The Age of Dinosaur Bones, Part 2: Investigations of Flood Geology

dino

It is the glory of God to conceal things, and the glory of kings is to search them out. – Proverbs 25

In my previous post, I explained how I read a new book about dinosaurs that made me think about possibilities regarding the age of the earth in new ways, especially regarding the origins of fossils and the distributions in which we find them. I went researching what young-earth creationists had to say about explaining this distribution via Noah’s flood.

I found a long and fascinating history of flood geology compiled by Davis Young, an old-earth Christian. In his narrative, Christians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began exploring scientific evidence to support Noah’s flood. But by the nineteenth century, naturalists began to uncover evidence they believed could not be explained by “soft sediments deposited together at the same time” in a single deluge:

The discontinuities between groupings of strata implied periodic interruption by uplifts and deposition by causes other than the flood…

Hutton pointed out the phenomenon of the angular unconformity, a situation in which relatively horizontal rocks overlie the evidently eroded edges of steeply tilted layers… The older strata had been consolidated, tilted on edge, uplifted toward the surface, eroded to form a land surface, then submerged beneath the sea and buried under newly deposited marine sediments…

They began to adopt an old-earth view that most of the rock layers and their fossils were laid down over a long time, with Noah’s flood contributing the final surface-level features. Further discoveries suggested some of the surface features were better explained by slowly receding glaciers. William Buckland, a prominent diluvialist (global flood proponent) who was skeptical of glacial theories, went on a “field trip” “hoping to discount [Louis] Agassiz’s ideas,” only to be convinced by the evidence he saw and become one of several diluvialists to renounce his earlier views.

Young describes Christians of the 1800’s wrestling with doubts that the increasing numbers of known extinct species could really have fit on the Ark1. Some felt that the successful post-Flood migrations of thousands of animals with very specific diets and habitats would have required an unrecorded miracle rivaling the resurrection of Jesus2. A global flood that deposited most of the earth’s sediment and fossils was replaced with a smaller, local one.

Young claims that such an interpretation had been discussed by orthodox scholars like Bishop Stillingfleet and Matthew Poole back in the 1600’s, long before geology made it convenient, on the basis that if all humanity was still living in Mesopotamia they could have been destroyed without flooding the entire geographical globe. (I was surprised to hear a couple years ago that even modern creationist Hank “Bible Answer Man” Hanegraaf considers a local flood plausible; see also an extended case made by Godandscience.org.).

One thing I found fascinating about this narrative was that it all happened before 1860, i.e. before Darwin. Young claims these early “orthodox Christians” were excited about natural discoveries, not to find reasons to disprove the Bible, but to help them better interpret it:

Because the Christian naturalists of the era were unafraid of God-given evidence, they recognized that extrabiblical information provided a splendid opportunity for closer investigation of the biblical text in order to clear up earlier mistakes in interpretation.

If anything, Young seems to think some of them were biased in favor of traditional interpretations until their observations convinced them otherwise. I thought of young-earth creationists, who tend to lump evolution and an old earth together, with Noah’s global flood as the fossil-producing linchpin. In our enthusiasm to rescue God from modern science, are we throwing the work of early Christian geologists out with the evolutionary bathwater, turning the theological clock back, not to 1860, but to a century before? I knew what Ken Ham and his camp had to say about Darwin. Did they have anything to say about Lyell and Buckland?

Yes, quite a bit, actually. I found two articles at Answers In Genesis by Terry Mortenson, one which seems to be a much shorter version of the other. I find it amusing how diametrically opposed many aspects of the narratives are between the old-earth and young-earth writers. While Young highlights quotes from certain geologists to show how Christian they were, Mortenson highlights quotes from other geologists he calls “deists” and “vague theists” to show that they “were NOT unbiased, objective pursuers of truth.” (It reminds me of the old quote-mining debate about whether the Founding Fathers were committed Bible-believing Christians or merely nominal theists who thought religion was useful for generating moral citizens.) It may be true that these geologists weren’t unbiased, although I think young-earthers should be careful of the No True Scotsman fallacy; if you pre-determine that “true” Christians must believe in a young earth, then anyone who concludes otherwise is not a true Christian by definition.

