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Geological Column and Evolution

How Good Are Those Young-Earth Arguments?

A Close Look at Dr. Hovind's List of Young-Earth Arguments and Other Claims

by Dave E. Matson

Copyright © 1994-2002


Dr. Hovind: The entire geologic column is based on the assumption that evolution is true.

If Dr. Hovind would take the trouble to do a little reading from something other than creationist publications he would not make such an outrageous statement. I believe he has confused the use of index fossils with evolution. One creationist editor, who is more mellow than his unfortunate statement suggests, phrased the argument thus:


Unfortunately the geologists date the rocks as the paleontologists tell them to. Then the paleontologists use the geologists' dates as evidence for the age of the fossils! That's not science. That's just a game played by dishonest scientists!


That passage might have come out of one of Henry Morris' books, except that Morris usually avoids crude slander.


Perhaps Dr. Hovind is not aware of the fact that by 1815 the broad outlines of the geologic column from Paleozoic times onward had been worked out by people who were mostly creationist geologists. The relative order of the strata was first determined by the principles of stratification. (The principle of superposition was recognized as early as 1669 by Steno.) Reverend Benjamin Richardson and Reverend Joseph Townsend were a couple of early geologists involved in this work. By 1830 Lyell's famous textbook, Principles of Geology, came out. The captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, a very strong Bible believer, made it a point to have a copy of Lyell's book for the ship's library. Obviously, even Lyell was not pushing evolution at the time. Such was the age of the great creationist geologists!


The principle of faunal succession in the geologic record was established by direct observation as early as 1799 by William Smith. By the 1830's Adam Sedgwick and Roderick Murchison established a correlation between the various types of fossils and the rock formations in the British Isles. It was found that certain fossils, now referred to as index fossils, were restricted to a narrow zone of strata. Studies done on the European continent soon demonstrated the universal validity of index fossils. That is, an index fossil corresponded to a very specific point in the geologic column. Once the worth of index fossils had been established on the basis of stratification studies, they could logically be used to extend the correlation of rock formations to other continents. At this point in time they were simply a useful tool for correlating rock formations.


One can hardly accuse these pioneers of evolutionary prejudice. Nearly a half-century would pass before Darwin's book, The Origin of Species, was published! By then, the relative ages (order) of the geologic column had already been worked out in some detail. Radiometric dating would later confirm the relative ages of the strata and tie them to absolute dates. (Far from being a rubber stamp, radiometric dating would go on to revolutionize our understanding of the Precambrian.) Thus, it became possible to date strata directly from index fossils.


Note that evolution has nothing to do with how the index fossils are used to date strata! Any kind of object clearly restricted to a specific point in the geologic column would do just fine. If green dice were found only in the middle Ordovician strata, they would make excellent "index fossils." Evolution should be seen as an explanation of the faunal succession, a succession which was worked out long before evolution dominated the scene. Evolution, working in tandem with geologic ages, can explain why we have index fossils, but evolution is not needed to make the index fossils useful for dating strata.


While we're on this subject, you might wish to know the odds of arranging the Precambrian era, the seven geologic periods of the Paleozoic (Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Mississippian, Pennsylvanian, Permian), the three periods of the Mesozoic (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous), and the two periods of the Cenozoic (Paleogene, Neogene or Tertiary, Quaternary) in their proper order by pure chance. Your chances are 6.2 billion to one of getting the right order for all thirteen. And, when you consider that each period can also be divided into "upper, middle, and lower," the odds of arranging them in the correct order by pure chance become astronomical. Radiometric dating has passed that severe test! It has correctly placed the Cambrian between the Precambrian and the Ordovician, the Ordovician between the Cambrian and the Silurian, the Silurian between the Ordovician and the Devonian, and so forth.


Creationists, on the other hand, must explain to us how sediment and rock laid down in a mere year can yield such fantastic, orderly differences in radiometric ages. This poses a fatal problem whether one believes in the accuracy of radiometric dating or not! One would think that the flood sediments (gathered from the four corners of the old antediluvian world) and their associated igneous rock (formed during the flood) would all register very little radiometric age. At the very least we would expect random fluctuations if the radiometric methods were totally at sea. Why should the percentage of lead to uranium in zircon crystals (the key to ordinary uranium-lead, radiometric dating) depend on which geologic period they are found in? If most of the geologic column were created during Noah's flood, would it really matter whether a zircon crystal was found in Cambrian strata or Cretaceous strata, in Jurassic strata or Tertiary strata? Noah's flood might just as easily deposit the same crystal in one place as another.


