Geologic Column Evolves
Like a prototype made of putty, the geologic column
is less a reflection of reality than it is of ideology
They look so authoritative, so empirical, so scientific. But the familiar charts of geological strata, with their corresponding obscure names, timelines and fossils that appear in textbooks and national parks, are not what they were a decade ago, or a century ago. Why? Because they are evolving. The rocks themselves look pretty much like they did in Victorian Britain when the conceptual scheme was invented, but the geologic column (hereafter GC) has changed, sometimes drastically. An evolving scheme cannot, by its nature, be a good reflection of reality. It might be becoming a better reflection if it were shown to be increasing in accuracy over time. It cannot be when it requires periodic overhauls, or is built on ideology more than empiricism.
Yesterday’s post (“Geological Names Are Not Carved in Stone,” 31 Jan 2022) examined the naming of the Permian, with the political and personality aspects that raised issues of sociology over empiricism in geological practice. Today, we take on the entire Precambrian: the alleged history of the earth before the Cambrian, when some 20 phyla of complex animals with hierarchically-organized body plans burst on the scene, without a hint of gradual emergence and without transitional fossils. This event, well-known as the Cambrian Explosion, caused Darwin stomach aches as the most serious challenge that could be lodged against his theory (read Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer, or watch Darwin’s Dilemma from Illustra Media). Darwinism survives despite this challenge (more sociology at work). Today’s Darwinian geologists are determined to push evolution all the way back to the birth of the Earth. But does empiricism improve over sociology when a large number of personalities cooperate on puzzles in geological classification?
Case Study #2: The Precambrian
Another paper from the Geological Society of London advocates an overhaul of the Precambrian part of the GC, especially the “pre-Cryogenian” (“before the birth of the freeze,” assuming a Snowball Earth preceded the Ediacaran). Three dozen geologists think the current scheme is not a good match to the rock record. In Shields et al., “A template for an improved rock-based subdivision of the pre-Cryogenian timescale,” (Journal of the Geological Society, January 2022), they advocate for changes in the way Precambrian rock layers should be sliced and diced.
The geological timescale before 720 Ma uses rounded absolute ages rather than specific events recorded in rocks to subdivide time. This has led increasingly to mismatches between subdivisions and the features for which they were named. Here we review the formal processes that led to the current timescale, outline rock-based concepts that could be used to subdivide pre-Cryogenian time and propose revisions. An appraisal of the Precambrian rock record confirms that purely chronostratigraphic subdivision would require only modest deviation from current chronometric boundaries, removal of which could be expedited by establishing event-based concepts and provisional, approximate ages for eon-, era- and period-level subdivisions…. These proposals stem from a wide community and could be used to guide future development of the pre-Cryogenian timescale by international bodies.
Instead of one man pushing his Permian scheme on the world, as described yesterday, here we see international bodies debating and voting on changes to “improve” the GC. Is that better? Presumably it is, if one trusts the ability of committees to keep from bungling things up. Committees are not immune from the influence of powerful members using their personality or prestige to force out the timid or weak who might otherwise stand in the way of a consensus despite potentially having better ideas. But worse, when all the members are subscribers to Darwinian ideology (which should have been falsified by the Cambrian Explosion), anything they agree on, having ruled out a whole class of explanations, necessarily involves sociology, not pure science.
One doesn’t need to read far in this paper to find out what a hodgepodge of arbitrariness goes into the making of the GC. It’s like watching a committee trying to build a model of a widget out of Silly Putty, where the widget here is a Platonic form of The Ideal History of the Earth. The form exists in the mind, not in the particulars. Darwinian ideology comes first (the form); rocks “out there” in the world (the particulars) exist to fit into the model.
Interestingly, the commonly discussed “supercontinents” (Rodinia, Gondwana, Pangaea, etc.) have little to do with naming of rock units. The authors say, “The principle of naming a geological period after a hypothetical supercontinent is not widely accepted.”
So far, the committees in charge of the Paleozoic have made a hodgepodge of “unworkable” ideas. Watch this rerun of how the committee got into the current mess. Pay attention to arbitrary decisions made by committees and individuals.