More interesting is the narrative about how the old-earth beliefs came about. Moretenson describes Lyell’s “radical uniformitarianism in which he insisted that only present-day processes of geological change at present-day rates of intensity and magnitude should be used to interpret the rock record of past geological activity.” It’s interesting how central uniformitarianism is to Mortenson’s narrative and how completely absent it is from Young’s. Young creates the impression that Lyell’s beliefs were simply based on the evidence he uncovered. Mortenson creates the impression that Lyell’s beliefs started with an assumption that “past” sediments were laid down at slow “present” rates. He claims Hutton “ruled out supernatural creation and the unique global Flood, as described in Genesis, before he ever looked at the rocks,” and implies that Lyell and others did the same; his shorter article asserts their bias without acknowledging they had any evidence at all, which I consider almost inexcusable. (Here I am reminded of the critics who accuse intelligent designists of starting with creationist assumptions, but when I actually read their work, it feels to me like they are reasoning objectively from evidence. Perhaps I need to read Lyell’s Principles of Geology for myself.)

Mortenson’s longer article, while it also decries the “philosophical assumptions” behind “uniformitarian methodological naturalism,” does mention evidence as well, and this is where things get really interesting.

There were several reasons most geologists at this time believed the Earth was much older than 6,000 years and the Noachian Flood was not the cause of the Secondary and Tertiary formations… Some strata had clearly formed from the violent destruction of older strata… different strata contained different fossils… evidence that faults and dislocations occurred after the induration of many strata implied a lapse of time between their formation and that of overlying strata. Finally, man was apparently only found fossilized in the most recent strata…

I was glad to see Mortenson discussing the evidence here, but I found his response fairly disappointing. He primarily casts uncertainty on fossil layer identification by setting up the claim that geologists rely heavily on shells as index fossils, and then casting all manner of doubt that such shells are reliable index fossils.

Since shells made up the vast majority of fossils, they had a great, if not singular, importance for old-earth geologists… William Smith, the “Father of English Stratigraphy,” based his depiction of the geological column primarily on shells, which constituted the great majority of the fossils he listed in works on the geological record.. But he admitted that he did not know much about shell creatures…

Mortenson spends paragraph after paragraph arguing that shell indexing has lots of problems yet is still very important today. Overall he makes a good case, especially regarding the way living fossils and other discoveries cast doubt on our ability to reliably limit fossils to narrow time periods. If index fossils – not radiometric dating – are used to identify a significant proportion of dinosaur-bearing layers, and if there are reasonable doubts about index fossil knowledge, that could provide comfortable room for doubting that dinosaurs are truly found as consistently in the layers we say they are (though that would still have to be weighed against the probabilities of never finding other “wrong” animals with them3).

However, I found Mortenson’s response to the lack of man in older layers to be pretty weak. He essentially simply claims, “Absence of fossil remains does not demand its nonexistence.” It is true we cannot 100% prove a creature did not live in a time period just because we have found no fossils in the associated layer; the coelacanth is a great example of that. But that doesn’t tell us where the evidence suggests we lie on the spectrum between 0% and 99%. As I mentioned earlier, if a high enough volume of fossils in enough geographical locations are found only in certain layers, does that imply that the probability they existed during a different time period is similar to getting an airplane from a tornado in a junkyard?

Answers In Genesis writers understand this principle very well when they claim evolution predicts a fossil record “bursting” with transitional forms. Evolutionists claim we do have lots of transitionals, and everyone debates about what counts and whether it’s enough. If evolutionists instead simply said, “Absence of fossil remains does not demand its nonexistence,” creationists would rightfully be little amused. In either case, the point is not whether or not we can completely rule out a claim, but whether we can be strongly skeptical of something based on the probability that huge numbers of fossils would distribute themselves the way we find them if that claim was correct.

