Category Archives: Fossil record

Science and politics at the Creation Museum

Repost of https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2022/08/science-and-politics-at-the-creation-museum.html. This piece also appeared at https://rightingamerica.net/science-and-politics-at-the-creation-museum/, with book authors’ comment: “Below is Dr. Paul Braterman’s review of Righting America at the Creation Museum. For us, the best part of this generous review is that Braterman covers and understands all parts of our argument. More than this, we appreciate his scientific interventions, and we absolutely agree that we should have included Henry Morris’ biblical racism in our book.”

Do we really need 230 pages of at times closely argued text, followed by 70 pages of footnotes, just to tell us about Kentucky’s intellectually bankrupt Creation Museum and the authoritarian organisation, Answers in Genesis, that brings it to us? The answer, I fear, is yes.

For instance, this book will tell you that Ebenezer the Allosaurus, prize exhibit at Answers in Genesis’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, was donated by the Peroutka Foundation. It will also tell you that Michael Peroutka, in a 2013 speech still available on youtube, states that government schools indoctrinate children away from Christian ideas (a theme that recurs throughout this book), and that this is what they were designed to do. The book also points out that he served on the Board of Directors of the League of the South, whose chairman had defined southern people as white. I recently learned that Peroutka is the official Republican Party candidate for the post of attorney general of the State of Maryland in the November 2022 elections. We had better pay attention.

Front of Museum in 2007

There is no shortage of books refuting antiscientific creationism, but this volume nonetheless manages to find many new and important things to say about the subject, as manifested at the Museum. Susan Trollinger is an Associate Professor (now Professor) of English at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and author of Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, while William is Professor of History at the same university, and author of God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Both are committed Christians and critical Catholics. Thus they are unusually well-placed to analyse the rhetorical devices, the historical roots, and the theological assumptions and moral universe of the Museum, and its parent organisation, Answers in Genesis. On their blog, they have applied much the same critique to the Museum’s sister attraction, the Ark Encounter, which was under construction when this book went to press and features here in an epilogue.

I have been watching Answers in Genesis myself for some time, and my own additional comments here are in [brackets].

We already have abundant material rebutting creationism on scientific grounds, but the Trollingers explicitly refrain from discussing the science. What they do instead is much more interesting. In an extended and detailed analysis, they apply the Museum’s own criteria to the Museum’s own display. It does not fare well.

We start with a short history of creationism, including the events leading up to the formation of Answers in Genesis (henceforth AiG),1 and an account of that organisation’s other activities and prolific outpourings. The Museum itself had topped a total of 2 million visitors by 2015, and claims that the average visitor has a college or advanced degree. There is much more about AiG’s extended campaigns and their political implications in the last chapter of the book, and I would have welcomed clearer signalling of this early on, to avoid the risk of burying the lede. I would also have liked to be told more about the deep connections, going back a century, between US creationism and right-wing politics, a subject on which one of the authors is an expert. Relatedly, I regret that AiG’s repeated denial of the importance of human-caused global warming is barely mentioned, not only because of the importance of the topic but because it illustrates how committed AiG is to the use of the Bible in forwarding the American Right’s political agenda. However, these criticisms serve only to underline the book’s ongoing importance.

As the book points out, all museums are rhetorical devices. Modern2 Natural History museums emerged from the private collections of cabinets of curiosities as part of the democratising and educational efforts of the late 19th-century. Their function was not merely to display, but to educate, and convey a sense of scientific mastery. Dioramas were used to impart a sense of immediacy, while simultaneously imposing one particular view of the world; typically, male animals would dominate the scene, with smaller females playing a lesser role. Dioramas also impart a spurious sense of objectivity, since visitors see with their own eyes, without being aware that what they are seeing is a highly edited version of reality. The museum further conveys its message, by leading visitors through numbered rooms in a particular order, in order to enhance its narrative.

Contemporary2 museums have come to challenge this top-down narrative. Current educational thinking requires visitors to be free to examine objects in their own way, in their own chosen order, and often with hands-on exhibits, in order to construct their own personal narratives. The goal is to make the visitor an active partner in the creation of knowledge, rather than its passive recipient.

The Creation Museum has all the trappings of a contemporary museum. It is technically sophisticated, with sound effects accompanying dioramas, animatronic human and dinosaur figures, and special effects including a movie theatre with seats that shake. Moreover, it claims to be offering visitors their own free choice between its own Young Earth evolution denial, and mainstream science. This claim is reinforced by one of the early dioramas, in which two men are shown excavating a dinosaur skeleton. A narrator tells us that one of these is an evolutionist and the other a creationist, but that both are scientists. This claim is central to the AiG version of creationism, which argues that biblical and evolutionist perspectives are equally valid. The next room reiterates the same point, proclaiming “Same Facts, but Different Views… Why?”, explicitly asking visitors to choose between God’s Word and “their own arbitrary philosophy”. Ken Ham, founder and CEO of AiG, and his son-in-law Bodie Hodge, have in interviews both stressed the claim that they “give both sides”.

The wrecking ball of “Millions of Years” destroys the foundation of the church

A good-faith discussion of such a choice would require an evenhanded depiction of the two contrasting worldviews, but this is not what happens. Instead, as the book enumerates, we have a sequence of displays presenting Young Earth creationism, claiming the authority of biblical figures, and speaking of a culture in crisis as the wrecking ball of “Millions of Years” destroys the foundation of the church (that last image occurs repeatedly in AiG publications). We are shown a peaceful Eden, with humans (just two of them, of course) and dinosaurs peacefully coexisting, until T. rex is transformed into a fearsome predator by the Fall, which allows Death into the world. We have animatronic scenes from the building of the Ark, and an exposition of Flood geology with the Flood responsible for the breakup of the continents and the formation of their features, and also for subsequent cooling (in their publications, AiG does admit the existence of one Ice Age). This, visitors are told, led to the formation by natural selection of today’s diversity of species from the smaller number of kinds present in the Ark (in AiG’s private language, such natural selection does not count as “evolution”). At various points there are photographs, videos, and displays showing the wonders of nature, to prove that “there has to be a powerful Intelligence behind the universe.” Evolution is indeed presented, or rather misrepresented, in such a way as not to be believed, an approach that is also advocated on the AiG website and elsewhere.

