Some Highlights of American Scientific Affiliation 2015 Meeting

A group of American scientists who were evangelical Christians founded the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941. Their interest was in the whole faith-science arena, not just in creation, and they did not specify any particular position on interpreting the Genesis narrative.  The intent is to provide a forum where Christians can discuss the various issues where science interacts with faith, and to produce and share accurate information in this area. Members are required to possess at least a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, and to subscribe to the following statement of faith:

We accept the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct.

 We confess the Triune God affirmed in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, which we accept as brief, faithful statements of Christian doctrine based upon Scripture.

 We believe that in creating and preserving the universe God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of scientific investigation.

 We recognize our responsibility, as stewards of God’s creation, to use science and technology for the good of humanity and the whole world.

This statement of faith affirms the authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct, which is a position supported by scriptures such as II Tim 3:15-17, but it does not transgress these scriptural bounds by claiming that the Bible was also intended to speak authoritatively in matters of astronomy or geology. By affirming the integrity and intelligibility of the physical world, it allows for an honest investigation of the world as it is, instead of filtering out evidence which does not fit a particular interpretation of scripture.

Recently I attended the 2015 Annual Meeting of the ASA, which was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma on July 24-27 using the campus of Oral Roberts University. The overall theme was “Hearing God’s Voice in Nature”. Here I will share my takeaways from some of the sessions I attended. I will mainly report what was said with minimal commentary, using my notes, the slides from the talks if they are available, and occasionally drawing on other internet resources to supplement or clarify. The levels of detail here reflects my personal level of interest and comprehension. I trust the speakers will excuse any mistakes or major omissions on my part.

Here is a link to the meeting brochure, which describes the meeting in general and has bio’s and photos of the plenary speakers and the Friday workshop leaders. Here is a link to the schedule of all the sessions.

There was typically one plenary lecture per day (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday), along with hours of three parallel sessions. The themes of these parallel sessions ranged from the fairly abstract (e.g. Revelation; Philosophy; Theology) to the applied (e.g. Ethics; Sustainable Development; Creation Care), and lots in between. A snip of the meeting schedule, for just Saturday morning, is reproduced below to show the rhythm of things.

Part of schedule for 2015 ASA Annual Meeting

Part of schedule for 2015 ASA Annual Meeting

Copernicus, Columbus, and Quantum Action: Friday Workshop

The Friday workshop was “Christianity and Science: An Introduction to the Contemporary Conversation”. Edward B. (Ted) Davis, author of many helpful articles on the history of science from a Christian point of view, led the morning session. He spoke first about the notion of a pervasive conflict between science and Christianity. This motif was popularized by John Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the late Victorian era. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) was widely read and believed by the American intelligentsia in the early 1900s.

Ted pointed out that White’s thesis is simply incorrect. White scoured the ancient literature for any traces of conflict between church teachers and natural philosophers and deceitfully presented these exceptions as though they were the norm. This deception is now recognized by academic historians, but the warfare motif remains embedded in popular opinion. (The Wikipedia Conflict Thesis article provides a number of quotes from modern historians that support Ted’s contention that Draper and White have been discredited among scholars ). Modern science was born and flourished within a thoroughly Christian culture in the Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Several specific instances of White’s inaccuracy were noted, including a supposed passage by John Calvin attacking Copernicus which Calvin did not in fact write (the word “Copernicus” appears nowhere in Calvin’s writings), and the bogus notion that Christopher Columbus was opposed by Bible-quoting flat-earthers. The Greek knowledge that the earth is a large sphere with a circumference of about 25,000 miles (40,000 km) was never wholly lost in even in the “Dark Ages”, and in 1492 essentially every educated European knew that the earth was round. The notion of a heroic Columbus setting sail in defiance of those who claimed he would fall off the edge of the world is without foundation, yet it has persisted in the popular imagination and even in public school textbooks into this century.

It is true that the experts (who were, of course, Catholic) consulted by the sovereigns of Portugal and of Spain opined that Columbus’s voyage to Asia was not feasible. They noted that with a 25,000 mile circumference of the earth, the trip from Europe to Japan would be about 12,000 miles, which was far longer than ships of that day could travel without re-provisioning. Columbus maintained that the earth’s circumference was 18,000 miles, and he thought that Asia was about twice as wide as it actually is, so he estimated that he could reach the eastern edge of Asia with a voyage of only 3000 miles. In this case Columbus was wrong and the Catholic scholars were right about the distances. If the New World did not intervene between Europe and Asia, Columbus would never have been heard from again.

Ted went on to offer a brief historical overview of some other faith/science issues, such as creation, contingency, methodological naturalism, divine action, and design. At the start of the nineteenth century, the gaps in human understanding of natural history were so large that William Paley successfully used them to argue for the necessity of a divine Designer. If we found a watch with all its gears lying in a field, Paley wrote, it would be silly to think such a thing could have been assembled by blind natural forces, apart from an intelligent agent.

By the end of the nineteenth century, these knowledge gaps were disappearing at an accelerating pace. Geologists could largely explain the development of surface features of the earth in terms of known physical processes, and biologists were starting to understand how today’s complex animals might have evolved from simple cells. This led thoughtful Christians like the Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond to caution

If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the dis-orders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. [The Ascent of Man, 1894]

One of today’s most influential authors on faith and science is John Polkinghorne. A physicist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Polkinghorne researched elementary particles, playing a role in the discovery of the quark. At age 47, feeling his best mathematical work was probably behind him, he resigned his Cambridge chair to study for the Anglican priesthood. He argues that, while theism cannot be proved from nature, theism makes better sense of nature than atheism can.

Robert J. Russell is a former physics professor, now Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences  at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), Berkeley, CA.   In the Friday afternoon session, Bob covered a number of contemporary issues. Out of all possible universes, ours has many physical constants tuned to narrow values which permit matter and human life to exist. This “Anthropic Principle” is sometimes urged as evidence of a divine Creator. A non-theistic response is the “many worlds” hypothesis, where many (perhaps an infinite number) of universes exist, such that we should expect to find at least one universe like ours. A multiverse is consistent with string theory and cosmic inflation. However, there is no empirical evidence for such a multiverse, so its existence remains an article of faith. There is controversy over whether the existence of the multiverse requires that every possible world is actualized, even inherently bad worlds.

Bob suggested that God could impact affairs in this world while remaining hidden, by influencing events in nondeterministic processes. Quantum mechanics is inherently statistical or indeterminate, so (for instance) if a specific bond were occasionally caused to break, creating a particular mutation at a particular time, that would not be detectable as an aberration from normal physical laws.

All sorts of unpleasant events occur in the natural world, such as Darwin’s example of the wasp larvae which eat their way through living caterpillars. Thinkers do not agree on whether such “natural evils” are an inevitable part of any complex world where physical beings can evolve to embody agency. Creatures with meaningful freedom, rationality, and moral capacity seem to fit best in a universe characterized by some contingency and indeterminism. Some specifically Christian, not just theistic, notions are that God (as exemplified in Christ’s death) enters into the suffering of the creation, and that the universe (as foreshadowed by Christ’s resurrection) will ultimately be transformed into an unambiguously good new creation without pain or grief. This would imply that the long-term freeze-or-fry prediction of Big Bang cosmology will not in fact be the end state of the universe.


Bethany Sollereder: “Blood, Fire, and Fang: Listening for God in the Violence of Creation”

Bethany Sollereder, currently a Research Coordinator at Oxford, spoke on the subject of natural evils. She noted that in historic Christian theology, the creation was thought to be initially free of death and suffering, with these aspects being later introduced as a consequence of human sin (“The Fall”). Modern geology and biology demonstrate, however, that death and suffering are part of the natural order, long antedating the appearance of humans. Animal suffering and death was generally not considered as a problem before about the 1500s. Prior to that, people just accepted that animals ate other animals. Now it looms as a major issue of theodicy.

All is not vile in the animal kingdom: cooperation and symbiosis exist as well as competition and parasitism. The death of one creature often gives life to another. Evolution can create all kinds of desires in humans and other animals, but only humans are capable of and accountable for transcending natural desires. If God has certain desires for how some creatures are to behave, but those creatures have the capability to resist his will, then God has chosen to give the world some power to affect him. The Christ-event reveals God’s nature as radically self-giving; God is not detached, untouched by the trials of his creatures.

Short, painful lives seem to call out for eschatological redemption of the whole creation, which is suggested in the New Testament, e.g.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.[Colossians 1:19-20, NIV]


I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God .[Romans 8:18-21, NIV]

Alister McGrath, “Natural Theology: Seeing God’s Fingerprints in Creation”

Alister McGrath is a Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. In this plenary address he noted that earlier natural theology (e.g. 1700-1800) was often concerned with trying to prove God from nature, culminating in William Paley’s arguments from design and from knowledge gaps as we discussed above. McGrath cited quotes from various later Christian thinkers rejecting the god-of-the-gaps approach. John Henry Newman stated that Paley’s approach would produce a dry, dull, unworshipable God. Charles Coulson, noted theoretical chemist and a Methodist lay preacher, wrote that either God is in the whole of nature, or he is not there at all.

Christian faith does, however, provide an intellectual framework conducive to doing science, in particular supporting the belief that reality is regular and intelligible, and the belief that human thoughts signify more than just the firing of neurons in our brains. The intelligibility of the universe may seem self-evident, but it is not. Why is it that many of the pleasing abstract mathematical relations which the mind of man devises also describe specific physical phenomena? Coulson noted that the fact that we can explain anything, itself requires explanation. Albert Einstein put it, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

For an honest materialist like physicist Steven Weinberg, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” In the Biblical worldview, no matter how small humans seem in comparison with the universe, we matter to God and we belong as part of his creation (cf. Psalm 8). We also know whom to thank for its beauties.

In the Q&A session, the question was brought up as to whether we must have 100% absolute cognitive certainty before we can trust or believe something. No, that is simply not how life works. Natural theology (as defined by McGrath) does not aim at producing that sort of proof. Rather, it often provides a retrospective affirmation of the rationality of faith: after someone (for other reasons than natural proofs) trusts in Christ and the associated Biblical revelation, one finds that it makes more sense of the natural world as well.

Esther Meek, “Covenant Realism: How Love Is at the Core of All Things”

The medium was part of the message here: Esther’s joy in her material was evident, and rubbed off, I think, on her audience. Love underlies all of reality, since it is the creation of a loving God. Reality is the fecund overflow of the exuberant generative conversation among the Trinity. God’s employment of long processes over time to shape the physical and biological world is consistent with his slow unfolding of revelation in Biblical times (Torah, prophets, Jesus, Pentecost, etc.).

Her thinking builds on that of Michael Polanyi, who taught that all knowing, no matter how formalized, relies upon personal commitments. We believe more than we can prove, and know more than we can say (cf. Wikipedia).

This is perhaps most evident in scientific discoveries, where the scientist follows hunches and is excited by the prospect of deeper integration of knowledge, often before he knows exactly what form this integration will take. The personal involvement of the scientist, motivated by some measure of joy and of faith, is a crucial part of the process of discovery. Merely grinding along with a mechanical application of the scientific method rarely produces great discoveries. Exuberance is typically a core component of the process of discovery, not just an add-on.

Esther, following Polanyi and other authors such as David Bentley, Wendell Barry, and Paul Davies, contends that human knowing in general (not just scientific discovery) involves such personal engagement with reality. A familiar example is learning to ride a bicycle.

We in the West have inherited a stunted epistemology, which values only that which can be objectively proven, and foments a sense of isolation between the knower and the physical world. She argues that our epistemology should make sense of discovery as well as of that which is already known. A hallmark of reality is that it surprises us, showering us with hints of things we’d like to further explore. This perspective can change our anxious quest for certainty into a delightful adventure of continuous learning. Absolute certainty for anything is not attainable, but we can have a reasonable degree of confidence in what we know. Loving aids us in knowing.

For those interested in learning more about Esther’s insights, the text of an earlier (2013) talk of hers is here.

Amos Yong, “The Breadth of God and the Life of Nature: Toward a Pneumatology-Science Dialogue”

I missed this plenary lecture, since I had to skip the final day of the conference.

Regular Talks

I attended many fine talks beside the plenaries. These regular talks ran for about 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions and discussion. I’ll describe six of these talks below.

Keith Miller, “The Present Impact of Global Climate Change: Creation’s Call to Action”

Many lines of evidence were presented which show that the earth’s climate has been warming for at least the last few centuries. These include direct and indirect measures of temperature itself, the decline in Arctic sea ice, the retreat of alpine glaciers, and rise in sea level. While there can be decades-long pauses in temperature rise or ice loss, the longer-term trends are of warming. As continued warming releases methane which has been trapped in Arctic permafrost, warming could greatly accelerate.

Some negative consequences of warming include displacing humans living in low-lying areas such as some Pacific islands and Bangladesh, more-severe weather, bleaching of coral reefs, and the poleward spread of insect disease vectors and other pests. For instance, the pine beetle which is devastating forests in the American west has been there all the time, but is no longer being killed off by cold winters. Christians have a moral duty to respond.

Edward (Ted) Davis, “Is Christian Belief Conducive to Doing Good Science?”

The program abstract for this talk summarized its main theme: “The Christian doctrine of creation helps us to understand more of reality than science alone can study—including the very possibility of science itself as a form of knowledge about nature.”

Natural science is limited to discovering regularities among the succession of physical phenomena, answering a plenitude of little questions, but unable to address the big questions. In the words of Nobel laureate Peter Medawar (not a believer in God):

The existence of a limit to science is made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions having to do with first and last things, questions such as, ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’… It is not to science, therefore, but to metaphysics, imaginative literature, or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.

Eugene Wigner wrote of “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, noting, “The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.” As Einstein put it, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” He is implicitly referring to the regularity of nature, and the fact that our minds can delve deeply into it.

The Christian doctrine of creation provides a basis for expecting the universe to be uniform and comprehensible. The phrase “Laws of nature” has been commonplace among Christian thinkers since at least the time of Ambrose (4th century). Astrophysicist/theologian Christopher Kaiser writes:

The basic idea of creation in Scripture is that the entire universe is subject to a code of law which was established at the beginning of time. This idea has two major implications for our view of the world: (1) nature functions with a high degree of autonomy (meaning literally, “having its own laws”); and (2) the natural world is comprehended by God and therefore comprehensible to human beings created in the divine image.

Cornell historian L. Pearce Williams describes how Michael Faraday’s faith influenced his scientific investigations:

Faraday drew more than strength from his religion. It gave him both a sense of the necessary unity of the universe derived from the unity and benevolence of its Creator and a profound sense of the fallibility of man. Both are worth stressing…

The origins of field theory are to be found in Faraday’s detailed experimental researches on electricity, but the speculations and imaginings which led him to publish physical heresies owe something to his unquestioning belief in the unity and interconnections of all phenomena. This belief, in turn, derived from his faith in God as both creator and sustainer of the universe.

