Fossils, Runaway Subduction, and Bible Interpretation
PREFACE (for blog) to Letter “STAN 1”: This was my first letter regarding creation and evolution. I had not planned to get so deeply into this area, but was prodded into it by Stan’s efforts to convert me to young earth creationism. “Stan” is a kind and godly man, with professional knowledge of biology. He has long employed his creationist viewpoint as a platform to engage people in discussions of God, and has thereby led them to meaningful encounters with Christ. This winsome outworking of his beliefs made it awkward for me to disagree with him. In a conversation some months earlier I had recommended to him the book “The Language of God”, by Francis Collins. Collins is a strong evangelical Christian, but as one of the world’s leading genetics researchers, Collins presents evidence in favor of evolution.
Stan did read “The Language of God,” but found it unconvincing. In March, Stan sent me an anti-evolution book (“Genetic Entropy” by John Sanford) and also a letter critiquing Collins’ case for evolution. Stan’s letter raised a number of interesting issues that I felt I should think through. The letter below ( STAN 1) is my response to this letter from Stan. It treats topics such as beneficial mutations, fossils, Flood geology, and Bible interpretation.
Thank you for the thoughtful letter you sent in March and the Genetic Entropy book by John Sanford that you also sent.
I have examined some of the issues you bring up which bear on the credibility of evolution. I am no expert in geology or biology, so I have tried to get various viewpoints, and weigh them. I will just roll down through your letter and comment roughly in order.
You state, “…all mutation studies in the last 100 years indicate these genetic changes are either mildly or strongly deleterious.”
That statement seems to be contradicted by numerous studies, especially with bacteria where they reproduce and die off so fast, in such large numbers, that you actually get a chance to see what mutation and selection can do. In skimming Finding Darwin’s God, by Kenneth Miller, I noted several examples, which I will photocopy and include for your perusal. He noted (p.104-106) that new, mutated genes (not merely preexisting genes, somehow now activated) can be demonstrated to emerge in bacteria. Similarly, bacteria keep mutating to get around the latest antibiotics.
It seems common that if you put bacteria in a stressful environment, it will tend to evolve (by natural selection, at least sometimes acting on mutants) to some different form. Miller provides one example of this, in which bacteria were forced to use a particular food source in the presence of oxygen. Eventually two separate mutants emerged with improved functionality. Analysis showed that specific changes (one amino acid in each case) had taken place in the coding for a key protein.
Miller provides two additional examples in pp. 143-146, the second one being the evolution of a two-step system for lactose utilization.
I have heard the objection raised that these bacterial mutation examples all involve removing functionality, not adding it, but this example contradicts that assertion. Other objections are that these mutations are not really beneficial, and that they do not add information. However, for this organism in this environment, (1) these are mutations, (2) they are beneficial, and (3) they are (for this organism) new information. A further objection might be that these mutations may be helpful in the stressful environment, but they make the bacteria less fit for its original environment. That is probably a true statement, but is not telling against evolution. If the original bacterium has had thousands of years to adapt to its normal environment, it is probably pretty well optimized for that, so it’s not surprising that (a) nearly any change to it will make it suboptimal for that original environment, or that (b) further spontaneous beneficial mutations are rarely observed for that environment.
There seems little doubt that the genes for sickle blood cells in African humans evolved to meet the challenge of malaria, as detailed in Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution. In that environment, this is a beneficial mutation, though of course it is detrimental elsewhere. If malaria were present everywhere on earth, and we did not have drugs to fight it, than the sickle-cell mutation would be considered universally beneficial. So “beneficial” always depends on the environment that an organism has to deal with.
HUMAN VERSUS CHIMP GENOMES
Moving to chimp versus human DNA similarities, where you state:
Saying that chimp and human DNA are similar is like saying that the Ford Explorer and the Ford Expedition are similar. Looking at the morphological similarity is one thing. Empirically explaining the source/mechanisms of the similarities are quite another. If such data is viewed through an “evolutionary prism,” common ancestry for the chimp and the human makes “perfect sense.” If the “evolution glasses” are removed for a “fresh look,” the similarities between humans and chimps are more easily explained using the same rationale which clearly explains the similarities between the Ford products – common design, not common ancestry.
