There is a photo of giant gypsum crystals on the cover of the September 20, 2011 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They are shimmering, transparent beams, 33 feet long and 3 feet thick. In the lower right-hand corner of the photo, beneath the crisscrossing crystals, stands a man, his miner’s lamp glowing, a Lilliputian beneath giant-sized pick-up sticks.
Scientists estimate that the crystals are hundreds of thousands, even up to a million years old. They grow very slowly. To add a centimeter to their length is the work of a millennium. While the crystals grew protected in their cave beneath the Chihuahuan Desert, entire species – the mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger, the ground sloth – became extinct. Our cousin Neanderthal came and went.
These crystals strike me because this week I am thinking about time. And I am thinking about the Black Ladders. The Black Ladders is a continuous, curving sweep of rock, a sheer cliff face that lies in perpetual shadow under Carnedd Dafydd, a high peak in the mountains of northwest Wales. In the spring and summer of 2011 I spent several months in the Cambrian Mountains to learn sheep farming. Bob Tyddyn Du, my host, grazed his flock on the cliff face and on the high moor rising up to the mountain.
The Black Ladders formed some 430 million years ago. It is hard to relate on a human scale to the age of million year-old giant gypsum crystals, but it is impossible to grasp the age of this rock. And yet, paradoxically, we abide comfortably with this concept of a 4.6 billion year old earth – more than ten times older than this wall. Indeed, four decades ago, one might say with confidence that every schoolchild knew that the surface of the earth has changed with time. He would learn of the ‘geological column’ that divides the ages of the earth into eras, periods and epochs: of the giant lizards of the Jurassic and of the lush ferns of the Carboniferous; the inspired student might have pursued the prolific ammonite, those ram’s-horned mollusks of Devonian origin. He knew that our earth is not one world, but an archive of infinite worlds past. An Eon, he learned, could span a billion years. Vast time was a concept ingrained in his mind.
But time, especially geological time, is the enemy of a growing sector of creationist Christians. With the next generation as his primary concern, the creationist has declared war on the US science curriculum.
At the end of the last Ice Age a glacier carved out the Llafar valley. I walk against the current of this vanished flow of ice, toward the cwm at its head where, in the far distance, the Black Ladders rise above the headwaters of the River Llafar. It is a straight slog along a raised narrow path. But highland weather can make the easiest ramble a challenge. Rain threatens and wind whips down the valley. At a turning I am hit by a strong gust and must crouch down on all fours so I won’t be plucked up and swept away.
I fight the wind until the valley opens and the rock face looms above me. Close up, the cliff resolves into columns, jointed at intervals to form a laddered wall. The shoulder is frost rubble, and I range among the debris with some eagerness. Today I would like to find a fossil. Already I am thinking of this little patch of land as ‘mine’ and I feel the human urge to possess even some small part of it. The rock face is composed of dolerite, green-grey, black in the shadow, and pale rhyolite; igneous rocks devoid of fossil. My best bet is on a small sea creature, the graptolite. I might find its trace outlined in pyrite – a shimmering band of fool’s gold – in a piece of slate. But in truth, in these rocks born of fire and immense pressure, the pickings are slim. I search for hours but find nothing.
I am not the first to suffer this frustration.
The nineteenth century geologist, Adam Sedgwick (b. 1785), Professor of Geology at Cambridge University, tromped across the Carneddau, across Llewelyn and Dafydd – territory I will also cross and cross again, for these are the grazings of the farm. In 1831, Sedgwick invited Charles Darwin, a fresh graduate from Cambridge University to accompany him on a geological tour of North Wales. They split up during the journey. Darwin’s treks brought him to Llyn Idwal on the other side of the mountain. Sedgwick chose this area for his site of geological study – a fateful decision. Within a decade he would become embroiled in a bitter controversy over his findings; it would destroy a close friendship and plague him to the end of his life.
