35. Not True: An Encounter with Science Denial: Part 2

Part 2: Happy Birthday Ancient Earth

 What then of the age of the earth? Where, within his religion, may my pupil have gotten the idea that the earth is quite young geologically? Does the Bible in fact state that the earth is a relatively young; perhaps only a few thousand years old? Actually, it does not specifically do so. Some scholars have assumed the genealogies of biblical patriarchs to be historically correct. They have then used these lineages to roughly estimate the passage of time since the earth’s creation. In fact, there is an exceedingly long history of attempts to use the Bible to do just that. If one peruses the Internet searching for references to young earth creationism, one will find dozens of mentions of authors who have done so. Such efforts began as early as the second century B.C. and continued at least into the nineteenth century. Estimates of earth’s age based upon various translations of the Bible vary. The date of creation based on the Septuagint is said to be 5500 BC. Using the Samaritan Pentateuch, it is around 4300 BC, and relying upon the Masoretic texts yields a date of 4000 BC. Thus we can see many possible sources in regards to how a scripturally based belief in a six to eight thousand year old earth could have arisen.

However, I have often found that the quest to more rationally or systematically explain the basis for the belief in an earth only a few thousand years of age often leads to one man – James Ussher. Ussher  (1581-1656) was the Anglican Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Armagh. I must admit to a general tendency to be suspicious of pronouncements of fact from scholars working nearly five hundred years ago. It simply seems reasonable to me to accept the idea that we have made great progress, during the last five centuries, in understanding the workings of the physical and biological world in which we live. As an example, I think most of us, if afflicted with serious disease, would rather go to a 21st century doctor rather than a medieval barber-physician whose first diagnosis might call for a good blood-letting via the application of leeches. Thus, I’ve always been more than skeptical of Ussher’s assertions regarding the age of the earth.

But wait just a darned minute you might argue. Why do we have to jettison scholarly work simply because it was done in the 16th century? What about Copernicus? Didn’t he figure out the heliocentric motion of the planets back in the 1500’s? Didn’t Isaac Newton propose the laws explaining the motion of objects not long after this? What about Galileo Galilei? Didn’t he build a telescope and make the first observations of the moons of Jupiter in the early 17th century? I would have to say yes, all of this is true. I would never dare to suggest that many of the scholars at work during those time periods did not possess true genius. In fact, and this may surprise you, the more I have learned about James Ussher the more I appreciate his work. I simply think that he made some questionable assumptions in trying to precisely date the origin of the earth. It is true that both history and science have proven his 6000 year old earth incorrect; but there is still a bit more about James Ussher that merits consideration.

Brooding upon the rejection of my teaching of the plate tectonics theory, I wanted to know a little more about Archbishop Ussher myself. By all accounts, James Ussher was a man of extreme intelligence. He entered Trinity College in Dublin at age thirteen. At age seventeen, he acquired a bachelor’s degree. He was ordained in the church at twenty-one and by the time he was in his late twenties had become a professor at Trinity College. He was said to be gifted in languages and, during his lifetime, amassed a personal library containing thousands of volumes. His scholarship would be difficult to deny.

The issue that pertains to my discussion, the date of the origin of earth, is presented in Ussher’s 1650 publication of a dissertation entitled Annales veteris testament, a prima mundi origine deducti  or, in English, Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world. This classic work is still available as an English translation from the Latin. In it, Ussher offers a comprehensive historical record of the early world from the creation to 70 AD. However, Ussher’s chronology of the earth’s history, including the date of the origin of life, has been characterized by scientists as wholly inaccurate.