Most telling, Mortenson’s article contained no response I could see to many of the old-Earth arguments he listed himself, particularly the ideas that “Some strata had clearly formed from the violent destruction of older strata” and that various features “implied a lapse of time between their formation and that of overlying strata.” Given the great space Mortenson devoted to addressing shells, the lack of his response to these points is curious.

So what do we have? One side claims the interpretation of nature is very clear and encourages the other to be more open in their interpretation of Scripture. The other claims the interpretation of Scripture is very clear and encourages the first to be more open in their interpretation of nature. These days I’m pretty comfortable holding both pretty open (though I confess finding it difficult to let go of my attachment to interpreting Job’s behemoth and leviathan as contemporary dinosaurs.)

It’s interesting to explore how Christians have reacted to these geological findings over the last century and a half. In the 1800’s, there were “scriptural geologists” who defended the traditional interpretation. Young claims they went back to global-flood arguments that had been abandoned a century earlier without explaining the evidence that had caused others to abandon them. Mortenson’s defense of them suggests Young may not be giving them a fair shake, but he seems to be playing right into Young’s hand himself – in the one article implying there was no evidence for old-earth and in the other explicitly listing evidence for old-earth and declining to address it.

On the other hand, Mortenson claims the old-earthers never explained how to harmonize the Bible with their theories. Young claims that while the geologists themselves may not have, there were a number of Christian scholars who did, including John Pye Smith, Edward Hitchock, and Hugh Miller. He goes into some detail, though not enough to say whether or not Mortenson would find them satisfactory (he doesn’t discuss any of the classic corroborative verses outside Genesis, for example). But they seem to have been satisfactory enough for the people of the day; Ronald Numbers claims in The Creationists that even most Christians who called themselves creationists, antievolutionists, and fundamentalists accepted fossil layers from an old earth well into the 1900’s. In this version of history, belief in six-day creation by this time was mostly limited to the Seventh Day Adventists (which other denominations tend to treat as quasi-fringe). The only real promoter of the time was adventist George McCready Price, who claimed to have witnessed the literal creation in a vision, until the 1960’s when Whitcomb and Morris expanded on his arguments in their famous The Genesis Flood and kickstarted the modern young-earth creationist movement.

It would be nice to find more details about what percentage of Christians in each denomination truly believed in an old earth in the early 1900’s, the specifics of what they believed about it, and how they read the Scripture verses that modern YEC’s use to argue against those views. But it’s tantalizing to consider in light of Mortenson’s emphasis on the “dangers” of “compromise” with what he sees as the clear interpretation of Scripture. His shorter article includes the Answers In Genesis graphic that suggests that abandoning young-earth creationism leads to “pornography,” “abortion,” and “family break-up,” among other things. It would be ironic if these social ills were not as bad several decades ago when more Americans were “compromising” their beliefs about creation than today.

To be fair to Mortenson and the young-earth camp, these were just two articles (though a good hour’s worth of reading), and it would be unfair to assume they represent the strongest responses of Answers In Genesis, or of flood geologists more generally. Perhaps I will add The Genesis Flood to my reading list, right after Principles of Geology. I would love to have a greater understanding of how dinosaur fossils are dated, and how strong the layer consistency really is, as well as understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the best flood geology interpretations. I am particularly interested in further details about what convinced those early geologists that various layers could not have been deposited anywhere near the same time, and what flood-geology has to say about that. Hopefully I can come across information that is easy to understand before things get so complex that my eyes glaze over and I run back to my other hobbies and commitments. But perhaps I can maintain my interest farther than I would otherwise by focusing on dinosaurs, which are intrinsically so awesome and interesting…


1I’ve always heard confident assertions that calculations show the Ark had plenty of room for animals, especially if the big ones were young and you properly adjust for the speciation that could have occurred after the Flood. But as I read the Dinosaurs book, with the continual discoveries of new species, it struck me that I’ve never seen the actual numbers behind those calculations. Surely there must be some limit to how many now-extinct species we can keep adding to it?

