High Ark: A Geologist on the True Meaning of Noah’s Flood

Culture-war minefields await the hard scientist who dares to wander into the perceived territory of religion, and your readership tends to retreat into their corners, waving flags. When I first heard about the new book from the MacArthur-winning University of Washington professor of geomorphology David R. Montgomery, The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, I figured it to be a straightforward debunking of the so-called “Flood geology,” the idea put forward by young-earth creationists that all of the geologic features we see on today’s Earth—sedimentary rock, species distribution, formation of continents, volcanoes, canyons, everything—can be attributed to one “global flood,” within the 6,000-year time frame they allow for Earth’s history. It’s an idea that begs for debunking, certainly, but who would be listening?

Fortunately, Montgomery’s book offers the reader something much more interesting than a takedown. Also the author of the science histories Dirt and King of Fish, Montgomery delved deeper, into the early history of geology in which the quest to understand the Bible’s flood story often played a crucial role. He describes, firsthand, what the geologic and historic data actually tell us about the large floods that have taken place all over the world throughout history. And perhaps most intriguing, he’s willing to talk about science as a human endeavor. I spoke to Montgomery by phone to find out more about these surprising aspects of his story.

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BWL: You write in your introduction that you started out to write a more traditional debunking of creationism’s flood geology, from your perspective as a geologist. And you ended up with something different. What happened?

DM: I learned a lot writing this book. And I like it much better than the book I started out to write. As a kid I went to Sunday school and we heard about Noah’s Ark and about the Garden of Eden, but without the literal spin. So, personally, I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of conflict between science and religion. That story of perpetual conflict was more something I learned at school. So it was refreshing to discover that there was more complexity, back-and-forth, cross-pollination in the history. I like surprises.

You have this great phrase, you say that creationists are “one of the most recently evolved species” of Christian. What do you mean by this?

Well the creationists have chosen to go back to a literal interpretation of the flood story, using arguments that were recognized and rejected in the 1780s. Throughout that time, there was a whole other tradition of faith in the world around us, a belief that God didn’t create an incomprehensible universe. And they’ve just walked away from that. It’s bad theology dressed as science.  

Creationists and “flood geologists” have a lot of investment in the idea of catastrophe. I remember at the Creation Museum “catastrophe” was one of their “seven C’s,” along with “creation.” 

Well of course. When you have to account for all of history in one event, it’s gotta be big! Look, they’re criticizing 1920s geology; they’re assuming all geologists are uniformitarian, which is outright misrepresentation.

But you do write about how the scientific community was somewhat closed-minded when confronted with scientific evidence for catastrophic events.

Oh, catastrophe was a geological taboo! There was a sense of “we’ve fought that battle already.” You have to understand, in the early nineteenth century, catastrophe was all the rage, everything could be explained by a catastrophe. And then over the course of the nineteenth century, geology developed a different understanding. With Hutton [notion of geologic time] you have enough time that every day, small changes can have big effects. Geology shifted into what we call “uniformitarianism.” And it’s a good concept, it can explain a lot, but the field went overboard… it’s a good concept, but Mount St. Helens did blow up!

That’s why I spend so much time on Harlan Bretz in the book [a 1930s geologist who studied the landscape of eastern Washington state] who had such a hard time getting the scientific community to pay attention to his evidence for a catastrophic flood.

But there’s a distinction to be made here between “large,” maybe even “regional” and “global.”

Right, exactly. I’ve never understood how creationists are perfectly comfortable calling evidence of  the flood of eastern Washington a “global flood” when you can map the edge of it! And another thing—if Noah saved two of every species, and yet 99 percent of animals preserved in the fossil record are extinct species, when did everything go extinct? Either Noah didn’t do his job, or they’re wrong. 

In talking to you I hear a lot of incredulity—well-earned, certainly—toward the creationist point of view. And yet in your book your tone is much more, well, diplomatic.

Yes, that was a conscious effort, not to be bending too far in one direction. Scientists are human. We’re slow to change, we have our pet theories. We’re not Mr. Spock. Our expectations are shaped by how we want things to turn out. That’s one of the reasons for the peer-review process. I’ve heard the idea that science advances generationally, that ideas change when one generation who expected them to turn out one way dies out. We need more respectful discussion. 

