Rumeli Hisarı

Right after I got to Istanbul on this most recent trip, I took a taxi from my hotel down to the Bosphorus, to check out the Rumeli Hisarı, a fort complex built in 1452 by Sultan Mehmet the II in anticipation of the following year’s siege of Constantinople. It’s constructed at the narrowest point on the Bosphorus (660 m wide), with the aim of controlling boat traffic coming from the Black Sea. This narrow spot is today where they have the second of two bridges spanning the Bosphorus. It looks like this:


It’s in Europe; that’s Asia on the far right of the photo. A few more shots of the fortress’s pattern of towers and interconnecting walls:




Inside, I was pleased to note the variety of building stones. Here’s a nice porphyritic andesite which was a common constituent of the walls:

And a folded limestone:


Here are some yellowish blocks that are weathering away faster than the mortar which holds them in place. There is a Turkish 1-lira coin in front of the dark block near the center, to provide a sense of scale:


Here’s a similar phenomenon playing out with some bricks used to make an archway, except here the mortar is the more rapidly weathering component:


Check out this slab of brick… it’s got a curious adornment:


Zoomed in to show this detail:


Dog prints! Sometime a long time ago, maybe more than 500 years ago, a brick maker put out slabs of clay to dry, and some long-dead dog walked across it. The dog’s footprints are a kind of “historical trace fossil” that was then incorporated into this ancient structure.

Visiting the Rumeli Hisarı was a pleasant experience. I walked down along the Bosphorus next, peering into its surprisingly clear waters and counting jellyfish, then got a pide at a cafe. I caught another cab back to the hotel, and eventually fell asleep, a victim of jet lag…



Two xenoliths

On my last day in Ankara Turkey (last Friday), I took the afternoon off from the Tectonic Crossroads conference in order to pay the requisite visit to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. I say “requisite” because Ankara’s not quite so thrilling a town as Istanbul, but this is the one location that everyone agrees is worth a visit. The previous day at breakfast in our hotel, University of Georgia geology professor Jim Wright told me it was the most amazing place he had ever seen. So I had to go check it out for myself.

It’s a cool place, if you’re into history. Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey, which is to say, most of Turkey) is a place steeped in history. Their written records go back 9000 years, if you include Neolithic cave paintings. It’s pretty neat to check out their sculptures and tools over that long span of time. (See some photos here.)

I only took one picture in the museum, though. This is it:


That’s a Hittite lion sculpture made of porphyritic andesite. I took his portrait because of that funny looking eyebrow — that’s a little black xenolith, a chunk of pre-existing solid rock that got stoped off the wall rock and carried along in the flow of magma, eventually getting trapped in “alien” territory once the magma (or lava) solidified around it into rock. It was the most striking geological aspect of the museum’s many displays.

After I got “museumed out” (usually this takes about 2 hours), I went for a walk around the adjacent “Citadel” region of old town Ankara, and what do you know, but I found an outcrop there! Not only that, but there were some striking similarities to the photo I had just taken in the museum — it was a porphyritic volcanic rock (I want to call it a rhyolite based on the pink color), and it too had a lone dark xenolith:


A little girl wandered up to me with unabashed curiosity — why was this foreigner putting a lira coin on the rock and taking a photo of it in the rain? Plainly, I must be insane. I greeted her, pocketed my coin, and strolled on, reflecting on the satisfaction of seeing such a nice little pairing of similar structures in similar rocks — a quarter mile from one another, though in very different settings.

Empires of the Sea, by Roger Crowley

Note – I am wrıtıng thıs from Ankara, Turkey, where the Turkısh keyboard makes ıt very dıffıcult to type ‘i’ correctly — so please forgıve my decapıtated ‘ı’s…


Today is the annıversary of the Battle of Lepanto, the fırst full-scale battle to take place at sea aboard armored ships. It strikes me as approprıate and tımely that a few days ago, I fınıshed readıng the book Empıres of the Sea, by author Roger Crowley, whıch recounts thıs extraordınary clash of cultures/relıgıons/empıres. I have praısed Crowley’s grıppıng hıstorıcal wrıtıng when I revıewed hıs book 1453, and I mentıoned at the end of that revıew that I was ınterested ın readıng anythıng else he has wrıtten. Turns out there’s just one other book to delve ınto, Empıres. The book detaıls the expansıon of naval warfare ın the quest to control the Medıterranean Sea ın the 100+ years after the fall of Constantınople. Coverıng more than a century of tıme and a successıon of Spanısh kıngs, Roman Popes, and Ottoman sultans, ıt ıs a lot more complıcated than the sıngle battle (and two leaders) profıled ın 1453. It also ranges across the Medıterranean, from Istanbul to Malta to Cyprus to the culmınatıng battle, the one that happened 439 years ago today. As a result, the narratıve structure of the book ıs far less engagıng than ıts predecessor, but ıt stıll tells a profound and harrowıng tale.

