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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Quest for the Primal Couple: ICR's response to Dennis Venema

Genetics is a topic I have avoided here for one simple reason: I am not a geneticist.* But I could not help but to comment on some of the recent reactions to an article by Dennis Venema and Darrel Falk, entitled Does Genetics Point to a Single Primal Couple?. The Biologos authors argued therein that data from modern genetics do not corroborate the traditional biblical postulate of a single, primal couple (i.e. Adam and Eve) who gave rise to the world's population. National Public Radio (NPR) followed up on the controversy, citing Dr. Venema from an interview. Responses from various evangelical camps have been predictably adamant, and while some tried to focus on a scientific response, others—the focus of my post today—skewed the scientific data and questioned Dr. Venema's motives.

By way of preface, I am aware that many of you side against Biologos on this topic, and would prefer that I stick to geological issues. So I want to be clear that my aim is not to persuade you otherwise, necessarily, but simply to promote critical discussion (to the exclusion of some fruitless arguments). Since a firm position on the historical Adam is so treasured by many, it is vital to maintain fairness all around.

Does genetics point to a single primal couple?

Although Drs. Venema and Falk reject the historicity of Adam and Eve** on biblical and scientific grounds, the purpose of their article was not to wrestle exhaustively with that evidence. From what I gathered, the article could be summarized quite simply:

The existence of a primal couple can be discussed apart from the question of common descent (i.e. human evolution). Christians are not the only ones interested in the original population size of the human race, and geneticists have devised several independent methods by which to estimate that number. Three of those methods (discussed here) point to a population bottleneck in human history, but of several thousands individuals—not two. The existing genetic data, therefore, do not corroborate the traditional biblical picture. Any model that presupposes that picture must account for this evidence.

It would be misleading, therefore, to claim 1) anything from this article about the authors' motives or presuppositions with respect to human evolution; 2) that the authors rest arbitrarily on 'evolutionary assumptions' and ruled out a priori the existence of Adam/Eve; and 3) most importantly, that a refutation of this article lends positive support to the historical Adam/Eve.

ICR skirts the issue, adds to the clamor

At the risk of exposing my bias, I want to reiterate that I highly appreciate the clarity and cordiality with which Dennis Venema (and others at Biologos) have presented their respective positions. As a non-specialist in biology, I have been frustrated by 'experts' on all sides so desperate for concurrence that they overlook pivotal, looming questions from their audience. A recent article by Brian Thomas, entitled Christian Professor Claims Genetics Disproves Historical Adam, exemplified that frustration.

Mr. Thomas begins with a threefold objection to Dr. Venema's claim that genetic evidence falsifies the hypothesis that humans could have derived from a single couple:

"First, it relies on the presumption of "evolutionary history," not scientific data. Second, the idea that an initial group of 10,000 humans evolved from primates is mathematically impossible. Third, a descent from Adam and Eve actually does explain the patterns in modern human genetics."

Seemingly, Mr. Thomas cannot distinguish between scientific data and scientific theories built to explain those data. Nonetheless, it is rather disingenuous to dismiss an argument just because the data on which it rests require some interpretation. To be consistent, we would then have to reject every scientific argument. Lastly, Dr. Venema's case is not without assumptions, but "evolutionary history" is not one of them, as we shall see.

"Shouldn't such a person at least attempt to examine the genetic possibility of an Adamic ancestry before completely ruling it out?"

Caricatures are never helpful. Not merely because they are false, but also because they provoke hostile emotions without warrant. If Mr. Thomas had so much as clicked Dennis Venema's name at the top of the Biologos article (which I'm not sure he read), he would have found the 5-part series entitled From Intelligent Design to BioLogos. It is very misleading to claim that Dr. Venema has never considered "genetic possibility of an Adamic ancestry".

Method I – Can total genetic diversity arise from a single pair in ~6,000 years?

The first method cited by Venema and Falk considered the origin of genetic diversity in the modern human population. They explain:

"First we ask how many different alleles there are for a number of genes within the current population. Correcting for the rate at which we know new forms of genes appear (mutation), we can calculate the minimum number of people needed to generate the current amount of diversity."

To which Dr. Venema added in the NPR interview:

"You would have to postulate that there's been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time."

But Mr. Thomas responds by appealing to a false premise:

"Evolutionists assume that all genetic differences between individuals resulted from mutations...But if Adam was created with DNA variations, then one would not have to postulate astronomical mutation rates."

They assume that all genetic differences result from mutation? I don't think this is accurate. Regardless, I wonder what kind of DNA variations Mr. Thomas envisions within Adam's genome. As the Biologos article explained:

"At maximum, four gene-forms (two from each parent) would be passed on by Adam and Eve."

An individual genome cannot carry more than two forms of any gene, meaning that the maximum 'created' diversity would entail complete heterozygosity in each parent. Since the Biologos article stated this fact at the outset, Mr. Thomas's argument is again without foundation.

A more quantitative response came from Dr. Robert Carter at Creation Ministries International (CMI), who argued that directly measured rates of mutation are much higher than those measured indirectly by comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes. Mr. Thomas seems to have based much of his critique on the CMI article, with investigating further. Dr. Carter writes, for example, that:

"The mutation rates used in the calculations generally depend on assumptions of common ancestry...Measurable mutation rates are generally several orders of magnitude faster than those used in evolutionary studies. Using a measured rate would shrink the size of the bottleneck population." (emphasis added)

Using a higher mutation rate to estimate the original human population would indeed reduce the size of that population—on this point, everyone agrees. But Dr. Carter does not cite any studies where mutation rates in the human genome vary by several orders of magnitude, depending on the technique. So I decided to investigate. My brief search yielded a highly collaborative paper by Conrad et al. (2011) in Nature Geoscience, which reported "the first direct comparative analysis of male and female germline mutation rates from the complete genome sequences of two parent-offspring trios":

"The sex-averaged germline mutation rate estimates we derived agree very closely with three other recent studies focusing on sex-averaged mutation rates in the most recent generation. Averaging across these four studies gave a more precise sex-averaged mutation rate of 1.18 × 10−8 [per base pair]...which is less than half of the frequently cited sex-averaged mutation rate derived from the human-chimpanzee sequence divergence of 2.5 × 10−8. These apparently discordant estimates can be largely reconciled if the age of the human-chimpanzee divergence is pushed back to 7 million years, as suggested by some interpretations of recent fossil finds..."

Mutation rates can be measured directly by comparing parent and offspring genomes (as in this study) or by dividing the number of genetic variations between species by the estimated years since their last common ancestor. Based on the references cited within the article, previous estimates of human germline (i.e. passed on through reproduction) mutation rates varied by a factor of three—not orders of magnitude. Moreover, the uncertainty was due not to conflicting results so much as pricy technology and limited data, as well as variable estimates for the last common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees (4–7 million years).

Drs. Venema and Falk did not rely on "evolutionary assumptions" therefore, since measured mutation rates are comparable to, if not lower than, those estimated from the postulated timeline of human evolution. As far as I can tell, Dr. Venema's original point still stands: our current understanding of genetics suggests that the original human population was much larger than two, and lived much longer ago than ICR would have us believe.

Fuzzy population genetics?

The second objection made by Mr. Thomas seems to be rooted in a complete misunderstanding of population genetics and evolution. He argues that it would be "mathematically impossible" for a population of 10,000 humans to have "evolved from primates". Since humans are themselves primates, I believe the problem is also rhetorical, and question whether Mr. Thomas has an accurate view of human evolution.

For one, the several thousand individuals being discussed constitute a bottleneck in human history—not an original population that somehow received "human-like mutations", as Mr. Thomas puts it:

"About 700 million information-packed DNA differences exist...between humans and chimpanzees. Each of these changes would need to become "fixed" into the whole population of primates in order to transform them into humans."

Are each of these DNA differences truly "information-packed"? Many of them are neutral point mutations, found in pseudogenes or genetic redundancies. Before I address the issue of "transforming" humans, consider the following hypothetical:

"But even if a single human-like mutation fortuitously occurred in both members of a reproducing pair, it would have virtually no chance of spreading to all 10,000 "emerging" humans. Instead, through interbreeding with non-mutants, the mutation would diffuse and disappear after only a few generations."

