Geologists Explain Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Geologists Explain Evolution
Wilfred A Elders
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

On December 16, 2000, geologists at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco held a special session entitled "Explaining Evolution". It was a spectacular success, if we can judge from the attendance — standing room only for the whole morning. The atmosphere was charged, with an attentive audience, which included at least one vocal creationist, John R Baumgardner from the Fluid Dynamics Program of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Brent Dalrymple, the author of that well-known text The Age of the Earth, began by discussing "The Creation/Evolution Issue: Why Should Earth and Space Scientists Care?" He pointed out that young-earth creationists (YECs) include the history of the earth in their definition of evolution. They try to accommodate the expansion of the universe and radiometric dating within their 10,000-year time frame by arguing that, since the Fall of Adam, the speed of light has increased by a factor of 200 million and radioactive decay constants have increased by a factor of 750,000. These requirements in turn force Planck's constant to increase by many orders of magnitude. All of this would lead to a universe that does not work. For example, before the Fall, each atom undergoing radioactive decay would have released energy equivalent to that of an exploding tactical nuclear weapon.

During the question period, the first response was from John Baumgardner. He began by saying that as a committed Christian he was insulted by Dalrymple's characterization of creationists. He expressed his disappointment that the AGU had not invited speakers to present creationist arguments. His exchanges with Dalrymple became quite heated. This made me apprehensive that he would later come after me because in my presentation I would use a slide making fun of one of Baumgardner's sillier ideas — that giant whirlpools on the continents allowed dinosaurs and other large animals to survive until late in Noah's flood, thus explaining why their fossils occur high in the geologic column.

Readers may remember that Baumgardner was featured in the article entitled "The Geophysics of God" in US News & World Report in June 1997 (see RNCSE 1997; 17 [3]: 29-32). He was attending the AGU meeting as the co-author of 4 papers concerning dynamic modeling of the Earth's mantle. However, none of his papers gave even a hint of applicability to a creationist paradigm, whether YEC or any other sort. So it is difficult to see how the results he presented could produce the changes in the values of physical parameters necessary to make plate tectonics happen in 6000 years.

Leo Laporte, a paleontologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz, then talked about "Darwinian Descent with Modification". He made 4 points about the paleontological record: (1) fossils are remains of once-living organisms; (2) fossils occur in rock sequences in temporal order; (3) the absolute ages of these sequences can be determined from radiometric dating; (4) the fossil record provides many examples of transformation of anatomical features through time — for example, the transition from amphibians to reptiles, the evolution of mammalian ear ossicles, and so on. He ended by summarizing his credo that it is the methodology of science that matters, rather than its content.

Baumgardner responded by stating that evolution is not supported by paleontology and challenged Laporte to state his epistemology. Laporte repeated his scientific credo. Baumgardner pressed him again. Eugenie Scott interjected that they were at cross-purposes because Baumgardner was not distinguishing between epistemology and metaphysics. Although scientists should share a common epistemology, she said, they can hold widely different metaphysical positions.

John Hafernik, a molecular biologist from San Francisco State University, then spoke on "Testing Evolutionary Hypotheses: Application of New Developments in Computing and Molecular Biology". His talk was about the advantages of using molecular data for evolutionary studies. Genetic data can be obtained from all kinds of organisms. It provides direct measures of amounts and rates of divergence as well as a nearly unlimited number of characters to analyze. His examples included cladograms of chipmunks and carp.

Lee Allison, the Director of the Kansas Geological Survey, followed with a talk on "Stealth Creationism: The Assault on Teaching Evolution in Kansas". He reviewed for us the political background to the Kansas State Board of Education decision to drop evolution from the state science standards. He pointed out the strong ties between the Board of Education and the conservative wing of the Republican Party of Kansas, and the influence on the Board's actions exerted by the Creation Science Association of Mid-America. He outlined the actions being taken by the Kansas Citizens for Science to redress the decision. I felt that this was an excellent background to my talk later in the morning.

John Geissman, from the University of New Mexico and a member of the AGU Committee on Public Affairs, spoke about "Teaching Geosciences: Challenges and Opportunities". This talk was mostly about how he handles the issue of creationist challenges in teaching large freshman college classes on physical geology. I feel that, although it is important to treat this issue judiciously at the college level, the main challenges lie in the K-12 arena.

Robert Hazen, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the author of the popular book Science Matters, gave a talk on "Teaching the Teachers About Evolution and the Nature of Science: Lessons from the NRC's Working Group on Teaching Evolution". As the title suggests, he was a member of the National Research Council committee that produced the 1998 publication Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. His paper was perhaps the most philosophical presentation. He posed the question "Are science and religion completely separate domains of knowledge?" He suggested that the issues are not black and white. Many religious beliefs are informed by empirical fact, and we should use the scientific method to decide empirical issues.

My talk considered a more limited, but more practical question, "Should We Teach Both Evolution and Creationism?: The Case of the Grand Canyon". After reviewing the fairness issue, I posed the question "If we were to give equal time, what textbooks would we use?" I took the geology and paleontology of the Grand Canyon as my test case, quoting liberally from the writings of YECs Gary Parker, Steven Austin, and Larry Vardiman (who cites Baumgardner on whirlpools). I showed how their interpretations were totally at variance with the standard geological interpretations. I suggested that the burden of proof lies with the creationists. Discussing various published pieces of creationist research on the Grand Canyon, I argued that they are wrong, trivial, or irrelevant. Giving equal time to creationism requires us to teach bad science (and, in my opinion, bad religion).

The concluding talk, by NCSE's Eugenie C Scott, was on "Evolution and the American Public: Perceptions Differ Outside the World of Science". She reviewed the 3 reasons why YEC has such a hold in the US (in contrast to more enlightened countries such as my own — the UK). First, the early European settlers were congregational rather than hierarchical. In the early years of this century, fundamentalism and biblical ignorance rose to the fore. Second, unlike in the rest of the world, the US has a decentralized educational system. Third, in the US there is a cultural imperative of fairness, exploited by the YECs. Having had their efforts to require equal time in the classroom thwarted by the courts, they are using different tactics, such as influencing textbook adoptions, banning the teaching of evolution, and proposing "intelligent design theory" as the thin leading wedge to open up academia to anti-evolutionary thinking.

The formal lecture session was followed by a 90-minute strategy workshop on "Promoting Good Science: Countering Creationism in Public Schools", at which Eugenie Scott was the principal speaker. We were given an excellent notebook prepared by the AGU Public Affairs Office full of good advice. All the front-line troops fighting this battle should have this ammunition.

John Baumgardner continued his vocal opposition. He criticized the Public Affairs committee of the AGU for providing a forum for the National Center for Science Education, which he said he regards as an "extremist organization". On the other hand, I would have been most vociferous if the AGU had provided a forum for the Institute for Creation Research to hold a workshop on "Countering Evolution".

Interested readers can examine the abstracts of the papers in this session on the AGU web page at Follow the links through "Meetings, 1999 Fall Meeting, FM99 Programs & Abstracts On-line". To examine the abstracts in the "Explaining Evolution" session, click on keyword EP41A (the code for the evolution session).

About the Author(s): 

Wilfred A Elders
Riverside CA