As wıth 1453 (and the modern-day evenıng news), the book ıs full of horrıfyıng examples of human cruelty to other humans. After acceptıng the surrender of commander Marco Bragadın of Famagusta (the last town to fall on Cyprus), Lala Mustapha, the commander of the Ottoman sıege forces, reneges on the condıtıons of the treaty, and has Bragadın skınned alıve. Hıs empty skın was then stuffed wıth straw, dressed ın Bragadın’s clothes and gıven a parasol, mounted on a cow, and paraded through the streets ın mockery and celebratıon. It’s a lovely example of how hıdeous we can be to those we consıder to be our enemıes, those who belong to ‘a dıfferent trıbe.’ Another example, more prosaıc but nonetheless dıstrubıng, may be found wıthın the Chrıstıan ranks — the Holy League was a sort of Chrıstıan NATO, and brought together Venetıans, Genoans, and Spanısh ın support of the common goal of resıstıng the Ottoman expansıon and defendıng what they were sure was the true faıth. However, they could hardly stand one another’s company, and a mere fıve days before the bıg battle, Venetıans were kıllıng Genoese for wakıng them up when they were tryıng to sleep. When compared to the Turks, Venetıans saw Genoese as ‘alıke,’ but when there were no Turks about for comparıson, the ‘otherness’ of theır co-Holy-Leaguers was all too apparent. Thıs trıbal outlook seems to me as beıng fundamental to the human condıtıon — whether we are commıttıng jıhad or merely comparıng soccer moms to tree huggers, human ındıvıduals are constantly engaged ın dıvıdıng the world ınto ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Sometımes, ıt ıs drıven by polıtıcs, or culture, or relıgıon, or economıcs, or even the merest snobbery, our trıbalısm causes more trouble than anythıng else I can thınk of.

The part of the book I found most ınterestıng was the battle of Lepanto.

The battle pitted the fleet of the Christian ‘Holy League’ against the navy of the Ottoman Empire. Spoıler alert – Unlike the events of 1453, the Christians won this one. The event was on an epıc scale – 140,000 men partıcıpated ın the two armadas, saılıng on 600 shıps. Crowley estımates that more than 70% of the oared shıps ın the Medıterranean met on October 7, 1571, off the coast of Lepanto. If you cannot ımagıne seeıng such a thıng (ıt straıns the ımagınatıon), Crowley paınts a vıvıd pıcture when he descrıbes the wıdenıng eyes of the crews as they glımpse the enemy navy saılıng ınto vıew for the fırst tıme. Realızıng the huge scale of the ımmınent clash, they very much have an ‘oh, shit…’ reactıon. Wıth Crowley’s vıvıd narratıon, you can practıally feel theır adrenalıne spıke.

I thınk any of us would have been astonıshed at the scale of thıs event — even the most battle-hardened modern soldıer. The vıolence, of course, was deep and dıverse. Many Chrıstıans dıe, but because of the way the wınd was blowıng and a lucky early round of gunfıre whıch oblıterated many key Ottoman vessels, the tıde of the battle quıckly turns towards the Holy League. The Ottomans suffer tremendous losses. One detaıl that struck me was the story of a Venetıan commander who blows apart hıs hand wıth a faulty grenade, then asks a subordınate to cut ıt off. The subordınate refuses, so the commander amputates hıs own hand, then tıes the carcass of a dead chıcken over the wound (What?!?!) and returns to battle. He even shouts at hıs left hand to avenge the loss of hıs rıght! Another juıcy tıdbıt ıs that one of the Spanısh saılors was the 24-year-old Mıguel de Cervantes, who would go on to author Don Quıxote. He was wounded, though obvıously not kılled.