“The Abyss of Time”
A Google search of the words: ‘Sedgwick,’ ‘Murchison,’ ‘Ordovician,’ ‘Cambrian,’ ‘Silurian’ and ‘controversy’ will yield, as the fourth hit, a site entitled “Science versus Evolution.” This site disseminates the views of ‘young-earth creationists,’ a sect of fundamentalists who believe that the earth is 6,016 years old.
The claim for this precise age dates from the seventeenth-century. After twenty years of scholarship, scouring ancient texts and manuscripts, the bishop James Ussher, professor at Trinity College, Dublin, and head of the Anglo-Irish Church in Ireland, calculated that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 BC. Ussher published this estimate in 1650 to the approval of both ecclesiastics and natural philosophers. It is noteworthy that Johannes Kepler, the mathematician and astronomer, had calculated the earth’s creation to be within twelve years of this mark.
But from this point science, and indeed the church, parted company with the young-earth concept. It was Ussher’s contemporary, Steno (Niels Stensen), who suggested in 1669 that silt and sand layer in sediments that are compressed to stratified rock. This was known as the principle of superposition. A hundred years later James Hutton said that this and all geological processes are continuous and gradual: erosion so persistent that it flattens mountains; sedimentation that over eons builds new rock; rivers that slowly carve canyons. Over time these processes change the face of the earth in cycles of buildup and attrition. Because the rate of these processes is constant, he argued that the earth must be hundreds of millions of years old.
The Scottish mathematician, John Playfair, captured the essence of Hutton’s dizzying moment of insight in a much-cited quote, “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”
A Victorian Controversy, Resolved
What is the link between Sedgwick and an obsolete calculation that was dismissed by science and religion even in his lifetime?
Sedimentary rock does not remain in neat horizontal planes. It buckles and rifts and ramps and folds. New sediments collect on eroded rock, producing a gap in the geological column at their interface, and molten rock can intrude between the layers. Time is twisted and displaced, so that rocks differing greatly in age lie next to each other in a confusion of periods on the earth’s surface. It was Sedgwick’s task – it is still the geologist’s task – to untangle this confusion of exposed rock and relate it to the proper order in which it was originally laid down.
Fossils, or their lack thereof, played a key role in his investigation. In 1799 William Smith articulated the principle of faunal succession. Species of plants and animals succeed one another in an orderly fashion and the fossil record reflects this neat progression. Fossils are, in effect, time markers. Individual fossils register the time span that a distinct species graced the earth, and so pinpoint a specific interval in the geological column.
During the 1830’s Adam Sedgwick and his good friend, Sir Roderick Murchison, (b. 1792), second Director General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, set out to identify and determine the relative ages of specific rock formations. Sedgwick began to characterize a sequence of rocks in North Wales. Because the very old sequence, which he named Cambrian, had a complicated structure and scant fossils, he defined the series mostly upon lithological criteria. Working in the Welsh borderlands and South Wales, Murchison characterized younger, fossil-rich sequences, which he named Silurian. Controversy arose because there was an overlap in the two divisions. Sedgwick was unable to provide a paleontological characterization of his Cambrian domain so Murchison annexed it into his Silurian. The fight became increasingly rancorous and was not settled until after 1879, when Charles Lapworth (b. 1842) proposed that the contested beds of rock should be called Ordovician.
The Young-Earth Evangelists and Undivided Time
“Young earth” evangelists, believe that—in its 6000 year history—any changes wrought to the face of the earth, from geological upheavals to extinctions of flora and fauna, date from the time of Noah’s Flood. To support their claims they reject not only evolution, but just about every tenet, theory, principle and simple hard fact that undergird the foundations of science. Their denials are propped up with pseudoscientific arguments that target, among many other things, the validity of the geologic column. It is precisely this latter argument that I stumbled upon while investigating the geology of the Black Ladders.
