Dating, Paleosols and the Geologic Column:
Three strikes against Young Earth Creationism
by Joe Meert
Original Verison Fall 1999, Updated November 2003
Figure 1: Paleosol located between the 1470 Ma Butler Hill Granite and
the Cambrian Lamotte Sandstone. Photo taken by author in Missouri along State Highway 67. The weathered granite is overlain by a shaly regolith and the Lamotte sandstone overlaps this irregular surface. This photo is updated as the old photo was improperly formatted (the update was made solely to provide proper perspective and to highlight the absurdity of Tas Walker's 'analysis' rather than to Walker's blustering about 'changing the story'). Also shown below (click for a larger version) is a photo of the paleosol taken from the other side of the road.
Figure 2: Click to enlarge. 100 dpi photo of the same outcrop taken from the opposite side of the road showing from bottom to top (regolith of Butler Hill Granite, dark paleosol formed on top of the granite, shaly Lamotte Formation (basal), Lamotte sandstone (top). A geologist hammer is shown for scale. Photo courtesy E. Kisvarsanyi et al.
TAS WALKER'S BLUNDER FROM THE ANTIPODES DISCUSSED HERE
here are several concepts in Geology that are anathema to young-earth (ye) creationism because they pose such a difficult problem for the concept of a young earth. The collective observations from:
I. Radiometric Dating & Cooling of a Pluton
II. Geologic Column & Paleosols
form such a formidable obstacle to the idea
of a 6000 year old earth and a global flood that most creationists either ignore these
topics, or offer outlandish peripheral refutations of the ideas (more on these in a a
later paragraph). What is it about these topics that send ye-creationists
running for the cover? Science has determined the age of the Earth to be 4.54 +/-
0.05 Ga1 (Ga=billions of years). Creationists generally attribute an age of 6,000-10,000 years
to the Earth based on Biblical chronologies and an infallible scripture2. One is immediately struck by the fact that scientists have
determined a self-consistent age of the earth to within < 1% while creationists, who
espouse the scientific infallibility of the Bible, have an error of about 40%.
This error should be an embarrassment to the creationists, but of course, it is not and
they offer up any number of excuses for the discrepancy. What is particularly
important in their discrepancy is that the blame is placed on human error in interpreting
an infallible text. The argument is a bit circular, but goes something like
this. The Bible is 100% accurate; however man's interpretation of the Bible is not
and the discrepancies between the Masoretic and
Septuagint texts is blamed for the ~40% error. Why do creationists insist
on a young Earth? I suspect that they are not specifically concerned with the
absolute age of the Earth (why else would there be 40% error?), but rather they cannot
allow the Earth to be old enough for evolution to take place. Ye-creationists view old earth creationists as apostates on the slippery slope to
As mentioned in the opening of this article, there are at least three pieces of independent evidence that argue strongly against a young earth stance. I will deal with each of these issues in this essay and answer some of the ye-criticisms. Some of the information is technical and I have tried to provide references and links for the more difficult portions of the text in order to help any reader go beyond the material presented here.
(a) Radiometric Dating & Cooling of Plutons
There is no shortage of criticism of the radiometric dating technique by young Earth creationists. The veracity of the radiometric dating method has become a major point of fund-raising efforts by creationists at the Institute for Creation Research . The main obstacle faced by ye-creationists who attempt to explain the ancient age of the Earth by conventional science is two-fold:
(1) How to explain the vast
amount of heat released during accelerated
(2) How to explain the consistency among various decay methods.
Creationists have indeed acknowledged the problems
associated with the idea of accelerated decay is a rare example of scientific honesty on
the part of ye creationists:
"One major obstacle to accelerated decay is an explanation for the disposal of the great quantities of heat which would be generated by radioactive decay over short periods of time. For example, if most of the radioactive decay implied by fission tracks or quantities of daughter products occurred over the year of the Flood, the amount of heat generated would have been excessive, given present conditions.
