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

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Gasping for oxygen, and an argument: AiG's 'News to Note' and the Permo-Triassic Extinction

As an aside to my current series of posts, I thought it might be worth commenting on a recent news update at Answers in Genesis (News to Note, Oct. 22). Therein, Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell tried unsuccessfully to subvert the work of Dr. Ariel Anbar (Arizona State University) and his research group to corroborate her own view that a recent, catastrophic flood deposited nearly all Phanerozoic strata. According to Mitchell, this includes Permian and Triassic rocks, which are differentiated by an abrupt disappearance of most fossil groups. The Permo-Triassic extinction event is the largest known from geologic history, and was responsible for the loss of some 70% of terrestrial species and more than 90% of marine species (including the iconic trilobite).

Ocean anoxia has long been cited as a major cause of the mass extinction, since there is widespread evidence for the deposition of black shales, a shutdown in marine productivity, and enhanced burial of organic carbon—all of which precede or coincide with the extinction horizon. Black shales are extremely rich in organic material, which can only be preserved in low-oxygen conditions. They also provide evidence of slow burial, since rapid sedimentation tends to 'dilute' the concentration of organic remains from microscopic marine organisms (e.g., algae, phytoplankton, radiolarians). Carbon isotopic signatures and the abundance of trace metals have been used to monitor the recovery of marine microorganisms after the extinction event. Geologists have been eager, however, to refine this hypothesis quantitatively. What caused the ocean anoxia? How long did it last? How much of the ocean became anoxic?

A recent study by Brennecka et al. (2011) employed a rather novel technique in the study of ocean anoxic events. In short, two major isotopes of uranium (238 and 235) are naturally separated (fractionated) to small extent when positively charged uranium (6+) is reduced (i.e. gains electrons) in the absence of oxygen. The latter form (tetravalent uranium, with a charge of 4+) is highly insoluble in water, and so is drawn down into the sediments. Since the heavier isotope (238U) is preferred in the tetravalent form, sediments deposited under anoxic conditions will yield a slightly higher isotopic signature (δ238U). Conversely, the uranium isotopic signature (δ238U) of the ocean should decrease when anoxic conditions are sufficiently prevalent to perturb the uranium cycle.

Uranium is present in low concentrations in the ocean, so the time needed for uranium isotopic signatures to respond to anoxic events is relatively short (compared to isotopes of carbon, for example, which take upward of ~100,000 years to equilibrate). This makes it an ideal proxy for quantifying past changes in ocean chemistry. Only recently have uranium isotopes been employed in the study of paleoceanography, however, since the technology required to precisely measure δ238U was not previously available (Montoya-Pino et al., 2010). Brennecka et al. (2011) analyzed δ238U in a section of carbonate rock (limestone) from southern China that contained the Permo-Triassic boundary. They concluded that anoxic conditions increased by ~6 times normal for the Permian ocean, and further that these conditions prevailed for only ~50,000 years following the mass extinction. Previous hypotheses assumed a more pervasive and long-lasting event.

"Abruptness of ancient oceanic alterations fit the Flood"?

Dr. Mitchell's response to the article was unfortunately ignorant of the geology/chemistry behind the study. When summarizing key assumptions, for example, she states:

"[Brennecka et al., 2011] assumed that there was an “isotopically constant U input from rivers..." as well as “a constant isotope fractionation between seawater” and the various places where precipitated uranium gets deposited. In other words, their interpretation that sudden global depletion of oceanic oxygen caused mass extinction assumes that nothing happened to suddenly change the amount of water flowing into the sea or to stir up the oceans more than usual."

There is a logical disconnect in Dr. Mitchell's reasoning. Changes in the flux of water (and hence dissolved uranium) into the oceans would not affect the uranium isotopic signature of the oceans to any significant degree. The average δ238U value of crustal materials (basalt/granite) is -0.3‰, while the value of dissolved U in modern seawater is -0.4‰ (Montoya-Pino et al., 2010). The difference is almost too small to be measured. One can visualize the effect by analogy of mixing paints at the hardware store. Adding one bucket of yellow paint (U in rivers) to another bucket of yellow paint (U in the oceans) yields one large bucket of yellow paint. Dr. Mitchell has essentially noted that the authors 'assumed that mixing yellow paint with yellow paint would not make the paint green'.

The assumption that uranium input from rivers was "isotopically constant" has nothing to do, therefore, with how much water enters the ocean. Dr. Mitchell does not explain, moreover, why "stir[ring] up the oceans more than usual" would falsify the assumption that isotopic fractionation remained constant between oxic and anoxic environments. Isotopic fractionation depends rather on the geochemistry of the water: temperature, pH, and concentration of dissolved ions. Temperature has little effect on the fractionation of uranium, because the mass difference between 238U and 235U is negligible. Since uranium is deposited in ionic complexes with carbonate anions (CO32-), the latter two factors would only affect isotopic fractionation at very low carbonate concentrations (unrealistic for marine settings). The isotopic exchange of uranium between uranyl species (i.e. the oxidation and reduction of UO22+ in oxic/anoxic environments) is thus favored as the primary cause of isotopic fractionation.