At the end of the four hours of battle, there have been 40,000 men kılled. 100 shıps have been destroyed, and more than that agaın were captured ın saılable condıtıon from the Ottoman fleet. The sea near Lepanto was an 8-mıle-long slıck of burnıng, shattered, or drıftıng vessels, as well as rampagıng looters from the wınnıng sıde. Crowley wıns me over when he ıncludes ‘moments of grotesque comedy,’ lıke the scene where a group of Muslım saılors refuse to surrender but are wıthout tradıtıonal weapons. They start to pıck up oranges and lemons and hurl them at theır Chrıstıan tormentors. The Chrıstıan saılors, bemused, hurl them back at theır enemıes. Food fıght!

Thıs ımage of the war-polluted sea clıngs to my mınd. The blood-red water ‘heavıng thıckly wıth the matted debrıs of battle’ – Moorısh coats, wooden weapons, fragments of shıps, boxes, saıl cloth and other flotsam, and of course a great many dead human beıngs. What a profound event thıs was. Many battles had taken place before, of course, ıncludıng some whıch had a sıgnıfıcant naval component — but Lepanto was the fırst naval battle on the scale of empıres.

I suggest we all commemorate thıs day by doıng somethıng nıce for someone who we see as beıng ın a dıfferent ‘trıbe.’

Building stones of the Haghia Sophia

The Haghia Sophia (or “Ayasophia”) is an astounding building in old town Istanbul. It is an ancient cathedral turned mosque turned museum. Through all these incarnations, the Hagia Sophia has retained some features and had other ones added on: it is a palimpsest of architecture, symbology, and history. Walking through its soaring main chamber, or side passages and alcoves, visitors like me stand with necks bent and mouths agape. It is an unparalleled location for peeling back the layers of time.

Built in 532 CE by the Emperor Justinian, the cathedral rose on the same spot where two earlier churches had stood, the first of which was built in 360 CE. The name “Haghia Sophia” comes from the Greek for “holy wisdom.” For more than a thousand years, it served as the principal church of the Byzantine Empire. It was the world’s largest cathedral for thousands of years. The minarets were tacked on in 1453, after Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire:


There’s a gazillion aspects of this building to discuss, but today I’d just like to share some images of the different building stones seen in and around the Haghia Sophia. To start with, here’s a “Verde Antique” (serpentenite breccia) sarcophagus outside the building:


The floor stones in an interior hallway, worn smooth and shiny by millennia of human shuffling:

And a bunch of shots of stones used in the interior walls …

Granite (verging on unakite?):




Rhyolite porphyry:


Rhyolite porphyry with xenoliths (also used to construct a sarcophagus outside):


Marble gneiss:


Darker granitoid:


There are also some structurally interesting rocks, like this red and white marble breccia that shows pressure solution. Notice the sutured boundaries of the white grains, and their pronounced long axes, 90° to that maximum pressure direction.

Kind of reminds you of the Purgatory Conglomerate, right? (Me too.)

My favorite rock there is this lurid, gory red/white/black marble gneiss, as it displays ptygmatic folding (elsewhere it is also boudinaged):

I wish I had more photos of this stuff. It’s great. It reminds me of guts!

Here it is in a typical display (pardon the blurriness of the photo): they “fillet” the rock and spread it open in the manner of a Rorschach blot. This produces an attractive symmetrical design, with minimal artistic effort:

Another nice “butterfly” spread, this one of folded marble gneiss:

Another one:
Look close at this one. Note the little gray crosses in there? Let’s zoom in…

Here’s one closer-up:


These are ancient Christian crosses, or rather, the holes where ancient Christian crosses were once mounted on the wall. When the Haghia Sophia was converted to a mosque in 1453, these Christian symbols were removed, and the holes cemented over to obliterate traces of the old religion. Here’s another one, where the cement has fallen away:


Along similar lines, here’s some Arabic script carved into the railing of the second floor, marring a lovely marble breccia:

Stuff like this just floors me. I mean, think about all the different people to lean on this railing over the past 1500 years. The Haghia Sophia’s history is so deep, with so many distinct overlapping layers. The mind reels…

A fantastic concentration of building stones may be found at the “Coronation” spot on the main floor of the building, where Byzantine kings were crowned:






After several pleasant hours touring the Haghia Sophia, we got lunch at a great cafe nearby. Lily got lentil soup:


…and I got an amazing pide, the Turkish style of “pizza”:


Delicious rocks followed by delicious repast! Can’t complain…

The Blue Mosque

In Istanbul over the summer, Lily and I checked out the “Blue Mosque,” named for the predominant color of the mosaic tiles in its interior. It’s more formally know as “Sultan Ahmed Mosque,” named for the sultan who commissioned its construction in 1609. It is an elegant building:


I loved the “pile of bubbles” effect of the multiple domes, and then the skyward piercing forms of the minarets.


