Trivializing Creationist Scholarship
[In the Jul/Aug 1998 issue of RNCSE Wilfred Elders wrote an extended review essay based on the ideas about the Grand Canyon found in Steven Austin's book, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. In this issue, Austin responds to that review with the following critique. Elders replies below.]
Wilfred Elders' article "Bibliolatry in the Grand Canyon" (RNCSE 1998; 18: 8-15) is an 8-page review of my book Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe (Austin 1994). This article is the most extensive critical review of Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe to appear in print. "There is perhaps no better place in all the world to appreciate the grandeur of geologic time...," writes Elders (1998: 8), "However, bibliolatry has come to the Grand Canyon." The accusation of "bibliolatry" might suggest a theological discussion of biblical literalism. However, Elders admits that literalism is not the book's thrust. "The book presents a more detailed argument than any previous creationist publication on geology. The crux of the book is a lengthy and detailed, but ultimately failed, attempt to rebut published accounts of the geology, paleontology, and dating of the strata of Grand Canyon and to present re-interpretations consistent with the Genesis story. Such re-interpretations are buttressed by some original creationist research" (Elders 1998:14).
Most unusual is the fact that Elders' book review also promotes the National Center for Science Education's "Creation/Evolution Grand Canyon Raft Trip" scheduled for August 7-14, 1999. The stated purpose of the upcoming raft trip is to rebut the "young-earth creationist" view of Grand Canyon offered by the Institute for Creation Research and promote "critical thinking" (Scott 1998). My response to Elders' book review is directed at helping the NCSE develop a better understanding and appreciation of creationist materials, especially creationist research, so that the upcoming raft trip in August 1999 can better characterize creationist research and interpretations at Grand Canyon. Elders (1998:9) writes, "Austin has taken on the daunting task of using the spectacular geology of the Grand Canyon as an exemplar of a creationist world-view, despite numerous compelling arguments to the contrary." The most pointed criticism from Elders is directed at creationist research (3 pages of the 8-page review). Elders (1998:12) writes, "But what of original creationist research? The appendix of MTC lists 18 'Questions for Discussion and Study'. The last of these reads, 'What are four research projects creationists have conducted on Grand Canyon?' A careful reading of MTC reveals that the author of this question expects students to be diligent. In fact, I was able to find only four examples of creationist research which could be cited, plus one which the authors of MTC admit is dubious."
After Elders assesses the quantity of creationist research, he goes on to trivialize creationist research with what I believe to be the most objectionable statement of the book review. He writes: "However, a case of contamination of pollen samples, 12 oriented nautiloids, the tale of 94 squirrel skins, some experiments with tracks made by newts in an aquarium, and willful misinterpretation of radiometric dates based on five Rb/Sr isotopic ratios scarcely constitute a deluge of new compelling evidence for the flood of Noah." I will respond by noting severe scholarship problems with Elders' assessment of both the quantity and quality of creationist research at Grand Canyon.
Quantity Of Creationist Research
What can be said about Elders' assessment of the quantity of creationist research? I was able to find not just 5 creationist research projects described in Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, as asserted by Elders, but at least 8 (I define a research project as involving scientific process of "observation, measuring, interpreting and reporting"). In addition to the 5 examples Elders noticed, I would give "full credit" to a student who offered:
(6) Survey of boulder beds at the base of the Tapeats Sandstone. Austin (1994:47,55) cites and summarizes field work by Arthur V Chadwick (1978), a noteworthy creationist, on the size of boulders and topographic relief within sedimentary deposits just above the Great Unconformity in Grand Canyon. Chadwick (1978) does not mention Grand Canyon in the title of his paper, but anyone consulting this paper would immediately recognize observation, measuring, interpreting, and reporting within a field project concerning the Tapeats Sandstone of Grand Canyon. Obviously, Elders has not read this cited work, and he remains uninformed of the ongoing work by creationists Kennedy, Kablanow, and Chadwick (1996).
(7) Remote sensing search for ancient shorelines. Austin (1994:93,109,110) summarizes research of Edmond W Holroyd, III on ancient shorelines of lakes in the eastern Grand Canyon and central Colorado Plateau. These lakes could have drained catastrophically through the Kaibab and Coconino Plateaus causing significant erosion in Grand Canyon. The cited works of Holroyd (1987, 1990), which are followed by further publication in Holroyd (1994), would satisfy academic standards of research. Elders missed Hoylroyd's significant work even though it is both cited and pictured (Austin 1994:93).
(8) Review of ancient alluvial deposits and erosional features as evidence of the possible path of the ancestral Colorado River. The supposed ancient path of the Colorado River continues to be researched by Emmett Williams and John Meyer, as well as by their creationist coworkers. Austin (1994:109) cited the summary of this work (Williams, Meyer, and Wolfrom 1992a) which is part of a continuing stream of publications (Williams, Meyer, and Wolfrom 1991, 1992a, 1992b; Williams, Goette, and Meyer 1997) containing significant field data and interpretations on the geomorphology of Grand Canyon and vicinity. Elders is oblivious to this work. Is Elders even aware that Meyer and the Creation Research Society have established the "Grand Canyon Experiment Station" in Chino Valley, Arizona? Not a hint is found in his review.
