the fossils between the lower and upper layers at these interfaces. Comparisons with similar fossils in other rocks in dated layers elsewhere in the world indicate that the lower and upper layers were deposited many millions of years apart. For instance, the types of trilobites and brachiopods in the Muav (below the Redwall) are similar to those in other rocks which have been dated to around 505 million years ago, in the Cambrian period. The fossils in the Redwall Limestone correspond to those typically found in rocks around 335 million years old, in the “Mississippian” period. This indicates a gap of over 200 million years between the deposition of the Muav and of the Redwall. The fossils in the Supai (above the Redwall) are like those usually seen in rocks dated about 285 million years old, indicating that erosional surface at the top of the Redwall represents a gap of nearly 50 million years.
(G) Ancient Soils and Animal Burrows Preserved in the Rocks
In Flood geology, the main sedimentary rock layers were all laid down in a one-year Flood. Where these layers are many thousands of feet deep, the rate of deposition must have been very high. Arguably the sea level may have sloshed back and forth, occasionally exposing the surface of the sediments and leading to variable deposition rates, but something like a foot an hour would be a typical average rate for the Flood year in many areas of North America. That leaves no time for deep soils to build up from rock weathering in the middle of Flood deposits (i.e. in the middle of the Flood year), or for terrestrial animals to dig deep burrows in that soil.
Yet just such soils and burrows are commonly found in the midst of thousands of feet of sedimentary rock layers (see e.g. here). Such ancient, buried soils are called “paleosols.” Here is an example (courtesy of Joe Meerts) of a well-developed paleosol (the brownish layer across the middle of the photo) in the Morrison formation which dates to about 150 million years ago and is centered in Colorado and Wyoming. In this layer are whitish fossilized burrows made by vertebrates. All this simply could not happen under the raging sea while many feet per day of sediment are raining down, and thus the existence of these paleosols and burrows invalidate Flood geology.
For the Grand Canyon layers, the sediments would have built up at an average of 20 feet or more per day to get 5000 feet in one year. This would preclude any normal animal life or development of soil. Nevertheless, that is what we find in the Grand Canyon rocks. Paul Heinrich (here, have to scroll down) describes paleosols within the rocks of the Temple Butte Limestone, and cites published studies of paleosols with associated with upper contact of the Redwall Limestone and paleosols within the Supai Group.
Also, many marine animal burrows are found in the Grand Canyon rocks that used to be sea-floor muds or sands. These worm burrows are indicative of normal worm life going on, showing there was NOT a global Flood pouring sediment down on top of them. Hill and Moshier describe these fossils in the Bright Angel formation:
The 500 ft (150 m) thick Bright Angel Shale contains abundant fossils including brachiopods, trilobites, and worm tracks and burrows. The abundance of worm burrows shows that the accumulating mud was constantly being reworked by these animals at or just below the seafloor surface. A close look at this rock reveals that almost every particle of sediment was ingested and re-deposited by these burrowing and grazing organisms. Flood geologists have suggested that these burrows represent vertical escape trails or structures for organisms that were made during rapid sediment deposition. But marine biologists and geologists know the difference between grazing trails on a normal seafloor (which is what we see in the Bright Angel Shale) and escape trails created under the duress of escaping rapid sediment deposition.
III. TAKEN FOR A RIDE BY YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISTS: WORLD’S SEPT. 2010 GRAND CANYON ARTICLE
WORLD is a biweekly news magazine with an educated, Reformed Christian perspective. It is notable for its nuanced movie and book reviews, insightful columns by Andree Sue and editor Marvin Olasky, and political emphasis on “compassionate conservatism.” Dr. Olasky wrote an article after accompanying a group of five YE creationists on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. The article, “Rocks in Their Heads?” appeared as a cover story in the Sept 11, 2010 edition of WORLD, pg. 38-45.
Dr. Olasky reports on his experiences in the Canyon, which is fine entertainment. Unfortunately, he also uncritically retails the YE creationists’ claims about the age of the Canyon and of the earth. Outlandish assertions are passed along to WORLD’s readers with no fact-checking. We will tally these factual errors in order of appearance, and later discuss the origin and significance of all this nonsense. The topics that follow in this section are:
(A) Nautiloid Fossils and Uniformitarianism
(B) Interfaces Between Rock Layers
(C) Sedimentary Layers Beneath the “Great Unconformity”
(D) Bending Rocks
(E) Geocentrism and Evolution
(F) Overall Formation of the Grand Canyon
(A) Nautiloid Fossils and Uniformitarianism
The WORLD article says:
The next morning at Nautiloid Canyon we peered at the fossil remains of nautiloids, 18-inch-long squid-like creatures with tapered external shells. Fossilization normally occurs when subjects are buried catastrophically and thus protected from decay; it would seem that the layer of the canyon walls containing these fossils had to be laid down quickly and not – as uniformitarians say – at the bottom of a placid sea. (Exceptions occur when organisms become frozen or desiccated).
Comments: First, the fossils are mainly of hard shells, not soft tissue, so it is not problematic that they have been preserved, whether deposition was slow or fast. Also, freezing and desiccation are not the only means of preserving tissues. It is well known that anoxic (low oxygen) conditions can preserve organisms; men that were thrown in European bogs thousands of years ago can be startlingly well-preserved. Anoxic conditions are found at the bottom of the sections of lakes or seas which are deep and not well-mixed, and which have a surplus of organic material raining down. This is probably the most common environment for fossil preservation in relatively still water like lakes and oceans. An algae bloom can lead to anoxic conditions over a wide area, leading to massive kills of sea life, including kills of scavengers who would otherwise disrupt the carcasses. Dr. Olasky’s YE creationist hosts apparently neglected to tell him about anoxia in fossil preservation. (In river valleys, it is true that fossils are most likely to form when there is catastrophic burial, but this is seen with normal, non-Noahic local floods.) So error #1 is that the fossilization of these nautiloids poses some sort of problem for modern geology.
Error #2 here is that “uniformitarianism”, in the sense that geologists normally understand it today, is limited to very slow deposition of sediments. It is true that “Uniformitarianism” of a hundred years ago focused almost entirely on processes of erosion and deposition that occurred at the typically slow rates typically observed today, but that is because it was locked in debate with Catastrophism, which suggested that most of Earth’s history was spent in a relatively calm, static state, punctuated by large, global-scale catastrophic events. Since then, geologists have widely recognized that large (but rarely global) catastrophes such as mass floods, super-volcanoes, big meteorites, and glaciations, do occur periodically. Although they are infrequent on a human timescale, they are part of the course of nature and can significantly impact the earth’s surface. Basin-wide “100-year” floods and submarine landslides on the edges of continental shelves are a normal fact of life and can quickly bury a lot of animals to make fossils. As one geologist puts it:
Geologists do not deny uniformitarianism in its true sense, that is to say, of interpreting the past by means of the processes that are seen going on at the present day, so long as we remember that the periodic catastrophe is one of those processes. [Ager, Derek V. (1993). The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record, 3rd Ed.. Chichester, New York, Brisbane, Toronto, Singapore: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 83–84.]
This fuller view of uniformitarianism, also known as “actualism,” has been the standard view of geologists since the middle of the twentieth century. This is all well-known, but YE creationists dishonestly persist in setting up a straw man of 1800’s uniformitarianism, in an attempt to discredit mainstream geology.
(B) Interfaces Between Rock Layers
Falsehood # 3 in the article is the claim that a flat, undistinguished-looking contact between two rock layers of vastly different ages poses a challenge to modern geology. That is nonsense. If after millions of years the lower layer were eroded down to a flat level surface, and then another layer were deposited atop it, of course you would get a flat contact. Fine details at the interface between the older and younger layers are often erased after it has been buried thousands of feet deep, squashed and baked into rock. So there is no difficulty in having a multi-million-year-old age gap at an undistinguished flat contact.
