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Monday, March 31, 2014

Why Aronofsky's Noah is more biblical than Ham's

Noah and son, Ham, before an ark in progress.

"Narrative creates a world...meant to be entered, inhabited, and appropriated by the reader... As the reader dwells in the created world of the story, new possibilities are opened up for articulating and conveying truth and meaning. Narrative...configures a world that has the potential power to refigure the reader's world."1

The story of Noah and his ark is narrative, foremost. This fact alone drives a wedge between the highly artistic tale and the modern reader, who has all but lost his ability to read story. Relentless efforts by Ken Ham and company to reduce the tale to a timeline of facts—a journalistic record of the lost world—silenced the Genesis author long ago, whose profound dialogue of judgement and redemption itself drowned in a deluge of post-Enlightenment 'fact-checking'. To preserve the tale of Noah, it seemed, one should engage in cognitive dissonance and present a twisted form of geology allegedly in support of the biblical text. Any rejection of these pseudoscientific claims, therefore, meant dismissal of the biblical narrative altogether, because a false dilemma had already set firmly in the public mindset.

For this reason, I waited eagerly for years to see how Aronofsky, who could not be bothered by Ken Ham's input, would move from a few pages of ancient text to 2 1/2 hours on the big screen. His stated agenda to transform the biblical narrative into a modern warning under the blanket of environmentalism admittedly gave me pause, and I was hesitant to form any great expectations. In the wake of Ham's resurgence in public dialogue, however, I began to hope for the best. After the public debate with Bill Nye, an announcement that 'Ark Encounter' is financially afloat, and a theatrical rebuttal to Aronofsky by Ray Comfort, I wanted this to be the best portrayal of Noah ever made.

So I'm a little biased... But I did walk into the theater with inflated standards. Regardless, I wanted to see the story of Noah and his ark played out on screen, with the biblical message still intact, and that's precisely where Aronofsky delivered. In light of the evangelical uproar to censor Aronofsky, therefore, I want to tell you why I think his portrayal of Noah is, perhaps ironically, more biblical than Ken Ham's. [Note: I will avoid any blatant spoilers below, but I still recommend you see the movie first!]

1. Aronofsky's Noah lives in a narrative world

If you expect Noah to reconstruct some moment in Earth history, using only the biblical text as a script, you will be sorely disappointed. Aronofsky's Noah lives on a planet that is ostensibly 'earthy', but sufficiently unfamiliar to remove the reader from critical history telling into the mode of poetic historiography, which better captures the spirit of the biblical narrative. For example, the biblical description of Eden sounds enough like ancient Israel to inform the reader "Hey, this story is about you!", but the strange geography and inhabitants preclude any flatfooted connection to history. Such seamless blending of historical referent and imaginative symbolism is characteristic of near Eastern historiography, including that which comprises much of the Pentateuch. For this reason, I applaud Aronofsky for not giving into the literalist's plea to "just tell us what really happened!" Instead, he retells the story of Noah in a manner that speaks specifically to a modern audience, first by removing the audience from their own world and placing them into one that is familiar yet strange. This world contains its own set of rules (including a bit of 'magic'), but the moral struggles and consequences obviously apply to humanity as we know it. Aronofsky's most brilliant connection to the modern audience is made toward the end of the movie, when Noah recounts the story of creation, temptation and rebellion over a time-lapse montage of history as we know it.

2. Aronofsky's Noah is theomorphic

God is understood in the Genesis narratives less by what he says and does himself than by the characters who honor or defy him. This may sound controversial, but I assure you, the principle is demonstrated amply through character development and intertextual allusion throughout the Bible. Biblical characters are frequently named for the attributes of God they reflect biographically, echoing the statement that mankind is made in God's image. Upholding that image, Adam names the creatures of the Garden; Noah sends out a raven alongside God's 'breath' until the waters recede; Moses separates the waters from the waters to 'create' Israel from the land. Take also the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, where God's voice is hauntingly scarce, and the drama builds through a silent march to an unthinkable end. Only when Abraham has mentally committed to the loss of his firstborn does he gain his son back from the dead, so to speak. And so in the Passover plague in Egypt, God—like Abraham—regains his firstborn son, as he would again on Resurrection Sunday. God's emotional response is understood here not through mythology, but through dramatic precedent of theomorphic characters.

In Noah, God is hauntingly silent. We cannot understand who 'the creator' is or what he wants through a baritone loudspeaker in the sky, but only by the drama surrounding those who honor or reject him. Aronofsky's Noah plays out the just God, who unreservedly consigns a wicked humanity to their destruction well earned, while battling his grief over a deep love for that which is lost and hope for a new beginning. Russell Crowe (Noah) is emotionally convincing, more so than any creed simply announcing that God is both just and merciful. Perhaps the most creative example is one in which Aronofsky deviates strongly from the biblical tale, facing Noah with a murderous task involving his own daughter-in-law. This paradox is complex, and it takes a complex drama to understand fully what it means for the creator God to be the redeemer God. Speaking of which...

3. Aronofsky's Noah elucidates the grand paradox of the Flood narrative

Why did God determine to flood the land? Because of the pervasive wickedness of mankind. Why did God covenant with mankind and promise never to flood the land again? Because of the pervasive wickedness of mankind. This is the paradox played out in Genesis 6–9, which perhaps never sought to answer the question bluntly. Noah makes clear the sins of mankind, whose greed became a plague to all of creation (even its heavenly inhabitants). Most unexpected, however, is Noah's own discovery of the innate wickedness of mankind in surveying his families primal desire for self-preservation. Aronofsky improvises where scripture is silent, and confronts the audience with a Noah who learns the hard way that "mankind is evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21).

