THE CREATION VERSUS EVOLUTION CONTROVERSY: PART EIGHT
In our previous installment in this series we began to carefully examine the Genesis creation account to determine the time frames involved in the creation and making of the earth and universe. Many young earth creationists believe the first chapter of Genesis presents a unified account of the creation of the universe in a six day time frame where Genesis 1:1 is part of the six day time frame. Creationists who accept the gap theory believe Genesis 1:1 teaches an original creation that could go back millions or billions of years followed by a recreating of a dormant earth and its surroundings in a six day time frame. Progressive creationists see the Genesis creation account as an allegory where the creation events described represent great time frames of gradual development. Evolutionists see the Genesis account as largely irrelevant to how the universe actually came to be.
We showed in the previous essay how the gap theory has some strength as an explanation of Genesis one in that it appears to be supported by a passage in Hebrews 11:3 and it also provides a way out of the star light problem while remaining faithful to a literal reading of the six day creation account. Evolutionists, progressive creationists and those holding to the gap theory base their old universe conclusions on faith in radioisotope dating of earth rocks, meteorites and moon rocks along with the star light phenomenon. On the other hand, young earth creationists are adamant in their position that the earth is no more than six to ten thousand years old and the entire Genesis creation account represents a literal six day creation of the universe. What is the evidence for the young earth position?
THE RATE RESEARCH:
In 1997, two geologists, three physicists, a meteorologist and a Hebrew scholar formed a research group to study the age of the earth. They became known as the RATE group. RATE stands for Radioisotopes and the Age of the earth. There research was done over a period of eight years. This project was sponsored and promoted by various creation science organizations. As can be seen by the name of this group, their main purpose was to critically examine the radioisotope methods used by the scientific community to determine the age of rocks and other materials.
Radioisotope dating (also known as radiometric dating) is a very specialized and technical procedure. One key device that is used is called a mass spectrometer which is designed to separate charged molecules, atoms and isotopes on the basis of their weight or mass. We discussed isotopes in installment three of this series. In using the mass spectrometer, a small amount of rock is vaporized to a gas. Individual atoms are then counted as they travel through strong electric and magnetic fields. This is all done in a vacuum chamber with extreme care taken to avoid any contamination that would alter the results.
Of great concern in radioisotope dating is whether any daughter atoms were present in the rock before parent atoms began to decay, whether the rock was protected from atoms outside itself causing contamination and thirdly, how well the results of a particular dating method match the results of other dating methods used on the same rock. A method called isochronal dating is used to address these concerns in most radioisotope methods. A fourth concern that cannot be addressed by isochrones is the question of whether nuclear decay rates have been constant throughout the history of a sample that is being examined. If they have not been constant, this would greatly affect the validity of the dates arrived at in radioisotope dating. The RATE team offers what they feel is solid evidence that nuclear decay rates have been much higher in the past than what we see today and therefore the long age dates given to rocks are invalid. We will now review and summarize the work done by RATE.
THE CARBON-14 PROBLEM:
Fossils containing carbon-14 are found in abundance throughout the sedimentary rock strata that exists all over the earth. Carbon-14 has a short half- life (5,730 years) compared to other isotopes found in rocks. This being the case, in approximately 100,000 years, carbon-14 decays to levels undetectable by current dating methods. Yet it has been found that many fossils thought to be millions of years old are still found to have measurable levels of carbon-14. This creates a major challenge to conclusions reached by evolutionary scientists that many fossils and the rocks that contain them are millions of years old.
As discussed in installment six of this series, a method of measuring carbon-14, called AMS, or Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Dating directly counts the carbon-14 atoms, using a tandem accelerator. This method is able to detect carbon-14 atoms at lower levels than is true with standard measurement methods and eliminates all possible sources of carbon contamination. This method has identified carbon-14 in specimens formally tested and concluded to be millions of years old. Millions of years old materials would not have detectable carbon still in them. The fact that the AMS method has detected carbon in every organic specimen it has tested indicates such specimens are much younger than previously believed. Carbon-14 has been found in fossils, petrified wood, shells, whale bone, coal, oil, and natural gas from around the world and at various depths. It has also been found in a variety of rocks and minerals.
Under the standard carbon-14 dating procedures, carbon-14 atoms are counted in the sample and compared to another sample that is determined to be a “calibration standard” where no carbon-14 is thought to reside and where any carbon-14 that was found is considered to have come from the environment and is subtracted out. With AMS being able to test for carbon-14 levels much lower than under standard procedures, the calibration standards being used have themselves been found to contain carbon-14 that cannot be associated with environmental contamination. Therefore dates established by standard carbon-14 methods will appear older than they actually are.
