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Feedback archiveFeedback 2013

Flood geology vs secular catastrophism

Published: 14 April 2013 (GMT+10)

What are the differences?

Wikimedia commons/chensiyuan

Much is made of the debate between ‘gradualists’ like Charles Lyell and ‘catastrophists’ like Georges Cuvier in the history of geology. In the 19th century it seemed that Lyell’s gradualism won the day—it was the dominant paradigm in geology for 150 years. However, Cuvier’s catastrophism has made a massive comeback in the last few decades. This presents new opportunities and challenges for biblical creationists. Carl Froede in his article The K/T impact hypothesis and secular neocatastrophism—why is this important to Flood geology? discusses some of the opportunities. Nick L. from the United States writes in response to this article, and CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds with comments interspersed, outlining some of the challenges and differences.

Dear Nick,

Thank you for your email.

I really hate to be nitpicky, but mainstream acceptance of a form of limited catastrophism hardly validates the idea that the strata of the entire American West was deposited and sculpted by Noah’s flood and the ensuing retreat of the floodwaters (just an example I picked).
Catastrophe is back on the table for discussion where it wasn’t before.

True, but neither was the article implying that. The point is just that catastrophe is back on the table for discussion where it wasn’t before. At least now we don’t have to be completely talking past one another.

The stratigraphic record is rife with the evidence of catastrophic events (that is why one of the basic sedimentary structures geology students are taught to identify is the scour/fill structure). But it is far more common to see the effects of slow deposition and erosion.

Can we seriously say that after only ~30 years of serious reassessment of Lyell’s hold on geology? Lyell understood just how destructive the notion of catastrophe was to his entire historical framework—without something slow and gradual as an absolute norm there is no way to know purely from forensics when anything happened. This is why Lyell fought Cuvier and his followers with such vigour, and it’s why secular catastrophism must always anchor itself in something Lyellian—it has no timeline without Lyellian gradualism.

Lyell understood just how destructive the notion of catastrophe was to his entire historical framework.

And we would of course dispute the notion that slow and gradual is the norm in the rock record (see our Geology Q and A). But unless you understand the philosophical/theological background to our understanding of geology, then you’ll most likely be left trying to launch a positivistic1 critique against a worldview that shuns positivism in any sort of historical study. (This doesn’t mean we leave no room for science, only that science doesn’t always get the final say.) We can all reduce each other’s fundamental justifications for our timelines to something rather facile: “natural law shows the world is billions of years old” or “the Bible says deep time is wrong”. But each position is far more complex than that in practice, especially when dealing with some specific empirical evidence. To summarize the issue as best as possible in a single sentence: we believe the Bible is the only self-attesting foundation for knowledge about the past, while the assumptions that ground deep time are internally inconsistent.

It has also been noted in laboratory experiments that the deposition of carbonate minerals (calcite, dolomite, aragonite, etc.) occurs on a timescale too slow for flood geology (read: Catastrophism) to explain the thick carbonate sequences of the Grand Canyon (see Plummer et al. 1978 or Reddy et al. 1981 for a discussion on the kinetics of carbonate deposition and dissolution).

Creationists are not unaware of such ‘problems’. Andrew Snelling discusses a few factors that speak against the ideas that the Grand Canyon limestones are evidence of slow and gradual deposition.2 First, the grain size distribution and structure of the Grand Canyon limestones differ markedly from modern lime mud deposits found in shallow tropical waters. Second, there is observational evidence of catastrophic formation of lime mud deposits caused by hurricanes. Third, many of the Grand Canyon limestone deposits cover thousands of square kilometres. Fourth, the Redwall Limestone has a fossil nautiloid bed with an estimated one billion fossils. Moreover, from those observed there is a distinct pattern to their deposition position; they generally face a NW–SE direction, which suggests a strong current depositing the remains catastrophically, and not of slow-and-gradual processes.

Wikimedia Commons/Drenaline

You cite Bretz as your catalyst persona for breaking away from true uniformitarianism. This would not be noteworthy but for the fact that Bretz stubbornly clung to a far outdated theory of cave development (originally postulated by William Morris Davis in 1930) that was disproved by researchers in both Europe and the Americas. This ‘ostrich mentality’ is what I most often notice about publications Creation scientists: latch onto the only study that supports your views and stick your head in the sand to discount all others.

Actually, the article somewhat questions Bretz’s impact on the gradualism/catastrophism debate. Carl Froede finds the catalyst for mainstream geology’s en masse break with Lyell in the impact hypothesis for the extinction of the dinosaurs. And note that Froede is not citing this K/T extinction event hypothesis because he believes it, but because it caused a paradigm shift among secular geologists.

Besides, modern research on the Channeled Scablands still follows Bretz’s lead. There are disagreements over the number of floods that formed the scablands, but the flood hypothesis remains the constraining paradigm.

And what do Bretz’s ideas about cave development have to do with his ‘Missoula Flood’ hypothesis? Just because one of his ideas was (presumably) wrong doesn’t mean they all were. And Bretz is widely recognized as a paradigm changer with respect to the Channeled Scablands—this is not news to modern geologists. So I don’t know how this article engendered an accusation of an “ostrich mentality” against us—you’ve cited something irrelevant to the impact of Bretz in relation to the article’s theme and have provided no evidence of said “ostrich mentality”.