I must admit that as a result of a rather lengthy training in the biological and geological sciences, I had considered Ussher’s work to be of little significance.  However, as I tried to learn more about him, I ran across an article that made me reassess my opinion. In 1991 the late Stephen J. Gould, writing in Natural History magazine, suggested that perhaps we should not be so disdainful of Ussher’s endeavor. Gould pointed out that, given the primitive state of science, such attempts to use the Bible and other ancient texts to deduce the age of the earth’s origins was a common scholastic endeavor. In other words, given the lack of the tools and information we now have at our disposal – such as an increased understanding of stratigraphy, a more complete fossil record, knowledge of radioactivity, the development of radiometric dating techniques, and improved dendrochronological data – how else might academics attack the problem of determining the earth’s history? Other intellectuals of the time (e.g. Johannes Kepler, John Lightfoot, Isaac Newton), who worked on timelines for the earth were trying to do more than just determine the date of creation. In reality, they were attempting to establish a comprehensive chronology of the earth’s history and its historic events by using the Bible and other classical works. In his essay, Fall in the House of Ussher, Gould remarks that perusal of the “Annals of the Old Testament” reveals that only about seventeen percent of the work is biblical. Ussher’s book is available now on the popular Internet site Amazon.com under the title The Annals of the World. I found one reviewer’s comments telling. As if to support Gould’s observation that the book actually contained little biblical material, the reader stated that he assumed the book would give him additional insight into biblical history. It did not; in fact he reported it gave him little specific information about events in the Bible.

So there you have it. A strong argument could be made for cutting Archbishop Ussher (and other biblical chronologists) a little slack in regards to his now much maligned date of creation. For the period, he was doing what we may think of as highly advanced academic research. The date Ussher established for the beginning of creation was, by the way, quite specific. It was Sunday Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.

In order to pinpoint the date of creation, Ussher had to make several rather questionable subjective assumptions. These are well described in Catherine Baker’s The Evolution Dialogs: Science, Christianity and the Quest for Understanding. For example, Ussher reasoned that the creation occurred in autumn since this is a time for the ripening of the fruits of trees. As Adam and Eve were tempted with the eating of such a fruit, the first humans must have been created in the fall season. Ussher also inferred that the creation must have occurred at some significant astronomical period such as equinox or solstice. It was certainly a monumental event; therefore it must have occurred at a noteworthy time he reasoned. Referring to astronomical tables, Ussher found that the nearest Sunday proximate to the equinox in 4004 B.C. was Sunday, Oct. 23rd. The creation actually began, he believed, on the evening of the previous day.

Some have also suggested that the date Ussher imagined might have fed upon his preconceived notion of how old the earth should be. For example, certain biblical passages used by early chronologists (such as 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalms 90:4) suggested to them that a thousand years were but a day to God. In other words, a six day creation could represent an earth of around 6000 years in age. This would fit well if, like Ussher, one was working under the assumption that the Bible was literally correct in every respect.

Much material is available relative to the manner in which Ussher developed his historical chronology. It is voluminous and detailed; I will leave that for you to pursue or not. My point is that Ussher was doing the best he could with the implements at hand. Since Ussher perceived the Bible as historical, he merged information in it with that of other significant written resources: Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman histories for example. As a non-scientist in a pre-scientific world, his efforts produced a product that seemed eminently reasonable for the period.

But that’s just it: for the period. We are talking about the 17th-19th centuries. Why must we continue to accept the work of Ussher, and other such chronologists, as definitive? Why must we use it as a basis, as my fledgling science student did, for rejecting much of the physical knowledge of the earth that we have gained in the past several hundred years? Apparently, for many Christian conservatives, there is a belief that the Bible does indeed specifically state that the earth is 6000 years old. Perhaps the reason that Ussher’s timeline persists as reasonable in the mind of these folks is that, beginning shortly after the publication of his Annals, Ussher’s chronological timeline was printed in the margins of certain bibles. “Up until fairly recently, nearly all printings of the King James Bible included dates in the marginal notes which helped place Biblical events in their chronological context” (from the website of the Institute for Creation Research). I suspect that Ussher’s chronology has thus acquired great power of persuasion through its association with the scriptures. As a result, in the eyes of many, his chronology literally took on the authority of God. Perhaps for some people, to believe otherwise is to open a chink in the armor of their assumed biblical inerrancy. Accepting that the earth is ancient beyond understanding might put one on an oily incline. The next thing you know people will be arguing that nothing in the Bible is true. This, I presume, is the great fear.

It is a fine ethical line one walks as a biology teacher when dealing with student beliefs. I have often wondered whether or not I should have expressed to my doubting student the sadness I experienced. It was a dejection caused by their belief that they had to make a definitive, final choice between science and religion. For you see in my mind, the spectacle and stupendous power of earth’s geologic forces are worthy of awe as well. My understandings of the forces which propel the tectonic plates over the surface of our world fill me with appreciation for the powerful dynamics at work within the cosmos. I feel small and insignificant. I am humbled and put into my place in the scheme of things. The natural is no less than the supernatural, quite capable of generating wonder and reverence.