Dr. Mitchell must explain, therefore, how δ238U could suddenly shift negative by 0.28‰ in a carbonate sequence that was supposedly deposited catastrophically during the Flood. Instead, she overlooks the significance of the data and appeals to her starting position (petitio principii):

"The biblical record however tells of a sudden global change in the oceans—the Flood. The global Flood not only sends all the stated assumptions by which the investigators have interpreted their data out the window but actually explains their findings."

We have already seen how this scenario does nothing to falsify the assumptions of Brennecka et al. (2011), so one is left to wonder how Dr. Mitchell got from point A to point B. What changes specifically does she refer to? We are completely justified in asking for a viable, scientific explanation for the observed trends in uranium isotopes according to her views on geologic history. But Dr. Mitchell's silence is telling; she does not understand the data and so she cannot explain them scientifically. She continues:

"The Permian layers are at the top of the Paleozoic rock sequence, a sequence dominated by marine invertebrate fossils. In the upper layers of these Paleozoic rocks, amphibians and land animals do make their appearance."

Paleozoic rocks are no more "dominated by marine invertebrate fossils" than the overlying Mesozoic sequence. It just so happens that terrestrial depositional environments are better preserved in the Mesozoic (a phenomenon predicted by plate tectonic theory). Numerous species of land animals (and plants) are known from the Paleozoic, but they are less familiar to most people outside the field of paleontology. Nonetheless, should we be surprised that terrestrial organisms become more diverse and abundant in time? Is there an argument hidden in these blank, misleading statements? She writes:

"The Paleozoic...layers...are dominated by marine creatures because those would have been the first buried by oceanic upheavals as the earth’s crust cracked as described in Genesis 7:11. The distribution of fossils in the higher layers would have depended in part upon animals’ abilities to flee the rising waters."

Technically, land animals and plants should have been the first to be buried, since they would be the first to be overwhelmed with sediment-saturated waves from the ocean masses. Apparently Dr. Mitchell is unfamiliar with the effect of tsunamis on land inhabitants—how exactly does one's "ability to flee the rising waters" of such catastrophes factor in? At best, we might expect to find fossils organized hydrodynamically—intermingled marine and terrestrial forms—but we find just the opposite. Fossils are not sorted by the forces of flowing water, but divided neatly by ecological habitat. Dr. Mitchell's uninformed musings aside, I can't help but to notice that she has completely evaded any meaningful discussion of uranium isotopes and the Permo-Triassic boundary. Perhaps there is hope in her final paragraph:

"If these abrupt changes in Permian uranium are a snapshot of abrupt global changes at the time those Permian rock layers were laid down, then those changes are a snapshot of the turbulent conditions of a part of the Flood year, perhaps even related volcanic outpourings of lavas and chemical-laden hot waters at the time. The Bible explains these sudden catastrophic changes to the earth’s surface, the resulting massive death toll, and apparently some significant geochemical changes as well."

It pains me to think how many readers will take these words for granted—uncritically and without reservation. Dr. Mitchell's description has no scientific basis and appeals rather to the ignorance of her audience (i.e. she must assume that her audience does not grasp the science behind the study—a very disingenuous move). She implies here that "volcanic outpourings" may have something to do with the results of the study. What is the connection? Please tell us! In fact, there is no connection—these phenomena would have no effect on uranium isotopes in Permo-Triassic carbonate sequences. Dr. Mitchell thus appeals to ignorant conjecture over against the evidence she cites. Yet because of her credentials (which have nothing to do with geology), many a reader will conflate the two. Worst of all, her association of the biblical text with a false interpretation of geological data is counterproductive to the gospel message. It is hardly surprising that so many have deemed the church "antagonistic to science".

The big picture: why study ocean anoxic events in the first place?

To conclude, I want to consider briefly how Dr. Mitchell begins her review:

"While the cause of this extinction event has eluded secular geologists, hypotheses have generally held that millions of years of oceanic oxygen depletion preceded the deaths."

Evidence for severe climatic change at the Permo-Triassic boundary is overwhelming. A more difficult task is assigning the proper causal relationship between these changes and the extinctions that accompanied them. Ocean anoxia is but one among several factors that may have been partially responsible for the sharp reduction in marine taxa at the end of the Permian. The new finding that anoxia may have been more abrupt than previously hypothesized is very helpful, but does not preclude other factors from playing a part. All in all, it is fairly misleading to say that the cause(s) of the extinction has/have "eluded secular geologists".

One of the key words in the study by Brennecka et al. (2011) is 'sensitivity'—that is, sensitivity of the oceans and its life to environmental changes. The relevance of this study to our own time cannot be overstated, and I think our time would be better spent in awe of the fragility of life, and our ultimate responsibility over it. One of the best ways to appreciate our current position (or predicament) in the cosmos, I think, is to study the geologic past in light of the commission found in Genesis 1:26.

