I recently visited the Science Museum of Minnesota to check out the exhibit “Ultimate Dinosaurs” which features a number of dinosaurs which aren’t typically displayed in North America. I heard one other museum-goer talking about how they always thought that dinosaurs just were dinosaurs–that they were the same all over the Earth. But they weren’t! In fact, there is great diversity in the types of dinosaurs found in different parts of the world. Some are found all over North America; others are restricted to small parts of Africa or South America.
That got me thinking on creationism. A standard young earth creationist account of the history of the world would state that dinosaur fossils are found where they lay because the Flood put them there. Many YEC accounts are catastrophic in nature, arguing that the Flood recreated the surface of the Earth and left most or all of the layers of sediment we now observe. The dinosaurs (and other creatures) we find were swept up in the Flood and then laid down once the water had settled.
Pictured above and left, there is a fossil of a Suchomimus. Suchomimus was a fish-eating dinosaur which has only been found in Niger, Africa. According to standard scientific explanations, it lived in the Early Cretaceous period, about 121-112 million years ago. According to a young earth creationist account, this dinosaur died either during the Flood or migrated to the location it was found after the Flood. Either way, this was no more than a few thousand years ago. Pictured below and to the right, there is a fossil of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It lived in the Late Cretaceous period, about 66-67 million years ago and ranged across what is now North America. Again, a young earth creationist account would have it dying during the flood or going extinct afterwards.
The Young Earth Creationist Explanation- A problem?
The young earth creationist (YEC) account is once more generally based upon the notion that the Noachian Deluge deposited these fossils where they are now found. The Flood is to explain how these fossils ended up in their present locations.
The fact that dinosaurs are found in different parts of the planet–and only in those parts–suggests an interesting problem for YECs: How is it that such a catastrophic event managed to destroy the surface of the Earth and then remake it through layers while creating the illusion of localized ecosystems at different points in history?
Such a challenge should not simply be dismissed. YEC literature sometimes suggests that the fossilized ecosystems which are proposed in different parts of the world at different (millions of years ago) times are merely products of the Flood depositing the fossils where they now lay. For example, according to YEC literature, many scientists believe that there was an ancient sea over North America merely because the Flood happened to deposit a bunch of mosasaur fossils and other marine life in a certain layer of the sediment it laid down.
The observed evidence, however, goes against this notion. Consider the Suchomimus (pictured above, left) once more. It has been found only in a localized area in what is now Africa. It is nearly certain it was a fish eater. This notion is not a mere product of accidental laying down of fish fossils near and around where Suchomimus has been found. Instead, it is based upon observational evidence. First, its large claws seem perfectly adapted to snagging large lungfish along the shore (large lungfish fossils have been found in the same area). Second, its narrow skull lined with extremely pointy teeth suggest a fishy diet, as it is once more adapted to eating them. Third, and most telling, fish fossils have been found with tooth marks from Suchomimus on their bones.
So what? How does this bring up a problem for YEC? Well, to put it simply, it demonstrates that the localized ecosystem found near and around Suchomimus is not a mere random product of fossils being jumbled together and then deposited during the Flood. Instead, predator and prey are found in a localized environment with other fossil specimens that fit neatly into the same ecosystem. But on the YEC account, how could this happen? Surely it would be an astounding happening if an entire ecosystem were swept away by the Flood, jumbled up with others along with sediment and the like, subjected to tidal waves across the surface, and then neatly deposited in a localized area, preserving that same ecosystem.
Some YECs (such as Kurt Wise) have instead suggested that the Flood did not destroy the whole surface of the Earth but was rather providentially brought about by God along with catastrophic plate tectonics. On this scenario, water rapidly rose and covered the face of the Earth, bringing with it sediment and the like which rapidly buried such localized ecologies.
