13 December 2012
“The evolution of creationism,” by David Montgomery
Posted by Callan Bentley
The cover story in the November issue of GSA Today was by David Montgomery, MacArthur “genius” award winner and author of Dirt. Montgomery has a new book out on creationism and “flood geology,” and the article is a précis of the historical roots of creationism that appears in that book. The article is titled “The Evolution of Creationism,” and the book it’s derived from is The Rocks Don’t Lie. I’ve got a review of the book coming out in February’s issue of EARTH Magazine, and I’ll encourage you to buy a copy or subscribe so you can read it. Montgomery’s new book is much more accessible (less dense) than Ron Numbers’ The Creationists, and I think it’s essential reading for anyone engaged in geoscientific outreach. Montgomery has performed a major public service by writing it, and doubled down on the utility of his effort by distilling out some of the essentials in this GSA Today article.
I picked up a couple of new tidbits from the article. One is the preaching of Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), a professor of theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Alexander is remembered today for promoting scientific understanding among the ascendent ministry (particularly with regards to natural history). As Montgomery describes it, Alexander suggested that
Christians should respect truth in all its forms because failure to take heed of scientific knowledge would only breed contempt for believers and hinder the spreading of the Gospel.
This passage struck home with me: The act of religious folks (not exclusively Christians, by the way) ignoring or rejecting scientific insights, logic, and/or evidence does distinctly cause me to feel contempt for them and therefore for their message. If they’re trying to spread any Gospel my way, they just lost the battle, because I can’t take seriously anyone who rejects empiricism, intellectual rigor, or a quest to see the world beyond the stale pages of old books.
Mind-expansion #2 came with Montgomery’s concise summary of the conclusions of Whitcomb & Morris’ “flood geology” (1961):
Their view of earth history was based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. In the beginning, at the Creation, God made Earth’s core and some kind of crust. Rocks that display evidence of internal deformation, like folds or minerals that form only at high pressures or temperatures, date from the First Day. Over the next week, a tremendous amount of geological work was accomplished, especially on the Third Day, when mountains were thrust up and ocean basins were carved out in a great rush of water as the planet was remodeled into a suitable dominion for man. All this erosion and deposition formed the non-fossil–bearing sedimentary rocks and carved mountains into them. Several thousand years later, the Flood ripped up the entire surface of the planet, killed everything not aboard the ark, and laid down fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks. Then the present geological era began after a brief Ice Age caused by all the snow accumulating on freshly uplifted mountains.
Did you read that? That’s crazy. Folds and high-pressure minerals come first, but mountains form later. Ocean basins are erosional features. Erosion and deposition occur simultaneously in the same place. And we haven’t even gotten to the Noachian flood yet… This is utterly lacking in logic or geologic understanding, but it’s permeated through and through with the pre-determined conclusion that the Biblical origin story is literally true. And that’s all that matters to these guys: the laws of physics may be violated in the most egregious fashion, so long as we end up believing what we started with.
Yet, preaching to their choir, Whitcomb & Morris were able to convince conservative Christians that their geological reinterpretation was valid, and the pervasive grip of modern creationism resulted from their efforts. Montgomery again, with a strongly worded passage:
The idea laughed out of Victorian England took root in Cold War America.
The most cutting passage, however, was this one:
Geologists assess theories by how well they fit data, and creationists evaluate facts by how well they fit their theories. This simple distinction frames an unbridgeable intellectual rift.
This statement, particularly that elegant initial sentence, sums up the different approaches to understanding the Earth quite nicely. I would note two other things: (1) Geologists and creationists have fundamentally different ways of understanding – and therefore a geologist cannot be a creationist, and a creationist cannot be a true geologist. They can play at it, and they can present posters at our meetings, but even if the cognitive dissonance isn’t apparent to them, they’re not fooling the rest of us. It should be noted that creationists can make great geologic achievements, as Louis Agassiz did with developing and advocating for the theory of the Ice Age, however, as illuminated in David Dobbs’ Reef Madness, Agassiz was a multiple special creationist*, and advocated fiercely on behalf of a deistic signature to the natural world. He rejected sound science (Darwinian natural selection theory) because of his creationist ideology. By closing his mind to the insights that real science wrought, Agassiz declassified himself as a geologist, and chose the creationist label. He got lucky with the Ice Age, but his creationism seriously tarnished his legacy in my mind. (Oh, wait, am I displaying “contempt for believers,” as theologian Alexander warned? …Only for those whose deism gets in the way of the insights revealed by rational inquiry.) Ideologies are obstacles that block the path that evidence wants to lead us down.