The Museum’s own account of past, present, and future is embodied in the 7 Cs of Creation, Corruption (the Fall), Catastrophe (the Flood), Confusion (Tower of Babel), Christ, the Cross, and Consummation (when Earth will be restored to the perfection it had had before the Fall). Running through all of this, we have the recurring theme of human disobedience to God’s word, bringing down His punishment. Our present social problems are manifestations of this disobedience, as is the acceptance of evolution by compromising churches. The visitor moves along a predetermined path illustrating this narrative, with a simple clear overarching message of salvation for the faithful, and well-deserved damnation for the rest. As in the days of Noah, so today. The presentation and trappings of the Museum belong to the 21st century, but its authoritarian top-down control of movement and message places it firmly in an older era.

This is particularly clear in the Voyage of the Ark room, which shows the misery of those trapped by rising waters, from the perspective of the saved. The message is clear. Go through the open door and be saved, or it will be shut on you and misery and death will follow. As other exhibits make clear, a direct analogy is being drawn between the wickedness of the Flood generation and the moral depravity of our own times. The visitor has two clear options; to accept God’s word, or to stand among those condemned.

Here as elsewhere, the Bible itself is massaged, manipulated, and misquoted. Crucially for AiG’s theodicy, we are told that drowned humanity had ignored Noah’s warnings, and thus lost the chance to enter the Ark with him, but biblically there was no such chance and no warning. We are shown an animatronic Methuselah telling us how Noah attempted to warn the people, but there is no reference to any such thing in Genesis. Noah is described as a preacher, although there is no biblical basis for this either. There are even textual changes; in Genesis 11:2, “They journeyed from the East” becomes “They moved down from the mountains of Ararat”, to impose AiG’s smoothed out Flood-to-Babel narrative. There are also some strange interpretations. For example, in Genesis 3, the ground brings forth thorns as part of Adam’s punishment, therefore thorns were created during the lifetime of humanity. But we find thorns alongside dinosaurs in the fossil record. Therefore dinosaurs must have coexisted with humans. And since creation was “very good”, death could not have existed before the Fall, therefore all these dinosaurs were originally vegetarians.

Diorama; Adam naming the animals (Genesis 2:20)

A Natural History museum is rich in actual objects, such as fossils or stuffed animals. The Creation Museum is much poorer in actual objects, but derives its emotional impact from meticulously detailed dioramas, allowing us peepholes into the worlds of Adam and Eve or Noah. The real subject matter of the Museum is, then, not creation as a whole, but Genesis 1 – 11, treated as actual history.

Next, the book discusses AiG’s central claim to be presenting science. The core argument here is based on a distinction between “observational science”, which depends on repeatable experiments, and “historical science”, which according to Ham lacks any such secure foundation, since the past is not repeatable and the attempt to discover it therefore depends on unverifiable assumptions. This same argument occurs ad nauseam throughout the whole of AiG’s output, and is implicit in the presentation and objects in the Museum. Placards repeatedly state (emphasis in originals) “The evidence is in the present. But what happened in the past?”

It is not difficult to show (I have done so myself) that the elevation of observational over historical science is so much pseudophilosophical twaddle. But again, this book follows the more interesting path of applying the Museum’s criteria to its own exhibits.

If the only kind of science with objective weight is observational science, that is what the Museum should be presenting. But where is it? AiG claims that such evidence is to be found in the Museum’s planetarium, and in the rooms dedicated to the Wonders of Creation, and the presentation of Flood Geology. This book examines those claims, and finds them wanting. The planetarium tells us of the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, but even if this is taken as evidence of a Creator, that is no proof of a biblical God, let alone a recent six-day creation. Blue stars, we are told, cannot last for billions of years (true), therefore the universe cannot be billions of years old (false; the very same science that tells us that such stars cannot last also tells us that they are continually being generated). The planetarium also speaks of unspecified theoretical problems, and claims that star formation has never been observed. These are not convincing arguments.3

Of 38 placards in the Flood Geology room, 15 represent theoretical models of past events, and are thus, by the Museum’s criteria, not science at all. However, 26 placards to display some kind of scientific information. But much of that information is merely historical science. The Mt. St Helens eruption, 1980, is presented as a model of rapid catastrophic change, but all the data here are firmly in the past and unrepeatable. There is genuine observational science describing for example blind cave fish, but arguing (more historical science!) that these represent adaptation through loss of genetic information. It is implied without any justification that all adaptation is of this kind, and the diversity of species is then explained away in terms of such adaptation. Thus all canids (dogs, wolves, jackals, foxes etc) have been adapted by information loss from an original created canid “kind”. This concept of a kind is crucial to flood geology, in order to explain how the ancestors of all existing animals could have been squeezed into the Ark.

Ebenezer the Allosaurus

We share in the authors’ glee when they point out how thoroughly one of the Museum’s prize examples violates the Museum’s own logic. This is the skeleton of the Allosaurus nicknamed Ebenezer, who, we are told, was drowned, and his body then swept away among sedimentary debris, quickly buried lying on his left side, and rapidly fossilised. But none of this is observational science. Even the fact that the skeleton was buried on his left side is strictly speaking historical science, since it has now been moved, so that the observation cannot be repeated. No one has ever observed the rapid fossilisation of a skeleton, so that’s not observational science either, there is no evidence that the Allosaurus drowned, and the idea that sedimentary debris would be swept along by a current of water is exactly the kind of extrapolation from present to past that AiG is fundamentally opposed to.