4. Aronofsky's Noah captures the psychological torment of knowing good from evil

I anticipate much antagonism from evangelical crowds over the fact that Noah is not cast as a humble old preacher, inviting the world to his sermons while the crowds gather and cast insults. Aronofsky's Noah is rather a conflicted personality, who actively takes up divine roles, including judgement (Russell Crowe apparently retained his skills from Gladiator when it comes to mutilating oncoming barbarian legions). Lover of peace and harmony, this Noah yet discovers that he will resort to all manners of violence to protect his family and uphold divine justice. But Aronofsky provides the insight behind the personality of Noah, whose family struggles to understand him, primarily through prophetic dreams. We learn the cost of knowing good and evil through graphic display of each extreme, that in recognizing what is good and holy necessarily elucidates what is evil and repulsive. Noah is slow to learn, perhaps, and falls into drunken desperation to escape the inner dialogue, but he is comforted in the end by budding theologian Emma Watson (who plays Shem's wife). True to the intertextual overlap between Noah and Adam and Abraham, she informs Noah what it meant to make the Abrahamic choice in the new Eden. Aronofsky captures this profound message of the Genesis author far better than the average biblical literalist.

5. Aronofsky's ark accurately captures the temple imagery

In the narrative world he creates, Aronofsky need not obsess over the potentially seaworthiness of a large, wooden vessel. Instead, he lets the ark symbolize precisely what it should: a cosmic temple in which one finds the rest of God amid chaos and wilderness. It is no coincidence that according to Genesis, the dimensions of the ark are essentially a 3:1 scaling of the tabernacle—a mobile, holy structure that served the nomadic, covenant people of God. So I am thankful that Aronofsky's ark, which spends as much time in the movie on the ground as it does in the water, better depicted a temple than an 18th-century wharf. Even the barren landscape produced during the ark's construction (see image above) echoes the principle of life through death, and of new birth and innocence through sacrifice and cleansing. Aronofsky also forgoes the literalist's depiction of Noah's family as superhuman zookeepers and instead borrows from Orthodox liturgy, as Noah's wife (apparently a high-level herbalist) and sons carry incense censers throughout the stables and cause the animals to slip into hibernation. Use of symbolism over pseudoscientific zoology is a win for Aronofsky, in my opinion.

6. Aronofsky's Noah is an environmentalist

This film is hardly what I would call a propagandist piece, despite its unashamed support for environmentalism over sheer human interest. Whatever the personal convictions of the writers and director, the manner in which Noah calls its audience to care for God's creation (and that includes our fellow man) as God commanded in the beginning is perfectly in line with the biblical message. All too often, Christians are so hesitant to associate themselves with secularist or quasi-pantheistic factions under the umbrella of 'environmental responsibility' that they are willing to promote the opposite. But Aronofsky's message is so simple as to be innocent and (hopefully) effective: taking for yourself more than what you need and casting anger, hate, and violence toward your brother is contrary to God's good creation.

7. Aronofsky's Noah is conscious of the echoes from Eden

Despite the many ways in which Aronofsky takes creative license to improvise or deviate from a surface reading of Genesis, he stays true to the biblical message that a return to Eden is the essence of new creation. Several symbols are utilized throughout the movie (from the fertile seed that Noah plants, to the spring that rises from the ground and divides to water the Earth, to his patriarchal blessing to be fruitful and multiply). Thus Aronofsky's call to take responsibility for our actions equates to an exhortation to live as God commanded us from the beginning.

That this call comes now from outside the church should raise concern to us, who have been entrusted with the oracles of God and commissioned with the task of cultivating the garden of God, so that its borders cover the Earth as the waters cover the sea.


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1 Allusion to Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative; citation from Diepstra, G.R., and Laughery, G.J., 2009, Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1–3: European Journal of Theology, v. 18, p. 5–16.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Great Salt Lake: Monument to Stagnation

Reflection of the Wasatch Mountain Range (northern Utah) in the Great Salt Lake. American Bison are visible grazing near a pond at the right edge of the photo. View east from Antelope Island, just west of Farmington, Utah.

Any review of the literature by so-called "Flood Geologists" will yield a plethora of hyped-up examples, in which catastrophic geological processes supposedly occurred at warp speed in the recent past. Steve Austin's "Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe" now serves as a template for reinterpreting the past to conform to an oversimplistic reading of Genesis. But closer analyses of these pseudoscientific works, which fill article databases at Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International, invariably reveal fundamental errors in data interpretation, and so the effort continues to battle the spread of misinformation by ostensibly evangelistic organizations.

During a recent trip to northern Utah, however, it occurred to me that these article databases are lacking a vital bit of context: the fact that for every geological example for which 'recent catastrophe' could plausibly be argued before a non-specialist audience, there exist one million examples for which catastrophic processes make absolutely no sense. The Great Salt Lake is one such candidate.

The modern Great Salt Lake, situated in the northeastern Basin and Range province of the western U.S., is but a modest residual of glacial Lake Bonneville. If you're unfamiliar with Bonneville's history, I recommend that you take an interactive tour here, courtesy of USGS. Since the peak of the last ice age, the lake's water level fell a little more than 300 meters, causing isostatic rebound of the underlying crust. As the weight of the water disappeared, in other words, the ground elevation rose several meters in response (similar to what happened in post-glacial Scandinavia to produce the fjords, but on a smaller scale).

When did all this happen?

Along the Wasatch Mountains and other elongated ranges of northwestern Utah, multiple terraces mark previous highstands in the stepwise transition from Lake Bonneville to the Great Salt Lake. The earliest dating of these shoreline sediments indicated that maximum water levels coincided with peak glacial conditions between 25,000 and 14,000 years ago (Broecker and Orr, 1958). These authors hypothesized early on that the water level tracked regional climate changes in the Great Basin, with cooler and wetter glacial conditions promoting higher lake levels.

Later radiocarbon dating confirmed and expanded upon early results (Oviatt et al., 1992), after a suite of geophysical tools were employed to reconstruct lake levels and water chemistry by comparing sections of sediment across the basin (e.g. Spencer et al., 1984). These studies revealed long periods—centuries to millennia—during which either a high-standing freshwater lake or a moderately low-standing saltwater lake prevailed.

