Q&A: Geologist David Montgomery on Noah's flood
An interview with the author of "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood," MacArthur Fellow and UW professor David Montgomery.
Seattle Times book editor
David MontgomeryThe author of "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood" will appear at these area locations:
• At 7 p.m. Sept. 29 at Town Hall Seattle. Montgomery will appear with Deborah Koons Garcia, the widow of Jerry Garcia, and discuss her documentary "Symphony of the Soil." Tickets are $10 (free for students with ID), and are available at Brown Paper Tickets (brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006) and at the door at 6:30 p.m.
• Montgomery will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Tickets are $5; free for Burke members (burkemuseum.org or 206-543-5590).
• Montgomery also will be interviewed Oct. 16 on "Well Read," the books and authors program on public-access channel TVW. Details at www.tvw.org/shows/well-read.
David Montgomery goes where most scientists might fear to tread. The University of Washington geologist and MacArthur Fellow has written a new book, "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood" (Norton), which takes on the polarized argument between science and some Christians over the very nature of creation.
What could be more charged than the debate between "young earth" creationists, who believe the world was made by God less than 10,000 years ago, and geologists, who peg the age of the Earth at about 4.54 billion years? But Montgomery has written a thoughtful, readable book that respects both sides.
Montgomery took some time from his busy schedule at the UW to talk about his new book:
Q: Talk about your own religious upbringing.
A: I was brought up Presbyterian, went to Sunday school. I read the Bible cover to cover. ... I went through a phase of reading the major books of the world's religions. I've been curious about the relationship between science and religion for a long time. All religions look at humanity's relationship to the world and to God.
Q: What made you want to take on this topic?
A: There's my longstanding personal interest ... given my upbringing and profession. I also have a fondness for old books. As I read many original sources on geology (from) the 17th and 18th centuries, I was surprised to find that they were all oriented around the theory of Noah's flood. And I was always perplexed about the ideas of "young earth" creationism. Those ideas were refuted by geology a long time ago. The idea of creationism would have surprised some of the earliest theologians. With St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, there was a tradition of respecting what we could learn from nature.
Q: Most people probably think creationism is a pretty old belief system, but in the book you clearly lay out that it's not. Briefly describe how it developed.
A: George McCready Price was the guy who championed flood geology (the theory that Noah's flood was real) in its darkest hours through the early 20th century. He was not a trained geologist, but he argued that geologists had the whole theory wrong. His arguments evolved into (John) Whitcomb and (Henry) Morris' book, 1961's "The Genesis Flood." The thing that surprised me about that book was that the guys who wrote it had a really insightful critique of '50s geology. They looked at the key flaws, the shortcomings, the things geology couldn't address: How do mountains form? How do you get fossils of tropical organisms at the poles? In those days, nobody was buying continental drift. They said, geologists can't explain certain basic aspects of geology; we have a better idea.
Q: I'm guessing that a lot of people have no idea how old the Earth is.
A: In the last few decades, polls have shown that the percentage of Americans who thought the world was created in the last 10,000 years has moved between 40 and 47 percent. People have never been taught the basics about the way the Earth works. In our experience, the Earth is pretty much static. But the glaciers that sculpted Puget Sound have been gone for 15,000 years. In the time of the region, that's last Tuesday.
Q: Talk about Harlan Bretz, who taught briefly at the UW and discovered the evidence for a massive flood in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana 12,000-15,000 years ago. He had a hard time getting his ideas across.
A: We all look through filters, whether it's religious faith or the doctrines we are trained in as scientists. He's one of the best examples there is.
The field evidence kept pointing to the idea that there was a really big flood. But most geologists thought they had won that battle. Then this young upstart geologist came up with this idea that there was a really big flood. He was field-oriented, evidence-oriented. His colleagues were not similarly oriented. He was literally treated as a pariah for most of his career. Finally, other people found observations that backed up his theories.
Q: You conclude that Noah's flood may be a story or legend based on actual long-ago events. Describe some of the likely inspirations for the Noah's flood story — flooding along the Tigris and Euphrates, the filling of the Black Sea with saltwater.
A: Those are the two that make a lot of sense: the right events in the right place at the right time. You can go back to cuneiform literature (a kind of tablet writing found in what was Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq) for accounts of a great flood. It's one of our oldest stories.