I come back to Elders' research quantity statement, "A careful reading of MTC reveals that the author of this question expects students to be diligent. ..." Is Elders' word "diligent" appropriate for describing his own pursuit of creationist research within the book Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe? The word "cursory" seems more appropriate. Only 5 of 28 references are to creationist works beyond the book reviewed. Each of the 5 creationist references cited by Elders had already been cited by Austin. A watchful teacher grading a student's review paper might ask if the student is truly familiar with the sources he has referenced. Had Elders been familiar with these and other creationist sources, he would not have made his noteworthy error of severely minimizing the quantity of creationist research at Grand Canyon.
Quality Of Creationist Research
What can be said about Elders' evaluation of the quality of creationist research in Grand Canyon? Elders is extremely critical in overview, but he is generally nonresponsive to the details. I will give 4 examples of trivializing and nonresponsiveness in the following paragraphs.
What, for example, is Elders' interpretation of the large, abundant, straight-shelled cephalopod fossils called "nautiloids" at Nautiloid Canyon on the Colorado River. How does Elders' interpretation differ from that of a creationist? He criticizes the creationist summary in Austin (1994:27), assuming that only 12 orientations of nautiloids were measured. However, his supposition of only 12 measurements is a big mistake. Another source unknown to Elders reports 71 orientations of nautiloids measured at Nautiloid Canyon (Austin and Wise 1995). Whatever evaluation one may have of the quantity of research and measurements at Nautiloid Canyon, an interpretation of the deposit needs to be offered to the student investigating the creation/evolution issue. Data indicate a sedimentary catastrophe and a nautiloid mass-kill event (Austin and Wise 1995). A critic of quality should portray previous work correctly and promote a better standard.
How does Elders respond to research by creationists concerning the effectiveness of Grand Canyon as a geographic barrier for the distribution of small mammals? Elders (1998:12,14) cites only the study of John R Meyer (1985) on 94 museum specimens of tassel-eared squirrels. This research (publication year cited incorrectly by Elders) was reported in Austin (1994:174-8). The statement, "Animal distribution within Grand Canyon continues to be an important part of creationist studies" (Austin 1994:174) should have alerted Elders to consult the associated reference to further work of Meyer (Meyer and Howe 1988). In their detailed report attempting to quantify the effectiveness of the geographic barrier using field observations at Shiva Temple, Meyer and Howe (1988) record field measurements of air and soil temperature, relative humidity, and plant distributions from a very remote area of the North Rim of Grand Canyon. Elders conveniently overlooks 2 years of field studies by Meyer and Howe, and, instead, implies that the research on geographic isolation concerns only observations on 94 squirrel skins from a museum.
How does Elders respond to peer-reviewed publications by creationist Leonard Brand? Brand's work supports submerged conditions for deposition of the Coconino Sandstone. Elders is strongly opposed in overview to the idea of subaqueous deposition of the Coconino, favoring instead the popular desert environmental model. However, he does not answer the specific evidence cited for the subaqueous model noted by Brand (1978, 1979, 1992, 1996) and Brand and Tang (1991) on the characteristics of fossil footprints as evidence of underwater deposition. He has not responded to the sedimentological argument for water developed by Glen S Visher (Visher and Howard 1974; Freeman and Visher 1975; Visher 1990) as summarized in Austin (1994:32).
Suppose a participant in the NCSE raft trip notices a fossil vertebrate trackway in the Coconino Sandstone (not an uncommon find for Grand Canyon rafters). Also, suppose our hypothetical NCSE participant uses "critical thinking" skills and notices significant dissimilarities between the Coconino vertebrate trackway and a vertebrate trackway from a modern dune above the bank of the Colorado River. Dunes with vertebrate trackways are observed on occasion above the bank of the Colorado River, and these are significantly different than the Coconino examples (see Brand 1996). Then, suppose our participant asks Elders to explain the similarity of the discovered Coconino trackway to trackways made underwater in the fashion of the research conducted by Brand. Is Elders going to respond that the subaqueous idea is unthinkable because somebody once found an extremely rare trackway in the Coconino Sandstone that they proved was made by a scorpion (Elders 1998:13)? Is he going to respond that the trackway makers have been proven to be extinct desert-dwelling reptiles or mammal-like reptiles, but definitely not extinct water-dwelling reptiles or mammal-like reptiles (Elders 1998:13)? If Elders responds in such a fashion to a rafter's discovered Coconino trackway and its relation to a modern trackway, would that be an adequate and scholarly response? Is not the proper response to deal with the interpretation of the empirical evidence at hand? Even the published responses to Brand's work acknowledge the adequacy of Brand's observations. For example, Loope (1992) wrote: "Although I strongly disagree with Brand and Tang's conclusion, I find their experimental approach very useful, and hope to incorporate it in the testing of my own hypothesis." This may explain why the research of Brand (a noteworthy creationist) has withstood scholarly peer-review from 3 evolutionary science journals. Why should Brand's work be dismissed or trivialized outright by Elders?