The functional genetic signatures unique to humans are supposed to have arisen through a rather active force called natural selection—not the "fortuitous" insertion to and diffusion throughout the entire hominid population. Furthermore, it is strange to refer to 'mutants' and 'non-mutants'. Every human offspring contains several dozen mutations not found in their parents. We are all mutants! As long as any population survives with time, there will be thousands to millions of mutations that define the genetic diversity of that population. The extent and nature of that diversity give clues as to how large and diverse that population was in history.

Lastly, genetic drift is sufficient to explain the sporadic introduction of new alleles (arising through mutation) into a large population of early humans. Conversely, the chance disappearance of alleles through genetic drift is only exacerbated by inbreeding that would necessarily occur following a 2-person or 8-person bottleneck (Adam and Noah, respectively).

Adding 'biblical' parameters

The final objection offered by Mr. Thomas can almost be termed a tautology. He assures his readers that assuming biblical parameters, modern genetic data really are consistent with the young-Earth picture. But adding no relevant information, his argument appears rather to be an appeal to his starting position. He begins by citing that "all people are 99 percent genetically similar"—a fact never disputed by either party but seemingly intended to make genetic variation in humans appear small. Consider that when citing the differences between human and chimpanzees, he used an absolute number instead: 700 million. He continues:

"For example, any Vietnamese is 99 percent genetically identical to any Ethiopian. Of the one percent DNA sequence difference between the two, the large majority is shared by all within their ethnic group, whether Vietnamese or Ethiopian. A small minority of that one percent is unique to each individual person."

As I recall, the genetic variation within human subpopulations can exceed that between individuals of different ethnic groups (making categories of 'race' a cloudy topic in biology). It may range from ~98% to nearly 100%—but what does this add to the discussion? The fact remains that total genetic diversity in humans, even if limited to variations that necessarily arose from mutations, cannot be accounted for by a single couple living less than 10,000 years ago.

Mr. Thomas concludes by promoting the working model of Dr. Robert Carter at CMI, which, although novel and possibly deserving of our consideration, is not without serious challenges and is hardly conclusive. Perhaps I have missed something important, but the assessment offered by ICR regarding the historical Adam controversy seems to be premature at best, and misleading at worst. I pray that discussion might continue with more substance and integrity for the sake of all non-experts at the mercy of respectable Christians in the biological sciences.

*I am not an expert in genetics, but I know a few. So I am deferring partly to their expertise and input, which I highly appreciate!
**As a specially created couple from which all humans today could trace their lineage.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

News to share: ancient buried landscape in the North Atlantic

Have you ever wondered why sedimentary rock layers all seem so flat? Either you have visited places like the Grand Canyon, or you have seen the pictures: relatively flat geological strata extend for miles in every direction. Yet when we look at the Earth's surface today, we find canyons, river beds, drainage basins, and more. What's the deal?

I've heard the argument several times that such flat layers in the geological record are evidence that a singular, worldwide catastrophe was responsible for their deposition. If each of these layers represents several thousands or millions of years, shouldn't we find more topography?

This argument sounds feasible on the surface, because it appeals to common experience. From a geologist's perspective, however, the question is rather misguided. While it is true that the Earth's surface is very rough, sedimentary basins (i.e. where sediments are actually being deposited) are typically very flat and smooth. If you would like to explore this topic, GoogleEarth is a wonderful tool. Take a look, for example, at the Gulf of Mexico and the coastline of the southeastern United States. Silt, sand, and carbonate are accumulating as we speak, actively forming a new sedimentary layer along the continental shelf. The continental shelf (light blue) is a relatively flat surface that extends for miles and miles out into the ocean.

If sea level were to drop a few hundred meters, and a river (the Mississippi?) carved a canyon into the newly exposed shelf, how would it look? Well, very much like the Grand Canyon! You would find flat layers of sediment/rock extending for miles in every direction. So the 'flatness' of geological strata is entirely consistent with the conventional picture of Earth history.

More examples can be found from around the world. Every major river valley (Mississippi, Volga, Nile, Mesopotamian, etc.) is extremely flat in places where deposition actually occurs—i.e. the floodplain, where the river starts to meander and produces regular floods. Coastlines, as they build out into the ocean, also produce extensive, horizontal layers. Alluvial and rift basins (Great Basin, Death Valley, etc.) are also very flat, despite the high topography surrounding them. Even deserts, when inundated by the ocean, are preserved as extensive, horizontal layers.

I should be careful how I use the term flat here, because I don't want to be disingenuous. Every example I cited contains some topography, such as river channels and the like. But these features are also common in the geological record. Channel cuts, karst topography, and even small caves and canyons make regular appearances in geological strata. When you look close enough, no geological layer is truly 'flat'.

So what about the rest of Earth's surface—the mountains and canyons that attract hikers, bikers, and rafters from around the world? Did they all disappear from history? Well, in a sense, yes—they did. Large-scale topography only forms in places where erosion is actively occurring. The Grand Staircase (including Grand, Zion, and Bryce canyons), for example, is a product of erosion, and when erosion is removing sediment, the topographical features will not be preserved.

For something like Grand Canyon to be preserved in the geological record, sea level would have to rise at such a rate that the landscape would not flatten out before it became a coastal river plain—a very unlikely situation. If you are skeptical about this process, consider the California coast. Although it is very rocky, wave action is currently 'smoothing' out the landscape rather than burying it for preservation.

A counterexample from the North Atlantic

Some parts of the Earth have changed rapidly enough for ancient topography to have been preserved in the geological record. The North Atlantic is the site of an active spreading zone (Mid-Ocean Ridge) as well as a mantle 'plume' or 'hot spot' (currently fueling Icelandic volcanoes). Heat from this spreading center was sufficient in the early Cenozoic, around the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, to cause an ancient landscape (pictured below) to be rapidly inundated by water and covered with sediment. The ancient river drainage basin is now buried beneath a kilometer of marine sediments.

The landscape was discovered by seismic survey, and reported earlier this summer in Nature Geoscience (article here*). For those unfamiliar, seismic exploration works much like an ultrasound: sound waves are bounced back from the subsurface when a change in rock type occurs. Hundreds of seismic lines (seen in Figure a) are pieced together to reveal a 3D surface (Figure c).

I need not comment further here—the picture really does speak for itself!

*Special thanks to A.H.-R. for bringing this article to my attention.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What have I been reading?

So far, 2011 has been one my more 'productive' years in terms of reading. For anyone curious (myself included), I thought I would share a list of the books that I am reading now, have read in the past year or so, and plan to read by the end of the year. I was partly inspired by Man vs. Book (a must watch) to do so. Thanks Bryan!

As an aside, you will notice a lot of works by N.T. Wright. At the beginning of the year, I read one of his books and swiftly decided that I need to understand thoroughly how his mind works if I am to continue in biblical studies. I have not yet been disappointed. For those that might have reservations about Wright (coming from a Reformed background, I understand those reservations), I will add that one need not agree with everything Wright says to appreciate the contributions of this brilliant thinker.

I have added a short synopsis to each with my personal recommendation. Feel free to interact or add your own suggestions in the comments!

I am currently reading...

