Posted by: paulgarner | November 3, 2009

Tim Heaton on creationist model building

The October 2009 edition of Science and Education has a paper by Timothy Heaton entitled ‘Recent developments in young-earth creationist geology’. Actually the paper has been available online for some time now and I’ve been intending to blog about it for a while. The author is a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of South Dakota, and a long-time observer of creationism. Having read Heaton’s critique of the latest model-building efforts of creationists, I have to say that he’s also one of our most fair minded and insightful critics — perhaps not so surprising when you realize that he’s been friends with Kurt Wise since their days together at Harvard.

Heaton’s paper begins by pointing out that there has been a shift of emphasis associated with the rise of a new generation of creationists with advanced degrees in relevant scientific fields. The move has been away from “evolution bashing” and towards the construction of positive creationist models incorporating data from both science and the Scriptures. Since the early 2000s, especially, we have witnessed the emergence of “collaborative research efforts of considerable sophistication”. Heaton makes these the focus of his paper, covering the RATE project on radioisotope dating, catastrophic plate tectonics (CPT) as a model of the global Flood, attempts to explain the stratigraphic distribution of fossils and, finally, creationist models for the development of the Pleistocene ‘ice age’.

In describing these modelling efforts, Heaton allows creationists to speak for themselves by drawing on extensive quotations from the literature. He then offers his own critical commentary on each model, sometimes highlighting differences of opinion within creationism itself. This is especially the case with catastrophic plate tectonics which is rejected by a vocal and prominent group of creationists, including John Reed, Carl Froede and Michael Oard. Heaton points out unresolved problems with each of these models: the mechanism of acceleration and the excessive heat and radiation produced by accelerated nuclear decay; the lack of an explanation for pre-Mesozoic plate motions and the heat produced by the rapid replacement of the ocean floor in CPT; the strict zonation of the fossil record and the absence of agreed mechanisms for rapid post-Flood diversification; and the lack of references to glaciation in the Bible and other historical sources.

One particularly perceptive comment is as follows:

A troublesome issue in these models is that multiple causes are invoked to explain the same phenomena. The fossil record, which has similar patterns throughout, is partly attributed to sequential catastrophic destruction of biogeographic zones (Paleozoic/Mesozoic) and partly to rapid evolution (Cenozoic). The nested hierarchy of taxonomic groups is partly attributed to God’s creative acts (Kingdom to Family level) and partly to adaptive evolution (Genus and Species level), even though no demarcation is evident. Therefore these models lack the unity of cause that is a hallmark of good scientific theories.

Heaton also says that since these models were introduced, little progress has been made towards resolving the problems that they face, and in many cases that’s true. Too often, good foundations have been laid but then things have been left there. We need a new generation of scholars who can take up the challenge of building on these foundations, testing and refining our models, perhaps even rejecting some of them and proposing new ones in their place. To be fair, Heaton does wonder what a major research effort like RATE might be able to achieve if applied to catastrophic plate tectonics.

The ad hoc nature of some creationist ideas comes in for criticism too, for example recent creationist speculations as to why modern mammals, birds and humans appear to be unrepresented in Flood-deposited sediments. Wood and Murray (2003 p.190) suggested that this pre-Flood biome was annihilated in a subduction zone during the Flood. According to Heaton it is virtually impossible to test such ideas, especially as they’re trying to explain an absence of data, although I like to think that testable hypotheses might be formulated in the future.

Heaton favourably contrasts the efforts of young-age creationists with those of intelligent design advocates “who propose no historical models at all”. He even likens the activities of the ID movement to the bad old days of “evolution bashing” by an earlier generation of creationists. He says that the young-age creationists he has talked to “love science and want it to be a functional enterprise within the context of their Christian belief system.” He commends them for “their honesty and constructive efforts”. Nevertheless, he rejects their assumption that the Bible must be regarded as authoritative from the outset and that models must then be sought which conform to both biblical revelation and the scientific data. To Heaton’s mind, this imposes an unnecessary constraint on scientific theorizing. He acknowledges that creationists try to minimize the need for extrabiblical miracles in their model-building efforts, but posits that the logical extension is to give up miracles altogether. He concludes that the faith commitment of creationists to biblical concepts like a young world leads to “cumbersome and untestable” explanations, which soon degenerate into “mere story telling”.

