earth.jpg (20547 bytes)

The
Age of Life, Radiometric
Dating,
and Tree Rings

By Andy Weeks

(c) Copyright. 1998. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

Is life younger than 7,000 years as is the claim of Young-Earth Creationists? Others like some Jehovah’s Witnesses and Bible Students believe that the creative days of Genesis are each 7,000-years in length. Do these conclusions agree with scientific data of our modern day? We will examine the arguments for both the 24-hour creative days as well as 7,000-year creative days. When these have been understood we will cross examine them in the light of scientific evidence and see how long life on our Earth has been here. If the evidence points to less than 23,000 years as Bible Students believe, then we can conclude that the 7,000-year creative day is correct. If the evidence points to less than 7,000-years then we can conclude that the 24-hour creative day is correct and perhaps embrace creationist claims. We will seek to prove that advanced life ahs indeed been around not only for many thousands of years and point even to millions of years.

Carbon Radio Dating

One way to ascertain out how long life has been on our Earth is through radiometric dating. Radiometric dating allows us to understand how long fossils have been around by ascertaining the decay of certain radioactive elements in them. Does this make any sense to you? Well let’s look at an analogy that will simplify this seemingly complex subject.

In the far away land of Carbondale, there is a mind-boggling law of taxes that we are not familiar with in our cozy homeland. You see the taxman will come collect taxes from you, even when you are dead! When a person dies, they must have 20 dollars in their pockets. Every 500 years, the taxman comes and takes half of their money. The first visit, he takes 10 dollars, exactly half of the 20 dollars that was originally in the dead man’s pockets. 500 years later, the taxman visits again. Since there is now 10 dollars left, he takes five dollars. Another 500 years passes by and there is the taxman again! This time he sees that there is 5 dollars left, so he takes half of the five, leaving the dead man with $2.50. Do you see what is happening? The taxman will continually take half of whatever he finds, until there is so little money left that it really is not worth halving anymore.

Moving our analogy to the case of fossilized animals, the 20 dollars would be the same as the amount of Carbon-14 (C-14) in a fossil. The taxman in our analogy would represent the radioactive decay of the C-14. In the analogy, the taxman visited every 500 years. In the case of C-14, half of it goes away in 5,730 years, leaving the fossil with half of the original amount. Eventually, the small amount of C-14 in a fossil is no longer a good indicator of age because there is so little left. In other words, if you were to check the dead man’s pockets, and were to find a penny, how could you tell how long the man was dead? On the other hand, if the man had 5 dollars in his pocket when you checked, you could ascertain that the man had been for 1000 years, right? The taxman must have made two visits, taking half of 20 dollars the first time, then half of 10 dollars the next, leaving him with the five dollars which you found.

Laboratory tests have conclusively shown that half the amount of (C-14) is lost every 5,730 years. Neither young-earth or old earth believers make any arguments over this laboratory finding. The other factors in ascertaining the actual age of fossils are more subjective due to the possibility of human error and interfering environmental factors. For instance, someone could go to the dead man and place a five-dollar bill in his pocket. On the other hand, we may find out that the taxman actually visited more often than every 500 years. In the case of fossils, the adding of the 5 dollars would be like finding a fossil with a lot of limestone on it. Limestone is abundant in C-14 and skews results. Going back to the dead man, the way to tell if someone had placed that 5-dollar bill is easy. You see, once the man died, the taxman came and sewed the pocket of his pants shut with such good thread that no one could undo the sewing job but him. Therefore, the person who stuck the five dollars in the pocket could not mix the money together with the original 20 dollars. In the case of a fossil, surrounding C-14 can not penetrate the fossil (the sewed up pants) but the limestone (the extra five dollars) must be washed away in an acid bath to get correct results.

Now if a scientist is not careful, he or she could conclude a much greater date of age for the fossil than is real. Just like if a different taxman came and counted that five-dollar bill in with the original twenty! There have been cases of this type of carelessness in the past.

The last problem to solve is the amount of C-14 in comparison to the amount of C-12 in the atmosphere. C-12 levels need to be verified as constant over the last 50,000 years or so. Going back to our analogy, this would be like seeing a new dead person with the 20 dollars in his pocket. However, how would we know that in ancient times, the taxman didn’t collect every 50 years instead of the 500 years that he does now? In the case of C-14 dating, we somehow have to determine that the amount of C-12 in the atmosphere 50,000 years ago is fundamentally the same as it is today's atmosphere. At this point, our analogy starts to lose its exact correlation here but radiometric dating should be more understandable now. This is exactly one of the loudest arguments that Young-Earth scientists use against C-14 dating today. They claim that the amount of C-12 in the atmosphere decreased dramatically when the flood of Noah took place.

