Defending Evolution from ID Distortions

Posts tagged “catastrophism

Modern Geology and the Principle of Uniformity

The principle of uniformity holds that “the present if the key to the past.”  That is to say that the processes that are in motion today were also in motion in the distant past. There are various reasons why Young Earth Creationists object to this particular geologic principle arguing that it is both inaccurate and untenable; several of their reasons being based on misunderstandings of how this principle is applied in modern geology.  Creationist publications from organizations from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and Creation Ministries International (CMI) represent the principle of uniformity (uniformitarianism) as a concept that “evolutionists” need. The reasoning behind this is that this principle demands that the earth be much older that 6,000 years, and that nobody would “believe” in Darwinian evolution if the earth were to be believed to be so young.

The two main objections to the principle of uniformity are:

  1. The concept rules out a priory the possibility that any unusual events could possibly have happened. That is to say, YECs argue that uniformity, from the get-go, rules out  large-scale cataclysmic events such as the “global” flood of Noah. They then argue that events like the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens as well as the remains of so called “polystrate” fossils are inconsistent with conventional geology and therefore prove the YEC alternative “catastrophic” model.
  2. The principle does not allow for change in rates such as erosion rates, sedimentation rates, etcetera. The impression is that if it can be shown that certain rates have been demonstrated to have changed, then the principle is therefore false which, in their minds, would be a major blow to evolutionary theory as well as conventional geology. 

On the first objection, YECs seem frustrated that their universal, global deluge is not acknowledged by conventional geology, and so they have proposed their catastrophic model as an alternative. YECs tend to present the modern geologists as blinded by their uniformitarian principle that rules out unusual events in the past, and therefore blinded to the evidence of a global deluge that occurred at around 5,000 years ago. — However, a little research combined with logic shows that this particular objection to uniformity is misguided and based on a misunderstanding. That is to say, conventional geologists do not rule out that global cataclysmic events can happen. Certainly there is the fact that the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago would have been a universal disaster. We also have the geologic evidence for the event; the remains of the impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula, and a layer of iridium found at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary which has been found in numerous locations throughout the world.  — Other mass extinctions have also been detected as happening in the last 440 million years:

The fact that mass extinction events have been proposed based on pieces of geologic evidence is by itself an indication that conventional scientists do not rule out the possible occurrence of unusual events and global disasters. If the evidence demands such an interpretation, then it is proposed. The reason that a universal deluge dating back to about 5,000 years has never been acknowledged has more to do with the lack of evidence than a preconceived notion that it could not have happened.

Also, contrary to claims that the Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption disproves the principle, it actually fits well within it; that is, we see volcanic eruptions happening today, therefore we know they happened in the past, the Santorini eruption in the 17th century BC being a good example. When a certain process happens, like a volcanic eruption, a mudslide, or a flood, it leaves a certain fingerprint, so if we find a similar or identical fingerprint in the geologic strata, then we can assume that a similar process or event was in play at the time as it was laid down. — “The present is the key to the past.”

As for the second objection about the “rates” always being constant, this other particular understanding of uniformity has been applied by YECs in their arguments against an old earth (i.e., the magnetic field decay, continental erosion, ocean sediments, etc.). They reason that if the current rates we see today in these other processes could not possibly be accommodated to suit a 4.5 billion year old earth, then this would count as evidence for a somewhat younger earth. In an online podcast from CMI, YEC speaker Calvin Smith then argues that this is problematic for assuming that Radiometric decay had remained constant saying that it is not right to pick and chose when rates may or may not have changed. 

Well, of course, this logic is flawed for several reasons; one of them being that there is evidence that the rates of erosion, sedimentation, and the magnetic field decay rate have indeed varied. However, the rate of radiometric decay is another story; it has been tested and observed under numerous, extreme conditions and yet the rate hadn’t been altered. There were three instances where half-lives have been altered, but they are irrelevant to the conventional dating methods and do not affect the dates of rocks either on earth or on other planets, as two of them are extraterrestrial (i.e., fast-moving matter in space though no rock in our solar system is moving fast enough to affect the date, and physical conditions at the center of stars).

What this shows is that YECs have a distorted view of the uniformitarian principle… It would be unfair to say that these criticisms of the principle would never have been true, since they would have been earlier when modern geology was coming around. What has to be mentioned is that before, geologists had practiced a variety of uniformity now called substantive uniformitarianism. Today, however, geologists have long rejected that version in favor of another called methodological uniformitarianism… The variety that YECs spend their time knocking down is the one no longer practiced. Today’s geology does not rule out the possibility of unusual events and massive disasters; in fact they fit in well with uniformity.  Also, the idea that all rate accumulations must have been the same for all times in all cases is not a concept in uniformity either; the process in play may have existed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they constantly happen with the same intensity. 

The Dinosaur Extinction Page
Historical Perspectives: This Dynamic Earth. From the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Increased sedimentation rates and grain sizes 2-4 myr years ago due to the influence of climate change on erosion rates, (2 March 2001) by Zhang Peizhen, Peter Molnar, and William R. Downs. From Nature.
Reversals: Magnetic Flip, From the British Geological Survey
Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective , by  Dr. Roger C. Wiens (2002) From the American Scientific Affiliation.
Flood Geology is Uniformitarian!, by Davis A. Young (1979). From the American Scientific Affiliation. Published in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.

Recommended Reading:
Twelve Fallacies of Uniformitarianism, by James H. Shea (September, 1982). From the Geological Society of America.
Uniformitarianism: World of Earth Science. From
Catastrophism or Uniformitarianism?,  by Greg Neyman (29 January 2003). From Answers in Creation.
G321: Many Geologic Features are Catastrophic in Nature, by Greg Neyman (2005). From Answers in Creation.
CD200: Uniformitarian assumption is untenable, by Mark Isaak (2004). From the Talk.Origins Archive.