Feature Article - November 1998
by Do-While Jones

How Old Is That Fossil (in the layer)?

Two Theories

There are two main theories about the age of the Earth and the fossils found in the rock layers. The old-earth theory says that the Earth is a few billion years old, and most of the fossil-bearing rocks formed slowly over a long time. The young-earth theory says that the Earth is a few thousand years old, and most of the fossil-bearing rocks were formed rapidly in a world-wide flood.

Both these theories are based on faith. One is based on the idea that a divine being (an intelligent designer) miraculously created life instantaneously. The other is based on the belief that unseen, unknown, impersonal, natural forces miraculously created life over a long period of time. Both theories have been constructed to support one or the other of these two religious beliefs.

"Prehistoric" Animals

Last month we started examining the scientific evidence to see which theory is better supported by the evidence. We took a long look at some prehistoric animals which apparently lived in historic times. According to the old-earth theory, dinosaurs became extinct tens of millions of years before man evolved. According to the young-earth theory, dinosaurs and man lived simultaneously until the recent extinction of dinosaurs. So, coexistence of man and dinosaurs is relevant to the evaluation of these two theories. If the young-earth theory is correct, then there should be some historical record of prehistoric creatures. If the old-earth theory is correct, men could not possibly have described creatures that they had never seen (before their bones were discovered).

Last month, in an unusually long feature article, we discussed some of the "mythical" creatures in historic literature that show an uncanny resemblance to dinosaurs. In that same issue, our "Evolution in the News" column reviewed a story from the September 26 issue of Science News that reported the discovery of a second living population of a species of fish that (according to the old-earth interpretation of the geologic column) went extinct 80 million years ago.

We concluded last month by saying that people who reject the evidence that man and dinosaurs lived contemporaneously tend to reject that evidence because they believe the geologic column proves that dinosaurs died out 65 million years before man evolved. We promised to look at the reliability of the geologic column as a means of establishing dates this month, and so we will.

Circular Reasoning

Before we look at the geologic column, we need to learn how to recognize a faulty logical process known as circular reasoning. In circular reasoning, Statement A is used to prove Statement B is true. Then the truth of Statement B is used to establish the truth of Statement A. This form of reasoning is invalid because it can be used to reach opposite conclusions regardless of the truth of the facts.

For the last several months we have been exposed to a lot of circular reasoning from both sides of the political spectrum. If you turn on one channel you will hear someone argue that Ken Starr is evil because he is attacking a good president. The fact that Ken Starr attacks a good man is used as the proof that Ken Starr is evil. On another channel you hear someone else argue that Bill Clinton is a corrupt president because he is being investigated by an honest and courageous independent council. Mr. Starr must be honest and courageous because he fearlessly exposes a corrupt president.

Not all political commentators are this shallow and foolish. We have simplified the political arguments to show that circular reasoning can be used to argue either side of an issue. No matter what your political convictions are, we hope you can see that both of these circular arguments are logically invalid, regardless of the facts. Both circular arguments use the truth of the conclusion to establish the truth of the charge, and the truth of the charge is established by the truth of the conclusion. This kind of circular reasoning never proves anything.

Someone may try to convince you that a circular argument is valid because it is consistent. Circular arguments are always consistent by their very nature. That doesn't make them correct. Both political examples given above are consistent, but both cannot be true.

Circular Fossils

The use of the geologic column to establish the age of fossils is circular. If you strip away all the camouflage, evolutionists argue that dinosaur fossils are 100 million years old because they are found in rocks that were formed 100 million years ago. The rocks are known to be 100 million years old because they contain the bones of dinosaurs that died 100 million years ago.

To an evolutionist, the fossils are the most definitive measure of age. No matter what the other evidence is, the ages determined by the fossils in the rock are the most conclusive. For example, while preparing this essay we came across a Science News article that contained the following sentence.

Scientists had formerly dated both the limestone and sandstone to be about 1.1 billion years old, but the shells in the limestone indicate that layer is only about 540 million years old. 1

As soon as fossils were discovered, the 1.1 billion-year old age had to be discarded. Fossils have the final word when it comes to dating rocks.

