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If we followed “flood geology,” we would have no oil

by Donald Prothero, Apr 30 2014

In my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, I detailed the problems with the bizarre view of the earth known as “flood geology.”  Originally hatched by  George Macready Price,  a school teacher with no training or experience whatsoever in geology, he dreamed it up by reading children’s books about geology. Price was a Seventh-Day Adventist, therefore he had to believe in Young-Earth Creationism. Thus, he would create elaborate explanations of how Noah’s flood could explain the entire geological record—or at least the record as portrayed in oversimplified cartoons in kiddie books. If he had ever bothered to go into the field and look directly at the rocks, he might have changed his mind.

Ironically, the entire idea of Noah’s flood explaining the rock record was disproven by creationist geologists themselves. The Noah’s flood model was widely believed before 1795, but in the early 1800s geologists began to look at the rocks of Europe in greater detail, and realized that it could not be explained by one flood or by many floods. By 1830, “flood geology” was completely dead, even though the geologists of the time were all devoutly religious and believed in the Bible. And this all happened decades before Charles Darwin published his ideas in 1859, so in no way did geologists “shuffle the fossils and the strata” to prove evolution, as some creationists claim.

In Price’s later years, his bizarre ideas about geology were generally ignored as embarrassments by most creationists (see Numbers, 1992, pp. 89-101). Most subscribed to the “day-age” idea of Genesis, where the “days” of scripture were geologic “ages,” and did not try to contort all the evidence of geology into a simplistic flood model. Some disciples of Price actually tried to test his ideas and look at the rocks for themselves, which Price apparently never bothered to do. In 1938, Price’s follower Harold W. Clark “at the invitation of one of his students visited the oil fields of Oklahoma and northern Texas and saw with his own eye why geologists believed as they did. Observations of deep drilling and conversations with practical geologists [none of whom were trying to prove evolution, but simply using biostratigraphy to find oil] gave him a ‘real shock’ that permanently erased any confidence in Price’s vision of a topsy-turvy fossil record” (Numbers, 1992, p. 125). Clark wrote to Price:

The rocks do lie in a much more definite sequence than we have ever allowed. The statements made in the New Geology [Price’s term for  “flood geology”] do not harmonize with the conditions in the field. . . All over the Middle West the rocks lie in great sheets extending over hundreds of miles, in regular order. Thousands of well cores prove this. In East Texas alone are 25,000 deep wells. Probably well over 100,000 wells in the Midwest give data that have been studied and correlated. The science has become a very exact one, and millions of dollars are spent in drilling, with the paleontological findings of the company geologists taken as the basis for the work. The sequence of microscopic fossils in the strata is very remarkably uniform . . . The same sequence is found in America, Europe, and anywhere that detailed studies have been made. This oil geology has opened up the depths of the earth in a way that we never dreamed of twenty years ago (quoted in Numbers, 1992, p. 125).

Clark’s statement is a classic example of a reality check shattering the fantasy world of the flood geologists. Unfortunately, most creationists do not seek scientific reality. They prefer to speculate from their armchairs and read simplified popular books about fossils and rocks, rather than go out in the field and do the research themselves, or do the hard work of getting the necessary advanced training in geology and paleontology.

In the 1950s the young seminarian John C. Whitcomb tried to revive Price’s ideas yet again. When Douglas Block, a devout and sympathetic friend with geological training, reviewed Whitcomb’s manuscript, he “found Price’s recycled arguments almost more than he could stomach. ‘It would seem,’ wrote the upset geologist, ‘that somewhere along the line there would have been a genuinely well-trained geologist who would have seen the implications of flood-geology, and, if tenable, would have worked them into a reasonable system that was positive rather than negative in character.’ He assured Whitcomb that he and his colleagues at Wheaton [College, an evangelical school] were not ignoring Price. In fact, they required every geology student to read at least one of his books, and they repeatedly tested his ideas in seminars and in the field. By the time Block finished Whitcomb’s manuscript, he had grown so agitated he offered to drive down to instruct Whitcomb on the basics of historical geology” (Numbers, 1992, p. 190).

In 1961, Whitcomb and hydraulic engineer Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood, where they rehashed Price’s notions with a little twist or two of their own. Their main contribution was the idea of hydraulic sorting by Noah’s flood, where the flood would bury the heavier shells of marine invertebrates and fishes in the lower levels, followed by more advanced animals such as amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) fleeing to intermediate levels, and finally the “smart mammals” would climb to the highest levels to escape the rising floodwaters before they are buried.

