Teeming Creatures of the Sea!

The number of different kinds of living organisms is one measure of biological diversity, or what has become known as “biodiversity.” Our world’s oceans have the highest known biodiversity, second only to the number of species found in the tropical rainforest.

The small, white shell is a dead giveaway for the snail, Cyphoma gibossum on Caribbean coral reefs. The actual flesh of the animal is cream-colored with bright yellow spots. It feeds on polyps of gorgonian sea fans (a type of coral).

The small, white shell is a dead giveaway for the snail, Cyphoma gibossum on Caribbean coral reefs. The actual flesh of the animal is cream-colored with bright yellow spots. It feeds on polyps of gorgonian sea fans (a type of coral).

However, if we consider the potential number of undiscovered species in marine systems, it’s likely that our oceans would come out on top as the environment with the greatest number of species on the planet.

While more than 70% of Earth is covered with water, much of the vast expanses of ocean have relatively few species. Instead, much of the known biodiversity in our oceans is found in special areas that cover less than one percent of the ocean’s floor – coral reefs[i]. This is because although the vast areas of the ocean have plenty of space, they’re a little like deserts when it comes to the nutrients animals at the lowest level of the food chain need to survive and grow. In contrast, coral reefs are like oases, where nutrients are plentiful, but space is hard to come by. With so many organisms, from microscopic bacteria and algae to sea turtles

The ornately colored Caribbean Spiny Lobster, Panulirus argus, is found in crevices during the day throughout the Caribbean, and comes out to hunt and feed at night. It’s numbers are decreasing because of overfishing.

The ornately colored Caribbean Spiny Lobster, Panulirus argus, is found in crevices during the day throughout the Caribbean, and comes out to hunt and feed at night. It’s numbers are decreasing because of overfishing.

and hammerhead sharks, reliant on these important nutrients, there’s always lots of competition for places to live in coral reefs. But, there’s cooperation, too! Among other things, both competition and cooperation provide us with spectacular views of so many species of organisms (that high biodiversity) in these coral reef oases.

Still, we know relatively little about the number of species in coral reefs, and only very recently about the biodiversity of the deep ocean floor. For instance, we know of about 7,200 species[ii] of single-cell marine algae (known as phytoplankton), many of which are caught and eaten by microscopic predators (known as zooplankton, some of which are the larval, or baby, stages of larger animals), of which there are an estimated 50,000 species![iii] We know something about a great number of the groups of animals that live in and around coral

Although brightly colored, the hermit crab, Paguristes cadenati, is sometimes difficult to find because of its small size and shy demeanor. It uses the left over shell of a snail to hid in and protect its soft abdomen.

Although brightly colored, the hermit crab, Paguristes cadenati, is sometimes difficult to find because of its small size and shy demeanor. It uses the left over shell of a snail to hid in and protect its soft abdomen.

reefs, as well. For example, there are about 11,000 known species of corals (which are animals, not plants) and their relatives (the jellyfishes and anemones) in existence today[iv].

One of the largest known groups of ocean organisms is the Molluscs (the snails, sea slugs, chitons, and octopuses) of which there are some 100,000 described species (although not all of these live in the ocean), along with another 70,000 that are now only known from the fossil record[v]. There are several groups of marine animals that are made up of large numbers of species. One of these is the Superclass Crustacea, with a whopping 42,000 living species[vi], including the crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and the barnacles[vii].

The Indigo Hamlet, Hypoplectrus indigo, is rare in many parts of the Caribbean sea, and is one of the many brightly colored fish that make up the rainbow of colors on tropical coral reefs.

The Indigo Hamlet, Hypoplectrus indigo, is rare in many parts of the Caribbean sea, and is one of the many brightly colored fish that make up the rainbow of colors on tropical coral reefs.

With so many species living in our oceans (and many more which have yet to be discovered)[viii], we can see that our oceans are places of amazing diversity, beauty, and discovery. However, humans are taking a toll on these ocean systems with our input of chemical and plastic pollution. There are some places in our oceans where plastic fragments now make up a large amount of materials zooplankton and small fish are eating every day[ix]. Plastic pollution in our oceans and washing up on our beaches has become so wide-spread, it now accounts for the death of many marine animals and oceanic birds, even in places where no humans live[x].

It’s time for each one of us to stand up for our fellow creatures that live in the oceans. As stewards of the creation, let’s not simply talk about believing in creation, but work together to care for creation in ways we’ve been entrusted to do so from the beginning[xi]

This species of hydroid (a relative of corals and anemones) is the Christmas Tree hydroid, Halocordyle disticha, captures plankton with its toxic tentacles. In this photograph, individual polyps with their ring of stinging tentacles can be seen extended from the “tree.”

This species of hydroid (a relative of corals and anemones) is the Christmas Tree hydroid, Halocordyle disticha, captures plankton with its toxic tentacles. In this photograph, individual polyps with their ring of stinging tentacles can be seen extended from the “tree.”


Stephen Dunbar

Loma Linda University


[i] http://www.noaa.gov/features/economic_0708/coralreefs.html

[ii] Castro, P. & Huber, M.E. 2010. Marine Biology, 8th Ed. McGraw-Hill New York, NY.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Pechenik, J. A. 2015. Biology of the Invertebrates, 7th Ed. McGraw-Hill New York, NY.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Yes! Barnacles are closely related to crabs and shrimp, even though they were once thought to be more closely related to snails, and were classified as molluscs up to 150 years ago.

[viii] Some recent estimates place the number somewhere between 700,000 – 1 million. See, for instance, http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/11/hundreds-of-thousands-of-undiscovered-marine-species-await-discovery.html

[ix] http://www.ted.com/talks/capt_charles_moore_on_the_seas_of_plastic?language=en

[x] http://pacificvoyagers.org/midway-atoll-the-plastic-plight-of-the-albatross/

[xi] Genesis 2: 8 – 15

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The True Colors of the Ocean

Have you ever snorkeled or scuba dove in a coral reef? If you have, and I asked you to describe the experience in less than five words, I bet your answer would be an explosion of color. Well, maybe you would express it slightly differently, but I am sure that you would Anemone and clown fish - cc Tim Sheerman-Chaseinclude the word color in your description. Coral reefs are one of the most colorful spectacles of nature; electric blues, vivid yellows, striking pinks, and swirly greens fill the eye coming from everywhere, both from the corals themselves and from the myriads of fish species that inhabit this incredibly diverse ecosystem. Scientists have suggested several explanations for such a dazzling array of colors and design patterns. Highly conspicuous fish may be warning predators that they are toxic, or, almost the opposite, they may be trying to camouflage by blending into a background mosaic of colorful corals and algae. Intricate color patterns may be also useful for species recognition when attempting to find a mate in such a crowded environment, and they may even allow individual recognition. As a marine biologist specialized on animal behavior, I find all these explanations quite compelling yet, as a Christian scientist, I would suggest at least one additional reason for the amazing variety of colors, shapes and patterns that we see in coral reefs: God’s overwhelming creativity. Besides their CIMG2602_Two_Red_Sea_Bannerfish,_Lighthouse_Reef_(2692870043) - cc Tim Sheerman-Chasefunctionality, God filled coral reefs with a profusion of colors for us to enjoy the beauty of life, the same way He composed birdsongs for much more than attracting mates or exhibiting territoriality. God’s extraordinary artistry and sense of esthetics always amazes me; when He created the heavens and the earth he made everything not only very good, but also very beautiful, and despite all the distortion caused by several thousand years of sin, we can still admire and enjoy that beauty.