It also cuts an impressive silhouette at night:

The mosque is open to the public, including tourists. To visit it, you are asked to remove your shoes. Women are asked to cover their hair. Here’s Lily in the appropriate garb:


I was shocked to see how many tourists completely ignored this request, whether out of contempt for the fact that Islam treats men and women differently, or out of sheer cluelessness. I’m no fuddy-duddy, but it seems to me that when you’re visiting a house of worship, you should follow the requests of the host faith.

Once inside, we got a look at the tiles for which the place is named:


There were some interesting uses of building stones. Consider this arch, made of alternating blocks of conglomerate and marble gneiss:


The ceiling of the Blue Mosque soars high above, decorated with more tiles:


An ugly addition to this elegant architecture is a rack of lights, loftily called a “chandelier,” suspended on long cables. I thought this modern tack-on was rather tacky, but I guess it makes prayer easier in the dark hours:


The ceiling is held up by four enormous pillars; many architectural critics find these ungainly and obtrusive:


After our visit, we went to get some traditional Turkish tea at a little place overlooking the Bosphorus. The tea is very sweet, but comes with extra sugar cubes regardless:


Here’s the view of the Bosphorus, the straight separating European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul. You’re looking north in this photo, with Europe on the left, and Asia on the right:


The Creationists by Ronald L. Numbers

Over the summer, I finished reading an excellent history of creationism called The Creationists, authored by Ronald L. Numbers. Many of my students at Northern Virginia Community College come to my geology classes from a creationist background. Some are true believers, some are looking for the perspective of science. Some are quiet about it, others flaunt it. Regardless of whether their minds are already made up or not, I deal with creationist perspectives every semester. But how much do I really know about creationism as a phenomenon?

I found out about this tome (431 pages, 606 if you include the end notes) a few months ago via Pharyngula, when author PZ Meyers brought it up in the context of Queensland’s school system adopting a policy of teaching the creationism controversy in history classes. (Meyers also live-blogged a presentation by Ron Numbers on the same topic at the Chicago Darwin conference last fall.) I would like to use this post to review the book, and share some of the thoughts I had while reading it.

Before you read further, you should recall that my ideas and opinions are my own, and do not reflect my employers, past or present. People are touchy about religion; I feel like I need to offer that disclaimer. I’m also happy to discuss any of these ideas with my students in a non-confrontational and rational way.

The item that most surprised me in The Creationists is how recent a phenomenon Young Earth Creationism is. Author Numbers demonstrates that at the turn of the last century (~1900), acceptance of an ancient Earth and of organic evolution was common, rising, and un-extraordinary. There was a declining interest in creationism until a series of key people made certain moves. The first of these is the prophet of Seventh Day Adventism, Ellen G. White (1827-1915). It was this woman, unknown to me until I read this book, who first put forward the idea that the Noachian flood was global rather than a local affair. She also suggested that the Biblical book of Genesis described a literal six-day creation, and that the Genesis story was not metaphorical in any way, but a literal record of happenings. This idea was in stark contrast to the traditional readings of Genesis: most people subscribed to the “Day-Age” or “Gap” interpretations of Genesis.

If you’re not familiar, “Day-Age” creationists think that the six days mentioned in the book of Genesis are metaphorical – that even though the Bible says “days,” they really represent much longer spans of time. Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, expressed this point of view in 1778, when he said, “A year is to God as a thousand years is to man.”

The “Gap” interpretation essentially says, “A whole lot happened before the Biblical story gets started.” The basic idea is that God created life recently on a very old planet. A variation on this idea is that there are multiple temporal gaps within the Genesis yarn itself: time went by, stuff happened, but it didn’t get transcribed into the Bible. I suppose you could say that this is a sort of “non-depositional disconformity of Scripture.”

One of the basic issues for people interpreting Genesis is that it is internally self-contradictory, and therefore either part of it is literally wrong, or the other part is literally wrong, and therefore it’s best to just chalk the whole thing up to being metaphorically “true.” At least that’s what most people do.