How much C-14 was there at the time of Noah’s flood?

Determining the amount of C-12 in the atmosphere before the flood is the most important factor to determine the true age of a fossil. In other words, how can we determine how much C-14 there was in an animal at the time of its death if the amount of C-12 has varied in the past? One very seemingly potent argument proposed by Creationists is that the amount of C-12 is dramatically less now than in the distant past due to the worldwide flood of Noah’s day. We quote Dr. Walter Brown,

"The assumption usually made (but rarely acknowledged) is that the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere has always been about what it is today--about one in a trillion. But that may not have been true in the ancient past. For example, a worldwide flood would uproot and bury pre-flood forests. Afterwards, less carbon would be available to cycle between living things and the atmosphere. With less carbon-12 to dilute the carbon-14 that is continually forming in the upper atmosphere, the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere would slowly begin to increase. If the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 doubled and we did not know it, radiocarbon ages of things living then would appear to us to be one half-life (or 5000 years) older than their true ages. If that ratio quadrupled, organic remains would appear 11,460 (2 x 5000) years older, etc. Consequently, a "radiocarbon year" would not correspond to an actual year.

Another consequence of the flood would have greatly diluted the carbon-14 to carbon-12 ratio. The precipitation of limestone during the flood involved the release of vast quantities of dissolved carbon dioxide from the subterranean water chamber. (See pages 84 - 115 and the technical note on page 235.) Since that carbon was isolated from the atmosphere before the flood, it would have been free of carbon-14. Much of that released carbon dioxide undoubtedly mixed with some of the carbon dioxide in the preflood seas before all the limestone precipitated. This would have diluted the biosphere's ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12, resulting in artificially old carbon-14 dates." (Italics added for emphasis.)

The first point to be dealt with is the "carbon level increase" assuming a global flood. To answer this argument scientifically we need to compare carbon ratios of today to those dating before the flood took place. If we are able to determine that the C-12/C-14 ratio is close to the same as it is today, we will have falsified (proved wrong) Brown's flood/carbon hypothesis. It turns out we do have a way to compare the carbon levels of today to pre-flood times through tree rings.

Tree Rings and C-14

The study of climatic changes through tree rings (Dendrochronlogy) started in the 1920s. In simple terms, dendrochronolgists can determine past seasonal climates by looking at the rings of trees. In certain species of trees, a ring will appear wider if the weather has been wet. During a dry season, a ring will be much narrower. A ring is established by the change from spring to winter. During the spring, a tree adds new, large cells to the outer layer. As winter approaches, the cells are smaller in contrast; thus establishing each year that has passed.

The science of dendochronology does not have an "agenda" to either prove evolution or disprove Young Earth creationism. They are simply studying the recent history of climatic changes. The neutral position of this science is good for both sides of our examined arguments. An interesting side point is that they are able to date volcanic explosions by examining its effects in affected rings.

There are no known living trees over 5,000 years old, so how could anyone know about building a tree chronology back to pre-flood times? The answer lies in building a chronology from dead trees onto the live trees. The method for building tree chronology is very simple and extremely sound as well. The key is to find a standing dead tree that had an overlapping life with a living one. By using this method, rings can be compared or visually overlaid (think of two viewgraphs) to add the number of standing dead trees rings to the number of rings of live trees. Another verification is to find the ring damage in both sets of trees resulting from the volcanic activity along with matching rings. Once these dates have been established, more tree ring chronology can be added by comparing fallen dead tree rings to the standing dead tree rings (See Figure on tree rings.)

This allows us to build a chronology of trees past 9,000 years, past the time of Noah’s flood. This allows us to see if there is a dramatic difference in C-12 by examining trees that existed before Noah. Scientists can check how many C-14 per C-12 atoms there were in the atmosphere during every century all the way back through the tree ring chronology by checking the carbon-14 dating wood from these very old trees. Using this method in the Bristlecomb Pine trees, carbon-14 dating has been checked back to over 9000 years ago. Donald Stoner has noted:

‘As a result of testing tree rings, it was found that carbon-14 dates had been slightly in error (about 15% off for a 7000 year old specimen) due to the differing rates of atmospheric C-14 production in past ages. However, the observed error was not in the direction, which would suggest a young earth. What had previously been measured and thought to be a mere 6000 years old, was now known to be about 7000 years old. Now that the direction and amount of this error is known, the information is used to correct modern C-14 dates and thereby make them more accurate.’

The upper limit of the C-14 dating has been checked against uranium dating systems with only 1,500 years of disagreement. Here it cannot be known which of the two dates (or both) is in error. With C-14 and tree rings, it was understood that the error was in the C-14 date and not in the tree ring count. Although by no means conclusive, this check is at least a good sign. (Italics added for emphasis.)

