Extinctions: A Playground for Darwin Storytellers
The fossils show that many species are gone from our planet. But explaining how they went extinct depends on one’s worldview beliefs.
A Silent Record
Nobody questions the fact that many creatures have vanished from our planet; we see their remains in the rocks. As creationist Ken Ham likes to see, there are “billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth.” But how and when did these creatures go extinct? The fossils are not controversial; everyone has access to them. The interpretations of what happened depend on underlying beliefs about origins and change over time.
Creationists, who acknowledge God as Creator of the universe (a God who has revealed Himself in the Bible), take the account of a great Flood in Genesis as historical narrative. That cataclysm is responsible for the fossils, and it occurred not that long ago, they allege, based on detailed genealogies provided, and known histories of people groups who spread out after the Tower of Babel.
There are also extrabiblical clues to this event. Flood legends have been found in many cultures around the world – distant echoes of a catastrophe witnessed by Noah’s and his sons’ families and passed down by word of mouth. Many of these legends involve rescuing their people from a great flood by means of a floating craft. Interestingly, the flood legends tend to differ from the Bible and become more magical with distance from Mesopotamia, showing corruption of the narrative through generations as people migrated farther from the eyewitness accounts.
Not Just the Bible
Numerous other geophysical clues indicate the earth cannot be billions of years old. One in particular, the earth’s magnetic field, is notable because it has been decaying in strength steadily, based on the longest-running continuous measurements of any geophysical process made by direct observation. Projecting the decay curve back just a few tens of thousands of years, it becomes evident that the magnetic field would have been so strong as to render the earth uninhabitable (2 Oct 2019). Incidentally, part of the magnetic field is weakening right now in the southern hemisphere, and scientists are struggling to understand why (Fox News Science). This is but one of some 20 evidences for a young earth inferred using Charles Lyell’s dictum, “the present is the key to the past” – excepting the one-time unique Flood event. For example, the rate of seafloor sediment deposition, the rate of salt buildup in the oceans, and lack of meteor impacts in deep sedimentary rocks support a young earth inference. See this article for more. In addition, CEH has reported numerous evidences from the solar system that are not compatible with millions of years (e.g., 1 May 2019, 7 June 2019, 6 Nov 2019, 7 Nov 2017).
Evolution’s Vast Storytelling Playground
Darwin’s theory, based on Lyell’s slow-and-gradual worldview, loves long ages – indeed, requires them. The assumed age of the earth has been stretching from a few tens of millions of years in Darwin’s day to the current consensus of 4.5 billion years. Ignoring the other indicators of a young earth because of the taint of creationism, they find solace in radiometric dating methods that give the moyboys the millions and billions of years that they want. (CEH reports on flaws found in radiometric dating: e.g., 25 May 2020 on radiocarbon, 12 Jan 2005 on isochrons).
Belief in millions and billions of years is a clever position to take, because it strrrretttcchhes the history of the world into a gigantic map of unobservable prehistory, which serves as a vast playground for storytellers. Readers who recall our ‘How Not to Work a Puzzle’ commentary from 5 Feb 2013 (reproduced below) know that an old-age scenario allows scientists all over the world to speculate endlessly, working on little parts of their puzzle that is scattered over a gym floor with most of the pieces missing.
Upper and Lower Limits
The old-earth view is made to order for job security, because the constraints are few. Creationists seem to be at a disadvantage having to squeeze all of earth history into a few thousand years. One should consider, however, that it is easier to prove an upper limit than a lower limit. Creationists can argue that the earth cannot be older than a particular age by extrapolating just a reasonable bit beyond what is observed; their observation-to-assumption ratio is high. That’s a desirable thing in science; you should maximize observations and minimize assumptions. Old-earthers (including all evolutionists, theistic and otherwise), have a harder time proving that the earth is at least a certain age, because their ratio of observation to assumption is much lower. It’s like signal-to-noise ratio; higher is better.
For instance, creationists can argue that dinosaur soft tissue is at most 10,000 years old, based on what scientists observe about the decay rate of proteins and DNA in the present. Evolutionists, by contrast, cannot say that the soft tissue “is at least” 65 million years old. No human has ever experienced a million years, let alone 65 million. Upper limits have more empirical support, and are more reasonable, because they do not resort to making reckless drafts on the bank of time in order to support a preconceived theory.
Even so, evolutionists require unique catastrophes here and there. The old Lyellian view of slow accumulation of gradual changes doesn’t work for many aspects of the world: the channeled scablands of Washington State, the Deccan Traps volcanic domain in India, and the Chicxulub impact site in the Yucatan. Mt. St. Helens caused some big revisions in what geologists considered possible in one short, rapid event (19 May 2020). Some moyboys will even postulate that Mars had a global flood. But they will never consider a global flood on the earth as the cause of the fossil record, because that sounds too much like creationism. Darwinians despise creationism with a purple passion.