While there are regions in the Grand Canyon where these contacts are flat, if you trace out any given age-gapped interface between rock layers (“unconformity”) far enough, you usually come to some regions where you do see obvious evidence of erosion in the bottom layer, such as valleys cut into in the top surface of the bottom layer. In these erosional valleys atop the bottom layer, you often find eroded, solid chunks of the rock from that layer, which has gotten incorporated in sediments deposited as part of the layer above. This means that the lower layer had turned to solid rock (presumably by being buried under yet more deposits, and baking for many years), then got raised above sea level, then had the deposits above it eroded away, and then had erosion cut into its upper surface and break up solid chunks; then sank beneath the waves again to have the upper layer deposited on this, incorporating these solid chunks. Then yet more layers deposited in order to squash all this into rock. Then the whole assemblage was raised once again above water level, and subjected to yet more erosion, in order to expose the interface to our view today. This topic was discussed in detail above, and is surely well-known to Olasky’s river rafting hosts.
All these processes could not happen in a single year, so any such erosional surface (and there are a number of them in the Grand Canyon strata) is proof positive that the two layers were not laid down together as two soft layers, and thus that Flood geology is invalid. Apparently Olasky’s hosts pointed out some unconformities in areas where they are so flat that it appears that the layers may have been deposited in rapid succession, and failed to disclose to him that in other spots these same interfaces show clear evidence of ages of erosion.
(C) Sedimentary Layers Beneath the “Great Unconformity”
The WORLD article:
Blacktail Canyon brought a great view of the Great Unconformity, the contact point between the Canyon’s bottom formations (largely granite) and the first sedimentary layer, which uniformitarians say was laid down nearly a billion years later.
To unpack the error in this statement, please look way above, at the second figure in this essay, which names the rock layers. The Great Unconformity lies below the Tapeats Sandstone.
The YE creationists would have us believe that the rocks below the Tapeats are mainly “primordial Creation rocks,” presumably igneous rocks like granite formed in the first week of Creation around 4000 B.C., that got eroded down to a flat surface with the initial blasts of the Flood; and that major sedimentary rock deposition began 1500 years later with the Tapeats as the first of the Flood rock layers.
The facts are nothing like that. The “bottom formations” are not “largely granite”. While there are some later magma intrusions that did form granites in some spots, the Vishnu complex consists largely of schists. The Vishnu schists were originally sedimentary rocks like shales (originally deposited as muds at the bottom of some ancient sea) that were subsequently buried so deep and cooked so hot that they metamorphosed into harder, but still layered, schist.
Atop the igneous/metamorphic Vishnu complex lie the many, now-tilted layers of the so-called “Grand Canyon Supergroup,” which is exposed mainly in the eastern end of the Canyon. Most of these layers (e.g. Bass Limestone, Hakatai Shale, etc.) are sedimentary, not igneous. Fossilized algae are found in some of these layers. As noted earlier, limestone takes a long time to form, from the skeletons of marine organisms raining down. The total thickness of the Supergroup layers is about 12,000 feet (2 miles!).
For the Vishnu sediments to be deposited in a marine basin, then buried miles deep and metamorphosed, raised back to the surface, have their surfaces eroded, then sink down and have 12,000 more feet of sediments to be deposited, harden into rock, be raised up and tilted and mostly eroded away, then sink again below sea level for the Tapeats Sandstone deposition, would take far more than the 1500 years that a literal reading of Genesis would allot between Creation and the Flood. Not to mention the additional time needed to account for the erosional unconformities between some of the layers of the Supergroup (see Woolf ). These processes in fact occurred over hundreds of millions of years, consistent with radioisotopic dating as discussed above.
The figure discussed above, showing the tilted Supergroup, happens to be from a paper by Olasky’s rafting trip host Andrew Snelling. So Snelling was well aware of the sedimentary Supergroup, but it seems that he did not bring these facts about the lower layers to Olasky’s attention. So error # 4 in the WORLD article is that the eroded layers below the Great Unconformity are primarily igneous, whereas in fact they are mainly sedimentary or derived from sedimentary rocks, which shows them to be much older than allowed for in YE creationism. The Tapeats Sandstone is the lowermost of the flat Grand Canyon layers, but it is by no means the “first sedimentary layer,” as the article states.
(D) Bending Rocks
The article shows a photo of curved rock layers, and says of the YE creationist host Andrew Snelling:
He noted that rocks do not normally bend – because they are hard and brittle, they break – but pointed out rock layers that were bent without fracturing, indicating their rapid deposit and folding while still wet and pliable, before final hardening.
This is falsehood # 5, a real whopper. Of course, rocks at surface conditions are brittle. That is the half-truth. But the increase in temperatures and pressures as you go deeper into the earth are well known. It is also well known that when rocks in the lab are heated and pressurized to the conditions found a few miles down, they become pliable (on a slow time scale). The pressure is too high for fractures to form. Thus, over millions of years, rock layers readily deform into tight bends without cracking. There is no mystery or serious dispute on this. We have already seen evidence that rocks can get deeply buried, then raised back to the surface. Often, the crystalline grains that make up the rocks move but remain intact during this bending. In some cases, the grains become deformed, showing the immense force and high temperatures involved; this is incompatible with bending of fresh, soft, wet deposits. PhD geologist Snelling must have been exposed to all these facts in the course of his studies, yet he pretended they don’t exist, in order to make his deceptive claim here.
Dr. Olasky failed to do rudimentary fact checking on this remarkable claim by Snelling. In five minutes of Googling “Rock Deformation,” I found plenty of information on this subject, such as this article from earthsci.org with a diagram showing how rock strength changes with depth in the earth. It says, “At a depth of about 15 km we reach a point called the brittle-ductile transition zone. Below this point rock strength decreases because fractures become closed and the temperature is higher, making the rocks behave in a ductile manner.”
E) Geocentrism and Evolution
The article tries to draw a huge distinction between the Galileo controversy and the evolution, regarding Bible and science:
Many Christian leaders prior to Galileo were geocentric, thinking (as some passages from the Bible might suggest, and as Aristotle stipulated) that the sun moves around the earth, which was thought to stand still. Galileo’s discoveries pointed to heliocentrism, with the earth revolving around the sun. That was an unusual situation where [E1] the Bible was unclear and [E2] the science became clear.
With evolution, the opposite is true: [E3]The Bible is clear, and [E4] current science, contrary to some evolutionist claims, is muddled. [markers E1-E4 added]
These words appear to be Dr. Olasky’s own opinions, rather than quotes from his rafting companions. At least 4 errors ( #5, 6, 7, and 8 ) are packed in this passage, flagged as E1-E4. The corrections are below.
(E1) The Bible passages are clear that the earth is fixed, and the sun moves, if we take them at their literal meaning. Neither Galileo nor his prosecutors disputed that. According to Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine (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.” Galileo did not dispute that the literal teaching of the Bible was of a stationary earth; he just said that we need to take a non-literal interpretation, in order to remove the apparent conflict with science. The literal meaning of these fixed-earth passages is so plain that there is a movement today of so-called “biblical astronomy” which publishes books like Galileo Was Wrong and calls Bible-believing Christians back to geocentrism in an effort to be faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures.
(E2) The science was not clear in Galileo’s day. His scheme did provide an elegant means to reconcile many observations, but it was subject to dispute by determined opponents. They noted, for instance, that if the earth made a wide circuit around the sun, we should see stars at different angles when we observe them from different spots around the earth’s orbit, but careful observations failed to show this parallax effect. Positive demonstrations of the moving earth did not come till the 1800’s, with the Foucault pendulum and with better instruments allowing observations of star parallax. Even today, there are Christian fundamentalists who insist that the earth’s motion has not been scientifically proven and have at times posted rewards to anyone who can show them wrong.
In the dispute with Galileo, Cardinal Bellarmine was open to altering the literal interpretation of Bible, but didn’t see sufficient physical reasons at the time:
I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is in the center of the universe and that the sun does not go around the earth but the earth goes around the sun, then it would be necessary to be careful in explaining the Scriptures that seemed contrary. We should rather have to say that we do not understand them than to say that something is false. But I do not think there is any such demonstration, since none has been shown me.
