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

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Geology of Northwestern Russia: a brief photo tour (Part 1)

Figure 1: Northwestern Russia, with highlighted stops from this trip. For reference, the edges of the Gulf of Finland (top left) and Lake Ladoga (top right) are also visible, as well as the border with Estonia (left). The Izhora Plateau is located immediately southwest of the city of Saint Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург; top).
Recently, I toured a number of geological and historical sites between the suburbs of St. Petersburg and the Valdai Hills region. As one who lived and learned geology in semi-arid, mountainous regions of the American west, this trip offered a fresh look at surface geological processes, as well as a new appreciation for Quaternary geology. The Quaternary period spans the past 2.588 million years and includes the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, but most research focuses on climatic and geographic changes during the latest Pleistocene "ice age" and the Holocene "interglacial" (11,500 years ago until present). Northwestern Russia contains many pristine records of both intervals and so is a frequented location for those wanting to reconstruct the past ~100,000 years of Earth history.

Figure 2: Outcrop of Early Ordovician sandstone and shale (top layer) on the Izhora Plateau. This sandstone contains numerous cross-bed sets that resemble modern beach sediments. Traditionally, this outcrop has been interpreted as a transition from the littoral zone (i.e. 'near the beach') to a lagoonal environment.
Of course, the geological history of this region begins much earlier. Underlain by igneous rocks that comprise the ~3-billion-year-old Baltic Shield, layers of sedimentary rock were deposited between the Late Neoproterozoic (Ediacaran Period) and the Middle Paleozoic (Devonian Period). By and large, these sedimentary rocks—sandstone, shale, and limestone—contain marine or coastal fossils and are typical of a passive margin. For reference, think of the modern southeastern coast of the United States, which gently slopes into the Atlantic and Caribbean seas and is now accumulating fine-grained sandstone and limestone with marine fossils.

Figure 3: Outcrop of Devonian carbonate rocks on the shore of Lake Ilmen. Several layers are very rich in marine molluscs (see Fig. 10), providing evidence to their depositional environment.
If you live in the western U.S. or Canada, you may already be familiar with this geological sequence. There, Late Neoproterozoic to Middle Paleozoic sedimentary rocks overly very old granite and granodiorite (2.7–1.8 billion years old). These rocks comprise the "basement" of western states from Idaho/Nevada to Montana/Wyoming. Hence the geological record in Idaho, for example, is quite similar to that of northwestern Russia.

Figure 4: Modern view of the Izhora Plateau. This summer vegetation conceals not only a diverse geological history, but a ~6,000-year record of human activity from ancient Finno-Ugric tribes to warring Scandinavian peoples to the Noble settlements of Imperial Russia to the front lines of the Siege of Leningrad.
The rock records of both the western U.S. and northwestern Russia are explained geologically by modern analogs of coastal environments, along with the theory of Plate Tectonics. The spreading of ancient seas (not unlike the modern Atlantic) is a major long-term control on subsidence and relative sea level. Subsidence refers to the 'sinking' of crustal rocks with respect to sea level as 1) the basement rock cools with time to become more dense, and 2) accumulating sediments add weight to the crust, which is essentially 'floating' on the mantle. Slow rates of subsidence (on the order of millimeters per decade) allow for the accumulation of marine sediments on the edges of large continents over long periods of time.
Figure 5: Nearly hidden outcrop of Ordovician limestone in a small depression formed by recent tectonic activity.
Figure 6: Closeup of features in the outcrop above. A) Clear view of brittle deformation in the limestone. According to the Young-Earth timeline, these rocks must have been deformed only a few hundred years after being deposited (during the "Post-Flood Ice Age"). Yet by the time of deformation, the lime sediments must have been completely cemented and lithified to form such brittle fractures. Unfortunately for the YEC, deeply buried, water-saturated sediment does not behave like fresh-laid concrete in the driveway. The proposed timeline is rather preposterous. B) Abundant trace fossils of organisms living in shallow marine waters. C) These burrows reach up to ~1 foot in length and run horizontally through the rock. Horizontal burrows are typical of arthropods that feed in the shallow sediment. In other words, these are not tracks of organisms desperately trying to escape during a catastrophic flood. Else where are the all the critters themselves?
Since subsidence rate is the ultimate control on sedimentation rate, one can begin to understand why the sedimentary record seems so 'patchy' and why sedimentary contacts (including unconformities) are often so 'flat'. If high-energy weather events or even local catastrophes (e.g. tsunamis) deposit large quantities of sediment in the shallow sea, more common forces like waves, tides, and gravity work diligently to flatten out the seabed. Part of the event (fossils included) will get preserved in the rock record, while the majority is 'washed out to sea'. In other words, it is entirely possible to bury organisms and sediment forms rapidly in a 'uniformitarian' setting (Fig. 6).

