“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part One: Fossils

In-the-Beginning-slideThis is the first in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.

I have presented each session as an account of what I took from each presentation (and the panel questions afterwards), and inserted my own comments at the end of each. I am working from the notes that I made during each talk, so I apologise if I have misrepresented any of the speakers on what they were trying to say; I have written about each talk as I understood it.

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Session 1: Fossil evidence

Colin Groves

The first speaker was Colin Groves, professor of Bioanthropology at Australian National University. His primary interest is evolution and taxonomy of primates, and his talk was titled: “The reality of human evolution: what the fossils tell us.” Groves started his talk by clearly defining some terms: science, the scientific method, and what constitutes a scientific hypothesis. He also defined “evolution” as “biological descent with modification”, and stressed that the term “evolutionist” should only be applied to a scientist who studies evolutionary theory, and not “a biologist who believes in evolution”, since that’s redundant; all biologists fit that criterion.

Graves then gave a quick overview of some common dating methods, including radiometric and thermoluminescence as well as such techniques as dendrochronology (counting tree rings). He went on to describe the early 20th century fossil expeditions to Tendaguru (in southern Tanzania), which found plenty of Late-Jurassic dinosaur fossils under the still-living wild game of the savannah, but no fossils of modern mammals were inter-laid with the ancient bones. This was, of course, just a single example to make the broader point that the fossil record everywhere is chronologically consistent: later animals only ever show up after earlier ones.

Graves spent a considerable amount of time dissecting a Young-Earth Creationist cartoon by Jack Chick, which claims to debunk human evolution by showing “flaws” in the story. It consists of a series of panels, from Lucy (that is, Australopithecus afarensis) to modern Homo sapiens, with notes of supposed problems with the scientific consensus on each step. Graves made a compelling case (in my view) that this was a mix of outright lie, obfuscation and misinformation.

He closed with comments on the phylogenetic tree of modern H. sapiens, noting that our species is separated in increasing order of age from chimps (about 6 million years ago), to gorillas, to orang-utans, to gibbons, to old-world and finally new-world monkeys about 40 million years ago. He noted that there is a steady progression of things like cranial capacity, the position of postural muscles on the skull, and knee structure (indicating an increasingly bipedal stance) as you go from gorillas to chimps to Australopithecus spp. to Homo spp., but also that some of the fossil record (such as H. floresiensis) seem to be side-branches which went extinct.

My comments:

I found this a very interesting and well-presented talk. I particularly liked that Groves took the time to clarify definitions right at the start: in my experience, a great deal of argument and conflict arises from people having different conversations and simply talking past each other. Under his definition of evolution, I certainly agree that it is a necessary presupposition for any biologist.

The example of counter-argument to evolution that he used, the YEC cartoon from Jack Chick, was sadly representative of many similar things that I’ve seen. But his treatment of it was thorough and precise, it was not simply dismissed with a “this is rubbish!” Instead, he took the time to discuss in depth each hominid that was portrayed, and how the biological understanding of it had developed over time. Particularly notable was taking pains to talk about potentially embarrassing case of “Nebraska man”, which was a fossilised peccary (Hesperopithecus haroldcooki). It was originally misidentified as a hominid from a single tooth but re-identified as more fossils were discovered in a subsequent expedition.

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David Catchpoole

The second speaker was David Catchpoole from Creation Ministries International, whose talk was entitled: “The Origin of Species: what the fossils tell us”. He started with some interesting images and descriptions of “exquisitely preserved” fossil specimens, such as a baby dinosaur emerging from an egg, an ichthyosaur giving birth, and a 7kg coprolite. This was followed by reference to the coelacanth, which was absent from the fossil series from 65 million years ago and was thus presumed extinct, until it was found living off the coast of Madagascar. He suggested that this was the inverse of the Tendaguru observation: what was thought to only be a fossil was found living amongst modern animals, and could this be a challenge to the standard paleontological time-series? He also stated, as a counter to Groves’ point, that mammal and bird fossils had been found in amongst dinosaur fossil beds.

After this interesting point, Catchpoole took a bit of a detour from fossils and gave us some of his thoughts on what he saw as institutionalised censorship against such arguments being published in scientific journals. He said that the only “useful science” was that based on direct observation, and the presence of human witnesses. His justification for this was a quote from Deuteronomy: “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut 19:15). Historical science, in contrast, needs interpretation. He ended this detour by saying that his central point was that fossils could not pre-date Adam, because that would require death and suffering before Adam, so any evidence which seemed to indicate pre-Adam death of animals had to be wrong.

Returning to the fossils, Catchpoole noted that such exquisite preservation must be the result of sudden cataclysm, since under normal circumstances a hatching animal does not suddenly get encased in rock (or sediment). From this deduction, he moved to the conclusion that all such fossilisation must have occurred as a result of the Genesis Flood. In a similar vein, he made the point that current flows of the Colorado River in North America were inadequate to account for the scale of the Grand Canyon, and also concluded that the Genesis Flood was therefore the only possible explanation. He then said that although he could not prove that the earth was only 6000 years old, it was also not possible to prove (to his satisfaction) that it was 4.5 billion years old, so it could just as easily be young.

The latter stages of Catchpoole’s talk covered some issues with radiometric dating techniques. He made particular mention of tests of recent Mount St Helens lava flows subjected to K-Ar dating techniques, which produced results that diverged markedly from the (known) ages of the rock. There were also repeated mentions throughout the talk of the Creation Ministries International website, the Creation Ministries International magazine (which we were encouraged to subscribe to), and the many Creation Ministries International publications which were on sale in the lobby.

