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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review (Part 2): Science vs. Religion (Departments)—which is more 'compromised' according to Ken Ham?

In the first post, I examined how Ken Ham and Greg Hall used a methodology similar to KJV Onlyists when interpreting poll results in their book Already Compromised. By arbitrarily defining their own views on creation as the singular, biblical worldview, they managed to transform a poll about personal beliefs into a test. Ken summarized the results thusly (p. 35):

"Overall, we found that only 24 percent of the 312 people surveyed answered every question correctly...and these are the “good guys”!"

Nobody can blame the authors for believing themselves to be in the right, but this attitude shifted the book from an academic discussion about Christian education into a pontifical monologue that precluded critical reflection.

Departmental matchup

Now, I want to consider how the authors compared the science and religion departments from each institution. As an introductory exercise, ask yourself how you might expect the heads of the science and religion departments to answer the same set of questions regarding biblical authority, literalism, and views on creation/Earth history. In which department would you expect to find more biblical literalists? Old-Earth creationists? Inerrantists? Let's take a look.

Biblical Inerrancy
As it turns out, the two departments were on the same page with regard to biblical authority, and a vast majority affirmed the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of scripture. A slightly higher (but not statistically significant) percentage of Religion professors affirmed these three doctrines, to which Ken responded (p. 52, emphasis added):

"As you can see, the responses are fairly close, with the religion departments claiming a slightly higher view of Scripture than the science departments."

I am slightly bothered by the use of the comparative term "higher" in this context. More often than not, it is used pejoratively to speak of those who question modern definitions of inerrancy. The more I have studied the history of this doctrine, the more I have come to think its use is simply polemical—in other words, a method of protecting scripture from modernism and liberalism rather than a scripture-derived doctrine. The result is a number of odd discussions about how many times Jesus cursed the fig tree and cleansed the temple (e.g. here) or which calendar the gospel writers used to chronicle the passion week. In the end, readers miss the grand points of the gospel narratives and only push other believers into liberalism. Regardless of how you feel about the doctrine of inerrancy, Ken's treatment of this section is consistent with my hypothesis concerning his agenda.

How old is the Earth?
When asked specific questions on the historicity of Genesis 1–9, a higher percentage of respondents from the science department sided with Ken Ham. A whopping 78% of respondents from the religion departments considered themselves 'Old-Earth' Christians, compared to only 35% in the science department! Not surprisingly, Ken finds a moment to rejoice (p. 54):

"It turns out that the science department is much more biblical in their beliefs than the religion department!...The religion chairs and the Bible departments are choosing to be influenced by worldly philosophy rather than what the Bible clearly teaches concerning historical science and the facts of observational science that confirm the biblical record."

I suppose that's one way to put it. We might also consider, however, the fact that a vast majority of Christian scientists reject young-Earth creationism for lack of scientific evidence. If you are a professor of biblical studies with a literature background, how might you weigh the spurious evidence of radioactive carbon in diamonds and excess helium in zircons—especially when Christian scientists that work in radiocarbon and material science labs have exhaustively documented the bogus claims of RATE team studies? When faced with a factual decision on matters outside of our own expertise, we typically defer credibility to expert witnesses, and young-Earth creationists have neither the numbers nor the evidence on their side. Ken further speculates:

"This isn’t surprising, considering most of them attended seminaries that adhere to compromise views such as the “documentary hypothesis,” a theory that denies that Moses wrote a cohesive historical account of history in the first five books of the Bible."

To my knowledge, Ken did not poll respondents on their view of the documentary hypothesis (DH), but I am willing to speculate along with him that a higher percentage of religion professors accept it. The reason is that they deal directly with the textual and historical evidence on which it is based. But I highly doubt that acceptance of this theory is responsible for the divergence in opinion on the age of the Earth. Christian proponents of the DH do not reject the inspiration of scripture, for example, and nearly 90% of Ken's respondents affirmed the inerrancy of scripture.

The Pentateuchal authorship and date of composition is irrelevant, therefore, to whether one accepts the Genesis account as historical. If you already accept the narratives as divinely inspired, infallible, and inerrant, does it really matter when the text was written down or by whom? Even if the Flood narrative originated as an eyewitness account (I believe it did), the final Pentateuchal version has added theological imagery and structure. Besides, it is possible to deny that an eyewitness account is 100% accurate. Ken's hypothesis does little, in my opinion, to explain these results.