Thus, we have a mystery. Pressure has nothing to do with it, and zircon crystals all have about the same density as their total lead content is small. Just what is it that a Cambrian stratum has which a Cretaceous stratum lacks? What does the Jurassic strata have that the Tertiary strata do not? If rock type mattered then we would expect a zircon crystal's lead content to vary dramatically within the Cambrian or Cretaceous strata according to their local rock types. No, that's not what we observe. How about neutrinos or cosmic rays? Neutrinos penetrate the earth so easily that they would affect all strata more or less equally, to the extent that they affect anything at all. Cosmic rays, on the other hand, don't penetrate that far into the earth to begin with, so we can rule them out. The depth of burial, itself, has little to do with our mystery. In some parts of the world the Cretaceous is found deeper than is the Cambrian in other parts of the world. The depth at which either is found can vary dramatically. In the Grand Canyon area the Cambrian lies beneath a huge column of strata; in California's Mojave Desert portions of the Cambrian are exposed at the surface.


For the young-earth creationist, this is an unsolvable mystery, a mystery with parallels in each of the radiometric clocks used by geologists. The potassium-argon, rubidium-strontium, samarium-neodymium, luteium-hafnium, rhenium-osmium, thorium-lead, and the two uranium-lead dating methods all point to the same amazing fact. The ratio between tiny amounts of radioactive elements and their decay products have this uncanny ability to determine which strata a rock will appear in! What is this magic ingredient that each of the geologic periods have which affects rocks and zircon crystals so? For those who believe that each of the geologic periods were laid down in days or weeks by Noah's flood, the mystery has no intelligent answer. For the rest of us, the answer is as plain as daylight. The answer to our riddle is time. The Cambrian has simply been around a lot longer than the Cretaceous, and the radioactive uranium in its zircon crystals has had more time to decay into lead. The same radioactive elements in different geologic periods will have decayed by different amounts.


Even creationists realize that time is the only answer, but they give that answer a strange twist. They imagine that the radioactive elements decayed much faster in the past! Such claims are mere flights of fantasy with no basis in fact or theory (see Topic R2). Problems abound. For instance, there are many boundaries (unconformities) in the geologic strata that exhibit a sharp change in radiometric age. Thus, zircons that are formed at about the same time in Noah's flood (from intruded magma close to each side of an unconformity, if such quick formation were even possible) would exhibit impossible differences in the decay of their uranium. Figure 2 explores an additional problem that pops up when one monkeys around with the radioactive decay rates.


A few calculations will rule out a fast radioactive decay rate before Noah's flood, thus firming up our intuitive feeling. Based on the present decay rate of U-238, the Cambrian period began about 570 million years ago. Since then the amount of uranium-238 has been reduced a bit (to 91.544% of itself) by radioactive decay. Had the decay rates remained high after the flood or in its later stages, the zircon crystals in the more recent strata (the last strata laid down by Noah's flood) would have "aged" considerably, which is not the case. Furthermore, the zircon crystals had to be created during Noah's flood in order to be "aged" according to the strata in which they were associated. It is too much to assume that each one just happened to be deposited in the right strata. Therefore, at the time of Noah's flood the decay rate had to be at least fast enough to reduce the amount of uranium-238 to 91.544% of itself in one year. If we generously take that minimum decay rate, with no thought of increasing it further as we look back into the past, we can calculate how much uranium-238 had to be present 1656 years before Noah's flood (when the earth was created, according to Dr. Hovind). It turns out that the amount of uranium-238 needed is 3.47 x 1063 times the amount of uranium-238 around at the start of Noah's flood! In other words, if our entire solar system were made of uranium-238 the quantity would not even begin to suffice.


There is nothing like a few calculations to bring out the absurdity in creationist thinking! We may safely rule out the idea that the radioactive decay rates (for uranium-238, and, by quantum mechanical implication, all others) dwindled to their present values from high rates at creation time. An initial U-238 decay rate high enough to do creationists any good also leads to an absurd conclusion. They must now assume that the decay rates were low before Noah's flood, that they became phenomenally high during the start of Noah's flood, and that they dropped to normal after Noah's flood. Such tailor-made assumptions will impress only idiots and fanatics, and there is yet another problem worth mentioning.