References Cited:

Brennecka, G. A., Herrmann, A.D., Algeo, T. J., Anbar, A. D., 2011, Rapid expansion of oceanic anoxia immediately before the end-Permian mass extinction: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Montoya-Pino, C., Weyer, S., Anbar, A.D., Pross, J., Oschmann, W., van de Schootbrugge, B., Arz, H.W., 2010, Global enhancement of ocean anoxia during Oceanic Anoxic Event 2: A quantitative approach using U isotopes: Geology, v. 38, p. 315–318.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On reading Genesis as literature: breaking the hermeneutical bonds of a modern controversy

On the absence of Genesis

Recently, I realized that I could not think of a single instance over the past 10 years in which Genesis was used as the primary text of the sermon. Of course, I limited my thought experiment to congregations that I had personally attended, and though I acknowledge that there are too many exceptions to make a sweeping generalization, I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences. Today, Genesis is a relatively neglected text in the arena of ecclesial exposition. Given its canonical importance in the biblical text, however, and the primacy of the Genesis narratives in biblical theology (or redemptive history), I am eager to witness—if not facilitate—a radical reversal of this trend in the church body. In short, I am of the opinion that Genesis should be read, preached, and studied at least annually within every congregation.

We need not be subtle in answering why pastors commonly consign Genesis to a reference in passing, rather than the point of departure for most sermons. A great deal of controversy in the modern church has centered around the Genesis narratives—a problem noted by the very title of this blog. Drawing from the sentiments of personal acquaintances (including some pastors), I realize that most church leaders have approached Genesis with caution, not wishing to ignite a divisive dialogue among the laity. They realize that when Genesis is read, hands go up, and not a few members ultimately wish to hear their own position fortified and certain others denounced.

Any sophisticated study of Genesis, moreover, necessarily entails some very difficult questions (regardless of one's hermeneutical inclinations). What do we say about the historicity of the patriarchs? Of the flood? The age of the earth? How does the cosmogony given in Genesis 1–2 intersect with modern science—or does it? Unfortunately, we all share an epistemic stumbling block in that we live in a society born out of the European Enlightenment and demand systematic and scientific understanding of nearly every topic we encounter. Could it be that we have inappropriately projected this mentality back onto Genesis? I hope to convince you that we have indeed.

Warrant for caution or resolution?

A common challenge to pastors thus arises out of the fact that diverse opinions are accompanied by a ubiquitous philosophical ambition for singular truth. When preaching through Genesis, one must decide 1) whether or not to take a firm stance on any one view; 2) which views to teach or critique; and 3) whether any view should be bound to the conscience of the believer. Consequently it seems that all too often, sermons on Genesis constitute more a commentary on the demographics of the church than on the biblical message.

I want to submit to you, therefore, that we can move forward by reading Genesis apart from this modern controversy. In other words, let us avoid anachronism by critiquing the reader before the text. Once we recognize the hermeneutical bonds of our own Sitz im leben, we are better prepared to approach Genesis for what it really is: a piece of ancient, divinely inspired literature and historiography that functions both theologically and polemically within its own unique time and place.

When people ask me which 'view' of Genesis I take (the day-age view, the six-day view, the analogical day view, the framework hypothesis, etc.), I typically respond with "none of the above". I do not intend to be cunning with this answer, but critical. In my experience, many of these views begin by taking a firm stance on the modern controversy over science/faith, the age of the earth, etc., and then interpret scripture accordingly (these presuppositions may or may not be vocalized). Even Ken Ham—who would snidely respond with the truistic "I take the biblical view!"—is not free from the influence of his rejection of modern geology and evolutionary theory on reading scripture. Appealing to a 'plain, common-sense reading of the text' adds absolutely nothing to the discussion, not least because no such reading exists. The ideal of 'common sense' is as fluid as society, culture, and even academic disciplines.

I am alluding here in part to the postmodernist challenge to literary criticism. [In case I have raised a flag in your mind at the mere mention of this word, please bare with me.] We need not capitulate to relativism to appreciate postmodernist theory in at least one positive light: it stands a necessary challenge to the reductionism and arrogance of modernism. Any critique of a text must simultaneously be a critique of the reader. Literalistic readings of Genesis are often simplistic and theologically unsophisticated, in part because they aspire to narrowly define meaning so as to avoid any influence from 'modern science' or liberalism. In so doing, however, they separate the text from its own Sitz im leben, treating it as an autonomous entity that functions more like a mirror than a window. Consequently, biblical literalists ultimately tell us more about themselves than the worldview of the biblical authors. In this sense, their readings are more 'postmodern' than they would freely admit, but without any critical force.

Through a glass darkly

Before one accuses me of placing Genesis beyond the reach of any non-expert in literary criticism (this includes myself, by the way), I should clarify that our 'misreadings' are not necessarily fruitless. In no way do we undermine the perspicuity of scripture by highlighting interpretive difficulties. Consider, for example, J.P. Fokkelman's (1975) metaphor of the living text:

"The birth of a text resembles that of man: the umbilical cord which connected the text with its time...is severed once its existence has become a fact; the text is going to lead a life of its own, for whenever a reader grants it an adequate reading it will come alive and become operative and it usually survives its maker. Whereas the creation of a text is finite...its re-creation is infinite. It is a task for each new age, each new generation, each new reader, never to be considered complete."