In other words, C-14 dating was indeed wrong as the Young-Earth creationists pointed out. Unfortunately, t the error was not in their favor but pointed to an older dates than had scientists had previously thought. Thus, we now have a verifiable check for fossils on the lower end of the C-14 life cycle (0 to 9,000 years.)

Therefore, we can clearly rely on C-14 dating but not with 100 percent certainty. However, we don’t need 100 percent certainty to clear away the smoke of the "flood impacting" C-14 arguments. Even if dates had a +/- 20 percent reliance, we can still dismiss the "dramatic" difference in C-12 over the last 10,000 years. This is a severe blow to Young-Earth creationist reasoning. It would seem to indict the rational reasoning of any Young-Life believers. The Bible Student belief that life has only been on this earth for 23,000 years points to unscientific rationalization when viewed in the light of C-14 evidence and many other reliable dating methods (see Potassium-Argon Dating section on page 5.)

Dealing with another "Faulty" reason for discarding Carbon Dating

When I started reading Young Earth literature, I found the arguments against carbon dating very strong. I remember reading a book that told of a Yale study about carbon dating. They quote the study as coming up with three significantly different ages when dating a single sample. It turns out this is true, but very incomplete. Any good report on science will have been based on an beginning to end understanding of a given study. I thought as I read, ‘How can anyone rely on this method? It is obvious that Carbon dating is inaccurate!’ It becomes obvious that the authors were either very dishonest or simply found only enough facts to use to rebut the studies findings. This would be like someone quoting half a Bible verse to suit the needs of their argument when taking the whole verse clearly disproves their position. When I read Stoner’s book a couple of years later I was appalled at the bad research that was put into this study by my Christian brothers. Quoting Stoner again:

‘This acid wash was apparently misunderstood in one young-earth argument which claimed that, "Yale University dated an antler three different times and got three different ages - 5,340 years, 9,310 years, and 10,320 years." We might picture in our minds a very confused scientist until we check the original source where we find that the three dates were:

    • the antler when it was contaminated with recently formed limestone - 9,310 years,
    • the antler after the limestone had been washed out - 10,320 years,
    • and the limestone itself which had been washed out into the acid - 5,340 years.

And so, when we look more closely, this turns out to be a perfectly reasonable set of measurements.’

Limestone contains a great deal of Carbon-14 and needs the acid wash to get the accurate results. It is very easy to come across this kind of ‘take what only half the facts and ignore the rest of a study’ tactics by creationists too many times.

Potassium-Argon Radiometric Dating

For dates older than about half a million years, the potassium-argon dating method is an effective way to date volcanic materials. Why is this important? Because if we can find fossils that are very close in distance to the material left behind by volcanic eruptions, dates of these fossils can be closely estimated to be close to the age as the surrounding volcanic material. In other words, if we find a animal fossil 4 inches below the hardened lava, we can assume that the timing of both the animal's death and the volcanic eruption is close. The date of the volcanic material is ascertained through the potassium-argon dating method. Quoting again from Donald Stoner:

‘By measuring the amount of potassium-40 in the sample and the amount of argon which is released when the sample is re-heated in a laboratory, it can be determined how long ago a particular volcanic eruption occurred. As of 1996, a new potassium-argon technique, single-crystal laser-fusion dating, gives a margin of error less than one percent. Errors as small as +/-10,000 years are claimed in dating three-million-year-old volcanic ash… The K-Ar method is useful for determining the ages of the various strata in a segment of the geologic column. When a volcano erupts, ash is spread over a large area of ground. Later, it may become buried. Thus, volcanic ash can often be found between layers of earth. If a pure sample of that ash can be analyzed, then a real date can be assigned to that level of the column. A scientist will know that any fossil found "below" that level is older than the ash. That fossil must have been buried before the volcano erupted or the ash would not have fallen on layers above it. Likewise the scientist knows that fossils which he finds in layers "above" the ash are more recent. Occasionally a scientist will be lucky enough to find a fossil sandwiched closely between two datable layers and can know the age of his find quite accurately.’

As you may have figured out from this quote, dating of older fossils can be determined by the accuracy of this method. Therefore, the fossils of dinosaurs and such are shown to have lived more than 500,000 years ago.

Other Radiometric Dating Techniques

There are over 40 radiometric dating in use today. Can all these techniques be wrong? If so, what is the basis for discrediting each of them. For a Christian perspective of of the most sound techniques, see Radiometric Dating A Christian Perspective by Dr. Roger C. Wiens of the Division of Geological & Planetary Sciences California Institute of Technology.

