Support Crosscut

‘The Rocks Don’t Lie’: Debunking Noah’s flood

Los Angeles braces for a tsunami to flood the city. Credit: Coco et Jo/Flckr

Everybody has a flood story. And it's probably true. Well, that's a slight exaggeration, but people who live near water all over the world turn out to have flood legends. And geological inquiry tends to show that these "legends" are based on historical fact. In his new book, The Rocks Don't Lie: A geologist investigates Noah's Flood (W.W, Norton & Company; hardcover $26.95), University of Washington geologist David Montgomery touches on ancient flood legends in many places: Tibet, the Pacific islands, the ancient Middle East, the Pacific Northwest. And he describes the ancient deluges on which many are based.

"To me, that [factual basis for tales that virtually everyone considered fables] was one of the real eye openers," Montgomery told me recently. "I was pretty astounded to find that when you start reading" those stories and looking at the underlying geology, "some of them start to make more sense rather than less."

Of course, people tell stories of events that took place hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It seems unlikely that the details have been passed down accurately for that long. But unlikely or not, it seems to be true. "How long could stories of a great flood survive oral transmission from one generation to the next?" he writes. "Examples of stories that have been passed down through oral transmission for thousands of years have been reported from several continents. My favorite is a Klamath Indian story, recorded in 1865. It provides a compelling eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Mazama, which formed Oregon's Crater Lake more than 7,600 years ago."

As both oral and ancient written histories reflected, there were floods — plus, in the South Pacific and along the Northwest Coast, tsunamis — all over the place. But none shaped the whole world overnight — or even over 40 days and nights.

Not all of these historical deluges were classic floods caused by swollen rivers. "The stories around the Pacific Rim all sound a lot like tsunamis," Montgomery explained. "The flood stories in the Northwest [seem] rooted in the 1700 tsunami — or earlier tsunamis for some of the thunderbird and whale stories." (In whale stories, great floods happened when the earth shook.)

In the inland Northwest (and other inland areas), the stories and the floods had different origins. Dry Falls, the Grand Coulee, and the Channeled Scablands were all gouged out by the great floods unleashed over 2600 years from Lake Missoula, every time an ice dam gave way. A geologist named J. Harlan Bretz first recognized this pattern back in the 1920s, but it took decades for the geological community to accept his theory.

Geologists had been so accustomed to rejecting the idea that the earth's surface had been shaped by a single great biblical flood, Montgomery concludes, that they couldn't recognize the geological evidence of a region shaped by great non-biblical floods. It's not a new story, but Montgomery tells it well, and puts it into a much broader-than-usual context.

"It's really hard to believe something you've been taught is not true," Montgomery said. "[It's] just as hard for scientists as it is for people with religious conviction." However, "the beautiful thing about science . . . is that even if one scientist has trouble giving up a preconceived notion, [his] colleagues will do it for [him.]"

The tide of scientific opinion turned in Bretz's favor in 1940 at the Seattle meeting of the American Association for the advancement of Science, and reached its peak in 1979 when, at the age of 97, Bretz received the Geological Society of America's highest honor. "In hindsight," Montgomery writes, on that occasion, Bretz "described his work as a struggle against the dominance of uniformitarian thinking [i.e., the idea that the earth's surface had been shaped by the steady working of erosion and other natural processes operating over geologic time, rather than by a single cataclysmic event in the relatively recent past] that prejudiced his colleagues against the idea of a great flood:"

"Was not this debacle [i.e., the series of catastrophic floods] that had been deduced from the Channeled Scabland a return, a retreat to catastrophism, to the dark ages of geology?" Bretz asked. "It could not, it must not be tolerated [by the scientific community].'" And for many years, it wasn't.

Montgomery focuses less on people who refused to see that a great flood — or a series of great floods — explained the way the earth looked than about people who refused to see that a great flood did not. Somewhat to his surprise though, his research showed that the current conflict between science and Christian religion has shallow roots. Young-earth creationism is a very new intellectual phenomenon. When he looked historically at the relationship between church and lab, he said, "it wasn't a simple black-and-white story."

For centuries, Christian Europeans did see all landforms as evidence of Noah's flood, because the flood story was what passed for geological knowledge at the time. There was really no alternative, The Rocks Don't Lie explains: The Biblical flood story was what everyone in Christian Europe "knew" about the way all visible landforms were created. It was the starting point for geology.

Noah's flood "was the standard model," he told me. "It was the plate tectonics of its day."

But as people started to learn more about the rocks they saw all around them, they began to realize that the Biblical flood couldn't have shaped the whole earth: There wasn't enough water. There wasn't enough time. Still, science and religion didn't part company. "When people who were studying the world came up with evidence that was inconsistent with the global flood or a very young earth, he explained, "they started to think that the interpretations one has overlain on the Bible must be incorrect."

Scientists weren't out to undercut religion. And religious leaders weren't out to deny the findings of science. Why should they? They were the same people. "Most of the influential geologists were clergy," Montgomery said. "The same people were thinking about both [science and religion]. . . Those scientific clergy had faith in two things: They had faith in the Bible . . . and they also had faith in God's creation, the world. . . . the idea of having faith in nature and faith in the story that God's creation could tell for itself . . . pre-dated [modern] science."