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and believe in evolution, by Karl Giberson (2008, 256 p.)
    Karl Giberson, a physicist well known for his contributions to the science-faith dialogue (particularly at Biologos), sets out to positively construct a Christian worldview in which evolution (cosmic, geological, and biological) is the primary creative force in God's providence, and not interventionist, de novo creation. Simultaneously, he defends the historical Darwin as one who was raised in—and enthralled by—the natural theology paradigm explicated by Paley (i.e. intelligent design), but then wrestled deeply with both theological and scientific questions as counter-evidence mounted. Darwin ultimately found himself overwhelmed by the challenge of theodicy, and was deeply hurt in the way that his theory had touched on the well being of the church. His theory was not constructed, therefore, to justify an abandonment of natural theology or Christianity.
    Giberson's autobiographical sketch sounds very similar to my own, and—presumably—to much of his audience's. I highly appreciate the respectful demeanor in which he approaches the developers of flood geology and creationism. Giberson is a very skilled writer, and obviously passionate not only about science, history, and theology, but about his audience. This book is a must read for anyone seriously interested in the origins debate today.
Recommended? Absolutely

Farewell to the Yahwist?: The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation, by Thomas Dozeman and Konrad Schmid (2006, 208 p.)
    This book contains a collection of writings from European scholars in higher criticism. Contrary to the classic Wellhausen hypothesis (JEDP), more recent scholarship denies the existence of a continuous salvation history (Creation to Moses/Joshua; i.e. the Yahwist source) before the arrival of the 'Priestly' text (P). The individual patriarchal stories (Abrahaam, Jacob, Joseph) and the Exodus story are said, therefore, to have stood alone before the creative mending of P. Evidences cited are the nature of the Jacob story as a rival origins legend to the Mosaic/Exodus one, the contrasting of Jacob/Moses in Hosea 12, the rough literary transition from Genesis to Exodus, and a possible redactional link in Genesis 50:14 that puts Joseph back into Egypt with a single sentence, thereby 'setting the stage' for a second Exodus.
   According to these authors, the classic formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis saw its end in the 1970's (despite its continuance in American schools). In fact, the they do not even bother with the so-called 'Elohist' source, which they perceive as a weak hypothesis that has already run its course. Left standing, however, were the hexateuchal 'non-Priestly' (J) narratives, which earlier scholars perceived as a first Torah (Tetrateuch or Hexateuch, depending) to which E and P responded. But can the non-Priestly text be seen as a unified collection of stories that ran from Adam to Joshua? Not according to this compilation, which argues that it is finally time to bid farewell to the Yawhist properly.
   If you are studying higher criticism of the Hebrew Bible, this book is a must (and available for free on GoogleBooks). If everything I've said above sounds completely foreign to you, however, I would urge some caution. There is a complex history of research behind this book—not just literary but theological. I recommend reading Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? (see below) before this one. Also, this book will likely challenge your view of scripture (even if you disagree with its premises and conclusions). You will start to think like a literary/textual critic and may find it hard to recover. On the other hand, reading this book has been an excellent exercise in understanding the literary relationship of Pentateuchal narratives and challenged me to think harder about them. If you despise higher critical studies altogether, then you may at least enjoy this cautionary note by one author: "In the absence of material evidence and of Carbon-14 dates, anything is conceivable in biblical exegesis." (p. 61)
Recommended? Not for the faint-hearted; requires some background study.

The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God--Getting Beyond the Bible Wars, by N.T. Wright (2006, 160 p.)
    All Christians hold the Bible to be authoritative, but how this plays out in practice (both within the church and in culture) depends on varied and nuanced understandings of the biblical text. Wright notes that the Bible is not simply a book of laws and doctrines (though it contains both), but a grand story with many parts. To call upon the authority of the Bible (especially in culture and politics) thus requires one to answer the deceptively deep question: 'How can a story be authoritative?'
    I have not read far enough to tell you whether Wright delivers on this point as promised. But so far, he has been able to formulate the problem with discernment and determination, all the while displaying a heightened intellectual awareness and ecumenical sensitivity. I expect not to be disappointed, and at only 160 pages, it won't take long to find out!
Recommended? So far, so good.

What I have finished reading...

Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, by Richard Hays (1989, 254 p.)
    This book has forever changed the way in which I will read and study any piece of literature—the Bible most of all. Hays' classic work on intertextuality and thematic allusion opened a whole new world of biblical studies, into which surprisingly few evangelicals have ventured, but from which none will return. Beginning with the most prolific New Testament author, Hays carefully and masterfully unravels the hidden dialogue between Paul and the holy texts of Israel, which Paul personified and called: Scripture. For Paul, Scripture was not a rigid collection of words on the page—a mere artifact of Israel's past—, but a living entity that now spoke to the Israel of God, reconstituted around Messiah (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:11).
    For those less interested in literary analysis, Hays' work also delves deeply into the question of how NT authors use OT passages. Since Hays moves beyond cases of explicit citation alone, he is able to add a thoughtful and necessary dimension to this complicated debate and find resolution. Everyone can benefit from his discussion, but especially those frustrated by the flat-footed formulae of Messianic 'proof-texting'.
    If you do pick up this book, be prepared: Hays is a master of language, and so writes 254 of the longest pages you may ever read—not a word is wasted. Also, make sure to carry a Bible alongside, because the book assumes you have it open.
Recommended? A must read for all

Jesus and the Victory of God, by N.T. Wright (1997, 741 p.)
    The second volume in his scholarly series on Christian Origins and the Question of God, Wright deals with the historical, political, theological, and psychological questions surrounding Jesus, including his aims and beliefs. Who did Jesus think he was? What did he think he was doing? What did he expect was going to happen? Partly in response to the Jesus Seminar and other historical critical scholarship from the past century, Wright argues that the Jesus of scripture (apocalyptic elements and all) in fact fits nicely into the eschatological milieu of 1st century Judaism in Palestine. Moreover, the Jesus of history (as explicated by the synoptic gospels) perfectly explains the otherwise problematic transition from 1st century B.C.E Judaism to 2nd century A.D. Christianity and Judaism.
   Wright further frames the teachings (parables, sermons, etc.) of Jesus in their proper cultural, historical, and canonical context, so as to identify the invitation, challenge, welcome, and summons of Jesus to his followers and to the leaders of Jerusalem. His deeply rooted insight to the gospel narratives is constructive at every turn, and will leave your picture of Jesus' world much bigger than you imagined.
    This book is straightforward, and can be understood by most. But it also assumes many premises that were argued in volume one of the series (NT&PG, see below). For any serious student, they should be read in order. Moreover, at 741 pages (including preface/appendices), this book is a long-term commitment, but worth the wait, in my opinion.
    Lastly, some may be put off by Wright's 'critical-realist' approach. But keep in mind that he is writing to several audiences at once: academic colleagues, skeptics, liberal and fundamentalist historians/theologians, and both the amateur and serious student of Christianity. To engage in meaningful discourse with the first, he plays by their rules. Consequently, this book is not simply a pious or devotional discourse on Jesus, but the discerned reader will be able to find such value among it. Also, the book is entirely fitting for Christian and non-Christian alike.
Recommended? Absolutely...and Godspeed if you do!

I love Jesus, and I accept evolution
, by Denis Lamoreux (2006, 184 p.)
    Denis Lamoreux, who holds doctoral degrees in dentistry, theology, and evolutionary biology, searches not only for harmony between the world of scripture and of science, but active dialogue. A former young-Earth creationist, Dr. Lamoreux is extremely sensitive to his variegated audience, and articulates the young-Earth position faithfully. As the title indicates, his message is deeply personal, and directed to those struggling with their faith because of the challenge of evolution. He begins with a young boy that asked at a creationist conference: 'How do dinosaurs fit into the Bible?' After chronicling his own journey from young-Earth creationism to atheism to what he now terms evolutionary creationism, he ends with a simple answer to the boy's curiosity: they don't.
    In this book (which is, in some sense, a condensed version of his more scholarly work Evolutionary Creation), Dr. Lamoreux articulates a hermeneutic that is becoming increasingly popular, which he calls the Message of Faith-Incident Principle. He argues that the inerrant Message of Faith has been revealed to us in the incidental vessels of ancient science. As such, the authors of scripture do not explicitly teach false facts about the universe, but work within the 'science of their day' so that the message is tangible and firmly understood. Moreover, the Bible can be said to be inerrant in the message it actually 'intends' to convey.
    Lamoreux's hermeneutic stands in opposition to scientific concordism, which seeks to show that the Bible accurately describes scientific facts. He offers one of the more compelling cases, I believe, against concordism of any kind. On the other hand, his labeling of certain concepts as 'ancient science' may appear repetitive and reductionistic to some. Though my challenge constitutes an informal logical fallacy, I think Dr. Lamoreux's position is shaky without well defined boundaries. For example, can we dismiss the historicity of the patriarchs by saying the biblical authors relied mistaken, 'ancient' versions of history? That question aside, this book is well thought out and offers a healthy challenge to all by one who is deeply passionate about the gospel and the church.
    And science, of course!
Recommended? Yes; particularly to YECs, or those who have wavered in faith because of YECism

Already Compromised, by Ken Ham and Greg Hall (2011, 236 p.)
    See my 3-part review of this book in previous posts to get my complete thoughts. This book was an easy read that offered insight to the young-Earth mindset, and is available for only a few dollars.
Recommended? Maybe...

Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, by N.T. Wright (2004, 178 p.)
    Part of Wright's New Testament for Everyone series, this book lives up to its name. Again, one need not agree with Wright to gather valuable insight from this condensed commentary. Wright adds a personal touch to this letter of Paul, never abandoning the nature of the original text: a real letter to a real people in a real time and place. Why does Paul raise the issues that he does? Why does he have to defend his reputation? Where other commentaries treat the letters of Paul as treatises on systematic theology, this well written reflection successfully transplants the reader into Paul's world and his mission: a deeply personal, practical theology that is rooted in the cross.
Recommended? For everyone

The Psalms: Book IV
    Psalms 90–106 comprise what is called Book IV of the collection. I mention it here in part to recommend you reading it as a literary unit, and in light of Paul's use of the text in Romans 1. Beginning and ending with Moses, these Psalms wrestle with the theodicic challenge of exile, calling an injured Israel to faithfulness by remembering her origins.
    In Romans 1:20–23, Paul writes: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes...have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks...Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures."
    How often have you heard this passage cited simply in the context of natural theology? Though Paul is writing to an audience immersed in a city idolatry and wickedness (i.e. Rome), he structures his cultural critique in terms of Israel's unfaithfulness in the wilderness. To see what I mean, read Psalm 106 (especially v. 20). Israel knew God by what He had done for them (or 'made'—same verb) since the creation of the world (from Genesis 1 to that point in Exodus; or Psalm 90 to 106:12). But Israel gave honor "to demons and not to God", as Deuteronomy puts it, and "exchanged his glory for the image of a four-footed animal" (Ps. 106:20).
    From the rest of the letter to the Romans, there is no doubt that Paul envisions the Christian experience as a sort of 'personal Exodus'. Paul thus warns believers that they are not immune to the temptation of idolatry because of their covenant status. But he guards against that temptation in an appeal to their knowledge of God's glory in and through their own Exodus, wherein Christ has freed them from bondage to the law (whether Torah or the 'law to themselves'). At the end of their trial is an inheritance, indescribable, but identified as new creation (Romans 8).
Recommended? Divinely so

Global Geomorphology, by M.A. Summerfield (1991, 560 p.)
    Yes, I do read about rocks (though mostly in articles rather than books). In any case, I decided to reread this book to brush up on how the surface of the Earth is shaped. It serves as a thorough, but simple introduction to process geomorphology, in which landscapes and weathering features are described in terms of the geologic process that created them (over against the idealistic concepts of William Morris Davis).
Recommended? Well written; great for the intermediate geology student

Russian Graded Readers 1-5, by George V. Bobrinskoy and Otto Ferdinand Bond (1961)
    Perfect for the beginning student of Russian, or the intermediate student that wishes to brush up on some vocabulary and literary colloquialisms. The reader may also familiarize him/herself with well known Russian stories. The authors take several Russian classics—Lermontov, Gogol, Pushkin, and others—and abridges them in elementary Russian. New vocabulary is listed at the bottom of each page with the English meaning. I have yet to find a more efficient 'Russian reader' than this 50-year-old work.
Recommended? Если Вы изучаете русский язык, читаете эту книгу!

Noah's Ark and the Ziusudra Epic: Sumerian Origins of the Flood Myth, by Robert Best (1999)
    An adventurous tale, to say the least. Mr. Best draws from his exhaustive personal study of Sumeriology and history to construct a scenario that could best explain the various flood accounts: Atrahasis, Ziusudra Epic, Epic of Gilgamesh, Moses of Khoren, and Genesis 6–9. He considers the textual transmission of the text, including the literary interdependence between some accounts, to unravel the legend from the myth. See his website for more details.
    Best's methodology does not appear to be well received in academia, who might wish to see more falsifiable aspects to such a hypothesis. Best does not try to prove or disprove the story of Noah, however, but rather to construct the most likely scenario if indeed the texts derived from an eyewitness account. If you're interested in the question of the historical Noah, you'll find value in this book, which I came across shortly after I finished my own articles on the same. At some points, Best ventures too far beyond the evidence, and lends too much credence to the factual details of each story (even Genesis). Trying to separate myth from history is a dangerous exercise, and typically undermines both. But his work is not without valuable contribution. His discussion on the genealogy of Genesis 5, for example, is perhaps the most thoughtful and convincing I have come across.
Recommended? A healthy thought experiment, but for a limited audience

Chemical Cycles in the Evolution of the Earth, by C. Bryan Gregor, Robert M. Garrels, Fred T. Mackenzie, and J. Barry Maynard (1988, 288 p.)
    A classic text on geochemical cycles and the 'big-picture' problems facing geochemists in the late 80's. Also a useful reference for any geochemist today, since it contains some of the most recent (and best) estimates on elemental fluxes in major Earth processes.
Recommended? Hmm...

The Chickens are Restless, by Gary Larson (1993, 112 p.)
    Everyone needs a break. For me, The Far Side is nostalgic.
Recommended? Only if you enjoy a laugh

Environmental Isotopes in Hydrogeology, by Ian Clark and Peter Fritz (1997, 352 p.)
    A focused study on the application of isotopes to ground and surface water systems. Very clear, well referenced book that goes beyond introductory texts on stable and radiogenic isotope studies. Works well as a companion text to those already studying isotope geology, or alone for climatologists and hydrogeologists wishing to expand their methodology. On the other hand, this book overlaps a bit with more generalized works, so you may want to save some money checking it out of the library instead.
Recommended? For a very specialized audience

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, by Peter Enns (2005, 208 p.)
    After Ken Ham's debacle with the homeschool convention, I figured I had to find out who Peter Enns was. If you have never read anything by Enns, this is probably not the best place to start. He is a brilliant thinker that will continue to add much to Old Testament studies. But I&I is fairly nuanced and assumes you are already familiar with the background discussion. I've mentioned before on this blog: it's not so much what Peter Enns says as how he says it that raises flags among evangelicals. He is bold and blunt. Proceed with caution. But if you are able to grasp Enns' message in this book, it will serve you well in your biblical studies pursuits.
Recommended? Eat your veggies first

Isotopes: Principles and Applications, by Gunter Faure and Teresa Mensing (2004, 928 p.)
    I won't bore you with details: this the standard text for isotope geochemists. Expanded from Faure's earlier work, this book covers everything from cosmic evolution and planetary geology to radiometric dating to magmatic systems and more.
Recommended? If you like counting neutrons, this book is for you!

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, by John H. Walton (2006, 368 p.)
    Wow. One can get lost in ancient near eastern studies—it is a big world. Walton may only scratch the surface in this book, which makes good use of comparative cultural and literary studies, but he scratches all the right places. For those with reservations about using ancient literature to elaborate the meaning behind the biblical text, I can sympathize. But a careful reading of Walton's work will calm your doubts, and preserve the grandeur of scripture in the otherwise chaotic, literary world of the Ancient Near East.
Recommended? Deep reading, requires some commitment, but worth it

Principles and Applications of Geochemistry, by Gunter Faure (1998, 625 p.)
    Originally published more than a decade prior, Gunter Faure remains authoritative on all things geochemistry. Well written and easy to understand. Suitable for aspiring petrologists, geochronologists, sedimentologists, climatologists, and even hydrogeologists. Also works as a great reference for later research.
Recommended? If you ever had to draw a phase diagram from scratch, and actually enjoyed it, then this book is for you!

New Testament and the People of God, by N.T. Wright (1992, 535 p.)
    Any brief synopsis will hardly do justice to this classic text on New Testament studies. Wright lays out his historiography and methodology in detail, interacting with historians and theologians from the past centuries. He defines his 'critical realist' approach, and applies it faithfully to the biblical text. Who were the people of God, according to both Jewish and Christian thought from the 1st century? What were their symbols, praxis, and beliefs?
    Wright begins with a seemingly simple question: "What do we do with the wicked tenants?" How do we understand parables, and apply them properly? Who was Jesus critiquing in this odd tale and why? Are cultural and historical studies any help? As it turns out, the pursuit is almost more instructive than the answer itself.
Recommended? You won't be disappointed

Principles of Stable Isotope Geochemistry, by Zachary Sharp (2006, 360 p.)
    A clear and concise treatise on the applications of stable isotopes (i.e. not radioactive or produced from radioactivity) to geological problems, ranging from sedimentary geochemistry to meteoric cycles and diagenesis to paleothermometers. Instructive and informative; a great reference too!
Recommended? Okay, it's a textbook...but it reads like an adventure novel (almost)!

