Review: The Bible, Rocks and Time

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
29
Year: 
2009
Issue: 
5
Date: 
September–October
Page(s): 
45–46
Reviewer: 
Steven Newton
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth
Author(s): 
Davis A Young and Ralph F Stearley
Downers Grove (IL): IVP Academic, 2008. 510 pages.

In The Bible, Rocks and Time, Calvin College professors of geology Davis Young and Ralph Stearley present a clear, cogent, and detailed explanation of how scientists know the age of the earth. (The book is a "total rewrite" of Young's Christianity and the Age of the Earth [Thousand Oaks (CA): Artisan Press, 1988)].) Young and Stearley address the religious implications of the earth's antiquity and attempt to reconcile scientific and religious perspectives on this important issue. Although Young and Stearley address their book to "Christian pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, students and lay people," the richness of its scientific and historical information make The Bible, Rocks and Time appealing to an even broader audience.

The first section of the book, "Historical Perspectives", presents a very readable history of the development of geologic thinking, elucidating the discoveries of scientists such as Steno, Hutton, Smith, and Buffon. We learn how early geologists "began to realize that the strata could not have been produced in a one-year Deluge but had to form over a period of time" (p 79). Discarded geologic ideas such as Neptunism — the hypothesis that igneous rocks precipitate from water, just as crystalline salts precipitate from evaporating water — are explained in the context of a developing science that gradually progresses by correcting its errors.

The second portion of the book, "Biblical Perspectives", presents a history of the attempts to understand the age of the earth through scripture, especially Genesis and Psalms. Young and Stearley clarify how a 6000-year–old young-earth view is only one scriptural interpretation among many, some of which allow for a much older earth. Because the interpretation of the earth as 6000 years old grabs so many headlines, it is easy to overlook the fact that such a view does not represent the range of religious scholarship. Young and Stearley reveal a complicated, nuanced story of many competing ideas, some of which gained larger followings than others.

The third section of the book, "Geological Perspectives", is a strong critique of young-earth creationist claims that geology is "an artificial construct of geologists designed to mislead the public," by piecing "together the fossil record, crazy-quilt style, to fit a preconceived notion of organic evolution" in order to promote "a faulty, rationalistic philosophy of science" (p 235).

Young and Stearley demonstrate the sloppiness of creationists; in one memorable example, creationists Henry Morris and John Whitcomb are caught using a flawed description of the fossils of Lincoln County, Wyoming, not from peer-reviewed geologic literature, but from an article in Compressed Air Magazine. This brief, error-riddled article formed the basis of their inaccurate, second-hand description of fossils in Lincoln County.

Young and Stearley then delineate the evidence for geologic time in a number of specific locales — Yosemite, the Michigan Basin, Table Mountain, Kilauea. The authors explain how phenomena such as contact metamorphism in Sierra Nevada roof pendants are incompatible with creationist geology. Calculations of deposition rates show that in order for Flood geology to be true, sediment would have to accumulate at a rate of 36 000 feet per year, a rate so far removed from anything observed today that Young and Stearley exclaim, "Do Flood geologists really expect anyone to believe that?" (p 378).

The strongest portions of The Bible, Rocks and Time come in two chapters on radiometric dating. Young and Stearley present a very readable explanation of radiometric dating that is substantive, yet basic enough for non-scientists to understand. They start at the beginning, working through the definitions of atoms and isotopes and decay rates, to more advanced concepts such as how different isochron methods address the problem of pre-existing daughter isotopes.

The last section, "Philosophical Perspectives", examines geologic thinking in regards to the ideas of catastrophism and uniformitarianism. Creationists are philosophically predisposed to think in terms of catastrophism — violent, rapid changes over a very short period of time. Geologists are predisposed to think in terms of uniformitarianism — gradual, small changes affecting earth over a long period of time. Young and Stearley explain that according to some creationists, when geologists "blindly [hold] to a dogma of uniformitarianism, geologists unwittingly misinterpret the geologic evidence pertaining to the antiquity of earth" (p 447).

Young and Stearley trace how geologic thinking developed from the time of Charles Lyell, who believed in uniformitarianism so strictly that he saw even evolution as an affront to this steadiness of the world, to our current time. Modern geologists know that while the idea of uniformitarianism is very useful, there have been punctuations in the earth's history involving processes not seen today, such as the deposition of banded iron formations in response to the first atmospheric free oxygen, massive dolomite deposition under conditions in which dolomite cannot form today, and meteor-induced mass extinctions.

The Bible, Rocks and Time explains how uniformitarianism evolved. Plate tectonics was initially rejected by the geologic community despite Alfred Wegener's convincing evidence. In addition to Wegener's lack of a plausible mechanism, the idea that continents could move relative to each other was so hard to reconcile with uniformitarianism that geologists found the concept difficult to consider seriously.

Geologists were also disinclined to recognize evidence for titanic floods — despite the evidence that such floods had occurred, in eastern Washington for example. In these decidedly non-uniformitarian floods 15–13 000 years ago, the collapse of ice dams holding back lakes formed by melting glaciers unleashed discharges of billions of liters per second over eastern Washington, carving unique structures in the rock and creating what are now known as the Channeled Scablands.

Another challenge came in 1980, with the seminal Alvarez paper on the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction. Uniformitarianism adapted to this new evidence, changing to a view where processes in the past largely were as they are now, with occasional exceptions, such as big rocks from outer space smacking the planet. Creationists, by contrast, "are unwilling to abandon their young-earth, global-Flood hypothesis even when the evidence shows it to be untenable" (p 472).

Young and Stearley argue that creationism is harmful to faith. They write of the dilemma that occurs when young Christians conclude, "because the geologic evidence is so persuasive, that what they were taught about creation must be incorrect. To them, the Bible now becomes a flawed book" (p 477). But, Young and Stearley argue, it is the creationist young-earth interpretation that is flawed.

The Bible, Rocks and Time is a systematic refutation of creationist geology. On point after point, Young and Stearley demolish the claims of flood geologists and sundry young-earthers in substance and in detail. This book will prove a useful tool for scientists to explain geologic ideas to the public, and to refute the notion that accepting science necessarily means rejecting religion. Moreover, since Young and Stearley's defense of science comes from a specifically religious viewpoint — they argue that "nobody needs to abandon sound science in order to become a Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ" (p 11) — it will be especially useful in communicating with evangelical Christians.

About the Author(s): 

Steven Newton
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
newton@ncse.com

Steven Newton is Public Information Project Director at NCSE.