Saturday, July 4, 2009

Darwin was a creationist

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. -Charles Darwin

A friend of mine pointed out my posts so far have sometimes used the generic term "creationist" when I really mean "young earth creationist." He's right. There's a big difference between young earth creationists who believe the earth is maybe just 6,000 years old and those creationists who believe in evolution albeit with varying doses of divine intervention.

Some "old-earth" creationists believe evolution has been primarily responsible for speciation, but that a supernatural designer has stepped in along the way to help evolution bridge gaps that it otherwise couldn't overcome (like the step from apes to humans). Other "old-earth" creationists think evolution has progressed along fine on its own, but to get things started the Creator had to craft the first one or two organisms, as Darwin apparently believed.

Interestingly, scientists tend to view all of these viewpoints with the same disdain. This may not be too surprising given recent conflicts over science education standards. Creationists (even the young-earth variety) have shifted towards supporting the teaching of "mostly evolution with a dash of creationism." As of this writing they call it Intelligent Design, but that has changed in the past and is likely to change again in the future.

Still, there is some irony in that even Charles Darwin wrote in his last sentence of "The Origin of Species" (quoted above) that he believed in a form of creationism! It's important to remember that even the father of natural selection taught that an intelligent designer was in the mix--at least in the beginning.

My point in all this is not that Darwin was right. (Even biologists today agree he was wrong about many aspects of his theory.) Instead, I want to emphasize the importance of recognizing the wide spectrum of viewpoints that fall under the generic banner, "creationism." It's not fair to equate all old-earth creationists or even "Intelligent Design Theorists" with young-earth creationists. Many creationists put forth theories that are 99% consistent with accepted science.

So why aren't scientists more warm to even Darwin-style creationism? Again, I think it's mostly due to the fact that these new forms of "soft-creationism" are being used primarily to get non-scientific (read: religious and philosophical) ideas into the science classroom.

And that's a shame, because even today most scientists I know agree they don't have all the answers and that philosophy and religion can contribute to our perspective on life. But they usually don't think--and I agree--that philosophy or religion should be taught as science. Which is probably why Darwin devoted the entirety of "Origin of Species" to building a scientific theory based on observable facts, and left philosophical speculation to the last sentence of his book.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Three new dinosaurs died in calm waters

Sometimes it's hard to comprehend the time involved when scientists claim the earth is billions of years old. Could 30,000 feet of rock really be the result of millions and millions of years of slow deposits, or were sediments (and the fossils in them) laid down quickly?

Creationists especially like to insist that a single cataclysm--Noah's flood--is responsible for most of the sedimentary deposits around the globe. They are quick to point to rock formations that show signs of turbulent, violent, high-energy forces that we might associate with floods.

Often, these creationist examples are dead-on. There are lots of areas around the world that show signs of catastrophism. However, creationists like to pick and choose their data. They don't point out the endless supply of deposits that clearly attest to slow-moving rivers, quiet lakes, and non-water-based action like sandstorms.

The discovery announced today of three new dinosaurs from Australia provides just such an example. As I explain in a news article at Prehistoric

The meat-eater and one of the plant-eaters were found buried close together in what appears to have been an ox-bow lake. These types of lakes are associated with very slow-moving, meandering rivers in which an extremely arced bend of a river becomes cut-off from the rest of the flow, creating a curved lake. The other skeleton was found in what looks to have been the sandy bank of a gently-flowing river.

The fact that some rock layers were laid down quickly is no problem for evolutionists. We would expect that regional floods and fast-moving streams were at work in the past. Rock layers around the world were clearly the result of a combination of all kinds of depositional forces from fast moving floods, to slow, meandering rivers.

While evolutionists are honest about this assessment, young-earth creationists have a big problem explaining how in the middle of Noah's flood there could be deposits from a gently-flowing river and a quiet lake.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Deception in the creationist orchard

I believe the most convincing evidence for evolution is the fossil record. The fact that animal fossils are layered from primitive to modern species from the bottom to the top of earth's rock layers is the most powerful proof that life evolved on earth. We can literally see the history of progression through the geologic column.