This statement of yours might have been defensible prior to the 1990s. I used to make the same arguments you do. I said, “ Well, there will always be some animals closer to our genes and bodies, and some further away, and chimps just happen to be closer. This says nothing about implying a common descent.” However, the recent unraveling of the human genome has largely nullified this argument. When you get into the details of how coding and noncoding regions of the human and chimp genomes line up, it certainly looks like they evolved from a common ancestor, not just that they have a common functionality. The “source/mechanisms of the similarities” that you asked for are now largely available, at least in outline. I will enclose a few pages from Behe (Edge of Evolution, pp. 70-72) which make that case for a specific gene sequence. In the Collins book which you have, this is detailed in pages 134-139. For instance, the human #2 chromosome is exactly what you would expect from a fusion of ape-type chromosomes 2A and 2B; at the junction point in the human chromosome are found the sequences that normally mark the ends of chromosomes. These end-markers are not normally found in the middle of chromosomes.
Using your Ford Explorer and Expedition analogy, if you saw an Explorer going down the road with its back bumper connected by a chain to the front bumper of an Expedition, it would be more reasonable to assume that these two vehicles started out separately, and at some later point were hooked together, than that Ford specifically designed and manufactured an 8 wheeled, two-engined, chain-joined vehicle.
Naturally, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to prove how something actually happened in the past. Maybe a Designer chose for unknown reasons to create the human # 2 chromosome to look exactly as if it was formed from the joining of chimp chromosomes 2A and 2B, but in Intelligent Design there is usually no way to predict ahead of time what features this apparently capricious Designer would include in organisms. Evolutionary theory, however, predicted that this feature (end-markers in the middle of the chromosome) should be at precisely that spot in human #2 chromosome. This prediction was born out when genetic sequencing became experimentally available. This predictive capability is the hallmark of a robust and useful scientific theory.
FOSSIL SEQUENCES AND RADIOMETRIC DATING
Moving to your second page, you characterized Collins’ claim that “current evidence suggests that the land remained barren until about 400 million years ago” as a “fiat” statement, with no evidence cited. There is actually solid evidence for this statement, though Collins did not cite it. Despite the protestations of flood geologists, the distinct succession of marker fossils in the rock layer, i.e. the “geologic column”, is quite real and consistent. (I was misled on this for many years by The Genesis Flood – I recently discovered that many claims in that book, e.g. on overthrust faults, are not true.) You don’t find elephants in layers below dinosaurs, and you don’t find dinosaurs in layers below trilobites. You first find land plant fossils in the Silurian layers, which can be consistently dated by radioisotopes to around 408-460 million years ago.
Due to your suggestion last year, I did look into the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) RATE Project, which questions the validity of radioactive dating. What I saw of the ICR work was unconvincing – – the examples I found were cases where the ICR did basically sloppy work and got sloppy results. Their initial mistakes were understandable for amateurs, but it’s harder to understand how ICR can continue to claim their work invalidates radioactive dating after their failings have been exposed by reviewers. I’d be happy to discuss this further with you.
The vast majority (estimated 95%) of radioactive datings work consistently with no adjustment – e.g. Silurian layers are dated at 408-460 M years, while the lower Ordovician layers date older, and the next up Devonian layers date younger. This general correlation of radioactive dating with the layers (i.e. the layers on top are younger) is more consistent with mainstream geology than with flood geology. Young earth creationists ignore the 95%, and focus on the 5% inconsistent dating, then cry foul if the mainstream geologists reexamine the 5% and find that some picky but reasonable condition for radioactive dating was not met for those measurements.
All this is a long way to say that Collins did not make his land plants statement up out of thin air.
