Science and Religion

How Old Is the Earth? Radiometric dating suggests an age of 4.5 billion years, but how reliable are the underlying assumptions?

Robert H. Brown, Ph.D., is director of the Geoscience Research Institute at Berrien Springs, Michigan.


Marginal entries in most of the older English Bibles allow less than 6,000 years since the Creation, described in the first chapters of Genesis. Outside the Hebrew-Christian tradition our world generally has been considered to be of vast antiquity.

The Babylonian scholar Berossus (third century B.C.) placed Creation at 2,148,323 B.C., the first of the "10 ancient kings" (Adam) at 468,323 B.C., and the Flood at 36,323 s.c. 1 The Greek philosopher Plato (fourth century B.C.) considered that the Flood occurred about 200 million years ago. 2 Apollonius of Egypt (second century B.C.) proposed a mere 155,625 years for the age of the world, 3 while the Hindu classics, written in the middle of the first millennium after Christ, describe the history of the world in terms of endlessly repeating grand cycles of 4.32 billion years' duration, each containing one thousand subcycles 4.32 million years in length.4

Within the last century the "scientific" view that Planet Earth has been in existence for about 4.56 billion years and has supported complex forms of life over the past 600 million years has re placed the traditional Hebrew-Christian viewpoint concerning the age of our world. The scientific view generally is presumed to be firmly based on unquestionable radiometric data.

Actually, the scientific view of the earth's age was developed in preliminary form many decades before the discovery of radioactivity. In 1778 Comte de Buffon cautiously broke with Hebrew- Christian tradition in proposing that Planet Earth had been in existence more than 75,000 years. 5 In a lecture delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, and in a book published ten years later, James Hutton placed the origin of the earth at a vastly remote and indefinite time with the classic expression "No vestige of a beginning ... no prospect of an end.'' 6 Immanuel Kant placed the original creation "a series of millions of years and centuries" into the past,7 and Erasmus Darwin, whose grandson wrote Origin of Species, actively promoted the concept of evolutionary development of organisms over "millions of ages." 8 Jean Baptist de Lamarck, who has been referred to as the father of modern evolution theory, at the beginning of the nineteenth century spoke of time in "millions of years." 9

Developing geological science in the early nineteenth century placed the span of geological time in the 3-million-to- 1.6-billion-year range, 10 basing these early speculations on estimates of sedimentation rates and the total sediment presumed to have accumulated during each of the various divisions of geologic time. The demands of evolution theory were strongly coercive toward estimates that supported the longest time span that could be reasonably contrived. Even so, evolution theorists such as Charles Dar win and Thomas H. Huxley were uncomfortable with the limited amount of time provided by these early estimates. 11

The twentieth-century development of radiometric dating produced a geologic time scale that apparently was firmly founded on sound principles of physical science and precise measurements. By extending geologic time to more than 4 billion years, radiometric dating initially appeared to provide adequate time for a dust-to-man evolutionary development. But within the past quarter century an increased understanding of biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics has brought a realization that any phase of the presumed process of organic evolution (formation of the necessary biochemicals, development of primitive living cells, evolution of primitive cells into modern organisms, et cetera, is unreasonable within the entire span of the radiometric time scale. Thus, even if one considers the current interpretations of radiometric data to be correct, he still must have faith that organic evolution has progressed somehow from cell to man despite the insufficient time provided by radiometric dating of the earth's age. 12

Individuals who are not acquainted with the research reports in the scientific literature are seldom aware that a high degree of interpretation and selection among available data has been necessary in the development of a radiometrically calibrated geological time scale. Only data that fit into generally accepted paleontological and geological theory have been utilized in this development. 13

The construction of a radiometric geological time scale is based on the assumption that mineral samples may be obtained that contain only results of radioactive transformations that have occurred since the mineral was placed in its present surroundings. Or, to state this assumption another way, radioactive "clocks" were "set to zero" (the accumulated results of all previous radioactive transformation were removed) when the mineral was either formed or deposited at its present location. According to this assumption, the remains of an organism are at least as old as the radiometric age of the mineral that has re placed them, or of a geologic formation that contains them, or of a geologic formation that overlies or penetrates the formation that contains them. Because this assumption readily led to age interpretations that were consistent with the popular philosophical framework, it has not been analyzed critically.