At least one theory of cosmology has been proposed which would compensate for this large amount of heat and possibly even result in net volumetric cooling in places. Such theories seem to ultimately to depend upon supernatural intervention at the time of Creation, Fall, and the Flood. God's intervention is explicitly stated in Scripture (II Peter 3:5,6 and implied elsewhere). Although these theories have not been adequately explored at this time, they could well result in an alternative explanation to many processes in the earth and cosmos. The group is strongly committed to exploring various ways in which data for large quantities of radioactive decay can be explained within a young-earth time frame. In this effort, the group is committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible which honors God as Creator and Sustainer of this world."
What is particularly important in this paragraph is a call to the supernatural. Although such an explanation can indeed be accepted on faith, it is not scientific. The scientific data from geochronology argue strongly against a very young Earth. Tim Thompson maintains a wonderful resource describing the details of radiometric dating and the methods involved.This page is not meant to duplicate the materials contained in that particular area, but to give specific examples which refute the young earth position. One of the simplest arguments against a young earth viewpoint is to look at the cooling of a large granitic or doleritic pluton. The equations for the cooling of a half-space depend only on the assumption that modern thermodynamics accurately describes the physical universe. In fact, the argument was used by Kelvin to estimate the age of the Earth in the middle 1800's3. The formula for the solidification of a pluton is given by***:
where x= width of the solidifying body, k = thermal diffusivity, ts= time to solidify and l is a function described by:
where L=latent heat of
fusion, c=specific heat, erf= error function and (Tm-T0) temperature difference between the intrusion and the country rock.
The formula will give the time in seconds for a body to cool to the ambient temperature (T0). For example, a diabasic intrusion the size of the Palisades Sill
would require ~2000 years to solidify and longer than 10,000 years to cool to
ambient. As you might guess, creationists are aware of such arguments and have
asserted that many plutons formed instantaneously (for examples of these arguments see Snelling and for
counter-arguments Dr. L.G.
Collins. What is interesting about the slow cooling of a pluton is that it
predicts that different minerals should show a progression of younger ages that reflect
the time that the pluton cooled through a 'blocking temperature'. For details
on blocking temperatures, the reader may refer to Chapter 6 of McDougall and Harrison's
"Geochronology and Thermochronology by the 40Ar/39Ar method" (Oxford University Press, 1999).
An excellent example of slow-cooling of a pluton is taken from the Carion pluton in central Madagascar (Meert et al., in press). The following table gives the closure temperature of the minerals used in dating the rock:
Method & Closure Temperature
Age +/- Error
U-Pb (850 C)
532.1 +/- 5.1 Ma
40Ar/39Ar (500 C)
513.2 +/- 1.4 Ma
40Ar/39Ar (350 C)
481.9 +/- 3.0 Ma
40Ar/39Ar (modeled diffusion)
466.0 +/- 4.4 Ma
Emplacement temperatures based on zircon saturation estimates yield temperatures in the range of 844o-889o C. Therefore, these data indicate slow cooling of the pluton from a magma at ~865o C down to 225o C over tens of millions of years. There are a number of other interesting aspects to this study. These rocks were also studied using paleomagnetic methods and a pole was determined for the rocks. The pole position obtained for these rocks (prior to any knowledge regarding the absolute age) fell on a well-dated segment of the Gondwana Apparent polar wander path.
The age of the pole could be estimated using
the age of the apparent polar wander path (APWP) and it suggested that the Carion granite
magnetization was acquired around 505-520 million years ago. The geochronologic data
coupled with the paleomagnetic blocking temperatures suggest an age of 508.4 +/- 11.4 Ma
(million years) for the magnetization that is consistent with its location on the
APWP!! Furthermore, the paleomagnetic data indicate that the pluton cooled through a
reversal of the Earth's magnetic field in the 11 million year interval.
