Actualism Versus Outdated
Views of Niagara Falls
The following material may be freely copied and distributed as long as the author is properly acknowledged
and the material is not altered, edited or sold.
For years, young-Earth creationists (YECs) have misunderstood the origin and age of Niagara Falls. Some YECs actually promote the logical absurdity that because the Falls are less than 10,000 years old, the entire Earth must be too (Wysong, 1981, p. 175; Kent Hovind, refuted by Dave E. Matson). Daly (1972, chapter 10), Whitelaw (1983, p. 99), Whitelaw (1986, p. 133), and many other YECs argue that Niagara Falls is a "post-Flood" feature that is about 4,000 to 5,000 years old.
In Dating Niagra [sic] Falls, YEC John Morris regurgitates many of these old YEC fantasies and fallacies. He begins by attacking the general methodology that is used to date events in the Earth's past. John Morris states:
"Let's review how earth's features are dated. Obviously only those formed within recorded human history can be dated with absolute accuracy, and even these depend on the reliability of the one who made the observation and the authenticity of the record."
YEC dogma states that the Bible, as they interpret it, is the only source of reliable ancient history. Contrary to YEC hopes, ancient manuscripts (like the Bible or Homer's Odyssey) often mix authentic history and geography with groundless myths. In contrast, geologists and forensic scientists can often use the remaining evidence of unwitnessed past events to reconstruct those events beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, paleontologists may use fossils to derive the paleoecology of an ancient environment (e.g., Raup and Stanley, 1978, chapter 10). These reconstructions often refute YEC claims for a "worldwide Genesis Flood" or an Earth that is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old (e.g., Leggitt et al., The Stratigraphic Setting of Three Presbyornis Nesting Sites: Eocene Fossil Lake, Lincoln County, Wyoming; "Birds" in Creationist Misuse of the Green River Formation). Furthermore, in many US states, juries and courts are often so confident in forensic investigations of crime scenes that they will send convicts to Death Row on the sole basis of this evidence. When it comes to convicting criminals, courts and juries often don't share the YEC view that only eyewitnesses (and "scripture") can confidently interpret past events.
John Morris also describes and later attacks the outdated Lyellian form of uniformitarianism ("uniformity"), which was once commonly used by geologists. He states:
"Its [uniformity's] basic claim is that there has never been nor ever will be things dramatically different from the kinds and rates of things possible now."
In 1841-1842, Charles Lyell applied his
unrealistic form of uniformitarianism to obtain a "date" of 35,000 years for
Niagara Falls. Under Lyellian uniformitarianism, an individual measures the
current distance that the Falls has migrated since its origin, which is about
seven miles. The current erosion rate of the Falls is then measured
(typically, a few feet per year). Next, the Lyellian uniformitarian
improperly assumes that past erosion rates have not significantly varied from
the current rate. Using this invalid assumption, an "age" for the
Age in years = Distance in feet / Current erosion rate in feet per year
Although John Morris believes that this is how modern geologists would date the Falls, geologists know better. The Lyellian approach for dating Niagara Falls was criticized long ago as not being very accurate (e.g., Pirsson and Schuchert, 1915, p. 52). Referring to Lyellian estimates of the age of Niagara Falls and the last glaciation, Chamberlin and Salisbury (1924, p. 647) state:
"Little value is to be placed on estimates of this kind, except as means for developing a conception of the order of magnitude of the time involved."
Contemporary geologists fully recognize that erosion rates can vary by orders of magnitude depending upon droughts, human activities, planes of weakness in the rocks and other factors. There are even occasional large rock falls, such as the one that occurred on the American side of the Falls in 1954. Because erosion rates are highly variable, the Lyellian approach is an unreliable dating technique.
While John Morris correctly denounces the folly of Lyell's attempt to date the Falls, other YECs have used the same foolish Lyell uniformitarian approach to obtain a "young" date for the Falls. For example, YEC Wysong (1981) p. 175) argues that since the Falls erode at a rate of 3.5 to 7 feet per year and since the eroded gorge created by the Falls is only 7 miles long, then the Falls must only be 5,000 to 10,000 years old. Such invalid Lyell uniformatarian arguments are still commonly promoted at YEC web sites.
These YEC dates also totally ignore the large variations in the annual erosion rates, irregular rock falls, and the fact that the origin of the Falls is related to the last glaciation. The Falls formed at the end of the last Pleistocene glaciation, about 10,000 years ago, when glaciers receded to the north and allowed the waters of Lake Erie to flow over the Niagara Escarpment. Proper dating of the Falls would be based on Pleistocene Stratigraphy and radiocarbon dating, and not the Bible or any Lyell uniformitarian arguments.
When commenting on Lyell uniformitarianism, Morris further states:
"Readers will recognize the assumption of a constant rate throughout the unobserved past as the principle of uniformity, that 'the present is the key to the past.' Such an assumption may be a legitimate first guess, unless we have an accurate record from a reliable witness from the past, which helps us make better estimates. Both human observations and the Genesis Flood account of the Bible provides just such a record."
