November 22, 2017

Mike the Geologist: Science and the Bible (Lesson 7)

Paradox Basin, Utah

Paradox Basin, Utah

Science and the Bible – Lesson 7
By Michael McCann

Frequent Imonk commenter and fellow geologist, Klasie Kraalogies, also contributed to today’s essay.

As we turn now to examine evidence for biologic evolution we must settle the issue of the fossil record.  If the geologic strata are a time-sequence record of the history of the earth then that record can be examined and inferences drawn about what may have happened.  Although some YEC groups like to assert a dichotomy between “observational” science and “historical” science no such dichotomy actually exists.  No one asserts that forensic science isn’t science.  That a crime scene cannot be reconstructed.  That evidence about what happened in the past regarding a crime cannot be established.  Law enforcement does it all the time and we expect them to so that justice may be done.  Now of course no event in history can be absolutely defined.  It is inductive inference to the most probable conclusion.  We don’t convict on murder unless it is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but we do convict murderers.  So we can’t know absolutely what went on in the past, but we can infer a reasonable conclusion.

We have already discussed some examples of how the geologic stratigraphy cannot all be explained by a global Noah’s flood.  Paleokarst in the Redwall Formation in the Grand Canyon and the Thornton coral reef have been discussed. Perhaps one of the most glaring examples would be evaporite beds.  Evaporites are sediments chemically precipitated due to evaporation of an aqueous solution. Common evaporates can be dominated by halite (salt), anhydrite and gypsum.  The area around the Dead Sea is a modern day example.  You cannot evaporate sea water in the middle of a flood.  Paradox Basin in Utah- halite (salt) and anhydrite (gypsum) beds are a MILE thick.  A similar example is the Prairie Evaporite formation that stretches through Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Manitoba; they are up to 1000 feet thick in places, and have a maximum extension of over 900 miles. They also contain some of the largest potash reserves in the world, making them well studied and economically important. The reason I add this is that people understand that these things are studied for their economic worth, i.e. the outcome has to be trustworthy because billions of dollars in investment rest on the geological interpretation.  So called “flood geology” is completely useless for any economic purpose.  Oil and mining companies could care less about theological disputes; their only criteria is that the theory works.  If “flood geology” could predict the location of oil and mining deposits they would accept it in a heartbeat, all they care about is the money.  Modern geological interpretation works well and works consistently; you literally take it to the bank.

Carol Hill, another Christian and geologist, makes a pretty good case here for Noah’s flood being a local, or perhaps regional event; in particular, dear evangelical reader, if you are bothered by the universal language of the Biblical passage.  To quote her:

“The Hebrew for “earth” used in Gen. 6–8 (and in Gen. 2:5–6) is eretz (‘erets) or adâmâh, both of which terms literally mean “earth, ground, land, dirt, soil, or country.” In no way can “earth” be taken to mean the planet Earth, as in Noah’s time and place, people (including the Genesis writer) had no concept of Earth as a planet and thus had no word for it.  

All, Every, Under Heaven. While these terms also seem to impart a universality to the Flood event, all three are used elsewhere in the Bible for local events, and so—like the term “earth”—do not necessarily have an all-inclusive or universal meaning.”

She also points out that the word translated as “mountain” (har) can equally be translated as hill or hills.  She places the time of the flood to around 2900 BC.

There is also the matter of near-universality of flood stories. Most of the flood stories involve a god or gods angry at humans for their wickedness, destroying mankind in a flood except for one righteous man who is saved in a boat.

It makes me wonder if these stories are deep memories that harken back to post-Pleistocene periods as glaciers receded and the earth was much wetter.  Consider Lake Missoula, 2000 feet deep, when it broke through the glacial ice dam (about 15,000 years ago).

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Glacial Lake Missoula was as big as Lakes Erie and Ontario combined.  The flood waters ran with the force equal to 60 Amazon Rivers.  It left ripple marks 50 feet high.  Car-sized boulders embedded in ice floated some 500 miles; they can still be seen today!  I vividly remember visiting the area during my geology field camp as an undergraduate.  My professors made a point that most of the evidence for this catastrophic flood was not recognized by geologists at first; even into the 1960’s.  If you were an ancient man in the path of this flood, I’m pretty sure you would have reported the whole world was being flooded.  Also much has been made recently of the breakthrough of the Mediterranean into the Black Sea as a source of catastrophic flood stories.

Another example here is the posited flooding of the Persian Gulf due to the collapse of Lake Agassiz.

I’m speculating, of course, but the point being that legendary or even mythical does not necessary mean completely non-historical nor false.  That the Bible could use legendary stories to make points seems strange to modernist sensibilities but would not have been unusual at all to the ancient near east cultures that made up the original audience.