The first time a professional geologist or paleontologist reads this weird scenario, they cannot help but be amazed at its naiveté. Price, Whitcomb and Morris apparently never spent any time collecting fossils or rocks. What their model is trying to explain is a cartoon, an oversimplication drawn for kiddie books—not any real stratigraphic sequence of fossils documented in science. Those simplistic diagrams with the invertebrates at the bottom, the dinosaurs in the middle, and the mammals on top bear no real resemblance to any local sequence on earth. In fact, those cartoons show only the first appearance of invertebrates, dinosaurs, and mammals, not their order of fossilization in the rock record (since invertebrates are obviously still with us, and are found in all strata from the bottom to the top). This diagram is an abstraction based on the complex three-dimensional pattern of rocks from all over the world. In a few extraordinary places, such as the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce National Parks in Utah and Arizona, we have a fairly continuous sequence of a long stretch of geologic time, so we know the true order in which rocks and fossils stack one on top of another. But even in that sequence, we have “dumb” marine ammonites, clams, and snails from the Cretaceous Mancos Shale found on top of “smarter, faster” amphibians and reptiles (including dinosaurs) from the Triassic and Jurassic Moenkopi, Chinle, Kayenta, and Navajo formations.

Just to the north, in the Utah-Wyoming border region, the middle Eocene Green River Shale yields famous fish fossils have been quarried by commercial collectors for almost a century. The Green River Shale produces fossils not only of freshwater fish, but also freshwater clams and snails, frogs, crocodiles, birds, and land plants. The rocks are finely laminated shale diagnostic of deposition in quiet water over thousands of years, with fossil mud cracks and salts formed by complete evaporation of the water. These fossils and sediments are all characteristic of a lake deposit which occasionally dried up, not a giant flood. These Green River fish fossils lie above the famous dinosaur-bearing beds of the upper Jurassic Morrison Formation in places such as Dinosaur National Monument, and above many of the mammal-bearing beds of the lower Eocene Wasatch Formation as well, so once again the fish and invertebrates are found above the supposedly smarter and faster dinosaurs and mammals.

If you think hard about it, why should we expect that marine invertebrates or fish would drown at all? They are, after all, adapted to marine waters, and many are highly mobile when the sediment is shifting. As Stephen Jay Gould put it:

Surely, somewhere, at least one courageous trilobite would have paddled on valiantly (as its colleagues succumbed) and won a place in the upper strata. Surely, on some primordial beach, a man would have suffered a heart attack and been washed into the lower strata before intelligence had a chance to plot a temporary escape….No trilobite lies in the upper strata because they all perished 225 million years ago. No man keeps lithified company with a dinosaur, because we were still 60 million years in the future when the last dinosaur perished (Gould, 1984, p. 132).

All of this adds up to a simple conclusion: two hundred years of mainstream geology (largely done by scientists who were very religious) has shown that the geologic record is far too complex for simplistic Bible myths. If the creationists were intellectually honest, they would face this fact, instead of imagining fantastic explanations for the Grand Canyon alone, and ignoring the remaining 99% of geology that cannot be twisted to fit their peculiar ideas. (See this link for a blow-by-blow discussion). Real scientists are not allowed to twist and torture data to fit their preconceived conclusions, or to ignore 99% of the data that cannot be made consistent with the  “flood geology” model.

The most significant implication of “flood geology” and its fantasy view of the earth is a practical problem. Without real geologists doing their work, none of us would have the oil, coal, gas, groundwater, uranium, and most other natural resources that we extract from the earth. There are lots of devout Christians in oil and coal companies (I know of many of them personally), but they all laugh at the idea of “flood geology” and would never attempt to use it to find what they’re paid to find. Instead, like the Clark and Block quotes above demonstrate, they have seen the complexity of real geology in hundreds of drill cores spanning whole continents, and don’t even begin to try to interpret these rocks in a creationist mold (even though they may be devout Christians and believe much of the rest of the fundamentalist’s credo). If they tried, they’d find no oil, and lose their jobs!

This problem has been attested to many times. Although there are people who may have been trained in “flood geology” after graduating from religious colleges, as soon as they are employed doing geology in their jobs, the real world gets in the way of their fantasies, and they abandon “flood geology”—because it doesn’t work! The most vivid testimony to this effect comes from Glenn Morton, who started as a YEC “flood geologist,” but when he began his career in petroleum he found it was worthless for finding oil, since it bears no resemblance to the real  world. As he put it:

By 1986, the growing doubts about the ability of the widely accepted creationist viewpoints to explain the geologic data led to a nearly 10 year withdrawal from publication. My last young-earth paper was entitled Geologic Challenges to a Young-earth, which I presented as the first paper in the First International Conference on Creationism. It was not well received. Young-earth creationists don’t like being told they are wrong. The reaction to the pictures, seismic data, the logic disgusted me. They were more interested in what I sounded like than in the data!

John Morris came to the stage to challenge me. He claimed to have been in the oil industry. I asked him what oil company he had worked for. I am going to let an account of this published in the Skeptical Inquirer in late 86 or early 87. It was written by Robert Schadewald. He writes,
“John Morris went to the microphone and identified himself as a petroleum geologist. He questioned Morton’s claim that pollen grains are found in salt formations, and accused Morton of sounding like an anticreationist, raising more problems than his critics could respond to in the time available. Morris said that the ICR staff is working on these problems all the time. He told Morton to quit raising problems and start solving them. “Morton chopped him off at the ankles. Two questions, said Morton: ‘What oil company did you work for?’ Well, uh, actually Morris never worked for an oil company, but he once taught petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma. Second, How old is the Earth?’ ‘If the earth is more than 10,000 years old then Scripture has no meaning.’ Morton then said that he had hired several graduates of Christian Heritage College, and that all of them suffered severe crises of faith. The were utterly unprepared to face the geologic facts every petroleum geologist deals with on a daily basis. Morton neglected to add that ICR is much better known for ignoring or denying problems than dealing with them.”

It appeared that the more I questions I raised, the more they questioned my theological purity. When telling one friend of my difficulties with young-earth creationism and geology, he told me that I had obviously been brain-washed by my geology professors. When I told him that I had never taken a geology course, he then said I must be saying this in order to hold my job. Never would he consider that I might really believe the data. Since then this type of treatment has become expected from young-earthers. I have been called nearly everything under the sun but they don’t deal with the data I present to them. Here is a list of what young-earthers have called me in response to my data: ‘an apostate,’(Humphreys) ‘a heretic’(Jim Bell although he later apologised like the gentleman he is) ‘a compromiser’(Henry Morris) “absurd”, “naive”, “compromising”, “abysmally ignorant”, “sloppy”, “reckless disregard”, “extremely inaccurate”, “misleading”, “tomfoolery” and “intentionally deceitful”(John Woodmorappe) ‘like your father, Satan’ (Carl R. Froede–I am proud to have this one because Jesus was once said to have been of satan also.) ‘your loyality and commitment to Jesus Christ is shaky or just not truly genuine’ (John Baumgardner 12-24-99 [Merry Christmas]) “[I] have secretly entertained suspicions of a Trojan horse roaming behind the lines…” Royal Truman 12-28-99

But eventually, by 1994 I was through with young-earth creationISM. Nothing that young-earth creationists had taught me about geology turned out to be true. I took a poll of my ICR graduate friends who have worked in the oil industry. I asked them one question.

“From your oil industry experience, did any fact that you were taught at ICR, which challenged current geological thinking, turn out in the long run to be true? ,”

That is a very simple question. One man, Steve Robertson, who worked for Shell grew real silent on the phone, sighed and softly said ‘No!’ A very close friend that I had hired at Arco, after hearing the question, exclaimed, “Wait a minute. There has to be one!” But he could not name one. I can not name one. No one else could either. One man I could not reach, to ask that question, had a crisis of faith about two years after coming into the oil industry. I do not know what his spiritual state is now but he was in bad shape the last time I talked to him.

 

Morton eventually gave up Young-Earth Creationism, and is now an old-earth creationist—but a realist about the geologic record. More importantly, his account given at this link shows how cruelly his former friends treated him as soon as he told them the truth, and told them that “flood geology” was a lie. Rather than listen to his experience, they abused him and ultimately excommunicated him as being a heretic.

As creationists keep trying to get their bizarre notion of “flood geology” inserted into classrooms and places like the Grand Canyon, we have to ask ourselves: are we willing to give up the oil and gas and coal and groundwater and uranium that our civilization requires? That would be one of the steepest prices we would pay if we followed the creationists.

REFERENCES

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1984. Evolution as fact and theory. Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. W.W. Norton, New York, pp. 253-262.

Numbers, Ronald. 1992. The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. Knopf, New York.

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14 Responses to “If we followed “flood geology,” we would have no oil”

  1. kl green says:

    I used to think “Hydraulic sorting” was a proxy IQ test. If it takes more than a few minutes to realize it’s flat-out stupid, then you fail.

    Creationists start with their uninformed conclusion and then work backwards to decide what science they are willing to accept. That’s not a joke and it’s not an insult. It’s the way they actually operate.

    • Deen says:

      I always wonder how they picture the flowering plants outrunning the ferns.

      • kl green says:

        I wish there were a way to up-thumb that comment, but there is not, so I shall have to plagiarize it.

  2. Rob Hooft says:

    Religious biologists ignore the biology implicated in the Bible. Religious geologists ignore the geology implicated in the bible. Which other groups do we have? Can atheists make them learn from each other?

    I once hard a great remark about a pilot being interviewed on his interest in popular science. He was quoted saying “I love to read popular science magazines, I learn so much! It is unfortunate that their stories about flying are so inaccurate.”

    • Malachi Constant says:

      With the track record that good scientists have when venturing into another field (i.e. misinformed) I don’t have much hope for pseudoscientists venturing into another field. The biases will just carry over.