The Museum also relies heavily on the word “suggests”. For example, we are told that the fact that the Coconino Sandstone is several hundred feet thick “suggests rapid, thick deposition.” Why should it, when we are later told that thin layers also “suggest” rapid processes? [Actual examination of the sandstone suggest no such thing, since it shows every sign of gradual wind-driven deposition with very occasional rainfall, including round pitted grains, cross-bedding, ripple marks, drying cracks, and animal footprints, completely inconsistent with a flood origin.] Here, and in case after case, as the authors show, we are presented with suppression of crucial data, and the imposition of far-fetched models (the Museum’s own word), that bring the observations into line with biblical literalism. And so the Museum lives up to its promise of seeing the data through the prism of Young Earth biblical literalism. But this means that the data are not allowed to tell us anything except the predetermined narrative, and the entire programme of enlisting scientific observation in support of creationism is a cheat.

At this point, the book reminds us of what the Bible actually says on scientific topics. It is very much what you would expect, given its time and place. The Earth is a flat disc, with a lower world beneath it. The sun, moon, and stars are set in a dome or firmament, which the sun traverses daily from East to West before returning beneath the Earth at night. The upper waters are beyond the firmament, and heaven itself beyond that.

Unsurprisingly, you will not find this out at the Museum. On the contrary, the Museum repeatedly shows the Earth as a rotating sphere, part of the solar system, embedded within the Milky Way galaxy. Our modern cosmology is presented throughout all the exhibits described as evidence for the biblical account, even though biblical and modern cosmologies are completely incompatible.

Next, the book discusses how the Museum uses the Bible. It is of course presented as absolute truth, so that any falling away from this is compromise and corruption. In particular, Genesis 1 through 11 (from creation to the Tower of Babel) is straightforward narrative history. For AiG, there must have been a literal Adam and Eve and a literal Fall, otherwise the atonement through Christ’s death on the Cross makes no sense. The authors illustrate this in a footnote through copious quotations, but I think the point also deserves heavier emphasis in the main text. Theologically, AiG agrees on this point with the Rev John MacArthur, whom AiG quote copiously with approval, and who says that “in an important sense, everything Scripture says about our salvation through Jesus Christ hinges on the literal truth of what Genesis 1-3 teaches about Adam’s creation and fall. There is no more pivotal passage of Scripture.”

The most remarkable fact is that there is not a single Bible accessible, not even Genesis 1 – 11 is quoted in full, passages are presented with undeclared omissions, and single verses are presented in a manner totally unrelated to their actual context. Videos and diverse illustrations ranging from the solar system to the double helix to birds and fishes to aeroplanes are said, according to the Museum’s official guidebook, to “scientifically confirm” creationism. We have “15 Amazing Science Videos on the six Days of Creation”, coupled with quotations based on New Testament verses, to prove that “men are Without Excuse” if they fail to recognise this. There is endless attention-grabbing and distraction, more like scanning the Internet than serious discussion, with every obstacle placed in the way of thoughtful engagement.

AiG claims that its own viewpoint is beyond question, because it is directly based on the plan text, without added interpretation. Yet exposition always implies interpretation, all the more strongly when dealing with a text written in an ancient language thousands of years ago. The Museum, preparing to denounce the heresy of Old Earth creationists, discusses and rejects the possibility that the Hebrew word yom could mean anything other than a 24 hour day. But it passes over in silence the controversy surrounding word bara, second word of the text, and conventionally translated as “created”. Does this mean, as has been suggested, creation out of nothing, or the imparting of orderliness to a pre-existing chaos, or fashioning to some specific form or purpose? The Museum bypasses all such discussion, quoting the assertion in the Westminster Confession of Faith that it means creation out of nothing, implying that this interpretation is in the Bible. But it is not. [The controversy even extends to the very first word, Bereishith, as a comparison of translations will show.]

In the Museum’s Biblical Reference room, we don’t have any bibles, but we do have a list of those who wrongly chose human reason as opposed to God’s Word. Descartes is in there, along with Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Darwin, condemned as we would expect for their appeal to human reason, but so is C. I. Scofield of the Scofield Reference Bible, much favoured by creationists a century ago. This is,we are told, represents “Scripture Abandoned”, leading directly to the horrors displayed in the Museum’s Graffiti Alley; terrorism, school shootings, gay marriage, drug abuse, and the Church compromising with evolution.

So what was Scofield’s offence? He advocated an Old Earth interpretation of Genesis, with an unstated time gap implicit in the early verses. Literalism indeed, but not as the Museum understands it, and for this he is justly condemned.

But does the Museum live up to its own standards? I fear not. It shows a rotating earth, and this, as Cardinal Bellarmine reminded Galileo, flatly contradicts Joshua 10:12-13, which says that “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven”. The Museum has already been criticised for this by the Association for Biblical Astronomy, and, as the book shows at some length, AiG’s self-defence is clearly a departure from its own standards of literalism. Playfully, the authors imagine a future in which AiG’s own approach is denounced as compromise, and treated as scornfully as the Scofield Bible is here, by some future even more rigorous creationist organisation. [I would add that these days, AiG also feels the need to defend itself against a well-argued Bible-based flat-earthism.]

The Starting Points room at the beginning of the Bible Walkway Experience poses a question that is central to the Museum’s claims, and AiG’s entire programme; God’s Word, or human reason. And anything that disagrees with God’s Word, as interpreted by AiG, is at best misguided, at worst damnable. This is a doctrine with massive political implications. People must be saved from the corrupt doctrines of secular education, and we even have a film in which two angels take on the job of rescuing one particular individual. In the process, they triumph over a nerdy but strangely ill-informed science teacher at Enlightenment High School by producing arguments (actually, extremely bad and long debunked arguments) for rejecting deep time geology. Thus faith and common sense are enough to expose the godless elitism of the scientific establishment.