Summary

Clearly, most of us are not experts in scientific method. Nevertheless, it is easy to notice how so much research is simply ignored by Young Earth/Young Life creationists. Does abandoning these positions automatically place us in the evolution camp as most of the Young Earth creationists claim? By no means! Many scientists and scientifically minded people who see harmony between the Bible and an Old Earth/Old Life position. It seems that fear of drawing a different conclusion from the mainstream of Christianity is what keeps us from investigating alternatives to the "scientific dogma" that we are supposed to believe. These fear tactics are very apparent in most creationist writings. They have often classified people who believe in an Old Earth as unbelievers.

How much damage has been done to our ability to witness to the scientifically minded people in this world by Christians dogmatically sticking to the Young-Earth position? Why should anyone even listen to their arguments when they have proved the age of the earth and fossils as old? The only way to repair this damage is to show them that the Bible can easily be harmonized with an Old-Earth Creation position. Not until the Old-Earth position is the standard model will they listen, and who can blame them?

Can we cast aside our fears and examine the complete evidence of life on this earth? Simply Ignore evolutionist implications and let the evidence of age speak for itself. True science can only enhance our understanding of Jehovah and his ways.

Psalm 19:1 - 4

The heavens declare the glory of God; 
the skies proclaim the work his hands. 
Day after day they pour forth speech; 
night after night they display knowledge. 
There is no speech or language where 
their voice is not heard. Their voice goes 
out into all the earth, their words 
to the ends of the world.


Footnotes:

1. A Young-Earth Creationist is one who believes in the Biblical account of Special Creation AND believes that the universe and life therein is younger than 50,000 years. Most believe that life is just over 6,000 years old. The key to this belief is Bible Chronology and 24 hour creative days. A "Young-Earth Creationist" is not to be confused with someone who believes in an Old Earth/Old Life creation, such as the author. See this link for an ex Young-Earth Creationist's Testimony.

2. We believe our readers will agree that although the length of these epoch-days is not indicated, we will be justified in assuming that they were uniform periods, because of their close identity as members of the one creative week. Hence, if we can gain reasonable proof of the length of one of these days, we will be fully justified in assuming that the others were of the same duration. We do, then, find satisfactory evidence that one of these creative "days" was a period of seven thousand years and, hence, that the entire creative week would be 7,000 x 7 equals 49,000 years. Studies in the Scriptures, "The New Creation", pg. 19

3. Genesis 1:20 And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky."… 23 And there was evening, and there was morning--the fifth day. Thus according to the Genesis account, life appears on the 5th creative day (7,000 years in Day Five, + 7,000 years in Day six, + 6,000 years in Day seven) = 23,000 years.

4. Commonly known as "half-life."

5. In order to find the age of a specific sample, 3 factors are required:

  1. We need to know how much C-14 there was in the sample at the time of its (the fossilized animal) death.
  2. We need to know how much C-14 is in the sample now.
  3. We need to know the decay rate of C-14 to a high degree of certainty. Laboratory experiments have accurately shown the decay rate of C-14 by comparing it to C-12, which effectively does not decay.

6. A New Look at an Old Earth – Chapter 5, Harvest House Publishers, 1995

When a plant or animal dies, it stops eating and breathing so it no longer exchanges its carbon with that in the air. This means that the C-14 slowly starts to disappear (by turning into nitrogen gas) while the C-12 stays put. Furthermore, because C-12 and C-14 are chemically identical, any chemical reaction which might remove the C-14 from a specimen will also remove the C-12 by the same fractional amount. This will have no effect on the calculated date.

In a laboratory, the amounts of C-12 and C-14 can be accurately measured. Because C-12 lasts forever, the amount of it in a fossil animal is the same as the amount it had when it died. Because it is approximately known how many C-14 atoms were originally present for every C-12 atom, it follows that the original amount of C-14 can be calculated. Thus everything is known which is needed to figure out how long ago the specimen died.

7. Scientists can measure the decay of C-14 by checking it against the amount of C-12 in the fossil. C-12 essentially does not decay and therefore, provides a very good measuring rod. This assumes the amount of C-12 has been relatively constant over the last 50,000 years.

8. Apparently, there is no evidence of a worldwide flood. There is evidence that nature has continued consistently over the last 9,000 years without catastrophic events. In other words, the Flood was probably localized to the region of the inhabited earth but that is another subject.

9. A New Look at an Old Earth – Chapter 5, Harvest House Publishers, 1995 (Italics added)

10. C-14 dating methods have also been checked against coral reefs, and by air samples trapped in ice cores.

11. Reasons Skeptics Should Consider Christianity, by Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, C. 1981, Here's Life Publishers

12. A New Look at an Old Earth – Chapter 5, Harvest House Publishers, 1995

13. Lucy: the Beginnings of Humankind, by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey, C. 1981, Warner Books, N.Y., p. 116.


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