Genesis and Science

This article is reproduced from the book by the same name by Harold G. Coffin.

R. H. Brown, Walla Walla College Washington

Note: This article by Robert H. Brown and two more to be published in the March and April issues of this journal, are reproduced from the book Genesis and Science by Har­old G. Coffin

It is common knowledge that radiocarbon  laboratories have determined ages for or­ganic material which in a vast number of cases appear to be in conflict with the speci­fications concerning earth history given by the book of Genesis and endorsed by the Gospel writers and the apostle Paul in the New Testament. There is an evident need for intensive and careful study in the broad field of radiocarbon dating in order to find the agreement that we have been assured exists between the book of nature and the written Word.

In approaching any body of scientific lit­erature it is well to keep in mind the un­avoidable tendency of an investigator to harmonize the information available to him with his general world view. The human mind is designed to integrate and summa­rize its observations into generalized prin­ciples and viewpoints. This characteristic is necessary for the development of under­standing and capability. As a consequence of their cultural and educational back­ground, most of the radiocarbon specialists have a world view that is based on uniformi­tarianism and progressive evolutionary de­velopment of life. In the treatment of some of the information provided by carbon-14 analysis, the seeker for truth who begins with commonly accepted uniformitarian viewpoints may experience a more difficult and devious path toward a fuller under­standing than would have been the case if his initial viewpoints had conformed with the guidelines set forth in the Bible. Where scientific observation relates to divinely in­spired testimony, we have been assured that an honest search for truth will result in both increased understanding and in confirma­tion of the inspired testimony.

One who becomes acquainted with the in­dividuals who are leading out in the devel­opment and application of carbon-14 dating techniques finds them to be men and women of high ideals who are intensely devoted to finding truth in their areas of investigation and are meticulous in maintaining a dis­tinction between speculation and firmly sub­stantiated evidence. With carbon-14 dating, as also with many other areas of human thought, the dogmatism with which specu­lative conclusions are advocated commonly increases with the distance one goes from prime sources of information.

The Formation of Carbon-14

Before considering some recent develop­ments on radiocarbon dating, many readers may appreciate a brief survey of the physical phenomena involved. Stars eject into space some of the matter of which they are com­posed. This ejected matter represents the chemical composition of its parent star and, consequently, is made up of hydrogen, small amounts of helium, and traces of more com­plex atoms. Some of the atoms in this ejected matter experience forces that strip away the outer negative electric charge (electrons) and accelerate the positively charged nu­cleus to extremely high speeds. These high­speed atomic nuclei which drift around through interstellar space are called primary cosmic rays.

Earth is constantly bombarded from all directions with primary cosmic ray particles. These particles have sufficient energy to break up atoms which they encounter on reaching the upper levels of earth's atmos­phere. The breakup of nitrogen and oxygen atoms by primary cosmic rays produces neu­trons and atoms of carbon, boron, beryl­lium, helium, hydrogen, and possibly lithium. Neutrons are uniquely effective agents for producing atomic transmutation. The most frequent reaction produced by neu­trons in air transmutes nitrogen into carbon which has 14 units of mass as compared with the 12 units characteristic of ordinary car­bon (161/2 per cent heavier than an ordinary carbon atom), and is radioactive (that is, unstable). In the order of 22 pounds of radioactive carbon are produced per year in earth's upper atmosphere as a result of reactions produced by primary cosmic rays. This radioactive carbon is oxidized to car­bon dioxide, which in turn is mixed throughout the atmosphere by air currents and utilized by plants along with nonradio­active carbon dioxide to form carbohydrates. The high solubility of carbon dioxide in water transfers a large portion of earth's radioactive carbon to the oceans. Radio­active carbon is distributed through all living material as a result of the dependence of animal life upon plant food.

Death of a plant or an animal terminates the processes by which its tissue structure receives carbon-14 from the environment. Since carbon-14 is unstable and spontane­ously converts to nitrogen, the remains of once-living material will contain progres­sively smaller amounts of carbon-14 with the passage of time. Laboratory measurements on known amounts of radioactive carbon have established within an uncertainty of less than 100 years that in 5,730 years half of an initial amount of carbon-14 will dis­appear as a result of radioactive decay into nitrogen. On the basis of this information, 5,730-year-old remains of plants and animals may be expected to contain half as much radioactive carbon as they did at death.