Unfortunately, this will probably not last. The colors that God wisely distributed across the ocean scenery are being distorted because we, humans, have introduced new colors out of place, messing up environments and threatening sea life. On one hand, we are erasing the colors of coral reefs. Have you heard of coral bleaching? When corals are stressed they

A colony of the soft coral known as the "bent sea rod" stands bleached on a reef off of Islamorada, Florida. Hard and soft corals are presently bleaching- losing their symbiotic algae – all over the coral reefs of the Florida Keys due to unusually warm ocean temperatures this summer. Months with waters warmer than 85 F have become more frequent in the last several decades compared to a century ago, stressing and in some cases killing corals when temperatures remain high for too long. Photo credit: Kelsey Roberts, USGS.

A colony of the soft coral known as the “bent sea rod” stands bleached on a reef off of Islamorada, Florida. Hard and soft corals are presently bleaching- losing their symbiotic algae – all over the coral reefs of the Florida Keys due to unusually warm ocean temperatures this summer. Months with waters warmer than 85 F have become more frequent in the last several decades compared to a century ago, stressing and in some cases killing corals when temperatures remain high for too long. Photo credit: Kelsey Roberts, USGS.

release the symbiotic microscopic algae that color them, and turn white. Warmer water temperatures due to global warming may cause coral bleaching, and several massive bleaching events have been recorded around the globe in the last decades (Brown 1997). On the other hand, we are coloring specific sites of the oceanic scenery that were specifically characterized by their lack of color. In the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, billions of tiny colored particles accumulate where we should see only shades of blue; the white coasts of the Arctic are dotted with colorful objects of many shapes and sizes, and so are the creamy beaches of remote islands all over the world. These colorful invaders can be found even inside the bodies of many marine animals such as fish, seabirds and sea turtles. As you have probably guessed, I am talking about plastics.

Plastic pollution ocean hawaii - PD NOAAPlastic pollution in the ocean is a huge conservation problem that also impacts human health (Derraik 2002). The same characteristics that make plastics so useful – they are light, strong, durable and cheap – turn them into a serious hazard. Plastics ingested by marine animals reduce their actual food consumption and fat deposits, weakening them and hindering long migrations. Large plastics may even block their intestinal track and cause death. Colored plastics attract seabirds and they often use them to feed their chicks. Entanglement is an additional threat to seabirds, sea mammals and sea turtles, which often get caught in plastic debris when they are young, causing deformed growth, or strangling them to death. Moreover, plastics contain persistent organic pollutants (POPs), known to alter hormone levels, cause reproductive disorders and increase risk of other diseases (Derraik 2002; Seltenrich 2015). When plastics are ingested, these POPs accumulate in the animal tissues and may be passed on along the food chain, eventually reaching humans.

In this very moment more than 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing more than 269,000 tons are floating on the sea (Eriksen et al. 2014). Where did they come from? Oceans do not produce plastics. They come from land, from my kitchen, from my trash can, from the package of my sandwich, my shampoo bottle, my grocery bag, my pen, my sandals, my cell phone Pacific-garbage-patch-map_2010_noaamdp - PD NOAAcase, my food containers… I am a marine biologist and nevertheless, my plastics are contaminating the marine environment, killing marine animals and poisoning people. You may think that your case is different, because you recycle. Guess what! I recycle too, and I used to feel good about it, until I found that most of the “recyclable” materials that we proudly deposit in our blue containers end up shipped to some underdeveloped country, and dumped in an unregulated landfill over there. Three years ago I did a project on plastic pollution for my class The Bible and Ecology. I read several books and papers on the topic, watched documentaries and consulted specialized websites. Several of these sources pointed out the long life of plastics, their high toxicity, and the difficulty of proper disposal and recycling. Because of my scientist mindset, I wanted to check the accuracy of this information, so I went to visit the recycling facility for the city of Loma Linda, and asked what they do with the recyclable plastics. The answer was: We clean them, separate them by types, compact them, and… send them to China!

After that conversation I realized that I cannot just assume that others would take care of the problem. My plastics were my responsibility and if I wanted to be a consistent environmentally responsible Christian biologist, I should do something. I decided to reduce my plastic footprint as much as possible, so I stopped drinking bottled water, brought reusable fabric bags to the grocery store, and chose glass or metal food containers instead of plastic. I would love to say that I am still doing that, but it would not be true. At some point, convenience won over will and, to my shame, disposable plastics came back into my life. Does this story sound familiar? I have heard similar experiences from many people, which made me wonder if it is even possible to go countercurrent on this issue and live without using plastics in our current culture of disposability. Well, actually it is. I could give you several examples of people who have succeeded, some of them I know personally, but probably the most famous case is a woman named Beth Terry, an accountant from Oakland, California, who has lived plastic free since 2007. You can read her story at www.myplasticfreelife.com.


There she explains how, eight years ago, she saw a picture of an albatross’ chick that died with a stomach full of colored plastic bottle caps. Beth realized that those caps could come from her own trash can, she felt responsible for the death of that bird, and she decided to do something. If we were in Jesus’ parable of the farmer who was planting seeds, I would be the gravelly ground, or maybe the terrain full of weeds, whereas Beth would be the good earth. I saw the same picture of the baby albatross’ carcass, I too felt deeply impressed, and I also decided to take action. The difference in the final outcome is that I let other things in my life suffocate the first commitment, and she did not. In the last eight years Beth has reduced her consumption of new plastic from the 100 pounds per year of the average American to less than 2 pounds per year. She has actively looked for plastic free alternatives of many products, and shared her findings with thousands of people. By getting others involved as well, Beth has been able to convince different companies to offer paper packaging instead of plastic, and to take back some of their plastic products to be truly recycled.

It is not my intention to make you feel guilty (or maybe just a little). What I would really like, for myself and for anyone who cares for God’s wonderful creation, is to encourage us to take the plastic problem seriously, and do something meaningful, for once and for all. Maybe you are already doing the best you can. Good for you! Maybe you did not even know how serious this issue is. In that case, I would recommend that you watch the documentary Plastic Planet, by Werner Boote, read the book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, and check out the website http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-bottled-water/. Maybe you already knew, but, just like me, you needed a boost to really commit. In Beth Terry’s website, she lists several good reasons for giving up plastics, such as to stop doing harm, protect health, and support ethical business. For us, Christians who believe in a Creator who made very good and very beautiful marine creatures, and put them under our stewardship, we have a powerful, additional reason to add to the list. God put us in charge of the true colors of the ocean, and we should start taking them back where they belong. So, what if we enjoy the dazzling colors of the coral reefs, but let the open ocean to be blue, the polar ice to be just white, and the sandy beaches to show the true color of the sand?



Noemi Duran-Royo, PhD

Loma Linda University



Brown, B. (1997). Coral bleaching: causes and consequences. Coral Reefs 16, S129-S138.

Derraik, J. G. B. (2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 44, 842-852. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0025-326X(02)00220-5.

Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. C., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., Galgani, F., Ryan, P. G., and Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE 9, e111913.

Seltenrich, N. (2015). New link in the food chain? Marine plastic pollution and seafood safety. Environmental health perspectives 123, A34.

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The Cambrian Explosion

Texbooks describe the fossil record as the ‘best evidence’ for evolution. They claim that the fossil record proves evolution because there seems to be a succession from simpler to more complex life forms, and a succession from marine to terrestrial forms. Charles Darwin suggested that all life has a common ancestor. “All the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth may be descended from some one primordial form.”[i] Darwin depicted the history of life as a tree, with the universal common ancestor as its root. The vertical dimension represents time, whereas the horizontal dimension represents morphological variation.