Because the evidence for extinction is clear and world-wide, evolutionists have spread out their catastrophes over hundreds of millions of years. They developed an elaborate, consensus scheme made up of five major world extinctions, each one lasting tens or hundreds of thousands of years. It works well for TV shows like Cosmos 2.0, where Neil deGrasse Tyson can look authoritative talking about them as he walks from diorama to diorama, describing the percentage of animals that died, and how each event cleared the stage for further evolution. Behind the sets, though, storytellers wrangle with timing issues, uncooperative data, and new plot lines. That is where CEH goes to get its information.
“Unless we get a time machine or eyewitnesses, there will always be some uncertainty about what happened in prehistory.” —Dr Richard Klein, Stanford
In the following news on extinctions, watch for uncertainties and admissions of doubt in these recent announcements, and pay attention to the varying physical causes invoked for the extinctions (cf. 6 Oct 2015).
Marshall et al., “UV-B radiation was the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary terrestrial extinction kill mechanism” (Science Advances, 27 May 2020). In this paper, the four authors find a way to drag climate change into the picture as a distraction from what they admit they don’t know. Look at the puny data their story is based on, and remember that correlation is not causation.
There is an unexplained terrestrial mass extinction at the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary (359 million years ago). The discovery in east Greenland of malformed land plant spores demonstrates that the extinction was coincident with elevated UV-B radiation demonstrating ozone layer reduction. Mercury data through the extinction level prove that, unlike other mass extinctions, there were no planetary scale volcanic eruptions. Importantly, the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary terrestrial mass extinction was coincident with a major climatic warming that ended the intense final glacial cycle of the latest Devonian ice age. A mechanism for ozone layer reduction during rapid warming is increased convective transport of ClO. Hence, ozone loss during rapid warming is an inherent Earth system process with the unavoidable conclusion that we should be alert for such an eventuality in the future warming world.
Study shows erosion of ozone layer responsible for mass extinction event (University of Southampton). University press releases are designed to show off the good work their scientists are doing, and this is no exception. The writer tells the smiling story of how its university scientists have proved that erosion of the ozone layer was “responsible” for the extinction. Nobody was there to prove that. It’s only an inference from some pollen spores mixed in with theory about what was evolving at the time. You can envision the animators going to work on illustrations.
During the extinction, plants selectively survived, but were enormously disrupted as the forest ecosystem collapsed. The dominant group of armoured fish became extinct. Those that survived – sharks and bony fish – remain to this day the dominant fish in our ecosystems.
These extinctions came at a key time for the evolution of our own ancestors, the tetrapods. These early tetrapods are fish that evolved to have limbs rather than fins, but still mostly lived in water. Their limbs possessed many fingers and toes. The extinction reset the direction of their evolution with the post-extinction survivors being terrestrial and with the number of fingers and toes reduced to five.
That’s another thing that evolutionists love about extinctions. They clear away the field, so that evolution, the Blind Watchmaker, the master Tinkerer, has new opportunities to go forth and produce miracles by blind chance without purpose or design.
Giant eruptions belched toxic metal during the ‘Great Dying’ (Nature). In another extinction story further down the Darwin timeline, it wasn’t UV-B that killed the unfortunate victims; it was mercury poisoning. What caused that? Darn volcanoes in Siberia. Stating theories as facts, Nature‘s Atmospheric Science editor goes to work on the plot.
Mercury from volcanic eruptions poisoned the planet 252 million years ago during the Great Dying, the greatest extinction in Earth’s history.
Rocks worldwide that formed at the time of this event have high mercury levels. This mercury has been attributed to Siberian volcanoes that poured forth massive amounts of lava during the extinction.
It makes for a good story, except for one thing: it ignores taphonomy. One would think that sick animals would die and decay in place, and fish would rise to the surface and be scavenged. Instead, as Ken Ham likes to say, the fossil record shows “billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth.” Toxic mercury can’t do that. Low ozone can’t do that. The “greatest extinction in Earth’s history” did occur, we know. A global flood could cause billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth. For the sake of Ockham‘s Razor, wouldn’t one catastrophe be better than five, if the one is sufficient to account for the observations?
Asteroid that killed the dinosaurs hit just right for maximum damage (New Scientist). The dinosaur-killing asteroid theory is one of the extinction stories that has almost risen to the status of gospel truth. It must be true, we know, because artists show it happening. Believers point to their smoking gun, a large circular province at the Yucatan Peninsula, as the scar of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. They point to an iridium layer found in many places around the globe. Over the years, however, CEH has reported a tug-of-war between the volcanologists and meteorologists about this extinction (10 Feb 2013, 21 Dec 2014, 22 Apr 2016, 18 Jan 2020). The volcanologists, preferring India’s Deccan Traps lava flows as the cause, point to the lack of subsurface rock damage, and argue that some creatures were already going extinct before the meteor hit. Any theory must account for the fact that all the dinosaurs died—including the biggest and smallest, and all the marine reptiles and pterosaurs—but the survivors of this catastrophe included lizards, snakes, worms, birds, mammals and dainty butterflies.
The new story coming out this week is that the meteor was finely-tuned to cause maximum damage. This was concluded based on computer simulations. Physicists can deduce quite a bit about an impact if they have enough data to measure. A given mass at a given speed and angle will produce a given amount of energy, using laws of physics and experiments with projectiles on surfaces. But in this case, scientists do not have the mass and speed of the impacting object. The impact angle was inferred from asymmetric crystals under the impact site.
