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Creationism's Geologic Time Scale

Should the scientific community continue to fight rear-guard skirmishes with creationists, or insist that "young-earthers" defend their model in toto?

Donald Wise

The New Creationist Geologists

Scientific creationism, with its attempt to derive explanations for most of the geologic record from the Noachian flood, has suffered from a near-vacuum of well-educated geologists in the ranks of its proponents. The founders of the modern creationist movement included Ph.D. hydrologist Henry M. Morris and Ph.D. biologist Duane Gish. To lend credence to their cause, they recruited a number of young evangelical students to undertake graduate study in geology. Details of how those young evangelicals, one after another, deserted the creationist cause after exposure to graduate geologic education is amply detailed and documented in R. L. Numbers's 1993 book The Creationists.

A very few evangelicals did manage to survive graduate education in geology with their Biblical fundamentalist views of earth history intact. This younger group includes Steven Austin, John Morris and Kurt Wise (no relation to the author). They have now moved into primary roles of leadership and authorship in the movement and deserve individual note.

Steven Austin earned a Ph.D. in coal geology from the Pennsylvania State University in 1979. During his Penn State time he also wrote creationist articles under the pseudonym of Stuart Nevins. Currently he is chair of the Department of Geology at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in southern California and is a major contributor to their in-house publications and articles on geology. His Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe (Austin 1994) is a slick full-color volume designed both as a guide for fundamentalist field trips into the canyon and as a potential text for fundamentalist college-level geology courses. In these publications his scientific philosophy is never in doubt. In Grand Canyon he explains: "The real battle in regard to understanding the Grand Canyon is founded not just upon Creation and Noah's Flood versus evolution, but upon Christianity versus humanism." (Austin 1994)

John Morris, Henry's son, earned a Ph.D. in geological engineering from the University of Oklahoma and taught there for several years. In 1984 he moved to the ICR, which now lists him as president. He has led several expeditions in search of Noah's ark and has worked on the alleged coexistence of human and dinosaur tracks in the Paluxy River bed of Texas. His book, The Young Earth, consists of fundamentalist Sunday school themes and highly slanted geologic interpretations followed by 70 pages of overhead-projector masters designed to "be shared with your church or Bible study groups." With his father he has written: "The data of geology, in our view, should be interpreted in light of the Scripture, rather than distorting Scripture to accommodate current geological philosophy." (Morris and Morris 1989)

Kurt Wise graduated from the University of Chicago with honors in geophysical sciences before going on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard under Stephen Jay Gould by working on details of mollusk classification. Wise has been the focus of a number of articles in the popular press and currently teaches at fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan College in Tennessee. He told a writer for Harper's Magazine in 1996: "I intend to replace the evolutionary tree with the creationist orchard, separately created, separately planted by God."

The rising influence in ICR circles of the likes of Austin, Morris and Wise has at least modernized the level of geologic debate. Although they are highly selective in their choice of which geologic data to present, their level of sophistication contrasts sharply with that of older creationists, who provided very few links to generally accepted geologic and paleontologic observations.

Critical reading of creationist literature is not easy even for a scientist with extensive geologic training. Particular care is required to detect how parts of the geologic record are cleverly distorted or ignored or how obscure literature citations or in-house creationist studies are expanded into general principles. Time and again, I found myself confusing pre- and post-flood events or mixing creation week events with flood events. But thanks to the younger generation, there is now enough detail in recent creationist literature to correlate between their "young earth" and the "old earth" or standard geologic time scales, even though the challenge is complicated by widely differing dates, events and models suggested by various creationist authors.

The following discussion explains the creationist time scale as I have managed to compile it. History suggests that detailed explanations and rebuttals of many items on this time scale will come from creationists. Scientists seeking more detail might look at T. H. Heaton's article, "A Young Grand Canyon?" in The Skeptical Inquirer (Heaton 1995), C. G. Weber's 1980 paper "The Fatal Flaws of Flood Geology" in Creation/Evolution, or D. A. Young's two fine books (1977, 1982), which upset creationists enough to elicit answers to his points on a one-by-one basis (Morris and Morris 1989) and an entire book of rebuttals (Gish 1993).

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