The Age of Dinosaur Bones, Part 2: Investigations of Flood Geology

dino

It is the glory of God to conceal things, and the glory of kings is to search them out. – Proverbs 25

In my previous post, I explained how I read a new book about dinosaurs that made me think about possibilities regarding the age of the earth in new ways, especially regarding the origins of fossils and the distributions in which we find them. I went researching what young-earth creationists had to say about explaining this distribution via Noah’s flood.

I found a long and fascinating history of flood geology compiled by Davis Young, an old-earth Christian. In his narrative, Christians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began exploring scientific evidence to support Noah’s flood. But by the nineteenth century, naturalists began to uncover evidence they believed could not be explained by “soft sediments deposited together at the same time” in a single deluge:

The discontinuities between groupings of strata implied periodic interruption by uplifts and deposition by causes other than the flood…

Hutton pointed out the phenomenon of the angular unconformity, a situation in which relatively horizontal rocks overlie the evidently eroded edges of steeply tilted layers… The older strata had been consolidated, tilted on edge, uplifted toward the surface, eroded to form a land surface, then submerged beneath the sea and buried under newly deposited marine sediments…

They began to adopt an old-earth view that most of the rock layers and their fossils were laid down over a long time, with Noah’s flood contributing the final surface-level features. Further discoveries suggested some of the surface features were better explained by slowly receding glaciers. William Buckland, a prominent diluvialist (global flood proponent) who was skeptical of glacial theories, went on a “field trip” “hoping to discount [Louis] Agassiz’s ideas,” only to be convinced by the evidence he saw and become one of several diluvialists to renounce his earlier views.

Young describes Christians of the 1800’s wrestling with doubts that the increasing numbers of known extinct species could really have fit on the Ark1. Some felt that the successful post-Flood migrations of thousands of animals with very specific diets and habitats would have required an unrecorded miracle rivaling the resurrection of Jesus2. A global flood that deposited most of the earth’s sediment and fossils was replaced with a smaller, local one.

Young claims that such an interpretation had been discussed by orthodox scholars like Bishop Stillingfleet and Matthew Poole back in the 1600’s, long before geology made it convenient, on the basis that if all humanity was still living in Mesopotamia they could have been destroyed without flooding the entire geographical globe. (I was surprised to hear a couple years ago that even modern creationist Hank “Bible Answer Man” Hanegraaf considers a local flood plausible; see also an extended case made by Godandscience.org.).

One thing I found fascinating about this narrative was that it all happened before 1860, i.e. before Darwin. Young claims these early “orthodox Christians” were excited about natural discoveries, not to find reasons to disprove the Bible, but to help them better interpret it:

Because the Christian naturalists of the era were unafraid of God-given evidence, they recognized that extrabiblical information provided a splendid opportunity for closer investigation of the biblical text in order to clear up earlier mistakes in interpretation.

If anything, Young seems to think some of them were biased in favor of traditional interpretations until their observations convinced them otherwise. I thought of young-earth creationists, who tend to lump evolution and an old earth together, with Noah’s global flood as the fossil-producing linchpin. In our enthusiasm to rescue God from modern science, are we throwing the work of early Christian geologists out with the evolutionary bathwater, turning the theological clock back, not to 1860, but to a century before? I knew what Ken Ham and his camp had to say about Darwin. Did they have anything to say about Lyell and Buckland?

Yes, quite a bit, actually. I found two articles at Answers In Genesis by Terry Mortenson, one which seems to be a much shorter version of the other. I find it amusing how diametrically opposed many aspects of the narratives are between the old-earth and young-earth writers. While Young highlights quotes from certain geologists to show how Christian they were, Mortenson highlights quotes from other geologists he calls “deists” and “vague theists” to show that they “were NOT unbiased, objective pursuers of truth.” (It reminds me of the old quote-mining debate about whether the Founding Fathers were committed Bible-believing Christians or merely nominal theists who thought religion was useful for generating moral citizens.) It may be true that these geologists weren’t unbiased, although I think young-earthers should be careful of the No True Scotsman fallacy; if you pre-determine that “true” Christians must believe in a young earth, then anyone who concludes otherwise is not a true Christian by definition.