Before we examine the fossil record for evidence of evolution let’s define our terms so we can have a meaningful discussion.  As Christians we must take an honest look at what those educated in biology (which includes Christians- by the way) say.  It does no good to stick our heads in the sand – the issue is NOT going away.  It does no good to construct and then knock down a strawman.

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Straw man is a debate strategy in which a point that can be easily refuted is attributed to the opposition. The objective of setting up a straw man in an argument is to “knock down” the opponent’s argument and make it appear as if the opponent’s entire position has been refuted.  Straw man arguments are disingenuous, and fundamentally dishonest; and should not be employed by those who profess to be Christ-followers.

Exodus 20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Rev. 21:8   …and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone…

1 Pet. 2:22 (AMP) He (Jesus) was guilty of no sin, neither was deceit (guile) ever found on His lips.

One of the most respected evolutionary biologists has defined biological evolution as follows:

“Biological evolution … is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny (developmental history) of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve.  “The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles (different forms or groups of genes) within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest proto-organism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions.”

– Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986

Biological evolution occurs at different scales. These include small-scale evolution and broad-scale evolution. Small-scale evolution, also referred to as microevolution, (but not by most biologists) is the change in gene frequencies within a population of organisms from one generation to the next.

Broad-scale evolution, also referred to as macroevolution, refers to evolution at a grander scale. It focuses on the progression of species or entire clades [a group of organisms, such as a species, whose members share similar features derived from a common ancestor] from a common ancestor to descendent clades over the course of numerous generations.

There is no debate about microevolution, even the most ardent young earth creationists agree it happens e.g. bacterial antibiotic resistance.  The two areas where there is evidence for macroevolution is in the phenotype and the genotype.  A phenotype (from Greek phainein, ‘to show’ + typos, ‘type’) is the composite of an organism’s observable characteristics or traits.  In particular to the fossil record the hard parts that are preserved; bones, teeth, shells, etc.  Genotype, of course, refers to an organism’s genetic make-up.

Now, of course, the geologic record is in no one place entirely complete for where geologic forces in one area provide a low-lying region accumulating deposits much like a layer cake, in the next area they may have uplifted the region, and that area is instead one that is weathering and being torn down by chemistry, wind, temperature, and water.

That being said, and contrary to YEC propaganda, there are 25 places in the world where at least part of the entire geologic column is represented, including North Dakota.

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25 Locations Where the Entire Geologic Record is Present

Based on the principle of superposition which states rocks deposited first lie at the bottom of a sequence, while those deposited later are at the top (assuming they haven’t been disturbed), geologists are able to piece together a time-history of the earth from the oldest rocks to the newest.

So what do we see in the rock record?  Simply put, the simplest life is found early in earth’s history, complex life is found later for both animals and plants.  The earliest rocks have traces of bacteria and algae and nothing else.  Then simple animals without backbones appear, often with shells.  Then fishes appear and a little later amphibians, followed by reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals, birds, and finally man.  In the same rock sequences there is a similar progression of plant life.  First simple sea-weeds, then club mosses, horsetail rushes, ferns, pines, ginkos, and finally flowering plants.

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Once an animal or plant appears in the record it may appear in succeeding strata (or go extinct).  One thing is observed; later plants or animals NEVER appear earlier.  Dinosaur remains are never found with human remains anywhere on earth – EVER.  Let me give you another example.

Gymnosperms (Greek- “naked seeds”) are plants that have unenclosed seeds and include: conifers, cycads, ginkos, and ferns.  Angiosperms are all flowering plants where the seeds are encased in within an ovary.  Gymnosperms precede angiosperms in the rock record as flowering plants don’t show up until the early Cretaceous (140 million years ago).  Angiosperms make up 80% of all plant life currently on earth.

Coal deposits in the Carboniferous period (about 360 mya) are found around the world.  They have been mined and therefore examined extensively for hundreds of years.  The plant material composing Carboniferous coal is ENTIRELY made up of gymnosperms, there are NO angiosperms.

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One last thing for today.  If you construct an organizational chart of how plants and animals are related to each other based on basic characteristics you get something that looks like this:

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Now three observations about this chart.  (1) The more basic the characteristic the more common to all organisms it appears. (2) This chart can be correlated with the rock record as simplest to more complex and oldest to youngest.  (3) It presents as a nested hierarchy, that is to say: A FAMILY TREE.

So there does appear to be a developmental history to life on earth – and it appears to be a nested hierarchy, or a family tree.

Comments

  1. Great stuff. I must admit that while there’s no doubt in my mind concerning the age of earth, I do have a bit more difficulty with the biological part of evolution. Looking forward to you walking us through, as gently as possible!