The RATE team had ten coal samples taken from the fossil bearing rock layers of Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic rock. These rock layers have been dated as covering a period of 543 million to 1.8 million years. The work was contracted out to a top carbon-14 lab where four AMS measurements were made for each sample and the results were averaged. Great care was taken to eliminate all possible sources of carbon-14 contamination. Measurements were based on the generally accepted assumption that carbon-14 decay rates have remained constant throughout time. Carbon-14 was found in all ten samples. The RATE team also had twelve diamond samples measured with the AMS method. Diamonds are presumed to be millions of years old. All twelve samples were shown to contain carbon-14.
As explained previously, carbon-14, which has a relatively short half-life, should not be present in material that is presumed to be millions of years old. Either carbon-14 has somehow been reintroduced into this material over time or such material has been wrongly dated by the standard methods being used.
Some have suggested the reason carbon-14 is found in these samples is because the earths atmosphere or moving ground water somehow supplies old samples with new carbon-14. While this is a possibility, in the case of diamonds, very improbable when you consider diamonds are the hardest natural substance on earth and extremely resistant to chemical alteration or contamination.
On the other hand, it has been observed that nuclear reactions can take place where neutrons enter material and convert either nitrogen-14 or carbon-13 atoms directly to carbon-14. This could provide an explanation of the presence of carbon-14 in seemingly old material. However, amounts of carbon-14 produced in this manner are extremely small compared to what is actually found in materials dated as very old by standard dating methods.
Along these same lines, it has been observed that some radioactive isotopes such as uranium and radium can decay in a certain way to produce carbon-14. It’s been found, however, that the production of carbon-14 created in this manner is far below the amounts of carbon-14 found in diamonds and other material thought to be millions of years old. The carbon-14 amounts generated in this way are thousands of times less than what is actually observed in samples of supposedly very old material
It should be noted that radioactive decay rates of isotopes such as radium and uranium are based on the belief that there has been consistent decay rates throughout earth’s history. It has been proposed, however, that their may have been accelerated nuclear decay of isotopes in the past as compared to the rate seen today. Such acceleration would have increased the process of creating carbon-14. For example, alpha particles from the decay of uranium can interact with common elements such as oxygen, magnesium and silicon to produce neutrons which then can interact with underground nitrogen-14 and carbon-13 atoms to produce carbon-14. The concept of accelerated decay and its impact on dating methods will be explored in more detail as we go on.
While the RATE team has identified a problem with dating various carbon based materials as being millions of years old, the results of their findings still showed a 44,000 to 57,000 year age for coal, diamonds and other materials. This still poses a problem for creationists who believe the earth is only six to ten thousand years old. Members of the RATE team, who apparently are among those who believe in a very young earth, believe the amount of total carbon was much greater and therefore the ratio of carbon-14 to total carbon was much less prior to the Noachian flood. This is felt to be true because it is believed extremely large amounts of carbon based vegetation and animals were buried at the time of the flood which became fossil fuel. This large mass of carbon based material in the pre-flood world would have resulted in a very low radioactive carbon-14 to non-radioactive carbon-12 ratio compared with the post flood world. This would affect the measurement of carbon-14 in such material as carbon-14 is measured in relation to carbon-12.
The RATE team reports that the total amount of carbon found within carbonate rocks and fossil fuels is mostly carbon-12 and is at least 100 times greater than the amount found in the total biosphere of living plants and animals today. By taking this presumed pre-flood carbon distribution into account, it is believed the carbon-14 age for coal, diamonds and other carbon based materials is reduced to several thousand years as opposed to the 44,000 to 57,000 years determined by the AMS measurements.
Some young earth creationists believe a stronger magnetic field existed prior to the flood than exists today. It is believed a stronger magnetism would have deflected cosmic rays away from the earth and therefore reduce the production of carbon-14. As you may recall from our discussion of carbon-14 dating in chapter two of this series, cosmic rays that enter our atmosphere from outer space strike the earth and transform nitrogen (nitrogen 14) to carbon of which some is radioactive carbon (carbon-14). I have not seen evidence to support this concept of a change in the magnetic field.
RADIOACTIVE ZIRCON CRYSTALS:
One component of granite rock is the mineral biotite which contains small crystals called zircons. Zircons are also found in beach sand and even in lunar rocks. Zircon crystals are known to contain the element uranium of which some is the radioactive isotope uranium-238. Uranium-238 releases alpha particles leading to the creation of lead-206. In larger zircons, some of these alpha particles combine with nearby electrons and form helium atoms. Since helium is a gas, it easily dissipates into the air. Within zircons, any helium atoms generated by nuclear decay in the distant past should have long ago escaped the crystals. What has been discovered, however, is that large amounts of helium have been found inside zircons found in granite rock 2.6 miles deep into the earth and believed to be 1.5 billion years old. These rock samples were from a 1974 project at Los Alamos National Laboratories.
