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Origins & development of life etc.

Introduction: Terminology. Details
of various theories. Age of the Earth

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The meaning of terms:

It is our policy to use the terms by which various groups describe themselves. But sometimes this can be deceptive. A "theory" may be much more than a theory; a "science" may be not a science at all:

bulletThe term "theory" in science can mean something much different from a hunch, which is how the word is used generally. Many leading scientists consider the Theory of Evolution of plant and animal species as far more than a simple idea. It is the foundational belief upon which many branches of science are based. Dr. Gerald Wheeler, director of the National Science Teachers Association said in 1999-OCT: "Everything is a theory, but...[evolution is] probably the biggest unifying theory that exists in all of science." If either the theory of evolution or an old Earth were to be proven incorrect, then the structure of many different fields of science would collapse.
 
bulletVarious U.S. court decisions have concluded that creation science and intelligent design are not  actually science. This is because the beliefs of creation scientists cannot be falsified. That is, it would be impossible for a creation scientist to accept a proof that their beliefs are false and that naturalistic or theistic evolution is true. Creation scientists consider the creation stories in the Book of Genesis to be inspired by God and are thus inerrant. All physical evidence is judged by comparing it to their interpretation of Genesis. No evidence from nature can disprove this belief. Once a person accepts a religious text as the basis of their scientific studies, they no longer are free to follow where the data leads. Courts and scientists generally agree that these believers cease being scientists.

Theories of origins:

Most media accounts and websites refer to a battle between two belief systems: evolution and creation science. This is not a particularly good model, because:

bulletThe scope of the conflict is much larger than this. It extends beyond the origins of life, and the development (if any) of the plant and animal species. The conflict extends to include the origins and development of the earth and the rest of the universe: cosmology, astronomy, geology, etc.
 
bulletThere are not one but two main forms of creation science in North America.
 
bulletAmong believers in evolution, there are two main understandings of what drove, and continues to drive, the development of the species.

In North America, there are really at least four main belief systems on the origins of plants, animals, the earth itself, and the rest of the universe.

Belief System Approximate age of the universe in years Biological evolution happened? Origins of species
Creation Science (Young Earth version) Under 10,000 No Created by God
Theistic Evolution 14 billion Yes Created by God
Naturalistic Evolution 14 billion Yes Natural selection + natural processes
Creation science (Old Earth version) 14 billion No Created by God

Within some of the main views, there are many variations.

There are also perhaps 500 other belief systems. These are the creation stories taught by the many thousands of faith groups worldwide. Very few resemble the account in Genesis. We will not extensively discuss these beliefs, because the vast majority of our web site's visitors follow Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

More detailed descriptions of beliefs about origins:

bulletYoung Earth Creation Science: (44% public support; 5% support among scientists generally; 0.15% support among earth and life scientists). 1 God created the universe during 6 consecutive 24 hour days, fewer than 10,000 years ago. God rested on the seventh day -- apparently to be an example to humanity. He is omnipotent and thus does not require rest. All of the various "kinds" of animals that are present on earth today (and those kinds like dinosaurs which once existed but are now extinct) are all descendants of the animals that God created during  days in creation week. Many features of the Earth that we see today -- ranging from fossil-laden layers of rock, the mountain ranges, strings of active, dormant and extinct volcanoes, the Grand Canyon, etc. were formed during the great flood of Noah. These beliefs are held mainly by people who interpret the Bible literally, regard the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as inspired by God, and inerrant. This view is promoted by the Institute for Creation Research, the Center for Scientific Creation, Answers In Genesis, Creation Research Society, and many other creation science groups.
 
bulletTheistic view: (39% public support). 1 The universe is about 14 billion years old; the earth's crust developed about 4.5 billion years ago. Geological features developed over the life of the Earth. God caused the first living cell to appear. Humans evolved out of lower forms of life with the process under the direct guidance of God. God steered evolution, at least to some degree, as a tool to guide the development of new species. This view is promoted by Reasons to Believe, some other para-church groups, and many mainline Christian denominations. Roman Catholicism and some others. Supporters of this belief system generally believe that evolution only resulted in human bodies appearing on the scene. Human souls are a special creation of God.
 
bulletNaturalistic evolution: (10% public support). 1 Same beliefs as for the theistic view, except that God or other deities are assumed to have played no part in the processes. Origins and change in the universe, including the evolution of life species on Earth, were driven by purely natural forces and processes. Many people have associated scientific views with strong Atheism -- the belief that no deity exists. Certainly, many scientists who support naturalistic evolution do not believe in the existence of a supreme being or beings. But others believe both in evolution and in one or more Gods and/or Goddesses who do not intrude on the outcome of natural forces. Some of the latter are Deists who believe that God created the universe, started it in motion, left the universe, and allowed natural processes to originate life and drive evolution.
 
bulletOld Earth creation science:  (Less than 7% public support) 1 They believe that each "day" in Genesis may have been much longer than 24 hours; others believe that there were very long gap(s) between one or more of the "days." The number of supporters for this belief system is unknown. The Gallup Poll from which we estimate the support for this belief did not give old earth creation science as an option.  

Most scientists, from astronomers to paleontologists, regard naturalistic evolution as the best representation of reality. Only 0.15% of earth and life scientists subscribe to one of the other belief systems.

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How old is the earth, and when did various species of animals live?