Ted discussed the dispute between the rationalists like Descartes, Leibnitz, and Spinoza who thought it was more efficient and more certain to sit in one’s armchair and make deductions from first principles, and the empiricists like Bacon, Boyle, and Newton. The latter insisted that, instead of speculating on what God could do, we should humbly and diligently investigate what he actually did do in setting up the universe.

Thus, being a Christian can help one to do good science. Conversely, doing science can enrich one’s life as a Christian. In the words of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler, “For it is precisely the universe which is that Book of Nature in which God the Creator has revealed and depicted His essence and what He wills with man, in a wordless script”, and, “Since we astronomers are Priests of the Most High God with respect to the Book of Nature, it behooves us that we do not aim at the glory of our own spirit, but above everything else at the glory of God.”

Kenneth Wolgemuth, “God’s Voice in Geology: Earth Engineered for Discovery”

Ken is a speaker with Solid Rock Lectures , an organization of professional geologists who give talks at Christian colleges and seminaries to share what the physical evidence shows about the age of the earth. This talk started with an animation of the Indian crustal plate bashing into the southern edge of Asia and thrusting up the Himalayan Mountains. This thrusting continues today, as the Himalayas rise several inches per year. Prior to this collision, there had been an ocean between India and the rest of Asia. Limestone and other sedimentary rocks were deposited on the floor of that ocean. This tectonic collision over ten million years ago shoved these oceanic rocks atop the Asian plate. Thus, we know when and how Mount Everest came to be formed of sedimentary rocks. These rocks were deposited millions of years ago, then thrust up by well-understood and clearly-dated crustal movements. They were not deposited six thousand years ago by a world-wide flood which covered all the highest mountains.

The 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) plus journey of the India landmass (Indian Plate) before its collision with Asia (Eurasian Plate), from Wikipedia.

The 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) plus journey of the India landmass (Indian Plate) before its collision with Asia (Eurasian Plate), from Wikipedia.

The cosmos was designed for discovery, and God built into it many “data recorders” which retain information about sequences of events which occurred over thousands or millions of years. These data recorders include tree rings, ice cores, varves (annual deposits in lake floor sediments), and banding in coral reefs. These data recorders tend to agree with one another about key events in geological history. For instance, cores drilled from the ice of glaciers in Greenland and glaciers in South America all show the same date for the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago. Tree rings match with carbon-14 dating. (See Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth  for more on these evidences.)

There are also radioactive “clocks in rocks”, where the timer starts when the rock solidifies from molten magma or lava. For instance, the radioactive dates of rocks from the various islands and underwater seamounts in the Hawaiian island chain get older and older as one moves westward along the chain. This is consistent with these islands having been formed as the mid-Pacific plate slowly slides westward (we can currently observe this motion) over a narrow hot spot in the mantle which spews up lava to form a new volcanic island every few million years.

In the Q&A after this talk, someone cited a study by Steven Austin of Answers in Genesis (a young earth creationist organization) regarding rocks formed by a 1986 lava flow at Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. In 1992 Austin sampled some of these rocks and sent them to a laboratory for dating analysis by the radiogenic K-Ar method. The dates returned by the laboratory on these samples ranged from 0.34 million years to 2.8 million years. This, of course, is much older than the actual age (less than ten years) of these rocks. These discrepant results have been widely touted by young earth creationists as demonstrating the general unreliability of radioactive dating of rocks.

Ken pointed out some basic errors made by Austin in his study of Mt. St. Helens rocks. First, it is well-known to geologists that the lava that comes to the surface can contain grains of much older still-solid rock, carried along with the liquid melt. Austin did not take proper measures to separate out these older grains. Also, because of the long half-life of the K-Ar system, it is impossible to do meaningful dating on rocks that are very young without specialized apparatus. The laboratory to which Austin sent his samples stated at the time that their equipment could not accurately measure samples less than two million years old. Thus, Austin was guaranteed to get erroneous results on the samples he sent in. His results, therefore, have no bearing on radioactive dating routinely done by geologists with normal methodology.

(A more detailed discussion of the Mt. St. Helens lava dating by geologist Kevin Henke is here.  Old Earth Ministries lists many articles here, mainly by Christian geologists, which rebut the attacks by young earth creationists on the reliability of radioactive dating of rocks.)

Randy Isaac, “The Uniqueness of DNA Information”

Randy is a retired VP of Science and Technology at IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Center, and currently executive director of ASA. In this talk he examined the differences between DNA information and other information systems, showing why DNA information does not require a conscious mind like other information systems do.

The meaning of information in human-designed information systems is abstract, independent of its physical embodiment. This abstract meaning, which can be comprehended by other conscious beings, is a hallmark of the intelligent design of these information systems. [I don’t recall if Randy used this sort of example, but among humans the meaning of the English word “red” can be expressed as “rot” in German or “rojo” in Spanish or some very different symbols in Hebrew or Chinese, or as “electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 700–635 nm”. This shows that the meaning of “red” is a concept which does not depend on the letters “r”, “e”, “d” being present in that sequence. ]

In contrast, in its native state the meaning of DNA information is its biochemical function, which is utterly dependent on its physical embodiment and environment. Specific sequences (triplets) of nucleotides, known as codons, physically bond to matching sites on specific transfer RNA molecules which cause specific amino acids to be placed into protein chains. Thus, there is no evidence that DNA information requires an intelligent agent for source or function.

[Randy was addressing a limited issue here, namely, whether the information-bearing function of DNA would require an intelligent agent to input that information. The talk did not directly address the question of how the first cells arose which utilized this physical genetic translation system. We have discussed elsewhere how new information can arise in the genome by plain physical mutations in the genome.]

Jennifer Gruenke, “Christian Faith, Biological Reductionism, and Consciousness”

To convey the first part of this talk, I’ll quote from the abstract in the printed program:

Biology is hierarchical, in the sense that organisms are made of organs, which are made of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms. Because of this biology might be sent to reduce to chemistry, and chemistry to physics.

This reductive approach works well for explaining the function of many biological systems, for example a kidney. Once you understand the kidney at the cellular and molecular level, how it produces urine becomes clear.

 But one aspect of human biology, the relationship between the brain and consciousness, is difficult to explain from the point of view of biological reductionism. It is clear that certain parts of the brain are necessary for consciousness, but it is less clear that these parts of the brain are sufficient for consciousness, or even what sort of mechanism would allow physical neurons to create consciousness.

 This creates what cognitive scientist and philosopher David Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of consciousness. How do qualia, experiences such as seeing the color blue or hearing a melody, come about given that light and sound waves seem like such different things from experiences themselves?

Jennifer displayed this cartoon relating to conceptual hierarchies, which I thought was too good not to reproduce:

Neuroscience keeps progressing in showing how mental events like perception and decision-making are correlated to specific physical events in the brain. There is a range of opinions on how the mind and the brain are related. Eliminative materialists solve the mind-brain problem by denying the existence of mind. There is nothing but matter, and there is nothing to mental functioning besides electrochemistry. From the fact that your brain can trick you they conclude that consciousness itself is an illusion. Your beliefs that you have beliefs, desires, and sensations (e.g. of pain) are incoherent and mistaken.

There are less-extreme positions, including those held by Christians, which would still be classed as materialist or physicalist. For instance, Calvin College philosopher Kevin Corcoran is a constitutional physicalist: “I’m a physicalist when it comes to human persons. I believe, in other words, that we are wholly physical objects. I don’t believe there are non-physical souls in the natural world. So I don’t believe that we are or have such non-physical souls as parts… A non-physical soul doesn’t explain anything about consciousness that cannot be explained without it, and it is furthermore a wholly unnecessary hypothesis for many religious doctrines…I believe that I am constituted by my body without being identical with my body. I stand in the same relation to my body as a statue stands in to the piece of bronze (say) of which it is composed.” [ quotes taken from Corcoran’s Biologos articles here and here ; emphases in the original.]

Thomas Nagel posed the question, “What is it like to be a bat?”, claiming that if you did not have the subjective experience of echo location, you would not know all there is to know about a bat, even if you knew all the external data about the atoms in the bat’s body. This is an argument against reductive materialism.

Dualism is the position that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical, or that the mind and body are not identical. Mental sensations (qualia) and intellectual concepts seem to have a reality which is not reducible to neurons. This position, again, comes in many varieties. There are differing opinions on whether the mind can have causal influence on the brain.

Panpsychism claims that everything is conscious to some degree. A number of secular thinkers have come to the conclusion that the “hard problem” of consciousness is so hard that it cannot be resolved by humans. This position is called mysterianism. Colin McGinn claims that we are just not built to solve the problem: it is cognitively closed to us. Humans trying to understand consciousness are like squirrels trying to understand quantum physics.

Jennifer seemed to find value in the views of medieval Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas and modern Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart regarding mind and brain. These thinkers, following Aristotle, do not separate the physical and spiritual aspects of humans. To let Hart speak for himself on the subject, here is an excerpt of an article of his which approvingly describes Pope John Paul II’s Thomistic views on the nature of man:

…at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. … But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion.

George Murphy, “Clarity About Divine Action: Prayer, Causal Joints, and Kenosis”

With a PhD in physics plus theological training and pastoral experience, George was well-equipped to treat his subject matter, which has both intellectual and practical aspects. The abstract in the program book summarizes this talk:

How to speak of God acting in a world whose processes are described by scientific laws is a basic question for theology-science dialogue. Many answers have been suggested but are not entirely satisfactory. Beginning from the theology of the cross with its implications of the hidden inside God, I make three points here.

1. We do not need to God as an element of scientific explanations for what happens in the world. But Christians are told to pray for “daily bread.” The old adage that “the law of praying is the law of believing” that implies that theology must speak of God acting in the world to provide food and other needs.

2. Such theology must, however, not try to specify a precise “causal joint” between God’s action and that of creatures. Theology is not physics. We must be content with analogy. The traditional concept of God’s cooperation with creatures in their actions, like a human working with some instrument, provides an analogy that can also account for the preservation of creatures.

  1. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena in terms of rational laws indicate that God does not work with creatures in arbitrary ways. This is best seen as an aspect of divine kenosis (Philippians 2:7): God limits action in the world as Christ limited himself to the human condition in the incarnation. Kenosis is often misinterpreted. It should not be understood to mean that God is sometimes absent or inactive.

“Kenosis” is from the Greek word meaning “to empty out.” It is used in Philippians 2:7, where it is said that Christ “emptied himself.” In the incarnation Jesus limited himself to the human condition. This illustrates how God may choose to limit his cooperation with his creatures according to their capacities, i.e. according to “natural laws.” Kenosis is about what God does not do.

According to Luther, created things are masks of God, in which He hides Himself, as God was concealed in Christ at Golgotha. Pascal wrote that what meets our eyes is not a total absence or presence of the divine, but a God who conceals Himself.

On mode of (hidden) divine interaction with the physical world might be for God to influence some individual events at the quantum level (e.g. a DNA mutation), as long as the larger ensemble of quantum events is not perturbed.

I’ll close here with a quote from George’s scholarly essay at Biologos which may convey his thought better than my notes do:

The approach that I have taken to relationships between Christian faith and scientific knowledge of the world is to view them in the context of a theology of the cross. God’s fundamental revelation is in the event of the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection of the crucified one. (These two aspects must be kept together.) This was not only the means God used to solve a problem but the most profound revelation of the true God’s identity. It is a paradoxical revelation in hiddenness, for nothing is less like our expectations of God than a man dying the humiliating and God‐forsaken death of a criminal.

 If the event of the cross is God’s self‐revelation, we may expect it to be a clue to God’s general modus operandi in the world. The incarnation and passion of Christ are marked by the “emptying” (kenosis), or self‐limitation, of Philippians 2:7. In creation, where (to use an old image) God works with and through creatures as “instruments,” God limits that action and works within the capacities of creatures, in accord with what we call the laws of physics. God could display absolute power and “violate” those laws, but our experience shows us that if such events happen at all, they are extremely rare.

 Because what we observe scientifically is the behavior of God’s instruments and not the one who uses them, they are also “masks” of God. Just as God is concealed from direct observation in his supreme work of salvation, he is hidden in his ongoing work in creation: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). The regularity of natural processes that results from this is a gift that makes it possible for us to understand our world on its own terms.

Some Reflections on Hearing God’s Voice in Nature

I was glad I attended this meeting. I enjoyed meeting fine people, and heard a lot of interesting talks. And the food was good.

I’ll add one small observation: it seemed to me that there was relatively little actual natural theology discussed, at least in the lectures I attended. That was a bit surprising, considering the overall theme of the conference was “Hearing God’s Voice in Nature.”

There were a number of presentations which dealt with the theology of nature: given our understanding of God, how should we understand and treat the natural world?  But classic natural theology is the other way around: given our observations of nature, how does that enrich our understanding of God? This was definitely discussed by some speakers, but it seemed on the sparse side.

For instance, Romans 1: 18-25 (…For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse…, etc.) is probably the most weighty passage in the New Testament on this subject. (I have treated this passage, including its implications regarding the ingratitude of unbelievers, in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology ). However, I do not recall any mention of these verses from the podium.

This is not a complaint or criticism, just an observation. This trend may just reflect the concern of the good speakers here to distance themselves from the efforts of modern Intelligent Design proponents who try to identify gaps in our understanding of natural history into which they can insert some Intelligent Agent capable of tweaking genomes over the past billion years. I respect the scholarly standards of our speakers, who were careful not to claim any naturalistic proofs of God. On the contrary, the hiddenness of God was repeatedly emphasized.

Taking a strict reading of Romans 1, and Psalms 19 and 104, perhaps that all we can firmly conclude about a Creator from observing the creation is that he is very powerful and long-lasting (the universe is big and old) and very smart (love the way all those quantum fields add up to complex functioning physical systems). It’s not clear from Scripture that other characteristics of God, such as his justice, are unambiguously displayed in creation. Regarding interactions among animals, for instance, conference speakers spent much more time on the defensive (answering attacks on God’s goodness) than on the offensive (demonstrating God’s goodness). It may be that there is not much more to be said in the way of natural theology, so that the podium should properly belong to theologians of nature. But maybe not. I will keep tuned in to the ongoing conversation within ASA among scientists and theologians who deal with these issues.

