Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world (review; long)

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020

There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently. The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre. [1] The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.

The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but Read the rest of this entry

Cummings, an exegesis (or how to read a text) (with statement in full)

Reading #DominicCummings narrative as a work of fiction

Rachel MuersThis tweeted by Professor Rachel Muers, Professor of Theology, Leeds, who applies to Cummings’s text the same methods that I have seen applied to II Samuel:

Reading #DominicCummings narrative [full narrative attached as Appendix] as a work of fiction (which it is, even if it recounts true events) is interesting on a few counts, eg gender and agency

For most of the story the narrator stands alone, sole heroic agent. He alone is responsible for protecting “wife and child”. “I decided” he says.


The centre of Barnard Castle, County Durham (via Wikipedia)

But at the point of the drive to Barnard Castle the female voice enters the story. The wife, not the narrator, is fearful. So “we decided” and even “we drove”.

This sets up an odd image in the reader’s mind – two people each with one hand on the wheel? But that’s not the point. This is the part of the story where the narrator is anxious, uncertain, not in control, fearful of claiming responsibility

It’s a brief wobble and then the “I” is back in charge. Running the show. Read the rest of this entry

What does Mt St Helens teach us about Noah’s flood? Almost nothing.

CanyonGoogleEarthYoung Earth Creationists (YECs) argue from the rapid and dramatic events observed at the Mt St Helens 1980 eruption to the conclusion that the Earth’s geological record, as displayed for example at the Grand Canyon, could be the results of the even more dramatic events associated with a biblical worldwide flood. Geochristian, in the post I link to below, dismantles specific examples of this claim, and goes on to challenge the view that the Bible describes Noah’s Flood as a worldwide catastrophe anyway. Illustration: Step Canyon, Mt St Helens; Google Earth via Geochristian

Regarding geology, the YEC arguments derive their rhetorical power from the all-or-nothing thinking that runs through all their positions. They claim that Mt St Helens demonstrates the correctness of catastrophism over geological gradualism. If all this much can happen so quickly, why assume that the Earth’s deep geology really required deep time? If the flowing ash and mud from Mt St Helen’s shows lamination and cross bedding, does that not destroy the geologist’s argument that the lamination and cross bedding of shales and sandstones are the result of slow deposition? If in a matter of days snowmelt carved a canyon in the Mt St Helens deposits, would not the waters of a year-long flood have sufficed to carve out the Grand Canyon? If the Mt St Helens eruption rapidly uprooted and re-deposited large number of trees, could not the Earth’s fossil fuel deposits have been formed in the same manner?

Geochristian discusses each of these claims in detail (spoiler; none of them will stand up to examination). What I want to point out here is how much they all have in common. They all depend on imposing absolute either/or divisions on reality, cherry picking similarities and ignoring differences, and imposing the simplest of models on complex reality. The dispute between catastrophism and gradualism, although repeatedly revived by creationists (see e.g. here https://www.allaboutcreation.org/catastrophism-versus-uniformitarianism-faq.htm ) was pronounced dead by TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”,in his Presidential Address to the Geological Society in 1869 https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/SM3/GeoAd69.html. It’s simply a matter of perspective. Catastrophic events do happen from time to time, but not very often, giving the impression of gradualism over long periods of time. Cross bedding can occur catastrophically, in well-understood special circumstances, but geologists have never had any difficulty in distinguishing between what is found in sudden volcanic outpourings and the completely different wind-blown cross bedding observed in desert sandstones, including ironically the Coconino Sandstone within the Grand Canyon itself. Canyons such as Mt St Helens Step Canyon can indeed form very rapidly in uncompacted sediments, but the Step Canyon is straight, and carved on a steep slope through soft debris, while Grand Canyon has bends and is carved through extremely hard rock by a river flowing over a plateau with, overall, a gentle gradient. And the tree debris from Mt St Helens bears no resemblance, either in texture or in amount, to the world’s coal fields.

Next, Geochristian attacks the YEC interpretation of Genesis. In particular, the word “eretz”, describing the territory immersed in the flood, can mean either the Earth, or a more limited region. Here his motivation is to preserve faith in the text, while rebutting the interpretation that requires the flood to be worldwide. My own approach would be rather different. In the biblical narrative, God sets out to destroy mankind, apart from the virtuous relic represented by Noah and his family. This could hardly have been accomplished by a merely local flood, though one could well argue that the author(s) of Genesis did not make a clear mental distinction between local and worldwide. However, the entire problem disappears if you regard the Genesis narrative (or, rather, fused narratives) in context within a much more ancient Mesopotamian literature, and I argue https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/noahs-flood-and-how-to-talk-to-creationists-about-it/ that this is actually more respectful of the text than supernaturalist literalism. However, in my experience discussions between those who do, and those who do not accept a supernatural origin for Scripture are rarely productive.

