Terry Mortenson concedes: ‘Stone Age’ tools are a problem for YEC

Answers in Genesis generally does well not to acknowledge its best critics, because doing so exposes their audience to the fact that theirs is a ministry rooted in pseudoscience, which is ultimately damaging to the cause of Christ. If we abhor the truth as it pertains to the natural world, how are we to persuade anyone that we hold the keys to God’s kingdom?

When AiG does respond, typically it is prefaced with caveats highlighting the ‘naturalistic’, ‘atheistic’, or ‘evolutionary’ assumptions that motivate their attackers. This strategy is effective in dismissing those like Richard Dawkins, who are not shy about such convictions, or Bill Nye, who—though less antagonistic—is still not a confessing Christian. However, as Terry Mortenson demonstrated yesterday, AiG cannot entirely ignore pleas from within the church, despite that it simultaneously informs their readers that most Christians—especially those holding advanced degrees in theology or the natural sciences—also describe creationist’s efforts as bad science and bad theology.

paleolithic stone tool in the Libyan desert

Early stone tool in the Libyan desert (excerpt of Fig. C from Foley and Lahr; 2015). Or maybe the carefully serrated edge is a natural accident? Mortenson seems to imply that we can only make speculative ‘interpretations’ and don’t have access to a rigid scientific method to help answer this question, but he is wrong.

Fully aware of this risk, Terry alerted his audience to the existence of Naturalis Historia—arguably the best ongoing critique of YEC claims in geology and biology—by responding to the must-read article by Joel Duff: Trillions of Stone Age Artifacts: A Young Earth Anthropology Paradox. In short, Dr. Duff summarizes the evidence to-date that trillions of stone tools are scattered across Africa alone, which obviously contradicts the young-Earth timeline, due to the minuscule number of stone artisans that could have existed since the Flood (<5,000 years ago). But as I’ve noted before, the fact that AiG interacts with such arguments is public acknowledgement that they indeed make a strong case against YEC and are actively persuading Christians of the truth.

“You might be a Christian, but…”

What I found most fascinating (and telling) about Mortenson’s response is that he prefaced it with a critique of Dr. Duff’s autobiography:

The website’s author is Dr. Joel Duff, a biology professor at the University of Akron and a member of the Presbyterian Church of [sic] America. Speaking about himself, he says…

Terry then takes issue with Joel’s personal observation that by adhering to YEC, evangelicals are abandoning “the study of natural revelation, resulting in both a lack of appreciation for the “good” creation and the inability to assess the results of modern science”. This is utterly false and ad hominem, according to Mortenson, because thousands of creationists do hold advanced degrees in science. Of course, Dr. Duff is fully aware of their existence, as evidenced by his devotion to a blog on the topic and involvement with Solid Rock Lectures—a ministry devoted to countering the creation science movement with authentic science and biblical study. So what could he possibly have meant?

Joel’s observation seems rather clear to me: creation scientists (and their lay supporters) ironically lack an appreciation for creation and fail to comprehend the results of modern science. In other words, credentials aside, what creation scientists do is not scientific and it does not accurately reflect God’s creation. And this is the point that Mortenson cannot stand to acknowledge: obtaining an advanced degree does not legitimate everything you do with it. Otherwise, we could just appeal to the vast majority of credentialed scientists (or even the majority of credentialed Christian scientists) to demonstrate the untruth of Young-Earth Creationism. But that would be a logical fallacy (Appeal to Authority), so instead we must analyze the content and methodology of each side, noting for example that trying to debunk radiometric dating through ad hoc rationalization is not the “study of nature”.

In his first footnote, Mortenson suspiciously nitpicks over semantics, meanwhile highlighting his own aversion to and misunderstanding of the word “natural”:

Dr. Duff’s reference to “natural revelation” is misleading. Theologians speak of “general revelation” to describe the witness that the physical creation gives to the existence and nature of the Creator… No Scripture teaches that scientific study of the creation divorced from God’s written revelation in the Bible can lead to a correct understanding of the origin and history of the creation. (emphasis added)

Yet it seems perfectly clear to me that “natural” and “general” are interchangeable within this context, since “natural” is commonly used by scientists to refer to the physical world. In fact, Mortenson assigns the same definition to “general” with respect to revelation, so why take issue on this point if not to distract the audience from Joel’s actual article?