Elders' review is longest in his response to the critique of radioisotope dating given in Austin (1994:111-31). I suspect that radioisotopes get special consideration because of his position statement concerning Grand Canyon, "There is perhaps no better place in all the world to appreciate the grandeur of geologic time" (Elders 1998:8). If Elders is correct, radioisotope ages of Grand Canyon should be well verified and especially evident to people employing "critical thinking." He is greatly concerned that creationist researchers have performed only 5 rubidium-strontium isotope analyses on Grand Canyon rocks. However, Austin (1992) reports measurements of other radioisotope ratios in Grand Canyon rocks. The work of Austin (1992) is cited in Austin (1994:128, 131) and should not have escaped Elders' "diligent" attention.
Suppose, for example, the NCSE raft trip stops at the extraordinary exposures of Cardenas Basalt (upper Precambrian) at Tanner Rapids. It is the first igneous formation encountered on the raft trip and would naturally come to the attention of the NCSE group. How would Elders respond to the simple question, "Do the different radioisotope methods give concordant ages for Cardenas Basalt?" Would he reply, "In other locations there are tens of thousands of radiometric dates which are consistent with the relative stratigraphic position of the rocks dated" (Elders 1998:13)? Such a response would be incomplete. Scholarship dictates that he summarizes the radioisotope data that is known for Cardenas Basalt.
The publication of Austin and Snelling (1998) concerns the discordance between rubidium-strontium and potassium-argon isochron techniques applied to the Cardenas Basalt and diabase sills within the Precambrian of Grand Canyon. Why are K/Ar "ages" much younger than the accepted Rb/Sr "age" for Cardenas Basalt and diabase sills? Discordance of dates had been previously noted by Austin (1994:120-2) as well as by other researchers. Austin and Snelling (1998) report 13 new K/Ar analyses from Grand Canyon, essentially doubling the number of published K/Ar analyses within the Precambrian of Grand Canyon. Elders can trivialize this creationist work, but he must admit that there are data here needing to be explained.
Elders is convinced very strongly that radioisotopes have successfully dated Grand Canyon rocks at millions or even billions of years. Elders (1998:13) cites 2 kinds of ages he accepts: (1) uranium-lead model ages made on crystals of zircon and monazite from the inner gorge of Grand Canyon, and (2) potassium-argon model ages from lava flows from volcanoes on the rim of Grand Canyon. Suppose, for example, the NCSE raft trip examines some of the monazite-bearing rocks that outcrop within the inner gorge of Grand Canyon. Elders might be asked, "Do monazite crystals in Grand Canyon give concordant U/Pb model ages?" The short answer to this question, I believe, is one word: "Rarely." Hawkins and Bowring (1994) studied 65 monazite grains from the inner gorge of Grand Canyon: "In the absence of physical evidence for inheritance, the range of single grain ages remains problematic. However, the discordant behavior can be explained if single monazite grains comprise complex mixtures of domains which have exhibited open system behavior with respect to U, Th, and Pb, including excess 206Pb, during cooling. Concordant analyses of single grains may represent fortuitous mixtures of these domains." This work generally critical of monazite model-age dating was conducted in conjunction with a PhD dissertation (Hawkins 1996).
Lava Falls Rapids, the largest of the rapids within Grand Canyon, is a routine stop for river boatmen. They stop their boats for safety purposes so they can scout the changing configuration of the torrent before running it. Because the NCSE raft trip is likely to stop at Lava Falls Rapids, participants will see firsthand the most imposing display of basalt within Grand Canyon. Geologists call the lowest part of this erosional remnant "Toroweap Lava Dam". Basalt at the rapids spilled into Grand Canyon as multiple flows from the rim. A sample of this basalt from Toroweap Lava Dam gave a potassium-argon "whole-rock" model age of 1.16 ± 0.18 million years (McKee, Hamblin, and Damon 1968). A NCSE rafter employing "critical thinking" would have opportunity to ask, "Is it possible that the K/Ar age obtained for Toroweap Lava Dam is excessively old because radiogenic argon was incorporated into the basalt as it cooled?" This possibility is admitted by McKee, Hamblin, and Damon (1968:135).
At this point Elders might respond that reliable whole rock K/Ar ages have been obtained from many thousands of rocks outside Grand Canyon (for example, Elders 1998:13), but the question has not been answered. Dalrymple and Hamblin (1998) no longer regard the 1.16 million year age as correct, but they believe the Toroweap Lava Dam is significantly younger. Rugg and Austin (1998) reported "excess argon" from 3 mineral concentrates made from the basalt at Lava Falls. At Toroweap Lava Dam, olivine, a mineral known for very low potassium, possesses significant quantity of argon, giving a K/Ar "age" of 20.7 ± 1.3 million years (Rugg and Austin 1998:478). Again, discordance is discovered with evidence of "excess argon." A NCSE rafter who is familiar with these data and is "thinking critically" might ask the ultimate question, "Has the basalt been accurately dated by the K/Ar method?" Data seem to challenge the "zero-original-argon" assumption made by the popular K/Ar dating method.
