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House of cards

by Donald Prothero, Mar 26 2014
The "Creation Museum" in Petersburg, Kentucky, ironically built upon rocks which disprove Noah's flood

The “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky, ironically built upon rocks which disprove Noah’s flood

A foolish man, which built his house upon the sand—Matthew 7: 24-27.

Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee—Job 12:8

During the Ham on Nye debate last February 4, Bill led off with a great example to throw Ken off balance. He pointed out that (ironically), the Creation “Museum” itself was built upon rocks which refuted flood geology! Bill even brought a piece of fossiliferous limestone from a road cut nearby to show that it was full of fossils, delicately preserved, and not the kind of thing a flood would produce. He explained it briefly, but I don’t know how many people got the point—and given the humorless nature of most creationists who don’t catch on to sarcasm and snark, I doubt they even noticed the irony that their entire model was refuted by the rocks beneath them at that very place.

Let’s look at the geologic background to this concept. First of all, how do limestones form? Geologists know from studying them all over the world, and looking closely at them in ancient settings, that limestones are produced by the accumulation of fragments of calcareous animals and plants (shell fragments, corals, pieces of calcareous algae) in warm, shallow, clear tropical waters, with no mud or sand from land that would clog the gills of the shelly organisms or corals, or make the water dark and muddy. Since many of these organisms (especially corals) only form big reefs in warm tropical waters, and since much of the reef community is plants (not only the calcareous algae, but also the algae symbiotically living in reef coral polyps), the water must be very shallow and clear to allow light penetration. Consequently,  modern limestones are formed in shallow clear tropical waters far from the mud of land-based rivers: the Bahamas, Bermuda, Yucatan, the Atlantic Coast of Florida (but not the Gulf side, where Mississippi mud darkens the waters), the Persian Gulf, and the southwest Pacific and Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Nowhere else! Not only is this a very restricted setting, but under no circumstances do limestones (today or in the past) show any evidence of being formed in the muddy, turbulent, cold waters of a typical flood—or even a supernatural flood. If you look at them closely, they are accumulations of layer after layer of fossil communities, slowly building on top of each other in quiet waters, often with delicate organisms (such as the stick-like bryozoans and delicate corals and sponges) buried in life position, with no evidence that they had been battered and toppled by the powerful energy of flood waters. Knowing this, right away we can refute “flood geology”, because there are many places in the world with huge piles of limestone, each made of layer upon layer of delicate fossils, that cannot be made by flood energy. Heck, even the creationists’ favorite example, the Grand Canyon, is built with many limestone layers: the Muav Limestone near the base, the huge thickness of Redwall Limestone at the cliff break, and the Kaibab and Toroweap Limestones that cap the rim.

The structure in the northern Kentucky region, where the gentle arch bringing the oldest rocks (late Ordovician) to the surface

The structure in the northern Kentucky region, where the gentle arch bringing the oldest rocks (late Ordovician) to the surface

Next, let’s look more closely at the rocks of the region around the Creation “Museum.” That area of northern Kentucky, southwest Ohio, and southeast Indiana is underlain by upper Ordovician rocks (445-460 m.y. old) that are part of a structure known as the “Cincinnati Arch'; the older rocks of the region (Ordovician in this case) have been buckled upward in an arch-like feature and exposed to erosion, while younger rocks (Silurian, Devonian, and Carboniferous) are trapped in the basins on each side of the arch. The Cincinnati Arch is world-famous as a place to see an amazing sequence of thousands of individual beds  full of delicately preserved fossils, reaching several thousand feet in thickness, and loaded in every bed with a huge diversity of fossils. It is often called the “Cradle of American Paleontology” for that reason, since many famous paleontologists started their careers in Cincinnati, working on these amazing beds and their fossils. When I took a Knox College geology class there on a field trip in 1984, I could not believe how rich every bed was with fossils, and how the ground in some places is literally paved with the shells of brachiopods that you can collect by the bagful! It’s so rich that almost ANY road cut or quarry yields great fossils, and even Bill Nye (not a paleontologist) could find some with a short stop at any random outcrop.

