A weekend of collecting, sorting and cleaning Ordovician-Period marine fossils from the Arbuckle Mountains has got me thinking once again about one of the strangest beliefs held by fundamentalist Christians: that about 4,400 or so years ago, the deity who had created the universe a couple of millennia earlier got all pissed off and wiped out almost everything in a global flood. I suppose that would have been a good enough belief for someone living in the Middle Ages, but its prestige has been completely undercut by the science of geology, beginning with its birth in the late 17th century. By around the middle of the 19th century, the only people who still took the Noahic Flood seriously were circuit-riding evangelists and the crowds of superstitious, snake-handling bumpkins who followed them. In most cases, their backwardness can clearly be attributed to the lack of general education.
During the second half of the 19th century, public education began to rectify some of the illiteracy and ignorance that had characterized the frontier population at large; this program went into full swing after the Civil War and the U.S. gradually began to show signs of a more general secular awakening. That awakening looked frightening to many people (not least to the preachers whose incomes were thereby threatened), and it was out of that fear that fundamentalism was born late in that century.
Unlike the frontier revivalism that characterized much of the U.S. earlier in the 19th century, fundamentalism was in some respects a self-consciously “modern” movement. It was born out of a psychological conflict: the wish to enjoy the fruits of modernity (making necessary a kind of lip-service to the sciences that made those benisons possible) while swearing allegiance to the literal truth of the Bible – one of the strangest notions that’s ever been hatched by the unquiet mind of man. Since the findings of science were obviously at odds with biblical cosmology and history, fundamentalists were at pains to debunk those findings.
The fundamentalists were not Luddites, however: they didn’t want to kill the goose that laid all those golden eggs – they simply wanted to bring her into line with the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible. In a classic case of fighting fire with fire, they began crafting their own “scientific” theories and setting them up alongside the classical sciences as legitimate contenders in the marketplace of ideas as well as needed antidotes to the rising tide of godless humanism. Among the earlier (and more laughable) attempts to do this were efforts by pastors J.R. Graves and Ben M. Bogard. Unfortunately, such attempts were so transparently non-scientific that they got no purchase outside the ranks of long-established true believers: in order to attract a more educated clientele (or to hold onto their own young as they became increasingly better-informed), what was needed was an approach with a pretense of real scholarship.
So it is that co-authors Henry Morris and John Whitcomb (the latter a minor contributor, actually) came to publish The Genesis Flood in 1961. (Henry Morris’s name may be familiar to some of you: he was the founding director of the Institute for Creation Research [ICR]. I’ve taken a whack at him earlier.) Morris was at that time a newly-minted PhD (hydraulic engineering, the University of Minnesota). He was also a fundamentalist Christian. What had driven him into this adventure in geology was not a burning desire to discover how the Earth works: it was a burning desire to vindicate the Bible.
Morris was a fairly good writer and had an arsenal of scientific terms at his disposal. He thought he recognized in the Genesis account of the Flood, the needed key to reconcile Science and Scripture. And so was born the pseudoscience of “flood geology.” In his landmark book, Morris drew on just enough classical physics to make his claims sound believable to anyone who’s incapable of thinking past the end of his own nose. And that’s why it was immediately adopted by fundamentalist Bible schools and seminaries all over the United States – and is still required reading in virtually every one of them. (It is from Henry Morris that the execrable Kent Hovind got his “flood geology.” If you’ve heard that piece of work pontificating about the Flood, you’re just hearing Morris filtered through Hovind – good for the lulz.)
One of the claims that Morris made in his magnum opus is that a combination of hydrologic sorting, dynamics of decay and gradations of intelligence can account for the particulars of a fossil record which – on his view – was deposited in a matter of weeks instead of over half a billion years. Here’s how that’s supposed to work:
In the case of marine fossils, the deposition sequence was roughly as follows: small animals (arthropods, mollusks, etc.) were immediately buried where they lived: in reefs built of corals, bryozoa and the like. Larger animals tended to “bloat” and bob to the surface; it took them awhile to sink, which is why they’re always “higher in the column” than those supposed “earlier” (but actually merely smaller) organisms. The larger the drowned animal, the longer it floated; ergo its position higher in the “column.”
Stop spewing your espresso. I’m not done yet.
A parallel sequence among land animals owes to the fact that some animals are more intelligent than others. The dumber ones drowned first, as the smarter ones were headed for higher ground. Those dumber ones were thus deposited lower in the “column.” The smarter the animal, the higher the ground it attained before it was finally drowned. Thus we see an apparent progression of complexity and intelligence in the fossil record. It was actually – according to Morris – a kind of footrace. Birds are high in the column because birds are among the last to drown in a flood.
Now, back to those Ordovician-Period fossils I collected last weekend. In the Arbuckles, there’s about 30 million years of deposition that’s exposed in an uninterrupted sequence, in half a dozen roadcuts that I can connect in a north-south series spanning roughly eight miles. If I collect from the north end of that series of cuts, I’m collecting fossils that are as much as 30 million years younger than those in the southernmost part of the exposure. (Those numbers are, of course, meaningless according to Henry Morris). Here’s the thing: I can collect trilobites, brachiopods, corals, bryozoa and gastropods from both ends of the series, and there’s not a lot of difference in size or benthic habit. But they are in many cases completely different species. (“Trilobite” is a large family of arthropods – large as in “hominid,” only much larger.) Moreover, small nautiloids appear only in the southern (older) end of the series, and crinoid parts appear only at the northern end. Again, the size difference between them is negligible.
The replacement of one suite of species with another at opposite ends of that series of roadcuts flies directly in the face of Morris’ ridiculous claim. I have representative specimens from that area that demonstrate what I’m talking about. Morris’ claim is the grossest generalization I’ve ever encountered under the rubric of science (real or imagined), and it’s maddening to see such a charlatan flash faux scientific credentials around in order to lend prestige to the most cracked-brain scheme of Bible-vindication it’s been our debatable fortune to inherit.
Do you know what I mean by that last strange turn of phrase? We have all of us – atheist or otherwise – inherited Morris’ scheme, whether or not we’re aware of it. That’s because every evolution-denier is armed with it. Morris is one of those “scientists” who are so often cited as counterexamples: scientists (or at least those who make some kind of career in the sciences loosely defined) who believe in the truth of the Bible. I’ve encountered a few of those. They infect academic departments. They’re teaching “science” in public schools all over the country. They lend their support and their supposed prestige to efforts to include “Intelligent Design” in the science curriculum of public schools. (Many of their names can also be found on lists of scientists who deny anthropogenic global warming.) They are scientists in name only.
Henry Morris has done much to erode the prestige of science in the United States. He is a problem for all of us. It is because of Morris that so many fundamentalists hold the mistaken notion that the Bible has been vindicated by science: that a bona fide geologist has verified the Genesis account. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Genesis Flood is snake-oil, peddled by a crackpot charlatan who knew how to make a buck or two off a gullible public who seek reassurance that the things they’ve been taught to believe are in fact true. If I believed in Hell, I think I’d imagine a special place in it for Henry Morris and his publisher (“…him and the horse he rode in on,” so to speak).