For Ham and his colleagues, the regular scientific narrative is “the religion of atheism” designed to “explain the universe and life without God,” so that in public schools “sadly those of the teachers… are the high priests of this religion imposing an anti-God worldview on generations of students.” Evolution teaches that “young people are just animals in a struggle for survival” and this is what accounts for school shootings.

The Museum’s Graffiti Alley laments the removal of prayer from US schools, the legality of abortion, assisted suicide laws, and the decision to turn off life support for a brain-dead patient. This, together with origin of life research and study of prehuman fossils is linked to “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” For AiG, the US was founded on Christian principles, by founding fathers who believed in the truth of the Bible, and to invoke the separation of Church and State is to attack Christianity. Graffiti Alley also has numerous newspaper headlines regarding gay teens and gay marriage, although when challenged the Museum disingenuously pointed out that none of its own signage was anti-gay. Vast inequalities of wealth, the plight of the poor, and corporate malfeasance are absent from Graffiti Alley, and the only specific teaching of Jesus that seems to concern AiG is his use of Genesis in his teaching regarding marriage.

In the Bible Walk-through Experience, the Tower of Babel exhibit tells us that the Bible teaches that we are all one race, one blood. This is contrasted with evolutionary thinking, described as a recent excuse to reject God’s Word. The only image of a slave in the Museum is juxtaposed with a quotation from Stephen Jay Gould, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increase by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”4 It is as if 1859 had been the start of slavery in the US, as opposed to being within six years of its abolition, and as if the Bible had not been used even into the late 20th century to justify racism, antisemitism, and segregation. [I would mention here Henry Morris’ own explicit racism, in The Beginning of the World, reprinted 2005 and now also available on Kindle, according to which (1977) the descendants of Ham (said to include Africans and Chinese, among others) are racially (or in the 1991 printing genetically) restricted to material matters, in contrast to the spiritual and intellectual destinies of the other two brothers. Henry Morris, as many readers will know, was co-author of The Genesis Food, foundational document of modern Young Earth creationism, and founder of the Institute for Creation research, with which in 1991 Ken Ham was himself associated.]

When challenged as to why the Bible does not explicitly forbid to slavery, but on the contrary incorporates it as an institution, AiG replies that “neither slavery in New Testament times nor slavery under the Mosaic covenant had anything to do with the sort of slavery where ‘Black’ people were bought and sold as property by ‘White’ people in the well-known slave trade over the last few centuries,” refers to “the extreme kindness to be shown to slaves/servants commanded in the Bible” (where?), points out that Hebrew slaves were held in bondage for only six years, and assert that “Biblical Christians led the fight against slavery”.

This is an extremely selective reading of history. Those who fought to retain slavery in the Americas were also, like most of their contemporaries, biblical Christians, and biblical Christians were prominent in the defence of segregation in post-World War II America (see e.g. Mississippi Praying, cited by the Trollingers). So these excuses are not perhaps very convincing. But even if they were, that would not help AiG’s cause, since a sincere literalist has no business making any excuses at all.

Ken Ham maintains that a large section of the Museum is devoted to combating racism, but the reality is that his “one race” strategy is dedicated to ignoring the racism still present in American society and forgetting the reality of the civil rights struggle. Ham’s Darwin’s Plantation is described on Amazon as a “thorough history of the effect of the theory of evolution on the history of the United States, including slavery and the civil rights movement”, but that book devotes less than two pages the civil rights movement, does not even mention Martin Luther King Jr., and devotes 18 pages to attacking the use of human rights language to advance the “homosexual agenda”. [I would add that eight weeks after the murder of George Floyd, Ken Ham showed on his blog images linking Black Lives Matter to Angela Davis and Karl Marx.]

The final chapter before the Epilogue is entitled “Judgment”, and focuses on the Museum’s teachings regarding judgement, atonement, and redemption. Here the Museum’s film, The Last Adam, describes Jesus as expiatory sacrifice. Lots of blood. And to emphasise the seriousness of sin, and of the shedding of blood to atone for it, the young Mary is made by her parents to witness the gory annual sacrifice and slaughter by a priest, in her village, of one of her father’s lambs. Sin has terrible consequences, and atonement comes at a terrible price.

As the authors point out, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest any such event. [Indeed, they are far too kind here. The events described could not possibly have happened. The annual atonement sacrifice, as anyone familiar with the Day of Atonement ritual knows, was a goat (or rather one of two goats, the other one, the scapegoat, being cast out into the wilderness), and all such sacrifices had been centralised at the Temple in Jerusalem for several hundred years before the time of Jesus, and, according to biblical literalists, since the time of Solomon.] Whatever is going on here, it is decidedly unbiblical. However, all too biblical is a verse from Revelation, shown on-screen directly after the depiction of the crucifixion, “And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” The flames are heard crackling.

The Dragon Hall Bookstore derives its name from rhetorical suggestions that legendary dragons, and of course the unidentified beasts in the Book of Job, could have been dinosaurs. The bookstore’s offerings include the MacArthur Study Bible (I have discussed John MacArthur above, and elsewhere), copious offerings from AiG and from Henry Morris, and books and DVDs supporting traditional sex roles and the belief that America is based on Christian principles, and attacks on climate change science and on public schools as an institution. Materials designed for schools, homeschooling, and church study groups include textbooks showing God’s special grace to the United States, and how science supports the biblical record. This is only part of what is available through AiG’s online store, including online college courses for credit. All of this, AiG tells us (and we would be foolish not to believe them), is in support of a “spiritual war… In our homes, churches … schools (whether public or private it), workplaces, courts”, for which AiG the is providing “advanced ‘weaponry’ ” and “Christian ‘patriot missiles’ .“ Ominous enough when this book was written, how much more so now.