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Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism


The Protestant consensus since the time of the Reformation has been that the physical universe and its history are real, not illusory. As God’s creation, the physical world conveys genuine information about the Creator and can serve to inform our interpretations of the Bible. Therefore, when geologists (many of them devout Christians) in the early 1800’s found that the rock layers showed the earth to be far older than the 6000 years derived from a literal reading of Genesis, Bible-believing Christians did not ignore, suppress, or lie about these findings. Rather, they adjusted their interpretation of the relevant Bible passages away from a simplistic literal reading, just as they had done 200 years earlier with the verses that depicted a stationary earth. Through about 1960, nearly all Christians, including conservative Old Testament scholars and most fundamentalists, were comfortable with interpretations of Genesis which accommodated an earth that was many millions of years old.

Today’s young earth creationism is based on “Flood geology”.  Flood geology, which teaches that most sedimentary rock layers were deposited in a single global Flood about 2500 B.C., was developed in its modern form in the early twentieth century by Seventh-day Adventist George M. Price to conform to visions of a six-day creation reported by Adventist prophetess Ellen White. Despite being advised by geologists that it was incorrect, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris took over Price’s Flood geology and repackaged it in The Genesis Flood (1961), which rapidly became dogma among conservative Protestants. Like White, Whitcomb and Morris assumed their interpretation of the Bible was infallible, which justified ignoring and distorting any scientific findings which did not agree with their Flood geology.

Thus, modern young earth creationism did not develop from improved Bible exegesis or new geological findings. Rather, it derives from extra-biblical revelation or assumptions, and scientific claims known at the time to be false. This approach is at odds with the historic Christian understanding of God’s works and God’s Word.



Varieties of Creationism

Advice from a Former Young Earth Creationist

Christian Views on Genesis and Creation Through 1800

       Sources on the Recent History of Creationism

       The Church Fathers on the Days of Creation

Geologists Discover an Old Earth

       Consistent Fossil Order Worldwide Indicates Evolution

       Thrust Faulting and “Out of Order” Rock Layers

Is Earth’s History an Illusion?

       The “Appearance of Age” Hypothesis

       God’s Self-Revelation in Nature

The Scholarly Fundamentalists, 1880-1920

Populist Fundamentalism and the Age of the Earth

From Failed Prophecy to Failed Science: Adventist Prophetess Drives the Revival of Diluvian Geology

       William Miller and the Great Disappointment

       Seventh-Day Adventism and Visionary Ellen White

       Ellen White’s Teachings on Creation

       George McCready Price, Flood Geology, and Thrust Faults

Ferment in the Fifties: The American Scientific Affiliation and Bernard Ramm

       The Evolution of the American Scientific Affiliation

       Bernard Ramm’s Manifesto

The Genesis of The Genesis Flood

       John Whitcomb Responds to Ramm’s Challenge

       Henry Morris Provides Scientific Horsepower

The Genesis Flood: The Book That Changed Everything

       Whitcomb and Morris Conceal the George McCready Price Connection

Bad Science and Bad Theology in The Genesis Flood

       The Lewis Overthrust According to Whitcomb and Morris

       Evaluating the Case Against Overthrusts

       More Bad Science by Henry Morris

       The Fundamental Error in The Genesis Flood: Bible Interpretation

       What Is the Bible About?



Varieties of Creationism

Creationism is the belief that the universe, and maybe life and individual life-forms, originated from specific acts of divine creation. The three main creationist views within modern Christianity are young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and evolutionary creationism. These approaches vary in how much they accept the results of modern science.

Young earth (YE) creationism is perhaps the most controversial position. In its modern Flood Geology form, YE creationism teaches that the earth and its life-forms were created about 6000 years ago, and that most sedimentary rock layers were deposited in a single, year-long global Flood.  It holds that the scientific community is broadly mistaken in its understanding of geology, astronomy and biology.

Science educators in the U.S. and U.K. are alarmed at attempts by young earth proponents to have their views taught in schools, especially schools funded with public money. Evangelical Christians are dismayed at how YE creationism is a barrier keeping educated people from considering the gospel. Blogger Rebecca Trotter wrote:

I have been upset for years over “biblical creationism” because of the bad fruit it produces…It keeps people from knowing God.  Creationism breeds lies and liars.  It trashes the church’s testimony.  No one sees Christians denying the reality of creation and is inspired to follow God.  It keeps people hanging onto a simplistic, immature view of God as a genie who goes “poof” and makes things happen.  It puts God on our timeline and not His own.  Having to wait on God makes much more sense when you consider that God normally works over the course of billions of years and not minutes and hours.  Creationism discredits holy scripture by trying to make it into a history book rather than the record of the revelation of God to his people.  When we insist that scripture says something that is obviously untrue, people will no longer see any reason to take it seriously.

Advice from a Former Young Earth Creationist

Despite denunciations by scientists, theologians, and laymen, YE creationism maintains a firm hold in the U.S., and has spread widely elsewhere.  Promotional organizations like Answers in Genesis convince their followers that YE creationism is consistent with the physical evidence as well with scripture. In a series of articles last year on the Panda’s Thumb web site, former YE creationist David MacMillan explained the thought patterns which “allow creationists to maintain their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary “. In his final article,  MacMillan addressed the question, “How do you reach creationists?” Here is his response:

Be patient. I do not think I would have ever made the switch if not for all the people who painstakingly pointed out my errors over and over, and forced me to look at the evidence for myself. It might seem futile, but you can make a difference.

Know your enemy. And your enemy is not the person you’re talking to. Your enemy is the fundamentalist worldview telling the person how they are allowed to think. Understand how it works; understand where the beliefs and rhetoric are coming from. Ask questions…

Know your role. You’re the teacher. Understand the evidence and the arguments… Real science displaces pseudoscience: tell a man about science and he might trust your authority, but teach a man how science works and he won’t need your authority at all. Do your best to instill confidence in the scientific process apart from the question of origins.

Stick to the facts…As I stated before, creationism botches literary and biblical criticism just as badly as it botches science. Don’t ever make the mistake of attacking a creationist’s faith; if you do so, you’re simply reinforcing their misconception that evolution is synonymous with atheism. Read the explanations given by theistic evolutionists. Ask questions like, “How do you know your interpretation of the Bible is correct? How do you know that Genesis should be treated as chronological narrative? How would the original audience have understood it? Why wasn’t your interpretation a majority view throughout Christian history?” Be prepared to explain the history of creationism.

His recommendations all seem reasonable. His final admonition here is: “Be prepared to explain the history of creationism.” In MacMillan’s own journey, this issue was pivotal:

Then I started learning about the history of creationism, and that’s where things started to crack. I learned that the age of the earth had never been a dividing issue in Christianity, not until Morris and Whitcomb plagiarized flood geology from the Seventh Day Adventists in the 1960s.

This observation got me interested in following up on the development of young earth creationism, to see what was suspect in the history of Flood geology.

Christian Views on Genesis and Creation Through 1800

Sources on the Recent History of Creationism

YE creationist Henry Morris published A History of Modern Creationism in 1984. The definitive study of the recent history of creationism is The Creationists, a heavily foot-noted tome by Ronald Numbers. The original edition was published in 1992, and is now available on Google Books.  This is the edition of The Creationists which will be cited here. An expanded version, including material on the “Intelligent Design” movement, was published in 2006.

A short, accessible treatment of the development of creationism was published in 2012 by David Montgomery in GSA Today. Historian of science Ted Davis has published a number of articles on Biologos dealing with different approaches to science and the Bible. His essay “Science Falsely So Called: Fundamentalism and Science” is particularly pertinent to understanding the recent history of creationism.

The Church Fathers on the Days of Creation

If the lifetimes of Bible characters are projected backwards in time from known historical events, one arrives at a date around 4000 B.C. for the creation of the world. From antiquity through the dawn of the modern era there was no particular impetus for objecting to that general timeframe for creation. Thus, the early church fathers generally accepted a young earth. There was, however, diversity of views on how literally to take the creation story.

Many early Christian writers saw the creation Days as regular 24-hour days, but there were a number of significant exceptions. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 AD) and Augustine (c. 400) believed the world was created in a single instant, not in six literal days. Ted Davis notes:

For Clement, everything was “created together in thought,” and since “all things [were] originated together from one essence by one power,” the six days could not be taken literally. (Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 16)

The instantaneous view was advanced especially by the most important Western theologian of the first millennium, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who wrote a work (in multiple versions) called On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (ca. 391). Influenced by Ecclesiasticus 18:1, he taught that in the beginning God made matter and all material things simultaneously. “Those who cannot understand the meaning of the text, He created all things together, cannot arrive at the meaning of Scripture unless the narrative proceeds slowly step by step.” Some things were created to unfold in time, growing from “seeds” placed in the creation by God, but they were all part of the original conception that was brought into material existence in a single creative event. However, to aid our poor understanding, God told us about it in the pattern of six days. Augustine called the creation days “dies ineffables” (unknowable days), so majestic and profound that we cannot think of them in merely human terms as ordinary days. They indicate logical order, not temporal order, and must be interpreted subtly.

Drawing on Psalm 90:4 (“The day of the Lord is a thousand years”), Cyprian saw each creation Day as a 1000 year, not 24-hour period ( “The first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years”  –   Treatises 11:11, c. 250 A.D.) For Origen Genesis 1 was entirely figurative, not literal: “For who that has understanding will suppose that the first and second and third day existed without a sun and moon and stars and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally” [The Fundamental Doctrines 4:1:16. c.  225 A.D].

Geologists Discover an Old Earth

European thinkers in the late 1700s attempted to understand the surface geological features in terms of a global flood. However, this diluvianism was abandoned in the face of new geological discoveries. Systematic studies of rock formations in Europe made it plain to practically every honest observer that the earth was far older than a few thousand years, and that there was no trace of a recent world-wide flood. One such formation was the angular unconformity in Scotland which is exposed at Siccar Point:

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

We have explained elsewhere why this set of rock layers cannot be explained by deposition in a single recent Flood (“Unconformities” Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old).

Deborah and Loren Haarsma described eight other lines of observational evidence that led “virtually all practicing geologists, including Christian geologists” by 1840 to believe “that the earth must be at least millions of years old.”

Davis Young noted that by 1840, on the basis of observations like these, geologists had realized that the features of the earth were incompatible with Noah’s global Flood:

As long ago as 1834 the great Christian geologist and ordained minister Adam Sedgwick charged the authors of the “Mosaic Geology” of this day with having committed “the folly and the sin of dogmatizing on matters they have not personally examined, and, at the utmost, know only second-hand – of pretending to teach mankind on points where they themselves are uninstructed.”   And a year later, Christian geologist and theologian Edward Hitchcock wrote that diluvianism “has been abandoned by all practical geologists.”  [from “The Discovery of Terrestrial History”, in Portraits of Creation (1990)]

This was not a matter of godless scientists imposing their conclusions on devout Christians – it was often devout Christians who were gathering and assessing the geological data and finding themselves forced to conclude that it all pointed to an old earth. As a result of these findings, between 1860 and 1960 almost no Protestant Christians (conservative or liberal) believed in a young earth. Davis notes, “Strict literalism of this sort, in which a long pre-human natural history is flatly rejected on biblical grounds, mostly disappeared in America before the Civil War, surviving mainly among the Seventh-day Adventists and a few other groups on the fringes of Protestantism, only to be revived a century later with the rapid rise of scientific creationism.”

Consistent Fossil Order Worldwide Indicates Evolution

Early canal-builders and geologists made systematic observations of the fossils embedded in various rock layers. They discovered that there was a consistent order in which some of these fossils appeared. This order is indicative of the relative age of these fossil species, since younger sediments are always deposited atop older, existing sediments.

Fossil order in rocks

For instance, for the order of fossils shown above, we might find specific sets of layers exemplified in the three rock formations below. Not all fossils appear in every layer, but the sequence is consistent. Often the same sequence can be observed in widely separated locales, indicating that this “faunal succession” was not the result of some local hydrological sorting or ecological zones, but held true all over the world.

Examples of Fossil order

Sometimes the fossils appear in the usual order, but some middle layers, representing perhaps millions of years, are missing:

Unconformity with fossil layers

Although all the layers may appear flat, with smooth interfaces, closer inspection usually reveals evidence of an erosional surface at the missing layers (e.g. here, between layers B and F). This indicates that, after the lower layers were deposited, they were lifted out of the waters, such that net erosion rather than deposition took place, and then many years later this region again subsided below water level to receive a new round of sediment. See “Unconformities Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old” for more discussion of missing rock layers.

Fossils which have a wide geographic distribution but a relatively short time of appearance in the rocks are called “index fossils”, since they are useful in determining the relative ages of the rocks in which they occur:

These index fossils were all sea creatures, so there is no question of the more fleet-footed clams getting buried in higher rock layers because they ran to higher ground as the Flood-waters rose. At all levels there are fossils of animals that are big and small, skinny and fat, so this sequence is not a result of hydrodynamic sorting during one big Flood. Rather, the order of their world-wide appearance in the rock layers reflects their temporal appearance, then disappearance, across the times of deposition in the sedimentary rocks in which they are found. As noted earlier in this section, geologists had many reasons to believe that these deposition times extended over millions of years.

Perhaps as the ages rolled by God miraculously created species after species, maybe one species every ten years for the past half-billion years, as previous species died off.  Scientific thought, however, seeks to understand natural phenomena in terms of regular physical laws, instead of positing a constant stream of miracles. If one species could develop (evolve) into a different species through natural means, this would explain the appearance of so many new species over the ages without endless special interventions.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859, offered a mechanism to explain the already-observed faunal succession in the rocks. He proposed that heritable variations, which were associated with improved survival and reproductive success, could promote changes in a population over time, enough to eventually develop a new species.

The case for evolution was strengthened by the fact that a given species in the fossil record is often quite similar to the species that come before it and after it. As Darwin acknowledged, the known fossil record does not supply a complete picture of every transition between species. For small evolutionary steps, such as from one species to the next, typically no transitional forms are found. However, there are often a number of known intermediate forms which bridge between large phylogenetic groupings such as orders and classes. For instance, a number of fossil fish with amphibian-like features, and amphibians with fish-like features have been found dating to about the time of the fish-to-amphibian transition. An excellent series of intermediate fossils also exist for the reptile-to-mammal transition. See Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils for more on transitional fossils. The “Cambrian explosion”, where many animal phyla appear for the first time, is discussed in Darwin’s_Doubt.

Thrust Faulting and “Out of Order” Rock Layers

Some sections of the earth’s crust undergo massive stretching, which can result in the rupture of a crustal plate and the formation of a new ocean (e.g. the Atlantic) in the gap. Other sections of the crust undergo immense compression. This typically results in a combination of folding of rock layers, and of thrusting one set of rocks over atop a different set of rocks. This combination of folding and thrusting is what pushes mountain ranges miles into the air.