Regarding the second sentence in the last quotation above, I would also note that (2) the phrase “an unbridgeable intellectual rift” is much more strongly and combatively worded than the section of The Rocks Don’t Lie wherein Montgomery discusses the relationship between creationists and geologists. That topic is covered explicitly in the final chapter of the book, which is intentionally conciliatory in tone, and wherein Montgomery suggests we shouldn’t “cling to the rocky shore of science” any more than we should of faith. This was the only part of his book that rang false to me. In his book, Montgomery says science and religion “offer very different ways to assess truth,” but how is truth recorded, if not in facts? Science and religion may indeed offer “different ways to assess truth,” but one succeeds and the other fails. One brings truth to light, while the other is bent on obscuring it. One gets us forever closer to truth, while the other never moves from its foregone conclusions. I’m glad he set the two in starker contrast in this fine article.
Now, go read it.
* “Multiple special creationism” is the belief that God stepped in multiple times in geologic history to create species anew (e.g., after mass extinctions).
I really enjoy following this blog, but I’m slightly saddened to read this particular post. It appears that the suggestion in the GSA article (which I had read previously) and this review is that a geologist cannot be a person of faith. That the two are always at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The majority of the article is careful to remain critical of creationists, which is a specific position (the literal interpretation of Genesis) on a very specific topic encompassed within the broad issues religion provides guidance on. However, there was one particular passage that troubled me…
“One [science] brings truth to light, while the other [religion] is bent on obscuring it. One gets us forever closer to truth, while the other never moves from its foregone conclusions. I’m glad he set the two in starker contrast in this fine article.”
Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but I regret that religion is so whole-heartedly dismissed and those of faith lumped in to a category that claims they reject “intellectual rigor” or refuse “to see the world beyond the stale pages of old books.” Large-scale stereotyping of this kind only continues to perpetuate the “Us vs. Them” mentality and increases contention between these two groups, which these articles seem praise.
I certainly do not want to imply that people of faith are not guilty stereotyping. But is it not the complete and stubborn dismissal of any scientific idea that scientists themselves find so distasteful? Yet here I see scientists displaying that same stubborn dismissal of entire groups of people.
Open and respectful discussion of ideas is something that both sides advocate and practice amongst themselves yet seem to forget in dealing with each other. I hope that we as a society evolve (pun intended) to a state where we can engage in productive conversations concerning the pressing issues that face our society.
Thanks for the comment. Sorry to have saddened you, even slightly.
Yeah, if I wasn’t clear about it, I don’t think that being a scientist and being a person of faith are logically compatible. (They are certainly personally compatible – there are plenty of practicing scientists who are also believers.) But with regards to logical consistency, science requires its practitioners to be open-minded to whatever conclusion makes the most sense of the available data, whereas faith starts with a conclusion that’s not allowed to change, regardless of what the data suggest.
Creationism is a “specific position,” as you note, and I would say that theism is a specific position as well; It is the position that a supernatural being exists.
Some people of faith make for effective scientists, because they research areas in which they are unlikely to find data contradictory to their theism, like hydrology, for instance. An origins-of-life researcher, on the other hand, is going to have a faith-induced mental block (“God did it”) that’s directly in the way of their scientific understanding of the issue. With these examples, the hydrologist of faith may be able to make great contributions, while the origins-of-life-researcher of faith is going to have a much rougher time getting tenure.
I’m not trying to stereotype, however. My goal was to say that faith in a certain conclusion (be it theism, creationism, or even atomic theory, plate tectonics, a Flat Earth, a round Earth, or whatever) gets in the way of science (trusting a process to lead you closer to what actually is, and re-evaluating your conclusions as frequently as possible). Though plenty of people of faith make important scientific contributions, I don’t see how, in the final tally, theism (or any other conclusion being accepted as unshakeable and un-evaluate-able) can square with the attitude that we figure out reality by performing science.
Bottom line: true scientists apply the scientific method to their understanding of all areas of reality, and their minds must remain open to the possibilities that science suggests. People of faith are not open to as many possibilities. For them, some answers will never change, no matter which questions are asked.
Young-Earth Creationists may have closed off more of their minds to science than a non-creationist scientist-of-faith, but the fact remains that the scientist-of-faith has still got at least one conclusion that their faith will never let science re-evaluate for them.
Hope that helps clarify my thinking on this issue.
Thanks again for reading,
Over a decade ago, the Tulsa Geological Society and the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance cosponsored three forums on the topic of evolution. This was in response to religious extremists at the State Capitol, who wanted to teach religion in our science classrooms. Of course, all the mainstream religious leaders who presented positions, including a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim, and a Buddhist, stated that their religious beliefs were consistent with evolution. Only those in the audience from churches with names you have never heard of challenged the panel. I was shocked that at least three local geologists were in the anti-evolution crowd. Did they lie on their exams?
