Sunday, 8 August 2010

Critiquing Creationist Blogs - Part 2

In part 1 of Critiquing Creationist Blogs I looked at the blog of Daniel Mann and mentioned that I would be looking at a single post by RK Bentley in part 2. Instead I will be looking at two posts on his blog, as the latest post is about evolution. Bentley is more of a challenge than Mann was and has quite a persuasive writing style, masking the fact that his posts are littered with misconceptions.

Bentley - Is Young Earth Creationism a Modern Invention?

In the first of Bentley's blogs which I want to look at, I was pleased to see that he had been exposed to this view as it is one I hold (see here). In Bentley's words the argument is that "never before in Church history has there been such an emphasis or hyper-literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis." Something which he brands as "clever spin". I wouldn't disagree with his words here, except of course that it is clever spin. What it does is show that the literalistic reading of Genesis is not the default position for Christians.

Naturally Bentley's first port of call is to look at the Church Fathers, stating unequivocally that the majority took Genesis literally. Yet when we look at the Church Fathers we actually find it to be a bit of a mix, some took it literally some did not. The minority that Bentley sees appear to be those who were perhaps overzealous in their allegorical readings of Genesis. When we look at early Christians we find non-literal interpretations from such luminaries as Origen, Augustine, Clement, Cyprian, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, not to mention some prominent Jewish commentators of the time who would have undoubtedly influenced interpretations. Here can be seen an example of the differing views which were prevalent, though I think this quote from Archbishop Rowan Williams sums it up well:

"[For] most of the history of the Christianity there's been an awareness that a belief that everything depends on the creative act of God, is quite compatible with a degree of uncertainty or latitude about how precisely that unfolds in creative time."

It is interesting that the response to Darwin's theories was much the same, with mixed reactions but largely an uncertainty about how the creative act unfolds. The earliest fundamentalists, the authors of The Fundamentals, at the start of the 20th century had mixed reactions to evolution, with some accepting it and some rejecting it outright. Most notable in acceptance is James Orr, who stated that “evolution is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation’, only that the creative power now works from within, instead of, as in the old conception, in an external, plastic fashion.”

According to Bentley, whenever we mention that a literal Genesis was not strictly accepted in early Christianity, we fail to mention that Augustine believed in an instantaneous creation, not one which is billions of years old. I'd like to know who he has been reading as I personally do add that fact and have read many more prominent theistic evolutionists doing the same. It is also a red herring. The point of bringing up early Christian views is to argue against a strict literal interpretation, not in favour of an old Earth. The early Christians believed in a young Earth, but not necessarily for Scriptural reasons. They were making the bold claim that creation had a distinct begin, whereas many non-Christians believed that the Earth was either eternal or going through cycles. They needed to date creation, so they did it the only way they knew how - genealogies. To claim that they were strict young Earth believers is to ignore the context of the time they were living in. 

Bentley's next point is that according to us non-YECs, they are cult like because they put too much emphasis on a young Earth. I find this to be curious as I have never heard this accusation before and it is not one I would use. I do think that YEC views can be very distracting, but YEC is not a phenomenon which can be pinned down to a single church denomination. Christians of many denominations are YECs and many, if not most, share congregations with OECs and theistic evolutionists. If anyone is claiming this then I am with Bentley, they are wrong. However, Bentley's reasons are different to mine.

Bentley states that there was no reason, until 100 years ago, for ministries like AiG (Answers in Genesis) or ICR (the Institute of Creation Research). He says that a "literal 6-day, recent creation had been the default position of the Church for nearly 2,000 years." I hope that it is clear that this is not true as the literalist reading did not have the monopoly where interpretation was concerned. It is also notable that older ages for the Earth were first proposed by Christian geologists and quite readily accepted by the majority of Christians. Old Earth creationism, before Darwin, seemed to be the majority position. Young Earth creationism reared its head during the 20th century as an old Earth is necessary for evolution - disproving an old Earth would pull the rug out from evolution. Such desires are not truth seeking, but one-upmanship. In Bentley's eyes, the response to Darwin (see here for my view) was poor:

Rather than trust the word of God over the flawed opinions of flawed men, many Christian leaders of that day capitulated without a struggle. Some began to invent new interpretations of Genesis that were “compatible” with the new theories of science. These new interpretations included absurd notions like theistic evolution, the gap theory, the day-age theory, the framework hypothesis, and the simple “Genesis-is-allegory” interpretation.