You know, when I read The Genesis Flood [the 1961 book by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris which sparked much of “creation science”] I was really surprised by the fact that they were offering an insightful critique of 1950s geology. You know I kind of held my nose and read the book, and then I found it fascinating that they would recycle seventeenth-century ideas about the earth. But they were noticing something legitimate that was missing.

Sort of an attitude of “you guys can’t explain everything, we can tidy this up for you.”

Exactly. In the 1950s, geologists at the time were really struggling to put together plate tectonics. So The Genesis Flood was critiquing a “beta version” of modern geology. That was part of their motivations, Morris and Whitcomb realized the shortcomings of what was out there, and they teed up off of that. They went off on an irrational tangent, but had a surprisingly rational foundation for their argument.

So do you think if they could recognize modern geology, there’d be hope?

Well, as long as you start out with the answer—the flood—and then look for evidence to back it up, no, there’s not really hope that you’re going to be doing real science. Where I see the hope is if more Christians question [creationist] theology. I think there’s little a book like this could do to change the mind of the people who built the Creation Museum—they’ll probably spend five years attacking it. But among people of good faith, both inside and outside the faith community, my hope is that it could help people think more broadly about these questions.

The conversation should be about whether creationism is good theology or bad theology, because creationists are walking away from a long tradition of the natural world as a valid source of revelation. There were two sources of divine knowledge: what God made, and what God wrote. And places like the Creation Museum pit the two against each other.

There’s a very eloquent argument against this view in the rocks outside the Creation Museum. Describe what you saw there.

Here is this place arguing that all of these layers of rock got created at once through Noah’s Flood, and yet right under their feet is this beautifully vetted stretch of limestone, it’s really too finely laminated and too extensive to possibly be explained by something like that. So you look at these things and you have to ask, what do you make of the world? Can the world tell its own story?

You also tell us how the stories of geological events do get passed down to us, both in the rocks themselves and also in folklore.

I was genuinely surprised to find that the flood stories found around the world may have historical basis. In some cases the folk stories read like filtered down eyewitness description. But just because there were big floods in lots of different parts of the world—we need to have a complex, adult conversation about this. 

Creationists like to point to the similarities in flood stories around the world [as evidence that they are all describing the same, worldwide, catastrophic flood]. But their similarities basically boil down to: there was a large flood, and there was someone left on Earth to describe it. And if you think about it—those are required elements of any flood story. There had to be a big flood, and someone had to survive to record it, or we wouldn’t know about it at all!

The real insights are in the differences between the flood stories. Whether they are describing something like a dam breaking, or water coming from the sea in Tahiti, or a tsunami. There were missionaries in the Pacific who were confused because the native flood stories did not say anything about “rain” as the Bible described Noah’s flood. Their floods came from the sea in giant waves. In Africa, flood myths are somewhat more scarce, because floods themselves are rare, and they can be life-giving events. The Chinese flood stories are more about control of nature… the point is not “which one of these stories is true.”

The point is to connect the stories to actual facts on the ground.

One of my favorite places is the Valley of the Tsangpo River in China, where I begin the book. It’s rare as a geologist to go somewhere where there has not been a lot of work done, somewhere where you feel you can put the story together yourself. You see land deposits, and you start making predictions, and you go from having a piece of the puzzle to being able to put the history together, and it makes sense. 

And that does not reduce the majesty of the events for you, does it? 

Oh no, it makes it more wonderful. That’s another of my problems with the creationists, I think their ideas shortchange the wonder of nature. The more the story makes sense according to nature, the more astounding it becomes.

There may be no point arguing over whether the Bible’s flood story is literally true. But it does not follow for you that the story has no meaning.

No, it’s a parable. To me it says: we are Noah on the planet, we are the stewards. Noah’s Flood tells the story of the way that nature made it into the future. And that’s a challenge for us today. In our meeting with the forces that could destroy us… who’s going to be around to survive, to share the story? There’s a very concrete lesson there.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011) and an editor of the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha.