[In the Jul/Aug 1998 issue of RNCSE Wilfred Elders wrote an extended review essay based on the ideas about the Grand Canyon found in Steven Austin's book, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. In this issue, Austin responds to that review with the following critique. Elders replies below.]
Wilfred Elders' article "Bibliolatry in the Grand Canyon" (RNCSE 1998; 18: 8-15) is an 8-page review of my book Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe (Austin 1994). This article is the most extensive critical review of Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe to appear in print. "There is perhaps no better place in all the world to appreciate the grandeur of geologic time...," writes Elders (1998: 8), "However, bibliolatry has come to the Grand Canyon." The accusation of "bibliolatry" might suggest a theological discussion of biblical literalism. However, Elders admits that literalism is not the book's thrust. "The book presents a more detailed argument than any previous creationist publication on geology. The crux of the book is a lengthy and detailed, but ultimately failed, attempt to rebut published accounts of the geology, paleontology, and dating of the strata of Grand Canyon and to present re-interpretations consistent with the Genesis story. Such re-interpretations are buttressed by some original creationist research" (Elders 1998:14).
Most unusual is the fact that Elders' book review also promotes the National Center for Science Education's "Creation/Evolution Grand Canyon Raft Trip" scheduled for August 7-14, 1999. The stated purpose of the upcoming raft trip is to rebut the "young-earth creationist" view of Grand Canyon offered by the Institute for Creation Research and promote "critical thinking" (Scott 1998). My response to Elders' book review is directed at helping the NCSE develop a better understanding and appreciation of creationist materials, especially creationist research, so that the upcoming raft trip in August 1999 can better characterize creationist research and interpretations at Grand Canyon. Elders (1998:9) writes, "Austin has taken on the daunting task of using the spectacular geology of the Grand Canyon as an exemplar of a creationist world-view, despite numerous compelling arguments to the contrary." The most pointed criticism from Elders is directed at creationist research (3 pages of the 8-page review). Elders (1998:12) writes, "But what of original creationist research? The appendix of MTC lists 18 'Questions for Discussion and Study'. The last of these reads, 'What are four research projects creationists have conducted on Grand Canyon?' A careful reading of MTC reveals that the author of this question expects students to be diligent. In fact, I was able to find only four examples of creationist research which could be cited, plus one which the authors of MTC admit is dubious."
After Elders assesses the quantity of creationist research, he goes on to trivialize creationist research with what I believe to be the most objectionable statement of the book review. He writes: "However, a case of contamination of pollen samples, 12 oriented nautiloids, the tale of 94 squirrel skins, some experiments with tracks made by newts in an aquarium, and willful misinterpretation of radiometric dates based on five Rb/Sr isotopic ratios scarcely constitute a deluge of new compelling evidence for the flood of Noah." I will respond by noting severe scholarship problems with Elders' assessment of both the quantity and quality of creationist research at Grand Canyon.
What can be said about Elders' assessment of the quantity of creationist research? I was able to find not just 5 creationist research projects described in Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, as asserted by Elders, but at least 8 (I define a research project as involving scientific process of "observation, measuring, interpreting and reporting"). In addition to the 5 examples Elders noticed, I would give "full credit" to a student who offered:
(6) Survey of boulder beds at the base of the Tapeats Sandstone. Austin (1994:47,55) cites and summarizes field work by Arthur V Chadwick (1978), a noteworthy creationist, on the size of boulders and topographic relief within sedimentary deposits just above the Great Unconformity in Grand Canyon. Chadwick (1978) does not mention Grand Canyon in the title of his paper, but anyone consulting this paper would immediately recognize observation, measuring, interpreting, and reporting within a field project concerning the Tapeats Sandstone of Grand Canyon. Obviously, Elders has not read this cited work, and he remains uninformed of the ongoing work by creationists Kennedy, Kablanow, and Chadwick (1996).
(7) Remote sensing search for ancient shorelines. Austin (1994:93,109,110) summarizes research of Edmond W Holroyd, III on ancient shorelines of lakes in the eastern Grand Canyon and central Colorado Plateau. These lakes could have drained catastrophically through the Kaibab and Coconino Plateaus causing significant erosion in Grand Canyon. The cited works of Holroyd (1987, 1990), which are followed by further publication in Holroyd (1994), would satisfy academic standards of research. Elders missed Hoylroyd's significant work even though it is both cited and pictured (Austin 1994:93).
(8) Review of ancient alluvial deposits and erosional features as evidence of the possible path of the ancestral Colorado River. The supposed ancient path of the Colorado River continues to be researched by Emmett Williams and John Meyer, as well as by their creationist coworkers. Austin (1994:109) cited the summary of this work (Williams, Meyer, and Wolfrom 1992a) which is part of a continuing stream of publications (Williams, Meyer, and Wolfrom 1991, 1992a, 1992b; Williams, Goette, and Meyer 1997) containing significant field data and interpretations on the geomorphology of Grand Canyon and vicinity. Elders is oblivious to this work. Is Elders even aware that Meyer and the Creation Research Society have established the "Grand Canyon Experiment Station" in Chino Valley, Arizona? Not a hint is found in his review.
I come back to Elders' research quantity statement, "A careful reading of MTC reveals that the author of this question expects students to be diligent. ..." Is Elders' word "diligent" appropriate for describing his own pursuit of creationist research within the book Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe? The word "cursory" seems more appropriate. Only 5 of 28 references are to creationist works beyond the book reviewed. Each of the 5 creationist references cited by Elders had already been cited by Austin. A watchful teacher grading a student's review paper might ask if the student is truly familiar with the sources he has referenced. Had Elders been familiar with these and other creationist sources, he would not have made his noteworthy error of severely minimizing the quantity of creationist research at Grand Canyon.
What can be said about Elders' evaluation of the quality of creationist research in Grand Canyon? Elders is extremely critical in overview, but he is generally nonresponsive to the details. I will give 4 examples of trivializing and nonresponsiveness in the following paragraphs.
What, for example, is Elders' interpretation of the large, abundant, straight-shelled cephalopod fossils called "nautiloids" at Nautiloid Canyon on the Colorado River. How does Elders' interpretation differ from that of a creationist? He criticizes the creationist summary in Austin (1994:27), assuming that only 12 orientations of nautiloids were measured. However, his supposition of only 12 measurements is a big mistake. Another source unknown to Elders reports 71 orientations of nautiloids measured at Nautiloid Canyon (Austin and Wise 1995). Whatever evaluation one may have of the quantity of research and measurements at Nautiloid Canyon, an interpretation of the deposit needs to be offered to the student investigating the creation/evolution issue. Data indicate a sedimentary catastrophe and a nautiloid mass-kill event (Austin and Wise 1995). A critic of quality should portray previous work correctly and promote a better standard.
How does Elders respond to research by creationists concerning the effectiveness of Grand Canyon as a geographic barrier for the distribution of small mammals? Elders (1998:12,14) cites only the study of John R Meyer (1985) on 94 museum specimens of tassel-eared squirrels. This research (publication year cited incorrectly by Elders) was reported in Austin (1994:174-8). The statement, "Animal distribution within Grand Canyon continues to be an important part of creationist studies" (Austin 1994:174) should have alerted Elders to consult the associated reference to further work of Meyer (Meyer and Howe 1988). In their detailed report attempting to quantify the effectiveness of the geographic barrier using field observations at Shiva Temple, Meyer and Howe (1988) record field measurements of air and soil temperature, relative humidity, and plant distributions from a very remote area of the North Rim of Grand Canyon. Elders conveniently overlooks 2 years of field studies by Meyer and Howe, and, instead, implies that the research on geographic isolation concerns only observations on 94 squirrel skins from a museum.
How does Elders respond to peer-reviewed publications by creationist Leonard Brand? Brand's work supports submerged conditions for deposition of the Coconino Sandstone. Elders is strongly opposed in overview to the idea of subaqueous deposition of the Coconino, favoring instead the popular desert environmental model. However, he does not answer the specific evidence cited for the subaqueous model noted by Brand (1978, 1979, 1992, 1996) and Brand and Tang (1991) on the characteristics of fossil footprints as evidence of underwater deposition. He has not responded to the sedimentological argument for water developed by Glen S Visher (Visher and Howard 1974; Freeman and Visher 1975; Visher 1990) as summarized in Austin (1994:32).