Setting aside difficulties with such a scenario related to the means by which it would have allegedly occurred, it should be clear that this explanation is at least somewhat more palatable. It doesn’t turn ecosystems into mere fictions. However, this scenario doesn’t solve everything. For example, why are there separate and distinct ecosystems, one atop the other, in the same place? Going to North America, Tyrannosaurus Rex has been found across much of what is now North America. Again, we find prey with T-Rex tooth marks in their bones and the like. We have preserved ecosystems from this time. But different places (like the inland sea I discussed here) feature what appears to be a marine environment. Moreover, different layers, like those exposed through glaciation in the upper Midwest, show entirely different (and seemingly more primitive) marine lief. This raises a number of issues, most of which are relevant for any alleged Flood scenario.
First, if the Flood was a sudden event which covered the face of the Earth and thus preserved ecosystems in place, how did it manage to kill off and bury so much marine life? It seems like it must have been gentle enough to preserve the fossil evidence, so why did the marine life not simply swim away and get scattered across other layers as it died? Second, how do we have distinct and separate ecosystems preserved in different layers, one atop the other? Again, the suggestion was that ecosystems were preserved in place–so why do some places have different ecosystems above one another? Third, why are the types of sediment laid down distinct for each ecosystem? If the sediment was all due to one event, then why does the sediment type match the ecosystems which it buries?
At this point, I think we must remember that we may evaluate such claims from a number of angles. First, the YEC explanations seem very ad hoc–that is, they are invented by adjusting the Flood scenario (or some other device like distant starlight moving faster)–in order to explain away the difficulties rather than pursuing the evidence. It is reactionary rather than investigative. [I edited this line after some insight from a comment below.]
Second, realistically, which portions of the YEC explanation might be found in the Bible, if any? Having read the accounts of the Flood and Creation many times, I have to say I have never once spotted a place wherein it discusses the distribution of dinosaurs, the way the Flood laid down sediment, or any number of things put forward by YECs.
Third, when YECs and others are offering alternative scientific explanations–i.e. an explanation for “how did this [dinosaur] get here?”–they must deal with the fact that we’re looking for the most likely explanation. As I discussed in another post on dinosaurs and creationism, the proposed alternative YEC explanation is very clearly more complex and less likely than that of the one already offered–that the dinosaurs simply existed at different times and/or in different places over the course of history. We should be honest in our evaluations of evidence and look to see which explanation is more likely. Remember, we should be investigating the evidence while trying to stay free of any a priori assumptions about what must have happened and instead look at the evidence to see which explanation best fits. As I pointed out in the post linked above, proposing a global catastrophic Flood as the alternative hypothesis demands an enormous burden of proof.
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“Oceans of Kansas,” Unexpected Fossils, and Young Earth Creationism– I discuss the alleged findings out out-of-sequences fossils in the fossil record and how YEC explanations fail to show they are attributable to a global catastrophic Flood.
What options are there in the origins debate? – A Taxonomy of Christian Origins Positions– I clarify the breadth of options available for Christians who want to interact on various levels with models of origins. I think this post is extremely important because it gives readers a chance to see the various positions explained briefly.
The photographs in this post were taken by me at the Science Museum of Minnesota with permission. Any use of these pictures should be only with express, written consent. The map is an image created by BBC and I do not claim any rights over it but use it through fair use.
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JW, you write First, the YEC explanations seem very ad hoc–that is, they seem invented and adjusted in order to provide a solution to the problem rather than a working hypothesis to piece together the evidence.
This is exactly right: a working hypothesis into which the evidence is applied. This is good science in a nutshell and has nothing to do with prior commitments to some philosophical or metaphysical anti-religious preferences or worldviews. The important question is can we develop an explanatory model that seems to fit the evidence? That’s it. And when that answer is Yes, then we have compelling reasons to import a higher level of confidence to that explanatory model. When that answer is No, then we have compelling reasons to lower the level of confidence to that explanatory model.
So just imagine, if you can, the depth and breadth of frustration faced by biologists doing good science every day and finding an explanatory model into which all the evidence in every avenue of inquiry every time fits… and then being told by those who exercise ad hoc explanations of immeasurably poorer quality that the model that fits all the evidence must be wrong because it doesn’t accord with a religious belief.