A better explanation for the departmental dichotomy can be found in their respective literary views of scripture. In the religion department, 73% of respondents believed the creation account is "literally true", but only 57% believe this was done in "six literal 24-hour days". As previously noted, Ken believes this is inconsistent and that respondents are simply confused and contradicting themselves. But in reality, these questions reveal that professors of religion have a better appreciation for the term "literal" than does Mr. Ham.

Another missing link in the train of thought might be found in how respondents view the biblical genealogies. Are they meant to help us back calculate dates for primeval events (like the flood and creation) or were they a later addition meant to add more than just biographical information to the stories? Students of the Bible from each department may approach this question differently, depending on how they normally treat numerical data. The same goes for understanding the days of creation. It is possible to affirm that God created in "six literal days" without attaching "24 hours" to those days and placing them at the head of Ussher's chronology.

When asked whether they thought faculty from the religion and science departments shared the same view on the age of the Earth, 81.5% of religion professors said "Yes" compared to only 36.5% from the sciences. What does this mean? Is there a miscommunication? Ken comments, "The religion department thinks everyone has the same view, but the science department tends to know better." I think Ken oversimplifies the matter, however, and actually overlooks the answer when discussing old vs. young earth views between the departments (p. 56):

"...what I am finding is that most Christian parents and students...expect that...it would be science professors who would be more likely to lean toward evolution/millions of years and that religion professors would be more likely to lean toward a literal creation."

That's exactly right, and it seems everyone had the same presumption. If you recall, 78% of religion professors called themselves 'Old-Earth' Christians—about the same number that believe the science department is on the same page. Conversely, 57% of science professors deem themselves "Young-Earth" Christians—about the same number that believe the religion department is on the same page.

Ken's poll thus confirmed what the general perception has always been: 'millions of years' is a personal tenant of scientists, but people that teach the Bible for a living invariably believe in a young Earth. Of course, the poll also exposed this dichotomy as a myth—most professors in biblical studies do not believe in a young-Earth or a literalistic approach to Genesis.

Ken's refusal to learn from his own test
Although Ken claims not to have been surprised by the results from each department, he does seem bothered that most professors of biblical studies don't share his take on the Bible. So why don't faculty in the religion department adopt his hermeneutic? I think it is because his approach depends on a simplistic view of scripture that refuses to engage in literary, cultural, or historical critical studies—not what you would expect from Ph.D.'s in literature, language, and history. Ironically, Ken blames it on their ignorance of science (p. 56):

"Can the religion department explain the existence of coal deposits and how they were formed? Can they explain the actual structure of the fossil record? Can they explain the assumptions behind radiometric dating methods? No, they can’t."

Judging by the articles offered at Answers in Genesis, neither can you, Mr. Ham. Ultimately, the physical evidence for 'creation science' only makes sense within a non-scientific, young-Earth paradigm, where the conclusion is known from the outset. It seems most folks in the religion department recognize the flawed methodology of young-Earth creationism, and prefer to appeal to people who actually conduct scientific research. This frustrates Ken further, as he tells us (p. 56, emphasis added):

"When I engage liberals from the religion departments...most of them repeat the familiar mantra: “Science has proven that evolution/ millions of years is true.” But when I ask them for specifics, they often don’t have much of a clue, as they are depending on some other authority. If I ask them why they believe in an old earth, they invariably answer, “Because of radiocarbon dating.” But any scientist should know that the radiocarbon dating method can’t be used for something that is supposedly millions of years old."

True, but it can show us how many thousands of objects are older than Noah's flood (trees, sediments, caves, etc.) and the Garden of Eden. It also shows that marine and lake sediments have been accumulating continuously—without catastrophic interruption—for the past 10, 20, or even 50 thousand years.

I suspect Ken might answer with a story about the pre-Flood biomass and post-Flood volcanics diluting the carbon cycle; or a pre-Flood atmosphere that blocked out radiation, or any number of hypotheses contrary to the facts—as long as it protects his reading of scripture. But in the end, the radiocarbon method stands as solid evidence against the young-Earth paradigm, and these professors are justified in citing it. Ken cannot explain, for example, the agreement of radiocarbon dating with U-Th disequilibrium dating (which is unrelated to the factors above), or with tree ring, ice core, and varve counts; or how Native American campfires could date to ~11,000 years ago when they must have burnt long after the Flood.