The idea that new interpretations were "invented" due to evolution is clearly false. Allegorical interpretations were prevalent in early Christianity, along with day-age hermeneutics, though let us not forget that there were indeed many literalists too. One could say that evolution swung the pendulum in favour of less-literal interpretations. The gap theory was in response to geological discoveries pre-Darwin. The reality is that Genesis was flexible in interpretation, allowing for many possible readings for which the majority view often changed. The Reformation took things back towards the literal in reaction to overzealous allegorising, but then science took things back towards symbolic readings. With this in mind we can embrace creation and allow it to help us better understand Scripture. We are trusting the word of God, but all interpretations are human, not least YEC readings, so the flawed opinions of flawed men are embraced no matter what! I feel it is worth mentioning the words of the historian of religion J. Estlin Carpenter:

“Theories [about the Bible] once ardently cherished have been overthrown. Conceptions that had exerted immense influence for centuries, can no longer be maintained. On the other hand, the true value of the Bible has been enhanced. We have ceased to ask of it what it cannot give us; we cherish all the more highly what it can.”

Bentley finishes by criticising compartmentalising, something theistic evolutionists generally do not do and mentions Jesus' statement where he said that if we do not trust his words about Earthly things, how can we trust him about Heavenly things? (John 3.12) I agree with this as Jesus did not write Genesis (nor is it clear how he read it, considering many contemporary Jews held a non-literal interpretation). The last paragraph of Bentley's well structured post mentions the "ground-breaking" work of "Dr." Henry Morris, author of The Genesis Flood. He is indeed qualified for the title of "doctor", but a curious thing about creationists is that they put a lot of emphasis on when a creationist has a PhD, despite the fact that professional scientists do not use the title except in official circumstances such as forms (though "professor" is a much used title).  Morris' work was a rehash of the work of MacCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist whose literalist views were influenced by a vision by the "prophetess" of the church. To any trained geologist the views of Morris are untenable, misguided and extremely naive. It is not surprising that many "flood geologists" who finally decide to do fieldwork find it difficult to hold their young Earth views.

Folds like this, with subsequent deposition, are indicators of deep time and not explained by "flood geology". 

Bentley - Five Lies Evolutionists Tell

For the second blog of Bentley's which I would like to look at the theme is evolution. He has chosen several common statements by evolutionists which he intends to demonstrate are false. Instead we find many strawmen as you will see. 

Lie 1 - Evolution is a Fact

To Bentley this is a case of equivocation on the behalf of evolutionists. Apparently we claim that the fact of observable evolution makes common descent itself a fact. He is not completely wrong as I have seen some debaters online make this claim. The proper claim, or rather that which is put forward by actual scientists, is that evolution is both theory and fact. Theories explain facts, they tell us how and why things occur, whereas the facts are things we observe. The facts of evolution are that allele frequencies change in a population over time, and that all life shares a common ancestor. The theory of evolution explains how these facts occur. Bentley's mistake is to think we are doing a bait and switch, where we present evidence for the fact of microevolution and claim that it proves macroevolution. He is completely unaware that most scientists consider common descent to be the fact of evolution. It is beyond reasonable doubt with scientists, so if Bentley wants to claim that this is a lie he must demonstrate why evolution does not occur. He cannot do so. 

During his criticism of lie 1, Bentley gives a little run-through of a typical conversation using caricatures. The evolutionist character is incredibly rude, branding his creationist opposition an idiot at every given opportunity. In reality there are a very small minority which do this, the majority are willing to discuss. 

Lie 2 - Evolution and the Bible are Compatible

Unsurprisingly the criticism here is that compromise is the only way to reconcile the two, with the Bible usually being compromised the most. It is interesting that he accuses "evolutionists" of this lie, when many creationists use the term to mean mostly atheists, many of which share his belief that the two are incompatible. His first point against reconciliation is the difference in order, which I also agree with. Many theistic evolutionists do try to keep Genesis literal, but this is a mistake. Genesis is a powerful creation myth and is not meant to be literal, the reconciliation here is relatively simple. He then adds at the end that the Bible states sin before death whereas evolution would put death before sin; this is the biggest issue with theistic evolution, one which has many solutions. Is the death in question really spiritual and not biological? Did death become mortality (or recognition of mortality) with sin? Did none in God's image die before sin? Did the Fall affect the past just as many see Salvation as doing? Did God use death as a tool with ultimate redemption waiting in the future? I'm not going to provide an answer here simply because it is a deep topic, but clearly there is not a lack of solutions to his problem.