Suppose a participant in the NCSE raft trip notices a fossil vertebrate trackway in the Coconino Sandstone (not an uncommon find for Grand Canyon rafters). Also, suppose our hypothetical NCSE participant uses "critical thinking" skills and notices significant dissimilarities between the Coconino vertebrate trackway and a vertebrate trackway from a modern dune above the bank of the Colorado River. Dunes with vertebrate trackways are observed on occasion above the bank of the Colorado River, and these are significantly different than the Coconino examples (see Brand 1996). Then, suppose our participant asks Elders to explain the similarity of the discovered Coconino trackway to trackways made underwater in the fashion of the research conducted by Brand. Is Elders going to respond that the subaqueous idea is unthinkable because somebody once found an extremely rare trackway in the Coconino Sandstone that they proved was made by a scorpion (Elders 1998:13)? Is he going to respond that the trackway makers have been proven to be extinct desert-dwelling reptiles or mammal-like reptiles, but definitely not extinct water-dwelling reptiles or mammal-like reptiles (Elders 1998:13)? If Elders responds in such a fashion to a rafter's discovered Coconino trackway and its relation to a modern trackway, would that be an adequate and scholarly response? Is not the proper response to deal with the interpretation of the empirical evidence at hand? Even the published responses to Brand's work acknowledge the adequacy of Brand's observations. For example, Loope (1992) wrote: "Although I strongly disagree with Brand and Tang's conclusion, I find their experimental approach very useful, and hope to incorporate it in the testing of my own hypothesis." This may explain why the research of Brand (a noteworthy creationist) has withstood scholarly peer-review from 3 evolutionary science journals. Why should Brand's work be dismissed or trivialized outright by Elders?
Elders' review is longest in his response to the critique of radioisotope dating given in Austin (1994:111-31). I suspect that radioisotopes get special consideration because of his position statement concerning Grand Canyon, "There is perhaps no better place in all the world to appreciate the grandeur of geologic time" (Elders 1998:8). If Elders is correct, radioisotope ages of Grand Canyon should be well verified and especially evident to people employing "critical thinking." He is greatly concerned that creationist researchers have performed only 5 rubidium-strontium isotope analyses on Grand Canyon rocks. However, Austin (1992) reports measurements of other radioisotope ratios in Grand Canyon rocks. The work of Austin (1992) is cited in Austin (1994:128, 131) and should not have escaped Elders' "diligent" attention.
Suppose, for example, the NCSE raft trip stops at the extraordinary exposures of Cardenas Basalt (upper Precambrian) at Tanner Rapids. It is the first igneous formation encountered on the raft trip and would naturally come to the attention of the NCSE group. How would Elders respond to the simple question, "Do the different radioisotope methods give concordant ages for Cardenas Basalt?" Would he reply, "In other locations there are tens of thousands of radiometric dates which are consistent with the relative stratigraphic position of the rocks dated" (Elders 1998:13)? Such a response would be incomplete. Scholarship dictates that he summarizes the radioisotope data that is known for Cardenas Basalt.
The publication of Austin and Snelling (1998) concerns the discordance between rubidium-strontium and potassium-argon isochron techniques applied to the Cardenas Basalt and diabase sills within the Precambrian of Grand Canyon. Why are K/Ar "ages" much younger than the accepted Rb/Sr "age" for Cardenas Basalt and diabase sills? Discordance of dates had been previously noted by Austin (1994:120-2) as well as by other researchers. Austin and Snelling (1998) report 13 new K/Ar analyses from Grand Canyon, essentially doubling the number of published K/Ar analyses within the Precambrian of Grand Canyon. Elders can trivialize this creationist work, but he must admit that there are data here needing to be explained.
Elders is convinced very strongly that radioisotopes have successfully dated Grand Canyon rocks at millions or even billions of years. Elders (1998:13) cites 2 kinds of ages he accepts: (1) uranium-lead model ages made on crystals of zircon and monazite from the inner gorge of Grand Canyon, and (2) potassium-argon model ages from lava flows from volcanoes on the rim of Grand Canyon. Suppose, for example, the NCSE raft trip examines some of the monazite-bearing rocks that outcrop within the inner gorge of Grand Canyon. Elders might be asked, "Do monazite crystals in Grand Canyon give concordant U/Pb model ages?" The short answer to this question, I believe, is one word: "Rarely." Hawkins and Bowring (1994) studied 65 monazite grains from the inner gorge of Grand Canyon: "In the absence of physical evidence for inheritance, the range of single grain ages remains problematic. However, the discordant behavior can be explained if single monazite grains comprise complex mixtures of domains which have exhibited open system behavior with respect to U, Th, and Pb, including excess 206Pb, during cooling. Concordant analyses of single grains may represent fortuitous mixtures of these domains." This work generally critical of monazite model-age dating was conducted in conjunction with a PhD dissertation (Hawkins 1996).
Lava Falls Rapids, the largest of the rapids within Grand Canyon, is a routine stop for river boatmen. They stop their boats for safety purposes so they can scout the changing configuration of the torrent before running it. Because the NCSE raft trip is likely to stop at Lava Falls Rapids, participants will see firsthand the most imposing display of basalt within Grand Canyon. Geologists call the lowest part of this erosional remnant "Toroweap Lava Dam". Basalt at the rapids spilled into Grand Canyon as multiple flows from the rim. A sample of this basalt from Toroweap Lava Dam gave a potassium-argon "whole-rock" model age of 1.16 ± 0.18 million years (McKee, Hamblin, and Damon 1968). A NCSE rafter employing "critical thinking" would have opportunity to ask, "Is it possible that the K/Ar age obtained for Toroweap Lava Dam is excessively old because radiogenic argon was incorporated into the basalt as it cooled?" This possibility is admitted by McKee, Hamblin, and Damon (1968:135).
At this point Elders might respond that reliable whole rock K/Ar ages have been obtained from many thousands of rocks outside Grand Canyon (for example, Elders 1998:13), but the question has not been answered. Dalrymple and Hamblin (1998) no longer regard the 1.16 million year age as correct, but they believe the Toroweap Lava Dam is significantly younger. Rugg and Austin (1998) reported "excess argon" from 3 mineral concentrates made from the basalt at Lava Falls. At Toroweap Lava Dam, olivine, a mineral known for very low potassium, possesses significant quantity of argon, giving a K/Ar "age" of 20.7 ± 1.3 million years (Rugg and Austin 1998:478). Again, discordance is discovered with evidence of "excess argon." A NCSE rafter who is familiar with these data and is "thinking critically" might ask the ultimate question, "Has the basalt been accurately dated by the K/Ar method?" Data seem to challenge the "zero-original-argon" assumption made by the popular K/Ar dating method.
Elders offers a significantly flawed critique of both the quantity and quality of creationist research at Grand Canyon. He consistently trivializes creationist research, demonstrating significant ignorance of the data and interpretations that creationists have published. Good scholarship requires that he obtain this proficiency. The book Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe reports at least 8 creationist research projects, not just 5 as claimed by Elders. Creationists measured many more than 12 nautiloid fossils at Nautiloid Canyon. Creationist study of Grand Canyon as a geographic barrier to small mammals involves more than study of 94 squirrel skins. Observations of fossil vertebrate trackways by creationists have a prominent place in peer-reviewed literature that cannot be ignored. Creationists have measured many more than 5 radioisotope ratios in Grand Canyon rocks.
Elders needs to come to grips with the fact that creationists have a continuing research program being accomplished at Grand Canyon. Compared to government-subsidized research, creationist research may seem modest. However, that is no reason to trivialize it.
Elders, in his overview, strenuously objects to creationist interpretations of geology at Grand Canyon, but in his specifics, he is reticent to give details. What is his interpretation of Nautiloid Canyon, Grand Canyon's most prominent fossil deposit? How does Elders respond to details concerning the character of fossil vertebrate trackways in the Coconino Sandstone? What is his explanation offered to discordance of ages often encountered in the dating of Grand Canyon rocks? Will Elders gain competence in basic creationist literature? Elders will need to acquire proficiency in responding to questions like these if he is going to play a significant part in the NCSE creation/evolution raft trip this August in Grand Canyon. Participants in the NCSE raft trip will be committing a significant amount of their personal resources to this rafting activity. They should be concerned about getting their money's worth.
