Bretz v. Noah

Until I met my wife I’d never been west of the Mississippi. Or even Ohio for that matter. Together we’ve traveled, in a fashion broken by years, from coast-to-coast and even overseas. Nothing in my life had prepared me for seeing the American West. No, I’ve not seen cowboys, but the landforms are so different from the weathered, ancient Appalachians among which I grew up. Eastern Washington is a fascinating landscape and with my occasional flirting with geology, I recently read John Soennichsen’s Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood. Within the last couple of years I’d read about Glacial Lake Missoula, a juggernaut of an ice age lake that had flooded parts of Idaho and Washington thousands of years ago when its ice dam gave way. J Harlen Bretz was a turn-of-the-(previous)-century geologist who defied convention and insisted that the evidence of eastern Washington proved that a massive flood washed over the area, giving distinct shape to the region that empties into the Columbia River basin. For much of his career he was ridiculed by other geologists. The reason? The Bible.

Geology was the science that gave Darwin the idea for his evolutionary theory. The factor that had been missing from science, before geology, was time. The 6000-year-old earth just wasn’t old enough to account for the slow changes required for one species to morph into another. As scientists came to realize that billions of years were available, it became clear that change occurred even more slowly than the GOP is happy with. For geologists, anything that happened quickly was anathema. As Bretz’s Flood makes clear, a sudden flood sounded far too much like old Noah to be science. Catastrophism had been cleanly rejected by geologists because even if the evidence supported it, it looked like a return to mythology and superstition. Interestingly Bretz began his academic life among the Methodists of Albion College, and continued to quote the Bible to his last days. He was, however, an atheist.

The Bible has shaped our culture more thoroughly than Noah’s putative flood has shaped geology. I’ve read many geological studies over the years and any that are written for non-specialists never mention great floods without at least a nod to Noah. In fact, as Soennichsen points out, Bretz has ironically become a hero of Creationists who see the Missoula flood as Noah’s event. A large portion of Bretz’s career, however, was dogged by geologists duty-bound to deny a sudden flood just because the Bible tells us so. Sudden events are smeared with the residue of the divine.

J Harlen Bretz is hardly a household name, but his career is a microcosm of American culture. Glacial Lake Missoula did exist, as geologists now accept, and long before Noah was a twinkle in Moses’ eye. When the dam burst, the fable did fall, and down came the ark, Noah and all.

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