The Poverty of a Young Earth Viewpoint10 July, 2009
When I was 12 years old, my father took me out of school for two days and we hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. As we passed the Temple Butte Limestone and the Tonto formation (Muav Limestone, Bright Angel Shale and Tapeats Sandstone) we began taking samples of each layer, placing them in my almost empty backpack, and carrying them down to Phantom Ranch. We sampled the Temple Butte (a nice exposure along the Kaibab Trail), the Tonto, the accessible Grand Canyon Group, the Vishnu Schist and the Zoroaster Granite. We also sampled the dikes and sills within the metamorphosed pre-Cambrian formations. By the time we got to the bottom, my pack weighed around 60 pounds. Those rocks came out of the canyon by mule. We repeated the process on the way up, sampling the Redwall Limestone, the Supai Group, the Hermit Shale, Coconino Sandstone, Toroweap Limestone and Kaibab Limestone.
Ordinarily, this would be illegal as all get-out, but my dad was a Park Ranger and we were collecting the rocks for the museum at Yavapai Point. Years later, when I visited the canyon again, I was rather put-out. The large rocks we had hauled up and down the canyon trails had been cut down to samples twice the size of my fist. I carried rocks three times the size, and they cut them down to little bitty pieces. We could have chopped them down to size before lugging them around.
According to more than half of Americans, the Grand Canyon is a monument to Noah’s Flood. The shales, limestones, sandstones, lava flows, block faulting of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, the metamorphic Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite (metamorphosed from sandstone, limestone, shale and lava flows) were deposited during and directly after the Noatic flood. A few days of water draining off of the land (to where?) depositing different types of sediment (sediment from where?) leaving the Grand Canyon. Some Christian Young Earth Creationists see the miracle of God in everything and dismiss naturalistic explanations as being limited, depressing, and heretical.
When I first encountered this view of geology, my thought was, “How limited. How depressing. How boring.” Two billion years of history reduced to a couple of weeks of flood drainage. A kindergartner’s version of earth history. Talk Origins very effectively argues against this rather primitive myth.
The reality is not only based upon fact, but a much better non-mythical tale.
Between 1.7 billion and 2 billion years ago, ancient (well, hell, at that age, they better be ancient) sediments, the remains of seas, deserts, deltas and volcanic eruptions, were folded into a mountain range that may have been higher than the Rocky Mountains. The pressure and heat at the root of the mountains metamorphosed the sediments creating the Vishnu and Zoroaster formations. Over millions of years, the mountains were eroded by wind, rain, ice and snow, down to their roots. Thanks to the changes wrought by metamorphosis, along with the lavas, radiometric dating gives a very accurate age.
This plain creates the Pre-Cambrian uncomformity — a time when no sediment was being deposited. This gap in time represents about 450 million years.
Starting around 1,250 million years ago, a shallow sea flooded the plain laying down the Bass Limestone — the beginnings of the Unkar Group. Over the next 150 million years, the Hakatai Shale, Shinumo Quartzite, Dox Sandstone and Cardenas lavas were successively laid down. Stromatolites and primitive algae fossils are found in the Bass and Dox formations. Again, the lava flows make accurate dating easy.
Another uncomformity, this one of about 50 million years, separates out a sandstone (the Nankoweap formation, found only in the eastern Grand Canyon). After another uncomformity of 50 million years, the Chuar Group was deposited. The Galeros formation (interbedded shale, limestone and sandstone), the shale and mudstone of the Kwagunt, and the sandstone and shale of the Sixtymile formation were laid down between 825 and 1,000 million years ago. One more uncomformity (called the Great Uncomformity), represents a gap of 280 million years (to put things in perspective, that amount of time covers the entire time from before the dinosaurs to today).
Each of these groups, and the unconfomities separating them, represent a quarter-of-a-billion years. They represent seas, oceans, eruptions, deserts, deltas, valleys, plains and mud bogs are from a time when there were no vertebrates, no complex plants, no predators, no prey, no land animals, no land plants, no breathable air. A time when none of the animals supposedly on Noah’s Ark existed.
Following the Great Unconformity is the Tonto Formation (Tonto is Spanish for silly or stupid — and having hiked across the plains of the Tonto Formation many times, I would have to agree). The Tapeats Sandstone was laid down by an ocean and includes fossil trilobites (during the 5 years I lived at Grand Canyon, I never saw a fossil trilobite (always pissed me off)) and brachiopods. One hell of a jump in complexity of life. This 545 million year old wave sorted sandstone is the tan cliff at the top of the inner gorge of the canyon. About 530 million years ago, the Bright Angel Shale was laid down (interspersed with some sandy limestone and sandstone lensing) followed 15 million years later by the Muav Limestone.