This is important for our approach to evolution today. Scientists of the 1600’s did not insist on 100% airtight proof for heliocentrism; despite the serious loose ends, they went with the preponderance of the evidence, and reinterpreted the Bible as necessary to match it, since in the Bible the Holy Spirit’s intent was to teach ”how one goes to Heaven, not how the heavens go”. Today’s evolutionary creationists, comprising the vast majority of practicing scientists who are evangelical Christians, do the same with the age of the earth and with evolution – – they recognize that the physical evidence is broadly consistent with an old earth and with evolution, even though every single detail is not yet understood.
(E3) Although a literal reading of the Bible militates against evolution, it is debatable whether this literal interpretation is the correct one. Yes, the ancient writers and readers of the Bible taught and believed that all species (including the first two humans) were created in the first week of creation, and thereafter the species were fixed. But that is only part of the story; we must note that the Biblical authors also taught that the sun moves past a fixed earth, that stars were affixed to a dome-like firmament, that there were three days with morning and evening before the sun itself was made, that rabbits chew the cud, that (drawing on the Adam and Eve narrative) women absolutely must wear veils in church, and that slavery is acceptable. Is every one of these concepts meant to be enduring authoritative Christian doctrine, or were they were simply part of the ancient physical/moral worldview which is not binding on us today? Almost all American evangelical Christians shrink back from a naïve literal interpretation on at least one of these points, so it would hypocritical for them to turn around and say, “Oh, but in the case of evolution, only an naive literal reading is acceptable.” I Timothy 3:15-16 would seem to limit the authoritative teaching of the Scripture to matters of theology and morals, not astronomy and biology. See below for further discussion of Bible interpretation issues.
(E4) The scientific evidence for evolution is utterly convincing to those who can view it with some measure of objectivity. The weight of this evidence continually changes the minds of folks (like Francis Collins and like me) who were brought up as YE creationists and hence had a prejudice against evolution. With few exceptions, the biologists/geologists who doubt common descent are limited to those with a religious or ideological axe to grind.
To rehearse all the interlocking evidence for evolution in paleontology, phylogeny, genetics, and biochemistry would take many pages. An accessible treatment of these subjects is found here in Douglas Theobald’s 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent . Anyone who thinks evolution is unsupported should read that essay.
Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859. While its core thesis (common descent, mediated by natural selection operating on heritable variations) has stood the test of time, the learnings of the ensuing 150 years show that some modifications and additions are justified. A favorite ploy of Intelligent Design advocates is to focus on the 150-year-old version of the theory of evolution, show that this primitive “Darwinism” (or the rigid genes-only neo-Darwinism of the 1950’s) needs some corrections, and then pretend that this undercuts evolution itself.
Thus, the Discovery Institute has circulated a “Dissent from Darwinism” petition, garnered several hundred signatures (out of millions of scientists in the world), and then used this to claim that there is a scientific controversy which is being suppressed and that a significant number of scientists have grave doubts about evolution. That was a clever move: although some 99% of active practicing scientists accept macroevolution, nearly all biology researchers do in fact “dissent” from primitive Darwinism. This is like circulating a “Dissent from Newtonian Physics” petition, collecting signatures of scientists who agree that modern relativity theory dictates modifications to Newton’s 1687 Principia, then proclaiming that this shows the field of physics is in hopeless disarray and is suppressing a controversy about mechanics. Circulating a “Dissent from Common Descent” petition would have been more honest, but then such luminaries as Michael Behe would not have signed it.
Since molecular biology is a new and complex field, there have been significant advances in our understanding of the details of how evolution operates. In the 1990s it was realized that, while many genes are retained in a population through “Darwinian” positive selection, many other genes are essentially neutral in fitness. It can be difficult to determine how much positive selection was involved for any given gene. In the past decade, there has been increased recognition that non-gene portions of the genome (formerly called “junk DNA”), as well as epigenetic factors such as the structure of the egg cell, are important in inheritance of traits. ID advocates whoop and holler over these new insights as though evolution itself is tottering, but that is sheer deceit. Sadly, WORLD joins in this misinformation. None of these new insights contradicts common descent, or obviates Darwin’s fundamental proposal of natural selection among heritable variations. These advances in understanding are just the normal way science works to hone its theories.
(F) Overall Formation of the Grand Canyon
The article gives an overall favorable treatment to the YE creationists and their claims that the Canyon was carved by rapid runoff of Flood waters through unconsolidated Flood sediments. Error # 9: This scenario does not match what is actually there in the Canyon. We know what a landscape looks like after a monstrous flood bursts across it – the “Scablands” of eastern Washington State were shaped by the sudden release of a large glacial lake around 10,000 years ago, leaving braided channels over a wide area, but no single deep V-shaped valley. A satellite image of the Scablands is shown below. As Wilfred Elders notes:
Austin fails to take note of the radical differences between the geological formations in the Channeled Scablands and the Grand Canyon. Heaton states, “The narrow inner gorge of the Grand Canyon and its equilibrium tributaries are the antithesis of the broad flood plain, multiple overflow channels, and gigantic ‘ripple marks’ of the Channeled Scabland. It would be hard to imagine two canyons more geomorphically dissimilar to one another.”
We also know what a valley looks like when it is rapidly excavated from soft, recently deposited earth – such valleys appeared on the flank of Mt. St. Helens in the years following its 1980 eruption of ash and mud. They are wide and U-shaped, not narrow and V-shaped like much of the Grand Canyon.
The main Canyon runs east-west. There are various butte-like structures within the Canyon. If the Canyon were really blasted out of soft sediment by a gigantic east-to-west gush of Flood water, erosive enough to carve deep into the solid rock in the Inner Gorge in a matter of weeks, these buttes (made of recent Flood mud) would have all been swept away. Likewise, the gushing east-west waters could not simultaneously carve all the north-south side canyons which reach down to near the level of the Colorado River (see the first photo in this essay, taken from the air). These deep side canyons are best explained by many thousands of years of normal erosion. Finally, recently-deposited (soft) Flood sediments could not support the near-vertical cliff faces that were carved in many places in the Canyon. These flaws in the Flood explanation for the Grand Canyon are clear even to a non-specialist.
(G) WORLD’s Treatment of Science
WORLD magazine’s mission statement includes clauses like:
We stand for factual accuracy and biblical objectivity, trying to see the world as best we can the way the Bible depicts it… We cover all aspects of the news: national, international, and cultural; politics and business; medicine, science, technology, and sports. We have feisty columns and religious reflections. We even have cartoons and a page with funny or strange stories. But what matters the most is this: We believe in a God who tells the truth and wants us to do the same.
This is a fair representation of WORLD’s journalism. Despite the criticisms voiced here, I recommend this magazine to anyone seeking a Biblical perspective on the arts, news, and, well, almost everything (see here for on-line version of WORLD). WORLD’s science coverage includes a variety of interesting topics. The fact that we picked out 9 unchecked factual errors in one article is not an indictment of this journal, but an example of how easy it is for non-specialists to be led astray by pseudo-science claiming to represent God’s word.
The Grand Canyon article does not violate the letter of these high principles, but it fails to live up to the spirit of thorough truth-telling. The article is accurate in reporting on what the rafting YE creationists claimed, i.e. all the falsehoods detailed above. Unless engaging in shameless advocacy, though, a journalist has a responsibility to his or her readers to do a reasonable amount of fact-checking, especially when an interviewee is making extraordinary claims. The claims made by these YE creationists were indeed extraordinary, overturning the consensus of tens of thousands of lifelong scholars of geology as to the age of the earth and the nature of its sedimentary rocks. Dr. Olasky, however, said only nice things about his hosts, reported all their statements without challenge, and obligingly provided lush photographs of rock formations that fit into their half-truths.