Figure 7: Purely for scenery; view of the small lake adjacent to the outcrop above. Although crystal clear, the lake is devoid of animal life because... (below)
Figure 8: The spring that feeds into the lake is relatively rich in radon—a harmful, radioactive gas produced by the decay of Uranium and Thorium. These elements occur naturally in all sediments, but concentrate in silt/clay layers like those bounding the aquifer that feeds the spring. As the Orthodox cross indicates, this spring is considered a local holy site by those whose health benefited greatly from drinking here. Contradictory as that may seem, drinking purified mineral water with a bit of radon is far more healthy than ingesting the swampy waters of the Neva River, polluted by sewage and agricultural runoff.
Quaternary sediments lie directly on top of Paleozoic rock (Devonian or older) in this region. Whatever geological events transpired in northwestern Russia between the Devonian and the Pleistocene may ever be a mystery to us. Not because the geologic column is a sham, as YEC's like John Woodmorrape spuriously claim, but rather because sediments from those intervals have been wiped away from the continent (we know this partly because their remains are found among Quaternary 'debris', but also because rocks from that period are present in other parts of Russia). The mechanism responsible was driven by climatic events that dominated the latter half of the Pleistocene. During this time, the Russian landmass was already situated in high latitudes of the northern hemisphere and provided a foundation for advancing sheets of ice.

Figure 9: Immediately overlying Ordovician rock (Fig. 2), this layer of till marks the most recent advance of the Scandinavian Ice Sheet (Fig. 12). Note the conglomeration of clasts—of every size, flavor, and age—within a silty mud matrix. This structure is typical of glacial deposits.
Figure 10: Glaciers make strange (sedimentary) bedfellows. These clasts come originally from all parts of Fennoscandia (the granite at the upper right is Finnish), while some are local. The shelly, red rock in the center, for example, is derived from a Devonian limestone marker bed (seen in Fig. 3).
As the global climate cooled repeatedly by more than 10°C, these ice sheets grew up to several thousand meters thick and literally 'bulldozed' whatever laid in their path. Some rocks were even ground into fine powder and deposited in lakes and river beds that formed in front of the wall of ice. Under the weight of the massive ice sheet, the entire north-Eurasian landmass was compressed and downwarped. The downwarping caused many Paleozoic rocks to be folded and fractured. It was so extreme that parts of Scandinavia have rebounded in elevation more than 500 meters since the disappearance of the ice (to which modern fjords provide stellar visual examples), and are still 'recovering' today.

Figure 11: From Svendsen et al. (2004). Cross section of glacial deposits across Fennoscandia and northwestern Russia, including tills and interglacial sediments from the past ~150,000 years. Note the vertical exaggeration in the scale (200 m per 200 km). In reality, this picture is 1,000 times flatter.
The process of glacial advance and retreat occurred numerous times during the Pleistocene and often bulldozed sediments from previous glaciations. This raises a good question: if earlier sediments were lost, how do we know how many ice ages occurred and when? The answer lies in marine sediments and ice cores, whose fossils and water molecules have been analyzed for oxygen isotopes. The ratio of 18O to 16O in marine shells (foraminifera) reflects the volume of ice on land, while same ratio in glacial ice (e.g. in Antarctica and Greenland) reflects global temperatures. Both values are plotted on the Quaternary timescale, which I referenced earlier. The fact that these records agree with each other and with records on land (such as from caves and lakes, or the timing of glacial tills) provides multiple lines of independent corroboration for the conventional geological timescale. On the other hand, the  YEC is hard pressed to explain these multiple records through a "post-Flood ice age" that lasted only several hundred years. What controlled 18O in each record so that any kind of agreement is possible? Their rationalizations of the evidence (e.g. "Where does the ice age fit?") often sweep away geochemical data by calling it "statistically questionable" (an irrelevant accusation given the dynamic elements that control each recorded process) and focus on interpretive difficulties raised by glaciologists over the years (which have since been solved, but few YEC readers would ever investigate this on their own). Young-Earth authors posit that a single ice sheet advancing multiple times could explain the record of glacial deposits—not because they can test this claim independently, but rather to escape having to deal with the details of Quaternary stratigraphy. How, for example, did warm-weather marine and continental sediments (filled with plants/animals like those seen today) get deposited between glacial tills (peach-colored layer in Fig. 11)? Talk about rapid climate change!

Figure 12: Maximum extent of the most recent ice sheet over northern Eurasia.
In North America, the last ice age is called the Wisconsin glaciation—named after the locality that marks its maximum extent. The same period is called the Valdai glaciation in Russian terminology. Thus my tour ended up in the Valdai Hills, which are home to the terminal moraines of the last glacial maximum.

Figure 13: Hills? Yes, technically, or even 'uplands', but not as I'm used to in the western U.S. Nonetheless, these few hundred meters of relief on the Russian plain give birth to multiple rivers that water the Baltic plain on one side and the Caspian and Black seas on the other. This includes the largest river in Europe: the Volga.
Figure 14: View of Lake Valdai, a remnant of the glacial landscape, from the bridge connecting an island monastery (below) to the mainland.
About 14,000 people live in the city of Valdai—a popular vacation spot and home to many summer cottages (including one that belongs to Mr. Putin). Even the Fall scenery of this cozy settlement has much to offer, in my opinion, despite the constant rain and slightly 'chilly' weather.

Figure 15: View of Lake Valdai from the northern shore; Iverskiy Monastery visible on opposite shore.
Figure 16: Main cathedral of Iverskiy Monastery.
In the mid-17th century, construction of Iverskiy Monastery took place by order of the Patriarch Nikon. The main cathedral (Fig. 16) was built in only two summers and closely resembles the architectural style seen elsewhere in Russia during this period. With the exception of the Soviet era, the monastery has functioned since the 1650's. As I recall from the tour, this plot of land survived in part because it was used as a recreational camp for Soviet youth. Regardless, renovation of the various cathedrals, clerical living quarters, dining hall, hospital, and towers has been ongoing since 1991, when the property was returned to the Orthodox church.

Figure 16: Who doesn't love a good mushroom hunt? They say all mushrooms are tasty, but some only once. 

Figure 17: I didn't take my chances with this mushroom either...
 After touring the monastery, we managed to take a relaxing walk through the hills adjacent to the lake. For me, the stark contrast in vegetation to my childhood in Coloradan forests was most exciting. Here, the forest floor is soft and thick, full of ferns and other plants that simply don't grow in such arid conditions. It may sound strange—well, it is—but I also did not understand the concept of a "mushroom hunt" until now. These things grow everywhere, and quite large!

Figure 18: Pines shape the canopy like small skyscrapers. The recovery of pine forests occurred relatively quickly in this region in the latest glacial period (between ~14–12.5 thousand years ago; Bølling-Allerød warming phase), marking the transition to a warmer, wetter climate.

Figure 19: Tread lightly. The floor of this marsh lies several feet beneath what only looks like grass.
As the Scandinavian Ice Sheet advanced toward Valdai, the constant melting of ice at its margin produced torrents of sediment-choked streams. Modern sandurs, or glacial outwash plains, are best known from Iceland. They are dynamic landscapes that are reshaped constantly by deposition of sediment that was eroded from the continent and locked up in the ice. Sandurs are preserved in the geological record as thick beds of cross-bedded sand and gravel (Figs. 20–22), due to braided rivers that sweep across the plain in front of the glacier. In fact, the weight of the glacier often forms a ridge many miles in front of the ice (imagine stepping on a floating log to raise the opposite end) that keeps these rivers flowing parallel to the ice margin rather than away from it.