Creationists try to avoid this issue by saying that the fossil record is incomplete (true, but the general evolutionary pattern is clear), the fossil record is mixed up in places (true, but the general evolutionary pattern is still obvious), and that the fossil record is not really one of progression. This last claim--that rock layers do not actually record a progression of bacteria to modern life--is false.

One example of this deceptive claim occurs in the Answers In Genesis book "Refuting Evolution." On page 39, Jonathan Sarfati presents a diagram that he claims represents the history of life on earth:

Now the thing you must understand about this supposed graph of life is that creationists don't believe that one kind of animal evolves into another. They believe that groups of animals (like bears) can vary in form (like polar bears and black bears) but that these groups (or "kinds") are fixed and a bear could never evolve into some other kind animal.

So while Sarfati did not label the "trees" in his diagram, as a creationist he believes that each tree represents a family, or some other fixed group of animal like bears, dolphins, hawks and so on.

The problem with the creationist diagram then is that the trunks of all of these trees reach all the way to the ground. The diagram suggests that every major group of animals can be found down through every layer of the earth's fossil-bearing rocks--all the way back to the beginning.

Unfortunately for the creationist, this is absolutely not observed in the real world. Interestingly, another creationist book provides a more accurate and honest depiction of the fossil record. On page 95 of "Darwin's Enigma," creationist Luther Sunderland provides this diagram:

Note that I have rotated the diagram 90 degrees counter-clockwise so the vertical dimension represents the orientation of the rock layers (as if you are looking side-on with the edge of the earth). Sunderland's animal groups look like non-branching trees (he is trying to make the point that groups of animals don't evolve into other groups/kinds), but note that these tree trunks do not appear to all stretch back to the deepest layers of geologic column. The groups/kinds are not found all the way down through the geologic column.

This creationist diagram confirms the point that I can rarely get creationists to admit: that fossils in the earth's crust are ordered in an evolutionary pattern from simple organisms at the bottom to more complex and modern ones at the top. Look at the diagram: Bacteria and Algae appear first on earth. Then worms. Later, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

If the diagram was more complete, we'd see that primitive birds (with teeth and short wings) appear before modern birds (eagles and robins). Jawless fish appear before jawed fish. And yes, monkeys and apes appear before humans in the fossil record.

The Answers in Genesis diagram is deceptive. It suggests that all kinds of life from dogs to dodos to dinosaurs appeared all at once at the beginning of time. The truth is just the opposite. Plant and animal fossils are arranged in an evolutionary sequence, and any theory of life on earth must explain this historical record.

Common design doesn't explain homologous structures

Okay, first let me define "homologous structures." Bears and humans both have five toes on their their feet (and hands, in the case of humans). This similar arrangement is called a "homologous structure." Such similarities are the study of comparative anatomy, which investigates the arrangements of various animals and tries to determine whether similar structures are a result of ancestry.

One argument for evolution is that all vertebrate animals (animals with backbones--almost every kind of creature we think of as an animal in the common sense) appear to share the same basic bones in their skeletons. Even structures as diverse as bat wings and cougar legs appear to be variations of the same arm bones.

Some animals, such as horses, have very unique limbs and digits. In the case of the horse, there are not five toes, but just one on each foot. However, the rear feet of modern horses have tiny extra toes hidden alongside the main toe bones. Furthermore, horses are sometimes born with three toes, and early fossil horses had up to five!

Creationists explain these homologous features by suggesting a designer could have simply used the same basic "plan" when designing all the animals. Four legs, one upper arm bone, two lower arm bones and five fingers was just the blueprint used by the designer.

The problem with this argument is that no real designer ever restricts themselves in this way. Imagine if airplane designers began every blueprint for airplanes with the frame of a car. And cars frames were simply enlarged, stretched out versions of bicycles, and so on back to wagons. This is simply not how designers work. This is how heredity works!

You look like your parents because you're related to your parents. Animals share skeletal arrangements because they are related to one another.

Again, human designers were not foolish enough to restrict themselves to a single template for their designs. Why would we expect a supernatural designer to do so?

And if you say, "well some early car designs were based on wagons, and some rocket ships borrowed from aircraft designs," you are either missing the point or being disingenuous. Humans do sometimes borrow from other objects when they design something new, but we do not see a single template arbitrarily applied across the breadth of human designs. Again, vertebrate animals all share the very same template from fish to birds to humans. This is not a mark of design.