This finding raised questions as to the assumed age of the granite rock and/or how helium moves through rocks. If the granite rock is as old as determined, the helium should have disappeared a long time ago based on establishment of the age of these rocks using the known decay rate of radioactive uranium to lead. Since helium is still present in this rock, it would suggest the rock is much younger. Assuming such younger rock would experience the standard rate of decay of its radioactive isotopes, there would not have been sufficient passage of time to produce the quantity of helium that was found. Therefore, it was suggested that there was a period of accelerated radioactive decay in recent history.
The RATE team decided to explore this possibility. They initially determined through testing that helium does readily escape through zircon/biotite rock. Zircons from the 1974 Los Alamos project were then dated using the uranium to lead dating method and found to be around 1.5 billion years old which is what the Los Alamos project had determined their age to be. This finding is based on the time that it would have taken for radioactive isotopes of uranium to decay into lead. Therefore, on the surface it would appear that these zircons were very old. Yet because of there being a large amount of helium present in the zircons, it placed into question the age of these zircons.
A 1.5 billion year age for the zircons would require an extremely slow helium release which runs contrary to the observed rate of helium release from zircons. Having determined the release rate of helium from zircons, the RATE team determined that the helium released to date from the zircons obtained from the Los Alamos project would make the zircons around 6000 years old with a plus or minus of 2000 year differential based on mathematical calculations that were use in this research. These conclusions were reached based on helium diffusion studies conducted by Activation Laboratories in Ontario Canada. Based on these findings, it was concluded that there must have been accelerated decay of radioactive isotopes between four and eight thousand years ago which resulted in the production of large amounts of helium.
The RATE team did not challenge the conclusions reached by using the uranium to lead dating method as they found this method to reliably date the zircon crystals at 1.5 billion years old. But because of the quantity of helium found in these crystals, RATE concluded that radioactive uranium found in these crystals at some point must have decayed much more rapidly than what is normally seen. This accelerated rate would produce the high quantity of helium seen in zircon crystals and such acceleration would greatly reduce the number of years of nuclear decay. This would result in a much younger age for these crystals than the 1.5 billion years seen when using normal rates of decay. The presence of large amounts of helium in zircon crystals is circumstantial evidence for past periods of accelerated decay.
It has been found that atoms in most solids are lined up in orderly rows, columns and layers. This includes rocks and minerals. When decay of radioactive elements takes place inside crystalline material, microscopic tracts of damage can be observed as radioactive halos. It takes a very large number of decay particles emanating over long periods of time to produce such halos.
There is a particular element called polonium which has twenty-five known isotopes all of which are radioactive with three of them having a half-life as short as 0.000164 seconds, 3.1 days and 138 days. Polonium and its isotopes are produced in the decay of radioactive uranium-238. Therefore, polonium isotopes are daughter elements produced in the decay process of their parent element uranium-238. Yet polonium halos have been found in crystals without there being any parent uranium atoms present. Various theories have been explored as to why this is the case with the greater evidence suggesting that hydrothermal fluid transport is the likely dynamic involved in moving polonium isotopes away from their parent atoms. This hydrothermal fluid would be generated as magma crystallizes into hard rock. Most geologists believe that this crystallization process took millions of years. The fact that there are halos present in rock from the short lived isotopes of polonium indicates the magma cooled to rock very rapidly as such halos can only form in established rock. If such rock slowly formed over millions of years, polonium halos would not have formed. Since such rock contains halos from seemly parentless short half-life polonium isotopes and yet such isotopes are still the offspring of long age uranium decay, it is indicative of accelerated nuclear decay at some point in earth’s history. If such accelerated decay took place, it would greatly impact the radiometric dating conclusions advanced by scientists relative to the age of the earth.
The RATE team also examined metamorphic rocks which are formed when a certain type of rock is exposed to high temperatures, pressure, hydrothermal fluids or chemical changes which transforms the rock into a different rock. For example, limestone becomes marble. Since metamorphic rock experiences extremely high heat in its creation, all previous radiohalos would be erased as radiohalos do not survive such heat. In examining a collection of twenty-one metamorphic rocks, the RATE team found radiohalos in large numbers in these rocks. This suggests the movement of polonium isotopes via hydrothermal fluids from uranium-238 parent atoms of more recent origin again suggesting accelerated nuclear decay at some point.