He did throw in one sentence at the end of the article noting some reasons that mainstream scientists believe the Canyon is old. But this hardly compensates for the pages of young earth verbiage, supported by targeted photos. Most nonscientist readers will take away the message that young earth creationism has all kinds of evidence on its side, and thus is perfectly respectable, and likely even true. As noted below, that does a serious disservice to these readers.
This one-sided Grand Canyon article might be palatable if WORLD did an equally favorable major story on all the evangelical (and Catholic and Orthodox) Christians who are practicing scientists in biology and chemistry — nearly all of whom know that evolution is true and see no conflict with the message of the Bible – – and simply let the readers judge. This degree of objectivity, however, seems unlikely. WORLD frequently takes ill-informed pot-shots at evolution as a means to buttress the case for God’s purposeful governance of the universe and for special creation of humans.
Dr. Olasky set out a laudable position in his December 19, 2009 column: “Some faithful Christians defend a 24-hour-day, young-earth position. Others see God’s days as longer and believe the earth is old. Still others hold to gaps, frameworks, or other positions. WORLD’s editorial policy is to pitch a big tent: God’s design rather than purposelessness.” By relentlessly opposing evolution, however, WORLD excludes nearly all practicing scientists. Ironically, WORLD’s big tent of science has little place for actual scientists.
The WORLD staff seems unable to grasp that God’s providence could be as operative in three billion years of genetic mutation and selective reproduction as it was in the seemingly random events in the life of the Biblical Joseph, where “God meant it for good.” If God is Lord of casting lots, then He is also Lord of DNA rearrangements and of everything else that man calls “random.” Perhaps WORLD is spooked by the swagger of atheists like Richard Dawkins who claim that evolution somehow disproves God or purpose or design. That is all nonsense. Knowing what we now know about biological evolution and also the physical evolution of the cosmos does not obviate a Designer. It just pushes the design point back 14 billion years or so, and shows that such a Designer is a whole lot smarter than people used to think. To create humans in an instant out of dirt – that is something that any jinn or Greek god might do. To fine-tune dozens of physical constants to produce a dynamic cosmos fit for life, now that is real class.
IV. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING: YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISM, COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
(A) Apparent Age, Old Earth Creationism, and Intelligent Design
The discussion here has mainly contrasted popular Young Earth creationism based on a literal interpretation of Genesis (six 24-hour days, 6000 years ago) with the scientific consensus of a 4.5 billion year old earth where species have developed via evolution. Christians who are scientists generally accept evolution, and take a more flexible view of the biblical creation stories. This position is called theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism.
In typical YE creationism it is claimed that, if properly interpreted, the physical features of the earth (rock layers, etc.) actually demonstrate a recent creation and a global flood. However, this is not a position that can be held with intellectual integrity. In addition to all the discussion regarding the physical evidence, the sites TalkOrigins and Old Earth Ministries have collected rebuttals to the most popular young earth claims.
There are other approaches to the Bible/science interface that deserve mention. A different conservative viewpoint is “appearance of age”, which posits that God did create everything in six days, 6000 years ago, but things were created to look as if they were tens or millions of years old. Thus, a star a million light years away was created along with the starlight occupying the line of sight from that star to earth, so that we can see that star now instead of waiting a million years for its light to reach us. Adam and Eve were created looking as if they had been born twenty years earlier, with navels. The rock layers look as if they formed over the course of hundreds of millions of years.
Note that the deception here would have to extend well past the initial “week” of creation. God would also have had to erase all traces of a world-engulfing Flood which killed all but eight humans and most terrestrial species and scoured the crust of the earth. This global cover-up would entail reworking all the surface rock layers to erase traces of the Flood; rejiggering the human genome to make it look like the human race did not go through such a severe population bottleneck; transporting a bunch of marsupial mammals to Australia to make it look like they evolved in place on that isolated continent; creating levels of apparently human artifacts, complete with sequential carbon dates, to make it look like civilizations continued uninterrupted right through the Flood epoch (c. 2500 B.C.) in China, India, Eqypt, and Mesopotamia; and thousands of other acts of duplicity.
This “apparent age” viewpoint seems to solve the any conflict between the Bible and science, since it allows for a literal interpretation of Genesis while not disputing the physical evidence that points to an old Earth. However, it makes God the author of deception on such a cosmic scale that we are left not knowing what is real. Maybe the whole universe, including underlined Bibles and us with our memories of things that never really happened, was all created just last night – with the apparent age viewpoint, you cannot tell.
While the evidence for evolution is compelling for almost everyone who actually engages it, to fully appreciate that evidence may take more scientific training than possessed by the average college graduate. Many educated Christians accept the evidence for a multibillion-year-old earth, yet remain skeptical of macro-evolution because they don’t like its implications, because it contradicts a literal reading of Scripture, and because present evolutionary theory cannot offer a detailed explanation for all the data. These “Old Earth” creationists are often well-informed in areas like engineering or astronomy, but lack in-depth knowledge of fossils and biochemistry.
Old Earth creationists vary in their interpretative stance towards Genesis 1. The “framework” interpretation, discussed in a section below, is a possible Old Earth interpretation. Other interpreters suggest that the six “days” of Genesis 1 are not 24-hours days when creation actually took place. Rather, they are six successive days when God showed visions to Adam or Moses of what happened long before in creation. Another suggestion is that these “days” reveal six groups of divine creation proclamations (“let…”), while the outworking of those proclamations occurred sometime later, possibly through natural means.
In the “Day-Age” version of Old Earth creationism, the six days are taken to be six physical stages of creation, in chronological order, with possible overlapping between the stages. Each “day” might represent millions of years. Noah’s Flood is seen as a local Mesopotamian event, rather than a world-wide cataclysm. This allows for acceptance of the findings of modern geology. Hugh Ross (Reasons to Believe) is a leading spokesman here. The days of Genesis 1 are correlated with key cosmic or geological events that occurred in the same order. Because there is a thematic logic in the Genesis account, there is some remarkable correspondence between the Genesis days and what we know from study of the rocks. The creation of the physical universe (“Let there be light” is not a bad primitive description of the Big Bang) is followed by the establishment of continents and oceans, the production of land plants and sea animals, land animals, and finally man. However, there are many discrepancies between the Genesis story and the physical evidence that cannot be reconciled while still doing justice to the plain meaning of the Hebrew text (e.g. the order of appearance of land plants vs. fish, or birds vs. land animals). Day-Age proponents try to overcome these discrepancies by making very elastic interpretations of the text.
Lastly, the “Intelligent Design” (ID) movement has become influential among educated evangelical Christians. Its proponents would be classified mainly as anti-evolution, Old Earth creationists. Their activities are coordinated through the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Some key figures include Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and attorney Phillip Johnson.
ID seems to offer intellectual respectability for disbelief in evolution. We noted above their tactic of attacking outmoded versions of evolutionary theory in order to give the impression that the field is faltering. ID advocates attempt to show that natural processes cannot account for the complexities of today’s life-forms. Behe cites examples of “irreducible complexity” such as the bacterial flagellum and the mammalian blood clotting cascade, where it seems that every piece of these complex systems must be in place before they can work at all. Behe presented this bold thesis in Darwin’s Black Box (1996). Subsequent advances in genetic understanding have undercut his position, showing e.g. that subsets of the standard flagellar gene set can still make functioning flagella, and that truncated cascades for blood clotting are present in more primitive animals.
Dembski, followed by Meyer, has focused on information theory, claiming that information can only be originated and added to a system by an intelligent agent. Thus, the information inherent in the arrangement of the DNA that embodies a cell’s genetic code could not have arisen by purely natural means. Instead, it must have been placed there by an intelligent agent. However, this ID claim that an increase in information needs an intelligent agent is disproven by the phenomenon of gene duplication [see STAN3]. Other fallacies in ID information theory are discussed here .
It should be noted that “evolution” usually denotes the development of all of today’s life-forms from the earliest living cells. Much of this process of development from one species to the next is reasonably well-understood. In contrast, the mechanism of how the first cells may have developed from chemicals is not understood with any clarity, but that is the subject matter of abiogenesis, not evolution. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (2009) focuses on abiogenesis as the premier gap in our biological understanding.
