Cover Story

Riding the rapids

"Riding the rapids" Continued...

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

Young-earth creationists are frequently the butt of jokes among sophisticated evangelicals. Terry Mortensen, a Ph.D. historian of science who has eight children ("I'm a real creationist"), mentioned between rapids that even some Christians think of young-earthers as snake-handling flat-earthers. But the Colorado River reality was not that at all. The free-flowing discussions featured people with strong intellects and strong life experiences such as:

• Peter Siebsma, a Dutch scholar who knows six European languages and 20-30 ancient Middle Eastern languages like Chaldean and Aramaic. (Siebsma cannot give an exact number because he asks, "Does Moabite count as a language?")

• Andrew Snelling, an Australian Ph.D. geologist scorned by other geologists for doubting conventional understandings of radiometric dating. He points out, though, that God created plants, not seeds; people, not embryos; and wine at the wedding in Cana that had been water minutes before-but tasted like it was perfectly aged.

• Gordon Pennington, who did marketing for companies like Tommy Hilfiger and spent six years ingesting huge amounts of cocaine and alcohol. He had a spiritual awakening 13 years ago and immediately lost the desire for drugs and drink. He still works in marketing and notes that "science is also a fashion industry, with theories changing regularly, although not as often as hemlines. There is tremendous pressure to be academically respectable."

Others in the group did not go through radical changes but experienced pressure to be respectable. For example, Mark Thornton grew up in Arkansas and teaches at a seminary in his home state, so it's easy to see his life as sheltered-but he recalls his fourth-grade teacher talking about evolution and asking the class, "Who doesn't believe we all came from monkeys?" Thornton was the only one to raise his hand: The teacher then told every child to "turn around and look at Mark."

Ridicule of that sort sounds like child abuse, but isn't mockery sensible when addressed to adults who hold to bizarre notions and should know better? This notion of the Grand Canyon formed by Noah's flood a few thousand years ago: Isn't it absurd? After all, when I visited the south rim of the Canyon 18 years ago, about a mile above the river, I read the handy Park Service info that gave a long-ago date when the Canyon formed and explained the process. Game, set, match, right?

Maybe not. Geologist Wayne Ranney's new book, Carving Grand Canyon, has the imprimatur of the Grand Canyon Association, keeper of the official story. But Ranney is also honest enough to admit that mainstream scientists fight about the age of the Canyon, with current estimates ranging from 6 million to 80 million years. Ranney acknowledges that the "Grand Canyon is a puzzle, a mystery, an enigma. It appears to have been carved through an uplifted plateau, ignores fault lines, may have been born by a river that once flowed the other way, is possibly quite old or quite young, or both."

In other words, the conventional wisdom has the Colorado River flowing sharply uphill at one point rather than taking lines of least resistance as rivers normally do. Disagreements over the river's age have led to disconnects in the official story: Ranney asks, "How can a river be 20 million years old in one location but no more than 6 million years old downstream?"

Ranney explicitly critiques scientific research based on "the belief that the Bible is the true word of God," but he also has trouble with the standard idea of Canyon formation through "the slow and inexorable wearing away of the bedrock. . . . Very little deepening can be accomplished in this way." He argues that "rivers like the Colorado actually deepen their channels only during relatively large and intermitted large-scale floods, when huge amounts of large, rocky debris are in motion. . . . Most canyons are carved only during relatively rare flood events."

Ranney concludes that "the many geologists who have devoted their careers to studying the canyon cannot resolve its age. . . . They still debate whether it was formed rather catastrophically or over a much more extended period of time." Ranney himself writes about catastrophe: "Spectacular lava flows within the last 630,000 years. . . . The lava erupted so voluminously that huge dams were created within the Grand Canyon. One of those dams was over 2,000 feet high! Another was over 84 miles long."

Those comments get to the heart of the issue. Charles Lyell (1797-1875) argued that only present-day processes of geological change at current rates of intensity and magnitude should be used to interpret the rock record of past geological activity. This "uniformitarian" position-what we see today is the result of very long, very slow processes-has dominated geology since the 19th century. But British geologist Derek Ager (1923-1993), an atheist, challenged Lyell's assumptions and gradually picked up support for his counter-theory of catastrophic change.


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