Figure 20: The poorly sorted cross-bed sets that comprise the upper layer likely formed in migrating channels of water before the glacier. Horizontally bedded sand in the lower unit, which lacks much of the gravel component seen above, is more typical of the plains between major channels. In other words, these successive layers record two fluvial (river) environments that were adjacent to each other.
Figure 21: More of that horizontal bedding, though with some coarser grained beds. One can imagine the high energy of flow and massive amounts of water being dumped into the basins at this time.
Figure 22: Closer view of channel cross bedding; very typical of modern braided streams.
Figure 23: This monstrous anomaly cuts through periglacial sediments pictured above. The larger clast size denotes much higher energy flow, and may resemble a proglacial stream that eroded previously deposited sediments as the glacier retreated. The orange color is from goethite and limonite—iron oxide minerals that tightly bound the clasts.
As the Scandinavian Ice Sheet began to melt and recede from the landscape, it left clear evidence of its path. Numerous lakes formed in depressions left by the ice. Erratic boulders carried hundreds of kilometers by the ice now dot the surface. Well, it's not unlike any other glacial landscape, I suppose. But it was my first experience with such landforms and deposits in person!

Figure 24: An erratic boulder, given that its granitic composition cannot be found in this region. This particular traveler came from Finland via a massive conveyor of ice and now rests on top of morainal sediments, which themselves overlie the sandur deposits pictured above. The full sedimentary sequence thus marks the advance, halt, and retreat of the last major glaciation in northern Eurasia.
Figure 25: Varved clay sediments deposited in ancient Lake Ilmen (northwest of Valdai), which has since decreased in volume significantly. The darker layers represent winter deposition, while the lighter bands represent summer deposition. This lake is called proglacial, because it formed in front of the ice as the ice sheet retreated.

Figure 26: If you have seen varves before, these layers may seem a bit thicker than normal. The reason is that the lake was fed at this time (Late Glacial period) by melting ice, which contained abundant quantities of clay-rich sediment that was scraped from the land surface during the glacier's advance.
Figure 27: When clay accumulates 'quickly', it retains excess water that somehow must escape. These minor folds in the varves (called load structures) are evidence of that escape.
Thus far we covered the bedrock stratigraphy from St. Petersburg to Valdai, which recorded deposition between the Ediacaran and Devonian periods in a passive marine margin. After that, we looked at Late Glacial deposits in and around the Valdai Hills region. In the second part, I'll post pictures from along the glacier's retreat (Lake Ilmen back to St. Petersburg) and discuss some of the Holocene changes that took place in northwestern Russia.

Feel free to post questions or comments below regarding any of the pictures and discussion.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Feedback RE: Bill Nye's Plea

I felt that the following comment from my previous post (about Bill Nye) warranted its own spot, so I am reposting it here:

Mark H. writes:

"I think that you should consider more the implications of a YEC point of view. Ask yourself this question: What would you do if you believed that the Bible definitely teaches the YEC position? There would then be a conflict between the Bible and mainstream science. How would you respond to it? What would be the rational response? In my view, as I think that there are objectively conclusive/certain reasons to think that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, the rational thing to do would be to accept the claims of the Bible and assume that mainstream science is wrong on these issues. After all, mainstream scientists themselves admit that their convictions are only (very highly) probable, not absolutely certain; and probable arguments, no matter how strong, revert to 0% evidence when up against objectively certain claims.

So for YECs who have this view of what the Bible is and what it teaches, their rejection of the mainstream scientific paradigms on these issues is entirely rational. They are doing exactly what they should be doing. And their attempt to rebuild science on what they take as biblical foundations is entirely appropriate and rational, and we should all join in with them. IF YEC assumptions about the Bible and what it teaches on this issue are valid, all of this follows.

So the real point of controversy, the real issue, is what the Bible is and what it teaches on this issue. The scientific evidence is not the determining factor in this dispute. It is important, but it is rationally overridden by other concerns.