Elements of Petroleum Geology, by Richard Selley (1997, 470 p.)
    An exhaustive overview of the theory behind finding conventional hydrocarbon resources. Includes sections on geophysical techniques (and how to interpret them), drill and rig architecture, and the future of non-conventional exploration methods.
Recommended? Not quite on the popular level, but a very practical text

Petroleum Geology (Developments in Petroleum Science), by R.E. Chapman (1983, 434 p.)
    Fascinating to see how petroleum exploration was developing alongside technology. Otherwise, the text is superfluous to more recent contributions.
Recommended? Useful for understanding the history of petroleum geology

Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliot Friedman (1997, 304 p.)
    A well written introduction to and overview of the documentary hypothesis and its developments since Wellhausen. Friedman's approach is respectful to the nature of the text, and departs with past scholars on several points (e.g. he rejects charges of 'pietistic fraud', and very late dates for the authorship of J, E, and especially P). He argues that P was constructed while the first temple yet stood, for example, rather than during or after the Babylonian exile.
    If you like studying the debate surrounding the authorship of the Pentateuch, this is a scholarly book that is accessible to the public, and therefore a must read. If you disagree with the premises and conclusions of higher criticism, you will still find some value in this book, if nothing else by understanding the evidence raised against traditional paradigms.
Recommended? Yes, but with caution to those unfamiliar with the topic

Paul in Fresh Perspective, by N.T. Wright (2009, 195 p.)
    A fascinating, concise discussion on the biblical texts that define Paul's mission and teachings. For those with reservations, this book is not an explication or defense of the New Perspective. Rather, it unfolds Paul's worldview and shows how Paul can use Hebrew scripture and Roman political culture to explain who Jesus Messiah is, as well as the mission of the church. Everyone can benefit from the discussion.
Recommended? Don't engage in NT studies without it

Кот в Шляпе, by Доктор Сьюз
    A Russian translation of the childhood classic "Cat in the Hat". This was a Christmas present that I thoroughly enjoyed. The translation is very colloquial and difficult to grasp, but that's not a bad thing for someone who wants to learn Russian as Russians speak it!
Recommended? Да!

Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne (2010, 304 p.)
    The title says it all. Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, presents his best case for modern evolutionary theory. The book flows very well and is accessible to the non-biologist. On the other hand, Coyne interposes rhetorical jabs at proponents of intelligent design and creationism between the lines without really engaging in their arguments. Granted, I don't think Coyne believes their arguments are worth refuting, but that would only make his style less appropriate. Moreover, if you are familiar with the origins debate or have a background in biology, then you have very likely heard 90%+ of his arguments already. Most of it can be found online for free—sometimes even without the tiring rhetoric (and if you enjoy his rhetoric, check out his blog instead). This is a good book that could have been great with a dose of humility and compassion.
Recommended? Save your money; buy a latté instead and skim over the book at Barnes and Noble

The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins (2009, 480 p.)
   Dawkins presents the beauty of evolution within a paradigm that makes a mockery of beauty. Many of my critiques of this book are the same as for Coyne's, but Dawkins goes a step further. He devotes an entire chapter to why you're an idiot for rejecting evidence from radiometric dating. Then he demonstrates his utter lack of knowledge regarding geology and isotopic systems. Great job! If it weren't for the color photos in the middle of the book, I would have probably stopped reading in chapter 3. But I had to see those photos...they were beautiful.
   On the other hand, this book contains useful information on biological evolution, and how to present it with passion and excitement. Christian biologists should take a note here, and find the means to discuss evolution as a beautiful theory. Evolution may have replaced the natural theology of Paley et al., but it did not replace God's glory in nature.
Recommended? You gotta see those pictures!

Oxford Russian Grammar And Verbs, by Terence Wade (2002, 256 p.)
    That's right, I read a book on grammar. Of course, it also works as a great reference. Well structured and informative. But what do you expect? It's Oxford!
Recommended? Why not?

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton (2009, 192 p.)
   I would defer you to part 3 of my review of Already Compromised to get my thoughts on this book. Walton recovers the lost world in which Genesis was written, and simultaneously takes the text seriously as God's word. Careful readers from all perspectives of the origins debate should be able to gain from this book.
Recommended? Highly

A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, by David Snoke (2006, 224 p.)
    Snoke does a decent job in detailing the classic reasons (biblical and scientific) for rejecting a literalistic, young-Earth reading of Genesis. I was less impressed, however, by the positive construction he offers in its place. Nonetheless, a good exercise in biblical studies that broadened my thinking.
Recommended? Somewhere down the line

It's Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek, by David Alan Black (1993, 192 p.)
    If you've studied either Classical or Koiné Greek, then you probably reached a breaking point at one time. When will it end? I highly recommend this profound, and sometimes humorous work to rejuvenate your spirits. You will remember that Koiné Greek was an actual language once spoken to express deep thoughts and emotions, and not simply a form of punishment for M.Div. candidates.
Recommended? On the library of every student of biblical Greek

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S. Collins (2007, 294 p.)
    I picked up this book after seeing Collins on the Colbert Report, mostly to understand the goals and results of the Human Genome Project. It did answer my questions, mostly, but not in the detail I expected. Collins spends a lot of time relaying past arguments by C.S. Lewis and others for the existence of God, and explaining how one reconciles Christianity with an old earth in which life evolves. Not bad for an introduction to the origins debate; excellent if you want to know who Francis Collins is. But in the end, this book mostly offers small portions on a very large plate.
Recommended? A good value

Radiocarbon dating, by Willard Libby (1952)
    The classic text on the radiocarbon (C-14) dating method. Willard Libby is a brilliant scientist, whose work was seminal for many scientific disciplines.
Recommended? For the technical audience that enjoys stepping inside the mind of a genius

What's next on the list?

Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright (2003)

Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book, by Gleb Struve (1990)

Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, by N.T. Wright (2009)

Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, by Kenneth Miller (2007)

Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science, by Ian Plimer (2009)

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941, by William L. Shirer (2002)

The Age of the Earth, by G. Brent Dalrymple (1994)

Matthew for Everyone, by N.T. Wright (2004)

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell (2011)

The Holy Spirit, by John Owen (2005)

Who Really Wrote the Bible?, by Eyal Rav-Noy and Gil Weinrich (2010)

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright (2008)

Karst Hydrogeology and Geomorphology, by Derek Ford and Paul Williams (2007)

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein (2002)

Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition, by Michael Pomazansky and Seraphim Rose

Introducing Biblical Hebrew, by Allen Ross (2001)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dispelling a few myths about Steve Austin's cave dissolution model

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dissolve a large cavern out of solid rock? Let's start simple. Perhaps you have visited a cave in the past or on several occasions over the years. If so, then you know that caves are relatively static in terms of human experience. Common sense thus tells you that cave formation should take generations at the least. On the other hand, you may be familiar with the damage caused by sinkholes, which form when the dissolution of calcite (i.e. limestone) causes the ground to become structurally unsound to the point that it collapses. Calcite dissolution must happen at an appreciable rate, therefore, to explain the formation of new sinkholes every year. So, caves form slowly, but not too slow. Can we get any more quantitative than this?

Ideally, yes. One could preface the answer with a qualification, noting that it depends on several factors—the size of the cave, type of rock, the climate and vegetation, etc.—but I expect you're smart enough to have anticipated this obvious point. If you're reading these words, it is rather because you understand that for the young-Earth creationist, the answer must be: 'tens to hundreds of years'. If many thousands of years are required to dissolve large caverns like Mammoth Caves in Kentucky or the Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico, then it becomes impossible that a recent, global flood deposited the sedimentary rock in which these caves are found.

Rates of cave dissolution: a moot point?

In an earlier post, I discussed the use of speleothems (such as stalagmites) in paleoclimatology, concluding that since we can use multiple independent methods to estimate the age and growth rate of secondary formations, the thousands of speleothems older than ~5,000 years already contradict the global flood hypothesis. I stand by this evidence, and if you are also convinced by it, then it may seem pointless to discuss how long it takes to dissolve caves in the first place. On the other hand, evidence from radiometric dating seems abstract to some, and difficult to understand. I want to add a more tangible approach, therefore, to my argument.