Contrary to this assumption, it does not seem reasonable to expect that naturally occurring physical and chemical processes would isolate radioactive elements and compounds or their stable end products in absolute chemical purity. Igneous, erosion, or solution processes should be expected to transport at least a portion of the daughter products that were initially associated with parent radioactive material at the site of origin. The various radiometric-age characteristics at the relocated site should then be expected to reflect to some degree the original radiometric-age characteristics, the nature of the transfer process, exposure to heat and fluid circulation since the transfer, and the time since transfer. Only in situations that provide radiometric data for several diverse minerals and radioactive systems can one expect to separate any of these factors from the others.

The professional literature frequently refers to significant disagreement be tween radiometric-age data and conventional geological-age classification. A re cent paper that has received widespread attention lists twenty-four examples of Tertiary age (65 million years or less on the conventional geologic timetable) that have rubidium-strontium (Rb-Sr) ages 14 ranging between 70 and 3,340 million years. 15 Representing six continental areas, these examples can be best explained on the basis that they have inherited degrees of source-area radiometric- age characteristics from material that has been transported by plutonic or volcanic processes.

Recently deposited sediment on the floor of Ross Sea, Antarctica, has been found to have a 250-million-year Rb-Sr age. The two major sources for this sediment are the Transantarctic Mountains, with 3 radiometric age between 450 and 475 million years, and West Antarctica, with a radiometric age in the 75-175- million-year range. Thus, one can easily see that the Ross Sea sediments have radiometric-age characteristics that reflect a blend of the radiometric-age characteristics of the source areas. 16

The validity of the geologic time scale is also brought into question by radiohalos, or regions of radiation damage surrounding a microscopic inclusion of radioactive material. Radiohalos have been found in coalified wood from Triassic and Jurassic sediments (225-135 million years conventional geologic age). The inclusion centers of these halos have lead-206/uranium-238 ratios that may be expressed in terms of uranium-lead ages 17 ranging between 236,000 and 2.9 million years. 18 No presently available experimental evidence can exclude the possibility that essentially all the lead- 206 in these halo centers was introduced together with the uranium (either directly or as parent polonium-210 or lead-210) during or following the Flood, rather than accumulating from uranium since the inclusion was formed. There is evidence that the lead-isotope ratios in these inclusions are related to the source area(s) from which the uranium was transported during the production of uranium-rich sediments in which coalified-wood radiohalos are found.

The original radiometric-age characteristics of source material can reflect the primordial characteristics of this material, the radioactive transformation since primordial creation, and also exposure to heat, chemical activity, and nuclear radiation prior to relocation. A 4.56-billion-year solidification age19 has been established for the solar system on the basis of confidence that for many available mineral samples the radioactive transformation effects can be isolated from these other factors. Individuals whose interpretation of inspired testimony does not allow so great an age for inorganic material may classify the radiometric features from which this conclusion is derived as primordial characteristics that were introduced in a relatively recent Creation. 20

The popular concept that radiometric ages of geologic formations relate directly to their real-time age obtains much support from the observation that volcanic sequences, and volcanic-derived sedimentary sequences, usually exhibit a pattern of increasing radiometric age the deeper one goes. Obviously the upper material in a given undisturbed sequence was emplaced later than the underlying material. But the radiometric-age difference between them does not necessarily represent the real-time emplacement interval. It has been established that rather than indicating the times of eruption, the radiometric-age profile of a volcanic sequence may be the consequence of several factors, such as (1) chemical and isotopezonation in the magma chamber that furnished the volcanic material, (2) circumstances that were progressively more favorable to resetting a particular radiometric clock (degassing of radiogenic argon, et cetera) as eruptions proceeded, and (3) crustal material incorporated by the magma as it moved upward. 21

The book of Genesis refers to two episodes of crustal deformation and reorganization on Planet Earth that are outside the range of prediction or explanation based on the normal day-by-day and year-by-year operation of geophysical processes—the original appearance of continents on the third day of Creation week, and the global destruction and reformation described in chapters 6 to 8. The radiometric-age characteristics of many rock and mineral specimens that are now accessible would be expected to have been altered in each of these episodes. Such an alteration naturally com pounds the difficulties of making historically correct interpretations of radiometric-age data.