Changes in the Carbon-14, Carbon-12 Ratio

For convenience, data on the radioactive carbon content of a sample is reported by specifying a radiocarbon age. The radio­carbon age describes the relative amount of radioactive carbon in the sample in terms of the relative amount of radioactive carbon in an oxalic acid standard supplied by the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. The NBS oxalic acid standard of carbon-14 activity is adjusted to provide a reference based on the average carbon-14 activity of wood which was growing in A.D. 1850. The strength in which the NBS standardized oxalic acid is supplied is such that 95 per cent of its specific radiocarbon activity is equivalent to the specific radiocarbon activ ity to be expected from wood growing in A.D. 1950 under conditions that prevailed in A.D. 1850. The radiocarbon age of a sam­ple is the number of years that would be re­quired for the specific radiocarbon activity level defined by the NBS oxalic acid stand­ard to decay to the specific activity level measured in the sample.

Radiocarbon ages are based on a 5,568-year half-life for carbon-14 decay (the aver­age of early less precise measurements), rather than on the more accurate value of 5,730 years in order to avoid confusion in comparing recent determinations with the large number of radiocarbon ages that ap­peared in the literature during the time when 5,568 years was the best available value for carbon-14 half-life. Since the radio­carbon time scale is arbitrary and does not directly measure real time, there is no need for basing it on an absolutely accurate de­termination of half-life. Those who are unhappy with the 5,568-year half-life con­vention can convert radiocarbon ages to a 5,730-year-based scale with a simple multi­plication by 1.03. A sample with a specific radiocarbon activity equal to one-half 95 per cent of the specific radiocarbon activity of the NBS oxalic acid standard is assigned a radiocarbon age of 5,568. The radiocarbon date for the time when this sample ceased to exchange carbon with its environment would be 5,568 B.P., or 3618 B.C. (5,568­A.D. 1950). In summary it may be said that radiocarbon ages are based on a 5,568-year half-life and are standardized against prein­dustrial-revolution conditions (A.D. 1850), and that A.D. 1950 is used for the zero point on the radiocarbon time scale. (Stuiver and Suess, Editorial Statement, Radiocarbon, vol. 8, 1966; Half-Life Statement, Proceed­ings of the Sixth International Conference on Radiocarbon and Tritium Dating.)

The reasons for basing radiocarbon ages on conditions in A.D. 1850 are of interest. Since A.D. 1850 man has introduced into earth's atmosphere large amounts of carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. These fossil fuels contain a negligible amount of carbon-14 and are described as "infinite age" on the radiocarbon time scale. During the 100-year period between A.D. 1850 and A.D. 1950 use of fossil fuels released infinite age carbon equivalent to approximately 11 per cent of the total carbon presently contained in the atmosphere. Had this contribution of non­radioactive carbon been confined to the atmosphere it would have reduced the radio­carbon activity of the atmosphere by ap­proximately 10 per cent. The actual de­crease experienced (Suess effect) was only 1-5 per cent and probably averaged a strong 2 per cent, indicating that a large portion of the carbon released to the atmosphere by man's use of fossil fuels has been absorbed in the ocean (95 per cent of the carbon in earth's carbon dioxide exchange system is contained in the ocean). From A.D. 1950 to A.D. 1964, use of fossil fuels contributed car­bon equivalent to approximately 6 per cent of the present atmospheric carbon content (Suess, 1955; Dyck, 1966).

Another factor related to human activity that influences the radiocarbon concentra­tion in the atmosphere is the release of neu­trons by atomic reactors and nuclear weapons. As a result of the Russian thermo­nuclear tests the relative amount of carbon-14 in earth's atmosphere approximately doubled between 1962 and 1965 (Tham­meret and Thammeret, 1966; Berger and Libby, 1966). When thorough mixing of bomb products is achieved within the next five or six years the radiocarbon activity throughout earth's atmosphere is expected to possibly become three to four times greater than it was prior to 1962. Factors in the mixing of various components of earth's carbon dioxide exchange system which are not quantitatively understood may limit the atmospheric radiocarbon activity peak due to bomb products to little more than the doubling that has already been experienced (Libby, 1966-1; Fergusson, 1966).