This spiritual war is being pursued far beyond the Museum. AiG had, while the book was being written, twenty-five available speakers in the US, and seven in the UK, and gave 48 presentations in a four-month period, including the UK Creation Mega Conference in the English Midlands. 39 of the presentations were in churches, mainly Baptist or nondenominational. The authors attended one such presentation in a rural Ohio church, given by Bob Gillespie (now with his own Creation’s Hope Ministries), a graduate of Cedarville University, a private Baptist university with 4,700 students. Gillespie asked the audience how many had been to the Creation Museum. About 2/3 raised their hands. He emphasised the importance of the Museum’s Starting Points room, explaining that the reason some people are atheist is because they do not want to obey God’s rules. He then launched into a rapid, detailed exposition of creation science, reminiscent of the Museum itself in its level of overload.  Dinosaurs could indeed have been fitted on the Ark, since there were only 50 or so different kinds, so this makes sense once “we put our biblical glasses on.” Besides, there is biblical and folklore evidence for dinosaurs. When science disagrees with the Bible, the evidence later proves that the science was wrong. Examples include the pig’s tooth offered in evidence at the Scopes Trial [actually it wasn’t, because of its dubious scientific status] and junk DNA which isn’t junk at all [actually it is; for an amusing proof of this, see here]. Current cosmology is “just belief”, macroevolution is impossible because it would require the addition of “new information”, evolution is refuted in a three-minute video that he showed, observational science will someday provide the answer to the “distant starlight” problem, and according to a slide that he showed, hundreds of physical processes (actually the slide, on screen for under half a minute, listed just 56) set limits to the age of the world. As to how these processes, such as “tight bends in rocks”, “Stone Age burials”, and the inevitable “radiohalos” entailed a young Earth, there was no chance to ask. While Gillespie made little effort to establish rapport with the audience, the audience were very eager to establish their rapport with him, as allies against the evolutionist enemy.

Ham has devoted one book, Already Compromised, to lamenting the fact that even colleges identifying as Christian do not share his view of what Christianity entails, and another, Six Days: The Age of the Earth and the Decline of the Church, to his claim that such compromise, especially within the church, unlocks the door to disbelief. AiG seeks to correct this at the Museum, in its outreach activities, in its educational programs available to home schoolers and Christian schools. It even provides a list of questions to probe the credentials of what claims to be a Christian college [for my own take on colleges that meet Ham’s criteria, see here], and has a close relationship with Cedarville University (already mentioned as Bob Gillespie’s alma mater), the first to offer a geology program that “teaches young-earth and world-wide flood cataclysm.”

The Trollingers cite Cedarville as an example of what happens when a College aspires to meeting AiG’s standards. In the period between 2012 and 2015, during all of which AiG was in close contact with Cedarville, it carried out a purge of faculty, removing a theology professor who believes in a literal Adam and Eve but for the wrong reasons, getting rid of the philosophy department altogether, triggering the exodus of 43 faculty and staff and 15 trustees, and leading to the resignation of one Bible Professor when the school ruled that women should not teach theology classes that included men, because of what St Paul said about men’s and women’s roles.

They also cite the example of Bryan College. In 2010, Ham attacked Bryan College by name for compromise, because it was teaching textbook evolution science in conjunction with separate discussions of other views, saying that it was about time that such colleges were held accountable for undermining Scripture. He did not need to wait long for such accountability. In 2014, the trustees issued a “clarification” of their College’s Statement of Belief, replacing “that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the book of Genesis” with “We believe all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.” This led to the departure of at least nine instructors, four board members, and additional staff cuts.

[I see that Ham received an honorary degree from Bryan in 2017; the AiG website tells us of this, under the modest headline Recognizing the World’s Foremost Authority for Creation.

Meantime, AiG campaigns on behalf of laws designed to protect the right to teach creationism and climate science denial, in the name of academic freedom. It is a big mistake to imagine that creationists are going to play fair. They don’t.]

The book tells us of AiG’s other campaigns, such as that against Calvin College, and the organisation BioLogos. BioLogos, which is funded by the Templeton Foundation, is an organisation founded by Francis Collins, bringing together mainly evangelical Christians who seek to understand what they call “evolution creationism” in a Christian context. [I would add that one of the clearest expositions of evolution science that I have seen is that given by Dennis Venema on the Biologos website.] Ham has rejected an offer to meet with BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma, describes BioLogos as “helping the devil in leading this and coming generations away from the truth of God’s Word,” and warns that, along with churches that accept same-sex marriage, it will have to face God’s judgement for doing so.

In conclusion the authors lament that the Museum, and AiG’s entire programme, are based on a stultifying doctrine of God’s fierce judgement based on salvation through belief, with the whole of religion reduced to a simple binary based purely on acceptance or rejection of one particular interpretation of the Bible. The Jesus of Matthew 25, who identified himself with the stranger, the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, is nowhere to be found, nor is any of Christianity’s rich intellectual and social justice tradition, from Augustine to Bonhoeffer.

“Sad indeed. For all of us,” they conclude. I can only agree.

I thank Glenn Branch, Gary Hurd, Nick Matzke, Andrew Petto, and the Reverend Michael Roberts for suggestions and comments.

1] Including juicy details not present in the more compressed account in Ronald Numbers’ classic, The Creationists.

2] Here “modern” and “contemporary” should be seen as technical terms used by historians, so that “modern” here means roughly the style dominant from the 19th into the first half of the 20th centuries, as opposed to the more recent “contemporary”. I would have preferred a different choice of words, since in this context “modern” means “old-fashioned” rather than “up-to-date”.

3] This is a common style of creationist argument. For example, creationists argue that since comets are relatively short lived (this is true), the existence of comments proves that the solar system is young, as if we did not know that new comets are being generated all the time. Science is complicated, and our knowledge does indeed have gaps, but “God of the gaps” arguments have been ridiculed by theologians themselves for over a century. And in the nature of things we could not have directly observed processes, such as the formation of a new biological genus, that take more time than the length of time we have been observing.

