Reading the Rocks: Flood Stories and Deep Time
David Montgomery is Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he leads the Geomorphological Research Group. He's the author of The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood and Dirt.
August 1, 2013
Krista Tippett, host: The weather is more dramatic than it used to be. Phrases like “biblical flood” trip off the most secular of tongues. The geologist David Montgomery set out a few years ago to debunk any serious connection between an idea like Noah’s Flood and the wisdom of geology. His passion is for how the shape of the Earth has evolved. He takes delight in the puzzle of how landscapes became what they are. And he found a richer and more interesting story around the world of an interplay between human stories and the stories geologists tell as they read rocks and discern the sweep of deep time, geologic time.
David Montgomery: Geology really is and that and cosmology, you put those together and they’re essentially the scientific creation story. Sort of how did it really work? What can we tell from the nature of the universe around us that would inform us in our thinking about how we got to the place we are now? And that really is, I think, central to our sort of view of ourselves as a species, our place in the universe, as well as sort of your personal relationship to the universe. What am I doing here?
Ms. Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Ms. Tippett:David Montgomery is a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. There he leads the Geomorphological Research Group. He’s written a book for nonscientists about the connection between soil and civilization, as well as his book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood. That investigation began with David Montgomery on an expedition in the Tsangpo Gorge of Tibet encountering a persistent Tibetan Buddhist folk tale and ritual about an ancient flood forming that canyon.
Ms. Tippett:I’m not sure I’ve heard this. Where did you grow up? Where are you from?
Mr. Montgomery: Well, I grew up in California — Palo Alto.
Ms. Tippett: OK. And I believe that these were some of these religious stories that you’ve ended up pondering in the context of geology were part of your childhood? You knew about Noah and the Flood?
Mr. Montgomery: Oh, yeah. I grew up in a Presbyterian household and went to Sunday school, was exposed to biblical stories. The story of Noah’s Flood was right in there among all the other ones that I absorbed as a child. Becoming a geologist later in life, that one obviously stuck with me in a special way.
Ms. Tippett:Yeah. And now your field is — you are a geomorphologist, which is a very intriguing word. I mean, tell me what that means, what you do, what you study.
Mr. Montgomery: You know, a geomorphologist is somebody who studies the evolution of topography. A century ago, I might have been called a physiographer or a topographer. So I study how mountains form, how rivers work, how erosion shapes agricultural fields, sort of anything that’s shaping the surface of the Earth is fair game for a geomorphologist, which makes it a very synthetic discipline. You have to know physics, chemistry and biology and put it all together with geology to try and interpret the way the world has changed both in the past and at present and to forecast what’s coming in the future.
Ms. Tippett:It’s interesting when you were writing about your work in the Tsangpo Gorge, you used phrases like “scientific sleuthing” and, I like this, “collecting pieces of a landscape-scale puzzle,” [laugh] which makes it sound really, really fun.
Mr. Montgomery: Well, you know, it is [laugh]. At least once a year, I’m out in the field somewhere trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle of a landscape that I either know well but don’t quite get or have never seen before. Then I just sort of stop and think, wow, I can actually do this for a living. This is wonderful, in part because of that essence of an intellectual challenge in a puzzle, of trying to figure out how the world works. One of the things that is really characteristic of geology as a science is we never have all the data we want. So we have to become storytellers, but trying to stick to being faithful to the data.
Ms. Tippett:You wrote somewhere, “I’ve learned to see what the land used to look like, what it might look like in the future.” You talk about, you know, “reading the rocks.” I thought it might be interesting — you know, you describe in one of your books being in the Grand Canyon and reading the rocks there. I wondered if you would just indulge us and just — you know, when you are in the Grand Canyon, for example, or if you want to give me an example that maybe is more recent, you know, what are you seeing? What are you reading from?
Mr. Montgomery: Well, you know, the example I might start with is the one on the Tsangpo Gorge that you mentioned in terms of — you know, I went to eastern Tibet about a decade ago on a field project where they needed somebody who worked on rivers. So they asked me if I would come, and I was sort of tagging along as not the guy sort of running the show, but trying to do the stuff that they needed somebody to kind of handle that wasn’t the main thrust. But when we got there and drove over the pass from Lhasa down towards the gorge of the Tsangpo River, sort of the target of the field study, I started noticing these weird flat-topped bits of topography, these terraces that rose above the valley bottom at different places down to the valley system.
And those terraces were a giveaway that water had filled that valley at some point because they were composed where you could look in the road cuts and see what was actually in the land, what was essentially the nature of the subsurface, and it was like sediments. It was thin bands of silt and clay sitting on top of river gravel. You know, there had been a river valley. It had filled with lake sediments, which meant there was a lake there. But when you started to look at the distribution of these terraces and look downstream and ask the question why was there a lake? This is starting to put the pieces of the puzzle in place and framing what is the puzzle.