When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the oldest known fossils were from Cambrian strata (now dated to ~540 Millions of years using radiometric dating). But he realized that the Cambrian fossil pattern did not fit his theory. “To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer.”[i] Why was the Cambrian fossil record a problem for Darwin? Because if biological evolution occurred in a continuous and gradual way, then, 1) few fossil forms (low diversity) should occur in the lower layers of the sedimentary record or geologic column, 2) diversity should increase upward in the geologic column (and time), 3) the earliest forms should be more generalist and simple (low specialization), not highly specialized, 4) greater specialization should occur in the organisms of the upper layers, 5) new forms should be replacing ancestral forms with signs of gradual change (intermediate or transitional organisms), and 6) a common ancestor should be found.

COL13-191-Cambrian fauna

Darwin acknowledged the existence of an “anomaly” in the fossil record that posed a big problem for his theory of gradual evolution from a common ancestor: the abrupt appearance of highly complex life forms in the basal layers of the Cambrian. Its appearance is so abrupt that it has been dubbed the Cambrian explosion. Let’s have a look at the actual Cambrian fossil record to see why Darwin acknowledged a problem for his theory of evolution, then discuss the different hypotheses paleontologists have suggested, the problems of those hypotheses, and a view of the Cambrian fossils from a Flood model.

The fossil record of the lower layers of the Cambrian period consists of multiple forms of animals that are interpreted to have lived at the bottom of the ocean. They are representatives of most modern phyla, including echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins), sponges, molluscs, arthropods, etc. Smith and Harper present the problem of the origin of the Cambrian fauna in the context of the assumed evolutionary time scale for the emergence of body patterns: “Molecular clock estimates predict that the earliest members of many animal groups, including sponges, cnidarians, and bilaterians, lived 850 million to 635 million years ago. Yet molecular clocks and the fossil record together indicate that more than 100 extant animal phyla and classes first appeared in the Cambrian; only a handful predate the start of the Cambrian. Two events are thus distinguishable, with the origin of high-level animal groups temporally distant to the abrupt increase in diversity and disparity within the Cambrian—the Cambrian explosion in the strict sense.”[ii]

COL13-199-Acadoparadoxides briareus

It has been suggested that all the ancestors of the Cambrian organisms had soft parts and therefore they did not fossilize. This argument is not valid because there are many fossils of soft-bodied organisms in the sedimentary record, including many of the Cambrian fossils. Jellyfish have very soft parts and yet they left very distinct fossils in the Cambrian rocks. It’s not that there are no fossils in the rocks below the Cambrian layers. There are indeed in several places of the world, and they are called the Precambrian Ediacaran fauna. Ediacaran fauna predates the Cambrian explosion by 25 million years in the evolutionary time scale. Is the Cambrian fauna the descendant of the Ediacaran fauna? The Ediacaran fauna are soft-bodied animals, whereas the Cambrian fauna are both soft-bodied and hard-bodied (shelly) creatures. Ediacaran animals were not the ancestors of the Cambrian animals.

Scientists are puzzled by the vast evolutionary changes that occurred in such short time.[iii] Many paleontologists believe that the Cambrian fauna represents the complete replacement of the Precambrian Ediacaran forms after a mass extinction, not the simple gradual change. But there is no evidence for that speculation. And the Darwinian model for the origin of animals requires the existence of ancestors of the Cambrian organisms. But they are found nowhere and it doesn’t seem that further search will solve the problem. What are some of the speculations for the sudden appearance of the Cambrian fossils? Paul Smith, a paleobiologist at the University of Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, said in an interview for livecience.com that “[t]here are well over 30 hypotheses out there for the Cambrian explosion.” Scientists have suggested everything from genetic variations to geochemical changes to a starburst in the Milky Way to explain the sudden explosion in diversity.[iv]

COL13-334-Cyclomedusa davidi

It has been suggested that increase in the atmosphere’s oxygen content around 700 million years ago triggered the evolution of more complex body structures. But research has shown that the oxygen content in rocks allegedly 2.1 billion years old was probably the same as by the time the Cambrian explosion occurred.[v] Even if an increase of oxygen occurred sometime before the Cambrian, this hypothesis does not explain why a sudden occurrence and not a gradual appearance.

Some have suggested the Cambrian explosion was triggered by a global sea level rise with the consequence of the flooding of flat, shallow areas of the continents. The flooded areas would have provided a vast habitat for the aquatic organisms but would also be eroded, releasing many minerals, such as calcium and strontium, into the seawater. Those minerals are toxic to cells and the organisms would have to evolve the ability to excrete the toxic minerals. Consequently, what they did was to incorporate those minerals into their exoskeletons, enabling much more complex body plans, and feeding adaptations. The problem for this hypothesis is that it presupposes that the Cambrian land surfaces were eroded, that minerals were released into the water and absorbed into the skeletons and that all of that triggered evolution. There is no known evidence for this cascade of events, and thus they cannot be used to explain why the Cambrian fauna suddenly arose.

COL13-332-Dickinsonia costata

Another speculation is that an extinction of life occurred just before the Cambrian and opened up ecological niches or “adaptive spaces,” that the new forms exploited.[vi] One major problem for this hypothesis is that there is no evidence for such Precambrian extinction(s), except for the extinction of the Ediacaran fauna, which nonetheless is not related in any way to the Cambrian fauna. Moreover, one would have to explain both the Precambrian extinction and the origin of those Precambrian organisms.

Some paleontologists have suggested that genetic factors were crucial in the sudden rise of the Cambrian fauna.[vii] They propose that gradual evolution of a “kit” of genes occurred prior to the Cambrian explosion. These genes controlled development processes. An unprecedented period of genetic changes occurred, which triggered the rise of many new biological forms (diversity) and the disappearance of many others. Only the body plans that proved to be successful came to dominate the ecosphere. The problems with this model are various. First, this idea is purely speculative, not based on actual pre-Cambrian specimens. Second, the scenario is plausible, but still does not explain the suddenness of the fossil record in the lower Cambrian. And third, the last assertion—that only the body plans that became more successful came to dominate the ecosphere—is circular reasoning.

COL13-333-Cyclomedusa davidi

These hypotheses are just a sample of the many that have been suggested. It is important to note that what those hypotheses offer is a number of possible environmental, genetic, and geochemical events associated with the sudden origin of the Cambrian fauna, but not how the Cambrian fauna originated. There is a fundamental difference between claiming what might have occurred during the rise of the Cambrian fauna and how the fauna arose in gradual steps from a common ancestor. What we need is a mechanism for the sudden origin, not a description of the results.

The Cambrian explosion is a tremendous problem for the theory of evolution. There is no evidence of how the Precambrian single- or multi-celled soft-bodied organisms might have evolved into the highly complex and diversified shelled and soft-bodied organisms. The complex Cambrian animals just abruptly appear in the fossil record with every organ and structure complete and ready to function. Some of the most complex biological structures are already present in the Cambrian organisms, such as the eye of the squid, which is very similar to the human eye.

Both the Cambrian and the Precambrian fossils indicate sudden appearance of 1) high complexity, 2) high diversity, and 3) high geographic distribution. These features are a problem for the evolution theory because they are not expected within a model of gradual appearance and change over time. According to the Darwinian evolution model, the first organisms should be very simple (low complexity) and show little diversification (there should be only a handful of forms). The initial forms show be very similar (low disparity) and progressively differentiate. Instead, we find high disparity at the very beginning of the animal fossil record. All these features are in startling contradiction with the Darwinian evolution assumptions and predictions.