2I used to never have a problem appealing to a “God of the gaps” for details like this; if we already accept some miracle for the global Flood, why not more? But it does strike me as valid to ask, if we have to appeal to giant miracles for almost every single unmentioned aspect of the story, why did Noah need to naturally store and feed the animals in the first place? And if we say it was just because God wanted to teach Noah, or us, something, that feels to me like we’re inching remarkably close to the metaphorical justifications of our more liberal brethren.

3I suppose another tactic would be to dispute that we’ve never found mixed-up fossils. An initial search suggests that Creation Ministries International regards claims of intermingled man-dinosaur footprints as false.

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The Age of Dinosaur Bones

dinosaurs-the-grand-tour I just finished Dinosaurs: The Grand Tour, by Keiron Pim and Jack Horner, which methodically describes all dinosaur species discovered through about 2012, along with some other interesting creatures and general dino trivia. It was fun to update my dino awareness with a lot of recent discoveries, from new species coming out of China to remains that include skin impressions and stomach contents. It was also interesting to read from a position that is more open about origins, to truly grapple with the implications of the idea that all of these creatures have only been found in specific geological layers.

When learning about dinosaurs – or anything else that relates to prehistory – it is challenging to separate fact from interpretation. The book indicated plenty of places where assumptive interpretations seem to run run far ahead of the evidence. Ozraptor is “known only from an 8cm-long fragment of shinbone.” Other species get speculative drawings, sizes, diets, and more extrapolated from “a few disconnected bones,” “a partial skull,” or “a whole forelimb.” Argentinosaurus is considered the “biggest land animal known for sure to have existed,” despite being “known from only 3 per cent of a skeleton.” My favorite was the description of Equijubus, whose “spiked thumb served for defense or for feeding,” despite the fact that the “only known fossil is a skull and vertebrate.” (I used to think when we overconfidently speculated about the purposes of body parts, it was at least limited to ones we’d actually found!)

In the past, I would have said, “The people making such unwarranted assumptions about what these animals looked like are the same people telling me these animals lived millions of years ago,” finding it easy to dismiss details that contradicted what I considered the one clear interpretation of Scripture. But I now consider such a dismissal unfair – a lazy projection of the weakness of some conclusions to the weakness of others without really considering them. Even if we throw out the most questionable elements of dinosaur knowledge, we are left with the most solid and well-substantiated elements, and that evidence deserves a fair consideration.

There are plenty of fragmented, isolated remains, to be sure. But there are also plenty of “complete fossils.” Some species have been found in large numbers – forty-seven Triceratops skulls were unearthed in the USA’s Hell Creek Formation in the first decade of the 21st century alone. We have “perfectly preserved skeletons retaining skin impressions” of scales. We‘ve matched bone marks to teeth based on their “size, spacing, and serration.” We’ve got a Baryonyx with “remnants of a young Iguanadon in its gut.” We’ve got a Scipionyx specimen with “such detailed features as muscle fibers, the windpipe, the liver and some remains of the intestines.” (woah!) We’ve got eggs, footprints, and poop. We’ve got scientists 3d-scanning skulls to assess inner ear balance and other scientists microscoping fossilized pigment vessels to assess skin colors. (woah!!) We’ve got more and more species revealing impressions of feathers, bristles, quill knobs, wings…. There’s a lot we don’t know, but there’s an increasingly large amount that we do.