Some of the material that has been radiometrically dated, whose dates fully conform to the accepted ages of their place in the geologic column, come from large masses of once-molten rock. Those samples could not possibly have cooled down in the course of a mere year no matter what. (Try a million years!) Thus, any "aging" done on their interior zircons had to occur, by creationist thinking, after Noah's flood. Only then did the inner rock cool enough so that those crystals finally formed. By creationist reckoning, those crystals really formed after the flood and should reflect the normal decay rates! That is, their uranium-238 should show almost no decay at all. To the contrary, their radiometric age is in good agreement with the strata in which they were formed. Thus, even the tailor-made assumptions, to which a few desperate creationists might be inclined, come to naught.


In summary of these latter points, radiometric dating has passed a severe test whereas young-earth creationism flounders, in hopeless knots, on the basic facts of the geologic record.


Creationist History of the World

As Seen by a Zircon Crystal

Illustration of 'Creationist History of the World as Seen by a Zircon Crystal'


(1) In the beginning God created zircon crystals, lots of them, from pockets of molten rock. Fresh zircon crystals are lead-free, because lead just doesn't fit in very well with their crystallization process. Many new zircon crystals, however, do contain uranium-238. Uranium-238 is radioactive and eventually decays into lead, which is trapped in the zircon crystal. Here, we see fresh zircon crystals that have formed in the newly created earth. Their uranium-238 has not yet decayed. All the rock here is Precambrian.


(2) Noah's flood lays down the Cambrian (dark) strata. Molten rock intruded into the Cambrian strata, and new zircon crystals somehow formed quickly at that time. Today, about 8.5% of their uranium-238 has decayed away. Many creationists say that the radioactive decay rates were once much greater than they are today.


(3) Noah's flood lays down its last sediments. Notice, in each of the succeeding layers, that the zircon crystals formed have lost less and less of their uranium (as measured today). The radioactive decay rate must have been dropping fast!


(4) Today's world. Mountains have pushed up, the polar caps have formed, and various other adjustments have happened. Those zircon crystals that formed right after Noah's flood show practically no loss of uranium-238. Strange, this last stage represents about 4,400 years (out of 6000+) by creationist reckoning and, yet, the uranium in its zircon crystals is essentially intact! Perhaps, by the time Noah's flood started, the decay rate had started to slow down dramatically. As the last sediments were laid down near the end of the year-long flood, that rate must have all but stopped compared to its primordial speed.


But wait! If the decay rate only started dropping at the time of the flood, then it s should have done a job on those Precambrian zircons. If 8% of a zircon's uranium was lost during just the Cambrian (after which the decay rate must drop rapidly), then there shouldn't be any uranium left in those Precambrian zircons! After all, radioactive decay has had only a fraction of a year (at its full strength) to work on the Cambrian crystals; it has had up to 1656 years to work on those Precambrian crystals! Yet, they still have a fair amount of uranium.


That means the radioactive decay rate must have been feeble before Noah's flood. It then skyrockets at the start of Noah's flood and drops dramatically even as that flood rumbles on! We might imagine a radioactive decay rate that was extremely high in the uncertain past, one that has dropped to normal values via some sensible curve. However, to imagine a rate that skyrockets from near-normalcy to extreme values just as Noah's flood gets underway, one which then decays precipitously only to suddenly level off near its present value, is clearly a case of special pleading. If we should forget ourselves and let this point slide, we still have all that radiation being released in a fraction of a year, radiation that conventional geology attributes to billions of years! In case you missed the point, that means the radiation would have been billions of times more concentrated than today! Noah and crew would have fried in one, giant nuclear reactor!!


There is, of course, still the minor matter of explaining in detail how molten rock might be injected into sediments raining out of Noah's flood while leaving the patterns actually found. Also, decent zircon crystals could hardly form if that molten rock cooled too quickly.


The alternative is to imagine that those zircons were formed elsewhere and just happened to sort themselves out during the flood, and that they just happened to deposit themselves into the right strata to give the appearance of successive ages!


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