There was no dam to hold it in until you went way down to the very head of the gorge and there was an eroded truncated glacial moraine, a deposit that a glacier had bulldozed up in front of it and it had dammed the river valley backing up the lake as the river filled in behind the dam. And when that ice dam failed, it would generate a tremendous flood. So we went to this area I’d never seen before. I started putting the pieces together and came away going, oh, my. There had been a really huge lake that failed catastrophically to generate a big flood. That’s the kind of geological sleuthing that, to geomorphologists, is just incredibly fun.
Ms. Tippett:Right. So, again, it comes back to this idea that geologists are storytellers naturally and then this really interesting convergence that you started to pay attention to at some point that stories, human stories, have also given rise to and informed geology across the centuries. And in fact this idea that the biblical flood story was the starting point for the field of geology.
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah, it really was. When you look back into the relationship between science and religion, one doesn’t really often hear these days the story of how they cross-pollinated and informed each other in ways that led to sort of intellectual growth in both theology and in science. But when you look back to what we view today as the founding fathers of geology, that folks in the 17th and 18th centuries started to put the pieces of the global puzzle together, many of them were motivated by trying to explain the story of Noah’s Flood because that was essentially the theory of the times, were the only going theory …
Ms. Tippett:And a lot of them were clergy too, weren’t they?
Mr. Montgomery: Most of them actually were [laugh]. You can kind of think back in the 17th century, many of the people who were sort of deep thinkers, if you will, in the early age in the Enlightenment trying to wrestle with, OK, how did God create the world? And what might we see out there that we could use to test the ways that one might think that it was done? Dominantly clergy, the guy who is now viewed as the grandfather of geology, Nicolas Steno, invented what’s still the founding principles of geology in an effort to try and explain the evolution of the Tuscan landscape. And the third step in what he came up with in his interpretation was Noah’s Flood. He worked it into the way he interpreted what he was seeing in the rocks because that was the theory he was working from. And he was not alone. That was essentially very typical.
Ms. Tippett:And I think that what’s very clear when you speak about this and I just had never thought about it this way, is that this inquiry about geology, about how landscapes formed, you know, as you said, it’s also pursuing this question of how the world was put together, how it came together. So this is also about origins. You know, this is one of these origins stories, but we don’t necessarily think about landscape in geology in those terms.
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah. I think that’s very true. You could think of it in terms of how we think of our place in the world or the universe is informed by how we think it got to be the way it is.
Ms. Tippett:Yeah, right.
Mr. Montgomery: So geology really is essentially — that and cosmology — you put those together and they’re essentially the scientific creation story. Sort of how did it really work? What can we tell from the nature of the universe around us that would inform us in our thinking about how we got to the place we are now. And that really is, I think, central to our sort of view of ourselves as a species, our place in the universe, as well as sort of, you know, your personal relationship to the universe. What am I doing here?
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Ms. Tippett:It seems to me that you were somewhat surprised as you got into this question of the flood story and geology to see the sense that was actually there, that in fact, you know, somewhere you wrote, “Noah’s Flood was the plate tectonics of its day.” And what I came to understand in how you wrote about that is, as you say, those people hundreds of years ago whose starting point was just looking at what they could see in the landscape. I mean, there were marine fossils, shells of sea creatures on tops of mountains. And one way to explain that quite inexplicable occurrence would be that at one point that was all covered with water.
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah. I mean, if all you had before you was sort of the evidence of, you know, a seashell in the rock at the highest point in the topography you knew of, you know, seashells on mountaintops, and you didn’t have any ideas about how mountains might rise or sort of how the world worked. You sort of thought, well, the land’s the way it’s always been because, you know, it hasn’t changed that much in my life. So you’re seeing this evidence in the rocks. You would think that that mountain had been covered by water at some point. That would be the logical conclusion to draw. We now know today that, in most of those cases, the rocks had been shoved up from beneath the sea floor to now be above sea level. But a couple of thousand years ago, that was sort of an outrageous proposition.
Ms. Tippett:Right, right, right.
Mr. Montgomery: For which there was no theory and no evidence and no tradition. I mean, the logic of seashells on a mountaintop as support for the voracity of the biblical story of Noah’s Flood traces way back into antiquity and back to even St. Augustine in, what, the third, fourth century A.D., who wrote extensively about the relationship between rationality and faith or faith and reason. And one of the examples he used was the idea that Noah’s Flood was a global flood because you could see the seashell in the rocks and where else would they have come from?
Ms. Tippett:Right, right. I would like to hear a little bit more about Steno. It’s Niels Stensen, right? Seventeenth century.