John Morris' blind faith in his biblical interpretations is unjustified and his attack on modern geologists for supposedly still using Lyell uniformitarianism is no more than an invalid strawperson argument. Modern uniformitarianism or actualism states that the Earth's geologic record is a product of both slow and gradual processes AND NATURAL catastrophes such as ancient earthquakes, hurricanes and meteorite impacts. Based on supernovae remnants and the properties of radionuclides (Dalrymple, 1991, chapters 6 and 8) actualism simply recognizes that the laws of chemistry and physics (thermodynamics, gravity, radioactive decay, etc.) have not changed, at least not during the Earth's history. However, the rates of macroscopic processes (such as the erosion of a landform) can vary widely, depending on the presence or absence of storms, droughts, volcanism, earthquakes, asteroid impacts and other natural phenomena. Even decades-old textbooks (e.g., Dott and Batten, 1981, pp 38-39; Levin, 1978, p. 14; Mintz, 1977, pp 5, 7; Thornbury, 1966, pp 16-17; etc.) explain the differences between actualism (modern uniformitarianism) and antiquated Lyell uniformitarianism.
A few YECs (such as Arthur V. Chadwick) understand the differences between modern uniformitarianism (actualism) and Lyell's unrealistically rigid uniformitarianism. Chadwick correctly states that actualism's recognition of natural catastrophes makes interpretations of the geologic past more difficult when compared with Lyell's simplistic approach. Of course, authentic research is often complex and time consuming. Easy and quick answers are rare. Problems are rarely solved by applying simplistic Lyellian techniques, practicing astrology or quoting Bible verses at them. Nevertheless, in response to Chadwick, through hard work geologists can often unravel the past beyond a reasonable doubt (e.g., the K-T Impact) and the resulting hypotheses can be so powerful that they can make accurate predictions.
John Morris also bemoans the fact that scientists ignore the supernatural in their investigations. However, if we don't invoke the supernatural to explain crimes, thunder, earthquakes, disease, broken cars, tree rings, snowflakes, freshly erupted volcanic rocks, or missing car keys, why should we invoke the supernatural to explain the origin of ancient volcanic rocks? In recent years, science has been very successful in curing diseases and navigating spacecraft to the Moon by using only natural explanations. YECs like to invoke magic to prop up their medieval ideas, but scientists find them unnecessary and untestable in their laboratory and field work. For example, I can write an equation to explain how sodium chloride (table salt) can form from mixing aqueous solutions of sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid, and then allowing the solution to evaporate. Using the laws of chemistry, I can even explain how the reaction proceeds on an atomic level. Nevertheless, any mystic could claim that his/her god magically removed the acid and base and replaced them with salt. How could such an absurd claim be tested in the laboratory? In the same way, YECs want us to believe that about 6,000 years ago their god zapped Precambrian paragneisses into existence from nothing even though the mineralogy and textures of these rocks indicate a long history. That is, the properties of the rocks (such as bulk chemistry, surviving sediment grains and occasional relict sedimentary bedding) clearly indicate that weathering of igneous and other rocks produced sediments (e.g., Hyndman, 1985, pp 478-483). These sediments were then deeply buried and heated to produce the metamorphic minerals in the paragneisses.
Finally, Morris joins the endless list of YECs that quote 2 Peter 3:3-4 from the Bible to attack "uniformity" (Lyell uniformitarianism). As stated before, these verses were probably ghost written in the 2nd century long after Peter's death and in response to criticism of false Christian "prophecies" claiming that Christ would soon return (e.g., Revelation 1:3). Morris and other YECs have no basis for citing a probable 2nd century forgery (2 Peter) to attack a rigid form of uniformitarianism that is no longer endorsed by modern geologists.
Dalrymple, G.B., 1991, The Age of the Earth, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
Daly, Reginald, 1972, Earth's Most Challenging Mysteries, The Craig Press, Nutley, NJ.
Dott Jr., Robert H. and Roger L. Batten, 1981, Evolution of the Earth, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York.
Hyndman, Donald W., 1985, Petrology of Igneous and Metamorphic Rocks, McGraw-Hill Pub. Co., New York.
Levin, Harold L., 1978, The Earth Through Time, W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia.
Mintz, Leigh W., 1977, Historical Geology: The Science of a Dynamic Earth, Charles E. Merrill Pub. Co., Columbus, OH.
Pirsson, Louis V. and Charles Schuchert, 1915, A Textbook of Geology: Part 1 Physical Geology and Part 2 Historical Geology, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York.
Raup, David M. and Steven M. Stanley, 1978, Principles of Paleontology, 2nd ed., W.H. Freeman and Co., New York.
Thornbury, William D., 1966, Principles of Geomorphology, John Wiley & Sons, New York.
Whitelaw, Robert L., 1983, "The Fountains of the Deep, and the Windows of Heaven", in Science at the Crossroads: Observation or Speculation?, papers of the 1983 National Creation Conference, Bible-Science Association and Twin Cities Creation-Science Association, Minneapolis, MN, p. 95f.
Whitelaw, Robert L., "Recent Creation and Worldwide Flood: The Perfect Agreement between Biblical Chronology, Recorded History, and Other Extra‑Biblical Geochronometers", in Proceedings of the First International Conference on Creationism, held Aug. 4‑9, 1986, vol. 1, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA 15228, p. 129f.
Wysong, R. L., 1981, The Creation‑Evolution Controversy, 5th printing, Inquiry Press, Midland, MI.