RUNAWAY SUBDUCTION OF CRUSTAL PLATES
Further on Flood geology: Last year, you showed a video depicting John Baumgardner’s runaway subduction of crustal plates as a mechanism for a sudden worldwide flood. This seemed interesting, so I did some checking on the web. Glenn Morton, in
http://home.entouch.net/dmd/subduction.htm, points out some fundamental problems with this theory. First, it doesn’t account for the crustal plates’ motion prior to the Permian period (c. 250-300 million years ago). Also, Baumgardner’s own calculations show it would take millions of years for the conditions to materialize to allow this subduction. Morton, by the way, is a Christian who was originally a young earth creationist, until he had to engage with the reality of what is actually in the earth as a practicing oil company geologist. Others ( http://www.geocities.com/pgspears/plate4.htm) note that Baumgardner’s model only predicts rapid plate movement if unrealistic physical parameters are used, and that if nearly the entire current ocean floor were extruded as lava in a few months of the Flood, this would have generated so much heat so fast that it would have vaporized the oceans. Also, the current crustal plates have some gigantic intrusions of magma that obviously occurred after the supposedly Flood-derived sedimentary layers were deposited. If all that happened in or after the Flood year (c. 2500 B.C.), these intrusions should still be much hotter than the surrounding rocks, but they are not. All this reinforces that young earth creationist Flood geology does not fit the facts.
Collins states, “Good evidence exists for transitional forms from reptiles to birds and from reptiles to mammals.” to which you reply that this statement is simply false. I respectfully disagree. I did a bit of checking on the reptile to mammal transitions, and enclose a printout of a rather detailed list of fossil intermediates between reptiles and mammals from the TalkOrigins website ( http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/section1.html#morphological_intermediates_ex2
). The jaw and ear bones are distinctively different between reptiles and mammals, and these intermediate animals display intermediate forms of these bones, in accordance with evolutionary theory. Remarkably, some of the intermediate forms have two jaw joints, which allowed the reptilian joint to disappear and its bones to be subsumed into the mammalian ear. Again, the presence of these intermediate forms doesn’t prove evolution; perhaps God chose to specially create and kill off species after species in the early Mesozoic era, with each species looking less like a reptile and more like a mammal. But those are the facts we must deal with.
Turning to the bird evolution, I couldn’t see a clear picture in the literature. In the Mesozoic era, there were various dinosaurs with feathers and birds with teeth, certainly a number of animals with characteristics between reptiles and birds. In the broadest sense, these are intermediate forms as required by evolution, but I agree that the exact path(s) of ancestry are not clear. For reasons dictated by population genetics, most fossils that we find are likely to represent side branches on the tree of evolution, rather than the actual transitional species. Perhaps further fossil finds will be illuminating. There have been quite a few in the last decade.
You stated that the ornithology curator at the Smithsonian “has roundly criticized any suggestion that reptilian ancestors, for example, evolved into birds of some sort.” That seemed interesting, so I tracked that down to an open letter by Storrs Olson, Curator of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution to Dr Peter Raven, of the National Geographic Society in 1999. Olson rightly denounced the Society for trafficking in contraband fossils and sensationally depicting reptilian fossils with feathers. He went on to fault the Society and others for uncritically promoting the notion that birds were descended from theropod dinosaurs. However, he did not claim that birds were not descended from reptiles, just that we should not rush to believe it was the therapods in particular. The complete text is at http://www.answersingenesis.org/docs/4159.asp.
The rock layers show a general trend of one celled life forms, then things crawling on the ocean floor, then fishes, then amphibians, then reptiles, then early mammals, and then mammals more and more like today. This big picture comports with mainstream science better than flood geology. The evolutionists say that transitional forms must have existed, but the fossil record is inherently incomplete. It’s hard to evaluate this claim, since it is an argument from silence. However, the trend seems to be in favor of evolution: the more fossils we find, the more gaps get filled in as opposed to more embarrassing out-of-place (from evolutionary viewpoint) fossils turning up. A recent example is the whales. I used to needle my evolutionist friends with the lack of transitional whale species, but some important intermediate fossils have been found recently, right in the rock layers of ages where evolution would predict. Also, some important fish/amphibian intermediates have turned up, of exactly the types whose absence the anti-evolutionists had complained about (cf. Miller, pp.124-125).