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett:It seemed to me that, you know, in a way you might see him — I mean, we know about Copernicus maybe, and it seems to me this is like the geological counterpart to, you know, Copernicus and astronomy, somebody who actually in his person reconciled a scientific vocation and spiritual vocation while also making pretty radical observations that unsettled a lot of things.
Mr. Montgomery: He was very much that guy [laugh], very much. And he’s still revered as the guy who laid down the founding principles of the science of geology. So if you crack open the introductory geology textbook …
Ms. Tippett:He’s there?
Mr. Montgomery: He’s there. He’s there as the guy who basically laid down the founding principles, which are actually pretty simple. He basically argued that, if you have a pile of rocks that were laid down in water, they were laid down horizontally because that’s what happens if things happen under the influence of gravity. You take a fistful of dirt with sand and mud and clay and drop it in a glass of water, the stuff settles out in layers that are horizontal. That was his first principle.
And his second principle was that, well, the stuff that settled out first is on the bottom of the pile. You know, these are two rules that he proposed quite intentionally to be so transparent and unarguable that, if you then applied those rules to the interpretation of rocks, nobody could argue with your interpretation because they were a priori reasonable.
Mr. Montgomery: And those are still the fundamental principles to the science of geology. But why did he propose those ideas? Well, he actually got into it essentially by chance, the way like many scientific advances actually happen. Some fishermen pulled up a great white shark, I think, at the mouth of the Arno River. Steno at the time was working for Ferdinand II, I think it was, the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence, I believe. He was basically the best dissectionist that was in the Grand Duke’s stable of scientists who he supported, or natural philosophers in those days. So Steno basically got the job of dissecting this monstrous head of a great white shark, or I should say the honor of dissecting it because, in the 17th century, public dissections were kind of the equivalent of like today’s Imax theaters, you know, with 3-D. I mean, this was big, big public entertainment.
Ms. Tippett:OK [laugh].
Mr. Montgomery: You know, what could be better than the head of a giant sea monster that had been dragged up. He notices that the teeth of this great white shark are dead ringers for these mysterious triangular objects called tongue stones that had been known since antiquity in Europe and had been thought to have all kinds of magical properties. They were found eroding out of rocks, but the people thought maybe they’re petrified lightning strikes or weird minerals. Steno sees that, well, actually these things are shark teeth, you know, carbon copies. So he started to ponder the question, how did the teeth of sharks get into rocks? So he started to then develop his principles and started getting really interested in geology to try and figure out this question of how did shark teeth get into rocks. And in applying those principles, he basically came up with the idea that the world had been modified after the original creation in six different stages, the third of which was Noah’s Flood.
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Ms. Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, geomorphologist David Montgomery. We’re exploring the scientific sleuthing and the new sense of religious and geologic history that he came to while writing his book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood.
Ms. Tippett:Another thing I learned from you that’s so fascinating is that up to the early 19th century, there was still this prevailing interpretation — I mean, correct me. The nuance is what I’m saying — was that essentially change in landscapes, you know, that this had come about suddenly and dramatically, that catastrophic forces had fundamentally reshaped the landscape. And then in that century, there was a huge opening to a different way of seeing this. Is that right?
Mr. Montgomery: That’s about right. In the early 1800s, in the early 19th century, the prevailing idea was that the world had been — its geology could be explained by a whole series of catastrophes. So in Steno’s day in the 17th century, a century and a half earlier, it had been thought there’s one big catastrophe …
Ms. Tippett:And that’s the global flood.
Mr. Montgomery: But the more people started — and that’s the global flood because that’s the one that was in the book, OK? [laugh].
Ms. Tippett:OK, yeah, yeah.
Mr. Montgomery: That was the theory everybody started with. The problem was is that once the geologists started applying Steno’s principles to understanding the distribution of rocks around Europe, they discovered essentially two things. One, there were far too many individual layers of rock that had settled out where you could distinguish, say, silt from sand, which takes some time for all the silt and the clay to settle. There were thousands and thousands of layers, far more layers than could actually have settled out in a single flood.
And the other thing was that the rock records were just too complex. There was a whole series of events, different ages of geological deposits that were separated by big breaks in the rock record that indicated something big happened, something changed. Those were interpreted as big disasters, things like the biblical story of Noah’s Flood. But the problem at the early 19th century and the early 1800s was that there were too many big floods or catastrophes in the rock record. So Noah’s Flood couldn’t be the only one. There must have been a whole series and that brought up the theological problem of, well, what were all these other events?