There is no scientific worth to ID. It is merely a sophisticated God-of-the-gaps argument. The ID game-plan is to (a) look around for things that science does not yet have a detailed explanation for (e.g. origin of life, certain evolutionary transitions, some details of mechanism), and then (b) proclaim that no natural explanation is possible, and therefore (c) an Intelligent Agent must have done, well, something. What exactly is that something? ID advocates are careful to not answer that question with specifics.
For instance, Meyer and others have claimed that natural processes cannot account for the relatively rapid proliferation of life-forms in the early Cambrian period, and so they invoke an Intelligent Agent. To advance beyond their vacuous God-of-the-gaps position, ID theorists need to propose some concrete action by this Agent – such as “An Intelligent Agent created, ex nihilo, two species every thousand years for 10 million years in the early Cambrian.” Or: “The Intelligent Agent worked with the species that were known to exist immediately before the Cambrian, but miraculously rearranged these specific chunks of DNA to get big new features.”
But nothing like that is forthcoming. ID takes cheap shots at the evolutionists who are working in the lab gathering real data and proposing specific mechanisms, but ID theorists offer no concrete, testable counter-proposals. The one exception, years ago, was Behe’s proposal in Darwin’s Black Box (1996) that the Creator made the first bacterial cell loaded with all the genetic information that all subsequent life-forms would ever need. Although readily disproven, this was an honorable, courageous proposal. Nothing of substance has come from ID since. In Signature in the Cell Meyer attempts to remedy the lack of positive content in ID by setting forth a dozen “ID-Inspired Predictions.” His attempt does not succeed: many of these “predictions” merely restate what is already known, and none clearly differentiate between competing hypotheses.
(B) Psychology of Young Earth Creationism
We have noted that a key tactic used by Young Earth creation advocates is to present only partial truths. When speaking to an audience of nonscientists who have a strong drive to believe what these advocates are saying, this tactic has proven effective in convincing a large fraction of American evangelical Christians that the world’s geologists and biologists are fundamentally mistaken about the history of the earth and its inhabitants.
This essay has noted a number of obviously false claims made by YE creationists, where those creationists must have been exposed to the evidence which refutes them. Are they deliberately lying? That would be dismaying, but the reality is even more dismaying. They are genuinely unable to perceive the vast array of evidence which militates against their worldview. This is an example of the brain’s vigorous effort to avoid cognitive dissonance.
Glenn Morton was a YE creationist in the 1980’s. He had undergraduate training in physics, worked as a geo-physicist, and wrote technical articles for the YE creationist publication Creation Research Society Quarterly. Eventually, he realized that what he was writing was contradicted by the physical evidence (as told here ), and he abandoned YE creationism. In a classic essay he later reflected on what he was thinking in his YE creationist days. Morton realized that all the evidence against YE creationism had in fact been presented to him earlier, but his mind simply did not, and apparently could not, acknowledge it at the time. This set up a vicious circle: since the only evidence that he could “see” was that which supported YE creationism, he felt completely justified in his young earth beliefs!
This selective mental blocking of evidence for an old earth (now known as “Morton’s demon”) makes discussions with YE creationists frustrating and usually futile. The cartoon below from the “Non Sequitur” strip by Wiley Miller illustrates the way that YE creationists treat the physical evidence and what happens when someone tries to enlighten them:
This explains how educated YE creationists like Stephen Austin and Andrew Snelling can be good-willed and otherwise honest, yet promulgate teachings that are falsified by facts that they were certainly exposed to in the course of their geological studies. This perceptual pathology is not a unique failing of YE creationists. Most people with strongly-held beliefs (hard-core political conservatives/liberals, theists/atheists, etc.) effectively acknowledge only that sub-set of reality which conforms to their core values. Engaging the whole truth can lead to deep mental/emotional pain as one’s worldview is challenged, and not everyone has the fortitude to push through to a more comprehensive but less tidy synthesis.
Although YE creationist advocates are not unique in their perceptual blindness, the degree of their self-deception is notable. The distinctives of a political conservative or liberal (e.g. an emphasis on individual or on governmental responsibility) are not subject to falsification by any particular fact or physical principle. YE creationism and Flood geology, on the other hand, are completely undone by a thorough examination of features like radiogenic rock dating, erosional unconformities, the fossil record, and astronomical observations. As noted above, YE creationist advocates must engage in deeply deceitful maneuvers to evade the implications of physical reality. Old-earth anti-evolutionists also shut their eyes to the full facts, but this is more excusable, since the evidence for evolution is more subtle than the proofs for an old earth.
A method of discerning which party is more likely to be correct on a controversial issue is to note who acknowledges the most facts or factors. Using the fossil record as an example, anti-evolutionists (both YE creationists and old-earth Intelligent Design advocates) point out that that we almost never find full step-by-step transitional fossils from one species to the next, and that there is a dearth of intermediate fossils for some large transitions between phyla or classes. They further note that where intermediate fossils are available, they sometimes seem to be out of order: fossil B may have features between fossils A and C, but fossil B is dated earlier than A. They stop there, saying, “See, the fossil record does not support evolution.”
Evolutionists accept all these partial truths about the fossil record, but their case is strengthened by acknowledging a wider array of factors. As discussed above, it is known from current observations that fossilization is inherently a rare event, and it is obvious that humans have only been able to access a tiny fraction of all the earth’s sedimentary rocks for study of fossils. A celebrated example of the incompleteness of the fossil record is the Coelacanth fishes. Fossilized fishes of this order are found in rocks from 300 to 65 million years ago. Their fossil record ends 65 million years ago, which suggested that they went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs and big sea reptiles. However, since 1938, several coelacanths have been caught in the Indian Ocean. The modern coelacanths are not identical to the fossilized species, but they are clearly of the same order. This shows that coelacanths have actually been in existence for the past 65 million years, but didn’t leave their signature in the fossil record.
Acknowledging all this yields the logical conclusion: we will find fossils of only a tiny percentage of all the organisms that have lived in the past, and so the lack of fossils for most intermediate species does not constitute evidence that they never existed. It is eminently reasonable to believe that they simply did not get fossilized or that we haven’t yet found the few fossils that might exist. This belief is supported by the fact that with each passing decade, new intermediate fossils (e.g. fish/tetrapods, feathered dinosaurs) are found which help to fill in key gaps.
A logical implication of the inherent sparseness of the fossil record is that when a fossil of a species is found and dated to some particular date, it is highly likely that this species, or a related species, also lived million of years before and after this date. Thus, in the example above with fossils apparently out of order, the “A” species may well have first come into existence before the “B” species, even if the only available fossils of “A” are older than the available fossils of “B.” The picture is further complicated by the fact that the fossils that are found may represent species on some side branch on the family tree, rather than species in a direct line of descent.
The implicit assumption of anti-evolutionists is that the known fossil record constitutes a fairly complete account of all the species that ever lived. This assumption is shown by the facts to be wildly incorrect, but the anti-evolutionists simply cannot acknowledge that. This is a typical example of self-deception in order to maintain a core belief.
(C) Biblical Interpretation and Inerrancy
There is no mystery about what drives YE creationists to their misrepresentations of science. They hold to a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of the creation, where the earth is shaped and filled with life in six days, around 6000 years ago. Thus, modern geology seems like an assault on the Word of God on which they base their lives.
Students who have been taught that their eternal well-being may depend on rejecting modern science cannot be expected to readily take in the evidence for an old earth and for evolution, for reasons described above. These students deserve a chance to be released from the mental bondage imposed by well-meaning parents or pastors. This release can occur if they are exposed to other points of view on Bible interpretation. They need to know that it is possible to hold to the core values of their faith while embracing the full range of truth about the physical universe. The key historic statements of the essence of Christianity, e.g. passages like John 3:16 and I Cor. 15:3-8 or the Nicene Creed, do not specify the timeframe of the earth’s formation.
