The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, by David Montgomery (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, ISBN 978-0-393-34624-4) 301 pp., Softcover, $17.95.
Reflecting on his reading of Charles Lyell’s three-volume Principles of Geology, Charles Darwin remarked that Lyell’s work had been the basis of “everything which I have done in science.” Among other things, Lyell had provided Darwin the vast expanses of geologic time he needed for his theory of “descent with modification” to work.According to Lyell, with enough time, today’s valleys could have been slowly carved by ancient rivers. This observation dealt a fatal blow to earlier geological theorists, whose investigations sought to find evidence for a six-thousand-year-old Earth and for a single, Noachian, flood that had shaped the entire planet’s topography.
In his book The Rocks Don’t Lie, University of Washington geologist David Montgomery carefully documents the growth of geology from its beginning as handmaiden to Genesis to its modern status as a fully developed science. Serious geologists no longer question that Earth is closer to four billion years old than to six thousand years old. Virtually all would agree that the topography of the entire planet could not have been shaped by any single catastrophic event. Montgomery makes clear that the story of Noah and his ark is only a more recent reworking of flood legends to be found in ancient Sumerian and Babylonian writings.
And yet, surprisingly, until recent times, geologists persisted in the search for an Earth whose outer surface could be interpreted as confirmation of the Genesis account. Creationists, of course, continue to insist that all the indecipherables of Earth’s topography are made comprehensible with a true understanding of Noah’s flood, or of “flood geology.” In the early 1960s, Old Testament scholar John Whitcomb and hydraulics engineer Henry Morris combined their talents to produce a volume titled The Genesis Flood, which became the seminal work of flood geology. This was not exactly a work of pure science, as the authors freely admitted. Like that of early geologists, the efforts of Whitcomb and Morris constituted backward science because they did their science backward. They made what they call a “spiritual” decision to take the “revealed framework of history” (Genesis) as their basic datum and then tried to “see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.” In other words, they stood science on its head. As religionists are prone to do, they started with their own conclusions and then forced the data to fit. Montgomery praises Whitcomb and Morris for what was, at least in part, a perceptive critique of the problems of 1950s geology. He then goes on to explain, however, why the catastrophic flood theory fails to solve the problems Whitcomb and Morris raise while creating insurmountable problems of its own. Flood geology, as Montgomery makes plain, is not only wrong; it is catastrophically wrong.
Montgomery’s critique of creationist geology is withering. But, similar to Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, this book combines an irrefutable case against creation “science” with an unconvincing attempt to harmonize science and religion. If back-cover endorsements are any indicator, Montgomery’s book is apparently being marketed as a science-religion love fest. According to David Sessions, for example, this book is “an excellent example of how a serious . . . engagement with religion need not threaten reason or compromise scientific integrity.” Montgomery himself offers a final chapter titled “The Nature of Faith,” in which he asserts that the history of flood stories provides two different ways of viewing faith: “faith in a method . . . (like science) and faith in a particular idea . . . like scientific theories or religious beliefs).” Can he seriously be equating confidence in the scientific method with religious faith?
Montgomery is not happy with those he refers to as “militant atheists.” He accuses them of assuming that all believers are fundamentalists, but his bibliography gives no evidence that he has tried to acquaint himself with the work of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, or any of the other secular thinkers whose ideas he has apparently set out to rebut. In any case, atheists do not assume that all believers are biblical literalists, only that they are all suborning irrationality.
But Montgomery’s point seems to be that Christian moderates have been willing to reinterpret holy writ when new scientific evidence made doing so unavoidable. Unfortunately, and as the fundamentalists recognize, dogma is not supposed to be progressive. If Genesis is allegorical, then what happens to original sin? Was Jesus crucified for a myth? There are numerous pre-biblical stories of the dying and risen god, usually tied to the resurgence of life in spring. So, is the Easter story just one more adaptation? Is the resurrection a fiction? If so, is there any point in keeping Christ in Christianity?
What Montgomery refers to as a rich history of cross-pollination between science and religion seems a bit of wistful thinking. Has a scientific theory ever been improved when refashioned to conform to religious dogma? To be sure, advances in geology were made in the quest to confirm the Genesis account. But suppose that I believe in unicorns and, in my search to find one, I become the first person to stumble across and describe the African zebra. Does this mean that more people should believe in and go searching for unicorns? Does my discovery add even one ounce of credibility to my belief in unicorns? Should I conclude that my faith in the unicorn was the cause of my discovery? Or was it simply a happy accident that my illusory belief led me to something of genuine value?
Montgomery is as passionate about science as he is about geology. As he says, the “story of the origin and evolution of life, of the vast sweep of geologic time, and the complexity of the processes that shaped the world we know today inspire more awe and wonder than the series of one-off miracles from Genesis.” He fully realizes, too, that religion has been more often a hindrance than a helper to science. What he ultimately appeals for is that both sides of the religion versus science debate keep an open mind.