I know you know the biblical issues are important, and thus you have used many blog posts to provide an alternative interpretation of the Bible on these issues. And I also recognize that presenting the scientific evidence clearly can force people to go back and rethink the biblical issues. But I do think it would helpful to consider further the rationality and logic of YEC scientific claims, given certain assumptions.

As you know, I have held this YEC position in the past, and I would hold it still if I had not come to the conclusion that there are legitimate ways of reconciling biblical teaching and mainstream science. I am still agnostic on many scientific claims, but I will not oppose them with any strong conviction, because I do not believe I have the clear backing of God's Word behind me, but just my own non-expert opinion."


Thanks for commenting, Mark. I think your reasoning above is not only clear and concise, but very relevant to understanding how the public discussion over evolution actually works.

"What would you do if you believed that the Bible definitely teaches the YEC position?"

Remember that I held this position for many years, even while studying geology at the university. My response was not unlike your suggestion, and I sought for a means—with absolute confidence—to explain the rock record according to a paradigm defined by what I deemed "biblical history". If the data appeared to support long ages without a catastrophic flood, I had rational reason to believe that our scientific interpretation was not yet up to par.

But my post was not about what YEC's should do or where the real controversy lies, as you put it. My interest is in how YEC's might respond the message of this video and why the video will ultimately be ineffective. I think you made that point well in your comment: they proceed with absolute certitude that their interpretation of scripture trumps any contrary evidence from geology/biology.

I ultimately left that paradigm for two reasons, as you know. First, YEC's were demonstrably wrong in their explanations of geological data and often lied about that data. Moreover, their methods were entirely ad hoc, wherein they would take scientific studies by 'secular' scientists and introduce any arbitrary reason necessary to make their case before a non-expert audience. This is not only bad science, but a morally questionable approach by those who 1) claim to be evangelists and 2) hold graduate degrees and ought to know better.

Secondly, I realized that there is no more certitude in biblical exegesis than in the natural sciences. Each often deals in multiple competing hypotheses/methods to obtain information from a complex dataset, and neither are comparable to mathematic logic, in which following 'the rules' always yields the correct answer. Geology and biblical exegesis are similarly hermeneutical sciences, but when it comes to reconstructing history, radioisotope geochronology (for example) allows for far more numerous tests to verify its assumptions and conclusions than (for example) interpreting the relationship between Genesis 1 and primeval events. We rely on the historical sciences, moreover, even to know whether our copy of Genesis 1 matches those from ancient Israel, let alone to translate it accurately.

This is not to promote skepticism regarding the authority of the biblical text, and you know that I believe the records to be reliable and authoritative. I would suggest, however, that 'our certitude' in what the Bible claims can never trump historical evidence completely because it depends thereupon. You cannot even argue that Genesis 1:1 ought to be translated a certain way without referring to historical evidence that is no less disputable than most geological evidence. Thus I cannot agree that scientific evidence "is rationally overridden by other concerns." I would also dispute the claim that any part of the Bible was intended to or could give us more detailed information about Earth history than the geological sciences. I am convinced that attempts to make the Bible yield such information are anachronistic products of modern hermeneutical methods. If my conviction is valid, then YEC paradigms are not merely illogical, but they place massive, unnecessary stumbling blocks before our society and (more importantly) the doors of the church.

"I will not oppose [many scientific claims] with any strong conviction, because I do not believe I have the clear backing of God's Word behind me, but just my own non-expert opinion."

One of the most fascinating and beautiful characteristics of the biblical text, in my opinion, is its innate ability to transform people and cultures across time and space. One might say that it is the living word of God. But to utilize this aspect of the text requires that we are mindful of its dynamic complexity—its poetics—and that we recognize that the experience of reading the text (its affect on us, the reader) should not be divorced from the academic pursuit of its meaning. In other words, reading scripture in faith is no less important that obtaining the 'true meaning', which often is not so simple and may even depend on the context of the reader. New Testament expositions of the prophets are a prime example, I think. It is this feature, in any case, that separates the secular academic from the Christian academic in the natural sciences. It is in faith that we explore creation just as we explore the revealed Word. One does not trump the other, but both are made sensible by that faith. The very pursuit of knowledge in each discipline produces divinely inspired wisdom, often through getting the 'wrong' answer time and again. Thus if we claim certitude in one field where we have none, we preclude ourselves from much of what God has yet to reveal to us.