More interesting is the narrative about how the old-earth beliefs came about. Moretenson describes Lyell’s “radical uniformitarianism in which he insisted that only present-day processes of geological change at present-day rates of intensity and magnitude should be used to interpret the rock record of past geological activity.” It’s interesting how central uniformitarianism is to Mortenson’s narrative and how completely absent it is from Young’s. Young creates the impression that Lyell’s beliefs were simply based on the evidence he uncovered. Mortenson creates the impression that Lyell’s beliefs started with an assumption that “past” sediments were laid down at slow “present” rates. He claims Hutton “ruled out supernatural creation and the unique global Flood, as described in Genesis, before he ever looked at the rocks,” and implies that Lyell and others did the same; his shorter article asserts their bias without acknowledging they had any evidence at all, which I consider almost inexcusable. (Here I am reminded of the critics who accuse intelligent designists of starting with creationist assumptions, but when I actually read their work, it feels to me like they are reasoning objectively from evidence. Perhaps I need to read Lyell’s Principles of Geology for myself.)

Mortenson’s longer article, while it also decries the “philosophical assumptions” behind “uniformitarian methodological naturalism,” does mention evidence as well, and this is where things get really interesting.

There were several reasons most geologists at this time believed the Earth was much older than 6,000 years and the Noachian Flood was not the cause of the Secondary and Tertiary formations… Some strata had clearly formed from the violent destruction of older strata… different strata contained different fossils… evidence that faults and dislocations occurred after the induration of many strata implied a lapse of time between their formation and that of overlying strata. Finally, man was apparently only found fossilized in the most recent strata…

I was glad to see Mortenson discussing the evidence here, but I found his response fairly disappointing. He primarily casts uncertainty on fossil layer identification by setting up the claim that geologists rely heavily on shells as index fossils, and then casting all manner of doubt that such shells are reliable index fossils.

Since shells made up the vast majority of fossils, they had a great, if not singular, importance for old-earth geologists… William Smith, the “Father of English Stratigraphy,” based his depiction of the geological column primarily on shells, which constituted the great majority of the fossils he listed in works on the geological record.. But he admitted that he did not know much about shell creatures…

Mortenson spends paragraph after paragraph arguing that shell indexing has lots of problems yet is still very important today. Overall he makes a good case, especially regarding the way living fossils and other discoveries cast doubt on our ability to reliably limit fossils to narrow time periods. If index fossils – not radiometric dating – are used to identify a significant proportion of dinosaur-bearing layers, and if there are reasonable doubts about index fossil knowledge, that could provide comfortable room for doubting that dinosaurs are truly found as consistently in the layers we say they are (though that would still have to be weighed against the probabilities of never finding other “wrong” animals with them3).

However, I found Mortenson’s response to the lack of man in older layers to be pretty weak. He essentially simply claims, “Absence of fossil remains does not demand its nonexistence.” It is true we cannot 100% prove a creature did not live in a time period just because we have found no fossils in the associated layer; the coelacanth is a great example of that. But that doesn’t tell us where the evidence suggests we lie on the spectrum between 0% and 99%. As I mentioned earlier, if a high enough volume of fossils in enough geographical locations are found only in certain layers, does that imply that the probability they existed during a different time period is similar to getting an airplane from a tornado in a junkyard?

Answers In Genesis writers understand this principle very well when they claim evolution predicts a fossil record “bursting” with transitional forms. Evolutionists claim we do have lots of transitionals, and everyone debates about what counts and whether it’s enough. If evolutionists instead simply said, “Absence of fossil remains does not demand its nonexistence,” creationists would rightfully be little amused. In either case, the point is not whether or not we can completely rule out a claim, but whether we can be strongly skeptical of something based on the probability that huge numbers of fossils would distribute themselves the way we find them if that claim was correct.

Most telling, Mortenson’s article contained no response I could see to many of the old-Earth arguments he listed himself, particularly the ideas that “Some strata had clearly formed from the violent destruction of older strata” and that various features “implied a lapse of time between their formation and that of overlying strata.” Given the great space Mortenson devoted to addressing shells, the lack of his response to these points is curious.

