Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Bibliolatry Revisited: Review: Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon: A Different View
Tom Vail (ed.)
Green River (AR): Master Books, 2003. 104 pages.
Reviewed by
Wilfred A Elders
On August 10, 1869, Major John Wesley Powell and his party — the first Europeans to explore the length of the Grand Canyon — reached the confluence of the Río Colorado and the Chiquito Colorado (Little Colorado), 71 days after leaving Green River Station, Wyoming. Their frail wooden boats were in need of repair, half of their gear was lost, their dwindling supply of food was thoroughly soaked, and their clothing was in rags. Yet the scenery inspired them with awe. Powell wrote in his diary:
We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above: they are but puny ripples, and we are but pigmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channels, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not (Powell 1895: 247).
The Canyon’s falls, rocks, channels, and walls are now familiar to people around the globe. Each year more than 4 million visitors view its spectacular scenery, and tens of thousands of them hike to the river or raft its rapids. Among them were participants in the National Center for Science Education’s (NCSE) third whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon in August 2003.

Powell felt pigmy-like against the immensity of the Canyon. Just as its scale dwarfs our everyday sense of place, its geology dwarfs our human sense of time. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else on the planet, we can experience a sense of “Deep Time”. Powell (1895) also wrote, “The thought grew in my mind that the canyons of this region would be a Book of Revelations in the rock-leaved bible of geology.” Today we know that the colorful, “rock-leaved bible” exposed in the vertical walls of the Canyon displays a span of 1.8 billion years of earth history (Beus and Morales 2002). But wait! There is a different view! According to a new book about the Grand Canyon, this time span is only 6000 years and the Grand Canyon and its rocks are a record of Noah’s Flood and the 6 days of creation (Vail 2003). In asserting that these were the only two significant geological events in the earth’s history, this text rejects the whole idea of the geologic column and radioisotope dating, which must surely be among the most robust ideas in science. During my visit to the Grand Canyon in August 2003, I learned that this book, Grand Canyon: A Different View (GCDV), was being sold in bookstores within the national park (Elders 2003).

To me GCDV is remarkable; it is the only young-earth creationist (YEC) text that I have enjoyed reading. Its author and compiler, Thomas Vail of Canyon Ministries, has been a river guide for many years and knows the Grand Canyon at river-level better than most people. However, it is not his ideas that I found attractive but rather the striking layout and many beautiful photographs of the Grand Canyon that enhance the text. These are largely the work of another river guide, Charly Heavenrich, about whom Vail writes, “Although he does not share the creationist point of view, he is profoundly moved by the canyon and the depth of courage and ability he sees in the people who travel with him” (GCDV, p 104). The book is remarkable in another way: because it has 23 co-authors — a veritable “Who’s Who in Creationism” (Steven Austin, John Baumgardner, Ken Cumming, Duane Gish, Werner Gitt, Ken Ham, William Hoesch, Russell Humphreys, Alex Lalomov, John MacArthur, Henry Morris, John Morris, Terry Mortenson, Michael Oard, Gary Parker, Scott Rugg, Andrew Snelling, Keith Swanson, Larry Vardiman, Tasman Walker, John Whitcomb, Carl Wieland, and Kurt Wise). To borrow a line from the classic movie Casablanca, Vail must have sent out a call to “round up the usual suspects”. For example, Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, the authors of the seminal YEC text, The Genesis Flood (Whitcomb and Morris 1961), each contribute a brief introduction.

The format of GCDV has each chapter beginning with an overview by Vail followed by brief comments by other contributors. A note on the contents page lays out the ground rules of such participation: “All contributions have been peer reviewed to ensure a consistent and biblical perspective”. This perspective is extreme biblical literalism. Thus, in my opinion, GCDV combines both bad theology and bad science.