Why should we trust the radiocarbon dating?

Putting a young-Earth spin on Lake Bonneville would involve reinterpreting radiocarbon ages to reflect the early 'post-Flood' period when atmospheric 14C was supposedly equilibrating to modern levels. In other words, the AiG and ICR crowds would consider these radiocarbon dates to be apparently old, because in their view, the lake must post-date Noah's flood. Cramming the long history of Lake Bonneville into a few hundred years, however, would result in a nonsensical portrait, in which the sediment deposition rate no longer corresponds to the inferred climate and water-level. For example, Oviatt (1997) correlated lake-level shifts to global climate changes recorded in North Atlantic sediments, the Greenland Ice Sheet cores, and numerous cave and lake records. These various geological records are all dated by different techniques, so any young-Earth twisting of radiocarbon dates immediately collapses under the weight of corroboration.

On a similar note, Cerling (1990) used the radiocarbon dates from Lake Bonneville shorelines to calibrate another dating technique, which measures the accumulation of 3He to estimate how long certain minerals have been exposed to the surface (useful for dating floods, landslides, eruptions, etc.). Success of this technique, which assumes the accuracy of shoreline dates, further corroborates the big picture of glacial Lake Bonneville.

A young-Earth spin also leaves too little time for the lake to have alternated between salt and freshwater (see below). Lake levels can change catastrophically, but rapid salinification? Not a chance. Most importantly, any young-Earth interpretation must ignore the much longer geological history beneath the salt flats and modern lake (Kowalewska and Cohen, 1998). The recent journey from Lake Bonneville to Great Salt Lake is only one at the end of an ~800,000-year string of similar transitions associated with glacial-interglacial cycles. Lakes and marshes (often saline) of various size and lifespan have covered the region since 2.1 million years ago, and the modern landscape has been in place for ~5 million years. No matter how one twists the timeline, 4,500 years is far too little to explain what represents only a thin slice at the top of the geologic column in northern Utah.

How did the lake become salty?

The Great Salt Lake is perhaps known best for its foul smell to those who frequent its shores, due to the abundance of rotting brine shrimp. These hypersaline inhabitants are the only trace of aquatic life in the lake, whose salinity far exceeds that of the ocean. In a young-Earth scenario, it might sound reasonable to posit Lake Bonneville as a remnant of the receding flood waters, but this hypothesis fails the test of chemistry. The modern salt composition is explained rather by the evaporation of river and spring water flowing into the lake (Spencer et al., 1985). When evaporation exceeds river and rainfall input, the salt content increases, because only calcium carbonate precipitates from the lake in large quantities, despite that numerous ionic compounds are carried in by rivers. In other words, the Great Salt Lake is the final product of more than 10,000 years of freshwater distillation.

Didn't Lake Bonneville drain catastrophically?

To an extent, yes. As Earth began to warm following the peak of the last ice age, a natural dam at the north end of Lake Bonneville failed. Nearly 400 cubic miles of water gushed into southern Idaho through the Snake River valley, carving numerous telltale features of megafloods into the landscape (read the full story here). As a result, Lake Bonneville fell as much as 100 meters in a geological instant.

Scablands and dry falls cut into basalt along the Snake River (image from Digital Geology of Idaho).

On the one hand, Lake Bonneville bears at least one 'monument to catastrophe', but this event puts into perspective the slow and gradual histories that bound it. The water loss during the Bonneville flood represents only half the amount lost over thousands of years of slight flux imbalance. Combine this with the fact that lakes comparable to Bonneville appeared and disappeared multiple times prior to its own existence (and without the aid of catastrophic discharges). The Bonneville flood further illustrates how catastrophic flooding affects the surface of the Earth, carving mega-ripples, pot marks, and waterfalls, to name a few geological oddities characterizing 'scablands'. These features remain 'oddities' precisely because the vast majority of Earth's surface never was subjected to catastrophic flooding.


Want to know more about the Great Salt Lake?

More than a fascinating geological site, the Great Salt Lake has both intrigued and challenged humans over a long and complicated relationship. If you want to know more about 'Our Inland Sea' from a human perspective, I highly recommend the documentary below, which packs a thoughtful arrangement of little-known, sometimes bizarre facts about the lake into 43 minutes. How did Native Americans make use of the 'sea'? The Mormons? What role did the lake play in western tourism and entertainment? You may be surprised...

Visit www.greatsaltlakedvd.com to order a copy, or view the trailer on YouTube. The semi-retro style of the documentary (and host's attire) might invoke some hesitation, but I actually enjoyed these aspects by the end. In my opinion, the video is very informative and entertaining given the modest price, and who knows, it might even inspire an upcoming visit to this natural monument.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

All in a day's work: don't take Genesis too literally!

Admittedly, I rarely keep up with things over at Reasons to Believe, so I must thank the author for sharing with me his recent article: The Sixth Creation Day: Biblical Support for Old-Earth Creationism. This article highlights some of the basic conflicts that arise in Genesis 1–3 when forcing the literalist hermeneutic of YEC onto its narrative portrait. For those who would posit that Young-Earth readings are but a matter of basic reading comprehension, we can justifiably prescribe to them some of their own medicine in reading about the sixth day.

So what is the argument from the sixth day of creation? Dr. Travis Campbell writes that "put simply, too many events occurred on creation day 6 to be squeezed into 24 hours." Dr. Campbell includes here the creation of land animals and mankind, planting of the garden in Eden, causing all sorts of trees to grow, covenant making, naming of creatures, and forming and introduction of a mate for Adam (the beginnings of human sexuality), among others. I will add that all the events of the Eden narrative appeal to the common experience of the Near Eastern reader, as the first of mankind is described through the experience of Israel and is placed in a microclimatic and geographic oasis similar to their own. Thus it would be unreasonable (i.e. unfaithful to the text) to view Adam as anything superhuman.