In other words, all forms of literature function artistically in that two parties are involved—the author and the reader. Both parties contribute to the significance of a text, which—as an explicative symbolism—cannot be reduced to mere words on a page or an object of scientific analysis. Readings can be effectual, therefore, without mimicking authorial intent (the most pertinent examples can be found in the New Testament usage of the Hebrew Bible), since all readings are in fact dialogues between the reader and the text, or between the reader and the author.*

Nearly all literary critics admit that we can never truly read an author's thoughts after him/her. They are divided, however, on whether the very pursuit—futile or not—constitutes a worthy goal. We gain some insight, perhaps, in the writings of E.D. Hirsch, who is best noted for distinguishing between the 'meaning' and 'significance' of a text. 'Meaning' is ultimately rooted in authorial intent, according to Hirsch, who finds himself in the academic minority (albeit, a highly valued one) for positing that authorial intent is theoretically knowable. Although Hirsch writes in response to the New Criticism, embodied to some extent by Fokkelman's metaphor, their insights need not be taken as mutually exclusive. Commenting on the previous citation by Fokkelman, for example, B.W. Anderson (1978) writes:

"Frankly, I must admit to misgivings about some exercises in rhetorical criticism which seem to be purely formal, almost mathematical, and lack a dimension of depth that adds richness to the text. Moreover, some biblical theologians wonder whether this new form of literalism, which disavows interest in historical questions, leads us to a docetic view of revelation...Despite these reservations, one is compelled to agree that the proper starting-point methodologically is with the text as given, not with the reconstruction of the prehistory of the text which, as Fokkelman observes, is usually 'an unattainable ideal.'"

Anderson's use of the term "literalism" here should not necessarily be equated with the hermeneutic of young-Earth creationism (as I've used it above). Instead, he is contrasting two broad schools of thought: those which begin with the text alone (literalism), and those which begin with the 'prehistory' of a text (i.e. compositional history, such as the documentary hypothesis surrounding the Pentateuch, and/or the cultural setting of the author). In the former, readings lack depth and preclude any meaningful historical discussion; in the latter, readings are potentially misguided by the pursuit of an impossible standard. In light of this analytical tension, Anderson exhorts us to consider the "functional unity" of the received text first; the unified message of the text's literary components are to be established at the outset. Then—and only then—are we free to explore the historical function and genesis of each component or literary source.

If we endeavor to treat the biblical text not as a mirror, which can only serve to reorient our own paradigms and experience, but rather as a window to the author's message, then we need to be acutely aware of all presuppositions we bring to the discussion. We should not pretend, moreover, that the spotted window can be polished to perfection with the 'Windex' of modern literary analysis. As in real life, cleaning the 'windows of biblical narrative' may only enhance their reflective quality. The influence of the reader on a text is ultimately inescapable, but a perceptive mind can at least distinguish in general between the reflection and what filters through the glass—given that it knows what to look for. Lastly, we should be conscious that even biblical narrative recounts history 'as through a glass darkly' because it is selective of the facts, and through stained glass because it explains those facts poetically in terms of God's eschatological providence.**

The need for a new (hermeneutical) exodus of Genesis

What I have proposed here is neither novel nor exhaustive (despite my optimistic subheading). At best, I have provided an outline and a point of departure for the discussion to follow. I won't pretend to have all the right answers, but I hope that I have at least asked the right questions. Can we read Genesis apart from modern controversies regarding science and faith? If so, how? Lastly, does this 'fresh perspective' offer any unique value to the church? Does it mitigate or only deepen the outstanding conflict among congregations today? Perhaps, the proof is (or will be) in the pudding.

Inasmuch as literary analysis tends to atomize textual elements, our reading of Genesis should remain conscious of an organic unity in the biblical text. In other words, however we tackle the elusive meaning of Genesis 1, our reading should simultaneously explain how Genesis 1–2:4 functions in the literary unit of Genesis 1–3. To be consistent, and to test the predictive power of our reading, we can apply this principle to the greater literary units of Genesis 1–11, Genesis 1–50, the Pentateuch as a whole, and the Hebrew bible as a whole. In each case, we can ask whether our reading elucidates these later texts—i.e. whether it functions canonically—or causes hermeneutical conflicts. For the Christian, our reading of Genesis 1–2:4 should also elucidate the gospel narratives to be effective or acceptable, I think.

Take the example of Genesis 1:2, which tells us that "the spirit of God was moving over the waters" (NASB). This chaotic prelude to creation is recounted intertextually in a number of subsequent narratives—most notably following the climax of the Flood narrative, where "God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided" (Gen. 8:1; consider that the same word is used for 'wind' and 'spirit'). If we are inclined to remain focused on the meteorological characteristics of the wind, then we will inevitably miss how the author has set the stage for a new creation of heaven and earth around Noah, God's new Adam. Genesis 8 effectively retells the creation narrative of Genesis 1, which begs the question: are the six days of creation merely a past reality? Is God still resting?

In Exodus 14:21, the Lord "swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided," thus retelling the exodus story as a new creation of heaven and earth centered around Israel, God's new Adam. What does this tell us about the vocation of Israel? About the mechanism and significance of God's role as creator? Matthew's gospel (especially the genealogy) is perhaps the most explicit in presenting the incarnation and gospel ministry as a new creation centered around Jesus, God's new Adam. In Matthew 3:16, we are even told that "After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove...". How does Genesis 1:2 function canonically in these texts? Do our previous interpretations of Genesis 1–2:4 deprive it of such a function?