Or so I view my own journey thus far, and this rejection is the source of my frustration when YEC hermeneutics become the justification for rejecting claims of modern science and even prevent the student from learning or examining them properly.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why Bill Nye's plea will (unfortunately) fall on deaf ears...

My commentary here is a bit late to the party, but I hope still relevant. On a quick personal note, I've spent 40 hours on planes in the past month, covering more than 25,000 miles. Between flights, I spent all my free hours in the laboratory or trying to experience the U.S. one last time before departing on my year long adventure. It's good to be 'home', but it seems I have a lot of news to catch up on, particularly the YEC community's response to the video below.

I imagine that you have all seen Bill Nye's brief comments regarding evolution as a foundational science and the societal speed bumps created by those who deny it. I also predict there would be a mixed reaction among you to his exhortation, even if you generally agree with it. If you're like me, Bill Nye played a large role in developing your childhood fascination with science in action. Now that we are 'grown up', it follows naturally that he check up on his prior audience to remind them what is and is not science (he is also active in promoting the public understanding of anthropogenic climate change).

To put it briefly, I don't mind at all that Bill Nye's popularity is a medium for these messages. In fact, I fully support his efforts and generally agree with his position. Few things are more bothersome to me than celebrity lecturers, but Bill Nye is not merely a likable personality that is passionate about some message. He is also uniquely qualified to teach it. It would seem, therefore, that he is the perfect choice to awaken aspiring parents of young scientists from their dogmatic slumbers. Yet somehow I am skeptical as to whether any YEC parent will be moved to do anything but to remove Bill Nye from their list of childhood heroes. Let's take a look at the video together, and I will explain why this message will (unfortunately) fall on deaf ears:

"The denial of evolution is unique to the United States..."

It is not entirely fair to single out the United States as a unique home of those who deny macroevolution/common descent. These groups are sufficiently popular in several European countries to warrant frequent news coverage, as well as educational offices devoted to supplementing the teaching of evolution (e.g. the British Center for Science Education). Young-Earth varieties are more popular and more successful in South Korea, and anti-Darwinian sentiments dominate public and academic spheres in Turkey. For this reason, YEC parents watching this video may come away with the impression that Mr. Nye has not kept up on current affairs and geography.

Nonetheless, the United States is unique in harboring the most successful 'counter-offenses' to the 1859 revolution, and its ministries (e.g. Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research) continue to offer unmatched resources to global networks battling the teaching of evolution. Nuanced as such, Bill Nye is not wrong to warn us that whereas the United States ought to be a lighthouse for the nations when it comes to innovative science, she is currently muddying the waters. But for YEC's that see themselves as bearing that very light, this warning must be accompanied by both persuasive and compassionate speech. This video lacks both, in my opinion.

"...the United States is where most of the innovation still happens..."

The United States is and will continue to be a leader in innovative science, medicine, and technology, but largely for economic reasons. We have an abundant supply of funding for these disciplines with a relatively low demand (from the society, that is) for qualified people to fill them. Consequently, countries in which there is a deficit of science funding tend to export top scientists to the United States (not intentionally, of course), where these ex-patriots can pursue their groundbreaking research without financial hindrance. Few of you would have difficulty choosing between $200/month and $8,000/month salary to work as a full-time professor, even if choosing the latter involved leaving your home country. Combine that with the potential for $150,000+ research grants from the National Science Foundation, and you can understand why the U.S. is supported by a wonderfully multinational research base.