Dr. Campbell further addresses some outlandish objections by Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, author of Refuting Compromise, a book targeting the scientific and theological positions of Reasons to Believe. When I say 'outlandish', I specifically have in mind Dr. Sarfati's conjecture that in naming all the animals, Adam could have taken:

"...five seconds per kind, and [taking] a five-minute break every hour, he could have completed the task in well under four hours. This hardly seems onerous even for people today, and with Adam’s pre-Fall stamina and memory recall abilities, the problem disappears totally." (emphasis mine)

In other words, Sarfati goes to extreme rhetorical lengths to accommodate scripture to his reductionistic reading, and in the process, he misses entirely the point why the author of Genesis cares to inform us that "whatever 'the adam' called every living creature, that was its name." (Gen. 2:19b)

To find out what it means that mankind was commissioned to name the animals, and why man reacted to woman as he did, I highly encourage you to read Dr. Campbell's article.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Do you feel like a big toe?

The kind folks at God of Evolution: Theology with Attitude have turned part of my last post into a very colorful meme, for which I'm very grateful. It was a strange but pleasant surprise to read my own words so creatively arranged in the graphic. You can find the original meme here. Please feel free to share, if the message is in any way encouraging or edifying to you:


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On the oversimplification of Genesis and the "tyranny of experts"

I've been meaning to get to these topics for some time now. Far more can be said about the scientific shortfalls of Ham's position in the wake of this rejuvenated topic of American discussion, and given its rejuvenation, I'll be sure to get there. Google searches for "fossil wood in basalt" bring new visitors to this blog every day, and I consider this evidence that people want to know how Answers in Genesis has 'sculpted' scientific data to work in their favor.

At the moment, I want to address a more fundamental concern keeping YEC's from ever considering the scientific fallibility of their claims: a deep-rooted sense that at the end of the day, their reading of Scripture trumps all possible critique. Essentially, the argument goes: 1) we know that Scripture's word is final on truth claims; 2) Scripture says this about creation; so 3) you can't possibly be correct about the age of the Earth and the history of its life.

Fair enough. At least ostensibly, the conclusion follows logically from those premises. So I want to focus on the second premise in light of a couple of articles recently posted: "On the 24 Hour Days "Argument" in Genesis" by pseudonymous blogger TurretinFan, and "Do We Really Want A New Reformation?" by G.I. Williamson at the Aquila Report. In a nutshell, these articles are reminding readers that a Young-Earth Creationist reading of Genesis is the most simple and obvious (i.e. why bother following trails of evidence that already contradict a more basic axiom of truth?).

If you are an atheist reading this post, or at least a non-biblical theist, you're natural reaction might be to attack the first premise, which you already reject. For the sake argument, however, I want you to assume its legitimacy, not simply because I hold to it myself, but because reducing this discussion to a debate over biblical authority raises a communicative barrier between YEC's and the majority of their critics. You may ultimately want to disprove the Bible as an infallible source of knowledge, but to promote scientific literacy and mitigate the influence of YEC in education and politics (our common goal), you don't have to.

Why? Because the YEC's reading of Scripture is often as profound as their grasp on science, which is to say: oversimplified, and specially tailored to suit their occasion.

The Earth is young, because the days of Genesis lasted only ~24 hours... right?

If you follow AiG's instructions for reading Genesis, you might be convinced that the only key to reading Genesis like they do is to agree that the Hebrew 'yom' should be understood as a common, 24-hour day. This limits the creation of heaven, Earth, and life therein to a common week at the beginning of time. TurretinFan writes thusly:

"Arguing 24 hour days in Genesis is hardly necessary - the text doesn't just say day - it specifies the kind of day - the kind with evening and morning. It's not so much a question of arguing as just basic reading comprehension... The text says day [and] specifies the morning/evening kind of day.  That kind of day is approximately 24 hours long.  It's hard to see what could possibly be missing in that proof."

I've argued similarly that it makes sense to read the days of Genesis 1 only through our common experience of this natural, 24-hour cycle. The best evidence for this derives not from the inclusion of evening and morning, however, but from the fact that there are exactly 7 of them—6 for working and 1 for rest. The Pentateuch's citation of this text as a warrant for observing the Sabbath shuts the door, in my opinion, on the possibility that these days were meant to portray long eras (the 'Day-Age' reading).

On the other hand, the inclusion of evening and morning should prevent us from leaping into the premature and thoroughly disproven notion that land and sky (i.e. the heavens and the Earth), moon and star, and plant and animal all appeared within a common week only thousands of years ago. It is important to note that Genesis does not read: "there was morning and evening, comprising the first day", but "there was evening and then morning". Why does this matter? The interval of time between evening and morning is itself a period of rest. It is a precious set of hours in which we, the tired laborer, can regain our strength before draining it again at sunrise. It is not a Sabbath, but it foreshadows the holy rest and communion with God that awaits us and gives meaning to our six-fold engagement with toil and strife. Thus in the Orthodox tradition (and several others), nightly vespers is a prayer service in which creation hymns and 'reenactment' of the garden scene reiterate the relationship between Genesis and our daily lives.

At this point, we should recognize how the author of Genesis 1 utilized our common experience to tell a story about God (it is a radical transformation of classic mythology). We can envision God working as we do, even resting nightly as we do, until he completes his project, which is to construct a holy abode in which he can take up residence and reign sovereignly. But to argue that "since these days are 24-hour cycles, all material things occurred nearly simultaneously" is a gross oversimplification of the text. Are we to believe that God became tired and had to take the night off? Did he draw creation out over six days just to teach us a lesson about resting once a week? And finally, what did God do on the eighth day? Did he return to work or continue resting?

The days of Genesis 1 are a depiction of the workweek of the eternal God, who covenanted with Israel. It is a magnificent image, drawing from very limited human experience to portray that, which is incomprehensible. To anchor these days to any moment in our earthly timeline does great injustice to the profundity of the text and mocks the eternal attributes of the God described in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Isn't Genesis written as a historical text, though, and not a metaphor/analogy? If so, why not appeal simply to the plain meaning of the text?

