Science in Christian Perspective



Stanley Rice
Department of Plant Biology
University of Illinois
Urbana, Illinois 61801

From:JASA 37 (December 1985): 225-229.

One of the basic tenets of the young-earth creationists (specified in the Creation Research Society's statement of beliefs) is that the Noachian Deluge was world-wide. Almost all young-eartli creationists believe that nearly the entire geological record was produced by this Deluge, Morton1 being one exception. Scripture makes no mention of God creating water specifically for use in a Flood; either the Biblical account cannot be taken literally or else the young earth creationists are duty-bound to find some reservoir in which forty days and nights of rain water were stored prior to the Flood. In order to explain the forty days and nights of rain, some kind of water canopy seems necessary.

For many years the young earth creationists have made reference to a belief in a preflood water canopy.2 Some, like Udd,3 have insisted that only a belief in a liquid canopy constitutes acceptable biblical exegesis; but others have hypothesized canopies of ice crystals4 or water vapor. The water vapor canopy theory has been the most popular. An elaborate mathematical model of a vapor canopy over the earth has been constructed by J. C. Dillow, published in a series of articles in the Creation Research Society Quarterly5 and in a book, The Waters Above.6

In this article I wish to explain that while a water canopy over a planet is not a physical impossibility, our earth could not possibly have been surrounded by any such canopy. My frequent reference to Dillow's writings is not intended as a specific criticism of him, but of the entire vapor canopy concept. I am a plant ecologist and will focus primarily on evidence of plant adaptations that would have been incompatible with survival on a canopied preflood earth.

The prevailing opinion among young-earth creationists is that the preflood earth was uniformly tropical. Some, such as Peterson,7 insist that Adam's descendants could not have filled the earth, as per divine command, and have remained naked, if there were cold regions. Others appeal to a tropical earth as the explanation of how all the plants that ended up in the coal deposits could have been growing on the earth at a single point in time.8 At least two young earth creationists, Morton9 and Ferguson,10 have objected to this belief but have not come up with an alternative source of forty days and nights of rain. Young-earth creationists sometimes claim that a universally tropical preflood earth is evidenced by the fact that the frozen mammoths had "tropical plants" in their stomachs. Dillow11 lists the plants found in the stomach of the Beresovka mammoth. They are not tropical plants nor does Dillow claim them to be so. All the plant taxa can be found in Siberia today, and show only that the climate in northern Siberia was slightly warmer at the time the mammoth was buried than it is now. Nevertheless Dillow12 assumes that the earth was universally tropical. One problem the young-earth creationists have not dealt with is that many fossil trees (antediluvian trees, according to their model) have tree rings,13 which indicate seasonality, either of hot and cold or of wet and dry.

A Dark Earth

Most young-earth creationists have also assumed that Genesis 2:5 makes reference to the entire preflood earth, thus that there was no rain and thus no cloud formation prior to the Flood. However, a relatively small 4000 square mile tropical forest can transpire into the air about 100 billion gallons of water in one year.
14 If for 2000 years the earth was filled with tropical forests, where did the billions and billions of gallons of transpired water go? In addition, water would have evaporated from the ground and from oceans. In the absence of major weather fronts, as Dillow14 claimed was the case, thick cloud layers would have accumulated and the earth's surface would have been dimly lit.

Some species of plants can survive under dim light conditions, but there are many species of plants that require high light and could not have survived on a poorly lit, howbeit warm, earth. This fact was twice brought to the attentiom a the readers of the Creation Research Society Quarterly by Manners,15 but the only response to him has been Westberg's16 erroneous statement that heat can substitute for light as an energy source for plants. Furthermore, while it is true that in most species of plants the individual leaves can reach their maximum photosynthetic rate at only a fraction of full sunlight intensity, the total mass of leaves of an individual as a group often does not reach its highest photosynthesis raw until almost full sunlight intensity is reached.18 A plant cm die even if its uppermost leaves are operating at full capacity because the majority of its leaves are shaded and causing a net loss to the plant.19 How could most plant species ham survived 2000 years of dark cloudiness prior to the Flood?

