If Truth Be Known, Part 2
Note: This week on the BioLogos Forum, join us as we feature excerpts from Clarence Menninga’s new ebook, If Truth Be Known, in which he describes some of the ways Creationists account for their view of natural history, and replies to each idea with a thoughtful critique from the scientific point of view. The aim here is not to attack Young Earth Creationists; rather, it is to consider respectfully some claims made by biblical concordists, and share a modern scientific view as an alternate possibility for Christians.
The Importance of Observation: The Columbia Basin Lava Flows
During my tenure at Calvin College, I found opportunity to be involved in research in the Radiochemistry Division at the Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories (now part of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories) at Richland, Washington. I was there for two months during each of 11 summers, plus a sabbatical leave academic year. Richland is located along the Columbia River, near the center of the Columbia Basin and its deposits of basaltic lava. Pursuing my interest in geology, we traveled extensively in the area, observing and photographing numerous exposures of the basaltic lava flows.
Additionally, I was made aware that scientists from Battelle had re-entered a well drilled about 10,000 feet into the basalts by the Standard Oil Co. on Rattlesnake Mountain, and I had obtained a copy of their published study of the lava flows and the interflow zones encountered in that well. Furthermore, a current colleague had worked for oil companies that had drilled three additional wells through the basalts in the region, and I had access to the well logs from those wells to augment my understanding of the lava flows. So it is against that background that I wrote about the Columbia Basin basalt flows, and their implications regarding flood geology and the view that Earth is a recent creation.
Excerpt from If Truth Be Known
The bedrock in south-central Washington State consists of many layers of dark-colored lava, usually referred to as the Columbia Basin Basalts. A steep-sided channel known as the Grand Coulee, an ancient stream channel, begins near the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, and continues roughly southward to Moses Lake, cutting through several of the upper lava flows. Although there is no longer any stream flowing in the Grand Coulee, there are several small lakes on the floor of the channel. Blue Lake, a few miles south of Dry Falls State Park, was the site of an amazing discovery.
In the summer of 1935, two couples from Seattle were hiking on a narrow path along the cliffs several tens of feet above the level of Blue Lake. The hiking path lies on the upper surface of one of the Columbia Basin Basalt flows at its contact with the overlying lava flow. The hikers came across a large cavity in the basalt, and one of them crawled inside. At the far end of the cavity he found part of a jawbone with teeth in it. The bones and teeth were given to the University of Washington by one of the hikers, and they were identified as belonging to a rhinoceros very similar to Diceratherium annectens, a specimen found in the John Day Formation. (The John Day Formation lies immediately below the Columbia Basin Basalts in north-central Oregon.)
Observation lies at the heart of modern scientific endeavor. Observations may give rise to questions whose answers can be sought by scientific investigation. Ideas and proposed explanations for what we see (and hear and touch and smell) in the world around us are tested by additional observations. Those proposed explanations (conjectures, hypotheses, theories, and “scientific laws”) that are consistent with our observations are accepted as valid with high levels of confidence, while those that are inconsistent with our observations need to be modified or replaced. Observations “rule the roost.”
So what can we learn from observations regarding the Columbia Basin Basalts, the lava flows and the fossil organisms that we find in south-central Washington, north-central Oregon, and western Idaho? Specifically, how do our observations fit with the ideas of a recent creation, flood geology, and recent world-wide catastrophism as the explanation for the geological structure and history of God’s Earth?
First let us consider the age of these deposits. Each of the 100 or so layers of basalt was extruded as molten lava, spread over a large area in a short span of time, cooled and solidified. The total thickness of these lava flows in the center of the basin is more than 10,000 feet. Many of the zones between lava flows consist of an appreciable thickness of sediment and soil, implying an extended period of time between lava flows for the weathering of the lava flow at the surface, the deposit of sediment derived from the surrounding area, and for the formation of soil. The presence of coal in many of those interflow sediments confirms the growth and accumulation of plants during the span of time between flows. The Vantage Sandstone, exposed at the surface just west of the Columbia River along Interstate 90, contains large petrified tree trunks and stumps, implying at least decades of time between successive lava flows, and the thickness of the sandstone layer implies a longer time. What explanation fits best with these observations?
