Science in Christian Perspective


The Doctrine of Special Creation 
Part II. Catastrophism

Department of Natural Sciences
Loyola University of Chicago Chicago, Illinois 60611

From: JASA 27 (June 1975): 75-79.
This is Part II of a four-part paper being published in the journal ASA during 1975. It is an analysis of Biology: a Search for Order in Complexity (Moore and Slusher, eds., 1970) published by the Creation Research Society.

Chapters 21 to 25 (unit 9) contain the heart of the authors' argument for special creation. Although no doubt they wish this section to be the strongest, yet in some points it is the weakest. There is an unevenness of organization not apparent in the first eight units as though the authors were not quite sure what arguments would carry the most weight. Apparently there were no geologists on the writing staff.

The authors argue for the instantaneous creation of the major groups of organisms in the not remote geologic past (p. xix, 398, 413-416). According to their view of species, all presentday living organisms are lineal descendants of these primordial creatures. There is variability, but this does not denote kinship, for there is no hereditary relatedness betwen different species in time (p. 147, 398, 419, 430, 451).

While acknowledging the controversial nature of their view, they hold that it fully supports the account of origins given in Genesis by Moses. They find evidence for their interpretation in the fossil and geologic record; groups of organisms succeed one another in the rocks, there are no transition fossils, and discontinuities indicate that major changes occurred in the past by geologic agencies no longer in operation (p. 7, 393, 404). Noah's flood was the most important and recent of these agencies (p. 412, 414). Moreover, we are invited to believe that Noah's flood scoured out Grand Canyon and deposited the fossils in the wake of this swift, paroxysmal convulsion, that engulfed the whole Earth (p. 405, 412, 418).

Thos, special creation is to the authors a scientific "theory"; it is more persuasive than the alternative view held by the persons to whom they refer as "evolutionists." Undaunted by more than a century of scholarship in geology and paleontology and a half-century in genetics, they argue that no evolutionary change has occurred in time-for the major groups of organisms were created fully formed, ex nihilo, in the beginning. The chicken, in short, has come before the egg.

Diluvial Geology

With unit 9 we are at once back in the early decades of the 19th century, when Noah's flood was viewed as a major agency of geologic change. Just as the design argument epitomizes the age-old discussion between science and religion, so catastrophism was the means by which the specialcreationists usually accounted for the changes they were obliged to recognize in the past history of the Earth. To assess the authors' point of view we most therefore place it in the context of rapidly shifting concepts in geology and biology during the decades immediately preceding the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 (see Gillispie, 1959).

The 17th century had seen the dramatic introduction of change and natural law into the hitherto static heavens. During the 18th century, scientists such as Georges Buffon (1707-88) and James Hutton (172697) began to recognize that change also had characterized the Earth. When stability and permanence thus gave way to change in time-first in the heavens and then on the Earth-it was inevitable that the same interpretation would he applied to living things as well.

Soon after the turn of the 19th century, dilluvial geology emerged as a serious attempt to account for very real problems in Earth history. In this the Mosaic tradition was a major, but by no means the only, guiding influence. The fossil remains of extinct animals, the curious locations of immovable boulders, and the puzzling features of river valleys all demanded explanation. Diluvial geology sought to equate a supposed natural event of worldwide scope with a direct, providential intervention. The proponents of this view thought the facts of geologic history might establish the historical reality of the Noachian deluge and so remove any threat to religion posed by geology.

There are three scientists whose work may be cited as representative of the period of about 1812-57-the period in which, I believe, the effort of this book may he set. They illustrate, first, the types of problems the age of the Earth, directional change, and causal agencies-that had to be defined before the Darwin revolution could be achieved; and, second, the international character of the preliminary solution.

Most students of Earth history during those years continued to think the Earth was comparatively young. They also recognized that the Earth must have gone through many changes in the past. They were led therefore to the conclusion that such changes must have been sudden and dramatic. Georges Cuvier (17691832) of France gave this view -catastrophism-new prestige, in 1812, with his work on fossil vertebrates, Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossilies de Quadrupedes. He was sure that within such a short time-interval only a series of land upheavels and paroxysmal deluges could account for the sudden extinction of whole species of animals. The impressive skeletons of mastodons and Megatherium entranced his public. Cuvier also included an engraving of an extinct elephant that was once engulfed in Siberian ice-as a result, he thought, of a dramatic drop in temperature following northern extension of a deluge. The authors refer (p. 404, 406) to this elephant as an argument for their view.