The thick sequence of thousands of beds of the Cincinnati Arch, each disproving Noah's flood

The thick sequence of thousands of beds of the Cincinnati Arch, each disproving Noah’s flood

The key point about these beds is that there are thousands of individual layers, and each one is full of delicate fossils like branching bryozoans and stick-like corals, some delicately preserved in life position as they were buried in a gentle rain of sediment—and this repeats, over and over again. Under no circumstances could a single flood do this! Most of these rocks are limestones--under no circumstances do floods produce these! We know what real flood deposits look like by watching them happen: usually there is a huge boulder and cobble deposit at the base formed by the front of the high-energy flood waters, followed by sand and mud settling out of suspension as the flood waters slow down and drop their sediment load. There is no such universal flood deposit on earth (especially not the Grand Canyon or Cincinnati Arch). In fact, the devout creationist geologists of the early 1800s realized this as soon as they began to carefully study and map and collect rocks and fossils all over Europe. They began as “flood geologists” (a popular idea before 1795), but by the 1830s, they had all abandoned any notion of a “Genesis flood.” When you know what the rocks really look like, the idea is laughable! (For further details see my book on evolution).

Typical road cut of Ordovician rocks in northern Kentucky, part of sequence of thousands of feet in thickness of limestones and shales deposited in quiet water over millions of years

Typical road cut of Ordovician rocks in northern Kentucky, part of sequence of thousands of feet in thickness of limestones and shales deposited in quiet water over millions of years

But the real clincher is the many different coral fossils in the Ordovician beds around the region. I took my students to several outcrops in northern Kentucky just down the road from Ham’s monstrosity. In many cases, you can find these huge coral heads from an extinct coral group (tabulate corals), known as favositids (“honeycomb corals” to the amateurs). You will find layers in the road cuts where coral heads had grown up from one layer (once an ancient sea bottom) over many decades, since inside the corals are growth lines that often show decades of growth. Then this coral head was buried in a gentle rain of sediment, and a new coral head (which also has growth lines showing decades of life) is growing from the old sea bottom in the layer above the previous one. This goes on, layer after layer, and is widespread across a large area of ancient sea bottom. One coral after another, undisturbed and buried in quiet water, and each layer record decades of coral growth before it was buried, stifled, and a new coral grew for decades in the next ancient sea bottom layer above it. To anyone whose mind isn’t blinded and distorted by the disease of young-earth creationism, the evidence is clear: no flood of 40 days and 40 nights could have produced thousands delicate corals still sitting in their living positions, each one in a layer recording decades of growth, and this repeated layer after layer!

A typical outcrop, with one huge coral fossil in life position, recording decades of growth, then buried, and overlain by another coral that grew even larger

A typical outcrop, with one huge coral fossil in life position, recording decades of growth, then buried, and overlain by another coral that grew even larger

This is one of hundreds of lines of evidence that Bill could have mentioned to show the earth is not 6000 years old, nor is the rock record produced by the mythical Noah’s flood. To any reasonable mind, this evidence bespeaks decades to centuries to grow these corals, and to accumulate thousands of years of layers of sediment, all showing the flood myth is bunk. Yet the creationists must accomplish incredible mental gyrations to fit this mythology with the real world, by using confirmation bias and cherry-picking the few examples of rocks on earth that can be misinterpreted to support them and ignoring the 99.99% that don’t, and thus reducing their cognitive dissonance of trying to believe two contradictory things at the same time. They are indeed like the the foolish man of the Bible, building his house (or “museum”) on the sand of lies.


32 Responses to “House of cards”

  1. Jerrold Alpern says:

    Love it! Great column! Now, what about a matching one on the rocks under the Discovery Institute in Seattle?

    • Downtown Seattle (including the Dishonesty Institute) is underlain by glacial sediments from when glaciers last covered Puget Sound 20,000 years ago. To a geologist, they are CLEARLY glacial in origin, although to amateurs like creationists, it’s not so obvious or easy to show.

  2. Sorry. Not gonna waste my time or money on a silly movie like that…

  3. David Whatley says:

    Awesome column.
    Look forward to reading more.

  4. Dan Phelps says:

    Fantastic article. Wish I had written up something like this as I live in Kentucky. I note a mistake though. The photo you use is of the New Albany black Shale (Devonian to Lower Carboniferous) overlain by another unit, probably the lower portion of the Borden Siltstone.

  5. Gary Dargan says:

    I studied Favosites for my Master’s thesis. I was sectioning whole colonies some up to 15cm across to show seasonal growth patterns. In colonies in particularly muddy sediments you could see feathered edges where most of the colony had been covered by mud and then the mud covered by continued growth of the uncovered part of the colony. This could be seen repeatedly in each colony. In other cases colonies that had strongly convex growth surfaces that enabled them to easily shed mud took on a shape which mimicked the “horn” shape of solitary rugose corals which also occur in muddy sediments.