Is there an alternative to the evolutionary models? Can we provide a reasonable hypothesis within a short-age biblical Flood model? The answer is yes. The Flood model provides a reasonable explanation for the Cambrian explosion. First, it explains why the ancestors of the Cambrian did not fossilize. They did not fossilize because in reality they did not exist. Second, it provides a setting for the burial and fossilization of the Cambrian organisms. Probably the Cambrian fossils were species that lived on the pre-Flood ocean floor. They may have lived on the lower topographic areas and were the first buried by the sediment carried into the oceans. Or they may have been buried by the onset of the Flood when “all the springs of the great deep burst open” (Genesis 7:11). The opening of these springs must have been a catastrophic event that may have caused underwater earthquakes, large waves, currents, and the removal and transport of large masses of sediment, which probably were deposited covering exceedingly large surfaces of the seafloor, thus burying the bottom dwellers—the Cambrian fauna. The Precambrian fauna would have been animals and unicellular organisms that were buried and fossilized during sedimentation events that happened after the Fall and before the Flood.


Raúl Esperante

Geoscience Research Institute

Loma Linda, CA


[i] Darwin, C. 1872. The Origin of Species, 6th edition, p. 289.

[ii] Smith, M. P., & Harper, D. A. T. 2013. Causes of the Cambrian Explosion. Science, 341(6152), 1355-1356. doi: 10.1126/science.1239450. Emphasis added.

[iii] Even assuming the evolutionary time scale of millions of years for the appearance of all animal and plant forms, an interval of 25 million years that separates the extinction of the Precambrian fauna and the sudden appearance of the Cambrian fauna is too short to account for the novelty of the complexity of the latter.

[iv] For a summary see, Levinton, J. S. (2008). The Cambrian Explosion: How do we use the evidence? Bioscience, 58(9), 856-864.

[v] Oxygen not the cause of the Cambrian explosion. Astrobiology Magazine, October 22, 2013. http://www.astrobio.net/topic/origins/origin-and-evolution-of-life/oxygen-not-the-cause-of-the-cambrian-explosion/.

[vi] Marshall, C. R. (2006). Explaining the Cambrian “Explosion” of animals. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 34(1), 355-384. doi: doi:10.1146/annurev.earth.33.031504.103001

[vii] See Levinton, 2008.

[i] Darwin, C. 1859. The Origin of Species, 1st edition, p. 484.

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Red in Tooth and Claw

During 1833, Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly and unexpectedly. This would be one of those sad but unremarkable facts of history were it not for his close friendship with Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson spent the next 17 years struggling with the death of his friend. During this time, Tennyson composed “In Memoriam,” a long poem that wrestles with the shock, sadness and despair he experienced and his search to find meaning from the loss. In Cantos 55 and 56, he penned these words:

Are God and Nature then at strife,

That Nature lends such evil dreams?

So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life, …

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone;

I care for nothing, all shall go.’ …

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravin, shriek’d against his creed

Anyone who has experienced the unexpected or even the expected loss of a loved one can probably understand some of what Tennyson felt. One incident of incredible evil can color one’s thinking in such a way that it eclipses everything else. But is nature really as grim as Tennyson depicts it? Is nature intrinsically “red in tooth and claw?”

Tennyson was not alone in his concern that nature may be at its core centered on suffering and death. In fact, the portion of In Memoriam quoted above is thought to have been written in response to Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published by Robert Chambers in 1844, which proposed an evolutionary origin of the universe and life before Darwin published his Origin of Species. Among the evidence discussed was the extinction of fossil species. 1844 was the same year that Darwin wrote what is known as his “1844 Sketch,” a brief summary of his ideas about evolution. Darwin seems to have shared the view of Chambers that older inferior organisms must be replaced by more advanced organisms and to see this cruel concept as a central part of his understanding of nature. In 1856 he wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker:

“What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature.”[1]

It becomes clear from Darwin’s later writings that his perspective led him to view all of nature, including humans, as pitted against one another in a struggle for survival, one in which races he considered to be less civilized must inevitably be wiped out:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”[1]

In this view he was in complete agreement with Chambers, but is this really what is going to happen? The Bible suggests a more optimistic view of nature and humanity. King Solomon wrote:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians stressing that, at least in Christ, there is not a difference in value between people, whatever their race or social status:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 NIV

Is there some way of observing nature impartially to determine whether the grim view embraced by Darwin or the more optimistic biblical view is better supported by the evidence? Or is life really more complicated than simply one or the other of these views?

It is an oversimplification to say that Darwin’s view was exclusively depressing and the biblical view is nothing but joy and light. Darwin wrote at the end of The Origin of Species about the wonder that is present in nature, with particular reference to the amazing interrelationships between organisms, and optimistically proposes that progress though evolution will lead to organisms more perfect than we may even have now.[2] And the Bible, as it seeks to convey God’s solution to it, talks about suffering in nature. For example, Paul, looking forward in hope to the promised new creation, observed that, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Romans 1:22 NIV.

Perhaps a better question would be, is the creation dominated by competition, struggle and suffering? Are these the defining principles that result in the occasional beauty that we see? Darwin put it this way:

“[F]rom the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.[1]

The biblical alternative is that the creation was, and still is, wonderful, but is marred by sin. In other words, the goodness God created is there, at least in part, and necessary for life to work, while the suffering and death is an imposition on what was initially created “very good” (Genesis 1:31).[2] Again, it is Paul who states this clearly, Romans 5 is an excellent example of this, where he ends with the hope-filled observation that: “… just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21 NIV). He later notes, in Romans 8:21 NIV, “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Someone seeing reality from the perspective of Darwinism should be alert to every flaw in nature; every evidence of struggle and, perhaps, be a little surprised at beauty and altruistic behavior. The biblical perspective is less constraining. While there is plenty of room for disagreement, it could be persuasively argued that Christians are in a better position to determine whether life is primarily based on struggle suffering and death or elegant, cooperative interdependence. The Bible addresses both evil and good, providing an explanation of both. There is no compulsion to see only peaceful cooperation in nature or only struggle.

Still, while it is impossible to completely set aside one’s worldview, it should be possible to at least try to look at nature, particularly the systems by which life works, and determine whether they are more commonly about “war” or cooperation. When we do this, it is fairly obvious that life probably could not exist, at least as we know it, if all species – or all individuals within species – were at war for survival. In other words, life is not “a kingdom divided against itself,” which Jesus Himself noted could not stand (Matthew 12:25,26; Mark 3:24; Luke 11:17,18).

While all organisms ultimately die, what should be surprising is how few pathogenic bacteria there are and how few predators. This is especially true relative to the vast systems of cooperation we see between organisms. In general, plants do not seem to be at war with the fungi that they live with. In fact, both organisms benefit when fungi amplify the surface area of roots, providing water, minerals and protection to the plant, which, in exchange, gives sugar to the fungus.

On a grand scale, ecological cycles tend to illustrate the division of work in nature that makes cooperation an essential element. Some years ago, my friend and colleague Henry Zuill and I published a paper in Origins on the subject of the nitrogen cycle.[1] This ecochemical cycle operates on a global scale with different organisms performing different steps in the cycle. The amazing thing is that each of the organisms involved – and there are many of them – benefits in some way from their role in the cycle, while at the same time being dependent on the other organisms in the cycle and providing benefits to organisms that are less directly involved. In fact, without the nitrogen cycle, life as we know it appears to be impossible.