When asked whether they consider themselves a ‘young-earth or old-earth Christian’, more than twice the respondents from the religion department answered ‘old-earth’ than in the science department. Ken found this result "intriguing and very disturbing.” Ironically, Ham’s approach to science is rooted in a dogmatic dependence on his literalistic reading of Genesis—a reading rejected by the vast majority of professors of religion, according to his own poll. But Ken is too nearsighted to see what this means, and so he hides behind yet another defense mechanism to explain the unexpected result: “The science department tends to know better.”


This review will be continued in Part 3: Ken Ham's uncompromising approach to alternate views on creation and the flood.

**A condensed version of this book review is available on Amazon, where I gave the book two stars. If you have found the discussion helpful, please vote for the review there.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review (Part 1): Ken Ham takes a page from the KJV-Onlyists in 'Already Compromised'

In their recent book Already Compromised, authors Ken Ham and Greg Hall sound a warning call to parents enrolling their children at Christian colleges around the country. Why the alarm? As it turns out, not every Christian academic shares Ham's view on creation and Earth history. Presumably, students and parents alike opt for Christian higher education to avoid the influence of 'secularism' (i.e. evolution and 'millions of years'), but what "they don’t know," according to Ham, "is that, like the secular schools they wish to avoid...a growing number of the Christian schools they attend are...Already Compromised" (p. 8).

The book begins with a rather simple overview that chronicles the transition of Ivy League seminaries in America to secularized universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth—all began as modest institutions designed to raise up ministers in the Puritan and Protestant traditions. But to meet the demands of a growing and diversifying economy, and preserve their stature as major beacons to American intellectuals, these universities adopted principles of academic—and hence religious—freedom in their curriculum. Mr. Ham is correct about one thing: it is mildly disheartening to see the spiritual foundations of our university system blurred in a fog of relativism. But if schools such as Harvard had maintained the narrow disciplinary focus and guidelines that Ham envisions, they would not today be known to us as Harvard, etc., but as that little ol' seminary in Massachusetts.

Regardless of how one thinks the Ivy League schools should have responded to intellectual movements of the past 400 years, we can still ask whether Christian colleges today should follow a similar path. Ken Ham thinks not. In fact, he believes the transition has already begun, and that it's time to take a stand. Ham and Hall polled 312 faculty/administration from ostensibly Christian institutions to assess 'how bad' the situation really is. "Christian colleges took a test on the state of their faith," reads the subtitle, "and the results are in!" If you read the back cover, you might expect the results to be "revealing and shocking!"

But if you've paid any attention to the origins debate in recent years, then prepare to be utterly unsurprised.

Method and agenda

I love polls, and I love pondering the results. Therefore, I would recommend this book to everyone simply on the basis that it contains a detailed analysis of what faculty and administration believe about creation, the age of the Earth, and biblical authority. An independent research group polled faculty/deans from both the science and religion departments, as well as the President and Vice-President of each institution. Both Catholic and Protestant schools were represented. Some institutions required faculty to sign a statement of faith; others did not. Regardless of whether this book properly interpreted the results, the data are bound to be informative and stimulating.

Unfortunately, it seemed the authors had a predetermined agenda that even guided the wording of their poll. "We are at war," writes Greg Hall, "against thoughts...raised up against the knowledge of God...aimed at the minds of our children." (p. 37) Few Christians would disagree, I think, until one recognizes how the authors categorically limit "the knowledge of God." Ken Ham clarifies, anecdotally, "I consider the view of taking a strong stand on six literal days and a young earth as the correct biblical view, and the other views are incorrect."

So this poll is not so much about understanding the diversity in Christian opinion as it is exposing educators that would dare disagree with Ken Ham or Answers in Genesis. Since I am familiar with Ham's work, and the articles that appear at Answers in Genesis, I was not surprised by his suspect methodology (ambiguously worded questions and equivocation of answers). My hope, however, is that you will find it in yourself to think critically through this work, and consider that Ham and Hall may have overstated the case.

KJV Onlyism—what's the connection?