There are so many varieties of so many creatures that are unlike anything we know today. Theropods, with their big scary heads and little arms. Sauropods, with their long necks and giant legs and tails. Ceratopsians, with their horns and neck frills. Ankylosaurs, with their full-body armor. And the bird-like dinos, oh the vast quantity of bird-things! I grew up being taught that evolutionists considered Archaeopteryx an intermediate link between reptiles and birds, but that it didn’t count because it was basically just a bird that happened to have some fully-formed definitely-not transitional reptile parts along for the ride. Well, apparently that whole part of the bird-reptile debate is literally outdated by a hundred years. We don’t just have Archaeopteryx now, we have Xiaotingia, and Epidexipteryx, and Caudipteryx, and Shuvuuia, and Unenlagia – a stunning array of bizarre creatures with various assortments of tails and tail feathers and beaks and teeth!

Page after page of extinct species, each with a sidebar graphic unambiguously limiting the evidence of their existence to a specific subsection of the Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous geological layer. If fossil order is truly that consistent, it has strong implications. Not necessarily for evolution specifically – this very pro-evolutionary book has a line that sounds like the repeated refrains in intelligent designist Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt: “The patchy evidence we have from ancient rocks shows no confirmed dinosaurs, and then suddenly several kinds in each of these categories.” (I also found interesting the variety in the numbers of sauropod neck vertebrae, given that the common ancestry of mammals is said to be supported by them all having the same number.) But such layer placement – if accurate – at least presents a strong challenge to young-earth creationism and its fossilization by global flood.

I had never been much impressed by Bill Nye’s cordial suggestion that upending evolutionary theory was as simple as finding a fossil in the “wrong” layer. Might we simply extend the lifespan of that creature to include that layer? How can you get more “wrong” than finding a living coelacanth 65 million years after its last appearance in the fossil record? Apparently we do find fossils in “wrong” layers but call them “zombie taxons” that washed out of one layer and got redeposited in another, of which a dinosaur tooth appears to be the canonical example! And yet, while such cynicism may work in the abstract, or for an isolated species, it feels like a weaker protest when you consider the sheer volume and consistency of all these dinosaur species within these three major layers (occasional washed up teeth notwithstanding). The probability that such a proportion of such a number of artifacts would be found in these layers all over the world by chance surely must approach the theist’s favorite Boeing-747-from-a-tornado-in-a-junkyard.

Of course, that’s presuming the layer identification of all these fossils is reliably accurate. The date ranges on these layers, as I understand it, are derived from half-life ratios of radioactive decay. Geologists put the dino-zones from 200-something to 65 million years old. We’ve only measured these atomic decays for roughly a century, and even if we’ve found no method of variance, I can be easily skeptical of extrapolating that evidence a million-fold. But suppose the ages are wrong. Forget the interpretation of the particle ratios and just consider the ratios themselves. If all these dinosaur bones are only found in rocks with a relatively narrow range of particle ratios, is there another explanation that makes as much sense as them all living in their own time period?

But I don’t know what percent of fossils are dated that way; I suspect it may be far south of 100%. This book gives paltry few clues at the processes behind the layer classifications it describes. In fact, one of the only references supports my skepticism. Of the genus Jobaria, it says:

The sediment its bones lay in were initially ascribed to the Early Cretaceous but a study in 2009 suggested them to be far older…

Now Jobaria is considered to be Middle to Late Jurassic. Either that specimen was not initially measured by elemental ratios, or was measured by ratios that apparently have enough margin of error to be useless at pinpointing layers. Surely there are others like it. Yet surely all others are not like this.

Still, let’s consider the worst-case scenario. Suppose no fossils are dated this way, but a principle was established on a few weak examples, and now there’s a circular pattern such that many sections of earth aren’t categorized until we find a dinosaur fossil and then decide that it must be a Jurassic or a Cretaceous layer because we already assume that’s when they lived. Even if the layer consistency of dinosaurs is totally a forced tautology, is it true that after a dino-containing layer is named, we frequently find more dinosaurs in the same slab of sediment, but never, say, elephants? Is it true that we find other dinosaurs in their guts, but never humans? That we find teeth marks that match other dinosaurs, but never lions? That we’ve found a Velociraptor locked in battle with a Protoceratops, but never a monkey? What are the odds of all of those things happening by chance?