The term ‘Precambrian’, or more traditionally ‘pre-Cambrian’ (Glaessner 1962), is an informal geological term that refers to the time before the beginning of the Cambrian Period at c. 0.54 Ga (Peng et al. 2020). The two pre-Cambrian eonothems (Archean and Proterozoic) have long pedigrees (Sedgwick 1845; Logan 1857; Dana 1872) but were introduced formally only after extensive discussion among members of the Subcommission on Precambrian Stratigraphy (SPS), which was tasked with Kalervo Rankama as chair in 1966 to standardize Precambrian nomenclature (Trendall 1966). James (1978), summarizing discussions within the subcommission, outlined five categories of proposals: (1) subdivision by intervals of equal duration (Goldich 1968; see also Hofmann 1990, 1992; Trendall 1991); (2) subdivision by major magmatic-tectonic cycles (Stockwell 1961, 1982); (3) subdivision by stratotypes (Dunn et al. 1966; see also Crook 1989); (4) subdivision by breaks in the geological record defined by radiometric ages (James 1972); and (5) subdivision based on Earth evolution concepts (Cloud 1976). One result of those early discussions was that an approximate chronological age of 2500 Ma was assigned to a somewhat transitional Archean–Proterozoic boundary (James 1978). However, further subdivision of the Precambrian in a comparable manner to that achieved for younger rocks, although favoured by some (Hedberg 1974), proved unworkable (James 1978) due to (1) the relatively fragmentary nature of the Precambrian rock record, much of which is strongly deformed and metamorphosed, and (2) a scarcity of age-diagnostic fossils. For this reason, a mixed approach was applied: Global Standard Stratigraphic Ages (GSSAs) were introduced to subdivide Precambrian time, but the absolute ages of periods were chosen to bracket major magmatic-tectonic episodes (Plumb and James 1986; Plumb 1991). Since that decision was ratified, all of pre-Cryogenian Earth history and its geological record has been subdivided using geochronology rather than chronostratigraphy.
Ah, acronyms. They make such handy placeholders for ignorance. As we shall see, the GSSA concept has come on hard times. Notice: if there were five proposals for how to carve up the rock record, there is not one “true” way to “carve nature at its joints.” The method chosen to correct previous unworkable ideas has now become unworkable itself. Many geologists don’t like carving up Precambrian by “absolute” ages (chronostratigraphy, which relies on radiometric dating); they complain that the subdivisions have nothing to do with the rocks that geologists have to look at in the field.
The paper goes on to describe how committees decided on three subdivisions for the Precambrian: Hadean, Archaean, and Proterozoic. Notice that the Hadean is entirely conceptual, because there is no Hadean rock to study!
Because the Hadean Eon left no rock record on Earth (other than reworked mineral grains or meteorites), it cannot be regarded as a stratigraphic entity (eonothem) and has never been formally defined or subdivided.
And yet secular geologists all include the Hadeon Eon in the GC, because it must have been a part of Earth history in the ideology of evolution. The Earth was not created; it evolved from a spinning dust cloud around the sun that heated up, became molten, and gradually solidified. Ironically, this gives secular geologists their own concept of hell: the Hadean Eon (after Hades), when the Earth was a lake of fire prepared for the devil and his angels (i.e., creationists).
Once the committees decided on these major subdivisions (eons), they were further subdivided into eras, and those into periods. The following statement shows that the 36 authors of the paper wish to continue working within the current paradigm, not against it. As Thomas Kuhn famously described the practice of “normal science” between Scientific Revolutions, scientists all work to solve puzzles within the paradigm, not to question the paradigm. Those who think outside the box are relegated to the fringe; some are even considered “anti-science” if they buck the consensus.
The goal of any revision of the Precambrian geological timescale should therefore be to minimize disruption to both the current international timescale and existing regional and national stratigraphic norms.
Could the geologists “tasked” with a job like this ever feel free to question the “current international timescale” and “existing… norms”? Assuredly not. They would instantly feel the wrath of geological cancel culture. That is why the current paradigm is insensitive to anomalies, like dinosaur soft tissue, missing periods, living fossils and carbon 14 in diamonds. Anomalies like those are like lint to blow off the filter, not data that call the filter into question. They will be solved someday, because “scientists know” that evolution over deep time is a fact. Reality whimpers in the corner.
