I want to tell you about a great new book that has one forgivable flaw, which I’ll mention at the end. But first, a word from Bizarro Land. This is about the Grand Canyon.
I would think that the Grand Canyon would be the last thing that creationists would point to as proof of a young earth (several thousands of years old). Just go look at the Grand Canyon. One of the top major layers, the Kaibab Formation, is around 300 to 400 feet thick and made mostly of limestone. That would take a long time to form. But wait, there’s more. Within the Kaibab limestone there are also different sorts of rocks, evaporates, which indicate prolonged dry periods. How can an environment that is forming a thick limestone layer, but occasionally drying out for prolonged periods, be accommodated in a short chronology like required by Young Earth Creationists? This formation also contains fossils of organisms that do not exist today. Certainly, more time than possible in a world that began 4004 BC is required to have produce the Kaibab Formation. And that is just one relatively thin layer exposed by the Grand Canyon, and nearly at the top.
Down lower than that is a thick series of deposits that reflect major changes in Earth’s climate and ecology. These are the rocks that contribute most to giving the Grand Canyon it’s glorious redness and depth. They contain fossil footprints of organisms that don’t exist today. They contain alternating layers with evidence of marine environments and dry land terrestrial environments. Any reasonable understanding of how long it would take for these layers to form requires tens or hundreds of millions of years, even without dating, and one can only estimate that the formation of these sediments was finished long before anything like modern life forms existed.
The rock at the base of the Grand Canyon is separated from the rest by a long discomformity (a period of erosion that wiped out an unknown thickness of rock), so this rock is way, way older than everything else. These rocks are highly deformed and contain no evidence of multicellular life. Laying this rock down and subsequently mushing it all up, then eroding the heck out of took more than 6,000 years! Probably closer to 600 million years!
On top of all this, many of the formations we see exposed in the Grand Canyon are known to be represented a great distance away in other areas, and in some places those rocks form the guts of mountains. How long does it take for continents to squeeze together and move about with such force to form the American Great Basin and Range system of mountains, in Utah, Nevada, and nearby areas? More than 6,000 years! For those mountains to have formed from flatness fast enough to accommodate a young Earth, there would have be be mountains somewhere forming fast enough that you’d need to set the handbrake on your car if you parked there for a day, in case the parking lot went vertical on you.
If I was a Young Earth Creationist I’d try to ignore the Grand Canyon, pretend it isn’t there. But it is there. And everybody knows about it.
One alternative to pretending that the Grand Canyon doesn’t exist is to explain how it got there within a time frame of a few thousand years. But that requires speeding up processes to an unbelievable extent.
So, obviously, the only possible way for Young Earth Creationists to deal with the grand canyon is to fully depart reality and claim that it formed in a very short period of time by processes never before or since observed.
According to the Young Earth version of the Bible, dry land appeared in 4004 BC. Then, the Garden of Eden and all that stuff happened, and then the Noachian Diluvian event happened, the great flood, in 2348 BC. If we assume that the flood created the canyon itself, then all of the rock we see now exposed in the grand canyon was laid down over the course of 1,656 years. But that would be way to reasonable for Young Earth Creationists, who seem claim that the sediments seen in the Grand Canyon were actually laid down by the great flood itself. The canyon was then exposed by a single, later, flooding event when a big lake let out all its water at once.
It turns out that the Young Earth creationists have a lousy argument to explain the sediments exposed by the Grand Canyon, and the formation of the canyon itself. If geologists try to explain the Grand Canyon, however, they end up with an amazing and quite plausible story full of exciting geological and geographic adventure and intrigue. The Grand Canyon turns out to be really cool.
So, the book, edited by Carol Hill, Gregg Davidson, Tim Helble, and Wayne Ranney, is The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?
It includes several chapters by eleven experts, all fascinating, all informative, all amazing, talking about various aspects of both the creationist view of the Grand Canyon, and about the real geology of this amazing feature.
Great illustrations abound within this volume.
It turns out that the Young Earth Creationists are wrong, in case you were wondering.
