Both Young & Old Earths Are Way Too Young for Darwin's Idea to Survive
Since the time of Darwin and his theory of evolution, the age of the earth has become more important to Bible-believing Christians. Darwin stated that evolution had to proceed as a "slow and gradual process" and so required a long time to produce the diversity of life we see. If, as one way of literally reading the Bible indicates, the earth is only 6,000–10,000 years old, then evolution did not have enough time to produce this vast array of living things and so cannot be true. Since Darwin's theory stipulates that the process of evolution is entirely unguided, not requiring a Creator, and requires extensive time (billions of years?), then a young earth, if demonstrable, would be a strong argument against evolution.
A survey in the U.S. on the age of the earth would yield two dominant answers, one saying that it is 6,000–10,000 years old (the young earth theory) and one saying that it is about 4.5 billion years old (the old earth theory). The young-earth view is based on historical records and relies heavily on the genealogies recorded in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Virtually everyone who adheres to this viewpoint believes in the God of the Bible, i.e., is either a Christian or an adherent of some other religious view out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The old-earth view is based on geological, astrophysical, and other scientific data that places the formation of the earth at about 4.5 billion years ago (and the origin of the universe at about 14 billion years ago). While it is true that virtually all atheists and nonbelievers accept an "old earth," many Christians also accept the old-earth view, based on a different interpretation of some of the words and passages in Genesis.
Four Senses of Evolution
Before we consider how the age of the earth fits with the concept of evolution, we first need to review what people mean by the word "evolution." The term can have different meanings, including:
• Survival of the fittest
• Change over time within existing species
• A gradual development, resulting in new species
• The undirected process by which all living species have developed from simple, single-celled organisms into complex organisms. This development took place incrementally, step by step, over the course of the history of the earth.
Most everyone would agree with the concept of survival of the fittest. In fact, you could consider it biblically based. Every time I look at my lawn or garden, I think of Genesis 3:18: "It shall produce thorns and thistles for you." I see weeds as survival of the fittest in action. Even when the climate is unusually hot, cold, wet, or dry, weeds tend to prosper.
Most people would also agree with the second bullet: that changes occur over time within existing species. This is generally called micro-evolution. Plant and animal breeders are continually striving to produce new varieties with enhanced features, so we should expect that some changes would occur on their own.
There is more divergence of thought on the third bullet: the concept of gradual development resulting in new species. This is called macro-evolution. If we look at speech as an analogy, we all might agree that languages gradually change over time, resulting in new languages. For example, French, Italian, and Spanish are all thought to be derived from Latin, through a process of gradual change driven by the people using the languages.
But evolution in biology can be far more complicated than the outward appearance of species might suggest. For example, given their similarities in appearance, it would be natural to think that horses and zebras are closely related biologically, differing only in minor respects, like body width and coloring. In reality, they are separate species with substantially different genetic makeups. Domestic horses have 64 chromosomes, while Grevy's zebras have 46 chromosomes, plains zebras have 44, and mountain zebras have 32, only half as many chromosomes as horses. In some cases these animals have been interbred, but any surviving offspring would inherit two different sets of chromosomes, and so be very unlikely to reproduce.
The fourth bullet, the concept that all living species have developed from a simple, single-celled common ancestor into a variety of distinctive, complex organisms through an undirected process, is at the core of the divide between those who agree wholeheartedly with the evolutionary worldview and those who question it. While those who think there is a Creator accept the first three bullet points to varying degrees, they do not accept that undirected processes could produce what we see around us. They attribute the existence of the earth and all of life to the work of an all-powerful creator God. But for those who deny the existence of God, evolution in the sense of bullet four is the only remaining explanation. To the evolutionist, it is very simple: "Of course evolution is true. Here we are!"
The Starting Point of the Debate
However, the division between the two viewpoints doesn't start with the age of the earth; it starts with the existence of God. If you believe that God exists and that the Bible is the word of God, then the events depicted in the Bible are true historical records. If you assume that there is no God, then the biblical record is a mixture of questionable history and myth, and a materialistic explanation is the only possible one for the world we see. So the theory of evolution is, at its core, a description of how life could evolve without a Creator over billions of years.
This controversy notwithstanding, many people believe that the world has been designed. They marvel at the complexity of life, the beauty of mountains and sunsets, and all the wonders of nature. Christians might say this is obvious, and is supported by such biblical testimony as Romans 1:20: "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse" (NRSV). Evolutionists respond by saying that people need to overcome the tendency to see design in nature, and instead should realize that the appearance of design is just an illusion. (In other words, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.")
The wide divergence between these two viewpoints is one reason why the occasional debates between proponents of creation and/or a young earth on the one hand and proponents of evolution and an old earth on the other, really don't accomplish much. The debaters don't address the underlying source of the disagreement (which is the existence of God) and usually end up attacking each other. Usually the audience doesn't come to learn, but to watch the speakers spar, and effectively to cheer for their team. Of course, debates about the existence of God don't fare much better, as they tend to be fairly philosophical and also because neither position can be conclusively proven or disproven.
How can we re-establish some meaningful dialog between the two positions? Can we develop some quantitative method of assessing them? Specifically, is there some way that we can evaluate these two viewpoints by experiments or calculations using generally accepted data from biological research?
The Challenge of Irreducible Complexity
Recently, some of the steps in evolutionary development have begun to be evaluated experimentally using the idea of irreducible complexity, the concept that certain biological structures are made up of multiple, critical components that all need to be present for the structure to be functional. If just one component is missing, then the entire biological structure will not function.