Montgomery's writing details their efforts to reconcile the two. Centuries ago, leaders of Christian churches regarded the "week" of creation as a metaphor for a process that took much longer than seven days. As for Noah, he said, "the whole argument about a global flood . . .was done" by the 1830s or so.

Not that Noah's flood — or the Babylonian flood story on which, he writes, the Biblical version may have been based — seems to have been entirely made up, either. Just as stories from other places seem to originate in historic tsunamis or other deluges, so there seem to have been cataclysmic floods in the ancient Middle East.

Montgomery writes that his own "curiosity about a geological basis for the biblical flood began in the 1990s, when Bill Ryan and Walter Pitman, two prominent oceanographers, suggested that the Mediterranean Sea catastrophically spilled over into a low-lying lake valley to create the Black Sea. When they proposed that this was in fact Noah's Flood, many Christians were intrigued by scientific support for the biblical story. Creationists were outraged. Why were creationists angry when scientists claimed to find support for the biblical flood? The problem to them was that this flood was not an earth-shattering, topography-busting flood that ripped apart and reassembled the whole world. It was not the flood that they thought the Bible described. They saw the suggestion that Noah's Flood was a regional disaster, and not a global event, as an attack on Christianity."

(In an echo of scientific response to Bretz' theory about the Missoula floods, "For completely different reasons, many geologists also were immediately skeptical — hadn't science dispelled Noah's Flood as an ancient myth?")

Actually, Montgomery told me, no one knows and no one may ever know "whether Noah's flood was the Black Sea flood or a Mesopotamian flood." Could the Tigris or Euphrates really have created an epic deluge? Look at the levees there now, Montgomery points out. The river lies higher than the land. "Once the levees break, the whole place fills up like a bathtub."

He believes that that would have seemed like a global catastrophe becuse everybody lived in the flood plain. "The world that mattered to you was flooding."

The Rocks Don't Lie traces the history of modern creationism, or biblical literalism, from its origins in the early 20th century to its status as a major political force with millions of adherents today. He does this pretty dispassionately, with no Scopes Trial painting of the opposition as buffoons.

And yet . . . . He clearly feels it's a bit perverse to reject the historical basis of a biblical flood just because it doesn't prove that a Middle Eastern deluge covered the entire world, or, in the Grand Canyon, to insist that rocks of such obvious antiquity, layers that obviously settled out at different times, and a gorge of such depth were created in a matter of weeks.

He describes walking up — and up and up — through the many obvious layers of rock in the Grand Canyon. He keeps coming back to the Grand Canyon as a place in which one can see plainly the results of processes that took place over millions of years. (Actually, longer than that; he writes that the Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the canyon has been dated at 1.7 billion years.)

The National Park Service stirred controversy in 2003 by selling in its shops on the Grand Canyon rims Grand Canyon: A Different View, which explains that the canyon was created by the biblical flood and is therefore only a few thousand years old. (Some people argued that by offering a book that so clearly owed more to conservative theology than to science, the National Park Service was violating the First Amendment clause that forbids establishment of religion.)

When he opened Grand Canyon: A Different View, Montgomery writes, "I read that the canyon itself was carved when the sediment that formed the rocks now exposed in its walls was still soft. I was puzzled that the authors did not try to explain how a mile-high stack of saturated sediment remained standing without slumping into the growing chasm — or how all the loose sand and clay later turned into solid rock. The book simply stated that, according to the Bible, Noah's Flood formed the Grand Canyon and all the rocks through which it's cut in under a year. There was no explanation for the multiple alternating layers of different rock types, the erosional gaps in the rock sequence that spoke of ages of lost time, or the remarkable order to the various fossils in the canyon walls. The story was nothing like the tale I read in the rocks I had spent the day hiking past."

He is obviously somewhat mystified by the fact that people are still arguing about this. The whole argument about a global flood, he said, was resolved — or seemed to have been resolved — "even before the Grand Canyon was ever discovered and explored by Westerners."

But then, Montgomery lives with the idea of deep time, of an earth that stretches back billions of years. Unfolding geological history, he explains, the sense of how long it took to create some of the earth's visible layers and how many layers there were, gave human beings their first sense of deep time — their first glimpse into that abyss.

He writes about the 18th-century Scots geologist James Hutton, who went to Siccar Point on the east coast of Scotland, and saw older rocks jutting up vertically through horizontal layers that had been deposited as sediment. Hutton knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this hadn't all settled out after a flood. "[He found] evidence that there had been two rounds of mountain-building," Montgomery told me. "How do you create two mountain ranges and then get rid of them? [Hutton] was just awestruck by the immensity of geologic time he could read in that Scottish sea cliff."

"Hutton's ability to imagine an endless cycle of erosion and deposition that led to the formation of fresh rocks kicked open the door for serious consideration of the immensity of geologic time," Montgomery writes. "He wasn't arguing that the world was older than imagined; he flat-out argued that Earth was ancient beyond imagining."

There are also other abysses into which Montgomery himself has chosen not to look. "I tried to stay away from the whole question of intelligent design," he told me. "[That's] fundamentally a theological question."

Support Crosscut