I know it’s hard to appreciate the scope of the insult, the degree of arrogance flippantly applied to dismiss out of hand the hard and dedicated work of thousands over lifetimes, as if a religious belief because its religious outweighs all the evidence contained in reality.
And then imagine how you as a scientist doing good science might face a concerted effort to vilify the good science you do, to attack it as coming straight from the pits of hell, that those like you who practice your discipline with professional integrity and intellectual honesty are pushing a ‘religion of science’, that you are are therefore an immoral conspiratorial agents out to subvert children from the path of righteousness and indoctrinate them with ‘scientism’, that your science must be tempered not by contrary evidence or a better model but be subject to religious beliefs that ‘teach the controversy’ and allow the religious voice in the science classroom to speak to the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of this cohesive explanatory model… as if they existed independent of the contrary religious belief!
In case anyone is wondering why so many biologists speak out against religious interference in their area of expertise, and why science seems to produce an inordinate number of ‘militant’ atheists, look no further than the religious demonizing of evolution as its primary source.
I did poorly word that section. What I am trying to convey is the notion that when any other evidence pops up the YEC just makes the Flood account for it in a different way.
Tildeb, I changed the wording in the post and credited you. I hope that clears it up better.
Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest there was confusion, JW,. I understood it the way you have since corrected it to be and I think it’s a really important criticism to make.
To explain why requires some space, so I apologize ahead of time for the length. Of course, anyone can skip it if its not important to them to know why.
It’s very difficult and requires vast amounts of hard work – and a willingness to change and correct – to come up with a good explanatory hypothesis that seems to work. After all, it only takes one piece of contrary evidence to question the validity of the hypothesis, so when we as a species develop a hypothesis of remarkable explanatory power into which all evidence fits, only then do we elevate its status to that of ‘theory’. This is a huge achievement. But even then, it’s a tentative one… because an undiscovered piece of evidence that acts as a loose thread to the entire weave of the explanation may be just around the corner! And this is why the charge of ‘scientific arrogance’ to those who understand why a theory is worthy of great confidence and respect is so out of place (not that you do this but that many in the theistic community presume the charge is warranted).
The kind of stuff you’re finding out about in paleontology (and it’s so fascinating) is the same kind of stuff in so many fields of enquiry that all fits into the evolutionary model. From geology to chemistry to genetics to biogeography to medicine to hydrology to astrophysics (among many others) all fit. And it is based on this explanatory model that mining and resource extraction companies successfully predict and then find what they’re looking for… to the tune of trillions of dollars of investments and returns. It works… reliably and consistently. Each area of study and its deep evidential connection to the model we call evolution reveals hidden knowledge that continues to work, continues to produce new avenues of enquiry, empowers new applications, new therapies, and new technologies that seem to work for everyone everywhere all the time! This is astounding that our little brains could find this key insight that has unlocked the gate into the riches of understanding how life changes over time, an explanatory model that enthralls children and adults alike into following their curiosity, feeding their imaginative creativity, and fosters the next generation of disciplined scientists, building a monument of knowledge, piece by piece, one small discovery at a time, for humankind to use freely, a knowledge that unites us into an understanding that we are a single species among many living in one biosphere, and frames our personal issues into the fabric of life itself.
To then face ad hoc ‘explanations’ that produce multiple conflicting models of very limited use that produce no applications, therapies, or technologies I think is a step backwards. To put a stamp of approval on such poor explanatory models because they are religious – and then vilify a model of far superior quality and practical value – I think does a huge disservice to those earnest people who want to – and can – contribute to the pursuit of knowledge, who want to – and can – follow their curiosity into these very rewarding and enriching avenues of enquiry.
I suspect you look around Minnesota with new and eager eyes and a deeper appreciation of what it is they are seeing: a captured moment in an ever-changing, ever-evolving landscape that reveals its secrets to those who learn not just how to look, but see… not at the image we see today and think it complete but with eyes trained to see the aged roots of its history.