And the capstone on it all was the recognition of the problem of extinctions, the idea that as you looked in each of these different packets of rocks, rocks from different ages, each layer, each set of layers, had a different fauna. So the plants and animals that were on the world at one time all got wiped out apparently and replaced by the ones in the next world and so on up through, I think, by the 1840s or so, about six different layers or six different epics of geologic time.
Ms. Tippett:You know, one thing that’s so interesting about reading you when you’re reading rocks, when you’re writing about that, is you seeing these and I think you always talk about “entombed fossils.” Seeing all these creatures epoch by epoch as you can see them in that compressed way.
Mr. Montgomery: The fossil record is essentially a field guide to life we’ll never see in the flesh. It’s sort of the way things used to be, which makes it really fascinating. But the problem of extinctions was a huge theological problem because Noah’s job had been to save two of everything.
Ms. Tippett:Right, right.
Mr. Montgomery: So if you sort of take the idea that the world’s rocks and rock record, the idea that’s still thrown around in modern creationism, if it was all due to Noah’s Flood, then why are all these extinct animals entombed in the deposits? It’s a huge problem because the Bible never mentions that anywhere. In fact, it mentions explicitly the opposite, that everything you should find in the rocks, if that was the correct interpretation, ought to be animals that we know today.
Ms. Tippett:And then, how did science start to change? How did science move away even from that way of explaining landscape by catastrophe?
Mr. Montgomery: Well, there’s sort of two parallel developments. One is that a guy named Louis Agassiz discovered the evidence for what we now call colloquially the ice ages, or the glacial periods where great walls of ice overran a lot of Northern Europe, North American, parts of South America. His recognition of most of the kinds of surface deposits that in the early 19th century were still interpreted as the evidence of Noah’s Flood, the most recent of all those geologic catastrophes.
Once Agassiz basically demonstrated that those were due to glaciations and not a flood, then the whole idea of a global flood had been pretty well put to bed in the geological community. And the idea of big catastrophes kind of got tamped down right along with it. So catastrophism, the idea that we could explain the rock record and topography by a series of grand catastrophes, really fell out of favor in the late 19th century.
And what replaced it was the idea of uniformitarianism, which is the idea that the world has been shaped by processes we can measure and see and observe today, but integrated over very long periods of time, that little changes really do add up to explain the whole picture and it wasn’t catastrophes. It was sort of gradual everyday accumulation of small change. That was an intellectual shift of huge proportions in geology so that, by the end of the 19th century, sort of the dawn of the 20th century, geologists were done with Noah’s Flood and other big catastrophes. Science won that battle and put that myth and fairy tale to bed finally and forever.
Ms. Tippett:But, you know, something that I was really stunned to learn a few years ago when I interviewed Xavier Le Pichon — do you know him? One of the fathers of plate tectonics. One of the people who discovered that back in the ’60s, ’70s, right?
Mr. Montgomery: I know of him, but I have never met him.
Ms. Tippett:But it was new to me that that realization, that plate tectonics was something that wasn’t discovered until, you know, the latter half of the 20th century. I was interested when you describe reading a book written in 1961 called The Genesis Flood, by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, which is in the canon of creation science. And you expected again to be disturbed by the book and I’m sure you didn’t agree with a lot of it, but you also understood that they were offering a pretty insightful critique of 1950s geology, of some gaps that were still there even though science had made this abrupt change to an idea of a longer view of time.
Mr. Montgomery: Yes. Reading that book, reading The Genesis Flood, was a real eye-opener to me in terms of understanding how modern creationism essentially arose. Because if you look at the theology of the early 20th century, the idea of creationism was pretty well put to bed in both scientific and theological worlds until that book came out. It really revived what we know today as modern creationism.
As you were saying, the thing I found really surprising about it is that these guys, in arguing that the world is just a few thousand years old and that all the world’s geology had been shaped by Noah’s Flood, forget Steno and all the others that followed him and the work that had been done, they knew the real answer. It was Noah’s Flood.
They actually, in crafting their argument, they made very insightful critiques of 1950s geology. I mean, they had done their homework and, frankly, when I picked up their book, I hadn’t expected this. Now they were still catastrophically wrong in their interpretation of geology, but their critique of 1950s geology was actually pretty spot on. They asked questions like, well, why are there mountains? You know, what’s the mechanism to actually build a mountain? How do you get the fossils of tropical plants up at the poles?
Ms. Tippett:Right. Well, that still wasn’t answered, was it? How can you have seashells on top of Mt. Everest?
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah. So they went back to some of these classic questions that people had been wrestling with for a long time and said, look, geologists, you can’t answer these now. So the science of geology was kind of at a natural place for change and these guys stepped in, Whitcomb and Morris, and basically said, well, you know, geologists, you don’t know what’s going on. Here’s the real answer. It’s in the Bible. Here’s what it says and that’s the way it worked, OK? What they completely missed was the whole plate tectonics revolution and why’d they miss it? Well, it was happening at the same time that they were writing.
But plate tectonics was this revolution that no one person thought of. It came out of the development of three different technologies and a lot of different people putting it together. It took, you know, a decade or two for the geologic community to actually embrace it and to the buy into the idea. It was one of those ideas that, once all the pieces were in place, it started to explain things that the guys who thought it up hadn’t even thought were questions to ask.
That’s the hallmark of a really good theory. And it explains why mountains are where they are, why earthquakes happen where they are, why volcanoes are where they are, why different kinds of rocks are in different parts of the world. In other words, plate tectonics is to geology essentially what DNA is to genetics. It’s how it works.
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Ms. Tippett:Such an interesting place you came out on, this kind of push and pull between scientific observations and religious observations, scientific questions and religious questions, really much more of an interplay and a conversation than — what do we say? — science-religion divide [laugh], right?
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah, yeah. And that was one of those things that actually evolved for me in writing this book is I originally started thinking I would be writing, you know, fairly straight-up refutation of modern creationism, sort of look, I’m a geologist. We know the world’s old. Here’s how it works. But the more I got into it, the more I realized that the real story really was this cross-pollination and back and forth and that we all know the stories of the battles in the so-called war between science and religion and Galileo’s house arrest and so forth at the top of the list.
But if you actually look back at the motivations of many of the people involved and at the context of their times, it was a far more interesting sort of back and forth and cross-pollination. And many of the battles that we see sort of culturally still being fought today were back then sort of tension within individual minds, within the clergy who would go out and study the rocks and try and figure out …
Ms. Tippett:Could see both sides of the story.
Mr. Montgomery: How God created the world.
Ms. Tippett:We’re asking both sets of questions?
Mr. Montgomery: They were actively asking both sides, yes.
Mr. Montgomery: Yes. And I think we’ve kind of lost that sense of how do you sort of constructively engage between those two very different realms of human thought, which, you know, you could choose to view as being antagonistic as is sort of the cultural norm in many spheres today, or you could try and think of, well, how might you reconcile them or even just how might you think constructively about the relationship between the two of them? That was a real eye-opener for me and that, to me, became much more of the story that I thought it would be.
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Ms. Tippett:If you’d like to listen to that conversation I mentioned with Xavier Le Pichon, the father of plate tectonics, you’ll find it on our website at onbeing.org. There you can also listen again and share this conversation with David Montgomery. You can also subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or at onbeing.org.
Coming up, new discoveries on the geography of the Middle East and the possible origins of Noah’s Flood. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with David Montgomery. He is a MacArthur Award-winning geologist, a geomorphologist. He studies the evolution of landscapes and how geological processes shape ecology and humanity. We’ve been talking about his unexpected discovery that a push and pull between religion and science has shaped advances in geology from the very beginning.
The original geologists were clergy and theologians. For centuries, their fidelity to the Genesis flood story informed their attempts to make sense of the natural world. But by the 19th century, the scientific pendulum had swung entirely in the other direction to a guiding philosophy that the Earth had not been shaped by any large catastrophic events, but by uniformitarianism or profound constant change across unfathomably long spans of time.
As you tell this story of the development of geology across the centuries and again with this interplay between these two spheres of how we tell the story of where we came from, it’s like there continue to be these surprises, right? It feels like there’s a step, you know, like science makes a step forward and step back, and religion makes a step forward and a step back. And then there’s this kind of ultimate irony that very recently, I mean, in the last handful of decades, there’s actually new scientific evidence that there were cataclysmic floods in the ancient Middle East, which might look something like Noah’s Flood. Is that right?
Mr. Montgomery: Yes, yes. The pendulum is swinging back [laugh]. Wrestling with the question of what might have been the geological origin of the story of Noah’s Flood, now you can come up with two fairly plausible explanations. One is the idea of just a really big flood in Mesopotamia. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New Orleans and stood outside the Convention Center there and noticed the sign that’s about five feet above your head that says “sea level.” That’s a sign. You know, I was there at a convention before Katrina and was very disturbed to see that sign because, if there’s one place as a geologist you don’t want to be standing, it’s below sea level.
Ms. Tippett:OK [laugh].
Mr. Montgomery: So you can ask the question in terms of the relevance to Noah’s Flood, well, if you look at the geography of Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, it shares some basic physical geography with New Orleans. You know, that’s the elements of the story of Noah’s Flood, and you can trace the biblical story back into Babylonian and Acadian and Sumerian right back to the earliest writing that we have, sort of indentations on baked clay tablets.