So why I am I, an unbeliever, re-blogging Geochristian’s material at all? Because as I see it, the crucial gulf is not between religious believers and unbelievers, but between those who are willing to accept reality in all its complexity, and those who prefer to impose their own dogma. And this does not affect only such matters as evolution and the age of the Earth, but such intensely practical matters as conservation, global warming, the regulation of market-based economies, and, right now, our reaction to one particular virus that happens to have mutated and evolved.
h/t Michael Roberts https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2020/05/19/what-does-mt-st-helens-teach-us-about-noahs-flood-almost-nothing/





All I got from Mt St Helens (MSH) in the days following its May 18, 1980 eruption was a few pretty sunsets. I was an undergraduate student in my first year at the University of Utah, and most of the ash cloud passed far north of Salt Lake City. MSH became more significant for me a few years later as a geology graduate student at Washington State University, where my research project involved analysis and correlation of Cascade Range tephra (volcanic ash) layers buried at various levels in the Quaternary Palouse Loess of eastern Washington. Some of these tephra layers correlated to ancient eruptions of MSH, dated around 13,000 and 36,000 years ago.

Fortieth Anniversary

img571_900w_889h Credit: USGS, Robert Krimmel, public domain

Due in part to easy accessibility, the 1980 eruptions of MSH have been studied more closely than just about any other explosive volcanic eruption in history. Geologists have learned…

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My Passover message

Where rocks touch: geologic contacts

Another delightful posting from my friend Marli Miller.Thanks, Marli. I’ve blogged here earlier myself about the famous unconformity at Siccar Point, and the depositional contact at the Giants Causeway between a later lava flow, and the paleosol formed by weathering of the one before it.


Geologic contacts are the surfaces where two different rocks touch each other –where they make contact. And there are only three types: depositional, intrusive, or fault. Contacts are one of the basic concerns in field geology and in creating geologic maps –and geologic maps are critical to comprehending the geology of a given area. For those of you out there who already know this stuff, I’ll do my best to spice it up with some nice photos. For those of you who don’t? This post is for you!

Depositional contacts are those where a sedimentary or volcanic rock was deposited on an older rock (of any type). Intrusive contacts are those where igneous rocks intrude older rock (of any type). Fault contacts are… faults! –surfaces where two rocks of any type have moved into their current positions next to each other along a fault.

In a cross-sectional sketch they may…

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Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin (review) [Long]

Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin, Pantheon/Penguin Random House, March 2020, ISBN 978-1101871331, publisher’s price HB $26.95, £20.72. Publication date March 17

A shorter version of this review has appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

This book will be of interest to anyone who is interested in the way in which evolution actually proceeds, and the insights that we are now gaining into the genome, which controls the process. The author, Neil Shubin, has made major contributions to our understanding, using in turn the traditional methods of palaeontology and  comparative anatomy, and the newer methods of molecular biology that have emerged in the last few decades. He is writing about subject matter that he knows intimately, often describing the contributions of scientists that he knows personally. Like Shubin’s earlier writings, the book is a pleasure to read, and I was not surprised to learn here that Shubin was a teaching assistant in Stephen Jay Gould’s lectures on the history of life.

Shubin is among other things Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. He first came to the attention of a wider public for the discovery of Tiktaalik, completing the bridge between lungfish and terrestrial tetrapods, and that work is described and placed in context in his earlier book, Your Inner Fish. The present volume is an overview, from his unique perspective, of our understanding of evolutionary change, from Darwin, through detailed palaeontological studies, and into the current era of molecular biology, a transition that, as he reminds us, parallels his own intellectual evolution.

18 March 2020, this just in:  https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/18/world/fish-finger-fossil-scn/index.html Fish finger fossils show the beginnings of hands; The researchers analyzed the fin to determine its skeletal structure.

Read the rest of this entry

Chewing gum and the genetics of an ancient human

I was particularly interested in this, further confirmation that Europeans until recently were dark-skinned, and in the suggested link between fair skin and diet, as well as weak sunlight


The sequencing of DNA has advanced to such a degree of precision and accuracy that minute traces of tissue, hair, saliva, sweat, semen and other bodily solids and fluids found at crime scenes are able to point to whomever was present. That is, provided that those persons’ DNA is known either from samples taken from suspects or resides in police records. In the case of individuals unknown to the authorities, archived DNA sequences from members of almost all ethnic groups can be used to ‘profile’ those present at a crime. Likely skin and hair pigmentation, and even eye colour, emerge from segments that contain the genes responsible.

