The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood
David R. Montgomery
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
320 pp., $26.95
Science in Focus: Rodney L. Stiling
The Rocks Don't Lie, Part 2
David R. Montgomery reports that his original intention in his The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood was "to present a straightforward refutation of creationism" and its foundational claim (known as "Flood Geology") that both the earth's vast and deep geological record as well as its surface morphology were formed by the Genesis Flood several (but not too many) thousands of years ago. Yet another such refutation would have been seen as superfluous: indeed, Young Earth creationism in general, and Flood Geology in particular, already essentially stand refuted, however strong their hold on some Christians. Physics, astronomy, cosmology, earth sciences, life sciences, and—most devastatingly—history (not to mention theology) have independently and symphonically set these claims to rest.
But Montgomery explains that, as he plunged more deeply into his subject, instead of "the standard conflict of science and faith," he discovered "a much richer story." An accomplished and widely traveled earth scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, Montgomery guides the reader on a lively tour through geography, earth history, geomorphology, literature, anthropology, church history, biblical criticism, and history of science.
Neither the stratigraphic structure nor the erosive sculpturing of Arizona's magnificent Grand Canyon can possibly be explained by a single process, Montgomery convincingly demonstrates. Sedimentation requires calm water, solidification requires time and pressure, erosion requires moving water. All these in a single year, as inferred from the text of Genesis? Surely not, he argues. Montgomery takes us to Scotland, home of many important geological theorists, to the famous Siccar Point, where the juxtaposition of very distinctive sedimentary formations calls attention to the unfathomable well of time required both to create them and to position them. Such imposing phenomena could not have been formed recently or rapidly. And so it goes, example following example. To that extent, in the end, the volume does succeed as a repudiation of Flood Geology and Young Earth creationism.
But Montgomery wishes to do more. He wants to give readers the history of geology, the history of science-and-Scripture tensions, and especially the history of modern creationism (the new Creation Museum in Kentucky gets a once-over). Montgomery thus joins a recent train of professional earth scientists who seek to connect various geomorphological features to various human flood stories or even to the Genesis Flood account.
This makes for interesting reading. The great Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet, Montgomery writes, seems very likely to have been carved by a catastrophic glacial lake outburst flood at the close of the last ice epoch that stands within the horizon of human memory. Likewise, the Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington state were most certainly formed by the breaching of the ice dam that contained glacial Lake Missoula some thousands of years ago, and may connect with Nez Perce or Shoshone legends. Similarly the repeated catastrophic draining of glacial Lake Agassiz in central North America may connect with an Ojibwa legend. And, most tantalizing, the Black Sea may have been formed by a breach of a land barrier in the Bosporus a few thousand years ago and may even have provided some human historical connection with the actual Genesis account. Other researchers have connected the formation of the Caspian Sea or the shape of the Mississippi Valley to outburst floods that stand within human memory, and planetary geologists, upon noting patterns of wear on Mars that resemble those caused by catastrophic flooding on earth, have postulated a past era of flooding on Mars and named it the "Noachian Epoch." Some scientists just can't let go of Noah's Flood.
Despite its numerous successes, The Rocks Don't Lie harbors some problems. The further the narrative moves from empirical earth science, the more pronounced the problems become, and readers new to these topics could be confused or misled. Montgomery's historical and literary sections feel hasty, sometimes overly simplistic, and too generalized. Theological conclusions are drawn with the wave of a hand. Far too often, key claims go uncited, leaving the reader with little recourse to follow up. Worse, Montgomery relies on Andrew Dickson White's wildly polemical and demonstrably unreliable A History of the Warfare with Theology in Christendom (1896) to tell him about Luther and Calvin and Galileo. There are maddening historical misfires (unconformities, shall we call them?), aggravating generalizations and leaps, and frustrating propositions: "Even scientists today," Montgomery writes, "are not immune to interpreting evidence, at least initially, through the lens of prevailing ideas and their preconceived notions." As if it is humanly possible initially to interpret any new data of any kind in any other way. One hopes that such missteps will not weaken the credibility of Montgomery's overall good effort here, and readers are encouraged to push on to learn all they can from his valuable geological discussions.
The career of Flood Geology, since the late 19th century, stands as an essentially American story, and Montgomery retells it reasonably well. Absent from his story, however, is the critical American geological preface to all this in the significant work of American geologists Benjamin Silliman, Edward Hitchcock, James Dwight Dana, and others, who, while devout and sincere Christians, had already successfully worked out systems for understanding the earth as unspeakably ancient and the Genesis Flood as limited and regional, while still affirming the truth of the Bible. The loss of this view later in the century represents a serious episode for thinking people to consider, especially in view of the important work of John William Dawson, Arnold Guyot, and George Frederick Wright later in the century in integrating modern theoretical geology with adaptive interpretations of the Bible. These latter players are also missing from the narrative.
The worthy and valuable service that Montgomery performs here is one of orientation and overview, most especially for "general audience" readers (his stated target) new to these discussions. His volume stands thus both as a précis of the issues and as an introduction to the vast literature on this subject. Montgomery does invite his readers (via the "Sources" at the back) to the larger corpus, and interested readers should next move directly to the substantial work of Ronald L. Numbers, Davis A. Young, Martin J. S. Rudwick, Nicolaas A. Rupke, Janet Browne, and Charles Coulston Gillispie, for openers. (Sadly, these last three important scholars do not appear in the list.)
A "fresh approach," as promised on the dust-jacket? Perhaps. Here stands a highly accomplished geoscientist situated at a state university who is taking seriously the intellectual history of an interesting (if bizarre) claim about the very history and material constitution of the physical earth. And he does so in a genial, chatty (almost jaunty), and casual tone (lots of contractions, first-person recollections, witty turns of phrase)—almost as if he would actually like to keep the faith-and-science conversation going. Now that would indeed be fresh. And most heartily welcome.
Rodney L. Stiling teaches history of science at Seattle Pacific University.
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