What can we expect for the next generation? Consider the following two trends. First, there is growing skepticism for scientific establishments/disciplines whose academic conventions conflict economically, politically, or (somehow) theologically with major communities in the U.S. The result appears to be that scientists are slowly losing their credibility as role models for society (the riposte "but science says!" has all but lost its flavor). Skeptics of evolution, for example, constitute a major voting group that will decide (or vote for officials that decide) how and when and why we fund scientific research and education, and science funding is currently being cut. Secondly, many developing countries (e.g. China, India, and Russia) may soon be able to match American funds, at least to the point that the U.S. is no longer an importer of capable scientists to make up for our slack.

If these trends continue and converge, the U.S. will no longer have the 'luxury' of devoting so many resources to debating major scientific paradigms that, for many, have long been established. So I would support Bill Nye on this point, though I think it should have been explored to avoid misunderstanding (especially for non-U.S. scientists that may feel insulted by his characterization of American ingenuity).

"When you have a portion of the population that doesn't believe in that, it holds everyone back..."

If I were a YEC, I would consider this a victory call. That 'secular' scientists should feel that they are losing their grip of influence on the general population is a well known mission of organizations like AiG. Therefore, it pains me to think how many parents will ignore Bill Nye's reasoning to follow as to how precisely we Americans are 'held back' by their attitude toward science.

"Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science..."

Yes. More specifically, evolution is a unifying concept that currently explains the range of phenomena from all aspects of the life sciences. One need not accept evolution to accept this fact. Whether in medicine or in classifying dinosaur bones, evolution is the fabric by which we approach the problem. Since it consistently yields positive results in biological/geological research, has not been contradicted by numerous incoming data (e.g. the Human Genome Project), and currently has no rival theory with anywhere near the explanatory power, the vast majority of earth and life scientists accept it. Yes, evolution is a subject of ongoing research and yes, there are details to be resolved. But by and large, this statement is true.

It has not always been the case, however, that evolution was the unifying concept, and the revolution begun by Darwin's ideas was not the only in history to alter the academic landscape. Therefore, most YEC's will find comfort in the hope that one day, a more palatable concept may replace the theory of common descent, even among secular academics. Perhaps in two centuries, evolution will be consigned to a list of scientific dogmas that died so hard with such a dedicated following.

I suppose a creationist can hope, and I sympathize with this kind of hope. Everyone struggles in trying to reconcile differences between how the world appears and how we hope or believe it ought to be. Even in grieving over the death of a loved one who we think shouldn't have died. We might feel that he/she didn't deserve it, even if we don't believe in any sort of 'cosmic justice'. If you can understand this struggle, then you can understand why YEC's are reluctant to dialogue when told to 'face reality'.

Don't get me wrong here. I am not suggesting that YEC or even Christianity in general is something that people simply accept against all reason or evidence. Every worldview interprets facts through a lens of faith ("brute facts are mute facts") and each bears unique challenges from those facts—some apparent and some real. Consider, for example, the paradox raised by Paul between a suffering church and a victorious King. The Gospel itself is not a palatable answer given because it makes simple sense, but a powerfully subversive one that flies in the face of all we thought we knew.

So should we expect that one day evolution will disappear to the vindication of all skeptics at present? There is good reason to say no. Although evolutionary biology may look quite different in 50 or 100 years, its core principles (common descent, the phylogenetic tree, speciation through natural selection and genetic modification, etc.) have been so corroborated by multiple independent methods and disciplines that they are likely to survive even future scientific revolutions, much in the way that the core of Newtonian physics survived the 20th century.

"...analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates..."

A legitimate question is raised as to whether one may be a successful/prolific scientist (particularly a successful biologist) without accepting certain aspects of the evolutionary paradigm. Bill Nye suggests here that "you're just not gonna get the right answer" if you deny evolution, and he cites pre-Plate Tectonic geology to make his point. One can also add Sequence Stratigraphy, which was developed by Exxon Mobil and applied with great success to exploration geology.

In my experience, however, this charge does not hold up. Even today, geologists regularly cite papers that were published before the geological paradigm shifts in the late 70's and 80's because they do, in fact, give many of the right answers. In principle, one can identify ancient coastal margins and correlate sedimentary strata without reference to plate tectonics and sequence stratigraphy. Likewise, it is possible to contribute to the fields of medicine, biochemistry, ecology, and so forth without accepting common descent.

