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Evolutionist debater fails to understand young-earth arguments

17 June 2006

A young supporter asks some questions about young-earth evidence raised by an evolutionary debater. Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds and points out some of the evolutionist’s misunderstandings and even outright errors, and the role of axioms in the debate.

My name is Nathan Powell. I am 16 years old, and have just recently debated an evolutionist on the Internet on the age of the earth. He raised some very intriguing answers to my young-earth arguments. These are the arguments I used, the exact wording used in the debate:

Internet debates can waste a lot of time, but you express yourself clearly and with accurate information, especially for one so young. I’ve just put additional supporting links for the benefit of our readers. I would also advise learning not only the science, but even more importantly some of the meta-science issues underlining the debate, e.g. the article Presuppositionalism vs evidentialism and other articles hyperlinked therein.

1. Helium in the rocks.
“…most of the helium on earth is produced by radioactive decay in rocks. The small atoms of helium gas have no trouble escaping from the rocks into the atmosphere…we can also measure the rate at which helium escapes from the rocks. This process is faster in hotter rocks, and the deeper one goes into the earth, the hotter the rocks become.
The creationist physicist Robert Gentry was researching deep granite as a possible way of safely storing dangerous radioactive waste from nuclear power stations. Safe storage requires that the elements should not move too fast through the rock.
Granite contains mineral crystals called zircons (zirconium silicate, ZrSiO4), which often contain radioactive elements. Thus they should produce helium, which should be escaping.
But Gentry found that even the deep, hot zircons (197°C or 387°F) contained far too much helium—that is, if it had had billions of years to escape. However, if there had really been only thousands of years for this helium to escape, then we shouldn’t be surprised that there is so much left.” 1

Dr Russell Humphreys has updated this argument considerably, including quantitative measurements of helium diffusion. See our summary, Dr Humphreys’ technical paper, his chapter in Radioactive Isotopes and the age of the Earth 2 ch. 2 (technical), and his responses to critics.

Picture of a comet.

2. Short-period comets.

Comets lose mass when they pass by the sun on their orbits. If this had been going on for billions of years, there would be no comets. The only way to explain it with evolution is to have something to replenish them, such as the Oort Cloud or Kuiper Belt, both of which have scientific flaws.

See Comets—portents of doom or indicators of youth?

3. Dinosaur blood cells and tissue.

A recent find (2005) of blood cells and tissue that was still pliable was found in a T. Rex bone. It could not last more than a few thousand years, but the bone was supposedly 70 million years old. Maybe it isn’t?

See Still soft and stretchy: Dinosaur soft tissue find—a stunning rebuttal of “millions of years” and “Ostrich-osaurus” discovery?: Shedding more light on the new startling find of soft tissue in a T. rex bone), which comment on discoveries after your sources were published, and this response to critics. A more recent article addresses the desperate claims about biofilms: Doubting doubts about the Squishosaur.

4. Lunar recession.

The moon is leaving the earth about 4 cm (1½ in.) per year. Even if the moon had started receding from being in contact with the earth it would’ve reached its present position in 1.37 billion years. Not compatible with an old-earth scenario.

See How long has the moon been receding?, although Ref. 2 updates this argument and answers some objections.

5. Radiohalos in coalified wood.

“Dual spherical/elliptical polonium halos in coalified wood are indications that much wood was catastrophically uprooted and compressed, and by the same catastrophic flood, although the layers are “dated” at millions of years apart. Also, uranium radiohalo centers in the same wood have so much uranium that they undermine the “established” millions of years of the layers they are in.” 2

See also The collapse of ‘geologic time’: Tiny halos in coalified wood tell a story that demolishes ‘long age’ . For a different argument about radiohalos, supporting accelerated nuclear decay, see Polonium Radiohalos: The Model for Their Formation Tested and Verified.

6. Carbon-14.

Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years. If the earth were very old, nothing should have any C-14 left in it. The RATE (Radioactive Isotopes and the age of the Earth ) team did a study with 12 diamond samples, and found that they all contained some C-14. Why? Maybe the earth is young.