Another example of life’s pervasive cooperative interdependence has been the recent realization that complex multicellular organisms live with an extensive microbiome that appears to be essential for their health. This realization has played a major role in development of effective therapies such as distasteful sounding, but remarkably effective, fecal transplants and a booming industry of “probiotic” foods. After more than a century of war with bacteria and other microorganisms, we are finally beginning to realize that most of them are our friends, not enemies. Without them, we probably could not survive, at least in any state of normal health. This should make the discovery that our bodies contain more non-human cells than human cells good news rather than a startling worry.[2]

Both Materialistic Darwinists and Bible-believing Christians should be able to see the beautiful cooperative relationships that pervade nature. I believe that the Darwinian view of life as intrinsically at strife is at odds with the most common reality observed among living things, peaceful cooperative interdependence. This is what makes the suffering that we do observe in nature so startling. Death and suffering are not the cruel tools of progress, they are the consequences of sin that Jesus Christ, the Creator God, has paid the price to overcome. Vestiges still evident today of the beauty that pervaded God’s very good creation provide good reason to look forward to His “new creation” Revelation 21:5. Ultimately, Tennyson himself, through the eyes of faith, grasped the hope that God’s Word gives to all of us who live in a world where we understand so little and suffering is truly an evil in which we can find no meaning.

Thou, from the first, unborn, undying love,

Albeit we gaze not on thy glories near,

Before the face of God didst breath and move,

Though night and pain and ruin and death reign here.

       Love – Alfred Lord Tennyson


Timothy G. Standish

Geoscience Research Institute

April 2, 2015


[1] Zuill HA, Standish TG. 2007. Irreducible Interdependence: An IC-like ecological property potentially illustrated by the nitrogen cycle. Origins 60:6-40.

[2] Note that this is possible because bacterial cells, on average, are much smaller than human cells. But the microbiome is not made up of only bacteria, eukaryotic cells are involved as well.

[1] Darwin CR. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 1st Edition. John Murray, London. P 490.

[2] I am certain that there is someway of misreading my words or criticizing the phrasing I use here. I am not attempting to make either a grand theological statement, or even a subtle one. I am trying to state an idea in clear simple and concise language that an average reader should be able to understand. Of course, this may mean that some theologians or philosophers, either over trained or untrained, will manage to criticize something about it.

[1] Charles R. Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex 2d edition. (London: John Murray, 1882), 156.

[2] Darwin CR. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 1st Edition. John Murray, London. P 489.

[1] Darwin, CR. 1856. July 13, Letter to Hooker. https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-1924

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Scientific Revolutions: Part 2

Further conceptual revolutions in science

Revolutions in the Life Sciences

The life sciences have experienced fewer revolutions than the physical sciences. The first major revolution in the biological sciences was initiated by William Harvey, as noted above. The next revolution was the Darwinian Revolution, which in some ways has had greater impact than any other scientific revolution. Darwin (1809-1882) published his famous theory in 1859, with an almost immediate effect. Opposition was swift and strong, but was mostly expressed as opposition to the implication that humans descended from apes rather than focusing on the evidence Darwin used. Darwin’s friends occupied positions of power and influence, and used them effectively to neutralize opposition and to give evolutionary theory a prominent place. Darwin’s arguments contained significant flaws, and the theory went into decline after the deaths of himself and his supporters. It was resurrected and strengthened during the 1930s and 1940s, and is now the standard view, although it appears ripe for replacement through another scientific revolution. Darwinism may be the only paradigm in science whose believers often actively persecute dissenters from the theory. The revolutionary nature of Darwin’s theory was due to its central thesis that living organisms evolved without any divine activity or purpose. This view is in direct contradiction to the general belief that our lives have purpose and are influenced by divine Providence.

Experimental refutation of the theory of spontaneous generation could be considered another revolution in biology, although a form of the theory is still advocated today. From the ancient Romans until the 17th century, people widely believed that living organisms could form from decaying material. Frogs were thought to come from mud, mice from moldy grain, flies from decaying meat, etc. Francesco Redi (1626-1697) challenged this belief in what may well be the first scientific experiment. Redi showed that flies do not grow in decaying meat unless the meat is accessible to other flies. This convinced most people that ordinary, visible organisms do not come into existence by spontaneous generation, but most still believed that microorganisms could. Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) performed a similar experiment that cast doubt on the spontaneous generation of microorganisms from soup, but the experiment was not conclusive. Finally in 1862, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was awarded a prize by the French Academy of Science for his famous experiment in which he showed that microorganisms come from other microorganisms and not from spontaneous generation. Pasteur’s experiments overturned the previous theory that living organisms can arise from non-living material and showed that living organisms come from other living organisms. Modern evolutionists appeal to gaps in our knowledge to justify continued belief in spontaneous generation of the first living organism, but this is driven by philosophical biases rather than on scientific evidence.

There are few other developments in biology that could be considered as revolutions. Most developments in biology have come about stepwise, as new discoveries accumulate. Among the major advances are: the discovery of the cellular nature of life; the distinction of the germline cells and the soma; the germ theory of disease; and the particulate nature of heredity. The discovery of the DNA double helix is a candidate for a revolution. This discovery changed biology from primarily an organismal approach to a chemical approach, and ushered in the age of molecular biology. Many other factors contributed to this transformation, but discovery of the structure of DNA seems to be the key that opened the way for the larger changes.

Revolutions in earth sciences

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) is responsible for a revolution in the earth sciences. Lyell strongly opposed the catastrophism of his day and promoted the idea of stability of the earth over long ages of time. This is known as the principle of uniformitarianism. Lyell was opposed by the scriptural geologists and others who held that at least parts of the geological record were produced in the Biblical flood. Through force of argument and political affiliations, Lyell’s views became dominant, and catastrophism was banned, at least temporarily, from the study of earth history.

A second revolution in geology occurred in the 1960s, with acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics. Several scientists contributed to the new theory. Among these the key contribution may have been Harry Hess’s 1962 publication of the idea that the earth’s crust might be made of movable plates. Other evidence seemed to corroborate this idea, and the idea of a stable, unmoving crust was quickly replaced by the idea of a dynamic, mobile crust made of separate pieces, or plates. This represented a major change from the views of Lyell, and opened the way for a reconsideration of catastrophism.

The re-emergence of catastrophism was another major revolution in earth sciences. The revolution began in earnest with the 1980 publication of Walter Alvarez and others, which appealed to extraterrestrial impacts as a major factor in earth history. Subsequent exploration has identified nearly 200 impact craters and confirmed the role of global catastrophes in earth history. An ongoing controversy rages over the relationship of impacts and mass extinctions. Other types of catastrophes have been identified or postulated, including massive volcanism, release of methane from the sea floor, and nearby supernovas. Recognition of catastrophes of global scale has transformed our view of earth history from a relatively quiet past to a dynamic history punctuated by numerous world-wide catastrophes, producing mass extinctions, and major geographical changes.

Revolutions in physical sciences

Scientific revolutions are best known among the physical sciences. The work of Lavoisier (1743-1794) on combustion resulted in replacement of the phlogiston theory with a theory involving the action of oxygen. This breakthrough can be considered a scientific revolution, and initiated further discoveries in chemistry.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was able to discover and quantify the links between electricity, magnetism, and light. He showed that light is a form of electromagnetism. His discoveries united phenomena that were previously regarded as unrelated, and expressed the relationship quantitatively in a famous series of equations. Maxwell’s work is considered the most important development in physics during the 19th century, and foundational to the new ideas that would arise in the 20th century.

Several developments in the 20th century combined to overturn the view of “clockwork nature” that dominated science since the time of Newton. The contributors to this new revolution in physics included Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Neils Bohr (1885-1962), Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), and Kurt Gödel (1906-1978).