The Downfall of GSSA and Rise of GSSP
For awhile, Global Standard Stratigraphic Ages (GSSAs) were the “standard” by which geologists interpreted the ages of rocks. To show that standards in geology today are like Silly Putty, read this:
Identified shortcomings with the inflexible GSSA approach include: (a) a lack of ties to the rock record and broader Earth and planetary history; (b) the diachronous nature of the tectonic events on which the current scheme (Fig. 1a) is based; and (c) the lack of any major sedimentological, geochemical and biological criteria that can be used to correlate subdivision boundaries in stratigraphic records. The nomenclature of Proterozoic periods is thus commonly out of step with the concepts or phenomena for which they were named, while the underlying basis for both era and period nomenclature is neither universally accepted nor widely understood.
Woe to any scheme that is “inflexible” – it is likely to be short lived. In a valiant effort to connect Deep Time to the rock record, the GSSP concept (Global Stratotype Section and Point) was invented. GSSPs are the “Golden Spikes” that international geological societies have agreed represent the “type sections” or prototypical examples of a period. You can count on this Golden Spike, claims a geologist, to be the verifiable, bona fide Ediacaran rock! Why? It has Ediacaran fossils in it. Whoops; that rock over there, with the same stratigraphy and mineralogy, has no Ediacaran fossils. So which is it? Does mineralogy count, or position in the column, or fossils? And yet index fossils are intimately tied to concepts of evolution. The ideology of evolution precedes observation. Agreement with that ideology makes the scheme “meaningful” to the consensus. No observation should be considered valid until it has been corroborated by theory.
In order for future units of time (and strata) to be both widely acceptable and scientifically meaningful, they need to be fully defined conceptually, as has been done for the Cryogenian, Ediacaran and Cambrian periods, before they can be pinned down numerically.
The following quote shows how GSSPs connect to ideology over unbiased observation. Notice how ideology will determine ratification (committee vote) on proposed Precambrian GSSPs.
Recent progress towards, and widespread acceptance of, chronostratigraphic definitions for two Precambrian periods suggest that the international community can act expeditiously to address inadequacies of the chronometric scheme, while overcoming the confusion generated by the informal erection of new periods and unsupported concepts. Our intention here is to accelerate the removal of GSSAs by helping to frame rock-based concepts and establish approximate ages for eon-, era- and period-level subdivision of pre-Cryogenian time, pending eventual ratification of more detailed GSSP proposals.
One more quote highlights the sociology behind the GC. All the geologists are working to confirm the paradigm, not question it. Whether one strong personality prevails, or hundreds of them in dozens of committees, they want consensus above all. That is the goal of secular geology.
The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a constituent scientific body of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), is the formal international body that defines precisely global units (eonothems, erathems, systems, series, stages) of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, that, in turn, are the basis for the units (eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages) of the International Geological Timescale. A total of 17 bodies of international experts (subcommissions) are tasked with achieving consensus subdivision of specific portions of Earth history, generally geological periods, that can then be ratified through voting by first ICS and then IUGS officers, leading to formal amendment of international geological timescale charts.
It may feel good for people to have a broad international consensus. Such feelings, however, have no necessary connection with truth. While unlikely, it is not difficult to imagine calls to dismantle the Geologic Column once Woke activists declare it to be a racist relic of imperial white males. What then? The scheme might change, but the rocks would look the same.
Next, we look at how the international consensus handles an anomaly: a big one – the Great Unconformity.
We grant that everyone, creationists and evolutionists, have puzzles to solve within their own paradigms. Creation geologists must be learned in the nomenclature and conceptual schemes of secular geologists to be conversant with them, but they are free to correlate the secular taxonomy and Darwin Years with stages in the Flood year. Evolutionists, by contrast, often have immense social pressure to ignore Flood geologists, even those with PhDs. So who is more open-minded?
Recommended Resource: Terry Mortenson, The Great Turning Point. Dr Mortenson tells how Charles Lyell and others in the early 19th century intentionally stole geology from Scriptural geologists by promoting “Deep Time” to “free the science [of geology] from Moses.”