Austin SA. Isotope and trace element analysis of hypersthene-normative basalts from the Quaternary of Uinkaret Plateau, western Grand Canyon, Arizona. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 1992; 24(6):261.
Austin SA. (editor). Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Santee (CA): Institute for Creation Research, 1994.
Austin SA, Wise KP. Nautiloid mass-kill event at a hydrothermal mound within the Redwall Limestone (Mississippian), Grand Canyon, Arizona. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 1995; 27(6):369.
Austin SA, Snelling AA. Discordant potassium-argon model and isochron "ages" for Cardenas Basalt (Middle Proterozoic) and associated diabase of eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism 1998; 4:35-51.
Brand LR. Footprints in the Grand Canyon. Origins 1978; 5:64-82.
Brand LR. Field and laboratory studies on the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) vertebrate footprints and their paleoecological implications. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 1979; 28:25-38.
Brand LR. Reply (to comments) on "Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of northern Arizona: evidence for underwater origin". Geology 1992; 20:668-70.
Brand LR. Variations in salamander trackways resulting from substrate differences. Journal of Paleontology 1996; 70(6):1004-10.
Brand LR, Tang T. Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of northern Arizona: evidence for underwater origin. Geology 1991; 19:1201-4.
Chadwick AV. Megabreccias: Evidence for catastrophism. Origins 1978; 5:39-46.
Dalrymple GB, Hamblin WK. K/Ar ages of Pleistocene lava dams in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 1998; 95:9744-9.
Elders WA. Bibliolatry in the Grand Canyon. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1998; 18(4):8-15.
Freeman WE, Visher GS. Stratigraphic analysis of the Navajo Sandstone. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 1975; 45:651-68.
Hawkins DP. U/Pb Geochronological Constraints on the Tectonic and Thermal Evolution of Paleoproterozoic Crust in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Cambridge (MA): Massachusetts Institute of Technology, unpublished doctoral thesis, 1996.
Hawkins DP, Bowring SA. Complex U/Pb systematics of Paleoproterozoic monazite from the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA. United States Geological Survey Circular 1994; 1107:131.
Holroyd ER, III. Missing talus. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1987; 24:15-6.
Holroyd ER, III. Missing talus on the Colorado Plateau. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Creationism 1990; 2:115-28.
Holroyd ER, III. A remote sensing search for extinct lake shore lines on the Colorado Plateau. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism 1994; 3:243-54.
Kennedy EG, Kablanow R, Chadwick AV. A reassessment of the shallow water depositional model for the Tapeats Sandstone, Grand Canyon, Arizona: evidence for deep water deposition. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 1996; 28(7):407.
Loope DB. Comment on "Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of northern Arizona: evidence for underwater origin". Geology 1992; 20:667-8.
McKee ED, Hamblin WK, Damon PE. K/Ar age of lava dam in Grand Canyon. Geological Society of America Bulletin 1968; 79:133-6.
Meyer JR. Origin of the Kaibab Squirrel. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1985; 22:68-78.
Meyer JR, Howe GF. The biological isolation of Shiva Temple. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1988; 24:165-72.
Rugg SH, Austin SA. Evidence for rapid formation and failure of Pleistocene "lava dams" of the western Grand Canyon, Arizona. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism 1998; 4:475-86.
Scott EC. NCSE "Creation/evolution" Grand Canyon trip challenge! Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1998; 18(4):25.
Visher GS. Exploration Stratigraphy. Tulsa (OK): Penn Well Publishing, 2nd ed., 1990.
Visher GS, Howard JD. Dynamic relationship between hydraulics and sedimentation in the Altamaha Estuary. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 1974; 44:502-21.
Williams EL, Meyer JR, and Wolfrom GW. Erosion of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River part I - review of antecedent river hypothesis and the postulation of large quantities of rapidly flowing water as the primary agent of erosion. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1991; 28:92-8.
Williams EL, Meyer JR, Wolfrom GW. Erosion of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River part II - review of the river capture, piping and ancestral river hypotheses and the possible formation of vast lakes. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1992a; 28:138-45.
Williams EL, Meyer JR, Wolfrom GW. Erosion of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River part III - review of possible formation of basins and lakes on the Colorado Plateau and different climatic conditions in the past. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1992b; 29:18-24.
Williams EL, Goette RL, Meyer JR. Kanab Canyon, Utah and Arizona: origin speculations. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1997; 34(3):162-72.
Steven A Austin
Chairman, Geology Department
Institute for Creation Research
Santee CA 92071-2833
I thank Dr Steve Austin of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) for his prompt response to my article "Bibliolatry in the Grand Canyon" and appreciate this opportunity to reply and extend my remarks about the ICR textbook on the Grand Canyon (Austin 1994). Austin indicates that his aim is to help the NCSE develop a better understanding and appreciation of creationist materials, especially creationist research. Better understanding is sorely needed. However, the outcome may not be what Austin hopes; understanding could lead to less appreciation of creationist research.
Austin is concerned that, in using the term "bibliolatry", I accused his book of biblical literalism. It is true that this was the impression I got from reading it. Austin (1994) is replete with quotations from the King James translation of the Christian Bible, and has an index with 131 citations to that version of scripture. It is clear that Austin reads Powell's "rock-leaved bible of geology" in the Grand Canyon through the distorting lenses of biblical literalism. This appears to be a requirement of Austin's position on the faculty of the Institute for Creation Research. For example, consider the edict of Dr Henry M Morris, the founder and President Emeritus of the ICR, who posits, "...the main reason for insisting on the universal flood as a fact of history and as a primary vehicle for geological interpretation is that God's Word plainly teaches it! No geologic difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inferences of Scripture" (Morris 1970).
Austin faithfully follows this injunction. For example, Austin (1994:3) states, "If the evidence of Grand Canyon fits with Noah's Flood, why have not the majority of scientists recognized it? The answer to this can be found in II Peter 3:5,6 where we read, 'For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the Word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished'. The Bible teaches that people are willingly ignorant - that is, they deliberately reject the evidence." The irony of using theological bibliolatry to justify geological bibliolatry seems to be lost on Austin.
Austin's opinion is that, because I have not read all of the publications on creationist research related to the Grand Canyon footnoted in Austin (1994) or published since, I have no right to criticize the quantity and quality of that research. On the count of not having read all that creationist literature, I plead guilty as charged. However, I believe that I have read sufficient of it to conclude that this corpus of work falls far short of proving Austin's assertion that Noah's flood formed all Phanerozoic rocks and that the Grand Canyon formed in the aftermath of that deluge.
Certain important concepts are so well established today that they form the bases from which contemporary science proceeds. Examples that come to mind include the periodic table in chemistry, the expanding universe in astronomy, organic evolution in biology, and the geologic time scale in earth sciences. Those seeking to reject these concepts must document startlingly new and convincing observations or experiments to support their iconoclasm. The ICR textbook on the Grand Canyon, in common with other modern creationist effusions, rejects both organic evolution and the geologic time scale.
Today the reaction of most working geologists to such contemporary biblical literalism ranges from indifference to wry amusement. This is despite the fact that bibliolatry had had a respectable history in the western world for 2 millennia. During most of that time biblical literalists also propounded the concepts of the flat earth and the earth-centered universe. In spite of the fact that the intellectual battles against those ideas were fought and won by Magellan's circumnavigation in 1520-22, the publication of the Copernican System in 1540, and Galileo's observations of the heavens by telescope in 1610, flat-earthers and geocentrists persist even today (Scott 1997).
As readers are aware, the story of Noah's flood has been an important icon in the western world (Cohn 1996). However, by the first half of the 19th century the rise of scientific geology played the death knell of the idea that the earth began only in 4004 BCE and that the next most important event in earth history was the worldwide deluge of Noah (Gillispie 1959). More than a hundred years later, the discarded idea of Noah's flood of old suffered a reincarnation with the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris (1964). This "neocreationism" movement attempted to supply a new "scientific" basis for the Noachian flood to justify biblical literalism. Austin (1994) is firmly in that mold. I have only to remind readers of Austin's astounding claim (Austin 1994:147), "[i]t is not clear whether the order of appearance of organisms in Grand Canyon, or anywhere else on earth, for that matter, is necessarily any different than a random order which a flood might produce", to illustrate the biblical blinkers which Austin wears. In one sentence he discounts the whole science of paleontology.
