Creationists and time

By February 8, 2019Science, Society

Creationists come in three flavours and they are:

Young Earth Creationists (YECs) are those who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. They vary in their assertions of the age of the Earth. Some claim it is 5,000 years old, some claim it is 6,000 years old, and some a bit older. Indeed, one with whom I interacted online recently stated that the Earth was 6,000 years old but that Adam and Eve existed about 5,000 BC. It seems mathematics was not their favourite topic at school.

Old Earth Creationists(OECs) are those who believe what geologists tell them about the age of the Earth. The best estimate we currently have for the age of the Earth is about 4.54 billion years, plus or minus 50 million years1.

Intelligent Design Creationists (IDers) are those who believe that certain features of the universe indicate the presence of an intelligence guiding their development. The name is a reaction to the 1987 US Supreme Court’s Edwards vs Aguillard decision which barred the teaching of ‘creation science’ in public schools as unconstitutional (i.e. it was a religious belief). The creationists responded to this by deleting the words ‘creationism’ and ‘creation science’ and replacing them with ‘intelligent design’ in a book designed (chortle!) to teach creationism in high school biology classes. Despite this effort, the 2005 US District Court’s Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District found that Intelligent Design was not science either and was just rebadged creationism2.

The YECs are the funniest proponents of creationism in that they refuse to accept any scientific method of determining the age of just about anything associated with geology, archaeology or climatology, or any other branch of science, for that matter. I’ll just go through a few of the methods scientists such as geologists and archaeologists use to determine age. This list cannot be anything approaching exhaustive as it would end up being too long. So, I’ll just concentrate on some of the more straightforward methods. Here they are:

Uranium-Lead dating. This is something with which I have been involved recently, so it is a little familiar to me. It is usually performed on the mineral zircon, which is a common minor mineral in felsic igneous rocks such as granites and rhyolites, as well as volcanic ashes which often result from explosive volcanic eruptions. The isotope Uranium 238 (238U) decays to Lead 206 (206Pb) and has a half-life of 4.47 billion years, which means that for any lump of Uranium, half of the atoms of 238U will have decayed to 206Pb in 4.47 billion years. Half of those remaining will have decayed in the next 4.47 billion years and so on. Counting the number of atoms of 238U and 206Pb allows us to estimate the time since the zircon grain crystallised. This method can be used to date igneous rocks in which that mineral grain is found, and is commonly used to date rocks from about 50 to 4400 million years in age3

Carbon dating. This works in much the same was as Uranium-Lead dating in that it determines the ratio between isotopes except that, in this case it is the ratio between the radioactive isotope Carbon 14 (14C) and the stable isotopes Carbon 12 (12C) and Carbon 13 (13C). Because molecules which make up plants and animals are mostly built around the element Carbon, Carbon dating is used to date organic remains (e.g. cloth, wood, etc.) and because of the short half-life of 14C (about 5700 years), it can only be used to date materials up to about 50,000 years old4.

Dendrochronology. This is determining the age of wood by looking at the pattern of tree rings in the wood. As a tree grows it lays down a new growth ring every year, just under the bark. Trees put on tree rings at different rates according to the weather in any given year. A wider ring is laid down in a favourable year and a narrower ring in an unfavourable year. Thus, over a long period of time, say 60 years or more, there will be a pattern of wider and narrower rings which reflect droughts, cold summers, etc. The result is that the pattern of rings on such a 60-year-old tree will be like a fingerprint representing the record of weather to which that tree was subjected. Further tree ring patterns are added to this and eventually using data from thousands of trees, a dendrochronology is built up. These have been used to date the timbers used in medieval buildings, much better than Carbon dating could ever do. The latter may give you a date for a particular tree ring plus or minus 20 years at best, whereas dendrochronology can tell you precisely which year that ring was laid down5. While this system is still developing, it has been shown to be spectacularly successful, with European chronologies extending back to the 14thcentury when there was a building hiatus cause by the Black Death6. However, western Denmark has a record going back to AD 2007. While dendrochronology does not impact directly on the time frames asserted by creationists, it has been used to calibrate and check Carbon dating. That is why the creationists hate dendrochronology despite it not impinging on their chronology directly.