There are various Christian web sites that that make this point, such as Answers in Creation , and DoesGodExist?. Solid Rock Lectures has a speaking ministry, bringing insights from geology to evangelical venues. Teachers in public schools might point students to the American Association for the Advancement of Science program called “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.” This program has been reinvigorated by the appointment of Jennifer Wiseman as director. She is a NASA astrophysicist and outspoken evangelical Christian.
Dogged adherence to a literal interpretation seems like an admirable position, standing against attacks by infidels on the trustworthiness of the Bible. It is courageous to a degree, but unfortunately it is based on deep ignorance of the nature of the Bible, and is simply incorrect. YE creationists and most anti-evolutionists fail to take into account two factors:
(1) The Bible’s subject matter has nothing to do with physical science. Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44). Peter wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. Paul stated that the Scriptures were given (II Tim 3:15-17), for “doctrine, rebuke, correction and training in righteousness” and to make us “wise for salvation.” This is all theology and morals. Nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology. This is a biblical view of the Bible’s intent, which differs from some evangelical statements about inerrancy which mistakenly over-extend the Bible’s sphere of authority.
(2) The authors and early readers of the Bible had a “science” of their day, a shared understanding of the physical world. For instance, the stars were set in a solid firmament, which formed a barrier to the (liquid) “waters above” (Gen. 1:7), and which was “hard as a mirror of cast bronze” (Job 37:18). Modern commentators try to tap-dance around this, but all ancient and medieval interpreters understood the firmament to be a solid dome. The ancient mid-eastern worldview (shared by both Old and New Testaments) included a relatively young earth and fixity of species. God could have corrected this ancient science, but chose not to. This was not a mistake or “error.” Rather, God wisely and graciously accommodated His spiritual revelation to the existing physical understanding, in order to facilitate communication of vital spiritual and relational concepts.
We need to understand the physical aspect of the ancient worldview, without taking it to be authoritative, in the same way that we do not endorse slavery even though the Bible treats it as normative and do not require veils on women despite Paul’s direct command (I Cor 11:3-16). It’s just part of the broader task of translating the Bible.
These statements can seem like the beginning of a slippery slope down to complete dismissal of biblical content. Evangelicals ask, if we don’t take Genesis 1 literally, how can we take accounts of the Resurrection literally?
One major factor to consider is literary genre. The New Testament presents the key Jesus-events as being well-known and well-grounded in history. The gospels are written by eye-witnesses or from interviews with eye-witnesses. Paul notes in Acts 26:26 that these things were “not done in a corner,” and appeals in I Corinthians 15:6 to hundreds of witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. The apostles spent the rest of their lives spreading the Christian message, and in most cases suffered grisly deaths as a result of their proclamation of the Resurrection. The New Testament narrative is groundbreakingly realistic as ancient literature goes, and is found to agree with known history in a plethora of details. There is no reason to doubt the historicity of the Resurrection, unless one has a prejudice against miracles in general.
In contrast, the Genesis creation account is not eyewitness attestation. The writer just starts right in telling the creation story. There is believed to be an authorial connection to Moses, but we don’t know how the present book of Genesis took its final form. Unlike the New Testament narrative, the Genesis creation story is greatly at odds with known history.
Conservative scholars such as Meredith Kline and Henri Blocher consider that the two triads of the six creation days in Genesis 1 indicate a thematic, rather than chronological framework for revealing the creative acts of God. This “framework” view (explained here by Rikki Watts) accords well with ancient Near Eastern thinking about the universe. It notes that days 1, 2, and 3 involve the formation/structuring of day/night, sky/sea, and finally water/land, while days 4, 5, and 6 provide occupants or rulers for these realms, in the same order: sun and moon (for day/night), birds and fish (for sky and sea), and land animals on day 6. The earth was initially (Gen. 1:2) “formless and empty.” These two deficiencies are corrected in the next six days, as the earth is “formed” (structured) in days 1-3, then “filled” in days 4-6. There is a pleasing, symmetrical logic to all this. In this view, the sequencing of the accomplishments in Genesis 1 is not expected to correspond to the actual physical order of events.
The bottom line is that IF God was going to provide some sort of contentful creation narrative to communicate His universal sovereignty and covenantal nature to the ancient Israelites, and IF He was NOT going to give them a crash course in 21st century physics, astronomy, geology, and biology, then He HAD TO present a narrative that was compatible with what they “knew” about the cosmos. This may make us squirm when we first consider it, but it is plain cold logic.
Consider the alternatives: (a) No creation narrative at all, or (b) a creation story couched in terms of what is now known to be true about the history of the universe. Regarding (a): Yes, the Scriptures could have been completely silent here, but evidently God didn’t see it that way. All the surrounding pagan cultures had creation stories, which explained the observed physical world in terms of the machinations of their gods and goddesses. The Israelites would have been at a disadvantage without their own version of origins. Regarding (b): If the folks in c. 1000 B.C. were handed a story that included a hot expanding space-time continuum populated by photons and hydrogen, the condensation/ignition of stars and the explosions of supernovae to produce heavier elements, a billion year reign of invisible (single-celled) bacteria, dinosaurs, etc., that would have only confused them and distracted them from the underlying messages of Genesis.
YE creationism attempts to evade this trilemma by staking out a fourth position: that the ancient physical worldview (young universe and earth, no evolution) is actually correct, and modern science is wrong. As discussed at length above, this position can only be held by selective, deceitful treatment of the facts.
However logical all this is, it can make folks worry whether God inspired “error” in the Genesis stories. This is no more “error” than when an adult talks to a child in an over-simplified (thus technically inaccurate) manner, because a grown-up conversation is beyond the child’s vocabulary and concepts. John Calvin made the same point, in responding to those who, taking a naively literal approach to the Scriptures that speak of God’s hand, eyes, ears, and feet, were claiming that God must have actual body parts like hands, eyes, ears, etc.: “For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness.”
Jesus frequently conveyed his teachings by telling stories that probably never “really” happened. In telling his parables, he was simply continuing the divine mode of communication already established in the Old Testament.
Scripture is infallible as to “the point and purpose which God had in giving any particular revelation….But there is nothing in Scripture bearing upon biblical inspiration and revelation which implies that God would not communicate His point in terms of the popular (and sometimes errant) scientific ideas and concepts of the people to whom He was speaking.”
There are various views about Adam among Christians who accept the reality of human descent from other species. Some think that the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 2-3 should be classed with Genesis 1 as simply a majestic parable that illustrates timeless spiritual realities; in some sense, we are all Adam (“Adam” in Hebrew means “man”), choosing to doubt God’s goodness and to blame others for our mistakes.
Other Christians believe that there is some underlying historical event behind the Eden story. For instance, perhaps God picked one couple as the first humans that He revealed Himself to in a personal way, and made covenant with. The responses of these two representative people could have far-reaching repercussions. This would be similar to the case of Abraham, where God picked out him of the whole Middle East and made covenant with him. Abraham’s choices affected both his genealogical descendants and the rest of humanity.
A worry is that evolution threatens our status as bearers of God’s image or contradicts the doctrine of original sin. This calls for careful thought, not defensive pronouncements. Traditionalists are offended at the thought that we came from monkeys, but the reality is even more humiliating. We come not from monkeys, but from single-celled eggs. Every human alive today came into existence as a fertilized egg, like a fertilized chimpanzee egg but with slight differences in the sequences of nucleotides along the strands of DNA. This raises a host of questions:
Is the unfertilized egg (a single, microscopic cell) the image of God? Does it become the image of God the instant that a sperm cell delivers the other half of the DNA to this single cell? After the fertilized cell has divided a number of times to form a hollow sphere ? When the heart first beats, but there is no real consciousness? At birth? How is Adam’s sin nature passed down ? Which genes in our DNA were mutated to make us into sinners? If an egg from a donor mother is fertilized in vitro and implanted in a second woman, is original sin transmitted through the donor mother or the birth mother?
