Compact Time: A Short History of Life on Earth

John C. Walton. 2021. Troubador Publishing Ltd. ISBN-13: 978-1800461246

This book presents a model for interpreting geochronology based on the presence of radiocarbon in fossils. The author, John Walton, spent many years as Research Professor of Chemistry at St Andrews University, Scotland, and is widely known as an expert in the chemistry of free radicals. He has published hundreds of research papers and two books on free radical chemistry. He brings a fresh perspective to the discussion of the age of the earth. The book contains eight chapters occupying 167 pages, and is well- documented with 195 endnotes. It is suitable reading for anyone with a background in science.

The first chapter is a critique of radiometric dating, largely based on three problems. The first problem is the implausibility of the claim that any accessible geological sample could remain a closed system over millions of years of tectonic activity, groundwater movement and magma mixing (pages 9-11). Thus, the theoretical assumptions of the methodology (closed system, known initial conditions) are flawed. The second problem is that samples of known age often give dates known to be wrong. If the method fails for rocks of known age, why should it be trusted for specimens of unknown age (p 17)? The third problem is confirmation bias. Data that agree with expectations are regarded as reliable while discordant data are rejected. If an age outside the limits defined by its position in the geologic column is obtained, this will routinely be taken as evidence that the sample was unsuitable (p 23). These problems are illustrated by the history of the KBS tuff from the Koobi Fora Formation in Kenya (pp 26-29).

The second chapter discusses the implications of the discovery of radiocarbon in fossil material from throughout the fossil column. The amount of radiocarbon can be expressed as a percentage of levels in modern samples (pMC). Pre-Pleistocene specimens with C-14 levels of 0.5-1.0 (pMC) are discarded, while Pleistocene samples with similar levels are considered to be reliably dated (p 41). The unfiltered data suggest a chronology much shorter than the conventional one.

The next chapter summarizes the evidence for catastrophic activity in the geologic column. Examples include large lava flows, asteroid craters, huge fossil graveyards, and so-called mass extinctions. The late long-age geologist, Derek Ager, suggested there are more gaps than evidence of time in the column, famously comparing geologic time with the traditional life of a soldier – “long periods of boredom separated by short periods of terror” (p 57). Remove the hypothetical gaps, and the evidence fits the concept of a continuous “giga-catastrophe” (p 58).

The idea of a catastrophe on a scale unknown in historical times is embedded in the cultural traditions of many different people groups throughout the world. These traditions agree in so many important points they likely came from the same event (p 70). The longest-living known tree, a bristlecone pine, is believed to be about 5,059 years old, based on counting its rings. This provides a tentative minimum date for the proposed “giga-catastrophe.” This date provides sufficient time for formation of coal, oil, and natural gas, all of which can form rapidly in the presence of clay and other materials.

In chapter five, the author develops his “Compact Time” model (CpT). Radiocarbon dating is based on the ratio of carbon-14 to other forms of carbon (C-12 and C-13). The lower the ratio, the older the inferred age. Enormous amounts of carbon are buried in the earth as coal, oil, limestone, and other materials. Buried carbon is estimated as 300-700 times the present biomass. Using the figure 500 times present biomass, the radiocarbon would be diluted 500 times, to a level of about 0.2% of modern carbon (p 79). If calibrated by modern radiocarbon levels, any organism living under those conditions would have an apparent age of around 30,000 years while still alive.
Assuming this huge reservoir of fossil carbon was buried by the “giga-catastrophe”, a period of adjustment would occur after the catastrophe, as the C-14 ratio increased exponentially to its present level over a few hundred years. This is a plausible scenario, based on observations of atomic bomb testing effects (p 81). Comparing dates based on archeological evidence with associated dates based on radiocarbon dating shows agreement from the present back about 3500 years, and then divergence, with radiocarbon dates increasingly older than the archeological evidence indicates. This observation is incorporated into the CtP model such that the dates given by the model begin to level off after about 3500 years, approaching a limit somewhere between 5,000 and 5,500 years before present (pp 92-93).

Chapter six discusses the incompatibility of deep time with preservation of fossil molecules and soft tissue. From a chemical perspective, survival of soft tissues, proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and biomolecules over millions of years is not credible (p 105). Such preservation, however, is compatible with the much shorter chronology based on the CpT model.

The seventh chapter presents the author’s view of how the geologic column might be interpreted in the context of the CpT model. The time for deposition of Pleistocene and some Pliocene sediments occupied hundreds of years, not millions of years (p 127). Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Paleogene fossils lived contemporaneously. Catastrophic mass burials produced the fossil patterns commonly interpreted as Mass Extinctions. Fossil radiations such as the Cambrian Explosion, Paleocene mammal radiation, and the Cretaceous Big Bloom do not represent appearances, but burials of large ecological units (p130).

The eighth and final chapter summarizes the advantages of the CpT model over the conventional timescale. The standard geochronology was built on a foundation of uniformitarianism (p 141). The abundance of evidence of catastrophic geologic activity refutes that foundation. The standard scenario of Deep Time based on inorganic methods is maintained by severe confirmation bias (p 143). Pseudo-isochrons are only distinguishable from genuine isochrons when the dates they produce contradict Deep Time expectations (p 142). Dates that do not fit the preconceived scheme are simply discarded, while those that fit are accepted without question.

Radiocarbon dating has several important advantages over inorganic methods (p 143). The covalent bonding in radiocarbon makes it less mobile than other radioisotopes with their ionic bonding, improving the probability of producing a closed system. The non-polar bonds of organic materials make them less susceptible to solution and transport in water. The short half-life reduces the effects of possible contamination over long periods of time.

The author concludes by noting that the Compact Time model successfully resolves some issues produced in the standard model. It explains the presence of radiocarbon in fossils, resolves the discrepancy between archeological dates and standard radiocarbon dates, and explains the persistence of organic molecules and soft tissues in fossils. It avoids appeal to hypothetical gaps between events recorded in the sediments. It explains the global distribution of flood stories, and is consistent with the creation story that explains the unique attributes of human beings and provides meaning for our lives.

How should one respond to a book such as this? I will suggest three responses. First, the book is an admirable attempt to address a serious issue in creation theory. As such, the author is to be commended. Second, the approach outlined in the book needs much more study and testing to determine how robust the model is. The model is very interesting, but it is not established as fact. It would be unwise for creationists to claim that radiometric dating has been disproved. Third, the fact that it contradicts the model preferred by most scientists does not show it to be wrong, nor does the fact that it is consistent with creationism show it to be correct. What is needed is more thought, more discussion, and more research.

Reviewed by 
Jim Gibson, PhD

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