Fossils are part of this ongoing revelation, a clue that the sleuth in all of us wants to figure out how this and that all fits into the bigger picture, a way to trigger the excitement of discovery that we, too, can participate in… simply by walking around with our eyes open and seeing what’s right there. This is how many astounding paleontological discoveries are made – from young children out playing to construction workers, from bird watchers to beachcombers. And the evidence is right there under our feet, right before us in that exposed rock face, right there in the bones of the Earth and its skin of dirt and water we take for granted.
Against this monumental understanding of nature we live in – available to all of us – are those who are convinced (for reasons other than what is all around us) that all of it must accord with a single event religiously elevated to be true and factual. This is YEC in a nutshell and it requires a methodological approach different from that which we use in every other area of our lives.
I think this approach used by YEC (and old earth creationists, too) undermines that innocence with which we come to the evidence the world provides, an approach that tells us its good and proper and moral and ethical to rearrange the crime scene, so to speak, that it’s a virtue to thwart our ability to sleuth in a way that allows us to come to the explanation that fits all the evidence; rather, the approach used by YECers is a farce in that the verdict has already been rendered before we even reach the scene, before we open our eyes to what it contains, before we venture into the world around us, before we imagine how things might have been. It’s an approach that renders our efforts of fresh enquiry worthless… except to either agree and be considered virtuous for this agreement or be disparaged for daring to think that untampered evidence matters, that an explanatory model should successfully explain disparate evidence into a cohesive model.
Your criticism is important because it does just this: it exposes the incompatibility between the method of enquiry we call science (eyes wide open) and the method of enquiry we call religious faith (eyes already closed) … but only when the two are in direct conflict. I think that when this happens, we gain much by choosing science with our confidence and lose much by choosing religious faith. More importantly, I think imposing the latter on children and calling it ‘education’ does a disservice to them reaching the potential of their active and creative minds.
Your comments have said much that resonate with me, but also much I wish to comment on. I will be as brief as possible. First, there are a number of areas I am nodding my head to. For example, your discussion of looking around the landscape eager to learn more. I’ve always felt that way, so it may not be accurate to say that this is some kind of new development for me, but I think there is a clear development in my overall perspective on this and other issues. I also think you’re right to point out there is a methodological error within the YEC camp. I’ve written on it elsewhere but it basically comes down to the apologetic method they are using. There are other points of agreement, but I think you can discern where they are in general.
Now, you also said a few things I wanted to perhaps get some clarification on. For example, you wrote: ” so when we as a species develop a hypothesis of remarkable explanatory power into which all evidence fits, only then do we elevate its status to that of ‘theory’.”
I guess I’m just not sure how you’re using the term “species” in this sentence. Surely you aren’t suggesting the entire human species somehow jointly develops a hypothesis and everyone is just lined up on that hypothesis, so I don’t get the use of the word “species” here. Could you clarify?
Finally, just a couple areas of critique. First, you seem to suggest a kind of naive or “original” and “fresh” perspective when it comes to an area of scientific inquiry. I don’t think such a blank slate for the mind is possible, and you seem to even tacitly admit that it is not in your mind either when you wrote, ” …not at the image we see today and think it complete but with eyes trained to see the aged roots of its history.” This sentence, and a few others, suggests that of course we need some sort of training to rightly see the world. Some training, of course, sets us up for failure to discern reality, while other training might have a range of effectiveness.
Second, I am a bit off-put by the dig at religion in general. You wrote: “it exposes the incompatibility between the method of enquiry we call science (eyes wide open) and the method of enquiry we call religious faith (eyes already closed).” I found this discourteous, particularly as I am writing this post as someone whose method of inquiry is decidedly that of someone of “religious faith.” In fact, I find myself unafraid to use scientific investigation exactly because of my faith–I think that God has set the world up in such a way that it is ordered and we can actually discern truth from regularities and the like. Moreover, you just described me as someone with eyes open to the possibilities here in Minnesota looking at the landscape. But to say that, and then follow up by saying that people who are religious have “eyes already closed” seems self-defeating. I am not a split-personality with one-half eyes open and the other half eyes closed. Instead, I see a cohesive picture of reality with my “eyes wide open” as a person of faith. I see nothing to fear from inquiry.
