Post 42: From Radiocarbon Dating to the Volcanic Soils of New Zealand

I asked a geomorphologist, who lives in another country, if the recent blog about radiocarbon dating made sense to him. Here is his response:

It certainly makes sense to me. Radiocarbon dating has some limitations but overall is pretty reliable. It is always nice to see confirmation of carbon dates through correlation with other dating techniques. This can certainly improve people’s perception of these techniques. With cross-correlation of dating techniques one can eliminate some of the criticism that is often brought up (by outsiders) against carbon dating. Off the top of my head I can, for example, think of tree rings of very old trees that can be counted and dated, and stalagmites or stalactites from limestone caves that can be cross-dated with other isotope techniques. It is refreshing to see these issues being discussed among “thinking believers.”

A biologist who earned both a PhD and a DSc gave me a similar perspective. I find it is interesting to check the conclusions of a particular scientific discipline through the insights of scientists who are experts in quite different disciplines.

While the 3 February 2012 blog on radiocarbon dating is still fresh, it may be well to investigate claims and counter-claims about its usefulness for dating volcanic soils in New Zealand.

Graham Will lives in a tourist mecca, Rotorua, New Zealand. His career as a scientist helped his country grow better forests; as an Adventist, he supported his church as an elder and his conference as an astute adviser. For many years he has engaged in the ongoing discussion of faith and science.

Some of Dr Will’s research is well reported in an article entitled “What Have Volcanoes and Soils Told Me,” Spectrum 38:4 (Fall 2010), pages 64-69. Spectrum 39:1 (Winter 2011), pages 8-9, carried a helpful exchange between Dr Will and Dr Ariel A. Roth, Emeritus Director of the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California.

Dr Will’s major article points out that careful studies of New Zealand soils indicate a time frame quite other than that proposed by Archbishop James Ussher (see the earlier blogs on this website). For instance, near the Rotorua Airport, “Nine buried soils developed one after the other as successive pumice ash eruptions covered the landscape over a period of 15,000 years.” Close to Auckland there has been a succession of basaltic volcanic eruptions. On Rangitoto Island there has been little or no soil development and tree ring counts and archaeology suggest an age of 500 to 700 years. Shallow soils on One Tree Hill suggest an age of 15,000 years. Deep market-gardening clay soils on Bombay Hills suggest 100,000 years. Glacial moraine soils, as in Fiordland and close to the Southern Alps indicate an even longer time frame. Loess that is up to ten metres deep (as in the Canterbury Plains), eroded by glaciers from the Alps, “is made up of four distinct layers with a soil developed on each.” The evidence leads scientists to “estimate that major deposits … date back 10,000 to 80,000 years.” Dr Will adds: “It is of particular interest to note that, in China, loess deposits up to 300 metres have been found in which 20 paleosols have been identified.”

It is important to note that in the two Spectrum journals referenced above, Dr Will has carefully assessed all the caveats that Dr Roth raised. Dr Will’s conclusions are reinforced by independent evidence from lakebeds “where over the years peat sediment has built up.” “The depths of the peat layers between the ash layers gives further evidence that considerable periods of time must have elapsed between these volcanic eruptions.”

We have noted in other blogs that the Bible, rightly understood, does not claim to give us the age of the earth. However, science gives us some important clues. Dr Will quotes Ellen White, who states, “The book of nature and the written word shed light upon each other.” Dr Will’s article is so clearly written (even though it embodies a long lifetime of painstaking research) that we would all do well to get a copy of it and read it thoughtfully. At the very least, it informs the contemporary Adventist discussion responsibly, and make us patient with each other as we examine both Scripture and crust of the planet.

One further question: Can non-Adventist authors help our quest to understand the interaction between Scripture and science? I mention just two of many potential examples.

John Polkinghorne, Science and Religion and the Quest for Truth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011). This fine book also refers to fifteen other chapters and books that Polkinghorne has written on this subject since 1991, including such titles as The faith of a Physicist (1996) and Quantum Physics and Theology (2007). Polkinghorne is somewhat unique in that he is both a scientist and a theologian, and has achieved worldwide respect in both spheres.

Alister E. McGrath is a person of similar background, in that he was a scientist before he become a world-renowned theologian. Two of his recent books are Mere Theology: Christian faith and the discipleship of the mind (London: SPCK, 2010), and Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith and How We Make Sense of Things (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He is the co-author (with Joanna Collicut McGrath) of the international bestseller, The Dawkins Delusion?   

The Seventh-day Sabbath reminds us every week that “In the beginning God created.”

As Dr Taylor points out (see an earlier blog), the when and the how of that creation are details. Because God has not disclosed such details does not mean we are hindered in our worship of the One who made the heavens and the earth!

Arthur Patrick, 8 February 2012