Sunday, May 18, 2008

The greatest threat to America

What is the greatest threat to America? Many fear terrorism or global warming. These are serious concerns, but I do not think either of these is our greatest threat. Nor do I think that scientific illiteracy, irrationality, war, or environmental damage is the greatest threat. All of those problems are real, and all contribute to our vulnerability, but there is a far greater danger. The greatest threat is this: we are running out of cheap oil, and this has staggering implications for our way of life.

Surely, we will find it harder to supply our needs for oil. We have searched virtually the entire planet with high-tech gadgets, and are finding little additional oil. For the last 25 years we have consumed far more oil than we have discovered. Each year the amount of oil demanded goes up, but the amount of oil discovered goes down. By 2006, the rate of discovery was down to 6 billion barrels per year, but the production rate was 28 billion barrels per year. Folks, that can't go on forever. If we consume 28 billion barrels each year and find 6 billion new barrels each year, eventually we will run out, and will be left with a trickle of oil. What will then happen to our economy?

Okay, so someday we won't have as much gas. Can we just pass this problem on to the next generation? No, the problem is facing us now. The more we pump from the existing oil wells, the harder it becomes to maintain the flow out of the wells. Thus, oil fields tend to reach a peak in production, and this peak generally occurs about 40 years after the oil is discovered at that field. When enough of fields peak, the entire region reaches a peak, and oil output starts to decline. Mounting evidence indicates that worldwide oil production has reached, or nearly reached, its peak. Production rates have been flat for the last 5 years, and the output for 2007 was lower than the output for 2006. Evidence indicates world oil production will fall to less than 95% of its current production sometime before 2020--perhaps even within the next 2 years--and to less than 50% sometime between 2025 and 2050.

But world demand has increased, especially in developing countries like China and India. We are headed for oil shortages.

Okay, can we turn to other liquid fuels, such as ethanol from corn or synthetic gasoline from coal? These fuels are expensive, even though they are heavily subsidized by the government. And ethanol has the problem that large fields that formerly grew food have been converted to sources of ethanol, posing the danger of world famines. Also, synthetic fuel from coal is polluting and contributes greatly to global warming. If we were to use coal to replace our oil supplies, even our coal reserves would shortly be exhausted. So there are problems with putting other fuels in our cars.

Okay, so maybe we need to rely on something other than liquid fuels. But if this is so, what energy sources will power our future transportation needs? Obviously, we can't attach huge solar panels or windmills onto our cars, and nobody really wants to fire up the coal stove in the trunk to power her steam-driven car to work. We could install large solar cells and windmills on land to make electricity, but how do we get that power to our cars? Batteries are expensive, notoriously limited in range, and frequently wear out. And using electric to make hydrogen to power cars is inefficient. Further, we either need to compress the hydrogen to very high pressures, or cool it to a liquid at very low temperatures in order to carry enough fuel in the car to travel a reasonable range. Both processes are expensive, and create serious hazards. In addition, hydrogen molecules are so small, they tend to escape from any container we put them in. Do you really want a tank of leaky, explosive, compressed hydrogen in your car in your garage? Alternative energy sources are limited in their value to transportation.

Okay, so we may need to cut back on vacation driving. That will help for a while, but eventually we will need to make major sacrifices. And how is that going to happen? Most likely we will rely on the laws of supply and demand, and we will simply let the price of gasoline and heating oil rise until consumption falls. Prices could rise until people cannot afford things they consider necessities, such as driving to work, or maintaining the house at a comfortable temperature. How will we then live?

Okay, so times may get rough. Not very long ago, folks survived without any gas, and they seemed to be happy. Can we just go back to a simpler life? It would be nice if the solution was that easy. We forget that in the 1800's, folks either lived in dense cities and towns, where they could walk or ride the train everywhere they needed to go, or they lived in the country and owned horses for transportation. Those of us who live in suburbia will not easily be able to go back to either mode of transportation. Our suburbs are too spread out for practical pedestrian travel, and our yards are not big enough to pasture horses. We have built suburbia, not considering that it becomes almost unusable once the gas is gone.

Okay, so maybe we need to start rearranging our suburbs to be walkable. Fine, but more than just transportation is at stake. Oil is used to make plastics, and many other items we consume. Most importantly, oil is used to make fertilizer and pesticides, and to fuel our tractors. Without oil, our entire farm system is in jeopardy. This is serious. Not only will we need to cut back to a simpler life, but we may find that there is not enough food to feed everybody. In 1900, before petroleum fueled the green revolution, there were only 1.5 billion people. Now there are over 6 billion people. If farming must eventually cut back to the methods of 1900, how many people will the world be able to feed? And how will the world cut back the population level to a sustainable level? Will we rely on wars and famine, or will we find more civilized methods? Those are big questions.

The implications of all of this are serious. When we add in scientific illiteracy, decline of rationalism, and religious intolerance, we may find society unable to deal with the new problems. Society could disintegrate into superstition and wars over resources.