So overall, we have much to agree on, but I continue to be put off by the insistence on the constant digs at people of faith. I am pleased to have so many points of contact with each other in these comments, but saddened to then be insulted by having the blatant statement made that my eyes are “already closed” despite having been praised before for having them open. I suggest that perhaps you could rethink your own perspective a bit and reflect on the false dichotomy you’ve painted–does it actually describe people of faith? Am I someone with an apparently split set of “eyes”? Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, people of faith can also be thoughtful, intellectually insightful, and intelligent? Maybe that’s something for you to take away from this. I know I’ve been helped by your comments, so I hope you don’t see it as a one-way street.
JW, you ask Surely you aren’t suggesting the entire human species somehow jointly develops a hypothesis and everyone is just lined up on that hypothesis, so I don’t get the use of the word “species” here. Could you clarify?
Sure. Couple of reasons I use the term ‘species’ as owners of models that work.
Firstly, I see the development of a scientific theory not as the product of one person or even a few but of many generations of many people from many places, many cultures, many languages, (yes, even many religions!) who have poked and prodded and challenged and discovered and aligned evidence from reality that has led to this explanatory model being elevated – through the reliable and consistent demonstration that the model seems to work – to this august status. WE as people then inherit this theory from the very hard work and dedication of so many over a great deal of time… even if we don’t think of the explanation this way.
I think owe a huge debt of gratitude for their efforts and should keep this in mind next time we’re tempted to question the legitimacy of a scientific theory; in all likelihood, our reasons to question it have probably already been considered and accounted for. This is a good time to check it out for ourselves and find out how the theory accounts for our questions about it.
Secondly, from this explanatory model that seems to work all of the time for everyone everywhere comes all kinds of practical stuff we take for granted, stuff that works. We tend to forget that all these applications, therapies, and technologies based on this explanation were birthed from the hypothesis as it became demonstrated over time to explain stuff reliably and consistently well. In this sense, it is the use of these products by any of us that lines us all up behind the hypothesis, so to speak, because without it, we would be without these products, without the reliability and consistency we expect from them. We demonstrate our collective high confidence in the explanatory model when we trust these products will work and, by proxy, personally demonstrate our high confidence its knowledge value by assuming – and even expecting – these products will continue to work as well tomorrow as they did yesterday. (That’s why we get mad if our cell phone suddenly stops working… because we know it should!)
In a nutshell, all of us – as a species – demonstrate our confidence in the knowledge value of theories by the expectations we place on them to produce reliable and consistent products that work.
JW, you point out that I seem to suggest a kind of naive or “original” and “fresh” perspective when it comes to an area of scientific inquiry, yet also suggest that we need some sort of training to rightly see the world.
My answer may seem paradoxical, but it is ‘Yes’ to both.
I used the term ‘innocence’ to indicate a sense of child-like wonder all the best scientists bring to their fields of interest and drive them to gain expertise – a sense of excitement and fascination for bits and pieces of the mundane and a motivation to gain deeper and deeper understanding that fuels both. When one expresses this wonder (as I think all children do) but is then told by an authority figure an answer (like creationism) that brooks no further questioning (except in support of the answer given), curiosity withers and any deeper understanding of the mundane comes quickly to an end. This is what the creationist account does; it withers further enquiry because one assumes the answer is correct: that godidit, godmadeit, godknows why. And in case you think I’m overstating the effect on enquiry by the creationist model of an explanation, look to its products to see if that is the case: does creationism stimulate new knowledge, new products, new avenues of enquiry?
I cannot find a single example of creationism doing this. Perhaps you know of any?
Accepting this creationist ‘answer’ means switching methodologies away from our daily method of having reality adjudicate our claims made about it to one where we promote confirmation bias to be the only acceptable method (finding evidence that fits the ‘answer’ while rationalizing away evidence that does not). Fortunately, most of us can compartmentalize when we use which method, and so we can find many terrific scientists who are also creationists… but if we look closely, we’ll find only one method used in their science – allowing reality to arbitrate claims made about it – and a different method used in their theology – imposing their beliefs on reality.