The most up-to-date work is in the book RATE 2 ch.8, while the main technical paper (mainly on C-14 in coal) is online. Ref. 2 includes one of the researchers’ updates on diamonds, while the September 2006 issue of Creation magazine had a summary article, not long after this feedback was first published, ‘Diamonds: a creationist’s best friend: Radiocarbon in diamonds: enemy of billions of years’.

  1. J. Sarfati, Blowing old-earth belief away.
  2. Sarfati, J. 2004. Refuting Compromise, Master Books, Green Forest , Arizona , p. 358

[Nathan Powell] The following are some of the arguments he used throughout the debate against mine:
1. Helium in the rocks? — the entire universe came from hydrogen and helium. The ratio of helium (which helium are we speaking of, btw? He-3?)

No, He-4 of course, from alpha decay.

in the rocks does nothing to prove the age of the Earth. Helium is normally not used as an aging marker because, although it is not produced naturally on Earth,

Come off it! It is definitely produced naturally; it is extracted from natural gas!

there are many different ways for it to be produced, leaving too many variables to discount in order for the He signal to accurately stand out above the noise.

No, this misses the point. Helium on earth is produced by alpha decay. The first ‘radiometric’ measurement was proposed by Lord Rutherford, who thought that he could determine age accurately from the amount of helium it contained and the measured alpha decay (previously measured by Sir Frederick Soddy and Sir William Ramsay). But Rutherford assumed helium did not escape from the rock over time (and that the rate of decay was accurate). But this is known to be false, because helium is a small, hard, inert atom and can easily slip through crystal lattices.

Dr Humphreys’ research quantified how fast this escape was—helium diffuses so rapidly out of zircon that it should have all but disappeared after about 100,000 years. And according to the amounts of uranium and lead in zircons in biotite, 1.5 billion years’ worth of decay has occurred, assuming current rates. But much of the helium has been retained, and very little is in the surrounding material. Given the now-known diffusion rate, this puts an upper limit to the age as 5,680 ± 2,000 years. To produce this much helium before it leaks out seems to require an episode of accelerated alpha decay.

…I’m saying that measuring the helium levels in zircon in order to determine the age of the Earth is an inaccurate and incomplete method. It would be like assigning physical age to people based on height or metabolisim rates — it is irrelevant. There are dozens of more accurate ways to date the Earth, especially when these different ways are cross-corroborated. You’ve singled out one old-fashioned disproven way to date the Earth.

Not at all. Rather, the research takes on board the reason why it was ‘disproven’ and draws important conclusions from it, adding to the power of the argument.

Why do you ignore all the other, modern, accurate methods?

Why do you resort to leading questions and elephant hurling?

2. [re Oort cloud reservoir of comets, etc.] There is observational support — the discovery of Sedna, for example.

This is nonsense. Sedna (a Trans-Neptunian Object) is over 100 times the diameter of a typical comet (which means a million times the volume and mass). Really, this is as illogical as the following explanation for mice in an Indian farmhouse:

‘They came from a field.’
‘But I don’t see any mice in the field.’
‘But there is an elephant. And if we see an elephant, there must be mice.’
Similarly, it is silly to point to objects like Sedna and Quaoar as proof of a reservoir of comets that are tiny by comparison.
There’s also the tracing of orbits which puts a _______ of stuff coming from the region of the Oort cloud. It is a valid scientific theory, first hypothesized in 1950 by Jan Oort.

This was actually a plot of number of comets against 1/a0, where a0 is the semi–major-axis of the comet’s orbit (the larger axis of the ellipse). The reason it is a reciprocal is that gravitational potential energy is proportional to the reciprocal of distance. As there was a cluster near 1/a0. Oort thought that they represented an original source of comets at a huge distance. However, Danny Faulkner, full professor of astronomy at a secular university, points out that the plot could be the result of a sort of ‘natural selection’ of high energy comets. This is because lower energy comets are more likely to pass more often by the sun and lose materials, and also lose energy by interactions with other planets. Thus they are more likely to be lost and disappear from the plot.