To Ellen White, however, these ideas were anathema. Her personal conversations with God had convinced her that there were no gaps and no metaphorical intent. She came to the shocking and trend-bucking conclusion that the Genesis account is literally true: 6 days of 24 hours apiece, and another 24-hour day of rest.

White’s ideas were taken up by fellow Adventist George McCready Price and explored on the basis of undermining geology (particularly the sequence of fossil forms). After reading a friend’s books on evolution, Price came to the conclusion that if “geology were true, the rest would seem more or less reasonable.” Because he had already decided that he didn’t like the idea of evolution, he dedicated himself to going after its supporting science, geology.

photo from, which has taken some of Price’s work (now in the public domain, as with this image) and re-published it on the web.

Among other superlatives, Price was the first to advance the oft-repeated creationist canard that it is “a circular argument” to date strata with the fossils they contain and to date fossils by the strata in which they are found. The book was full of similar “Aha!” moments for me as a reader: “So that’s the asshole who came up with that for the first time!” The origins of many similar shallow but infectious ideas are revealed by reading Ron Numbers’ fine book. Another example of creationist silliness that we can thank Price for is the Niagara Falls/ Grand Canyon carving claim: that the receding flood waters drained over the sediments they had deposited a few days or weeks earlier (quite rapidly lithified, it would appear), and carved out these large (American) gorges.

In Price’s 1923 book The New Geology (and an earlier piece called Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in the Evolution Theory, published in 1906), he reexamined the geologic record in light of a global flood: to explain where the water came from, he called upon “massive subterranean reservoirs of water”; first killing “smaller and more helpless animals” and then working its way up the fossil sequence. Why were jellyfish among the first to die (considering that they float at the top of the marine water column), killed before mammoths, considering it was a flood? The story he came up with (which he later admitted couldn’t possibly be true) was a far-fetched saga of specific organisms succumbing en masse to floodwaters in a characteristic order which just so happens to match the order in which scientists think they evolved. Harold W. Clark (profiled in Chapter 7) is another noteworthy creationist, one who was convinced of the validity of the sequence of fossils via oil well holes (page 144). Following Price’s lead, Clark reconciled this directionality with his a priori “Flood geology” conclusions by suggesting that the fossil record shows organisms succumbing to flood, group by group. This silly idea (which, like so much of Price’s output, is parroted today by modern creationist crackpots) got a lovely evisceration on pages 99 to 101 of Richard Dawkins’ excellent The Greatest Show On Earth).

Price further suggested that flooding could explain how mountain ranges formed. He said that they must have come from “great lateral pressure” that resulted from subsiding flood waters… an interesting idea to ponder, insofar as it makes absolutely no sense. We never observe small floods pushing up small mountains, so why Price would postulate that a larger flood with have such a novel effect is beyond me. It may have something to do with the fact that his geological training consisted of a single mineralogy class, and that his agenda was dismantling geology, not generating robust science.

On pages 902-905, Numbers describes how Price’s biography had its ups and downs. In particular, he had some hard times: no jobs; became suicidal, and he eventually he went to Takoma Park, Maryland to work construction. (Takoma Park is a funny place — a suburb of DC equally populated by aging hippies who believe the world is worth taking care of, and Seventh-Day Adventists, who believe that the second coming of Christ is imminent, and that the world is about to be destroyed). It took fifteen years for Price to find his niche pushing his “peculiar” interpretation of the Bible. In chapter 9, Numbers demonstrates that creationism was pretty much dead in the United States in the era of 1930-1950. But then Price’s ideas were rediscovered and spread, and have continued doing so ever since.

Price dubbed his ideas as “Flood Geology,” a name that has stuck to the branch of thinking that combines select elements of geological thought with the pre-determined conclusion that “the Flood did it all.”

One particular bugbear of Flood geologists like Price is the directionality of the fossil record. An undisturbed sequence of sedimentary rocks shows unidirectional changes to the suite of fossil organisms. Price used the Chief Mountain area in Alberta and Montana as example disproving fossil sequences’ directional change. There, of course, Mesoproterozoic strata overlie Cretaceous strata:

Chief Mtn

Chief Mtn_anno

Nowadays, we recognize this is tectonic shuffling due to the Sevier Orogeny, accommodated along the Lewis Thrust, but Price used it as an example to say “geology must be wrong.” He never bought the thrust fault idea.