Not far into the 236-page book, I felt that I was reading inside of an echo chamber. Ham's hermeneutic, which I hope to elucidate in the following sections, was eerily familiar. Years ago, I became interested in the field of textual criticism, which seeks to reconstruct the original text of the Bible using variant manuscripts. In short, ancient (hand-written) copies of the Bible do not agree with each other letter for letter, but contain textual variations. A majority of these differences are as meaningless as spelling errors and accidental word omissions (i.e. 'typos'), but a sufficient number of major variants (i.e. additional or variant vocabulary, sentences, or even paragraphs that affect the meaning of a text) exist to keep scholars busy under piles of newly discovered papyri.

Most Christians ignore the issue of textual criticism, or see it as unfruitful. Others, however, are disturbed  that we can't know with 100% certainty the original words of Scripture, and even repulsed by the idea of a 'critical text'. Are these really the words of Jesus and the apostles? Can we still trust the Bible?

This sort of skepticism in Christianity is fertile ground for what is called the King James Version Only movement. Reacting to what they perceive as a threat to the authority of God's word, KJV Onlyists have posited that God inspired an English translation of the biblical text for our day and age. Which version is that? Well, the 1611 King James Authorized Version, of course! Never mind that the KJV was updated a century later, and ultimately rests on the textual critical work of Desiderius Erasmus. KJV Onlyists have elegantly dodged debates surrounding the elusive original text by arbitrarily defining a new datum. [Before moving on, I should note that KJV Onlyism comes in many forms, and I have intentionally simplified the debate here; see The King James Only Controversy by Dr. James White for an excellent, scholarly overview.]

After the King James Version of the Bible has been dogmatically defined as the standard for God's word, rational discourse effectively comes to a halt. If the NIV or NASB do not contain a word or phrase that is found in the KJV (e.g. 1 John 5:7), it is because translators of the newer versions are trying to manipulate God's word (in this case, by willfully removing a prooftext for the Trinity). In the mind of some KJV Onlyists, the appeal to more ancient and widely attested manuscript evidence is but a contrivance of academic elitism—or worse, a Satanic conspiracy.

Within this paradigm, one can only imagine how a poll might be conducted of faculty at Christian colleges. Imagine that you were faced with the following questions:

1. Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?
(a) Yes
(b) No

2. Do you regularly read the Word of God?
(a) Yes
(b) No

3. Which version of the Bible do you read?
(a) King James Version
(b) New International Version
(c) New American Standard Version
(d) English Standard Version

Now consider the following (hypothetical) results:

1: (a) 97% (b) 3%
2: (a) 87% (b) 13%
3: (a) 11% (b) 42% (c) 15% (d) 32%

To the average person, these data may simply represent current opinions on the doctrine of inspiration or the palpability of each English Bible to the modern reader. But to the KJV Onlyist, there is only one right set of answers: a, a, and a. If an ardent KJV Onlyist were reporting the results, he/she might even comment that 'although 97% of respondents believe the Bible is the Word of God, and still 87% claim to read it, a whopping 89% are apparently confused, because they admit to reading something that is not the Word of God (i.e. the King James Bible) but a secularized corruption! Don't they realize that their answers for 1 and 3 are contradictory?'

If you think this kind of analysis would be misleading, and only muddles the results of the poll, then you can understand my frustration in reading Already Compromised. Consider, for example, the following set of questions from Ham's poll (p. 21–22):

13. Do you believe the Genesis 1–2 account of creation is literally true?
• Yes: 83.0%   • No: 14.7%   • Don't know: 2.2%

16. Do you believe in God creating the earth in six literal 24-hour days?
• Yes: 59.6%   • No: 38.5%

17. Do you believe in God creating the earth, but not in six literal days?
• Yes: 47.1%   • No: 50.6%   • Don't know: 2.2%

How would you respond? I would answer Yes, No, and No. The reason is that I have no trouble adhering to a 'literal' reading of Genesis 1–2 or proclaiming that God created things in 6 'literal' days, but I see no reason to believe these chapters have anything to do with the passage of time on Earth. Rather, it pertains to the 'work week' of the timeless God. Nonetheless, Ken believes my answers to be inconsistent, and so he comments (p. 22, emphasis added):

"It’s clear that we have some confusion here...people didn’t always mean what they said. For example, 83 percent said that they believe Genesis 1 and 2 are literally true. But when we asked whether they believe God created in six literal days, only 59.6 percent answered yes. That means about 23 percent are either confused, wrong, or just haven’t thought this through...Questions 16 and 17 are virtually the opposites of each other...but almost 10 percent of the people answered yes to both questions, indicating that they believe in six literal days of creation and they don’t believe in six literal days of creation!"