Undaunted by more than a century of scholarship in geology and paleontology, and a half-century in genetics) the authors argue that no evolutionary change has occurred in time - for the major groups of organisms were created fully formed, ex nihilo, in the beginning.

Cuvier's catastrophism must be set in the context of his impressive and permanent contributions to comparative anatomy. He stated the main arguments of this doctrine: a relatively short age of the Earth, the progressive and sequential character of the fossil record, and a series of terrestrial paroxysms.

The authors might also approve of the Rev. William Buckland, an energetic and competent English geologist of the period. His books, including Reliquiae Diluvianae (Relics of the Food), of 1823 are outstanding examples of the catastrophists' attempts to reconcile science with the Bible. He summarized evidence, from animal hones in caves, that England had been visited by Noah's flood. Buckland discussed in detail how hapless antediluvians must have been swept in by diluvial detritus. Actually, animals frequently haunted these caves to feast on imprudent intruders, whose bones were left behind for burial and eventual exhumation by eager diluvialists. The view offered in unit 9 reminds me particuarly of Buckland's treatise of 1836, Geology and Mineralogy; the 6th Bridgewater Treatise, it was part of a series commissioned in the 1830s to demonstrate the "Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation." Despite his Noachian presuppositions, Buckland displayed substantial geologic knowledge, particularly his command of the layering of strata and their sequential fossil remains. Arguing for a universal deluge, he tried to show how the successive fossil record matched the Genesis account, and he recited evidence everywhere of providential design, including even the coal that insured England's economic prominence.

However, the authors would probably find Hugh Miller (1802-56) somewhat disconcerting. Also an acute observer and certainly no dilettante, he was not as confident as Buckland. In his Testimony of the Rocks (1857), Miller devoted two lengthy chapters to "The Noachian Deluge." In these pages he turned a critical eye on the legends and geologic arguments for this supposed event. He rejected the evidence for a universal deluge and argued the folly of sending Noah's flood around the world. He held that Noah's flood was a local event that had occurred somewhere in what is now the Middle East. Bnckland's caves had therefore been visited by a flood of much more modest and local proportions. Hugh Miller rather marks the end of the serious 19th-century attempts to equate Earth history with Genesis.

An even more important publication was the Principles of Geology, in 1830-33 (first edition), by Charles Lyell (1797-1875), whose uniformitarian views the authors dismiss. More than anyone else in his time, Lyell saw the past in terms of agencies now in operation. Leonard G. Wilson (1967, 1969, 1972) has pointed out how Lyell was able to remove the qualitative distinction between the past and the present by a reassessment of these agencies, that included the erosive force of flowing water, the action of volcanoes, and the deposition of sediments. Lyell replaced violence with tranquility, extended the age of the Earth, and thus gave Darwin all the time he needed. This achievement alone is one of two reasons why I find it inconceivable that the authors, however brave their effort, can now bring about any major redirection of biology teaching to the conceptual framework of this period before Darwin.

In perusing unit 9 I could not help but think that had the authors consulted these books more fully they might have strengthened their arguments and avoided serious pitfalls. From Cuvier and Buckland they might have derived a more coherent argument for diluvialism; and from Miller, if not from Lyell, perhaps a wholesome urge to steer clear of Noah's flood altogether. For instance, I find it difficult to understand, on p. 405, the ingenious explanation of why the remains of the more complex animals are found higher in the rock strata than are the less complex. Apparently the more complex, such as an elephant, though of considerable weight, would have swum to the top during Noah's flood, whereas the simpler, such as lizards, though lighter in weight, would have plummeted forthwith to the bottom. I can find nothing like it in the writings of Buckland or Miller. It is also difficult to visualize how aquatic animals, that comprise a substantial portion of the fossil record, would have been done in by a flood.

From Cuvier and Buckland they might have derived a more coherent argument for diluvialism; and from Miller, if not from Lyell, perhaps a wholesome urge to steer clear of Noah's flood altogether.

