Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

Never been here? Please read my guidelines and background posts before proceeding!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Team of creationists tackle the "Mysterious Islands" of Charles Darwin (Part 1)

Recently, I came across a documentary produced by Vision Forum, entitled "The Mysterious Islands". I want to share the experience with you—as well as my thoughts—as an example of how Darwinism is depicted and criticized within the Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) movement. The 1 hour and 40 minute video captures numerous conversations, wherein the filmmakers and team scientists discuss animal and rock specimens while retracing Darwin's steps on the Galapagos Islands. This casual style, set in the backdrop of inspirational scenery, should not be overlooked, as it powerfully conveys the communicative purpose of the film to its lay audience: biological evolution has long been disproven, and remains but a philosophical safety net for the unwavering skeptic.

Understanding this mindset is crucial when interacting with the YEC culture, for one soon discovers that 'debating evolution' involves far more than a set of biological facts and hypotheses; rather, it extends to multiple planes of life, from science to ethics to faith and epistemology. Granted, this film does not accurately represent evolutionary theory or its metaphysical implications (in my opinion), but it would be equally naïve to ignore these questions in critical discussion with those skeptical of evolution and/or conventional geology.

Before jumping into that critical discussion, I want emphasize that the cinematography and production of this film was spectacular. The filmmakers (Erwin Brothers) successfully captured the beauty of these islands and their fauna in such a manner that kept me interested. For those of you who have not seen the film, it is currently available on YouTube. My citations below are approximate and refer to times in the YouTube version. Following is Part 1 of my review, which focuses on the geological topics in the film.

Retracing Darwin's steps..."to prove him wrong"
In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, Doug Phillips of the Vision Forum led a once-in-a-lifetime excursion to the Galapagos Island. Accompanied by Dr. John Morris of the Institute for Creation Researcha film crew, and his 16-year-old son, Phillips is not shy about his mission. He states at the outset:

“Almost two centuries ago, a man named Charles Darwin ventured here, and the world was never the same.... [We have come here] to test Darwin’s idea’s in light of good science and eternal truth... [Darwin] got some things right, but I’m convinced he got even more things wrong. And the result was a lot of confusion about life, science—pretty much everything.”

Phillips sees the Galapagos Island as a crucial geographic center of what he considers a battle for the worldviews. When asked by the film crew to explain their role in documenting the adventure, Phillips responds that “It is the defining issue at the defining time... We’ve gotta go to ground zero.” (11:25) This film thus rests on a drawn dichotomy between the Bible and young-Earth creationism on the one hand, and evolutionary biology and skepticism on the other.

Geological mishaps

In a ‘tabletalk’ discussion with the crew (~12:00), Phillips introduces and explains the role of Dr. John Morris—current president of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and son of the late Henry Morris. Dr. Morris received a Ph.D. in Geological Engineering from the University of Oklahoma, where he briefly served on the faculty. He was thus the ideal companion for Phillips, who explains that “when we came to the Galapagos, we knew that we’d have to handle the geology...”. My curiosity spiked: how will the geology be ‘handled’? Will Dr. Morris propose a mechanism by which these islands could have formed and then eroded into the modern landscape within the past ~4,500 years (i.e. since the Flood)? This would require a detailed look at the petrology of islands, as well as their modern morphology and climate. Will he test published geochronological data, which place the age of the main islands at ~2.4–1.9 Ma? Will he contrast those with K-Ar dates of the most recent volcanic activity (at Volcán Alcedo), which dates to less than 120 k.y.? What about the now submerged, wave-terraced islands that are part of the same archipelago? Radiometric dates place these former islands between 5–9 Ma, inline with estimates based on plate-tectonic motion. With so much to cover, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Intermediate Fossil Forms
Dr. Morris’ first comments on geology came an hour into the film, during a discussion on intermediate fossil forms. Phillips paraphrases Darwin as saying “We don’t have them now, but we’re going to find them.” He then sarcastically asks John Morris whether he had seen any transitional forms lately in the fossil record. Morris responds (1:01:10) “I’ve been studying a lot about fossils lately. I’m writing a book on fossils. There’s just no transitional forms. There are the same categories that are alive today; these kinds that we see alive today—the dogs and the cats. We see extinct cats and we see extinct dogs, but they’re dogs and cats.”