We gain a clue from the final sentence, where Mortenson gratuitously assumes that Dr. Duff somehow divorces his work as a scientist from “God’s written revelation”. Therein, Terry subtly and shrewdly accuses Joel of not taking Scripture seriously or authoritatively, despite his long-time standing in the PCA and adherence to its high view of biblical revelation. It’s as though Mortenson reasons thusly: “Dr. Duff disagrees with me on evolution and the age of the Earth; therefore, he must be a naturalist who rejects the authority of the Bible.” In other words, Terry cannot accept that his interpretation of Scripture might actually be one of several and thus liable to critique. Instead, he capitalizes on the (entirely appropriate) use of the term “natural” to insert a belief that is not there. This strategy is called character assassination, and with it, Terry has effectively poisoned the well before even delving into the scientific matter on hand: how could there be so many stone artifacts in Africa, if the Earth (or humanity) is as young as you claim?

Numbers don’t lie, but they can be coerced

If you’ve read the original article by Dr. Duff, then you recognize immediately the implications for Mortenson’s teeny tiny version of Earth history. Taking even the minimum estimated number of tools (15 trillion) requires that more than 3 billion were crafted every single year until the modern day since Noah’s family departed the Ark. There is no speculation involved here; the YEC timeline fails to explain the abundance of lithic artifacts, unless we’ve grossly overestimated how many are present. But since the identification of stone tools is a notably rigid and conservative process (which tends to error on the side of counting too few artifacts), Mortenson is left without a defense before he even begins.

To distract his readership from these obvious implications, however, Terry invites us to take part in a thought experiment to reverse the argument. He writes:

Let’s take a closer look, using [Dr. Duff’s] numbers to see what conclusions we can draw about the evolutionary scenario he so enthusiastically endorses as proven scientific fact… Let’s assume for the moment that there really are 150 trillion stone artifacts in the world… The “Stone Age” lasted 2 million years, evolutionists say. Dr. Duff says we can safely consider that a generation was 25 years and the average population per generation was 100,000 individuals. From this we can calculate that during the “Stone Age” there would be 80,000 generations (2,000,000 years multiplied by 1 generation/25 years). That means that 8,000,000,000 individuals lived during the “Stone Age” (80,000 generations x 100,000 individuals/generation). If those 8,000,000,000 individuals made 150,000,000,000,000 artifacts, then during their lifetime, each individual made 18,750 artifacts!

What Mortenson deems “a closer look”, however, is actually a pseudoscientific appraisal that so frustratingly resembles the common YEC technique of blindly/arbitrarily extrapolating into the past and simply calling the assumptions “evolutionary”, rather than attempting to constrain each variable through the scientific method. Note specifically that while Dr. Mortenson claims to use Joel’s own numbers (e.g. generation length, average population), those numbers were defined specially for the Young-Earth scenario, as defined by Answers in Genesis and thus do not apply to the actual human stone age! In reality, the average human generation was lower than 25 years, but apparently Terry supposes that paleolithic peoples waited to graduate college and start their careers before having babies. In reality, the average global population was far higher than 100,000 and highly variable for much of the paleolithic, so why does he deem it appropriate to use this figure? Whatever his reasoning, Dr. Mortenson makes a mockery of the truth and demonstrates amply his inability to assess the results of modern science.

So let’s recalculate based on what we know. Over the course of 2 million years, 150 trillion stone tools (including rocks that were discarded in the process of knapping due to mistakes) must have been produced at an average rate of 75 million per year. This rate is feasible given the common estimate of a few million humans roaming the tropics at any given time. Conversely, using the lower end of the spectrum (15 trillion artifacts) requires that only ~7.5 million stones were chipped by humans per year—on the order of 1-2 per person per year. Clearly, the so-called evolutionary timescale can account for African stone artifacts.