Given the wealth of information available now, the burden of proof is on Austin as he seeks to use the Grand Canyon to re-establish a once-dominant view that has been overturned consistently by an enormous body of scientific evidence during the last two centuries. Today, for creationist publications such as Austin's (1994) to get sufficient attention from mainstream geologists to cause a revolution in their fundamental concepts would require credible documentation of abundant new, dramatic, and multidisciplinary findings and interpretations. Such scientific revolutions do happen, as anyone familiar with the rise of the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s is aware (Hallam 1973).
Perhaps an even more relevant example, albeit on a lesser scale, of a revolution in geology is one discussed at length in Austin (1994:46, 94, 104-6) - the flood origin of the Channeled Scabland, a large area near Grand Coulee, in eastern Washington state. Geologists now interpret the dramatic erosional features of that region as having been formed during repeated catastrophic draining of a large periglacial lake, Lake Missoula, in Montana, dammed at the front of the continental ice sheet, during the waning stages of the last Ice Age. However, when Bretz originally proposed the idea in 1923, it was met with skepticism by many geologists (see Bretz 1969). Debate continued for 20 or 30 years until the mounting evidence brought forward by Bretz and his colleagues won the day. The history of this controversy is well documented in Baker (1978).
Austin (1994) uses his discussion of Bretz's work to infer that, because flooding due to catastrophic draining of a large lake caused rapid scouring of the Channeled Scabland, similar catastrophic flooding formed the Grand Canyon during the waning stages of Noah's flood. However, as Heaton (1995) pointed out, Austin fails to take note of the radical differences between the geological formations in the Channeled Scablands and the Grand Canyon. Heaton (1995: 35) states, "The narrow inner gorge of the Grand Canyon and its equilibrium tributaries are the antithesis of the broad flood plain, multiple overflow channels, and gigantic 'ripple marks' of the Channeled Scabland. It would be hard to imagine two canyons more geomorphically dissimilar to one another."
There is a major irony here in using the work of my friend and mentor "Doc" Bretz in support of biblical literalism. It was in discussions with him that I first became interested in the neocreationist movement, shortly after the publication of Whitcomb and Morris (1964). Although the controversy over his work on the Channeled Scabland was protracted, Bretz regarded it as a good example of the self-correcting nature of mainstream science. Creationists subscribing to the views of the President Emeritus of the ICR (Morris 1970) cannot correct the Genesis story, no matter what scientific evidence is produced. Had "Doc" survived to see the publication of Austin (1994) I am sure that his comments would have been pithy and devastating to the creationists' misuse of his work.
Austin's main objection to my article is that I overstate the dearth of such new revolutionary findings by creationists in the Grand Canyon. He alleges that my assessment that the quantity and quality of creationist research at Grand Canyon is poor derives from my unfamiliarity with the literature of creationist geology. I am happy to concede that he knows that literature better than I and am therefore grateful to him for pointing out that Austin (1994) mentions 8 examples of "original creationist research" rather than only the 5 discussed in my review.
Publications on creationist research are easily overlooked by mainstream scientists. Creationists publish relatively little and tend not publish in journals that geologists are likely to read. For example, the library of the University of California, Riverside, has holdings in excess of 1.5 million volumes. However, many of the publications which Austin finds important enough to cite, such as the Proceedings of the International Conference on Creationism, Origins, and the Creation Research Society Quarterly (CRSQ) are not included in these holdings. The CRSQ is not even cited in GEOREF, the standard bibliographic search engine for geological literature. Another problem in doing bibliographic searches of the creationist literature is that several leading creationists use aliases. For example, Austin also had published under the name of Stuart E Nevins, Paul Nelson publishes under the name of Peter Gordon, and the real name of John Woodmorappe is Jan Peczkis.
GEOREF has 11 entries for Steven A Austin published since 1971, including his Master's thesis and PhD dissertation. Among the remaining 9, 6 are abstracts presented at meetings of professional geological societies, including Austin and Wise (1995). I chose not to mention that interesting abstract in my review for 2 reasons. First, it makes no mention of Noah's flood and so its relevance to the biblical literalism of Austin (1994) was not explicit. Second, the shelf-life of an abstract is very short. After the passage of almost 4 years since the abstract appeared, it seemed reasonable to assume that either the authors or the journal editors have concluded that the material did not warrant further publication.
What is the message here? Does the fact that creationist science tends to be published only in creationist journals, or as abstracts at meetings, mean that there is a conspiracy by the editors of mainstream science publications to prevent dissemination of new, controversial or revolutionary ideas? I think not. Remember that during the plate tectonic "revolution", the key papers appeared in major international scientific journals (Hallam 1973). Similarly Bretz's controversial work on the Channeled Scablands was published in widely circulated publications (listed in Baker 1978). Good new science, even if controversial, eventually gets published in major journals and, having withstood the rigors of peer-review, thus joins the mainstream. In a similar vein, Austin complains that, "Compared to government-subsidized research programs, creationist research may seem modest". As I made clear, my opinion of creationist geological research is that, in fact, it is modest. However, "government-subsidized" research grants and contracts are awarded in a highly competitive funding milieu. Austin and his associates are as free to enter that competition as I have been. Just as good new science eventually gets published in mainstream journals, good new proposals eventually get supported by mainstream funding agencies.
A notable exception to my generalization that creationists tend to publish only in creationist venues are the experiments of Brand on trackways made by newts in an aquarium (Brand and Tang 1991). Some of the publications on this topic are published in widely disseminated journals. The issue here is not the quality of the experiments but rather their applicability to explaining trackways in the Permian Coconino Sandstone in the region of the Grand Canyon. Brand concludes that his work shows that at least part of the Coconino Sandstone was deposited under water. On the other hand, Lockley and Hunt (1995), Loope (1992), and Middleton and others (1990) conclude that the trackways were formed under subaerial conditions, consistent with the nature of the sandstones in which they are found (McKee 1979). In any case, even if could be proved that these sandstones were partially deposited under water, it is a long (and, in my opinion, invalid) extrapolation from Brand's laboratory aquarium to Noah's flood.
Let us examine the publication history and scientific impact of Chadwick (1978), one of the 3 examples of creationist research related to the Grand Canyon which Austin adds to the 5 discussed in my review. It concerns the boulder beds of Precambrian Shinumo Quartzite, locally developed at the base of the Tapeats Sandstone, immediately above the Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon. The Tapeats Sandstone is the lowest member of the Tonto Group, a sandstone-shale-limestone sequence of Cambrian age. Middleton and Elliot (1990) devote 4 pages to the depositional setting of this formation and cite more than 10 references in mainstream publications in support of their interpretation. The Tapeats Sandstone was deposited above a Precambrian surface that is extensively weathered and had developed considerable relief. They suggest that the basal conglomerate (the megabreccia of Chadwick 1978) was almost certainly deposited by erosion of cliffs of the Precambrian rocks by storm waves, and that the overlying sandstone was formed as beach and tidal flat deposits.The publication by Chadwick (1978) cited by Austin, on the other hand, interpreted the basal conglomerate in the Tapeats Sandstone as being formed in much deeper water by catastrophic debris flows, consistent with Noah's flood. Evidently this work has had zero impact on mainstream geology as it receives no mention in the extensive review by Middleton and Elliot (1990). If, as Austin (1994:67-70) asserts, the Tapeats Sandstone was formed as the first deposit of Noah's flood, we might expect it to contain a fauna and flora representing the abundant life he claims existed on earth before that deluge. However, except for trace fossils, the Tapeats Sandstone is poorly fossiliferous, but it contains brachiopods and trilobites sufficient to establish it as being of late Early Cambrian age. More recently Chadwick and Kennedy have returned to promoting the theme of Chadwick (1978). They have presented abstracts which essentially repeat the same material in each of the 4 years 1995-98 at scientific meetings. I look forward to evaluating their work, if ever it enters the formal literature. Meanwhile these abstracts can be read at www.tagnet.org/gri/w/ekennedy/geology.htm.