      By the way, it seems way beyond the point where this blog should be reorganized. I like reading Daniel and Donald’s posts, but the author list on the right-hand side is completely misleading at this point, except for archival reasons. Some have stopped posting and some post at other sites now.

      Are there any plans to bring in some new folks?

  3. MikeB says:

    One cannot possibly be a “young earth creationist” and believe that coal, oil, and gas are “fossil fuels.”

    It would be interesting to ask a YEC: If oil isn’t a fossil fuel, then what is it?

    • tmac57 says:

      My guess is that a simple “It’s a gift from God” would suffice as their go-to pat answer.
      Life must be so simple for people who only have to read one book in their life to have all the answers…not that most of them have REALLY read it.

      • Mark Scurry says:

        I have yet to meet anyone who has read the Bible in its entirety (I’m slowly working through it). Even then, the King James version for example is still a translation. And I’m guessing not necessarily accurate.

  4. Robert Bowman says:

    Too many animals and plants (including plankton, diatoms, etc.)
    Advocates of the global flood claim that all the fossils are the remains of animals that died in the flood. Morris states, “Still further, the creationist suspects that the fossil record and the sedimentary rocks, instead of speaking of a long succession of geologic ages, may tell rather of just one former age, destroyed in a single great worldwide aqueous cataclysm.”

    If this claim is true, that the fossil record represents the remains of a single pre-diluvial world, then there should not be enough fossils to overcrowd the world. Most animals would be destroyed in the Flood, and hence, not preserved. Thus if the geologic column consists of one single biosphere which was destroyed in one year, there should be very few fossils and certainly not enough of them to fill up today’s earth. But this isn’t what is seen.

    Whitcomb and Morris cite with approval a paleontologist who estimates that the Karroo Formation of southern Africa is believed to contain 800 billion fossil vertebrates with an average size of the fox.

    Robert Schadewald wrote: “Robert E. Sloan, a paleontologist at the University of Minnesota (FYI: I took coursework from Bob in the mid-70s), has studied the Karroo Formation [in Africa]. He asserts that the animals fossilized there range from the size of a small lizard to the size of a cow, with the average animal perhaps the size of a fox. A minute’s work with a calculator shows that, if the 800 billion animals in the Karroo formation could be resurrected, there would be twenty-one of them for every acre of land on earth.”
    1.) That is, if all of the fossils of animals in the Karroo Formation had been alive at one time, were drowned during the flood of Noah, and ended up evenly spaced around the entire land surface of the earth, there would be 21 animals per acre.
    2.) A very conservative estimate is that there are about 100 fossils elsewhere on earth for each fossil in the Karroo Formation in Africa. Thus, assuming that all of these animals were evenly distributed, there would have been over 2,100 living animals per acre of land – “ranging from tiny shrews to immense dinosaurs” when the flood hit. This is clearly impossible.

    Whitcomb and Morris state:
    “Although the details are not clear, the Deluge once again appears to offer a satisfactory explanation for the origin of oil, as well as the other stratigraphic phenomena.”

    If all the oil were the result of the decay of organic matter, then there is far too much oil and natural gas in the world. There are 201 x 10^18 grams of carbon in the hydrocarbons of oil. In all of the world’s living things, today, there are only 0.3 x 10^18 grams of carbon. There is 670 times more carbon in petroleum than there is in every living plant and animal on earth. Surely the world was not 670 times more crowded at the time of the Flood than it is today! This does not include coal and fossils, much less cherts and limestones (Austin Chalk, Niobrara chalk, White Cliffs of Dover, Monterey Formation, Mission Canyon formation, etc.).

    Some of the above paraphrased/from Glenn Morton’s “Foundation, Fall and Flood”.

    • Robert Bowman says:

      One thing I forgot to mention is that if only 1 out of 1,000 land animals were fossilized, then that would make the number of animals per acre equal to ~2,100,000.

  5. William Ivey says:

    Excellent article. The name of Geo. MaCready Price is very much involved in my own introduction to skepticism when I was younger. I first came across Price in Earth in Upheaval, Velikovsky’s geology-themed sequel to Worlds in Collision; Price is mentioned in the preface and several footnotes from his Commonsense Geology. Next, in Martin Gardner’s ground-zero skeptical opus Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science Price is discussed briefly in the chapter Geology versus Genesis. In Six Days or Forever (a history of the Scopes trial) it is revealed that Clarence Darrow asked Wm Jennings Bryan if there were any scientists which he did respect. Bryan answered, Geo. MaCready Price; Darrow responded that Price was a montebank.

    • Ironically, Bryan was NOT a Young-Earth creationist in the Price mold, but an old-earth “day-age” creationist–a contradiction which was revealed on the witness stand by Darrow