What hand-waving really looks like

Unintentionally, Dr. Mortenson thus strengthens the case against his own position. If we are to take his word that 2 million years is too short a time to account for these tools, then how can he posit less than 5,000 years of human history? The answer, of course, is to betray the meaning of Scripture, invoke an arbitrary story, and dismiss the evidence altogether:

These stones are not a huge problem for young-earth creationists. With warmer ocean waters and volcanic dust and aerosols in the atmosphere at the end of the Flood of Noah’s day about 4,500 years ago conditions were ripe to produce massive snowfall in the higher latitudes (building up the extensive glaciers of the Ice Age) and extremely heavy rainfall in the lower latitudes. So in the couple of centuries of the post-Flood, Ice-Age period there would still be residual catastrophism on local or region scale greater than we generally see today. The extremely heavy rainfall in lower latitudes would have resulted in massive sheet runoff and erosion from hills so that large sheets of loose sediments spread out onto lower-lying flat areas. This is very evident in the western USA. In now desert areas the intense winds then remove much of the smaller sand particles from these outwash deposits, leaving behind the larger pebbles and cobbles scattered across the desert floor like litter. Some of the pebbles and cobbles would have been rounded while others would have been chipped and flaked by the agitation in those debris flows. Thus these extensive deposits of pebbles and cobbles of various sizes and shapes are not the work of “stone-age” people over millions of years of tool-making but are better explained by the work of catastrophic natural processes in a very short time.

Nowhere does Genesis imply that the flood was accompanied by volcanism that boiled the oceans, blotted out the sun with ash, induced an Ice Age, or resulted in “residual catastrophism”. In fact, Genesis 8:21-22 would seem to preclude the sort of post-Flood catastrophes required by Mortenson’s revision of Earth history. But these fanciful scenarios are likewise contradicted by geology and basic physics, so we need not take them seriously. Neither special nor general revelation support Terry’s speculations with respect to the origin of stone tools.

More importantly, Terry makes no serious or scientific attempt to explain why anthropologists and geoarcheologists have misidentified thousands of artifacts, which were actually created by random collisions with other clasts. He essentially mocks those who are familiar with the process of weathering and erosion and have long considered how to distinguish random chipping from human knapping. He writes:

As AiG geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling commented to me after seeing the pictures and reading the article, these are mainly gravels transported and deposited by moving water. In the process they were rounded or shattered to varying degrees… Dr. Snelling added, “Such ‘artifacts’ are not found all across Africa, as there is much of Africa that isn’t desert. And they are not seen anywhere across the USA that I am aware of, or in Australia.” (emphasis added)

Take a close look, Dr. Mortenson, because this is what hand-waving really looks like! Science does not proceed by looking at a few pictures and saying, “Meh. Not convinced.” If one wants to challenge the criteria by which stone tools are identified, they need to deal with the methods outlined in the published literature. And just so we all know that Andrew Snelling is the last authority you’d want to cite on stone-age tools, consider his last statement: “they are not seen anywhere across the USA…or in Australia.”

Who, then, were the Clovis people of the Americas, recognized only by their characteristic stone tools? And should we dismiss publications like this one that document tool-making by their aboriginal Australian counterparts? Clearly, Snelling and Mortenson have an agenda behind their response, because they made no effort to research it and have no trouble making up facts to support their case.

Mortenson’s final plea

Apparently unbothered by his misinformed dismissal of the evidence against him, Mortenson yet resorts to implying that Dr. Duff is merely deceived, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, and failing to recognize God’s word as authoritative. This tactic is unfortunately common at Answers in Genesis, but serves only to shut down any rational discussion a priori, which might otherwise uncover the truth. But Dr. Mortenson has no interest in rational discussion, which potentially could expose his superficial interpretation of Scripture to critique. In his view, that interpretation is synonymous with God’s truth, so any critique of himself is simultaneously an attack on the Bible. Note the condescending tone in his final and rather presumptuous comments:

Dr. Duff needs to believe God’s inerrant Word, an eyewitness to all events in history, not the fallible and erroneous words of men who imagine events over millions of years that no human observed.

Actually, Dr. Mortenson, since we are discussing the stone age, millions of humans observed these millions of years, and they left their mark in the form of tools. But perhaps more importantly, God observed this span of Earth history, and he gifted us with the cognitive abilities to reconstruct it.

