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The Rocks Don't Lie

THE ROCKS DON’T LIE: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood. David R. Montgomery. W. W. Norton and Co., $26.95.

For most of the past 200 years, the expression “flood geology” has engendered something verging on contempt in many earth scientists. Yet prior to the groundbreaking ideas of James Hutton and John Playfair, the great inundation was the basis of most explanations for the land we see around us—topography, sediments, fossils, the miscellanea of geology.

Click to Enlarge ImageGeomorphologist David R. Montgomery casts a critical yet sympathetic eye on flood myths, finding substance for them in Tibet, the Philippines and elsewhere, while systematically disassembling the universality of Noah’s Flood. (The photograph above shows the spot in Tibet where an ancient glacial dam was breached.) The Rocks Don’t Lie traces the history of the field of geology through the thinking that progressively debunked the great-flood myth and left behind, temporarily, what would be resurrected 150 years later as Creationism.

Picking up a book with the subtitle A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, I expected to learn geology and was not disappointed. The Rocks Don’t Lie intertwines geologic history and the author’s own field trips in an engrossing way. Montgomery offers a much richer story than I was taught as an undergraduate about the unconformity that Hutton found at Siccar Point, Scotland (which is featured on the book’s cover).

I was not prepared, however, to be schooled on how the Bible has been interpreted over the past millennium. To offer just one example, the book recounts how John Calvin’s views of Noah’s Flood differed from those of Martin Luther. Luther turns out to be the literalist, stating that Moses “spoke properly and plainly, and neither allegorically nor figuratively.” Calvin took a more restrained view: He interpreted the Genesis story literally but did not imagine that the great flood was responsible for the topography around him or the fossils in the rocks of his beloved Swiss Alps.

True to his field, Montgomery also shows flashes of considerable wit—albeit usually at the expense of the Creationists. Visiting the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, he discovers that evolution has actually occurred since the original “creation orchard,” as the museum terms it—but only among nonhuman creatures.

The book’s extensive endnotes sometimes expand on points and sometimes document the sources of quotations. Following those references comes a substantive list of sources, which add to the opportunities for pursuing subjects further.

That’s just a taste of what’s in store for readers of this delightful volume. I came away far more enriched than I had expected to be.—David Schoonmaker

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