I think creationists need to read Heaton’s paper, and some will perhaps want to interact with it. It represents the genuine efforts of an outsider to understand the most scholarly thinking in contemporary creationism and then critique it from an informed perspective. That surely is an approach to be encouraged. 

References

Heaton T. H. 2009. Recent developments in young-earth creationist geology. Science and Education 18(10):1341-1358.

Wood T. C. and Murray M. J. 2003. Understanding the Pattern of Life: Origins and Organization of the Species, Broadman and Holman, Nashville, Tennessee.

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Responses

  1. The fact that we discuss physical phenomena and explanations that can be understood by outsiders and criticised at the level of known laws of physics or criticised for lack of testability is a major milestone.

    Progress!

  2. Thanks Paul for the friendly comments on my article. Todd Wood notified me of your blog. I’m pleased that you were able to see my analysis and critique as instructive.

    I wrote a book chapter on the subject that was also recently published. It contrasts young-earth creationism with the views of Hugh Ross and the Intelligent Design advocates.

    Heaton, T. H. 2009. Creationist Perspectives on Geology. Pp. 21-38 (Chapter 2) In Schneiderman, J. S., and Allmon, W. D. (eds.) For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design, University of California Press, 261 p.

  3. Tim –

    I have not yet had a chance to read your paper, but I would like to suggest something about ID, though – that by its very nature it should not be a historical model. ID is only tangentially about origins. It’s main thrust is about the structure of nature. ID asserts that agency is a valid, independent category of causation, and in its first stage is developing tests to determine whether or not a given event necessitated agency as part of its causation. I have done some work in expanding that notion further, to make ID not only informative, but also useful in engineering.

    A lot of ID people talk about origins, but its criticism is not merely evolution-bashing (many ID’ers are evolutionists) but rather noting the systematic lack of causal efficacy in a notion of a universe that does not include agency.

    I wrote an essay at UD a while back on this topic that you might be interested in.

  4. Hi Jonny. Thanks for your comment. I read your essay. ID definitely has an identity problem. I see three identities: 1) An attempt to quantify biological improbabilities. Good science is possible in this work, though ID authors seem to lack the patience and discipline to make meaningful contributions. 2) A theological statement. This ID’ers tend to deny, but their proposed examples of ID (flagellum, Cambrian explosion, etc.) imply a historical model where a designer occasionally injects foreign order into an otherwise self-running system. 3) A political movement designed to sway the general public. As I see it, the prominent ID authors do a little half-hearted science, ignore valid criticism of their proposals, run away from the theological implications, and rush into print with a “Case closed, we won!” kind of attitude. It isn’t impressive to objective observers (see the other pub I referenced). I hope you are different. The new breed of YEC scientists has avoided most of these problems, which is why I offer them more respect.

  5. Tim, thanks for providing an informed critique of creationism from a ‘hostile’ perspective; it would be nice (and productive – at least for us creationists) to if you could persuade some of your compatriots to follow your example.

    I really wanted to read your paper, but it costs as much as a good book – I don’t suppose there is anywhere else to get it is there?

    Thanks again Tim

  6. I’ve temporarily posted my YEC article at http://people.usd.edu/~theaton/Heaton-YEC-Paper.pdf and my article comparing the brands of creationism at http://people.usd.edu/~theaton/Heaton-Rock-Record.pdf (a ms version).

    As for persuading my colleagues, that could be tricky. Here’s part of what one reviewer wrote about my second article above: “If I have any suggestions, I feel that Tim has been a little too ‘kid-gloved’ in his summary of the absurdities of their kind of thinking. This is a critical review book, after all, not a tract attempting to convert creationists, so he should just call a spade a spade when necessary, and not worry about offending those crazy creationists.”

  7. Thank you for very much for posting your papers. It’s too bad about your colleagues, though. Oh well, you’ll just stand out all the more.

    Thanks again

  8. Tim –

    Sorry for the delayed reply, I was waiting to get a chance to read your paper before replying further. Now that you’ve posted them – that makes it a lot easier!

    Really quickly I wanted to address your comments on Intelligent Design. You said:

    “their proposed examples of ID (flagellum, Cambrian explosion, etc.) imply a historical model where a designer occasionally injects foreign order into an otherwise self-running system”

    However, I don’t think that this is the case. Certainly, many in the ID community would agree with God’s periodic intervention as the mechanism, but many ID people would disagree, and your examples don’t necessitate them.