You may disagree, but if we’re all just arrogant scientists making blatantly false claims about history, then why do you struggle so much to disprove them?

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Featured image: Acheulean Handaxes, Paleolithic Period

11 responses to “Terry Mortenson concedes: ‘Stone Age’ tools are a problem for YEC

  1. Reblogged this on Primate's Progress and commented:
    Lava flows across Antrim? Blame Noah’s Flood. Palaeosols in between them? Blame Noah’s Flood. Moving continents? Obviously the result of Noah’s Flood. All those poor extinct dinosaurs (the ones that weren’t later exterminated by Nimrod the Mighty Hunter) – drowned in Noah’s Flood. And radiometric dates proving, by any sane standard, an ancient Earth? You guessed it; they don’t take account of the radiation associated with Noah’s Flood.

    And now, with breathtaking disdain for reality, a Creationist explanation for the Palaeolithic toolmaker’s rubble that covers so much of Africa (but nowhere else). All produced by colliding rocks, during Noah’s Flood.

    Wait a bit and we’ll be told that cratering on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury is somehow caused by Noah’s Flood. Come to think of it, we don’t even need to wait. There’s one school of Creationist thought, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron, that says this already, the one behind Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm.

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  2. My reaction to Mortenson (BEFORE reading Baker above). He is DENYING that all these objects in Africa could be artifacts/artefacts. On what grounds? That “these are not “stone-age” artifacts scattered rather evenly over hundreds of thousands of square miles of the surface of Africa (in the Sahara Desert of Libya)”. But NOBODY least of all Duff is claiming that artifacts would be scattered evenly across the Sahara Desert since artifacts were fashioned by our ancestors and they did not scatter evenly across harsh deserts but mostly lived in settlements. Duff wrote in March: “The results of a study just published (see references below) shows how incredibly dense stone artifacts can be in some places in Africa”. Mortenson also claims: “there is no good reason to think they are truly artifacts” – because “they are on the surface and not in a sealed archaeological context”! He also claims, having consulted the AiG geologist Snelling: “these are mainly gravels transported and deposited by moving water”. But as I understand it fast moving water does NOT normally sharpen rocks (unless perhaps two rocks hit each other) but smoothens them! I would presume that the PLOS ONE researchers (see below) would not have misidentified any rounded gravel as man-fashioned artifacts and therefore Duff’s estimates did not include such. But people like Mortenson believe scientists ‘see what they want to see’ because they are ‘blinded by evolutionism’.

    Also, Mortenson IGNORES this specific paper that Duff referenced in March: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0116482 (I’ve only skimmed it)
    And Mortenson IGNORES Duff’s statements “For example, some parts of the Nubian Desert average 12 million artifacts per square kilometer… Overall, the researchers estimate that stone tool production across the entire continent of Africa has resulted in an average of 500,000 to 5,000,000 artifacts per square kilometer.” I checked – the PLOS ONE paper DOES state this. Mortenson IGNORES it, and focuses ONLY (and superficially) on Messak Settafet (where the density of stone tools is lower than the Nubian Desert) and then tries dishonestly and in an accusatory manner to claim “the photo shows how the estimate was derived: by studying a few hundred square-meter areas and then extrapolating from those observations to draw conclusions about the whole continent”. He implies error or dishonesty or both. He does not demonstrate such.

    Mortenson also claims in a footnote that photos in a linked Daily Mail article had ‘misleading captions’ – how exactly were they misleading? Do tell.

    I’m not really convinced though that Mortenson ‘concedes’ a ‘problem’ for YEC in the way you suggest. Though his rather desperate denials that so many artifacts could possibly exist in Africa and elsewhere does clearly point to a problem that they need to ‘deal’ with.

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    • Thanks for your comments, but try to keep them shorter, if you can, and to the point.🙂 You’ve made a fairly thorough summary of everything said.

      “I’m not really convinced though that Mortenson ‘concedes’ a ‘problem’ for YEC in the way you suggest.”

