Science in Christian Perspective


CRITIQUE  of "The Dying of the Giants"
Roger J. Cuffey 
Department of Geology and Geophysics 
The Pennsylvania State University 
University Park, Pa. 16802

From: JASA 22 (September 1970): 94-96

The detailed findings of a science are known mostly by long training and experience in that science, and therefore are known fully only by the professionals in that science. Consequently, when the professional scientist then criticizes this conclusion, the untrained person (and many others like him, all basically sympathetic to his position rather than to the professional's ideas) does not appreciate the force of the scientist's criticisms but instead feels that the professional has "sold out" and can no longer recognize truth when it is presented to him. I hope that pointing this out now will enable all concerned to read the following comments on "The Dying of the Giants," in a more objective manner. I have not documented these cornments with quotations, partly because of lack of time, but more because most readers would not be able to tell from the quotes themselves that they came much closer to reality than do the implications drawn from the quotes in the manuscript here under review.

To some extent at least, the author quotes passages out of context in order to support his ideas. Because he presumably does not agree with the overall views of the writers of those passages, such is unavoidable in some cases; however, to my own mind, there seems to be an excessive amount of this. Also, many of the passages quoted are more in the nature of literary exaggerations than accurate scientific statements (like Eiseley's quote). One feels that, if an author uses statements like these, there probably aren't corresponding careful scientific statements and therefore the scientific facts don't really support the author's contentions; in this particular case, I think that that is is a justified inference. Finally, some of the passages quoted indicate that the author is not aware of basic geologic data, and his use of such passages as support weakens his overall case. For example, he implies that continental shelves are quite a recent development, whereas in fact they have been around for many millions of years (since the Jurassic, about 150 million years ago, in the case of the U. S. East Coast).

The main thesis of the article depends upon the large-scale extinctions which took place at the end of the Pleistocene. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about these extinctions. This misunderstanding is in part due to lack of detailed familiarity with the situation on the part of both popular-science writers (like Cohen) and geological writers who have not worked themselves with the situation firsthand (like Newell). Several points should be made in this regard.

This paper is a good example of how an honestly sincere person, untrained in a particular science, can read extensively in that science, collect numerous quotations from his readings, and put these together into a scientifically objectionable conelusion.

First, the Late Pleistocene extinctions were no more extensive than those at many other times when some groups of organisms died out. Compared with the extinctions occurring at the end of the Devonian, Permian, Cretaceous, and Oligocene, the Pleistocene extinctions in fact seem rather minor in the number of organisms affected. Are we then going to postulate world-wide deluges at frequent intervals throughout past geologic history, with the Biblical Deluge being the last one? The historical development of the science of earth history did exactly this, because it is logically inescapable; and this solution worked, for awhile-until increased knowledge forced all scientists concerned with the problems to abandon the notion of worldwide catastrophes as being untenable explanations for past geologic events.

Second, the Late Pleistocene extinctions affected mostly those large mammals which other evidence indicates were involved with early man as food sources, enemies, or environmental competitors. Admittedly the fossil record is not as complete as we'd like, but it certainly is adequately enough known already to show clearly that small vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants were not significantly affected. (By the way, rodents and rabbits are not invertebrates.)

Third, the Late Pleistocene extinctions took place gradually, over a period of many thousands of years, and not all at the very end of Pleistocene times. Some of the groups involved (such as the various elephants) had actually reached their evolutionary climax back in the Pliocene (5-10 million years ago), and were already in a state of decline, with only a few members like the mastodon and mammoth around by the end of the Pleistocene. Some species disappear from the record back in the midst of the fourth glacial (Wurm or Wisconsinan) 30,000 years ago, others disappeared as the glaciers were in full retreat 15,000 years ago, still others survive into post-glacial (Recent or Holocene) times only to die out about 8,000 years ago, or 4,000 years ago, or even (like the moribund American bison) 100 years ago. Geologic age dating techniques have a small "plus-or-minus" margin of error, but this is small enough that there is no doubt that the Late Pleistocene extinction episode spread over many years and was not sudden at all in terms of human chronology (as a flood would have been). But note that this still is relatively rapid geologically, so that one can find sentences in geologic literature which refer to "sudden" or "rapid" extinctions, and quote them to give the impression that geologists' data could be explained by a very sudden flood which none of those geologists would accept.