Steve Austin's cave dissolution model regarding Kentucky limestone

In 1980, Austin published an ICR Acts and Facts article entitled "Origin of Limestone Caves", in which he argued that given the average rainfall in Kentucky, 59 cubic meters of limestone bedrock could be dissolved each year per square kilometer of land. To put that in perspective, 59 cubic meters is roughly equal to a room 13x13x13 feet in size (i.e. a large bedroom with a high ceiling), and a square kilometer encompasses about 8x8 residential blocks. Since caves dissolve preferentially along flow conduits, each city block might be underlain by a room-sized cavity after only 64 years. After ~4,000 years, the cave system would be equivalent in volume to two Wal-Mart Supercenters (236,000 cubic meters).

Dr. Austin believes that his calculations should alarm conventional geologists who reject his young-Earth timeline—and he is right, seemingly. Geologist Greg Neyman responded, however, that the residents of Kentucky, rather than 'uniformitarian geologists', should be concerned by these numbers, "since according to this creation science model, Kentucky would be so full of holes as to be unlivable." Greg is also correct.

Despite Greg's critique, young-Earth creationists continue to cite Austin's cave dissolution model without question (e.g. here). Conversely, geologists continue to assign long ages (tens to hundreds of thousands of years) to cave formation without any reference to Austin's proposed rate of dissolution. Why the lack of communication?

The problem with Dr. Austin's model is that he estimates cave formation to occur faster than the facts permit, but still too slowly to account for the world's large cave systems (like Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, on which he focuses). Even if we grant such rapid dissolution of limestone, it is still difficult to explain how the 500+ kilometers of passages found in Mammoth Caves could have formed since the Flood. Moreover, many of the world's large cave systems are filled with secondary formations (speleothems) that require themselves many years to form (see Appendix). Dr. Austin and others have thus addressed the problem by treating it in parts, and apparently with the expectation that nobody will recognize one plus one is actually larger than...one.

Fuzzy number crunching: how fast precisely?

For those not yet convinced, I want to examined Dr. Austin's calculations in detail. In short, he determines the amount of calcite that can be dissolved annually by 1) estimating the carbonate concentration of groundwater based on calcium concentration; 2) estimating the volume of groundwater that passes through the bedrock based on measured rainfall per square kilometer. Multiplying (1), a mass per volume, by (2), a volume, yields the mass of calcite dissolved each year per kilometer. Seems straightforward, right? Too simple! That is, until one verifies the assumptions that go into such a calculation.

First, Austin's model assumes that "about 1.0 meter of the 1.22 meters of mean annual rainfall go into the aquifer [i.e. groundwater]". He even prefaces the assumption with "it is reasonable to assume", but why? What makes this reasonable? Anyone reading this has access to Google Maps or a similar program that offers a bird's-eye view of Kentucky. What do you see? My map appears pretty green, because Kentucky is blanketed with trees—healthy ones at that. All of these trees require water, and any water taken up by trees does not infiltrate the bedrock. The process by which trees and other vegetation take up water from the soil is called transpiration. Precipitation can also return to the hydrologic cycle through evaporation. Collectively, these routes are referred to as evapotranspiration, and the Kentucky Climate Center reports a mean annual evapotranspiration rate of 32.77 inches for Kentucky.

To estimate the amount of rainfall that actually infiltrates the bedrock, we simply deduct 32.77 inches (0.83 meters) from the total rainfall amount: 48 inches (1.22 meters). The difference is 15.26 inches (0.39 meters), so Austin's model is already off by a factor of ~2.5. Within the article, Austin speculates that Kentucky may have received significantly more rain in the past, thereby soliciting credibility for his initial calculation. There is no direct evidence, however, of higher rainfall for Kentucky in the past 5,000 years—certainly not approaching 2.5 times modern values. Using real climate data, Austin's annually produced 59 cubic meter cave is thus reduced to 23.6 cubic meters (the equivalent of dropping the ceiling in our bedroom to only 5 feet). [Note: the evapotranspiration figure here is higher than I should have used; see comments for further discussion]

Secondly, Austin's model assumes that about 100% of the calcium in groundwater is derived from calcite dissolution. He argues to this point by noting that rainwater contains negligible amounts of calcium and magnesium, so it must all be derived from the ground. On this point, he is correct—calcium in rainwater accounts for much less than 1% that dissolved in groundwater. So what is the source of the remaining ~48.9 milligrams per liter of calcium?

Before water can infiltrate into the bedrock, it must pass through the active soil horizons (with the exception of water that falls very near disappearing streams). Soil horizons—particularly in forested ecosystems—are heavily enriched in calcium, because they contain the decayed litter of tree leaves and twigs. Trees and other vegetation actively take up calcium from the weathered bedrock through their roots, thereby enriching the uppermost soil horizons in calcium and other nutrients by several orders of magnitude.

Since calcite dissolves rather quickly in even slightly acidic rainwater, much of the 49 mg/L of calcium in groundwater is derived from the uppermost soil horizons, and not subsurface caverns. Recent work in monitoring calcium isotopes at spring outlets and along carbonate aquifers confirms this phenomenon, since 44Ca is heavily depleted in the O/A horizons and shifts the isotopic composition of groundwater negative (more so during the wet months).

Carbon isotopes in cave deposits also confirm that a bulk of the dissolved carbonate material is derived from the soil rather than the surrounding bedrock. The δ values of most soils is between -25‰ and -15‰, while limestone bedrock is close to 0‰ (give or take). Carbon isotope values of speleothems are commonly between -10‰ and -2‰, reflecting a mixing value between the soil and bedrock signatures.

If the calcium in Austin's equation is derived largely from the soil and not the expanding cave, then his estimate is wrong by nearly an order of magnitude. Austin is far from explaining the presence of large caverns—certainly in humid climates like Kentucky or Southeast Asia, but more so in arid climates like the American Southwest or Israel/Turkey, which he neglects to mention.


Cave dissolution occurs neither as rapidly nor as simply as Austin proposes. Soil activity, groundwater chemistry, and the presence of joints and faults in the bedrock play a significant role. Austin's young-Earth model can benefit from none of these, however, since 1) rich soils could not have been present immediately after the flood, 2) pore waters would have been saturated in carbonate, and 3) joints and faults cannot form to serve as flow conduits in unconsolidated sediment (i.e. soft sediment that hasn't yet been cemented together). More recent estimates suggest that cave conduits typically widen by less than a centimeter every ten years—a far cry from Austin's 59-meter-long tunnel.

Along with speleothem formation, the problem of cave dissolution remains an immovable stumbling block to the young-Earth creationist, who must propose that both processes can complete in a few thousands of years. The massive, decorated caverns across the world may stand as testament to the beauty of God's creation, but they strongly preclude the notion of a recent, global flood. Our time is better spent, I believe, reconciling these observations with scripture to better understand both.



Austin devotes a section to secondary formations, but seems to have little experience on the matter. He notes, for example, that radiocarbon dating had been used to date speleothems but rejects the validity of these dates. He claims rather that the carbonate minerals should give deceptively old dates because the bedrock should contain little or no radioactive carbon. That is true, but geologists involved in dating speleothems already know this, so they assume that only a portion of the calcite in speleothems was derived from the atmosphere (i.e. soil-derived carbon) to calculate their dates. Austin's skepticism is rooted, therefore, in a non sequitur.