Thanks for your insights. It was an interesting read.
Folks with a strict adherence to science-only truth can be just as hindered as those with an omniscient-revelation truth, just in a different way.
If a candle stick floats across the room, one side will claim that the natural (the candle) is interacting with the supernatural (a ghost), where the other side will say that all things are material and repeatable, therefore, we should be able to make candles float across a room once we figure out what material process is making it happen. Both see each other as fools, and both are biased.
If your really want to open yourself to all options, you will accept that the supernatural explanation may be possible, even if it’s not repeatable. If you don’t do that, you have a bias. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.
Thanks for weighing in!
Okay – so a candle is claimed (a) to be moved by a supernatural phenomenon, and (b) moved by a natural phenomenon. Science is capable of testing the latter, but not the former.
No one needs to call any one a “fool,” and the “ghost” explanation is indeed possible, if ghosts exist and interact with the natural world. There’s never been a shred of incontrovertible evidence to suggest such a thing, of course, but it should be noted that neither has there been any evidence that the Golden Lava Toad of Alpha Centauri carried the candle. So the G.L.T.o.A.C. hypothesis also enters the fray, competing with both the scientifically testable explanation and the “ghost did it” hypothesis.
Oh, and then there is the “Intelligent Candle Auto-Floater” hypothesis, which posits that floating candles are controlled by themselves as sentient beings. The way they express their will is through floating, but in every other physical way, they appear to be inanimate objects (exactly what they want us to think!). I could also formulate a hypothesis about a minor diety from Asia Minor who’s very into flame, and it’s her that’s responsible for the candle’s motion. Or rather than one ghost, it’s two ghosts. Or rather than two ghosts, it’s eight ghosts. Or rather than eight ghosts, it’s a big swarm of ghost army ants.
All of these explanations for the candle’s motion are equally plausible, and equally testable.
Science is biased against any non-testable explanation. That’s what makes it science.
I’m surprised that you’re open to the unscientific options. Not all scientists would be.
The explanation(s) offered are worthy of consideration, if they have any evidence that bolsters them up, rather than being merely superfluous to physical reality. My point is that there are an infinite number of supernatural explanations for any given phenomenon, so why would anyone invest an iota of time giving their pet supernatural notion any credence?
Could be there are ghosts, magic, and the supernatural influencing our world. But I have made a good living as a geologist for forty years, assuming otherwise. I choose to stick with those aspects of my education and experience that have produced good results, time and again.
I think the shit is about to hit the fan big time.
When theory first started out to be proposed and tested in physics in the 17th century, the mere observation that we had repeatable, fixed laws that could substitute for magic in part of a system was a successful achievement.
When thermodynamics came along in the 19th century, it showed us that some systems was entirely devoid of magic. (Local conservation of energy.)
When cosmology started to propose ways that the universe came to be in the 70’s (Hawking, Turok, et al), the mere observation that universes could be spontaneous outcomes was a successful achievement.
The inflationary standard cosmology passed its outstanding test at the end of last year, when inflation in isolation was observed in the last WMAP 9 year data release. This, in my eyes, was the last straw.
It is especially easy to see that our universes is a spontaneous product, as it is flat so the zero energy thermodynamic requirement suggests itself, in at least 4 simple ways. But in fact it seems all universes with a spacetime are such. So now we have Hawking, Krauss et cetera writing books about this.
The 70’s was also about the year when the naturally suggested theory that all of nature is precisely natural could possibly have been tested, if I get my estimate of published numbers of tested local energy conserving systems correct. Anyway, the current cosmology tests that big time – without reasonable doubt there are, and never were, any supernatural mechanisms/agents.
I wouldn’t bet that creationists would move their anti-science interests from biology to physics, since they feel biology is the easier target. If they do, they have to concede unreasonable doubt on a larger scale.
But it is a comforting thought that science, by human’s mere power of observation, managed to obliterate supposedly omnipotent magic within 500 years (counting from the Copernican revolution).
And I think it will be interesting to watch the reactions of the more circumspect believers in belief. They can retreat further into deism, abandoning creationism altogether. But seeing the preliminary outlook from having inflation and the problems to predict particle properties from a Theory Of Everything in LHC, it seems relying on unbiased laws and only one way to put together a universe is a tenuous gap-for-superstition indeed. I’ll give it 10-20 years of expected lifetime.
Was this for me?
I think anyone who has seen an exorcism with their own eyes (observational science!) would not say such things.
Dr. Bentley–There is an error of fact in your article, which I assume to be a typo: 1722 as the birth year for Archibald Alexander. That would give him a life-span of 129 years. His actual birth year is 1772.
Thanks Tina! I fixed it.