Fourth, the Late Pleistocene extinctions occur at a time when significant climatic and geographic changes (due to the retreat and melting of the glaciers) and significant ecologic changes (due to advances in the way of life of early man) were gradually taking place. Times of change in the geologic past have always put organisms under considerable environmentalevolutionary pressure, and have always resulted in some animals becoming extinct. Consequently, there is nothing unique or special about Late Pleistocene events which makes desirable the suggestion of a world-wide deluge as an agency for extinction, particularly since a combination of these already-known, gradual environmental changes can in fact (contrary to the author's assertions) adequately explain the observed changes in the large-mammal fauna.

The mountain uplifts which occurred during the Pleistocene were not at all sudden or catastrophic, as the author implies. Throughout the Pleistocene, a man living in even the most actively uplifting areas would not, in his lifetime, have noticed any significant changes whatever, because the uplift went on at such a slow, gradual pace. The uplift was not restricted to Pleistocene times, moreover; these uplifts generally began back during the Miocene (15-20 million years ago), and have continued right up until today. They are still proceeding in many parts of the world; from this, it can more readily be appreciated how noncatastrophic such geological events really are.

Changes in sea level and in the configurations of land and sea, due to the melting of the Pleistocene ice sheets, likewise have been quite gradual and noncatastrophic in nature. At the height of the last glaciation (15-20,000 years ago), sea level throughout the world was lower than at present by about 600 feet. This exposed many shallow sea floors as dry land, and therefore many "land bridges" existed at that time. As soon as the glaciers began to retreat (by melting) from this maximum extent, sea level began to rise gradually, leaving a series of beaches, bars, terraces, cliffs, and other coastal features (many containing accurately datable materials) across the shallow sea

The Late Pleistocene extinctions (1) were no more extensive than those at many other times, (2) affected mostly those large mammals involved with early man, and (3) took place gradually over a period of many thousands of years, (4) occur at a time when significant climatic and geographic changes were gradually taking place.

bottoms of our present-day continental shelves. By carefully studying and mapping these nowsubmerged coastal features, we can trace the gradual rise in sea level from about 15,000 years ago till about 6,000 years ago, when sea level reached essentially its present position. Again it is well worth stressing that this rise was gradual, non-catastrophic, and thoroughly unifonrsitarian in character, in spite of numerous quotations which give an erroneous impression of the possibility of a sudden catastrophic flood, I think it needs to be pointed out that there is no physical or geomorphologic evidence for a world-wide deluge, although there is such evidence for much less worldshaking floadings in various places. One of the most interesting of these, in connection with the Biblical Flood, is that (as shown by careful studies of sediment layers and their datable contents) there was about 4,000 B.C., a somewhat more rapid rise than average as sea level was rising to near its present level. This episode was a rise of 20 feet in sea level over a period of about 60 years, a rise which would have been observable within a man's lifetime and which would have inundated large areas of the relatively low-lying coastal plains inhabited by early civilizations. Some geologists think that this conceivably could be the basis for the flood recorded in Genesis.

Some of the Pleistocene animals were in fact giants compared to their present-day descentants. However, at least as many groups are represented today by largersized individuals than were their Pleistocene predecessors. 

I think it needs to be pointed out there is no physical or geomorphologic evidence for a worldwide deluge.

Moreover, the Pleistocene giants were outnumbered considerably by "normal-sized" cousins living alongside them. Because the giant animals are more spectacular both for writing books and for making museum displays, one can easily get the unintenionally biased and inaccurate impression that Pleistocene faunas were composed of giants.

The author reveals his feelings that only a catastrophic view of geologic history can adequately explain the observed events of the Pleistocene record; he makes unfavorable asides about uniformitarianism's faults as a scientific way of operating. Van de Fliert's article in the September 1969 Journal ASA adequately rebuts this anti-uniformitarianism so widely accepted among evangelical scholars; consequently, I see no need to further comment on this erroneous view of earth science. Also, please note my earlier comments here stressing the gradualness of Late Pleistocene events, in contrast to the catastrophic suddenness incorrectly implied by many of the author's quotations.