At the time Austin's article was written, speleothem analysis was in its infancy, so I must give him the benefit of the doubt. But his attempt at explaining the rate of speleothem growth is shown obviously to be flawed. Regarding a 2-meter stalagmite called "Great Dome", he states:

"A large stalagmite like Great Dome may contain 100 million cubic centimeters of calcite, which, if accumulated in 4,000 years, would require a deposition rate of 25,000 cubic centimeters...yearly. If the dripping water is assumed to deposit 0.5 gram of calcite per liter, 133,000 liters of water would have to drip over the stalagmite each year. Because about 6,000 drops comprise 1 liter, it would take about 800 million drops of water per year to form the stalagmite. This works out to 25 drops of water per second...Whether a stalagmite would be deposited in the above hypothetical situation is not known." (emphasis added)

Anyone that even owns a faucet should know that a drip rate of 25 drops per second is absurd. I would challenge Austin to find even a man-made device that could produce such a phenomenon. Regardless, the answer to Austin's question is no, a stalagmite could not be deposited in this situation. The reason is that each drip requires time to degas and partially evaporate—otherwise it will not precipitate calcite, because, as Austin himself stated, the water is undersaturated with respect to calcite. Despite a noble attempt and a novel approach, Dr. Austin cannot explain the existence of caves and their decorations in a young-Earth paradigm.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review (Part 3): Ken Ham's uncompromising approach to alternate views on creation and the flood

In this final post (see Part 1 and Part 2 prior), I want to begin by giving credit where it is due.* Despite my critical comments on the method employed by Ken Ham and Greg Hall, I can sympathize with their prime motivation. Greg Hall explains (p. 104):

"In general, believers have failed to bring Christian truth to bear in society. As a result, we have a culture that has moved far away from God. We have a culture that does not consult the Word of God. We as Christians are not salt and light to our world and we have lost our influence—for the time being."

In this, he is absolutely right. Modern evangelicalism has learned well how to get people 'in the door' and excited about what God has in store for them. Quite frequently, however, this is done by reducing the gospel message to the proverbial icing on one's moralistic cake, as if to say: "Your life is good now, but the message of Jesus will give it purpose and remove the guilt surrounding your shortcomings." Such a reductionistic form of the gospel not only lacks the most central aspect—the lordship of Christ—but prevents believers from fulfilling their true vocation to the world—a lamp, not a safety deposit box. Greg hits the nail on the head, I believe, in this section.

Earlier in the book (p. 38), Greg observed that "the anti-Christian, atheistic segment of our culture has become very militant." This statement needs little justification, though he offers a brief body of evidence. Few Christians would disagree, moreover, that an active defense of the gospel and biblical authority is required now more than ever. In this regard, I can only commend the authors for upholding what they see as a faithful response to that call. My critique is meant, therefore, to be constructive; I want to see them succeed in this arena.

But Greg later raises the practical question of church unity, about which he says (p. 161):

"We are often told we should be concentrating on our unity in Christ alone...but this view ignores a larger question — can we separate the centrality of Christ from the authority of His Word?"

Since this view itself rests in the centrality of Christ and the authority of His word, we need to understand Greg's nuanced form of the challenge. Nobody asserts that unity in Christ can be sought apart from biblical authority, so Greg is once more appealing to a specific hermeneutic (reading) of Scripture that he feels is integral to the mission. Put another way, Greg feels that anyone curtailing a literalistic reading of the Genesis narrative is somehow undermining the centrality of Christ and His word. My counter perspective aside, it is vital to understand this foundational mentality if one is to approach the YEC movement with any meaningful interaction.

On a final note in passing, Ken devoted a full chapter to analyzing variegated responses from the President and Vice-President of each college (or the equivalent position to these titles). I will not elaborate on these results, because I think they are the most interesting of the study. If you want to know why the two head administrators are commonly not on the same page, or whether that is beneficial in education, then I suggest you buy the book!

Alternative views on creation: why won't Ken compromise?

Ken's ministry has devoted an enormous amount of time and money defending what it believes to be a spotless presentation of the biblical worldview. Further, he believes (p. 172) that the Answers in Genesis article database represents the honest research of "biblical-creation scientists and theologians," who have provided solid answers to evidential arguments against a young-Earth paradigm. Within this backdrop, I do not doubt Mr. Ham's sincerity with regard to his beliefs. Nonetheless, I am taken back by the way in which he interacts with those postulating alternative viewpoints. In response to the poll results, he summarizes (p. 127, emphasis added):

"What we appear to have is a basic biblical illiteracy among some of the leaders and professors of Christian colleges. Not only are their responses contradictory to the clear teachings of Scripture, but they are also inconsistent with themselves. This is far, far from “thinking Christianly.” Perhaps this is because most of them have never been trained in it, and are therefore stuck in a quagmire of belief, where they claim to believe in Scripture but are really being influenced by the secular worldview."

As we saw earlier, the supposed inconsistency among respondents results only from Ken's rigid, but flawed, schema by which he has interpreted the results. Whether these responses are contradictory to biblical teaching is perhaps a question better answered by theologians—most of whom disagree with Ken on how to read the Bible. Ken's accusation that respondents are not "thinking Christianly" is therefore not only inappropriate, but somewhat ironic. Moreover, it reveals the dogmatism of his position, in that he precludes the possibility that his 'opponents' have reasoned to their perspectives by thinking critically through the body of evidence. Rather, he proclaims that the only explanation behind their dissension is a full-fledged, but unstated, capitulation to "the secular worldview" (as though there were just one!).

Picking on Professors: John Walton and the Lost World of Genesis One

In one of the appendices (entitled Speaking of Newspeak), Ken examines the opposing views of several Christian professors that have published recently on the origins debate. Among them are William Dembski, best known for his work on 'Intelligent Design', Davis Young (co-author of The Bible, Rocks, and Time), Karl Giberson (former director of Biologos), William Lane Craig, Bruce Waltke, Howard J. Van Till, John Collins, and more. Ken's method of examination, however, involves little more than following carefully selected quotes from the respective authors with a witty, rhetorical remark that belies the crucial context of each quote. For example, when Karl Giberson raises several literary challenges to the young-Earth paradigm out of the biblical text, Ken simply remarks (p. 182):

"So, no literal Fall, no literal Adam and Eve — so much for Christianity!"

Ken seems to think, therefore, that his readers will not care to pick up—let alone read—the full work of each author cited, and I think he has made a safe assumption. Unfortunately, he has managed to 'shock' most of his readers into thinking 'Wow, this is weird. I better stay away from these people!' This tactic is hardly conducive to critical thinking, let alone church unity.

Mr. Ham's rhetorical remarks are hardly worth exploring further, but I do want to comment on his treatment of Dr. John Walton of Wheaton College. In his book The Lost World of Genesis One, Dr. Walton uses comparative literature and cultural studies to elucidate the literal meaning of the famous creation narrative. Therein, he concludes that the Genesis account has nothing to do with the material origin of things, but describes in semi-poetic prose how God pronounced function to, and took up residence in the universe—His 'cosmic temple'. This interpretation explicitly denies all forms of scientific concordism (Young and Old Earth). Walton believes, therefore, that questions about the age of the Earth, evolution, etc. are left to the scientific disciplines, and that no predictions can/should be made from the text of Genesis.

Although Walton's proposal is bound to ruffle many feathers among concordist traditions, his argument is well developed, and appeals to biblical texts alongside recently discovered literature from the Ancient Near East (i.e. the lost world in which Genesis was written). The result is an interpretation of Genesis that 1) remains faithful to the historical-redemptive tradition of biblical theology, 2) is consistent with ancient near eastern culture and worldviews, and 3) does not force contradiction with geological evidence regarding Earth history. As an aside, his interpretation also creates the most beautiful picture of the creation narrative that I have come across.

That being said, let's take a look at how Ken responds. He says (p. 185):

"[Walton] basically insists that one can only understand Genesis if one has an understanding of ancient Near Eastern thinking — and surprise, surprise — this has been lost for thousands of years. Now a few academics like Dr. Walton have unearthed this thinking so now they can tell us what the writer of Genesis 1 really meant! It is an academic elitism."

Ken's charge of academic elitism is easily reversed. After familiarizing myself with YEC literature and the article database at Answers in Genesis, I started to wonder years ago whether anyone could have truly understood the meaning of Genesis 1–11 without grasping general relativity, nuclear physics, catastrophic plate tectonics, seafloor oceanography, accelerated nuclear decay, and accelerated speciation after Noah's ark landed! But now a few academics like Russell Humphreys, John Baumgardner, Steve Austin, and Andrew Snelling have properly applied these concepts so that I might understand passages like Genesis 1:2–3 to mean that the entire mass of the universe began as a sphere of water that collapsed and rebounded like a neutron star after God altered the cosmological constant!

