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Understanding Earth's geological age and evolution linked

Scientists in Charles Darwin’s time had none of today’s radiometric dating technology to help gauge the Earth’s age.

The most widely accepted beliefs while Darwin was writing his “On the Origin of the Species” were off more than 4 billion years from today’s scientifically accepted estimates.

Imagine the headaches this caused for Darwin as he tried to fit his theory of evolution by natural selection into a time frame that held the planet to be only 20 million to 100 million years old.

Well, it turns out that understanding the age of the Earth still is a key to understanding and accepting human evolution, according to research by University of Minnesota biologists.

And, like evolution itself, the age question still is contentious.

High school and college students who understand the Earth’s geological age — 4.5 billion years — are much more likely to understand evolution, the Minnesota researchers report in the March issue of the journal Evolution. The research team included biology professors Sehoya Cotner and Randy Moore as well as D. Christopher Brooks of the university’s Office of Information Technology.

The researchers surveyed 400 students enrolled in several sections of a U of M introductory biology course for non-majors. They asked about knowledge of evolution, the Earth’s age and whether students were taught evolution or creationism in high school as well as questions about religious and political views. 

Students who understood the Earth to be billions of years old were more likely to know something about evolution and understand it.

“The role of the Earth’s age is a key variable that we can use to improve education about evolution, which is important because it is the unifying principle of biology,” Cotner said in a statement about the findings.

The authors acknowledge that the age question ties into a boiling stew of belief differences that relate to religion and politics. 

“A vocal group of citizens and religious activists continue to insist that Earth is less than 10,000 years old,” they said.

They cite data from several polls showing that a good share of the public — and, even biology teachers and majors — buy into anti-Darwinian views and young-Earth theory:

• A Gallup Poll conducted last year amid the widely-noted celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday, found that only four in 10 Americans believe in evolution.

• Another study in 2008 reported that 16 percent of biology teachers believed that human beings were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

• A similar percentage of biology majors consider themselves to be “young-Earth creationists,” a view that generally holds the Earth to be less than 10,000 years old.

They also note that far less funding goes to the National Center for Science Education than to institutions promoting creationism such as the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky, which says on its web site that it “counters evolutionary natural history museums that turn minds against Scripture.”

In Darwin’s age, the conflicting views were coming from other scientists.

“The most widely accepted estimates of Earth’s age were those of William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin),” the Minnesota researchers said. “Kelvin used calculations involving thermodynamics to argue that Earth is only 20-100 million years old -- an age far too brief to accommodate evolution by natural selection.”

Understanding that the history of life on Earth ultimately relies on geology, Darwin referred to Thomson’s claim as one of his “sorest troubles.”

“Darwin suspected that Earth was much older than Thomson claimed, but

Thomson’s enormous stature as a scientist obliged Darwin to reconcile his claims with Kelvin’s data,” they said.

To accommodate Kelvin’s timeline, Darwin proposed an explanation of inheritance that eventually was proved wrong.

“Clearly, Earth’s age remains one of the “sorest troubles” for many people today, just as it did for Darwin,” they said.

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Comments (9)

As depressing as the story is, I also get a bit angry, when words like 'belief' are used about science. The word belief, to me, implies an article of faith. Science, on the other hand, requires evidence. Yes, there are theories and extrapolations, and hypothesis; but they all rely on proof - and when the evidence disproves a hypothesis, it is cast aside.

I don't know what the solution is, but wish that journalists would not use 'belief' in conjunction with discussions of science, like global climate change or evolution. These are not imagined myths that we take on faith, they are hypothesis and/or scientific theories built on a mountain of evidence. So can we stop equating them with belief structures that are built on faith in the unknown and unknowable?

Unfortunately, the writer is speaking from ignorance, which is not her fault. The news media as a whole suppresses the truth from the public. The correct literal reading of Genesis conveys seven geological ages of Earth history, and declares that mankind has been on this Earth, in his present likeness, for over 60 million years.

When articles of the truth of Genesis are sent to newspapers such as this, the editors discard them in favor of articles that misrepresent the truth. Genesis does not support the foolish teaching of Young Earth Creationism, nor the false doctrines of known "old Earth" creationism. The correct opposing view to evolution is the "Observation of Moses" (OM).

What is OM? Search the internet for the article "Evolution Vs. the Observations of Moses". It's an article that tells the truth, but which the news media refused to publish.

Herman Cummings

Sharon, I wish your article had been more emphatic about the fact that the earth IS 4.5 billion years old, and that no reputable scientist disputes this. Believing the earth is 10,000 years old is as nonsensical as believing that the sun goes around the earth. Even in Darwin's time, most scientists believed that the earth was a lot older than 10,000 years, although it wasn't until well into the 20th century that the 4.5 billion year figure was confirmed by radioactive dating.

It is interesting that so many high school graduates would fail to understand the geological timelines that underpin most of modern science. It explains a lot about many currently "controversial" issues.

