Review: For the Rock Record

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Mark A Wilson
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design
Edited by Jill S Schneiderman and Warren D Allmon
Berkeley (CA): University of California Press, 2009. 261 pages.

When the repackaged version of "scientific creationism" emerged in the 1990s as "intelligent design", it notably did not include physical geology in its central arguments about a grand designer. It was obvious to all that the entity supposedly responsible for all that irreducible complexity in life also created the entire physical universe, but the proponents of ID confined their arguments to biological issues and political "fairness" in public education. Geology, with the prominent exception of paleontology, was a source of conflict within the creationist camp and was thus virtually ignored to promote unity under this new banner of anti-evolutionism.

I saw this geologically-induced tension in 2002 after the godfather of ID, Phillip E Johnson, gave a rousing speech in Cleveland presenting his usual case for a "reasonable" science. During the question session, one of my students asked about his views on the age of the earth: Is it 6000 years old, 4.6 billion years old, or somewhere in the middle? In a sudden flash of anger, the normally avuncular Johnson denounced the question as "irrelevant" and moved on to the next, providing not even a hint of his views on the earth's antiquity. It was a wedge question of its own which would split the young-earth and old-earth creationists apart in the shaky ID confederacy. As such, it showed a fundamental weakness in the arguments of ID proponents, and the power of geology to make a hash of their agenda.

The editors of this multi-authored volume, then, faced a dilemma when they collected essays to include. Ever since Hutton and Lyell, the geological sciences have provided devastating critiques of creationism in the broad sense. The specific incarnation of "intelligent design", though, has for the most part avoided geological arguments. One author (Timothy Heaton) says it directly: "Very little attention is paid to geology in ID publications, and this may be because ID proponents have unwittingly selected examples lacking a fossil history in their search for 'gaps' in structural development" (p 31). (I disagree only with the word "unwittingly".) How then can the force of geological evidence be applied to the debate over ID? Ten authors, all geologists, give it a try in this book.

One approach, unfortunately deployed in the first chapter, is to caricature the ID position and force it into a geological argument. The author (Jill Schneiderman) describes a complex cross-section across the Hudson River and then writes, "An intelligent design creationist might well summon the mighty hands of a creator to have upended some rocks while having squeezed and consequently bent the hardest among them, the gneiss and schist, with one hand while using the fingers of the other hand to gouge a channel along which the Hudson River now flows" (p 14–5). Even the crudest of the young-earthers at Answers in Genesis would not make such an anthropomorphic argument, much less an advocate of ID.

Most of the other authors (with the exception of the paleontologists, who have some ID material to work with) solve the dilemma by addressing creationism in general. Much of the book, then, is not specifically geological but consists of geologists discussing metaphysical issues informed by their experiences as successful earth scientists. A better subtitle for the book would have been "Geologists on Creationism", which would include but not be limited to ID.

The most practically useful chapter in this book is "Missing links found" by paleontologist Donald Prothero. In a relatively few pages, Prothero efficiently devastates creationist arguments about the evidence for evolution in the fossil record, and he shows why ID advocates try very hard to ignore paleontological evidence. This chapter should convince anyone who hasn't already to read Prothero's excellent book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian's contribution on "Dino-Birds" is very good as an introduction to cladistic methodology as well as the most common arguments concerning the extraordinary evidence connecting birds with their dinosaur ancestors. She also shows how creationists are often confused by mosaic characterstates when it comes to sorting out lineages. Charlie Mitchell manages successfully to blend a metaphysical discussion of origin accounts with details of graptolite evolution.

Most of the other chapters sort out philosophical, political, and religious issues in the debates about "intelligent design". They are written by working geologists, and their content is informed by geological experience and knowledge, but they do not have many specifically geological arguments in them. Keith Miller discusses various ID misconceptions and misrepresentations of methodological naturalism by the ID crowd. David Goldsmith has an interesting essay on the intellectual construction of Darwin's seminal work and why the ID movement is not even close to understanding it. Tricia Kelley has a short chapter on her attempts to reconcile her religious faith as a Christian with her life as an evolutionary paleobiologist. Warren Allmon ends the book with a long chapter on how scientists approach the religion–science debates, using an interesting "God spectrum" table to pin down otherwise slippery definitions of the deity (at least in a Western sense). He managed to get some geologists to speak candidly about their belief systems, and he effectively presents the issue as one of fundamental importance to humanity.

Despite the awkward packaging as a text in which geologists specifically take on "intelligent design", and the occasional argumentative misstep, this eclectic book is a valuable contribution to the literature on creationism and the earth sciences. Several of the essays will especially interest geologists and students of geology in large part because they are written by colleagues with the courage to enter one of the most contentious and complicated debates in intellectual history.

About the Author(s): 

Mark A Wilson
Department of Geology
The College of Wooster
Wooster OH 44691

Mark A Wilson is the Lewis M and Marian Senter Nixon Professor of Natural Sciences and Geology at The College of Wooster. He is a paleontologist who has been active in the evolution wars since his first day of teaching in 1981.