The likely cause of death of young-Earth creationism

Russian scientists have managed to grow a plant from 32,000 year old seeds that had been buried by an Ice-Age squirrel. (Who knew that the Ice Age animated films were documentaries?) The previous record for such an achievement was a mere 2,000 years. This is an interesting story in its own right because of what we can learn scientifically about how plants evolve over time since there are contemporary versions of the same plant.

But what struck me was the way that our local newspaper The Plain Dealer reported it. Like the dog that did not bark in the night in the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, what was noteworthy was what was not said. The paper ran it straight with a long story on page 2 of the front section with a prominent heading giving the age of the seed. There was no attempt to try and accommodate those creationists who think that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. The article and heading simply assumed that there was no question that the seed was much older than that. This is in contrast to how much sensitivity there is whenever the word evolution appears.

I am curious as to how young-Earth creationists, and hard as it is to believe there are many in America, react to news stories like this that matter-of-factly challenge their core beliefs without any kind of hedging. Do they get angry? Do they try to avert their children’s eyes from them? Do they create an alternative ad hoc explanation, involving biased and mistaken scientists and media? I suspect that the last option is the likely one but you have to think that this will eventually wear them down since this kind of discovery of very old things happens repeatedly and they will get exhausted. There are only so many small fires that you can put out before it gets out of hand and the whole structure burns down.

I suspect that creationism will eventually die like this, a death of a thousand cuts rather than a climactic battle with evolution, with belief in a young Earth quietly disappearing first. The next belief to go will be that humans have been around for less than 10,000 years, leading to some unspecified form of god-guided evolution that too gives way to thinking of god’s role being just to initially create the universe and in some mysterious way creating and interacting with each person’s soul.

This will be their last stand.


  1. slc1 says

    I may have posted this before on this blog but the attached link from an article by Richard Dawkins about YEC Kurt Wise will demonstrate that Prof. Singham is being wildly optimistic. Dr. Wise, BS in geology from the Un. of Chicago, Phd in paleontology from Harvard (his thesis adviser was none other then Stephen Jay Gould) admits that the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence points to an old earth but still believes that the scriptures are inerrant so that he rejects the evidence.

    The last two paragraphs, which cause even Prof. Dawkins to shake his head in disbelief are reproduced below.

    Kurt Wise doesn’t need the challenge; he volunteers that, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradicted Scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on Scripture and deny the evidence. This leaves me, as a scientist, speechless. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have a mind capable of such doublethink. It reminds me of Winston Smith in 1984 struggling to believe that two plus two equals five if Big Brother said so. But that was fiction and, anyway, Winston was tortured into submission. Kurt Wise—and presumably others like him who are less candid—has suffered no such physical coercion. But, as I hinted at the end of my previous column, I do wonder whether childhood indoctrination could wreak a sufficiently powerful brainwashing effect to account for this bizarre phenomenon.

    Whatever the underlying explanation, this example suggests a fascinating, if pessimistic, conclusion about human psychology. It implies that there is no sensible limit to what the human mind is capable of believing, against any amount of contrary evidence. Depending upon how many Kurt Wises are out there, it could mean that we are completely wasting our time arguing the case and presenting the evidence for evolution. We have it on the authority of a man who may well be creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent scientist that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.

  2. Mano Singham says

    I have long been aware of Kurt Wise but I don’t think my argument applies to people like him. Very smart people who have invested a lot of intellectual prestige in upholding a particular point of view are exceptionally capable of finding ways to hold on to them despite the evidence. Michael Shermer put it well when he said that “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

    Lord Kelvin was a classic example of someone who, despite being one of the greatest physicists of all time, held on to a belief in a relatively young Earth (less than 100 million years) when the evidence was clearly swinging against him.

    If someone is absolutely determined to believe in something, then you cannot persuade them otherwise by using evidence and/or logic. As the old saying goes, “The hardest person to wake up is the one who is pretending to be asleep.”

  3. slc1 says

    I am afraid that the Kurt Wises will always be with us.

    As for Lord Kelvin, it is told that he was attending a lecture on radioactivity by, it is my information, J. J. Thompson, (no relation) who indicated that it would be a source of heat to prolong the earth’s internal temperature. Kelvin was overheard to say after the lecture, “I was wrong.” It should be pointed out that Kelvin’s calculations were perfectly sound at the time they were made as radioactivity was only discovered years later.