Elders offers a significantly flawed critique of both the quantity and quality of creationist research at Grand Canyon. He consistently trivializes creationist research, demonstrating significant ignorance of the data and interpretations that creationists have published. Good scholarship requires that he obtain this proficiency. The book Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe reports at least 8 creationist research projects, not just 5 as claimed by Elders. Creationists measured many more than 12 nautiloid fossils at Nautiloid Canyon. Creationist study of Grand Canyon as a geographic barrier to small mammals involves more than study of 94 squirrel skins. Observations of fossil vertebrate trackways by creationists have a prominent place in peer-reviewed literature that cannot be ignored. Creationists have measured many more than 5 radioisotope ratios in Grand Canyon rocks.
Elders needs to come to grips with the fact that creationists have a continuing research program being accomplished at Grand Canyon. Compared to government-subsidized research, creationist research may seem modest. However, that is no reason to trivialize it.
Elders, in his overview, strenuously objects to creationist interpretations of geology at Grand Canyon, but in his specifics, he is reticent to give details. What is his interpretation of Nautiloid Canyon, Grand Canyon's most prominent fossil deposit? How does Elders respond to details concerning the character of fossil vertebrate trackways in the Coconino Sandstone? What is his explanation offered to discordance of ages often encountered in the dating of Grand Canyon rocks? Will Elders gain competence in basic creationist literature? Elders will need to acquire proficiency in responding to questions like these if he is going to play a significant part in the NCSE creation/evolution raft trip this August in Grand Canyon. Participants in the NCSE raft trip will be committing a significant amount of their personal resources to this rafting activity. They should be concerned about getting their money's worth.
Austin SA. Isotope and trace element analysis of hypersthene-normative basalts from the Quaternary of Uinkaret Plateau, western Grand Canyon, Arizona. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 1992; 24(6):261.
Austin SA. (editor). Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Santee (CA): Institute for Creation Research, 1994.
Austin SA, Wise KP. Nautiloid mass-kill event at a hydrothermal mound within the Redwall Limestone (Mississippian), Grand Canyon, Arizona. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 1995; 27(6):369.
Austin SA, Snelling AA. Discordant potassium-argon model and isochron "ages" for Cardenas Basalt (Middle Proterozoic) and associated diabase of eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism 1998; 4:35-51.
Brand LR. Footprints in the Grand Canyon. Origins 1978; 5:64-82.
Brand LR. Field and laboratory studies on the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) vertebrate footprints and their paleoecological implications. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 1979; 28:25-38.
Brand LR. Reply (to comments) on "Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of northern Arizona: evidence for underwater origin". Geology 1992; 20:668-70.
Brand LR. Variations in salamander trackways resulting from substrate differences. Journal of Paleontology 1996; 70(6):1004-10.
Brand LR, Tang T. Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of northern Arizona: evidence for underwater origin. Geology 1991; 19:1201-4.
Chadwick AV. Megabreccias: Evidence for catastrophism. Origins 1978; 5:39-46.
Dalrymple GB, Hamblin WK. K/Ar ages of Pleistocene lava dams in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 1998; 95:9744-9.
Elders WA. Bibliolatry in the Grand Canyon. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1998; 18(4):8-15.
Freeman WE, Visher GS. Stratigraphic analysis of the Navajo Sandstone. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 1975; 45:651-68.
Hawkins DP. U/Pb Geochronological Constraints on the Tectonic and Thermal Evolution of Paleoproterozoic Crust in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Cambridge (MA): Massachusetts Institute of Technology, unpublished doctoral thesis, 1996.
Hawkins DP, Bowring SA. Complex U/Pb systematics of Paleoproterozoic monazite from the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA. United States Geological Survey Circular 1994; 1107:131.
Holroyd ER, III. Missing talus. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1987; 24:15-6.
Holroyd ER, III. Missing talus on the Colorado Plateau. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Creationism 1990; 2:115-28.
Holroyd ER, III. A remote sensing search for extinct lake shore lines on the Colorado Plateau. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism 1994; 3:243-54.
Kennedy EG, Kablanow R, Chadwick AV. A reassessment of the shallow water depositional model for the Tapeats Sandstone, Grand Canyon, Arizona: evidence for deep water deposition. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 1996; 28(7):407.
Loope DB. Comment on "Fossil vertebrate footprints in the Coconino Sandstone (Permian) of northern Arizona: evidence for underwater origin". Geology 1992; 20:667-8.
McKee ED, Hamblin WK, Damon PE. K/Ar age of lava dam in Grand Canyon. Geological Society of America Bulletin 1968; 79:133-6.
Meyer JR. Origin of the Kaibab Squirrel. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1985; 22:68-78.
Meyer JR, Howe GF. The biological isolation of Shiva Temple. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1988; 24:165-72.
Rugg SH, Austin SA. Evidence for rapid formation and failure of Pleistocene "lava dams" of the western Grand Canyon, Arizona. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism 1998; 4:475-86.