Next to a chart labeled "Dating Rocks By Fossils" we find the following explanation in a geology book.

We know, for example, that the multilegged sea animals called trilobites were abundant from Cambrian to early Devonian times-590 to 408 million years ago-and continued until the Permian-up to 248 million years ago. Therefore, if we find the fossil of a trilobite in a rock we can say that the rock is most likely Cambrian, Ordovician, or Silurian in age, although it may be Devonian, Carboniferous, or Permian. If we can identify the trilobite, that will be better still.2

The next several paragraphs of that book explain how particular species of trilobites can be used to pinpoint the age of a rock.

Since the age of the fossils were used to tell the age of the rock layer, you can't use the age of the rock layer to tell the age of the fossils. You need to find another way to date the rock if you are going to determine the age of the fossils from the rock.

Sediment Depth

You can't tell the age of a rock from the thickness of the sediment. The geology textbook used at Cerro Coso Community College explains why this doesn't work.

If sediments accumulate continuously at a steady rate, if they compacted a constant amount as they lithified, and if they did not erode, then a stratigraphic sequence might also provide a measure of absolute time. If we knew that muddy sediments accumulated at a rate of 10 m per million years, for instance, then 100 m of mudstone would represent 10 million years of deposition.

In practice, however, there are complications that make it impossible to gauge absolute time from stratigraphy with any accuracy. First, sediments do not accumulate at a constant rate in any sedimentary environment. During a flood, a river may deposit several meters of sand in its channel in just a few days, whereas in the years between floods it will deposit only a few centimeters of sand. Even in the deep ocean, where it may take 1000 years to deposit 1 mm of mud, sedimentation is unsteady, and the thickness of sediment cannot be used for precise timekeeping. In addition, the rate at which sediment is deposited varies widely in the different sedimentary environments.

Second, the rock record does not tell us how many years have passed between periods of depositions. Many places the floor of a river valley receives sediment only during times of flood. The times between floods are not represented by any sediment. Over the course of Earth's history in various places, there have been long intervals, some lasting millions of years, in which no sediments were deposited at all. In other places and at other times, sedimentary rocks have been removed by erosion. Although we often can tell where a gap in the record occurs, we rarely can say how long an interval it represents.3

So, sediment depth can't be used to establish the age of the rock.

Radioactive dates

Evolutionists claim that radioactive methods establish absolute ages for rocks. If they really believed that, they would accept the results of careful radiometric measurements no matter what the outcome. In practice, however, evolutionists accept radioactive dates when they agree with their evolutionary bias, and reject them when they don't.

A geologist from a local mining company stopped by our fair booth in 1996. One of the panels of our booth showed some discordant radioactive dates for Grand Canyon rock layers. The geologist opened up his wallet, pulled out a small laminated diagram of the geologic column, and proceeded to tell me which of the dates were right and which were wrong. He did not judge right from wrong based on the method used, the reputation of the people who did the work, or the quality of the rock samples. The sole criteria he used to determine if a date was right or wrong was whether or not the date agreed with his prejudice (that is, the standard dates for the geologic column, as determined by the fossils in them).

Radioactive dating is the geological equivalent of astrology. If you read your horoscope, sometimes it will tell you what you want to hear. In those cases, there is a tendency to believe the horoscope. Sometimes the prediction of your horoscope will be undesirable. In those cases, there is a tendency to believe that the astrologer made a mistake.

Whenever the ratio of radioactive minerals in the rock produces the age predicted by the old-earth theory, then evolutionists claim the "horoscope" is accurate. But if the horoscope yields an unsatisfactory date, then the sample must have been contaminated, and the horoscope is ignored.

Scientists have to decide if the method works or not. If the method works, then the old-earth theory has to account for all the discordant dates. If the method is unreliable, then it can't ever be used to prove a fossil is a particular age. Good scientists should not claim the method works when it confirms their theory, and doesn't work when it disproves their theory.