As Austin added 3 more cases of creationist research on the Grand Canyon to my list, I will return the compliment by adding to his. As part of his laudatory reviews of important creationist research since 1965, Austin's colleague at ICR, Dr Duane T Gish (1989) highlighted the research of Waisgerber and others (1987) at the Grand Canyon. For me this work exemplifies the quality of original creationist research; so it is worth examining in detail. These authors studied the supposed contact between the Cambrian Muav Limestone and the overlying Mississippian Redwall Limestone on the North Kaibab trail in the Grand Canyon. (See Figure 1 of Elders 1998 for the stratigraphy of the Canyon). Having decided that these 2 formations are interbedded and grade into each other, the authors concluded that the 200-million-year hiatus between Cambrian and Mississippian strata did not occur at that site and therefore that the whole geologic column is fictitious. This claim, if substantiated, would definitely constitute a revolution in geology and justify numerous publications on the issue. Instead, the next publication on this topic was published 9 years later. It was a letter to the editor of CRSQ severely critical of the work (Moore 1996).
How good are the original observations by Waisgerber and others (1987)? They spent two days examining the outcrop, with the aid of 5-power hand lens. Rather than relying on their own examination of the Canyon's walls, they used a National Park Service sign to identify the location and nature of the supposed unconformity between the Cambrian and Mississippian strata. This sign may, or may not, have been correctly sited by the Park staff. Instead of using macro- or micropaleontology, petrology, geochemistry or geophysics, they relied on the color and texture of the rocks to distinguish between Cambrian and Mississippian strata. The color of the Redwall Limestone is actually quite variable. It has acquired a superficial staining produced by oxides of iron washed down from redbeds in the overlying Supai Group (Beus 1990: 119-20). This creationist research appears not to have considered that they misidentified the Cambrian/Mississippian contact or that Mississippian dolomite could be filling channels or karsts, etched into the surface of the Cambrian dolomite.
Suppose 3 creation scientists heard that a good time to view Jupiter's moons is when Jupiter is visible in the western sky, but when they went out with a pair of low power binoculars on 2 different nights failed to see any of the moons. Suppose too that they went on to publish, in a leading creationist journal, a paper which concluded that, because Galileo was wrong, the Copernican system is wrong and that we should all return to biblical literalism and geocentrism. I would respond by helping them to recognize Jupiter and lending them a telescope at least as good as Galileo's.
The paper by Waisgerber and others (1987), with its stamp of approval by Gish, is at that level. It is a superficial study of a single outcrop, and concerns a minor problem, which they considered entirely outside of its regional or global context. They then proceeded to extrapolate wildly from their observations. Having exposed geology's dirty secret, they offered it as proof that the entire geologic time scale must be rejected, and be replaced by their version of biblical chronology. Although more sophisticated and detailed, Austin (1994) is another failed attempt to achieve the same end.
Austin pays great attention to radioactive dating because it is the Achilles heel of young earth creationists. Although he emphasizes any perceived discrepancies in radiometric ages published by different workers, he provides no satisfactory explanation of his willful misuse of radioactive dating in the Grand Canyon. Although he had earlier admitted that the Rb/Sr isotopic data from the Pleistocene basalts yield a false isochron (Austin 1988), he later used the same approach to publish what he knew to be geologically impossible results (Austin 194: 124-5) and posed the rhetorical question (Austin 1994: 129), "Has any Grand Canyon rock been successfully dated?" Ilg and others (1996) used U/Pb ratios to date the oldest rocks of the Grand Canyon and found that different units had ages ranging from 1750 to 1660 million years. Larson and others (1994) used Rb/Sr data from the Cardenas Basalt to determine an age of 1103 million years. Dalrymple and Hamblin (1998) measured K/Ar ratios to obtain ages in the range 0.684 to 0.443 million years for the Pleistocene basalts. If Dr Austin has credible data which refute the order in which these rocks were formed, or which even change these numbers significantly, I urge him to publish them in full in a major scientific journal. I would be happy to assist him by reviewing the manuscript.
The gulf between Austin's position and mine is irreconcilable. Austin carefully ignores many of the other important issues raised by my review. For example, his use of uniformitarian strawmen, the robustness of the worldwide geologic column and the geologic time scale, the thermal problem if granites were formed on the third day of creation, the order of occurrence and the space problem of fossils, are ignored in Austin's critique.
Austin asserts that I trivialize creationist research in my review, whereas I protest that he seeks to aggrandize it. I thank him for his input and can now amend the list of original creationist research projects on the Grand Canyon from 5 to 8, or even 9, if we include one or 2 which even some creationists might disavow. My response to his complaint that I trivialize creationist research is that I do not need to do so. Creationist research speaks for itself, in a tiny voice which falls far short of causing a revolution in the paradigms of science.
Finally, Austin is concerned that my lack of proficiency in creationist geology will prevent the participants in the NCSE creation/evolution raft trip through Grand Canyon in August 1999 from getting their money's worth. Concerning that trip, perhaps I might be allowed to follow the example of Austin (1994) and use a selective quotation from the King James Bible. Perhaps Daniel (12:4) is appropriate, "...many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased." I am confident that the NCSE rafters will get value for their investment from the grandeur of the Grand Canyon itself, rather than from my words, or those of Austin. The Grand Canyon speaks for itself and in its own voice, a voice of colorful canyon walls, of whitewater rapids, and the awesome nature of geologic time.
Austin SA. (editor). Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Santee (CA): Institute for Creation Research, 1994.
Austin SA. Wise KP. Nautiloid mass-kill event at a hydrothermal mound within the Redwall Limestone (Mississippian), Grand Canyon. Abstracts with Programs -Geological Society of America. 1995; 27(6):369.
Baker VR. The Spokane flood controversy and the Martian outflow channels. Science 1978; 202:1249-56.
Beus SS. Redwall limestone and surprise canyon formation; in Beus SS, Morales M. (editors) Grand Canyon Geology: New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Chapter 8.
Brand LR, Tang T. Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of northern Arizona: Evidence for underwater origin. Geology 1991:19 (12): 1201-4.
Bretz JH The Lake Missoula floods and the Channeled Scablands. Journal of Geology 1969: 77 (5): 505-43.
Chadwick AV. Megabreccias: Evidence for catastrophism. Origins 1978; 5:39-46.
Cohn NRC Noah's Flood: the Genesis story in Western thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Dalrymple GB, Hamblin WK. K-Ar ages of Pleistocene lava dams in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 1998:95: 9744-9.
Gillispie CC. Genesis and Geology: a Study in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790-1850. New York: Harper Brothers, 1959.
Gish DT. More creationist research. Part 1b: Geological research. Creation Research Society Quarterly. 1989: 25 (4): 161.
Hallam A. A Revolution in the Earth Sciences: from Continental Drift to Plate Tectonics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
Heaton TH. A young Grand Canyon? Skeptical Inquirer, 1995:19 (3): 33-7.
Ilg BR, Karlstrom KE, Hawkins DP, Williams M L, Tectonic evolution of Paleoproterozoic rocks in the Grand Canyon: Insights into middle-crustal processes: Geological Society of America Bulletin, 1996:108(9): 1149-66.
Larson EE, Patterson PE, Mutschler FE. Lithology, chemistry, age and origin of the Proterozoic Cardenas Basalt, Grand Canyon, Arizona. Precambrian Research 1994 : 65 (1-4): 255-76.
Lockley M, Hunt AP. Dinosaur Tracks. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995:40-5.
Lope DB. Comment and Reply on "Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of Arizona: Evidence for underwater origin". Geology 1992:20, Nr 7, 667-8.
McKee ED. A Study of Global Sand Seas: Ancient Sandstones Considered to be Eolian. US Geological Survey Professional Paper Nr 1052. US Geological Survey, Reston (VA), 1979.
Middleton LT, Elliot DK. Tonto Group; in Beus SS, Morales M. (editors) Grand Canyon Geology: New York: Oxford University Press, 1990; Chapter 6.
