by Robert T. Johnston | 22 June 2021 |
(This is a continuation of a report on the “Age of Life on Earth” conference organized by the Sydney Adventist Forum at Morisset, New South Wales, June 11-12, 2021. Read part 1 here.)
YECs have long dismissed radiometric dating as inaccurate, self-contradictory, or based on flawed assumptions (such as the constancy of radioactive decay rates). Sabbath morning, Geoffrey Madigan (another chemist, bless him!) and Colin Waters (a physicist) discussed radiocarbon dating of once-living specimens. A key message was that “the past is a complicated and technical business.” Their joint presentation got “down in the weeds” to show the multidisciplinary nature of radiochronology; how measurements are made using an accelerated mass spectrometer; why results sometimes appear contradictory; factors affecting precision; the validity of assumptions (rooted in quantum field theory, with implications for the stability of the entire universe if assumed values are incorrect); and how with “proper sample selection and pre-treatment, carbon-14 is useful for dating up to 50,000 years ago.”
One of the benefits of a regional conference like this for out-of-region participants is the opportunity to hear science presented with a regional emphasis that one doesn’t typically hear “back home.” This was my experience with biologist Howard Fisher’s presentation on plate tectonics and the biogeography of marsupials, entitled, “How Far Can a Kangaroo Jump?” He began with an extended review of the taxonomy of marsupials, as well as their distribution with respect to both geography and time within the geologic column. Fossils indicate that marsupials first appeared about 60 million years ago in North America, then spread east to Europe, Asia and Egypt, and southward to South America. Using conventional plate tectonics models depicting the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana and formation of the proto-continents that evolved to form the continents we have today, together with glaciation-related data on sea level changes throughout deep time, and overlaying these data with the observed fossils and speciation data, Fisher traced the migration of marsupials from South America and across Antarctica to Australia. That migration ended with the final separation of Australia from Antarctica about 35 million years ago. Kangaroos evolved subsequently in Australia but aren’t found elsewhere because by that time the land bridge had closed due to separation and Antarctic glaciation. Meanwhile, as marsupials underwent extensive speciation in South America, marsupials died out in North America and other Northern Hemisphere continents, reemerging in North America only in the last 3 million years after a volcanic eruption formed a land bridge at the Isthmus of Panama, reconnecting these two continents and allowing S. American marsupials to migrate north. Australian/New Guinean marsupials have not crossed Wallace’s Line, the famous biogeographical barrier in Indonesia. Fisher concluded, “Most features of [marsupials’] present geographical distribution can be explained by plate tectonics and other factors.” *
Sabbath morning finished with a lecture by theologian David Thiele entitled “Theological Problems for an Old Age for Life.” He presented seven issues raised by people who argue why a short age for life on earth is important, and six approaches to accommodating the biblical story to an older earth and life upon it. Where Van Moere’s presentation was a bathyspheric “deep dive” into the creation narrative, Thiele’s presentation was a broad survey that identified key arguments and historical views, and provided a brief response to each. As a scientist, I found it extremely helpful, especially since Adventist scientists are frequently bombarded with messages from the official church that one “can’t be a Seventh-day Darwinian” (unless it is hyper-active speciation from a limited number of “kinds” after the flood). Old-age, progressive creationists or evolutionists aren’t welcomed. Surprisingly, after the presentation was over, I still didn’t know whether Thiele was a YEC/YLC or OLC; that’s how even-handed he was in presenting theological arguments for and against both sides!