Yes, Genesis is historiography... among other things. But it is dangerous to apply modern 'genres' onto an ancient text anachronistically, and this discussion highlights the reason. We need not constrain Genesis 1 to a categorical dilemma, as though it is history or myth or theology, or something else, because authors of that time did not draw such distinctions. Our desire to do so is a symptom of the modern mind, which investigates the past mainly through journalism or critical histories. Genesis is historical, but it is not journalistic. Literary images are patched seamlessly within familiar timelines and geographies, so that overly literalistic readings are bound to run into trouble. The most obvious example is the transition from Genesis 1 to the Eden narrative, where the timeline apparently reverses or is compressed. Attempts to rationalize the chronology thus fail to explain its finer literary details, such as the function of Gen. 2:4 as a chiastic hinge between two sides of one story, the novel contrast between Eden's sanctuary and the surrounding wilderness (an image of God's covenant people as wanderers among the nations), or the creation of animals after 'the adam' but before woman to elucidate sexuality in the full expression of mankind. When asked about the 'plain sense' of the text, TurretinFan comments:

"What I mean is not some secret meaning, like in a parable or prophecy; nor some specialized technical meaning, like in some detailed discussions of theology or other technical writing.  It's the ordinary meaning people normally associate with the word.

So, for example, when God says he made Eve from Adam's rib, rib means one of those bones around Adam's lungs: it is not a code word for something else. On the other hand, when God speaks of the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah," that's a prophetic reference to Jesus. Different genres, different ways of looking at words."

Without intending to do so, he relativizes the meaning of scripture to individual readers and cultures in appealing to what "people normally associate with the word". Each reader brings personal experience to every text, typically far removed from that of the author or initial audience. His example of "Adam's rib" proves this point. For one, the term translated as "rib" could simply mean "side", and need not refer to any bone. Reducing the term to a more precise anatomical reference has already raised silly debates over the number of ribs in Adam versus his descendants and female counterpart. Whether we prefer to read the word in English as "rib" or "side",  the image should not be lost: from the beginning, the Bible describes humanity through unity and diversity simultaneously; mankind is male and female, and human sexuality is one expression of its multifaceted nature. This text has nothing to do with the physical mechanism by which females entered the universe, yet appealing to its 'plain sense' commonly yields that false impression. This result strongly warrants suspicion of Young-Earth hermeneutics.

Secondly, the capitalization of "Adam" assumes it as a proper name, like Bill or Frank, but never is it used as such in the Eden narrative (only the woman is properly named). In other words, the proper name is imported from his common experience with the KJV translation and readings of Genesis that conclude Adam to be the primal parent (a single human being) of the human race. Granted, biblical genealogies list Adam as a name, but in doing so, their use of the term deviates from that in Genesis 2–3. This tension reveals the dynamic use of Scripture by Scripture itself, and undermines the simple approach of "different genres, different ways of looking at words".

Do we really want a new reformation?

I'm offering one among many readings today that rejects the scientific concordism of Scripture demanded by so many early Protestant theologians. In response to our discovery that the Earth is far older than previously calculated, the 18–20th century heirs of the Reformed faith similarly struggled to reform the apparently naïve renditions of Genesis that contradicted scientific knowledge. Theologians like B.B. Warfield argued at length, moreover, that one can accept an old age of the Earth and even the tenets of human evolution without necessarily rejecting the Westminster Confession's statement that God made "all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days". It seemed that semper reformanda had succeeded once more in saving Scripture from the naïveté of dogma and tradition.

But then, an unexpected counter-reformation took hold on American minds, as 'scientific creationism' grew exponentially toward the end of last century. Even those less interested in the 'scientific' aspect of creationism regained lost theological ground amid the movement. The American evangelical church became YEC's largest exporter worldwide, and Christian churches became increasingly divided on the question of origins and Earth history. This division is well illustrated in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), as the debate is raised consistently in assemblies and reports, such as one by PCA geologists regarding geological evidence for the antiquity of the Earth. In light of such 'expert testimonies', G. I. Williamson, a retired OPC minister, adds his own perspective:

"I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard (or read the words of) people who say “we need a new reformation.” I agree. What I don’t hear them say is an increasing concern to me. I don’t hear them say that what we need is another rebellion against the cult of the experts... When Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th Century he was immediately subjected to the tyranny of the experts." (emphasis mine)

Williamson goes on to portray Young-Earth Creationists as stalwart witnesses to the ancient faith, armed only with the plain reading of Genesis in the high courts of experts (like me?), as though we are their public recantation and full devotion to the established dogmas of modern science and historiography:

"We even hear of lectures provided at the time of a General Assembly to persuade non-experts that it is unwise to believe—and especially to teach—that the universe was created in six calendar days, around six thousand years ago... In the better days of our history this abuse would not have been tolerated. Teachings that contradicted the official creed of the church would have resulted in immediate deposition."

But Williamson denies that his position is anti-intellectual, despite the uncompromising suspicion he casts on the experts. He does this by appealing to his own subset of experts:

"The truth is that there are some very intellectual people who still believe in six-day creation. ‘Experts who think they know so much should read some of the fine material in defense of the doctrine of creation as stated in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, by men like John Byl and Jonathan Sarfati."

Yes, I've seen how Dr. Sarfati abuses scientific data to prevent his audience from taking too close of a look. I've managed to contact him regarding certain claims about geochemistry, receiving confirmation that he's unfamiliar with the scientific details and prefers to communicate science as it suits his purpose. It breaks my heart to see faithful ministers resting their confidence in his dubious claims.

Regardless, I find Williamson's analogy intriguing. It certainly has an emotional appeal among Reformed readers that will give pause to us 'experts' in re-examining our faith and sincerity. But the longer I considered the analogy, the more it began to crumble.

