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The evolution of creationism-evidence of creationism theory

The evolution of creationism
David R. Montgomery, Quaternary Research Center and Dept. of (354-413), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and John Calvin (1509-
Earth and Space Sciences, Box 351310, University of Washington, 1564) all endorsed reason as the way to learn about the world.
Seattle, Washington 98195-1310, USA, dave@ess.washington.edu Augustine was among the first to caution against advocating for
biblical interpretations that conflicted with what one could
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed observe for oneself. Centuries later, Aquinas praised the pursuit of
us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their knowledge and insight gained from experience reading God's
use. --Galileo Galilei other book--nature.
Writing at the time of the Reformation, Calvin, too, considered
ABSTRACT the revelations of both nature and the Bible as fundamental
truths. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), Calvin
For centuries, natural philosophers, their scientific successors, explicitly embraced the idea of respecting natural truths revealed
and theologians alike sought to explain the physical and natural through the study of nature: "If we regard the Spirit of God as the
world. The now common cultural narrative of perpetual conflict sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor
between science and religion simplifies the arguments and despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the
struggles of the past and overlooks cross-pollination between Spirit of God" (McNeill, ed., 1960, p. 273-274).
those who embraced faith and reason as the keys to understanding Calvin believed in keeping an open mind when it came to
earth history. When geologists unequivocally dismissed the idea evaluating what we can learn about the natural world from
of a global flood and recognized Earth's antiquity, many observation and experience. In his view, closing one's eyes to the
conservative theologians acknowledged that there was more to the way the world works was to close one's eyes to God.
past than literally spelled out in Genesis, the opening chapter of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin all believed that Noah's Flood
the Bible. But some Christians--those we now call creationists-- was a global flood. They interpreted fossil seashells found in rocks
rejected this perspective and chose to see geology as a threat to as compelling proof--how else could the bones of marine
their faith. In so doing, they abandoned faith in reason and cast creatures have ended up entombed in rocks high in the
off a long-standing theological tradition that rocks don't lie. mountains?
Biblical interpretations accommodated new discoveries as
INTRODUCTION knowledge of the natural world grew, because theologians adhered
The story of historical views on Noah's Flood shows how there to the principle that God's works in the natural world could not
is far more to the story of the relationship between science and conflict with His Word in the Bible. Generation after generation
religion than the simple portrayal of a long-running feud of natural philosophers slowly uncovered facts inconsistent with a
(Gillespie, 1951; Glacken, 1967; Davies, 1969; Rudwick, 2005; global flood, making it increasingly implausible to understand
Montgomery, 2012). By the end of the nineteenth century, earth history in ways consistent with traditional literal
conservative Christians generally accepted that there was no interpretations of the Bible.
geological support for reading Noah's Flood as a globe-wrecking
deluge and that natural revelations established by science should FINDING TIME
guide biblical interpretation. Even the original fundamentalists In 1669, when Steno, the venerated grandfather of geology, laid
accepted geologic evidence that contradicted the view of a six-day down his principles for reading the rock record, he interpreted his
creation followed by Noah's Flood as all there was to earth history observations of the Tuscan landscape as recording six stages, one
(Numbers, 1993). But the forerunners of modern creationists of which corresponded to Noah's Flood (Fig. 1). Steno's insights
chose to defend their preferred literal reading of scripture no framed how to read earth history directly from the rocks. In
matter what the rocks revealed. Dismissing the findings of arguing that the Flood laid down strata that subsequently
geologists, they rejected reason in the name of faith. In this sense, collapsed to form today's topography, Steno indirectly introduced
modern creationism evolved in response to geological discoveries. the idea of tectonic controls on landforms, a foundational concept
The following brief review traces aspects of this story to illustrate of modern geomorphology.
how geological debates evolved into theological schisms anchored Steno's little book, with its simple diagrams, formalized how to
by creationist views with no scientific currency. read earth history using the basic principles of geometry. The key
FAITH IN NATURE wasn't the underlying mathematical symmetry astronomers found
in the heavens; it was simple rules based on what one could see for
For the first millennium of Christianity, major theologians oneself. Before Steno, only a curious few read beyond the cover of
embraced knowledge of the natural world in order to defend nature's great book to ponder the relationship between rocks and
against pagan challenges to biblical authority. Saint Augustine the lay of the land.
GSA Today, v. 22, no. 11, doi: 10.1130/GSATG158A.1.