  4. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The evangelist Rick Warren has said, similarly to Wise, that if given the choice between the Bible and science he’ll go with the Bible. He was then asked if that meant he was rejecting reality and he answered “yes, if reality conflicts with the Bible.”

  5. Gregory says

    I have heard young earth creationists make the claim that carbon dating is entirely incorrect by several orders of magnitude. If they bothered trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance, they would almost certainly say that the seed was only 3,000 years old, or even 300.

  6. Mano Singham says


    But that is the point. In any scientific calculation, there are theoretical assumptions and parameters that need to be used. Some calculations are more tightly constrained than others. During Kelvin’s time, the physics of the age of the Earth had considerable flexibility in both areas and Kelvin adjusted them consistently in the direction of reducing the Earth’s age, irrespective of what the geologists of that time were saying. The story of Kelvin changing his mind at the end is apocryphal (he never stated in print that he had changed his mind on this question) and the consensus is that he went to his death unconvinced though not as confident as he had been earlier. (For more details, you can see the last five sections of my 12-part series on The Age of the Earth.)

    It takes a clever person who knows the material well to be able to do that kind of thing, if they are determined to hold on to their belief. That is why the Kelvins and the Wises are the exceptions.

  7. slc1 says

    According to the attached links, Kelvin estimated the age of the earth at 100 million years, which appears to be at the high end of such estimates in the 19th century.

    Kelvin’s calculations were take seriously by Charles Darwin, who admitted that, it they were correct, his theory of evolution by natural selection would be in big trouble.

    It was not until the discovery of radioactivity that a mechanism was found that would replenish the interior heat of the earth and allow a much greater age.

    With regards to whether the story about Kelvin changing his mind is apocryphal or not, it should be pointed out that the lecture is supposed to have occurred shortly before his death in 1907 so it is unlikely he wrote anything afterwards.

  8. Mano Singham says

    100 millions years was the high end for Kelvin who had suggested in a paper in 1897 that it was between 20 and 40 million years, with the most likely figure being 24 million years. 100 million years was low for geologists like Charles Lyell (~250 million years) and Charles Darwin (~300 million years) and other geologists and paleontologists. All these other estimates were done from around 1850 onwards and that time frame had become more or less accepted before Kelvin’s work caused people to reconsider and look at the possibility of lower estimates. It should be noted Darwin had extensive training in geology and was the author of three books on geology, so his was a not inconsiderable voice in this discussion.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Few ideas completely disappear, however crazy they may seem. Look at the birthers, for example. I am not suggesting that the young Earthers will completely disappear but that they will become like the believers in astrology or, as in your example, a flat Earth. A few will be around and form their small societies and we will humor them but not take them seriously, so effectively they will have gone.

  10. Andrew G. says

    I think you’re underestimating people’s ability to compartmentalize. A surprisingly large proportion of people simply don’t notice that 32000-year-old seeds conflict with the idea of a 6000-year-old Earth.

  11. amavra says

    That survey makes me cry. But I think I realized what the crux of the compartmentalization is. If the question is framed to make people think about human evolution there seems to be a knee jerk response against it. But if it is focusing on the age of rocks, or the moon, or the universe, people seem more likely to see these as being very very old. Or if it is framed about God, they are likely to jump on the answer that says god did it. But when asked about development without god in the question, they are more likely to agree that it was evolution (or god guided evolution).

    I am actually most distressed that so many people believe in a global flood, because that posits a huge phenomena that is easily proven false in numerous ways. And people seem to think that this impossible event allows for all manner of nonsensical things to have taken place and somehow gives cover for terrible creationist explanations on the evidence for evolution.

  12. says

    Older religious believers are generally a lost cause, because their minds are already made up. It is the younger generation we have to influence in order to generate a complete paradigm shift in how religion is perceived.

    The reason is this – on the subject of paradigm shifts, Kuhn said, using a quote from Max Planck: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

    We are winning. We just have to keep at it.

  13. scrawnykayaker says

    The three questions in your third paragraph: the answer is “yes.”