A fault is a planar fracture in a volume of rock where relative motion has taken place. Fault systems are known to run for hundreds of miles (e.g. the San Andreas Fault in California). The type of fault associated with thrusting is called a thrust fault. In the middle of a fault there is usually some ground-up rock, called gouge, which can act as a lubricant to facilitate the fault motion. This gouge layer is often surprisingly thin.  The Earth Story  notes, “The thickness of gouge, that is, the thickness within the moving part of a fault, has little meaning for the importance of the fault itself. Some very thin fault zones are capable of moving rocks over an immense distance: thrust faults with tens of kilometer of displacement sometimes have centimeter-scale zones of gouge; an entire tectonic plate can be moved about on a zone sometimes less than a meter thick.” Much faulting that today is exposed at the surface originally took place deep beneath the earth’s surface, where high pressure water can be present in the fault and can further lubricate its motion.

Thrust faults are widely found in mountain ranges, including the Appalachians and the Alps, and there are many currently active (moving, measurable) thrust faults worldwide.    For instance, the Indian crustal plate has shoved hundreds of miles in a 1500-mile-long arc under what is now the Tibetan plateau of the Eurasian plate, and continues to move northward at a rate of several inches per year. As these two plates mash together, the Himalayas grow measurably higher by about 2 inches (5 cm) every year through folding and thrusting. The recent tragic earthquake in Nepal is a result of this crustal compression and thrust faulting. The figure below shows that the scale of the thrust faulting (“MBT”, MCT”) in the Himalayas runs to hundreds of miles of displacement (50 km=36 mi):

Simplified cross-section of the north-western Himalaya showing the main tectonic units and structural elements by Dèzes (1999). Labeling is in French. 50 km=36 mi.

Simplified cross-section of the north-western Himalaya showing the main tectonic units and structural elements by Dèzes (1999). Labeling is in French. 50 km=36 mi.

In terms of our cartoons of fossil layers A through H, a thrust fault might result in this arrangement:

Thrust Fault Layers

Here, the older layers A-B have been shoved atop layers F-G. The thrust fault is at the interface of layers A and G. Note that these layers are not in a completely random order. The usual A-through-H order is preserved, except for the plane of the thrust fault, where one set of layers was shoved atop another set of layers in an understandable movement. There is nothing here that would cast doubt on the integrity of the A-through-H fossil ordering.

There is a belt of thrusting that extends all along the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to Mexico. As noted below, this geology has played a key role in the history of creationism. The on-line documentation for a university lecture by Harmon D. Maher on thrust faulting includes informative graphics such as this, which shows the complex nature of the Montana thrust fault system:

Cross section through the Montana fold-thrust belt showing its thin-skinned character with the basal Black Canyon detachment, a foreland dipping duplex and the structural window created by the Moors Mountain Thrust Fault. From USGS, reproduced by Harmon D. Maher in lecture on thrust faulting . This is a snip of the left half of the drawing in Maher’s lecture.

Cross section through the Montana fold-thrust belt showing its thin-skinned character with the basal Black Canyon detachment, a foreland dipping duplex and the structural window created by the Moors Mountain Thrust Fault. From USGS, reproduced by Harmon D. Maher in lecture on thrust faulting . This is a snip of the left half of the drawing in Maher’s lecture.

Is Earth’s History an Illusion?

The “Appearance of Age” Hypothesis

An attempt to maintain the literal Genesis story while acknowledging the evidence of age in the rocks was made by Philip Henry Gosse in his 1857 book Omphalos. There he argued that for God to create a functional world, the elements in that world must look as if they had existed for some time. Adam and Eve would have hair, fingernails, and navels (omphalos is the Greek word for “navel”), and the earth’s surface would have mountains and valleys. Today’s YE creationists invoke this appearance of age concept to explain the fact that we can see stars that are millions of light-years away: God instantly created both the distant stars and all the intervening starlight on Genesis Day Four, 6000 years ago.

This appearance-of-age concept seems at first like a tidy way to sidestep all the seeming conflict between Genesis and science. However, this approach was never widely embraced. One problem is that the that observations of rocks and stars show not just old-looking objects, but a whole detailed, interlocking history of events dating back billions of years to the Big Bang. The folded, metamorphosed Appalachian geology looks as if a huge mountain range of solid rock was thrust up and slowly eroded down over the course of millions of years;  the fossil record shows a succession of species over the past half-billion years, as if they developed via evolution. The human genome contains many chunks of DNA that look as if they were injected by viruses millions of years in the past; chimpanzees share some of these same retrovirus sequences with us, making it look as if humans and chimps had a common ancestor. It would be as though Adam was created, not only with a belly-button, but with memories of a boyhood filled with activities, and with the scars and artifacts to match those false memories.

Also, the deception here would have to extend well past the initial “week” of creation. God would also have to erase all marks 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 remove traces of the Flood, rejiggering the human genome to make it look as if the human race did not go through such a severe population bottleneck; transporting a bunch of marsupial mammals to Australia to make it look as if they evolved in place on that isolated continent, etc., etc. It makes God the author of deception on such a cosmic scale that we are left not knowing what is real. Maybe the whole universe, including our underlined Bibles, and us with our scars and our memories of things that never really happened, was created just last Thursday – with the apparent age viewpoint, you cannot tell. Rabbi Natan Slifkin commented in his Challenge of Creation that with this approach:

God essentially created two conflicting accounts of Creation: one in nature, and one in the Torah. [But then] how can it be determined which is the real story, and which is the fake designed to mislead us? One could equally propose that it is nature which presents the real story, and that the Torah was devised by God to test us with a fake history!      One has to be able to rely on God’s truthfulness if religion is to function.

God’s Self-Revelation in Nature

Another drawback of the apparent age hypothesis, in which the rock layers are a gigantic hoax, is that it runs counter to the thought that undergirded the rise of science in Christian Europe. Most of the earliest modern scientists were devout theists, who believed that they were learning of God’s ways as they studied His creation.  They believed that God revealed Himself through the Book of his works as well as through the Book of His words (i.e. the Bible). Thus, pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote that God “wants to be recognized from the book of Nature”, and that in examining the physical world “we observe to some extent the goodness and wisdom of the Creator.”

This understanding of God’s self-revelation in nature was drawn from both Old and New Testaments, as discussed in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology. The power and skill of the Creator are evident from the size and complexity of the universe; other divine aspects such as justice are not necessarily displayed in nature. The Psalmist declares:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. [Psalm 19:1-6 NIV]  - - The image is from the European Space Agency, using the Hubble Space Telescope. It is listed as the LH 95 star forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud – – The image is from the European Space Agency, using the Hubble Space Telescope. It is listed as the LH 95 star forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud

The apostle Paul claims that characteristics of the invisible God can be inferred from the visible creation:  “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” [Rom. 1:19-20 NIV] In appealing to eye-witness testimony to the resurrected Christ (I Cor. 15:5-7), Paul implies that past events as understood by humans are a genuine record of God’s activities on earth; history is not an illusion.

Francis Bacon, who defined the modern scientific method, described this two-books  approach: “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.” In The Advancement of Learning (1605) Bacon wrote:

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

The Christian thinkers of the early 1800s followed Bacon’s advice to “not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together”. Thus, when the physical evidence of the age of the earth contradicted their literal interpretation of Scripture, they did not try to suppress or distort those findings. Rather, they realized that their interpretation of Genesis was likely incorrect. As Davis Young notes, “Because the Christian naturalists of the era were unafraid of God-given evidence, they recognized that extrabiblical information provided a splendid opportunity for closer investigation of the biblical text in order to clear up earlier mistakes in interpretation.”

Two Christian architects of modern science. Left: Sir Francis Bacon, c. 1618       Right: Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Two Christian architects of modern science. Left: Sir Francis Bacon, c. 1618 Right: Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Presumably they had learned something from the Galileo fiasco. It had only been 200 years since the Roman Catholic church banned Galileo’s teachings that the earth moved around the sun. Galileo’s findings contradicted the literal, obvious meaning of Biblical passages such as Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”),  as well as I Chron. 16:30, Isa. 66:1, Eccl.1:5, and Josh. 10:13. 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 argued that we need to take a non-literal interpretation, in order to remove the apparent conflict with science. As he put it, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

The Protestants of that era appeared to be less prone than Catholics to suppress scientific findings on the basis of dogma. The reformer John Calvin wrote that in the Genesis creation narrative God accommodated the story to the limited understanding of common people, rather than giving a scientifically precise account. “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” – – meaning, the Bible was not written for the purpose of telling us about the physical universe. In Calvin’s view, the way to understand the stars and the planets in a God-honoring manner was to go scientifically study them, not to rely on inferences from Biblical statements:

Astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend… For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. [Commentary on Gen. 1:6].

In the past century the Catholic magisterium has been far ahead of conservative Protestants in coming to grips with the advances of science (“The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution”).   Even in Galileo’s time, however, the Roman church used natural observations to aid in Bible interpretation. Cardinal Bellermine wrote that he would be willing to consider a non-literal interpretation of the passages on the fixed earth if the physical evidence for a moving earth was strong enough. His objection to Galileo’s model was not merely that it imperiled the traditional understanding of the Bible, but that it had not been conclusively proven:

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.

At that time, the quality of evidence for a moving earth was something like the evidence today for evolution: the theory explained the vast majority of observations, but there were some serious questions that remained unanswered. For instance, if the earth really swings millions of miles around the sun every twelve months, we should find a different viewing angle towards a given star in July than in January. Astronomers in the 1600s looked for this parallax effect but did not detect it. Most scientists of the day were content to leave this effect unexplained, since Galileo’s model made sense out of so many other observations. (Because the stars are very far away from earth, the seasonal shift in viewing angle is so small that astronomers were unable to measure it until the 1800s, using improved instruments.)

The Scholarly Fundamentalists, 1880-1920

Bible-believing Protestants at the end of the nineteenth century became alarmed over widespread denial of historic Christian doctrines by liberal clergymen and theology professors. Also, the German “higher criticism”, which portrayed the Bible as an erroneous collection of merely human documents, began spilling over into the English-speaking world. A number of conservative scholars addressed these issues, providing rationales for trusting in the Bible and holding to orthodox doctrines. California businessman Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton provided funds for collecting and publishing a set of essays defending conservative Protestant beliefs.

The Fundamentals: A Testimony To the Truth, a set of 90 essays in twelve volumes, was published from 1910 to 1915 and distributed without charge to thousands of clergymen, professors of theology, missionaries, and other Christian workers. The authors included professors such as B. B. Warfield of Princeton Seminary and James Orr of the University of Glasgow, G. Campbell Morgan (president of Cheshunt College in Cambridge and pastor of Westminster Chapel in London), R. A. Torrey (graduate of Yale University and Yale Divinity School, with further studies at Leipzig and Erlangen Universities), prominent jurist Philip Mauro, and other Christian intellectuals of the day. Adherents to The Fundamentals later became known as “fundamentalists”.

Populist Fundamentalism and the Age of the Earth

The early 1920’s saw several shifts within fundamentalism. The early scholarly emphasis was replaced by a more populist tone, and ultimately an anti-intellectual attitude. Before 1920, there was little interest in attacking evolution. In fact, several of the authors of The Fundamentals were comfortable with (God-directed) macro-evolution of the lower animals. From 1920 onward, combatting the teaching of evolution in the public schools became a crusade, culminating in the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Evolutionary thinking was blamed for a whole range of ungodly trends in society.

In the 1920’s, fundamentalists attempted to gain control of the major Protestant denominations. These attempts failed, leaving the mainline churches in the hands of the modernists and moderates. With the mainstream Christian and secular cultures seemingly hostile and impregnable, the fundamentalists after 1930 to some extent withdrew and formed their own network of colleges and Bible institutes. While the early leadership had been provided largely by scholars from the northeast U.S., the fundamentalist center of gravity by the 1930’s shifted definitively to the southern Bible belt.

What did these stalwart defenders of the Bible believe about creation? Almost to a man, they rejected the young earth perspective. They did not find a recent creation in six 24-hour days to be a necessary interpretation of Genesis. W.B. Riley, editor of The Christian Fundamentalist and president of the Anti-Evolution League of America, stated that there was not “an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing” [The Creationists, p. 45]. Riley, William Jennings Bryan, and many of the more educated fundamentalists held to the “progressive creation” form of old earth creationism. In this view, the creative acts of God were spread out over millions of years. Noah’s Flood is seen as localized to somewhere in the Middle East.  In some variants, the six creation Days of Genesis 1 are correlated with specific epochs of geological history. This “day-age” approach is espoused today by Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe ministry.

The form of old earth creationism which became more popular among fundamentalists was the “gap” theory. This approach proposes a very long time period between Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”), which marked the initial creation of the earth, and 1:2 (“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”). After the initial creation (Gen 1:1), a long time passed, which may have involved the creation and extinction of different kinds of beings; this age was brought to an end by some primeval rebellion, resulting in the destruction and desolation of the earth’s surface, leaving it “formless and empty” (Gen 1:2). Genesis 1:3 and onward tells of the rehabilitation of the earth and the creation of today’s species, including humans, in a relatively recent literal six-day re-creation.

Gap creationism was popularized by Thomas Chalmers at the University of Edinburgh and was held by early nineteenth century Christian geologists such as William Buckland and Edward Hitchcock. It became enormously influential in early and mid-twentieth century American conservative Protestantism after being promoted in the notes of the Schofield Reference Bible. Adherents included Charles Spurgeon, R. A. Torrey, Oral Roberts, Harry Rimmer, Jimmy Swaggart, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and Finis Dake (who also published an annotated Bible). In 1954, Bernard Ramm (The Christian View of Science and Scripture) noted that the gap approach was taken at that time by many fundamentalists to be the only possible faithful interpretation of Genesis:

The gap theory has become the standard interpretation throughout hyper-orthodoxy, appearing in an endless stream of books, booklets, Bible studies, and periodical articles. In fact, it has become so sacrosanct with some that to question it is equivalent to tampering with Sacred Scripture or to manifest modernistic leanings.

From Failed Prophecy to Failed Science: Adventist Prophetess Drives the Revival of Diluvian Geology

William Miller and the Great Disappointment

The old-earth (day-age or gap theory) consensus among conservative Protestants was abruptly shattered by the 1961 publication of The Genesis Flood. Its authors, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, taught a “Flood geology”, in which most of the sedimentary rock layers were laid down in a single world-wide Noahic Flood about 2500 B.C., some 1500 years after the creation of the universe c. 4000 B.C. Their version of young earth creationism was heavily promoted by the authors and by related organizations, and within a decade became the standard worldview among fundamentalists.