    Many in the ID movement think that life was “front-loaded” for evolutionary change. That is, the original organism or group of organisms contained the information that later generations would need to solve their hardest problems. Different people put different amounts of complexity and information in the original organism (Mike Gene would be minimalistic, I think Behe would be more maximalistic, though I’m not sure).

    That is why ID’ers can be consistent in claiming _both_ that ID is compatible with common descent, and that complex features organisms come into the fossil record fully-formed. It is because the _mechanism_ of evolution is information-based, not haphazard. If the original common ancestor had sufficient information in it, then no tinkering would be needed throughout history for the organism to diversify into well-defined forms.

    Basically, evolution would be acting as a planet-wide ontogeny. For normal development, we don’t suppose that ontogeny in a single individual proceeds according to natural selection, but rather by the developmental plan within the fertilized egg. Similarly, ID’ers who believe in common descent don’t think that phylogeny proceeds according to natural selection, but according to a planet-wide developmental plan encoded into the original organism(s).

    So, the ID view of the origin of the flagellum or the cambrian explosion are actually compatible with common descent, if you view evolution as a process that results from the working out of information already in the organisms, rather than as a building up of brand-new information.

    This is already too long, so I’ll post my reaction to your paper as a separate post.

  9. As for your paper, your criticisms of specific creationist theories are largely appropriate. However, I think you have missed something in the overall model.

    In your paper you state:

    belief in a young earth is surprisingly popular, driven by social forces that have little to do with scientific enquiry.

    I think that this is a little uncharitable – not that it isn’t true, but rather that it lumps every form of reasoning into “scientific enquiry” and “everything else”. If there is no reasonable epistemology beyond science, this might be reasonable. However, most of the questions and pursuits we have in life are not amenable to scientific investigation. In light of that, it seems odd to require of anyone that they put scientific epistemology first, since it answers so few of the questions that most people want to know the answers to.

    I should point out, as a side note, that on evolution’s own assumptions, scientific enquiry itself is the result of “social forces”, or more specifically, mechanical forces. And yet that does not seem to bother the scientific epistemology.

    Even under science’s own rubrics, science is about observation. No theory beats an observation, right? We don’t go changing our observations to match our theories, do we? Now, that is all well-and-good when we can repeat an experiment, but what about a one-time event? In such a case, one must ask themselves whether or not they trust the observer.

    If you do trust the observer, there is nothing unscientific about trying to find a theoretical understanding for an observation. Of course, if you don’t trust the observer, there is nothing unscientific about ignoring such a one-time observation, either.

    And I think that is where we stand. As a Biblical Creationist, I trust that the contents of Genesis are true and are relayed by reliable observers. Therefore, I think the science done by creationists is legitimate in the light of those observations, because we are merely trying to find and understand the theoretical aspects of what has been observed.

    One last observation I would like to make (before my MacBook runs out of batteries!) is that, reading through your paper, there was nothing in your criticisms of YEC that were more detrimental to YEC than any number of arguments that one could come up with about the current theories on the origins of life.

    It would be an interesting project for you to apply the same level of skepticism and critical analysis to current origin-of-life theories, and see whether or not the same kind of paper emerges. If the same kind of paper does emerge, it would be doubly-interesting to see if you could find a journal to publish it. It would be triply interesting to see what the reaction of Science and Education would be to the proposal of such a paper.

    The fact is, we all do research based on our fundamental ideas about life. We tend to be credulous about things we think would be true, and incredulous about things we think would not be true. If we did not proceed this way, science would stop. Therefore, I think that charity for others and the diversity of opinion that exists is the best way forward.

  10. Thanks again Jonathan for your comments. On the issue of frontloading, are you suggesting that the earliest bacterium was frontloaded to evolve into all subsequent life? That would be a bit of a stretch given the small amount of original DNA. I realize that YECs commonly invoke a concept of frontloading within baramins, which seems more realistic. In either case a historical model is needed to comprehend what is being claimed so it can be tested against real data. I haven’t heard the notion of “a planet-wide developmental plan encoded into the original organism(s).” Can you point me to some literature? To completely avoid natural selection, as you propose, would seem contrary to the clear adaptive value we see concurrent with climatic and other abiotic historical events on earth.