    These features can only be produced in quiet water with episodic, (?seasonal) input of muddy sediment. Hardly evidence for deposition in the turmoil of a global flood.

  6. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    If I understand correctly, the Kentucky limestone was originally formed closer to the equator?

    Looking forward to the flood geologists’ ‘rebuttal’ of this.

    • Yes, during the Ordovician North America straddled the equator, and Bahama-style shallow marine waters full of limestones covered the middle of the continent.

  7. Mark Scurry says:

    Great article Don, thanks.

  8. Jacek says:

    Great column! I’m not a geologist but a biologist myself, but enjoyed it very much.

  9. Shane Evans says:

    Great article! Does the sediment that buries coral reefs come from weathered coral and phytoplankton shells?

    • It can–or it can be carbonate from shell fragments or calcareous algae. In the Cincy Arch, the coral heads are often buried by pulses of clays from land…

  10. Charles Nicholls says:

    Actually there’s an even simpler method to disprove the creationists.

    Ignoring how old science thinks they are, there are marine fossils 6000ft up: the well-known Burgess Shale fauna.

    If memory serves, if ALL the ice in the world was melted, sea level would not rise more than 400ft, if that.

    Let’s be generous and call it only a 5000ft discrepancy.

    How to explain that one, Mr. Ham?

    Tectonic forces can’t be used, because by my calculation flood was, I think, claimed as being 3k years ago. So fossils deposited somewhere below sea level, so roughly speaking we’re looking at mountain growth of the order of 2ft/per year: we’d be able to watch mountains grow before our very eyes!

    Case closed, surely?

    • gdave says:

      Not at all. God created enough excess water to submerge the highest mountains and then, 40 days later, removed the excess water. Traces of marine life on mountain peaks are comfortably accommodated in literal readings of Genesis – they are actually taken as evidence in favor of such readings.

      The problem comes, as Dr. Prothero points out, with the fact that all of the geological evidence points to gradual formations of such fossil layers, in successive waves over thousands and millions of years, rather than in a sudden flood-borne deposit in a period of 40 days and 40 nights.

      • tmac57 says:

        But that’s all child’s play for a god who can create something at will,make a woman from a man’s rib,control all manner of cataclysms at will,part the Red Sea,raise people from the dead…you know…magic. It is pointless to argue with a belief system that knows no physical bounds.

  11. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    Talking of pseudo-science:
    “Just one of those stories has to do with the flakes of biotite. Sometime during the Flood, these flakes were damaged at the atomic level”;
    “Far from being an oddity, radiohalos are a record of radioactive decay during the Flood”.

  12. John Kwok says:

    A terrific introduction to the real geology around the Creation Museum, Don, if I may say so. It’s yet another fine bit of writing. I would emphasize that those genuine late 18th and early 19th Century ‘creationist’ geologists rejected Flood geology not only because of the lack of evidence, but because they accepted Newtonian classical mechanics in lieu of any strict adherence to Scripture – and this was especially true of some of them, like Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s Cambridge University geology professor, who while ordained Anglican Protestant Christian ministers, felt it was necessary to adhere only to scientific principles in examining and collecting geological evidence, which, regrettably, is a realization lost to so-called modern ‘scientific creationists’ like Ken Ham and his ilk.

  13. Graham Parker says:

    Brilliant article as usual Mr Prothero. However, I am saddened by the fact that a distinguished scientist like you has to devote so much time and energy countering the claims of these “Creationists” who seem to be a virtual plague in the USA. It seems very disturbing to an outsider like me that this medieval worldview has any credence at all in modern society (outside of the true lunatic fringe). What puzzles Europeans is how such nonsense can be seriously regarded by a significant portion of the population in the world’s greatest and most advanced democracy. Still, as long as there are people like you the tide of ignorance and prejudice may yet be turned back.

    • It saddens me too, especially since the US is the ONLY developed nation in the world where the myths of Bronze Age shepherds are still believed by 40% of the people and have significant political power….

  14. Warren Johnson says:


    Of course you are right, flood geology is science fiction, and no rational student of geology would pay any attention to it. Ditto for the astronomy and physics that was briefly addressed in the debate, and addressed at length in the Answers in Genesis website; all of their science is delusional.

    Which leads me to the question, how do you convince a crazy person that they are crazy? A family member once could not understand that it was nighttime, not time to go to the beach. Repeated appeals to reason (“look out the window!”) got nowhere. This person was in the grip of a powerful delusion, in this case due to a diagnosed mental illness. It took awhile to realize that annoyance, and reasoned arguments, were not helpful.