Ken's fiat declaration that a literal reading of Genesis requires a 24-hour day, young-Earth model—though well intentioned—is but an artifact of his own hubris. These results merely imply that respondents do not agree with Ken on what the 'literal' reading of Genesis is—not that they are confused or "wrong"! Nonetheless, he continues (p. 34): "nearly four in five who adhere to an old-earth theory believe the Bible is literally true. Keep in mind these two concepts are polar opposites." Like those who limit God's word to a 17th-century translation of the former, Ken has limited the meaning of God's word to his own interpretation, and then acts surprised to find that not everyone follows his line of reasoning.

The inquisition doesn't end at Genesis 2, of course. Ken goes on to analyze respondents' take on the Flood (p. 53, emphasis added): "Notice that while 75 percent and 84 percent said they believe the Bible is literally true, only slightly more than half...believe in a literal worldwide flood! Approximately 25 percent are being inconsistent in their answers." But a question like "Do you believe the Bible is literally true?" is very different from "Do you believe the entire Earth was covered with water several thousand years ago, during which continents rearranged, entire mountain chains were formed, and 99% of animals went extinct as they were buried under miles of sediment; and that every individual terrestrial/avian species today (including humans) is descended from the survivors of a 450-foot long wooden boat?"

Since Ken already knows the diversity of Christian opinion on the Flood story, I find it curious that he would deem it appropriate to phrase the questions as he did. It seems to me that he is creating an experiment in which he already knows the results, and plans to use the data to meet the needs of his agenda. One might give Ken the benefit of the doubt, however, and assume that he doesn't understand how the word 'literal' is or ought to be used. That assumption, accurate or not, is key to his recurring rhetoric. He notes, for example, that

"79.1 percent of those who believe the earth is old also believe that the Bible is literally true. The word “literally true” apparently means nothing to them." (p. 123, emphasis added)

No, Mr. Ham. The phrase "literally true" apparently means too little to yourself. Ken hits the nail on the head in page 83, where he says (regarding the 'global' nature of the Flood):

"...even those words donʼt necessarily mean to these academics what they mean to us. Iʼm not saying that theyʼre necessarily being deceptive; theyʼre just not being descriptive. If you want to find out what they really mean, you have to ask very specific questions."

That is absolutely correct. Moreover, you should recognize that the word 'literal' is hardly descriptive in and of itself, in part because our common, connotative use of the word diverges in meaning from the academic use. We don't believe that a 'literal' reading of Genesis requires belief in a young-Earth, or a recent, worldwide, geological catastrophe. Period. To reconcile that point, we must consider what the respondents actually had in mind regarding 'literal' this, and 'literal' that.

The literal literalism of lexical absolutism

I normally try to avoid speaking of the 'literal' reading of Scripture, because I see it a moot point to affirm or deny that God's word is 'literally true'. Regardless of one's answer, it will invariably die the death of a thousand qualifications: "Well, that part is actually metaphorical...and this here is an allegory...and we need archaeology to help us understand these numbers, etc."

We commonly use the word 'literally' in the following, nuanced sense: "I didn't think you would take me literally when I said to 'go fly a kite'!" In other words, 'literal' is pitted against 'figurative'. But in literary analysis, we can speak of 'literal' as being according to the letter—i.e. the plainest meaning of the text as the original audience might understand it. Simply put, there is no consensus on what the 'literal' reading of scripture actually is. But when exegetes speak of the 'literal' reading of the text, they are really asking "What did the original author intend this to mean?"

To answer this question requires some work in determining the literary genre and normal use of vocabulary, as well as the cultural and historical context of each letter. Since Genesis was written more than 3,000 years ago, we are far removed from those contexts, and have only recently uncovered the literary world in which Genesis 1–9 was drafted. Consequently, interpretations of Genesis across history are as fluid as the nuanced usages of its vocabulary. Consider, for example, how the phrase 'And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures..."' might sound to a 4th-century Greek fisherman versus a 21st-century American marine biologist.