Plant Adaptations

On today's earth, plants are adapted to an incredibic variety of extremely harsh conditions. Desert cacti ant shrubs tolerate hot dry conditions by combinations of characteristics such as the following: small leaves or none, deep or widespread roots, thick waxy coverings, dry season leaf deciduousness, accumulation of solutes, and nocturnal carbon dioxide uptake.20 Some, like Tidestromia oblongifolia cannot grow unless subjected to very hot dry conditions.21 Arctic tundra plants are adapted to grow in the poor, thin soil overlying the permafrost layer, and can tolerate frosts, partb because they retain old leaves as nutrient reserves and pard) because they grow prostrate, protected by the layer of still air near the warm ground.22

However, even the climatic regions which we do not usually consider harsh, such as the seasonal north temperate regions, pose some survival challenges for plants. For instance, in many species, if seeds germinated as soon as they were ripe in the autumn, they would die in the winter. This does not occur, because the ripe seeds in autumn have high concentrations of the hormone abscisic acid, which can only be broken down by winter conditions, a process known as stratification.23 Also, if perennial plants bloomed in late autumn they might fail to set seed because of the absence of pollinators or because of over-winter death of the developing fruits. This does not happen because they also have high levels of abscisic acid, and therefore do not bloom until they have experienced winter, a process known as vernalization.24 If all broad-leaved trees kept their leaves all winter, the leaves of many of these trees would be damaged by wind, snow, ice, and cold temperatures. This does not happen because the leaves contain the pigment phytochrome, with which the trees are able to measure the daylength. When the days begin getting shorter in early autumn, an orderly and careful process of leaf senescence begins in which macromolecules are broken down and removed from the leaf and stored in the stems, after which the leaf is dropped, a protective layer of tissue already having sealed the wound.25

Plants have to pay a price for having such adaptations, however. Even if given plenty of water, desert bushes will still use their food reserves to put down deep roots, and desert cacti will still use their food reserves to make thick leafless stems. Tundra plants grow relatively slowly even if provided with plenty of nutrients and warmth, not having the biochemical and structural ability to take advantage of resource abundance.26 Seeds that normally require stratification will not grow, and perennials that normally require vernalization will not reproduce, and deciduous trees will still drop their leaves in response to daylength, if kept under uniform mild conditions. The price they pay for survival during winter is the inability to grow should winter fail to come. Plants of the moist tropical rain forests, in which rain comes nearly every day, do not have these desert, tundra, or temperate adaptations, and are noted for their rapid growth. If desert, tundra, and temperate plants were mixed in with these moist tropical plants on a uniformly warm earth, the latter would very soon overtop and shade out the former. If, as the young earth creationists claim, the earth was warm and mild for 2000 years and suitable for the growth of tropical forest, where did the antediluvian desert, tundra, and temperate plants live? There are tens of thousands of such species.

Christian bioloigsts are continually awed at the ability of plants to survive under such various adverse and challenging conditions, and see in such intricate adaptations the handiwork of God. Special creationists should be inclined to cite these complex adaptations as too intricate and perfect for evolution to have produced. Instead, the young earth creationists strive to convince us that the earth as it was originally created and for 2000 years was devoid of all of these interesting habitats and therefore of the plant adaptations that can persist only in such habitats.

Three Attempts to Address These Difficulties

Most young earth creationists have not been totally oblivious to these problems. Howe
27 claims that many modern desert species grew in desert areas before the Flood. He claims that a moist tropical earth under the canopy would not necessarily have to be completely devoid of desert areas. These desert areas would have to be very small, however, or else one of the young-earth creationists' purposes would be defeated. As we have seen they wish to explain how all the coal deposits were formed from plants that were in existence the day Noah entered the Ark, and they rely on the productivity of tropical forests to account for the necessary biomass. The alternative to having preflood homes for all of today's desert plants is to have them come into existence after the Flood. In this view, a thorough remaking of the earth's plant life, whether by natural processes or by miracle, would have been necessary.

Some young-earth creationists, such as Marsh,28 believe that variation "within kinds" is possible, and that the Genesis "kinds" (min) may actually correspond to what modern taxonomists regard as the genus or family level. Jones29 considers animal min to correspond most closely, though not point by point, with taxonomic genera, and Howe30 considers plant "kinds" to be for the most part plant families. Thus, a single wide-ranging interbreeding kind, as originally created, can divide into smaller populations and diversify into different species as natural selection and drift (random factors) cause a subset of the original big population's genes to be retained, and others lost, in each of the smaller populations. This, they are quick to point out, is speciation but not evolution, since no new genes originate. Howe uses this concept to imply that the genes for desert survival may have been present in the preflood populations of plants, even though these genes were not expressed very extensively. After the Flood, these genes were expressed as natural selection brought about adaptation to the new harsh conditions.