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A century later, geologic history began to challenge theological
1 4 tradition after discoveries like James Hutton's unconformity,
F G F G separating two distinct sandstones, at Siccar Point (Fig. 2)
B A C demonstrated that Earth's history was too complicated to be
accounted for by a single flood, no matter how big. Mainstream
theologians willing to allow that there was more to the geological
story than laid out in the Bible, and that the days of creation may
have been allegorical, were less inclined to give up on the reality of
2 5 a global flood. Many believed that the biblical flood inaugurated
F G F G the most recent geological age. The lack of human remains in
B A C rocks thought to pre-date the flood was widely considered to
confirm this view.
Although it is commonly assumed that eighteenth-century
Christian theologians were opposed to science, some orthodox
churchmen openly accepted the idea that Earth was ancient. In
3 6 1785, the Reverend James Douglas presented A Dissertation on the
F G F G Antiquity of the Earth to the Royal Society. Douglas noted that
I B C sound geological observations supported the idea that the world
A D was much older than the traditional 6000 years inferred from
biblical interpretation: "Many well-informed persons have
therefore been inclined to suppose that the earth was created in
six expanses of time instead of six days" (p. 40).
Figure 1. Steno's six-stage model for the formation of the landscape around By 1800, the question under debate among natural philosophers
Florence, involving (1) precipitation of fossil-free sedimentary rocks into a was whether Earth was tens of thousands or millions of years old.
universal ocean; (2) excavation by fire or water of great subterranean caverns;
(3) collapse of undermined continents and the inundation of newly formed Some, however, refused to consider geologic evidence and simply
valleys in a great flood (Noah's Flood); (4) deposition of layered sedimentary rejected an old Earth outright. In his Genius of Christianity (1802),
rocks containing fossils as the floodwaters receded; (5) renewed undermining Fran?ois-Ren? de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) argued that God
of younger rocks in valleys; and (6) a final round of collapse to create modern "created the world with all the marks of antiquity and decay"
topography. Letters serve to identify the same locations or rock layers in (Roberts, 2007, p. 43). This new idea that God made the world to
successive panels. appear ancient--and therefore one could not investigate earth
history by studying Earth itself--broke with tradition and
garnered little support in the nineteenth century.
TESTIMONY OF THE ROCKS
In his influential Natural Theology (1802), Reverend William
Paley echoed Aquinas and argued that because the Bible and nature
shared the same author, scientific revelations that contradicted
biblical interpretations provided natural guidance for better
interpreting scripture. As realization grew that the world was
unimaginably old, those seeking to reconcile biblical interpretation
with geological findings employed two primary arguments. The
day-age theory held that each day in the biblical week of creation
corresponded to a geologic or cosmic age. The other theory, known
as the gap theory, held that God created the world long ago but
remodeled it for human use a few thousand years ago. The time in
between wasn't recorded in the Bible, creating an indeterminate gap
between the first two verses of Genesis.
In 1807, London's Geological Society was founded to promote
the elevation of facts and observations over imaginative theories.
Central to the issue of whether a global flood shaped the world
was the question of what carved valleys. Did topography form
beneath the waters of a great flood, or did rivers slowly cut their
own paths? Studies of regional geology were seen as key to such
fundamental questions.
Figure 2. James Hutton's unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland--the contact In his inaugural address to the Princeton Theological Seminary in
between the gently inclined Devonian Old Red Sandstone and vertically 1812, Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) promoted the need for
dipping Silurian graywacke that established a compelling case for the vast
scope of geologic time. The expanse of time required to uplift and erode the scientific literacy among those preparing for the ministry. Alexander
two mountain ranges that were the source for the sand in these deposits was noted that natural history, and geology in particular, could help
unimaginable to Hutton. Photo by David R. Montgomery. resolve difficult or ambiguous Bible passages. He preached that
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Christians should respect truth in all its forms because failure to take generate a devastating flood in humanity's ancestral homeland. In
heed of scientific knowledge would only breed contempt for believers 1863, the Dictionary of the Bible dismissed the notion of a
and hinder the spreading of the Gospel. universal flood and argued that a local flood in the lower valley of
At the same time, geologists moved the search for evidence of the Euphrates River provided a reasonable interpretation
Noah's Flood out of the rocks and up into surficial deposits and compatible with scripture. Many nineteenth-century
the form of topography as they continued to see the biblical deluge Christians--geologists and archaeologists among them--
as a geologically significant event. In his Reliquiae Diluvianae concluded that the biblical flood story described a devastating
(Relics of the Flood, 1823) Oxford's first geology professor, Mesopotamian flood.