Ken Ham and other young-Earth creationists (YECs) try to avoid the obscurity of ancient Near-Eastern cosmologies by committing, arbitrarily, to a flat-footed reading of the text. In other words, they demand a one-to-one correspondence between the text and its meaning. Rather than sowing confusion in throwing around the term 'literal', I would rather term this hermeneutic lexical absolutism, or simply literalism, because it appeals to modern dictionary definition over contextual meaning.

Such a distinction will require YECs to be more specific, particularly when discussing 'biblical truth'. At one point, Greg Hall complains (p. 42):

"I have heard other scholars say that “the Bible is true in all it affirms” (whatever that means)..."

What this means is that the Bible is true in what God meant it to say, not what you think it says. Despite his sarcasm, Greg applies the same principle in denying geocentricism or a flat Earth (or evolution, for that matter), because although some may use the biblical text to find support for any of the above, Greg could simply respond, "Oh, but that's not what the Bible ever intended to teach; you're twisting its words!" Fair enough. The accusation goes both ways, however, so the principle that Greg cites is, at very least, an admission that the human understanding of scripture inevitably results from a fallible, hermeneutical exercise. We affirm the inspiration, infallibility, and perspicuity of scripture by faith. But we also recognize the necessity of semper reformanda—that we should always be reforming our thought—in light of the human tendency to place tradition and personal interest above God's word. Greg continues:

'...but they go on to say that it...should be trusted only in matters of faith, not matters of science. That equivocation is heresy to me, considering that...“all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”'

His citation is from 2 Timothy 3:16, which is the classic prooftext for inspiration and the sufficiency of scripture to bind the Christian conscience. Paul's fourfold use of scripture here pertains specifically to matters of Christian faith, however, and not to 'matter-of-fact' statements about astronomy, geology, and biology. In the surrounding context, Paul explains to Timothy how scripture is able to make one "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus"—a matter of faith—"so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work"—a matter of Christian practice.

One may affirm Paul's exhortation in 2 Timothy, therefore, without demanding that Genesis clarify principles of geology. So what is the motivation behind Ken's and Greg's insistence on a 'literal' reading of Genesis that places God's word at odds with the evidence from creation? I think it is to protect believers from having to engage in the origins debate properly, and deal with the theological implications of an old Earth where life evolves to diversify. But instead, it portrays the author of Genesis 1–9 as an unimaginative stenographer, rather than a deep, theological thinker, who saw history and theology as intimately connected and sought to explicate his God's redemptive work through poetic narrative.

Admitting that the latter portrait may have been responsible for the Genesis text will require some humility on our part as we try to unravel the worldview of that author. Young-Earth creationists may have the hermeneutic advantage by avoiding the hard questions, but their arbitrary simplification does not make the problems go away. It merely leads to a picture of Earth history that has less and less to do with reality, all for the sake of maintaining an "us vs. them" mentality with regard to the doctrine of creation. There is no better way, in my opinion, to compromise the minds of our young ones than to root their faith in the spurious evidence for a young Earth and a global flood.


This review is continued in Part 2: Science vs. Religion (Departments)—which is more 'compromised' according to Ken Ham?

**A condensed version of this book review is available on Amazon, where I gave the book two stars. If you have found the discussion helpful, please vote for the review there.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Looking for a quick, eloquent explanation of evolution and common descent?

Thus far, I have not commented on topics that deal with biological evolution. As stated in my introductory article, my aim was to avoid the subject—not because it is controversial, but rather because it is beyond my expertise. Nonetheless, I wanted to share some reflections from my recent attempt to better grasp the subject. At the end of this article, I have linked a helpful video that discusses the genetic evidence for common descent, and human evolution in particular. Please, check it out!

Deciphering life's message in the rocks

As a geologist, I have a vested academic interest in biological evolution. For one, I have collected thousands of fossiliferous rock samples, and want to understand why specific fossil forms appear where they do in the rock record. And although I am not a paleontologist, these concepts do intercept with my primary disciplinary focus—biogeochemistry. To be succinct, the field of biogeochemistry studies how the chemical interaction of the oceans, atmosphere, rocks, and life have shaped the history of our planet. Why did mass extinctions occur? What caused periods of warming/cooling, and how did the planet respond? How did new organisms fill the niches left vacant by the 'victims' of oceanographic and atmospheric perturbations? When and how did oxygen fill the atmosphere and, conversely, when and how did carbon dioxide become depleted? Understanding the evolution of organisms is integral to every one of these questions when examined on long-term—or geologic—timescales.