But if humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?

I hear this question frequently from people (especially creationists). The answer is actually pretty simple. A better question would be, "if humans evolved from fish, why are there still fish?" Fish don't have lungs, can't walk on land, can't fly and are slimy. Surely us modern mammals like humans, bats, and tigers are so much more advanced! Why haven't fish gone extinct?

The easy answer? Fish are still around for the same reason bicycles are still popular years after the invention of cars and rocket ships: they are configured for different environments. Sure, fish can't do some of the great things that humans and birds do, but the job they do (swimming), they do very well. A bicycle is no moon rocket, but it's a much better vehicle for a quick run through the city park--or crowded streets. Heck, even after all these years of bicycles and cars, policemen still oftentimes ride horses!

Creationists make hay over the occasional discovery of a "living fossil." Once in a while we find a living animal that we previously thought was extinct. Sometimes the living animal is very similar to million-year-old ancestors. But again, in the case of a fish (like the famous coelacanth), evolution long ago arrived at the best shape for living in the oceans. Why would we expect it to look different?

Explaining the persistence of perfectly functional animals like fish or apes is not at all difficult. Evolution adapts animals to their environments. As long as those environments are still around (oceans, deserts, forests, etc.), animals that are well-adapted to them have a shot at being around for a long time as well.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How the truth of the fossil record lead me away from young earth creationism

Evolution says that millions, perhaps billions of years ago, somehow, somewhere, something happened and some sort of non-living something appeared. This may seem a little too strange, but no evolutionist can tell you more than this. —The author at age 14

In his book Refuting Evolution, Jonathan Sarfati says that when it comes to origins, "it's not really a question of who is biased, but which bias is the correct bias with which to be biased!" Unquestionably, Sarfati's choice of bias is towards twentieth-century-style young-earth creationism (YEC).

My convictions, like Sarfati's, were also once firmly rooted in YEC for the greater part of my life. As a product of a fundamentalist Christian home, I rarely heard evolution mentioned except in a negative light (usually in association with atheism and godless immorality). As a matter of fact, I first learned of evolution during a church youth group meeting when I was an early teenager.

The presentation of evolution I received continued to be biased by YEC thinking through my college years. Both my parents were passionate believers in YEC as were my childhood friends. Likewise, the two churches my family faithfully attended also taught YEC.

As a teenager, I took a special appreciation for the YEC debate after my slanted exposure to the issue in that youth group meeting. Ultimately, I read most of the YEC staple in books and viewed every available YEC video with keen interest. I attended a YEC-teaching Christian school and later was home schooled (an excellent education—though my biology textbook was from a YEC publisher). After high school, I attended Bob Jones University, the premier institution of fundamentalist education in America and a group particularly skewed towards YEC.

I became so convinced of YEC by my college years that I mostly lost interest in the subject. I had no doubts about the recent creation of the earth and the reality of Noah's flood.

I started with the bias which is "the correct bias with which to be biased"

If ever a college graduate was "biased with the correct bias with which to be biased," it was me. Never in the first twenty-one years of my life had I been confronted with a serious reason to doubt the authenticity of YEC or to suspect there was anything but deceit in the research of earth scientists.

I mention the issue of bias because it's one you'll hear ad nauseam from YEC defenders. My last discourse with a YEC proponent broke down in desperation when every scientific challenge of mine was met with a questioning of my presuppositions rather than a reasonable attempt to address the issues I raised.

YEC teachers like Sarfati will tell you that it's "a fallacy to believe that facts speak for themselves—they are always interpreted according to a framework." While I'll be the first to admit that bias and presupposition do impact the mind of a scientist, the existence of bias can't be used to justify every imaginable belief. What creationists are really trying to say with the "bias" argument is that it's okay for them to ignore the evidence because their worldview is the right one despite the any evidence to the contrary. I do believe scientists sometimes overlook evidence that doesn't "fit" their bias, but creationists admit to actively ignoring evidence that undermines their position:

By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. -Answers In Genesis

If you want to remain a YEC, don't investigate the geologic column

However important bias is to the interpretation of basic facts of natural history, it's my intention here to present facts—and not much evolution at all—and allow the reader to do his own interpretation. And in any case, it should be clear that my bias just a few years ago was overwhelmingly towards YEC interpretations. For this reason, when a YEC friend at BJU suggested the fossil record might be a potentially problematic area, I suspected and (thanks to my intense YEC bias) actively sought an easy solution.

