I’ve been very interested in the Science vs. Religion for several years, but my reading had mostly been in the area of Creationism vs. Evolution. However, when I heard Derek Colanduno interview David R. Montgomery about his new book “The Rocks Don’t Lie” on Skepticality, I was intrigued. Could this be a good introduction to the science and history of Geology and a rebuttal of claims of a global flood? Then when I learned that I could get a copy of the book in return for a donation to the wonderful National Center for Science Education (NCSE), I was guaranteed to read it.
When I first started the book, I was a bit disappointed. The first chapter serves as an introduction, using the author’s experience researching the geology of some Tibetan valleys as the launching point for a discussion of his personal history and also some encounters with geological pseudoscience. I think the content of the chapter was good overall, but it could have used just a bit of editing to make the point clearer. In many other popular science books, the authors break sections within chapters by adding an extra line of space between paragraphs. Since the first chapter jumped around between different times and ideas a lot, it really could have used this simple typographical hint to help organize the content.
Because of this minor annoyance, I didn’t have high hopes for the book after the first chapter, but the text settled into more coherence with chapters after that, so the annoyance faded and I really started to enjoy it.
In the second chapter, Montgomery introduces a lot of geological concepts in the context of one of the most amazing geological laboratories in the world, the Grand Canyon. In this chapter alone, he shows why the creationist story of the ancient flood can’t explain the reality we see below our feet. It also made me hope even more to be able to take the NCSE Grand Canyon Raft Trip myself some day to see more of this.
After the second chapter, the book settles into being an overview of the history of geology, starting with the assumption that marine fossils in mountains proved a flood and continuing with discovery and revelation one after another that showed that the old assumptions were false. As early scientists (many of whom were clergy) learned more about sedimentary rocks and fossils and non-European topography, the explanatory power of Noah’s flood shrank until nothing was left. I really got to like some of these old characters (like Niels “Steno” Stensen, who formulated the basic principles of geology).
Later, Montgomery discusses the anthropology of flood stories, and he reveals how the flood stories were nearly ubiquitous in the ancient world, but also that they varied reflecting the local nature of floods: Polynesian flood stories warn about tsunamis, Mesopotamian flood stories warn about rare massive river floods, and Egyptian flood stories are not warnings at all – Egyptian floods are predictable and necessary. The conclusion is obvious; flood stories come up frequently because floods happen everywhere, but none of the flood stories are about truly global floods.
In the penultimate chapter, Montgomery discusses the history of the creationism movement. He shows that the current fundamentalist insistence on a Young Earth, created in six literal days and destroyed by a global flood 1500 years later, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It recycles notions that geologists disproved centuries ago, and rejects relatively recent discoveries like radiometric dating and Plate Tectonics. Modern creationism and flood geology are the denial of knowledge.
Throughout the book, Montgomery shows that the history of increased knowledge about the history of the Earth is a consistent story of scientific inquiry discovering the facts about what religion had previously guessed. We repeatedly see science disproving a religious notions, but there was not a single case where the contrary occurred (the closest was that science itself discovered that the pendulum swung too far from Catastrophism to Uniformitarianism).
Despite the uniformity of direction of progress, Montgomery’s final chapter was disappointing. He chooses to tread an accomodationist course, with both creationists and “militant atheists” (yes, he uses the term) being equally guilty in creating the conflict between reason and faith.
So, the first chapter is a bit unclear as it jumped about, and the final chapter is a bit muddy in its reluctance to take heed of the consistent message of the book. Fortunately, though, between those chapters is an entertaining and informative lesson on the history of the world, and a history of our understanding of that history.