For the most part, my schooling and research has only required a modest familiarity with evolutionary processes and the fossil record. In trying to publish my most recent research, however, I had to wrestle with questions about how the ecology of Earth's oceans would respond to a world of rising oxygen, falling carbon dioxide, an increase in major nutrient (phosphate/nitrate) availability, and a decrease in redox-sensitive nutrients (e.g. iron). In other words, how did organisms evolve to survive this dramatically changing world, and what kind of chemical (e.g. isotopic) record would they leave?

I apologize for thinking out loud here in jargon-ridden phrases, but I hope you can appreciate how the major sciences intertwine, and why I am pursuing a better understanding of evolutionary theory. Yes, I have taken basic biology courses and contributed to paleontological research, but these produced more questions than they answered.

Where next?

At the same time, I am aware of the controversy surrounding evolutionary theory in the mind of the general public, and particularly within the church. Personally, I do not have any objections to accepting biological evolution (on scientific or theological grounds), but I understand why many are skeptical of evolution in general, and why others are passionately opposed to accepting any part of it (let alone have it taught to their children!). Nonetheless, I find the emotionally driven, highly polarized 'non-discussion' that takes place between evolutionary biologists and their critics to be unfortunate at best, and childish at worst. Let me give you an example.

When I began my search, I purchased two best-sellers: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, and Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. Yes, some might call this 'pop-science' writing, and an unusual place for a graduate student to seek science lessons. But I simply wanted to know from the start: "What do the most outspoken proponents of evolutionary theory believe is the best evidence?"

In short, I enjoyed reading both books. Their arguments transitioned smoothly from one to the next in logical fashion. When I finished, I thought: "Yeah, that sounds good. This is a well established theory." But I also felt disappointed. I had learned a majority of these arguments already, either years ago in science class or—strangely enough—while browsing through creationist literature! At very few points in each book did I come away with "Aha!" moments in response to novel explanations or examples of the evidence. That being said, Dawkins' explanation of the 'arms race' of evolutionary ecology (the 'tall forests' example), sexual selection, and DNA's role in embryology/development (the 'origami' analogy) were superb—I recommend them to any enquiring student of biology.

Unfortunately, these rather enlightening chapters were prefaced by numerous, rhetorical 'cheap shots' at creationists and an error-ridden explanation of isotopes and radiometric dating. Initially, his major defense against creationism was to call it a product of dogmatism, ignorance, and stupidity. But when Dawkins' touched on subjects that fell under my own expertise—namely, isotope geochemistry—I found that his information was erroneously translated from secondhand sources. In other words, he was arrogantly promoting false information about a subject in which he had never conducted research, because he didn't know enough to correct the errors. Not surprisingly, Dawkins can't seem to figure out why the percentage of people that reject evolution continues to grow.

Don't stop now!

Despite my criticism of Dawkins' approach (and, vicariously, many of his colleagues) to promoting evolutionary theory, my words should not be taken as an ad hominem attack on his conclusions. The evidence for common descent and biological evolution is considerable—overwhelming in some areas—and must be dealt with by any competing theory (of which there are none, currently). But if anyone is interested in convincing the public of this fact (or the church, for that matter), one must learn to address people with respect, while anticipating objections and presenting evidence against those objections. No skeptic of evolution will be convinced by the evidence from comparative anatomy and genomics, for example, if they believe that the challenge of 'irreducible complexity' is insurmountable. No skeptic of human evolution (common descent with the great apes) will be convinced by physical and genetic similarities if they believe 'common design' provides a viable, alternative explanation. Even if Dawkins is correct about evolution, he is preaching to the choir while alienating a majority of his audience.

But there is hope...