Albert Einstein proposed the theory of general relativity, in which time is relative to the velocity of the observer, mass varies with velocity of the object, and gravity is regarded as a result of curvature of space-time by the presence of matter. Einstein’s revolution was to change our perception of time and space from being fixed to being variable in nature. He also changed our perception of matter and energy being distinct phenomena, showing they are interchangeable.

Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr played a central role in the development of quantum mechanics theory. Heisenberg determined that one cannot know both the position and momentum of a subatomic particle, a rule known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Bohr studied the energy levels of electrons in atoms, and proposed that they can take only certain values rather than any intermediate value. He also proposed the principle of complementarity, which states that a subatomic particle may have both wave-like and particle-like properties, but both cannot be observed at the same time. The theory of quantum mechanics includes the conclusion that matter can in an indeterminate state until it is observed, the resulting state will depend on what type of observation is made, and we cannot observe all aspects of a particle at one time.

Gödel is known for his incompleteness theorem, which showed mathematically that we cannot prove anything significant without making unprovable assumptions. This came at a time when other mathematician-philosophers were searching for a philosophical basis for certainty. Gödel proved mathematically, not only that attempts to derive mathematical certainty had not been successful, but that they could not, even in theory, be successful. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem had enormous consequences for the philosophy of science, and helped scientists recognize that absolute proof is unattainable.

All these developments together have contributed to a new view of the universe. Rather than being static, clock-like and deterministic, the universe is now seen as being dynamic, contingent, and probabilistic. This change has produced corresponding changes in philosophy and even in popular culture.


Among the fallout from these various scientific revolutions has come the realization that science is not a straight pathway to total reality and truth, but involves numerous tentative conclusions, reversals of opinion, and inherent uncertainty. Its utility is not that it is always true, but that it is useful and leads to further discovery. Accordingly, science is properly respected but not unconditionally trusted. Ideas that everyone “knows” to be true may not be true at all, as is seen in the numerous cases of scientific revolutions. Christian faith must reckon with scientific arguments, but it must not sacrifice its own integrity on the unstable altar of “science du jour.” There is more to be learned, even by science.


L. James Gibson

Geoscience Research Institute

March 1, 2015


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Scientific Revolutions: Part 1

Scientific Revolutions

Occasionally, the scientific community rejects an idea that was previously widely accepted and replaces it with a new idea, which becomes the current consensus. This rapid change in scientific opinion is known as a “scientific revolution.”

These revolutions do not come easily because science is widely regarded as the most reliable, or even the only, pathway to truth. When an idea is said to be “unscientific,” this is generally interpreted to mean it is unreliable at best, and dangerously wrong at worst. In contrast, to describe a statement as “scientific” usually means it is believed to be true.

The high epistemological value placed on science is understandable but unwise. It is understandable because science has made discoveries that have been used in technologies to make our lives more comfortable and enable us to pursue learning and pleasure to an extent far greater than in the past. We are all grateful for the benefits received from scientific discovery. However, it is unwise to uncritically accept the pronouncements of “scientists” as though they are empirically confirmed, for at least two reasons. First, it is unwise because the prestige of science is often exploited by materialists to promote personal agendas with destructive outcomes. Second, the history of science tells us that scientists are often wrong, as seen in the occasional scientific revolution. This essay will focus on the latter phenomenon – revolutions in science.

Although not adequately appreciated in the popular press, many of those who study the history of science have come to see it more as a human enterprise than an application of pure reason. A major factor in this view was publication of the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, and more widely in the 1970 revision of the book.[i] In this book, Thomas Kuhn proposed that science is normally carried on as individuals seek application of general principles to more and more situations. Anomalies occur occasionally, but are ignored until they accumulate and people notice that there is a problem with the reigning paradigm. Attention is then focused on the anomalies, the paradigm is challenged and may be overthrown and replaced by a new paradigm. When this happens, a scientific revolution has occurred. Acceptance of a new paradigm may involve conversion of scientists, but often has to wait until the old guard dies out and is replaced by younger scientists who grew up with the new idea. In other words, new ideas are often accepted due to an influx of new people rather than by changing people’s opinions.

The scientific revolution[ii].

The first scientific revolution was the development of scientific methodology, utilizing experiment, mathematical analysis, and testing. This revolution transformed the study of the natural world from an exercise in cataloguing to an attempt to describe nature in mechanical terms and to make predictions. Key developments in this revolution were the application of mathematics to objects in motion by Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century, and Harvey’s discovery of capillaries in the human body. Methodological developments were accompanied by formation of scientific societies with official journals, thus establishing a scientific community for the first time. This, the first scientific revolution, laid the foundation for the methodology and philosophy of modern science, and may rightly be called The scientific revolution.

The practice of science has expanded greatly since the original scientific revolution, and the term “revolution” has been applied[iii] to certain structural changes in the way scientific findings are funded and communicated. However, I prefer to apply the term “revolution” in a Kuhnian sense, that is, to relatively abrupt and radical changes in the way nature is understood. These are conceptual revolutions rather than sociological revolutions.

Conceptual revolutions in “the” scientific revolution

Several different conceptual revolutions contributed to “the scientific revolution.” Chief among them were the contributions of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), René Descartes (1596-1650), William Harvey (1578-1657), and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). The first of these was the “Copernican Revolution,” which radically changed our view of the place of the earth. Previously, the earth had been regarded as the center of the solar system, in a scheme formalized by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century, A.D. Unfortunately, the Christian church incorporated Ptolemy’s scheme into church dogma, using Biblical texts to attempt to support it. Copernicus proposed a different scheme in which the sun is the center of our solar system. The new view was vigorously opposed by the church, but eventually prevailed under the influence of Galileo and others. The Copernican revolution changed the public perception of humanity’s place in the universe from the center to the periphery, with corresponding changes in our relationship to God. It was truly a revolutionary idea.

René Descartes is credited with advances in mathematics and philosophy that produced a revolution in science. Descartes developed a system of mathematical graphing we still call “Cartesian coordinates,” which transformed mathematics, led to the development of general algebra, and enabled Newton to develop the calculus. Descartes also advocated a “mechanical philosophy,” which eschewed teleology in favor of a reductionist approach involving only matter and motion. Descartes’ influence was a major factor in the secularization of science, changing the scientific viewpoint from seeing the world as the handiwork of God to the point where LaPlace famously quipped to Napoleon “I have no need of that hypothesis,” meaning he intentionally left God out of his thinking in trying to explain the formation of the solar system.

William Harvey showed that the blood circulated in a single system linking the heart with the rest of the body, rather than being supernaturally moved by God. He accomplished this by meticulous dissection and study of the blood vessels and heart, and by direct measurement of the capacity of the heart, not only of humans, but also of sheep and dogs. Harvey’s application of experiment and observation, and especially his emphasis on quantitative measurements, transformed biology from a purely descriptive endeavor largely based on ancient authorities to an experimental science based on careful observation and measurement. The discovery that blood is pumped through the body by a mechanical heart removed the need for supernatural cause of blood flow, and helped bring biology into the realm of quantitative science. 

Isaac Newton’s work was the capstone on the scientific revolution. Newton’s major contribution was the mathematization of physics. He developed the calculus and applied it to the study of motion. He developed generalized laws of motion, including curved motion, wave motion, and pendulums. His most dramatic contribution was the discovery and quantification of the force of gravity. He applied this to develop a model of the universe in which the planets and other heavenly bodies were guided in their orbits by gravitational forces. He also explained the tides as the result of gravitational forces of the sun and moon. In developing his model of a “clockwork universe,” Newton transformed the common perception of cause of the motion of the planets and stars. Previously, this was explained by the direct activity of God; now it was explained by the natural law of gravity.