As an aside, I don’t actually think the Young Earth Creationists have to be right, or even believable by non-scientists, to have succeeded in explaining the Grand Canyon. From the point of view of a Christian who wants to take the Bible literally, all you need to know is that there is an explanation. You don’t even have to know what the explanation is. By simply knowing that somewhere out there a team of Creation Scientists have explained away the annoying claims of great antiquity and such, you can go on believing in the literal truth of the Bible. In fact, better to not explore the Creationist explanation, really. You wouldn’t believe it.
It isn’t just that the Young Earth version of the Grand Canyon is wrong from a scientific perspective. It is also the case that the Young Earth “facts” from the Bible are themselves wrong. This book also covers that set of problems. And, of course, the Grand Canyon is way more Grand from a geological perspective than it is from a Biblical perspective. The Young Earth version is dumb and uninteresting. The real version is big, giant, wonderful science.
The book outlines the basic arguments about the Grand Canyon and how they differ. Then, the authors explore some basic geology needed to understand the Grand Canyon, looking at how sediments form, the Earth moves, and what fossils can tell us, how dating works, etc.
Especially interesting to me are the chapters on the canyon’s formation. This is a very interesting aspect of both canyons and mountains that I ran into when developing tourism and educational materials for geological sites in South Africa. Get a bunch of regular people who are not very science savvy. Bring them to a mountain. Then, discuss how old the mountain is.
If the rocks the mountain is made of are 500,000,000 years old, then the mountain is 500,000,000 years old, right? I’ve seen public info documents that use that logic, so it must be true! But clearly the mountain you are looking at was not a mountain five hundred million years ago. It was an inland sea or something. The mountain itself rose up between 20 and five million years ago. So that is how old the mountain is, right? Same with Canyons. It isn’t actually hard to understand that the rocks a particular geological feature are made from would be of one age, but the aspects of the feature that expose those rocks (erosion or uplift) are later, and that the ages of the two things must be entirely different.
It is probably a lot easier to date the rise of a mountain system than it is to date the erosion of a surface or the cutting of a canyon. This is because after mountain building slows down, datable sediments may form in clearly identifiable environments that did not exist before the mountain was formed. But a hole is a bit harder to grok. When the Grand Canyon formed, and how long it took, are actually active and open scientific questions. This fascinating subject, which relates as you might imagine to the creationist story in important ways, are well and fully addressed in this volume.
I asked one of the book’s editors, Tim Helble, what the current open questions and areas of active research are for the Grand Canyon. He told me that one “hot topic continues to be how and when the Grand Canyon was carved. The current Colorado River appears to have integrated multiple drainages and proto-canyons, and how and when they were integrated has attracted a lot of research.” He noted that one of the book’s other editors, Carol Hill, “continues to present evidence that there was a karst (limestone/sinkhole/cave) connection between the eastern and western proto-drainages.”
Also, Tim told me that “the Grand Canyon National Park hydrologist is leading a lot of research on the highly complex groundwater system in the canyon area. This is especially timely with all the recent controversy about uranium mining in the greater Grand Canyon area (which actually goes back many decades).”
An interesting fact is that The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? is published by Kregel Publications, in their Biblical Studies series.
So, what is the problem with this book?
There really isn’t a problem with this book, but there is a problem with our collective conversation about creationism vs. science. This book addresses a central point in Young Earth Creationism and resoundingly refutes it. But, this is also an excellent book about the Grand Canyon. Personally, I would love to see a book like this that doesn’t waste a page on the creationist story. I want the geology of the Grand Canyon untainted by reference to the yammering of YECs.
I do fully appreciate the role this book will play, and for this reason I recommend it for all science teachers and others who interface with the public in matters of science. No matter what your area of science is, the creationist argument based on the Grand Canyon has become central dogma for that school of non-thought, and you need to know about it. This volume lets you do that in a way that is also rich in real science and very rewarding.
It turns out that while there are some excellent highly technical books on the geology of the Grand Canyon, there is nothing that is super up to date, that covers all of the geology uniformly, and that is beautifully, richly, and correctly illustrated other than The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?
I hereby encourage the team that put this book together to also write a post-creationist version that does the excellent science and description, and pretends like the Young Earth Creationists never existed. Who knows, maybe they’ll do it!
As noted, this is a nice looking book, almost coffee table but rich in information, suitable as a gift.