1) Williamson's casting of YEC's as faithful Martin Luthers is more reasonably reversed. Particularly in the OPC, those deviating from a strict, 6-day creation view are the ones cast before a panel of 'experts' in words echoing Luther's opposition: we have our doctrines, our councils, our creed and confession, unmovable and unshaken by your presumed authority as an interpreter of God's creation. Recant your claims and join our common faith, or continue in cognizant dissonance. Either way, you must deny what you consider plain and reasonable.

I pursued a degree in the natural sciences on the advice of a PCA minister. While I was still in high school, he persuaded me not to abandon my talent for the discipline, but to live out my faith through a career in the sciences. So here I stand, I can do no other. I cannot watch the church body continue to be deceived by folks like Ken Ham and Jonathan Sarfati. It wouldn't be right to abandon conscience and pretend that I don't know any better.

2) Regardless of who should be cast into what role in this 'new Reformation', Williamson's singling out of a 'cult of experts' immediately called one Pauline exhortation to mind:

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:15–26, ESV)

In my experience in the church body, I've come to understand how it feels to be a big toe: I'm easy to ignore, and amid the daily life of the church, I'm more likely to be bruised than praised. Nonetheless, the seemingly more essential elders, counselors, and theologians would indeed be unwise to ignore my input. Not because I'm smarter or wiser, but because I have something they don't; I can contribute something they can't. I am uniquely qualified to address the question of Earth history and human origins in a way that they aren't. Simply put, I'm doing my best to keep the church from toppling over as it steps deeper into this modern era.

Final thoughts

One can argue all they want for the 'obvious' meaning of Genesis 1–3, but the current and historical diversity of interpretation is sufficient evidence that the meaning is anything but obvious. Perhaps we'll never persuade the devoted 'six-day creationist', but I would encourage him/her not to respond through diplomatic isolation. We can't afford more cracks in the already brittle walls of the American church, and the staunch refusal to hear all manners of evidence only propagates existing schisms.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that YEC's are less sincere or intelligent. Neither would I consider them less faithful or valuable to the church. But to invert the words of my friend and favorite critic, I do think they are confused.

Monday, February 24, 2014

On the Age of the Earth: more than just meteorites!

If you inquire of your favorite search engine as to the 'age of the Earth', one number should dominate your results: 4.54 billion years. During the recent debate, Ken Ham was quick to point out, however, that this age is obtained through analysis of meteorites, and not the Earth itself. To conclude that the Earth is 4.54 billion years, therefore, we must argue that the principal, planetary components of our solar system formed at approximately the same time. In other words, this age depends on the fundamental accuracy of nebular theories in depicting our planet's earliest history.

A recent commenter on this blog also raised this point, so I'll reiterate my response:

"[Ken Ham] was correct that the accepted age of the Earth (~4.5 billion years) derives mainly from dating of meteorites. There's nothing wrong with this, so long as the meteorites are indeed the same age as the earth and derived from the same material from which our solar system form...

Although no rock on Earth is dated exactly at 4.5 billion years (why would we ever expect that?), we do have samples of zircon minerals that date to 4.2–4.4 billion years old... The fact that Earth materials approach 4.5 billion years, but never actually reach it, confirms the meteorite-based age of 4.5 billion years for the solar system and for the Earth itself."

Yesterday's issue of Nature Geoscience featured the latest research (Valley et al., 2014) on the very zircons I cited (see the BBC's report here). These tiny minerals had previously been dated through a very precise, U-Pb concordia method. Given their long and likely unpleasant history (it was a hot young Earth!), however, researchers sought to confirm the validity of the age through the latest in hi-tech microanalysis. Questions remained as to whether factors like radiation damage or trace-element diffusion had compromised the models used to calculate the zircons' ages. Radiation damage would have occurred during the radioactive decay of Uranium, when high-energy particles damaged the crystal structure on their way out. Also, little is known about the mobility of lead (Pb), the radiogenic daughter product of this decay chain, within the crystal itself. If the diffusion of lead were higher than expected, then the assumption of a closed system is no longer valid, and the calculated ages of 4.2–4.4 billion years would represent slight overestimates.

Using a combination of instruments—Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD), Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (SIMS), and a Local Electrode Atom Probe (LEAP)—the research team constrained the distribution of trace elements, the integrity of the mineral structure, and the measured isotopic ratios to confirm that the previously calculated ages were indeed valid. These results are consistent with a 4.54-billion-year-old Earth and solar system, an early magma ocean, and the presence of solid crustal rocks shortly after Earth's formation.

So the next time anyone takes Ham's lead in raising doubts about the currently accepted age of the Earth by directing you to meteorite analyses, be sure to inform them that the oldest Earth materials date so close, that the difference is inconsequential. One added lesson to this tale is that while geochronology demands that assumptions are made, these assumptions can be—and frequently are—tested thoroughly through independent techniques. Simply pointing out that assumptions exist in the historical sciences is not an argument against their conclusions. But since Ken Ham's paradigm lacks the predictive capabilities and scientific rigor of conventional geology, these red herrings are perhaps the best he can offer.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"45 thousand-year-old fossil wood encased in 45 million-year-old basalt": Conflict Revisited

One point lost by Bill Nye in the recent debate with Ken Ham was the repeated assertion that YEC researchers had dated fossil wood ~1,000 times younger than the basalt in which it was encased. If the assertion holds, then radiometric dating methods to which Bill Nye appeals as evidence for an old Earth are potentially flawed. Unfortunately, Bill Nye did not seem familiar with the claim, reported originally in 1993, despite my prophetic counsel. ;)

Where did these samples come from, and why were they sent to labs for radiometric dating?