Where did this Flood geology come from? The story begins in upstate New York with a farmer named William Miller. In the early nineteenth century, this area was a hotbed of reform movements, utopian communities, and religious enthusiasm and innovation. This is where Mormonism (Joseph Smith) and American Spiritualism (the Fox sisters) arose. And this is where Miller, a Baptist layman living near the Vermont border, pored over his Bible and calculated the time of Christ’s return.

William Miller (1782-1849), whose 1844 estimate of the Second Coming spawned many branches of Adventism.

William Miller (1782-1849), whose 1844 estimate of the Second Coming spawned many branches of Adventism.

Miller based his calculation on Daniel 8:14, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Starting with a royal decree in 457 B.C. to rebuild Jerusalem, and reckoning each prophetic day to be a year, he estimated that, “that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.” Apparently it did not strike him odd that with a simple calculation from an Old Testament verse he was able determine the date of the Second Coming, even though Jesus had declared this date was not known by any man, any angel, or even by Jesus himself (cf. Mark 13:32).

After Miller started publicizing his conclusions in 1831, they generated increasing attention. If indeed the world was about to end in a few short years, hardly anything else mattered. Something like 100,000 people, mainly in northeast U.S. but with adherents worldwide, were swept up in the excitement.

March 21, 1844 came and went uneventfully. Because Miller had acknowledged some imprecision in starting dates and calendar changes, the faithful were not unduly discouraged. The “Millerites” eventually decided that October 22, 1844 must be the actual date of Christ’s Second Advent. Thousands gathered to keep vigil that day and that night, many dressed in white robes. The chagrin they felt when October 23 dawned like any other day is known as the “Great Disappointment.”

After this fizzle, most of Miller’s followers apparently went back to their old churches and rebuilt their lives. Many others, however, had become so invested in the Adventist movement that they could not give it up. Various Millerite groups made divergent attempts to rationalize the non-apocalypse of October 22. This led to the formation of many different sects. Here is a diagram of some of the churches and movements in the nineteenth century spawned by Millerism:

The development of branches of Adventism in the 19th century

The development of branches of Adventism in the 19th century

The reach of Miller’s Adventism extends even further than depicted here. It helped shift American Christian eschatological expectations from post-millennialism (which is optimistic about the spread of Christian faith and culture in the world before Christ’s return) to a more pessimistic pre-millennialism, which is fixated on a coming war in the Middle East. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (current worldwide membership 15-20 million) emerged from Charles Taze Russell’s Bible Student movement. The Branch Davidians, who came to a fiery end in the government siege of their Waco compound in 1993, were an offshoot of an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists.

Seventh-Day Adventism and Visionary Ellen White

The group that became the Seventh-day Adventists explained the absence of visible manifestations on October 22 by stating that Christ did indeed come and cleanse a sanctuary (per Daniel 8:14) on that day, but this sanctuary was in heaven, not on earth. This group continued to maintain an expectation of Christ’s return to earth, and embraced the keeping of the Sabbath on Saturday (the seventh day of the week).

This movement was held together in part by James White’s publication of the periodicals The Present Truth, and later the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. The Seventh-day Adventist church was formally organized in 1863.

James White’s wife, Ellen G. White (1827-1915), became accepted as a prophetic voice in the Seventh-day Adventist movement. She went into trances for extended periods, where she reported seeing visions of God and of future events, and receiving direct communications from Jesus and angels. Later medical investigations note that her symptoms were consistent with fits of temporal lobe epilepsy, possibly linked to a childhood blow to the head that left her in a coma for three weeks.

Ellen White was a prolific writer, authoring more than 40 books and 5000 articles. Critics poke fun at her Victorian dire warnings on self-abuse, and her statements on creation and geology are wildly inaccurate. That said, most of her teachings seem reasonable and consistent with Scripture, and were offered out of pure motives. She played a role in steering Adventism back to orthodoxy on the Trinity.  She honored the Bible, stood against racism, promoted sound education, and was far ahead of her time in advocating healthy eating habits and other proactive health care.

In recent decades, most Seventh-day Adventists have backed away from absolute fealty to White’s every statement, while continuing to draw from the best of the traditions she promoted.  The Adventist church maintains an emphasis on wholeness and health, operates a large network of schools and hospitals, and is accepted as a regular Protestant denomination.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, her writings were considered by most Seventh-day Adventists to be authoritative revelation from God, on a par with the Bible. White did not claim that everything she wrote was inspired, but she vigorously defended the authenticity of her prophetic visions and revelations, with statements such as these:

“I speak that which I have seen, and which I know to be true.”

“”I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision–the precious rays of light shining from the throne.”

“God is either teaching His church, reproving their wrongs and strengthening their faith, or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. God does nothing in partnership with Satan. My work… bears the stamp of God or the stamp of the enemy. There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil.”

“I testify the things which I have seen, the things which I have heard, the things which my hands have handled of the Word of life. And this testimony I know to be of the Father and the Son. We have seen and do testify that the power of the Holy Ghost has accompanied the presentation of the truth, warning with pen and voice, and giving the messages in their order. To deny this work would be to deny the Holy Ghost, and would place us in that company who have departed from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits.”

Ellen White’s Teachings on Creation

White’s Adventist beliefs on the Sabbath were tied to a literal six-day creation. In her mind, this absolutely ruled out vast ages for the creation. To teach long ages for creation is “infidelity in its most insidious and hence most dangerous form”:

 But the assumption that the events of the first week required thousands upon thousands of years, strikes directly at the foundation of the fourth commandment. It represents the Creator as commanding men to observe the week of literal days in commemoration of vast, indefinite periods. This is unlike His method of dealing with His creatures. It makes indefinite and obscure that which He has made very plain. It is infidelity in its most insidious and hence most dangerous form; its real character is so disguised that it is held and taught by many who profess to believe the Bible.    [E. White, The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 112]

Given her convictions, it is perhaps not surprising that she reported a divine vision in which she was “carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.”  [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 90 ]

White reported further direct divine revelation on what transpired after Noah’s Flood. The ground was littered with carcasses of all the drowned humans and animals. Because God did not them to decompose there and pollute the atmosphere, He wanted them buried. He accomplished this by sending a mighty wind that sloshed the waters around so violently that the dirt and stones were displaced enough to bury the dead bodies. In the process, the surface of the earth was greatly reshaped:

He caused a powerful wind to pass over the earth for the purpose of drying up the waters, which moved them with great force—in some instances carrying away the tops of mountains like mighty avalanches, forming huge hills and high mountains where there were none to be seen before, and burying the dead bodies with trees, stones, and earth. These mountains and hills increased in size and became more irregular in shape by collection of stones, ledges, trees, and earth which were driven upon and around them.   [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 78]

Before the Flood there were immense forests of trees many times larger than today’s trees. These trees were torn up and buried during the Flood, and turned into coal, some of which turned into oil; God causes the subterranean coal and oil to ignite, which makes for “earthquakes, volcanoes and fiery issues”:

At the time of the flood these forests were torn up or broken down and buried in the earth. In some places large quantities of these immense trees were thrown together and covered with stones and earth by the commotions of the flood. They have since petrified and become coal, which accounts for the large coal beds which are now found. This coal has produced oil. God causes large quantities of coal and oil to ignite and burn. Rocks are intensely heated, limestone is burned, and iron ore melted. Water and fire under the surface of the earth meet. The action of water upon the limestone adds fury to the intense heat, and causes earthquakes, volcanoes and fiery issues. [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 78]

The likely origin of coal from buried vegetation was already known in White’s day; the rest of this is fanciful fiction. Oil comes from marine sediments, not from trees or coal. Volcanoes are eruptions of molten rock from hot zones in the lower crust of the earth, with normally no connection to underground fires of coal or oil. White seems to have stirred into her vision the common observation that calcined limestone (i.e. lime, an ingredient in mortar or cement) gets hot when water is added to it.

White stated that all the corpses buried in the earth should serve as evidence of the biblical Flood, to “establish the faith of men in inspired history”. [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 95-96 ] When scientists did actually examine the fossils in the rocks, their conclusions were the opposite of what she proposed. Geologists looked very hard, and could find no evidence of a universal Flood, or of a recent creation. What they did find was a clear history of a series of inundations and erosions over millions of years, with a progression of differing fossil types over that time period supporting evolution.

In response to these “infidel” conclusions, White claimed that God revealed to her that the geological history of the earth is “incomprehensible” to human investigators (i.e. scientists) who seek to understand it in terms of natural principles:

I have been shown that without Bible history, geology can prove nothing. Relics found in the earth do give evidence of a state of things differing in many respects from the present. But the time of their existence, and how long a period these things have been in the earth, are only to be understood by Bible history. It may be innocent to conjecture beyond Bible history, if our suppositions do not contradict the facts found in the sacred Scriptures. But when men leave the word of God in regard to the history of creation, and seek to account for God’s creative works upon natural principles, they are upon a boundless ocean of uncertainty. Just how God accomplished the work of creation in six literal days he has never revealed to mortals. His creative works are just as incomprehensible as his existence. [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 93]

White’s posturing here (“God spoke to me; to question me is to defy God”) is a typical cult leader power-play. Furthermore, her claim that natural history is opaque to human investigation is in direct opposition to the historic Protestant view that geological history is real because God is not a deceiver, and that He purposed to reveal Himself in the Book of His works as well as in the Book of His Word.

George McCready Price, Flood Geology, and Thrust Faults

Although many of Ellen White’s statements about the creation and the Flood are at odds with physical reality, her prophetic status forced other Seventh-day Adventists to a literal application of the Genesis story. It was certainly White’s writings that drove Canadian-born Adventist George McCready Price to seek a way to rationalize the rock layers in a manner that was consistent with a recent six-day creation. Price acknowledged that he was guided by White’s “revealing word pictures of the Edenic beginning of the world, of the fall and the world apostasy, and of the flood”, with Flood-burial of animals and plants producing the fossils.

Starting about 1900, Price formally proposed that the fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks were laid down in Noah’s flood. He recognized that he had to come to terms with the observations by geologists that a regular sequence of fossilized plant and animal species could be observed in the rock layers around the world. Evolutionists readily explained this faunal succession in the rocks as reflecting the actual temporal appearance and extinction of these species over the millions of years of geologic history. Price’s initial proposal was that the observed sequence of fossils resulted, not from temporal succession, but from various aspects of the Flood event that sorted out different types of corpses, including differential mortality and hydrological sorting. The “smaller and more helpless animals” would be drowned first, with their burial locations being determined by the densities of their bodies, while the faster-running “larger animals and man would flee to the hill-tops” and be buried later.

Later, Price simply denied the existence of a regular order of fossils in the rocks. He ended up staking his whole system of thought on the observation of “out-of-order” rock layers in certain locations, especially the Lewis Overthrust in Montana and Alberta. This is part of great thrust belt system runs nearly the whole length of the Rocky Mountains. In the Lewis Overthrust, hundreds of square miles of rocks dated by their fossils as “old” (Precambrian, about 1 billion years old) rest atop rocks whose fossils are supposedly younger (400 million years and younger). Normally, of course, one finds older fossils below, not above, younger fossils. Geologists interpreted the Lewis formation as a case where the older layers had been pushed up and over onto the younger layers by compressive forces.

Price, however, had no formal geology training or experience. He read on the subject extensively, not to actually understand reality, but rather to conjure up some explanation that was consistent with a recent creation and a global Flood. Not understanding fault systems in general, Price simply could not believe that many square miles of thick rock could have ever slid across other rocks.  He was probably misled by reading some descriptions of the Lewis fault zone which minimized the deformations there.  Also, the zone of fracturing and folding at a fault is sometimes narrow, and easily overlooked by the untrained eye.

The diagram below illustrates why practicing scientists could tell that the Lewis formation involved a massive thrusting movement. This is a section in Montana, south of Glacier National Park. The formations appearing on this diagram are listed at the bottom, in order from highest (most recent) to lowest (oldest). Devonian rocks (Du) are about 400 million years old, and Cambrian rocks (Cu) are about 500 million years old. These rocks are classified as “Devonian” or “Cambrian” on the basis of the index fossils found in them; the ages of Devonian and Cambrian sedimentary rocks in general have been determined by radioactive dating of igneous rocks that have been found in association with these sedimentary layers in various parts of the world. The formations whose abbreviations start with “Y” (e.g. Ygr, Ym) are Precambrian, on the order of a billion years old.

Section of the Lewis and Eldorado Thrust Faults. Green circle marks surface exposure of Lewis fault. Red and blue arrows mark surface exposures and subsurface orientation of a consistent set of rock layers on both sides of the Lewis fault. From “The Lewis Thrust Fault and Related Structures in the Disturbed Belt, Northwestern Montana”, by Melville R. Mudge and Robert L. Earhart (1980). .     Arrows and circle added.

Section of the Lewis and Eldorado Thrust Faults. Green circle marks surface exposure of Lewis fault. Red and blue arrows mark surface exposures and subsurface orientation of a consistent set of rock layers on both sides of the Lewis fault.
From “The Lewis Thrust Fault and Related Structures in the Disturbed Belt, Northwestern Montana”, by Melville R. Mudge and Robert L. Earhart (1980). . Arrows and circle added.

In the immediate zone of the fault exposure (green circle on the diagram), one of the Precambrian formations (here, the Mount Shields Formation, Yms) is found resting atop some Devonian rocks (approximately 400 million years old).This is an example of “out-of-order” layering, with nominally older rocks sitting above younger rocks. Price claimed that the Precambrian rocks were directly deposited as ocean sediments, during Noah’s Flood, on top of the post-Cambrian rocks.

Consideration of the whole picture, however, makes it obvious that this is a case of thrusting. There is a huge, identical super-set of tilted rock layers that occur on both sides of the Lewis fault. These layers run from the from Precambrian or Proterozoic formations (e.g. Yh Helena Formation, Ysn Snowslip Formation, etc.) up to Cambrian and Devonian formations at the surface. These formations on the left side of the Lewis fault are marked with red arrows, and on the right side of the fault with blue arrows. The geometry of these layers makes it clear that the reason why the Yms Mount Shields rocks are sitting on top of the Du Devonian rocks within the green circle is that a huge section of these layers (where the red arrows are) got shoved from the left atop another section (marked by blue arrows) of this same super-set.

The Flood geology interpretation of all this would be that the detailed sequence of layers on the right (blue arrows) were deposited from the Flood waters from specific sediments (clays, sands, limy animal skeletons, etc.). Note that each of the many formations shown (Yh, Ysn, Ysh,…,Cu, Du) contains a number of distinct sub-levels, so there are actually hundreds of identifiable rock layers involved. Then, an erosional surface was formed at the plane of what geologists call the Lewis Thrust. Then, as the Flood raged on, hundreds of more sedimentary layers were deposited (red arrows) which exactly mimic in type and sequence all the layers which compose the ten or so formations laid down earlier.