    • senecagriggs says:

      Macro-evolution? It just ain’t there no matter how many times I hear the different explanations of why we really don’t have the fossils.

      Would secular scientists lie to us? You betcha.

    • It does seem counter-intuitive. Think of it as the “seed principle”. How can a seed contain all the information to take an acorn to an oak. Think of your own existence. A seed from your father unites with a seed from your mother, an embroyo forms; it grows into a fully formed human. It is a natural biologic process; doesn’t mean that God is not the creator.

      • It’s less that than the idea that something coherent and viable can come out of repeatedly throwing £*($ at the wall. (Infinite monkeys and all that).

        And that’s without piling on the theological conundrums that we’ve already referred to!

  2. tophergraceless says:

    Excellent article. I like the idea of various “mega-floods” being a possible explanation for the various flood stories found around the world. Although, now that I think about it flooding seems to be a pretty common natural disaster. I mean there are at least two major floods going on in the news I can think of right now, Texas and France. I have no problem with the idea of a mega-flood being the source for flood myths, but I don’t even think that explanation is necessary.

    Also, How many cultures have a flood myth that is close the the Bible story? I remember a LDS Seminary lesson that had citations from four or five stories but I remember being underwhelmed because most were from Middle Eastern cultures and thus could easily be explain as cultural exchange and one from China. So how common is this myth anyway? I have always believed that it was widespread but now that I think about it I am not so sure.

    Anyway, I really liked this article really interesting. Geology is so cool!

    • Stephen says:

      Personally I think it is a mistake to try to associate the flood stories endemic to the Ancient Near East with specific historical sources. Here we are in the realm of myth. The biblical account is very late in the tradition. At the point it was conceived there was already at least a millennia of antecedents. The ANE had a whole host of mythic associations built up around the idea of a universal flood. A flood was literally the uncreating of the world; a return to primordial chaos. The best book I’ve read on the ANE flood myths including the biblical accounts (there are two) is Prof Irving Finkel’s “The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood” which came out in paperback just last year.

      http://www.amazon.com/Ark-Before-Noah-Decoding-Story/dp/0345804392/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1464888478&sr=1-1&keywords=irving+finkel

      • I second Finkel’s book. You can tell the guy loves his job – deciphering ANE scripts — at the British Museum (I think).

        I also agree that it’s probably better to just assume that “ordinary great floods” were the basis for the ANE myths — as interesting as a primordial screaming cataract of the Bosporus breaking up would be, for example.

  3. StuartB says:

    What proof do we have of there even being a local flood, other than myths and stories like the one in the Bible?

    • My husband and l took a long day to visit Dry Falls in eastern Washington a few weeks ago. Do a Google search. That’s from Lake Missoula. You can drive hours in every direction and see the remains.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I understand there is physical evidence of a “10,000-year flood” in the Tigris-Euphrates valley around the time of early Sumeria, which would have filled Mesopotamia from horizon to horizon. The early Sumerian version of the story of the Flood and the Ark seems to date from this event.

      • StuartB says:

        Makes sense. Which would provide the basis for the authors taking the story and adapting. See, it was actually OUR God who flooded the whole earth, but don’t worry, he promised never to do it again, see that rainbow, child…

        You know. Prior to Columbus (arguably), no one knew about America.

        “Whole world” is so relative.

  4. I remembered wondering a lot when I was a kid, probably like other people. What is the exact size of Noah’s ark? How many species of animals there were on Earth? What are the geological evidence?

    Somewhere in high school, I finally figured that it was just a local or regional flood.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Though some YECs have hedged their bets for it being a regional flood by claiming ALL humans at the time were concentrated in a small area that was wiped out by that regional flood.

  5. Stephen says:

    I have to wonder about YEC. Evolution is so incontrovertibly true once you have it explained to you that I cannot but think the myopia involved in denying what is so obviously the case must require some extraordinary metal kung-fu that simply must be exhausting to maintain.

    Their rationalizations and obfuscations make my head hurt. The principle of parsimony says all things being equal the simplest explanation that accounts for the facts is the best one. Evolution is that explanation.

    • Stephen says:

      Off course that should be MENTAL kung-fu.

      Here’s metal kung-fu –

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5eRjcbN6pI

    • YEC pushback aside, it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder if we could still have come up with the theory of evolution via natural selection even WITHOUT ANY FOSSILS AT ALL. Obviously, it wouldn’t be as much fun to not know about dinosaurs and dragonflies 18 inches long and all, but would the genetic patterns we see connecting all manner of life eventually have produced the theory anyway?

      For all the hand-wringing about “missing links,” we’re actually amazingly lucky that dead animals and plants can even be preserved at all. The cup is way more than half full on the fossil dinner table.