This is a New Catastrophism: a single great flood (Noachian) which is responsible for the geological record; in contrast to old catastrophism of Cuvier and Agassiz: those men were advocates of multiple catastrophes spread over immense periods of time. One problem with the New Catastrophism is that it fails to explain what people lived on before this great flood. If all the world’s rock layers were laid down during a global deluge, on what foundation did Noah build his ark? What was underneath the garden of Eden? Another criticism, pointed out by people more familiar with the Bible than me, is that Biblical landmarks and place-names before the flood are same as post-flood places. It’s hard to reconcile this with the the ramifications of a global flood burying everything in sediment. (And where did all the sediment itself come from? More “vast subterranean reservoirs”? Sheesh.)

One great thing about this book is that Ron Numbers traces the evolution of ideas through time. While a lot of modern-day Christian young-Earth creationists might cringe to hear that their viewpoints are directly traceable to a Seventh-Day Adventist “prophet,” Numbers shows how ideas were transferred from Ellen G. White to George McCready Price to others, and thence to the modern creationist. One nice example is how Price followed White’s lead with regard to the presence of species. White suggested that after the Noachian flood, Satan supervised the amalgamation of man and beast. Price referred to Satan as ” the great primal hybridizer.” Satan is responsible for not only sin, but also… biodiversity?!? This strikes me as a very strange idea indeed, and hence a neat sort of “marker meme” that you can watch being passed from one person to another, like a fluorescent dye.

Though the idea of evolution is of course anathema to creationists, the notion of ‘devolution’ was pretty widespread amongst these early creationists. The idea of amalgamation producing biodiversity by hybridizing humans and (non-human) animals is one example. But there is a strong racist element to this thinking, too. On page 102, Numbers quotes a horrific poem by Price about “the Negro race.” I won’t reprint it here, but it definitely indicates his sense of superiority as a white man, and presents that idea that black people are the way they are because of a degenerative path they took. Similarly, Price claimed that racial mixing had produced apes. They were degenerate men in his view. I was astonished to read this: so apes are related to us; just in an opposite sense of derivation? This is wild stuff: how is it that people can think this way and have anyone respect them?

Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb are two other creationists that are well worth knowning. They wrote the modern ‘creation science’/’Flood geology’ text, The Genesis Flood. They took Price’s ideas and dropped all allusions to Price himself or the disreputable Seventh Day Adventism cult. Many modern evangelical Christians, the audience for whom Whitcomb and Morris were writing, viewed the Seventh Day Adventists as a fringe sect. It would be much easier to swallow Flood geology if they thought it was derived by their people from the Bible. So that’s how Whitcomb and Morris presented it, to great success. (Read the reviews on Amazon – not surprisingly, they show a bimodal distribution.)

I was also interested in the part of the book that deals with the spread of Creationist thinking in Mormonism. Mormonism strikes me as not only “another sect” of Christianity, but also a particularly weird one, with absolutely wacky ideas about many things. For instance, the notion that the American continents were populated by Middle Eastern tribes (via boat and “barrel”) rather than by Siberians (via the Bering Straight land bridge), is a wackaroon notion readily disproved by genetic comparisons between the three groups of people. This idea stems from another prophet, Joseph Smith, who (like Ellen White), claimed to have had a conversation with God, and later translated some golden plates that he found in a glacial drumlin in New York, and produced the Book of Mormon from them. He translated them, of course, with a magic “seer stone” (as would any of us, I’m sure). Read Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven for a eyebrow-raising account of these events – it’s a stunning revelation of how one loon/charlatan/mentally-ill-person can inspire an entire religion. I have several friends and family members who are Mormon, so I was eager to hear what Numbers’ historical research revealed…

On page 342, Numbers describes the reaction of Mormons to The New Geology, George Price’s flood geology book. Sterling Talmage (1889-1956, a professor on the geology faculty at the New Mexico School of Mines) was asked about Price by his father (James Talmage, 1862-1933, a mining geologist and engineer on the Quorum of Twelve, who was sussing out what his  co-Quorum-er Joseph Fielding Smith was preaching to the Quorum about Price’s flood geology). Smith (1876-1972) was the grandson of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, which is why he got to be on the Quorum. Turns out he was instrumental in introducing creationist ideas into the Mormon church, though not without some friction: Sterling Talmage responded to his father’s query about The New Geology by saying that it neither contained anything “new” nor any real “geology.” –– “With these two corrections, the title remains the best part of the book,” he said. Ouch!