These two topics are closely related, because each theory has to account for all cosmological, geological, biological and other evidence :

Young earth creation scientists comprise a near majority of the public but only about 0.15% of all earth and life scientists. Most are conservative Christians who believe that:
bulletThe world and the rest of the universe was created by God less than 10 thousand years ago.
bulletAll of the "kinds" of animals that ever lived were created during creation week.
bulletA worldwide flood in the time of Noah wiped out all humans, except for the eight people on board Noah's ark. All human beings are descendants of Noah and his unnamed wife. The sediment during the flood generated the fossil-laden rock layers; the flood itself created many of the land forms that we see today.
bulletAll of the land animals similarly drowned, except for the 2 or 7 pairs of each species who were lucky enough to get a ride on the ark.
bulletThe earth's life forms have never evolved. For example, God created dinosaurs along with the other animals less than 10 millennia ago. They coexisted with humans on earth until they died off and became extinct. However, minor changes within a "kind" have happened. One original horse-like pair who rode on the ark may have been the ancestors of donkeys, horses, zebras, and a few other species.

Supporters of the theistic and scientific views: Almost all scientists who are not fundamentalist or evangelical Christians believe that:

bulletThe universe started during the "big bang" some 14 billion years ago.
bulletThe world coalesced about 4.5 billion years ago.
bulletThe earth developed a crust about 3.9 billion years ago.
bulletCrude, primitive forms of life appeared shortly thereafter.
bulletPlant and animal species have been evolving ever since.
bulletFossil bearing rock layers are composed of sediment which was laid down over an interval of millions of years.
bulletDinosaurs became extinct many tens of millions of years ago, long before the first humans evolved.

Old Earth creation scientists believe:

bulletThe Earth and the rest of the universe were created by God billions of years ago.
bulletFossil-bearing rocks and other land forms were formed over very long intervals of time.
bulletGod created all of the kinds of animals over a relatively short period, as described in Genesis.
bullet"Kinds" of animals are fixed. No new ones are being created. But minor changes within a kind have happened.
bulletDinosaurs were created not long before humans, but became extinct.

Who is right?

Scientists feel that their beliefs can be proven correct because they are based on observation and measurements:

bulletEvidence from geology, anthropology, paleontology, nuclear physics, astronomy, cosmology and many other sciences show that the Earth and the rest of the universe have been in existence far longer than 10,000 years.
 
bulletObservations of nature show that all "kinds" did not come on the scene at roughly the same time. Rather, simple forms of life came first, and then evolved into more complex forms.

However, scientists cannot prove whether or not God or a collection of deities steered various processes over time. This is a speculation that cannot be tested.

Meanwhile, those who base their beliefs on their interpretation of the Genesis creation stories feel that their beliefs can be proven right, for the simple reason that they are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Unfortunately, there exists no universally accepted proofs from nature that can eliminate any of the main major belief systems by proving them to be false. Pieces of evidence, and the interpretation of that evidence, that is accepted by one group is rejected by the others.

The age of the Earth is a key factor:

If someone can prove that the Earth or the rest of the universe is billions of years old, then belief in young earth creation science would have to be abandoned. Scientists will then be faced with three possible models for the earth's animal species:

bulletIf theistic evolution is correct, then God guided evolution so that simple bacteria evolved into complex animals over billions of years.
 
bulletIf naturalistic evolution is correct, then unguided, natural processes caused simple bacteria to evolve into complex animals over billions of years.
 
bulletIf old-earth creation science is correct. God created the Earth and the rest of the universe billions of years ago, and created all of the animal kinds long ago. Some have since become extinct. Other kinds have changed to a minor degree.

To winnow the possibilities down further, someone will have to prove whether all the species were created at approximately the same time, or whether evolution from simple bacteria to complex species actually occurred. Even if evolution were proven to have existed, it would not be possible to argue from nature whether God or unguided natural forces drives evolution. However, if evolution were proven false, then the only option would be old earth creationism.

Of course, unless there is a direct revelation from God, young earth creationists are unlikely to accept an old earth. They are unlikely to accept any observation of nature as proving their interpretation of the Genesis creation stories as wrong.

If someone can prove that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, then of all the common belief systems in North America, only young earth creation science could be correct. Evolution would be impossible; there simply would not have been sufficient time for plant and animal species to have evolved.

Much of this section of the ReligiousTolerance.org web site will be primarily devoted to the debate over the age of the earth, and whether evolution of the species actually happened.

Can science determine the age of the earth accurately?

Science will never be able to prove absolutely that the world is over 10,000 years old. Collecting countless pieces of evidence for an "old earth", is supportive of their theory, but is not proof. Creationists can simply counter scientists' arguments with two of their own: 

bulletThat when God created the universe 6 to 10 thousand years ago, he created everything as if it had a history. e.g. when God created trees, he made them with tree rings to look as if they been growing naturally for many years before creation. When he created the Appalachian mountains, he chose to formed them to look as if they were the remains of tall mountains which had been eroded for millions of years. When he created the world, say 8,000 years ago, it was fashioned to appear 4.5 billion years old. 
 
bulletAll scientific dating methods share a single assumption: that basic processes behaved in the past much as they do at the present. e.g. the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the rates of nuclear decay, etc. are constant or near constant. There is no absolute proof that this is true. If some of these basic quantities changed by a factor of a million times or more, then dating methods could suggest an age of the universe that is 10,000 years or less.

And so, the debate will probably continue forever. We see no possibility of resolution or compromise.

Reference:

  1. Based on a Gallup Organization poll conducted during 1997. The poll did not have a category for old earth creation science. More details.

Site navigation: Home > "Hot" religious topics > Origins > here

Copyright © 1995 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-NOV-3
Most recent update: 2010-JAN-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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