Scott EC. NCSE "Creation/evolution" Grand Canyon trip challenge! Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1998; 18(4):25.
Visher GS. Exploration Stratigraphy. Tulsa (OK): Penn Well Publishing, 2nd ed., 1990.
Visher GS, Howard JD. Dynamic relationship between hydraulics and sedimentation in the Altamaha Estuary. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 1974; 44:502-21.
Williams EL, Meyer JR, and Wolfrom GW. Erosion of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River part I - review of antecedent river hypothesis and the postulation of large quantities of rapidly flowing water as the primary agent of erosion. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1991; 28:92-8.
Williams EL, Meyer JR, Wolfrom GW. Erosion of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River part II - review of the river capture, piping and ancestral river hypotheses and the possible formation of vast lakes. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1992a; 28:138-45.
Williams EL, Meyer JR, Wolfrom GW. Erosion of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River part III - review of possible formation of basins and lakes on the Colorado Plateau and different climatic conditions in the past. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1992b; 29:18-24.
Williams EL, Goette RL, Meyer JR. Kanab Canyon, Utah and Arizona: origin speculations. Creation Research Society Quarterly 1997; 34(3):162-72.
Steven A Austin
Chairman, Geology Department
Institute for Creation Research
Santee CA 92071-2833
Wilfred Elders Replies
Creationist Scholarship and the Grand Canyon of Arizona
I thank Dr Steve Austin of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) for his prompt response to my article "Bibliolatry in the Grand Canyon" and appreciate this opportunity to reply and extend my remarks about the ICR textbook on the Grand Canyon (Austin 1994). Austin indicates that his aim is to help the NCSE develop a better understanding and appreciation of creationist materials, especially creationist research. Better understanding is sorely needed. However, the outcome may not be what Austin hopes; understanding could lead to less appreciation of creationist research.
Austin is concerned that, in using the term "bibliolatry", I accused his book of biblical literalism. It is true that this was the impression I got from reading it. Austin (1994) is replete with quotations from the King James translation of the Christian Bible, and has an index with 131 citations to that version of scripture. It is clear that Austin reads Powell's "rock-leaved bible of geology" in the Grand Canyon through the distorting lenses of biblical literalism. This appears to be a requirement of Austin's position on the faculty of the Institute for Creation Research. For example, consider the edict of Dr Henry M Morris, the founder and President Emeritus of the ICR, who posits, "...the main reason for insisting on the universal flood as a fact of history and as a primary vehicle for geological interpretation is that God's Word plainly teaches it! No geologic difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and necessary inferences of Scripture" (Morris 1970).
Austin faithfully follows this injunction. For example, Austin (1994:3) states, "If the evidence of Grand Canyon fits with Noah's Flood, why have not the majority of scientists recognized it? The answer to this can be found in II Peter 3:5,6 where we read, 'For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the Word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished'. The Bible teaches that people are willingly ignorant - that is, they deliberately reject the evidence." The irony of using theological bibliolatry to justify geological bibliolatry seems to be lost on Austin.
Burden of Proof
Austin's opinion is that, because I have not read all of the publications on creationist research related to the Grand Canyon footnoted in Austin (1994) or published since, I have no right to criticize the quantity and quality of that research. On the count of not having read all that creationist literature, I plead guilty as charged. However, I believe that I have read sufficient of it to conclude that this corpus of work falls far short of proving Austin's assertion that Noah's flood formed all Phanerozoic rocks and that the Grand Canyon formed in the aftermath of that deluge.
Certain important concepts are so well established today that they form the bases from which contemporary science proceeds. Examples that come to mind include the periodic table in chemistry, the expanding universe in astronomy, organic evolution in biology, and the geologic time scale in earth sciences. Those seeking to reject these concepts must document startlingly new and convincing observations or experiments to support their iconoclasm. The ICR textbook on the Grand Canyon, in common with other modern creationist effusions, rejects both organic evolution and the geologic time scale.
Today the reaction of most working geologists to such contemporary biblical literalism ranges from indifference to wry amusement. This is despite the fact that bibliolatry had had a respectable history in the western world for 2 millennia. During most of that time biblical literalists also propounded the concepts of the flat earth and the earth-centered universe. In spite of the fact that the intellectual battles against those ideas were fought and won by Magellan's circumnavigation in 1520-22, the publication of the Copernican System in 1540, and Galileo's observations of the heavens by telescope in 1610, flat-earthers and geocentrists persist even today (Scott 1997).
As readers are aware, the story of Noah's flood has been an important icon in the western world (Cohn 1996). However, by the first half of the 19th century the rise of scientific geology played the death knell of the idea that the earth began only in 4004 BCE and that the next most important event in earth history was the worldwide deluge of Noah (Gillispie 1959). More than a hundred years later, the discarded idea of Noah's flood of old suffered a reincarnation with the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris (1964). This "neocreationism" movement attempted to supply a new "scientific" basis for the Noachian flood to justify biblical literalism. Austin (1994) is firmly in that mold. I have only to remind readers of Austin's astounding claim (Austin 1994:147), "[i]t is not clear whether the order of appearance of organisms in Grand Canyon, or anywhere else on earth, for that matter, is necessarily any different than a random order which a flood might produce", to illustrate the biblical blinkers which Austin wears. In one sentence he discounts the whole science of paleontology.
