Recently, some revisionist historians have attempted to label the terms origin science or historical science as YEC inventions for the sole purpose of discrediting evolution. If this is not a direct accusation, then it is at least a statement that YECs use these terms as a wedge to make a distinction between historical sciences versus operational science, so as to cause people to reject the age of the earth, while still affirming experimental science and technology. A recent example is an article on the BioLogos website titled “Is Historical Science Reliable?”1 Another strategy is to create strawman arguments and make the blanket claim that YECs are saying that science cannot tell us anything about what happened in the past, and that to make such claims would deny us the ability to know anything about the past, including even what we ate for breakfast.2 But is this really a fair argument?
Did YECs invent the terms origin science or historical science, and if so did we invent these terms just to discredit evolution? Do we deny that we can know anything about the past because we weren’t there to observe it, or that any event in the past is unknowable? And do those who accept evolution use origins and/or historical science terms as descriptors themselves? (Spoiler alert: yes they do). Even BioLogos does.3
Let’s address the question of whether YECs invented the terms origin science or historical science first. We’ll also examine whether we first used those terms to differentiate between operational or experimental science, and if they were invented merely to discredit evolution.
Ironically, in order to get to the root of this, we have to look to the past. Yes, it appears that we can know some things about the past. Of course we have historical documents to draw upon, so assumptions and interpretation can be kept in check. In any coverage of a subject this broad in a short article, an exhaustive search of papers, books, and articles on this subject is just not possible. But I will list some of the earliest mentions I have found of these terms.
In the October–December 1935 issue of History and Science In Anthropology Volume 4, by A. L. Kroeber, I found some very interesting quotes germane to this topic.
This is again a result of the exact or laboratory science point of view. These sciences recognize fields or departments, like organic chemistry or spectroscopic physics, and differences of technique, but they do not recognize schools differing in method; there is only one method in physical science. By contrast there is something immature, or partisan and incomplete, in the very fact of the anthropological schools advocating each its program. In reality they differ, and legitimately enough, in objective; and that means that they differ at bottom in what they are most interested in. But from this they have too often proceeded to make propaganda not only for their interests but for their results, until in extreme cases special methods have been advocated almost like panaceas. . . .4
Here again we have the science approach. A physicist or chemist does not give a descriptive picture of what he encounters in nature. He starts with a problem; then presents such data as bear on it, and no others. Of course this method cannot be transferred directly to cultural anthropology because this is not a laboratory discipline; and in general it is not feasible to deal in each case only with those data immediately pertinent to the problem; sooner or later the descriptive context of the whole culture or set of cultures in which the problem lies must be made available. . . .5
Historical determinations are in their essence subjective findings; and at best they only approximate truth or certainty.
I think that the above quotes show that the terms (at least as Kroeber used them) are sufficient to delineate that experimental science and historical science were used at least as far back as 1935, and that they were used in differentiation of each other. This was not a YEC paper, nor was it by an antievolutionist, but rather from someone who accepted Darwinian evolution.8 Kroeber was also staunch in his position that historical science was much more tentative in its conclusions than experimental science.
Kroeber doesn’t use the term origin science though, sticking strictly to historical science.9 The terminology of origin science (and operational science) seems to have cropped up in the 1980s. Two men seem to have started using the terms and then began to contrast them with experimental or operational science: Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. Charles Thaxton. Dr. Geisler is not a young-earth creationist, accepting billions of years of cosmic and geological timeframes.10 Dr. Thaxton’s position on the age of the earth and universe is a little harder to evaluate, but he has stated that he prefers intelligent design to creationism, and is a member of the Discovery Institute. While he opposes Darwinian evolution, I think it is safe to say that he would not describe himself as a YEC.
It appears that Dr. Geisler’s first thoughts on the differentiation of origins and operation science began in his July 1982 book Miracles and Modern Thought. Although he used the term origins and discussed the inherent (but misguided) adherence to strict naturalism by secular science, he never actually established any distinct terminology.
Science does not have sovereign claim to explain all events as natural, but only those that are regular, repeatable, and/or predictable. Scientific law does not include anomalies, for by its very nature an anomaly (no law) has no law covering it. And to assume that all anomalies do have unknown covering laws is to beg the question in favor of naturalism. Science as science must not assume this, since it has no scientific grounds for such an assumption. The only scientific grounds for doing so would be that the event could be repeated and/or predicted (and in the case of miracles, it cannot).