As a scientist, perhaps it would be inappropriate for me to dwell on GCDV’s bad theology. It should be sufficient to remind myself that mainline Christian denominations long ago rejected the idea the earth began on Sunday, October 23, 4004 bce, at 9:00 in the morning, London time (Nicolson 2003: 149) and that they espouse the findings of evolutionary scientists. (See, for example, published statements on evolution by Pope John Paul II.) On the other hand, the words of Paula Vail (Tom Vail’s wife, to whom GCDV is dedicated) epitomize the YEC worldview. She writes, “[T]he Bible has proven correct in every detail to which it speaks.” She goes on to state that these details include “the water cycle, the jet stream and movements of the winds, the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, atomic structure, oceanography, dinosaurs, medicine, and astronomy” (GCDV, p 94).

GCDV complements and builds on the much more detailed YEC text on the geology of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe by Steven Austin of the Institute for Creation Research (Austin 1994). My review of that book in RNCSE concluded that Austin had written a contribution to “bibliolatry” (absolute dependence on a group of sacred writings as infallible) rather than to geological sciences (Elders 1998: 14). Austin countered that I was trivializing creationist scholarship and urged me “to come to grips with the fact that creationists have a continuing research program at Grand Canyon” (Austin 1999: 14). My response was that this research fell far short of having the quality and quantity necessary to overthrow the paradigms of science and cause a revolution in geology (Elders 1999). GCDV gives us a bird’s-eye view of that continuing “research” program.

Unfortunately GCDV presents YEC ideas as a series of assertions without substantive documentation of evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in this regard GCDV is an extraordinary failure. Just one small example: Vail (GCDV: 32) writes, “… in the creationist’s view, the carving of the Canyon would have taken place when the sedimentary layers were still soft, allowing the catastrophic erosion process to quickly and easily cut through the layers”. Today the Canyon walls stand 1600 m high in a series of cliffs and benches. These benches form where softer rocks, such as the Bright Angel Shale, have been eroded. The cliffs are formed of harder, more resistant rocks such as the Redwall Limestone. Given that all these rocks formed from muds, clay-rich in the case of the shales and calcium carbonate-rich in the case of the limestones, the onus is on Vail to demonstrate that plastic muds could stand in such enormous cliffs while being catastrophically eroded.

For another example, we can turn to the problem that radioisotope dating presents for young-earth creationists. The words of Henry Morris in GCDV (p 17) nicely encapsulate their problem: “The dating of rocks by the radioactive decay of certain minerals is undoubtedly the main argument today for the dogma [sic] of an old earth”. Vail’s book extends the well-worn, and previously refuted, YEC arguments attacking radiometric dating of igneous rocks in the Grand Canyon (see, for example, Stassen 2003). In GCDV (p 39), Snelling reports new radiometric dates from a Proterozoic intrusion in the Grand Canyon, the Bass Diabase Sill, as follows: K/Ar 841 million years (Ma), Rb/Sr 1055 Ma, U/Pb 1249 Ma, and Sm/Nd 1375 Ma.

However, Snelling’s treatment is too brief to discuss potential problems with these samples such as alteration, possible argon loss, the low content of uranium in basaltic rocks, isotopic ratios that may be inherited from source areas, and so on, that are well known to produce avoidable errors in isotopic age estimates. However, he goes on to claim that the spread in the reported ages discredits the whole concept of radiometric dating! His conclusion is, “Indeed, the obvious way to explain the gross disagreements between these dates is that the decay rates have been different in the past than they are today” (GCDV, p 39). Snelling needs to develop this theme, and particularly to explain the thermal consequences to the planet of compressing 4.5 billion years of radioactivity into less than 6000 years and the consequences to the cosmos of changing the fundamental laws of physics.

Space considerations prevent discussion here of all the absurdities propounded by the authors of GCDV. However, the chapter “Fossils in the Grand Canyon” (GCDV, p 48–55) offers some particularly egregious examples. For example, without offering any evidence, Wise (GCDV, p 54) refers to fossils in the Grand Canyon that were the product of “... a continent-sized floating forest”. Ham (GCDV, p 55) correctly points out that, “As we look at the Grand Canyon, we see layer upon layer of rock that contains billions of dead things.” But he goes on to say, “The evidence from the layers is consistent with their having been laid down catastrophically, by hydrodynamic action of water — exactly as we would expect from the global Flood of Noah.” Austin (1994: 147) concurred with this view, stating, “It is not clear whether the order of appearance of organisms in Grand Canyon, or anywhere else on earth, for that matter, is necessarily any different than a random order which a flood might produce.”