One of the oddest demonstrations of the efficacy of DNA sequencing from minute samples used a wad of chewed birch resin. Such gums are still chewed widely for a number of reasons: to stave off thirst or hunger; to benefit from antiseptic compounds…

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Tactical voting; how, and why


https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote This most dispiriting of elections is also among the most important of my lifetime, and its consequences will be felt long after the principal actors are mercifully forgotten.

Boris Johnson in August 2019For me, the overriding issue is clear. We are heading for a situation where the Johnson-ERG axis that has taken over the Conservative Party will be returned with a minority of votes, but a majority of seats in Parliament. This will give us at best Johnson’s extremely damaging Brexit deal, but more probably, with detailed negotiations foredoomed by the Nigel Farage (45718080574) (cropped).jpgrigid timetable, no deal at all. Here, for once, Farage is telling the truth.

The only way to stop this is by tactical voting. With grotesque tribalism, Labour, Lib Dem, and in some constituencies even the Greens are standing against each other in seats that will as a direct result fall to the Conservatives. The only way to stop this is for voters to show the statesmanship that is so sadly lacking in the Party leaders, and vote tactically. Read the rest of this entry

Noah, Ham, Canaan; evolution of a myth

Why did Noah get drunk?  What was Ham’s actual offence? Why was it Ham’s son Canaan who got cursed for it? Are all three of them perhaps composite characters? Japhet turns  up in Greek mythology, as well as in Genesis; who is copying whom, and why? These and other questions are discussed in Paul Davidson’s gripping account, The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery, re-blogged below.

This is not my usual area, but it happens to be directly relevant to two of my own recent blogs, https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/noahs-flood-and-how-to-talk-to-creationists-about-it/ , which he cites, and https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2019/04/01/creationism-noahs-flood-and-race/

Two technical comments: Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed) regards all the genealogies as intercalations, neither part of Yahwist nor of the Priestly source narrative.

And I have verified the tortured Hebrew grammar of Genesis 10:21 and 10:25, discussed in Paul’s post. This of course does not validate any particular explanation, but it is very clear that there is something that needs to be explained.

Time to let Paul speak for himself:

Is That in the Bible?

One of many puzzling passages that anyone reading the Bible from the beginning is soon confronted with is a story in which the flood hero Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked—and which concludes with Noah placing a curse on his grandson Canaan. Since this passage was brought up by a commenter recently, I thought I’d look into it more closely.

Part of the reason, no doubt, for the impression of strangeness it leaves on readers is that it is (understandably) almost never preached on in church and may surprise those who remember the tale of Noah in children’s storybook terms, full of cuddly animals and pretty rainbows. When Aronofsky’s film Noah came out in 2014, Jon Stewart’s Daily Showaired a segment poking fun at religious viewers who were irked by the inclusion of a scene in which the titular character got drunk—and who were apparently oblivious to the existence…

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One riotous Oxford booze-up; two future UK Prime Ministers

Why does such a tiny, tight-knit, arrogant elite hold so much power?


Yes, as I wrote in 2015, that’s Dave, “Boris” (Alexander Boris dePfeffel), and the rest of their Old Etonian pals, in purpose-tailored [1] getups, before the notorious Bullingdon Club dinner, which year after year ended in drunken rioting, invading and smashing up the rooms of ordinary students (who were referred to as “trogs” i.e. troglodytes), the occasional debagging (an old tradition; see Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall), and then moving on to more serious stuff like smashing up restaurants.

“Boris” you will have noticed, was already showing his talent for occupying centre-stage, and by all accounts was already exhibiting his incendiary sense of humour.

If you’ve forgotten about Dave (David William Donald Cameron, PM 11 May 2010 to 13 July 2016), his autobiographical For the Record is due for release in September, and he is said to have obtained an £800,000 advance on this from HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, which also owns Dow Jones (as in Dow Jones Index). Perhaps we should feel sorry for him; Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is said to earn that much every year.

1] According to Wikipedia, the price of this gear in 2007 was £3,500. Equal to some 600 hours work at minimum wage, or 49 weeks living allowance on benefits in Glasgow. But remember, that does include the special biscuit-coloured waistcoat. And you do get two more chances to wear it, if you make it into the Club in your first year.

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