Could today's desert flora have existed in the proposed (and necessarily small) preflood desert areas? Or could they have originated from tropical ancestors since the Flood? If today's desert flora consisted of only a small number of species, genera, or families, and if all deserts were more or less alike in species makeup, these explanations might be believable. But desert diversity is truly amazing. First, there are many different kinds of deserts. The lower elevations of Death Valley have almost nothing except Tidestromia oblongifolia, and the Mojave Desert is dominated by two species of bushes, Larrea tridentata and Ambrosia dumosa. In contrast, the Sonoran Desert has a wonderfully diverse flora, with many genera and families represented, and consisting of bushes, succulents, and tiny short-lived desert annuals.31 South American deserts have yet other species, and Old World deserts have an almost entirely different flora. Australian deserts have yet a different set of species, with a striking representation of the family Myrtaceae. Many deserts have leafless spiny succulents, the "cactus" of the layman, but in the Americas they are all in the family Cactaceae, a family almost totally confined to the New World, while in South Africa they are members of the genus Euphorbia, and in Madagascar they are members of the family Didiereaceae, found only on that island.32 This amazing diversity could not have fit into just a few forgotten corners of the antediluvian earth. Furthermore, the species of each of the distinct and regions has its own set of ecological interactions. Arizona, South African, and Australian organisms could not get along if mixed up willy-nilly. Thus the preflood deserts would probably have been a major climatic region, just as they are today, and there would have been preflood analogs of separate Sonoran, South American, South African, and Australian deserts.

But in addition to the existence of many kinds of deserts and a great diversity of species, the taxonomic pattern of this diversity cannot be explained by postflood speciation. The young-earth creationists who espouse this possibility do not realize the magnitude of the biological transformation they are invoking. In this approach the young earth creationists are appealing to the same processes that evolutionists appeal to, except mutation. And yet, astoundingly, they suggest that these processes could have operated within just 4000 years to produce the awesome variety of desert plants. We can see how unsatisfactory this explanation is even if we, for simplicity, confine our discussion to succulents.

Succulents have a large number of complex adaptations to desert conditions, not the least of which is a whole biochemical pathway for taking up carbon dioxide at night, and sealing themselves up during the hot daytime, in contrast to most plants, which take up carbon dioxide in the daytime.33 Succulence is found in a wide variety of plant families (twenty-one, according to Lamb and Lamb34). Some of these families are mostly succulent desert plants, but others consist primarily of temperate, moist-area plants: the milkweed family Asclepiadaceae whose genus Stapelia looks very cactus-like; the Euphorbiaceae in which some species of Euphorbia are cactus-like while other genera inhabit moist regions, such as the rain forest rubber tree Hevea; the genus Senecio, in the daisy family Asteraceae, which contains temperate weeds but also cactus-like species; and the Vitaceae, the grape family, consisting mostly of vines, but which contains some species of Cissus which are cactus-like succulents with nocturnal carbon uptake.35 If desert survival genes were floating around in the milkweed, euphorbia, daisy, and grape families before the Flood, we would expect to see some such genes today in the populations of the moist-area species of these families, and we would expect these families to have been more successful at invading deserts than they have been.

It is even more difficult for the young earth creationists to explain the origin of the cactus family by postflood speciation. Most of its 2000 species, which come in an enormous variety of sizes and shapes, are desert dwellers. Could these thousands of species all have arisen from tropical forest ancestors? Botanists think so-the small subfamily Pereskioideae, considered primitive because it has leaves, which the vast majority of cacti do not, is found in relatively moist areas. Some cacti live in trees of tropical forest , rooted in relatively dry tree bark. The unreasonable part of the youngearth creationist scenario is that they want to fit the whole process into 4000 years or less! How could Carnegiea (giant saguaro) genes have been hiding for 2000 years in rain forest cactus populations, then, in what would be an instant (for gene frequency changes in populations of long-lived cacti), separate out to form a desert species?

Finally, the young earth creationists do not explain where the plants that require cold seasons lived on the preflood earth, the very seasonality that the canopy is purported to have made into uniformity. On the one hand the young earth creationists want to prove that the preflood earth was very, very different from today's world, universally mild and tropical, yet on the other they want to show that it wasn't very different after all, and had deserts big enough to accomodate today's desert diversity. They can't have it both ways!