Again, only when the two are in conflict do we find this incompatibility. Most of us can get along just fine by compartmentalizing without the two ever coming into conflict. But the conflict – the methodological incompatibility revealed by conflicting claims – remains.
‘Innocence’ in this sense is required to learn how to ask the right questions about reality… meaning that we must learn how to formulate questions in a way that will allow a study of reality to answer them. This may appear to be a bias, as well, but if reality doesn’t hold the answers to questions about it, then other areas even less so… like theology. This examination of reality to produce answers about it creates a body of practical knowledge extracted from it… and this important for these explanations to be demonstrably independent of the person doing the extracting, verifiable by anyone. It can be demonstrated to work by its products. This method works. Creationism doesn’t.
If we take away this innocence by indoctrinating children with ‘answers’ and ‘explanations’ that are to be imposed on reality without it having much if any say in the matter, then we short-circuit this process of enquiring into reality as it really is; rather, we impose an acceptable framework into which only evidence that supports the ‘answer’ and ‘explanation’ can fit. When we then vilify the method that allows reality to arbitrate our knowledge claims about it, when we hold in contempt the notion that reality should be granted authority to arbitrate and adjudicate claims made about it, hold in contempt as pointy head intellectuals those who exercise this method with honesty and integrity, we tell children in not so many words that they shouldn’t wonder, they shouldn’t follow their wonder and explore the world with fresh eyes, they shouldn’t learn how to use them well if it produces conflict with the predigested ‘answer’ and ‘explanation’ held in esteem for its piousness.
The entrance fee that must be paid to gain this kind of expertise isn’t a willingness to be satisfied with pat answers, with idle speculation and/or magical thinking. To see what’s really there, to follow our wonder, requires disciplined study… utilizing and incorporating the knowledge of those who have gone while understanding that claims made about how reality works can be demonstrated independently of the person making the claim. That’s why PhDs at legitimate universities – our highest level of learning ‘how to see’ – require original work: to demonstrate expertise in the method of enquiry so that anyone can find the same results.
I understand the effrontery of being accused of having one’s eyes closed. What I mean by this is a level of acceptability for a method that doesn’t work to produce knowledge but is infused with confidence to be an accurate reflection of reality regardless. (Of course, this method is used only sometimes, so it is only sometimes the eyes are closed. Unfortunately, this happens quite a bit in the public domain and to everyone’s detriment.. but that’s another topic)
A person’s religious beliefs about reality are not similarly adjudicated by it. An ‘answer’ or ‘explanation’ is produced by some kind of scriptural authority and people of similar faith are expected to accept it (if they wish to claim membership) without any need for independent verification. Hence, the need for faith.
Having faith is sufficient to make the belief about reality true. (We are in agreement that this is a methodological problem in YEC… but I suspect you accept this only sometimes, such as its use in YEC, whereas I accept it as a problem on a much broader scale.) That’s why creationists accept the flood account first and then try to make reality fit the model even when it doesn’t (their eyes are closed in this sense of seeing what reality shows us to be the case). I think there are many religious claims about reality, how it operates, what it contains, what causal agencies are active, and so on, that rely on an identical approach. All the rest of the religious justifications for this same approach is simply an addendum to the starting assumptions – from apologetics to hermeneutics – yet are well know to be in conflict with the same areas from other religious beliefs. The apologetics of Christianity are in conflict with the apologetics of Islam even though both follow the identical methodology and identical methodological justification. Reality is simply a bystander in both that make certain conflicting claims about it, leaving the reality being described as an unseen, non-involved spectator. When one brings one’s religious ‘answers’ to reality, one’s eyes are focused inwards (on the specific faith-based beliefs and revelations and heartstrings) and not outwards on reality as is the case for scientific enquiry. That’s why I used the open and closed analogy.