Despite this negative assessment, Smith published Man: His Origin and Destiny in 1954, a book which presented Smith’s case against evolution. He cited his grandfather the prophet and non-Mormons like George Price. He argued that evolution was unscientific and un-Mormon. This was a break with the longstanding Mormon tradition of recognizing the knowledge gained via science as being valid. Numbers quotes an unnamed scholar as saying that Smith went “for schism rather than synthesis.” Like White and Price, this act of a lone individual provided fuel to a small fire, and set many Mormons on a more fundamentalist, non-scientific path. Bummer.

There are similar bifurcations of thinking in other faiths. One particularly telling example is presented in the book’s final chapter, “Creationism Goes Global” (page 429).  This time, the religion chewing on what to do with evolutionary thinking is Judaism. One ultra-orthodox group of Jews in Israel was threatening to withdraw their kosher certificate from a dairy that distributed dinosaur stickers. The complaint? The stickers piqued the kids’ curiosity about dinosaurs, so they went and looked them up in (gasp!) encyclopedias. These insidious factual references gave the age of dinosaurs as hundreds of millions of years old. Another rabbi commented on the controversy: “If the haredim want to ignore scientific proof of the existence of dinosaurs, that is their right,” he said. This struck me as very… shall we say, “accommodating” – but also as totally crazy. If it’s a person’s right to ignore the proof of dinosaurs, then I guess it follows that everyone is equally allowed to ignore the existence of squirrels. Believing in God is one thing… I mean, there’s no proof of that, so I can’t complain. But disbelieving in dinosaurs? I am not so accommodating as the rabbi. Those who willfully ignore demonstrable physical reality forfeit their right to be respected, at least by this humble blogger. Yes, you have a right to believe that dinosaurs didn’t exist (or that squirrels don’t, for that matter). But if that’s the way you roll, I think you’re a frakking idiot.

Some of my favorite passages in the book had to do with conflicts between creationists, as they hashed out what was true and what was foolishness. For instance, on page 113, Melvin Kyle (1858-1933) asks Price about the fossil record. The order of fossils is either perfectly forwards (i.e., the order predicted by the geologic timescale) or backwards (when strata are folded onto their backs) but never jumbled; this seemed to Kyle to present “too great a strain upon [creationist] credulity.” Tee hee! Another example occurs when Price’s protégé Francis Nichol (1897-1966) questioned just how exactly the flood let one layer of sediments settle out and “take definite shape” before another was “hurled upon it.” Good question, Mr. Nichol…and we’re still waiting for an answer.

Self-reflection can be equally damning. On page 108, Numbers quotes Price as admitting that you would never work out the creationist story from an examination of geology alone based in first principles; it required knowledge if the Bible to “see” the creation story in the rocks. That’s a classic example of the way science doesn’t work: starting with the conclusion, and then going out in search of evidence to support that conclusion. Sounds more like lawyering to me.

On page 347, Numbers quotes Gary North (b. 1942) with lauding The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris as “the most important book in the revival of the six-day view of Genesis.” However, he pulled no punches with criticizing creationist arguments that were clearly logically flawed, like the idea that because evolution is a directional phenomenon (one-way where order is maintained or developed), it therefore violates the second law of thermodynamics (tendency towards disorder) and is therefore false. This idea was first developed by Robert Clark, a chemist, as detailed in chapter 8 of The Creationists. North found it to be a weak argument. Among the reasons offered for this point of view is that Christ was resurrected, and that violated the second law of thermodynamics, too.

My favorite quip of North’s had to do with the practical benefits of a creationist paradigm (as opposed to the benefits of the scientific paradigm which we all enjoy every day: automobiles, air conditioning, antibiotics, shelf-stable food). What benefits does creationism offer to humanity’s day to day living? North said, “If six-day creationism could be used to locate oil and mineral deposits less expensively than the methodology of evolutionism does, we would begin to see the abandonment of evolutionism.” I think that’s a great point, especially coming from a creationist. “What we need,” North continued, “is for evolutionism to start drilling more dry holes than we do.” How’s that working out for you, Gary North?