We are informed on p. 412 that Noah's flood was a "major catastrophe of world-wide proportions." Yet two pages later we are reminded that Cretaceous shales in Glacier National Park "show no evidence of disturbance except in small areas." Now it seems to me that such an epic flood should have torn things up. Moreover, if Noah's flood scoured out the Grand Canyon, would the authors he able to find marks of this flood on say, the upper slopes of Mt. Whitney, or perhaps on Mt. Hood? After all, "the mountains were covered" (Genesis 7:20). But Lyell did not find that such a single devastation could account for the present or past characteristics of the Mississippi valley, which he visited in 1845-46 (Lyell, 1849, II, ch. 34). If he were correct, how then could the flood account for the Grand Canyon-much less any changes at higher elevations?

Footprint Hoaxes

On p. 417-418 we are told of alleged footprints of large men who lived with dinosaurs in Texas and with trilobites in Utah. I suppose these tracks are meant to substantiate the Genesis 4:6 account of "giants in the earth." But Keith Young, professor of geology at the University of Texas at Austin, has informed me (letter, 24 May 1971) that on several visits to the Glen Rose, Texas, location he has never seen, nor has he been shown, such "human" footprints, though there are dinosaur tracks to he seen there. Moreover, he observes that these "human" tracks show no pressure points as the result of walking, whereas the dinosaur tracks do show the flow of mud as the animal shifted its footing when walking; there is no narrowing of the "human" instep; and the "human" tracks are chiselled evenly, whereas the dinosaur tracks, made in soft mud, show deformation due to the rolling-in of the mud.

As for the "human-like sandal print" at Delta, Utah: B. A. Robison, professor of geology at the University of Utah, has informed me (letter, 1 June 1971) that the supposed "footprint" has probably resulted from a fracture pattern that commonly occurs in certain sedimentary layers there. Moreover, the "footprint" occurs in company with trilobites, brachiopods, and echinoderms-creatures of the ocean, which is a strange habitat indeed for antediluvian man.

William Buckland and Hugh Miller, who were among the ablest geologists of the 19th century, routinely distinguished between marine and fresh-water sediments and between fossils and artefacts. They would have been quite able to recognize a hoax when they saw one.

A similar misreading of the rocks occurred in the 18th century with the discovery of the skeleton of a "man who witnessed the flood." Because Noah's flood cleansed Switzerland, reasoned Johann Jacob Schneuzer (1672-1733), physician and fossil hunter, then human hones would have been left behind-although plants, of course, were more worthy of preservation. Success came in 1725 when he dug a skeleton from a quarry; he prepared an engraving of it and proclaimed that he had found "Homo Diluvii Testis," He happily notified the Royal Society of London, which soberly published his report in the Philosophical Transactions [1726, vol. 34, p. 38-39) Scheuzer's story of his "ancient sinner" escaped serious challenge for 100 years until Cuvier, who could tell one skeleton from another, republished Scheuzer's engraving with a complete analysis. If the bones once belonged to a man who drowned in the flood, what happened to the forehead, Cuvier wanted to know? Why were the eye sockets so large, and where were the teeth? Cuvier showed that it was only an extinct salamander. So much for the "man who witnessed the flood." [Cuvier, Recherches stir les Ossemens Fossiles, 3rd ed., 1825, vol. 6, p. 431-444; 4th ed., 1836, atlas, vol. 2, plate 253; Jahn, p. 193-213 in Schneer.]

Geographic Distribution

The authors ought to have had another look at Louis Agassiz (1807-73), the Swiss-American zoologist who always opposed evolution. His Studies on Glaciers, first published in French in 1840, is now available in a splendid English edition (1967). Agassiz' ice displayed a considerable amount of diluvial mud

That some orders and species have not changed appreciably in geologic times has been known since the early part of the 19th century . . . . Because some animals and plants have not evolved, it by no means follows that others have not.

from 19th-century thought by accounting for peculiar events that really had occurred in the recent geologic past, such as the transportation of those boulders. Lyell, and even Buckland, soon incorporated Agassiz' views into their own (LyeIl, 1854, p. 154-155, ch. 15; Rudwick, p. 151). And according to Gray, glaciers were a physical agency that, by prompting the migration of plants and animals, led to their present distribution (Aulie, 1970; Dupree, 1968, p. 250-252).
I should now like to ask: how would the authors account for the present existence of alpine plants high in the Rocky Mountains, if presumably they all had perished in Noah's flood? Inasmuch as they cannot live on the warm valley floor, are we to believe that they were created where they are now found at the conclusion of Noah's flood? If so, that would be adding to the Genesis account of creation.