Opting for frivolous attacks on personal character, Ken has thus failed to grasp the principle of Walton's approach: if we wish to understand the original meaning of Genesis 1, we have to understand the cultural and literary world in which it was written. But that culture has in fact been lost for more than two millennia, starting with the fall of the Persian/Babylonian empires. New Testament scholars commonly use contemporary literature to elucidate Jesus' parables, or Paul's Caesar/Christ antithesis—why not do the same for Genesis? Unfortunately, ancient near eastern literature has only been uncovered in the past century and a half, before which 1800 years of Christian dogmatics (influenced partly by Greek/Roman cultures) had already been firmly established.

On the other hand, the only part of Walton's proposal with which Ken should really take issue is that it rejects scientific concordism. Walton does not deny the biblical doctrine of creation—only that Genesis might be used to formulate scientific hypotheses! In fact, Walton makes it clear that his view of Genesis 1 does not necessarily contradict the notion of a young Earth. Ken doesn't buy it though (otherwise he wouldn't have an argument), and responds (p. 185):

"Walton tries (unsuccessfully) to insist that he is not coming up with this new idea of his because of the influence of evolution/millions of years...He knows that young people today have a conflict between the secular view of origins and the Bible — so his solution is to relegate Genesis 1 as having nothing to do with material origins and thus people are free to believe whatever they want..."

Mr. Ham's caricature again reveals the dogmatism behind his own stance. He denies a priori the possibility that Walton's line of reasoning is actually based on the evidence cited in the book. Walton devotes a whole chapter to explaining why the ancients would not be concerned with material origins, since they did not separate 'natural' from 'supernatural' and it was assumed by the culture that anything 'material' existed because of the divine. Rather than dealing with that evidence, Ken raises the unwarranted charge that ulterior motives are at play—motives rooted in secular, humanistic philosophy, no less!

In the next paragraph, Ken redirects Walton's hermeneutic into a personal attack on none other than the Reformers, as though Dr. Walton's prime goal is to be the only person that has properly understood Genesis (apparently Ken does not understand how scholarship works?). I can't imagine how Ken Ham would defend Luther against the charge that he was engaging in academic elitism by offering to be the first person in 1400 years to properly understand justification and the law! Moreover, did Calvin deny the pontifical authority of the Pope so that "people are free to believe whatever they want"? Wisdom is justified by all her children.

Ken further believes that "Dr. Walton has a different view of inspiration to that of Drs. Whitcomb and Morris...our AiG staff, and millions of other Christians around the world" (p. 189), because he appeals to extrabiblical cultural and textual evidence. Is Ken thus admitting that we should never appeal to evidence outside the biblical text to elucidate the biblical text? Ironically, Ken follows with a discussion on the meaning of θεοπνευστος in 2 Timothy 3:16, as though Dr. Walton is unaware of the Greek language. I cannot help but to ask—given that Mr. Ham is Australian and not a 1st-century Greek—did Ken consult a lexicon to obtain this meaning? Does he believe that lexicons are authoritative on matters of faith? He continues:

"If the infinite God, who created language, cannot move people to write His “God-breathed” words so all people (regardless of culture) can understand them, then there is something dreadfully wrong."

Of course, Dr. Walton never suggested that nobody has understood Genesis, and he affirms the orthodox doctrine of creation. Ken thus misses the point. On the contrary, Walton favors the power of story and narrative to transcend time and culture over against 'scientific' accounts. On page 17 of his own book, he brilliantly explains:

"If God were intent on making his revelation correspond to science, we have to ask which science...By its very nature science is in a constant state of flux. If we were to say that God's revelation corresponds to "true science" we adopt an idea contrary to the very nature of science. What is accepted as true today, may not be accepted as true tomorrow, because what science provides is the best explanation of the data at the time...So if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time. We gain nothing by bringing God's revelation into accordance with today's science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood."

Dr. Walton's reasoning well reflects that of Calvin and Augustine, who famously warned against using Genesis as a book of science. Calvin and Augustine both accepted a young Earth, not because it was demanded by the biblical text, but in accordance with the best science of their day. Ken's discussion on the inspiration and authority of scripture over against extrabiblical data is but a misdirection that prevents readers from exploring the full meaning of Genesis. Is Ken really satisfied to say that Genesis 1 is a simple, eyewitness account with no theological structure and polemics? In trying to separate 'history' from 'theology' in the Genesis account, Mr. Ham does damage to both.

Ken concludes by citing Walton's view on the Flood (p. 190), wherein Dr. Walton says:

"It has already been suggested that the boat in Mesopotamian accounts [of the Flood] may have served as a floating shrine...In this sense the Mesopotamian ark appears as a physical representation of a sanctuary, while the Genesis ark appears as a functional representation of a sanctuary. Creation both in the Bible and in the ancient Near East entailed deity bringing order while pushing back chaos...In this sense, the flood represents a reversal of creation."

To which Ken sarcastically remarks, "Now that makes sense to the average person, doesn’t it? Why didn’t any Jews or Christians before the 20th century ever think of this?" Well yes, Ken, it does make sense. And I believe that even a brief survey of Christian and Jewish thought on the Flood will reveal that many have been able to make the simple connection between the ark and the tabernacle/temple, and between the flood and recreation themes throughout scripture (you can begin with my discussion here).

Amid the discussion, Ken complains (p. 189) that: "We are seeing academia in the Christian world going mad as “Protestant popes” are popping up all over the Christian world." Yet how does Mr. Ham exclude himself from this category? Or does he? If he responds that his worldview is actually biblical, then his dogmatic claim to the Cathedra Petri is once more revealed. If not, then his statement is empty, but I am inclined to think that Ken falls victim to his own accusation, which he further explicates on page 193 (emphasis added):

"Why are we seeing more and more bizarre and elitist ideas (like those of Dr. Dembski and Dr. Walton) coming out of Christian academia? I believe it is an academic pride, from academic peer pressure, because ultimately some of these people love “human praise more than praise from God” (John 12:43; NIV)."

I do pray that I am wrong on this matter, but the conclusion is difficult to escape as I follow the work of Answers in Genesis, including this book. I can see no other reason, at this point, that Ken refuses to interact with Christian academia on the meaning of the biblical text. Rather than heeding the advice of Christian colleagues, Ken renders judgment on their hearts and accuses them of loving men over God. Finally, he alienates his readers from their own culture and forces them to fight an unnecessary battle, while placing a stumbling block before a people today that desperately needs Christ.

After weighing two extremes, I have given this book two stars. If you disagree with my assessment, please feel free to comment (here or at Amazon.com). Below, I have summarized my thoughts:

1) This book contains real poll data from Christian colleges around the country. If you are interested in what faculty and administrators from Christian colleges believe about creation, the flood, and biblical authority, I recommend this book.
2) If you reject YEC, but have a vested interest in how it affects the church today, this book elucidates the mindset behind that paradigm in a way that online blogs and articles do not. I recommend this book if you want to know who Ken Ham is—what he believes and why he does what he does.
3) If this book were written by Greg Hall alone, I would be inclined to give it at least 3 to 4 stars. The sections written by Dr. Hall offer pastoral advice from a man who wants passionately to share his faith. Though I do not share his viewpoint on scripture, creation, etc., I appreciate his sincerity and his attempt to reason through the challenges of our culture today.
4) This book is an easy read, which I finished in less than two days while taking seven pages of notes. At right around $11, it will not require much of your time or money.

1) The authors continuously equivocate terms (like 'literal', or even 'science') to the disadvantage of respondents that disagree with them. Ken's handle on the poll data lacked any critical evaluation, and (like many articles from AiG) made the data irrelevant to what he was saying. In other words, the book could have been written without any poll data and obtained the same result.
2) Ken takes every opportunity to belittle Christian professors that offer alternative viewpoints, rather than dealing thoughtfully and humbly with their words. This sort of rhetoric made the book uncomfortable to read.
3) Ken employs a 'shock' tactic, whereby he cites a large portion of his opponent's own words and afterward refuses to engage in the discussion. Implicitly, he portrays the respective authors as 'weird', 'out of place', or 'misguided' without having to make his case. This strategy turned the book into an opinionated piece out of Ken's diary, rather than a scholarly work of any worth.
4) While this book contains numerous results from Ken's comprehensive poll, the raw data are not available! Much academic value could have been added to this book if the appendix were replaced by tables that detailed the responses to every question.


*I also want to thank Jennifer White and New Leaf Publishing Group for providing a copy of Already Compromised to me for review.