This is not credible. One feature which makes it completely impossible is that a number of these formations (e.g. Garnet Range, McNamara, Bonner) are composed largely of quartzite. Quartzite forms when sandstone is deeply buried and subjected to intense heat and compression long enough to cement the sand grains together. It is a very hard and non-porous stone, preferred over granite in kitchen countertops because it does not absorb stains. The 4500 years since Noah’s Flood is not enough time to bury these sediments, fold them as shown, cook them to quartzite and other hard rocks, then erode thousands of feet of solid rock down the to present surface contour.

Another strike against Flood geology is the existence of hundreds of feet (meters) of limestones (e.g. here with the Helena formation) in the middle of other sedimentary strata. Thick layers of limestones form as the skeletons of mainly microscopic marine creatures slowly rain to the ocean bottom over many years in relatively calm waters; they could not form suddenly in the midst of Noahic torrents that were scouring the continents and rapidly depositing thousands of feet of mud and sand.

On the other hand, thrust faulting readily accounts for the existing rock layers in Montana. The large-scale fold in the left hand layers is evidence of the massive compressive forces in the crust here, and the Lewis fault shows the signs (local folding and breakage) that movement has taken place along it.

Professional geologists tried to educate Price, noting that thrust faults could be observed even in Precambrian rocks which had essentially no fossils, but he didn’t want to hear it. No matter the evidence, he just chose to disbelieve that massive thrusting could ever occur. He dismissed all claims of large-scale thrust faulting anywhere as ad hoc attempts to cover up instances of out-of-order fossils.

Having ruled out thrusting, Price insisted that the upper “Precambrian” layers in Montana had been deposited (as ocean sediments) conformably on the lower layers. In Price’s mind, therefore, the Lewis formation disproved the existence of ANY regular succession of fossils in the rock layers. He wrote (The Fundamentals of Geology, 1913), “I don’t know what would convince the world, in this evidence here in Alberta and Montana is insufficient.”

In a breathtaking extrapolation from his (mis)understanding of the Lewis Overthrust, Price proclaimed a new law of geology: “ANY KIND OF FOSSILIFEROUS ROCK MAY OCCUR CONFORMABLY ON ANY KIND OF FOSSILIFEROUS ROCK, OLD OR YOUNG”. Since the arguments for evolution at the time were largely based on the faunal succession in the fossils, Price believed that he had, with this law, swept away nearly all the evidence for evolution.

Price and a few supporters tried for decades to promote his views through various organizations, but despite repeated recruiting efforts they could not find a single professionally-trained geologist to support them. Fundamentalists lauded Price’s efforts and valued him as an ally against evolution, but until about 1960 his Flood geology made only modest headway against the dominant gap theory and progressive creationism.

Ferment in the Fifties: The American Scientific Affiliation and Bernard Ramm

The Evolution of the American Scientific Affiliation

A group of American scientists who were evangelical Christians founded the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941. The intent was to provide a forum where Christians could discuss the various issues where science interacted with faith, and to produce and share accurate information in this area. Members were required to possess a degree in a scientific field, and to subscribe to a general statement which stated that the Bible is inspired by God, and is an unerring guide to faith and conduct. Their interest was in the whole faith-science arena, not just in creation, and they did not specify any particular position on interpreting the Genesis narrative.

As men of science, the leading ASA members could see that Price’s Flood geology was unrealistic, and it was denounced as such from 1948 onward. The “gap” theory was also seen to provide a poor match to the physical evidence. The ASA leaders were mainly old earth creationists of the progressive creation (e.g. day-age) variety.

In the 1940’s nearly all ASA members opposed evolution, and the ASA planned to produce a book which would refute Darwinism in time for the 1959 centennial of Darwin’s Origin of Species. In the 1950’s, however, key ASA members became better acquainted with evidence that convinced them that some significant amount of macro-evolution had in fact taken place over the geologic ages. When the ASA published its long-awaited volume on evolution in 1959, the tone of the book was distinctly accepting towards theistic evolution, to the dismay of the more conservative members.

Bernard Ramm’s Manifesto

Bernard Ramm, a professor of philosophy at Bethel College and Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, published The Christian View of Science and Scripture in 1954. This became the most talked-about creationist book of the decade. As a young man, Ramm had subscribed to the gap theory of creation, like millions of other readers of the Schofield Bible. Eventually he realized the shortcomings of the gap theory and also of Flood geology, but he maintained a firm belief in the inspiration of the Bible. Ramm thought deeply about faith and science issues, earning various degrees, including a PhD in philosophy.

In The Christian View of Science and Scripture  Ramm analyzed the process by which Biblical Christianity during the nineteenth century moved in the universities from a central role to a place of near-total irrelevance. Much of this was due to secular factors, but part of the blame lay with the lack of a viable philosophy of science among the Christians.

In the book’s preface, Ramm distinguished two traditions in Bible and science. The “ignoble tradition” has “used arguments and procedures not in the better traditions of established scholarship”. The “noble” approach “is the tradition of the great and learned evangelical Christians who have been patient, genuine, and kind and who have taken great care to learn the facts of science and Scripture.” Unfortunately, “the noble tradition which was in ascendancy in the closing years of the nineteenth century has not been the major tradition in evangelicalism in the twentieth century. A narrow bibliolatry, the product not of faith but of fear, buried the noble tradition.” Ramm hoped to “call evangelicalism back to the noble tradition”.

Ramm used the term “hyperorthodoxy” to describe the fundamentalist approach that creates disharmony. This hyperorthodoxy is “far more rigid and dogmatic than Scripture itself”, and “makes the words of God and the work of God clash”. The key error driving this approach is the failure to differentiate interpretation from inspiration and revelation.  We can all agree that Genesis 1 is inspired revelation, but that does not tell us how it should be interpreted, i.e. what it should mean to us today. The opinion that Genesis account was intended to teach that the creation actually occurred in six 24-hour days is a fallible, human opinion, not to be confused with the divine revelation itself.

Ramm argued for a local, rather than universal Flood. He saw Genesis 1 as depicting six days when God revealed six aspects of His creation activities; the timing of these activities might well have been spread out over millions of years.  He claimed that the Bible was given for the purpose of revealing truths about God, not for teaching science. Ramm noted that “the language of the Bible with reference to natural things is popular, pre-scientific and non-postulational”.  Also,   “…the Holy Spirit conveyed infallibly true theological doctrines in the cultural mold and terms of the days of the Bible writers, and did not give to the writers the secrets of modern science. It is a misunderstanding of the nature of inspiration to seek such secrets in various verses of the Bible.”

Although Ramm himself did not fully embrace evolution, he acknowledged that “men whose orthodoxy is unimpeachable have accepted some form of theistic evolution or at least were tolerant toward evolution theistically conceived.” His interpretive approach left ample room for a new generation of Christians to engage fearlessly with the full range of the sciences, including evolutionary biology.

The Christian View of Science and Scripture quickly became controversial and polarizing.  This was an era when the new “evangelicals” were starting to define themselves as distinct from the belligerent, often ill-informed fundamentalists who had made Christianity untenable for many educated Americans. Evangelicals such as Billy Graham sought to present the core aspects of the gospel, what C. S. Lewis called “mere” Christianity, with minimal distraction from side issues or cultural baggage. Thus, they welcomed Ramm’s book as an approach that could allow science-literate Americans and Europeans to consider the claims of Christ.

On the other side, fundamentalists did not appreciate being characterized as ignoble, hyper-orthodox bibliolaters, and were appalled at Ramm’s apparent concessions to modernism. They pointed to The Christian View of Science and Scripture as a warning of what can happen if a rigorous literal interpretation is abandoned or if Christians try to incorporate any “uniformitarian” geology into their approach to Genesis.

The Genesis of The Genesis Flood

John Whitcomb Responds to Ramm’s Challenge

Among these incensed traditionalists was John Whitcomb. In the early 1950’s Whitcomb was pursuing graduate studies at Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana. He believed that Christians should lay aside any effort to harmonize the scriptures with the findings of modern science. Rather they should take the bible as literally and simplistically as possible, as the only reliable guide to reality.  If at any point the scientists disagreed with the literal interpretation, the scientists must be wrong. Period.

His doctoral thesis was largely an attack on Ramm’s work. Whitcomb defended the biblical necessity for a recent six-day creation and for a global flood which killed all humans and terrestrial animals apart from those preserved in Noah’s ark.  Whitcomb had become convinced that George McCready Price’s Flood geology was the correct approach to explaining the physical evidence. Whitcomb wanted to publish his work so as to counter Ramm’s influence, but he realized his thesis would be more persuasive if he could add more scientific content.

Henry Morris Provides Scientific Horsepower

Whitcomb tried to recruit a number of conservative Protestants with scientific training to join him in this enterprise, but they declined for various reasons. When Wheaton College geology professor Douglas Block read Whitcomb’s manuscript, he was dismayed. He got in his car and drove from Wheaton, Illinois to visit Whitcomb in Indiana and personally explain to him why Flood geology was incorrect. Whitcomb, however, did not want to hear about any science which contradicted his views on Genesis and the Flood. [see The Creationists, p. 190].

At length Whitcomb persuaded Henry M. Morris to sign on as co-author. Morris was at the time a professor of hydraulics at Virginia Tech, who had long been active in apologetics from a YE creationist perspective. It was Morris who had introduced Whitcomb to Flood geology at an ASA meeting in 1953. Prior to that, Whitcomb had been a gap theory man.

Morris produced pages and pages of material which presented a model for understanding the rock strata in terms of a single Flood, and which also described supposedly fatal problems in mainstream uniformitarian geology. Morris’s contribution eventually comprised more than two-thirds of the final book and defined the essence of young earth creationism from that time forward.  Morris would go on to ever-greater heights within the YE creationist movement, earning the title of “the father of modern creation science.”

The Genesis Flood: The Book That Changed Everything

Early edition of The Genesis Flood, as offered on

Early edition of The Genesis Flood, as offered on

When The Genesis Flood finally appeared in 1961, it was an impressive work. Some 500 pages long, it had scholarly footnotes on nearly every page, illustrations, and two indices.  Its publication was a cultural watershed event. It became wildly popular among conservative Protestants, going through 29 printings and selling more than 200,000 copies in its first 25 years.

Flood geology quickly swept aside the gap approach among fundamentalists, as creation research organizations sprang up to support and popularize Morris’s vision. From about 1970 onward, the Flood geology form of YE creationism has become the standard position among fundamentalists and the more conservative evangelicals. Polls show something like 20-40% of all Americans believe the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago. That translates into a high percentage of American evangelical Christians as being YE creationists. Evangelical missionaries have spread YE creationism throughout the world. Here is a lament from a missionary in the former Soviet Union, written in 1997:

The worst aspect of YECS [Young Earth Creation Science] teaching is that it creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church. .. How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture?…How much have we sinned against Christian brothers holding another opinion by naming them “dangerous” and “compromisers”? … missionaries and evangelists need to get materials expressing other viewpoints translated to oppose the virtual monopoly YECS teaching has overseas. As I write this paper, I see YECS literature becoming more and more widely distributed in the growing churches in my corner of the former Soviet Union. We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already.

The Genesis Flood offered a scientific case for retaining the simplest literal sense of the Genesis story; the beast of evolution had been slain at last. Thus energized, American fundamentalists emerged from their isolation and began pushing to have YE creationism presented in public schools. This was the opening wedge of conservative Christian political activism which continues to this day.

Because of all the seemingly scientific material in The Genesis Flood, claiming to explain the observed phenomena more consistently than did mainstream geology, Morris and his followers termed his approach “scientific creationism” or “creation science”. In a series of landmark cases, however, the courts found Flood geology to be religion, not science, and thus ineligible for public school curricula.

Today, organizations like Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International continue to spread the gospel of Flood geology, and The Genesis Flood retains its appeal. By 2011, the book had sold 300,000 copies in 48 printings and had been translated into German, Korean, Serbian and Spanish. [ Paul J. Scharf, “The Genesis Flood, Tidal Wave of Change,” Baptist Bulletin (July 2010), as referenced in Wikipedia “The Genesis Flood“]

Whitcomb and Morris Conceal the George McCready Price Connection

The scientific framework of The Genesis Flood was taken straight from George McCready Price’s works. Much later (History of Modern Creationism, 1984) Morris would acknowledge this, describing his first reading in 1943 of Price’s The New Geology as “a life-changing experience for me”.

Whitcomb and Morris agreed, however, to conceal this connection from readers of The Genesis Flood. As Whitcomb wrote to Morris (Jan. 24, 1959; see The Creationists, p. 198), “For many people our position would be somewhat discredited by the fact that ‘Price and Seventh-Day Adventism’ (the title of one of the sections in that chapter) play such a prominent role in its support. My suggestion would be to supply for the book a fairly complete annotated bibliography of twentieth-century works advocating Flood-geology, without so much as a mention of the denominational affiliation of the various authors.”

Accordingly, Whitcomb and Morris scrubbed Price out of their book nearly completely. They made no mention of Price in their description of the development of geological thinking with respect to the Flood, mentioning him only briefly in connection with overthrust rock layers.

Bad Science and Bad Theology in The Genesis Flood

The Lewis Overthrust According to Whitcomb and Morris

Like his mentor George McCready Price, Morris laid great stress on trying to show that key out-of-order formations were not true overthrusts, but rather resulted from plain, continuous deposition of sediments during the Flood. Again, if these formations were proven to be simple continuous sedimentary deposits, that would smash the evolutionists’ claim for a general faunal succession in the sedimentary strata.

Morris devoted some 20 pages in The Genesis Flood (TGF) to attacking thrust faulting, with (like Price) an emphasis on the Lewis Overthrust.  Morris focused particularly on a section of the Lewis fault in Montana’s Glacier National Park, a figure of which is shown below.

As noted earlier, the Lewis fault is part of a great thrust belt system that runs the length of the Rockies, and there are obvious factors which demonstrate massive overthrusting did in fact occur. This drawing shows how the Precambrian layers of the Livingstone and Lewis ranges were forced atop younger Cretaceous rocks. Erosion has worn away parts of the upper Precambrian layers, so the Precambrian (Altyn limestone) Chief Mountain stands isolated at the front of the thrust. There is a lot of folding and crushing among the rocks towards the left side of this diagram, which bear witness to the intense compressional forces involved.

