Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet
Harvard University Press, 2007
304 pp., $29.95
by Stephen O. Moshier
The Upper Crust
Given his concern over Young Earth creationism, Nield could have explored how this movement adopted plate tectonics. The founding document of modern creationism, The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, was published in 1961, when many mainstream geologists still rejected continental drift. The authors could pretty much ignore the idea. But by the 1990s, Young Earthers were ready to incorporate plate tectonics into flood geology and their abbreviated view of geologic time. They simply sped up the film. The author of a creationist book popular with Christian homeschoolers proposes the "hydroplate" version, in which drift was lubricated by the release of water from a subcrustal layer via the "fountains of the deep" at the beginning of the Genesis Flood. Considering the temperature of water that is expelled from volcanoes (let alone the depths imagined by this scenario), the only safe place for Noah would have been in orbit. A more sophisticated proposal is the "catastrophic plate tectonics" model of Los Alamos geophysicist J. R. Baumgardner, who has a well-deserved international reputation on the modeling of earth-mantle convection (the process that most geoscientists believe drives continental drift). In presentations to the International Conference on Creationism, he cites experimental data on rock physics that indicate extreme weakening of material strength at mantle temperatures (though it appears he ignores other factors, such as pressure). Plugging these variables into a supercomputer, he can make continents drift at rates of meters per second, not centimeters per year (as they are moving now and geoscientists believe they have moved in the past). Here, Nield's warning about confusing scientific models with reality in nature is appropriate. When Baumgardner offers observational support for his model, he completely ignores the geology of the ocean floor (which does not support the predictions of his model) and instead chases fossil red herrings in sedimentary rocks deposited on continental crust.
While Nield's concerns over how creationists abuse science to justify their particular understanding of Scripture are legitimate, his contempt for religion is unjustified by the history of science. Indeed, Nield and too many other contemporary scientist-authors misuse science to justify their naturalism. Let's dispose of that silly idea about religion being bad for science. History shows that good ideas eventually win over bad ideas, exemplified by Wegener's Pangaea. If science is the supercontinent, why can't religion be the ocean?
Stephen O. Moshier is associate professor of geology at Wheaton College.
1. Why ten billion years if the age of the earth is estimated to be roughly 4.5 billion years? Because Nield considers how the geography of the planet might change if it is around for another five billion years.
2. For more on Lemuria, see Philip Jenkins, "Continental Drift,"Books & Culture, May/June 2005, p. 24, a review of Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories (Univ. of California Press, 2004).
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