It is the consistency of data like these that point to strong evidence against the earth being only 6000-10000 years old. Interestingly, several readers of this page have commented that I do not discuss the 'assumptions' that go into radiometric dating and that perhaps daughter products were already present in the minerals that were dated. Without going into details, this 'challenge' is completely ad-hoc and requires that a precise amount of daughter was present in EACH mineral (in the whole rock!) so as to give the appearance of concordant ages. I challenge those who make such an argument to demonstrate how this can be accomplished. For full details on the assumptions of radiometric dating see Chris Stassen's excellent essay on isochron dating methods or Dr. Roger Wiens excellent 'Radiometric Dating:A Christian Perspective' or my own 'Consistent Radiometric Ages.
II. THE GEOLOGIC COLUMN (A work in Progress)
Many creationists are unaware of the fact that John Woodmorappe is really Jan Peczkis, a high school teacher from Chicago, Illinois. Peczkis has authored old earth evolutionary articles under his real name whilst claiming to be a young earther under his pseudonym (J. Vert Paleo, 1994). John Woodmorappe (aka Jan Peczkis) has challenged the idea that the Geologic column is real. Of course Jan is not the first creationist to make such an assertion, Steve Austin (aka Stuart Nevins) also goes to great lengths to dismiss the notion that the geologic column is real. In part, creationists create a strawman image of the geologic column and then attack the notion without mercy. The key is to examine what Geologists say about the geologic column and compare it to the creationists strawman version.
Before going in to the details, I would like to make one important point regarding the accusations made by Woodmorappe/Peckzis using his own words:"Some of these claims have been made on the Internet and, as an active creationist scientist, I dont have the time to fan the windmills of debate on this totally unregulated, unrefereed medium. Anyone can say anything on it, no matter how untrue."
I certainly agree with Woody/Peczkis on this point and merely ask him why he would use such a forum for debate given its totally uncontrolled nature. In fact, as I will show, Woody/Peczkis is guilty of misrepresenting science on the internet. No doubt this is because he can successfully reach masses of people who are ready to believe without checking the veracity of his arguments. Of course, he could justifiably turn and hurl a similar accusation towards me. The key is that the statements I make here regarding science and geology can all be checked through peer-reviewed scientific literature. I have included references where necessary. Furthermore, Woodmorappe has never published a single article in any peer-reviewed scientific journal under his pseudonym (though he does publish old earth evolutionary articles under his real name). I therefore challenge him to publish his criticisms in the appropriate scientific journals or withdraw them immediately. The ultimate test of scientific validity is passing the scrutiny of ones peers. Until Woodmorappe publishes in the scientific journals, his accusations and assertions have no validity. Now, on with the countdown!
(a) What is the Geologic column?
(b) What is the Geologic column according to creationists?
(c) Why is there no real problem with the geologic column?
What is the Geologic Column?
In order to point out the absurdity of Jan Peczkis' claim, it is useful to review the concept of the Geologic column as conceived by Geologists. The Geologic Column is an ordering of the rock record on Earth since it formed. The historical development of the Geologic column is an interesting review because it points out the rationale for its use and its importance in Geology. The first (and very important point) is that the original geologic column was developed without some grand correlative plan. It was simply a matter of observation and naming of local strata4. For example, Adam Sedgwick and his student Roderick Murchison described the Cambrian and Silurian sytems in England4. In fact, a great debate arose between student and teacher because Murchison was not convinced of Sedgwick's Cambrian system due to the lack of fossils in the Cambrian strata described by Sedgwick. Lapworth4 recognized the faunal separation between Sedgwick's Cambrian and Murchison's Silurian and called the intervening system the Ordovician. Of course, in the 1850's none of these people had any idea as to the absolute time separating these fossiliferous strata. The relative ages of these strata were made on the basis of the fundamental principles of Lyell. These fundamental principles include the law of original horizontality, superposition and cross-cutting relationships. What these early geologist noticed was that the ordering of the fossils within the strata followed the same sequence wherever they looked. That is, that Mississippian fossils always overlie Cambrian fossils. More on this in a moment as we examine the cartoon image of the Geologic column developed by so-called Christian young earth creationists.