This literary-canonical approach presupposes organic unity to the text (i.e. divine inspiration) without dismissing the literary contributions of individual authors and their cultural (sociological) settings. If done well, we can further proceed to ask historical (and scientific) questions surrounding the text without drawing the false dichotomy between 'story' and 'meaning'. In other words, we need not take upon us the imprudent and impossible task of separating reality from metaphor, myth from history, and modern science from ancient phenomenology. Finally, we can even delve into questions regarding the compositional history of the Bible (including the Pentateuch) without deconstructing the meaning and significance of the biblical message.

When we read Genesis, we enter into dialogue with a very distant conversational partner. Will we let him speak, or simply listen for the echo of our own monologue?


* To offer a more practical example of this concept, consider the love sonnets of Shakespeare. The same sonnet can be read differently by two parties without betraying the message of the author: the first is a 65-year-old widower who was married for 30 years; the second is a 16-year-old girl who is jealous of her older sibling's recent engagement. For the widower, the text serves as nostalgic realism, appealing to his own romantic experience, which now stands distant. For the young girl, the same text serves as fantasy, appealing to an experience hoped for, but not yet realized. We need not conclude, however, that Shakespeare's message is entirely lost to the difficulties of interpretive relativism.

** I cannot take credit for this metaphor, but I found it too insightful not to share. I hope that it serves its purpose.

References Cited:

Anderson, B.W., 1978, From Analysis to Synthesis: the interpretation of Genesis 1–11: Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 97, p. 23–39.

Fokkelman, J.P., 1975, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis: Amsterdam, 260 p.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A practical appendix to the 'appearance of age' question

Following up on my last post, I wanted to share a link to another article—entitled Apparent Age: Craters on Mars—that appeared last month on the Natural Historian blog. The author eloquently demonstrates how an appeal to 'appearance of age' self-destructs in practice. He does so by addressing the origin of craters on Mars and the moon (as well as a handful of geological features here on earth). He states:

"Today, modern creationists would have us believe that these features really do have real histories and some have even gone as far as trying to make the craters on the moon and Mars the result of real events in time and space after the creation week.  If this is the case and God created something in the space of 6 days, where then is the dividing line between apparent age and real age?  This is a critical part of the creation debate that is rarely acknowledged or talked about but is very important in understanding the differences between some of the views even among modern creationists."

If you have time, take a look. The article is worth reading and is bound to constructively criticize your own thinking, wherever you may stand with respect to 'appearance of age' in the cosmos.


Several days ago, Dr. Peter Enns posted an article on the same topic. He specifically identified two problems with the 'apparent age' perspective offered by Al Mohler (which I linked in the last post). First, he says (emphasis original):

"Mohler needs to account not only for why the cosmos looks old, but why the cosmos–including the earth and life on it–looks like it evolved."

This goes back to my analogy with the portrait and the brush strokes. To the natural scientist, the cosmos appear as more than a beautiful picture to be adored. It is rich with brush strokes that explain how all the pieces formed and came together so as to function as a meaningful whole.

Dr. Enns further addresses whether Dr. Mohler has arbitrarily chosen which "portions of Scripture he reads 'plainly'". To be fair, hermeneutical consistency is a rare find. But Dr. Enns' criticism is concise and straightforward, and he raises questions that need to be answered by any person involved with the origins debate.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Appearance of age or true age? Better yet—what's the difference?

For many a Christian struggling with the implications of an old universe, the challenges of modern science, or for those who simply seek to dismiss both out of hand, an appeal to 'appearance of age' in the cosmos commonly brings comfort (e.g. here). If Jesus could conjure a beverage with the appearance that it was finely aged; if God made man as a fully functioning human adult; if our very solar system was built in working order—how then can we use modern science to challenge the plain cosmology set out in the early chapters of Genesis?

Cosmology and vinification

Let's consider the first example. Why should a universe that 'looks old' falsify the young-Earth paradigm any more than the wedding guests at Cana should have doubted the miraculous work of Jesus? One might say: "The very appearance of age rather established the divinity of the messianic task!" Simplistic—yes. But I cannot argue with the basic premise that God's work could indeed bear the appearance of age.

On the other hand, John's account represents a highly theological retelling of the events at Cana. "On the third day," he begins, thereby linking the narrative to the resurrection story. To further drive this point, he follows with Mary's plea and a cryptic—and seemingly out of character—response by Jesus: "Woman, what does this have to do with us? My time is not yet come!" As such, the story is thoroughly eschatological, pointing forward to a much greater wedding feast that begins at the resurrection. There, God's people will understand that He has saved the best for last (cf. John 2:10).

I am skeptical, therefore, of the systematic theological method by which analogy is drawn between Jesus' miraculous, revelatory act of grace and the very formation of the cosmos. Are we not reading this backwards? Should we not begin at the story of God's creation, and trace the theme of new creation canonically (cf. Genesis 1; John 1) so as to understand Jesus' entire ministry as a divine act of creation? If not, then we shall miss the grander points of the gospel narrative. But if so, then those who would compare the history of the wine to that of the cosmos stand on shaky, exegetical ground.