Then again if I had articulated these ideas to my student, perhaps they would have felt sadness for me; a worshipper of geologic forces instead of a God. But, in reality, I’m not sure we stood so far apart. As a religious naturalist, I accept the belief that there is a creative force responsible for our world and the universe in which we dwell. There is a Force – awesome, mysterious, and unfathomable – which has, over the past fourteen billion years, created a universe and an earth which has become ever more complex and biodiverse. This Force has also created an organism with remarkable inquisitiveness, inventiveness, and intelligence. It is us.

And so the melancholy I felt in my classroom those many years ago stemmed from the following notion. There is no need to cling to ancient philosophies fearing that, if we do not, our beliefs are lost. Just as we evolve biologically, we should evolve culturally as well. We humans test and probe and seek and discover. In the discovery we march forward, gaining an ever-increasing understanding of the world around us. Coming to understand that the earth is not thousands but billions of years old should not frighten us. This knowledge should not be seen as a wedge that will somehow separate us from a desire for communion with the Creator.  It would be a capricious deity who gave us the mental gifts necessary to explore the universe and then slapped us for using these talents.

All this is not to say that we must jettison the wisdom gained by the Ancients, wisdom which is often set down in religious scriptures. There are primal spiritual truths which we, the human race, should grasp firmly and take along with us as we march forward. My wish would be that my student come to understand that these truths are not dependent upon whether biblical genealogies are historical are not. The ancient authors of scripture were trying to answer the same questions that baffle us now even now. How did we get here?  What should be the purpose of our lives? Why are our lives so ephemeral and so often fraught with difficulties? How should we interact with our fellow humans?

In their asking, our far-distant ancestors discovered truths of much greater import than the age of the earth. We should acknowledge and hold tightly these momentous transcendent verities. There was a moment of creation. Even if not supreme, we are a remarkable and special component of that Creation. We need to rely on each other. We must exercise care of our natural world. There is a powerful creative force at work in the cosmos.

As we move onward, we surely must not fear to interpret our ancient spiritual truths in the light of new knowledge. If we were to do this, my incredulous student could rightly acknowledge that the good bishop did admirable work for his day. But my youthful protégé could also appreciate how the mighty Cascades have reared their lovely crowns. He might better understand why the earth beneath his feet may sometimes tremble.

Photo Credits:
earth from Apollo 17 - commons.wikimedia.org
Roman Septuagint (1587) - commons.wikimedia.org
Archbishop James Ussher by J. Houbraken at commons.wikimedia.org
Coepernicus title page (1543) - commons.wikimedia.org
Galileo Galilei by Justin Sustermans at commons.wikimedia.org
The Annals of the World at www.amazon.com
The Evolution Dialogues at www.amazon.com
Book of Genesis text by the author
geologic time spiral by USGS at commons.wikimedia.org
Cascade range at www.WA.gov

34. Not True: An Encounter with Science Denial: Part 1

Part 1: Life on a Young Earth

There it was, written right at the top of the completed homework assignment. The words leapt out at me as though emblazoned in the form of a neon sign –Not True.  I recall staring at my student’s handwritten comment in a state of bewilderment. Had I been unclear in my presentation of the material? Was the concept too difficult for students to understand? Was the time spent developing and presenting this lesson wasted? What on earth would prompt such a blatant rejection of facts from a pupil?

You might venture to guess that the homework assignment dealt with some esoteric, highly hypothetical subject like the possibility of multiple universes or the impending fate of the cosmos. In this case, you would be mistaken. The concept upon which the assignment was based is one of the most well established in science – the plate tectonics theory. But why would this otherwise excellent student write such a comment on his paper I wondered? This was a statement that showed a total rejection of the fruits of several decades of progress in geology. It was a complete denial of what science has revealed about the geological dynamics of planet earth. And then it dawned on me. The assignment we had just completed (and by extension, the plate tectonics theory) showed that the earth is extraordinarily old.