Given the wealth of information available now, the burden of proof is on Austin as he seeks to use the Grand Canyon to re-establish a once-dominant view that has been overturned consistently by an enormous body of scientific evidence during the last two centuries. Today, for creationist publications such as Austin's (1994) to get sufficient attention from mainstream geologists to cause a revolution in their fundamental concepts would require credible documentation of abundant new, dramatic, and multidisciplinary findings and interpretations. Such scientific revolutions do happen, as anyone familiar with the rise of the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s is aware (Hallam 1973).
A Revolution in Science?
Perhaps an even more relevant example, albeit on a lesser scale, of a revolution in geology is one discussed at length in Austin (1994:46, 94, 104-6) - the flood origin of the Channeled Scabland, a large area near Grand Coulee, in eastern Washington state. Geologists now interpret the dramatic erosional features of that region as having been formed during repeated catastrophic draining of a large periglacial lake, Lake Missoula, in Montana, dammed at the front of the continental ice sheet, during the waning stages of the last Ice Age. However, when Bretz originally proposed the idea in 1923, it was met with skepticism by many geologists (see Bretz 1969). Debate continued for 20 or 30 years until the mounting evidence brought forward by Bretz and his colleagues won the day. The history of this controversy is well documented in Baker (1978).
Austin (1994) uses his discussion of Bretz's work to infer that, because flooding due to catastrophic draining of a large lake caused rapid scouring of the Channeled Scabland, similar catastrophic flooding formed the Grand Canyon during the waning stages of Noah's flood. However, as Heaton (1995) pointed out, Austin fails to take note of the radical differences between the geological formations in the Channeled Scablands and the Grand Canyon. Heaton (1995: 35) states, "The narrow inner gorge of the Grand Canyon and its equilibrium tributaries are the antithesis of the broad flood plain, multiple overflow channels, and gigantic 'ripple marks' of the Channeled Scabland. It would be hard to imagine two canyons more geomorphically dissimilar to one another."
There is a major irony here in using the work of my friend and mentor "Doc" Bretz in support of biblical literalism. It was in discussions with him that I first became interested in the neocreationist movement, shortly after the publication of Whitcomb and Morris (1964). Although the controversy over his work on the Channeled Scabland was protracted, Bretz regarded it as a good example of the self-correcting nature of mainstream science. Creationists subscribing to the views of the President Emeritus of the ICR (Morris 1970) cannot correct the Genesis story, no matter what scientific evidence is produced. Had "Doc" survived to see the publication of Austin (1994) I am sure that his comments would have been pithy and devastating to the creationists' misuse of his work.
Creationist Research Publications
Austin's main objection to my article is that I overstate the dearth of such new revolutionary findings by creationists in the Grand Canyon. He alleges that my assessment that the quantity and quality of creationist research at Grand Canyon is poor derives from my unfamiliarity with the literature of creationist geology. I am happy to concede that he knows that literature better than I and am therefore grateful to him for pointing out that Austin (1994) mentions 8 examples of "original creationist research" rather than only the 5 discussed in my review.
Publications on creationist research are easily overlooked by mainstream scientists. Creationists publish relatively little and tend not publish in journals that geologists are likely to read. For example, the library of the University of California, Riverside, has holdings in excess of 1.5 million volumes. However, many of the publications which Austin finds important enough to cite, such as the Proceedings of the International Conference on Creationism, Origins, and the Creation Research Society Quarterly (CRSQ) are not included in these holdings. The CRSQ is not even cited in GEOREF, the standard bibliographic search engine for geological literature. Another problem in doing bibliographic searches of the creationist literature is that several leading creationists use aliases. For example, Austin also had published under the name of Stuart E Nevins, Paul Nelson publishes under the name of Peter Gordon, and the real name of John Woodmorappe is Jan Peczkis.
GEOREF has 11 entries for Steven A Austin published since 1971, including his Master's thesis and PhD dissertation. Among the remaining 9, 6 are abstracts presented at meetings of professional geological societies, including Austin and Wise (1995). I chose not to mention that interesting abstract in my review for 2 reasons. First, it makes no mention of Noah's flood and so its relevance to the biblical literalism of Austin (1994) was not explicit. Second, the shelf-life of an abstract is very short. After the passage of almost 4 years since the abstract appeared, it seemed reasonable to assume that either the authors or the journal editors have concluded that the material did not warrant further publication.
What is the message here? Does the fact that creationist science tends to be published only in creationist journals, or as abstracts at meetings, mean that there is a conspiracy by the editors of mainstream science publications to prevent dissemination of new, controversial or revolutionary ideas? I think not. Remember that during the plate tectonic "revolution", the key papers appeared in major international scientific journals (Hallam 1973). Similarly Bretz's controversial work on the Channeled Scablands was published in widely circulated publications (listed in Baker 1978). Good new science, even if controversial, eventually gets published in major journals and, having withstood the rigors of peer-review, thus joins the mainstream. In a similar vein, Austin complains that, "Compared to government-subsidized research programs, creationist research may seem modest". As I made clear, my opinion of creationist geological research is that, in fact, it is modest. However, "government-subsidized" research grants and contracts are awarded in a highly competitive funding milieu. Austin and his associates are as free to enter that competition as I have been. Just as good new science eventually gets published in mainstream journals, good new proposals eventually get supported by mainstream funding agencies.