Ice cores. These are cylinders of ice drilled out of an ice sheet or glacier. These ice cores preserve annual layers, making it fairly simple to date the ice layers, and it is the seasonal differences in the snow properties that make the rings obvious, just like tree-rings. Most of the ice cores come from Antarctica and Greenland. The oldest continuous ice core records obtained so far extend back 123,000 years in Greenland and 800,000 years in Antarctica and are often used to determine changes in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, as well as oxygen isotopes which can be used to determine past temperatures. Recently, core drilled in Antarctica has been dated at 2.7 million years old, 1.7 million years older than the previous record (although neither were continuous cores).

Thermoluminescence. Crystalline solids are constantly subjected to ionizing radiation from their environment; this causes some energised electrons to become trapped in defects in the crystal structure. An input of energy, such as heat is required to free these trapped electrons. The accumulation of trapped electrons and the gaps left behind in the spaces they vacated, occurs at a measurable rate, proportional to the radiation received from the specimen’s immediate environment. When a specimen is reheated, the trapped energy is released in the form of light as the electrons escape. The amount of light produced is a specific and measurable phenomenon, and if the specimen’s sensitivity to ionizing radiation is known, as is the annual flux of radiation, this can be translated into  a specific amount of time since the formation of that crystal structure. This can be used to date materials containing crystalline minerals which have been subjected to a specific heating event. For instance, it can be used to date ceramics as it determines the date of their firing. The main source of error is in establishing the radiation acting on the specimen9. However, approximate dates are better than none. This technique is usually used on archaeological specimens up to half a million years in age.

There are numerous other techniques use to date rock units and archaeological samples. These include: Potassium-Argon, Argon-Argon, Rubidium-Strontium, Uranium Series, Lead-Lead, Samarium-Neodymium, Fission Track, and Electron Spin Resonance.

YECs will continue to ignore the reality of the great age of the earth. Indeed, they will continue to ignore the great age of man-made objects as well as human fossils. This is despite all the available techniques listed above which clearly demonstrate that their time frame is laughable. The reason that they do this is because they are impervious to evidence. Indeed, they do not understand the concept of evidence.

YECs seem to have a completely different mindset to most people. Why would that be so? Perhaps this can be in part explained by research undertaken over the last few years. Recent neuropsychological studies have indicated that authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism are related to damage or deficit in the part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). This part of the brain is believed to be critical for psychological doubt and resistance to authoritarian persuasion10. It has also been shown that people with dorsolateral prefrontal cortex damage (dlPFC) have fundamentalist beliefs accompanied by decreased cognitive flexibility and openness11,12. Openness is a psychological term that describes a personality trait which involves characteristics such as curiosity, creativity and open-mindedness. Religious beliefs differ from empirical ‘beliefs’, which are based on how the world appears to actually be, and are updated or altered as new evidence becomes available or when new theories with greater predictive power emerge. Religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are strongly associated with conservatism. Religious fundamentalism refers to an ideology which adheres strongly to religious texts and discourages progressive thinking. For this reason, fundmentalists are often aggressive to anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs, and especially so towards science and scientists, as they see the flexibility of science as an existential threat to their worldview13.


  6. Baillie, M., 1987. A slice through time. Batsford, London, 124p.
  10. Asp, E., Ramchandran, K. & Tranel, D., 2012. Authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and the prefrontal cortex. Neuropsychology 26 (4), 414-421
  12. Zhong, W., Cristofori, I, Bulbulia, J., Krueger, F. & Grafman, J., 2017. Biological and cognitive underpinnings of religious fundamentalism. Neuropsychologia 100, 18-25.

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