As to Biblical interpretation, as you note, “yom” can mean a non-literal period of time. Maybe God expects us to be diligent enough to figure out whether the days in Gen. 1 are literal or not, just like he expected us to figure out whether the biblical statements that the earth cannot move were meant to taken literally. Certainly there is a rich history in the church, dating back well before Darwin, of interpreting these days as long ages or indeterminate times. So it is not correct to say a 6000 year old earth is “the” biblical view. Consider the following statement on Bible interpretation: “All theologians, without exception, say that when Scripture can be understood literally, it should never be interpreted differently.” That sounds like good advice, but it is wrong. These are the words of Jesuit L. d. Colombe, opposing Galileo in 1611.
Genesis 1 is supernatural revelation, not a chronicle by a human witness. When God reveals the future in Old Testament prophecies, as fulfilled in the New Testament, He rarely uses dull literal prose. Rather, these revelations of the future are usual stated in figurative language. Thus, it seems likely that His revelation of the past would also be in figurative language. Jesus was always telling stories that probably never “really” happened, in order to convey spiritual truths. The early chapters of Genesis look to me like just such a story, exquisitely crafted to meet the needs of early Israel. They needed to know that Jahweh was the only God, and that all observable objects were His creatures and under His sovereign rule – -in contrast to the beliefs of all their neighbors who claimed that the sun and moon were some sort of gods, that needed to be placated. They did not need to know the details of DNA and quasars. God graciously gave them a story for their era, which did what they needed.
In the words of John Wesley, commenting on the creation of stars in Genesis 1, “ the Scriptures were written not to gratify our curiosity, but to lead us to God.” The revelation given in Scripture is about Christ, his work and message, and how we are to live – – things essential for our salvation and which we could not discover by ourselves. It’s not about astronomy or geology or biology. These things we can and should discover for ourselves, and use this knowledge to better rule over nature. (cf. II Tim 3:15-17, Luke 24:44-47, I Pet. 1:10-11, John 5:39-40. )
The advice of Saint Augustine is worth heeding:
“ Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
“ The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?” – St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (408 A.D) Book 1, ch.19.
I know that young earth creationists mean well, and think they are defending the truth of the Scripture against the biased infidels, but it seems to me that (1) they are not being true to the facts of creation or to the intent of the Bible, (2) they bring discredit on the gospel, making it harder for a scientifically literate person to take it seriously, and (3) they furnish ammunition to aggressive atheists who would like to shut down Christian schools and home schooling. It is music in Richard Dawkins’ ears to have Christians proclaim that if mainstream geology or biology is true, the Bible is false.
A fundamentalist reader of this letter might be inclined to dismiss it, thinking that I have been brainwashed by years of commitment to evolutionism and uniformitarianism. Actually, the reverse is true. For much of my adult life, I adhered to young earth creationism, since that was what I was taught by men I respected. In college, I went to hear John Whitcomb speak, and bought and believed his Genesis Flood. In my profession, I don’t engage much with geology or biology, so haven’t thought much about it until recently. It has only been in the last 3 years or so that I have started to dig into this stuff. My main motivation is the rising tide of militant atheism. One of the main attacks on evangelical Christianity is that it is not honest in dealing with science. To sort things out, I started looking into some of the evidences for a young earth, which had impressed me (e.g. 200-year-old Hawaiian lava misdated to millions of year, sedimentary rock layers out of order, polystrate fossil trees, amount of salt in the ocean etc.) To my chagrin, I found in every case that the claims of evidence for young earth were just plain wrong. This has caused me to reevaluate the whole area, as you can tell from the above.
I enjoyed reading Dr. Sanford’s book that you sent. He is probably correct that deleterious mutations are accumulating in humans at least in developed countries, since enough of us aren’t getting killed off before maturity for natural selection to work. But as noted above, I disagree with one of his foundation premises, that there are virtually no beneficial mutations. I’m not expert enough in population genetics to pass judgment on some of his other claims. I’ll try to find commentary on the internet.
See you at the meeting – maybe we can discuss some of this further.
COPYRIGHT SCOTT BUCHANAN 2010
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