From the Ark To Evolution

For early natural philosophers—whose ideas would grow into the science of geology—Noah’s Flood explained anomalies in nature, like shell fossils on mountaintops.



Picture a scholarly discipline that investigates the past. Practitioners spend a lot of time sifting through the shards of evidence that have survived the ravages of time. Some remnants are numerous; others are rare, available only in remote places. Most challenging are the gaps in the evidentiary record that must be filled by inference. Through painstaking work, scholars arrive at a consensus while discarding earlier inferences that have solidified into myths, obscuring the true picture rather than revealing it.

Such a scenario might well fit a tweedy historian poring over ancient manuscripts but also, lest we forget, an intrepid geologist doing research with a hammer and a pair of sturdy shoes. Both history and geology are disciplines dedicated to the excavation of what happened in the past, although on vastly different time scales. It is this parallel that animates “The Rocks Don’t Lie,” an idiosyncratic history of our geological understanding by David R. Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington.

Given Mr. Montgomery’s reputation as both a scientist and a writer of popular books (such as “Dirt” from 2003), it is unsurprising that sections of “The Rocks Don’t Lie” present delightful forays into field sites. Mr. Montgomery interprets—that is, explains geologically—landscapes as diverse as the Grand Canyon, the Scablands of eastern Washington state and Siccar Point on the east coast of Scotland, “a natural monument to the unimaginable expanse of time required to account for geologic events.” Such passages are gripping though surprisingly few, and one wishes there were more of them.

Other chapters battle the claims of “creation science,” understood here as an argument positing the recent creation of Earth in six literal days, with Earth’s current topography largely laid down by a cataclysmic global flood. Along the way, Mr. Montgomery mentions other variants of creationism, such as old-Earth theories and gap theories—according to which, respectively, the creation of mankind took place on a much older Earth or there were vast chasms of time between the “days” of Genesis—but these variants are not the focus of his debunking efforts. (He doesn’t mention Intelligent Design, almost certainly because its main arena of scientific engagement is biochemistry, not geology.) The author’s own arguments are spirited and compelling, but his most novel conceit is to frame this intellectual history of geology by giving special attention to Noah’s Flood.

Mr. Montgomery begins his story with the 17th-century investigations of Nicolas Steno, a fascinating Danish Protestant turned Catholic bishop who laid down Steno’s Law of Superposition, the still valid idea “that the oldest sedimentary layers are on the bottom and the youngest are on top.” Like Steno, other natural philosophers who established the principles of what would later become the science of geology did not reject the idea of the Flood but saw it as a central component of their explanations.

The Rocks Don’t Lie

By David R. Montgomery
(Norton, 302 pages, $26.95)

The Flood served to explain the presence of shell fossils on mountaintops and other anomalies, such as canyons that seemed to have been carved out by huge rivers. “Faced with the choice between a catastrophic flood or mysteriously rising mountains,” Mr. Montgomery observes, “early natural philosophers considered a mammoth flood less preposterous.” In this period, the discussion of the geological consequences of the Flood was scientific. Only later did the Flood cease to be part of our understanding of both history and nature and get assigned to the sphere of religion—a myth only.

Following the work of Martin J. S. Rudwick, our leading historian of geology, Mr. Montgomery next focuses his attention on British geologists from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as James Hutton, Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick. He rightly credits them with the most significant innovation in the study of the Earth’s surface since Steno: the articulation of “deep time,” the extension of the age of Earth almost unimaginably far back to millions, even billions, of years. This idea emerged from a “uniformitarian” understanding of the forces that shape the planet: The same forces we observe now, such as erosion and earthquakes, have always been working at roughly the same rates.

The extension of time made it seem more plausible that such weak forces could have carved out the world around us, and catastrophes such as the Flood became unnecessary for explanatory purposes. As Earth’s topography came to be understood without the Flood, Mr. Montgomery notes, religion and science began to part ways. This is his main point: The Flood used to be a constructive part of science, in the age of Steno, but has now become an obstruction. Mr. Montgomery’s goal is more to rehabilitate the earlier positive story of cooperation between religion and science than to lament their current hostility, although he does both.

The goal is certainly laudable, reminding us that the relationship between religion and science is more complicated than, say, the overemphasized Galileo affair of the early 17th century, which some today use to imply a Manichaean opposition between the church of that time and observed nature. Still, the story that Mr. Montgomery tells can itself seem too simple. The characters are treated in series, like geological strata, so we rarely see multiple theories vying for supremacy at the same time, or the recurrence of past ideas, or newer ideas being tested and discarded for lack of accuracy. Mr. Montgomery wants his own account to obey Steno’s Law, with older layers lying safely under more recent ones. Yet his story of the sifting of historical evidence, including those truthful rocks, suggests a more turbulent and varied process, defying his expectations and ours.

Mr. Gordin is a professor at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming “The Pseudoscience Wars.”

A version of this article appeared September 4, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: From the Ark To Evolution.

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