Second, science has a right to expect that natural laws (i.e. natural forces) will govern the function of the world. But science has no right to demand that these same natural laws can account for the origin of every event in the world. . . .
When science demands that the genesis of all events must be natural, and not simply the governance of these events, then it has ceased being science; it has become philosophical naturalism. . . .11
For scientists believe that the origin of the universe and the origin of life are singular and unrepeatable events. But if the past can be known only in terms of the processes of the present, then there would be no scientific basis for knowledge about these origins, since they are singular and unrepeatable events of the past.12
Geisler’s 1982 book The Creator in the Courtroom: Scopes II is the first one in which he delineates the differences between origin science and operational science, even though he doesn’t use the terms specifically.
The other ambiguity which emerged in the trial is what is meant by “science”. In the normal (strict) sense of the word, something must be observable and repeatable to be subject to scientific tests. But in this sense evolution (as a general theory) is not “science.” The origin of life and new life forms were singular, unobservable events of the past. No observers were there and the original events are not repeatable. So even general evolution must be understood in some “special” (broader) sense, if it is to be considered science, for scientists do not have the original events (of origins) against which they can test their theories. Hence their ideas about origins are not based on observations. . . . They are speculations.When there is no direct access to the original event, the best scientists can do is to offer speculative reconstructions of the past.
Science in the narrow sense involves some observable or repeatable event against which we can measure our theories. But when there is no direct access to the original event, the best scientists can do is to offer speculative reconstructions of the past. These imaginative reconstructions cannot be either verified or falsified in a strict scientific way. They may be plausible or implausible, but they are not scientifically proveable . . . because they cannot be checked over against the original event. Thus all “theories” or models about unrepeatable origins can at best be “science” only in some broad sense of the term. They are science in the sense that we speak of “forensic science.” What happens in court is that attorneys offer plausible or implausible reconstructions of the crime based on the available clues. But if there were no eyewitnesses, then we can never be certain what actually happened. They can however, offer a speculative model of what might have happened.
Now in this broad speculative sense of the word “science” a creationist’s view is just as scientific as an evolutionist’s view. Unfortunately, what happened in Arkansas [McClean vs. Arkansas, 1982] was the application of a double-standard. Evolution as a general theory was considered science on a broad definition of “science” and creation was considered unscientific on a narrow definition of science. If the courts are ever to recognize the scientific character of creationism, then this kind of “double-dealing” must be avoided, for creationism is no less scientific than is evolutionism.13
It should be noted that in early 1983, Dr. Geisler used the term science of origin in his book Is Man the Measure? An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism. But again, he did not definitively state that origin science and operational science are two different things.
This means that in the strict sense of the word science (involving observed and repeatable events) there can be no science of origins. We simply do not have any direct access to the original events by which we can test our theories about them.14
But Geisler’s (and coauthor Kerby Anderson’s) 1987 book Origin Science was the first one in which he laid out the terms, explained them and contrasted the concepts or origin science and operation science.
It is the proposal of this book that a science which deals with origin events does not fall within the category of empirical science, which deals with observed regularities in the present. Rather, it is more like a forensic science, which concentrates on unobserved singularities of the past. . . .15
The great events of origin were singularities. The origin of the universe is not recurring. Nor is the origin of life, or the origin of major new forms of life. These are past singularities over which creationists and evolutionists debate. Evolutionists posit a secondary natural cause for them; creationists argue for a supernatural primary cause. The proposal of this book is that both “evolutionist” and “creationist” views on origin should be brought into the domain of singularity science about the past and that each should be judged by the principles of that kind of science. Such a science about past singularities will be called “science of origin,” or “origin science” (Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen, 204). It will be differentiated from science about present regularities (called operational science) in that the latter focuses on a recurring pattern of events in the present against which its theories can be tested: the former does not. . . .16
The creation-evolution discussion will be fruitless unless the present equivocal use of the term science is rejected.