I haven’t space here to review all Thiele’s points, but his first example of YEC/YLC issues and counterarguments was: (1) The key issue of inspiration and authority of scripture. “For an overwhelming majority of YECs, scripture is inerrant and infallible in all matters that it teaches (scientific, historical, geographical, etc.). And if you tinker with this, the inspiration and authority of scripture simply unravels.” Thiele argued that “nowhere does the Bible declare itself to be inerrant, infallible or an authority on all matters. Even if one accepts inerrancy, there are still vast hermeneutical questions” such as whether the days in Genesis are literal, how Gen. 1:1 should be translated, or how literally to interpret the firmament with the heavenly bodies embedded in it. (2-7) Thiele went on to examine the question of genre (science, history, epic, etc.); the historicity of Adam and Eve as the basis of ethics; the question of the fall and ramifications for sin, salvation, and a second coming (what Q&A moderator Graham Stacey called “deck of cards”-type questions); the fall teaches a downward progression vs. evolution’s upward progression (Thiele emphasized the moral vs. technological dimensions as the way to overcome this argument); the historical figure of Adam as portrayed in the New Testament, including by Jesus and Paul; common ancestry and implications for social equality; death and predation before the fall; implications for the character of God; and the Sabbath.
Thiele then reviewed six OLC approaches, and issues with them. Thiele suggested that “all the approaches, all the arguments, have loose ends. Things that won’t tie off tightly.” And that, he said, was the main point: “There are more questions than answers! We want to make it neat and tidy, but in the process we’ve made it hard for some.” He concluded with seven points that he believed all Christians could find common ground on, regardless of their views on the age of life on earth. Once again, this short summary hardly does justice to this comprehensive and thoughtful paper, suggesting yet another reason to read the book when it is published!
After the Morisset participants enjoyed a lunch of haystacks (I was interested to learn that haystacks are popular among Australian Adventists too!), participants returned for a presentation on ice cores by Terry Annable. Annable is a herpetologist, but has long had an interest in ice cores. I share his enthusiasm; setting aside speculative hypotheses about rapid, multi-layer per year deposition in a post-Noachian flood environment as proposed by some YECs, ice core data offer relatively easy-to-interpret evidence of hundreds of thousands of years of climate variation, pollen, bacterial spores, fungal spores, fern spores, volcanic ash, and (more recently) human mining activity, with no evidence of a disrupting global flood. Volcanic ash data correlate with depositional data from lakebed cores and other sedimentary evidence. Annable noted that the Australian Antarctic Division is presently drilling at a location where they hope to reach a depth of 1 million years. The oldest ice found to date is about 2.9 million years old. Annable concluded that Noah’s flood did not reach the polar regions or Greenland; and spores and pollen found in ice prove the existence of flowering plants and fungi at least as far back as about 1.5 million years ago.
Brian Timms’s second paper was on dinosaurs. He reviewed their taxonomy and offered his criticism of dinosaur classification, where, often based on limited evidence, 800 species in 500 genera are known, with a new one added almost monthly. There’s a temptation to overinflate a new form as a new species or even genus; he shared examples of several that are really just minor variations of the stegosaurus group. Timms discussed four understandings of dinosaurs among Christians: (1) deny their existence (a largely abandoned view); (2) they existed, but God didn’t create them (a uniquely Adventist view due to Ellen White’s amalgamation statements); (3) accept that God created dinosaurs but they died in the flood, or that a few species survived and live on (mythical dragons, Loch Ness; etc.); (4) most Christians, but not Adventists [or other YECs/YLCs], accept that dinosaurs lived 250-65 million years ago, with some attributing them to God’s creation and others not. In “2” and “3,” man and dinosaurs coexisted, but not in “4.” Timms systematically reviewed these positions, concluding that the scientific consensus is most consistent with “4.” An Australian dinosaur (Muttaburrasaurus) was cited as an example of the many dinosaurs whose fossils have been found in marine environments—in this case, near the shores of Australia’s old inland sea, where many dinosaurs have been found more or less intact. YEC/YLC proponents often try to ascribe all such marine environment fossils to the Noachian flood, but the full range of geological and other contextual evidence does not support the Noachian flood interpretation, particularly in Australia. The prevailing scientific hypothesis today is that dinosaurs became extinct in the tsunami and “nuclear winter” aftermath of a massive meteorite explosion at the Yucatan Peninsula around 65 million years ago, marked by a 20 km deep and 180 km wide crater which has filled in with eons worth of sediment, and is globally marked by an iridium rich layer. Considerable evidence has emerged in the past 10 years supporting this hypothesis. [A competing hypothesis of toxic volcanic eruptions in India’s Deccan Traps, forcefully argued by Princeton geologist and paleontologist Gerta Keller, keeps the scientific debate alive regarding “how” but not “when” dinosaurs disappeared. That hypothesis, compressed into a Noachian flood timescale, has been suggested by some Adventist creationists].