The scientific revolution permanently changed the way we view our world. Before the revolution, nature was seen as the handiwork of God, and was studied mostly by clergymen. After the revolution, nature was seen as autonomous, and was studied mostly by professional scientists, many of whom were deists who believed God had no interaction with the universe. This view of nature as independent of any outside influence, dominant for the past two or three centuries, is itself under attack today as science continues to uncover the precise structure and complexity of the universe and the living organisms that inhabit it. Perhaps we are on the threshold of a new scientific revolution in which the reality of the supernatural is recognized. If so, it would be one more example in a list of revolutions in science.


L. James Gibson

Geoscience Research Institute

March 3, 2015


[i] Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2nd edition, revised. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[ii] This and the next section are based largely on: Cohen, I.B. 1985. Revolution in science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[iii] E.g., Cohen, ibid.

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The role of catastrophes in scientific thinking

The cathedral was crowded; this was All Saints’ Day! Unexpectedly, the building started shaking and the parishioners tried to rush out through the arched entrance. Others were trying to escape from another church located on one side of the cathedral, while buildings several stories high rose ominously on the other side. Suddenly, moments later, the fronts of the churches and accompanying buildings came crashing down towards each other and buried all the poor souls gathered there.[i]

This was the famous Lisbon, Portugal earthquake of November 1, 1755, that destroyed over half of the town and much beyond. Three major tsunamis followed and fires burning for five days contributed to further destruction. The earthquake’s magnitude has been estimated at 8.7 and some suggest that on that day as many as 90,000 to 100,000 people perished in Europe and Africa. Its effects were unusually widespread, being noted even in the Caribbean region, thus involving three continents. While a few other larger earthquakes have been reported, the Lisbon earthquake is likely the most significant, especially because of its profound philosophical implications on humanity’s thinking. It came at a very critical time in western thought. Where was God? How could a beneficent loving God, who had sent His Son to save humanity, allow such a tragic event?

There is an abundance of literature that addresses the apparent conflict between God’s goodness and the presence of evil in the universe (theodicy).[ii] Among the more prevailing resolutions is the suggestion that (1) suffering is necessary in order for us to develop a good character. Related to this is the idea that (2) calamities such as earthquakes teach us that the principle of cause and effect prevails, the universe is rational, and good and evil have their consequences. Still another dominant view is that (3) God grants freewill, and we are allowed to make wrong choices that can have bad consequences. True freedom requires that evil be permitted. Since God has granted freewill in the universe, He is not responsible for the evil brought about by those who cause suffering in a great conflict between good and evil. (4) Others suggest that “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do!” That statement is too often correct, since the mass mortality of earthquakes could be dramatically reduced if we would construct stronger buildings. (5) The Bible suggests that God is involved in some catastrophes like the great Genesis flood. A loving God’s involvement is explained because it “grieved”[iii] God to bring on the catastrophic Genesis Flood, and He did it to save as many as He could of a humanity that had become “only evil continually.”[iv] In that context, the horrendous Flood was primarily the result of humanity’s wickedness—the consequence of the freewill that God has granted. (6) Some suggest that God is not directly involved in many natural disasters. The frequent earthquakes we experience, including the one in Lisbon, occur as the earth adjusts imbalances. The worldwide Genesis Flood could have caused a lot of imbalance in the crust of the earth that is still adjusting even today. Considering how intricate reality is, it is likely that several explanations are valid.


Lava Flow, Hawaii

FIGURE 1. Lava flowing on the island of Hawaii. Soon after this picture was taken, the tree in font of the flow suddenly burned up.

Catastrophes come in many forms and rates. One of the more exotic ones was the 1986 sudden release of a huge cloud of mainly carbon dioxide gas from Lake Nyos in Cameroon. The cloud replaced the air in the region, suffocating some 1700 people. Avalanches, landslides, hurricanes, and tornadoes (cyclones), occasionally take their toll. Likely, the most significant catastrophic agents are earthquakes, floods and volcanoes. One of my most memorable days was watching volcanic flows on the Island of Hawaii (Figure 1). I had never seen rocks form so fast! Lava pouring from fractures in India cover 500,000 square kilometers of the famous Deccan Volcanic Field, indicating widespread volcanic activity.[v] Water inundation tends to be very devastating. The greatest example is the Genesis Food that covered the whole world. Earthquakes can generate huge waves call tsunamis. In 2004, more than 250,000 perished in one day from a tsunami in southeast Asia.[vi] Waters behind the 100 meter high Teton Dam in Idaho eroded it down in less than two hours.[vii] Catastrophes like the Lisbon earthquake are commonly rapid events.

The degree of importance of catastrophes for the geologic history of the earth has been the basis of a long scientific controversy that involves deep time questions. Before the nineteenth century, in spite of the Enlightenment movement, most scientists[viii] believed the biblical account of beginnings, although there were some varied interpretations. The very dominant view was that there was a recent creation by God a few thousand years ago, followed by the catastrophic worldwide Genesis Flood. The abundant fossils, coming from the kind of organisms that live in the ocean, but that were so abundant in the high Alps of Europe, were interpreted as evidence of that astonishing Flood.


An earthquake like the one in Lisbon dramatically illustrates how rapidly some geologic changes can take place. However, just a few decades later, a few geologists were suggesting that things had gone on more slowly and for a much longer time than proposed by the biblical model of origins. In 1830 a seminal book appeared titled Principles of Geology. That book would lead to important changes not only in geological thinking, but for science in general. Written by Charles Lyell, it became very popular, running through 11 editions. One can get the gist of Lyell’s thinking from a letter he wrote to his colleague, the geologist Roderick Murchison. There he states that “no causes whatever have from the earliest time to which we can look back , to the present, ever acted but those now acting and … they never acted with different degrees of energy from that which they now exert.”[ix] The emphasis was on slow geologic changes over long geologic ages instead of rapid catastrophic changes.

Two major concepts came into conflict at this time. The traditional catastrophism view proposed that major catastrophes, usually of worldwide consequences, have been the primary agent in shaping the crust of the earth. A lot of time is not required. The new view, uniformitarianism, proposed that ordinary rates of change operating over very long periods of time, have been the important factors in forming the crust. Catastrophes are not important, but a very long time for slow changes is required. Catastrophism fits well with the Biblical model of origins, while uniformitarianism fits the model of slow development over eons of time. This new view blatantly challenged the truthfulness of the Bible. Was it not the true word of God? Much more than just geologic interpretations were at stake here.

At this same time, several geologists in England, some of whom had strongly supported the creation and Flood model of the Bible, started considering the need for long ages in the geologic layers. Also, as championed by Charles Darwin’s seminal Origin of Species, ideas about the gradual evolution of life forms over a very long time started to be accepted. Catastrophism became the equivalent of a dirty word. It was in the same category as creationism finds itself in the scientific community today: totally unacceptable. Interpretations involving major catastrophes were not allowed. Uniformitarianism won and became dogma for well over a century.


However, all was not well. Study of the rocks revealed facts that seemed to require catastrophism. In 1923, the geologist Harlan Bretz from the University of Chicago, was studying the scoured southeast quarter of the state of Washington. There was evidence of hundreds of ancient waterfalls, some of them 100 meters high (Figure 2), and lots of other evidence for catastrophic activity.

FIGURE 2. Dry Falls, one of the hundreds of ancient falls noted by Harlan Bretz in the Channeled Scablands of southeastern Washington sate. The water flowed from left to right across the picture, eroding a huge channel beyond the view to the right.

