Geology

A Flood of Millions of Years

As part of my preparation for being on the Stratosphere Sarasota radio program last Wednesday, I brushed up on common arguments from creationists. The topic was to come up in the context of education, and though we didn't talk much about the details and descriptions of creationism, it helped to have their arguments straight before going on. 

And this ties in nicely with our first Suncoast Skeptics Speaker Series event on creationism in the classroom, which I hope you'll all attend on August 16, 2014, 1:30pm, in the Geldbart Auditorium at Selby Library in downtown Sarasota. 

MissMandiMae's blog post on the history of the Grand Canyon made me look more deeply into the creationist view. First, Mandi's thoughts:

Now, fast forward to only 5.5 million years ago. the Colorado River begins to form and flow. According to a theory formulated by geologist John Douglass, the river flowed and then pooled into an area, which is now referred to a Lake Bidahochi. This lake was larger than Lake Michigan in size and spanned over 20,000 square miles. This lake butted right up against the raised plateau of rock raised from the collision. The force of the water still pouring into the lake pushed until it began to pour up onto the plateau. It was this incredible outpouring of an expansive lake, and not just a river that carved what we see today.

The scientific consensus on the formation of the Grand Canyon provides an intriguing scenario, one which throws into question our ability to comprehend the scales of time and attrition involved. Five and a half million years isn't something we can understand. It's too long, makes no sense to creatures that live only a few decades. The raw power of water moving against rock causing erosion over that time frame is immense, likely several orders of magnitude beyond what we experience in our own lives. Creationists seize on that natural reaction to insist that a timeframe of thousands of years, a range more comfortable in our daily lives, is the only answer. 

But the theory that the Grand Canyon was carved out over millions of years is not only plausible, it's supported by uranium-lead dating, the Law of Superposition, and paleontological finds. (Side note, there is controversy over the age of the Canyon, a subject I may tackle in a followup post. What is not in question is that the formation is millions of years old, not thousands.) If it was a flood, in the most generous sense, it was one which lasted millions of years.

The creationist argument goes something like... well, there isn't one cohesive argument, really. The basic premise is always that the Biblical flood created the Grand Canyon and it didn't take millions of years. There are several 'gish-gallop' style talking points that are typically ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the actual science. Here are a few, like the Mount St. Helens analogy:

The Grand Canyon was not laid down slowly then etched out over the course of myth-ions and myth-ions of years. Rather it was carved so rapidly that the sediment was not deposited in a delta downstream. Buy a map and take a look. No river delta. The Grand Canyon was mostly carved quickly shortly after the Great Flood in a similar fashion to the "mini-grand-canyon" on the north side of Mount St. Helens. 

Naturally, science disagrees:

When Mount St. Helens erupted, one side of the caldera was blown out, and the resulting rush of water from melted snow, plus the blast of hot ash, carved out 300 feet of recently laid loose ash and sediment. area.

How about this argument?

Flowing rivers or streams, even if they meandered for millions of years, would not uniformly sweep 1,000 feet or more of material off almost all of these 10,000 square miles of the fairly flat Kaibab Limestone. Besides, meandering rivers would produce meandering patterns. Therefore, before you can excavate 800 cubic miles of rock below the rim to form the Grand Canyon, something must sweep off almost all the Mesozoic rock above—a much larger excavation project.

Note the juxtaposition of "uniformly" and "almost all." By what I know as the common usage of "uniformly," the Grand Canyon is no such thing. If by "uniformly," the author means the effect I'd expect from water erosion over millions of years, then I suppose we could agree it is. Note the lack of sources which support these claims, which tie into the 'No Delta Hypothesis.' 

Later in that same source:

Fossils are found only in the layers above an almost perfectly horizontal plane named the Great Unconformity. In the Grand Canyon, it lies about 4,000 feet below the rim and is exposed above the Colorado River for 66 miles. Above the Great Unconformity the layers are all sedimentary and almost always horizontal; below the Great Unconformity lie either basement rock or thick, steep (10°–20° slope) sedimentary layers with no fossils.

Again, this idea runs counter to a great many scientific arguments, including this one:

Stephen Meyer pointed out in response to the questioner that the "Great Unconformity" may be "worldwide" in the sense that it's found in many parts of the world. But that doesn't mean it's found everywhere. As Meyer explained, the Great Unconformity cannot be universal, otherwise we wouldn't have strata from the Ediacaran period, and we wouldn't know about Ediacaran-age fossils, such as the Precambrian sponge embryos...

The problem, of course, with this creationist argument is that it ignores what it doesn't want to acknowledge, in this case, that fossils are found older than this Unconformity, even if not in the Grand Canyon itself. If the claim is that the presence of fossils above but not below the cutoff means that a catastrophic even occurred to lay down the bones, how does one explain the Precambrian fossils we find elsewhere in the world? Geographic features are often unique, and the Grand Canyon is no different. We don't find a 'lack' of fossils below this layer in other locations, and those, as in this case, are not addressed in this one talking point.

I get tired of doing the Googling for these people. There are many more of these talking points. I saw them on signs when I went to the Creation Museum in 2009, describing, in all seriousness, the 'proof' of a flood-originating Canyon. I've seen them on blog posts, comments on videos, in debates. The problem is always a lack of understanding about the science behind the structure. The Grand Canyon's evidence points strongly toward a long-period erosion on the scale of millions of years. Each time I find a new creationist argument, it takes only a few minutes to find a scientifically-plausible explanation that doesn't require a magic critter punishing his sinners.