This young man’s worldview was heavily influenced by the church he attended. As you may guess, the earth upon which this congregation lived was only six thousand years old. Was my student rejecting the theory itself or were they denying evidence that the earth is incredibly ancient? A sensation I can only describe as despondency crept over me. Was it really necessary for this young person to steadfastly choose between science and belief?

In analyzing this example of science rejection, we need to take a quick look at the plate tectonics theory itself.  Is it so tenuous that it deserves the distrust bestowed upon it by my student? Then in the second installment of this essay, I will suggest a rationale for his belief in a young earth. I suggest that it is based upon an explicit religious belief which is misguided, misunderstood, and unnecessary.

There are two major ideas encompassed by the plate tectonics theory. The first involves the structure of the earth’s crust. The crust is the outer layer of the earth. It is the part upon which we live, hike, climb, and run. We might think of earth’s crust as the skin of a fruit or the shell of an egg. The important point, in regards to plate tectonics, is that scientists have found that the crust is fractured into pieces of various sizes. These are the so-called tectonic plates. The second grand notion within the theory is that these tectonic plates are in motion (you may have heard of the term continental drift). What geologists now recognize is that the tectonic plates into which the crust is fractured include not just continents but adjacent portions of seafloor as well. In fact one of the largest plates, the Pacific plate, is almost entirely seafloor. Here in Indiana we are passengers, leisurely riding to the southwest, on the North American plate. This plate also includes most of the floor of the western Atlantic. Granted, it is rather difficult to imagine the continents and seafloors wandering about over the surface of the globe. The notion is not something that is intuitive and I personally heard skepticism being voiced as late as the 1970’s.

Looking at a world map, one is likely to notice that the contours of the eastern coastline of South American and the western coast of Africa could juxtapose like pieces of a puzzle. This apposition has been perceived over the years by a number of scientists. However, the person most often associated with the original proposal that these two continents were once joined together is the German geophysicist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930). In 1915 Wegener suggested that the earth’s continents had once been united as a single enormous land mass he called Pangaea. Unfortunately he had little evidence to support his hypothesis of “continental drift.”

Over time, evidence that the continents were once united came to light. Certain kinds of plant and animal fossils were found in widely differing locals upon earth. Fossils of the ancient plant Glossopteris, for example, are found in South America, South Africa, Australia, and India. Certain types of bedrock and fossils occur in both eastern North America and Western Europe. Fossils of the ancient mammal-like reptile Lystrosaurus have been found in Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and even Antarctica. Such biogeography suggests that these organisms once inhabited the same land mass. Alternatively, some scientists postulated that ancient land bridges between the continents could explain such disjunct fossil distribution. However, with certain exceptions, no evidence of such bridges is known to exist.

Then, in the 1950’s, scientists found confirmation of a mid-ocean ridge running between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. This ridge was highly geologically active with frequent earthquakes and magma extrusions. It came to be understood that such ridges were common at many other places under the world’s oceans. Not only that, it was soon realized that they marked the boundaries of the planet’s tectonic plates. From this knowledge came the concept of sea floor spreading. At these ridges, molten rock wells up from deep within the earth. As it does so, tectonic plates are pushed apart as new seafloor is built. Several years after his death, geologists had begun to understand the mechanism which could actually cause Wegener’s “continental drift” to occur.

As more and more information about the earth’s interior was gathered over the ensuing decades, it became clearer how tectonic plate movement was caused. Scientists have known for some time that the earth’s crust rests upon an underlying layer of exceedingly dense, hot rock some eighteen-hundred miles thick. This zone, which lies between earth’s crust and outer core, is called the mantle. Unlike the hard, brittle crustal rock with which we are familiar, the rock of the mantle is molten and behaves like a plastic – it flows. Convection currents form within the mantle. Hot mantle material rises up toward the crust, cools and descends back into the depths. These circulating motions provide the forces which move the tectonic plates.

At some points, like the mid-Atlantic ridge, the tectonic plates are being pushed apart. At other places the plates slide past one another. As these plates grind against each other they may, like passengers entering and exiting a crowded subway car, become stuck one against the other. Immense frictional forces build until, with a sudden lurch, they begin moving again. The enormous stored energy is released as an earthquake as the crust harmonically oscillates in elastic rebound. The San Andreas Fault in California is a classic example.