We should add that temperature measurements were taken in wells that were drilled into and through the lava flows, and the temperature increase with depth is near the average for crustal sedimentary rocks. That means that the lava flows have been cooled completely; there is no residual heat remaining underground from all that volcanic activity, by contrast with, for example, the heat that produces the geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone National Park.
We also note that the lava flow sequence in north central Oregon lies on top of sediments of the fossil-rich John Day Formation. Those sediments were apparently deposited by normal Earth processes of weathering, erosion, and transport prior to the lava flows. Sediments in drill cores taken from below the lowermost lava flows also contain evidence of plant growth in the form of coalified plant fragments.
The evidence available through observation suggests that these deposits are much more than several thousand years old. We reach this conclusion without considering evidence from quantitatively measuring ages of rocks with radioactivity. Measurements of age, using radioactive isotopes, have been done, and the results have been published in the scientific literature. Those measurements confirm that most of the lava flows occurred between 17.5 million and 11 million years ago.
Second, let us consider the suggestion that nearly all of the fossil-bearing rock layers in the world were deposited during a single, worldwide flood as described in Genesis 8-9. Against this possibility we note that all of the 100 or so lava flows of the Columbia Basin Basalts cooled and solidified under air. Those areas where the lava flows encountered water, as indicated by the formation of pillow lava, are a very small fraction of the total area covered by each lava flow. We also note that there is an abundance of plant material in the interflow zones, as indicated by the occurrence of coal, and by the presence of spores and pollen in coal samples obtained from a well on Rattlesnake Mountain in 1967. There is even the example of the fossil rhinoceros encased in the base of one of the lava flows, as described above. Many plant and animal fossils have been found in the John Day Formation, which is known to underlie the lava flows of the Columbia Basin Basalts in north central Oregon.
It is difficult to maintain that the fossils mentioned above were deposited in a single worldwide flood. The sediments in which the fossils are found lie below and between numerous lava flows that were extruded under air. The evidence, based on many observations, undermines the “flood geology” suggestion.
Third, there have been many publications that propose major worldwide catastrophes along with proposals defending flood geology and a recent creation of the Earth. We frequently use the word “catastrophe” in connection with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and destructive storms, and a volcanic eruption that covered 20,000 square miles with a lava flow 80 feet thick in a week or less (the Roza flow) would certainly qualify as catastrophic for those plants and animals that were unable to escape the flow. Such a flow would be dramatic and spectacular indeed, but 20,000 square miles is a very small fraction of the total surface of the Earth. Local catastrophe, yes, but far from worldwide. The sequence of 100 or so distinct lava flows, each cooled to ordinary surface temperature under air before the extrusion of the next flow, with many interflow zones of appreciable thickness allowing soil formation, plant growth, and animal occupation, fits well with gradualism in worldwide geological history, and is inconsistent with proposals of recent worldwide catastrophism.
So, if truth be known, there is much evidence aside from measurements of ages of rocks by radioactivity that leads to the conclusion that the rocks that form the Earth’s crust are much more than a few thousand years old, and that the ancient deposits of sediments and volcanic rocks occurred by natural processes very similar to those that lead to deposits of sediments and volcanic rocks in our present-day world.
Clarence Menninga was born in rural Iowa in 1928, and grew up in a Christian family. He earned the B.A. (chemistry) at Calvin College in 1949, the M.A.T. (science and math) at Western Michigan University in 1959, and the Ph.D. at Purdue University (chemistry) in 1965. After a stint in industry as an analytical chemist, he taught chemistry at Grand Rapids (Michigan) Christian High School, was employed briefly at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (Livermore, CA), then became Professor of Geology at Calvin College in 1967, retiring from full time in 1990. He lives in Grand Rapids and remains active at the College, teaching a course for senior citizens occasionally, and giving a departmental seminar talk from time to time.