Failing Geology

Rocks of ages

Watkins Glen, New York, sports a natural wonder that has occasionally drawn me to the Finger Lakes region to refresh my memory of the view. The eponymous glen has been carved out of the relatively soft shale by a tireless stream that falls to the level of nearby Seneca Lake. The relentless persistence of this water has left a canyon of striated layers over a period of 12,000 years. Even today tourists from around the world flock to the site, captivated by its natural beauty. To assist walking the gorge, 832 steps have been added alongside a mile and a half of the stream, taking the visitor past, and occasionally behind numerous small waterfalls. When we visited yesterday, what struck me—beyond the sheer number of out-of-shape Americans complaining of the number of stairs (this was well before the hundredth riser), a number that continually thinned the further we climbed—was the special compensation that biblical literalists claim to accommodate their view. The typical response is that all geologic wonders are a result of Noah’s flood, despite the different erosional rates and dates of the sites. Watkins Glen is a fairly new piece of earth architecture.

Some years back while driving out to the western United States, my family camped in Makoshika State Park in Montana. This particular park, apart from its wild, arid, and rocky scenery, also boasts many dinosaurs. You can sidle right up to the exposed, fossilized backbone of a hadrosaurus, and triceratops skulls can be found in situ. Preparing to hike one of the trails, we stopped at the ranger station for a map. As usual, interpretive displays explained what we were about to see. As we entered, an older couple spoke with the ranger. One of them said, “How can that be, since the earth is only 6,000 years old?” Special compensation is required to refuse the evidence that lies all around us. The Fundamentalist movement seldom takes into account that this distorted and bizarre worldview is almost uniquely American. Religion drives their scientific outlook, even as they are relying on the factuality of actual science to prolong their lives with medical advances or to allow them to read this blog (although the latter is not likely).

The same flood had to carve out the buttes of Makoshika and expose its Cretaceous fossils of 65 million years ago at the same time as eroding the first 6,000 years of Watkins Glen, leaving the remaining 6,000 to be worn away during our world’s lifespan so that we might declare the great works of God. It is a worldview that demands a constant center stage for a feeble explanation based on the worship of a misunderstood book. And yet they come to see the beauty. No matter how many persuasive words might be penned, the possibility of changing this outlook will elude us. Reinforced by television personalities and politicians, this utter breakdown of reason is one of our national characteristics. As a nation we suffered through eight years of “leadership” by a president who did not believe in science, and we are still paying off his tab. In another 6,000 years or so we may succeed. By then, however, I expect, if I’ve learned anything from the movies, we will have reversed roles with the great apes.

7 thoughts on “Failing Geology

  1. I offer you hope. I think the face of Fundamentalism is changing. I know that you can believe the Bible and still have a brain. I call myself both a Fundamentalist and a Conservative – yet I don’t find it necessary to be so literal that I make statements as ridiculous as the couple talking to the ranger. I can see the faults of George Bush as clearly as I can see the faults of Obama. All religions have followers that take their book, whatever it is, beyond anything it was intended to be. Even science will find a pottery shard and build a society around it that they arrive at by mere conjecture. We all learn new things, every day. I find the information you provide in your blog absolutely fascinating, but you may be trying to stuff too many people into your labels.


    • Thanks Jane.

      I appreciate your take on the matter. I addressed the subject of labels quite some time ago, so it might take some searching to find–essentially I do not find labels very accurate. I have been labelled all my life and none of the categories is a true fit. I do know the Fundamentalist outlook intimately, or at least what is generally labelled as Fundamentalism. I also know the history of the movement, a history that adherents are frequently taught to deny. This is simply a place for my observations to settle while I search for a clearer view.


  2. What always amazes me, is that creationists claim that all sedimentary layers were laid down by the flood. That means that the plateau through which the grand canyon cuts, with its obvious and spectacular stratigraphy was created by the flood. But they also claim the canyon was cut by the flood. Which means that it started out gentle, allowing sedimentation, then, at the end, became violent, cutting through the earth like a garden hose through mud (as a memorable creationist Youtbube video demonstrates).


    • That’s a good point, Helena! As a child I often attempted to visualize what were clearly incompatible teachings in the tradition but simply ended up accepting what I had been taught. This is a great observation!


  3. Hi,

    I visited Watkins Glen years ago. What I noticed there, was the remarkable series of potholes of all sizes. Many of these intersect one another; some become wider at greater depths, having a kind of barrel-shape, and there was one right under a waterfall, I think, but the water of the stream plunged down over the rim at the top and did not get near the sides. The diameter of the hole seemed much more than the small stream flowing there could have eroded. So the question is, how were these potholes formed? They do not seem to be forming at the present time, even though a stream flows through the gorge. When I was there, I believe there were some information plaques for visitors that claimed the water plunging down from glaciers did it (the moulin theory) but waterfalls can’t really explain their shape. And, how do intersecting potholes form? The erosion theory invokes circulating currents in the potholes, that drilled them deeper and deeper, swirling around boulders inside. But a little thought will quickly kill that idea, I think, as if too many boulders fall in, there is no way that they can circulate; the ones lower down would protect the walls of the pothole from further erosion. Besides, it really makes no sense, to imagine all those stones swirling around at the bottom, drilling the holes deeper and deeper, although I remember when I was a child about 10 years old the teacher telling us something like that in all seriousness! Are you familiar with these theories? Do you believe in any of them? Just curious.



    • Hi Doug.

      Some geologists read my blog from time-to-time, and they can answer better than I can. I have seen potholes all over the country (I haven’t really looked for them overseas, but I’m sure they’re there. I believe they start by natural unevenness in the surface of the rock. We tend to think of rock as uniform, but as erosion demonstrates, it is actually built of a harder and softer sections. A natural depression, aided by a boulder or pebble or cobble trapped and with the force of the current twirling it around over the millennia form a nice round pothole for us to admire. The swirling in the holes is a matter of fluid dynamics, and although difficult to visualize, is perfectly natural. Any geologists out there wish to elaborate?


  4. The notion you have suggested would imply potholes such as those at Watkins Glen NY are being formed in present conditions, but that is not confirmed by my observations. In none of the potholes there was the water circulating in the potholes. Generally the bottoms of the potholes are filled up, and are not even exposed to water currents. And it is similar at other places where potholes exist.

    Here is an experiment that illustrates the problem in accounting for the intersecting potholes, that uses two disposable coffee cups, some scotch adhesive tape, and scissors. First, fill one of the cups with water, and stir it to cause the water in it to circulate; observe that there is no difficulty, as the walls are intact; a circulation of the water is easy to obtain. Next, cut a section of the wall out of each of the cups, and connect them together, and seal them up with tape. Now we have two cups that are connected, and they represent two partial potholes. Fill them with water, and try to get circulation in one or both cups. I found this is impossible to accomplish; with a part of the wall missing, there is no circulation. This experiment ought to be tried by every geologist!

    Applied to potholes, the experiment illustrates that the common belief in circulating currents, such as you suggested, similar to the views of many geologists, is flawed. Why not try it, and report the results?



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