A notable exception to my generalization that creationists tend to publish only in creationist venues are the experiments of Brand on trackways made by newts in an aquarium (Brand and Tang 1991). Some of the publications on this topic are published in widely disseminated journals. The issue here is not the quality of the experiments but rather their applicability to explaining trackways in the Permian Coconino Sandstone in the region of the Grand Canyon. Brand concludes that his work shows that at least part of the Coconino Sandstone was deposited under water. On the other hand, Lockley and Hunt (1995), Loope (1992), and Middleton and others (1990) conclude that the trackways were formed under subaerial conditions, consistent with the nature of the sandstones in which they are found (McKee 1979). In any case, even if could be proved that these sandstones were partially deposited under water, it is a long (and, in my opinion, invalid) extrapolation from Brand's laboratory aquarium to Noah's flood.
Let us examine the publication history and scientific impact of Chadwick (1978), one of the 3 examples of creationist research related to the Grand Canyon which Austin adds to the 5 discussed in my review. It concerns the boulder beds of Precambrian Shinumo Quartzite, locally developed at the base of the Tapeats Sandstone, immediately above the Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon. The Tapeats Sandstone is the lowest member of the Tonto Group, a sandstone-shale-limestone sequence of Cambrian age. Middleton and Elliot (1990) devote 4 pages to the depositional setting of this formation and cite more than 10 references in mainstream publications in support of their interpretation. The Tapeats Sandstone was deposited above a Precambrian surface that is extensively weathered and had developed considerable relief. They suggest that the basal conglomerate (the megabreccia of Chadwick 1978) was almost certainly deposited by erosion of cliffs of the Precambrian rocks by storm waves, and that the overlying sandstone was formed as beach and tidal flat deposits.The publication by Chadwick (1978) cited by Austin, on the other hand, interpreted the basal conglomerate in the Tapeats Sandstone as being formed in much deeper water by catastrophic debris flows, consistent with Noah's flood. Evidently this work has had zero impact on mainstream geology as it receives no mention in the extensive review by Middleton and Elliot (1990). If, as Austin (1994:67-70) asserts, the Tapeats Sandstone was formed as the first deposit of Noah's flood, we might expect it to contain a fauna and flora representing the abundant life he claims existed on earth before that deluge. However, except for trace fossils, the Tapeats Sandstone is poorly fossiliferous, but it contains brachiopods and trilobites sufficient to establish it as being of late Early Cambrian age. More recently Chadwick and Kennedy have returned to promoting the theme of Chadwick (1978). They have presented abstracts which essentially repeat the same material in each of the 4 years 1995-98 at scientific meetings. I look forward to evaluating their work, if ever it enters the formal literature. Meanwhile these abstracts can be read at www.tagnet.org/gri/w/ekennedy/geology.htm.
Quality of Creationist Research
As Austin added 3 more cases of creationist research on the Grand Canyon to my list, I will return the compliment by adding to his. As part of his laudatory reviews of important creationist research since 1965, Austin's colleague at ICR, Dr Duane T Gish (1989) highlighted the research of Waisgerber and others (1987) at the Grand Canyon. For me this work exemplifies the quality of original creationist research; so it is worth examining in detail. These authors studied the supposed contact between the Cambrian Muav Limestone and the overlying Mississippian Redwall Limestone on the North Kaibab trail in the Grand Canyon. (See Figure 1 of Elders 1998 for the stratigraphy of the Canyon). Having decided that these 2 formations are interbedded and grade into each other, the authors concluded that the 200-million-year hiatus between Cambrian and Mississippian strata did not occur at that site and therefore that the whole geologic column is fictitious. This claim, if substantiated, would definitely constitute a revolution in geology and justify numerous publications on the issue. Instead, the next publication on this topic was published 9 years later. It was a letter to the editor of CRSQ severely critical of the work (Moore 1996).
How good are the original observations by Waisgerber and others (1987)? They spent two days examining the outcrop, with the aid of 5-power hand lens. Rather than relying on their own examination of the Canyon's walls, they used a National Park Service sign to identify the location and nature of the supposed unconformity between the Cambrian and Mississippian strata. This sign may, or may not, have been correctly sited by the Park staff. Instead of using macro- or micropaleontology, petrology, geochemistry or geophysics, they relied on the color and texture of the rocks to distinguish between Cambrian and Mississippian strata. The color of the Redwall Limestone is actually quite variable. It has acquired a superficial staining produced by oxides of iron washed down from redbeds in the overlying Supai Group (Beus 1990: 119-20). This creationist research appears not to have considered that they misidentified the Cambrian/Mississippian contact or that Mississippian dolomite could be filling channels or karsts, etched into the surface of the Cambrian dolomite.
