Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Flood Geology in the Grand Canyon

During his historic exploration of the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell wrote in his diary, “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, geologists know that the Canyon began to be eroded 4 million years ago: what the strata thus exposed reveal is a 1.75-billion–year span of the earth’s history. Yet visitors to the official bookstores in Grand Canyon National Park are now treated to a different view — the view of creationists who believe that these rocks were deposited and the Canyon was carved in a twinkling during Noah’s Flood.

At issue is Grand Canyon: A Different View, compiled by Tom Vail, a Colorado River guide. With its lavish color photographs of the Canyon and its low list price of $16.99, it is the sort of book that you might want to take home as a souvenir. Unless you open it, and happen to notice that it was published by Master Books, the publishing arm of the Institute for Creation Research, or that its list of contributors is a virtual who’s who of “creation science”, or that “all contributions have been peer-reviewed to ensure a consistent and biblical perspective.”

“Flood geology” — according to which Noah’s Flood, as described in Genesis, was a historical worldwide event responsible for the distinctive features of the earth’s geology — is nothing new. It was pioneered by self-educated geologist George McCready Price in the first half of the 20th century, and revived by John C Whitcomb and Henry M Morris in their 1961 book The Genesis Flood. The theory continues to be influential in fundamentalist circles, where adherence to a literal reading of the Bible is frequently thought to demand rejection of evolution as well as acceptance of flood geology.

To the uninitiated, it is hard to imagine that flood geologists regard the Grand Canyon, with its thousands of feet of layers of sedimentary rock deposited over the eons, as a suitable icon. In the 1920s, a colleague of Price’s urged him to explain the formation of the Grand Canyon in these words: “Let’s have the worst before us when we’re dealing with the enemy, and if we perish, we perish!” Yet today’s creation scientists are confident that it is, in the words of the title of one of their books, a monument to catastrophe, despite the overwhelming dismissal of their view by the scientific community as absurd.

A Different View claims, for example, that the Canyon was rapidly cut when the sediment was still soft. But it offers no explanation of how the supposedly soft sediment remained standing in high vertical walls instead of slumping, of why the layers alternate between chemically produced sedimentary rocks such as limestone and mechanically produced sedimentary rocks such as sandstone and shale, or of why the canyon’s river channels are not the sort of wide deep channels that are characteristic of canyons carved by floods. Similarly, although the Grand Canyon’s fossils are confidently described as casualties of the biblical flood, there is no explanation — beyond a vague reference to hydrodynamics — of how they managed to sort themselves in the chronological order so thoroughly documented by paleontologists.

Not surprisingly, then, Wilfred Elders, a professor of geology at the University of California, Riverside, was dismayed to learn that A Different View was on the shelves in the bookstores in Grand Canyon National Park. The bookstores are operated by a non-profit organization, the Grand Canyon Association, under the supervision of the National Park Service. According to a spokesman for the NPS, the book was unanimously approved for sale by a panel of park and gift shop personnel. In his review of the book for Eos, the weekly newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, Elders lamented, “Allowing the sale of this book within the national park was an unfortunate decision.” (See p 33 for a longer version of Elders’s review.) In his opinion, A Different View is not a work of science; it is religious proselytizing.

The scientific community concurred. The presidents of the American Paleontological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the Association of American State Geologists, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, the American Geological Institute, and the Geological Society of America signed a joint letter to the NPS, urging that A Different View be removed “from shelves where buyers are given the impression that the book is about earth science and its content endorsed by the National Park Service” (see p 21). The American Institute of Biological Sciences — the umbrella organization of professional biology societies — followed suit.

Meanwhile, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a non-profit organization that promotes environmental ethics and government accountability, was also taking notice. In a press release dated December 22, 2003, PEER cited the sale of A Different View, along with the NPS’s recent about-face on the removal of plaques bearing biblical verses from the South Rim of the Canyon and its decision to edit images of gay rights and abortion rights demonstrations from a videotape that airs at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, as evidence that the Bush administration is attempting to institute a program of “faith-based” parks.

The issue finally arrived on the national stage with a story published in the Los Angeles Times (2004 Jan 7), citing both the joint letter from the geoscience organizations and the PEER press release. According to the Times story, following protests from the park’s interpretive staff, A Different View was relocated from the natural sciences section of the bookstores to the Inspirational Reading section — a reasonable category for a book that is explicitly founded on the premise that “the Bible, in its original form, is the inerrant Word of God.” The recategorization of A Different View complies with the geoscientists’ recommendation that “if it remains available in Grand Canyon bookstores, it be clearly separated from books and materials that do discuss our scientific understanding of Grand Canyon geology.”

But the story is not over. The superintendent of the park is seeking further guidance from the legal department of the NPS headquarters in Washington. Predictably, creationists are up in arms. Answers in Genesis — a large creationist ministry based in Florence, Kentucky — promptly called upon its supporters to lobby the NPS and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, not to permit what it called “censorship and book banning”. As of January 12, AiG reports, over 125 of its supporters have communicated with the NPS, complaining of what AiG characterizes as “an incredible attack on free speech”. The complaint of censorship is, of course, bogus; the First Amendment confers no right to have books purchased and resold by the government or (as here) by a non-profit organization overseen by a government agency.

Creationists were also unhappy with the relegation of A Different View to the Inspirational Reading section of the park bookstores, touting the scientific credentials, publications, and memberships of the contributors in order to emphasize the supposedly scientific basis of the book. The Institute for Creation Research, for example, boasts that “Many of the contributing authors to the book are also active members of the societies represented in the letter of protest.” But the NPS management policies clearly state that factual information presented in interpretive and educational programs is to be based on current scholarship and science; it is hardly unreasonable to expect the bookstores overseen by the NPS to reach the same standard by refusing to countenance a counterfeit of science on their shelves.

And legal sabers are now rattling on behalf of “creation science”. The Alliance Defense Fund — a Scottsdale, Arizona, organization that describes itself as engaged in “the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values” — reportedly threatened to sue if A Different View is removed from the bookstores or even if it is relegated to their Inspirational Reading sections, describing such actions as patently unconstitutional. Standing in the way of such a suit, of course, is the formidable obstacle of the Supreme Court’s ruling (in the 1987 case Edwards v Aguillard) that “creation science” is intrinsically a religious view.

For the time being, A Different View remains on the shelves. David Barna, a spokesperson for the NPS, told the Associated Press (2004 Jan 7) that NPS headquarters was likely to tell Grand Canyon National Park’s administrators not to restock the book. But Barna then told The New York Times (2004 Jan 18) that NPS headquarters decided that “the book can remain on sale as an alternative theory to the Grand Canyon history — but one that the Park Service does not necessarily support.” The Baptist Press news service reported (2004 Jan 27) that the bookstores ordered over 300 additional copies of the book; Elaine Sevy, a spokesperson for the NPS, commented, “Now that the book has become quite popular, we don’t want to remove it.”

For his part, Professor Elders, whose concern about the presence of A Different View in the park’s bookstores helped to spark the controversy, offers suitably scriptural advice: “speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee” (Job 12:8).


I wish to thank Alan Gishlick and Wilfred Elders for helpful comments.

[A version of this article appeared under the title “Creationists and the Grand Canyon” in The Humanist 2004 Mar/Apr; 64 (2): 5–6, 47 and is reprinted by permission.]

By Glenn Branch, NCSE Deputy Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.