Middleton LT, Elliot DK, Morales M. Coconino Sandstone; in Beus SS, Morales M. (editors). Grand Canyon Geology: New York: Oxford University Press, 1990; Chapter 10.
Moore JL. Comment on "Mississippian and Cambrian strata interbedding: 200-million-year hiatus in question." Creation Research Society Quarterly 1996.
Morris HM. Biblical Cosmology and Modern Science. Phillipsburg (NJ): Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1970, p 32-3. (cited by K Harding at accessed 4/2/1999.
Scott EC. Antievolution and creationism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 1997: 26.
Waisgerber W, Howe GF, Williams EL. Mississippian and Cambrian strata interbedding: 200-million-year hiatus in question. Creation Research Society Quarterly, 1987: 23: 160-5.
Whitcomb JC and Morris HM. The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications. Grand Rapids (MI): Baker Book House, 1964.
Wilfred A Elders,
University of California
Department of Earth Sciences
Riverside CA 92521-0423
Evolution-creation controversies contribute their fair share of popular misinformation that spreads all the faster with the help of modern communications. Perhaps the best examples are the Darwin "deathbed conversion" story of Darwin's expressing regret for publishing his ideas on evolution (see review of "The Darwin Legend" by Kevin Padian in NCSE Reports 1996; 16(1):3, 8) and the "Mantracks" claims that fossilized human and dinosaur footprints are found side by side in Glenrose, Texas (see "The Paluxy River Footprint Mystery — Solved", a special edition of Creation/Evolution nr 25; 1985). Even though leading "creation-science" advocates have disavowed these claims, they're still in circulation, making their way from outdated library books to websites, public lectures, and letters to newspaper editors.
Now several members of NCSE have added another legend, this time from the "evolution side". It all began on April 1, 1998, when Mark Boslough e-mailed to several friends a satirical "press release" reporting an Alabama legislator's sponsorship of a bill requiring schools in the state to teach that pi=3. Dave Thomas, NCSE member and also president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR), posted the piece on Talk.Origins , the Internet newsgroup whose participants discuss and debate evolution and "creation science." The story was filled with amusing references to key individuals and events in the struggle to have evolution included in New Mexico's science curriculum. (For example, "Alabama legislator Leonard Lee Lawson" was modeled after NM state senator Leonard Lee Rawson, who argued against evolution by brandishing a stuffed monkey which he declared was "not my uncle".) It also contained several clues that it was in fact a joke, such as a web address of "April/fool/html". Late on the day the spoof was first posted, an explanation was also posted to the same newsgroup.
By then, however, the legend was out of the bag. After 2 weeks had passed, Thomas was able to find hundreds of internet postings of the story, some of them reporting it as a genuine press release — all the easier to believe since the wire service name had mutated.
When 1999 rolled around, the original pranksters decided to try it again, but better. They topped their 1998 performance on April 1, 1999, when they launched www.darwindisproved.com. Complete with photographs of what appeared to be partially unearthed, fossilized bones of a dinosaur swallowing a hominid, the site unfolded a tale of excitement and intrigue. In broken English, "Stefan", a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg, describes coming to New Mexico to work with his American mentor, Prof Heinschvagel (resemblance to "hornswoggle" fully intended). And then...
We found a fossil of a hominid, being eaten by an allosaurus dinosaur. Look at the picture1/4. The dinosaur is apparently trying to eat the cave-man, and then both became killed in some event. Perhaps the allosaurus choked on his food.
Intrigue? Did I mention skullduggery? That's right! A cover-up!
Of course, it is the impossible in Darwin's theory for hominids to have been lived 140 million years ago.... All the evidence of this incredible find has been taken away. Except for a few photos which I managed to keep.... [O]ne of the guards came and made me give him all of the film. He said it would be very bad if I did not cooperate... I was so scared and worried that I forgot about the roll that had the 8 shots. When we returned to Albuquerque, I remembered and hid the films till I returned home. Now my friend has been putting them on the internet so everyone can learn what has happened, and how they are covering it all up.
...They told us not to discuss it with anyone, and that no one would believe us, and that our geology careers would be ruined, but mostly that other scientists would rush to publish it first if word of this find was exposed.... It is all being covered up because the scientists think their [sic] going to lose their jobs if everyone learns evolution wasn't true after all. Only I can tell the story. I can not reveal my true name, but my wonderful American friend is helping me to reveal the Truth to the whole World.
Other photos on the site included "graduate students" ("conspirators" David E Thomas, Kim Johnson, and their children) making casts of the "fossil" and a car labeled "New Mexico State Resources" (same initials as "New Mexicans for Science and Reason", of which Thomas is President.)
The site recorded over 1000 hits in the month before a full explanation was posted, ending with the comment: "Disclaimer: This website was created for the sole purpose of fooling any person who might fall for it."
The "darwindisproved" site drew a lot of email and inspired much speculation. David Thomas reports that, while some of his skeptical email was from creationists, it was only evolutionists who succeeded in tracking down the pranksters. (NCSE member Paul Heinrich traced the domain name to Kim Johnson, and NCSE member Skip Evans contacted Johnson asking for details.) Johnson noted that while many people identified the site as a hoax or — more correctly — as a spoof, they didn't always give the "right" reasons. For example, some commented that the site didn't look like part of the Morrison Formation (where the photos were in fact taken), or that black fossils are improbable (while many fossils in the Morrison formation are dark gray or black).
And yes... somebody bit. Thomas has reported that he received email from well-known creationists who demanded more evidence. But there was one who couldn't wait before (in RNCSE editor Anj Petto's words) taking the bait "hoax, line, and sinker". NCSE members who attended an anti-evolution lecture on May 7 at Philadelphia's Calgary Chapel report that "Dr Dino" (aka Kent Hovind) urged the audience to see the "evidence against evolution" at www.darwindisproved.com.
In an article appearing in the October 1998 First Things, William A Dembski announced the existence of rigorous and reliable means for detecting the action of an intelligent agent. Its description and justification, said Dembski, would be found in the pages of his new book, The Design Inference (TDI). Dembski made a special point of applying a criterion he called complexity-specification to biological phenomena, with the claim that biologists must now admit design into their science.
Dembski's TDI is a slim and scholarly volume, as one expects from a distinguished academic press. Dembski employs clear writing, illustrative examples, and cogent argumentation. The work, though, is motivated and informed by an anti-evolutionary impulse, and its flaws appear to follow from the need to achieve a particular religious aim. The anti-evolutionary bent is not as overt here, though, as it is in other works by Dembski and his colleagues Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Paul Nelson, and Stephen Meyer at the Discovery Institute Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The closest that Dembski comes within the pages of TDI to staking out an explicit position on evolutionary issues is in Section 2.3, where a "case study" is made of "the creation-evolution controversy". In it, Dembski accuses evolutionary biologists of rejecting one or more premises of his Design Inference in order to avoid reaching a conclusion of design for biological phenomena. Of course, for "Intelligent Design" creationists, as it was for William Paley, it is not sufficient merely to prove that something was intelligently designed, it is also essential that the agent of design be identified as the God of the Bible. But TDI carefully avoids explicit religious referents, even separating "evidence for design" from "evidence of agency".
In my opinion, Dembski's Design Inference fails to identify reliably phenomena due to design by an intelligent agent because of its logic, and because it fails to consider additional mechanisms (like natural selection) that could produce a designed effect. In the following review, I shall attempt to explain why this is so.
Dembski deploys a large number of specialized terms and phrases in making his argument that design must be recognized as a necessary mode of explanation in science. Fortunately, Dembski generally makes clear what each term means, even when it also has a common or casual usage. Design is one of those terms, and in Dembski's usage it becomes a category defined by the elimination of events that can be attributed to regularity or to chance. Regularity is equivalent to high probability - an event will that "(almost) always happen" (p 36). Chance applies to any event with intermediate or low probability, but for which no specification exists. A specified event conforms to a pattern that is determined in advance or can be given independently of the event.
"Specification" needs further description. Dembski illustrates the meaning of specifications which allow us to reject chance explanations by contrasting them to fabrications which do not. For an archer to hit 100 bull's-eyes is not chance; we would conclude that the archer had great skill. But if the pattern of 100 bull's-eyes was obtained by the archer's shooting the arrows and then drawing targets around them, we would not make the same conclusion. The pattern of 100 arrows and bull's-eyes would be the same in each situation, but because we had specified in advance certain characteristics (like the bull's-eye being on the wall before the arrow was shot), we can eliminate chance in the former situation and attribute the performance to skill.