Until the answers to these questions are clarified, there is no place for dogmatic pronouncements on evolution being incompatible with a Biblical view of man. We, today, are all made from chemicals (starting from egg and sperm), under the superintending providence of God. This is true of all humans now living, and their parents and grandparents. Therefore, exactly how God made the first humans (from dust or from other primates) is completely irrelevant to the status of us today – – our humanity or value or image of God.
Each of us has plenty of sin that needs forgiveness and redemption. Jesus confronted people with their own sins, not Adam’s. Jesus never mentioned Adam or the Fall. Only in a legalistic disputation with the Jews did he meet them on their turf and use quotes from Genesis 1-2 to correct a misunderstanding of divorce.
(D) Were Paul and Jesus Mistaken About Creation and Evolution?
The discussion above explains the nonfactual creation narrative in Old Testament, but what about Paul and Jesus, who seem to affirm that narrative? Perhaps the greatest concern that Christians have is: “If Paul and Jesus were wrong about evolution, how can we trust them about salvation?” The cover story of the June, 2011 issue of Christianity Today was devoted to the heated controversy over human origins.
This is a valid question. There are valid answers, but it takes some thought and patience to work through them. Many American evangelicals are just too intellectually lazy to make this effort, and they justify this laziness as being true to the “simple gospel.” To claim, “I don’t go with man’s interpretations, I just believe what the Bible says” is unrealistic and untruthful. The existence of hundreds of denominations and smaller sects within just the world of Bible-believing American churches proves that there is no single clear set of interpretations for the Bible. However uncomfortable it is, we cannot avoid the necessity of thinking, and making interpretative judgments. This includes the area of creation, evolution, and scriptural inerrancy, as well as other doctrines and moral practices. A fundamentalist who has not amputated his body parts that enable lusting, in flagrant disregard of the literal meaning of Matt. 5: 27-30, should not judge theistic evolutionists for not buying into a naïve view of Genesis.
God gave Paul revelation. What was its content? It was that Jesus is the Son of God (Gal 1:11-16) and that Christ in you is the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). Paul passed along what what the earlier apostles told him, namely, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised and appeared to many (I Cor 15: 3-8). However, there is no reason to believe that God gave Paul (or other New Testament writers) special, supernatural knowledge of science or history (including creation/evolution) that would correct the factually inaccurate views of their age.
Paul was not omniscient (see Acts 23:5; I Cor 13:12). He acknowledges that not everything he writes is an oracle of God; some is simply his opinion (I Cor 7:10-12). He does not claim that every statement in every letter is absolute truth.
Paul’s views were shaped by his background and culture. Although he humanized the master/slave relationship, he accepted slavery and brutal dictatorship as normal. It fell to later generations of Christians to work out the implications of the gospel in these areas. In I Cor 11:3-16, Paul is emphatic that women must wear head coverings while praying in church. He appeals to the Genesis creation story and to nature to buttress his view, and concludes, “We have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.” This command in God’s Word to Christians couldn’t be more clear, yet nearly all Protestant churches completely set it aside. Why? Because it was a product of Paul’s cultural conditioning and surroundings.
So: Given Paul’s training in Jewish traditions which included a belief in the historicity of Genesis 1-3, we would expect him to retain that view (whether or not it was true) unless God gave him specific revelation to the contrary. We therefore expect him to draw on that tradition to illustrate and support his teachings on doctrine (e.g. Romans 5) and practice (as in women’s head coverings discussed above). The fact that he does exactly that should be no surprise and no cause for alarm. We can honor the revelation that God did give him, without fussing over the knowledge that God didn’t give him.
Jesus appeared to likewise assume the historicity of the creation account, which we now know is not supported by the physical evidence. There are several ways to deal with this. YE creationists and other anti-evolutionists simply deny the physical evidence, but this runs counter to the standard of intellectual integrity set by the Apostle Paul, who “renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways” (II Cor 4:2).
One reasonable explanation is that, like Paul, Jesus was not omniscient in the days of his flesh. This goes to the heart of how much he emptied himself at his incarnation. It can be fairly argued that if he were to really experience the human condition as indicated throughout the book of Hebrews, he didn’t walk around knowing everything all the time.
While he might receive words of knowledge from the Father as needed for ministry to others and to guide his critical decisions, there are indications that he was not omniscient. There is his clear statement in Mat. 24:36 that he did not know the timing of the Second Coming. Also, a plain reading of Mark 5:30-32 indicates that Jesus initially did not know who had touched him in the crowd.
If the Father did not reveal 21st century science to him, Jesus, like Paul, would be operating in the same ancient physical worldview as his hearers and would take Genesis as literally true. This intellectual limitation would not be sin, just as having his physical human limitations (getting hungry and tired; limited to one location) was not sin. Also, it would not compromise the authority of his teachings. He did not teach that Genesis was literally true, he merely assumed it. There is a big difference.
Even if Jesus were omniscient and knew the Genesis account to not be literally true, it would not have been loving and productive for him to stand up and say, “I know everything and I am here to tell you that the order of creation in Genesis 1 is messed up, and there was no global flood 2500 years ago that killed all but 6 humans”. Just as the original inspiration of Genesis worked within the pre-existing worldview of the Old Testament Israelites, so Jesus’ discourse worked within the worldview of the New Testament Israelites. He didn’t try to correct every wrong idea in their heads, just the crucial beliefs at the time. This is another example of accommodation of revelation to the limitations of the hearers. We should be impressed here by Jesus’ wisdom and communication skills here, instead of disputing over “error.”
Interestingly, Jesus himself remarks on an instance of this sort of accommodation in regards to the Old Testament law on divorce in Deut 24:1-4. This passage allowed a man to divorce his wife and send her away if he found “something indecent” in her. Jesus accepted the whole Law as inspired by God, yet he explicitly set this command aside. This (along with other instances where he contradicts the Law) demonstrates that Jesus did not believe in biblical inerrancy in the simplistic, absolute sense that some evangelicals promote.
Even more relevant for our purpose is the explanation he gives for why he sets aside this law: “It was because of your hardness of heart that he wrote you this law” (Mark 10:9, Matt.19:8). Jesus makes it clear that God’s basic moral standard was no divorce for anything other than adultery, but that God in giving the Mosaic Law had accommodated to the limited moral character of the ancient Israelites. This, of course, parallels God’s accommodation of the ancient Israelites’ scientific knowledge.
As Paul Seely writes in Inerrant Wisdom (p.112):
In this one sentence [Matt. 19:8] we learn that God has sometimes accommodated Scripture not simply to errant science, but to the very sinfulness of man, so that some passages of Scripture are a compromise between what God believed in (the absolute truth or moral standard) and what sinful, erring man believed in. Hence, some passages of Scripture are errant. And this revelation from Jesus falsifies the a prori assumption of inerrantists that because every word of Scripture came from God it must be the “pure word of God, diluted with no human admixture whatever.”
Jesus rebuked the strict religious people of his day for fixating on the Scriptures as such: You search the scriptures, because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40). Jesus treated the whole Old Testament as inspired and authoritative, yet not as literally inerrant. How can this be? The answer is that Scripture is not designed to stand alone. God did not give a textbook from which all content can be wrung by mere human intellect. Certain Pauline passages approach that standard of systematic theology, but in general the Scriptures require human interpretation (e.g. with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:30-34) and divine revelation (II Cor 3:14-16). Thus, Jesus and the early church were free to contradict the revealed Law of Moses, after that Law had served its purpose for earlier generations.
Jesus was nearly always speaking to Jews who completely believed the Old Testament creation story. Often, they were debating him based on the Scriptures. It was therefore entirely appropriate for him to answer from those very Scriptures, and to draw on them for illustrations. In one dispute Jesus referred his accusers not to the “The law,” but to “Your law” (John 10:34), to make that point. A parallel example of citing culturally relevant texts with is found in Paul’s ministry. In Act 17 he quotes Greek poets to the Athenians, and he quotes Greek sayings in several of his letters. These sayings reinforce his point on grounds that the other persons could accept. Modern preachers do the same with sermon illustrations drawn from the Chronicles of Narnia or some modern movie.