Whitcomb and Morris, however, provided their readers a forceful case for rejecting this view of these formations. Their claims included:

Claim (1). The interface (i.e. the supposed fault) between the older and younger layers looks flat and undisturbed (conformal). This claim is supported, for instance, by this quote from two geologists:

“Ross and Rezak say: ‘Most visitors, especially those who stay on the roads, get the impression that the Belt strata are undisturbed and lie almost as flat today as they did when deposited in the sea which vanished so many years ago'” [TGF p. 187].

Claim (2). The underlying Cretaceous shales are not very disturbed:

…”The Cretaceous shales are bent sharply to the east in a number of places, but with this exception have suffered little by the sliding of the limestone over them, and their comparatively undisturbed condition seems hardly compatible with the extreme faulting which was necessary to bring them into their present position.” [ TGF p. 187, quoting J. Kulp, who was quoting a 1886 report of the Canadian Geological Survey].

Claim (3). Another difficulty with massive overthrusting is that “it should have produced a large mass of broken rock in front of it and on the sides. But this has not been found.” A quote from Ross and Rezak is included in support of this claim. [TGF, pp. 188-189].

Claim (4). The isolated Chief Mountain is presented as problematic. It rests “conformably on Cretaceous shales”. Also, “On top of the mountain are found no remnants of Cretaceous shales as might be supposed but only a few granitic boulders.”

Claim (5).  In many places a close examination of the fault by Dr. Walter Lammerts found no sign of the grinding and deformation which would be expected if one huge, heavy mass of rock slid atop another. “Careful study of the various locations showed no evidence of any grinding or sliding action or slicken-sides such as one would expect to find on the hypothesis of a vast overthrust.” A photograph by Lammerts (TGF Figure 17) illustrated the horizontal, undisturbed interface.

Claim (6). Further from Lammerts: “Another amazing fact was the occurrence of two four-inch layers of Altyn limestone intercalated with Cretaceous shale…Likewise careful study of these intercalactions showed not the slightest evidence of abrasive action such as one would expect to find if these were shoved forward in between layers of shale as the overthrust theory demands.” [TGF pp. 190-191, quoting personal communication from W. Lammerts]. These “amazing” intercalations were illustrated with a photo by Lammerts [TGF, Fig.18].

Claim (7).  The physics of rock deformation and material integrity would not allow such massive lateral motion without completely shattering the rocks. If some thrusting did occur, it would have to be during or just after the Flood, when the sedimentary layers were still moist and soft.

Claim (8).  Even if some thrust fault motion (e.g. a few inches or feet) occurred with hard rock layers (as evidenced by some abraded surfaces at the fault interface), truly long-range motion (miles or kilometers) would result in much more deformation and fractioning than is currently visible.

Evaluating the Case Against Overthrusts

For most the readers of The Genesis Flood the set of claims above constituted a compelling case that the Lewis formation was not a gigantic overthrust, but was instead a simple, continuous sedimentary feature. This would mean that mainstream, uniformitarian geology is bankrupt, with Flood geology giving a better explanation for the observed rock strata.

How accurate are these 8 claims regarding the Lewis fault?  We will take a closer look at each of them, aided by John Solum’s article “Thrust Faults” on the TalkOrigins Archive.

Re Claim (1):  The full quote from Ross and Rezak (1959 p. 420) is as follows, with the portion cited by Whitcomb and Morris shown in bold:

Most visitors, especially those who stay on the roads, get the impression that the Belt strata are undisturbed and lie almost as flat today as they did when deposited in the sea which vanished so many million years ago. Actually, they are folded, and in certain zones they are intensely so. From points on or near the trails in the park it is possible to observe places where the beds of the Belt series, as revealed in outcrops on ridges, cliffs, and canyon walls, are folded and crumpled almost as intricately as the softer younger strata in the mountains south of the park and in the Great Plains adjoining the park to the east.”

First, Whitcomb and Morris omitted the word “millions” from phrase “the sea which vanished so many million years ago,” since it did not fit their view that the earth is not millions of years old. It is explicit dishonesty not to mark an omission within a direct quote with an ellipsis (“…”).

Second, Whitcomb and Morris cherry-picked the part of this quote which describes the inaccurate, superficial impression (“the Belt strata are undisturbed”) that a visitor would obtain viewing the formations at a distance; this creates the impression that Ross and Rezak agree that the Lewis strata are undisturbed.   Meanwhile, Whitcomb and Morris omitted the text which describes the actual state of the rocks: “Actually, they are folded, and in certain places they are intensely so…the beds of the Belt series, as revealed in outcrops on ridges, cliffs, and canyon walls, are folded and crumpled”. That is implicit dishonesty.

Re Claim (2):  The quote from the 1886 Canadian Geological Survey opining that the depth of deformation in the lower shales is less than expected was written in 1886. Since then we have developed more understanding of faulting. As noted above at The Earth Story  a relatively narrow zone of pulverized and deformed rock can sustain extended movement of a thrust fault. This 1886 report did observe that “The Cretaceous shales are bent sharply to the east in a number of places”, which is exactly what thrust fault movement to the east would produce.

Re Claim (3): This claim was that massive overthrusting “should have produced a large mass of broken rock in front of it and on the sides. But this has not been found.” A quote from Ross and Rezak was included in support of this claim.  Solum shows that this is another case of quote-butchering – Ross and Rezak were noting that IF the leading edge of the thrust slab had emerged onto open ground in the course of the thrusting, THEN the slab there should have broken up into rubble. The absence of this rubble simply confirms that the fault plane in the vicinity of what is now exposed at surface was deeply buried at the time of the fault movement. There was nothing in the full Ross and Rezak quote that would raise questions as to whether massive thrusting motion had occurred along the Lewis fault.

Re Claim (4):  The isolated Chief Mountain was presented as problematic, resting “conformably on Cretaceous shales”. Also, “On top of the mountain are found no remnants of Cretaceous shales as might be supposed but only a few granitic boulders.”

First, there is no reason to expect “remnants of Cretaceous shales” atop Chief Mountain, if Chief Mountain is part of an overthrust atop the shales.

Second, Chief Mountain does not rest “conformably” on the underlying shales. It has all the marks of having been shoved to its current location. One of the early investigations of Chief Mountain was conducted by Bailey Willis in 1902. Willis describes Chief Mountain as follows:

The detailed structure of the Algonkian mass above the Lewis overthrust is sometimes chaotic when considered in the small, yet simple when observed in the large. The chaotic structure is best exhibited in Chief mountain, where the lower massive member of the Altyn limestone is crushed (reference to figure omitted). The fractures divide the masses irregularly into blocks of all angular shapes varying from a few inches to 25 feet on a side. . .The base of massive Altyn limestone is traversed by minor thrusts which are often subparallel to bedding, so far as it can be made out. These thrusts dip 30 degrees and occupy a zone about 1,000 feet thick above the Lewis major thrust. They are limited above by an upper major thrust which is at the base of nearly horizontal thin-bedded limestones, constituting the upper member of the Altyn formation.

All this fracturing and additional thrust faulting is consistent with massive thrusting of the Chief Mountain block, not with a recent gentle sedimentary deposition atop the Cretaceous underlayer. Note that this information from 1902 was available to George McCready Price as well as to Whitcomb and Morris, but they ignored it because it did not fit their script.

Re Claims (5) and (6): Observations and photos by Walter Lammerts of a completely undisturbed interface, and intercalation.

It turns out that these photos are not of the actual Lewis fault. Lammerts was a botanist, not a geologist. He took those photographs during a vacation trip in 1956, relying on a park ranger to locate the fault line on Chief Mountain.  In 1962 Lammerts revisited Chief Mountain in the company of two Seventh-day Adventists, Richard Ritland and P. Edgar Hare. Ritland and Hare each had Ph. D.’s in geological science. Numbers described their trip and its aftermath, documenting his account with an interview with Ritland and correspondence by Lammerts:

On the morning of July 5, 1962, Lammerts met Ritland and Hare at Glacier National Park as planned. Together the men hiked up to the overthrust area at the south rim of the park, where the contact line between Precambrian and Cretaceous can be seen for miles. To Ritland and Hare, the evidence of overthrusting, especially signs of grooving and scouring, was “overwhelmingly clear”. Lammerts, though appreciative of his young companions’ scientific approach to the problem, found himself more confused than convinced. He thought it especially puzzling that Ritland and Hare seemed “so anxious to prove that Price was wrong and that this wrong order formation was really the result of overthrusting.” As he descended the mountain, Lammerts appeared “badly shaken.” Not only had he just gone on record in The Genesis Flood as discounting the evidence for overthrusting, but, as Ritland and Hare pointed out, the supporting photographs he had given Whitcomb and Morris were of rocks two hundred feet above the contact line. Besides, he had an article in press at Christianity Today in which he described the thrust faults in Glacier National Park as “purely imaginary.”

His initial reaction was to correct the piece in Christianity Today in light of what he had seen, but he eventually decided there was sufficient ambiguity to justify publishing what he had originally written. This decision “badly disillusioned” Ritland, who was further chagrined when he read Lammert’s description of him as a Harvard-trained Ph. D. who agreed with Price that “most” of the sedimentary rocks had resulted from Noah’s flood.   [The Creationists, pp. 218-219]

Thus, these photos in The Genesis Flood were not of the Lewis fault at all, but were taken at a location some 200 feet above it. The reality is that there is ample evidence of deformation at the immediate thrust fault zone. This indicates that the layers did indeed slide past each other as solid rock formations to assume their present positions. Solum provides a number of photos of the Lewis fault zone, noting, “Figures 6-11 demonstrate the all the classic indicators of fault motion; intense fracturing, brecciation, polish surfaces, and slickenlines, can be found along the Lewis thrust.” His Figure 7, for instance, shows intense deformation of the rocks underlying the fault plane: A close-up of the thrust fault plane for the Lewis Overthrust. The rocks underlying the fault plane are intensely deformed. A close-up of the thrust fault plane for the Lewis Overthrust. The rocks underlying the fault plane are intensely deformed.

Re Claim (7): if some thrusting did occur, it would have to be during or just after the Flood, when the sedimentary layers were still moist and soft, not with hardened rock  layers.  Solum explains why this assertion is incorrect. Morris was a hydraulic engineer, and did not understand modern geophysics.

Re Claim (8): even if some thrust fault motion occurred with hard rock layers ,  long-range motion would result in much more deformation and fractioning than is currently visible.   The reason Morris made this claim is that even he had to admit that in at least some spots there was evidence (e.g. abrasion and fracturing at the fault) that the massive rock overlayers had in fact slid over the lower layers. He complains that there should be more fracturing than there is. Again, Morris had no expertise in geology and did not understand that a relatively narrow zone of powdered gouge, once established, can support extensive fault motion.

Kurt Wise earned a Harvard PhD in paleontology. He is a YE creationist. He has been dubbed “The honest creationist”, since he refuses to shrink from honest treatment of the evidence, no matter how hard it is for him to reconcile that evidence with a young earth and a universal Flood. His 1986 assessment of the Lewis fault: “The existence of an inverted section in a thrust belt region with slickensides, dragfolds, and sheared rubble along the unconformity leaves no reasonable doubt that the Lewis Overthrust is in fact a result of overthrusting.” [The Creationists, p.281]

In sum, all of these eight points against the Lewis Overthrust are bogus, but only someone who had the motivation and opportunity to seek out the opinion of a professional geologist would know this. Thus, Whitcomb and Morris practiced deception on their non-expert readership.

The case for massive overthrusting is clearest in sections of the Lewis fault where the same sequence of rock layers (Precambrian and later) are exposed on both sides of the fault. This was discussed above in connection with Price’s errors on overthrusts, where we showed a section of the Lewis fault somewhat south of Glacier National Park. Whitcomb and Morris avoid exposing their readers to this awkwardness by confining their attention to the Glacier Park segment where the Precambrian sequence appears only on one side of the fault. This again demonstrates that Whitcomb and Morris had no interest in dealing fully and honestly with the relevant information, but only in propagandizing for their viewpoint. It is also worth noting that now, using via seismic signals and measurements from space, we can actually measure massive thrust faulting occurring in various places in the world, so there is no doubt that thick sections of the earth’s crust do in fact get pushed atop other sections.

You might think that anyone who had read Solum’s TalkOrigins article exposing The Genesis Flood’s falsehoods regarding the Lewis Overthrust would have to concede that this formation really is a massive overthrust. If that is what you thought, you would be mistaken. The psychology of YE creationists is such that they are simply unable to acknowledge the facts which prove their view to be incorrect. For example, CreationWiki, the self-styled “Encyclopedia of Creation Science”, has an entry disputing Solum’s TalkOrigins article. The CreationWiki piece botches a few of Solum’s points, ignores the rest, and calls on a 1974 Creation Research Society Quarterly article by Clifford Burdick to prove that there are portions of the Lewis fault that show no signs of motion or disturbance. This is the same Clifford Burdick whom even many creationists have acknowledged to be unreliable, after he mistakenly promoted co-existent human/dinosaur tracks and mistakenly claimed to have found modern-day pollen within ancient Grand Canyon rocks [cf. The Creationists, pp. 259-268].

More Bad Science by Henry Morris

In The Genesis Flood Whitcomb and Morris included many other claims of the failure of mainstream geology. All these claims were based on false or incomplete information and all have been long since refuted, but many still circulate in the YE creationist community. For example, below is shown the first 17 out of entries in a table by Henry Morris of supposedly contradictory estimates of the age of the earth according to “uniformitarian” geology:

First 17 out of 70 entries in a table by Henry Morris; See

First 17 out of 70 entries in a table by Henry Morris; See

See Evidences for a Young Earth, for more details on these issues. For instance, the claims that there is too much helium in the atmosphere for an old earth, and too little salt in the ocean, were made in The Genesis Flood and in subsequent books and presentations by Henry Morris. These two claims were refuted by the mid-1990s, but were still listed by YE creationist Ken Ham in his 2014 debate with Bill Nye as evidences for a young earth.

The most amusing claim for me in The Genesis Flood was its assertion that Flood geology would be a better framework for discovering oil deposits than mainstream old earth geology: “It is surely obvious that the evolutionary concept of historical geology is of little practical value in their discovery and exploitation” [TGF, p.438], and “In this most important…of all geological disciplines, the principle of uniformity has proved impotent.” [TGF, p.431]. A casual reading in modern petroleum geology will find today’s hard-nosed, results-oriented oilmen successfully employing the full range of old-earth “uniformitarian” geology (e.g. concepts like index fossils) to understand rock deposition scenarios which provide guidance in the finding of oil.

The long discussion above on thrust faulting demonstrates how tedious it can be to refute a single YE creationist claim, and how unrewarding it is to do so: hard-core YE creationists will typically refuse to concede a point, no matter what facts are brought forth by practicing scientists. On rare occasions YE creation proponents will drop a claim, but then they make up some new, equally unrealistic assertion to replace it. The net effect is that they wear down their opponents by their invincible ignorance, and they maintain a stable of dozens of claims (all false) that they trot out to convince their audience that YE creationism has a strong scientific case.