Complexity-specification describes how the jointly-held attributes of complexity (events of low probability) and specification (previously-determined pattern) reveal the presence of design in an event. And design thus becomes any event with both a low probability and an independently-given pattern. Another way to look at Dembski's Design Inference is that complexity excludes high- and intermediate-probability events, specification excludes chance events, and regularity comprises events marked by high probability. Therefore, complexity-specification yields those events that fall into the exclusionary category of design as Dembski uses the term - events that are of low probability and not due to chance.
For Dembski, the Design Inference is a deductive argument which can lead to the recognition of complexity-specification, and thus design, for a particular event. Since these 3 categories (regularity, chance, and design) embrace all events, and design is established by elimination of the other two categories, design is thus the set-theoretical complement of regularity and chance.
Dembski applies what he calls his "Explanatory Filter" to determine design. Complete with flowchart (p 37), the Explanatory Filter has 3 decision nodes. In step 1, if an event is deemed to have high probability, it is classified as due to a regularity, or rather that the event can be explained through law-like physical processes. An as-yet unclassified event then moves on to the second decision node. If it has intermediate probability, it is classified as due to chance. Thus-far unclassified events (which have low probability) then move on to the third decision node. If the event both has a low probability and also conforms to a specification, it is classified as due to design; if it has low probability and is unspecified, it is classified as due to chance.
It is time to look more closely at Dembski's Design Inference, to find out whether it does allow us to detect design by the elimination of alternative mechanisms. The Design Inference is a deductive argument based on the elimination of alternatives. Such arguments only work if the conclusion is the result of exhausting the available alternatives. Dembski assures us that this is the case by defining design as what is left after regularity and chance have been eliminated. Thus, what "design" means depends upon the way that regularity and chance are eliminated.
Dembski offers 2 somewhat different methods for eliminating regularity. In the first, regularity is recognized if an event has a high probability of occurrence. This is part of his discussion of the Explanatory Filter. The second method identifies an event that conforms to relevant natural laws, but is not constrained by them, and thus is not attributable to those laws. This method is discussed in relation to Dembski's Design Inference (p 53). It is not clear that each of these 2 methods would classify the same set of events as not being due to regularity. This ambiguity increases our uncertainty concerning the residue that is left over to be classified as either chance or design.
Dembski throughout TDI claims that deduction leads ineluctably and conclusively to certain events' being due to design. The catch is that Dembski is using his own definition of design, where design is simply the residue that remains after chance and regularity are eliminated. But there are alternative filters that better fit reality. I will illustrate one such alternative with an example filter of my own.
My alternative Explanatory Filter has 4, not 3 nodes.
My alternative Explanatory Filter differs in several critical ways. First, the ordering of decisions is different. Dembski justifies his choice of order with an explication of explanatory priority (p 38-40). But Dembski's arguments for eliminating regularity before eliminating chance are neither convincing nor reflective of how people ordinarily explain things. Random events conform well to the null hypothesis (that is, that the event is due to chance and not to design or regularity) and should be eliminated first in determination of causation.
Dembski's own example of a pair of loaded dice to show why regularity has explanatory priority over chance demonstrates that his filter has the order reversed. He explains that because the loaded dice yield high probabilities that certain faces will come up, the explanation to be preferred is regularity. However, Dembski ignores the fact that in order to determine that regularity and not chance is at work with the loaded dice, we must compare the rolls of the dice to the expectation for "fair" dice. Only when chance has been eliminated can we then entertain the notion that the results for the particular loaded dice in question are due to a regularity. In point of fact, with sufficient testing and knowledge of the circumstances, the loaded dice example resolves into an instance of design, not regularity. This does not mean that design then has explanatory priority. Rather, it illustrates the superior explanatory power of my alternative filter in which chance must be considered and rejected before either regularity or design can be concluded.
A second advantage to my Explanatory Filter is its additional classification of unknown causation. This alternative recognizes that the set of knowledge used to make a classification can alter the classification. By allowing an event to be classified as having unknown causation, I simultaneously reduce the number of false classifications that will later be overturned by additional information and identify those events whose circumstances require further study in order to identify a causative factor. The use of unknown causation as a category is common in such day-to-day operations of humans looking for design in events, such as in forensics. Forcing final classification of events when knowledge is limited ensures that mistakes in classification will be made when Dembski's Explanatory Filter is employed.
A third advantage to my alternative Explanatory Filter is that the common meaning of "design" is retained as a reliable indicator of "agency". We recognize design in our day-to-day life because of prior experience with objects and events designed or caused by intelligent agents. It is important to recognize that there is a difference between a reliable classifier and a design detector. The goal of such an exercise should be to classify events accurately, not to just single out the designed ones.
Dembski utilizes the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project as an example of detecting design without particular knowledge of a designer. But SETI can only detect signals that possess certain properties known from prior experience of humans communicating via radio wavelengths. SETI works to find events that conform to our prior experience of how intelligent agents use radio wavelengths to communicate. SETI does not support the notion that novel design/designer relationships can be detected. ETI that communicate in ways outside human experience will be invisible to, and undetected by, SETI. The issue of agency, in fact, deserves more attention. Like many "Intelligent Design" creationists, Dembski tries to avoid mentioning the "designer", and in fact, promotes his Explanatory Filter as being superior because it supposedly separates agency from design (TDI p 8, 36, 226-7).
One may wonder what TDI was supposed to accomplish, if design no longer means what Paley meant by it and the attribution of agency no longer necessarily follows from finding design. When he assures the reader that design does not imply agency, Dembski seems to want things both ways: one can detect design without implying agency, though one is justified in inferring agency when one sees design. But is it a secure inference? According to Dembski, because humans identify human agency using reasoning equivalent to the Explanatory Filter, the Explanatory Filter encapsulates our general method for detecting agency. Because TDI is equivalent to the Explanatory Filter, if we conclude design through the TDI, we also must conclude agency.
The apparent, but unstated, logic behind the move from design to agency can be given as follows:
This is an inductive argument. Notice that by the second step, one must eliminate from consideration precisely those biological phenomena which Dembski wishes to categorize. In order to conclude intelligent agency for biological examples, the possibility that intelligent agency is not operative is excluded a priori. This is stacking the deck.An intelligent agent reveals itself by making choices, or in Dembski's terms, directed contingency. An intelligent agent chooses "from a range of competing possibilities" (p 62), and does so by actualizing "one among several competing possibilities", excluding the rest, and specifying (ahead of time) what is to be chosen. Dembski claims this triad of criteria - actualization-exclusion-specification - is sufficient for establishing that an intelligent agent has been at work and finds that design as he defines it is congruent with these criteria.
One large problem is that directed contingency or choice is not an attribute solely of events that result from the intervention of an intelligent agent. Both directed contingency and the triad itself can be explained quite adequately by natural selection as a cause. Actualization occurs as heritable variation arises. Exclusion results as some heritable variations lead to differential reproductive success. Specification occurs as environmental conditions specify which variations are preferred. One might thus conclude that Dembski's argument establishes that natural selection can be recognized as an intelligent agent. By my reading, Dembski's argument supports a position that biologists can embrace a conclusion of design for an event of biological origin and still attribute that event to the agency of natural selection.
It is an error to argue from the casual meanings of regularity, chance, and design when discussing causes for events classified by Dembski's Explanatory Filter or by TDI. Someone might seek to exclude natural selection from consideration as a source of events that meet the criteria of design by claiming that it is either a regularity or chance. But TDI classifies events, not causes. Dembski points this out himself when he says that using the Explanatory Filter may not always lead to a conclusion of design for an event that we know is due to the action of an intelligent agent, because agents can mimic the results of regularity or chance.