      To clarify, I believe AiG only responds to individual articles like this when they recognize them as making a strong case against their own position. The fact that they put little to no effort in dealing with the substance of the article but focused on the credibility of the author is, in my opinion, a subtle but sure concession of the problem.

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  3. I did not appreciate the belittling tone the author took in writing this article. I thought the best point he made was to question whether we can really dismiss all these stones as products of erosion and not stone tools. The author criticizes the idea of volcanoes and floods after the flood. The ideas of volcanoes having a part in the flood may not be written in Scripture, but it is part of many of the scientific explanations for the flood and following ice age. So, it fits with their paradigm. This is exactly how evolutionists interpret data as well. They place it into their own paradigm to make sense of it. So I don’t see this as a problem at all. If it didn’t make sense in their paradigm, then they would have a huge problem on their hands.

    I felt the author made personal assumptions and accusations about why Mortenson said this or that, but this is nothing more than his opinion and yet was written as if it is true fact. This distracts and takes away from the respectability and trustworthiness of your article. It reveals your bias, just as Mortenson’s article reveals his bias.

    Here is one example: “Apparently unbothered by his misinformed dismissal of the evidence against him, ”

    This preface to the sentence is totally superfluous and designed simply to put him down and make him seem stupid. I think your articles would be more effective without resorting to this type of unnecessary and unloving rhetoric. How in the world could he be bothered by something he is not even aware of or that he disagrees with? You do yourself no favors using this kind of a tactic. It is like you have to depend on that to win the argument as opposed to simply presenting the facts.

    And bringing up the Clovis people seems to me to be way off the mark. That is NOT what Snelling was referring to. If I understood him correctly, he was simply saying that there are not the same type of archaeological formations in N.A. as this study was dealing with in Africa. The extrapolations were made as if this type of rock field is common all over Africa and even the world. I thought Snelling was responding to that claim as opposed to saying there are absolutely no stone tools at all that have ever been found in the Americas. I could have misread that.

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    • Hello Jim,

      Thank you for your comments; I really appreciate having this external perspective, especially if my tone does not seem justified. I hope that if you browse this blog, you will not find it characteristic of most of my articles. The difference here is that I found Dr. Mortenson’s to be more of a personal attack than a serious response. Therefore, my tone should reflect both my sincere emotional reaction and an attempt to highlight the condescending nature of Mortenson’s own reply.

      “[Volcanoes are] part of many of the scientific explanations for the flood and following ice age. So, it fits with their paradigm.”

      I criticized Mortenson’s casual use of volcanism, etc. to explain away these artifacts because it is anything but scientific. Comparison cannot be made between YEC’s “just-so” storytelling to explain the ice age and actual geological investigations into the Quaternary period. I linked to at least one other place where I’ve discussed this in more detail, so I can only ask that you hear what else I’ve said to understand my brevity in this post. In short, these factors do not explain an ice age, which could not have lasted only centuries. The evidence for multiple ice ages lasting tens of thousands of years each is beyond overwhelming, and YEC’s currently offer no reasonable critique of it. As you yourself say, “If it didn’t make sense in their paradigm, then they would have a huge problem on their hands.” And you’re right—they do have a huge problem.

      “I felt the author made personal assumptions and accusations about why Mortenson said this or that, but this is nothing more than his opinion and yet was written as if it is true fact…”

      Some of this is based on personal interaction with Dr. Mortenson, attempts to communicate with his colleagues, and my observations of how they’ve responded to their critics over the years. Personally, I feel I have good reason to ascribe the motives that I did, but you’re right—it is my opinion. If I let that cloud the trustworthiness of my critique, then I stand corrected, and I apologize. Thank you for pointing this out.

      “This preface to the sentence is totally superfluous and designed simply to put him down and make him seem stupid. I think your articles would be more effective without resorting to this type of unnecessary and unloving rhetoric.”

      If I could rewrite that sentence, it would read thusly:

      Dr. Mortenson’s critique is not well informed, because it does not interact with the wealth of scientific literature that documents the abundance of Paleolithic artifacts, explains how they are identified (e.g. against natural stones), and how they are dated. In my opinion, Dr. Mortenson made little to no attempt to research the topic, resorting instead to a discussion of Dr. Duff’s faith and character. Since Mortenson and Snelling are both trained in geology, however, I find it hard to accept that they would be unaware of the errors used to dismiss the evidence presented against the YEC worldview. I would encourage either of them to comment further on this matter.