Matthew's gospel is equally explicit regarding Jesus and his ministry, and this pattern of thought should guide our reasoning. He begins with "The Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ..." (Matt. 1:1), and then chronicles the six days of Israel's creation by capturing her covenant history within 42 generations (6 intervals of 7 generations each). Jesus—as the pinnacle of the sixth "day" who would also inaugurate the Sabbath rest of God—is identified intertextually as the new Adam, and his coming signifies new creation. God is moving once again on behalf of his people, advancing them toward the utopian portrait that is the Garden of Eden, and the 'very good' creation of Genesis 1—itself a cosmic temple in which we should all hope to worship.

The art of silence

Any argument that God's creation ex nihilo (Gen. 1–2) warrants an appeal to the appearance of age is ultimately one from silence. The 'maturation' of man, beast, earth, and heavenly host is neither described nor implied. Rather, its presence or absence is inferred by 1) an appeal to extrabiblical evidence, or 2) the literary reduction of Genesis 1–3 to a monological narrative, respectively. In the latter case, the reader demands that the hexaemeron correspond to six days in earth history and be taken as a "God's-eye view" of prehistoric events. Only then may we use Genesis 1 to formulate scientific hypotheses, or to differentiate between real and apparent history.

Though well intentioned and articulated, this hermeneutical principle runs contrary to early Jewish thought, as well as various Christian commentators from Augustine to Warfield and beyond. I don't think it inappropriate, therefore, to examine its merit critically. Despite its ostensibly pious view of the text, for example, this approach tends to project a very Greek and highly nuanced view of history, narrative, and discourse back onto an ancient Hebrew script. In the next post, I will expand on this critique and explore Genesis as literature. Until then, suffice it to say that I believe the young-Earth deference to 'appearance of age' owes more to tradition than to the words of scripture.

Where Answers in Genesis gets it right

Following the lead of George McCready Price, Henry Morris, and others, 'creation science' ministries like Answers in Genesis work on the principle that science can accurately describe history as explicated in scripture. Young-Earth geologists like Andrew Snelling and Steve Austin believe that evidence for Noah's flood is abundant in the geologic column. Michael Oard reconstructs the post-Flood ice age from glacial geomorphology. Physicists Russell Humphreys and Jason Lisle assert that astronomical data correspond to a complex—but recent—formation of the universe by appealing to time dilation and relativity. What do all these names have in common with each other and with myself? All believe that science, faithfully applied, may reveal to us the mysteries of God's creation—in history and today—thereby bringing Him glory.

As a Christian, I commend their approach. "The heavens declare the glory of God," says the Psalmist, and God's people say "Amen". Thus the folks at Answers in Genesis believe that science—as a method of understanding natural phenomena—should be able to answer how this truth plays out in practice. Insofar as parts of the universe were made with an appearance of age, however, even creation scientists must acknowledge that these phenomena are removed from scientific inquiry by definition. [And no, not merely by the confines of materialistic naturalism. One need not reject divine providence to deem such questions 'unscientific', though a consignment of all unscientific claims to untruth, irrationality, or meaninglessness constitutes an erroneous, philosophical naïveté in itself, called scientism, which is the extreme outworking of logical positivism.]

Unfortunately, my agreement with the young-Earth creationist ends with this basic principle. As a scientist, I cannot maintain intellectual honesty while affirming that the Earth is young and was subjected to a global catastrophe some 5,000 years ago. Not only is the evidence missing, but overwhelming evidence stands against it. The methodology of creation scientists, moreover, is fundamentally flawed and unscientific. In almost every case, the conclusion is known in advance and used to paint the data accordingly. Lastly, numerous claims of creation scientists have been documented as false, leaving one to speculate whether they are made disingenuously or simply out of ignorance. I pray for the latter.

A diluvial dilemma

For the sake of argument, assume that Genesis 1 does describe a fiat, ex nihilo, more or less instantaneous creation of the heavens and the earth in recent history. A geologist/astronomer in Adam's company might conclude erroneously that the universe had been around for eons, and he/she could use the scientific method to establish his case. This scenario, I get—an appeal to appearance of age would be valid for those in Adam's day. It is impossible to escape, however, the effect of Noah's deluge on an apparently old world—especially for the literalist. Global catastrophes tend to leave a mark and would effectively reset the evidential 'clock'.

Are we to argue, then, that God made it appear as though such a flood never occurred? Keep in mind that geology as a scientific discipline was born out of the hypothesis that Noah's flood could explain geological strata, especially marine sedimentary rocks found in continental settings (e.g. the Alps). The past 350 years of geological investigation have thoroughly falsified this notion, however, and recent attempts to defend it have been deemed intellectually dishonest, even by the majority of Christian researchers.