A sufficiently massive, fast object could obliterate all life on earth, set the globe on fire and blow off the atmosphere. So whatever hit the Earth in Yucatan, if it did, and when it did, must have been finely tuned to selectively kill small dinosaurs but not lizards, and ceratopsians but not fruit flies. That’s quite a trick if the entire globe lost sunlight from the dust for centuries.
“It’s sort of a perfect storm,” says Collins, which is good news for us today. “This was a very bad day for the dinosaurs, and the more special the circumstances that had to come together to cause this event, the less likely that it’ll happen again.”
Once upon a time, evolutionists despised singular events in their explanations. They wanted the present to be the key to the past. Darwin and Lyell preferred the gradual accumulation of small changes, from causes now in operation, to explain things, and to keep Moses out of the picture. Evolutionists now tout rare, unique, one-time events. And creationists have theirs: a world-wide Flood. To each his own. At least the creationists have a written record. They have puzzle pieces to assemble, too, but at least they kept the box top.
HOW NOT TO WORK A PUZZLE (from 5 Feb 2013)
- Visualize your favorite picture.
- Invite your friends. Check their credentials. If anyone from a “different picture club” tries to sneak in, expel them.
- Make everyone feel good about the picture. Reinforcement can be achieved with a few choice sermonettes from respected individuals.
- Draw a big outline of the picture on the floor. A gymnasium is good for this step.
- Open the box and spill out the pieces.
- Throw away the box top and the instructions. After all, this is science. We do it our way.
- Form teams and pass out the puzzle pieces. These can be distributed by color, shape, or any other useful scheme.
- Allow each team to work on their part of the picture. Rearrangement of small parts is permitted, but not changes to the outline.
- The rules allow for complaints about how hard the work is. If anyone complains about the big picture, though, they must be expelled.
- Every two years, throw a party with booze and croissants and let each team share their experiences. Throw in a few more choice sermonettes to keep spirits high.
- Report to the media on the progress being made.
- Draw up a curriculum and teach the next generation how to work the puzzle.
Note: Mature, well-trained, experienced readers can skip this section.
- Philosophy of discovery: Theories do not emerge from raw data. More often, scientists begin with a picture in mind. Even deciding what to call “the data” requires a human choice, because not all inputs are relevant to the picture. Like Benner said, “science is often what we choose to believe.”
- Sociology of science: Scientists tend to hang out with people they know and like.
- Sociology, cont.: Science is a human activity, not something that could be done by robots. It is not purely rational but involves emotions, rhetoric, herd mentality and other non-rational considerations.
- Kuhnian normal science: The paradigm determines the research project. The participants were not assembling to question the picture. They were assembling to affirm it.
- Underdetermination of theories by data: There are inevitably many possible explanations for one set of data. The same puzzle pieces could be fit to a different picture.
- Naturalism: Modern science has chosen to restrict itself to “natural causes” (whatever that means; see 05/11/2006). Today’s scientists have been trained to deplore revelation (natural and/or special), no matter how well validated by empirical evidence, reason or history.
- Pragmatism: Nature does not determine the choice of classification scheme; people do.
- Limits of science: No one person can master the whole picture, especially one as broad as evolution.
- Sociology/psychology of science: Each researcher works under the assumption that his or her little piece will reinforce the paradigm. Cooperation is ensured by the fear of being expelled as a maverick, or worse, a pseudoscientist. Since no philosopher of science has successfully defended demarcation criteria for science vs pseudoscience, and since no universal scientific method has been defined, emotional and sociological judgments again come into play to determine who is “in” and who is “out.”
- Sociology, cont.: Social activities, though they have nothing to do with the validity of the proposition under study, serve to reinforce the paradigm and draw in more party members.
- Positivism: The party celebration attracts reporters and gives them some fun work to do at a nice hotel. The atmosphere promotes a spirit of progress. All this activity, all these smart people, and all the erudite PowerPoint slides must mean that productive science was being done, right? It must be the case since the government is funding the work.
- The system feeds on itself. Reporters get a share of the booze and croissants, paid for by their bosses, who get better advertising ratings for maintaining a lively science page. The reporters make friends with some of the scientists and learn from the herd who is hot and who is not. It is unlikely any reporter will go back to the office and write up a scathing rebuke of the entire philosophical premise underlying the event. Party organizers will be sure to send the cheerful press releases to Senator Earmark.
- Education: The paradigm might lose popularity without new blood. Captive students must be trained and inculcated into the craft before other paradigms capture their attention. This can be accomplished by making all other paradigms illegal. Skilled facilitators can create visuals and curricula from the Policies and Procedures Manual of the Paradigm, to inculcate the novitiates into the craft and inoculate the young herd against critical thinkers (12/21/2005). Successful novitiates are graded on their ability to regurgitate the talking points, meditate on the non-negotiable assumptions and doctrines, sense how to tell the good guys from the bad guys (the creationists), and honor the idol of Our Leader.