It is our hope that this proposal for treating the study of origins under the special category of origin science—whether by evolutionists or creationists—will reopen meaningful dialogue on this age-old debate. At least the “ships” of evolution and creation need not pass in the night; adherents of each view can discuss the issue of origins in the light of this distinction between origin science and operation science. In view of this it seems evident that the creation-evolution discussion will be fruitless unless the present equivocal use of the term science is rejected. . . .17
Gradually the study of the operational laws of the universe was extended farther and farther back until it included origins. In this way the role of a primary (supernatural) cause of the various origin events was gradually squeezed out of a scientific study of the past. In effect, secondary (natural) causes could account for origins, and there was no need to suppose that a primary cause had intervened. . . .18
The domain of origin science was taken over by operation science. Even the unique, unrepeated events of the origin of the universe, of life, and of new life forms were treated as though they were observed regularities in the present. The difference between unobserved past singularities (origin science) and observed present regularities (operation science) was obscured. The search for natural (secondary) causes for how the universe and life operate in the present was gradually extended to how they originated in the past.19
Geisler and Anderson’s 1987 Origin Science book drew from Thaxton’s 1984 book The Mystery of Life’s Origin, which they even quoted in their book. In my “Deceitful or Distinguishable Terms” article, I referred to Thaxton’s book as being the first one to make major use of this concept, contrasting operational (observational) science with origins (historical) science. Technically I think this is still correct, (though Kroeber definitely preceded this in thought and with the terms historical and experimental science) since Geisler may have touched on the concepts in 1982 and 1983. However, he did not definitely state that there were two kinds of science termed origin and operation until 1987. The following (lengthy) quote from The Mystery of Life’s Origin (204–205) seems to be the first recorded usage of both origin science and operational science contrasted against each other as different categories of science.
On the other hand an understanding of the universe includes some singular events, such as origins. Unlike the recurrent operation of the universe, origins cannot be repeated for experimental test. The beginning of life, for example, just won’t repeat itself so we can test our theories. In the customary language of science, theories of origins (origin science) cannot be falsified by empirical test if they are false, as can theories of operation science.
How then are origins investigated? The method of approach is appropriately modified to deal with unrepeatable singular events. The investigation of origins may be compared to sleuthing an unwitnessed murder, as discussed in Chapter 11. Such scenarios of reconstruction may be deemed plausible or implausible. Hypotheses of origin science, however, are not empirically testable or falsifiable since the datum needed for experimental test (namely, the origin) is unavailable. In contrast to operation science where the focus is on a class of many events, origin science is concerned with a particular event, i.e., a class of one.
When Galileo’s ideas on acceleration (operation science) were presented, observers were not limited to mere plausibility. They could actually empirically falsify the claims of Galileo had they been false. Indeed Pasteur’s falsification of spontaneous generation was possible only because it was said to recur in the domain of operation science. Appropriate testing against nature falsified the notion of spontaneous generation. The best we can ever hope to achieve with wrong ideas about origins is to render them implausible. By the nature of the case, true falsification is out of the question.
In spite of this fundamental difference between origin science and operation science, there is today very little recognition of it, and an almost universal convention of excluding the divine from origin science as well as from operation science. This has occurred without any careful prior analysis of the problem to see if the exclusion is valid in the case of origin science. It seems to have been merely assumed. . . .
There are significant and far-ranging consequences in the failure to perceive the legitimate distinction between origin science and operation science. Without the distinction we inevitably lump origin and operation questions together as if answers to both are sought in the same manner and can be equally known. Then, following the accepted practice of omitting appeals to divine action in recurrent nature, we extend it to origin questions too. The blurring of these two categories partially explains the widely held view that a divine origin of life must not be admitted into the scientific discussion, lest it undermine the motive to inquire and thus imperil the scientific enterprise.20
This is even more clearly seen on page 206:
Why then is Special Creation so summarily dismissed by nearly all writers, especially since it is typically listed as a theoretical alternative for the origin of life? Our analysis suggests that failure to properly distinguish origin science and operation science has led many to dismiss creation.21
But these examples are not isolated incidents; even secular textbooks and online classes make such statements regarding historical science and how it differs from operational or experimental science. Geology is one such example, in which physical geology is differentiated from historical geology in a number of secular sources.
Geology is traditionally divided into two broad areas. Name and describe these two subdivisions.
These are physical and historical geology, often taught as separate, introductory courses in a one-year sequence. Physical geology deals with the materials (minerals, rocks, water, etc.) that comprise Earth; with processes of rock formation and decomposition; with how surface morphology is altered by the various agents of erosion; and with how rocks deform, lands are uplifted or lowered, continents moved, and ocean basins opened and closed through tectonic forces and lithospheric plate movements.
Historical geology places origins of rock masses, integrated effects of geologic processes, interpretations of ancient environments and life forms, and past tectonic movements into the chronological framework of the geologic time scale. Thus geology is an historical science; passage of time and evolutionary concepts are vitally important.22
Geology is divided into two broad areas—physical geology and historical geology.