4] Gould is of course correct. As long as educated opinion accepted biblical creationism, racism was justified on biblical grounds. When this view was replaced by evolution, then naturally racists began to use biological arguments to justify their position.

Museum images under Creative Commons, via Wikipedia

Sensory Worlds Beyond Our Imagining

An Immense World; How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, Ed Yong, Random House/Bodley Head, June 2022

This book is an enormous achievement. A thrilling read, taking us into the Umwelt, or perceptual world, of numerous mammal, fish, reptile and insect species. A major work of scholarship, with over a thousand references to a 45-page bibliography, as well as accounts of interviews with numerous researchers and visits to their laboratories. An exploration of many ways of sensing the world, some of which we share, while others are beyond our imagining. The evolving interplay of perception and action, communication and deception, environment and response. And an enhanced insight into what it is like to be a bat, a bird, a blue whale, a beetle, or a human.

From the wealth of detail in the book, a consistent grand narrative emerges. Some physical process interacts with living matter. This is the raw material for sensation. Sensory abilities then shape a creature’s Umwelt, being developed according to the demands of its environment. But every perceiver is itself an object of perception to others, and we have colour displays and camouflage, smells as signals and identifiers, sound as communication to others and, by echolocation, back to the creature who generates it, and the same is true of other senses that we do not share, such as the detection of tiny electrical fields. Senses combine and even, we suspect, merge, and what we ourselves perceive is but part of an immense pattern. But the heedlessness with which we amplify our own signals disrupts this pattern, contributing to our destruction of nature, and we ourselves are the poorer for it.

Let me offer a few samples from the book’s wealth of detail.

Yong starts with taste and smell, two ancient senses that operate by direct molecular contact. It is not long before he surprises us. Snakes use their forked tongues to smell in stereo. Humans are poor compared with other mammals at detecting smells at low levels, but are rather good at telling different smells apart. No one knows how smell relates to chemical structure (contrast this with how seeing relates to the wavelength of light, hearing to frequency, or touch to pressure). As every well-trained dog-owner knows, smell is central to the Umwelt of dogs, but I would never have guessed that the same is true of elephants. And the molecules involved in smell include opsins, which are central to vision. As Yong puts it, in a way we see by smelling light.

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Ed Yong on a tardigrade, in Micropia, via Wikimedia

It is sometimes said that dogs, and most other mammals, are colour blind. This is only half true; they have just two kinds of colour receptors, while we (like other apes, and our cousins the Old World monkeys) have three.[1] The colours that we perceive arise from subtle interactions between these receptors. Thus some neurons are excited by blue cones but inhibited by red or green, while others are stimulated by red but inhibited by green. So the colours are we experience are the result of a kind of neuronal arithmetic, below the level of conscious awareness. I still feel surprise when someone superposes red and green beams of light on a screen, and I see the result as pure yellow. Our colour vision can be represented by a triangle, with red, blue, and green at the corners, and yellow halfway along one edge.

But hummingbirds, like many birds and reptiles, can see four kinds of colour; red, green, blue, and UV. If human colour vision can be represented by a triangle, that of a hummingbird is a pyramid. And while for us the overlap of red, green, and blue are enough to produce white, four kinds of sensor need to be activated to look white to a hummingbird.

Among humans, different individuals have slightly different sensitivities, and some women show a degree of four-colour vision, having inherited different pigments from the sites on their two separate X chromosomes that are responsible for colour vision. Words cannot convey this added perceptual dimension, but the fact that they really do have four-colour vision can be demonstrated by discrimination tests. (This by the way answers a philosophical riddle that intrigues me. How do I know that you are seeing colours the same way that I am? It turns out that there is a real chance that you aren’t.)

Many flowers that appear white to us are coloured in the UV, and appeal to insect pollinators with green, blue, and UV three colour vision. And UV vision evolved in insects long before there were flowers, so the flowers evolved the pigments to attract the pollinators.[2] Thus the ability to see directly influences the evolution of what is there to be seen.

Temperature detection overlaps other senses. There are sensors that can detect hot or cold temperatures, but can also be stimulated in different ways. The sensor for painful heat can be activated, on the skin as well as in the mouth, by habanero peppers, while menthol feels pleasantly cool in the mouth or the smoker’s throat. Menthol also happens to be addictive.

The ability to detect heat at a distance is useful to species that suck blood, from bedbugs and mosquitoes to vampire bats. Ticks can detect body heat from up to 13 feet away, and common insect repellents work with them, not by interfering with smell, but by blocking the heat sensors. These sensors are in spherical pits on their legs, and the pits are covered by a film with a hole in it. So the sensors give directional information as well as detecting the heat source. Rattlesnakes and other pit vipers also have pits with a narrow opening, falling on a sensing membrane that carries around 7000 nerve endings. They can detect the presence and approximate direction of an increase in temperature of 0.001oC, which means that a viper can locate a rodent 1 m away. Information from the temperature sensing pits is combined with information from the eyes, so maybe for them the sense acts as an adjunct to vision, rather than on its own.

Touch organs can be modified for special purposes. The emerald jewel wasp paralyses cockroaches by stinging their brains, and has a touch sensor at the end of her sting to locate the exact location. A wide range of mammals, including the opossum, a marsupial, as well as rats and mice, use touch sensors at the base of whiskers to explore their surroundings several times a second. Since each whisker has its own connection to the somatosensory cortex, this builds up a map of the surroundings. So whisking, as it is called, is perhaps more like seeing than like touch. It would seem to be a very ancient trait indeed, since the last common ancestor of placentals and marsupials was back in the age of dinosaurs. The whiskers of seals are so shaped and angled as to minimise the forces on them as they move through the water, which would otherwise overpower the pressure waves caused by passing fish.