The point is more significant than Dembski admits. A causal class cannot be classified into regularity or chance in advance without begging the question. Specifically, one cannot state in advance that natural selection is either regularity or chance because the events which are due to natural selection must be evaluated by their own properties to establish which category best describes those events. Just as intelligent agents can sometimes produce events which appear to be due to regularity or chance rather than design, so too can natural selection be responsible for events in all 3 categories. It is insufficient to show that some examples of natural selection fall into either the "regularity" or "chance" explanatory categories. When arguing that no physical process is the agent producing a designed event, one must show that natural selection is incapable in principle of producing events with the attribute of design. Such a demonstration would have to address the application of natural selection in both biology and computer science, where use of the principle of natural selection has been employed in solving very difficult optimization problems.
In summary, the process of detecting design, as it is done by humans in day-to-day activities, is not accurately captured by Dembski's Explanatory Filter. The order in which classes of causes are eliminated makes a difference. Humans attempting to explain phenomena can and often do find insufficient evidence to make a final determination of either design or any other explanation. And when humans use the word design, they typically mean it to carry a real implication of being due to an agent or designer.
Second, Dembski's Explanatory Filter does not help us to identify the cause or the agent of the "specifications" which it seeks to classify. That there is an agent or that the agent is "intelligent" must be concluded prior to applying the Design Inference. Using Dembski's own criteria, we cannot rule out natural selection as a cause for the design found in the events and organisms around us. Somehow, I doubt that natural selection is what Dembski has in mind for the author of design.
Dembski utilizes the Explanatory Filter and equivalent logical arguments in order to place his criterion of design on a deductive footing. That criterion, complexity-specification, does not help us to identify a cause, or an agent, of an event. Its sole purpose is to detect design as Dembski employs the term. The step from detection of design to inference of an intelligent agent is made by an inductive argument, and shares in the problems of all conclusions drawn from an inductive basis. Dembski argues that a triad of criteria reliably diagnoses the action of an intelligent agent, yet this same triad of criteria fails to exclude natural selection as a possible cause of events that have the attribute of complexity-specification. Again, I doubt that natural selection is what Dembski had in mind for the agent of biological design.
The Design Inference is a work with great significance for those anti-evolutionists who have embraced "intelligent design" as their organizing principle and see that Dembski's TDI is supposed to establish the theoretical foundation for all the rest of the movement (see, for example, comments posted on the web at http://www.discovery.org/fellows/design.html). My judgment is that it fails to lay a solid foundation. There are flaws and cracks that can admit the entry of naturalistic causes into the pool of "designed" events. It is unfortunate that Dembski's focus is the establishment of "intelligent design" as an anti-evolutionary alternative, for his insights into elimination of chance hypotheses would appear to have legitimate application to various outstanding research questions, such as certain issues in animal cognition and intelligence. Despite Dembski's commentary in his First Things article, there appears to be no justification for the claim that biologists must now admit design (in its old, agency-laden sense) into biological explanation.
Dembski WA. Science and design. First Things 1998 Oct; 86:21-2. http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9810/dembski.html. Accessed April 8, 1999.
Dembski WA. The Design Inference. Center for Renewal of Science & Culture Fellows Publications, http://www.discovery.org/fellows/design.html. Accessed May 31, 1999.
Dembski WA. The Explanatory Filter: A three-part filter for understanding how to separate and identify cause from intelligent design. http://www.origins.org/real/ri9602/dembski.html Accessed March 8,1999.
Dembski WA. Intelligent design as a theory of information. Conference on Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise (Austin, Texas). http://www.dla.utexas.edu/depts/philosophy/faculty/koons/ntse/papers/Dembski.html Accessed March 8, 1999.
[Find an expanded version of this review on the web at http://inia.cls.org/~welsberr/zgists/wre/papers/dembski7.html. Thanks to Bob Schadewald and others who gave helpful commentary on drafts of this review.]
[Long-time NCSE member and activist Bill Thwaites carefully monitors regular publications from the Institute for Creation Research. Bill has offered to provide us with a synopsis and critique of the salient features from the ICR's monthly Acts & Facts, which we gladly accepted. Ed.]
I hope that my writing a review of the February 1999 issue of Acts and Facts from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) will help illuminate some of the issues in the evolution/creation discussion. I have long enjoyed interpreting each month's mailing and sharing my findings and speculations with my good friend, the late Frank Awbrey. Recently NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott suggested that I share my thoughts with RNCSE readers.
Not Pleasing Anyone — Poor ICR! For purposes of convincing the scientific community that it is wrong about the age of the earth and the existence of biological evolution, the ICR must appear as secular and scientific as possible. The same appearance is handy in selling "scientific creationism" to the public schools and in maintaining ICR's accreditation as a graduate institute of science. On the other hand, for purposes of garnering financial support, ICR must appear to be as religious and evangelical as the "700 Club."
In the February 1999 issue of Acts and Facts, as well as in the accompanying fund-raising letter from the director John Morris, the emphasis is on evangelism. There is also a not-so-subtle appeal for "liberal" creationists to get back on board with regard to the young age of the earth. It would seem that just about everyone is carping at ICR for one thing or another.
Philosophical Naturalism — Both the elder and the junior Morrises of ICR seem to be impressed by Phillip Johnson's tirades against "philosophical naturalism". Morris the elder (Henry) writes that the evil atheistic cosmologists seem to be bent upon explaining the universe without God. Morris the younger (John) complains that naturalistic evolution falsely leads scientists to suppose that they will be able understand how cells and the genetic code originated.
As a biologist, I hasten to add that I'm gratified to see physical scientists criticized for "naturalism" the way biologists so frequently are. The complaints about cosmology show that creationists are fair-minded when it comes to complaints about "naturalism." They are not out just to get biologists. When the creationists are finished with their crusade, we will have theistic geometry, theistic addition, and so on. And I could happily go along with that if a reliable "theometer" is ever invented.
Taking on the Difficult Questions — We have read previously that ICR and its friends are going to put radioactive dating to rest once and for all. In this issue we learn that ICR is going to take on yet another daunting task — to discover the origin of pathogens (micro-organisms that cause disease). Somehow ICR must show that the diabolical mechanisms used to establish and maintain infections were not preprogrammed by a creator who knew in advance that mankind would fail. At the same time, ICR must also show that the more elaborate mechanisms (for example, the ability of many internal parasites to change "protein coats" to avoid recognition by the immune system) did not evolve.
If they admit to either preprogramming or to subsequent evolution, it would seem to weaken their case. On the one hand, an admission of preprogramming would cast doubt on their particular scriptural interpretation. An evolutionary explanation would also be painful. It would undermine the creationist insistence that nothing elaborate could have evolved. I look forward to seeing how they get out of this one almost as much as I anticipate their disproof of radioactive dating.
Impact #308 — In the February "Impact" article, we read a slightly reworked version of an old creationist claim. It goes something like this: "If evolutionary improvements stem from the selection of good mutations, then we should find many examples of good mutations in a typical species." Then the creationist goes to a list of genetic diseases and shows, wonder of wonders, that all the mutations in the list cause disease.
Of course the "good" mutations that evolution depends on are to be found in the variability that we see in any out-breeding population that has not recently come through a population bottleneck. In our own species, we see this as variations in resistance to infectious diseases, longevity, height, ability to succeed at school, resistance to ultraviolet light, resistance to various forms of cancer, and so on. In only a few cases have we been able to identify specific genes responsible for this variability, but the case for the genetic origin of these variations is well established.
And there is another way of looking at the claim that good mutations never happen — with a simple computer program. At San Diego State University we made a program that produced random letter changes that we scored against a target sentence. Those that were the closest to the target sentence were saved as "parents" for the next round of mutation and selection.
Very high mutation rates did not allow the reaching of the target sentence. Very low mutation rates made the achievement of "perfection" extremely slow. But when "perfection" had been achieved, all subsequent mutations were harmful. To a limited extent, that is what happens with real species. While "perfection" might be a bit of an exaggeration, any species that thrives is close to its "target" (that is, reasonably well adapted to its environment). Once that state is achieved, therefore, all subsequent single gene mutations are much more likely to be "bad" than good — that is, more likely to move the "sentence" farther from instead of closer to its target. A computer program elaborate enough to save alternative sentences that had the same meaning as the target sentence could be used to demonstrate this process of the accumulation of good mutations. As usual, there is an experiment which could resolve this apparent problem for the incorporation of useful mutations which could be done, but won't be — at least not by the ICR.