The answers are incomplete, however, lacking a mechanism to explain all the data. One may conduct geological research successfully without accepting the theory of Plate Tectonics, but the conclusions are held back when the most parsimonious explanation is excluded. This, I believe, is why Bill Nye suggests that your "world becomes incredibly complicated" when you deny evolution. It is currently the most parsimonious explanation for similarities in genomic data among primates, for example, or comparative anatomy or the general structure of the fossil record.

Leaving evolution aside for a moment, I hope you will recognize from discussions on this blog how complicated geology becomes when you approach it from a Young-Earth, 'Flood Geology' perspective. Flood geologists reject deep time (billions of years) a priori, so the most parsimonious explanation for trends in radiogenic isotopes is no longer available. Instead, they turn to absurdly complicated (and quite impossible) scenarios in which accelerated nuclear decay produced the observed concentrations of these isotopes. But then another problem arises: the heat produced by enhanced rates of radioactive decay. So an even more complicated scenario is posited, in which cosmic expansion somehow offsets the additional heat. How this could possibly explain convergence between isotopic systems is still unexplained by such models (see the last two posts for more details). Nonetheless, 'Flood Geologists' would prefer to complicate their models ad infinitum before accepting what 99% of their colleagues accept as blatantly obvious—the Earth is much older than YEC's are willing to believe.

But how about the charge that life will "still be a mystery" rather than an "exciting place"? Young-Earth Creationists sincerely believe that because of their faith in 'biblical' creation, life is no longer a mystery. Many are quite enthusiastic about studying natural phenomena, and they have no sense that their foundation is mistaken or unscientific. Therefore, they will swiftly reverse this claim by saying that evolution makes life not only mysterious (there is so much unknown about the origin of life and complex biochemical 'machinery') but also dull and hopeless. It is wonderful that Bill Nye can share his passion for science, but he has little to offer to a dedicated YEC, who conflates the Young-Earth view with a respect for God's message. Since they know the joy that comes with the gospel, they will never believe that 'evolutionists' could match it with a fascination for nature. I too know that joy, and I concur.

"And I say to the grown-ups, if you wanna deny evolution...that's fine. But don't make your kids do it, because we need them."

Perhaps the most quoted section of this video, Bill Nye makes a bold but heartfelt plea for YEC parents not to pass on their denial of evolution for the sake of society. Assumed in this plea is that one cannot be scientifically literate or a successful engineer if one denies evolution. Of course, this assumption is demonstrably not true. Although I disagree strongly with geologists at AiG like Andrew Snelling and Steven Austin, they are scientifically literate and they do understand how science works. They just rebel against that method in favor of what they perceive as 'more biblical' to conduct their own research. I think their methods and conclusions are quite flawed regarding Earth history, but it does not prevent Andrew Snelling, for example, from consulting with a mining company and identifying an economically significant ore body. Likewise, engineers who are creationists can and have 'built stuff', including the rockets that delivered American astronauts to the moon.

I have not yet delved into the responses to this video by YEC's, but I predict that most will drive at this point first. They will reach into their list of 'famous scientists that believed in biblical creation' to show that one can be a successful scientist and deny evolution. Perhaps next post, I will focus on specific responses. But for now, I think this tried tactic begs the question. If I am studying sedimentary geochemistry, for example, does it matter where I stand regarding the latest in psychoanalytical theory? Very few scientific disciplines, especially in engineering, are held back in practice by the denial of macroevolution and common descent, even if evolutionary theory helps to explain them better. This is true even of many fields in medicine.

Bill Nye's main point, however, drives at the bigger picture: what is our attitude as a society toward the natural sciences if a large portion of the population is willing to reject major unifying paradigms on the word of a handful of dissidents? Will it continue to progress, or will even the developing world soon pass us by? Will we always have the luxury to debate the finer points of biochemical evolution in bacterial flagellum and how to qualify the teaching of evolution in public schools?

The world is not so static. If these questions do not seem pertinent now, give it a few years. I think they are worth considering, whether or not Bill Nye's message will be received by any YEC parents. My prediction is that, unfortunately, it will not.