    We seem to be talking past each other concerning the points in my paper. I have not argued that science can or will be able to answer every question. The origin of life is a good example because there is probably no sufficient evidence to resolve what happened—only what might have been possible. The difference between science and creationism is that science is not philosophically constrained. You are correct that it is methodologically constrained in that it requires understandable (natural) causes. Hopefully the repertoire of understandable causes will grow over time. The main point of my papers (especially the book chapter) was to illustrate the difficulty of mixing science with faith because once the door to miracles is opened, there are no rules or constraints for invoking them for anything and everything. Science as a methodology basically ends at that point, but it can be reintroduced “locally” once a subset of historical or other data is treated without the introduction of miracles. (I hope that makes sense.)

    The ID movement would be appealing to me if stuck to real science and was not a propaganda movement. What I see mostly in the ID literature is bait-and-switch style attacks on evolution. I just listened to Stephen Meyer and Jonathan Wells on Hank Hanegraaff’s radio program engaging in offensive polemics, gross mischaracterizations, and making the ridiculous claim that evolution is on the verge of collapse. It was like listening to a slightly-updated version of what Henry Morris was spouting 30 years ago, or G.M. Price 80 years ago. Do you and other ID advocates support these tactics? Is anyone in the movement crying foul and insisting that this isn’t what ID is really about?

    I find the constant appeal to “information” more of a hollow chant than a real issue, for two very different reasons. First, much of the information in living systems is highly repetitive. A computer makes a good analogy. Certain operations take place in a hierarchy from the level of transistor gates to the level of the user interface. If you looked at all the work that goes into, say, spell-checking a document, it would be overwhelming. But at each level of the hierarchy the work is relatively simple. Likewise in complex organisms, the biochemical functions of cells and the various cues by which different parts of a body interact with each other are pieces of a hierarchical system, and the problems at each level were probably solved long ago in an orderly sequence. This would explain why the early stages of life proceeded so slowly compared to diversification among more complex life forms later on.

    But the bigger problem with ID is that it isn’t really a solution to anything, but merely a bald claim that leads nowhere. I find it analogous to telling a college student who’s struggling to decide on a career path: “Why don’t you just win the lottery and get it over with?” It makes a great imaginary tale since it demands no investment or discipline, but it’s not a practical solution in the real world. I believe this is why even most religious scientists find ID a nuisance rather than a useful avenue to pursue.

  11. “On the issue of frontloading, are you suggesting that the earliest bacterium was frontloaded to evolve into all subsequent life? That would be a bit of a stretch given the small amount of original DNA.”

    That’s what many ID’ers think. I am of the opinion, as you say, that it was frontloaded into baramins. However, I don’t know how you would determine that it was a “small amount of original DNA”. How would you determine this? If life was designed, why must the original organisms be constrained to only have a small amount of DNA? Especially since the Amoeba genome, for instance, is 100x larger than the human genome.

    As for some literature, John A. Davison was the one who made this claim most explicitly and forcefully. See his paper “Ontogeny, Phylogeny, and the Origin of Biological Information”.

    “The main point of my papers (especially the book chapter) was to illustrate the difficulty of mixing science with faith because once the door to miracles is opened, there are no rules or constraints for invoking them for anything and everything.”

    That’s a decent point. However, at least for Biblical Creationists, we are constrained by scripture. That is, not every anomaly should be explained through miracle, only the ones in which God has emphasized in scripture. If you want to go into more on the subject, I wrote a post on it here.

    Personally, I disagree that there is a difference between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism, unless there is a demarcation criteria for which one could point to an event and say “based on these criteria, this event is not studiable on the basis of science”. As long as science is open to studying anything, and coming to conclusions based on evidence and methodological naturalism, it is not distinct from philosophical naturalism.

    In addition, naturalistic sciences have this exact same problem, too. The “many-worlds” hypothesis has led to this exact situation in cosmology, where many design aspects are wished away by merely saying that there are an infinite number of worlds, and we happened to be in the right one. I think that this is actually _more_ arbitrary than Biblical Creation, as the relationships here are limited only by the scientist’s imagination, while the number of cosmologically-important miracles in Biblical Creation is limited by Scripture. So while current cosmologists can invoke miracles at will, Biblical Creationists are constrained.