So the story of Noah’s Flood, the sort of literary sleuthing, shows it predates the Bible by a lot and you can trace it back to an area that was naturally prone to really big floods that would have wiped out what then was considered the known world. So is that the origin of the story of Noah’s Flood? Well, I’d argue it’s a plausible one. Is it the right one? I actually don’t know. There’s another option, of course, which was Ryan and Pitman’s idea of the flooding of the Black Sea as the even earlier origin of the story of Noah’s Flood.
Ms. Tippett:And that just came out in like the 1990s, that was discovered?
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah. So that’s just a couple of decades ago, and it’s a fairly nice example of how the idea of uniformitarianism sort of has gone not out of style. It’s still very foundational to geology and geomorphology.
Ms. Tippett:And that’s the idea, that things happened slowly, right? Rather than these dramatic catastrophes?
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah. They expect those everyday changes adding up. Today, we have the knowledge that both these big catastrophes and everyday changes are geologic forces. And the flooding of the Black Sea was a good example of a really big ancient catastrophe. In a nutshell, what happened is that, during the de-glaciations from the end of the last ice age, what happens when all that ice melts off the poles? Well, it ends up in the ocean and that raises sea level. The valley of the Black Sea was a freshwater lake that got topped up to sea level by the Mediterranean spilling over its drainage divide and just basically filling it up like a bathtub.
What would have happened to anybody living on the shores of this ancient lake? And if you were in the Middle East, say, seven and a half thousand years ago, the shores of the biggest freshwater lake in a very arid environment would be a natural place for the early agriculturalists to actually sort of set up shop. What would have happened to those people when their whole valley filled up to sea level with saltwater? They would have been displaced. And anthropologists have documented the diaspora, a movement of people, from that area at about the time it filled up. And what Ryan and Pitman argued was that was the origin of the story of Noah’s Flood.
Ms. Tippett:I see.
Mr. Montgomery: You then had the very wonderful irony that creationists attacked Ryan and Pitman. So the scientists were coming up with, hey, the story of Noah’s Flood might actually have a historical geological basis, and creationists were outraged. They called them all kinds of horrible things in their media because they had actually, you know, maybe proven the biblical story or at least supported or were offering to support it.
Ms. Tippett:A version of it.
Mr. Montgomery: A version of it. So offering a plausible interpretation. What was their sin? Their sin was that it was the wrong flood. It wasn’t a global flood. It was too long ago and it was too local and regional. But that idea of a local regional flood actually had deep — theologians were proposing that in the 19th century as the way to reconcile what was even then known about geology and theology.
Ms. Tippett:And there is this interesting dynamic all the way through the story you tell of — well, really it’s just about the human condition, right? I mean, that human beings on either side of this religious or scientific again and again take their ideas to an extreme. So there was also this interesting story of Harlen Bretz who, in the age of the dominance of uniformitarian thinking, also found evidence of giant floods in eastern Washington and you said that, you know, he was treated as a geological heretic [laugh] at least until he was in his 90s.
Mr. Montgomery: And Bretz made the mistake of trusting what he saw in the field [laugh]. And what he saw in the field was evidence of a really big flood in eastern Washington. He put the story, a brilliant example of sort of old-school geologic sleuthing on the ground before you could get up in the air in airplanes to see a big picture and put it all together. And he found evidence that he could only interpret as a really big flood had shaped the landscape of eastern Washington. And geologists didn’t believe him because, you know, big floods were taboo. You couldn’t just say there was a big flood. There must be some other more reasonable uniformitarian explanation.
So he was quite literally almost drummed out of the professional geological circles, but the more he kept looking, the more evidence he found and the better the case for this really big flood became. And eventually, it took about 20 or 30 years to connect his evidence for the flood scouring that he started with to a potential source of the flood. Because the big criticism was always, well, where’s the source of your flood? You can’t just say there was a big flood. You know, we already fought that battle.
But he eventually found the source of a big flood up in the south fork of the Clark River in Montana where a ton of glacial ice had dammed the river. It was a lot like that Tibetan flood that got me off on starting to write this book. There was a ton of ice that blocked a river valley, the river filled up behind the ice dam and ice doesn’t make a good dam because it floats, so it floats the dam and it flushes out thousands of cubic kilometers of water in a super enormous flood. It took geologists most of the 20th century to actually believe Bretz.
Long after he retired, he ended up winning the highest award from the Geological Society of America after subsequent generations of geologists who hadn’t been trained that he was wrong [laugh] saw the evidence with fresh eyes and went, oh, my, you were right. This was a super-enormous flood. And it turns out there was actually many floods in that part of the world because the ice re-advanced and dammed the river and it happened over and over again. But Bretz had the wonderful opportunity to be vindicated in his 90s, and he’s reported to have complained to his son that none of his enemies were left alive to gloat.