Recently, I came across the YouTube series entitled "Can an Evangelical Christian Accept Evolution?" by Dennis Venema—a biologist/geneticist at Trinity Western University and Senior Fellow of the Biologos Foundation. After reading his recent, autobiographical article at Biologos, I decided follow up on his work. I am posting the first video below in hopes that you will watch the full series (12 videos). Personally, I have never seen a better explanation of the genetic evidence for evolution. He cites original studies and presents the original data (so you can follow up on your own), while articulating each argument in an easily understandable manner. Best of all, he is respectful to the audience, their questions, and common objections to the evidence. Please, enjoy.*

*For those of you that prefer a written explanation, Dr. Venema's presentation above is taken from a 2010 ASA article (PDF found here).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Nebular hypothesis unwinds? New data recovered from the Genesis spacecraft elucidate Earth's planetisimal past

Following the latest science news, Brian Thomas at ICR commented here on a recent publication in Science regarding the Nebular Hypothesis. McKeegan et al., 2011 presented oxygen isotopic data collected from solar wind by the spacecraft Genesis, which crashed into Earth in 2004 (the collectors were recovered from the wreckage, surprisingly intact). The new data suggest that the inner planets did not derive their oxygen (in the minerals, not atmosphere) from a source that was isotopically homogenous with the sun. Judging by the tone of the article at ICR—titled NASA Data Derail Nebular Hypothesis—I fully expected that our understanding of the solar system was on the verge of a paradigm shift.

But I was wrong.

The Nebular Hypothesis remains intact, only corroborated by the new data. As it turns out, Mr. Thomas understood little, if anything, from the article in Science. In a single reference to McKeegan et al. (2011), Mr. Thomas says, "The bottom line is that the sun is "highly enriched" in oxygen, and astronomers have no idea why." The original article had nothing to do with oxygen concentrations, however, but with isotopic abundances. In other words, the sun is enriched in the ratio of 16O (light oxygen) to 17O and 18O (heavy oxygen)—not in oxygen itself. Second, the whole point of the article was to explain that we do know why the enrichment occurs. We just didn't know how much, because until now, nobody had been able to directly measure oxygen isotopes in solar materials.

The sun is enriched in the lighter oxygen isotope because of mass-dependent fractionation—a process in which one isotope is favored simply because it is heavier or lighter. One earthly example is the evaporation of water: the light isotope (16O) is preferentially evaporated because it is lighter. Therefore, rainwater is 'isotopically depleted' with respect to seawater. In the sun, a process called inefficient Coulomb drag causes lighter isotopes to concentrate in the sun's edge (i.e. the source of solar wind) and heavier isotopes to concentrate nearer the core. As an aside, the isotopic discrepancy is less for heavier elements because the relative difference in mass decreases (e.g. heavy hydrogen is twice the mass of light hydrogen, whereas heavy oxygen is only 12.5% heavier than light oxygen, etc.).

In the inner solar system, where the rocky planets formed, "isotope-selective self-shielding during ultraviolet (UV) photolysis of CO" caused—and still causes—planetisimal source material to become enriched in heavier oxygen isotopes with respect to the solar mass (McKeegan et al., 2011). In fact, this model accurately predicted the new data collected by Genesis.

I would suggest, therefore, that Mr. Thomas jumped too hastily to his conclusion that "the nebular hypothesis is dead...and only supernatural beginnings can account for the peculiarities of the solar system, including the unique amounts of oxygen contained in the sun, planets, and moons." Moreover, this 'God of the Gaps' addendum to the non sequitur resulting from his misreading of McKeegan et al.'s is neither helpful nor convincing (I know, that's a mouthful). Presumably, by "supernatural beginnings", Mr. Thomas is referring to the sudden appearance of fully formed planets and a sun less than 10,000 years ago. But how can this arbitrary and unsupported proposition aid our investigation of the solar system? (By unsupported, I mean absent even from the text of Scripture.)

Not surprisingly, Mr. Thomas and other YEC proponents are confident they can explain any new piece of data. But their ability to explain new data retrospectively does not arise from the scientific, predictive power of YEC. Rather, it arises from the fact that YEC offers no definitive expectations. If the sun's isotopic composition turns out to be X, it is because God created it that way; if the isotopic composition is Y, it is because God created it that way. Mr. Thomas did not explain how the new isotopic data "lead to a purpose-minded designer," despite his likening them to "forensic clues". He merely stated, mistakenly, that the data contradict part of the Nebular Hypothesis.

So, we can all put our minds at ease. The new oxygen isotopic data presented by McKeegan et al. (2011) not only corroborate the Nebular Hypothesis, but allow scientists to estimate the average oxygen isotopic composition of the primordial solar system! And if that doesn't just double your pulse with an astronomical dose of adrenaline, then you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. In fact, you should probably check your pulse anyways...in case you are dying from boredom. Until next time!