On the ‘Science versus Evolution’ website one learns that “Nowhere—anywhere—is the entire geologic column of the evolutionists to be found, for it is an imaginary column.” The website also deplores “missing strata,” “gaps” and “mixed-up strata” and, generally, strata “not arranged as they ought to be.” It continues, under the rubric ONGOING STRATA CONTROVERSIES and using the Sedgwick-Murchison argument as an example, to ‘prove’ its contention that the “fossil strata theory is a remarkable hoax”:
"The strata charts in the textbooks and popular magazines look so very complete and organized. Yet, in truth, it is not so. The problems are so serious that running controversies were carried on for years between feuding strata experts. Because the evidence was so confused, no one knew who was right. Finally, they arbitrarily settled on patterns which are on the strata charts as we see them today.
The geological column is a man-made construct. It pictorially models a scientifically endorsed view of one aspect of the natural world. This view embraces theories and ideas that rest on an overwhelming amount of data. Because it is a representation of nature, rather than nature itself, the model bears a human imprint: scientists have superimposed divisions on a geological continuum and applied boundaries and names that are, indeed, arbitrary.
In the past, when geological science was young and the available data limited, Murchison-Sedgwick fought over these boundaries and names. But the following is not in dispute: throughout their debate, Sedgwick and Murchison never renounced the geological column, the fossil record, or any other basic tenet of geology: they merely disagreed over nomenclature. It is disingenuous to call their controversy ‘ongoing,’ as it was resolved more than a century ago. But this sly mixing of truth and untruth is characteristic of the young-earth mode of operation.
A similar slight of hand shows itself in the equally misleading designation, ‘geologic column of the evolutionists.’ Men who worked out the details of the geological column were not ‘evolutionists.’ Many were men of the cloth, and ‘creationists’ as the term was then understood. They communicated their work fifty years before Darwin published his theory of natural selection. But to deny the geological column, and then conflate it with evolution, denies evolution, and this is the young-earth creationist’s ultimate goal.
It is our human genius that allows us to take complex and sometimes seemingly conflicting data and see the underlying and uniting truth. It is also the human genius to think in the abstract: to be able to interpret a rendition of geological column and not expect to find in nature its exact reproduction. The multicolored charts are neat and pretty. But scientists do not expect to find stratified earth colored in pink, yellow and blue even though geological columns are sometimes color-coded in books. Nor does anyone who understands the scientific method, the nature of scientific research, and the procedure to construct the column, expect to find at a single location the entire geologic column with sharply divided periods replete with index fossils. Even though we cannot find this construct exactly reproduced, we know that it is a true representation of nature. This is because the principles that undergird the geological column, and the vast amounts of data in support, are not in dispute. It is ‘imaginary’ in the same way the textbook diagram of a heart approximates the real thing. Because men have studied the heart, no one doubts that it is made of muscle tissue or that it contracts and pumps blood.
Strata ‘ought not to be’ arranged in any way. Unlike Christian belief, the scientific method does not work on faith, nor does it follow dogma. The scientist observes the way things are, and then strives to explain and understand. Certainly, the rifted and rented earth – so unlike the organized geological column – has made his job challenging. Indeed, the geologic column does not explain these gaps, but that, of course, was never its intention. And here we see the usefulness of a model: rather than dismiss the geological column, scientists researched the forces behind earthquakes and volcanoes, and sea floor spreading – all activities that jumble the geological record. Their work led to the theory of plate tectonics, one of the greatest achievements of twentieth century science.
Anti-Science Adventure Parks as Creationist Tools
The young-earth creationist does not present his work at academic conferences or in peer-reviewed scientific journals where his ideas will undergo rigorous scrutiny. As “Dr.” Kent Hovind, founder of the Creation Science Evangelism ministry says, “You're missing 98 percent of the population if you only go the intellectual route.” This statement is perhaps not surprising from Hovind, who has attained a Ph.D. in Christian Education through a non-accredited correspondence course. In 2001 Dr. Hovind opened Dinosaur Adventure Land, a creationist theme park in Florida to provide “Darwin-free fun”; it also provided a venue to reinforce young-earth creationist beliefs. Dinosaur Adventure Land closed after Hovind was convicted and jailed on 58 federal counts, including tax evasion. As a ‘church organization,’ Hovind claimed tax-exempt status for his theme park and refused to pay taxes.