The catastrophic deluge of Noah thus creates an insurmountable challenge to those who claim that an appearance of age can save the young-earth paradigm. One may respond by rationalizing or by qualifying the nature of evidence, but such would ultimately call God's redemptive work into question. In the wilderness, Moses exhorted Israel to faithfulness by appealing to God's wondrous acts in Egypt. These events were not hidden from sight or done by magical/mythical creatures—by and large, the plagues were rather extraordinary, 'natural' events, visible by all. The New Testament appeal to evidence and witness in the case of the resurrection is equally vital, if not more so. Can we reduce the resurrection to docetism, claiming that Jesus only appeared to have risen before those so desperate to find him alive? From a historical-critical standpoint: no. From a theological standpoint: absolutely not.

Case in point

I was inspired to write this post after reading part of an online discussion found here. The pseudonymous blogger TurretinFan offered five responses to the charge that God knowingly created the universe to look old, despite the fact that it would draw people away from him. I do not intend to offer an exhaustive response to a conversation in which I had no part, but several points are highly relevant to this discussion.

"First, possibly God specifically made the world to look old so that many people would not believe in God."

This raises a more basic question: why should an old-looking universe cause people not to believe in God? The premise only works if God is inextricably tied to a story that is obviously contrary to the facts (i.e. Young-Earth Creationism). Deeper motivations are at work in the one that would use this excuse to reject God. Granted, a young-looking earth with a still-standing Noah's ark might strain the skeptic's rationalization for his/her unbelief, but our hearts are factories of idols.

"Perhaps an old-looking universe is more comfortable... After all, a new-looking universe would be extremely hot, using contemporary scientific models for what constitutes appearance of youth in universes."

This statement—hypothetical as it may be—begs the question, since what "constitutes appearance of youth" is based on physical laws applicable to this universe. A young-looking universe need not be "uncomfortable" if an omnipotent God were behind its nature and origin.

"God could have made people more heat resistant and still made the universe look younger.  But then again, perhaps in this scenario, the heat resistance would have led an equal number of people from God.  This is all just speculation, of course - but since the question calls for speculation, why not speculate?"

I am at a loss for words, so I will use someone else's: complexity should not be posited without necessity. I understand that TurretinFan is trying to justify his agnosticism with regard to the implications of an old-looking universe, but saying nothing with few words is probably better than saying nothing with many words. All this never to consider the possibility that his interpretation of Genesis could be mistaken?

"...people turned away from God even before modern cosmologies began claiming that the world was 13 billion years old.  So, the apparent age of the Earth may simply be an excuse of contemporary atheists and agnostics rather than the actual reason."

I am citing this point because I absolutely agree.

"...the idea that the world "looks" old is largely subjective.  It depends on the presuppositions that one brings to the table."

Although presuppositions are involved in the philosophy of science, TurretinFan misuses the term 'subjective' here. The age of the earth (and subsequent geological phenomena) derives from an objective analytical method with strictly defined criteria. By objective, I don't mean 'neutral' or without bias, but rather "relating to a phenomenon within the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers" (Merriam-Webster). Consequently, the conventional (i.e. accepted by scientists) age of the earth is also subject to change. Historical propositions for the age of the earth have been revised because model assumptions were falsified or because new data became available—not because researchers' existential perceptions changed with respect to these data (i.e. subjective analysis).

While the natural sciences do employ methodological naturalism, this principle is not relevant or applicable to all forms of knowledge. It is not only possible, therefore, to apply the scientific method while affirming the providential work of God; I would even argue that scripture demands it. Otherwise, we silence our ability to say anything meaningful about the phenomenal world, yet God has called us to know it.

One need only assume that science can accurately describe the natural world in order to conclude that the universe looks old. An arbitrary rejection of that conclusion out of scientific ignorance does not make it "subjective".

Lastly, I want to pose a more fundamental question that perhaps has no final answer: what is the difference between a universe that 'looks' old, and one that actually is? Do we save something in our theological paradigms by convincing ourselves and others that a bulk of cosmic and geological history is only imaginary? Not at all. Instead, we praise God ostensibly as an artist, thanking him for the beautiful painting that is our home, all the while denying him the glory by declaring that the brush strokes cannot possibly be real.

Resolution and redirection

There is another possibility, I think: God did not create the cosmos with an 'appearance of age'. That apparent age is real, and the liturgical text of Genesis 1:1–2:4 was never meant to inform us about the physical origins of the universe, let alone the mechanism by which all things were formed. The repeated fiat declarations (e.g. "Let there be light...") reveal something rather about the God of Israel's unrivaled authority in heaven and earth. It is a polemical statement that undermines pagan notions regarding the limited power of deities in creative acts. Pagan deities strived against each other and against the reigning chaotic realm. According to the author of Genesis, neither chaos nor the gods nor the elements can challenge the providential decree of the one true God.

I am not the first to offer such an alternative, but many Christians are still desperate to reject it. Why? Foremost, because it challenges traditional nuances of the cosmology presented in Genesis 1. We should not be shocked, however, if these traditions turn out to be mistaken, given the severe time and culture gaps between Genesis and the modern (post-Reformation) reader. We all have a natural tendency to project our own worldview (our Sitz im Leben) back onto the text, as though it were written specifically to address the concerns of our day. For the post-Enlightenment reader, an endemic fascination with science and empirical verification has caused many to overreact by rereading the text as a documentary history that is capable of critiquing modern science and skepticism.