In 1993, several samples of charred and petrified wood were collected during construction of a mining ventilation shaft in central Queensland. The wood samples were seemingly well preserved inside the lava flow that encased them. Since the layers of basalt overlay early Cenozoic sediments, the expected age of the lava flow might be a few tens of millions of years. Not convinced by conventional ages of this geologic column, however, local 'young-Earth' geologists paid to have the basalt dated by the K-Ar method and the wood fragments dated by the radiocarbon method. Their reasoning was simple and seemingly innocent: if indeed the Earth is old, then fossilized wood from an ancient lava flow should contain no radioactive carbon (14C) today and will not yield a finite age; if the Earth is young as we claim, however, then detectable 14C should be present in the fossilized wood and the K-Ar age of the basalt cannot be taken seriously.

A full report of this study by Dr. Andrew Snelling of Answers in Genesis is available for download from the Institute for Creation Research [Snelling, 2000. Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, p. 99-122]. The 24-page publication is rather verbose, reading more like a drawn-out lab report than a scientific study, but it contains all the details necessary to assess the feasibility of Dr. Snelling's extraordinary claims.

Wait, if the fossil wood and basalt are both older than 6,000 years, doesn't Ken Ham undermine his own position by citing this study?

I've described at length how apologists at Answers in Genesis use the radiocarbon and Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) methods to argue for a young Earth. In short, they criticize the assumptions behind each dating method. For example, 'model' K-Ar ages assume that all argon was expelled from the sample before molten rock cooled, starting the radiometric clock. If any argon was trapped in the mineral structure, however, then the rock will appear far older than it actually is. We have known for half a century that excess argon may be trapped in lava flows (especially underwater flows under high pressure), so much research in geochronology is devoted to improving the models. Today, more sensitive instrumentation and the aid of computer models allow geochronologists to identify 'excess' argon and calculate ages with far more precision than even a decade ago.

Given the demonstrated robustness of the K-Ar and Ar-Ar methods with these improvements, YEC's have more recently attacked the assumption that radioactive decay occurred at a constant and known rate throughout history. Many of them suggest that during/after the Flood, radioactive decay rates increased substantially, giving the false impression that most rocks are millions or billions of years old. Despite their attempts to confirm this through scientific investigation, however, the claim remains ad hoc and unsubstantiated. On the other hand, continued success using the K-Ar system in pinning down geological events, as well as confirmation from independent dating methods, gives us ample reason to believe that the model assumptions are valid and verified.

The radiocarbon method is far more complicated than is commonly presented, so YEC's have been successful in twisting its results to support their own paradigm. Traditionally, radiocarbon dating assumes that the relative concentration of 14C (the rare radioactive isotope, compared to the stable forms 12C and 13C) does not change with time. When this assumption is used, the results are reported as "radiocarbon years before present". It is important to distinguish between "radiocarbon years" and "calendar years", because we know that the relative concentration of 14C does indeed change over time. The production rate of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere depends on the magnetic field strength, for example, of the Earth and our sun. The YEC can argue, therefore, that prior to the flood, the relative abundance of 14C was much lower than today. If this assertion holds, then plant and animal remains from before the flood should yield dates many times older than their 'actual' age (4,500–6,000 years).

To document the relative abundance of atmospheric 14C over time, geologists use records that can be dated independently of the radiocarbon method. For example, tree-rings and varved lake sediments preserve annual cycles, which may be counted to obtain the actual age of each layer. When tree-rings and varved sediments are dated by the radiocarbon method, the 'radiocarbon age' of each annual band is compared to the real age to construct a calibration curve. This curve removes the assumption in conventional radiocarbon dating that 14C was constant over time.

Stalagmites provide another tool for gaging the history of atmospheric 14C, since these banded records are datable by the U-Th disequilibrium method or, in ideal cases, counting annual bands. By radiocarbon dating calcite along the growth axis of the stalagmite and comparing these ages to U-Th dates, geologists can test and refine the calibration curve (e.g. Vogel and Kronfeld, 1997). These highly corroborated, independent lines of evidence thoroughly disprove the YEC claim that atmospheric 14C increases significantly only after a recent, global flood.

In summary, yes: Ken Ham undermines his own position by citing this study, though he does not mean to.

Why did the fossilized wood give an age of 45,000 years, and how is this possible if the lava flow solidified millions of years ago?

Dr. Snelling submitted two samples of wood to two independent laboratories for radiocarbon dating by Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS). He argues that since the lab obtained 'finite ages' from organic-derived carbon, the fossilized wood cannot possible be tens of millions of years old. He reports the results as follows:

   Sample                             Lab              Age (Radiocarbon Years Before 1950)
"Wood in drill core"             Geochron          >35,620 ± ?
                                         ANSTO               44,700 ± 950
"Other wood"                    Geochron           29,544 ± 759
                                         ANSTO               37,800 ± 3,450

You should notice three features immediately from this table that warrant suspicion of Dr. Snelling's interpretation:

First, all of these ages are close to the practical limit of radiocarbon dating. Even today, radiocarbon ages exceeding ~40,000–50,000 years are commonly considered suspect, because so little radioactive carbon (14C) is being measured that it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish it from contamination or background interference (more on this later). In 1993, this caution was even more applicable, which is why many important geological studies have been updated in recent years from fresh samples analyzed with better equipment.

Second, neither set of dates overlaps within uncertainty, as the sample age differs substantially from one lab to the other. Ages for the "other wood" samples differ by more than 8,000 years, meaning that Geochron measured more than twice the concentration of 14C in the same sample, compared to ANSTO's analysis. If the 14C in these wood samples were derived from a pre-Flood atmosphere, as Ken Ham and Dr. Snelling claim, then all samples should yield the same age. At the very least, each laboratory should be reporting the same concentration of 14C in the duplicate samples. But they don't. From this fact alone, we should be very suspicious that the measured 14C derived from the wood itself. More likely, we might conclude that the 14C concentration differed because variable amounts of atmospheric contamination were incorporated during each lab's preparation methods. These radiocarbon dates do not reflect the age of the fossilized wood, therefore, and do not substantiate Dr. Snelling's claims.