In retrospect, I propose there are two easy steps to converting from YEC: 1.) Try to prove it wrong by gathering the facts about the fossil record. 2.) Eat the humble pie that those facts dish up for the YEC.

When my YEC friend (who 10 years later is still a creationist) mentioned possible trouble in the fossil record, he was referring to the apparent evolutionary sorting of fossils in the rocks of the earth. Remember I said I would not mention much about evolution? Well, I'm not. The statement just made—that there is an apparent evolutionary sorting of fossils in the earth's rocks—is a visible and measurable fact. If you don't agree with this claim, bear with me at least long enough to hear the evidence.

My own reaction to this comment was one of incredulity. I was certain I'd heard from trusted YEC scientists that fossils were deposited catastrophically by the flood and thus did not present any sort of evidence for an evolutionary progression. Further, what process in a destructive world-wide flood could possibly distribute fossils all at once in any sort of evolutionary-looking order?

In defense of YEC, I immediately recalled reading a book entitled Darwin's Enigma by Luther Sunderland. In that book I thought I'd seen a quote to the effect that scientists are often puzzled when they find dinosaur bones, only to dig further down and discover modern mammals.

What my YEC friend said next at once amazed and irritated me. As an avid fossil collector, he said he had never witnessed nor ever once heard of modern mammals buried along side or underneath dinosaurs. Trying to disprove this statement, as it would turn out, lead me down a path toward rejecting YEC.

After returning to Sunderland's book, I did not find a quote that clearly stated modern mammals and dinosaurs were ever buried together (or that modern mammals are sometimes found below dinosaurs). Instead, on page 42 is a humorous—though shamefully misleading—illustration. The drawing depicts a rather artfully rendered rock face exhibiting some dramatic fossils. On the right is a tyrannosaurid dinosaur skeleton frozen in an aggressive pose. On the left side of the sketch is the subject of the meat-eater's aggression: a fossil human skeleton riding a horse (again a skeleton) caught in mid-gallop. A caption under the cartoon reads, "Some fossil assemblages are hard to explain."

No wonder I thought Sunderland said fossils are all mixed up in the geologic column. Sadly, this assertion (like the funny drawing with no real-world relevance) can't be substantiated. Horse and human fossils are not found in the same rock layers as dinosaurs.

I didn't know this at the time. Though Darwin's Enigma hadn't provided solid evidence confirming dinosaur and modern mammal bones are found jumbled together in the earth, I was nevertheless certain these animals must be found together. After all, the funny cartoon certainly implied they were so arranged. And the mass of YEC propaganda in my mind only confirmed this contention.

I immediately began looking for a case of modern mammal and dinosaur fossils together in the fossil record. This was a task I suspected I would complete in a day or two. Even though those sneaky evolutionists might try to hide finds of dinosaurs mixed with modern mammals, I reasoned such finds must be so common as to be impossible to hide from an inquisitive eye like my own. If all kinds of animals lived together in a Flintstonian world before the flood, they must also have been buried alongside one another during God's judgment of floodwaters. I was certain I would uncover a fossil find that would confirm this supposed truth.

It would not be so, however, and my YEC downfall was inevitable. I can now say with confidence that nowhere in the world do dinosaurs appear buried along side (or above) any modern mammals.

And this was just the beginning. After years of reading and collecting fossils for myself, I learned the truth about the fossil record. The layers of rock that make up the crust of the earth are a literal history book of life. In these layers we can see what animals lived first, followed by layer after layer of more and more modern animals. At the bottom layers all you find are primitive sea creatures. Only at the very top layers do you find modern animals.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule such as when very old layers are pushed up to the top. Imagine that the earth's crust is like a three-layer cake. We know the bottom layer is the oldest. Suppose a kid comes along and takes a big scoop of cake and removes the top two layers. The bottom layer will now be visible on the surface. However, a comparison of the disturbed area with the surrounding area reveals the context and relationship of the layers. In a similar way, mountains sometimes push young layers to the surface of the earth. Old (deep layer) fossils then become visible at the very surface. But a careful survey of a cross-section (side-view) of the rock formation in question resolves the puzzle.