Lie 3 - There is no evidence for Creation

According to Bentley evidence is neutral. The point he misses is that theories must have predictive power in order to become a theory, they therefore must be able to predict evidence which would favour the theory and evidence which would falsify it. If creation were a theory it would make predictions, so evidence could go against it. The disparate lines of evidence show that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old and that evolution has been taking place for around 3.8 billion years. If this is not evidence against young Earth creationism I don't know what is. Bentley has gone for the old creationist lie, that we both use the same evidence. He gives an interesting example of how the logic works:

As we watch the sun move across the sky, one might say that is “evidence” for the sun revolving around the earth. Indeed, people had believed in a geocentric model of the universe for centuries but, of course, no one believes this anymore. Over time, we gathered more information and now we have a better theory – the heliocentric model. Even though the model has changed, some “evidence” hasn't changed: the sun still appears to move across the sky. The difference is now we have a better explanation about why it appears to do so. The sun itself never told us which theory is correct.

As we see here, there is no evidence that the Sun moves around the Earth as mere observation is invalidated by more evidence which contradicts it and the newer explanation explains things better. This is what happened to creationism, it seemed obvious to unscientific minds, but then as more evidence accumulated it was invalidated and more parsimonious explanations were sought and given. This new evidence is evidence to the contrary and causes us to discard what we thought of as evidence for creationism as it is now evidence which evolution explains. Bentley's next statement is worth quoting as it is on my favourite subject:  

Similarly, when we find a fossil, the fossil doesn't “tell” us anything. The fossil isn't evidence “for” evolution any more than it's evidence “for” creation. It's just a dumb rock (dumb as in not speaking). We just have different theories about how the fossil came to be.

Actually fossils can yield a wealth of information, even more so if we have them in their stratigraphic context. Fossils can tell us a lot about the organism depending on how well they are preserved. We can often see last meals (plus coprolites teach us about diet) and even behaviour if they were rapidly fossilised. Some behavioural indicators are actually very common, as trace fossils of sea floor trails are often found and can even be seen on many paving slabs. Some fossils are excellent indicators of environments, for example, aquatic photosynthesisers must be in the photic zone. Reading the rocks we can learn a lot, a single fossil can yield a wealth of information, just think what thousands upon thousands of fossils can tell us!

Bentley then states that he cannot fathom why evolutionists ignore the Bible as evidence. As this post has shown, it is open for interpretation, so why should we favour his? Why would creation tell us any different? As for what evidence we do use, there is evidence from ecology, zoology, palaeontology, embryology, genetics, genomics, biogeography and more. All the evidence we find is explained by evolution, but creation cannot manage this. The claims of Genesis 1 are untestable and based on relatively subjective interpretation, it is not fit for governing science. If it were meant as a scientific treatise it would be the ultimate evidence, but alas, it was not.

To summarise, Bentley's mistake is that he does not recognise that there is evidence against creationism and in favour of other explanations. This leaves us with the conclusion that there is no evidence FOR creationism because there is so much against it. In Bentley's world it seems all views can claim evidence supporting them, no matter how much contradicts it or whether there are superior explanations. 

Lie 4 - Evolution has been tested and proven even more than gravity

Bentley's claim here is a strawman, but an understandable one. I have certainly seen the claim that gravity has been tested more, but this needs some qualification. Anyone can test gravity, we can drop things and watch them fall, we can drop things of different weight and see what happens. The thing is, this is the same experiment being repeated over and over. If we counted the experiments done on gravity and compared them to evolutionary experiments (and other disparate, non-experimental lines of evidence) we would find that evolution has been tested in many more ways. It is not that there has been more tests, for we test gravity every time we walk, but there is more of a variety of tests which have been performed. 

I have not seen anyone claim that evolution is more proven than gravity. Bentley is unwittingly muddling this up with the claim that evolution is better understood than gravity, which is interesting as he even mentions that we do not understand how gravity works. We understand how evolution works for the most part, far better than we understand how gravity works. Perhaps he genuinely has come across people claiming this, but I haven't. I have, however, seen the claim that I just made, stating that we better understand evolution than we do gravity. So we aren't lying, he just misunderstood us it seems. 