There are several key
observations with regard to the Geologic column that many creationists seem either (a)
willfully ignorant of or (b) simply choose to misrepresent. These observations are
"Common sense teaches us that 16 miles (at most) which exists, out of a total of 100 or 200 miles, is a very incomplete column! It remains primarily an invention of the uniformitarian imagination, and a textbook orthodoxy. So, although there are places where lithologies referable to all ten of the Phanerozoic systems can actually be seen superposed, creationists remain more than justified in highlighting the essential non-existence of the standard geologic column."
Such a statement is, of course absurd in the highest degree, since no geologist would ever make such a demand of the geologic column. It (the column) is a description of time-progressive units that are subject to normal cycles of the Earth. In fact, a better argument against the existence of the geologic column would be to encounter a complete 100 mile thick sequence from the Archean through the Cenozoic!! Woodmorappe/Peczkis seems to make a big deal about the total maximum thickness of the geologic column being absent in any particular location. His point seems to be that since the maximum thickness is missing, the Geologic column is a fallacy. I simply challenge Peczkis/Woodmorappe to give several scientific references (not creationist vanity rags) that indicate that this is how the Geologic column was constructed or represented. In fact, this is the strawman in its entirety. Woody/Peczkis redefines the Geologic column and then shows why his definition is false. Of course if you start off with a misrepresentation of fact, it is easy to destroy that same misrepresentation, but it is hardly good science (or in this case, it is particularly poor theology!). The geologic column is a sequence of strata that is independent of total thickness and always has been.
2. Unconformities: Woodmorappe/Peczkis makes a big deal about paraconformities in the Geologic record. A paraconformity is a gap in deposition within the sedimentary sequence recognized primarily on the basis of faunal gaps. Indeed, these are subtle features in the geologic record and yet people like Woodmorappe/Peczkis make specious claims regarding these missing strata. For example, Woodmorappe/Peczkis state:
This assertion, if true, would certainly be problematic. Therefore, the key is to determine the veracity of the above statement. Woodmorappe is clearly hoping that most readers will never bother to actually step into the field and examine the rock record. Davies noted long ago that most purported paraconformities, if traced laterally, show clear evidence of erosional surfaces. Furthermore, careful examination of some of these surfaces may also reveal features known as paleosols. If you look at the photo at the top of the page, you will see an excellent example of a well-developed paleosol in Missouri. The paleosol is developed on a granite dated to 1473 Ma and underneath the upper Cambrian-age Lamotte sandstone5. Paleosols are fairly common features throughout the standard geologic column and no doubt are part of the reason that ye-creationists like Woodmorappe/Peczkis choose to reject the geologic column through the use of technical sounding statements. Why are paleosols so troubling for ye-creationism?
Ye-creationists assert that the the geologic record is mainly a recording of a global Gilgameshian flood (the Hebrews referred to this myth as the Noachian flood) and that most of the sedimentary rocks observed on Earth resulted from deposition during this flood. Obviously, there is no chance for mature and thick soils to form during a global tempest such as the flood of Noah. Therefore, in creating a strawman picture of the Geologic column and then mercilessly attacking it, the creationist is not forced to deal with data that clearly refute the notion of a global flood. Paleosols are ancient soils that develop during periods of extensive subaerial weathering and they are sometimes preserved in the geologic record. The key is that paleosols are found throughout the geologic column and represent periods of Earth history when the region they were found in WAS NOT covered by water. Paleosols in the midst of a global flood are not possible. Some other excellent examples of paleosols throughout the geologic column are shown below and a partial reference list is given here:
Figure: (left) John Anderson strolling over ancient forest soils (Alfisols) littered with bones of Lystrosaurus. Early Triassic Katberg
Formation near Bergville, South Africa and (right) Eocene-Oligocene boundary b/w red paleosols (Ultisols) and yellow paleosols (Inceptisols),
in the Painted Hills, Oregon ( photos courtesy Greg Retallack).
Evelyn Krull beside a thick, clayey paleosol in early Triassic rocks of
the Allan Hills, Antarctica. (photos courtesy Greg Retallack).