According to Austin, the time elapsed between the 6 days of creation and Noah’s Flood was only 1656 years (Austin 1994: 65). These numbers require that all of the billions of fossils in each of the layers of the Grand Canyon (and, for that matter, all other fossils in so-called “Flood rocks” throughout the world) would have to have lived together during this postulated 1656 years. This situation requires that the carrying capacity of the ecological niches occupied by these organisms in the YEC “pre-flood” world would have to have been many orders of magnitude greater than is possible in the geologist’s evolutionary world.

This raises additional problems for the YEC position. According to Genesis 1:1–31, the dry land (rocks?) and plants were created on Day 3 of creation, marine animals and birds on Day 5, and land animals, including humans, on Day 6. The sources of the sediments supposed to have been deposited by Noah’s Flood could have been both “created” and “post-creation week” rocks. However, “created” rocks could not be the source of the fossils found in the “Flood” rocks, since all organisms should have been created later and presumably were living in the postulated 1656 years elapsed between creation and flood. According to Austin (1994: 57), the Great Unconformity at the base of Grand Canyon’s Paleozoic section marks the onset of Noah’s flood. If the sedimentary rocks below this unconformity, the Late Proterozoic Grand Canyon Supergroup, formed during and after Day 3 of creation week, they should carry a record of the abundant life between creation and the flood and should therefore be the among most fossiliferous on earth.

Unfortunately for the YEC position, this is not the case. The only fossils reported from the sediments of the Grand Canyon Supergroup are algal stromatolites and scattered occurrences of obscure micro-organisms (Beus and Morales 2002: 66).

GCDV disagrees with Austin (1994) on where to place the base of Noah’s flood in the geological record of the strata of Grand Canyon. Tasman Walker states, “Most creation scientists place the Flood’s commencement either within, or at the base of the Grand Canyon Supergroup” (GCDV, p 36–7). But reducing the amount of exposed “pre-Flood” sedimentary rocks compounds the problem. If not in the Grand Canyon, where on earth do “post-creation and pre-Flood” sedimentary rocks occur? We should be able to recognize them easily, as they would have to be much more highly fossiliferous than any “Flood” or “post-Flood” rock and contain fossils drawn from the whole geologic column. Such occurrences are unknown to science. In spite of Gish’s claims to the contrary (GCDV, p 44–5), the so-called Cambrian “explosion” of life, following the world-wide paucity of fossils in the Precambrian, is a major problem for the YEC position.

What were the conditions under which the “flood” rocks of Austin and Walker were laid down? GCDV actually illustrates some excellent evidence about the environment of deposition of some of the Paleozoic rocks, containing (p 48–9) photographs of trace fossils in the Cambrian Bright Angel Shale that Vail calls “fossilized worm tubes”. These are the products of marine animals that were filter feeders and deposit feeders that burrowed in the mud of the Cambrian sea; and they were living in place, just as their counterparts do in modern seas today (Beus and Morales 2003: 98). Many other horizons within the strata of the Grand Canyon are replete with examples of bioturbation and animal tracks. A well-known example is the abundance of invertebrate and vertebrate trace fossils in the eolian deposits of the Permian Coconino Sandstone. These dune-bedded desert sands even have well-preserved raindrop impressions (Beus and Morales 2003: 173). These occurrences all indicate that animals lived and died in, or on, the sediments in which we now find their traces, rather than having been transported there by catastrophic flooding, as is repeatedly asserted by GCDV.