The Indian subcontinent, part of the Indo-Australian plate, is plowing into Asia even now. Like the crumpling of a fender in an auto collision, the pile-up has raised the immense Himalayas. Of course if tectonic plates are moving apart at various places on the globe, they have to be disappearing in others. The earth isn’t expanding like some gargantuan balloon.

Off the west coast of the United States and Canada, along the west coast of South America, and near the coasts of Japan and Indonesia lie so-called subduction zones. Here material from one tectonic plate dives beneath another plate and is reincorporated into the mantle. These are zones of tremendous geological activity, highly prone to earthquake and volcanic activity. Once these regions of plate movement were identified, and their causal mechanisms understood, it became quite clear as to why certain regions of the world were extremely prone to earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis.

You may wonder, with so much evidence at hand, what the exercise to which my student so adamantly objected entailed. In fact, the classwork we were completing simply dealt with one more undeniable piece of evidence for the ploddingly slow movement of tectonic plates. The motion of these plates was originally detected by ancillary geological sleuthing. Suggestive data were obtained by measuring the relative age of sea floor rocks at increasingly greater distances away from the mid-Atlantic ridge. As one proceeds farther from this mid-ocean ridge, the bedrock of the seafloor becomes progressively older. This is precisely what we would expect if new seafloor was being formed as lava was extruded from this rift and was pushing the North American and Eurasian plates apart.

However, our classroom exercise dealt with an even more direct means of observing plate movement. In fact, using this method, geologists can actually measure the rate at which plates move. If you use a GPS unit while driving, hiking, flying, or boating then I assume you are confident in its functionality. As you may know, your GPS unit depends on information gleaned from a system of many satellites (the Global Positioning System) that orbit several thousand miles above the earth. Just as these satellites can measure your speed as you zip along an Interstate, they can also detect and quantify the rate at which tectonic plates are moving in relationship to one another.

From such satellite technology, it has been determined that North America and Europe are moving away from each other at a little less than an inch per year. This speed is commonly compared to the rate at which our fingernails grow. Taking the average width of the Atlantic Ocean to be twenty-five hundred miles, and assuming a constant rate of sea floor spreading, I had asked the students to calculate the Atlantic’s age. If one does the appropriate calculations, an estimated age of around two-hundred million years will be attained. This coincides rather closely with the estimated span of time since the supercontinent Pangaea began to break apart.

It may well be that my incredulous student accepted the reality of tectonic plate movement. The issue for him could have been the rate at which the movement occurred. Some young earth proponents subscribe to an idea known as catastrophic plate tectonics. This notion proposes movement of the tectonic plates at a speed of many meters per second. They reason that plate movements and the breakup of a super continent (if one even existed) could occur within a few thousand years. Observed geological evidence, such as the aforementioned satellite data, does not support such high velocity plate movement. As another example, the formation of archipelagos, such as the Hawaiian Islands, clearly demonstrate slow, long term crustal movement over a tectonic hot spot. Thus I was puzzled greatly.

Why did it make sense to reject data on the rate of plate movement garnered through satellite monitoring, a technology of extreme commonality now? This rejection was particularly mystifying to me because I suspected that my recalcitrant student would feel no hesitation in making personal use of this same technology. Making sure he was taking the quickest route to another state for example. Then again, I wondered, did contemplating the possibility of an ancient earth seem far too threatening to his religious beliefs to even consider. Did he imagine that accepting one piece of geologic science would put him on the slippery slope to accepting other scientific theories? If so, perhaps he saw in this lesson a dangerous threat to scriptural authority. He certainly would not have been the first person dig in their heels when belief is threatened by fact.

Stay tuned. In my next blog (No. 36: Not True), I hope to illuminate how the belief in a 6000 year old earth became dogma among certain practitioners of the Christian religion. I will also contend that this misguided conviction is a hindrance to the development of a belief system compatible with what we have learned from science in the past five millennia.

Photo Credits:
earth in cross section - Oregon St. Univ. @ commons.wikimedia.org
biogeography Pangea - cimss.ssec.wisc.edu @ commons.wikimedia.org
mid-Atlantic ridge - NOAA @ commons.wikimedia.org
tectonic plate movement - Tulane.edu.sanelson @ commons.wikimedia.org
GPS costellation - spaceplace.nasa.gov