The Fundamental Error in The Genesis Flood: Bible Interpretation

In the preface to the sixth printing, Whitcomb and Morris candidly reveal the basis of their thinking:

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

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

Their fundamental mistake is ASSUMING that a verbally inspired, infallible Word of God must always be correct in its statements concerning the physical world. This assumption drives the whole agenda of The Genesis Flood, and it is simply wrong.  Ironically, Whitcomb and Morris make the very mistake that Ramm warned against: believing their interpretation of the infallible Bible to be infallible, and thus above any correction from the physical world.

Various examples can be adduced which demonstrate that Scriptural statements about the physical world, which were appropriate and meaningful for the original audience, can be incorrect according to modern knowledge. To take a simple example, Jesus taught:

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

The literal statement here is that the mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds on earth”. The mustard seed was indeed the smallest seed that ancient Galilean farmers were familiar with, so this was a useful illustration for that audience for the growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings. Modern naturalists have found other plant seeds which smaller than the mustard seed. If a Bible literalist were truly consistent, he should respond, “I don’t care what those godless scientists say, Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest seed, and that’s that. This is the infallible Word of God, so every statement regarding the natural world must be correct.” This would be to make the same mistake, of course, that Bible literalists make with Genesis 1. Most Christians understand that this parable was not really intended to teach horticultural facts; to obsess over whether Jesus taught “error” here would be to entirely miss the point of the passage.

We noted above that the plain, literal meanings of a number of verses depict an unmoving earth and a moving sun (e.g. “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” Ps. 104:5;  “…The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” I Chron. 16:30). Astronomical observations eventually led Christians to conclude that the verses that speak of a stationary earth and a moving sun were not intended to be teaching science.  Today some fundamentalists try to claim that these verses were not really teaching a stationary earth. But that is how nearly all Christians understood these verses, until science forced a reinterpretation.

As further evidence that the literal meaning of these verses is geocentric, there is a group of “stationary earth” creationists whose hermeneutical approach is essentially identical to the young earth creationists, publishing books such as Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right. On the web site of the “Association for Biblical Astronomy” we read:

This site is devoted to the historical relationship between the Bible and astronomy. It assumes that whenever the two are at variance, it is always astronomy—that is, our “reading” of the “Book of Nature,” not our reading of the Holy Bible—that is wrong. History bears consistent witness to the truth of that stance. In the case for Geocentricity, for instance, every experiment designed to measure the speed of the earth through space has always returned a speed of zero, just as the Bible claimed all along.

This position on the motion of the earth (“Believe the Bible, ignore the scientists; the evidence actually supports the literal Bible position”) is essentially identical to the position of Martin Luther on the firmament, and today’s young earth creationists on the timeline of creation.

The Jewish and Christian consensus for two thousand years was that the “firmament” which separated the liquid (not vaporous) waters above the sky from the liquid ocean waters (Gen 1:6-7) was a solid dome. It was “hard as a mirror of cast bronze” (Job 37:18).  The sun, moon, and stars were “set into” this firmament (Gen 1:14-17), and the birds flew “across the face of” it, not within it.  The great flood of Noah was sourced in part by the opening of windows or floodgates in the heavens (Gen 7:11), allowing the waters above to pour through. These floodgates were closed (Gen 8:2) at the end of the Flood to stop the waters from pouring down, indicating those waters are still up there. (For more on this see Was the “Expanse” Overhead in Genesis 1 a Solid Dome? )

Firmament on Day 4

Luther vigorously defended this traditional, literal interpretation against the natural philosophers of his day who would “wickedly deny” the existence of liquid waters above the heavenly dome:

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

Luther’s stand on the firmament is like of today’s fundamentalists on a literal Adam and a six 24-hour day creation: “the Bible says it, I believe it, phooey on the scientists, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wicked or presumptuous”. Nowadays we modify our translations of Genesis 1 to obscure this literal sense of the Hebrew, but that is only because the scientists have convinced us that the sky is a limitless vacuum, not a solid dome.

All these examples where the plain, literal meaning of Bible passages must be set aside due to modern science demonstrate that Whitcomb and Morris are utterly mistaken in their assertion that the Bible gives us a “true framework of … scientific interpretation.” The Bible does not do that, never claimed to do that, and could not possibly do that if it were to be an effective means of communication to an ancient people with a pre-scientific world view.

What Is the Bible About?

In their mistaken commitment to literalism, Whitcomb and Morris overlook and minimize what the Bible does claim for itself.  The clearest teaching of the Bible on the Bible is found in II Timothy 3:15-17:

from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NIV)

Let’s look at the wording here: “wise for salvation”, “faith in Jesus Christ”, “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” This is all about doctrine and morals; nothing about geology or biology. Those who try to extend the range of the Bible’s authority to geology and biology are imposing their own fallible opinion, which we demonstrated above to be untenable.

Dogged adherence to a literal interpretation seems like an admirable position, standing against attacks by infidels on the trustworthiness of the Bible. Unfortunately it is based on ignorance of the nature of the Bible, and is simply incorrect. YE creationists 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 (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is all about spiritual revelation which could not be deduced from natural observations. There is nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology. This is a biblical view of the Bible’s intent, which differs from some evangelical statements about inerrancy which mistakenly over-extend the Bible’s sphere of authority into general science or history.

(2) We must recognize that the ancient Israelites had existing notions of the physical universe, and that God accommodated His revelation to the science of that day. Paul Seely’s Inerrant Wisdom (1987) explores in depth this divine accommodation, and exposes the fallacies involved in literal inerrancy.

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

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 from its original language and setting.

Bible-believing Christians have a number of understandable concerns about letting go of a literal interpretation of Genesis. These include a fear of a slippery slope towards denial of all Scriptural truths, including the Resurrection; questions about how Jesus and Paul viewed Genesis; and wondering if Christ’s redemption makes sense apart from a literal Fall. These concerns are addressed here and (regarding Adam and the Fall) here.


We have shown that modern Flood geology sprang from Adventist George McCready Price’s drive to accommodate the “visions” of prophetess Ellen White. She claimed to have been transported back in time to witness a six-day creation and Noah’s Flood.

A cornerstone of Price’s system was the denial of massive overthrusts, such as the Lewis Overthrust in Montana. By denying the existence of overthrusts, Price believed he had refuted modern (old-earth) geology and evolution. The physical evidence shows, however, that large-scale thrusting did occur there, similar to similar large-scale thrusting of rock layers that is occurring today in the Himalayas.

Flood geology was popularized in the late twentieth century via The Genesis Flood, written by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. They based their geology on Price’s work, but concealed that Adventist connection from their readers. Their treatment of the Lewis Overthrust perpetuated Price’s errors. Like Price, Whitcomb and Morris refused to acknowledge what professional geologists presented to them. Instead, they distorted and ignored the physical evidence, and relied on mistaken information supplied by creationist Walter Lammerts.

The hermeneutical approach of Whitcomb and Morris also in large measure parallels Ellen White’s teachings. White claimed to have divine insight that the Genesis story must be taken as literally true. On that basis, she condemned any scientific investigations which led to conclusions counter to her opinion.

Like White, the starting place of Whitcomb and Morris was an insistence that their view on Bible interpretation was indisputably correct. They thus felt justified in ignoring or distorting any scientific discoveries which did not fit their viewpoint. This is every bit as arrogant and divorced from reality as White’s approach, and is at variance with historic Protestantism. The reformed Christians of the 17th-19th centuries humbly acknowledged the potential fallibility of their interpretation of the Bible, and so they welcomed the input from God’s works to correct their understanding of God’s Word.

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

Folding and Electric Scooters and Bikes for Commuting the Last Mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folding Standing Scooters

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

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

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

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

NYCewheels carries several electric-powered, folding scooters that you stand on. At 24 lb, the E-Twow is the lightest model, and among the cheapest ($999). It has solid rubber tires and a springed suspension for a smooth ride. Its battery is on the small side, but the braking system helps to recharge the battery during braking. Its range is about 22 miles, which is probably more than adequate since reportedly it is tiresome to ride this type of narrow scooter (standing with one foot in front of the other) more than a few miles.

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

36V Lite Trikke Pon-e Electric Scooter

36V Lite Trikke Pon-e Electric Scooter

Sit-Down Electric Scooters

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

Razor E300S Electric

Razor E300S Electric

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

Urb-E Folding Electric Scooter

Urb-E Folding Electric Scooter

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


As of November, 2015, the Stigo website offers a chance to sign up for delivery of a scooter in the spring of 2016. If you can’t wait that long, a Chinese company offers what seems like a larger, heavier version of the Stigo. The folding E.T. Scooter was originally offered with sturdy aluminum construction and fat tires, weighing a hefty 30 kg (66 lb). The range is 35 km (22 miles) per two-hour charge.  The newer version, the E.T. Smart scooter, has slimmer tires, a polymer frame, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, and weighs in at 18 kg (40 lb). Both models are currently for sale at $ 1390.

ET Scooter small

E.T. Smart folding electric scooter. Source:

Folding Bicycles

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

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

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

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

Electrified Bicycles

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

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

The EB Commuter folding  electric bike ($1199) has 20 inch (50 cm) tires and weighs 40 lb. It has a range of 35 miles.

The Velomini   ($1050) is a tiny but fully-functional electric bicycle, with scooter-sized wheels. It weighs 36 lb (17 kg) and folds to about the size of a guitar to fit into a carrying case to sling over your shoulder. The range is about 10 miles (16 km) using no pedal assist.

Velomini folding eBike small

Velomini folding electric bicycle. Source:

Adding Power To Bikes with the ShareRoller

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

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

First up for this treatment was the Brompton:

Brompton with prototype ShareRoller mounted on it.

Brompton with prototype ShareRoller mounted on it.

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

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

 Hudora Scooters with ShareRollers attached

Hudora Scooters with ShareRollers attached

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

Descriptions of other devices which bolt onto your existing bike to give it electric drive are found on links on this web page.

Reality Check on Riding the Last Mile

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

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

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

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

Posted in Bikes and Scooters, Economics | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

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

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

Stepper Bikes

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

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

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

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

Elliptical Bikes

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

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

Trikke Carving Scooters

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

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

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

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

Other Three-Wheeled Scooters

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

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

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

Onewheel: Like snowboarding over pavement and grass

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

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

Stabilized Electric Unicycles

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

Ninebot One E Electric Unicycle

Ninebot One E Electric Unicycle

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

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

Comparison of Composting Toilets: Towards a Global Commode


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

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


Fully-Composting Small Toilets

– Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet

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

Urine-Diverting Toilets

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

User Experiences with Urine-Diverting Toilets

Bucket/Compost System: Loveable Loo

Some Global Takeaways

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

The replica Broad Street Pump in Soho.

The replica Broad Street Pump in Soho.

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

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

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

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

Fully-Composting Small Toilets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exterior and innards of Sun-Mar composting toilet.

Exterior and innards of Sun-Mar composting toilet.

Components of Sun-Mar composting toilet. Source:

Components of Sun-Mar composting toilet. Source:

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

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

Cutaway view of Envirolet composting toilet.

Cutaway view of Envirolet composting toilet.

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

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

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

Figure of Biolet 10 or 20 toilet from owner’s manual.

Figure of Biolet 10 or 20 toilet from owner’s manual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding the compact units in general,  opines:

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

Urine-Diverting Toilets

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

Nature’s Head ($950)

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

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

View down into lower half of Nature’s Head, showing agitator and the composting mixture.

View down into lower half of Nature’s Head, showing agitator and the composting mixture.

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

Air Head Toilet ($1000)

Air Head Urine-Diverting Toilet

Air Head Urine-Diverting Toilet

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

C-Head Toilet (About $600)

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

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

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

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

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

Separett ($1400)

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

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

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

Left: Looking down at Separatt. Liquid drain hole is in front. Blue trap door covers solid waste opening. Right: Removing solid waste container, after installing lid on it.

Left: Looking down at Separatt. Liquid drain hole is in front. Blue trap door covers solid waste opening. Right: Removing solid waste container, after installing lid on it.

User Experiences with Urine-Diverting Toilets

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

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

Rescue Kit folding urine-diverting toilet ($129) and Separett Privy Kit ($129) from Ecovita.

Rescue Kit folding urine-diverting toilet ($129) and Separett Privy Kit ($129) from Ecovita.

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

2-hole (pink) and 3-hole (blue) urine diversion ceramic squatting pan from Indian NGO EEDS.

2-hole (pink) and 3-hole (blue) urine diversion ceramic squatting pan from Indian NGO EEDS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luggable Loo

Luggable Loo

Some Global Takeaways

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

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

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

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

Posted in Sustainability | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

“Soft Tissue” Found in Dinosaur Bones

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

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

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

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


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

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

An electron microscopy study by Thomas Kaye indicated that what looks like red blood cells in the dinosaur blood vessels are not cells at all. They are little clusters of iron oxide.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main driver for folks to hold to a young earth perspective is that they have been taught that this is the only faithful way to handle the Bible creation story. However, that is not the case:   the Reasons to Believe site here lists about 40 well-known, impeccably conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Schofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield. Billy Graham wrote, I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” A hermeneutical case for an old earth interpretation of Genesis is made by Reasons to Believe, and by the Christian geologists at Old Earth Ministries.

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Evidences for a Young Earth

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

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

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

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

Ken Ham slide from Bill Nye Debate Feb 2014

Ken Ham slide from Bill Nye Debate Feb 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misrepresenting Elements Dissolved in the Ocean

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

Elements In Out Ocean Fig

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

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

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

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

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

Declining Magnetic Field and Helium in the Atmosphere

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

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

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

Seafloor Magnetic Reversals. Source: Wikipedia article “Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis”

Seafloor Magnetic Reversals. Source: Wikipedia article “Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis”

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

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

Out With the Old and In With the New

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

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

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

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

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

Polonium Halos, Folded Rocks, and Soft Dinosaur Tissue

Polonium Halos

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

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

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

Folded Rocks

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

Folded Tapeats Sandstone in Carbon Canyon.  Photo by Andrew Snelling. Source:

Folded Tapeats Sandstone in Carbon Canyon. Photo by Andrew Snelling. Source:

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

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

Rock Deform Apparatus -Pamela Burnley

Source: High Pressure Deformation Experiments   by Pamela C. Burnley

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

Soft Tissue Found in Dinosaur Bones

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

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

All this is described in a few pages here:                     and in more detail here:      .

 On-Line Resources To Assess Young Earth Evidences

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

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

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

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

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