It has often been shown that radiometric dating doesn't work. Since the Grand Canyon results4 and Hawaiian volcano studies5 have been published for years and are well known, we don't need to repeat them again. Instead, let's look at some more recent results that you might not have seen before.

Dr. Andrew A. Snelling collected three rock samples (he called them A, B, and C) from the June 30, 1954 Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zeland, lava flow. He broke two of these rocks in half, so he would have five samples to send to Geochron Laboratories, in Boston. He did not tell the laboratory where the samples came from. Here are the results:6

SampleAge (million years)Uncertainty (million years)
A1Very young 
A21.3+/- 0.3
B13.5+/- 0.2
B20.8+/- 0.2
C1.2+/- 0.2

Suppose part of an ape skull, which looked in any way human, had been found in the rocks below this lava flow. If nobody had been in New Zealand in 1954 to see the eruption, then this "ape-man" skull certainly would have been dated at 1.2 million years old and would have been listed in the textbooks as Homo something-or-other. The radiometric dates would have been used as proof of the 1.2 million year age.

Radiometric measurements of young rocks, whose dates of formation are well known, routinely produce incorrect dates. Since the method doesn't work on rocks of known age, why should anyone believe the method works on rocks of unknown age?


Radioactive dates are always compared with the fossil dates to see if the radioactive dates are right or wrong. Whenever the radioactive dates don't agree with the fossil ages established by the old-earth theory, the radioactive dates are declared to be wrong. The error in the radioactive date is typically blamed on "contamination."

Think about that for a minute. Does any geologist ever send a rock to the lab for analysis if he suspects it is contaminated? No, it is expensive to have rocks tested. Therefore, he takes great care to select rocks that show absolutely no signs of contamination. There is no reason to believe the rocks are contaminated UNTIL the results come back from the lab. When the test results don't confirm the prejudice, the results are dismissed because the rock is "obviously contaminated."

The presence of contamination is deduced entirely from the "incorrect" results. That's another example of circular reasoning. The indicated radioactive age of the rocks isn't the true age because the rocks were contaminated. The rocks must have been contaminated because the indicated radioactive age is wrong.

Radiometric dates are computed from laboratory analysis of the concentrations of trace elements (uranium, lead, rubidium, strontium, potassium, and argon) in rocks. The method should always work, if the old-earth theory is true. But the radioactive ages are no more accurate than horoscope predictions because radioactive dating is no more valid than astrology.

Young Earth Explanation of Radiometric dates

The results of radiometric dating are entirely consistent with the young-earth theory. Here's why.

In the past few weeks there were gem and mineral shows in Trona and Ridgecrest. If you went to these shows, you no doubt saw many beautiful stones. Try to remember one of them. Can you see it in your mind now? It probably had an interesting colored pattern.

The different colors are the result of the different minerals in the stone. Some parts of the stone have more of one kind of mineral than other parts did. You can see, with your naked eye, that there are different minerals in the rock, and that they aren't evenly distributed.

Suppose you tried to tell the age of the rock by comparing the ratio of the different colored minerals in the stone. You would get different ages depending upon which part of the stone you chipped off to measure. Of course, nobody believes you can tell the age of a rock by measuring the ratio of the visible minerals in the rock. It is a foolish idea.

In addition to the minerals you can see, the stone also contains tiny amounts of other elements that you can't see. Radioactive dating methods compute the ratios of some of these minerals you can't see. Is there any good reason to believe the minerals you can't see will be more uniformly distributed than the minerals you can see?

Visual observation shows that most rocks contain a mixture of minerals. If you measure the ratio of any pair of minerals (visible or invisible) you will get a meaningless value. Some milky agates might yield more consistent ratios than speckled granites. But consistent ratios don't tell you anything about the age of the rock. They just tell you how much of each mineral is in the tiny sample of the rock you measured, and how uniformly it is distributed.