The remaining option for the young earth creationists, is direct intervention by God. Armstrong36 appealed to divine intervention for the origin of the desert kangaroo rat. Lammerts37 published such a statement also, with reference to plants. This contradicts the usual young-earth creationist insistence on creation being completed in one week.38 Morris, Director of the Institute for Creation Research, considered a belief in postflood creation to be a willful ignoring of the Genesis record, which makes no mention of such creations, and that the Bible judges those who believe in it as being led astray by their own lusts.39 Lammerts40 defended himself by saying that Psalm 104:30 described postflood creation. This is an obscure reference at best. The young-earth creationists who espouse this opinion want us all to accept literal Biblical accounts of the Flood, yet on the other hand have to invent a major portion of their theory from extra-biblical imagination. Just like the others, they can't have it both ways!


The young earth creationists need the canopy to explain the origin of Flood waters and need a tropical earth to explain the coal deposits. Some of them have invented elaborate mathematical models of such a canopy, but have had to resort to grasping at straws to explain how today's diversity of plant life could be descended from the flora of a uniformly tropical earth. With this vital leg found to be broken, how can the body of young earth creationism or Flood geology stand?


1Morton, Glenn R. 1982. Creation Research Society Quarterly (CRSQ) 19:103111,90.
Whitcomb, J. C. and H. M. Morris 1967. The Genesis Flood, pp. 243-5. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.

Udd, Stanley V. 1975. CRSQ 12:90-93.
4 Westberg, V. Luther 1979. CRSQ 16:182-84.

Dillow, J. CRSQ 14:5-13 (1977); 14:139-146 (1977); 15:27-34 (1978); 15:148159 (1978); 16:171-73,175 (1979); 17:65-72 (1980).
982, Moody Press Second Edition.
7 Peterson, Everett H. 1981. CRSQ 17:201-204. Criticized by Raaflaub, CRSQ 18:237-39.
Wiant, Harry V. 1974. CRSQ 11:142.
9Morton, Glenn R. 1980. CRSQ 17:40-41.
10Ferguson, Albert B. 1975. CRSQ 12: 108, 127.
11CRSQ 14:5-13.
12The Waters Above, pp. 141, 280.
13See Banks, Harlan P. Evolution and Plants of the Past, p. 89. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Calculated from figures in Whittaker, R. H. 1975, Communities and Ecosystems, Macmillan, Second Edition; and Larcher, W. 1980, Physiological Plant Ecology, Springer-Verlag, Second Edition, two widely used references.

The Waters Above, p. 281.
16Manners, Malcolm M. Letters in CRSQ 18:76 (1981) and CRSQ 19:82-83 (1982).
Westbert, V. Luther. CRSQ 18:76-77.
18Monsi, M. et a]. 1973. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4:301326.
Horn, Henry S. 1971. The Adaptive Geometry of Trees. Princeton University Press. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss photosynthetic consequences of various leaf distributions in tree canopies.
ONilsen, E. T. et a]. 1983, Ecology 64:1381-93; Nilsen, E. T. et a]. 1984, Ecology 65:767-78.
Bjorkman, 0. et al. 1974. Carnegie Institute of Washington Year Book 73:748-57.
Chapin, F. S. III et al. 1980. Journal of Ecology 68:189-209, and Salisbury, Frank B. et al., Botanical Gazette 129:16-32.
Found in any introductory plant physiology text, e.g., Salisbury, Frank B. and Cleon W. Ross, Plant Physiology, Second Edition 1978, p. 324. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

1bid., p
. 318.
25Ibid., p. 332.
26Chapin, F. S. III and H. Bloom 1976. Oikos 26:111-21.
27 Howe, George F. 1981. CRSQ 17:219-26,
28Marsh, Frank L. 1974. CRSQ 11:60-68.
29Jones, Arthur 1972. CRSQ 9:114-23.
3)Howe, George F. 1979. CRSQ 16:38-43.
Fo,seth, 1. N. et a]. 1984.
Ecology 65:1436-44.
Heywood, V. H. editor 1978.
Flowering Plants of the world, Pp. 63-65, 73-74, 1&~_87. New York: Mayflower.
Osmond, C. B. 1978.
Annual Review of Plant Physiology 29:379-414.
Lamb, Edgar and Brian 1978.
The Illustrated Reference on Cacti and Other Succulents, vol. 5. Blandford.
Virzo de Santo, A. et al. 1984.
Plant, Cell and Environment 7:105-12. 
36Armstrong, Harold 1973.
CRSQ 10:162.
Lammerts, Walter E. and George F. Howe 1974.
CRSQ 10:208-28. 
Genesis 2: 1.
Morris, Henry M. 1974.
CRSQ 11:173-75. Makes reference to IT Peter 3:3-6.
40Lammerts, Walter E. 1975.
CRSQ 12:75-7.