I would, however, like to point out that the NCSE is just a single, not very well known 501(c)(3) organization with no museum and only a bimonthly newsletter, and that comparing their funding to that of the "Creation Museums" isn't really germane. A funding comparison to some of the more well known Natural History Museums such as those in New York or Chicago might be more apt

The age of the earth isn't any more "contentious" than than the fact that it's round. Persistently referring to established scientific knowlege as being contentious or controvsial tells people that it's still somehow ok to disbelieve these facts, and to tell themselves and their children (and other people's children) that reality is something other than what it is.

How could someone possibly be a "biology major" while claiming to be Biblical creationists? What colleges and universities are selling degrees to these people?

Herman Cummings? Are you the guy who bills himself like this:

"At this point, proper introductions are in order. My name is Herman Cummings. I am the foremost terrestrial authority on the book of Genesis. Until you can disprove that claim, accept it as fact."

That Herman Cummings?

Brian Simon

I'm with you. It's unfortunate that the English language doesn't have the flexibility to fully express the dimensions of the scientific process without boring the general population. I long ago gave up the word 'belief' for any concept that follows from quantifiable evidence. Rather I use the word 'think'. Yet even this is insufficient. I could say, "I base my explanation on currently understood theories which are in turn based upon quantifiable evidence." But, as you see this gets a bit wordy. Its even harder to explain to people the difference between a theory, as used colloquially and a theory as used scientifically. To a great many its the same thing and they are just not capable of understanding the difference. Or they're just not interested, since it would require them to use that 3 pounds of gray matter between their ears.

Another phenomena recently discussed is that many people will simply, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continue to "believe" what they believe. This cuts across all spectrums. No amount of persuasion will change or sway their opinion. To me it sounds like a mental illness, but its probably evolutionary.

Jim Hughes-Here Here.

To Mr. John Roach:

Yes Mr. Roach. I'm the same one. After viewing my OM presentation, a member of the Sanhedrin had this to say:

Sent: Wed, Feb 24, 2010 10:39 pm
Subject: Re: Can Evolution and the Torah's Account of Creation Coexist?

Dear Mr. Cummings,

I just finished seeing the powerpoint presentation.


VERY well done, very impressive, plenty to think about.

I am still bewildered by the ideas, and am awed by your originality.
I am sure that as is, my colleagues will not be able to respond as
favorably as I, first of all because their English is quite inferior. I was
born in the US and came to Israel as a child, but my parents spoke
English at home.

Please do not interpret this as saying I agree with what you presented;
I am awed, but have not had time to study the ideas, and am not convinced,
just bewildered and awed.

* * * *

Herman Cummings

As a Traditional Roman Catholic, militant young-Earth Biblical creationist and geocentrist, my rejection of the currently-accepted age of the Earth is based originally on Scripture: "In the beginning (footnote: A. M. 1; Ante C. 4004) God created heaven, and earth. (Genesis 1:1. THE HOLY BIBLE, DOUAY RHEIMS VERSION. 1899. Reprinted: 1971. Rockford, IL: TAN BOOKS AND PUBLISHERS, INC.). Though Scripture would be all that is required for me to maintain my rejection, it's not my only basis.
C. Patterson, G. Tilton and M. Inghram authored the seminal paper which catapulted us from "...the generally accepted estimate of 3.3 x 10^9 yr..." to "...about 4.5 x 10^9 yr..." (1955. Age of the Earth. SCIENCE, 21 January, p. 69). The paper is replete with assumptions and the following warning which would seem to have gone unheeded: "It should be recognized that an approximate age value is sufficient and should be viewed with considerable skepticism until the basic assumptions that are involved in the method of calculations are verified" (p. 75). The basis for my suggestion that the warning has gone unheeded is two-fold.
Geophysicist A. Hayatsu provided what has all the earmarks of questionable practice in age dating: "In conventional interpretation of K-Ar [potassium-argon] age data, it is common to discard ages which are substantially too high or too low compared with the rest of the group or with other available data such as the geological time scale. The discrepancies between the rejected and the accepted are arbitrarily attributed to excess or loss of argon" (1979. K-Ar Isochron Age of the North Mountain Basalt, Nova Scotia. CANADIAN JOURNAL OF EARTH SCIENCES, April, p. 974).
Prof. Gunther Faure reinforced my position in his textbook: "I have attempted to present the principles of isotope geology by emphasizing the derivation of mathematical equations that are used in the interpretation of isotopic data. In many instances, the geological significance of the conclusions derived from isotopic studies depends on the assumptions that were made in the calculations. I believe that students will better appreciate the limitations of the results of such calculations when they can follow the derivation of the relevant equations step by step and observe how various assumptions enter into the process. Isotope geology has no place for handy formulas into which one substitutes data to obtain the magic answer"
(1986. Principles of Isotope Geology, Second Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. viii).

Bill Crofut