Until you've witnessed this for yourself in the field or by studying geologic maps, the true impact of this reality isn't felt. But there's maybe an even easier reality to grasp: that of the associations of fossils found together.

Creationism says that all of earth's animals and plants were created at one time a few thousand years ago. Then Noah's flood consumed the planet and buried every living thing that wasn't on the ark. If this were true, we'd expect to find a jumbled-up mess of animal fossils at all layers of the earth's crust. Fossils of dinosaurs would be mixed with human remains--or at least with monkeys and deer. In fact, nowhere in the world has this observed even though millions of fossils of dinosaurs and mammals have been unearthed.

Here are just a few other dramatic facts about fossil groupings:

1. Flowering plant fossils are never found in rock layers older than the dinosaurs. This is amazing because "flowering plants" (angiosperms) includes every type of flower, but also every type of grass, and pretty much every kind of leafy tree. These are fast-growing, very common plants found all over the earth today. How is it that of the millions of plant fossils found under dinosaur fossil layers, nobody has found a single blade of grass? The only reasonable explanation is that grass (and flowers) had not evolved.

2. Bird fossils have never been found under dinosaur layers. The reason? Birds evolved from dinosaurs so there's no way a bird fossil could be deposited under the dinosaur layers.

3. Fossils of marine mammals like whales and seals are only found after the dinosaur layers. Whales evolved from mammals similar to hippos, so there's no way one could be buried before other mammals evolved.

Think of this: dig down through the top layers of the earth until you reach the dinosaur layers. You'll never again find a fossil from a monkey, a whale, a deer, or any other kind of modern mammal.

Of course, I haven't posted references to substantiate these claims. But what I've spelled out in this post is a brutal truth of geology. If you don't believe it's true, I challenge you to show me documented evidence that any of these fossils are found outside of an evolutionary arrangement. Show me a modern deer fossil buried with a dinosaur fossil. Or do one better: show me a whale fossil down in the deepest layers where only fish fossils are found. You won't. There simply aren't whale fossils down there. No amphibians either. No reptiles, no dinosaurs, birds or mammals. The easy answer is that none of them had evolved.

To me, there are lots of great arguments for evolution. But to this day, the most powerful one is that we can see for ourselves that plants and animals evolved by looking at the layers of the earth's crust.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Welcome to!

Growing up in a conservative Christian home I was taught that the universe and everything in it was created in six days around six thousand years ago. I consumed numerous creationist books and videos as a kid and used what I learned in those materials to try to convert unbelieving friends. Only after college did I begin to doubt the creationist worldview. When finally confronted with the evidence I came to realize the truth of biological evolution.

Today, it astounds me to look at the natural world and try to comprehend how it could make sense outside of an evolutionary framework. The fossils are stacked up in rock layers around the earth from primitive and extinct life forms to complex modern ones. Life on earth develops from the same genetic language in which the shared history of all living species are recorded. As a consequence of this universal ancestry, living things as diverse as bats and bears and blowfish share the majority of their organs, tissues, and bones.

Evolution truly is the single most important principle in nature, explaining and predicting like no other model before or since. Understanding evolution makes the already-fascinating natural world all the more exciting. Without evolution you have millions of interesting species of plants and animals. With evolution you see the grand scheme—the patterns and relationships across the vast breadth of life on earth.

It seems like all the time I experience "ah-hah!" moments as I learn about the natural world in the context of evolution. As a creationist there were so many contradictions and incongruities. I didn't realize how much I struggled to make reality fit my beliefs, rather than the other way around.

There are lots of blogs, forums, and websites out there covering evolution vs. creationism. I'll touch on the debate on this blog as well, but my aim is to be more educational than argumentative. I've learned long ago that most zealots can't be moved by argument or reason anyway.

My audience is not so much the creationist but the person who's never really studied natural history or evolution. Maybe you've questioned the plausibility of humans as apes, but you've still got an open mind. Maybe you simply haven't looked into the subject very deeply, or you've heard confusing arguments from both sides. Hopefully, this site will be an interesting and thought-provoking introduction to evolution. It might even change your mind.
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