    So how does one convince Ken Ham, and/or his committed followers, that he is delusional?

    • Sadly, there IS no real way to change the Ken Ham’s of the world or most of their followers. Those delusions give them great comfort, security, and peace of mind that a personal God watches over them, and answers prayer, and gives a nice simplistic unchanging explanation of the world that makes humans the center of things–something that science does not. If you want to understand them better, read Jason Rosenhouse’s “Among the Creationists”.
      Occasionally, some life-changing event (like discovering the lies and impossibilities that their preachers have told them) will shake a person out of this form of delusion. But it’s mostly a lost cause. As my 2007 “Evolution” book showed, the best results are with people who are undecided and on the fence, not knowing much about either evolution or the Bible. My book apparently was very successful at reaching these people and convincing them about the facts of evolution….

  15. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    Not sure whether the author of the blog has been to this blog post, but this is quite timely:

  16. Nick says:

    Love this stuff. Thanks,Don for another great writeup.

    I’ve lived most of the past 30+ years (since finishing grad school) in the Columbia Basin area of Washington State. The geology of the state is amazingly diverse. Of course, the whole state is an agglomeration of materials that floated in from the Pacific and crashed into the “old” west coast of the continent. In our area their were hundreds of lava flows over millions of years that give it its own flavor that is radically different from the western, central, and northern parts of the state.

    There is a very nice site at that has some great information on Washington State geology, and a lot of it deals with the result from (as the site name implies) massive flooding events. Recently they have been putting together “2 minute geology” videos that can give you a quick overview. I will only warn that they begin and end with some well-meaning phrases of a goofy song by the host.

    • Mark Scurry says:

      I’m still struggling to get my head around the scale of these floods though, makes my head spin to contemplate it.

  17. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    Yet another blog post about flood geology.

    “If there was a global Flood as the Bible describes, then what geological effects would it leave behind.” UNFORTUNATELY MR WALKER FAILS TO TELL US.

    “Geology is a problem because, for over a century, geologists have presented their data assuming Noah’s Flood never occurred. The current geological paradigm, which is what mainstream geologist work within, is giving everyone a false lead. It’s an old paradigm that became popular in the early 1800s, and it assumes Noah’s Flood never happened. That assumption has led to unfortunate outcomes, which some have described as brainwashing, and others as buying ‘snake oil’.” Others have described it as SCIENCE.

    “In discarding the Noachic catastrophe geologists have needed to invoked eons of time to explain the rocks they see. Consequently, because uniformitarian geologists have assigned dates of hundreds of millions of years, they are not able to see the evidence of the Flood.” Total LIES. Nobody ‘needs’ rocks older than 6,000 or 4,500 years. But Tas Walker needs rocks younger than 10,000 years very much.

    “If we want to find the evidence for Noah’s Flood in geology, we have to first assume that it happened.” Thanks Tas for admitting that young Earth creationism is purely RELIGION and NOT remotely science.

    I’ve only skimmed the ranting of Ken Ham about the ‘Noah’ film, but the ‘good cop’ is totally deluded and is attempting to persuade Christians that science based upon observation and measurement is vastly INFERIOR to deciding to BELIEVE something happened and then miraculously spotting ‘evidence’ that it indeed happened and also accounts for the ‘false impression’ of millions of years of time.

    Utter Codswallop. Unless Tas thinks God is a DECEIVER…

    Comment as submitted to Mr Walker:
    ““If we want to find the evidence for Noah’s Flood in geology, we have to first assume that it happened.” Not science. Not in a million years.”

  18. Toelle Hovan says:

    not a scientist – I am an artist – I still enjoyed reading your article – thank you!

  19. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    There’s an example here of how young earth creationists typically behave:
    He seems to be trying to tell me that this article by Don Prothero is incorrect. By flagging some 20 year old claims about the Grand Canyon by ‘Answers in Genesis’.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      I love that one of his lines of evidence is that modern lime muds lack crinoid fossils.

    • Mark Scurry says:

      Interesting link Ashley.

      Is it just me, or do Creationists always have terrible grammar and spelling?

  20. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    I have noticed that SOME YECs cannot spell and do not appear especially intelligent.

    I asked him a question and he ignores it and accuses me of ignoring what he wrote …

  21. Helena says:

    Overkill, really. ham claimed in the debate that the flood waters were energetic enough to separate the Americas from Europe and Africa and shove them across 2000 miles, creating the Atlantic in a 40 day period. He also claimed, they were not energetic enough to destroy the ark. There could hardly be more falsifcatin than that.