Ms. Tippett:[laugh] Yeah, that would take some of that thrill away.
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Now is it right that you’re working on Martian topology now?
Mr. Montgomery: Martian topography, yes.
Ms. Tippett:Topography, oh, OK.
Mr. Montgomery: Yes. And the connection to Bretz is that one of the things that helped the mainstream geologic community embrace Bretz was when we started to get images of Mars and saw these photo evidence that there had been super-enormous floods on Mars. All of a sudden, what Bretz was suggesting for eastern Washington became the way to interpret and explain these landforms on Mars, and his work gained new value and currency.
I’ve been looking at Martian topography for a few years, different aspects of it, trying to explain things like the origin of Valles Marineris, the great valley on Mars, and some smaller-scale features. But it’s one of those things where NASA has done such an amazing job at getting spacecraft into orbit around this other planet and looking at it that, to someone like me who — it’s just this treasure trove of questions and new kind of thing to look at and ask, it’s literally a whole new planet.
Ms. Tippett:Which kind of gets back to this way you learned to see the earth as a geologist of being aware of geologic time, of deep time. You know, I’m curious on a personal level. Walking through the world as you do with those eyes, with that attention, does that flow into how you think you experience ordinary time? You know, how does it shape you?
Mr. Montgomery: Oh, boy, that’s a great question. I’m not sure it actually does. I mean, because I’m still prone to being impatient even though I know the world has plenty of time [laugh]. You know, I don’t like standing in lines. And yet it does give you the sort of view that, you know, the crisis of today isn’t really that big a crisis. What we should be worrying about are some of these really sort of long-term trends that may overtake us.
I think it gives you not necessarily a totally different perspective, but it gives you a different lens that you can put on and view things through. It’s one of those lenses that I think you almost have to be trained to use or to see because when we think about the surface of the world changing, you know, hill slopes eroding away or mountains disappearing or rising, those aren’t things you can actually see happening.
Ms. Tippett:Right, right.
Mr. Montgomery: To anyone who’s sort of deeply rooted in an I’ll-believe-it-if-I-see-it kind of thinking, you know, you’re never going to believe that because you can’t actually see it. You have to put together the story and piece it together. But it does let you start to see stories that unfold over time scales sort of longer than your own life.
So I think that it may not give me sort of a different view of the day-to-day momentarily passing of time, but I am certain that it gives you a different view of just sort of your place in the universe and the world, that the vast amount of time that has happened and that will happen before our sun eventually decides that this planet is no longer habitable.
It’s really quite humbling. You know, walking down the street in New York, you’re not going to be thinking that New York is a blip, an anomaly in history. It is your full-on reality right there, right then.
Ms. Tippett:It’s immersive, yes.
Mr. Montgomery: Completely immersive, yes. When you do think that way and you think about the sort of course and fate and shaping and evolution of civilizations bringing you to today when we have the very fundamental question of what do we want the future to be like, I mean, never before in our history as a species has the answer to that question, I think, been as important as it is today because the world that all future generations are going to inherit from us depends quite literally on how we answer that question this century. That’s a mighty, mighty responsibility.
Ms. Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, with geologist and geomorphologist David Montgomery.
Something that was pretty fascinating to me in your storytelling is that I think we — I don’t know if this is a universal thing, but I have a sense that we have a great appreciation generally now for the ragged edges of things and for mountains and that at one time to learn that, you know, the Alps were considered to be chaotic and what was asymmetrical didn’t seem that it could be something that came of God. You know, it shook me out of the way of things that seem obvious to me.
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah. It makes you sort of wonder about the things that we take for granted today, whether scientifically or aesthetically. What are people 200 years from now going to look back and kind of go, oh, those silly people. What were they thinking?
Ms. Tippett:Right. I mean, what we call beautiful and majestic without questioning that wasn’t true necessarily.
Mr. Montgomery: Yes. And back in the days when Steno was writing about the origin of the Tuscan landscape, people had thought that the world was formed with a perfect shape sort of like a sphere or like an egg because that’s what God would do. A perfect sphere was the perfect shape. So topography was viewed as the cluttered, broken up wreck of this original perfect creation and we were sort of cursed to lie with mountains.
As a geologist, I have a lot of grad students who are rock climbers and mountaineers. They’d be quite surprised to hear that the mountains were anything other than majestic natural cathedrals. And yet, a couple of centuries ago, they were viewed with great trepidation. You only went into the mountains if you’re compelled to flee over them or something. It was not a place to go to and enjoy their radiant beauty.
Ms. Tippett:I wonder if you feel like some of this territory you’ve wandered into, especially this looking at the interplay between religious stories and geology as a field that tells stories, do you feel like you’re writing your books with that world of your childhood in mind? With this culture in mind? Who are you speaking to or who would you like to speak to?