Sound detection is fast, precise, 24 hour, and useful for detecting predators or prey. Sound is also used in communication, as in the finding and assessment of mates. But mating calls come at the cost of giving away one’s location. There is a species of parasitic fly that has developed ears remarkably similar to those of the crickets it preys on, to eavesdrop on their mating calls. On Hawaii, which was once seriously infested by such flies, the crickets have fallen silent. Once again, the overlapping Umwelten of prey and predator drives evolution.

Surprisingly, the first insects were almost certainly deaf, since hearing has evolved separately among them at least 19 different times, on many different parts of the body, having in general been developed from organs that respond to vibration and pressure.

We can only detect parts of how animals use sound to communicate. Birdsong contains more structure than the human ear can resolve, unless it’s played back slowly. In fact, the structure within each note may be more important to the birds than the order that the notes are played in. Whales and elephants both use what we call infrasound, vibrations too low in pitch for our ears to hear, as a way of keeping in touch over long distances. Mice, however, communicate using ultrasound, frequencies too high for us to detect. The terms infra and ultra are arbitrary, relating to our own capacities, but since we are deaf to such sounds they were not even detected, let alone studied, until a few decades ago, and may be much more important in nature than we realise.

Echolocation in particular may be much more extensive than our knowledge of it, when it uses frequencies that our own ears cannot detect. Even bat echolocation, although suspected much earlier, was not clearly demonstrated until 1938. It enables bats to navigate and catch insects in complete darkness. This is an impressive feat; the bats need to generate short pulses of high-frequency sound, and then detect the direction and timing of the faint echo from a small moving target. Some bats can even tune their ears to respond to a frequency slightly different from the one they are emitting, and detect the movement of their prey using the Doppler effect. [3]

But moths are not merely passive prey. They have ears that can detect bat cries, and dodge and loop to evade capture. Tiger moths produce clicks of their own, which confuse the bats. Some moths even have long flexible tails at the end of their wings, which may also add to the confusion.

Infrasound echolocation by dolphins was detected in the 1950s, and since the 1960s the U.S. Navy has been training them to find sunken equipment and mines, and aiming to reverse engineer their abilities. Humans avoid walking into obstacles using echolocation, and some blind people have developed this to a high skill, building up a model of the world in their visual cortex, in much the same way that most of us do so using sight.

Darwin was puzzled by so-called electric eels, which use electric shocks to stun their prey. After all, evolution regards present organs as the result of a series of incremental improvements, but what use would the electric organ have been in its feeble first stages of development? It took a century to find the answer. Many fish possess a lateral line, sensitive to pressure, and in some cases this has been modified to detect electricity. This confers an obvious advantage, since any living thing moving through water generates tiny electric currents. And electrodetection gains in sensitivity and acuity when combined with the ability to generate one’s own more powerful electric field. So we have passive electroreception and active electroreception, just as we have hearing and the use of echoes. The cells that detect the electrical fluctuations are hair cells, basically similar to the same cells that detect pressure waves on the lateral line, or pressure oscillations in our own ears. Active electroreception operates in every direction, will work as well in cloudy as in clear water, and is so sensitive that some fish can be trained to detect the difference between a clay pot full of river water, and one also containing an insulating glass rod.

Passive electroreception is extremely widespread among vertebrates, being used by sharks, catfish, and salamanders, while the platypus has over 50,000 electroreceptors in its bill. Bumblebees can detect the electric fields that surround flowers, and it may well be that electroreception is much more common than we as yet realise among insects, equipped as many are with touch- and current-sensitive hairs.

Yong concludes his list of the senses with the ability to detect magnetic fields. This is a difficult area, if only because magnetic effects are extremely weak, and show subtle variations on a global scale in direction, intensity, and angle of dip relative to the surface. To complicate things further, no one even knows what the magnetoreceptor would look like or how it operates. Some bacteria grow small crystals of magnetite, and can distinguish North from South, but no one has managed to find similar structures in the birds and animals that are known to use magnetic fields as an aid to migration. One current theory invokes what are called radical pairs, molecules raised to high-energy states by the influence of light, but such states are short-lived, and I as a chemist would require a lot of convincing.

Senses interact. Mosquitoes are attracted by body warmth, but only if they can smell carbon dioxide. Electric fish that have learnt to distinguish shapes using their electric sense are then able to do so by sight, and vice versa. I have already mentioned how the mental maps constructed by blind people, who have learnt to navigate using echolocation, reside in the visual cortex. And finally, we need to remember that sensation requires discriminating between the signals that come to an organism from outside, and those that it generates by itself.

So all complex animals, including ourselves, perceive only a small part of the immense world of possible sensations, and construct their own Umwelt from the part accessible to their own senses. But we show brutal insensitivity in how we influence this world. We brighten the night sky and blur the distinction between the seasons, confuse forest insects with the sound from our machines, scatter huge amounts of material that must distract the sense of smell, and make the very oceans reverberate, so that whales navigating by infrasound end up stranding themselves in response to naval sonar.

And when did you last see the Milky Way?

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Ed Yong’s earlier book, I contain multitudes: the microbes within us and a grander view of life, was a New York Times bestseller, and in June 2021 he received a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his writing on the COVID-19 pandemic

***

1] Red colour perception evolved by accidental duplication of the gene that codes for the green-sensitive receptor, followed by Darwinian selection for a new use – the ability to detect ripe fruit, or tender young leaves, against a green background. A nice example of how evolutionary change generates new information.

2] Yong does not tell us how we know this, and to do so would have required a chapter in itself. But, in brief, the methods involve cross-species comparisons, and, these days, the use of molecular biology to reconstruct family trees for the relevant genes. The simplest assumption is then that a trait prevalent in one particular clade was present in its last common ancestor.

3] This is the familiar increase in the perceived frequency of a sound wave when the distance between source and observer is decreasing. Here the decrease is in the length of the round trip, from bat to target and back again, but with further fine tuning from the motion of the prey, and even the flapping of a moth’s wing has a detectable effect.