I have no intention of dismissing such readings out of hand, misguided as they may be. Even a misreading of a text can be appropriate in certain contexts. Regardless, I believe that a fresh perspective on Genesis is in order—one that is not shaped a priori by recent controversies over the age of the earth. In light of this goal, I would invite you try reading Genesis for what it actually is: a piece of ancient, divinely inspired literature. To that topic I will turn in my next post.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Copper remnants from ancient feathers—indicative of what precisely?

A recent article at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), entitled Trace Metals Study Confirms Fossil Has Original Feathers, represents the latest in a series of misguided attacks on conventional fossil ages, which appeal to biochemical remnants as evidence for recent burial. Author Brian Thomas renewed the case in response to a rather ingenious and novel analytical method applied to an Early Cretaceous (~120 Ma), fossilized bird. Researchers at the University of Manchester used synchotron x-ray technology to map out trace metals in the avian fossil—namely copper and calcium, which are abundant in feathers and bones, respectively. The resulting image clearly shows the original distribution of hard and soft biological components. But what do the data actually reflect?

Have you ever looked at an artist's rendition of an ancient species (dinosaur, bird, etc.) and wondered how they pick colors for the skin and feathers? In many cases, the choice is educated guesswork—an artist's touch. But the researchers in this study employed a more scientific approach. The pigments in bird feathers contain organometallic compounds—essentially a carbon-based structure that binds to a specific metal. Hemaglobin in your blood, for example, is an organic compound that binds to iron so as to color the blood red. Using x-ray analysis to determine the coordination chemistry of trace copper in fossilized feathers, the researchers concluded that the copper derived from a dark pigment called eumelanin. By mapping out where copper is concentrated in the fossil, they inferred that the bird (Confuciusornis sanctus) had dark-brown body feathers, and relatively light-colored wings.

The title of Mr. Thomas's article is very misleading on this point. The Early Cretaceous fossil does not contain original feathers—not even close. All that is left are traces of copper, bound up by singular molecules of cyclic chelates, and a carbonized imprint where the feathers' organic components decayed long ago into the rock. Instead, Wogelius et al. (2011) argued that the organometallic compounds "most likely derived from original eumelanin," indicating that even the pigments have all broken down. When this occurred, the eumelanin released the copper chelates, which are now bound up in the mineral lattices of the rock and very well protected from the elements.

The researchers demonstrated the ubiquitous presence of eumelanin-derived copper chelates in other well preserved, avian fossils—both older and younger than the famed Confuciusornis sanctus. They concluded that "trace element chemistry provides a robust and consistent method for identifying pigment because metal zoning may be preserved long after melanosome structures have been destroyed." In other words, copper chelates naturally break down over time, releasing copper ions into the rock. Copper is not very mobile, however, and binds strongly to oxides, hydroxides, carbonates, etc. Thus the distribution of inorganic copper minerals in fossilized feathers should still reflect that of the original feathers, long after organometallic compounds have all broken down (as in one of the samples).

How did these compounds survive some 120 million years of burial? The findings of Wogelius et al. (2011) are impressive, to be sure (that's why they were published in Science), but scientists have long used remnants of ancient biochemicals to interpret the history of life. Most commonly, these biomarkers are extracted from kerogen and hydrocarbons (oil/gas), which contain numerous fragments of ancient biomolecules. Either way, the stability of organic molecules highly depends on the environment in which they are stored. Organometallic compounds—like the copper chelates described in this study—are most stable in reducing (low-oxygen), non-acidic environments, where the temperature remains moderately low. Given that these compounds would have seen very little interaction with fluids after burial, it is reasonable to expect that some would survive until today.

The verdict?

Mr. Thomas's statement that "the original organic molecules have hardly decayed" is simply false. Nearly all organic molecules have since disappeared, or were reduced to a carbon residue that now stains the rock. He goes on to infer that "fissile organic molecules had not been altered into more resistant chemicals", yet the fissile eumelanin (a carboxylic-acid polymer) is no longer present—only the relatively stable copper chelates.

Arguing from ignorant conjecture, Mr. Thomas adds: "[After] only half a million years...copper should now appear randomly distributed among the rocks, having naturally diffused into the surroundings." How he determines this timeframe is unstated, but it is inaccurate nonetheless. Geological systems cannot be described by such a broad generalization. In sedimentary strata where the water-rock interaction is high, or acidic groundwater prevails, his statement would almost be true. But these conditions hardly describe that of the Cretaceous and Eocene fossils, which accumulated in anoxic lake bottoms, and whose sediments are interbedded with ashfall—a low-permeability barrier to meteoric water.

Contrary to Mr. Thomas's enthusiastic review, the modern condition of these fossils is inconsistent with a recent burial (some 4,500 years ago, according to Mr. Thomas). If that were the case, we should find significantly more organic material, as in Quaternary fossils that Mr. Thomas would claim were buried within hundreds of years of the Flood (say, 4,000 years ago?). Not only do the recent findings by Wogelius et al. (2011) corroborate the conventional geological story, but they thoroughly falsify Mr. Thomas's position.*

*Don't forget to check out the artist's rendition of Confuciusornis sanctus at the Audubon Magazine blog, which also contains a helpful overview of the publication in Science.