Irreducibly complex structures call into question the evolutionary argument that everything in biology is built up incrementally, one step at a time, by an unguided process. Without the other components being present and ready to work together as a system to provide some advantage, the first evolved component of a given structure would have no reason to continue to exist while "waiting" for the rest of the components to materialize, so it would just disappear again. The challenge here is to bring all the critical components together at the same time.
Michael Behe, in his book Darwin's Black Box, describes five irreducibly complex biological structures. One of these is the bacterial flagellum, which confers on the lowly little bacterium the ability to swim. The flagellum looks like a thin piece of hair that whips around in circles to propel the bacterial cell through the water. Biochemically, it consists of many different protein complexes precisely configured to form a tiny outboard motor, complete with a propeller, a stator, a steering mechanism, and other parts. If any one of these proteins is not present, the poor bacterium is left "dead in the water." Behe argues that this flagellum could not have been formed one piece at a time, as evolutionary theory would claim. It makes better sense to say that it was designed.
The eye has also been proposed as a good example of an irreducibly complex structure. All the components of an eye—the iris, which responds to the amount of light available; the lens, which changes shape depending on the distance between it and the perceived object; and the retina, which changes photons into an electrical impulse that travels to the brain—must be in place and working together if the organism is to see and identify objects.
Evolutionists have countered this argument by claiming that the human eye did not need to develop all at once, but could have developed slowly and incrementally over a great many years, with each step giving the organism a slight survival advantage. They hypothesize that the earliest "eye" might have been just a patch of light-sensitive cells on the skin. Then, through random mutations, a depression in the light-sensitive spot could have developed and slowly evolved into a retina. Eventually, over more time, a lens could have developed.
Darwin himself considered the eye a good test case for his theory of evolution. In On the Origin of Species, he wrote,
If numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect [eye] can be shown to exist . . . then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.
Our Probability Calculation
Our paper "The Need for a Quantifiable Model of Evolution" (Journal of Bio Innovation, September 2017) addressed this debate of the evolution of the eye. Rather than arguing whether or not the eye is irreducibly complex, we focused on quantitatively modeling the probability of one incremental step toward the development of a functional eye occurring by chance. Our probability calculation started with the assumption that a primitive eye and its patch of light-sensitive cells were already in existence. We then asked the question: What if all that is needed to make this patch of light-sensitive cells functional is a few proteins, say 10 hypothetical generic proteins? (For comparison, a modern light-sensitive eyespot has 202 different proteins.) Our calculation also assumed that the time available for this evolutionary step to occur was 4.5 billion years—the entire time the earth has existed.
The setup for our calculation was very generous towards evolution—it assumed that only 4 amino acids were being used rather than the usual 20, and it also assumed that each protein was a very modest 100 amino acids in length. We further granted evolution the exceedingly generous assumption that a full 10 percent of all molecules in the ocean were amino acids that were interacting with every other amino acid at an implausibly high rate of 1014 times per second. Nonetheless, we found that the chance of that one, tiny, incremental step happening was one in 10525. That's a 1 followed by 525 zeros.
Another way of looking at this model is to ask how long it would take for these few proteins to come into existence at the same time by chance. Under our model, it would take 10534 years. This number of years is almost indescribable. It is a 1 followed by 534 zeros!
Age in Perspective
This calculation puts the disagreement over the age of the earth into perspective. Young-earth advocates argue that the earth is 6,000–10,000 years old. These numbers have 4 or 5 digits. Old-earth advocates argue that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. This number has 10 digits. Compared to 10534 years (535 digits), the argument about the age of the earth is irrelevant. The blind-chance basis for evolution can't explain even one incremental step in the development of a functional, primitive patch of light-sensitive cells (much less a fully developed eye) even by one chance in a billion, over a span of trillions upon trillions of years.
• Historically, many Christians have believed that the earth is 6,000–10,000 years old, based on the genealogical records in the Bible. Nonetheless, today there are many Christians who believe the earth is billions of years old.
• As Darwinian evolution became more popular, belief in a young earth became more important to Christians because it is a strong argument against evolution.
• Debates between young-earth and old-earth proponents are fruitless because each side argues its case using its own basis for truth.
• Research papers are being published that conclude that it would take considerably many more than billions of years for blind and unguided evolutionary processes to produce the diversity of life that we see.
• The difference between the age of a young earth (4–5 digits) and that of an old earth (10 digits) is insignificant in relation to how many years it would take to produce one incremental step in the evolution of one biological structure (535 digits).
• Billions of years and uncounted numbers of organisms are not remotely sufficient (even given all the resources of the universe) to justify a belief in evolution's ability to develop a complex structure, or even one incremental step toward the development of a complex structure.
• Accepting an age for the earth in the billions of years over taking a young-earth position does not significantly improve one's ability to make plausible arguments in favor of unguided evolution.
• Young-earth and old-earth creationists should not contend with each other over this point because, since neither earth age supports the theory of evolution as an adequate explanation for the development of complex life on our planet, both positions land on the same side in the overall debate regarding unguided evolution.Tom Siewert
is a (mostly) retired metallurgist. He received a BS in math and physics, before moving into materials science, then finishing with a Ph.D. in metallurgy. He is now spending some free time in exploring some of life’s generally accepted, but poorly supported ideas. For topics in biology, it helps a lot to have a wife who knows biology.Elizabeth Siewert
earned a BS in math and chemistry. She worked in the field of molecular biology at the University of Colorado for 15 years, carrying out research in genetics, where she learned a lot about biological systems. After her children were grown, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in biostatistics, thus combining her love for both math and biology. Her interest is in quantitatively modeling biological systems.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #48, Spring 2019 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo48/age-doesnt-matter