Creationist theme parks have less difficulty taking the taxpayers’ money. In January, Governor Steve Beshear (D) of Kentucky proposed a $43 million tax break in the 2012-2013 state budget for Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park, and a further $11 million to improve the highway serving the facility. Meanwhile the state budget was slashed to the bone, and this included cuts to education. Thus the schools are losing out on two counts in Kentucky, where the anti-science young-earth movement is threatening the quality of science education, a growing problem throughout the US. Speaking about Ark Encounter and its parent organization, the Creation Museum, where 330,000 yearly visitors can see ‘dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers,’ Dan Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, said:
"Almost every year here in Kentucky we have attempts to get laws enacted into the state legislature that would promote creationism, and right now outside of the larger cities a lot of students aren’t learning very much about evolution. The textbooks soft-pedal it. The teachers tend to avoid the subject basically for fear of offending people, and the Creation Museum and the Ark Park can only make this worse in Kentucky."
The insidious infiltration of anti-science education has also spread to creationist vacations and summer camps: dinosaur digs in the South Dakota Badlands, where one can “excavate dinosaur bones that haven’t seen the light of day since Noah’s Flood;” rafting trips down the Colorado River where one learns “how the effects of Noah’s Flood carved the Grand Canyon;” or a hike up Mt. St. Helens because the eruption of this volcano provides “a sizable model of the type of activity likely to have taken place during the great Biblical global flood.” On one such ‘science fieldtrip’ your impressionable child can learn the delightful truth that Adam and Eve kept Triceratops as a pet:
"Genesis 2:18-19 says that God created them [Triceratops] to be a helper to Adam. They were designed to help Adam in his daily work as well as to be his friend. If you have ever had a dog or other pet you know the joy and friendship they provide. Image having a huge pet elephant that, properly trained, obeys your commands and desires with no back talk or argument. This, I am sure this is what the Triceratops and other dinosaurs provided for Adam and early mankind. Each one of these beasts is a picture of God's love and provision for Adam and his kin. It is too bad that, because of sin and the Flood…we lost the opportunity to have the friendship and help of these huge creatures."
At the cwm’s head I climb to a hanging shelf over the windings of the river. Shadows of banking clouds sweep the variegated fen. Behind me, sheer cliff face rises on three sides. The sun disappears; the wind veers and soon the rain will come. I will be caught on bleak wastes in the bitter wind. I recall a description of Sedgwick: “He climbed those soggy sphagnum-covered Cambrian Mountains day after day, week on end, carrying a great iron hammer and a heavy leather collecting-bag full of rocks.” I admire his dedication and determination. Certainly, his argument with Murchison smacks of vanity. But I suspect that it was a passion for enlightenment that drove him to the inhospitable moor time and again.
In Aristotle to Zoos, Nobel Prize winner Sir Peter Medawar, and his wife, Jean, wrote, “We are surprised at the obstinacy with which creationists cleave to literal creationism. So doing, they fail to realize that the evolutionary concept is a much grander and more awe-inspiring conception – in keeping with what C S Lewis referred to as rational piety, and for many people conducive to reverence.”
I have collected slate and shale, and a few igneous stones. The rhyolite in my hand is a product of the tectonic activity that occurred when continents collided during the Caledonian orogeny, when the ancient Iapetus Ocean stitched closed after the Precambrian era came to an end; it was a time of fiery island arcs and plunging seafloor, of exploding volcanoes spewing geysers of molten rock, of crust stretched and fractured in great foundering blocks and of mud-filled basins that eventually compressed to slate. It is a rich story, one of thousands geologists have eked out of the rock.
The inquisitive child, with questions concerning nature’s infinite variety, deserves better than droning repetition, an oft-told tale of the flood.