Through all of this there is hope. There is a chance that widespread development of nuclear fusion energy, geothermal energy, or improved solar cells could relieve some of the problem, but that is not certain. Technology has done wonders for us, but that does not prove that it could solve these future problems. Science and engineering are constrained by the laws of nature. They are not magic systems that are guaranteed to supply all of our needs. They are constrained by reality. Will reality allow us to obtain the energy we need? We have known about fusion and solar cells for a long time, but fusion is nothing more than a distant dream at this point, and solar cells still chug along at low efficiencies and high costs.

Perhaps we will find it in ourselves to develop the new technologies needed. Perhaps we will find ways to reorganize our suburbs and transportation systems, and find ways to cut back on the over-population and materialism that eats away at our natural resources. The path forward is a serious challenge to all of us.

And that is why I write that running out of cheap oil is the most serious threat to our county. Although the topic drifts from the stated intent of this site, it is of vital importance. I expect that I may be writing more about this at my site.

Monday, April 07, 2008

A faith in God that cannot be moved by evidence

The debate about evolution with Mike Purington (which began here) continues. At first Purington seemed to be arguing for his view from science, but his later writings indicate that he is really relying on theology as his source, not science. Purington writes with approval of "a faith in God that cannot be moved no matter how much circumstantial evidence is produced." If the evidence does not matter, why even pretend to be interested in the evidence?

For the record, I respond to Purington here.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Horse Sense

A reader tries to explain the horse fossils without evolution. He writes:

I just thought I would reply to one of your statments you made. In my opinion, even if every question is answered.. people tend to believe in what they believe anyway.

You ask Pastor Al this:
How do you explain all of the fossil animals similar to modern horses and zebras? What are the Hyracotherium, Epihippus, Mesohippus , Miohippus, Merychippus, and Dinohippus, if not intermediates? And why do we find those creatures buried in strata older than 2 million years, but no modern horses there? And why do we find modern horses in strata younger than 2 million years, but no Hyracatherium? And why is there a progression in these fossils, if they are not intermediates?

What I have read about Horse Evolution:

1. If it were true, you would expect to find the earliest horse fossils in the lowest rock strata. But you don't. In fact, bones of the supposed 'earliest' horses have been found at or near the surface. Sometimes they are found right next to modern horse fossils! O. C. Marsh commented on living horses with multiple toes, and said there were cases in the American Southwest where 'both fore and hind feet may each have two extra digits fairly developed, and all of nearly equal size, thus corresponding to the feet of the extinct Protohippus'.1 In National Geographic (January 1981, p. 74), there is a picture of the foot of a so-called early horse, Pliohippus, and one of the modern Equus that were found at the same volcanic site in Nebraska. The writer says: 'Dozens of hoofed species lived on the American plains.' Doesn't this suggest two different species, rather than the evolutionary progression of one?

2. There is no one site in the world where the evolutionary succession of the horse can be seen. Rather, the fossil fragments have been gathered from several continents on the assumption of evolutionary progress, and then used to support the assumption. This is circular reasoning, and does not qualify as objective science.

3. The theory of horse evolution has very serious genetic problems to overcome. How do we explain the variations in the numbers of ribs and lumbar vertebrae within the imagined evolutionary progression? For example, the number of ribs in the supposedly 'intermediate' stages of the horse varies from 15 to 19 and then finally settles at 18. The number of lumbar vertebrae also allegedly swings from six to eight and then returns to six again.

4. Finally, when evolutionists assume that the horse has grown progressively in size over millions of years, what they forget is that modern horses vary enormously in size. The largest horse today is the Clydesdale; the smallest is the Fallabella, which stands at 43 centimetres (17 inches) tall. Both are members of the same species, and neither has evolved from the other.

I repond:

First, I notice that most of this was simply copied from another site Why didn't you simply post a link, rather than copy from the site? The article you copy made many mistakes. Did you ask if this stuff is true before you blindly copy it from the Internet?

You say that early horse fossils are found right next to modern horse fossils. What is your documentation for this claim? Are you not aware that simply making a claim on the Internet does not make it true? Don't you need evidence?

The claim that early horses have been found with modern horses frequently gets batted around the Internet, but nobody seems to have any documentation for when and where this find happened. See for instance, Did Hyracotherium and Equus Live at the Same Time?, to see one man's attempt to find the source for this claim, and the lack of evidence for it. You see, Hyracotherium lived millions of years before modern horses ever existed. If you ever found thoses fossils together, it would be earth-shattering news in the field of geology. And yet somehow this claim gets made repeatedly by uninformed people who copy what they have heard, and never stop to ask exactly when and where this amazing find occured.

So you are getting off to a bad start here. You simply copied somebody's claim off the Internet, and that claim cannot be supported with any real evidence.

And yes, of course, the early fossils were found on the surface. That is where fossils are. But not all layers at the surface are the same age. That is why scientists date the rocks to see how old the fossils are. And the early horse fossils always date over 50 million years. If you believe otherwise, please show me evidence of a particular fossil that differs with this claim. Simply copying a false statement that has been published on the Internet is not a valid argument.

You say there are cases where living horses have multiple toes. That may be true, but it is certainly rare. But 50 million years ago, all horse had multiple toes, and none had hoofs. Now can you explain why that is so? The most obvious explanation is that modern horses had not yet evolved.