Third, two of the analyses (first and last samples) yielded large uncertainties, which can result when too little 14C is present, or when the source of 14C is not consistent. In the latter case, the source of 14C might be a mixture of contamination sources: atmospheric CO2 or organic acids still bonded to the fossil wood, residual atmosphere inside the sample chamber, or the tiniest of leaks in the vacuum lines. As one who deals daily with mass spectrometers, I would suggest that all three are likely candidates.

Why?

Mass spectrometers do not count atoms of 14C directly, but compare electric intensities produced by ionized particles hitting Faraday cups at the end of a vacuum tube. In theory, particles of the same mass should all follow the same path along the magnetically charged vacuum tube, so the Faraday cups can be positioned to catch each isotope. In reality, particles of the same mass do not hit the same spot consistently, but produce more of a Gaussian distribution. Imagine a fire hose spraying onto a wall: most of the water hits in the center of the stream, but some veers off to the side. If the mass spectrometer measures only 14C (and not 13C bonded to hydrogen, for example), which is distributed evenly through the sample, then the center of the peak is easily found by the instrument. Wider peaks result from low or inconsistent signals, and help us understand why such large uncertainties were associated with two of Dr. Snelling's samples.

Dr. Snelling provides several additional clues that would lead any other investigator to find better samples for dating. First, the basalt flow encasing the wood was only ~21–25 meters below the surface, meaning that it was long exposed to surface waters percolating downward into the rock. These surfaces waters contain not only modern atmosphere, but organic acids that bond tightly to the wood. The wood fragments themselves show evidence of being altered by intruding waters, as Dr. Snelling notes (p. 8): "Permineralization was too advanced" to identify taxonomically important features under the electron microscope. The porous and jointed (fractured) basalt was also altered (p. 14):

"The basalt in the drill core does, in fact, come from the zone of weathering...where percolating oxidizing ground water readily alters minerals and rock chemistry by dissolving and removing various elements."

Yet this basalt was shipped to a lab for K-Ar dating, after which Dr. Snelling criticized the inconsistent and apparently old results. But that is another issue...

The fact that Dr. Snelling's wood samples were long exposed to modern atmospheric and plant material means that at least some of the measured 14C derives from contamination. Despite Dr. Snelling's rant that the laboratories made thorough efforts to remove contaminants and "staunchly defended [the ages] as valid", he admits himself that it is impossible to exclude all contamination. Acid washes cannot contact every single surface of the sample, perfect vacuums are not obtainable in nature, and electrical interference is a constant reality. He may continue to suggest that contamination could not have been large enough to explain finite ages of 30–40,000 years, but he cannot prove this. On the other hand, we can disprove his claim through his failure to replicate the results of his analyses from independent labs.

Dr. Snelling's article mentions that "a δ13C (V-PDB) value of −25.69‰ [is] consistent with terrestrial plant organic carbon...ruling out contamination." Is he right?

Of all the claims made by Dr. Snelling's article, this one is the most obviously and demonstrably false. Forgive my roundabout answer, but this point is important.

In AMS radiocarbon analyses, the relative abundance of 13C (reported as a δ13C value) is routinely measured, because model radiocarbon ages assume that the δ13C value is exactly -25‰. This value represents a reasonable average for the isotopic composition of plant material utilizing C3 photosynthesis, like an oak tree. However, if you were to radiocarbon date a piece of ancient corn (a C4 plant, whose average δ13C value is much higher, around -13‰), you would have to consider that the corn begins with slightly more radioactive carbon (14C) than something like an oak tree of the same age. The difference results from the fact that during photosynthesis, plants preferentially incorporate the lighter isotope(s) of carbon, but the preference is stronger among C3 plants than C4 plants. Since 14C is much heavier than 13C or 12C, it is not incorporated at the same rate as the other isotopes, and this rate varies among photosynthesizers.

If you mix carbon sources with differing isotopic compositions, the δ13C changes proportionately. For example, let's mix 5 grams of wood with a δ13C value of -25‰ and 5 grams of calcite with a δ13C value of 0‰. The resulting δ13C of the mixture is -12.5‰, or a weighted average of the two sources. So what if the 14C in Dr. Snelling's fossil wood samples derived entirely from contamination? Wouldn't the contaminant shift the δ13C value, as he claims?

No. The concentration of 14C in the modern atmosphere is ~10^-12%, or less than one part per trillion. To contaminate a 14C-free sample with enough modern organic carbon to yield a radiocarbon age of ~45,000 years, less than 0.4% of the sample's mass needs to be derived from modern material. If that material is bacteria (δ13C = -27‰ to -33‰) or humic acid (δ13C = -27‰), the δ13C value of the sample will not shift noticeably, because it is so close to the composition of the fossilized wood. But even if the material were atmosphere (δ13C = -7‰) or mineral carbon (δ13C = 0‰, give or take), the δ13C value of the sample would not shift to an extent detectable by the mass spectrometer. Here is the math:

(0.996 * -25.0‰) + (0.004 * 0.0‰) = -24.9‰

Keeping in mind that the uncertainty is close to 0.1‰, and the actual δ13C of trees ranges by 5–6‰...

Conclusion

Ken Ham's appeal to young fossil wood within old basalt may have caught Bill Nye off guard, but his claim remains unsubstantiated. The actual radiocarbon ages of this fossil wood were not reproducible by independent labs within analytical uncertainty, suggesting that contamination and/or background interference was responsible for much of the detected radiocarbon. Recent advances in AMS radiocarbon dating have focused on how to account for the fact that contamination is always introduced during sample preparation and how to correct for various kinds of background interference. Regardless, radiocarbon ages close to the practical limit of the method are always treated with some suspicion.

Radiocarbon dating of independently datable materials (lakes, tree rings, and stalagmites) provide highly corroborated calibration curves of radiocarbon activity over the past ~50,000 years. These studies alone disprove the notion that a recent, global Flood severely impacted concentrations of atmospheric 14C. Combining these records with the inherent uncertainties of the radiocarbon method, which were less resolved in 1993, we might conclude that Ken Ham's proposed dating conflicts are misleading at best.