      My original, shorter version retained a sarcasm indicative of the frustration I feel when trying to interact with folks at AiG. I agree, we ought to rely simply on a clear presentation of the facts. But they make certain that nobody can even consider the facts of the case by casually distorting them and then calling it ‘evangelism’. Evidence of this can be found in Mortenson’s “recalculation”, which grossly underestimated potential human/hominid populations over the past ~2 million years. Terry is smart enough to know that stone-age peoples (even if he believes they didn’t exist) did not have children at an average age of 25, and he is smart enough to know (or simply Google) that human population is estimated to have been higher than 100,000 during the stone age. Why then would he use these figures? Why not use the figures actually proposed by anthropologists? Dr. Duff used figures that reflected AiG’s own writings when considering how many tools could be produced “post Flood”. The only way to explain Terry’s use of the same numbers, in my sincere opinion, is to distract his audience from the weight of the evidence. As I said, this dishonest move seems not to have bothered him.

      “And bringing up the Clovis people seems to me to be way off the mark. That is NOT what Snelling was referring to.”

      Without considering how anthropologists actually identify stone tools, Snelling simply denied the possibility that the samples from the pictures were actually artifacts. He says that catastrophic erosion could have produced the same. As a geologist, by the way, I know that he knows that he is wrong about this. In any case, his context implies that there are no stone-age tools of any kind (he says “such artifacts”), especially in dense repositories, either in NA or Australia. Otherwise, the statement makes no sense: “the type of tools made specifically in North Africa are not found in NA or Australia, but some tools made by local populations are”? He was challenging the extrapolation of artifact coverage from Africa to other parts of the world, and the only way his challenge makes sense is if NA and Australia contain no tools whatsoever: “they are not seen anywhere…”.

      If Snelling were to clarify this claim, though, I would happily retract my statement. Otherwise, it seems entirely appropriate to remind readers that stone tools are extremely abundant both in NA and Australia. At least when I read his statement, it implied to me that YEC’s shouldn’t worry about stone artifacts, because most (or all) aren’t really artifacts.

      Sorry for the lengthy reply, but again, I appreciate your input.

      Jon

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  5. “No Scripture teaches that scientific study of the creation divorced from God’s written revelation in the Bible can lead to a correct understanding of the origin and history of the creation.”–Mortensen

    “Paul tells us in Romans 1:20 that the evidence that God created is so obvious, if anyone does not believe this, he is without excuse. There is a very simple answer to why these scientists don’t accept creation.”–Ken Ham

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    • Hi Helena, thanks for the comment and my apologies for the delayed approval. I just wanted to clarify, what do you think of these quotes?

      In my opinion, the quotation by Mortensen is completely misguided. We cannot reasonably expect the biblical authors to comment directly on the limits of the modern scientific method. However, there is ample biblical precedent for studying what has been made to assess how it works (e.g. the Psalms, wisdom literature, et al. describe ecosystems, the water cycle, solar phenomena) from a purely observational standpoint, ultimately attributing these functions to the creator God. Interestingly, the biblical authors frequently show their naiveté in describing the cosmos—its structure, for example—and often get it wrong. The Earth is neither stationary nor flat, and there is no solid dome holding back water from the sky. Thus, their ‘scientific’ understanding of nature, understandably flawed, nonetheless became inscripturated and canonized for its theological and cultural value. And so we might conclude, contra Mortensen, that no study of God’s written revelation divorced from scientific study can lead to a correct understanding of the origin and history of creation.

      Additionally, we should note that modern scientific endeavors are not necessarily divorced from biblical study, not least because there is no scriptural mandate against scientific inquiry into things beyond the purview of scripture (i.e. geological/biological histories). Terry somehow believes that by reducing scripture to a newspaper article, he is upholding its authority and integrity when he rules out a priori what science can and cannot discover. But this position is simply not tenable.

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