Suppose 3 creation scientists heard that a good time to view Jupiter's moons is when Jupiter is visible in the western sky, but when they went out with a pair of low power binoculars on 2 different nights failed to see any of the moons. Suppose too that they went on to publish, in a leading creationist journal, a paper which concluded that, because Galileo was wrong, the Copernican system is wrong and that we should all return to biblical literalism and geocentrism. I would respond by helping them to recognize Jupiter and lending them a telescope at least as good as Galileo's.
The paper by Waisgerber and others (1987), with its stamp of approval by Gish, is at that level. It is a superficial study of a single outcrop, and concerns a minor problem, which they considered entirely outside of its regional or global context. They then proceeded to extrapolate wildly from their observations. Having exposed geology's dirty secret, they offered it as proof that the entire geologic time scale must be rejected, and be replaced by their version of biblical chronology. Although more sophisticated and detailed, Austin (1994) is another failed attempt to achieve the same end.
Austin pays great attention to radioactive dating because it is the Achilles heel of young earth creationists. Although he emphasizes any perceived discrepancies in radiometric ages published by different workers, he provides no satisfactory explanation of his willful misuse of radioactive dating in the Grand Canyon. Although he had earlier admitted that the Rb/Sr isotopic data from the Pleistocene basalts yield a false isochron (Austin 1988), he later used the same approach to publish what he knew to be geologically impossible results (Austin 194: 124-5) and posed the rhetorical question (Austin 1994: 129), "Has any Grand Canyon rock been successfully dated?" Ilg and others (1996) used U/Pb ratios to date the oldest rocks of the Grand Canyon and found that different units had ages ranging from 1750 to 1660 million years. Larson and others (1994) used Rb/Sr data from the Cardenas Basalt to determine an age of 1103 million years. Dalrymple and Hamblin (1998) measured K/Ar ratios to obtain ages in the range 0.684 to 0.443 million years for the Pleistocene basalts. If Dr Austin has credible data which refute the order in which these rocks were formed, or which even change these numbers significantly, I urge him to publish them in full in a major scientific journal. I would be happy to assist him by reviewing the manuscript.
The gulf between Austin's position and mine is irreconcilable. Austin carefully ignores many of the other important issues raised by my review. For example, his use of uniformitarian strawmen, the robustness of the worldwide geologic column and the geologic time scale, the thermal problem if granites were formed on the third day of creation, the order of occurrence and the space problem of fossils, are ignored in Austin's critique.
Austin asserts that I trivialize creationist research in my review, whereas I protest that he seeks to aggrandize it. I thank him for his input and can now amend the list of original creationist research projects on the Grand Canyon from 5 to 8, or even 9, if we include one or 2 which even some creationists might disavow. My response to his complaint that I trivialize creationist research is that I do not need to do so. Creationist research speaks for itself, in a tiny voice which falls far short of causing a revolution in the paradigms of science.
Finally, Austin is concerned that my lack of proficiency in creationist geology will prevent the participants in the NCSE creation/evolution raft trip through Grand Canyon in August 1999 from getting their money's worth. Concerning that trip, perhaps I might be allowed to follow the example of Austin (1994) and use a selective quotation from the King James Bible. Perhaps Daniel (12:4) is appropriate, "...many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased." I am confident that the NCSE rafters will get value for their investment from the grandeur of the Grand Canyon itself, rather than from my words, or those of Austin. The Grand Canyon speaks for itself and in its own voice, a voice of colorful canyon walls, of whitewater rapids, and the awesome nature of geologic time.
Austin SA. (editor). Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Santee (CA): Institute for Creation Research, 1994.
Austin SA. Wise KP. Nautiloid mass-kill event at a hydrothermal mound within the Redwall Limestone (Mississippian), Grand Canyon. Abstracts with Programs -Geological Society of America. 1995; 27(6):369.
Baker VR. The Spokane flood controversy and the Martian outflow channels. Science 1978; 202:1249-56.
Beus SS. Redwall limestone and surprise canyon formation; in Beus SS, Morales M. (editors) Grand Canyon Geology: New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Chapter 8.
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Larson EE, Patterson PE, Mutschler FE. Lithology, chemistry, age and origin of the Proterozoic Cardenas Basalt, Grand Canyon, Arizona. Precambrian Research 1994 : 65 (1-4): 255-76.
Lockley M, Hunt AP. Dinosaur Tracks. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995:40-5.
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Morris HM. Biblical Cosmology and Modern Science. Phillipsburg (NJ): Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1970, p 32-3. (cited by K Harding at < http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Temple/9917/flood.html> accessed 4/2/1999.
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Whitcomb JC and Morris HM. The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications. Grand Rapids (MI): Baker Book House, 1964.
Wilfred A Elders,
University of California
Department of Earth Sciences
Riverside CA 92521-0423
Author(s): Steven A Austin and Wilfred Elders Volume: 19 Issue: 2 Year: 1999 Date: March–April Page(s): 11–19