My comments:

There seemed to be little real discussion of fossils or species origins, despite the title of the talk. The arguments that attributed everything to the Genesis Flood seemed very weak to me. Yes, the “exquisite preservation” of some fossils points to a cataclysmic event that buried them, but there are plenty of cataclysmic events every year that would meet the necessary requirements (landslides, earthquakes, eruptions). The vast majority of animals, of course, do not fossilise when they die, they decompose and are remineralised. The process of fossilisation requires that the animal be somehow trapped away from the normal decomposition cycle, and sudden entombment following a landslide is a pretty good way of doing that. The Grand Canyon argument is even weaker, in my view. Firstly, there is no reason to assume that the flows would be consistent throughout the millennia: ice melts from glaciation events would almost certainly account for sufficiently increased flow rates to carve out huge swaths. Secondly, if the Grand Canyon was carved by a truly global flood, why doesn’t the whole planet look like one big Great Canyon? I asked this question during the panel, and didn’t get an answer from Catchpoole, although one of the other panellists pointed out that the largest canyon that we know of, the Valles Marineris, is on the surface of Mars, so it’s pretty tough to argue that the Genesis flood is responsible for that one too.

I also disagree with Catchpoole’s assertion that non-observational science is “not useful”. In my mind, this shows a poor grasp of science. There is certainly a distinction between observational/experimental disciplines and historical disciplines such as geology and astronomy, but this is more a matter of what techniques are applicable in different fields. The ground is further muddied with areas like sub-atomic physics, where although experiments are involved, the degree of technology required to make “observations” makes it difficult to claim that events are really “eyewitnessed”. Perhaps more importantly, I think it shows a very poor grasp of hermeneutics and theology to take a passage that refers to proper judicial procedure in 2000BC and apply it the question of what constitutes good scientific methodology in the 21st century.

Overall, I found no real argument for a YEC position other than: “I think that there are problems with the scientific consensus on the age of the Earth, and my reading of the Bible puts it at 6000 years.”

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Panel discussion (Colin Groves, David Catchpoole and Lewis Jones)

The first panel question went to Colin Groves, and referred to the suggestion made by Catchpoole that bird and mammal fossils were found amongst those of dinosaurs. Groves replied that there were certainly mammal and bird fossils amongst dinosaur ones, as they had all lived together over 65 million years ago. (Modern birds are, of course, descended from dinosaurs). But there were no records of fossilised modern mammals or birds amongst dinosaur bones. Groves also commented that the Mt. St. Helens radiometric dating observations preceded more recent developments in the K-Ar technique, such as step-heating of crystals.

Lewis Jones was asked to comment on the old-earth creationist perspective. He said that the main issue was a different approach to Biblical interpretation: it is sometimes said that science is about the “what” and religion is about the “why”, but in his view, the Bible is far more about the “who” that the “why”. That is, the most important point of the Bible is telling us about Jesus, not about giving a chronology of the universe. The “story of history”, which comes to its ultimate conclusion in the book of Revelation, starts in Genesis 2 rather than in Genesis 1. Jones suggested that the first chapter is more of a prologue: and introduction into who God is in relation to the universe.

David Catchpoole was asked if he thought that Christians could believe in evolution. He pointed to his own experience (prior to adopting the YEC paradigm), and said that yes, they could, but also said that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament didn’t believe in evolution or long ages of the Earth.

Colin Groves was asked to comment on macroevolution, major changes between types of organisms (as opposed to microevolution, which is comparatively easy to observe). He said that it was just “microevolution writ large”, and that the fossil record on species-level transitions is much better because it involves more recent rocks that are much easier to study.

My comments:

There were some interesting questions and some more food for thought that emerged from this session. Lewis Jones was at the disadvantage of being asked for comment on things that he had not yet presented on. He deferred some of his points to the following day’s talk, which was fair enough.

More generally, I was interested in the content that was presented and I’m keen to hear the rest of the symposium.

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3 thoughts on ““In the Beginning” Symposium, Part One: Fossils

  1. Graves spent a considerable amount of time dissecting a Young-Earth Creationist cartoon by Jack Chick

    Jack Chick still publishes?! I did not realize that anyone thought of him as a reliable source!

    Under his definition of evolution, I certainly agree that it is a necessary presupposition for any biologist.

    Perhaps I missed something here, but a biologist is “a scientist who studies living organisms and their relationship to their environment”. I don’t see why there should necessarily be any precondition of belief in evolution. Many eighteenth-century biologists would certainly disagree!

    7kg coprolite

    !

    that would require death and suffering before Adam, so any evidence which seemed to indicate pre-Adam death of animals had to be wrong.

    That is an unusually creative interpretation which presumes all sorts of things about suffering. I wouldn’t buy it.

    The process of fossilisation requires that the animal be somehow trapped away from the normal decomposition cycle, and sudden entombment following a landslide is a pretty good way of doing that

    In order to block normal decomposition you need to inhibit normal bacterial activity. Tar pits and lava are great at this sort of thing, but a landslide is an excellent way to aerate the surrounding earth and stir up all sorts of bacteria.

    one of the other panellists pointed out that the largest canyon that we know of, the Valles Marineris, is on the surface of Mars, so it’s pretty tough to argue that the Genesis flood is responsible for that one too.

    Not half as tough as he thinks: the Valles Marineris, like the even larger rift valleys on Earth, was not created through erosion.

    • Guardian:
      That is an unusually creative interpretation which presumes all sorts of things about suffering. I wouldn’t buy it.

      An instistence that death and suffering are entirely a result of the Fall is a pretty core doctrine in YEC circles. I don’t buy it either, but it’s a prominent feature of YEC theology.

  2. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 9/13/13- Mormonism, Creationism, and Nothing! | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

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