The young-earth theory says that rocks were created recently. There has not been enough time for the unstable radioactive elements to decay into other elements. The elements in the rocks today are the same elements that were in the rocks when they were formed. There is no reason to expect that the relative concentrations have anything to do with their ages. If one tries to compute the age using the ratios of different colored minerals, one will get inconsistent, meaningless results. If one tries to compute the age of formation using the ratios of radioactive trace minerals, one should get inconsistent, meaningless results. That's exactly what happens.

Carbon 14

Carbon 14 is a little different from the other radiometric dating methods. The amount of carbon 14 remaining in an object can, under certain circumstances, tell you when the thing died. Since very few rocks were ever alive, the carbon 14 method isn't often used for dating rocks. But let's talk briefly about it, anyway.

One very useful but limited method [for measuring time] involves carbon 14. This radioactive isotope of carbon is continually being generated by cosmic bombardment in the upper atmosphere, drifting down in the form of carbon dioxide, and slipping into the food chain. When an animal or plant dies, it stops replacing old carbon with new, so that it no longer accumulates carbon 14. As the carbon 14 decays, its ever-diminishing amounts relative to non-radioactive carbon mark, with great precision, the time since the organism's demise.

Unfortunately, carbon 14 decays rapidly. After five thousand years half of it is gone. Within ten thousand years, three-quarters of it is gone. It can really be used only to date fossils from the last forty thousand years, by which time only one half of 1 percent of the original carbon 14 is left. The older the fossil, the greater the uncertainties, because so little carbon 14 is left to be measured.7

The coroner doesn't use carbon 14 to tell when a victim was murdered because the carbon 14 in the corpse hasn't had time to decay in a few days. Carbon 14 works well for dating things like Viking shipwrecks and Egyptian mummies, which are just a few thousand years old. But after a few thousand years there are problems with experimental error and assumptions of initial concentrations which can cause such large errors that it is impossible to say with any certainty how long ago the object died. We have a lot more to say about accuracy of carbon 14 dating for objects that have been dead for more than a few thousand years, but we will have to hold that for another newsletter.

Although we believe carbon 14 can't be used to determine exactly when something died if it died more than a few thousand years ago, the presence of small amounts of carbon 14 is a reliable indication that it died an unknown number of thousands, rather than millions, of years ago.

As we said before, most rocks were never alive. The notable exceptions are coal and charcoal, which were once wood and have turned into lumps of carbon. Carbon 14 is sometimes used to determine when the trees that formed charcoal died.

Evolutionists believe that modern humans evolved in Africa or Asia and migrated to North America tens of thousands of years ago. So when archaeologists found evidence of the controlled use of fire in New Mexico, they sent some charcoal samples off to the lab and got carbon 14 dates of 28,000 to 38,000 years ago. Although evolutionists say this is near (we would say beyond) the practical limit of the carbon 14 method, some archeologists insist this is "definitive proof that humanity was in North America much longer ago than originally thought.8"

Although we believe the carbon 14 method cannot pinpoint the exact date that particular fire was built, we believe that it certainly proves the fire was not built last Memorial Day by some backpackers. Furthermore, the campfire was built thousands, rather than millions, of years ago.

Some dinosaur tracks and bones were found near Glen Rose, Texas. The presence of these fossils, according to the old-earth theory, means the rocks containing them are either Jurassic (202 - 141 million years old) or Cretaceous (141 - 65 million years old). There are two interesting things about these Glen Rose rocks.

First, there are little bits of coal or charcoal in the rocks containing the fossils and tracks. Some of these bits of coalified wood were analyzed using the accelerated mass spectrometer (AMS) at the University of Arizona National Academy of Science facilities. Other samples were analyzed using a second AMS at an unnamed overseas laboratory, and a third laboratory analyzed other samples using the less accurate beta counter method. The two AMS laboratories gave ages between 23,000 and 26,000 years ago, and the beta counter gave ages of 32,000 to 37,000 years ago.9

If there were human tracks in these rocks, instead of dinosaur tracks, then these carbon 14 dates would have been used to prove that man migrated to Texas 20,000 to 40,000 years ago; just as the carbon 14 dates were used to prove that man built fires in New Mexico at that time. But since they are dinosaur tracks, the carbon 14 dates are dismissed as being contaminated, because "everyone knows" the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. Carbon 14 would be all gone after 65 million years.