Reverend William Buckland, gathered facts thought to Forerunners of modern creationists adopted a different
demonstrate the reality of a global flood. He described great approach. In 1857, Philip Henry Gosse, a leading British
accumulations of bones he believed were deposited by an naturalist, published Omphalos ("bellybutton" in Greek), in which
enormous flood "immediately antecedent to the formation of he argued that Earth's apparent antiquity was an illusion. In his
those superficial and almost universal deposits of loam and gravel, view, all the world's strata, fossils, and even fossil footprints were
which seems impossible to account for unless we ascribe them to a created at the same time, along with glacial furrows and polished
transient deluge, affecting universally, simultaneously, and at no rocks, evidence for the retreat of Niagara Falls, and mammoth
very distant period, the entire surface of our planet" (Buckland, bones gnawed by wolves. Confident he had the answer for the
1823, p. 146). geological problems of the age of the world and the effects of the
Buckland went on to admire the way in which originally Flood, like Chateaubriand, he too thought God simply made the
horizontal strata were inclined such that mineral deposits and world to look old. Geologic evidence of past epochs of earth
coal were accessible to miners, as well as how convenient it was history was created to appear as if "all the preceding eras of its
that fertile soils were found in flat valley bottoms. Like many of history had been real" (Gosse, 1857, p. 351).
his contemporaries, he thought geological evidence confirmed the Gosse argued that because all organic life exists in a cycle of
Genesis stories and showed how well the world was designed for birth, growth, decline, and death, everything must have started
human use. somewhere within this cycle back at the Creation. Adam was not
After several decades studying Europe's rocks and surficial created as a fertilized embryo, for he had no mother. Gosse
deposits, Buckland eventually admitted to having let his professed that as surely as the first man had a bellybutton, trees
imagination run wild in his zeal to defend a global flood. He were created with rings and rocks with fossils. Victorian minds
formally reversed course when he was asked to prepare a volume ridiculed mercilessly his idea that God preloaded fossils into rocks
in a series of treatises illustrating "the power, wisdom, and back at the original Creation.
goodness of God, as manifested in the creation," which was
commissioned by the will of the Earl of Bridgewater. In his 1836 THE ROOTS OF CREATIONISM
volume, Buckland acknowledged new geological discoveries that The roots of modern creationism run directly back to George
contradicted his earlier views. There was no geological evidence of McCready Price (1870-1963), an amateur geologist with no
a global flood after all. formal training. In a book designed to look like a geology
Shortly after Buckland's recantation, Louis Agassiz invoked textbook, Price (1923) asserted that there was no order to the fossil
stray boulders in the Swiss Alps, grooved rock outcrops, and record. Rejecting the idea of fossil succession, he argued that the
scratches on the underside of a rock overhang near Edinburgh to succession of organisms that geologists read in the fossil record
convince geologists that most of the evidence traditionally was really just a mixed-up sampling of communities that lived in
interpreted as resulting from a global flood actually recorded a different parts of the antediluvian world. He considered the fossil
flood of ice. record too incomplete to confidently reconstruct the past, citing
Particularly compelling was Charles Lyell's argument that the the occasional discovery of animals thought to be extinct and
cinder cones of southern France were too fragile to have survived known only from fossils.
a global flood. Deep valleys were incised into hard lava flows that Leading fundamentalists praised Price's book, calling it a "great
could be traced back to their volcanic source in the cinder cones. and monumental" work of an "up-to-date scientist"--"a
Thus, the valleys must have been carved after the cinder cones masterpiece of real science" by one of "the world's leading
formed. Lyell reasoned that Noah's Flood could not have carved Geologists," and "the sanest, clearest and most irrefutable
the valleys because any flood capable of carving valleys into solid presentation of the Science of Geology from the standpoint of
rock would have swept away the loose cinders that formed the Creation and the Deluge, ever to see the light of day" (Numbers,
volcanic cones. 1992, p. 98). But even some of Price's most ardent supporters had
In the third volume of his Principles of Geology (1833), Lyell questions about his new flood geology. In a 1924 review in the
concluded that Noah's Flood must have been a local or regional evangelical journal Bibliotheca Sacra, the editor credited Price with
affair rather than a global deluge. Perhaps, he proposed, throwing "a wrench into the smooth running machinery of the
catastrophic flooding of a low-lying area like the Caspian Sea may evolutionary theory" but wondered why it was that when fossils were
have been recorded in the biblical flood story. found in the wrong order, they were always in exactly the reverse of
By the late nineteenth century, educated Christians widely that predicted by geologists (Numbers, 1992, p. 95). How could
endorsed the idea of a local flood in response to new geologic strata have gotten flipped upside down after Noah's Flood laid them
evidence. Theologians across denominational bounds endorsed down if the Bible did not mention subsequent catastrophes? Despite
variants of Lyell's Caspian Sea hypothesis as a reasonable way to such qualms, fundamentalist proponents of flood geology were
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What evidence is there to support creationism? There is no scientific evidence to support any creationist theories, whereas “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” ( Dobzhansky, 1973, p. 125). What I will discuss is whether creationist ideas should be discussed in science classrooms.