Mr. Montgomery: That world of people who are wondering about the relationship between science and religion are thinking, you know, how can these things really be at odds, I think, is a great sort of the silent middle position in the cultural landscape that’s been staked out today of where you have creationists and Richard Dawkins screaming at each other from opposite sides of the cultural spectrum.
I think that there’s an awful lot of people in the middle who, like myself, had wondered about these relationships, but the story of the cross-pollination and the history and how the one can inform the other and how it’s not necessarily a stark choice. But there’s actually an awful lot of intellectual room in between to think about and think rationally and ponder theology, ponder science. There’s an awful lot of history that’s been lost and the adult part of that conversation has been lost in all the cultural screaming. In a way, I think I was writing for that audience to some degree.
Ms. Tippett:Right, right.
Mr. Montgomery: But in great part, I like to run with the ideas and see where they lead me. And with Rocks Don’t Lie, that’s where it led me. There’s actually a fair amount of truth to many of the world’s flood stories, not just the possible geologic explanations for the story of Noah’s Flood, but a lot of the other native flood stories from around the world seem to be rooted in geologic events that actually happened. And to me, that was exciting because that wasn’t what I thought when I started writing the book.
Ms. Tippett:It’s kind of the version in geology of this move towards reintegrating, kind of re-honoring subjectivity and narrative also as belonging to intelligence and a complete picture of things? I mean, you see this in physics, but you see it, I think, in general, in medicine, in a lot of fields that have a science base.
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah. I think we’re seeing science catch up with traditional knowledge in a lot of areas. And this is an example of how that’s happening in geology, which is not to say that sort of folklore traditions sort of accurately describe what happened. But if you understand them in the culture and context of their times, it may be that they were a very rational attempt to explain things the way the people are trying to understand their universe in that time. And even today as a scientist, we could then gather evidence out of that.
Ms. Tippett:Right. That they preserved knowledge which is valuable in the present.
Mr. Montgomery: Yeah, exactly. And geologists in general don’t tend to view folktales of landforms that way.
Ms. Tippett:Right [laugh]. So I just have a couple more questions. Somewhere in your writing, you talked about there’s a spectrum of ideas about God in relation to the natural world. There’s the helpful, personal God who intervenes a lot. There’s the strategic God who intervenes in extraordinary circumstances. There’s the distant God. There’s no God at all. I wonder if you would talk about — do you have a sense of God that comes out of all these things you’ve thought about, flows into them?
Mr. Montgomery: Boy. Yes, I do. I’m not an atheist, but the thing I think that to me is the sort of defining character of God is the mystery, I mean, the fundamental unknowability of what is the actual sort of right view of things. There’s many religions in the world, many of which claim to worship the one true God, but they don’t all agree on what or who that is.
You know, I think that the sort of awe and wonder with which you can sort of see the world once you know its full breadth and scope in terms of geologic history and how brief our sort of role and place is in it, it gives you sort of a little taste of just what does infinity actually mean. And to look at a God in a way that could have created the universe, what kind of sort of depth are you wading into and even pondering the nature of such an entity?
Ms. Tippett:So if you think about the story of Noah and the Flood now, I think you’ve reflected on and also looked at how theology has looked at this, that there can be a question of whether it’s drawing on a literal event, but there are other takeaways from that story. There are other ways to read that story and find it valuable. What’s your takeaway from the story of Noah at this point in your life?
Mr. Montgomery: Well, you know, I view the story of Noah now as it’s a really good parable. You know, putting aside the question of its historical roots, how should we think about that story today and what we could learn from it, what it could still teach us, it still resonates quite powerfully if we look at it in terms of our charge today in the world, if you will, as sort of the modern stewards of the planet. We’re the life form now that is dominating the shaping and future of the whole world and thus all of the other life forms.
And if you look at sort of Noah’s charge to basically save everything, don’t let things go extinct. Basically preserve the world for future generations was sort of the core of his mission. And if you view essentially righteousness or sort of our mission today in parallel terms, I think it can be a very strong lesson in terms of how we should be thinking about living in the world and treating the world and the fundamental mandate that we should have as stewards of this planet for all life, all flavors of it.
You know, we’re living through a modern extinction event that rivals geologic extinctions. And when you view the story of Noah’s Flood as a parable for the modern dilemmas that we face in terms of the environment, you come away with a pretty strong mandate to actually try and work pretty hard to preserve things for the future.
Ms. Tippett: David Montgomery is a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. There he also leads the Geomorphological Research Group. His books include The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, and he’s the author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.
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On Being is a Krista Tippett Public Production and is distributed by American Public Media. The show is produced by Chris Heagle and Stefni Bell. Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.