Such a confusing generalization of the fossil record belies its complexity, however, not least because dogs were domesticated from wolves by humans and do not really appear in the fossil record. Given the modern understanding of rates of evolution and the paucity of geological preservation, paleontologists today recognize that Darwin’s assessments of the fossil record were not only premature (transitional forms have been found), but were predicated by a false understanding of both macroevolution—namely, phyletic gradualism—and genetics. In other words, speciation is rarely accompanied by a gradual shift in phenotypic expression (anatomy, etc.), as demonstrated in modern populations of recently isolated fishes (e.g. African cichlids) and small mammals. When isolated, species can also become very large (Galapagos tortoise) or very small (Pygmy mammoths) very fast.

Thinly bedded sediments and catastrophic flows
The team later took a boat past cliffs of exposed volcanic flows. Dr. Morris took a moment to speak about thinly bedded pyroclastic flows. To my surprise, he explained them as having been laid down one layer after another (in a matter of seconds for each), as though each tiny layer represented a depositional 'event'. Granted, pyroclastic flows are rapidly deposited, but not as individual, millimeter-thin layers. He continues:

“I was taught [as a budding geologist] that whenever you see these fine gradations like this, these are formed—they say—in a lake environment, or maybe a lagoon or something like that. And it’s seasonal deposition. In the winter there’ll be a little bit, less than a millimeter, and in the summer there’ll be a little bit. And whenever you see this layer (a winter/summer couplet), that represents a year. And if you go near this cliff, you’d see millions of these layers...But with a catastrophe, things could happen in a hurry.” 

I was somewhat shocked by this explanation. Any experienced geologist (and this includes Dr. Morris) should be able to recognize the difference between varved lake sediments and a pyroclastic flow. Unfortunately, the audience will come away with the impression that scientists have long interpreted volcanic ash and mud flows as gradually deposited lake sediments. This is simply not the case.

Lake sediments contain abundant organic material (not likely to be found in pyroclastic flows) or fossils (e.g. Green River Formation) within a matrix of sedimentary minerals. Organic carbon can be recovered and analyzed to confirm whether it came from decomposing remains of lake algae, trees, grasses, and/or various aquatic plants. A quick scan on the X-Ray Diffraction machine can tell you whether the minerals are relatively unaltered specimens of feldspar, mica, and glassy quartz that were buried quickly after a volcanic eruption, or highly weathered specimens of the same that accumulated slowly in an open lake system. In the case of lake sediments, further analysis should be able to identify sedimentary calcite, which precipitates in certain lakes during the summer months. The isotopic composition of calcite can be used to distinguish between minerals formed in a lake system fed by rain/snow and broken up pieces of limestone that just happened to ‘get caught in the flow’. In short, abundant methods are available (I have focused on the geochemical) that would prevent any serious geologist from mistaking volcanic flows (including mudflows) from lake sediments. Dr. Morris’ claims here are entirely dishonest.

Radiometric dating
Convinced by Dr. Morris’ discussion on volcanic sediments, Doug Phillips inquires about the age of the rocks. Dr. Morris is ready to respond anecdotally with an example not from the Galapagos Islands, but from Mt. St. Helens, wherein he claims that rocks formed in the recent eruption had been dated radiometrically at 2.4 million years. This claim refers to an old study by Dr. Steven Austin, who prepared the Mt. St. Helens samples for conventional Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) dating. It should be pointed out, however, that only a single biotite phenocryst actually ‘dated’ to ~2 million years old, while other samples yielded much younger dates (most of which were indistinguishable from zero). Dr. Austin sent the samples, moreover, to a laboratory that explicitly stated they lacked the precision to analyze young (<2 m.y.) rocks. The reason is that zero-age volcanic rocks contain very little to no radiogenic argon (i.e. produced by radioactive decay). Modern laboratories that work with such young samples thus require expensive vacuum pumps and a type of ‘amplifier’ for the mass spectrometer, called an electron multiplier. In other words, Dr. Austin’s approach was very similar to trying to measure a few specs of dust on a scale at the grocery store, and then concluding that the scale must be broken because the dust cannot possibly weigh a full ounce! By this reasoning, I am paying far too much for my vegetables.