Yet another uncomformity of 165 million years separates the Tonto from the Temple Butte formation. This limestone and dolomite fills in creek and river valleys carved into the top of the Bright Angel Shale. This eroded layer is further proof of the incredible time factor involved — the Bright Angel had to solidify before the creeks and rivers created the uneven upper contact.
One of the two most dramatic formations is a brown limestone cliff standing some 400 to 500 feet high. Minerals washed down from above give it a dramatic bright red colour as well as its name: Redwall Limestone. Dating to 335 million years ago, this massive formation of dolomite and limestone includes brachiopods, clams, snails, corals, fish and trilobites.
Above the Redwall is the Supai Formation. This 285 million year old formation consists of shale and mudstones with a little limestone and sandstone mixed in. Iron oxides wash out of the Supai and down the face of the Redwall. This formation, probably a massive river delta (think Louisiana) includes fossils of amphibians, reptiles and terrestrial plants.
The 265 million year old Hermit Shale tops the Supai Formation. This is one of the softer rocks in the canyon. As it erodes, it undercuts the Coconino Sandstone, occasionally sending massive blocks tumbling down the canyon walls, sometimes as far as the Tonto Formation. Fossils include ferns, conifers and other plants, as well as some fossilized tracks of reptiles and amphibians.
The other incredibly dramatic layer in the Grand Canyon is the Coconino Sandstone. This pale yellowish-white sandstone represents a desert environment (no, AIG, it is not an aquatic formation!) and dates to about 260 million years ago. There are no skeletal fossils, but trackways and raindrop fossils are found.
The Toroweap Formation consists of sandy limestone, slightly darker than the Kaibab above, is a 255 million year old. Along with the 5 million year younger Kaibab Limestone, it represents a Triassic sea. Fossils include brachiopods, corals, sea lilies, mollusks, worms and fish teeth. This is the whitish bathtub ring around the top of the Grand Canyon. Younger layers (which can be seen at Arches, Zion, Capital Reef and Cedar Breaks) have been eroded away.
Here’s a shorter version of what I just described:
(Graphic from the University of Michigan)
So why describe the layers of the Grand Canyon so minutely? Mostly, to show the abject poverty of the creationists mythology. Within this one vertical slice of earth’s history, we see the roots of a mighty mountain chain in the Pre-Cambrian metamorphic rocks of the inner gorge. We see evidence of erosion, deposition, erosion, deposition, and block faulting and tilting in the Grand Canyon Supergroup. We see the advance and recession, over massive periods of time, of oceans and seas. We see the swamps of deltas, the eroded surface of an undulating plain, a massive desert of sand dunes and small lacertilians, and another ocean. We see the different types of rock, added, folded, changed, erodes, and deposited in many different environments.
And we see fossils. From the stromatolites and algae of the Grand Canyon Supergroup to the brachiopods and trilobites of the Tonto Group, from the snails, corals, fish and trilobites of the Redwall to the ferns and amphibians of the Supai, from the reptiles of the Coconino to the fish, sea lilies and corals of the Kaibab, we see the development of life. From algae to lizards, from trilobites to fish, from ferns to conifers, we see the fossil column match exactly the geological column. We can date the layers accurately either through various radiometric methods or by comparing an ‘undateable’ fossil from the Grand Canyon with a radiometrically dated fossil from elsewhere in the world.
Were the Grand Canyon the result of the Noatic Flood, would all the different dating methods reliably yield the same ages in the same order? the same gaps? Were the Grand Canyon the result of the Noatic Flood, would the fossil column show the development of life from the algae and stromatolites of the Pre-Cambrian through the advanced fishes of the Triassic? In the same order shown elsewhere in the world?
Young Earth Creationism, Biblical Literalism, and Christian Fundamentalism is a severely limiting philosophy. By assuming that the answer to any question is that God Did It, creationists choose to ignore the reality around them. They ignore the evidence left by billions of years of earth’s history. Their version of earth is without evidence. Their version of earth is without proof. Their version of earth is limited, depressing and boring. Their version of earth is a poverty of the human spirit of inquiry, knowledge and truth.
Sadly, men and women who follow this anti-intellectual pseudo-philosophy and attempting to force their limited view of the possible down the throats of all Americans. In Texas, anti-intellectual godbots are attempting to limit the study of American history, of evolution and biology, and even the age of the universe. And Texas, being such a big buyer of textbooks, influences limits the choices of every state in the union.
If you prefer the one paragraph version near the top of this post, so be it. Just don’t expect the rest of us to bend over and take it. Two billion years of geologic proof trumps a bunch of self-contradictory bronze age myths. And it does it by studying the evidence. Ya’ll should try it. Might be a new experience for you.