    I also think you miss a way in which non-physical causation can be understood. As a computer programmer, when I look at a program, I am unconcerned with the physical details of how the program came together. Whether it was typed on a keyboard or dictated through the microphone is both irrelevant and undetectable in the final program. However, that does not mean that I cannot examine the program. It means that the primary mode of examination will not be “what caused the program” but instead “what are the logical relationships within the program”. We don’t posit that the logical relationships exist because they share a physical cause of some sort, but rather because they are logically related.

    Biology today often works on this principle – especially systems biology. To the extent that it does, it is actually engaging in an Intelligent Design theory of sorts, because it is giving primacy to the logical connection between components rather than the physical method by which they arose. The only way this really makes sense is in the context of a designer, which orchestrates logical connections.

    “The ID movement would be appealing to me if stuck to real science and was not a propaganda movement.”

    I understand where you are coming from here. However, the problem is that neo-Darwinian theory has been incorporated into nearly every level of culture. It is important for the culture at large to know that this isn’t a settled question.

    I didn’t see the show you are referring to, but usually when ID’ers say that evolution is on the verge of collapse, they are referring to natural selection, not evolution in general. That’s a tough distinction to make to a lay audience, and I think they often fail at educating when they should be about the distinctions. I would agree with them about natural selection as a foundational principle of evolution being on the verge of collapse.

    “A computer makes a good analogy. Certain operations take place in a hierarchy from the level of transistor gates to the level of the user interface. If you looked at all the work that goes into, say, spell-checking a document, it would be overwhelming. But at each level of the hierarchy the work is relatively simple.”

    It may be relatively simple. However, the issue is that the process is organized. It came about because the different parts were designed with each other in mind. They communicate through organized interfaces. I have a paper coming out shortly at creationbiology.org which uses computability theory as a foundation for irreducible complexity which you might find interesting.

    “But the bigger problem with ID is that it isn’t really a solution to anything, but merely a bald claim that leads nowhere.”

    I think the reason it seems that way is that no one has given it the opportunity. Those who actually work in the field have to tell people they aren’t to keep their jobs. Those who are open about it have a hostile work environment and get denounced on their own university’s website. As I pointed out earlier, viewing life in terms of its logical relations is actually utilizing ID much more than evolution.

    My forthcoming paper will point to ways in which Irreducible Complexity can be useful to biologists. I have also used ID to examine other parts of biology (though, sadly, I have no lab or lab group to test if they are true! This, though, is not due to discrimination, but rather that I have no credentials). You might be interested in the presentation I gave to the BSG on how design concepts can be used to help understand V(D)J recombination.

  12. Tim, on this: “First, much of the information in living systems is highly repetitive.”

    I’m sure you can quantify this….

    And this: “A computer makes a good analogy. Certain operations take place in a hierarchy from the level of transistor gates to the level of the user interface. If you looked at all the work that goes into, say, spell-checking a document, it would be overwhelming. But at each level of the hierarchy the work is relatively simple.”

    Eh, maybe. We can quantify this though. A Turing machine is simple, and every computer is one. But I eagerly await the paper that life is a Turing machine. Perhaps Wolfram is right after all! (I don’t think so).

    And this: “Likewise in complex organisms, the biochemical functions of cells and the various cues by which different parts of a body interact with each other are pieces of a hierarchical system, and the problems at each level were probably solved long ago in an orderly sequence.”

    If we can’t invoke God and we can’t find a a probable mechanism, does that mean we embark on a life long quest for an answer that does not exist?

    Because: “This would explain why the early stages of life proceeded so slowly compared to diversification among more complex life forms later on.”

    I feel compelled to invoke the proverbial pot and kettle. We don’t have a definition of simple and complex life forms, and when we actually start looking at simple life forms they appear to be very complex. Life needs a minimum level of complexity. My hope is that one day we will give a good scientific answer to what that level is. But we can already predict it won’t be simple.

    A single cell is already crazy complex. Try simulation one on a Turing machine. We’re still a long way from being able to do that.

    So to summarise: if ID people can’t give satisfactory definitions, nor can evolutionists. Or perhaps you can correct me by pointing out the article where we find the definition of simple life…


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