My thoughts turned to “flood geology,” which assigns the origin of virtually all fossils to Noah’s global flood. In the past I had repeatedly come across arrogant mainstream assertions that the geological evidence clearly disproves such an interpretation, but never with any explanation of why, and I’d read enough hypothetical examples of fossils formed by creatures swept away by “flash floods” to feel comfortable supposing a “global flood” to be similarly plausible. But having considered the weight of the evidence for fossil order in more detail, I wondered, how well-developed was flood geology, anyway? Were there more rigorous details than Ken Ham’s infamous “billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth”? Was it all as hand-wavingly speculative as my own lazy musings that, hey, a lot of water could probably do a lot of things, or were there scientific efforts to explain how a short deluge could have produced the specific features we observe today?

I went searching, and I quickly found a lot of really interesting things. But since this post is already long enough, I’ll save that for next week…

Review of Bill Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation

undeniable-bill-nye Bill Nye’s recent book gives a popular overview of evolution, taking snarky pot shots at creationism along the way. He does make some good cases against some of creationism’s weaker arguments, but since the book covers so many different aspects it spends more time saying what scientists currently believe than presenting the evidence that supports those beliefs.

Nye does give the layman a good feel for evolution’s general idea about how species split into others, how geographical separation enhances this, all under a “not perfect but good enough” selection construct. One of the strongest evidences he presents for evolution is the laryngeal nerve that detours down the neck and double backs around a heart artery in all mammals, even giraffes – where it would allegedly be more “intelligent” to “design” it with a direct connection only a few inches long instead of several feet. (Also discussed here on nautil.us.) It’s a good reverse application of the way creationists wonder at a complex well-suited design and say “Gee how could evolution come up with something that good?” Here the evolutionary scientist says “Gee how could an intelligent designer come up with something that bad?” The Case For A Creator presents a good defense of other alleged “bad designs,” but the giraffe nerve seems a pretty strong case (though ICR has a response here).

At the same time, when Nye marvels at evolution’s ability to produce those great outcomes – e.g. wing tips on owls remarkably similar to modern aircraft for extra efficiency – it almost feels to me as incongruent as the evolutionist’s view of the designer. Evolution is good enough to come up with specialized wing tips out of nothing but it never figured out how to reroute a detoured nerve through thousands of mammal species over millions of years? You know if it had happened they’d be saying “it made those creatures just a little bit more competitive…” Was that optimization just not a possible outcome of code edits? I can’t help going back to more fundamental questions… How can we spend so much time arguing about who wrote all this code without considering who wrote the compiler that decides what all these code edits are capable of doing, anyway?

At the risk of nitpick, one poor argument is Nye’s repeated claim (also in the Ham debate, I think) that to get to millions of modern species in 4,000 years from a few thousand “kinds” on Noah’s ark would require “11 new species a day.” But that’s only if you do the math linearly. Elsewhere in the book, Nye proves that evolution can create new species by appealing to mosquitoes that got stuck in London subways during World War II whose mutated descendants can no longer breed with their overland cousins. Intriguing, yes. But this proves too much – if new species can evolve within a century, and each could split into two more, exponential math easily provides enough doubling for millions of species in only two to three thousand years! Granted, the conditions required for that may be extremely infeasible, but it’s a good example of Nye trying too hard to dismiss creationists.

One surprise – I expected the GMO chapter to tow the consensus line that all is well because they let us feed the world and billions of people eat them with no widespread adverse effects. But Nye was actually largely skeptical, presenting reasonable concerns about biodiversity and effects on certain subgroups. Another reminder never to assume too much about people’s identities and associations.

Overall, I found the book to provide a decent entry-level popular explanation of a lot of aspects of evolution, with a few good points against some aspects of creationism, along with bad ones as well. If I wasn’t more open to various forms of old-earth these days I might have found it more threatening than I did. It’s probably mostly preaching to the choir, but even if you’re a hard line young-earther you might consider browsing it to keep up with the latest claims of those pesky scientists.