Graham Stacey moderated a panel discussion of pre-submitted audience questions (including YouTube livestream participants). There’s not space to review them all, but insightful questions and thoughtful answers dominated the discussion. A few highlights: To the question of what meaning the Sabbath has if there was no literal 6-day recent creation, several scientists answered that they don’t have trouble resolving their long-life views with the Sabbath; empirically, “it works.” Thiele answered with a question, “How many times on Sabbath do you actually think, ‘The world was created 6000 years ago; I have this reminder’?” One questioner asked how the church could change to a deep-time perspective. One respondent noted that change is stressful, especially for conservative organizations, so that changes generally must happen “evolutionarily.” Howard Fisher commented that “faith is living with doubt; certainty is the opposite of faith.”
Several responses were offered to the question of whether the church should have the right to terminate professors, pastors and other employees who don’t support its doctrine of creation. These included (a) recognizing that people are at different stages of faith, and thus the church should not narrowly construct doctrine for people at one stage, but instead allow room for divergent views and opportunities for growth; (b) narrow views force people from the church and limit evangelism; early Adventists accepted people with divergent views; we should return to our roots; (c) universities shouldn’t have restrictive views on most topics, but faculty have a responsibility, as former GC President Jan Paulsen said, to take people on a journey but bring them back; (d) as in parliament, the church needs a loyal opposition: loyal to the church because it is God’s body, and loyal to scripture, but able to disagree on policy and doctrine; (e) remember that official pronouncements aren’t passed with 100% margins, so we shouldn’t silence the significant minority of loyal members who believe differently; (f) the church has the right to discipline employees over doctrinal differences but should exercise it with extreme care, as shown by the example of the Catholic church trying to convert error into truth, to their great embarrassment.
The conference presentations ended with a paper by Paul Cameron (an M.D. with a doctorate in immunology and molecular genetics). He discussed Mary Schweitzer’s paradigm-changing findings of preserved dinosaur soft tissue. He reviewed the history of earlier scientific evidence for preservation of DNA in hominids (Neanderthal, Euroasians) and horses in fragments up to 560-780,000 years old. But Schweitzer’s findings of soft tissue (but not DNA) of dinosaurs, who lived 66-250 million years ago, shocked the paleontology world and was widely publicized. Initially heavily questioned and doubted—including by Schweitzer and coworkers themselves—many lines of experimentation, using increasingly sophisticated tests, taking extreme care to avoid contamination with modern tissue, replication using newly excavated samples, and replication by independent laboratories, have finally convinced most of the skeptics, including Schweitzer, that her interpretation is correct. Demineralized dinosaur bones have contained what appear to be hollow blood vessels with residual elasticity, similar in appearance to those found in modern ostrich bones.
Schweitzer’s work is widely cited by creationists as evidence for a short chronology and the unreliability of radiometric dating because “everyone knows” there is no way tissue could last millions of years. [I recently attended a Geoscience Research Institute webinar where this argument was used]. At the time of her discovery, that was the scientific paradigm. In addition to the expanded body of evidence noted above, Schweitzer et al. won over additional scientists by providing a credible hypothesis for how this occurs: iron-rich heme is responsible for preserving these structures, as supported by work by Greenwalt et al. comparing male and female fossil mosquitos from 35 million years ago. Preserved heme was present in the abdomens of the females but not the males (who don’t suck blood), which served as an internal control for the study.