Some very problematic paleosols for flood advocates include the following photos courtesy of Steve Hasiotis (Kansas University):
(top and bottom) Vertebrate burrows in a paleosol within the Jurassic-age Morrison
(below: Termite Nest of Jurassic age)
What about Woodmorappe/Peczkis' claim that most locations on Earth do not show evidence for erosion? The statement is clearly misleading for two reasons. The first is because in many cases there are clear erosive contacts between sedimentary sequences. The second is that the inference of a hiatus (such as those in paraconformities) is based on the fact that a sequence of fossils is missing between otherwise conformable looking strata. This sounds like a problem until we review the development of the Geologic column. The early pioneers quickly recognized that the local correlative sequence was identical to sequences elsewhere in Europe (and later on other continents). That is to say that Mississippian strata (for example) were found above Cambrian strata regardless of the total thickness. Eventually, the Paleozoic nomenclature included naming of strata into a number of different stages based on the fossils found in the rock. The same fine divisions of stratigraphic division have been made for Mesozoic and Cenozoic time. So how do geologists recognize a paraconformity? It is based on the fact that fossiliferous strata show a progression that 'jumps' a known and correlatable sequence. No doubt this is why Woodmorappe-Peckzis makes his claim that at least part of the Geologic column is false because he personally finds it uncomfortable to understand sequence correlation tools. He takes this position not because the Geologic column is a poor correlation tool, but because he wants it to be so.
The absurdity of Woodmorrappe's claims can be seen through the use of the following example.
1. A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 2. A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V X Y Z
Line #1 gives the standard english alphabet in its 'standard' sequence. Line #2 gives the alphabet with one letter missing. How can we explain the 'gap' in sequence #2? If we have established the general sequence through repetitive observation and testing and found that the letter "W" always falls between "V" and "X" in the standard alphabet, then we would conclude (as would any first grader) that the letter "W" is missing from sequence #2. -oodmorappe -ould no doubt claim that the letter is an artificial construct and of little use (except -hen it comes to spelling his o-n pseudonym of course!!). Such problems will always arise when one forces their own particular theology on the world.
If the geologic column is flawed, then one might wonder why oil companies and mineral exploration companies feature it so prominently in their exploration research. One test of scientific validity is to examine how utilitarian the science is. Companies who stake their livelihood on the science of geology would certainly abandon the notion of Geologic correlation were it so useless as Woodmorappe/Peczkis believes. In fact, this may be one of the strongest arguments in favor of the utility of the standard Geologic column. Indeed, I challenge Woodmorappe to publish his criticisms in the geologic literature and stop giving excuses on totally unregulated media. I also challenge ANY CREATIONIST to demonstrate a global flood stratigraphy that is not only useful in correlating strata, but also of economic importance.
Note: I was informed that Tas Walker, an Australian apologist at Answers in Genesis actually wrote a critique based on the photo at the top of the website. To my knowledge, Walker has never been to the outcrop and based his criticism on the basis of a 200 dpi photo. The absurdity of such an exercise would be readily understood by any geologist. When I receive the full 'paper', I will comment with more substance. I wonder if Walker would attempt to discuss the other paleosols illustrated on this site.
1. Darymple, B. Age of the Earth, 1991.
2. ICR TENETS of creationism
3. Turcotte and Schubert, Geodynamics, 1982
4. Levin, The Earth through Time, 1998
5. Meert and Stuckey, Tectonics, 2002.
6. Harrison and McDougall, 1999, Geochronology & Thermochronology by the 40Ar/39Ar Method.
***You can download a program dike.exe from my website that will calculate the length of time needed for a dike or sill to solidify. For the Palisades, typical input values would be 300 meters for the thickness, Tm=1350 C, T0=100 C; k=0.71 mm/sec2; c= 1.2 kJ/kg*C; and L=400 kJ/kg. If you plug these numbers in you should get an answer of 1887 years.
Other Essays by the Author:
1. Roasting Adam
2. Consistent Radiometric Dates
3. Intelligent Design or Constant Tinkering
4. Northrups unsupportable flood chronology.
5. The Depth of the Oceans and Runaway Subduction.
6. Creationist FAQ's and Discussions
7. RATE: ICR's RATE Project Flaws