Jesus employed a range of rhetorical devices to communicate his revolutionary concepts. His statements that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mat. 13:32) and that birds make nests in the branches of the mustard tree are not literally accurate, but we look past that to hear the points he is making about the kingdom of God. Consistency demands that we likewise look past his literal treatment of the Genesis stories and focus on the points he was making in those teachings and debates.
We have outlined a case here for non-literal interpretation of the biblical creation narratives, but cannot deal with every question. For further treatment of biblical intent and inerrancy as it relates to science, see pages 42-44 of this, and all of this. The serious reader is urged to get a copy of Paul Seely’s Inerrant Wisdom, which deals at length with controversial issues like what Paul and Jesus taught on Genesis and evolution.
(E) Why This Matters
(1) First, speaking just as a citizen: it cannot be a good thing for a large fraction of our population to carry around delusions about basic science, including the notion that scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to discredit the Bible. Gallup polls show at least 40% of Americans believe that God directly created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. A scientifically literate citizenry, able to engage judiciously with new ideas, is essential to progress and employment. This is especially true now: since most unskilled and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs have moved to Asia, most good jobs in North America and Europe will require technical savvy and creativity.
Speaking as an evangelical Christian:
(2) Christianity purports to be based on truth and historical reality — if we demonstrate massive and willful ignorance by claiming the earth is young and macro-evolution did not occur, we lose our right to be taken seriously by the outside world when we claim that the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are firmly anchored in history. This can only hinder the sharing of the gospel.
(3) YE creationist and Intelligent Design ministries take in millions of dollars a year from conservative Christians. That represents millions of dollars a year diverted away from sharing the actual gospel of Jesus Christ. Another waste is the time and energy that thousands of bright, concerned Christians pour into reading, writing, and blogging to promote this falsehood.
(4) Today’s aggressive atheists couple bad reasoning to good science. The right response is good reasoning, not bad science. Richard Dawkins and his ilk make the claim that modern science somehow disproves God or renders Him irrelevant. Instead of challenging the fundamental illogic of that reasoning, ignorant Christians are taken in by it, and thus are panicked into trying to prove that modern science itself is wrong. It only serves the purposes of the atheists to have conservative Christians proclaim, “If evolution is true, Christianity is false”. While most Christian adults can remain happily scientifically illiterate, waves of Christian young people each year are forced to engage with the reality of biology and geology in high school and college classes. Many of them come to realize that their trusted Christian parents and teachers have misrepresented the case regarding evolution. They find that evolution is in fact true. So “If evolution is true, Christianity is false,” what do they then conclude about Christianity?
(5) In attacking evolution and theistic evolutionists, YE creationist and Intelligent Design advocates insult and alienate the thousands of Christians who are practicing scientists, nearly all of whom realize that the facts demonstrate common descent. For every YE creationist who suffers professional harassment for his beliefs, there are probably five evangelical scientists who suffer personal hostility and suspicion from their Christian friends and family members for not toeing the anti-evolution line. These scientists are the church’s best bulwark against today’s aggressive science-based atheists. See, for instance, The Dawkins Delusion and other writings by Alistair McGrath, and Francis Collins’ books and BioLogos website. Evangelical scientists in the U.S. band together in the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and publish various journals and blogs. Roman Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller has contributed Finding Darwin’s God and other works.
The battle over the science of evolution is over, for anyone capable of comprehending the facts. A far more serious science/theology issue is now looming. With each passing year, the linkage becomes more clearly established between human thoughts and decisions, and the firing of specific groups or networks of neurons in the brain. Theists can make valid philosophical arguments for the existence of a Platonic realm of abstract concepts that cannot be fully reduced to the material, yet if every thought we have corresponds to electrochemical reactions proceeding according to natural laws, where does that leave free will and individual responsibility? Devising satisfying answers will require the input of theists who are fully informed of the science. Left to their own devices here, theologians will likely take their stand on principles that will eventually be falsified.
(6) There are theological implications to our scientific view of creation. God should be worshipped both in spirit and in truth, and a correct understanding of creation is part of that. A fuller understanding of the complexities and history of the universe can lead to a deeper appreciation for the wisdom, patience and other qualities of the Creator, as discussed by Jennifer Wiseman. Also affected is our view of evil and suffering. In the YE creationist interpretation, there was no suffering or death before Adam’s apple. God is largely off the hook for suffering and injustice, since the nastiness we now observe can be blamed on man’s choice. However, the facts show that life as we know it, red in tooth and claw, was going on long before humans came on the scene. This calls for a different response. It is perhaps of interest that in both evolution and in the career of Christ, the dismaying suffering and death of the innocent can lead to a good that was otherwise unattainable.
(7) Conversely, there are practical implications to our theology of creation. God gave humans a mandate to rule over the rest of creation, and scientific knowledge (including modern geology and biology) is a key enabler for carrying this out. Christians should be in the forefront of scientific progress, casting vision for improving technology and how to apply it. An example here is evangelical Christian Francis Collins, widely acknowledged as a brilliant scientist, capable administrator, and nice person. On the basis of those admirable qualities, he was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health. Difficult policy decisions must be made in areas that touch on medical ethics, environmental responsibility, and global warming. Theologians and ethicists need input from bona fide scientists like those in the ASA to help formulate godly responses in this imperfect world.
(8) The defensive mind-set that is driven at all costs to defend the creation narrative as scientifically accurate robs the church of the richness and pleasure of taking that narrative for what it is: an effective parable to communicate who God is and how man stands in relation to Him. These truths still need to be heard, but fussing over whether the “days” were 24 hours serves only to distract. Some 70% of the Bible is story, vision or symbol, and only 30% is expressed through rational propositional truth and laws. To really “get” the Bible requires an appreciation of the role of story in communicating worldview.
For folks who are attached to a literal understanding of the Genesis narrative, it is disheartening to have that wrenched away by modern science. To help their brethren find their places in a new, more realistic meta-narrative, it is important for scientifically literate Christians to share the awe and comfort they find in things like the drama of cosmic origin and evolution, and the fine-tunings of physics that allow life.
(9) Finally, both YE creationists and Intelligent Design advocates are driven to find gaps in the physical development of the universe that science cannot explain. These gaps are seen as where God really was at work. They are threatened by the prospect of a universe and biosphere that developed from the Big Bang to its present state, all according to the regularities of natural laws. This God-of-the-gaps mindset fails on several counts. First, there is a long, embarrassing history of believers pointing to unexplained phenomena and saying, “Only God could do that,” and then seeing these gaps filled in by the onward march of knowledge. This leads to an ever-shrinking God. Second, this mindset fails to appreciate the operation of the providence of God in natural operations, and the comfort that can bring. If things (such as evolution) that occur according to natural laws are “purposeless,” that means that all Christians who aren’t experiencing daily miracles are living purposeless lives. Conversely, if we claim that God can be at work in our midst without supernatural miracles, then He can equally be at work in the processes in the natural world.
The fundamental error here is not distinguishing between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. The former is simply scientists doing their job, looking for regularities in the operations of the physical world. The latter is a completely unwarranted assumption by atheists, that the physical world (with all its regularities) is the only reality, and that miracles are therefore impossible.
If Christians are truly concerned to demonstrate the reality of the supernatural, they should consider doing it the New Testament way, by living so close to Christ that their prayers for miraculous healings are answered. The ministry of Heidi and Rolland Baker in Mozambique indicates that this is possible on a large, consistent scale. Even in the West, there are churches (e.g. Bethel church in Redding, CA) where miracles are seen with some regularity. This would be truly taking the Bible literally, e.g. where Jesus says in John 14:12-13, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”
COPYRIGHT SCOTT BUCHANAN 2010 Permission is granted for reproduction for non-commercial use of this text as long as the contents are not altered and attribution is given. The figures are attributed separately.