In addition to what I have covered above, the RATE team did additional research into radiometric dating which examined the formation and dating of fission tracts and discordant radioisotope dating. For the reader interested in more details of the research discussed in this essay and additional research conducted by the RATE team, I refer you to the book, Thousands… Not Billions, by Dr. Don DeYoung.
CONCLUSIONS OF RATE:
After eight years of work, the Rate group concluded that radioactive decay has not remained constant throughout earth’s history and therefore accelerated decay has occurred at certain times in our past. This conclusion is primarily based on findings that show carbon-14 being found where it should not be, helium atoms still present in zircons when such atoms should have dissipated long ago and the presence of radiohalos that indicate rapid nuclear decay. A second conclusion offered was that accelerated decay occurred during creation week and during the Noachian flood.
CRITICISM OF ACCELERATED DECAY:
Nuclear decay produces heat. Accelerated nuclear decay would produce a tremendous amount of heat. It’s been calculated that accelerated decay of uranium and thorium equaling millions of years of decay in a short time frame would raise rock temperatures as high as 22,000 degrees centigrade. This temperature is nearly four times hotter than the sun and would virtually vaporize rock. The presence of radiohalos and fission tracts in rocks shows such rocks could not have been hotter than 150 degrees centigrade as higher temperatures than this would erase such evidence of radioactive damage to rocks. Yet such halos and fission tracts are seen in rocks. This places the concept of accelerated decay into serious question.
As discussed above, helium atoms are found in zircon crystals and such atoms should have dissipated a long time ago if the rocks the helium is found in are as old as radiometric dating has determined them to be. The presence of these helium atoms suggests a period of accelerated nuclear decay. However, the heat from such accelerated decay would have melted the zircon crystals. Yet this is not the case as these crystals are still present in rocks.
These are serious problems associated with of the concept of accelerated decay which were not adequately addressed by the RATE group. Either a satisfactory response to these criticisms must be identified or we must look for other explanations for the findings that appear to suggest accelerated decay of radioactive material.
Another criticism of accelerated decay is the problem of radiation. The RATE team believes that accelerated decay took place during creation week and the Noachian flood. If such rapid decay did occur during these time frames, it would have severer consequences for any living organisms on the earth or in the oceans of the earth. For example, living organisms contain an abundance of potassium of which a small amount is radioactive potassium-40. The half-life of this isotope is 1.25 billion years. Accelerated decay of potassium-40 would produce lethal radiation poisoning for living organisms.
The RATE team proposed that around 90% of accelerated decay occurred during creation week and around 10% occurred at the time of the Noachian flood. While RATE showed that helium released to date from the zircons obtained from the Los Alamos project would make the zircons around 6000 years old with a plus or minus of 2000 year differential, this is far from establishing that this occurred during creation week or during the flood. RATE does not propose any direct reasons why acceleration would have occurred during creation week. The logical question to ask is why would there be accelerated decay during creation week. According to the Genesis account God created everything by simply speaking it into existence and then proclaimed it to be good. Accelerated decay, because of the heat it would have generated, would have virtually destroyed the very creation that had been just accomplished. What purpose would it serve to condense billions of years of decay into a few days?
It needs to be noted that all research to date shows the nucleus of atoms are very stable and experiments over the years to accelerate decay have produced little results. Consequently there is no hard evidence to support accelerated nuclear decay. The evidence provided by the RATE team is circumstantial at best and does not prove that accelerated nuclear decay has occurred in the past. In addition, radioisotope studies of lunar rocks and meteorites provide dates of billions of years old. Is accelerated decay involved here as well and if so where is the evidence?
SUMMERY OF THE RATE RESEARCH:
The RATE team is to be commended for their work in identifying reasons to question the old age dates assigned to rocks and living organisms based on radiometric dating methods. Their findings have raised some serious questions as to the validity of the billions of years old age proposed for the earth. On the other hand, there remains series problems associated with their conclusions as discussed above. Unless these problems are satisfactorily resolved, their remains serious doubt as to the significance of their findings in proving the earth is only six to ten thousands years old.
It must be reiterated that the RATE team did not question the validity of known decay rates associated with various radioactive isotopes. They admitted that if decay rates have been constant throughout time, the ages established for rocks and other materials based on radiometric dating are generally valid and we have a very old earth. The RATE team’s whole focus was on testing the validity of the concept of there being a constant decay rate for radioactive isotopes. The evidence they offered suggests that decay rates may not have been constant throughout history but instead experienced periods of acceleration. Someone will have to resolve the problems associated with this proposition for it to be proven valid.