We should also realize that the Oort Cloud still hasn’t been observed, so it is rather an ad hoc device to explain the existence of long-period comets over the alleged billions of years.

For more than fifty years it has been tested; the latest results are close to confirming that the Oort Cloud contains more mass than the rest of the solar system, excepting the Sun.

This is simply not true. It is very doubtful that there is more than one earth mass of comets. See more information on this and other problems with the Oort cloud hypothesis.

3. Dino blood cells — the scientists were as amazed as everyone to discover soft tissue in a fossilized bone. But that does not mean that the bone is young, it just means that the inside of the bone never fossilized.

I.e. that soft tissue could remain after 65 million years!

It’s not like these were soft, moist tissues…

They didn’t have to be. Rather, they were the flexible tissues that remained after the hard bone matrix was removed chemically.

And if the bone is so young, then why was the DNA in the tissues degraded just like all the other old DNA studied? It wasn’t 7000 year old DNA; geneticists determined through studying said degradation that it was millions of years old.

Really? I wasn’t aware that any DNA had been found, but that would strengthen the creationist case even further! DNA is quickly broken down by water and oxygen, so under favorable conditions, DNA might last tens of thousands of years at the most, according to secular researchers. Polar temperatures might extend this to 100,000 years, and this is based on real chemical kinetic studies—see The Real ‘Jurassic Park’ and Dino proteins and blood vessels: are they a big deal?

The only people questioning the age of the tissue are creationists. The scientific community is thankful for such a well preserved specimen.
Nowhere in your text do you show that the scientists denied that the bone could be that old. Why? Because they didn’t.
“ scientists who challenge the paradigm find it very difficult to obtain research grants or get papers published. ”

Of course not: the paradigm is too strong. The philosopher of science Imre Lakatos points out that the core theory is usually not challenged; instead the holders of the paradigm merely alter or discard the protective auxiliary hypotheses. This is illustrated by the lead researcher Mary Schweitzer when she first found what appeared to be blood cells in a T. rex specimen, she said:

It was exactly like looking at a slice of modern bone. But, of course, I couldn’t believe it. I said to the lab technician: ‘The bones, after all, are 65 million years old. How could blood cells survive that long?’ [Science 261(5118):160–162, 9 July 1993]

I.e. she preferred to question the evidence she actually saw in her lab rather than deny the paradigm of millions of years that she can’t see. But she could see the contradiction: the presence of such features in bones does not gel with their supposed age.

Again, they were surprised … but why didn’t you mention that they had already theorized that some old fossils could contain soft tissue inside? Why did you not bring up the fact that they had been cutting bones open looking for this very thing.

More leading questions, and arguments from silence to boot! Actually, they were not looking for soft tissue—they never expected to find this; the bones were cut up because they were too big to carry, and at that point the researchers saw the state of preservation and then took it further in the lab. Just look at the surprise in the above!

If you ask any of the researchers involved, none of them would state that this brings the age of the bone into question. The only think it brings into question is the limitations of the fossilization process.

As said, they will tweak the auxiliary hypothesis of fossilization rate, without any independent evidence, because the long-age paradigm must at all costs be preserved even better than the fossil! And anyone who dared to question the long ages would not get their work published in a mainstream (evolutionary) journal. Note that secular historians of science such as Evelleen Richards agree that scientists who challenge the paradigm find very difficult to obtain research grants or get papers published. [Update: see Creationism, Science and Peer Review.]

4. Lunar recession — this is the amazing phenomenon that has only been observed by creationists.

Utter nonsense, not that it would be a bad thing if creationists discovered it! In any case, this commits the genetic fallacy. Ironically, it was a creationist, Lord Kelvin, who first realized that the moon would be receding because of conservation of angular momentum. That is, the earth is losing angular momentum because the tides, caused by the moon, are ‘braking’ the earth’s rotation. So this angular momentum must be gained by the moon, which means that it moves further away. The actual transfer works as follows: the moon causes the tides that the earth must ‘wade’ through, so the earth is slowed down. Nevertheless, the earth’s rotation pushes the tidal bulge a little bit forward, and so this tugs the moon forward, causing it to move faster and thus lift its orbit.