This post first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

Evolution, creationism, and US VP Mike Pence

trump walter reed

Mike Pence is a highly intelligent and extremely able trial lawyer, and a committed creationist. As I write, he is one heartbeat (or should we now say one breath?) away from being President of the United States, and in the event that Donald Trump manages to retain power in November, will be his heir apparent. Here is what I wrote about his stated views on creationism and evolution not long after he was sworn in as Vice-President. I hope that four weeks from today all of this will be of historical interest only, and am reposting this in order to help make that happen.

Above: Donald Trump risen from his hospital bed to reveal himself to his followers (Getty Images via Business Insider)

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed, much more closely argued, and much more dangerous. Read the rest of this entry

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

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

The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?

Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.

Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?

Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.

BillySundayPreaching Billy Sunday preaching

In the run-up to the case, we even have the…

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The Case Against Evolution – turning Chick on its head!!

From Old Earth Ministries by way of my friend Michael Roberts. Covers the scientific bases clearly and comprehensively, before exposing the contorted theology of Young Earth Creationism, and the arrogant presumption of its claim that evolution is incompatible with Christianity.

Disclosure: I see difficulties with religious beliefs, but these are not increased (perhaps the contrary) by our knowledge of evolution, and since they are not my difficulties it is not my place to comment on them, other than to point out that the YECist claim to “own” Christianity (or any other religion) is plainly false

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Another good strip cartoon arguing for evolution in the style of Jack Chick  – without the spite

Source: The Case Against Evolution

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Why historical science is the best kind of science

This is for a planned wide-audience writing project on evolution, in which I pre-empt (rather than respond to) creationists’ counter-arguments, such as their downplaying of historical science. I would greatly value comments on this approach.

There are sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where we can perform experiments. There are other sciences, such as the science of planetary motion (and astronomy in general) where we cannot do this, but we can still carry out repeated observations in well-controlled circumstances, and devise theories with whose help we can make definite predictions. All of these are what I will call rule-seeking sciences. At the other extreme, we have sciences such as palaeontology and much of geology, which one might call historical sciences.1 With these, the aim is not so much to establish general rules, as to unravel and explain the specifics of what happened in the past. It is usual to regard the rule-seeking sciences as the most rigorous, to which the others should defer. This shows a deep misunderstanding of how science works, and, time and time again, when historical and rule-seeking sciences have come into conflict, it is historical science that has triumphed.

Rocks exposed at Grand Canyon, from Proterozoic to Permian. Click to enlarge

A few examples. The rocks clearly show (for detailed arguments, see e.g. here) that the Earth, and by implication the Sun, Read the rest of this entry

When dinosaurs roamed the Western Isles

Quite a challenge, I expect, to the local Free Presbyterians.

My friend Kim Johnson commented on the strange appearance of the footprints, Steve Drury (author of the blog of which this is just an annotated repost) referred me to Paige Depolo, senior author of the paper on which Steve’s post is based, and Paige replied as follows:

When it comes to the depositional environment, the tracks were formed in a low-energy lagoon and are generally preserved today as impressions into shaley limestone. Later, additional limestone layers were laid down at the site and in-filled the impressions. Those layers form the casts that we can still observe for some of the tracks today. In some cases at this site, the cast remains while the surrounding impression which it was originally infilling has been almost completely eroded. These rocks were deposited during the Middle Jurassic. Later, likely during the Paleogene, a sill was intruded immediately below the track bearing layer and the surrounding rocks were baked. The low-level contact metamorphism of the track-bearing layers definitely makes for some interesting looking exposures!

h/t Kim and Steve, and many thanks to Paige

Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK (credit: Wikipedia)

The Isle of Skye off the northwest coast of Scotland  is known largely as a prime tourist destination, such as Dunvegan Castle with a real clan chief (The MacLeod of MacLeod) and its Faerie Flag; Britain’s only truly challenging mountains of the Black Cuillin; and, of course, the romantic connection with the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart and his escape, in drag, from the clutches of the Duke ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, hence the Skye Boat Song. Geologists know it best for its flood basalts with classic stepped topography and the exhumed guts of a massive central volcano (the Cuillin), relics of the Palaeocene-Eocene (62 to 54 Ma) North Atlantic Large Igneous Province. The spectacular Loch Coruisk, a glacial corrie drowned by the sea, exposes the deepest part of the main magma chamber. It is also the lair of Scotland’s lesser…

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Why science needs philosophy (cont.), and why it matters, with examples from geology

No one, so far as I know, has any religious objection to the Periodic Table and the unifying concepts of chemistry. But some people do have religious objections to the geological record, and to the unifying concepts of geology, because these  don’t agree with what the most learned men of their time and place wrote down some two and a half thousand years ago.1 And as I argued in my last post, such people will seize on real or imagined anomalies as evidence that the entire intellectual structure is unsound. By contrast, the scientist’s response to such anomalies is to regard them as a potential source of new knowledge, far more likely to extend the framework in a mature discipline than to destroy it.

Example 1: Superposition and overthrusts

Superposition

Geologcal columnIt is more than 350 years since Steno (who eventually became a bishop) proposed that strata consisted of layers of rock laid down one on top of another, newest on top. We have known for over two hundred years that both the London and Paris basins are filled with relatively recent sediment, on top of marine deposits (chalk or limestone) that emerge in hills to the North and South, that these in turn rest on an older basement, and that the more recent sediments were laid down in layers. The familiar geological sequence, Precambrian upwards (click to enlarge), was established in something like its present form before 1860, by merging the overlapping but incomplete local rock columns, although it was not until the 20th Century that it was recognised that the Precambrian occupied far more of the Earth’s history than everything since that time.

One major disruption of the usual order occurs in the northwest of Scotland, where older rocks lie above younger along a 200 km front. The resulting confusion (the “Highlands Controversy“, fuller account here) was not resolved until the 1880s, with the recognition of what is now known as the Moine Thrust. Read the rest of this entry

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