The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

After the FAQs: Any Popular Science books palatable to YECs?
Post of the Month: October 1998
by Louann Miller

[Note: YEC is an acronym for "Young Earth Creationist"]

Try this imaginary dialog between an evolutionist and a creationist:

Creationist: birds have always been birds, because their creation is described in the story of Genesis dictated to Moses directly by God. Also, their perfect design for flight could never have come about by chance.

Evolutionist: Hmm. (Mental note: if we start tangling over the Sumerian and Babylonian creation stories which predate Genesis, and the textual evidence that the Pentauch was written over many generations in several languages, we're never even going to GET to birds. And that's not my field, anyway; better see if my friend Seminarian will take that up with him later.) About that perfect design. You know, the earliest birds were almost indistinguishable from small ground-dwelling dinosaurs. There's one fossil in particular that we thought WAS a ground-dwelling dinosaur until we looked at it more closely and found feather impressions. Turned out to be an Archaeopteryx.

C: I read someplace Archaeopteryx was just an ordinary type of bird. (Source: an ICR pamphlet given to me in my youth as part of a 'two mode' biology class in a public school.)

E: Well ... no. The wing structure is considerably less efficient; we're not sure if it could sustain flight or just glide and hop. There were vestigal finger claws on the top edge of the wing. And Archaeopteryx had teeth, unlike any modern bird. (Warming to his subject, starts sketching something on a nearby blackboard) It's really very interesting. The structure of the breastbone where the wing muscles attach ...

C: (didn't come here for a detailed discussion of fossil anatomy) I also heard that Archaeopteryx *was* just a dinosaur, like you said, and they put fake feather impressions on the fossil with cement. (Source, Watkins et al in the British Journal of Photography, 1980 to 1985; has its own FAQ)

E: There was some doubt cast on one of the seven specimens, but that's all settled. It's very obvious when you look at the fossil itself, or a three-dimensional cast, instead of a picture of it. The people who raised that controversy were working from photographs. First, lithographic sandstone has a very fine clear grain structure, putting cement on it is going to create a clear discontinuity. Second, the counterfossil -- the overlying piece of rock that fits against the fossil -- wouldn't fit if there was anything added. (Starts to sketch on board again; wavy parallel lines meant to show a complex fossil and counterfossil surface fitting together like jello and its mold.) Third, the structure of the calcite crystals in the rock and the absence of air bubbles ...

C: Yeah. What makes you so sure these fossils are so old, anyway? Why couldn't they be just a few thousand years?

E: (Blinking) They're buried deep inside rocks.

C: How do you know how old the rocks are?

E: Geology has been working on that for about 150 years. In fact, my undergraduate degree was in geology. The basic principle is that older rocks are always overlaid by younger rocks in the absence of other forces. (Draws a strata of rock on the board. Draws another strata on top of it.) Marine strata are the easiest to date, because there are common organisms such as diatoms and conodonts that are confined to relatively short time spans.

C: So you use the rocks to date the fossils, but you use the fossils to date the rocks. That's circular reasoning.

E: If you only looked at one or two sites, it would be. That's why we've checked thousands of locations all over the world. When the same sequences of organisms are found in the same sequences of strata over and over again, it gets pretty clear.

C: But there are lots of reversed sequences. Like the Matterhorn. (Source: ICR two-mode class again.)

E: (trying to decide if the 'circular reasoning' thing was a personal insult while continuing to talk) Of course there are. It's a very small percentage of all strata we've studied. Those are local phenomena, caused by things like crustal folding. (Draws a picture of several rock layers folded over like an ocean wave, but he's enjoying the conversation much less.)

C: Because you've already decided what the real sequence must be, so when you get the opposite of what you expect you have to make a special argument for it.

E: (Definitely feels personally insulted by that one. Accusing a scientist of bias has the same extra bite of accusing a soldier of treason or a doctor of deliberate malpractice. Constructs the sentence "Because we LOOK at the **&%$$|* ROCKS, you &^@!" but controls himself.) Because we look at the rocks. When you get that level of crustal folding, it's not going to be hard to spot; it's associated with major formations. Like the Matterhorn. (Erases previous material on board, starts to draw a contour map.) Here's an example from the field work I did in graduate school. There's an extreme tilt to this central block due to local faulting ...

C: Why can't you just explain things in plain English? You keep dragging in this technical jargon.

E: (Appears to have two choices. He can deliver several years' worth of high-school and college level science, without using technical language, within his discussion partner's attention span. Or he can throw a chair.)

So the conversation goes from "Where do birds come from?" to "You're all a bunch of liars" in surprisingly few exchanges. This kind of thing is one reason scientists find arguing with creationists so unrewarding.

Short treatments such as the FAQs can't give much context or details about how scientists came to a particular conclusion precisely because they ARE short. Creationists aren't going to change their ideas because 'the FAQ says so' any more than an ordinary person is going to drop all science because 'the Bible says so.' But describing the entire sciences of biology, geology, and paleontology from first principles *without* an appeal to authority literally takes years. Most creationists don't want to work that hard, especially when the conclusions they're led to are emotionally unappealing to them.

I got thinking about this last night when I was reading T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez. As a book of popular science, it's probably quite a bit better than Stephen Jay Gould's stuff. It's colloquial, chatty, and it conveys a lot of the fun of doing original research without skimping on the technical detail. But it would be useless to hand this book to a YEC, because the book assumes that the reader already accepts stratigraphy, radiocarbon dating, and a dozen other ideas that the average YEC would resist to the last ditch.

You could suggest that the YEC accept these underlying ideas 'for the sake of argument' and read the book for its own internal consistency, but I don't think that would work either. Absorbing and understanding an argument while suspending judgement about its accuracy is a mental skill that I don't think most YEC's have practiced. I'm not singling them out for a slam; I didn't learn that skill in public school, either. I learned it reading science fiction. It took time to learn, and it sort
of hurt.

So, dragging the post (at last) back on-topic with its own title -- can anyone suggest books of popular science that a creationist could start with, to pick up the basic ideas without shocking his sensibilities too much?

First posted 13 October 1998

Responses suggesting books via Deja News:

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