Unaware of these blunders, Doug Phillips believes that this example raises a fundamental question about radiometric dating. “Every one of those recent volcanoes has been dated at millions and millions of years...”, says Dr. Morris while ignoring current research and propagating his error. Doug asks, “What’s the problem then?” Morris swiftly retorts, “I think the method is wrong! The measurements are precise. The equations, everything is right about it. But the assumptions behind the theory are wrong.”
And cut. The audience is left to imagine what those assumptions might be, which of them might be wrong, and how Dr. Morris can actually verify this. We are not told that 39Ar/40Ar dating of recent volcanoes has actually been used to verify the method’s accuracy. Instead, the audience is kept in the dark about modern geochronology, which has long established various methods by which to test its assumptions.

It is well known that Darwin carried with him to the Galapagos a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. In fact, Darwin is well remembered by some for his contributions to the geology of volcanic islands. According to Dr. Morris, however, this book may as well have been a pair of sunglasses, since “Lyell based his assumptions [that the earth was vastly older than the Bible claimed] on uniformitarianism.” (1:08:35) Of course, Lyell and many of his contemporaries did not believe this age of the Earth was necessarily at odds with the Bible. He simply described methods to interpret geological strata—some of which are still in use today. As the dialogue ensues (1:10:45), however, it becomes apparent that nobody on this trip quite understood the meaning of uniformitarianism:

   Phillips: “Is there a message that the salt gives us?”
   Dr. Morris explains how salt is fluxed to the ocean through continental weathering, and that the ocean’s salt content is building up year by year. Then he says, “If uniformitarian thinking is correct, and the oceans are gaining the same amount of salt every year...with a simple division, you can tell how old the ocean is just by the salt content and the introduction of salt... If the oceans were millions of years old...they would now be so choked with salt, nothing could live in the ocean.”

Dr. Morris thus falsely presents uniformitarianism as a simple extrapolation of modern processes and rates into the unknowable past. In reality, the amount of salt being carried into the ocean is not constant, and neither would we expect it to be constant over geological time. Along Dr. Morris’ line of reasoning, one might similarly predict that my bank account cannot be older than one month, simply by comparing the balance today (I just received my tax return) with the balance last week. One major task of geologists has been to investigate how these geochemical cycles (the calcium and chlorine cycles, for example) have changed over geologic history. Some processes add salt to the ocean; others remove it. The respective rates are not constant, and uniformitarianism does not assume them to be.

Many creationists have argued along with Dr. Morris that the current amount of salt in the oceans places an upper limit on the age of the Earth (<60 million years), but their position is based solely on the poorly documented sodium cycle. Since Livingstone (1963) first proposed a quantitative model of sodium exchange on Earth’s surface, more recent research has elucidated how mid-ocean ridges remove vast quantities of sodium from the ocean (creationist models actually assume that mid-ocean ridges add sodium to the ocean). Also, thanks to extensive mapping by the oil industry (salt is a very important ‘trap’ that captures oil in the subsurface), we can demonstrate that 1) more salt is exposed at the surface today than ever in geologic history; and 2) modern rates of salt deposition are much lower than the average rate over geologic history. Not only is Dr. Morris’ argument based on a false understanding of uniformitarianism, but it derives from false data as well.

Conclusion to Part 1
I mean no disrespect to Dr. Morris, who seems a capable teacher and a man heartily devoted to his work and his family, but the basic errors made with respect to geology are sufficient to question the quality and integrity of the film. No answers were given, moreover, regarding the actual geology of the Galapagos Islands according to a young-Earth paradigm. Even if you agree with Dr. Morris and think that I have been unfair, I hope that you would be curious enough to search for those answers from qualified individuals. Although Dr. Morris does hold a Ph.D., his academic background is in civil and geological engineering. These fields require you to know something about geology, but Dr. Morris' knowledge of the fossil record, radiometric dating, sedimentology, and the application of uniformitarianism are secondary to his degree. Geological engineering is a very different field from igneous petrology or paleontology, for example, and it's somewhat misleading to refer to Dr. Morris as a 'geologist'. Though I thank Dr. Morris and his colleagues for showing us the beauty and mystery of the Galapagos, I pray you would not lose the necessary discernment to examine his claims.