FIGURE 2. Dry Falls, one of the hundreds of ancient falls noted by Harlan Bretz in the Channeled Scablands of southeastern Washington sate. The water flowed from left to right across the picture, eroding a huge channel beyond the view to the right. Water spilled over the 100 meter cliff to the left, creating the huge plunge pool in the middle were water now stands.

Bretz dared to suggest in a geological publication[x] that a major, short lived catastrophic flood had produced this washed out landscape. But catastrophes were not allowed. To adopt a model so close to the biblical Flood[xi] implied retreating back to the “Dark Ages.” In Bretz’s own words, “the heresy must be gently but firmly stamped out.”[xii] Bretz needed special attention from his colleagues, and was offered a hearing before the Geolgocal Society of Washigton, DC. A phalanx of doubters were present to challenge the flood hypothesis. After Bretz’s detailed report, five members of the prestigious United States Geological Survey presented objections to the flood model. Two of them had not even visited the study area! Apparently, no one at the meting changed their minds, but in succeeding years more and more data from the rocks that supported Bretz’s view was discovered, and the views of this modern day Noah and his likewise unwanted flood were vindicated. For his careful work and bravery, Bretz was later awarded the Penrose Medal, the United States’ most prestigious geological award.

Another problem arose along the southern California coast. Layers of sedimentary rock, both on land (Figure 3) and offshore, showed shallow water features and fossils mixed with deep water fossils found only hundreds of meters down in the ocean.[xiii]

FIGURE 3. Layers of turbidites above Santa Paula Creek, near Santa Paula, California. Each turbidite, which consists of several layers, is in the decimeter thickness range, and was laid down by a single turbidity current.

FIGURE 3. Layers of turbidites above Santa Paula Creek, near Santa Paula, California. Each turbidite, which consists of several layers, is in the decimeter thickness range, and was laid down by a single turbidity current.

How could that be if everything was laid down slowly under quiet conditions? Furthermore, experiments in the laboratory had shown that mud flowing under water, called a turbidity current, could travel rapidly down slope, resulting in complex characteristic deposits called turbidites (Figure 4). In Figure 3, each turbidite is in the decimeter range in thickness, and several layers are usually laid down by a single turbidity current. Deposits from a single turbidite can sometimes reach 200 meters in thickness. The mystery of the shallow and deep water sources found in the same layer is resolved if, along the southern California coast, you had turbidity currents flowing from a shallow shoreline source to a deep locality where deep water organisms were picked up into the flow.

FIGURE 4. Process of turbidite formation. Turbidites are only formed under water. In this illustration a mud source to the left, flows down the slope towards the right as a turbulent density current. As it settles to the right, different turbidite configurations can be formed, usually consisting of several to many layers.

FIGURE 4. Process of turbidite formation. Turbidites are only formed under water. In this illustration a mud source to the left, flows down the slope towards the right as a turbulent density current. As it settles to the right, different turbidite configurations can be formed, usually consisting of several to many layers.

All of this occurred around the middle of the Twentieth Century, and at that same time details of an earlier major turbidity current flow into the North Atlantic Ocean were being worked out. An earthquake along the maritime provinces of eastern Canada loosened a lot of sediment on the edge of the continental shelf, and that sediment flowed down as a turbidity current unto the abyssal plain at the foot of the continental slope. The flow ran into the hulk of the Titanic that had been there since 1912. The turbidity current also broke a number of transatlantic cables lying on the floor of the ocean. One could tell where the head of the flow was when the cables quit transmitting messages; and calculations indicated rates of travel of over 100 kilometers per hour. The turbidity current took about 13 hours to extend out 700 kilometers from its source. The resulting one meter thick turbidite had an estimated volume of 100 cubic kilometers, covering an area of 100,000 square kilometers.[xiv] The turbidite concept quickly gained momentum, and just two decades later it could be stated that “tens of thousands of graded beds stacked on top of one another have been interpreted as turbidites.”[xv]


What happened during the middle of the 20th Century, is that significant data was plainly indicating that the strict uniformitarianism stance of the geologic community was wrong. Gradually other geologists dared to suggest other catastrophic interpretations, including the suggestion that an asteroid hit the earth and killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period.[xvi] Based mainly on data from the rocks, catastrophism was making a dramatic return. This change has been identified as “a great philosophical breakthrough”[xvii] and it was acknowledged that “the profound role of major storms through out geologic history is becoming increasingly recognized.”[xviii] The new catastrophism is a little different from the classical catastrophism where the biblical Genesis Flood dominated. Now major catastrophes are accepted, but often a lot of time is postulated between them, thus accommodating the long geologic ages concept.

There is a deep lesson to be learned from the turbulent history of the catastophism concept of the scientific community. First catastrophism was the accepted view, then the concept was expelled from acceptable interpretations, only to be reaccepted 130 years later. The complex sociological and psychological reasons for such changes are beyond simple analysis, but we can still learn from what happened. Once a concept is thoroughly rejected by the scientific community, this does not mean that it is wrong, furthermore this does not mean the scientific community will not readopt it. While science is worthy of qualified respect, reality is above humanity’s drifting opinions.


Ariel Roth

Loma Linda, CA

February 1, 2015



[i] For details of this infamous event, see Chapter 1 in Shrady N. 2008. The Last Day. New York: Viking.

[ii] For five references, see note 4 on page 321 of: Roth AA. 1998. ORIGINS: Linking science and scripture. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association. For a discussion of suffering, specifically in the biological realm, see the end of DISCUSSION No. 3, of the Bible and Science series, in the author’s web page: www.sciencesandscriptures.com.

[iii] Genesis 6:6.

[iv] Genesis 6:5.

[v]http://www.portal.gsi.gov.in/portal/page?_pageid=127,689645&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL. (Viewed 1/1/2015)

[vi] http://www.tsunami2004.net/tsunami-2004-facts/. (Viewed 1/1/2015)

[vii] http://www.usbr.gov/pn/about/Teton.html . (Viewed 1/1/2015)

[viii] At that time, those who studied nature were called natural historians or natural philosophers instead of scientists.

[ix] From Chapter 2 of the book: Hallam A. 1983. Great Geological Controversies. New York: Oxford University Press.

[x] Bretz JH. 1923. The Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Plateau. Journal of Geology 31:617-649.

[xi] A few geologists have suggest several flood events. Most of those who endorse the biblical model do not equate Bretz’s flood with the Genesis Flood, but consider it a more recent flood associated with ice age activity.

[xii] Bretz JH, Smith HTU, Neff GE. 1956. The Channeled Scabland of Washington: new data and interpretations. Geolgical Society of America Bulletin 67:957-1049.

[xiii] Natland ML, Kuenen PhH. 1951. Sedimentary history of the Ventura Basin, California, and the action of turbidity currents. Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists Special Publication 2:76-107; Phleger FB.1951. Displaced foraminifera faunas. Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists Special Publication 2:66-75.

[xiv] For details and leading references see: Roth AA. ORIGINS: Linking Science and Scripture, Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, p 216-217.

[xv] Walker RG. 1973. Mopping up the turbidite mess. In: Ginsburg RN, editor. Evolving concepts in sedimentology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 1-37.

[xvi] Alvarez LW, et al. 1980. Extraterrestrial causes for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. Science 208:1095-1108.

[xvii] Kauffman E, as quoted in Lewin R. 1983. Extinctions and the history of life. Science 221:935-937.

[xviii] Nummendal D. 1982. Clastics. Geotimes 27(2):23.

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