Cameron’s review of Schweitzer’s remarkable body of work served as a fitting capstone for this conference, for two reasons. (1) First, he described how Mary Schweitzer was a fundamentalist Christian YEC when she went back to university after having three children, to become a science teacher. She ended up attending a lecture by atheist paleontologist Jack Horner, introduced herself afterwards as a YEC and said she’d prove him wrong about evolution. One thing led to another and she ended up sitting in on his class for six months, changing her views on evolution as she confronted the evidence, and eventually working in his lab while pursuing a PhD in paleontology. It was there that she developed the method of demineralizing bone and discovered soft tissue. Significantly, her adherence to the truths that she discovered in class and under the microscope not only brought her potentially career-destroying pushback from the scientific community in the early days, but her embrace of evolution and deep time caused irreparable damage to her marriage and family relations. And yet, she persisted in her investigations, and she also remains a Christian (though no longer a fundamentalist). (2) Second, Cameron used this as a case study for the scientific method, showing how an initial experimental observation led to a hypothesis, further experiments to test the hypothesis, analysis of the data, refinement of the hypothesis, and new experiments, [and publication]. Paradigm-breaking work like Schweitzer’s is initially met with great skepticism, as it should be, but the scientific community has the capacity to change. [I might add that change may take an unexpectedly long time, with many missed opportunities, if corruption, politics, commercial interests, scientific egos, and funding limitations, among other things, interfere].
Bringing the conference to a close, physicist and organizer Lynden Rogers suggested a way of talking about conflicting ideas that is simultaneously more scientific and less hurtful to our relationships with those with whom we disagree. He noted scientists’ preference to talk in terms of probabilities rather than binary right vs. wrong. He then said, “I rather like the language employed by one of our leading cosmologists on one occasion when he was describing the way in which Einsteinian relativity took over the world of physics. He said initially there was a great deal of skepticism but as the data came in, and as it interlocked as it did, and as it explained a few things that no one had noticed before…his language went like this: ‘Einstein’s theory placed rival theories under much greater constraints.’ Now that is the kind of language that science prefers. It’s not a case of proving or disproving. It’s a case of data from one perspective–in one theory–one set of models–placing that of other models under pressure–under constraint. So you’ll have to go away today and you’ll have to decide where the constraints are being placed.”
In conclusion, I’ll share a few of the most significant takeaways for me personally: (1) the concept that the narrator of Gen. 1:1-2:4a offered this in a respectful way, not attacking the gods of Babylon or Egypt and their followers. (2) The placement of the creative account firmly within an exilic context, and what that means for our approach to the text today. It is primarily about Israel and for Jewish exiles, and certainly not about 21st-century science and history. (3) There are reasonable responses to the most common theological issues raised by YEC/YLC, but OLC raises theological issues as well, with no system being free of concerns; (4) Many lines of evidence in both “shallow time” and “deep time” support a long period of life on earth; (5) Australia’s unique flora and fauna offer parallel evidence to that observed in other parts of the world, but its island isolation offers unique specific cases as well as challenges for YEC/YLC. (6) Australia has many highly competent, intellectually curious, honest, truth-seeking scholars whose deep commitment to Adventism is obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some of us to these scholars for the first time in Zoom Sabbath Schools, Adventist Today webinars, and now in this virtual conference. The world church is enriched by their contributions. I hope we will continue to hear them in the post-pandemic future.
* The paragraph reporting Howard Fisher’s presentation has been updated to correct for an omission in my notes that significantly altered a key argument. I thank Dr. Fisher for bringing this to my attention. (RTJ)
Robert T. Johnston is a retired R&D chemist for Dow Chemical. He and his wife live in Lake Jackson, Texas, where he enjoys year-round outdoor pursuits and researching the historical roots of Adventist creationism. In his spare time, he is camp chef for Talking Rocks Tours, where his passion is to facilitate memorable dinner conversations about geology, faith, and life.