Another nice example of creationists slamming creationists can be found on page 327. There, Numbers describes how the Geoscience Research Institute (a Seventh-Day Adventist creationist think tank) let the geologists on staff go when they concluded that flood geology was a farce (“desperately weak and improbable,” according to one with actual geological training). Edward N. Lugenbeal (b. 1940, studied archaeology at University of Wisconsin) wondered how he could “in good conscience continue to absorb the Church’s resources in what seems to me a futile and self-deceptive effort to disprove the obvious in science and an emotionally and ethically debilitating attempt to bolster our peoples’ faith by telling them a series of partial truths about science.” This strikes me as pretty damming when a creationist and believer speaks about flood geology that way.

Late in the book (on page 369), we are treated to the story of the development of modern scientific creationism, a movement represented by plenty of well-credentialed spokespeople. Numbers expresses this very well, so I will quote his discussion of how modern creationists with scientific training have adopted bits and pieces that they like from other scientists. He focuses specifically on the paleontologist Steve Gould (1941-2002) and the geologist Robert H. Dott (b. 1929):

Although they [creationists] adorned their literature with the names of scientists who questioned evolutionary orthodoxy, […] these citations were little more than literary ornaments. Both Gould and Dott, for example, vigorously opposed creationism of any kind, but scientific creationists nevertheless appropriated their “neo-catastrophism” – Dott’s use of non-uniformitarian “episodic sedimentation” and Gould’s employment of “punctuated equilibria” to develop a theory of evolution by spurts – in defending their deluge model of earth history. To understand twentieth-century creationism, little knowledge of formal science and philosophy is necessary; familiarity with the Byzantine world of popular religion is essential.

I think this is an excellent point. When science encounters new explanations or new data, science incorporates those notions and that information into an ever-shifting world view, and ever-evolving understanding of the natural world. A nice example of that is the recent news that something going on in the Sun may be influencing radioactive decay rates, the supposed constancy of which is the basis of isotopic dating of mineral crystals (and thus rocks). Once verified, this may mean that we end up re-estimating all the ages of rocks that we have calculated. It remains to be seen how it will all play out, but science doesn’t flinch at the data – science is intrigued when new data is revealed. If science were as dogmatic as “scientific” creationism, it would try to suppress or “spin” the news about decay constants not actually being constant. Science embraces what it doesn’t know. New data reveal our ignorance, and point to new questions.

But what creationists do with new data is different: if it doesn’t fit with their pre-determined world view, the data must be wrong. If it does fit with their pre-determined world view, then the data are allowed to be right. If it’s more subtle than that, then they can pick and choose what interests them. There are no new conclusions in creation science, only new angles of attack.

As for Dott and Gould: Episodic sedimentation is clearly the way sedimentation works, both on shorter- and longer-term scales. But “flood geology” creationists take that nugget and extrapolate it to “all sediments were laid down in a big flood.” Gould and co-author (lead author, actually) Niles Eldredge proposed that evolution didn’t proceed gradually, but in sudden jumps separated by long periods of stasis. Super; this new idea allowed science to reformulate its understanding of evolution. But young-Earth creationists took the Eldridge and Gould (1972) idea and said “look, Gould says evolutionary thinking is wrong.” In short, they take the bits and pieces they like, and ignore/undermine the bigger picture. This works fine if you’re not dealing with scientists, but are instead telling the general public what they want to hear.

The non-science-trained public is a mixed bag. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the population of my country “…live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology” (Carl Sagan). Nowhere is this more acute than in rejection of (a) the idea of organic evolution via natural selection, and (b) the idea of an old Earth. Anyone who teaches Historical Geology or deals with anti-evolution or young-Earth-creationist viewpoints should read Ron Number’s history The Creationists. It’s an excellent introduction to the story of where these ideas came from, and how they spread among believers to gain wide acceptance.

Traffic along Kennedy Boulevard, Istanbul

Another animated GIF, this one showing the ancient defensive walls that bound old town Istanbul (which is old town Constantinople, which is old town Byzantium), now ringed by a freeway and then the rip-rap-covered shore of the Bosphorus:

There’s a paved walking path between the freeway and the shore; that’s where I was standing to take these photos. Here’s about where the photos that make up this GIF were taken.

Exactly how old these walls are is unknown to me. There have been defensive walls at this site for 2800 years, but they have also been rebuilt and refortified (and blasted and repaired) many times since then. These may date to the extensive wall-building period under the Emperor Theodosius in the early 400’s CE.

The animated GIF conveys a little bit, I think, of what’s so charming about Turkey: the palimpsest of history. Modern drives past ancient. More to come on this theme in the months ahead as I continue to debrief my Turkey trip!