Straying from a literal interpretation of Genesis is what Agassiz did when he sought to accommodate the fossil record with the known facts of the present distribution of animals. According to his version of special creation, he held to a series of catastrophes, and denied that animals were created in a single place, that is, in the vicinity of the Garden of Eden. "Of such distinct periods, such successive creations, we know now at least about a dozen," and there may have been at least twenty, he thought-substantially more than Moses allowed, it would appear (Agassiz, 1850a, p. 185). Because Agassiz denied that physical agencies could influence the distribution of animals, he viewed his glaciers as catastrophic evidence of divine power" God's great plow," he called them (Lurie, p. 98). They caused extinctions, and they led, not to migrations, as Gray and Darwin concluded, but to subsequent creations. Animals were therefore created where they are now found, and in much the same proportions (Agassiz, 1850b, 1851).

The Lingula Problem

A major weakness in the authors' position is on p. 416-417 where we are told that the longeivity of such animals as the [Angola (a shellfish) and the opposum, that show little change through millions of years, is further evidence against evolution. Apparently we are supposed to conclude that, because these animals have not evolved, then all other animals have not evolved, either. Widely distributed in the fossil strata, these animals do form series of similar specimens from an early geologic period to the present. It is quite true that they show little evolutionary divergence. Probably the oldest brachiopod, tin gala has flourished for 500 million years since Ordovician times, and strongly resembles its present-day cousin (See Darwin on Lingula in Origin, 1859, p. 306, and 1872, p. 308). And the Cretaceous opposum of 70 million years ago is very much like the form now living. But this is actually evidence against the position of the authors, in-as-much as they hold that catastrophes, notably Noah's flood, obliterated entire species in the past (p. 393, 412). Why therefore is the longevity of these animals not an argument against their position, if all creatures perished, save those in the ark?

That some orders and species have not changed appreciably in geologic times has been known since the early part of the 19th century. Even before Darwin published the Origin their longevity was seen as not favorable to the special-creation doctrine (Lovejoy, p. 391-394); this point was made in 1858 by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) in his article "On the Persistent Types of Animal Life," in which he included in his long list the sturdy tin gala (Huxley, 1858-62). Huxley suggested that the durability of these animals did not support the hypothesis of catastrophes and subsequent special creations. Their survival, he noted, rather supported the view that they had experienced uniform conditions throughout their geologic history.

Such continuous series of similar fossils can tell us nothing about the manner of origin of the first member, whether it arose by a sudden act of creation, or whether it had dissimilar antecedents. We can only say that in their case no evolutionary divergence has occurred (See Darwin on longevity, 1872, p. 193, 330-331). And because some animals and plants have not evolved, it by no means follows that others have not. A reasonable explanation for the longevity of the lingula and the opposum might therefore be, as Huxley perceived, that they encountered no substantial competition or physical stress in their particular ecologic niches

The authors might counter, however, that these animals rode to safety with Noah and then migrated to the geologic site where they are now found. But Hugh Miller, whose piety we should not doubt, remarked (1857, p. 347) that if all living animals are descendants of passengers in the ark, then they would have had to he ferried across the Atlantic by a miracle not recorded by Moses, not to mention the initial journey to safety.

The geographic distribution of living organisms is scarcely mentioned in the text and is one of the major weaknesses in unit 9. And no wonder: it was the examination of this question, to which Agassiz' ice provided so useful an insight, that brought about a further substantial modification of the special-creation doctrine in the lSSOs (Aulie, 1970). The authors miss the important relationships among extinction, adaptation, and distribution, toward the resolution of which in Darwin these early 19th century investigators pointed the way.

Catastrophism sought to maintain a short time-span for the Earth by accounting for observable changes in terms of sudden convulsions. Lyell lengthened the age of the Earth by arguing effectively for gradual, longterm changes. Those persons who today are drawn to the former view ought to weigh the arguments put forward in Lyell's Principles of Geology. It is Lyell, not Darwin, whose monumental achievement remains a challenge to the reestablishment of this 19th-century doctrine.

(To be continued)


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