Lie 5 - Microevolution over time leads to Macroevolution

I almost missed this one as it was mistakenly labelled as lie 4. Bentley's problem with this claim is that he sees natural selection as a negative process, eliminating the weak and leaving only the strong. In such a scenario there is no way that macroevolution could be sustained over time as it results in a reduction in variation. This is a clever but common move by Bentley, as it can cause the reader to forget that variation does not run out, something Darwin was certainly aware of. With more variation entering the gene pool, natural selection can become more versatile, often being directive. For more on natural selection see here. Bentley criticises the peppered moth example, something which is only ever claimed to show natural selection acting in an obvious observable way. Bentley puts it this way:

If I continuously removed one colored moth from the population, how long would it take until new colors began appearing? The answer is obvious: you cannot add new colors to a population by continuously removing colors.

In his analogy he is playing the role of natural selection, mucht like breeders do with dogs, cattle and birds etc. The problem with analogies is that they can be incomplete and Bentley forgets to mention that new colours will inevitably emerge. If Bentley is selecting against new colours then the population will remain static, much like stabilising selection does. However, there are three forms of selection: stabilising, disruptive and directed. If Bentley did not remove the new variations but instead removed only the original coloured ones (bit by bit, not all at once) he would eventually have a population of a very different colour. Natural selection can act like this on a whole suite of traits. Bentley almost acknowledges this:

“Change” plus time isn't a magic formula; it must be a certain kind of change. It must be a change that adds new traits to the population.

Indeed, new traits must be added. But Bentley is attacking an experiment solely on natural selection and criticising it for not giving an example of new traits emerging. Oddly enough, though the experiment is on natural selection, the different colour which evolved was a new variant which went on to become dominant. Mutation is the major source of variation and it happens every time a sperm or egg is made, followed by the recombination of DNA in sexual reproduction which gives a completely unique offspring with new variation. Natural selection works on this variation and so microevolution can add up to macroevolution. He finishes by adding:

The peppered moth example occurred more than a century ago. In the last 100 years, what macroevolution has occurred? Some will argue that 100 years isn't long enough. OK, but let me ask you this: what microevolution has occurred? Over time, the population returned to normal. The microevolution over time led to a net change of ZERO!

This is what we often term "wobbles around the mean" in which a population fluctuates. It is much like if you measure the weight of somebody who is growing. If you measure them over long periods of time you will notice a gradual trend, an increase in weight. However, if you weigh them at a really fine scale, with very accurate measurements and do so several times per day, then you will find that their weight fluctuates throughout the day (especially after meals and trips to the toilet), often returning to the mean. The net change on the small scale will be roughly zero, but over the larger scale of weeks, months and years, you will notice a large trend. It is like this with micro and macroevolution. Time really is on the side of evolution. 


When it comes to the more Christian oriented issues, Bentley is a bit of a challenge. He is excellent at pulling the wool over your eyes and making it sound as though his point is valid. It might be useful to ask what he isn't telling us in his posts, though I don't think he deliberately misses things out. His misconceptions are likely to be genuine, the problem is that he is articulate in expressing them and desires to influence others. He is not as transparent as Mann was, so is quite the tricky customer. When he addresses science he drops into the typical creationist techniques and is not a challenge at all; one can only hope that this weakness of his causes others to see through his misconceptions. 


RKBentley said...

A couple of quick points.

First, I apologize for having left a comment on the wrong post. I guess I had scrolled down a little too far before clicking comments.

I read your review/criticism of my 2 posts. I guess I'm not surprised; it's similar to other criticisms I've heard. Thank you at least for your kinds words on my writing style but I feel like Paul before King Agrippa (Acts 26); You say I write persuasively but you are not persuaded. I would that you were all together persuaded.

Another visitor I have to my blog left several comments on my "Five Lies" post. I'm planning on taking some of his and your comments and responding to them in a future post. I'll certainly give you credit, of course. Check back soon.

Finally, I do have a pretty cool statcounter that I use. It shows me an IP address of who clicked, where they are from (you are from a city in UK which I won't mention), the referring link, what pages were viewed, and how long they stayed. When you clicked on your link to my blog, my counter gave me a link directly back to yours. That's how I found so quickly that you had visited. I don't usually endorse products but you can add this to your blog fairly easily. You can get the HTML code at

God Bless!!

The Palaeobabbler said...

No worries about the leaving of the comment on the wrong post. It baffled me for a second or two but then wasn't difficult to find.

I noticed that you had responses to the "Five Lies" post, I look forward to seeing your response to them and mine.

Thanks for the tip on the statcounter, I've just installed it. Coincidentally somebody asked me earlier today if I knew how many people read my blog, so now I will know.