By using as a "contemporary" reference the most recent radiocarbon activity level that has not been significantly affected by human activity, radiocarbon ages can more readily be used in studies of the past. The most accurate value for the "contemporary" activity level is considered to be 13.6 disinte­grations per minute per gram of plant or animal carbon (Libby, 1966-1).

The Accuracy of Carbon-14 Dating

The measurements made in a radiocarbon laboratory do not determine historical ages or dates. The laboratory procedures only determine the amount of radioactive carbon that a sample contains at present. As de­scribed in the foregoing portion of this chap­ter, this amount of radioactivity is conven­iently specified in terms of a radiocarbon age. The historical time lapse since a given specimen was a part of a living organism that exchanged carbon with its environment is an interpretation based in part on its radiocarbon age. The postulation of a date or age associated with the sample requires an assumption concerning the relative amount of radioactive carbon in the envi­ronment that supported the life of the or­ganism from which the sample has been derived.

Reliable Only for 3,500-4,000 Years

Sagebrush sandals found in Fort Rock Cave in the southern part of central Oregon have a radiocarbon age of 9,300. If the rela­tive percentage of radioactive carbon in earth's atmosphere during the growth of the sagebrush from which these sandals were made, was the same as it was in A.D. 1850, these sandals were made from sagebrush harvested 9,579 solar years ago.* There is no proof that these sandals were made 9,579 years ago, for radiocarbon ages can be re­liably correlated with solar time only over the past 3,500 or possibly 4,000 years (ap­proximately to the time of Moses) (Libby, 1966-11).

Major research effort is being directed toward developing reliable correlations be­tween radiocarbon age and historical age. If the relative amount of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere had been at the A.D. 1850 level throughout the time life has existed on earth, radiocarbon ages, when adjusted to the 5,730-year half-life, would be identical with historical age. Tree-ring dating has es­tablished a precise and reliable chronology extending back to 59 B.C. By measuring the radiocarbon activity in precisely dated wood fiber, a chart can be prepared for converting radiocarbon age into historical age over the past 2,000 years (Stuiver and Suess, 1966). Such a chart (see Figure 1) shows fluctua­tions in the relative amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere during this period, but these fluctuations appear to have been limited within a range of less than 5 per cent of the A.D. 1850 level. Because of the fluctuations in the atmospheric carbon-14 activity and the difficulties in standardizing one radio­carbon laboratory against another, the mini­mum uncertainty in any radiocarbon age is commonly considered to be plus or minus 100 years (see Radiocarbon, vol. 8, 1966, pp. -27, 213, 240, 340, and 453). Accordingly, if there are no contamination problems, the historical age of a sample which has a radio­carbon age no greater than about 2,000 years may confidently be considered to lie within a range of uncertainty equal to plus or minus twice the uncertainty specified for the radiocarbon age, providing this range is no less than plus or minus 200 years (see Radiocarbon, vol. 8, p. 256).

The foregoing statement must be qualified for samples that contain carbon derived from more than one period of history. A mud turtle from the Montezuma Well in Ari­zona which died in early A.D. 1961 was found to have an apparent radiocarbon age of approximately 15,000 years. This age is consistent with the radiocarbon age of the turtle's food supply which obtained most of its CO., from water rather than from atmosphere — artesian spring "fossil" water which had a radiocarbon age of 21,420 (Haynes, et al., 1966).

Attempts to derive historical age from radiocarbon age yield increas­ingly uncertain conjectures for samples older than 2,000 years. Tree-ring chronology has been extended from 59 B.c. to approximately 2400 B.C. using the bristlecone pine. The growth characteristics of this tree make it unsatisfactory for the establishment of a precise long-term growth-ring sequence. At­tempts to correlate bristlecone pine growth rings with radiocarbon ages indicate that either ring counting has overestimated the age of the oldest bristlecone pine material by 500 to 1,000 years or the relative amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere around 2000 B.C., was in the order of 10 per cent greater than in A.D. 1850 (Damon, et al., 1966).


It is a pleasure for the author to acknowledge indebtedness to Dr. Harold G. Coffin of the GeoScience Research Institute for the stimulus which led to the development of the fore­going material and also for the encouragement and assistance which he provided throughout all phases of the manuscript preparation

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R. H. Brown, Walla Walla College Washington

February 1968

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