1 Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation (New York: Science History Publications), pp. 97, 98.

2 Francis C. Haber, The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1959),
p. 17.

3 Ibid.

4 Jaki, op. cit., pp. 1-3.

5 Comte de Buffon, Les Epoques de la Nature, 1778. See Otis E. Fellows and Stephen F. Milliken, Buffon (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972), p. 75; Francis C. Haber, H. Bentley Glass, et al., eds., Forerunners of Darwin (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959), p. 236.

6 James Mutton, Theory of the Earth, 1795. Reprinted in 1960 by H. R. Engelmann, Weinheim, Germany, and Wheldon and Wesley, Ltd., Codicote, Herts., England.

7 Immanuel Kant, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, 1755. See W. Hastic, Kant's Cosmogeny (New York: Greenwood Publishing Co., 1968), p. 132.

8 Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia, 1794.

9 Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Discovery of Time (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1965),
p. 164.

10 W. B. Harland, A. Gilbert Smith, and B. Wilcock, eds., The Phanerozoic Time-scale (Geological Society of London, 1964), pp. 1-28.

11 Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967), pp. 332, 333.

12 R. H. Brown, "The Potency of Prevailing Concepts," Origins, 3(l):3-5, 1976.

13 Harland, et al., op. cit., pp. 29-262.

14 Rubidium-strontium age is the amount of time that would be required for the rubidium in a mineral to generate the associated amount of the strontium isotope 87 that is in excess of the amount of this isotope found in corresponding mineral that does not contain rubidium.

15 C. Brooks, D. E. James, and S. R. Hart, "Ancient Lithosphere: Its Role in Young Continental Volcanism," Science 193(4258): 1086-1094, 1976.

16 Nelson R. Shaffer and Gunter Faure, "Regional Variation of 87Sr/8eSr Ratios and Mineral Compositions of Sediment From the Ross Sea, Antarctica," Geological Society of America Bulletin 87: 1491-1500, 1976.

17 Uranium-lead age is the amount of time that would be required for the uranium in a mineral to generate the associated amount of lead isotope 206 or 207 that is in excess of the amount of this isotope found in mineral that gives no evidence of previous association with uranium.

18 Robert V. Gentry, Warner H. Christie, David H. Smith, J. F. Emery, S. A. Reynolds, Raymond Walker, S. S. Cristy, and P. A. Gentry, "Radiohalos in Coalified Wood: New Evidence Relating to the Time of Uranium Introduction and Coalification," Science 194 (4262): 315-318, 1976.

19 Solidification age refers to the time when the end products of radioactivity first began to be held in association with parent material.

20 The accomplishments of days 2 to 6 of Creation week clearly indicate that it is within God's capability to do this, but if one holds to the definitions of terms given in Genesis 1:8-10 rather than reading modern concepts into the Hebrew term translated "earth," the constrained viewpoint is not demanded by the text. A discussion of the scientific evidence related to these two views is given in Geo and Cosmic Chronology, by R. H. Brown (Geoscience Research Institute, 600 College Ave., Berrien Springs, Michigan 49103).

21 D. R. Dickinson and I. L. Gibson, "Feldspar Fractionation and Anomalous 87Sr/8GSr Ratios in a Suite of Peralkaline Silicic Rocks," Geological Society of America Bulletin S3: 231-240, 1972; C. W. Naeser, "Geochronology of the Navajo-Hopi Diatremes, Four Corners Area," Journal of Geophysical Research 76: 4978-4985, 1971;R. L. Smith and R. A. Bailey, "The Bandelier Tuff: A Study of Ash-Flow Eruption Cycles From Zoned Magma Chambers, Bulletin of Volcanology 29: 83-103, 1966.

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Robert H. Brown, Ph.D., is director of the Geoscience Research Institute at Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1979

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