You mention that three-toed horses and one-toed horses were found in the same layer, and ask if this doesn't suggest that they were two different species. Yes, of course, that is exactly what it suggests. Horse evolution is known to have occurred in a branching fashion, in which multiple species were alive on different branches at one time. This has been known for a long time. Eventually some one-toed horses evolved before all branches of three-toed horses died out. That does nothing to contradict the statement that there has been a progression through time, with more and more modern traits introduced into the record as time advanced.

You say the horse fossils come from multiple sites. Of course! You wouldn't seriously suggest that all of horse history should have occurred in the same meadow, and that all we should need to do is dig down into that meadow to see an example of all past horses. Horses are extremely mobile. Even if they traveled at a rate of only 1 mile every 10 years, in a million years they could easily circle the globe. And land bridges frequently existed between North America and Asia. So in 60 million years, we can expect that horses could be found all over the globe, not just in the same spot.

You ask why there would be variations in the number of ribs. Why not? Many things were changing with time. There was no linear progression from eohippus (hyracatherium) to modern horse, but rather, a series or branches in many different directions. So this is not at all unusual.

You mention the variations in size in modern horses, but that doesn't begin to address the findings of the fossil record. Ancient horses were very different from modern horses in many aspect, not just size. So you cannot simply ignore eohippus as though it were simply a short horse.

So the horse arguments you copied from the web do nothing to refute the findings of horse fossils.

You go on to mention several other arguments which have been answered many other times in the past, so I won't get into them now. You can leave them as a comment here if you want. I think it is sufficient to say you have not begun to explain away the horse evidence.

Why are there no records of civilization beyond 10,000 years ago?

Here is another email from a supporter.

I really enjoyed your site, and the easy manner with which you deal with difficult subjects. I am a former evangelical christian who, over time, like you, came to realize there was another side to the story, with overwhelming evidence to support it.

I do have one question though, that you may be able to help me with. This is particularly an issue for a christian friend of mine. Every time we discuss or debate the age of the earth/universe, he always resorts to "why are there no records of civilization beyond 10,000 years ago?"

It is enough for me to accept that beyond 10,000 years ago, people didn't write, period. But that is unsatisfactory for him. So, my question to you is, is there strong evidence of civilizations beyond 10,000 year ago? Do you have any links or info that would show this?

Appreciate any help or advice you can offer. And keep up the great work!

That is is good question, and it is one that I had pondered for a long time. Science shows that humans who were essentially the same as us lived 40,000 years ago. Why do we not see signs of their civilizations? There is a simply answer to this question. They didn't have much food.

Let me explain. In the wild, less than 0.1% of the biomass is edible by humans. Much of the edible food is hard to obtain. Wheat, strawberries, potatoes, etc. simply did not exist in the forms we know them today. Thus, early humans spent much of their time searching for natural food. Frequently they exhausted the food in one region, and had to roam long distances in small tribes. Such existences are not conducive to the development of civilization.

Nevertheless, there are signs of early civilization that do survive. Early cave paintings in France show that these people were fully human in their ability to create. And early Polynesians sailed far beyond the visible horizon to reach Austrailia and the Pacific Islands. Europeans would not be able to duplicate this feat for another 30,000 years. Doubtless there were other works of art, techonology, and civilization of which we are not aware.

But the development of advanced civilation had to wait until food was more readily available. The process was slow. Wild grains, for instance, had small seeds which quickly fell to the ground when they were ripe. However, a mutation in some of these grains caused them to stay on the stalk. Early humans could have found these grains on the stalk, and gathered them to bring to their families. On the way, some of these grains could have been scattered on the ground, where they led to the growth of more grain. Thus humans, without knowing it, began to guide the process of grain evolution, by helping to scatter the grains they liked best. Eventually grains near human settlements became bigger, stayed on the stalk longer, and were better for human consumption. Eventually, some people may have planted some of these grains as a hobby in small fields. These fields would not have been enough to supply all of their food needs, but eventually, the grain fields would become a significant part of their food supply. As time went on, the grains became better, and technology to store and process these grains improved. Grain farming became big business. The abundance of food led to increased population, and this increased the demand for better farming methods. And so this necessity became the mother of invention, and people worked together to build advanced communities.

As food became more common, some people had time to specialize in other occupations, such as building things of wood, stone and metal, and governing the towns. The crowds of people in town with time to tinker, and to share their ideas with many others, facilitated the development of the other aspects of civilization.

But all of this was not possible 40,000 years ago. Civilization had to wait until plant evolution made this all possible.

It's a most fascinating study. You can ready more about it in the book, Guns, Germs and Steel, which describes how we got from bands of hunter-gatherers to people who could conquer the world with guns and steel.

Click on the book for more details.

In Six Days

Mike Purington, a Christian science fiction writer wrote to me arguing for creation. His original email is at Opening email from Mike Purington. I respond at In Six Days?.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Same arguments, different book

Ieshas worte another (huge) email appealing to us all to become Muslims. Her email can be found here. My response is here. A discussion of the fact that her arguments for Islam are basically the same as the arguments made for Christianity can be found here.