So what do we have? One side claims the interpretation of nature is very clear and encourages the other to be more open in their interpretation of Scripture. The other claims the interpretation of Scripture is very clear and encourages the first to be more open in their interpretation of nature. These days I’m pretty comfortable holding both pretty open (though I confess finding it difficult to let go of my attachment to interpreting Job’s behemoth and leviathan as contemporary dinosaurs.)

It’s interesting to explore how Christians have reacted to these geological findings over the last century and a half. In the 1800’s, there were “scriptural geologists” who defended the traditional interpretation. Young claims they went back to global-flood arguments that had been abandoned a century earlier without explaining the evidence that had caused others to abandon them. Mortenson’s defense of them suggests Young may not be giving them a fair shake, but he seems to be playing right into Young’s hand himself – in the one article implying there was no evidence for old-earth and in the other explicitly listing evidence for old-earth and declining to address it.

On the other hand, Mortenson claims the old-earthers never explained how to harmonize the Bible with their theories. Young claims that while the geologists themselves may not have, there were a number of Christian scholars who did, including John Pye Smith, Edward Hitchock, and Hugh Miller. He goes into some detail, though not enough to say whether or not Mortenson would find them satisfactory (he doesn’t discuss any of the classic corroborative verses outside Genesis, for example). But they seem to have been satisfactory enough for the people of the day; Ronald Numbers claims in The Creationists that even most Christians who called themselves creationists, antievolutionists, and fundamentalists accepted fossil layers from an old earth well into the 1900’s. In this version of history, belief in six-day creation by this time was mostly limited to the Seventh Day Adventists (which other denominations tend to treat as quasi-fringe). The only real promoter of the time was adventist George McCready Price, who claimed to have witnessed the literal creation in a vision, until the 1960’s when Whitcomb and Morris expanded on his arguments in their famous The Genesis Flood and kickstarted the modern young-earth creationist movement.

It would be nice to find more details about what percentage of Christians in each denomination truly believed in an old earth in the early 1900’s, the specifics of what they believed about it, and how they read the Scripture verses that modern YEC’s use to argue against those views. But it’s tantalizing to consider in light of Mortenson’s emphasis on the “dangers” of “compromise” with what he sees as the clear interpretation of Scripture. His shorter article includes the Answers In Genesis graphic that suggests that abandoning young-earth creationism leads to “pornography,” “abortion,” and “family break-up,” among other things. It would be ironic if these social ills were not as bad several decades ago when more Americans were “compromising” their beliefs about creation than today.

To be fair to Mortenson and the young-earth camp, these were just two articles (though a good hour’s worth of reading), and it would be unfair to assume they represent the strongest responses of Answers In Genesis, or of flood geologists more generally. Perhaps I will add The Genesis Flood to my reading list, right after Principles of Geology. I would love to have a greater understanding of how dinosaur fossils are dated, and how strong the layer consistency really is, as well as understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the best flood geology interpretations. I am particularly interested in further details about what convinced those early geologists that various layers could not have been deposited anywhere near the same time, and what flood-geology has to say about that. Hopefully I can come across information that is easy to understand before things get so complex that my eyes glaze over and I run back to my other hobbies and commitments. But perhaps I can maintain my interest farther than I would otherwise by focusing on dinosaurs, which are intrinsically so awesome and interesting…


1I’ve always heard confident assertions that calculations show the Ark had plenty of room for animals, especially if the big ones were young and you properly adjust for the speciation that could have occurred after the Flood. But as I read the Dinosaurs book, with the continual discoveries of new species, it struck me that I’ve never seen the actual numbers behind those calculations. Surely there must be some limit to how many now-extinct species we can keep adding to it?

2I used to never have a problem appealing to a “God of the gaps” for details like this; if we already accept some miracle for the global Flood, why not more? But it does strike me as valid to ask, if we have to appeal to giant miracles for almost every single unmentioned aspect of the story, why did Noah need to naturally store and feed the animals in the first place? And if we say it was just because God wanted to teach Noah, or us, something, that feels to me like we’re inching remarkably close to the metaphorical justifications of our more liberal brethren.

3I suppose another tactic would be to dispute that we’ve never found mixed-up fossils. An initial search suggests that Creation Ministries International regards claims of intermingled man-dinosaur footprints as false.

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