The second interesting thing is that there may actually be human tracks in these rocks. Some very human-like tracks overlap some of the dinosaur tracks. If the dinosaur bones and dinosaur tracks had not been found, then the human footprints and carbon 14 dates would have gone unquestioned because they agree with the dates evolutionists expect. But since the dinosaur bones and dinosaur tracks are unmistakable, there has been great effort expended to prove that the apparently human footprints are really dinosaur tracks that resemble human footprints, and that the carbon 14 dates are in error.

Of course, dinosaurs were alive once, so one could try to use carbon 14 dating on their bones. Evolutionists would not try, of course. If the laboratory didn't detect any carbon 14, the evolutionists would have wasted money to confirm what they already know-that the bones are a lot more than 50,000 years old. If the laboratory did detect carbon 14, the evolutionists' prejudice would convince them that the bones were contaminated with some modern carbon 14, even if there is no other evidence to indicate contamination. Why bother to ask the question if you won't believe the answer?

Good scientists should always look for ways to falsify theories. One way to falsify the supposed age of Jurassic or Cretaceous fossils is to try to date them using carbon 14.

In fact, Allosauraus/A-5810 from Liberty University (found at Grand Junction, Colorado) has been dated at 16,120 years Before Present (BP) ± 220 years. 10 Camarasaurus/A-6339 and Camarasaurus/A-6340 from the Carnegie Museum (found in Johnson County, WY) have been dated at 11,750 ± 150 and 17,420 ± 330 years BP, respectively, using the carbon 14 beta-counter method. 11 Bone scrapings from Accrocanthosaurus AA-5786 (from Glen Rose, TX) yielded measurements of 23,760 ± 270 years BP using the AMS method. 12

These results show that there is roughly the same amount of carbon 14 in these dinosaur bones as there is in carbon from a fire pit built by ancient people in New Mexico. There is roughly the same amount of carbon 14 in the bits of charcoal in the Glen Rose rocks containing undisputed dinosaur bones, undisputed dinosaur tracks, and disputed human tracks. This would indicate that they are all roughly the same age. Furthermore, that age must be thousands, rather than millions, of years.

Geologic Ages

The dates provided by the geologic column are based on circular reasoning. The ages of the rocks are determined by the presupposed ages of the fossils in them. Therefore, the ages of the rocks should not be used to establish the ages of the fossils

Radiometric dates are inconsistent. "Good" radiometric dates are distinguished from "bad" radiometric dates by comparing them to the ages of the fossils in the surrounding rocks. Therefore, radiometric dates can't be used to establish the true ages of the fossils.

The geologic column doesn't really support the old-earth theory. It does, in several ways, support the young-earth theory. But this newsletter is already two pages longer than usual, so we will have to save that discussion for the December issue. If you are one of the people who received this one free issue, you better send in your $15 to get next month’s issue to get the rest of the story.

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1 Science News, October 17, 1998, page 255 (Ev)
2 Bernor, The Practical Geologist, 1992, pages 66-67 (Ev)
3 Press & Siever, Understanding Earth, 1994, page 190, (Ev)
4 Austin, Grand Canyon, Monument to Catastrophe, 1994, page 126 (Cr)
5 Morris, The Young Earth, 1994, pages 54-55 (Cr)
6 Snelling, "The Cause of Anomalous Potassium-Argon Ages for Recent Andesite Flows at Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zealand, and the Implications for Potassium-Argon Dating", Proceedings of The Fourth International Conference on Creationism, page 510 (Cr)
7 Wills, The Runaway Brain, 1993, pages 143-144 (Ev)
8 Garbe, et al. "Direct Dating of Cretaceous-Jurassic Fossils", 1992, page 8 (Cr)
9 ibid.
10 ibid.
11 ibid.
12 ibid.