    OK, maybe not all of them get angry. I suspect the most common result is the same as the answer I got when I asked a religious (probably not YEC) biochemist I worked with if she hadn’t noticed that the god>creation issue didn’t just remove the problem one step to “where did god come from?” Cheerful reply: “I just don’t think about stuff like that.”

  14. Aliasalpha says

    And it’d probably soon turn into “No, 30 years! No, 3 years! No, MINUS 3 years, its from the future, its a miracle, goddidit the end!”

  15. Aliasalpha says

    Sadly creationist loons (yes its a tautology) always have the good old ‘testing our faith’ trump card when even they can’t ignore the evidence anymore

  16. Aliasalpha says

    Heh reminds me of several discussions about australia introducing an R18 classification for games, we just have to wait for the dinosaurs (who were probably still afraid of rock & roll) to die off and we’ll win by attrition

  17. slc1 says

    According to the Wikipedia article I linked to, there were a number of estimates that were considerably shorter then Kelvin’s, including one by Darwin’s son who was an astronomer. However, even the 300 million year estimate by Darwin and the 400 million year estimate by Lyall would have been woefully insufficient for Darwin’s theory of evolution to work out (one of the reasons why Lyall was reluctant to accept Darwin’s theory).

    It should be noted calculations made in the 19th century are heavily dependent on the assumptions and methods. Estimating the age of the earth from the proposed mechanism of the Sun maintaining its energy production via gravitational collapse gives much shorter estimates then estimates based on the radiation of energy from the interior of the earth. These issues were not resolved until the discovery of radioactive decay and nuclear fusion in the 20th century.

    By the way, comparing Kelvin with Kurt Wise is an atrocity. Wise is a scientist with a substantial pedigree and no scientific accomplishments of any note. Kelvin was one of the most productive physicists of the 19th century with a number of accomplishments of note.

    My reaction to the fact that Kelvin was wrong about the age of the earth is so what? Newton was wrong about the stability of the solar system, the capability of chemical processes to turn lead into gold, and the capability of a purely corpuscular theory of light being able to explain diffraction and interference. Darwin was wrong about inheritance being an analog process when, it fact, it is a digital process. Einstein was wrong about whether black holes could exist and was probably wrong about quantum mechanics. Enrico Fermi once reputed to have said something to the effect that a scientist who has never been wrong is a scientist who had contributed little or nothing to the expansion of knowledge (although possibly Wolfgang Pauli was the source; it appears that a number of aphorisms attributed to Fermi were actually first made by Pauli).

  18. slc1 says

    I don’t know what Prof. Singham’s experience is in dealing with YECs but mathematics associate professor Jason Rosenhouse, of James Madison Un., who blogs at the evolution blog on Scienceblogs, has extensive experience with these folks. As research for a book on creationism which is due out this Spring, he has attended a number of conferences sponsored by YECs and lectures given by their adherents and has interacted with a number of them, in particular, Jason Lisle and Marcus Ross, both of whom have legitimate degrees from reputable universities (Lisle in astrophysics!). His conclusion, based on his research, is that they far outnumber old earth creationists and intelligent design advocates.

    One has to stand in awe at the contortions and inventions these folks go through. I was the victim of one such incident over at Jason’s blog when I challenged a YEC calling himself Jon S to explain how light from galaxies millions of light years away could arrive at our location in less then 6000 years (a favorite gambit of biology professor Ken Miller). I was fully prepared to refute claims of light being faster in the past and other such inanities but was hit with an hypothesis proffered by one Russell Humphreys which I had never heard of. Humphreys proposal is that the area in the vicinity of the earth is subject to intense gravitational fields which gravitationally time dilate clocks here such that billions of years in the rest of the universe appear to be only 6000 years here. It took me some time to come up with a refutation (obviously, a gravitational field of such strength would blue shift light into the far ultraviolet so that the distant stars would be invisible to optical telescopes, in addition to causing the Solar System to be instantly unstable).

    This is the vise of engaging in discussions with such people without extensive preparation in the arguments they present. As an example, when Ken Miller debated Henry Morris at the behest of his students at Brown, he spent much time reading everything the latter had ever written and every presentation he had ever made that was available on the Internet. Thus, he was able to prepare a set of talking points to refute anything that Morris might say, in particular being able to respond to a Gish gallop.

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