Just in case this engenders a response, please understand a couple of things first. First, the mere fact we write rebuttal articles at all suggests we don’t simply cite studies that support our views. Second, it’s not as simple as ‘this study supports our ideas; this one doesn’t’. We come to the secular literature with a completely different set of assumptions about the past from what that literature operates with. We are bound to find certain studies more ‘useful’ than others because many will ask what we consider to be irrelevant questions—just as would be the case for a secular geologist if they investigated the creationist literature.

As a modern secular geologist currently stuck in academia (read: grad school H***), I am not opposed to reading of or even considering the possible validity of other views, but I do believe in the process of peer review and full (within limits, obviously) and fair consideration of all pertinent research.

You are willing to give full consideration—within limits. What limits? What determines those limits? Is how you determine those limits logically sound?

We believe peer review is a useful method of evaluating ideas as well—we wouldn’t run a peer reviewed publication if we didn’t (and I personally speak as a member of the editorial team)! However, peer review is far from perfect—see Creationism, science and peer review for more details.

The biblical framework is very different from anything you’ll find in the secular literature. It really is a different way of thinking about the rocks (see e.g. CMI geologist Dr Tas Walker’s website on biblical geology for a good introduction). I pray you will take the time to investigate how the biblical worldview works.

Kind regards,

Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

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Further Reading


  1. Positivism is the idea that the only valid way of knowing anything is through the scientific method. Its influence can be seen in the way science has primacy in how many in Western society today understand anything about reality, including history, philosophy, and theology. Return to text.
  2. A.A., Earth’s Catastrophic Past, Vol. 2, ICR, Dallas, TX, pp. 493–499, 2009. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
S. J., United States, 14 April 2013

Nick L. is to be commended on his thoughtful and gracious question, given that he does not share the views of CMI. As a former geologist who was challenged by the young earth-creation paradigm while in grad school H*** myself, I would suggest that he start examining the theory of evolution with a critical eye. It was my realization that the incredible, irreducible complexity of living organisms and the pattern of stasis in the fossil record were far more consistent with the idea of a one-time appearance of all living kinds, that led eventually to my questioning of the more subtle forms of evidence that underlie the old age hypothesis.

Richard G., Japan, 14 April 2013

God bless you Shaun and fellow workers! You show restraint and patience with opponents. You also show great erudition.

Try capitalising on opponents who don't rebut your replies and/or who don't apologise or acknowledge their errors.Opponents of scriptural scientists, especially "Christian" evolutionists, seldom if ever give a verse by verse scientific commentary on early Genesis nor have they been able in any instance I know of to successfully rebut your answers? Remember that they have to rebut ALL your arguments or their case has failed, certainly in the eyes of those who follow your arguments. And they demand that you rebut ALL their arguments.

I envisage something like this: An opponent replies. "Sorry, I was mistaken. I spoke from ignorance and from prejudice. From now on I will read the Bible daily with a humble attitude, and I will read your writings faithfully with no special glasses."

     Then you publish this admission of his/hers or announce that, "So and So was unable to rebut our answer."

Fifty years ago I successfully pointed out an error to a JW lady. Her response was to simply change the subject and say, "Oh, but you can't tell me there's a Trinity." Tricks of debate such as ad hominem attacks, elephant hurling, lies, ignoring our argument, using jargon, such as my joke one, "Physiognomy recapitulates congenitality" etc need to be exposed mercilessly because many are deceived thereby. Most people are very shallow, ignorant, proud, and biased.

You splendidly rebut antichristian and unscientific arguments. Wouldn't it be profitable to show up their refusal to recant, or their inability to rebut your responses?

Richard L., United Arab Emirates, 14 April 2013

In the spring of 1980—the publication year of the Alvarez et al impact hypothesis that acted as a uniformitarianism-catastrophism perception-shift “catalyst”—I was taking a geology course in my last year of engineering school. Our professor gave us a half-hearted rendition of the “present is the key to the past” mantra.

However, he perked up when he mentioned Lyell himself. Previously, geology had only been a “descriptive science”. Now, through Lyell, geology became a “quantitative science”. The professor’s excited tone and facial expression indicated, “Now we can play with the big boys of science: with physics and chemistry. Now we also are a grown-up science”.

Lyell offers a seeming ability to develop a time dimension (and, therefore, process rates and quantitative modeling) for geology. How many geologists (and other scientists) have been seduced by this desired Lyellian “ought to be”, confusing it for actual “is”?

Engineers have to be deathly afraid of uncritical extrapolation, extrapolation beyond a zone of validity. When such is done, designed structures lose integrity. In some cases (e.g., bridges, buildings, high-pressure boilers), people then die. Engineers thus operate under severe and immediate accountability constraints.

Lyell’s vision offers an escape from such a constraint. If his uniformitarianism were true, geologists could validly **indefinitely** extrapolate into the past. What a beautiful, seductive—and wrong—vision. The re-trendy limited catastrophism of secular geology seems to be a meta-stable tug of war between this partially retained vision and catastrophic reality in the ground.

Robert B., Australia, 13 April 2013

Thankyou Shaun, for affirming that that

worldview and basic precepts influence the way scientists interpret the empirical data.

Creationist scientists are well aware of that, but its taking a while for 'secular' scientist to admit that their interpretations are not as pristinely objective as they say.

The creationist interpretation can be valid. Isaac Newton's body of work attests to that.

Newton pointed out his secular friend's inconsistency in demanding that a designer exist for an exquisite toy model of the solar system while denying a Designer for the grander real thing.

This humorous anecdote illustrates that the secular worldview can be inconsistent.

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