Geology is divided into two broad areas—physical geology and historical geology. Physical geology includes the examination of the materials that make up Earth and the possible explanations for the many processes that shape our planet. Processes below the surface create earthquakes, build mountains, and produce volcanoes. In contrast to physical geology, the aim of historical geology is to understand Earth’s long history.
Historical geology tries to establish a timeline of the vast number of physical and biological changes that have occurred in the past. . . . We study physical geology before historical geology because we must first understand how Earth works before we try to unravel its past.23
The discipline of geology is generally divided into two broad areas—physical geology and historical geology. Physical geology is the study of Earth materials, such as minerals and rocks, as well as the processes operating within Earth and on its surface. Historical geology examines the origin and evolution of Earth, its continents, oceans, atmosphere, and life.24
It is evident from the above quotes that historical geology is differentiated from physical geology, and this from college textbooks or online testing sources. It should now be readily apparent that the charge that YECs merely invented and exclusively use these “historical” or “origin” terms for nefarious reasons is debunked. But what about the contention that YECs claim that we can know nothing about the past from science? This claim can also be falsified, as many articles on our website confirm.
For example, the usefulness of forensic science is detailed here. The humanity of Neanderthals was predicted by creation researchers, based on Scripture and its history, corroborated by collected fossils, and confirmed by genetics. Secular researchers have even reluctantly admitted (but were surprised to learn) that those who reject evolution still have a high regard for science.
We don’t ignore evidence, or throw up our hands and say anything in the past is unknowable, but we interpret the evidence in light of revealed history.
We have often stated that it is the interpretation of past events that is the point of contention, not the past itself being “unknowable.” It may be helpful here to reiterate our view that we seek to understand these things through the examination of the physical evidence in light of the revelation of Scripture and the constraints Scripture gives. We don’t ignore evidence, or throw up our hands and say anything in the past is unknowable, but we interpret the evidence in light of revealed history. Articles about the formation of the Grand Canyon, the Channeled Scablands, and the fossil record all point to this. In the past year, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we have written articles on its importance and on key figures like Luther and Zwingli. These are hardly things to be written about if we claimed that the past was unknowable. Our point being that we have historical documents and records of eyewitnesses which confirm and testify of past events. This has bearings on origins, as we have the eyewitness account of the One who created all things—that being the historical record of Scripture.
Ultimately the only “wedge issue” from those who accept a biblical account of creation is that of who are you going to believe? Man’s word or God’s Word? Without God’s Word, we have no basis for morality, sanctity of life, freedom, hope, or purpose, and no foundation for understanding the history of the earth and the universe. And, most importantly, without God’s Word, we don’t have the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. Charges of supposedly invented or misused terminology are thinly veiled attempts to distract and conflate this most-important issue.
Ibid., 546–547. “I do not believe in the slightest degree that these resemblances [between natural history and cultural history] are “mere” analogies and empty and misleading. That may be true from the point of view of processual, experimental science. From the point of view of historical science, however, or history, or the historical approach to the world, they are obviously of methodological significance, because corresponding objectives involve corresponding methods.
“I am not trying to assert that these two approaches can never meet, still less than they are in any sense in conflict. Ultimately, and so far as possible at all times, they should supplement each other. The degree to which astronomy has profited by leaning on and borrowing from experimental science is a case in point. But, precisely if they are to cooperate, it seems that they should recognize and tolerate each other’s individuality. It is hard to see good coming out of a mixture of approaches whose aims are different. . . .”
“A little reflection will show that all historical procedure is in the nature of a reconstruction; and that no historical determination is sure in the sense that determinations in physical science are sure; that is, objectively verifiable. Historical determinations are in their essence subjective findings; and at best they only approximate truth or certainty. They differ from one another in seeming more or less probably true, the criterion being the degree of completeness with which a historical interpretation fits into the totality of phenomena; or if one like, into the totality of historical interpretations of phenomena.”
Young-earth creationists Henry Morris and John Whitcomb in their 1961 groundbreaking book, The Genesis Flood, alluded to some delineation between what they refer to as “experimental science” and “historical geology”:
“The uniform and dependable operation or natural processes is the foundation of modern experimental science, without which, indeed, modern science as we know it would be quite impossible.
“But historical geology is unique among the sciences in that it deals with events that are past, and therefore not reproducible. Since presumably no human observers were present to record and study these events of the past (actually, the only human observers—Noah and his family—recorded that the events were catastrophic!), it thus is impossible to ever prove that they were brought about by the same processes of nature that we can measure at present.” John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1961), 131.