The delta between aphelion and perihelion (right terms? Remember, I’m trying to do this without research…)

That shows. These terms refer to distance from the sun (Greek ‘ήλιος hēlios sun); the corresponding terms to earth are apogee and perigee (Greek γή gē earth). The general terms for furthest and closest points around a body are apoapsis/apapsis (plural ­–apsides), or apocentre; and periapsis or pericentre.

is somewhere over thirty thousand miles, or about 4.82 trillion centimeters.

Try 4.83 billion cm! The easiest way to convert units nowadays is probably typing 30,000 miles to cm (or almost any other units you could want) in the Google toolbar.

I find it remarkable that creationists know the moon’s distance within 4 centimeters over that distance.

Then you need to inform the Lunar and Planetary Institute, which is hardly a hotbed of creationism since they are a ‘focus for academic participation in studies of the current state, evolution, and formation of the solar system’. This states:

The Laser Ranging Retroreflector experiment has produced many important measurements. These include an improved knowledge of the Moon’s orbit and the rate at which the Moon is receding from Earth (currently 3.8 centimeters per year) and of variations in the rotation of the Moon.

Or maybe the researchers themselves at APOLLO (the Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation) need instruction from you as well since they write:

In addition to characterizing the shape of the lunar orbit, we will be able to follow the slow recession of the lunar orbit by 3.8 cm (1.5 inches) per year due to tidal friction.

[Emphasis added in the above]

Heck, we couldn’t even accurately measure the distance to that level until we put mirros on the moon and shot lasers at them. Those wacky YECs, holding back this important scientific knowledge!

Rather, we are trying to educate you into real science, as above.

… Provide me evidence that the moon’s distance can be objectively measured to within 4cm from Earth,

As above.

and show that this information has been available in this same extremely accurate model for the length of time you claim. And please don’t try confusing tidal force theories with lunar recession and distance.

No danger of ‘confusing them’. Rather, tidal forces are the cause, lunar recession and distance are the effects. The mathematics is not in dispute either, merely some assumptions about the past, common to all dating methods. Ref. 2 explains both points further.

5. Polonium halos — c’mon, do you think I would argue that most wood, or most life for that matter, on this planet didn’t go through a serious challenge to existence that would include tremendous temperatures and pressures responsible for the radioactive halos? …maybe you could share with us the significance of this, because I don’t see it.

Just hand waving, ignoring the actual argument: the age is constrained by the amount of uranium still remaining in the radiocentres (i.e. there hasn’t been time for much to decay), and the rapid decay rate of polonium constrains the time for compression of the wood to form dual halos; that is, it had to have happened very quickly.

Funny how you can take a cross-section of a tree and use it for your proof, but when that same cross-section is offered with old age proof you deny that cross sections are accurate.

I know of no creationist scientist who says such things. For one thing, how can a cross section be ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’? It just is. Calibrations with 14C dating and correlations with tree-ring counts are another matter. See Tree ring dating (dendrochronology).

6. If carbon 14’s half-life is 5,730 years, and the Earth is about 6,000–10,000 years old (according to you), then that would mean that over half of all the Carbon-14 has decayed. In anything. Not just rocks, or petrified wood, or caveman footprints, everything! And reams of collected data show otherwise.

And the point is what? The point of our argument is that even a lump of 14C as massive as the earth would have all decayed in only about half a million years. So if any 14C is present, then it cannot be millions or billions of years old. Yet almost all samples of coal and diamonds tested have 14C above background levels, so the assigned huge ages for them are wrong.

[Nathan Powell] The most interesting ones to me were the “Dino blood cells”, “Lunar recession”, and “Carbon-14”.
I wasn’t expecting those kind of arguments, and it kind of caught me off guard.
Although the debate is over, I would like you to please provide me with some answers to these.
Thank you very much!

Hope the above helps.

Nathan Powell

Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D.

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