Most YEC authors writing about paleontology, such as Gish, limit themselves to criticizing evolution rather than carrying out their own research. One exception to this rule is Austin, a creationist who actually does fieldwork and research. But the bad news is that Austin’s religious predilections lead him to make unwarranted conclusions and to appeal to unlikely processes. For a scientist who asserts that the fossils in the strata of the Grand Canyon occur “... in the random order which a flood might produce,” Austin has devoted considerable effort in recent years to the study of a decidedly non-random fossil occurrence in the Grand Canyon, the nautiloids near the top of the Whitmore Wash Member, the lowest unit of the Mississippian Redwall Limestone.

These nautiloids were free-floating, chambered cephalopods, similar to the modern nautilus, but they were straight (“orthocone”) instead of coiled, and averaged about 45 cm long. They occur in an approximately 2 m thick horizon, overlain by a chert-rich zone of the Thundersprings Member of the Redwall Limestone (Beus and Morales 2003: 115). Austin (GCDV, p 52) writes, “... this fossil bed occupies an area of at least 5700 square miles and contains an average of one fossilized nautiloid per square yard.” He interprets this as having been caused by “a catastrophic event of regional extent, resulting in a mass-kill of an entire population of nautiloids,” an event caused by “a massive sandy debris flow.” In oral presentations (Austin and Wise 1995; Austin and others 1999), Austin described this debris flow as “a hyperconcentrated flow” that he likened to a pyroclastic density current or ignimbrite, moving over a very gentle gradient, and he also stressed the common association of the nautiloids with vertical structures he calls “water-escape pipes”. All this he takes as a manifestation of Noah’s Flood (GCDV, p 53).

It would take a great deal of space to discuss fully Austin’s ideas about this interesting occurrence. Such a discussion would have to consider the following issues: (i) Is the number of nautiloids exaggerated and is extrapolation to such a large area justified? (ii) Is the interpretation of a mass-kill event warranted? (iii) Why are such fossil concentrations usually attributed to accumulation over long intervals during which sedimentation was restricted? (iv) Is the mechanism of a high velocity “hyperconcentrated flow” that moved enormous distances over a low gradient probable, and is it required by the structural and textural nature of the deposit? Austin knows these occurrences better than anyone and should answer these questions.

I have examined these nautiloids in only a few localities within the Grand Canyon National Park, to which he was kind enough to direct me, where I noted that a nautiloid fossil occurred about once every 4 or 5 square meters. From this I infer that either Austin has collected most of the samples from these localities or the abundance of nautiloids claimed is exaggerated. However, unlike Austin, I hesitate to extrapolate from observations at a few isolated localities to a huge area. Furthermore, most of the nautiloid fossils I saw, and that Austin illustrates, were intact. Could they have survived the turbulence that must occur in a fast moving, subaqueous, debris flow? In nature, mass-kill events certainly occur — by red tides, volcanic eruptions, and storm-induced processes flows, for example. However, in order to recognize a mass-kill, we need to understand the population structure of the animals concerned, and to consider factors such as episodic spawning, variable growth rates, the complex diurnal behavior of cephalopods, and so on.

Evidence bearing on the question “Did this nautiloid assemblage accumulate instantaneously or over many generations?” should be present in the deposit itself. Do the dolomitization and the prominent chert horizon overlying the nautiloid bed represent diagenesis during a hiatus in deposition? Similarly, are Austin’s “water escape tubes” actually poorly preserved animal burrows (Skolithos)? High concentrations of fossil nautiloids occur elsewhere, for example, in Morocco and in the Czech Republic. Ferretti and Kríz (1995) describe several such examples in the Silurian of the Prague Basin and attribute them to the effects of surface currents or re-deposition in shallower environments by storm events during broad scale fluctuations in sea level. Why not the same in the Grand Canyon?

Different creationist authors in GCDV adopt two contradictory philosophical positions: (1) their interpretation of sacred texts is all that is necessary to interpret the geology of the Grand Canyon; and (2) their interpretation of the geology confirms the sacred texts. As an example of the first position, we can cite Walker who writes, “Before we can properly understand geology, we need to know the earth’s history. Unlike secular geologists, creationists don’t need to speculate about history because we accept the eyewitness accounts of past events, preserved in a reliable written record — the Bible” (GCDV, p 36). On the other hand, Gary Parker states, “When biblical creationists/ flood geologists offer explanations for the rock layers in the Grand Canyon, they appeal neither to biblical authority (the Bible doesn’t mention the Grand Canyon!) nor to mystical or supernatural processes. They appeal, instead, directly to the evidence we can see, touch, and measure” (GCDV, p 25).