      • I’ll deal with the genetic evidence in the ninth and last essay. The fact we can now sequence the genome and examine genetic evidence at the molecular level is a game changer. Although it is a little more difficult to understand and not near as straight-forward; the genetic evidence is quite definite.

        • Yep. Francis Collin’s ‘The Language of God’ finally convinced me to give up ‘old earth creationism’ and accept BioLogos (rebranded theistic evolution). The DNA evidence is just too compelling to write off. Unless one wants to assign it to ‘appearance of age’ type theories – God has also given us ‘appearance of common ancestry’ to test our faith even more!

    • StuartB says:

      Well that’s the strength of the strongman fallacy. YECs are allowed to lie about the truth. That’s how I finally moved away from YEC, I compared and contrasted all their statements to truth, and realized they were misrepresenting or outright lying about things. And as a Christian, telling the truth was a higher priority to me than defeating evolution.

      For the lay, if you never tell them what “evolutionists” actually believe, but just tell them through straw men what they ‘actually’ believe, you can get away with anything.

      And that’s the disheartening thing. I see this over and over. From YEC, to inerrancy, to the pro-life movement, to GOP…I see it repeating over and over. And I’m sure the other side does the same. But looking around the room, and seeing my own kind, my own people, those i’m supposed to trust and look up to…being so dishonest…something broke inside me and still hasn’t repaired. Maybe I can trust no one but myself, including myself.

  6. Hey Mike, I’ve heard it said that some math and stats people have a problem with evolutionary theory because, mathematically speaking, four and a half billion years just isn’t enough time to account for the current diversity of life on the planet if evolution is driven only by selective mutation. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that.

    • I have heard that. You can Google “Haldane’s Dilemma” and the “Kimura Quandry” which deal with it. I think the problem lies with relying on natural selection acting on random mutations alone. I understand there are other mechanisms that drive allele change like gene flow, genetic drift, and epigenetics. Who knows, maybe there is some other X-factor they will realize that is the equivalent of the anthropic principle in physics.

      • Robert F says:

        Is it right to say evolution is something that happens to a species, rather than something that it does? Organisms are not agents in the evolution of their species?

      • Robert F says:

        Is it the general consensus among evolutionary biologists that current biodiversity is greater than that of all previous epochs? I didn’t think that it was; I thought that our age is considered to be less bio-diverse than some earlier ones.

  7. Rick Ro. says:

    It’s amazing, isn’t it, the time and patience God used to stitch together life as it exists today!

  8. Robert F says:

    The ontogeny (developmental history) of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve.

    This truth is why I consider the appropriation of the word evolution from its scientific biological context to use as a descriptor for the spiritual development of the individual to be a misappropriation. The use of the term to describe spiritual development borrows a patina of scientific respectability from the biological realm that is completely unwarranted, precisely because biological evolution has nothing to do with the developmental history of individuals.

    • I haven’t checked, but you might have the backwards: don’t you think that the word evolution existed before Darwin?

      • Robert F says:

        The word did exist before Darwin, but was not used to refer to spiritual development until after it gained its powerful new connotation from its association with the newly discovered biological process. When it is used to refer to spiritual development today, it is because of the strong association of the word evolve with the biological process of evolution.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “The word did exist before Darwin…”

          And Darwin didn’t like it. He preferred the term “descent with modification” because “evolution” implied a clear directionality, i.e. “linear UPWARD progress”. Similar to:

          “The Victorians thought that history ended well – because it ended with the Victorians.”
          — G.K.Chesterton

          • Robert F says:

            Yes, there is no directionality in biological evolution, at least none that science detects.

    • “The ego/mind is a learned set of behaviors, and the ultimate goal is to transcend its programming and functioning by virtue off the power of the Radiance of the Self, which recontextualizes life benignly. The Presence of the Self is experienced as compassion for all of life in all its expressions, including its evolution as one’s personal self. As a consequence, forgiveness replaces condemnation, which is a sign that it is now safe to proceed deeper into serious inner inventory without undue stress.” ~David R. Hawkins

  9. Robert F says:

    Paradox Basin —
    beautiful name and place, red
    as the face of Mars.

    • This is a good one, Robert. Reinforces my own personal take on all this, that arguing over whether it took seven days or seven billion years to build my back yard is a complete waste of my dwindling time. My grass needs mowing and my wood needs cutting, however they got here. Each to his or her own. Live and let live. When you all get done fussing over your certainties, stop by and have a beer or some Red Pine needle tea. It’s a beautiful back yard.

  10. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for these “lessons”. I’m love them and hope to study them in detail once I have the time 🙂