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.
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.