Thus Walker appears to promote starting from biblical authority whereas Parker appears to operate from a position that Walker would call “secular geology”. But is that the case? According to his brief biography (GCDV, p 101), Parker “has published a number of books from both a secular and creationist point of view”. Only one of them is referenced in GCDV (p 103), but from that book (Parker 1985) we can follow a trail that illustrates where his self-professed “secular” approach has led. In the 1985 edition of that book (the version available to me), he writes, “Grand Canyon seems to be part of a crack in the earth’s crust. It starts in Mexico and runs underground all the way up to Yellowstone Park” (Parker 1985: 53). He continues:
Grand Canyon started as a sort of earthquake fault. … The floodwaters poured down into the crack from all directions in great abundance. The soft sediments washed away quickly too before they turned into rock. And that would make the canyon form very fast. And of course further erosion has sharpened the features of the canyon over the past several thousand years since the Flood (Parker 1985: 54).
If Parker has evidence of a crack running from Mexico to Yellowstone that he can “see, touch, or measure,” I urge him to publish his findings, for this tectonic feature is totally unknown in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Similarly, although there are several faults that cut across the Grand Canyon, one of the remarkable features of the region is that the course of the Colorado River seems to be so little controlled by faulting (Beus and Morales 2003, Figure 14.4).

In another attempt to “come to grips with the creationists’ continuing research program at Grand Canyon,” as Austin advised me to do, I consulted another of the references cited in GCDV (p 103). Vardiman (1999) offers an even more startling insight into creationists’ geological thinking in discussing the occurrence of animal tracks in the Coconino Sandstone, just below the rim of the Canyon:
Another fascinating mystery is why there were animals leaving footprints so late in the flood. … Dinosaur tracks, which are often found in the Morrison formation, are located at even higher levels in the geologic strata. It would appear that some animals were able to escape the water until later in the flood. Many were strong swimmers but they may have migrated to higher ground or clung to floating vegetation and were killed later as the waters finally reached them. Dr John Baumgardner, a research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has suggested that circulating water inundating the continents may have formed giant whirlpools with dry floors near the center until late in the flood. This may have allowed animals near the center of the continents to initially escape the flood waters but were then overwhelmed when the events of the flood reached their zenith (Vardiman 1999: 17).
The Morrison Formation occurs approximately 3000 m above the Precambrian crystalline basement rocks. Since fossils of these dinosaurs are absent from the intervening strata, apparently all of them possessed the necessary agility to escape. This is surprising, because a simple calculation of the centripetal force necessary to sustain a whirlpool 3 km deep and with a radius of 3 km reveals that the water at its base would have to rotate at a linear velocity of more than 30 000 km per hour! Bigger whirlpools require bigger velocities. We see footprints of fast-moving dinosaurs, but where are the footprints of these supersonic whirlpools?

What is the intended readership of GCDV? Vail takes as his text a question from the Book of Joshua 4:6, “What mean ye by these stones?” It seems appropriate to direct him in return to Job 12:8, “Or, speak to the earth and it shall teach thee”. Mortenson writes, “The Scriptural geologists of today find that the evidence in the Grand Canyon confirms the Word of God. Many use the Canyon as ‘Exhibit A’ in their defense of the authority of Scripture against vague forms of theism, atheism, and deism that continue to dent a biblical worldview” (GCDV, p 35). Grand Canyon: A Different View is not a geological treatise. It is “Exhibit A” of a new, slick strategy by biblical literalists to proselytize using a beautifully illustrated, multi-authored book about a spectacular and world-famous geological feature. Allowing the sale of this book within the National Park was unfortunate. In the minds of some buyers, this could imply NPS approval of young-earth creationists and their religious proselytizing.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.