Grand Canyon Mystery Tour


Phillip E. Johnson

During the final four months of 2003, privately managed bookstores in Grand Canyon National Park sold about 300 copies of a slim book of scenic photographs with accompanying text, compiled by a veteran canyon tour guide named Tom Vail and titled Grand Canyon: A Different View. These book sales sparked a minor media firestorm after a retired geology professor named Elders came across the book in the park and saw, to his horror, that it argued for the creationist “flood geology” position: that the canyon was carved out very rapidly only a few thousand years ago by the waters of the worldwide flood that Noah’s Ark survived, as recounted in the book of Genesis.

After receiving protests from Elders and other geologists, the presidents of seven major geological organizations signed a letter to the park superintendent that characterized the creationist book as religion disguised as science, and urged that it be removed from the stores or at least be clearly separated from books that present an acceptable scientific understanding of Grand Canyon geology. Seeing an opportunity for compromise, the bookstore managers moved the book to a separate section for inspirational reading, but continued to sell it.

That may not seem like much of a conflict, but prominent stories about the book and the protest appeared in elite newspapers across the nation, as well as in Britain. (British journalists are fascinated by American creationism, and tend to assume it has become government policy under the despised Bush administration.) In short, the indignant geological establishment handed the creationists a publicity bonanza, confirming the adage that there is nothing so likely to backfire as an unsuccessful attempt to ban a book. I am sure I am not the only person who was so intrigued by the publicity that I obtained a copy of the book from Amazon for $17.

I have to say I was favorably impressed, although I know that I invite disapproval by praising a book written by creationists. I continue to take no position on either the age of the earth or the origin of the Grand Canyon, but the exquisite photographs of canyon scenery are exceptionally well presented, and the accompanying articles, including several by persons with doctorates in geology or related sciences from well-regarded universities, are reasonable and informative—at least if you concede the possibility that an argument for biblical creationism can be based on anything more worthy than ignorance and prejudice.

The book is forthrightly based on the assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but I find no fault with any assumption that is candidly stated and honestly defended, however controversial it may be. I only wish that the rulers of science would state their precommitment to naturalism openly and defend it forthrightly, instead of hiding naturalism in the definition of “science” and then presenting as observed or experimentally tested fact conclusions that are actually derived from naturalistic philosophy.

If you are curious about young-earth creationism and would like to judge the professional quality of its leading proponents for yourself, you would make a good start by reading this book rather than relying on the usual media stereotype. Even Professor Elders was reported to have said that “this is the only young-earth creationist text that I have enjoyed reading.” I think it is good for the public to be made aware that there is often more than one way to interpret evidence. If a contrarian book contains error, the dominant scientific party has plenty of resources to defend its position. There should be no thought-crimes in science.

Mysterious Origin

The controversy over the book was enlightening for the public because the very professional Los Angeles Times story explained just how mysterious the origin of the Grand Canyon really is. Apparently, the park’s official interpreters still tell the public that the canyon was carved out gradually as the Colorado River cut slowly through the layers of rock. This account follows the uniformitarianism established as geological orthodoxy by Charles Lyell in the first half of the nineteenth century.

According to this doctrine, “the present is the key to the past,” because geological features can be presumed to be the results of the steady operation of forces, like erosion, that can be observed in operation today. Holding to an a priori rule like uniformitarianism gives scientists a big head start on solving any puzzle, because it drastically narrows the possibilities that would otherwise have to be considered. Contrariwise, if a feature like the Grand Canyon may have been produced by some ancient catastrophe that is unlike anything we can observe today, then a lot of guesswork has to be involved in determining exactly what may have happened, and certainty may be elusive.

Uniformitarianism is currently on the defensive, however, and catastrophist explanations for the Grand Canyon, involving enormous deluges of water acting in a geological instant, are now vigorously and emotionally debated in mainstream geological circles. George Billingsley, a prominent geologist who has studied the Grand Canyon for 36 years, told the Los Angeles Times that a scientific symposium held in 2000 to resolve the question of how the canyon was formed dissolved into acrimony and adjourned without consensus.

It sounds as if the conference could hardly have been more contentious even if creationists had been allowed to participate. For that matter, I suspect that one reason a uniformitarian explanation of the canyon is still defended so vigorously by some is that geologists know that creationists will make good use of any acknowledgment of a catastrophic origin for so famous a landmark as the Grand Canyon.

On the other hand, if geologists base their defense against creationism on a dogmatic uniformitarianism, they may be relying upon an obsolete weapon. The problem was succinctly summarized in remarks by historian Stephen J. Pyne, whose book How the Canyon Became Grand is also on sale in the park’s bookstores. Pyne said that he did not mind if Vail’s book was sold at the park, so long as it was not displayed in the science section. “I think the Park Service would be remiss if it did not explain that there is no agreed-upon story about the canyon; there are conflicting stories. But science assumes it was not formed by a great flood or divine intervention. What this creationist group is looking for is some sort of validation by the Park Service. There’s an agenda here.”

Pyne implies that there is something shady about having an agenda, but that is a distraction. Of course the creationists have an agenda—but so do their adversaries. The creationists want to persuade as many people as possible that, although most scientists may currently assume that the canyon was not created by a great flood, a reasonable interpretation of the scientific evidence nonetheless supports the flood theory. This agenda is advanced if their book is sold in the park bookstores without a stigmatizing label or placement.

The mainstream geologists want to withhold the legitimizing label “science” from a theory they detest, in hope of discouraging the public from taking it seriously. They want such a book to appear only if it carries a label saying (in effect), “This is not Science,” which is to say, “Untrue.”

Both sides to the dispute are trying to advance or protect the truth as they see it, and the outcome should depend upon the evidence, not the labels. My own suggestion would be that, if mainstream geologists can’t tell us anything more definite than that they themselves hold conflicting theories of the canyon’s origin, then perhaps all those stories, including the uniformitarian one, belong on that shelf labeled “inspirational reading.”